Writing Fiore: Fiction as a Window to the Master’s Mind

‘I, Fiore, am of the opinion that few in the world are Masters of this art, an art for which I want to be remembered’

[N.B. — IAS is pleased to have among its membership, renowned historical fiction and fantasy author Christian Cameron. An historian, former intelligence officer and long-time historical reenactor, Christian’s writing focuses on looking into the minds, lives and motives of “those who fight”, vividly bringing other times and places to life. In researching the world of the 14th century he discovered armizare , which plays a role in both his “Chivalry” and “Traitor Son” series, particularly the former, where a young Fiore dei Liberi himself appears as a character!

The young Fiore we first meet late in The Ill-Made Knight and learn a great deal about in the sequel, The Long Sword, is perhaps not the figure we would expect. Neither Yoda (nor even Luke Skywalker) nor Miyamoto Musashi in plate armour, he’s simultaneously brilliant and dense, blunt and emotionally awkward, suggesting a modern diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Is this our man, or just a bit of fictive fantasy useful to Christian’s story? As you will see, Christian himself argues the answer may well be “why not both?”]

The Getty Mss. of the Fior di Battaglia is a remarkable document. Before I discuss why I write about Fiore and what I learn about him from the manuscript, I’d like to spend a moment examining why the manuscript is itself so very remarkable to me.

First and foremost, to any scholar who studies chivalry, the manuscript is incredible.  There are very, very few documents written in the Middle Ages by members of the chivalric ordo, the social class of knights, squires and men-at-arms who defined themselves by making war. Raymon Llull wrote a treatise on Chivalry; more famously, perhaps, Geoffrey de Charny, possibly the best knight of the fourteenth century, penned a number of documents.  There are other items, and more are emerging; the last ten years has seen unprecedented discoveries of letters and muster lists and other ephemera of the age of chivalry, and it seems likely to me that we will see more and more documents of the chivalric fighting class emerge from the darkness of history.

And then there is the Getty manuscript’s modernity.  If you examine the earlier I:33 manuscript from the Royal Armouries, you can see more of what I would have expected from a medieval ‘book on fighting;’ heavy symbolism; invented terminology applied with less than scientific rigor, characteristically stylized illustrations. It is very much a piece of its time; it looks and reads like other documents of its period.

The Fiore manuscripts, especially the Getty, are far more approachable and far more modern.  In fact, one might even suggest that sometime between the penning of I:33 and the introduction of the Fior di Battlaglia, the ‘Renaissance’ has happened; perhaps not the Renaissance as an historian appreciates it, but Burkhardt’s Renaissance; the dramatic change in art and letters, the rebirth of humanism; the rigorous examination of physical reality that will give birth to Raphael and Michaelangelo.  Fiore’s pen and ink figures have body-mechanics and bodily structure; they stand erect or slump, they are depicted with sufficient accuracy to allow us to interpret weight change and even hand motion.

And, if you will pardon a digression, they are remarkable for a third reason, and that reason is that the Getty manuscript, which was ‘penned from life’ according to the Maestro, represents an incredible image database for late Medieval Italian men-at-arms and their attire, both armoured and unarmoured, a staggering resource for the costume historian, representing as it does the capturing (at least so the manuscript claims) of actual men in the performance of their martial art.  I’m only noting this at length because I have not seen this claim advanced elsewhere, but it is almost staggering that Fiore chose to portray almost every figure as a distinctly costumed individual and not as a set of stylized  figures, or even as two or perhaps three recurring figures; a master, a scholar, and perhaps an ‘adversary.’ Instead, the artist (whether the author himself, or a professional in a manuscript shop) chose to represent dozens of different men in distinctive costumes, complete with faces, postures, and distinguishing features that suggest to me that they really do represent actual men. Fiore’s students?  Professional men-at-arms?  Fiore’s friends? These questions may someday be answered, but are beyond my scope.

I will assert, though, on no more evidence than my own sense of the art, that I can pick which figures are meant to represent Fiore himself, and it is there that I will begin my main purpose in this article; attempting to reveal Fiore, the man.

For illustration purposes, I’ll start with two images widely accepted to represent the maestro in person; the ‘Four Virtues’ page (Folio thirty-two recto in the Getty mss.) and the figure armed with the ghiavarina in folio forty-six recto.  In both, the posture of the figures radiates assurance and an almost relaxed ease that speaks, I feel, deeply to the man’s character.  When combined with the associated phrases on the opening pages, the constant repetition of ‘I’ and the exactitude of the statement ‘I, Fiore, am of the opinion that few in the world are Masters of this art, an art for which I want to be remembered’ (Getty F. 1v translation by Tom Leoni) and the ruthless confidence of the man with the ghiavarina (among dozens of examples) ‘Let them come as they please – I won’t leave this place for anyone’s sake’ (f. 46 r, trans. by Tom Leoni), we get a sense of either incredible self-confidence, or even arrogance; this is a man who feels that he knows things that others do not know; a man who can face a charging horseman with a lance whilst standing on his own two feet in full assurance that he is about to win his contest. If we pause a moment to consider that facing a charging man-at-arms armed with a heavy lance in single combat was probably the most terrifying encounter a footman could face, the message is even clearer.

Of course, the illustrations are not the only clues to Fiore’s character.

In fact, perhaps the most interesting clue to the man is that the manuscripts exist at all, and the form his thought takes.  Even before a student begins to study the content in detail, it becomes obvious that the content is carefully organized; I am indebted to Bob Charrette and Ken Mondschein for revealing to me just how careful the organization of the material is.  It is one thing to master the art of fighting; it is another thing to think about it.  I have, in my own life, known men who could use weapons to an incredible degree of proficiency, both in the martial arts like Aikido and Kendo, and in the world of modern warfare; very few, if any of them, would have had the time, interest, or inclination to organize their expertise in such a way as to make it accessible to anyone else, much less to students living six hundred years later.

In contrast, Maestro Fiore has what can only be described as an obsession with examining and recording the details of encounter; he is almost Linnaeus like in his enthusiasm for categorizing movement, and yet he is also reductionist in his ability to make his work efficient. In many ways, Fiore’s il Fior di Battaglia is more like an artifact of the Enlightenment than one of the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. The commonality of symbolism and representation, from crowns and garters to postures, and the organic nature of the material from wrestling to fighting on horseback, complete with internal references (although Fiore, as best I can find, always references back, and never forward!) suggest a major intellect.  The ability to reference within your own work is a mark of good writing and careful thought; you can see it in any well-written novel, but it is even more clear that Fiore ‘saw’ the linkages between his plays, his styles, his application across the whole of the art.

Another aspect of Fiore’s personality the Getty manuscript reveals to me is in his attitudes to violence.  Fiore is quite casual about brutality; certain plays will ‘make you spit four teeth’ along with the assertion that this has actually happened; other plays will ‘end your happy party’. There is no aspect of personal violence that appalls Fiore; whether he is opening an opponent’s visor to kill him, or turning the opponent to put his dagger into the man’s undefended rectum, either way, the result is terrible; yet to the author, it is part of the art. These are not ‘hidden’ or ‘forbidden’ techniques; nothing is referred to as a ‘murder blow.’  It is all a level playing field in the professional use of violence.  Any technique is valid that puts your opponent down.

As a character writer, and a veteran with years spent working with more than a few hardened combat veterans, it seems to me that there are two ways a person can come to this level; either by living a life that acclimatizes the survivor to habitual brutality, or by having a mild case of what is called ‘sociopathy.’  (N.B. I suppose Fiore might have had a more serious case of sociopathy, but then it seems unlikely that he’d ever have managed to run a school, have patrons, or written any manuscripts at all.) The life of arms in the later Middle Ages was incredibly brutal by the standards even of a modern professional soldier; the sack of Cesena by John Hawkwood’s English suggests a banality to evil that rivals any localized war crime of our century. But Fiore does not proclaim his brutality; my sense is that, to the maestro, one play was exactly like another in terms of ethics and morality; they differed and were categorized only by the aspects that interested him; matters of mechanics of body or weapon, or, as Greg Mele points out, lethal intent; he’s fully aware that there are situations where it is better to make a man yield than to kill him.

One of the great traps of fiction is that one can be tempted to create characters by piecing together a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of parts from various real people; one man’s humour, another man’s ability to cook and camp, a third man’s sense of spirituality.  But these creations almost always fail, because most of us are whole, organic characters; we are as we are for reasons, and the same forces that led us to be good at camping, for example, may well cause us to love the wilderness and have no time for urban life; a man with a sense of humour has a certain outlook on life, and is unlikely to also be selfish, merely because the ability to be humorous, especially about yourself, is at the core of understanding the needs of others, and thus suggests empathy.  While their are exceptions, for the most part it is important that characters be organic.  When approaching Fiore, then, I looked at the evidence presented in the manuscripts, especially the Getty; based on what I have detailed above, I saw a man who is confident to the point of arrogance; brutal to the point of sociopathy; brilliant to the point of genius; organized to the point of obsession.

I’ll add that in the age of Boccaccio and Dante, he never once speaks of a woman (except I suppose the ‘Guard of the Woman’), much less praises one; there is no bawdy, no allusive flirting, and not even a whisper of courtly love.  Fiore’s profession of arms is ‘strictly business’ in an age when De Charny and (for example) ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ both insist on close ties between the cult of chivalry and the art of arms. This lack is the more remarkable by its absence, which is so total that it can be deceiving; why doesn’t he say ‘if you drop a guy like this in the lists, the girls will be so impressed?’ Women were a major facet of military life; they were present at every deed of arms and every tournament; their views might be determinants in victory or defeat in the lists.

The resulting character suggests to our modern science a man on the Autism spectrum; sufficiently socialized by church and family to fully function within his society; possessing perhaps an intellect above most of the men practicing in his profession, and also (my final assertion) possessed of a superb physique.  I would guess that he was tall, strong, and very, very fast; I base this last suggestion about the man partially on the illustrations that I take to be ‘of’ the maestro, and partially on my own experience of his plays; he includes several plays that seem to me to function only if the player is marginally or even substantially faster than his opponent, so that he has a fraction of extra tempo in which to execute.  Regardless, his physique was such as to allow him to survive and prosper in the art of arms; unless he was a liar (which seems to me unlikely) he fought a great deal and survived these encounters long enough to travel, train, and establish his own style and organize it.

It seems only fair, in closing, that I should speak of why Fiore makes a great character.  If he was the man I have just described, he would be a very difficult man to befriend; he might even be a very difficult man from whom to learn.  But his very disadvantages in socialization and empathy make him a fantastic foil for other characters; explaining human relations to Fiore allow a level of explication that is both amusing and can save pages of difficult character writing; in this respect, he is at times, both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in one character.

It is possible that Fiore was really only able to relate to people via the medium of his ‘art;’  in fact, although my character has a fair breadth of understanding, I try to err in this direction.  If my guess as to the man was correct, he was very lonely; the voice in the Getty admits no peer, but is not the happier for it.

[The idea of a man dimly aware that he istrapped in his loneliness, but clueless as to why, is highlighted in a scene from The Long Sword, where he comes to protagonist William Gold’s sickbed day in and day out, and just sits there for awhile, saying virtually nothing, then leaves. He knows that he should be there to give comfort, but is clueless as to what to say or do. It’s only once William’s body has mended enough that Fiore can make him “his thesis” — proving that he can take a battered body and make him a far better fighter than ever before — that he suddenly springs to life and is able to relate. — ed.]

And finally, let me insist that my reading of Fiore’s character is only one of many possible; that there is no point of my suggestions and assertions above that I would defend to the death.  I have been delighted to be able to write about one of my passions; in many ways, writing about Fiore and his world in the ‘Chivalry’ series have allowed me to validate years of practice and also years of devotion to the study of the later Middle Ages in England and Italy.  But this is fiction; other interpretations are surely possible, and I look forward to encountering them as Fiore and his work gain in popularity and enter the common stream of the world of Martial Arts.