SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE ART OF ARMS, PART THREE: SWORD IN ONE HAND

Alphabet - Having looked at Fiore dei Liber’s pedagogical system, system of blows, and six methods of using the sword, we now turn to those individual sub-systems itself. Swordsmanship proper first appears in the Pisani-Dossi and Getty manuscript (ff. 20r – 21v) after the dagger teachings, and is almost an extended interlude in its own right. A single Remedy is presented, a master standing in a low guard, comparable to a position of the sword in the scabbard. Although he is wielding the sword in one hand, as one might an arming sword, the weapon itself clearly has a long, two-handed hilt.

The Master is threatened by three combatants, each of whom executes a singular attack — a cut, thrust or thrown weapon. With a bit of the braggadocio that often characterizes his verse, dei Liberi advises them, Go ahead and come on one by one, if you know what you’re doing; even if there were a hundred of you, I’d still mess you all up with this guard, which is so good and strong, and then proceeds to show how to use a single, rising parry to defeat their play.

Of the eleven plays that follow, nearly all involve grappling, and a close look at their organization suggests a connection to the first three dagger Remedies. This can leave the reader with the impression that the one-handed swordplay instructions are little more than “how to use counter-dagger techniques when you have a sword”, but this is where we need to remember that il Fior di Battaglia is meant to be read holistically. While it is true that this section introduces the use of zogho stretto (close play) techniques with a long weapon, there is also another place where one-handed swordsmanship appears — the equestrian teachings. A look at this section reveals an entire series of guards, detailed notes on how to make the “universal parry” first detailed on foot, and clarifies at least two other types of cover — a rising parry when moving to the inside (as when two horsemen pass left shoulder to left shoulder), and a descending riverso to counter thrusts. When both of these sections are combined, along with a study of the instructions on sword poste found throughout the text, the reader finds a simple, but complete system of swordsmanship, not surprisingly similar to a “bare-bones” version of other Italian and German systems of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, yet with the distinctive hallmarks of armizare.

Poste: Snapshots of the Art

Since the plays for the sword in one hand are presented as a pedagogical bridge from close quarter combat to playing with long weapons, dei Liberi is principally concerned with showing the application of his “universal technique”, the set-aside from below, as it is applied to the sword. He does this by presenting a single posta, Coda Longa (the long tail).  At this point in the manuscript, however, the guard is unnamed; it’s full description and details of its use do not appear until the equestrian section:

Posta Coda Longa
Posta Coda Longa

This position of the sword is called Coda Longa; it is very good against the lance and any other handheld weapon… Bear in mind that this guard counters all the blows both on the mandritto and the riverso side, and is usable against right- or left-handed opponents. We will now see the plays of Coda Longa, from which you always parry as I have described in the first illustration of the guard.

The equestrian section is also significant, because it is here that dei Liberi shows his scholars using other poste with the sword in one hand, each related to corresponding guards for the sword in two-hands: Posta di Donna la Sinestra and Posta Dente di Zenghiaro. By looking at the description of the poste in both the equestrian section, and in that of the sword in two-hands, we can easily develop a basic understanding of its play with the arming sword:

Posta di Donna la Sinistra

Posta di Donna la Sinistra
Posta di Donna la Sinistra

(Sword in Two Hands)

This is the left Posta di Donna, always quick to the defense and offense. She can deliver great strikes, break thrusts and beat them to the ground. Thanks to her knowledge of traversing, she enters the close play. This guard knows all these plays well.

(Sword on Horseback)

This position of the sword against a lance is very good to parry the lance as you ride to the opponent’s right side. This guard is also good against all other handheld weapons—that is, axe, staff, sword, and so on.

Dente di Zenghiaro

Dente di Zenghiaro
Dente di Zenghiaro

(Sword in Two Hands)

This is Dente di Zenghiaro, since it learned its offenses from the boar. It can deliver strong underhand thrusts all the way to the opponent’s face  without stepping; it then comes back down with a fendente to the arms. Sometimes, it can deliver a thrust to the opponent’s face, point up, while quickly extending the front foot, and recover with a fendente to the head and arms; then it immediately delivers another thrust with the extension of the front foot. It defends well against the close play.

(On Horseback)

This swordsman waits for the lance in Dente di Zenghiaro. As the man with the lance approaches him, the Master beats the lance aside to the right. The Master can easily do this action with his sword—that is, parrying and striking in a single turn of the sword.

Note that with the sword in one hand, there is no corresponding Posta di Finestra la Sinestra, as this is a mechanically weak position when held one-handed.

Further, each of the principal poste that Maestro Fiore shows his scholars playing out of are formed on the left side of the body, and each begins my making cover, that is, defending. In this, Fiore prefigures the masters of the later Bolognese tradition (and in particular Angelo Viggiani) who classified guards on the left side of the body as defensive, and guards on the right as offensive.

Additional Guards: Playing Offense

This, of course, raises the obvious question of how does one initiate an attack? Dei Liberi is overtly silent on this, but gives us a number of clues. The first is by looking at the poste that the zugadore, or player, attacks with in each section, and we find three: Posta di Donna la Destraza, Posta di Finestra la Destraza and Posta Breve, obviously corresponding to a cut from above, a thrust from above and a thrust from below. Coda Longa is shown opposed to Posta di Donna and Posta Breve in the section on the sword in one hand, while in the equestrian section Coda Longa, Posta di Donna la Sinestra and Posta Dente di Zenghiaro are shown opposing Posta di Finestra la Destraza.

Since we know that Italian swordsmanship was taught by transitioning from guard to guard, we can also determine which poste frame an integral part of arming sword fencing in the dei Liberi tradition by looking at where the plays end. For example, posta di finestra is not only the guard that opposes the scholar in the equestrian section, it is also the posta that forms the completion of Maestro Fiore’s basic defense, whether on horseback or on foot (see “The Universal Parry”, below). Based on this model we get a total of four, offensive guards on the right side of the body: Posta di Donna la Destraza, Posta di Finestra la Destraza, Posta Breve, plus the addition of Porta di Ferro Mezzana. [1]

Posta di Finestra la Destraza Fol 43v

(Sword in Two Hands)

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

Porta di Ferro Mezzana

Porta di Ferro Mezzana as the completion of a play. Remember, all actions in armizare begin, move through, and end in a guard.
Porta di Ferro Mezzana as the completion of a play. Remember, all actions in armizare begin, move through, and end in a guard.

(Sword in Two Hands)

This is Porta di Ferro Mezzana, since it holds the sword in the middle. It is a good guard, but calls for a long blade. It delivers strong thrusts, beats away attacks low-to-high, then comes back down with a fendente to the head or arms, returning in this guard. It is called porta (door) because it’s strong; it is a strong guard that is difficult to break without danger and without coming to the close.

Posta di Donna la Destraza

Posta di Donna and Posta Breve with the Sword in One Hand
Posta di Donna and Posta Breve with the Sword in One Hand

(Sword in Two Hands)

This is Posta di Donna, 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. It is also quick to exchange thrusts. Extend your front foot off the center-line and pass at an angle with the back foot. This leaves the opponent uncovered, enabling you to hit him.

Posta Breve

(Sword in Two Hands)

This is the Posta Breve, which calls for a long blade. It is a deceitful guard, which has no stability. It too remains in motion and probes the opponent for an opportunity to thrust and pass forward. This guard is better in armor.

Note that the two Poste di Donna are not symmetrical. There are two main variations of the right Posta di Donna, all with the left foot forward (suggesting the preference for a buckler or shield):

  • Assume Posta di Finestra and drop the elbow, so the point angles up and slightly to the left; a classic pose shown in images of mounted knights, or fighters with long shields. (See second player, first plate of sword in one hand, folio 20, or equestrian plates, 43v.) Vadi shows this same position with the longsword, which he names Posta di Vera Finestra (true window guard), and in the Pissani-Dossi Ms it appears as Posta di Donna di Vera Finestra
  • Elbow bent, hand at side of head – sword aimed up and back at a 45-degree angle; analogous to I.33’s second ward, and the same function as Bolognese Guardia Alta. (See sword plays of zogho stretto, Getty Ms. folio 29v, first image.)

Furthermore, Posta Breve and Porta di Ferro Mezzana are carried to the right side of the body, whereas their two-handed equivalents are on the centerline. They can have either right or left foot forward, but are generally shown in the medieval period with the left foot forward, likely because of the predominance of the buckler prior to the 1550s.

So we can safely assume that Maestro Fiore’s system consists of seven guards, four “offensive” guards on the right, and three “defensive” guards on the left. Interestingly, this corresponds almost perfectly with the seven “universal” guards “used by all true fencers” described by both the Anonymous Priest in Ms. I.33 (c.1300) and Angelo Viggiani (1570), and is a clear subset of those found in German messerfechten. This should not be surprising, since these are the positions which are absolutely required to make all half and full cuts from both sides of the body, as well as to initiate and recover overhand and underhand thrusts. While other, two-handed poste, such as Tutta Porta di Ferro or Posta di Bicorno might be possible, many of them rely upon a two-handed grip for leverage, and thus do not add any real utility to the system.

Furthermore, although Maestro Fiore instructions for foot combat only focuses on Coda Longa,  by looking at other Italian and German fencing texts, as well as non-technical texts that are contemporary with il Fior di Battaglia, we can see that the positions of the players as they prepare to attack, and formed by the scholars as they defend, closely conforms with dei Liberi’s depictions:

Posta Coda Longa

MS_I.33_01r Cod.icon._394a_113r buckler
I.33, c.1300 Talhoffer, 1467 Gladiatoria, c.1430 Viggiani, 1570

Posta di Dente di Zenghiaro

MS_I.33_26r Meyer Wechsel aka Porta di Ferro e Larga
I.33, c.1300 Meyer, 1570 Viggiani, 1570

 Posta di Donna la Sinestra

MS_I.33_01r Durer overarm talianSword+buckler-NY_Morgan_AccII_2-25_fol_14v[1]
I.33, c.1300 Durer, 1512 Italian, mid-15th c

 Posta di Donna la Destraza

MS_I.33_01r Cod.icon._394a_113r Durer Open Ward 15
I.33, c.1300 Talhoffer, 1467 Albrecht Durer, 1512  Marozzo, 1536
   italian14thc_Fol96  Shield pressing - Ms 490 - Chronique de Bertrand du Guesclin - f192v - France 1405
Viggiani, 1570 Milanese, 1402 French, c.1405

 Porta di Ferro Mezzana

sword and buckler -- Romance of Alexander Italian 15th c 22
Romance of Alexander, c. 1340 Italian, mid-15th c Marozzo, 1536 Viggiani, 1570

Posta di Finestra

Durer Finestra buckler
Durer, 1512 Gladiatoria, c.1430 Viggiani, 1570
 finestra_mounted_maybe  Saint_Michael_and_the_Dragon
North Italian, 1397 Sienese, 1390

Posta Breve

 MS_I.33_01v  Durer Breve  17  
 I.33, 1300 Durer, 1512 Marozzo, 1536 Viggiani, 1570
 sword and shield poste - Français 2813 - Grandes Chroniques de France c.1380  italian14thc_Fol96
French, 1370s Milanese, 1402

Coverte — Basic Defenses

 Fol 20

We three opponents want to kill this master—one with a thrust, one with a cut and the other by throwing his sword at the master. It will be a miracle if the master survives, God darn him.

You’re all inept and know little of this art. Enough with talk, let’s see some action! Go ahead and and come on one by one if you know what you’re doing; even if there’s a hundred of you, I’ll mess you all up with this guard, which is so good and strong. I’ll step with my front foot a little off the line, and with the left foot I’ll pass at an angle; as I do so, I’ll cross and beat away your swords, find you open and strike you for sure. Go on and throw a sword or a spear at me, and I’ll beat them all away as I’ve described, passing off the line—as you’ll see from my plays just ahead. Please look at them. And even with the sword in one hand, I can practice my art, as you’ll find in this book.

The Universal Parry

In his introduction to the sword in one hand (above), Maestro Fiore describes a single, universal parry that can be used from any guard on the left against any attack. In this initial section, his actual instructions on the parry’s mechanics are rather slim; he does not describe the blade action in detail, other than saying that he will cross, beat aside the weapon and uncover the opponent.  Looking at the actual plays, one notes that his parry generally ends in posta di finestra, suggesting a simple, rising true edge parry. In basic form, this both the predecessor and same basic action as the “rising riverso” taught by the Bolognese masters and described in great detail by Angelo Viggiani in Lo Schermo (1570):

…hold your wrist in such a fashion while you draw it forth that you do not make a turning; and do it so that your hand rises high, and to the rear on your right side, so that the point of your sword is aimed at my chest, and downwards somewhat toward the ground, and stop it there, with the true edge of the sword facing the sky, and the false toward the ground, taking care in the selfsame tempo that the rovescio travels, that you make with your body a little turn in such a way that your left shoulder is found somewhat more forward than your right, and that your left arm follows the right through the forward side, so that it is found toward the right side; and make additionally a slight turn of your left leg on the point of your foot through the draw, and the heel should be somewhat lifted from the ground; and together with this make your right leg lie extended, with the body somewhat erect: you see how I do it?[2]

The motion is very simple: as the attack is made, the Scholar cuts up with the sword while making a volta stabile forward and shifting his front (right) foot to the right. As the blades intersect he continues to cut into posta di finestra, with or without a pass forward of the left foot. This passes the Player’s sword across his body to his left, and puts the Scholar on the Player’s right, or outside line, ready for an immediate risposta.

These general mechanics are confirmed when we move to the equestrian section, where dei Liberi discusses his universal parry in greater detail:

This position of the sword is called Coda Longa; it is very good against the lance and any other handheld weapon, as you ride to the right side of the opponent. Bear in mind that thrusts and riversi must be beaten out to the side, and not upward; fendenti should similarly be beaten out to the side, lifting slightly the opponent’s weapon. From this guard, you can perform the plays illustrated.

This same guard of Coda Longa is good when the opponent comes towards you to the left, as does this one. Bear in mind that this guard counters all the blows both on the mandritto and the riverso side, and is usable against right- or left-handed opponents. We will now see the plays of Coda Longa, from which you always parry as I have described in the first illustration of the guard.

As with Viggiani’s instructions, this parry can be used against any blow of the sword, so that it takes six principle forms — vs. a mandritto, a riverso, or a thrust, each with or without a pass. There are several key checkpoints to execute this parry correctly:

  1. The parry must be made as a cut. This means that the arm must extend in the strike and the swordsman should feel that he can just as easily cut the attacker’s upraised arm or face as parry an attack. Indeed, the rising cut is sometimes used as a counterattack to the sword arm.
  2. The blow is not a perfect horizontal cut — there is a slight rise to the blow. Roughly, if a right-handed swordsman makes the strike at an opponent, it would reach the right side of their head just above the mouth and pass the left side of their head at the height of their temple.
  3. It is imperative that the cut crosses the line of the attack and actually contacts the opponent’s blade with the edge, remaining bound to it until the enemy’s sword is out of presence.
Additional Parries

However, as we closely study these short passages by Maestro Fiore, and analyze the plays that follow, we see that he actually advises three types of parry in the plays of sword vs. sword, and a fourth while discussing sword vs. lance:

  1. The first is the universal parry that we have just seen —a true edge sottano or mezzano riverso, which places the Scholar on the Player’s outside line.
  2. The second parry is the most subtle, and yet it figures just as prominently as the first, and is the parry used in many of the plays on foot. Against a fendente mandritto, the Scholar uses the same rising riverso, but slips to the right of the cut, so that he parries with a hanging parry.  This brings him inside the arc of the Player’s cut, allowing him to grasp his hand, wrist or perform a ligadura mezzana and immediately attack the center-line.  Although dei Liberi only shows the actions that follow out of this action, after a grip has been taken, Talhoffer provides an excellent “snap shot” of the play as the parry is made and the Scholar passes in with his left foot to take a grip.  This parry is taught again in the equestrian section, against attacks made when the horses pass on the left.
Fol 20v Cod.icon.394a_113v
A grapple from the inside line and it’s likely entry, a shown in Hans Talhoffer (1467)

The third parry is a descending riverso that is described in dei Liberi’s advice in the equestrian section – bear in mind that thrusts and riversi must be beaten out to the side, and not upward — but it is also specifically shown in the plays on foot, as we shall see below.

The fourth parry is our old friend, the deflection with the falso sottano, and like two of the other three parries, it is used to pass the attack to the Scholar’s right, opening the Player’s outside line to an immediate attack. As with the true edge parry, the deflection and risposta made with the falso can be accompanied with or without a pass forward of the left foot.

Finally, the sword can also be used to make collections, particularly in Posta Frontale. This is usually made by stepping obliquely into the attack with the right foot, and make the risposta with a tutta volta di spada, as the scholar completes a forward triangle step. This action is not directly shown in the Flower of Battle, but can be inferred by comparing dei Liberi’s similar, equestrian play (44r, lower right), to the foot-combat plays expressly described and/or illustrated in other sources, such as the works of Antonio Manciolino, Achille Marozzo, Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, and the Glasgow Fechtbuch.

Zoghi della Spada d’un Mano (The Techniques)

Although short, this section of the manuscript is very interesting, both within the didactical structure of the larger work, and in the context of early Italian swordplay. As regards the former, once the master has described his “universal parry”, he introduces three plays that show this basic defense and two types of riposte: an overhand thrust (20v-a) or a mandritto fendente (20v-b). This is the first time we have had a weapon long enough to play in zogho largo or “wide play”, of which we’ll see more when we come to the sword in two hands. But having shown these two, basic defenses, dei Liberi returns to zogho stretto, showing a series of plays with the sword that are analogs for those of the dagger. Plays 20v-c and d are identical to the first and third plays of the First Dagger Remedy,[2] and like that Remedy require the swordsman to have moved to the player’s inside line, which is only possible if he has attacked with a mandritto.

The next three plays (21r-a and b) all use the universal parry, and work equally well if the student crosses on the inside or outside line, much as the Second Dagger Remedy makes the plays of the Remedies that come before or after him. Beginning  with the eighth play (21r-d), the master introduces three plays that all come from an outside crossing, in this case the parry by descending riverso. As such, they correspond to the Third Dagger Remedy on the one hand, and on the other, also introduces a recurring technique, the Rompere di Punta, which dei Liberi introduces by name with two-handed swordplay.

The final play of the Sword in One Hand teaches a transition to the lessons of armoured combat.
The final play of the Sword in One Hand teaches a transition to the lessons of armoured combat.

In the final play (21v-c), the student grips his blade with the left hand and seeks a weakness in the companion’s armour: a “teaser” for the techniques of armoured combat that begin on 32v. Interestingly, although we are told that this technique is best applied if the student is armoured, both figures are still shown only in doublets.[4]

Conclusion

Long after Fiore dei Liberi and Talhoffer were food for worms, the “universal parry-riposte” persisted. As previously noted, Angelo Viggiani describes it as the foundation of all swordplay, and his “30 minute lesson” on how to survive a duel comprises nothing more than: make a rising parry, followed by an overhand thrust, recover back into a low guard on the left.

Even the transition to the new style of rapier fencing did not entirely kill the technique: Ridolfo Capoferro chooses to end his Arte and Practice of Fencing with a chapter entitled: A Failsafe Way To Defend Against Any Attack By Parrying With A Riverso And Always Striking With An Imbroccata. Here, he writes:

As I get ready to finish this work, I think it may be useful to end it with a brief dissertation that illustrates the virtues of the prima and quarta guards. The prima strikes the opponent while the quarta defends against him—the beginning and the end of any honorable quarrel. The quarta defends against any attack (feint or earnest), while the prima strikes the opponent.

 It is, however, important to remark that these two guards are inseparable companions, and that one ends where the other begins; in other words, they begin and end without an actual beginning or end.[5]

Fiore dei Liberi’s likely purpose in the composition of this section was to show how the lessons of zogho stretto  he had already taught with the dagger could be applied to a long weapon such as the sword; a weapon whose unique properties he would discuss more at length in the next section of his work. For modern students, however, it also supplies us with a survival of what we could call the “primordial school” of medieval swordsmanship; fundamental techniques for the old, knightly arming sword that had been developing for over a millennium by the time our first-known fencing text was composed, and which persisted throughout Europe because of their basic utility long after discernible “schools” or “traditions” had formed.

Notes:

[1]Holding the sword in one hand obviates the need to carry the sword on the center-line, making it more natural to carry the weapon either outside the right leg (Porta di Ferro) or inside it (Dente di Zenghiaro). Again, this is consistent with how other fencing masters present guards with the arming sword or messer, whether used alone or with the messer, and is just a function of simple body mechanics.

[2] Angelo Viggiano, Lo Schermo (1575), 65r.

[3] Remember, the second and fourth plays are Counter Masters, so here dei Liberi is showing the Remedy’s first two students without any interruption.

[4] Only the scholar is armoured in the Florius, whereas in the Pierpoint-Morgan Ms., the player is in half-armour and the scholar is in full harness. The play is omitted entirely in the Pisani-Dossi Ms.

[5] Tom Leoni, Ridolfo Capoferro’s The Art and Practice of Rapier Fencing, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton (2011), p. 87.