The single largest section in three of the four known copies of The Flower of Battle is dagger defense1, and within that section, the First Remedy is by far the largest. The first part of this series looked at the Remedy pedagogically: how the master uses its lessons to structure his system of Remedies and Counters, an introduction the three measures/crossings (wrist, arm and body) that occur in the sub-system of close quarter combat, and so forth. The second part of the series introduced the First Remedy cover itself, and how the IAS interprets the use of footwork and distance management to execute it effectively.
We will now look at the off-hand, and note that the manuscripts depict the Scholar with his right hand drawn back and lifted, palm turned out to the right. Although the text itself is silent as to why, the hand is raised like this, the implied threat of a strike is evident, and strikes (ferrire) are one of Fiore’s “Five Actions” against the dagger. As discussed in part one of the article, these Five Actions are: strike, disarm, bind, break and throw. The second through fifth actions are later reiterated by Fiore in his dagger master’s diagram (see right), and the progressively older and better-dressed masters are generally accepted as showing the order of operations.
Strikes, however, are unique in that they are meant to cause pain and distraction, and as such weave in and out of the other actions. A strike may be used to facilitate a disarm, to distract the opponent so he can be put into a ligadura, or to break his structure so he can be thrown, etc. With this in mind, let’s again look at this in the context of the First Dagger Remedy.
Ferrire (“To Wound”): The Role of the Right Hand
There have been a variety of interpretations of what this hand position does or does not show . but here we do take a very literal interpretation of the art, because:((For a rather different take on the right hand position from our own, see this recent video by Mauro Carapacchi))
It physically corresponds with the position of Posta Longa — profiled body, rear shoulder withdrawn, which creates a smaller target and projects the body’s energy forward, through the forward arm.
It provides much greater coiling of the right shoulder for delivering powerful blows of one’s own — hammer fists, palm-strikes, even an upper-cut.
A simple reversal of the hand, palm in, gives the position for using a dagger of one’s own, as shown by Achille Marozzo (See sidebar illustration, below.)
It is important not to ignore training the raised hand, since ferrire (“to wound” aka, strikes) are one of Fiore’s five tasks to perform against knife attacks, and anyone who has studied modern grappling, or even just watched an MMA fight, is well aware that joint-locks and arm-bars are extremely difficult to pull off against non-compliant opponents, without “distracting” them first through the use of strikes. While Fiore shows several ferrire in his abrazare section, such as a knee to the groin, eye-gouge or thumb behind the ear, he never discusses striking per se, nor does he usually call out when or how the Scholar should strike in his dagger plays. Our argument is that this is likely for several reasons:
Much like basic wrestling skills, basic fisticuffs, or the simple mechanics of how to throw a cut, these fundamental skills would already have been possessed by his audience.
The dagger lessons, with their targets and trajectories, already tell the student how to strike with a fist.
Body mechanics in armizare are already encoded in the posta transitions, and just like striking with a weapon, an empty hand strike is just a series of guard transitions.
Finally, abrazare is a grappling art, not a boxing art. Strikes are gross-motor, “high-percentage” actions, designed to set-up other actions or be chained together quickly and brutally.
In application, this means that even the Remedy itself can be a strike: a percussive transition into Posta Longa to create the cover. If the opponent is completely unbalanced, the Scholar can right to a play. If not, then a second, even third strike might be used to “soften” him up. This idea of striking into the opponent’s attack as they are breaking measure — transforming the cover into a counterattack, is again a part of the sword lessons, seen in the First Master of Zogho Largo and the Scambiar di Punta. Catching the opponent in motion allows the defender to move in before the attack is in full force, what is sometimes called “zero pressure” in modern martial arts.
Here is a short video of how to execute a percussive cover, and the possibilities contained therein, by IAS provost, Jesse Kulla (Chicago Swordplay Guild).
Note, that in the above video, Jesse’s entry moves deeper than seen in the video by Sean Hayes in part two. This is a factor of turning his cover into a strike. The advantage is that his opponent is disordered and already “wounded” as he begins to apply his follow-on play. The disadvantage is that he if moves in too deeply, he cannot execute some of the plays (16, 18 20) that Fiore provides, and he may find himself entering immediately into the elbow measure plays, such as the Ligadura Mezzana (play 3) or Soprana (play 12), etc.
On the other-hand, we began this series talking about how slipping back to execute the Remedy can make the disarm very powerful (and look “just like the picture”), but makes all of the follow-on plays more difficult. When we move beyond simple interpretation of “the basics” these different movements become conscious tactical variations of the Remedy itself. In the video above, Jesse is making a conscious choice to enter percussively, seeking to dominate the attacker. A slip back against an attack might be made because the attack came in too quickly, or because, against a large, strong opponent, the Scholar decides they have a reasonable chance of disarming them through unbalancing, but far less chance of being successful in follow-on grapples.
Piu Forteza (“More Strength”)
In the 14th play of the First Remedy, Fiore introduces an action that is specifically designed to give a hard, powerful entry, which he names Piu Forteza (“more strength”). By gripping our left wrist with our right. as taught in the dagger guard Porta di Ferro Doppio (Doubled Iron Gate) we creating a strong shield, uniting both arms to the strength of our core, and opposing that to a single arm attack.2 It helps us wedge off the space more strongly, breaking the attacker’s structure and getting us in a position to go after either the weapon or the wielder himself. From this cover, you enter into any play of the First Remedy, however, as noted above, by making a strong entry, you may limit which plays can practically be applied. It also lets us break the strikes of foe far stronger than we may be, and because it brings the right shoulder forward and thus reduces the measure, it is idea for when you have to play close — which is why it makes another appearance in the eighth play of the Fifth Master, where it is applied while grasped by the collar.3
It is, however, easily countered. So, if you use this tactic, don’t over play your hand, as your foes may counter it with the simplest and most commonly recurring counter: the elbow push.A discussion of the counter to Piu Forteza (“More Strength”) taught as the fifteenth play of the First Dagger Remedy. Classroom footage shows how the counter is made, and some possible, free-form follow-up actions.
As we show in this second video clip, the movement for the counter is just an application of Posta Dente di Zenghiaro: an upward projection of energy. You do not want to come down onto the opponent’s elbow, as that is “grounding” his energy, and while a lateral push can be effective, it can be resisted by a stronger opponent. Think of Superman — “up, up and away” as you make the counter.
Training the First Remedy
There is a reason why Fiore writes: “All hands fear the perilous knife”. Knife-fighting is perhaps the most dangerous form of personal combat, and fighting unarmed against a bladed-weapon, particularly one with the killing power of a rondel dagger, must have been terrifying, with a low chance of success. To really be able to apply these lessons combatively, you have to be able to execute the Remedies’ principles dynamically. Here’s some simple training advice:
Begin by learning the basic cover we outlined in Sean’s two videos, above;
Start layering in strikes, using the suggestions in Jesse’s video, both to set-up the canonical plays and to thwart grabs or strikes of the opponent’s left hand.
Once you have that working, practice using slips back, passes forward or back when you have the right foot forward, see what happens if you have to step to your right, instead of your left, etc. (They won’t all work equally well, and in the process you’ll see why Fiore’s preference is left foot slipping to the left, but as the song says “you can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes/you just might find/you get what you need”.)
Make sure you are wearing headgear and are using a dagger trainer you can actually be struck with — your partner needs to be able to strike you, with progressively greater speed and force.
A final word on training with “intent”. To some extent this includes using speed and force, but it is easy to “pop” or “pick” at your training partner very quickly, even though these sorts of attacks would have been useless against the heavy clothing and armour used in the late Middle Ages. Start with good form, as seen in the below video, and then use that to amp up your power and speed.
Putting it All Together:
In this series we’ve looked at the First Dagger Remedy, and all of the little subtleties required to execute it properly: footwork, distance management, the position of the offhand to execute a strike, ligadura or throw. Most of all, we’ve also looked at the need for adaptability: how to apply the lessons when you can’t get off-line, have to slip back, or move in more deeply than expected. If it seems like a lot to keep straight, this short, classroom video provides a nice summary and capstone of these articles, and a reminder that the principles can all be taught in six minutes of video; it’s just training it all into muscle memory and reflex that’s challenging!
Dagger defense and wrestling do not appear in the Morgan Ms., which is incomplete. Whether those leaves are lost or the manuscript was not completed, its prologue makes it clear that Fiore intended their inclusion ↩
This differs from the crossed wrists of the Second Remedy — itself the application of Porta di Ferro Doppio Incrossada (Doubled and Crossed Iron Gate) by maintaining a hand’s breadth more measure, which in dagger combat is enough to make the difference between being safe to play without armour. ↩
The savvy student will compare this action with the Sixth Remedy. ↩
In the first part of this series, we looked briefly at the overall organization of the dagger material, as well as the larger, tactical and pedagogical framework it presents, specifically:
Work the three crossings (measure): weak, middle, strong, which at the dagger is wrist, elbow and body;
Step into an attack before it is in full force to capture the center with an attack of one’s own;
Break and return on the same line;
When losing the bind, pass and go to the outside.
Since the dagger introduces fighting at range (meaning someone must step into measure to attack), the ligadure, arm-bars and disarms that will recur throughout the art, etc., and is itself a defense against a “natural” attack (a descending mandritto), the defense must be fairly straightforward, right?
Interpretive Challenges: Footwork
The key element of understanding how to perform the First Dagger Remedy (il Primo Remedio di Daga) is understanding how to receive the attack itself. This is an area where simply looking at a two-dimensional illustration from an era centuries before photo realism can convey a false, or incomplete, sense of understanding.1 For example, when we look at the illustration of the First Remedy, this is what what we see:
As noted in Part One, we are being shown the “wrist measure” cover of a mandritto attack, the most “natural” when drawing a knife in a reverse grip. Because the parrying position is that of Posta Longa, made to the wrist, this can be a relatively long-range defense:
This is where trying to look ‘just like the photo” can immediately cause problems, especially as we try and reconcile with the text. For example, in the Florius image shown here, something should be noted: the Player can’t actually reach the Scholar with his attack! Further, since motion is not conveyed in the artwork, it is hard to tell, is the figure stepping in with his left foot (thus the straight leg is “floating”), or has he stepped backwards, increasing distance and settling his weight onto his right?
Such a play indeed makes the disarm quite possible, as it pulls the Player into an over-extended position, similar to “unbalancing” martial arts that grapple at the arms, such as aikido. The problem with this interpretation is that slipping back against an attack only appears once in the entire manuscript — against a low-line attack with a sword — and it either makes the plays that follow at the elbow and body measures require an entirely different tactical choice of how to move, without the Master ever saying so, or it add an entire tempo to the plays that follow at the other measures, in which the Scholar steps back and then steps in while the opponent either stand still doing nothing, or simply straightens up. (See plays three, five and seven in the flow chart to the right.)
Further, we can see that although the straight arm and body position is generally the same in all of the manuscripts, even the potentially related Gladiatoria, the depicted measure can be subtly different.(See above) Further, the degree of bend in the right knee and turn of the right hip (all indicative of a forward or rear weight distribution), can have small, but significant differences. This needs to remind us that all of these manuscripts are hand-drawn, and it is currently unclear which were drawn from life, and which were copies from other illustrated works.
Normally, this is where one reconciles the art with the text, but this is a case, as if often the case, where Fiore is silent on specifics. The most detailed explanation of the First Remedy comes from the Getty Ms., where the master writes:
I am the First Master, called Remedy. A remedy is an antidote against your opponent’s attacks, together with the ability to strike him. Here is the absolute best thing I can do: Making you drop your dagger by turning my hand to the left.
Not terribly helpful, is it? Since nothing is specified, and the Remedy occurs at wrist measure, another way the play can be interpreted is that either: a) footwork isn’t important or b) the Remedy itself doesn’t call for any footwork.
The first premise is problematic, because all martial arts are built on recurring tactical, mechanical and aesthetic themes. Jujutsu, aikido and Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling all use wrist locks, arm-bars and throws — often the same locks and throws — yet how they manipulate distance and organize the body to set them up can sometimes be radically different from each other, yet highly internally consistent; so much so that you can often identify the practitioner of one discipline from the others, just by how they move. Why would armizare be different?
The second premise is even more problematic, since it argues for no movement at all. Instead, having been attacked, the Scholar simply receives the attack while it is in full-force, pitting the strength of his braced arm, against that of a moving body in a committed attack. There is a reason why serious, modern combatives/personal-protection instructors specifically advise against this: physics is a harsh-mistress. Put another way: physics doesn’t care about your 15th century illustration or vague text; it simple cares about the forces involved.2
The following classroom video explains about “depth of entry”, and why movement is key to a) staying alive, and b) actually being able to perform a follow-on technique. We’ve already noted that to try and look “just like the picture” would mean the Player was striking short or the Scholar was retreating. However, note that when you look at photography, which better simulates three dimensions, you can see how driving the arm out of line to the Player’s right creates the illusion of greater distance than there really is.
The video also addresses another point: under pressure, the defender may fail to move very much, or may drive in much more deeply. For the First Remedy to be tactically sound, it must be able to address all of those possibilities.
So far, we’ve discussed all of the pitfalls and possible missteps in creating a sound interpretation of the First Remedy. Now let’s talk about how to execute it!
Fortunately, Fiore does provide us a clear pattern of movement in armizare: into the line of attack, before it enters full-force, usually, beginning with a slip of the left foot to the left. This move to capture the outside line can be seen as early as the Remedy of Abrazare at the start of the Getty and PD manuscripts.
And its use becomes quite clear with the sword where a left foot crossing to control the inside line becomes central to the lessons of zogho largo.4 In this section of the manuscript, dei Liberi is much clearer in detailing his foortwork, particularly the step “fora della strada” (“across the line”) of the lead (left) foot. For example, in the Colpo di Villano (“Peasant’s Blow”) he writes:
This action is called “the Peasant’s Strike” and it is performed as follows. Wait for the peasant to launch his cut with his sword. As you wait, stand in a narrow stance with your left foot forward. When he attacks, perform an off-line accrescimento with your left foot to the opponent’s right, followed by a cross-line pass with your right foot, catching his cut with the middle of your sword. (Getty 26r)
The offline step is used to slip outside, passing a strong blow, much as happens with the left foot pass in the Eighth Play of the First Dagger Remedy. More importantly, however, the use of this step to dominate and control the center-line becomes central to plays such as the Scambiar di Punta (Exchange of Thrusts) and Rompere di Punta (Breaking the Thrust), which themselves form the core instruction for the spear and poleaxe respectively:
This play, called “Exchange of Thrusts,” is done this way. As the opponent attacks you with a thrust, perform an accrescimento off the line with your front foot, then execute a cross-line pass, crossing his sword with your arms while thrusting to his face or chest, your point high, as shown.
This is another way to defend against a thrust. As I have said in the Exchange of Thrusts (the second play before me), you need to perform an accrescimento and a pass off the line. Do the same in this play, except that in the Exchange of Thrusts the arms are low and the point high, as I said before. In this play, which is called “Breaking the Thrust,” the student has his arms high, makes a fendente while performing an accrescimento and a pass off the line. He throws the opponent’s thrust sideways, almost at mid-blade, to beat it to the ground; then, he immediately goes to the close play. (Getty 26v)
Functionally, the First Dagger Remedy and the Largo Crossing of the Longsword present the same scenario: a crossing on the inside line, left foot forward, against a mandritto, with a simple play at the weak (punta/wrist) then a series of actions at the middle (elbow/mezza), which can transform into close grapples at the body.5 More importantly, the First Dagger Remedy, with its drawn back fist and series of attacks on the inside line, really presents a series of two-tempi lessons which will, with long-weapons transform into the elegant, counterattack-with-opposition that is Scambiar di Punta.
Once we realize this, not only does the brilliance of the system begin to unfold, but so does the elegance of its efficiency: we can assume that the same solution found in sword, spear and axe, and suggested in abrazare, applies to dagger: slip the lead foot offline and into the attack, to intercept before it is in full force.
Here is a detailed, isolated look at how to perform the initial cover and disarm, including a few movement variations from the IAS Core Curriculum video series6 :
Drilling down further, here is a detailed look at securing the grip itself, from the same series.
So now we have a pattern of movement, how to make the disarm, and an understanding of how deeply to move when making the cover, as well as how to adapt when our movement is either more or less shallow. In the third part of the series, we look at what to do with the right arm, which Fiore shows raised in a hammer first.
it is hard to seek to create photo-realism when you do not know what a photograph is! More importantly, all of the notions of “realism” we associate with art, in terms of proportion, portrayal of icon vs. object, and so forth, are really products of artistic developments of the early modern era. While we look at paintings or sculptures of Michelangelo and declare them more “realistic” than what came two centuries before, in reality they are not — as evidenced in the massively over-sized left hand of the “David” or the hulking torsos depicted in the the Sistine Chapel are meant to convey meaning that goes beyond simple “realism”, precisely the same way that a 12th century artist depicting a bishop or king as tall as the walls of Paris is not suggesting that the societal elite were literal giants. The lesson here is that when we look at imagery such as that in the various copies of the “Flower of Battle” we must balance the artist’s intent to convey literal, physical instruction, with a) an incomplete sense of three-point perspective, and b) the conventions of the time to exaggerate figures, move proportion, etc when needed to focus attention on a particular part of an image and c) the limitations of the design of the manuscripts to generally depict a play across one, sometimes two, images. For more on this, as reflected in the work of Fiore di Liberi, see: MEMORY AND PERFORMANCE: VISUAL AND RHETORICAL STRATEGIES OF IL FIOR DI BATTAGLIA↩
The internet-savvy will note that a number of armizare-specific, medieval dagger-in-general and even modern “self-defense” videos depict exactly what we are decrying here — a firm-footed defense against a knife attack — with seemingly no problems. I will note that in those videos the attacks are usually made a) slowly, b) slightly out of distance and c) when the instructor is not wearing any sort of face protection. No one wants to stab a partner in the face; students already have a hard time actually trying to hit their instructor, imagine how much truer that is when the instructor is not wearing facing protection and is talking to a camera. Don’t let others’ bad martial arts demonstrations inform your practice! ↩
To be clear, there are other Armizare practitioners with very similar answers, see for example, the recent video by The Exiles: Company of Medieval Martial Artists ↩
For more on the organization of the sword plays in dei Liberi’s work, see ↩
Note that such plays only occur in the largo sword crossing after an initial play has failed; the sword has the additional possibility of a stretto crossing, where there is parity in the bind. This is a function of using a long weapon, which can play in largo and stretto, vs. a short weapon, which, as Fiore explains, is all in the stretto, even if we can define three different measures. Regardless, the analogy, while thus imperfect, serves for our purposes: when capturing an attack on the inside line, put the left foot forward, moving offline into the attack. ↩
Note the video does not discuss the positioning of the right hand, nor it’s application, as that is not the intent or focus of the video. We will discuss the left hand further in Part Three of this series. ↩
Dagger defense — both with and without a blade of one’s own — is the largest and most detailed section of the various copies of The Flower of Battle. It is here that the lessons of abrazare are applied to actions at arm’s length — striking range and arm-wrestling — and so it is here that the use of throws and neck-breaks are accompanied by the ligadure (joint locks), arm-bars and strikes that comprise Fiore’s “five things” to do against an attack:
The Nine Remedies themselves are also organized in a (mostly) logical fashion beginning with highline attacks (Masters 1 – 4), a “bridging” attack, made when the attacker uses his offhand to grab the defender (Master 5), a reapplication of the earlier lessons when the defender also has a dagger (Masters 6 – 7), and then defenses against a lowline attack (Masters 8 – 9). However, this section of the manuscript also provides us a tactical framework that we will see repeated again and again throughout the art. These principles include:
Work the three crossings (measure): weak, middle, strong, which at the dagger is wrist, elbow and body;
Step into an attack before it is in full force to capture the center with an attack of one’s own;
Break and return on the same line;
When losing the bind, pass and go to the outside.
The Plays of the First Remedy: Overview
All of these elements can be found in the First Dagger Remedy (Primo Remedio), which is taught against the most natural attack: a forehand blow, against which the master defends with an application of the abrazare guard, Posta Longa, executed with the left hand. Just as dagger defenses are the largest section of the manuscript, the First Remedy is by far the largest subsection; nearly one-third of the entire discussion on the dagger are covered in its teachings. Beyond the commonality of the attack, there are also a number of clear, pedagogical reasons involved in this decision.1
The eighth play (Getty 11d)is a passing cover with the left hand, which can be used if the student is unprepared to enter inside the attack. This moves the Player’s actions to a riverso, which are the lesson of the Third Remedy.
Beginning with the ninth play (Folio 12) we see three Counter Masters that can be used to thwart the Remedy at the moment of its inception, thereby preventing any of the plays that have come heretofore.2
Taken together, these first eleven plays create a micro-system of basic defenses and counters against a mandritto, but the master then adds ten plays more, addressing more specialized situations. These include the ligadura soprana, or “high bind” (11v-d), a reinforced cover called piu forteza, or “more strength” (12-b), which can be used in place of the Posta Longa cover introduced in the first play, an arm-break (12-d), blade-strip (12v-b), and throw (12v-d). As with the initial plays, these each of these techniques is immediately followed by a counter, creating five, paired sets of actions.
Viewed holistically, the twenty-one plays of the First Remedy reveals a robust and coherent curriculum of eight paired defenses and counters against a simple knife-attack, an uncounterable throw, a way for the student to pass the knife it gets inside his guard, and three general counters against the cover itself. The ordering of these plays further demonstrates the pedagogical system Fiore dei Liberi articulates in his prologue, and which will follow throughout the rest of the work.
Part Two: Execution of the Remedy’s Cover
Part Three: Using the Other Hand, Piu Forteza and Training the First Remedy
The schema is generally consistent in the manuscripts, but the notation here follows the ordering in the Getty Ms., although some of the linked images are from the other Ms — all hosted by the Wiktenauer. ↩
The Pisani-Dossi also includes a Counter-Counter master in the sequence ↩
Another Fiore manuscript attested in the Estense library, MS CX, is currently unknown and presumed lost.
Three of the manuscripts internally date themselves to 1409 (1410 modern calendar), and two – Getty and PD – are dedicated to Niccolo d’Este III, Marquis of Ferrara, Parma and Reggio. Discovered earlier this century by Ken Mondschein, the Paris manuscript is newer, likely between 1425 – 1430, and currently lacks a prologue, and thus a dedication. Further, the Paris ends “This is the book of Fiore the Furlan, May God Have Mercy on Him” which tells us that at the time of its creation, Fiore was deceased.
Dating and Authorship
The Paris manuscript is not a copy, but rather should be considered a “posthumous collaboration” between Fiore dei Liberi and the unknown scribe who created it. A number of things point to this:
Verses are rewritten, more than “translated” into elegant, Humanist Latin, well-beyond the Latin used by Fiore himself in the Pisani-Dossi prologue;
The source material is sometimes changed so considerably (for good and ill), and in a manner so consistent with it originating in the court of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, that we must consider it almost a separate work. By recasting knightly martial arts in refined Latin, it shows the humanistic interrelation of the academic and the practical
BnF MS Lat 11269 is not only a unique and beautiful work of art, but a witness to the birth of an aristocratic humanist idea, a piece of official Estense propaganda, and a direct predecessor to Baldesar Castiglione’s famous statement that “the principal and true profession of the courtier ought to be that of arms.”
The artistic style, dating and the manuscript’s Humanistic language and flourishes all suggest that it was likely created by and for Leonello d’Este (21 September 1407 – 1 October 1450), third illegitimate son of Niccolo III and Stella de’Tolome and Marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena and Reggio Emilia from 1441 to 1450. Contrary to other prior d’Este family leaders, such as Azzo VII, Niccolo II or Niccolò III, who had a drive for power and control, Leonello is recognized principally for his sponsorship of the arts, literature, and culture.
Leonello surrounded himself with humanist thinkers and writers, including the poets Basinio Basini and Francesco Ariosti; rhetoritician Angelo Decembrio; and Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote a seminal work on architecture. He also commissioned many minor scholars to translate books in the university and castle library into humanist Latin As a martial arts treatise couched in humanist Latin and illustrated with somewhat classical figures, the Paris manuscript fits well into this milieu.
Perhaps even more convincing, Leonello used a leopard as his personal impressa, or emblem. Niccolò III had a taste for giving his offspring non-traditional names drawn from romances, and Leonello, of course, means “little lion,” so the leopard becomes a play on both his name and his illegitimacy: the leopard was itself a “bastard,” believed to be the illegitimate offspring of a lion and the mythical pard. Playing off of this, in the Paris manuscript, the guard “Bastard Cross” becomes True Cross, and True Cross becomes Guard of the Leopard.
So, we have the right dates, the right artistic style, a humanistic literary reworking of a manuscript in the ducal library, the removal of a “bastard” guard and replacement with Leonello’s own badge, and finally, small page adornments of leopards at the end of the manuscript. While not a smoking gun, it makes Leonello the likely patron, or at least recipient, of the project.
A Rough Road Through the Centuries
Whatever loving care was taken to produce this work in the 15th century, the following centuries were not kind. The manuscript was rebound in the 17th century, likely after water-damage destroyed the opening pages, and unfortunately, it was rebound in a haphazard order that was clearly not its original format. Just a few of the many organizational problems that clearly arise from nothing more than haphazard rebinding:
The sword instruction is interrupted by a third of the dagger, then begins again.
Some of the Third Remedy pages are shoved in before the Third Remedy itself
The sword in armour guards appear after the sword in armour plays.
The overall result creates a seemingly haphazard authorship that clearly was not true when the Paris manuscript was created. Sadly, this is not the only problem the work presents to modern readers…
A Broken Pedagogy
As a piece of Humanistic art, meant to elevate the “knightly art” and honor a powerful patron, Florius de Arte Luctandi is a magnificent work; a prime example of the interest of the educated aristocracy to see the arts and sciences of their class — hawking, hunting, riding, fencing and ordering of battle — elevated and enriched to stand beside rhetoric, poetry, music, jurisprudence and so forth. But what about as a practical martial arts work? Do the many, Humanistic flourishes and fine Latin paraphrasing enrich and refine Fiore dei Liberi’s older works?
In fact, the manuscript is filled with so many breakdowns in the careful pedagogical paradigm established by dei Liberi, not to mention the actual errors and misunderstandings by the scribe and artists involved in its composition, that one of the only things we can say with almost certainty about is composition is that it almost certainly was not created with oversight by an actual practitioner of the art it represents, nor was it likely ever intended to be used as a practical manual of arms! As modern practitioners, when we evaluate the work, we need to keep that second phrase in mind: it likely was never intended to be used.
While that may astound us today, we need to recall that the role of illuminated manuscripts was one part as a “book” and one part an object d’art, something that glorified the patron be its beauty and rarity, not necessarily its contents. It is quite likely that Leonello d’Este received the Florius, paged through it, and gave it to his librarian, never to look at it again.
So how do we know the manuscript is flawed?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Fiore teaches in the other three copies of his book via Four Masters, represented by crowns:
1.Guard 2.Remedy 3.Counter 4.Counter-Counter
Each Master has students, who wear a gold garter on their knee, whereas Counter and Counter-Counter Masters wear a crown and garter. So to know who wins a given play, just look for the gold garter!
In the Paris manuscript, however, the system is haphazard. Lacking any prologue to explain the intent, we still have crowned Masters, and students in garters — sometimes. Often, the Scholar/student is represented by wearing armour, even when the technique is for unarmoured combat. This would be a perfectly good alternate system, if the artists adhered to it. Which, of course, they don’t.
Both men in Armour: Who’s the Scholar?
Garters, not armour.
No Armour, No Garter,
No Crown – No Nuthin’
On the other hand, why be limited — crowns and armour!
Hey, I want a crown and armour too!
Errors (Not “Variations,” not “Insights”) in Transmission
Alright, so the pedagogical system of visual cues is broken, and the pages have been rebound wrong, but if we have the other three manuscripts, we can sort that all out, right?
Well, sure, but…remember: it was almost certainly was not created with oversight by an actual practitioner of the art it represents. As much as I would love to say that the only evidence of this is the misunderstanding of when to use crowns, when garters, unfortunately, in reality there are consistent mistakes in the illustrations and text that cannot be reasonably construed as “variant plays” or “insights” by the unknown author (as, for example, can be said about the differing plays in Filippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimianci.) There are well more than a dozen of these transmission errors found throughout the manuscript3 as well as some minor ones, but we will look at just a small sampling here.
First Master of the Sword in Two-Hands at Wide Play (Zogho Largo)
Students familiar with the Getty or Pisani-Dossi manuscripts should have looked at the last image I showed above and immediately recognized it as the Master of Close Play (Zogho Stretto). Indeed, it even shares the crowns worn on each Master’s head (a reminder that in close play, what man can do, so too, can the other).
Unfortunately, the creators of the Florius manuscript have intended this image to be that of the First Master of Zogho LARGO, as evidenced by both the text, its appearance as the first longsword Remedy, AND the play that follows, which, indeed, is the conclusion of the first Master.
Here is the First Remedy as he appears in the Getty MS4. Note the following points:
1. Only one man wears a crown. 2. The Master is crossed left-foot forward, creating an asymmetrical crossing. 3. The figures are crossed in the last third of the blade.
None of these differences are insignificant, and all are necessary to actually be the crossing of the First Remedy. Taking them in reverse order, the First Remedy is *specifically* called out as the crossing at the punta — so it simply cannot occur at the half-sword. Secondly, although Fiore does not in his text demand a left foot forward crossing, he always shows the largo crossings with the left foot forward, and Vadi is explicit on this: when you parry the riverso, keep forward the right foot and parry as said/when parrying the dirrito, then you will let the left foot be forward. ((Vadi, Cap. XI)) Finally, because of this asymmetrical crossing, the combatants do not have parity in the bind. They are not both “Masters,” because only one of them can execute the play that follows.
Taken together these three points show that either the Florius artists misunderstood the important elements of the artwork they were copying, or they were working from an unknown text that was itself in error!
Exchange of Thrusts and Follow-On Grapple (Scambiar di Punta e Prese)
Arguably, the Exchange of Thrusts (Scambiar di Punta) is one of the most important core plays, if not the most important, in the entire art of arms. A powerful counterattack with opposition, it is delivered with the entire body on the step, and is described rather meticulously in the Getty Manuscript.
Fiore further clarifies the play later:
As I have said in the Exchange of Thrusts (the second play before me), you need to perform an accrescimento and a pass off the line. Do the same in this play, except that in the Exchange of Thrusts the arms are low and the point high, as I said before.
Which is what the Getty and Pisani-Dossi manuscripts show. Here is how it appears in the Florius:
The most cursory look at the artwork reveals three clear problems:
1. The hands are not low and supported by the body, as shown and described in the other texts:
2. Look at the Scholar’s hilt — the blade’s aren’t bound, which is the very definition of a thrust in opposition!
3. The thrust is missing!
It is tempting to want to argue that this just an alternate play or a variation of the Scambiar di Punta, but as that play is a cornerstone of the art, nothing in the text suggests an alternate play, and the follow-on play is precisely the same as follows the Scambiar in the other sources, there is simply no supporting data for such a theory. The more likely theory is that the artist simply drew what he felt he saw — one combatant thrusting another — with no real knowledge of what the core technical points were.
This is even more likely when we see how badly the Florius garbles the follow-on presa, which is also the first play of Zogho Stretto. As shown in the Getty:
This play derives from the Exchange of Thrusts we just saw. Let’s say the student in the play before me didn’t immediately thrust to the opponent’s face, hesitating instead with his point without directing it to the opponent’s face or chest because the latter was in armour. In this case, the student should pass forward with his left foot and perform this grab. Next, he should use his sword to strike, since the opponent’s weapon has been grabbed and cannot be freed.
In the Florius, the caption is so vague as to meaningless, but when the play is repeated in the Zogho Stretto section, all becomes clear — or rather, the author’s confusion becomes clear:
Pisani-Dossi: I hold your handle thus, just as we spar, With my sword’s point I’ll give your face a scar.
Florius: I will strike and without anything stopping me, hold your sword hostage, so badly do you handle it. Look, you grab mine, but I keep it, transfixed by which you now die.
Unclear at what he was looking at, the artist has drawn
1. the Scholar’s sword on the wrong side of the opponent’s weapon; 2. the Player grabbing his own blade with his right hand.
And the scribe has the Player (despite the other figure wearing the garter) winning the technique!
While it is tempting to argue that the Florius has shown us a hitherto unknown Counter-Master, that interpretation only works if the Scholar has completely garbled the initial grab (making it a lousy counter, and in between plays the “Counter-Master” has become a lefty! Not sure what the artist is portraying, the scribe has simply created some text. Considering that the play is depicted wrong both times, there is simply no conclusion other than the transmission is garbled.5
While the above are some of the most egregious errors and can send new students down blind allies, there are a number of other errors that are more easily spotted:
Sixth Remedy of Dagger
Getty Ms: A direct cover with the edge of blade into the attacker’s wrist, so that his blade is hooked over the top of the Master’s, causing a bind.
Florius: The dagger is on the wrong side of the attacking blade! Besides making the follow-on plays impossible (perhaps why Florius doesn’t show them?) it is also an excellent way to get one’s self killed.
Tor di Spada la Soprana
Getty Ms: This is the high disarm. I push forward with the handle, while squeezing his arms with the left hand until he abandons his weapon. Then, I can give him a good dose of strikes. The student after me shows the opponent’s sword on the ground.
Florius: This may be the biggest “blooper” in the entire manuscript — the Scholar’s sword hilt and left arm are both on the wrong side of the Player’s weapon, making the play mechanically impossible. Ironically, the left foot, which is on the Player’s outside, gives an advantage of leverage for the disarm, albeit not enough to make up for the other problems.
These errors in transmission, as well as a number of others woven through the manuscript, combined with the fact that this is a posthumous work that emphasizes formal, academic Humanistic qualities at the expense of the plain-spoken clarity characterizing its siblings, whether Leonello d’Este was its patron or not, the intention of Florius de Arte Luctandi might have been a ‘memorial’ to the ars martialis, but it was never intended as a practical, instructional treatise. The work is a new artistic work, derived from an older, more practical template. But what was that source?
We will examine possible answers and clear connections, both to the surviving Flowers of Battle texts by Fiore dei Liberi, and at least one, surviving, German “Blumes des Kampfs” manuscript, in part two.
all of which are detailed in Flowers of Battle Volume III: Florius de Arte Luctandi↩
The Morgan and PD manuscripts show both figures crowned, as is shown in the Florius — which remains an error in transmission. ↩
For the determined: yes, we tried, in the name of science, to make this play work. Even if the opponent’s sword is as shown, and you quickly let go with the right and slide your left hand up the hilt, it doesn’t work against a non-compliant opponent. And if his blade is in the correct position shown in the other manuscripts, you will run right on to his point. ↩
The International Armizare Society’s mission is to maintain and pass down canonical Armizare as recorded and left to posterity by the Founder, Fiore dei Liberi, as a complete, traditional, but living and functional martial art”. In furtherance of these goals, our task as a society is to both provide guidance through articles, video and personal instruction, as well as work to develop new instructors and researchers into the medieval Italian “Art of Arms”.
To that end, we are particularly excited to share with our members a new, 135 page training guide on dagger use in the Dei Liberi Tradition, written by Chicago Swordplay Guild alumnus and California Armizare instructor, Oscar Erkenswick. Current IAS members can find it on the Curriculum page.
Dagger combat, both unarmed against a dagger and with a weapon of one’s own, builds directly upon the lessons of abrazare, forming the single largest section in each of the various copies of il Fior di Battaglia. The nearly 80 “plays”, or techniques, that encompass the dagger section are organized into nine Remedies — specific defenses against a particular type of attack.
All dagger instruction is built around five principles, applied in order:
Throw (Mettere in Terra)
The combination of these five actions allows him to introduce a complete curriculum of not only knife-fighting, but unarmed combat at striking range, joint-locks and arm-bars, entering techniques from out of distance to create throws and a series of disarms that will be used not just in close-quarter combat, but with longer weapons, such as the sword or pollaxe.
This new course guide grew out of Oscar’s 40 page “Crash Course to Medieval Dagger Fighting,” which was written and submitted as part of his requirements to pass from Scholar to Free Scholar within the Chicago Swordplay Guild. Although three times the size of that earlier work, like it, this training guide seeks to put the system of dagger combat and unarmed defenses contained in Armizare into a wider historical and cultural context. Rather than just a catalog of the techniques (or plays) found in the various editions of the Flowers of Battle, the reader will find extensive notes on the form, wearing and deployment of the dagger, all illustrated from historical artwork, an explanation on body mechanics and footwork, before moving to the actual curriculum left to us by Fiore dei Liberi himself.
Introduction Part One: Western Dagger Traditions
I. Form of the Knife
II. La Daga
III.Wearing the Dagger
IV.Common Dagger Grips
V. Defense Against a Bearhug
VI.Defense Against Long Weapons
Part Two: Understanding La Daga in Armizare
I. Fundamentals Mechanics
II. Path of the Dagger (Strikes)
III.Drawing the Dagger
VI.The Four Masters of Dagger Combat
VII. Zoghi di Daga (Dagger Plays)
VIII. Training Sequences
Undeniably, Fiore has left us the single largest and most thoroughly organized corpus of dagger material, but no one text can answer every question posed by modern students to the long-dead master. Consequently, rather than simply providing an illustration and synopsis of each dagger play, the author has sought to provide additional clarity from other 15th and 16th century sources, both for the canonical plays themselves, and where those other sources have provided variations or conclusions to the play not found in the teachings of Fiore himself. Sources ranging from the Anonymous Gladiatoria and Hans Talhoffer in the 15th century, to Joachim Meyer and Achille Marozzo in the 16th, as well as iconography and illustration from non-technical works are referenced to show how to use the plays in a dynamic, combative function, as the old master intended, not as a random grab-bag of techniques.
While certainly not the final word on medieval dagger combat, the hope is that the Guide will provide useful context and memorial aid for students working with an IAS instructor. Although the Guide is a perk of IAS membership, and available only to members, some of its contents and ideas will be made publicly available through future blog posts and articles. Of course, our greatest hope is that it will inspire other Society members to undertake similar projects themselves!
In the Getty, Pisani-Dossi and Florius manuscripts is a schematic diagram called il Segno della Spada — the Sign of the Sword — a full-page illustration of a man, intersected by seven swords, and surrounded at the cardinal points by four creatures wearing four golden collars. The segno is a visual memory device meant to summarize and encode core material for the reader. The style of the segno is not unique to Fiore dei Liberi , but is organized along very similar lines to a common memory device of the period known as “the Heavens”: which places a human figure or “universal man” at the center, surrounded by four figures at the cardinal compass points that represent one of the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and incorporating the numbers seven (for divinity) and twelve (the cosmos). Indeed, even the idea of a human figure pierced by seven swords is a common medieval theme. 1
The numerological, elemental and bestiary symbolism is outside the scope of this article, which focuses on the segno’s central teaching purpose, and which continued over the next five centuries: understanding the blows of the sword. Fiore classifies these as being seven in numbers: two descending or “cleaving” (fendente) cuts, two rising or “from below” (sottano) cuts, two “middle” (mezzano) cuts, and a thrust (punta). Each of these blows is then shown in isolation in the Getty and PD manuscripts, with a description of its trajectory and targeting.
While this seems fairly straightforward, for at least the last dozen years there has been an on-going argument as to why the fendente is shown at a very steep angle, and what exactly is a “middle cut”: does it mean a horizontal cut, as the illustration shows, or does it mean literally anything that is neither a fendente nor a sottani, but anything in between? I will argue that, by looking at the clues within Fiore’s own works, and then by comparing them to over 500 years of later cutting diagrams, the answer to both of these questions is clear.
We are the thrusts, cruel and lethal. Our path is
through the center of the body, starting from the
crotch all the way up to 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.
The description of the thrust advises that this single blow has five variations: “two high, one from each side, two from below; likewise, one from one side, one from the other, and one from the middle, that is to say from Porta di Ferro mezana or else from Posta Longa or breve.” This harkens back to the dagger segno on 9v, however, here dei Liberi takes care to state that the three centerline guards that best make the straight thrust. Otherwise, there is little here to confound interpretation directly.
However, since this section does relate to the dagger thrusts, it is worth noting that in that section Fiore names the blows, and these names overlap with those of the sword:
With the fendente, I can strike the head and the body, from the elbow to the top of the head. Below the elbow, however, I do not have sure freedom without incurring much danger. This is why I am reluctant to use this strike there.
From the riverso side, I can strike from the elbow to the temple. These strikes are called mezzani. These riversi strikes cannot be delivered when you are poised to execute a parry against your opponent.
A dagger going in the middle towards your head can strike as high as under the chest, but no higher; the left hand can always be used to defend.
We’ll address this nomenclature and its relationship to similarly named cuts in due course.
Fendente and Sottani
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)
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)
Notably, something that Fiore does not cover, which all later Italian masters of the Renaissance have is the stramazzone, a small, rotational cut from the wrist. Our first source for the cut is Filippo Vadi, who says:
If you do any stramazzone, do it with little turn in front of the face. Don’t make your moves too wide because any long time is lost.
The stramazzone can be made as any descending blow in the works of the Bolognese tradition of the 16th century, and its use is to either execute a beat against a sword, a cut to the hand, or one to the head. By the era of the rapier, this is usually a vertical cut.
But here, at the start of the documented Italian tradition, the stramazzone isn’t to be found. Nor is any vertical cut. Why not?
Context matters. What is the context of Fiore’s art? Well as he tells us: in arnis et sine arnis — “in armour and without.” Even the most lightly armoured foot soldier c. 1400 wears a helmet, and in Italy this make a vertical descending blow, or really any cut to the skull, useless. And this is without even dealing with the skull’s uncanny ability to turn sword blows.2
But this is an era where they don’t wear plate gorgets, only mail collars. Fiore’s fendente neatly avoid the helmet but it also avoids the hard bones of the skull. Much as Silver advised almost 200 years later, a downright blow is designed to kill, but it can be turned on a hard head. The German tradition, like the later Italian ones, has a technique for creating a bloody head-wound — the Scheitelhau (“scalp-cut”) — but Fiore doesn’t. In this, he differs from contemporary German and later Italian masters, but has much in common with military saber and broadsword masters of the early modern era, who often deleted the vertical cut from their repertoire. The reason is likely similar: these later masters were teaching soldiers to fight in the field, and were not interested in blows that gained an advantage in a duel, only those that could instantly render an opponent dead or helpless. While helmets were all but extinct on the Napoleonic battlefield, the soldier’s tall, stiff shako can’t be cut through. It was functionally a helmet as much as a hat. If your art is meant to serve in all contexts, and is aimed at a professional warrior class, why waste time teaching a specialized blow they will rarely use?
So now we know why the fendente is not the vertical cut of later Italian traditions. But why isn’t it made at a wider, more natural angle? Clearly, the segno shows the blows at 45-degrees…
But does it?
Remember, the Segno is itself a metaphorical diagram, showing the blows of the sword, the virtues of the swordsman, elemental symbolism, etc. It is not necessarily a representational schematic, which is likely why, shortly after presenting the full diagram, Fiore shows each of the blows in isolation. Look again at the above image and see how the fendente are depicted, when shown in isolation.
Rather than a 45-degree cut on the one-hand, or a 90-degree blow on the other, it is something somewhere between, likely about 70-degrees, although, rather than apply a protractor to the cut, the important thing is to follow the path Fiore describes: under the jawline on one side, to the knee on the other. As noted above, this neatly avoids both rigid armour used in war, and the body’s own natural defenses, instead targeting the blow to the neck, which, with its arteries, spinal cord and trachea, is one of the few parts of the body in which a traumatic blade wound is instantly debilitating.
Experimentation also shows that when this angle is used to cut, both offensively, in defensive counterattacks, or when simply using the fendente to parry, the resulting bind closely resembles that which is shown in the Flower of Battle (see Fig 6), whereas blows to the temple do not — causing the blades to bind too high for a number of his advised actions to be affected properly.
So this is a case where the text and the illustration accord, as do the illustrations showing us what happens when two such blows meet.
Enter the Sottani
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)
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)
Paired with the fendente is the sottano, or rising cut, which we are told follows the path of the fendente in reverse, likely for the same reason. Nothing in these verses contradicts our conclusions thus far, and this trajectory makes the rising blow strike quite effectively into the vulnerable throat.
Even if we wanted to doubt these conclusions, we have to ask why else would Fiore describe the trajectory of the blow? He clearly is not discussing targets, per se in Getty 23r, because the fendente and sottani also are used to target the arms and hands.3 However, the Master may be hinting at these other targets: note that the two figures are shown with their arms folded, so that the rising and descending cuts are shown passing through them as well!
As with the 600 years of fencing masters that followed him, Fiore clearly expects his six angles of cut to be applied to any and all targets found in the four quarters (High, Low, Left, Right) of the opponent’s body.
Our take away lesson is that context matters. The fendenti and sottani have a particular, described path because of tactical assumptions in the art — the opponent may be unarmoured, lightly armoured or fully armoured, and if a cut is even possible, the master wishes it targeted at a place with the least defense and the most likelihood of causing an instantly debilitating wound.
In addition, these paired blows can be used to target the limbs, to counterattack or to parry, but in all cases, the crossing created provides a bind that allows for immediate strikes behind the opponent’s blade, again to the face or arms, or to thrust in from below to the face or throat in a way that wide or more vertical cut does not.
The angles are the angles because they avoid the body’s natural armour, avoid light armour, and provides maximum damage when the cut lands.
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)
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)
Early twentieth century fencing historians and fencing masters, such as Francesco Novati and Aldo Nadi, saw Fiore’s segno and quickly recognized it as the same diagram used in their own day, teaching two descending cuts, two rising cuts, and two horizontal blows. For about a century this became “accepted wisdom”, and then sometime around 2006 an alternative theory was offered: the mezzani are any blow that does not follow the path of a fendente or a sottano.
As far as I can tell, this idea began when a researcher read an equestrian passage in the Getty Ms and saw that Fiore used the word tondo in the horseback section. As “tondo” is the name of the horizontal cut in the Bolognese and rapier traditions, they concluded the mezzano must not be a horizontal blow. Since then, plenty of non-Italian speakers have come to the same conclusion, often further relying upon the following passage from the description of the dagger mezzano thrusts, quoted above.
This is unfortunate because it is simply not the sort of mistake that a native speaker would make, nor someone who has looked outside of the Flowers of Battle to see how the horizontal blow has been defined since Fiore dei Liberi’s time. Let’s take the arguments one at a time:
“Then What’s a Tondo?”
Tondo might be used as jargon by later fencing masters to describe the horizontal cut, but the word itself doesn’t mean “horizontal fencing cut”; it means “around”. Ho viaggiato tondo il mondo, means “I went around the world.” Likewise, mezzano simply means “middle”. (As a cut, it is the cognate to mittelhau in German.) So Fiore uses mezzano as jargon, the Bolognese use tondo as jargon; but that doesn’t preclude either from also using the words in their general sense.
The passage in question in the Getty Ms reads:
Questo si e lo ottavo zogho ch’e’ contrario di tutti gli zoghi che mi sono denançi · e maximamente delli zoghi de spada a cavallov e delli lor magistri che sono in guardia di coda longa · Che quando li magistri · o · scolari stano in la ditta guardia · e io gli tro una punta o altro colpo · e subito elli me rebatteno o taglo o punta che faza · Quando elli me rebateno · subito e io do volta a la mia spada · e cum lo pomo mio · io gli fiero in lo volto · E poy passo cum la mia coverta presta e cum lo riverso tondo gli fiero dredo la testa ·
This is the eighth play, which counters all the plays before this—especially those of mounted sword and their Masters in Coda Lunga. When the Masters or students are in this guard, I attack them with a thrust or other blow, and they will try to parry these attacks. So, upon their parry, I quickly turn my sword and strike them in the face with the pommel. Then, I pass with my quick cover and with a riverso tondo strike the back of their head.
The meaning is clear, as the swordsman rides past he cuts around his head to throw a backhand blow at his opponent. No special cut, no specific trajectory. Just simple instruction. Trying to use this single passage to tell us anything about the intended meaning of the seven blows is like learning that the world “volta” in Italian also means “time” (in the sense of repetition), and thereby thinking the three volte are a specific discussion of tempo. Yes, in English, we say “time” for both frequency and movement on a lock, but in Italian they don’t. Jargon is a slippery thing: imagine someone from prior generations finding out the alternate meaning of “mouse”! Here is how you avoid falling into the trap: remember Fiore wrote in Italian, at a time when modern English didn’t even exist, so our job is to understand how an Italian would understand the Italian text, not what possible alternate readings our English translation could provide.
So the tondo argument is most likely spurious, at best vague. What about the description from the dagger, arguing that the mezzano thrust is any line from armpit to temple?
Absolutely true. Of course, thrusts move on straight lines, while cuts travel on arcs, so I am not sure what this does or doesn’t prove. Rather, consider this: the fendente thrust also covers vertical blows, which we have already established doesn’t happen with cuts. The jargon used for cuts vs thrusts does not perfectly match 1:14, but we do have a general pattern: fendente are generally descending actions, mezzani are generally lateral.
However, we don’t really need to reconcile contradictory data. Instead, look again at the segno. The mezzano is shown as a horizontal cut drawn at the waist, but Fiore says its path is between the head and the neck. Now, let’s look at the picture of the individual cut: the target is at the neck. Why?
The first segno after Fiore’s is in Vadi (c.1480s) who, although he renames the horizontal cut volante, adds one notable term in his description of the middle blow:
Semo volanti sempre atraversando
è dal gienochio in su nostro ferire
fendente e punte spesso ne dà bando
We are volanti and we always go crosswise,
from the knee upwards we wound;
we are often banished by fendente and punte.
Note the term atraversando: “crosswise” or “crossing”, just as in footwork, a traversimento is a lateral or crossing step. Vadi draws the crosswise blows aimed at the neck in his segno.
Beyond this, Vadi provides no alternative instruction, nor any additional techniques that would provide clarification or even obfuscation to our argument here. Therefore, our next stop is Bologna, to the famous diagram of Achille Marozzo in Opera Nova (1536).
Like Fiore and Vadi, Marozzo also shows the segno with 45-degree diagonals, and a horizontal cut at the waist. And yet…you will find that the tondo is used in the Bolognese school to do the following:
Cut the face/neck
Cut the legs
Avoid cutting to the body.((A discussion of targeting in Bolognese swordsmanship, and how it differs between cuts — head and limbs– and thrusts — face and torso — is covered by Steven Reich in “Bolognese Swordsmanship: An Introduction to Renaissance Sword and Buckler” in In the Service of Mars: Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop, Volume Two (2015) Freelance Academy Press.))
The lack of horizontal body cuts should not be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about 15th- and 16th-century clothing. In Fiore’s era, a swordsman could be wearing a lined, wool gown over a lined or padded doublet over a linen shirt. In Marozzo’s era, the belly of the man’s doublet was often stuffed with a few inches of padding to create a “peacecod” (pot-bellied) shape. Of course, gambesons and jacks of the period are far more densely padded yet.5
A swordsman can try and cut through all of that fabric, just to make a wound that is often lethal but rarely immediately disabling, or he can cut through the opponent’s neck or quadriceps, which likely is. Remember, Fiore isn’t interested in a judge raising a flag to score a point (and fencing competitions for the class of people he trained were overwhelmingly fought in armour, anyway), so self-defense, duel and war are the only contexts his instructions are focused upon.
The Bolognese diagram becomes the basis for defining cuts during the era of the rapier, the rapier grandmaster importing Marozzo’s segno whole cloth, other than making the figure just as naked as everyone else in his magnum opus:
So far, we’ve seen a virtually perfect congruence in early Italian texts as to how the blows of the sword and their targets are conceptualized: the names may change, but the way they are presented does not. Now, let’s look at how the segno develops over the centuries. The Fiore/Marozzo style of diagram never went way – at the top of this article I show it (courtesy of HROARR) in the context of the modern military, and it was the mainstay of broadsword and saber fencing manuals throughout the Early Modern period: sometimes with the vertical cuts Marozzo adds to Fiore dei Liberi’s schematic, sometimes not. Here are a few examples:
But meanwhile, look at how other masters tried to explain the horizontal blow – often showing three lines of cut, high, middle, low.
Why this move to showing multiple horizontal lines (head, body, legs) from the older model? Because descending and ascending cuts can be plotted across the body but horizontal ones can occur on multiple ones. Our way is from the head to the knee…
Interestingly, no matter which diagram, from which era, note what the horizontal cuts are not said to do: cut below the knee. Tactics aside, mechanically, to reach that low, the cut becomes a descending blow.
Exception Proving the Rule: the Universal Parry
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. (Getty Ms.)
There is one final piece of the puzzle that demands explanation: the rising, true edge parry that serves as a universal defense when fighting with the sword in one hand. At its root, the play Fiore describes seems to be a horizontal cut — riversi and thrusts are specifically “beaten to the side.” Yet in the next phrase we are told that fendente are not only beaten to the side but “slightly lift the opponent’s weapon”.
This needn’t concern us over-much. Firstly, the cut is not called either a mezzano or a sottano, just a “cover” made in a specific fashion; in the end it is its role as a universal parry that matters most. Secondly, the overall blow is still described as moving cross-wise, even when parrying the fendente. Thirdly, the play of the sword in one hand is itself an outlier: a true-edge cut on the mezzano line, whereas the segno advises that riverso mezzani are made with the false edge. 6 Finally, the same parry is taught by Angelo Viggiani in the mid-16th century, who has the same challenge with his own nomenclature and fudges, calling the parry a “riverso ascendente-almost-tondo.” 7
Context always matters, and Occam is rarely wrong. Fiore dei Liberi’s cutting diagram is preserved for 600 years, with the same basic six cuts and a thrust (some masters adding vertical blows, some not), some masters describing the same horizontal cut, the same way, sometimes trying to expand their illustration to clarify the blow falling on differing lines, sometimes not. It is nothing more than trying to explain how to make a horizontal blow against what is inherently a vertical target (a human being).
While I realize that this position is not that of all armizare researchers I can only say that it is, in my opinion, sloppy scholarship to look at Fiore and only Fiore and conclude that the mezzano is the “everything not above” cut, especially if using the word “tondo” or looking at how he describes mezzanithrusts in the dagger material is your soul source of evidence. This not only is simply not good historiography, but it ignores the brilliance of the master’s work: by 1409 he was already presenting concepts and pedagogical principles that would be used for the next five hundred years, throughout Europe.
So what is a descending blow that isn’t on the angle of a fendente? Fiore would probably say: poorly thrown.
An Interesting Cross-Cultural Note: Sicilian Stick-Fighting
I have been privileged to train in in traditional Italian stick-fighting with IAS Advisor, Maestro Roberto Laura, and there are some striking parallels between the shepherd’s stick and the longsword, both weapons of which are approximately the same length. In single combat with the stick, preference is given to descending and rising blows, made with both “edges”, and they use the same targets Fiore advises (as well as the top of the head when trying not to kill — because it can make a bloody wound). This is an oral tradition, at least a couple of centuries old, that was being used with an armpit long stick to defend against bandits in real combat as recently as the first half of the 20th c. This isn’t “research”, it is an oral tradition, passed on by people who wouldn’t know Fiore dei Liberi from Pistachio Gelato. But their oral teaching is still the same. Realistically, that counts for more than some dudes in a gym kitted up in 20 lbs of plastic and padding with flexible, blunt swords.8
A Second Interesting Cross-Cultural Note: Not Just Europe
Nakamura Sensei explained how this idea came to him. “While teaching kenjutsu in northern China I was inspired with the thought that eiji happo, the eight rules of calligraphy, could be applied to swordsmanship. As I practiced the ei character (this is to calligraphy what do-re-me is to music) I saw in my mind that these eight strokes of the brush traced the trajectories of the sword when cutting. The first brush stroke, soku, is the thrust of the sword tip; the second stroke, roku, is the left and right horizontal cut; the third stroke, do, is the vertical cut; and so on. When I gazed at the finished ei calligraphy, I could actually see the eight cuts of the sword. Through my years of learning and teaching fencing I had sensed that there were few cuts in swordsmanship. When I contemplated the ei character, I was made to realise that there are only eight distinct cuts possible; any other technique, whatever artistic name it may have, is only a variation of the theme.” Maybe, or he may have seen that this diagram appeared in earlier Japanese military manuals — adapted from the French. Regardless, however, this final bit of wisdom is worth noting. “This realisation was the beginning of my deeper understanding of swordsmanship. … Therefore, the eight ways of cutting are myriad and eternal.”
Quoted from Guy Powers translation of ‘Essential Principles of Nakamura Ryu Iaido’. This article was first published in Cutting Edge magazine issue 2))
see, for example the grave finds at the Battles of Wisby and Towton, in Thordeman, Bengt; Nörlund, Poul; Ingelmark, Bo E. (2001). Armour from the Battle of Wisby, 1361. [Union City, Calif.]: Chivalry Bookshelf, and Fiorato, Veronica, Boylston, Anthea and Knusel, Christopher, Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of TowtonAD 1461, Revised Edition (2007) , Oxbow Books. ↩
See, for example, the description of Porta di Ferro and Dente di Zenghiaro (24r), Posta Frontale and Dente di Zenghiaro lo Mezzano (24v) or the second play of the second master of Zogho Largo (25v). ↩
I won’t even talk about trying to figure out a thrust is a “cleaving” action; which is the literal definition of fendente, but it serves as a good reminder that each language has an idiom that can only be imperfectly rendered in another via literal translation. ↩
I interpret this to mean when fighting two-handed, as it avoids crossing the wrists. ↩
Lo Schermo, 1570. The ascendente is what Fiore would call a true-edge sottano. ↩
Although beyond the scope of this article, it is fascinating to see a system that uses the same forward and rear stances, the volta stabile, and positions analogous to Posta di Donna, Posta di Donna la Soprana, Posta di Finestra, Porta di Ferro Mezzana and Coda Longa, with oral teachings that often directly mirror Fiore’s own. Hopefully, Maestro Laura and I will be able to analyse the similarities and differences between the sword and stick traditions of Italy in a future publication. ↩
The International Armizare Society is a confraternal association concerned with the restoration, preservation and transmission of canonical Armizare as a complete, traditional, but living and functional martial art.
To this end, we have established both a four-grade ranking system derived from the historical fencing guilds and a modern certification process for creating Armizare instructors. This process is meant to be open and transparent, and is discussed at length elsewhere on this website.
As a body of inter-connected schools, when developing this system, the founding members felt it important to allow and encourage member bodies to maintain their own sense of creativity, innovation and expression in how they developed their internal curriculum and approach to training. For this reason, you will note that the lower grades of Scholar and Free Scholar have only broad-based requirements and are awarded internally by the member school. This has worked well for older, more-established schools.
However, our first and foremost task is to educate and since the Society “went live” we have had a number of small study-groups and “at-large” members join specifically because they are looking for a structured way to train, let alone teach. For these folks, we have the IAS Core Curriculum, which is derived from that developed and used in Member academies and provides a lingua franca for the Society.
The IAS Core Curriculum is built around a pedagogical method that embeds Fiore dei Liberi’s own within a structure derived from the creators’ experiences in traditional martial arts, modern fencing, and best-practices in contemporary education theory. The evaluation process is already discussed at length elsewhere, what concerns us here are the physical components of the curriculum, which include Solo Drills, Set-Plays and Training Sequences.
Solo Drills Solo drills are used to teach the fundamental skills of Armizare —balance, body-mechanics, footwork, cutting, and thrusting. Examples include: air-cutting, pell-work, and slow motion and full speed footwork drills. The solo drills instill in the student the “alphabet” of historical swordsmanship.
Solo drills in the sword curriculum are comprised of two types: Cutting Drills and Assalti.
The Cutting Drills are designed to teach students the underlying body mechanics behind executing fendente, sottani, thrusts and how to apply them as defensive covers; each of the drills forms the basis for a set of two-person Set-Plays (see below). There are three, four-step cutting drills in the Core Curriculum. When turned into paired drills, they create the 12 longsword set-plays used in the curriculum.
Assalti are solo “forms” that are meant to give a student a routine for memorizing a variety of actions. The two forms used at this level include a Posta Progression for learning the various guards of the sword, and a Scholar Assalto or Universal Form which is a summary of all of the basic defenses used with the spada a dui mani. (The Scholar Assalto is adaptable to any long weapon used in the art, creating a “jumping off point” for students to take up a new arm, as will be seen at later levels in the curriculum.)
Set-Plays Set-plays are pre-planned sequences of attack and defense, derived directly from the historical source material. They are used to teach fundamental techniques in a way that will encode them in the student’s muscle memory. Once the set play has been memorized, students can then vary the distance, timing and rhythm to further explore how the techniques can be applied. Set-plays essentially use the “alphabet” of the solo drills to create “sentences”.
Set Plays in the Core Curriculum are taken from the various copies of the Flower of Battle, and correspond to the three primary areas of training: abrazare, dagger and sword. The rationale behind each section is as follows:
Abrazare Set-Plays are taken directly from the single Remedy and follow-on plays left by Fiore dei Liberi. When looked at en suite, the first six plays provide a fundamental lesson of how to use and apply the Remedy, responding to pressure in the bind, adapting to changes in measure if the Companion presses in or flies-out, and a basic Counter.
Likewise, Dagger Set-Plays are comprised of the basic cover and response taught by Fiore dei Liberi for each of his Nine Remedies, giving students a broad knowledge of how the master conceptualized dagger combat.
Finally, the Longsword Set-Plays focus on actions in zogho largo, particularly how to defend in tempo from the core poste as an attacker breaks measure. As such, they derive from two sources: the detailed instructions the Master provides for each posta (the First Master of Battle), and the instructions for coming to the bind and countering thrusts found in the plays of zogho largo.
Training Sequences This term is used to mean extended set-plays comprised of linking a series of basic set-plays using Fiore dei Liberi’s pedagogical model of Posta > Remedio > Contrario > Contra-Contrario. There are training sequences in the curriculum for abrazare (one), dagger (two) and longsword (four).
USING THE CORE CURRICULUM
Society members have access to an extensive library of hand-outs, essays, articles and videos instructing the various components of this curriculum, at no cost beyond their annual membership fee.
You can see an example video of one of the three core cutting drills here:
As well as one of the “detail videos”, expanding upon the drill:
All IAS Affiliates are welcome to either use the Core Curriculum as “plug and play” in their classrooms, or as a foundation for developing their own. However, as the drills form a pedagogical, technical, tactical and interpretive foundations for later levels, the Society recommends that all Affiliates interested in rank-testing are at least familiar with the specific drills and essays contained therein.
Each member school remains free to grant the rank of Scolaro to its students internally, provided candidates meet the base required criteria. (Each school is free to define other requirements as they see fit.) At-large or study-group members seeking to be ranked by the Society may apply to be tested in the Core Curriculum by any certified IAS instructor, or at an official, IAS conference, and should make arrangements by either contacting their nearest instructor or by emailing the secretary.
One of the most important steps in the progression from the grade of scholar to master is the concept of prize playing. This is the western equivalent to the promotion testing of Asian martial arts systems. The “play for the prize” is comprised of two steps. The first step occurs as an internal event, comprised of written and physical tests to assess the student’s skills. The second step is for the student to submit a challenge for a public prize playing (free fencing exhibition), for the grade being tested for.
Section One: The Dagger Gauntlet
Using an idea developed from IAS member and CSG daughter school the Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild, the first part of the Provost’s Prize is dubbed the Dagger Gauntlet, and tests the candidate’s ability to employ dagger defenses creatively and spontaneously.
Once a student has cleared their school’s internal provost requirements, it falls to their instructor to arrange for an IAS Examiners Board. The board always comprises the testee’s instructor/sponsor, and then at least two other examiners. In this case, Mr. Mele was joined by Society co-founder Sean Hayes (Northwest Fencing Academy), and the board was rounded out by Marco Quarta (Nova Scrimia) and Devon Boorman (Academie Duello), both IAS Advisors. Since this was the Society’s first board, and thus the Board, as much as the Candidate, were under examination, we also asked Mr. Christian Cameron (Hoplologia), an IAS member and future candidate to join us. His experience both in modern fencing and sitting as an officer on US naval boards helped us streamline and refine the process as we went.
The first part of the oral exams began with an introduction of the student. While this may at first seem a bit superfluous, after all, the candidate in this case was a long-time student of one of the Society’s co-founders, it serves several purpose. First, and most obviously, if the IAS is successful in its mission, there will come a time when candidates are not well-known to all, or even most, of their examiners. Secondly, questions such as Who are you and why are you here? or What do you get from the journey of mastering armizare? Why do you want this rank? give a glimpse into the candidate’s mindset, personal aspirations and how they see both the role of armizare and their lives, and theirs in the armizare community. In the end, martial arts (as opposed to simple combatives) are more than pragmatic combat skills; all the more so when the art in question involves using antique weapons: it can and should be about challenging each of us to be better, do better and challenge others to do the same.
On the weekend of 9 – 10 February, the Society held its first Board of Examiners and Prize Play for the rank of Rettore d’Armizare, or Provost.
A Provost was the first of the upper ranks in the medieval fencing guild system, and the first formal teaching rank. Provost generally act under the guidance of a Master, and can teach as heads of chapters or specific programs. It is the first rank that is conveyed directly by the IAS, except in those cases where, for lack of a sponsoring academy, the association has directly awarded the rank of Free Scholar, as noted above. First and foremost, the Provost must have a proven track record in the instruction of the art, and is skilled in all weapons as described by Fiore dei Liberi’s treatise. Continue reading The International Armizare Society’s First Provost Exam! Part 1: Testing Process & Internal Skills Examination→
We now turn to a more in-depth analysis of the technical curriculum Maestro Fiore has left us for how to remedy, or defend, against blows launched from the various guards in either wide (largo) or close (stretto) play. As seen previously, we can define wide play, or zogho largo, as encompassing any action that begins with one of the combatants bridging distance (analogous to the Wide Distance/misura larga/Zufechten of other traditions) and ending with the swords crossed in the middle third (mezza spada).
Dei Liberi divides his instruction into two main groupings: a crossing of the sword in the first third, or punta, and a crossing at the mezza spada, with the majority of the plays falling in the latter category. There has long been a tendency for students to treat these plays in isolation — not just from the larger system, but from each other — and this is understandable, given how the master presents the material: Sometimes providing specific advice for variations to a play, illustrating a follow-on technique in zogho stretto for what to do when a play fails or is countered, discussing in some cases how to come to the half-sword, rather than beginning at the half-sword, etc. However, by carefully studying how the scholar is controlling the Player, both tactically and mechanically, a clear reason for each play and their overall ordering can be deduced.
he Akademia Szermierzy is a Polish HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) academy in Warsaw. While I knew of the Akademia and its members via Facebook, I wasn’t really aware of the focus or quality of their work, other than they were interested in Armizare. So imagine my delight (and the entire Society’s!) when they released a short film presenting their interpretations of Fiore dei Liberi’s swordsmanship, not as a how-to or demo-reel, but as a dramatization of one of the old master’s five duels against rival fencing masters. Since it was released (Aug 13, 2016), the video has garnered 56,000 views and enthusiastic applause from HEMA students across the globe. Certainly, IAS feels it is one of the most dynamic snapshots of our art currently online. (See for yourself, then come back and read the rest of this article!)
aving 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.
he lessons on the two-handed sword begin with two variations of the guard Posta di Donna opposing one another, followed by six unnamed masters. These masters are not so much poste – though many of them do correspond to specific poste, as they do different ways that the sword can be used in combat: in armour and without, in one hand or two, thrown, and so forth. As explains its nature, they reveal the interrelation between the various forms of sword use, the close-quarters methods of the dagger, and specific “mixed weapons” techniques taught at various points throughout the manuscript.
We are two guards and we are alike but contrary to oneanother. As with all other guards in this art, alike guards are contrary to oneanother, with the exception of the point guards (Posta Longa, Breve and Mezza Porta di Ferro); with point guard against point guard, the most extended guard can reach the opponent first. Anyway, what one guard can do, its opposite also can. These guards can perform a volta stabile and a mezza volta. A volta stabile lets you play forward or backward (from one side only), without moving your feet. A mezza volta is when you pass forward or backward, so you can play on the opposite side forward or backward. A tutta volta is when you use one foot to describe a circle around the other foot; in other words, one foot stays in place, the other circles around it. The sword also has three movements: volta stabile, mezza volta and tutta volta. These two guards are both called Posta di Donna. There are four more concepts in this art: passing forward, passing backward, an advancing (accrescimento) of the front foot, and pulling back the front foot (decrescimento).
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 (tr. Tom Leoni)
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.
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
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.
About AEMMA With chapters throughout eastern Canadam AEMMA is one of the first North American HEMA schools, and the group whose presence made the first Western Martial Arts Workshop (1999) in Chicago an “international” event, and long-time promoters of armizare taught in its fullness: from grappling to polearms, in armour and without. In particular, they have placed a strong emphasis on the importance of armoured combat, hosting the first HEMA-inspired armoured tournament (2000) in Toronto. Greg was an early collaborator on AEMMA’s efforts to create a viable system of historically-inspired armoured tournaments, and a decade later, the AEMMA system served as a model for a system developed by Greg, Sean and IAS advisor Bob Charrette, which is now known as the DeKoven Conventions. Furthermore, in 2008, AEMMA provosts Brian McIlmoyle and David Murphy stood as challengers at the first Chicago Swordplay Guild Free Scholar prize, where they and the CSG declared mutual recognition of each other’s ranks. “Your Scholars are our Scholars,” Brian said. This new Declaration is a natural outgrowth of that long-standing recognition. Continue reading Announcement: Declaration of Fraternity with the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts!→
Today’s researchers into the martial arts of Europe come upon a strange paradox: our first known source, Ms. I.33, now found in the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK, is dated to approximately 1300, yet clearly not only possess a systematic, full-developed pedagogical system, but is seemingly designed to counter an even older, “common method,” now lost to us. We then run into a gap of nine decades before our next source, Ms. 3227a (c.1389), found in Nuremburg, Germany. This is our first source in the “Liechtenauer Tradition”, and which opens with the following bold claim:
At first, you should note and know that there is only one art of the sword, and this art may have been developed some hundred years ago. And this art is the foundation and the core of any fencing art and Master Liechtenauer understood and practiced it in its completeness. It is not the case that he invented this art – as mentioned before – but he has traveled many lands, willing to learn and experience the same real and true art.1
The unique culture of the Italian city-states produced a unique military structure. Initially, each city gathered a local militia under the command of its aristocracy, in which the lower classes from the city and its subject territories served as infantry, while the upper classes served as knightly cavalry. The militia conducted regular training sessions and was well-suited to defending its domain or conducting short-term campaigns. However, by the early 1300s this system was collapsing. Increased inter-state violence, a growing preference among wealthy townsmen to hire others to fulfill their military duties, and the despots’ often justified distrust of arming their own subjects led to an almost complete reliance on paid mercenaries, the condottieri.
Named for the condotta, the contract specifying the terms of military service, the condottiero was the consummate professional; well-armed, highly trained and able to remain in the field indefinitely — or at least as long as his employer could make good on his payments; it was quite common for a military captain to switch sides as soon as his contract was either fulfilled or negated. The least savory captains sometimes simply shifted alliances if the tide seemed to be turning.
Fiore dei Liberi’s homeland of Friuli was not spared the constant military engagements that plagued Italy in the last decades of the 14th century, and the civil war that tore the region apart during the 1390s also provides us with some of the more interesting data-points we have regarding the Furlan master-at-arms life and career.
Friuli is a unique region, originally founded by Celtic tribes, during progressive invasions of Romans and Lombards. It grew into a unique culture, whose people speak a unique language to this day, which is related to, but distinct from, Italian. The region was first centered around the ancient Celtic-Roman city of Aquileia, and later Cividale, a city that traced its founding to Julius Caesar himself. By the 14th century, the Patriarchate of Aquileia had become a duchy that included Trieste, Istria, Carinthia, Styria and Cadore, making it one of the largest Italian states of its time, and placing it at the center of the Patriarchate of Aquileia, essentially an area of religious and political administration that became the largest diocese in the middle ages.
The Patriarchate was an ancient bishopric, founded by St. Mark, which had a perpetually uneasy relationship with Rome, and the Patriarchs had played Pope and Emperor against each-other for centuries, with the latter granting them ducal authority in the 1077. However, the power of the Patriarchs began to wane in the 12th century and repeated earthquakes and disasters reduced Aquileia to a few hundred residents by the early 14th century. The bishop’s seat was relocated to Udine, and found itself under increasing attempts to be “brought to heel” by the Papacy.
I will now recall and name some of my students who had to fight in the lists. First among them was the noble and hardy knight Piero dal Verde, who had to fight Piero della Corona. Both of them were German, and the contest had to take place in Perugia. … Another was the famous, gallant and hardy knight Galeazzo di Capitani da Grimello, better known as Galeazzo da Mantova; he had to cross weapons with the famous French knight Boucicault in Padua.
None of my students, in particular the ones I have mentioned, have ever possessed a book on the art of combat, with the exception of Galeazzo da Mantova. Galeazzo used to say that without books, nobody can truly be a Master or student in this art. I, Fiore, agree with this.
Fiore dei Liberi, Il Fior di Battaglia (Getty Ms)
The city-state culture of late medieval Italy produced a unique military structure. Initially, each city produced a local militia under the command of its aristocracy, in which the lower classes from the city and its subject territories served as infantry, while the upper classes served as knightly cavalry. But by the early 1300s this system was collapsing. Increased inter-state violence, a growing preference amongst wealthy townsmen to hire others to fulfill their military duties, and the princes’ often justified distrust of arming their own subjects led to an almost complete reliance on paid mercenaries, the condottieri.
(c) 2010 – 2014 Greg Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild
While Filippo Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria dimicandi differs in the main very little from the work of Fiore dei Liberiin terms of technique, the assertion that Vadi’s work does not differ in method of communication is simply incorrect. The true originality of the De arte gladiatoria dimicandi stands in the sixteen introductory chapters that come before the illustrated leaves. These elegantly written verse chapters constitute the center of Vadi’s work and detail the main principles of swordmanship. They also mark a notable difference in the pedagogical method of the manuscript itself from all three of the dei Liberi texts.
Dei Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia are experiential manuscripts. In the Getty and Pierpoint Morgan manuscripts, the author clearly describes the various guards, attacks and mechanics of the individual techniques. Each illustration follows in a logical sequence, so that a technique is followed by its counter, and then the counter to that counter follows. Dei Liberi also goes to great length to show the repetition of key mechanical concepts, so that an armbar learned in the wrestling section is often pointed out in the dagger plays, and again in the use of the sword.
(c) 2010 – 2014 Gregory Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild
When I teach at workshops and seminars, I am often told something along the lines of this:
I’m surprised that the man who co-authored the reproduction on De arte gladiatoria dimicandi doesn’t work more with the hallmarks of Vadi.
It’s a fair question, and suggests that in 2001, when I was working on my edition of Vadi, I did not yet have enough understanding of the larger dei Liberi tradition to separate Vadi’s brilliance from the marketing hype aimed at securing him a position at the court of Urbino. While Filippo Vadi defines his art as “newly made”, and specifically draws attention to several supposedly unique features, a study of his work against Fiore dei Liberi’s shows that this is a bit of clever marketing on Vadi’s part. As such, Vadi’s value is not in the tweaks he provides to the mainline of the art, but rather in his often detailed explanations of the art’s fundamentals and theory.
A recent email from one of my students asked about Filippo Vadi’s innovations and his role in the dei Liberi tradition, and how they influence what we teach at the CSG. These were such excellent questions that I thought I would share them, polish up my replies and post them here.
As long as I’ve known it, the CSG offers two main initial courses of study: the Renaissance rapier masters of the early 17th century and the medieval dei Liberi tradition. In each class session weall practice abraçare, dagger, and longsword as learned from Fiore dei Liberi’s treatises. To attain the rank of Scholar one must have a certain knowledge about Fiore. Translated quotes from Fiore are often cited in class. Even rapier students are required to learn the abraçare and dagger sections of Fiore, in order to play their prize. In short order, the CSG “teaches Fiore.”
[N.B: This article greatly expands and upon an earlier one “Understanding Wide and Close Play in the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi”, first presented in 2008 and later published with photo interpretations in In the Service of Mars, Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop(1999 – 2009), Vol. I. In addition to a new introduction that is about a third of its entire length, substantial revisions and citations extend throughout the article, so those familiar with the earlier work will still want to read this in its entirety.]
A wide variety of Italian authors, from Giacopo Gelli to the famed fencing master, Luigi Barbasetti, had written on the man and his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further a new generation of Italian researchers, most notably Massimo Malipiero and Giovanni Rapisardi, were also working with this “father of Italian fencing”, building on the work established by Novati almost 100 years earlier.