SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE ART OF ARMS, PART TWO: The Seven Blows of the Sword

Alphabet - Fiore’s art is a holistic one, adaptable to a variety of situations and circumstances (in armis, sine armis…). Why then, is so little said of the mechanics of cuts and the tactical framework for initiating an attack?  Popular wisdom says Fiore’s art was not intended for use by newcomers to the art, but rather by experienced men-at-arms. This is easily backed up by even a cursory read through the introductory material, where Fiore lists his accomplishments in preparing men for feats of arms – a veritable who’s who of well-known medieval fighters.

Further, it is a common misconception that Fiore’s art is  reactive , relying solely on defence. This misconception is easily countered with even a passing familiarity with the manuscript. The offensive plays are contained in the descriptions of the poste, the descriptions, and diagrams of the colpi and punte (cuts and thrusts), and in the defensive plays themselves – if the depicted figures are defending against an attack, then the attack itself serves as an exemplar. In other words, the Player is more than just a chump waiting for his chance to meet his God.

Let’s examine what Fiore dei Liberi says about these cuts and thrusts, some typical usage scenarios and provide examples of tactical considerations for cuts and thrusts.

 Cutting Diagrams

Colpi Fendente

Our first references, naturally, are the cutting diagrams found in the various versions of the manuscript.  The colpo fendente (‘cleaving blow’) figures first in this sequence of descriptions. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the interpretational and tactical aspects of the blow. (For an article with accompanying video of how to execute a fendente using proper mechanics, I will refer you here: Fundamental Mechanics: Executing a Correct Fendente.)

Getty MS: We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent's teeth and to reach all the way down to the knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent's guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. Fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step. (Translation - Tom Leoni) Pisani-Dossi: We are fendenti and our manner is To cleave through the teeth in a straight line We are not slow in the wounding And come back on guard from step to step. (Translation: The Exiles)

“We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent’s teeth and to reach all the way down to the knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent’s guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. Fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step.”1

“We are fendenti and our manner is
To cleave through the teeth in a straight line
We are not slow in the wounding
And come back on guard from step to step.”2

What it Means

We can see that the blows are described as descending at a shallow angle – ideally at approximately 15 degrees off the vertical, and done with the “true” edge or dritto filo. It ideally targets the lower jawline (teeth) and travels through the body to the opposite side, ending at “the knee.” One should be wary, however, to avoid confusing trajectory and target. While one may be tempted to consider this as absolute advice, there are instances of fendenti specifically not  attacking the jawline/neck joint, such as the advice given for the rompere di punta (breaking of the thrust):

“In this play, which is called breaking the thrust, the student
has his arms high, makes a fendente while stepping and passing offline…3

Combined with the tactical advice from tutta porta di ferro:

“It can deliver strong thrusts, and knows how to break and exchange them.4

The above quotes serve to illustrate that the rompere di punta, while nominally done from a high guard (“arms high”) can also be accomplished using a fendente from a low guard. Moving through a high posta to perform a descending blow over a rapid thrust is a long tempo, and thus the fendente in question must not target the neckline, but rather, the incoming sword. This is as clear an indication as any that the description of the blow refers to the trajectory (descending blow, 15 degrees off vertical) over any particular target.  Finally, we are told that fendente travel through guards, and an examination of the poste superimposed with the cutting diagram shows the blow travels through posta longa or posta breve (extended or no) and ends in either porta di ferro mezana or dente di cinghiale, depending on the angle employed and the tactical necessity (offence or defence).

Usage

Offensively, the use of fendente may seem obvious: Strike the opponent. This belies the complex nature of combat, and the tactical realities of fencing where timing and measure play important and defining roles. For our purposes, we’ll divide the blows into “entering” or “tactical” blows and “cleaving” or “finishing” blows, for lack of better terms.

The entering blow is used from wide measure to safely enter. It should do two things: cover the Player as he enters and provide a credible threat that the Companion must counter. Since the Player is entering the space where he may be threatened by the Companion, entering under cover is an important aspect of this blow. This precludes large, swinging blows in favour of a more direct approach. Similarly, the blow should occupy the centreline as it enters.

Conversely, “cleaving” or “finishing” blows are employed once the opposing sword has been disposed of safely. A prime example of this in action is the colpi di villano5 , whereby you parry a strong blow, letting it glide by, and follow up with a strong, cleaving blow. Tactical considerations are minimised, since the sword has been dealt with.

Source: Wiktenauer
Source: Wiktenauer

Yet another, more blatant example can be found outside of the dei Liberi tradition, but the context is similar: dispose with the weapon, and follow up with a heavy, cleaving blow.6

Source: Wiktenauer
Source: Wiktenauer

In relation to this, a blow may be used as a feint, or provocation, in the interest of forcing your opponent to react in a predictable manner. Usually, this entails attacking one opening to open up another. If your feint or provocation isn’t credible, there is no reason for your opponent to react. This is what Fiore means when he says this blow can “break” guards. Without entering into an extended discussion of what “breaking guards” entails, fendenti can be used to force an adversary to move from a guard position to one you feel is more advantageous to you.

Defensively, fendente are useful for performing beats or other parries. Against another fendente, you will seek a steeper angle, turning your blade slightly towards the flat of the opposing blade, offering better structure and strength in parrying the incoming blade. This is one of those times where 15 degrees off vertical can be safely ignored in executing the parry, depending of course on your intent. The first and second Remedy Masters of Gioco Largo are examples of using fendente defensively. Similarly, a descending blow can be used to parry a mezano, by striking against the flat – or better yet, the hands. And finally, a sottano may be defended against using a fendente, although your edges may not thank you, given the large chance of a jarring, edge to edge crossing.

It’s worth noting that a fendente need not necessarily be meant to strike in a percussive or otherwise offensive manner. For example, if the Companion throws a fendente mandritto to your head, and your intent is to defend using a collection in posta longa, your sword might travel from posta di donna to posta longa, intercepting the blade, but rather than striking it to set the attack aside, you “receive” the blow softly, directing it into your cross, safely collecting it to work from this advantageous bind. Fendente, and indeed all blows, are thus a simple description of the path of the sword, and not an indication of the force or intent of the blow. “Cutting” then becomes somewhat of a misnomer, since you are not necessarily intending to “cut” a target, but rather it describes the action of moving the sword. [NB: This is why Fiore can also name one of his dagger thrusts a fendente – he is discussing angulation, not power generation.]

Colpi Sottani

Figuring are the colpi sottani (blows from below).

Getty MS: We are the cuts called sottani (rising/low blows), who travel the same path as the fendenti, only going from the knee to the middle of the forehead. Then, we can either return through the same path or remain in Posta Longa. (Translation - Tom Leoni) Pisani-Dossi: We are blows that are made sotani That always try to wound the hands And through the knees is our manner And coming back with a fendenti we are king. (Translation: The Exiles)

“We are the cuts called sottani (rising/low blows), who travel the same path as the fendenti, only going from the knee to the middle of the forehead. Then, we can either return through the same path or remain in Posta Longa.”7

“We are blows that are made sotani
That always try to wound the hands
And through the knees is our manner
And coming back with a fendenti we are king.”8

What it Means

These blows form the counterpart to fendenti, travelling along the same path(s). They can be done with either edge, but there are tactical considerations for choosing one over the other. Unlike the mezani blows, Fiore doesn’t specify which edge to employ, but we can find some clues from his successor, Fillipo Vadi:

“Mandritto takes the true edge, Riverso with the false edge stays, Except for fendente, which always take the true.”9

In other words, sottani from the right are true edge, and false edge from the left (for a right-hand dominant person). This can be evidenced by referring to several of his core plays, as well as derived from the descriptions of the poste. For example, from the description of porta di ferro mezana, it can be surmised that the rising blow is done with a falso filo:

“It delivers strong thrusts, beats away attacks low to high, and then comes back down with a fendente to the head or arms, returning in this guard.”10

Note that from porta di ferro mezana, the angle of the rising blow would be rather shallow. Similarly, dente di cinghiale also employs a rising falso cut versus cuts, thrusts, or thrown weapons (specifically spears) at the end of the zogho stretto section11 .

Usage

Rising blows from wide measure are generally defensive in nature. Entering with a rising blow is fraught with dangers, given the mechanics involved. The hands tend to be more exposed on entry, making this a blow better reserved for defensive purposes.

Sottani falsi are well used, as indicated above, from low poste to attack the hands, set aside the incoming fendente from below (rebatter from dente di cinghiale) as well as from porta di ferro mezana. The latter also benefits from a deeper angle in the cut, ensuring the blades aren’t in the same plane – a disastrous outcome!

Sottani dritto generally take the form of moving into posta di finestra from a variety of guards to parry either in front of or behind an incoming attack, although posta di bicorno can also be used for this purpose. These blows also form the majority of the sword in one hand material, with the “universal parry” being a rising blow with the true edge, with the occasional falso thrown in for effect.

Offensively, they are best used from the bind (“risposta”), once control of the sword has been gained. Even then, Fiore only illustrates a single use of a rising blow used offensively, in the rompere di punta “under the beard” of the Companion. Even then, this blow is arguably a mezano, given the angle required to reach the target.

Colpi Mezani

Getty MS: We are the mezzani (middle) cuts, so named because our path is between the fendenti and the sottani. From the mandritto side, we use the true edge and from the riverso side the false edge. Our path can be anywhere between the knee and the head. (Translation - Tom Leoni) Pisani_Dossi: We are the Mezzani blows we go across From the knees upwards we damage And we beat the thrust out of the way And we redouble the wounding blow easily And we are of the middle blow between the Fendente Also with such blows we execute hundreds. (Translation: The Exiles)

“We are the mezzani (middle) cuts, so named because our path is between the fendenti and the sottani. From the mandritto side, we use the true edge and from the riverso side the false edge. Our path can be anywhere between the knee and the head.”12

“We are the Mezzani blows, we go across
From the knees upwards we damage
And we beat the thrust out of the way
And we redouble the wounding blow easily
And we are of the middle blow between the Fendente
Also with such blows we execute hundreds.”13

What it Means

Mezani blows are depicted both in the cutting diagrams and the segno as horizontal blows, running parallel to the ground at approximately shoulder level. Florio’s Italian/English dictionary defines mezanno as “at or of the middle”, in keeping with Fiore’s description (as opposed to “mezzo”, meaning “half”). Further, we are told which edge to employ (unlike the sottani). There is some debate as to how this should be accomplished, but there is little doubt as to the proper edge to use.

The admonition that the mezani travel between the teeth and the knees (as the fendente) can lead to some confusion, with practitioners positing it is simply a “half blow” (mezzo colpo), but using the corpus of both Armizare and other Italian sources seems to belie that belief. Indeed, the PD is clear: “we go across, from the knees up we damage…” leaves little doubt as to its trajectory. What then, of the “path”? Our discussion of fendente made a distinction between trajectory and target, and that distinction is again made clear in this instance. Fiore is admonishing the practitioner to target between the teeth and the knees. This is reinforced by the defence versus a leg cut14 that shows how attacking lower than the knee provides an opening (and the geometry) to easily attack the head in defence of the leg, rendering attacks below the knee ineffective.

Usage

Mezani are rarely used by Fiore dei Liberi, except as provocations and the previously mentioned (arguable) mezano from the rompere di punta.  This is undoubtedly due in large part to the ease with which one may defend mezani by attacking either the flat of the blade or the hands, since they are often exposed in the execution of this blow.

The provocation takes the form of the punta falsa, whereby you are admonished to throw a mezano to draw the parry, after which you cut around to enter with the half sword.

Other clues on how to use it may be gleaned from the segno from the PD, which includes more detail as to cuts and poste and their possible use. In short, if a fendente can be used in performing a beat to a mezano , the inverse is also true, given they intersect at steep angles – the mezano can beat aside a fendente, although again, this is arguably only used with the universal parry.

Thrusts

 

Getty MS: We are the thrusts — cruel and lethal. Our path is through the center of the body, and can be anywhere between the crotch and the forehead. We thrusts are divided into five types: two high thrusts (one on each side), two low thrusts (also one on each side), and a middle one delivered from the mezza Porta di Ferro, Posta Longa or Posta Breve. (Translation - Tom Leoni) Pisani-Dossi: Thrusts we are of the greatest offence And of all blows we make issue Venomous we are more than a snake And more than all blows we kill hundreds And we thrust at the blows we say Not many throats are not sewn like a needle. (Translation: The Exiles)

“We are the thrusts — cruel and lethal. Our path is through the center of the body, and can be anywhere between the crotch and the forehead. We thrusts are divided into five types: two high thrusts (one on each side), two low thrusts (also one on each side), and a middle one delivered from the mezza Porta di Ferro, Posta Longa or Posta Breve.”15

“Thrusts we are of the greatest offence
And of all blows we make issue
Venomous we are more than a snake
And more than all blows we kill hundreds
And we thrust at the blows we say
Not many throats are not sewn like a needle.”16

What it Means

Clearly, Fiore likes thrusts, for they are “cruel and lethal” and make “the greatest offence,” but why?

Technically, thrusts have the longest reach, not travelling through an arc to arrive at the target. This also provides the thrust with a distinct speed advantage, as the trajectory is a straight line: the shortest path between two points. This provides the attacker with a shorter tempo in which the defender must act to defend himself. Finally, the PD gives us a clue in the last stanza when he refers to throats being threaded like a needle. Whereas a cut to different areas of the body may be debilitating, a thrust to the throat would most certainly be lethal.

Fiore also takes care to provide the reader with a general target area: Centre of mass. Fiore admonishes students to target the centreline of the body, between crotch and forehead. We see examples of this throughout the corpus of works, from the sword in one hand material, where the face and eyes are directly threatened, with a particular transition to a half-sword example targeting the groin, through the longsword material, to the armoured material, which again targets the eyes through the visor’s occularia or by raising the visor itself. These examples continue right into the mounted section where we are admonished to target the throat (PD) or the “chest or face” (below).17

Source: Wiktenauer
Source: Wiktenauer

Fiore also gives us a clue as to the origin point of the thrusts: Two low on each side (ostensibly from tutta porta di ferro and dente di cinghiale, respectively), two from above (originating from posta di donna or posta di finestra on either side), and one from the centre, originating in one of the “in presence” guards: posta breve, posta longa or porta di ferro mezana. This is further backed up by descriptions of the poste themselves, wherein thrusts are explicitly described. Tutta porta di ferro says “it can exchange thrust and deliver its own”; posta di donna says “it can deliver all seven blows of the sword” of which the thrusts are one; posta di finestra “delivers strong thrusts”; posta longa can “strike with a thrust”, as does porta di ferro mezanaposta breve “probes the opponent for an opportunity to thrust”; and finally, dente di cinghiaro “can deliver strong underhand thrusts all the way to the opponent’s face without stepping” and “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…”

This does leave something of a conundrum as to exactly what form these thrusts take (and will form the subject of another article), specifically the “high thrusts.” Are these descending thrusts? Thrusts to high targets along a high line? The simple answer is “yes,” but the tactical framework of each in its moment of delivery will differ. In short, high thrusts from wide measure will, usually by necessity, mutate to posta longa along a high line. When thrusting from a bind, usually accomanpanied by a volta stabile di spada (see part one in this series), they may take the form of descending thrusts from a form of posta di finestra to an “elongated” posta di finestra to reach their target, while remaining in opposition.

Usage

Thrusts are ideally suited offensively to provoking responses and probing defences. Indeed, posta longa is the furthest extension of the thrust, and its description relies heavily on it being used to “taste” and “deceive”. This deception is often a simple change of line, in the form of the cavazione, whereby the thrust is initiated to one line, and changed to another line in response to the parry. Their speed and difficulty to gauge correctly make them a valuable part of any arsenal of techniques, despite the ease with which they are set aside – possibly their only weakness.

Defensively, their value is largely dissuasive. Anybody who has ever attempted to enter against posta longa or porta di ferro mezana (essentially posta longa without offering the blade for engagement) knows how daunting they can be.

Full and Half Blows

Finally, we must address full blows versus half blows, or colpi and mezzi colpi. Some practitioners mistakenly interpret mezani blows to be half blows, but as we have already seen, mezani means “in the middle.” Should Fiore have wanted to convey these as “half blows”, he would have employed the term mezzo, or “half”.

Fiore makes great use of full blows in his descriptions of the blows. For instance, in the description of the fendente, he says:

“We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard.”

intimating the use of a full blow, from high to low along the fendente line. This is reinforced through his use of redoubling, as described in the sottani:

“Then, we can either return through the same path or remain in Posta Longa.”

and from the PD:

“And coming back with a fendenti we are king.”

Both descriptions clearly describe blows going from low to high, and returning along the same path – full blows. Upon closer examination, we also find the evidence for half blows within those very descriptions. The description of sottani clearly state it may end in posta longa, while the sottani admonishes cuts to the hands. Unless you are somehow targeting the opponent’s hands while they are retracted, this is effectively a rising cut to posta longa – also a “half cut.” Finally, Fiore tells us that cuts can go from guard to guard. It then follows, using the Aristotleian physics of the period, that a fendente may end in any posta along its path – posta longa and posta breve included. As such, mezzo colpi, while not explicitly named in the MS, do in fact exist implicitly, and would not be a specialised fencing term in need of explanation or description, but simply common Italian. These mezzo blows exist in the wider Italian traditions, from Viggianni to Marozzo, and closer to home, Fillipo Vadi’s derivative manuscript, in relation to mezzo tempo, or “half tempo”,18 whereby short blows are used to remain in presence.

Conclusion

The seven blows of the sword are in fact so much more, once one considers the tactical framework of the system and the context in which they are used. They span entering and cleaving blows from all angles, from wide or close measure, from a deflection, collection or transport, with thrusts in opposition or not, from the bind or as provocations. Fiore’s genius lies in having created his manuscript as a vehicle to condense all this information into a simple, complete pedagogical system. Would that all our efforts span the space of 600 years to enlighten generations to come.


  1. Getty MS, 23R; translation – Tom Leoni 

  2. Pisani-Dossi MS, translation: The Exiles 

  3. Getty MS, 26 Verso 

  4. Getty MS, 23 Verso 

  5. Largo II:4; Getty MS, 26 recto 

  6. MS Thott.290.2, Folio 76 verso 

  7. Getty MS, 23 recto; translation: Tom Leoni 

  8. Pisani-Dossi MS, translation: The Exiles 

  9. Vadi, Folio 9r; translation: Porzio and Mele 

  10. Getty MS, 24 recto; translation: Tom Leoni 

  11. Getty MS, 31 recto 

  12. Getty MS, 23 recto; translation – Tom Leoni 

  13. Pisani-Dossi Translation – The Exiles 

  14. Getty, 36 recto; Largo II:7 

  15. Getty MS, 23 recto; translation – Tom Leoni 

  16. Pisani-Dossi translation – The Exiles 

  17. Getty MS, 44 recto 

  18. Vadi, Chapter XIV