SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE ART OF ARMS: SERIES INTRODUCTION

I am the sword and I am lethal against any weapon; lances, axes and dagger are worthless against me. I can become extended or withdrawn; when I get near the opponent I can enter into close play, perform disarms and abrazare. My art is to turn and to bind; I am expert in defense and offense, and always strive to finish in those. Come against me and feel the pain. I am Royal, enforce justice, propagate goodness and destroy evil. Look at me as a cross, and I will give you fame and a name in the art of arms.

Il Fior di Battaglia, folio 25r, Fiore dei Liberi, 1410

Introduction

At first glance, swordplay seems to take  relatively minor role in armizare, at least compared to its German contemporaries. Whereas there are nine tactical situations, or Remedii (“Remedies”) containing 78 discreet dagger plays, Fiore dei Liberi summarizes his sword teachings in three Remedies with just over forty plays, more than half of which concern grapples and disarms with the weapon. The twenty plays reserved for Zogho Largo (“wide distance”) are not even a fifth of the vast corpus of techniques found in the Liechtenauer compendia.

But proliferation does not equate to proficiency, and in martial arts can often mean quite the opposite: catalogs of techniques tend to inflate as the art moves from pragmatic use to pass time of a luxury clientele. The famed samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, fought an alleged sixty duels and is considered one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history, yet his school of swordsmanship contains only twelve kata (analogous to our “plays”) for the two-handed sword, and only five for his famed system of fighting with two blades, whereas sword in schools in late 19th century Japan might have a hundred or more. In a similar vein, the number of guards, blows and named techniques for longsword fencing proliferates in the 1sixth century as the weapon becomes increasingly relegated to the training hall; it is the increasingly prominent rapier that sees a return to “reductionism,” with the pseudonymous Paternoster, neatly summarizing the entire art on a single broadsheet. Yet by the 19th century, as dueling waned, “academic” fencing became increasingly popular; part-time fencing masters teaching a vast curriculum of theoretical and athletic exercises to exercise hand and mind that had virtually no likelihood of occurring in real combat.[1]

This does not necessarily mean that these martial arts were necessarily no longer “combative” or “effective;” merely that their effectiveness has to be measured against the context in which they would be used. An art reserved to training and competition by townsmen has different needs then one used by an aristocratic warrior-class; swordplay in an era where the sword is of minimal use on the battlefield (or, as in the Japanese case, there are no wars at all!) but is called on in duels, has no concern with effectiveness in armour or using actions that can easily be adapted to a polearm, and it was the task of the masters of that time and place to answer contemporary needs.

Returning to armizare, we have an art that spanned the 14th and 15th centuries; a time of constant warfare in the Italian peninsula, and a final flowering, and waning, of the knightly class. The private duel was a social anomaly, even an aberration; knightly combatants fought in the lists, before judges, in harness. At the same time, the late medieval arms race had simultaneously clothed the knight in full plate armour and better equipped common soldiers, so that il cavallero needed to be more than a horseman, adept at fighting mounted and on foot. By keeping this context in mind, we go a long way towards understanding Fiore dei Liberi’s needs as he devised a system to be used in arnis, sine arnis, equester et pedester (“in armour and without, on horse and foot”). By remembering the complex organization of the Flower of Battle, we find that armizare has a great deal of carefully, even meticulously, organized instruction on swordsmanship. We just have to understand that the lovely illustrations of Scholaro (Student) and Zugadore (Player) killing each other are the conclusion, not the beginning, of those lessons!  This series aims to show just that!

Organization of il Fior di Battaglia

Fiore dei Liberi’s organizes his instruction  in sections based on the type of weapon employed (wrestling, dagger, sword, poleaxe, spear, in armour, on horseback). Within each section Fiore uses a system of marked figures to denote teachers, attackers, defenders, and counterattackers.[2] He also makes clear that his manuscript details a single holistic art, where principles and techniques established in one section with a particular weapon are shown to be present and useful, sometimes even necessary, in other sections of the manuscript, thus its self-referential nature. Examples include the use of abrazare (wrestling) where the formal plays are the foundational material for their use at other weapons, such as dagger, sword, in armor, and even on horseback. Key elements of these plays are called to our attention: the use of dagger defense techniques to assist in sword disarms, and in the notations of which plays are useful only in armoured fighting, or are equally useful both in and out of armour.

Fiore instructs his reader in how to interpret the manuscript in the introduction, in a section similar to the “how to use this book” sections of modern martial arts or sports instructional books. It is here that he defines the system of figures through which he teaches us his art. These figures, most of whom wear a crown, garter, or both, are:

  • First Masters – figures wearing gold crowns who stand unopposed. The First Masters show and discuss important martial principles, such as how to stand on guard, how to properly attack, choosing advantageous targets, and tactical instructions for fighting.[3]
  • Player – A figure who initiates attacks, and does not wear a crown, garter, or other device. Also known as the Companion.
  • Second Masters or Remedy Master – these figures also wear crowns, but are actively defending themselves from attack by the Player.
  • Scholar[4]– A figure who wears a gold garter his knee, and follows a particular Remedy Master, illustrating the plays (techniques) that stem from his remedy (defense).
  • Third Master or Counter Master – A figure wearing both a crown and a garter who opposes the remedies and plays of a specific Remedy Master and all his Students.
  • Fourth Master or Counter to the Counter Master – This figure opposes the actions of the Counter Master. Fiore notes this is rare. No such figure is labeled in the Getty manuscript, though there are figures that appear to act as Fourth Masters. The Fourth Master is shown in the Novati facsimile of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.

The masters and scholars also demonstrate the ways in which the various sections of the manuscript are related – wrestling techniques used in dagger fighting, dagger techniques used in sword fighting, and so forth. The interconnected nature of the manuscript extends not just to the performance of individual martial techniques, but to strategy and tactics as well.

4 Masters Diagram

For clarity, throughout this series, we refer to all attackers as Players, all defenders as either Remedy Masters or just “Remedies”, all defenders who carry out a technique as Scholars, and all those who defeat the Remedy Masters as Counter Masters.

The focus of this article is on the play of the longsword, but since the manuscript teaches an interconnected system, we will draw from its entirety.

The section of the manuscript on the use of the longsword opens with a series of twenty-four Masters, comprised of poste, angles of attack and general combat principles for fighting with the sword in two hands. These Masters represent the core longsword system: if all that survived of Fiore’s work were the folios containing these twenty masters, we would still have a robust and sophisticated system of longsword play. This core system is further strengthened by a series of follow-on lessons taught in the rest of the manuscript.

The articles in this series follow the organization of these twenty four masters, and the Remedies of Zogho Largo and Zogho Stretto which follow.

Part One: The Six Masters of Sword Combat

Part Two: The Seven Blows of the Sword

Part Three: The Sword in One Hand

Part Four: Stable, Striking and Mutable – The Twelve Poste of the Sword in Two-Hands.

Part Five: Wide and Close Play in the Art of Arms

Part Six:  Ordering the Plays of Zogho Largo

Part Seven: Ordering the Plays of Zogho Stretto


FOOTNOTES

[1] (…) let us turn to Germany, where two groups have arisen. From one part, they consist habitually of tanners and other craftsmen who are allied with them. Certain of them want to be considered masters  in the art, mainly in the art of using the sword.  For they believe, based on a special privilege given by the Roman Emperors and Kings, that they excel in this art, (dwelling) on the markets of Frankfurt.  And some people in their group want to declare this under oath and they distinguish themselves based on the same title. Others are usually opposed against them, studying the good sciences and other arts but less experienced in dirty professions. // Certainly they are superior in the art of fighting than the others, though very few people can be found amongst them, who have a certain fundamental [knowledge] and who are able to teach their students with clear insights.  A few years ago a certain man from Strassburg, known as Joachim Meyer, tried to show certain rules and even published a big volume in German language about this art. And though he seemed to have understood a little bit, he didn’t make clear the practical use of the fundamentals – in Heinrich von Gunterrodt, De veris principiis artis dimicatoriae tractatus brevis ad illustrissimum principem Ioannem ducem Megapolensem, 1579. Translation by Bert Gevaert.

You are not the first to be appalled, merely because the professors have omitted to caution the reader that in the exercise of their craft they cannot fail to appear less than omniscient, and their omniscience to be aired. (…) They plunge into interminable dissertations on the denomination of thrusts. They use words which, it is true, may be found in the  dictionary, but which have an unfamiliar appearance. For example, they speak of hands in pronation or supination, instead of simply saying the hand with the nails turned up or turned down. Others have devoted their energy to working out combinations and classifications of feints, parries, and ripostes, distinguishing between them by the nicest shades of difference, and to devising subtleties of terminology, even going so far as to compile and exhibit with the pride of a collector a prodigious catalogue of twelve thousand, five hundred strokes. What memory could possibly contain them? Now I, on the contrary, should have spared no pains to prove that it is perfectly possible to learn the practical management of the sword without a superhuman effort, and that sword play is worth cultivating as a delightful exercise and one of the finest kinds of sport. from Baron de Bazancourt. Secrets of the Sword; Tr: From the Original French of Baron de Bazancourt. 1900. Reprint. Forgotten Books (2013) 5-6.

For a comparable situation in Japan under the Tokugawa Peace, see “Bugei in the Edo Period: The Rise of Competitive Martial Sports” in Ellis Amdur, Old School, Freelance Academy Press (2015), pp. 267 – 281.

[2] For a detailed explanation of the system of Masters and Students, see Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare:The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior di Battaglia, Robert N. Charrette, Freelance Academy Press, September 2011. This volume should be on the bookshelf of every armizare practitioner.

[3] Fiore says of the First Masters that they “will be set against one another and will not touch one another, studying each other to see what the opponent may do.” But there are masters who do not stand in guard this way and who are neither Remedy Masters nor Counter Masters. Bob Charrette refers to them as “Instruction Masters.” For simplicity’s sake I will refer to all of the masters who are not Remedy or Counter Masters as “First Masters,” as Fiore gives no other name for them.

[4] ” Scolaro” more accurately translates to “student” in this context, but “Scholar” is usually used by modern practitioners of the art.