SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE ART OF ARMS, PART FOUR: STABLE, STRIKING AND MUTABLE, REVISITED. THE TWELVE GUARDS OF THE SWORD

[NB: Part Four of this series is a revision and clarification of an early article, which can be found on the Chivalric Fighting Arts blog.]

Introduction

Alphabet - The various copies of Fiore dei Liberi’s il Fior di Battaglia use an innovative instructional design to teach the techniques and principles of L’Arte dell’Armizare (the Art of Arms). Among the features of this system is the organization of longsword guards (positions from which the fighter attacks, defends or counterattacks) into three  classifications:  StabilePulsativa, and Instabile, or stable, striking, and mutable. Knowing the play of these three classifications of guards is an essential part of understanding Fiore’s strategy and tactics in the fight – in other words, the actual application of martial technique against an antagonistic opponent.

The Twelve Guards of the Sword

The commentaries of the First Masters, or poste, clearly spell out the necessity of delivering either a powerful attack that puts the adversary on the defensive, or a deceptive attack that misdirects or deceives the adversary:

This is Posta di Donna (Woman’s Guard), which can execute all seven strikes of the sword and defend against all of them. It can break all other guards with its great strikes. Posta di Donna Stabile. (f. 23v, emphasis ours)

This is the Posta di Finestra (Window Guard), always quick to enact its tricks and deceptions. She has mastery of defenses and offenses. It can pick a good fight with all the guards, both the high and the low. It often goes from a guard to the other to deceive the opponent. It can deliver strong thrusts, and knows how to break and exchange them. Posta di Finestra Instabile. (f. 23v, emphasis ours)

These masters give considerable detail on possible modes of attack – great stress is laid on precisely how to attack. Delivering an attack will draw a response, and so we need to look carefully at Fiore’s instruction on the offensive, defensive and counteroffensive qualities of the poste (guards), and the cuts, thrusts, and evasions they execute. Since both Remedy Masters and Counter Masters are key tactical figures, it follows that they will have all the cuts and thrusts available for the attack and the defense, limited only by the qualities of their starting guards. They will also have full access to all cuts and thrusts when the swords are bound in the crossing of the blades by the Remedy Master’s defense, subject to tactical utility.

The twelve Masters who teach the guards, the qualities and their actions are laid out four to a page, in the way Fiore outline in his introduction: “Some guards will be set against one another and will not touch one another, studying each other to see what the opponent may do. “ From this we can infer that there are six key pairings of guards and that their interactions teach core principals of the play of the sword (and all other weapons). Before we look at these six pairings (below), we need to understand the three types of guards, the three modes of offense, the modes of defense and counteroffense, and the key lessons of the largo and stretto plays[1]

Key Lessons of Wide & Close Play

The 24 First Masters are followed by two sections taught by Remedy Masters and their Scholars: the plays of Zogho Largo, or wide play, and the plays of Zogho Stretto, or close play. The Largo and Stretto sections – whose Remedy and Counter Masters are subordinate to the First Masters that precede them – do two things: they demonstrate the principles (but not every possible example) of the crossing resulting from the defensive action of the Remedy Master, and they teach the transition from wide play to close play. Wide play is that body of technique that is used when the blades are crossed at the mezza spada or middle, and the sword can be used to cut or thrust at the opponent. It also applies to those techniques that avoid the adversary’s sword entirely while striking with cut or thrust.   Close play is that body of techniques that is applicable when the swords are crossed at or below the middle, and one or both combatants can employ grappling techniques, including the use of the sword as a wrestling tool. Several other factors play into this distinction that we will see in the next part of this series.[2]

The core lessons of Zogho Largo are:

Tempo, or time required to execute a single action. From the Morgan manuscript:

These two masters are here crossed at full-sword. And each can do what the other does, that is, that one can make all plays of the sword with the crossing. But the crossing is of three types which are full-sword (tutta spada) and point-of-sword (punta della spada). And the one who is crossed at full-sword cannot stay long. And the one who is crossed at mid-sword (mezza spada) can stay less. And the one who is at point-of-sword cannot stay at all.

(Translation by Greg Mele)

  1. From the first Remedy Master of Wide Play, who crosses above the middle of the sword near the point (weak):
  • Thrust through when the pressure is weak and the line is open
  • Cut over when the pressure is strong the line closed

2. From the second Remedy Master of Wide Play, who crosses at the middle of the sword:

  • When the pressure is neutral, cut to the hands and then thrust; or stay on the sword and cut to the face or arms.[3]
  • When the pressure is strong, neutralize it by opposing the weak of the adversary’s sword.[4]
  • Cut over or around the opposing sword when the pressure is strong and the line is closed.

3. Against the overly strong opponent, evade the blow while closing the line and redirecting the adversary’s blow with an opposition of the swords, making a full turn of your sword around his and playing to his outside line.

4. Against a thrust, either:

  • counterattack with an exchange of your thrust into his[5]
  • If the thrust misses or is tactically inadvisable, defend by breaking the thrust with a cut, and use the second tempo to riposte

5. Feints

  • are employed with a committed first action that draws the necessary response
  • can be countered by interrupting the tempo of their second action

6. When you cross at the mezza spada or below, be prepared to enter into or defend against close play.

7. These lessons are not limited in scope but can be employed generally:

Here ends the wide play of the two-handed sword. These plays are all linked, and have remedies and counters both from the mandritto (forehand) and riverso (backhand) side, counter-thrusts and counter-cuts to each action, with breaks, parries, strikes and binds—all things that can be understood very, very easily.(f. 27v)

Offense, Defense and Counter-Offense

The First Masters teach a variety of methods for probing, attacking, defending and counterattacking. These methods, with examples drawn from the guards, are:

Probe
Use of the Instabile guards for reconnaissance to “seek openings,” ie, to discover the tendencies of the opponent (Remedy) and subsequently exploit them. Posta Longa Instabile (Long Guard)“can probe the opponent’s guards to see if it can deceive them.”

Attack

  • Direct attack with a fendentefrom Posta di Donna, through the sword and to the man so as to break the guard.
  • Thrusts from Stabile and Instabile guards as direct attacks. Posta Longa “can strike with a thrust” and we are taught that the other Instabile Poste can do what Longadoes as well.

Deceive
Use of cuts and thrusts to draw a specific response and strike to another opening. Posta  Finestra Instabile (Window Guard)“can pick a good fight with all the guards, both the high and the low. It often goes from a guard to the other to deceive the opponent.”

Defend

  • Simple parries with the sword resulting in an incrosada. Posta Longacan parry “any kind of attack;” Posta Frontale (Frontal Guard) is “is good for crossing the opponent’s sword, as well as against thrusts.”
  • Breaking cuts and thrusts. Mezza Porta di Ferro(middle Iron Door) ( “beats away attacks low-to-high;” Tutta Porta di Ferro (Full Iron Door) can“beat thrusts to the ground.”
  • The play of the Colpo di Villano(Peasant’s Strike), teaches how to evade an overly strong, overly committed blow. The name refers to a rough, untutored fighter who strikes only with strength, and not with skill.

Counterattack

  • Exchanging thrusts, as noted in many of the guards.
  • Attacking the exposed hands and arms of the adversary from Dente de Cinghiaro(Boar’s Tooth).

The Three Classifications of Guards

Fiore classifies the poste (guard positions) into the three categories  of  pulsativastabile  and  instabile. These notations appear in red ink above the twelve guards of the two-handed sword. The six guards of the sword used in armour and the first two of the six guards of the poleaxe also have notation in red ink, but without the three classifications. They appear to be inscribed by a different hand than the paragraphs of explanatory text (it is common in medieval manuscript production to have more than one scribe or artist involved), and there is clearly space left for them in these cases, even where there is no legend inscribed. Only the dagger guards (which are all forms of Porta di Ferro), the unnamed guard of the sword in one hand, and the axe guard at lower right on 35v do not have sufficient space for these inscriptions.[6]

The poste are first discussed in the introduction to the manuscript, and as mentioned earlier, it states:

A posta is the same as a guard. A guard (or posta) is what you use to defend or ‘guard’ yourself against the opponent’s attacks. A posta (or guard) is a ‘posture’ against the opponent, which you use to injure him without danger to yourself.

The adjectives that classify the poste are as follows:

Pulsativa is an adjective deriving from the infinitive “pulsare,’’ to beat or to pulsate,[7] in this context, pulsativa transalates as “striking.”

Stabile translates readily as “stable,” and one common compound form is “posizione stabile,” or “stable position.”

Instabile requires a little more work to translate. An easy translation is “unstable,” which in English carries the connotations of “not fixed, firm, or steady; easily upset or unbalanced.”[8]  None of these are particularly desirable martial qualities in a guard position and it would be a curious system that relied on guards that were unstable in this sense.[9]  More likely Italian usages in this context are “changeable,” or “mutable,” “variable,” and even “volatile.” Instabile is often used to describe dancers or music, not as unsteady, but as mutable, variable, or volatile. Historically this use has not changed since at least the time of Dante.[10]

The Play of the Pulsativa Guards
 Fol 23v  Fol 23v  Fol 23v
 Right Posta di Donna  Left Posta di Donna Tutta Porta di Ferro

The Poste Pulsativa primarily take strategic roles in the play of the longsword: they are capable of strong offensive and equally strong defensive postures.

The two variants of Posta di Donna seize the initiative. They are both characterized by the powerful strikes they can make and their ability to break the other guards. Right Posta di Donna (Woman’s Guard) “can break all other guards with its great strikes.”   Breaking a guard in this context doesn’t necessarily mean smashing through it with brute force – Fiore is very specific about the futility of brute force and the means to defeat it in his play of the Colpo di Villano (Peasant’s Strike). Instead, it seizes the initiative with those powerful strikes, and breaks guards by forcing a defense or a retreat from the Remedy Master.

Left Posta di Donna shares many characteristics with the right, and can also take the fight to the adversary, but is subtly different in that its specialty is easily entering close play, where grappling techniques can be used. While both Poste can enter close play, she excels at it.

Tutta Porta di Ferro (full Iron Door) is distinguished by powerful defenses rather than powerful attacks, and like the Stabile Guards it can wait and defend, making strong parries or counterattacks, and using specific footwork to close in on the Player. Like left Posta di Donna it comes quickly to close play. It differs from the Stabile Guards in the strength it has and the variety of actions it employs: despite the emphasis strength, Fiore says that it defends “without much effort against anyone picking a fight with it.” Where Donna seizes the initiative, Tutta Porta di Ferro retakes it.

In either case, if the offense or defense is not immediately successful, the result will be a bind, a crossing of the swords (incrosada in Italian). At this point the Player – who is no longer in a Pulsativa guard but in one of the Instabile guards – must use the lessons of the Counter Masters to act from this position and counter the Remedy Master. And the Remedy Master, if countered, must use the lessons of the Counters to the Counter, though Fiore says that this is rare.

The Play of the Stabile Guards
Fol 24 Fol 24 Fol 24

Porta di Ferro Mezzana

Breve

Dente di Zenghiaro

Fol 24v Fol 24v

Coda Longa

Dente di Zenghiaro lo Mezzano

Poste Stabile have defensive, offensive, and counteroffensive properties. Four of the five guards have the point of the weapon low to the ground, and all of them are withdrawn from potential contact with the adversary/Remedy Master. While they can deliver effective attacks, they are not poised for powerful strikes, as are the Pulsativa guards. All of them emphasize thrusts as their initial attacks, with cuts either immediately following the thrust or used as an alternative to the thrust.

Porta di Ferro Mezzana’s (middle Iron Door) dominant quality is that it is dangerous to break, not unexpected in a guard with the point low and in line: it can easily deliver thrusts into any incoming attack, and if that attack is poorly timed or is made foot or body first, the thrust can be deadly.

Posta Breve (Short Guard) is labeled as a Stabile Guard, but Fiore then says “it is a deceitful guard that has no stability.” This is discussed further below.

Dente de Cinghiaro (Boars’ Tooth) is named because it attacks with upward thrusts, as does a boar with its lower teeth. It has strong counteroffensive qualities. It attacks the hands and arms with thrusts from the left side followed by cuts, meaning that it is used when the adversary’s hands and arms are exposed while attacking or while probing (see The Play of the Instabile Guards, below).[11]

Posta di Coda Lunga (Long Tail Guard) is presented as a versatile guard that is good for waiting, and shares many physical and strategic characteristics with the pulsativa guard Posta Tutta Porta di Ferro. She is less strong, but more easily shifts to other guards.

Finally, Dente de Cinghiaro lo Mezzano (middle Boar’s Tooth) is a withdrawn version of the other Boar’s Tooth: it does everything the other guard can, but from a “refused” or back stance position. This gives it an advantage in playing measure.

The Play of the Instabile Guards
Fol 23v Fol 24 Bicorno

Finestra

Longa

Bicorno

Fol 24v Fol 24

Frontale

(Breve???)

The Poste Instabile are the guards that actually make contact with the adversary’s sword, or occupy the space in front of him. They result from a transition from either Pulsative or Stabile guards via a cut, thrust, or probing action. All the other guards are withdrawn, poised and ready to act, but the Poste Instabile are characterized by volatility, variability and movement. They are described as being able to probe the adversary’s position, to deceive, and to make thrusts and cuts. These cuts and thrusts can be done directly from the guards and are not the transitions mentioned above. Since they are extended positions and make contact with the opposing steel, they play directly from various crossing of the swords. The mutable, changeable nature of these guards means that they must be sensitive to the pressures of the Remedy Master’s sword, the lines of potential attack that sword closes and opens (the Remedy can only close one line at a time), and the time necessary to act.

Posta di Finestra (Window Guard), is a versatile guard: “always quick to enact its tricks and deceptions. She has mastery of defenses and offenses. It can pick a good fight with all the guards, both the high and the low. It often goes from a guard to the other to deceive the opponent. It can deliver strong thrusts, and knows how to break and exchange them.”

Finestra is often interpreted to have the point on line, aimed at the adversary, and certainly this is a useful position that can easily be adopted at need. But I interpret, based on the visual evidence as well as Fiore’s citing only three guards as having the point in line: Posta Longa, Posta Breve, and mezza Porta di Ferro. Such a position better suits the deceptive nature of Finestra, allowing use of the sword’s natural mechanical properties to strike and deceive.

Posta Longa (Long Guard) probes the adversary’s position, deceives, thrusts, cuts and avoid cuts. Fiore characterizes the guard as being the most deceptive of all the guards.

Posta di Bicorno (Two-horned Guard) is formed with the left hand having a reverse grip on the pommel and the pommel held tight to the right arm. This gives it strong lateral stability, so that the guard “stays closed so that the point stays on the centerline.”

Posta Frontale (Frontal Guard), “which some masters call the Guard of the Crown.” Frontale is used for parrying the adversary’s cuts and thrusts, but also can be used as an position of invitation, from which the Remedy can counterattack to the head and arms or beat the opposing blade down. This is good for crossing the opponent’s sword, as well as against thrusts.

Finally, Posta Breve (Short Guard) occupies a curious position: it is classified as a Stabile guard, but we are then taught that “it is a deceitful guard, which has no stability. (emphasis mine) .” The distinction lies in Breve’s position of point withdrawn but with the point raised to threaten the adversary, rather than withdrawn and low to the ground. Breve “remains in motion and probes the opponent for an opportunity to thrust and pass forward.”  These qualities are shared by Posta Longa.

All of these guards are described as deceitful, and all do what Posta Longa can do: remain in motion, probe the opponent’s guards, thrust, avoid cuts, and deliver cuts. Posta di Bicorno adds the characteristic of great lateral strength of the point; it “stays closed so that the point stays on the centerline.” Posta Frontale is particularly strong at crossing thrusts, or beating the to the ground. Finestra deceives in her transitions from guard to guard.

Use of Cuts and Thrusts from Instabile Guards

Nowhere does Fiore say that his cuts and thrusts, as taught by the four First Masters on folio 23 recto of the Getty manuscript, can only be made as opening attacks, and that the only possible plays from the crossing are the formal largo and stretto plays. Instead, he gives all the building blocks necessary to construct tactical applications when playing Instabile: crossings of the sword, pressures on the blade, the angles of thrusts, the nature of cuts, the means to close to stretto.

What is critical to understanding their play is this: they do these things both without and with contact of the opposing blade. Thus they can thrust from the bind, cut from the bind, and escape from the bind to threaten other targets with cuts and thrusts.

Strategic Lessons of the Six Guard Pairings

Fiore divides his twelve guards into six pairings of two, each opposed to the other, as stated in the introduction to the Getty:

Some guards will be set against one another and will not touch one another, studying each other to see what the opponent may do. These are called poste, or guards, or First Masters of the fight. They will be wearing a crown, meaning that the position in which they wait is optimal for defense. These guards are also the foundation for carrying arms while in guard.

In addition, the Morgan copy states:

Posta means guarding oneself against the opponent, which is why saying posta, or guard, is the same as to say “strength,” because it is hard to break the guards without danger, as you come forward with intent.

The Masters in these guard pairings teach fundamental strategic lessons necessary to the longsword – and to all other weapons – to use strong positions to break strong positions. But the since the strengths of these guards are different from each other, Fiore’s First Masters teach us how they interact. These lessons are:

  1. Pulsativa breaks Pulsativa.
  2. Pulsativa breaks Instabile.
  3. Instabile deceives Pulsativa.
  4. Stabile defends against or contends with Instabile
  5. Instabile deceives Stabile.
  6. Stabile contends with Stabile.

The actions outlined in the videos below are suggestive, not exhaustive, of the tactical possibilities inherent in the strategic positions. In future articles I will go into more detail on the various tactical applications taught in the system. Fiore teaches a variety of possibilities from each guard, and the intersection of these possibilities affords a variety of options.[12] Examining them in more detail:

Posta Tutta Porta di Ferro Pulsativa vs. Right Posta di Donna Pulsativa

Lesson: Pulsativa breaks Pulsativa

  1. Longa plays defensive strength against offensive strength.
  2. Donna plays offensive strength to break defensive strength.

Posta di Finestra Instabile vs. Left Posta di Donna Pulsativa

Lesson One: Instabile deceives Pulsativa
Finestra employs probes and deceptions to discover openings and attack

Lesson Two: Pulsativa breaks Instabile
Donna will play its offensive strength to break Finestra’s position and force a defense.

Posta Longa Instabile  vs. Porta di Ferro Mezzana Stabile

Length of reach (both of swords and swordsman’s arms) is a factor: “…alike guards are contrary to one-another, with the exception of the point guards (Posta Longa, Breve and Mezza Porta di Ferro); with point guards, the most extended guard can reach the opponent first.”

Assuming relative parity of reach, the strategic lessons are:

Lesson One: Instabile deceives Stabile
Longa employs probes and deceptions to discover openings and attack

Lesson Two: Stabile defends against Instabile
Porta di Ferro Mezzana plays defensively, seeking beat away the attacking blade

Assuming one has a greater advantage of reach, that guard will have the decided offensive advantage in this pairing. The strategic lesson then becomes: When faced with a disadvantage of reach, do not employ a point-based strategy.

Posta Breve Stabile vs. Dente di Cinghiaro Stabile

Lesson: Stabile contends with Stabile

  1. Breve remains reserved because of the danger to the hands posed by Cinghiaro. It will “remain in motion and probe the opponent for an opportunity to thrust and pass forward;” it will simultaneously play defense against Cinghiaro’s offense.
  2. Cinghiaro will seek to strike with a thrust at an angle from below, timing its attack to negate Breve’s parry or exchange of thrust.

Posta di Coda Lunga Stabile vs. Posta di Bicorno Instabile

 Lesson: Stabile defends against Instabile
Coda Lunga will seek to pass forward with a fendente and enter close play: Bicorno’s firm position in the center will allow for entry into zogho stretto from the incrosada.

Lesson: Instabile deceives Stabile
Bicorno will use its position on the center to close the line and thrust through the fendente (somehting this guard excels at); or will probe to draw a fendente or thrust and evade it.

Posta Frontale Instabile vs. Dente de Cinghiaro lo Mezzano Stabile

 Lesson: Instabile deceives Stabile
Frontale can counter the low thrust by passing out of line and beating the thrust to the ground.

Lesson: Stabile contends with Instabile
This final pairing shows a second possibility for Stabile vs Instabile: Frontale doesn’t initiate attacks but rather counterattacks. Cichiaro lo Mezzano (which is equivalent to Cinghiaro) will draw the counterattack with its thrust – which comes from a further distance due to the refused posture – and counter it with the fendente to the head and arms, followed by additional thrusts with a step of the front foot. 

Conclusion

The classifications of the poste into Stabile, Pulsativa and Instabile denote the strategic positions the guards occupy – what role in the fight they are best suited for. Analyzing the interaction of these overall strategic possibilities as taught by Fiore illuminates the tactical play of the guards and what actions they can specifically employ in all phases of the fight: offense, defense, counteroffense, and counters to the counteroffense. Further, the actions of the seven blows of the sword can be employed not only as offensive and defensive actions, but also as counteraction arising either from the incrosada or the attempted incrosada. Feints that deceive the parry, or opposition and angulated thrusts or cuts that arise directly from the incrosada are a key element of Fiore’s play. It is not a wait-and-defend system, but a strategically and tactically robust and sophisticated system of martial arts.

 NOTES:

[1] “Counteroffense” is a fencing specific term: it is single action which attacks into the adversary’s attack with the intention of negating the attack and hitting in a single motion, The classic defensive response, the parry and riposte, is two actions: the first action negates the attack and the second action is intended to strike.

[2] For a “stand-alone” treatment of the topic see: Wide and Close Play in Armizare, the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi, by Gregory Mele. http://chivalricfighting.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/wide-and-close-play-in-armizare-the-martial-tradition-of-fiore-dei-liberi/

[3] The cut to the face is detailed in Fillipo Vadi, who is in the dei Liberi tradition and whose manuscript is extensively based on one of the Fiore manuscripts. Vadi’s major contribution is his extensive theory section preceding the illustrated guards and plays in his manuscript, where he details this action.

[4] My colleague Gregory Mele argues that Fiore shows a manual opposition – a seizure of the weak with the left hand – by the Scholar of the Remedy due to the left foot forward body position, and the short tempo and presence of the adversary’s point dictates a seizure with the left hand. I argue that the turn of the sword up is simply a thrust from one of the four angles dictated earlier, and that the manual seizure of the sword shown is a specialty action that facilitates the cut to the hands and the leg break as shown in the 5th and 6th plays of largo. In any case, we are both agreed on the mechanics and tactics of the interpretations, differing only on where in the pedagogical model we place them.

[5] In classical and contemporary fencing, a counterattack by definition is done in a single tempo, rather than the two tempi of a parry-riposte. I have adopted use of this term to describe Fiore’s action.

[6] The lack of these notations in all guards, particularly the uncompleted poleaxe guards, is one of several indications that this manuscript may be a not-quite-completed copy of another manuscript. Full discussion of this is far outside the scope of this article

[7] The Collins English Dictionary defines the intransitive verb “pulsate” as to beat, throb, or vibrate.

[8] Collins American English Dictionary.

[9] Instabile, as applied to Fiore’s guards, has often been taken to “positions which the fighter cannot remain in for very long,” because they are seen as hard to maintain for any extended period of time. In fact, Posta Finestra is no harder to hold for an extended period than is Posta di Donna, a pulsativa guard.

[10] Personal communication on 3/20/2014 with Dr. Nathalie Hester, Associate Professor of Italian, Department of Romance Languages, University of Oregon: “I like your translation as mutable/changeable. You’ll see, in the examples below from the dictionary for the Accademia della Crusca, that the focus is on mutability and unpredictability (or variability).”

[11] This is similar to Fillipo Vadi’s description of his “new” footwork. See Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Fillipo Vadi by Fillipo Vadi, Luca Porzio and Gregory Mele, Chivalry Bookshelf 2002

[12] Both the Morgan and the Pisani-Dossi copies of the manuscript have slightly different guard pairings, and neither of them has any notation of Pulsativa, Stabile or Instabile. Both manuscripts omit the guard of Dente de Cenghiaro lo mezzano, and substiture another instance of Posta di Donna. The Pisani-Dossi appear to nis-name one of the guards. However, the same strategic lessons based on the three guard classifications with only slight variation from the Getty can be derived.