SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE ART OF ARMS, PART ONE: THE SIX MASTERS OF SWORD COMBAT

Alphabet - The lessons on the two-handed sword begin with two variations of the guard Posta di Donna opposing one another, followed by six unnamed masters. These masters are not so much poste – though many of them do correspond to specific poste, as they  do different ways that the sword can be used in combat: in armour and without, in one hand or two, thrown, and so forth. As explains its nature, they reveal the interrelation between the various forms of sword use, the close-quarters methods of the dagger, and specific “mixed weapons” techniques taught at various points throughout the manuscript.

Fol 22

We are two guards and we are alike but contrary to one another. As with all other guards in this art, alike guards are contrary to one another, with the exception of the point guards (Posta Longa, Breve and Mezza Porta di Ferro); with point guard against point guard, the most extended guard can reach the opponent first. Anyway, what one guard can do, its opposite also can. These guards can perform a volta stabile and a mezza volta.[1] A volta stabile lets you play forward or backward (from one side only), without moving your feet. A mezza volta is when you pass forward or backward, so you can play on the opposite side forward or backward. A tutta volta is when you use one foot to describe a circle around the other foot; in other words, one foot stays in place, the other circles around it. The sword also has three movements: volta stabile, mezza volta and tutta volta. These two guards are both called Posta di Donna. There are four more concepts in this art: passing forward, passing backward, an advancing (accrescimento) of the front foot, and pulling back the front foot (decrescimento).

WHAT IT MEANS

A great deal of our knowledge of Maestro Fiore’s art comes from this single passage. It is here that he introduces his system of footwork, including the four basic steps (passare, tornare, acrescimento, discresimento) and the three turns, or volte.

Three Turns – Of More than Just the Feet

However, the master also tells us that poste themselves can make volta stabile and mezza volta. This means that many positions can be forward or rear-weighted – the volta stabile, as well as formed on either side of the body, which is the mezza volta.  Dei Liberi shows both forward and back-weighted variations of guards, specifically Posta di Donna and Dente di Zenghiaro, the former to both sides.

Finally, dei Liberi adds that the sword also makes three turns, although he is silent in explaining what this means, forcing us to look at other Italian sources to determine precisely what this means. What we find is that a volta of the sword relates to how we act in the bind. For example, in the Remedies of the Sword in Two Hands, the Scholar and Player are shown with their blades crossed true edge to true edge, as if both parties had made a mandritto fendente and come to the bind. Should the Scholar choose to leave the bind, as he does in the first plays of the First and Second Remedies of Zogho Largo (see Part Four of this series), he cuts out of the bind with a riverso, but remains on the same size of the opponent’s weapon. This turning of the true edge for left to right, or vice-versa, without cutting around the blade is what is meant by a mezza volta of the sword.

Conversely, just as a mezza volta of the feet becomes a tutta volta once you have completely changed your facing, a tutta volta of the sword is when you strike around the opponent’s blade, so that your blades is now on the other side. So from the position shown in the Remedies of the Sword, the Scholar’s true edge would not be to the right of the Player’s, true edge to his false edge. Tutta volte of the sword’s blade appear in the plays Colpo di Villano and Punta Falsa (See Part Five of this series), whereas a tutta volta of the hilt appears, for example, in the pommel strikes shown in the plays of Zogho Stretto.

A volta stabile is where the sword remain engaged as they were in the initial crossing, but while in contact with the opponent’s sword the Scholar either winds from a low crossing to a high one (Posta Breve or Longa to Posta di Finestra), or from a high crossing to a low (Posta di Finestra to Posta Breve).

Thrust for Thrust…

Perhaps the most overlooked part of this introduction is the tactical advice:

As with all other guards in this art, alike guards are contrary to oneanother, with the exception of the point guards (Posta Longa, Breve and Mezza Porta di Ferro); with point guard against point guard, the most extended guard can reach the opponent first.

The lesson here is simple: any guard can oppose itself, as can its variations. So Posta di Donna can oppose itself, whether it is forward weighted or back, and can also be opposed by Tutta Porta di Ferro, since they are both pulsativa guards. However, when we come to thrusting guards – those that stand with the point on the centerline – the more extended guard takes control of the initiative, because its blade is closer and can attack more swiftly. Of course, this does not mean that they cannot necessarily play against each other – in theory any guard can play against any other – but the master’s warning is to understand that the initiative is not equal.

So in this short paragraph we have a system of movement for blade and body, as well as a general tactical lesson of how to use the various guards to oppose one another. We now come to the six paired masters and their specific lessons.

FIRST MASTER: THE HURLED SWORD VS. SECOND MASTER: SWORD IN ONE HAND

 Fol 22

We are six guards, each dissimilar from the other. I am the first to explain my nature. I am set to throw my sword, and the guards coming after me will also present their virtues.

I am a guard useful both in and out of armor against a spear or a sword that is thrown at me. I can beat either weapon away and make it miss me, which is why I am confident they will not hurt me.

WHAT IT MEANS

The First Master seems an odd place to introduce how to wield a sword – by casting it like a javelin – and he only appears in the manuscript as a villain to be opposed by a Remedy. Maestro Fiore gives us very little advice other than to illustrate how the sword is to be held when casting, but sword casting also appears occasionally in depictions of armoured judicial duels, such as the Gladiatoria family of manuscripts, near-contemporary German manuscripts that share a number of interesting unique similarities with their Italian colleague.

The thrown sword is shown opposed by the Second Master, who wields the sword in one hand. We’ve actually already seen his play, and his description here is basically a short summary of his advice in that section as to how to use a “universal parry” against any attack that comes at you.

THIRD MASTER: THE FLUNG THRUST VS. FOURTH MASTER: SWORD IN ARMOUR

 Fol 22v

I am a guard set to deliver a long thrust. The increased reach of this thrust is equal to the length of my sword’s handle.[2] I am quite useful when my opponent and I are both in armor. Since I’m only presenting a short length of my point, I cannot be deceived.

I am a good guard against sword, axe and dagger in armor. I hold my sword at midblade with my left hand, so that I can fend off a dagger, which can do me more harm than the other weapons..

 

WHAT IT MEANS

The Third Master of the Sword teaches how to make an extended, one-handed thrust. The position he shows is found again in the section on armoured combat, where it is called Posta Sagiattaria (The Archer’s Position).  In this position, the swordsman grips the sword in one hand at the end of the hilt and can strike out with a long, one-handed thrust. This technique remained a staple of Italian fencing with the two-handed sword, long after Fiore,[3] although the extended thrust, also known as “throwing the point” is usually executed from a traditional grip.

Dei Liberi routinely links his advice on using the sword’s point to that of the dagger, as will be seen in the advice of the next Master. The dagger is considered dangerous because it’s point is “short” and thus it cannot be bound or manipulated, leading to fast attacks, that are difficult to judge. The thrown point can control a great deal of distance, while giving the opponent little to manipulate when he defends.

The thrown point, from di Grassi.
The thrown point, from di Grassi.

The Fourth Master represents using the sword in full armour, all using this shortened grip or punta corta position. This specific position found later in that portion of Il Fior di Battaglia, where it is named il Croce Bastarda, or “the Bastard Cross”. This is a strong, defensive position that is closely related to the doubled Porta di Ferro dagger guards, specifically used to counter the dagger, thus this guard forms a natural counter to the “shortened point” of the guard that precedes it.

FIFTH MASTER: POSTA DI DONNA VS. THE SIXTH MASTER: POSTA DI DONNA LA SOPRANA AND USING THE SWORD LIKE AN AXE

Fol 22v

I am the guard called Posta di Donna. I am separate from the other ways of holding the sword,[4] which are all different. The guard coming after me seems similar to me, save for the fact that the sword has assumed the shape of an axe.

This sword is both a sword and an axe. Weighty things can be of great impediment to those that are light. This is also a Posta di Donna, the noble high guard,[5] who often uses her deceptions to trick the other guards: you think I’m attacking you with a cut when I am instead thrusting. All I have to do is lift my arms over my head, and I can deliver a good, quick thrust.

WHAT IT MEANS

The section on the Masters of Swordsmanship returns to a variation of the same two figures we saw in this section’s introduction, and Fiore finally names them: Posta di Donna. This is where Fiore introduces “high guards” – those that have the hands  holding the weapon above the shoulders, and from here on in we will see high guards of various forms used with every other subsystem in the art of arms (spear, sword in armour, poleaxe, equestrian combat). Prior to this we have only seen low positions, with Posta Frontale holding something of a transitional role, and the general system of defense has been to strike up and into or through the attack/opponent. But now that we have a long weapon, the weapon can launch an attack and cover the line at the same time, making it safer to initiate offenses and counterattack from above, in a way that could not be  done with grappling or the dagger.

Finally, the last figure, the “high” Posta di Donna, is both one back–weighted variant of the guard, but it also shows the master holding a specialized sword used in judicial combat, which has a leaf–shaped point and cross-bar, like a boar-hunting sword, a long sharp cross, and an elongated pommel. Dei Liberi explains these weapons in his armoured combat section, but what is notable here is that the blade is gripped by the blade in both hands, the hilt hanging down his back. Although he does not detail any plays with its use in this fashion, use the sword as a makeshift poleaxe was well-known by the German masters, who called such techniques Mordschlag (“death blow”) or Donnerstucke (“thunder strikes”). While this tells us that dei Liberi knew such techniques, in absence of any plays, we must look to the poleaxe and sword in armour sections to speculate on how he might have applied them.

 Cod.I.6.4º.2_107v  MS_Germ.Quart.16_30r
Examples of using the sword like an axe from the earlier portion of the Codex Wallerstein 107v (c.1410 – 1420), and an unarmed counter in the anonymous Gladiatoria 30v (c.1430).

These six masters provide an entire context of how swordsmanship with  spada a dui mani fits into Fiore dei Liberi’s art. It is a system meant to be used in armour and without, in one hand and two, with hurled thrusts, or even thrown like a javelin, while the instructions that proceed them provide us a system of movement of both feet and blade. Next is understanding the seven blows themselves.

In order to better describe how the three types of guards are used strategically and tactically, I’ll first outline the pedagogical model of the manuscript, and then briefly outline the core elements of longsword play as taught by Fiore’s 24 First Masters on folios 22r through 24v. These masters teach lessons both specific to the sword and general to all weapons. For example, the four masters who teach the cuts and thrusts teach them for sword, axe and spear, but not for dagger, which are taught separately. Conversely, the First Masters of the armoured and mounted combat sections have lessons applicable to the sword, whether used single-handed or with both hands.  

Notes:

[1] For a further explanation of these terms, see Glossary.

[2] This is because the right hand normally holds the handle near the cross-guard. By holding the sword near the pommel, the swordsman delivering a thrust therefore extends his reach by the whole length of the handle.

[3] See for example, Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adropar sicuramente d’Arme (1570), where a variant of this technique comprises nearly his sole instruction on the two-handed sword. It is described in the 1594, English translation of Thomas Churchyard as follows:

The thrust is discharged (as soon as the enemy’s sword is found) as far in the beginning as he may with both arms: Then, taking away the cross hand, he shall force it farther on with the pommel hand, as much as he may stretch it forth, always in the discharge, increasing a slope pace. And the thrust being thus delivered, he shall presently retire his said pace, and return his hand again to the cross, settling himself either in the high or low ward. from: Giacomo di Grassi, His True Arte of Defence (1570).

[4] Ways of holding the sword: prese de spada.

[5] La soprana: this adjective has the double meaning of “physically high” and “noble.”