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 I can become extended or withdrawn; when I get near the opponent I can enter into close play, perform disarms and abrazare.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.
Fiore dei Liberi, Il Fior di Battaglia
In the 13th century, the knight’s basic harness began to change. By the second half of the century, the helmet had grown into a great helm that protected the entire head. Small, plate defenses were added to the knees and elbows, and a variety of simple articulated defenses were being experimented with for body armour. All of these changes merely heralded the sweeping changes of the 14th century, which would end with the knight fully-encased in plate armour and well-trained foot soldiers dressed in a combination of quilted, mail and plate defenses that often equaled the knightly kit of a century before.
In the same period swordsmiths had begun developing a new, versatile weapon, the longsword. Wielded with one hand on horseback, the longsword was generally used with two hands when fighting on foot. While there are early references to two-handed swords from the 12th century, it was only with the adoption of heavier armour, and thus the diminished role of the shield, that the longsword came into prominence.
This new weapon generally measured between 44″ and 54″ [112 and 137 cm] in length, and was stout enough to deal with fully armoured foes. Yet at roughly three to four pounds [1.4-1.8 Kg] in weight, it was also fast enough to use against lightly and unarmoured opponents. Like the arming sword it evolved from, the longsword’s straight, double-edged blade was ideally suited for both cutting and thrusting. Blade shape could be flat and wide, narrow and hexagonal, or diamond shaped. Characterized by having both a long grip and a long blade, it was yet capable of being worn on the body. This versatility made the weapon extremely popular with the knightly classes; so much so that this so-called “sword of war” also became an element of civilian dress in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The two masters of the Dei Liberi School who have left us records seem to have favored somewhat different weapons. Fiore dei Liberi shows a relatively short weapon, with a blade little longer than that of an arming sword; in fact, the same sword used throughout the single-handed, two-handed and armoured combat sections of his manuscript. An excellent example of such a surviving sword, contemporary to Il Fior di Battaglia, resides in the Museo Civico L. Mazzoli in Brescia, Italy.
Filippo Vadi does not discuss one-handed swordplay, and prefers a longer weapon:
The sword should be of the correct measure
with the pommel just under the arm,
as it appears here in my writing.
To avoid any hindrance,
the pommel should be round to fit the closed hand,
do this and you won’t be troubled.
And know for sure
that the handle should be a span long,
use any other measures and you’ll be confused.
To prevent your mind from being deceived
use a guard as long as the handle and pommel together,
and you won’t be condemned.
The cross hilt needs be squared and strong,
with iron broad and pointed;
its duty being to wound and cut.
Following Vadi’s measurements produces a weapon between 50-54″ inches [127-137 cm] in length. Despite this difference, the two masters illustrate the same general techniques within their treatises, and practical experimentation has shown that any weapon within the 44-54″ [112-137 cm] length range can be used, shorter blades playing faster in close and allowing for single-handed play, longer sword playing better at a distance.
THE ROLE OF THE TWO-HANDED SWORD IN ARMIZARE
Situated at the center of the manuscript, the sword is also the center-piece of the art of arms; capable of using the lessons of the dagger in close play (zogho stretto) but also the foundation for fighting with all long weapons, in or out of armour, on foot or on horse. Fiore dei Liberi introduces a series of six Masters who represent the various ways the sword may be used:
- Thrown like javelin
- Held by the pommel to make extended thrusts
- Gripped with one hand on the blade, making it a short spear to penetrate gaps in plate armour.
- Wielded with two-hands on the hilt.
- Wielded by the blade, using the hilt like a pollaxe to hook limbs or smash with the cross — another way to counter heavy armour.
The central components of these six, however, are wielding the sword in a one or two-handed grip, and grasping the blade with the left hand, to penetrate armour. Two-handed swordsmanship is taught in three segments. The first are the Masters of Battle, twelve poste or guards, each with a summary of how they are used in combat, which guards they counter and which techniques they favor. This is followed by a section on fighting at wide distance (zogho largo), containing plays for countering cuts, thrusts and safely breaking distance as an attacker. Compared to the extensive dagger section, there are only 20 plays, which at first makes it seem notably smaller than the comparable teachings of other late medieval masters-at-arms, until one reads Fiore’s final words on the matter:
Here ends the wide play of the sword in two hands. These twenty plays are all linked, and have remedies and counters both from the mandritto and the riverso side, counter-thrusts and counter-cuts to each action, with breaks, parries, strikes and binds. These are all things that can be understood very easily.
This concision and avoidance of repetition is typical of the author’s reductionist mentality; rather than repeat instructions, simply swapping “left” for “right”, he reminds the reader that these 20 plays can quickly become 40, and those 40, an infinite combination of counters and counter-counters, all of which expand the general teachings of the earlier Masters of Battle. Additionally, within the Pisani-Dossi manuscript the master adds several plays specific and unique to crossing swords from two mutual backhand blows.
Following the teachings of wide-play, Fiore moves on to close play (zogho stretto), which includes a further 23 plays detailing a wide number of joint locks (ligadure), grapples (prese) and throws (mettere in terra) first found in the dagger teachings, along with hilt strikes (colpi di pommo), and disarms (tor di spada) unique to swordsmanship.
Finally, for armoured combat, we have the introduction of six Masters of Battle, five new ones that all grip the blade in the left hand, and sixth, which is a carry-over from the teachings on the two-handed sword. As seen previously, each of these six Masters offers his own tactical advice on how to approach the fight, and are then followed by sixteen plays, many of which are further adaptations of plays previously seen in the teachings on the sword in one hand or of the dagger.
Although Fiore shows his armoured combat using the same weapon shown in unarmoured combat, at the end of this section he describes two strange forms of sword used specifically for fighting an armoured, judicial duel:
This sword is equally a sword and an axe. It should not have a sharp edge from the guard to about six inches from the point; its point should be sharp and its sharp edge should be about six inches in length. The small rondel under the hilt should be able to glide to about six inches from the point, but not beyond that. The hilt should be well tempered and sharp, and the pommel nice and heavy with its points well tempered and absolutely sharp. The front of the sword should be as heavy as the back; weight should be between four and six pounds. And the man carrying this sword will wear armour proportional to his size and strength.
This other sword should have a full edge, save for an unsharpened section at the third below the point, where a gloved hand can comfortably grasp it. Its edge and point must be very fine, the hilt sharp, strong and well tempered and the pommel weighty and pointed.
Writing seventy or so years later, Filippo Vadi gives a description of a third form of armoured combat sword, which he illustrates his combatants wielding throughout the chapter. This particular sword is similar to a number of surviving boar-hunting sword, only of much more massive proportions:
SHAPE OF THE SWORD TO USE IN ARMOR
The sword used for armored fighting should be of the shape shown below, that is: its length should be such that the pommel fits under the arm, it should be [sharpened for] cutting four finger from the tip and its handle should be of a span. The hilt should be as long as the handle, and it should be pointed on each side; and in the same way the pommel should be pointed, so that it is possible to strike with each of these parts.
Finally, a small selection of techniques that address using the sword against unalike weapons — defending against a dagger attack while the sword is still sheathed, defending against a spear, and deflecting hurled javelins — are scattered throughout the manuscripts, rounding out the instructions on two-handed swordsmanship.