Category Archives: Historical Context

Understanding the Florius Manuscript

Part One: A Beautiful Mess; the Florius as a Martial Arts Treatise

The Flower of Battle (Flos Duellatorum in Latin or Fior di Battaglia in Italian) of Fiore dei Liberi (c. 1350—before 1425) comes down to us in four manuscripts:

  • Getty MS Ludwig XV 13;1
  • Morgan Library M.383;
  • a copy privately held by the Pisani-Dossi family;
  • Bibliothèque National de France MS Latin 11269.2

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?

Sadly, no.

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:

Scambiar di Punta in the Florius Ms. Note that the hands are not low, as advised by Fiore, and indeed, the sword isn’t actually binding, nor is the point even on target!

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

Miscellaneous Examples

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.


  1. a complete translation and edition is available as Tom Leoni and Gregory Mele, Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi — Volume One: The Getty Manuscript and Historical Context, Freelance Academy Press (2018). 

  2. a complete translation and edition is available as Ken Mondschein and Gregory Mele, Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, Volume III — The Florius Manuscript, Freelance Academy Press (2018). 

  3. all of which are detailed in Flowers of Battle Volume III: Florius de Arte Luctandi 

  4. The Morgan and PD manuscripts show both figures crowned, as is shown in the Florius — which remains an error in transmission. 

  5. 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. 

An Interview with Fiore dei Liberi’s stunt double….

Alphabet - The 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!)

Continue reading An Interview with Fiore dei Liberi’s stunt double….

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

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

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

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

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

Fiore dei Liberi and the Gladiatoria Tradition — A Comparative Analysis

[Nota Bene: IAS is pleased to present our first article from a Society Affiliate — Mr. Mauro Carapacchi of of Rieti, Italy. A founder of the group Mos Ferri, Mr. Carapacchi first encountered Fiore dei Liberi through the realm of historical reenactment. Today he works to understand the martial art of Armizare, with a particular interest in armoured combat. He maintains his own blog, where he has provided a free translation of the Gladiatoria Manuscript into Italian. — ed.]

Under the name “Gladiatoria” we can identify a group of early XV century manuscripts covering the art of fighting in armour, joined by stylistic form of pictures and some technical peculiarities.

Continue reading Fiore dei Liberi and the Gladiatoria Tradition — A Comparative Analysis

Measuring Success: the Role of Freeplay & Competition in Training

Freeplay

IAS Schools employs a variety of models for freeplay (sparring).  The bridge between strict drills and complete freeplay is in the form of exercises with certain parameters in which actions are limited to specific techniques.  Such exercises can more or less limit the scope of possibilities, and are designed to focus the student’s attention on specific aspects of the art as applied in the fight.  Since any limitation introduced necessarily distorts the reality of the art’s application, conditions in these drills are usually changed frequently from more limitations to fewer, consistent with the student’s level of ability.

Sean Hayes (r) fighting Axel Petterson (l)
The author (right) fighting Axel Petterson at Longpoint 2014. Axel took 1st in the tournament.

It is important to understand that even freeplay has limitations placed on it.  The most obvious limitations are that we use blunt weapons and protective equipment, we play so as to minimize the possibility of injury, and our intent is not lethal – quite the opposite!  Safety is always our first priority.  The effect of all this is to remove the very natural fear one would have with sharp weapons and lethal intent, to remove the caution that fear would inspire, and to encourage behavior that is not consistent with a real fight.

Because of these considerations, students must: Continue reading Measuring Success: the Role of Freeplay & Competition in Training

The Mystery of Ioannes Suuenus and Nicholai de Toblem

(c) Gregory Mele, 2014

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

Continue reading The Mystery of Ioannes Suuenus and Nicholai de Toblem


  1. Ms. 3227a, 13v. Translation by Thomas Stoeppler. 

Captains of Fortune: the Rise of the Condottieri in the 14th Century

croarpad_renaissanceThe 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.

Continue reading Captains of Fortune: the Rise of the Condottieri in the 14th Century

The Friulian Civil War

(c) Gregory D. Mele, 2014

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 city of Udine, as depicted in a Renaissance-era map. The city became the center of Ghibelline resistance in the Patriarchate War of Succession.
The city of Udine, as depicted in a Renaissance-era map. The city became the center of Ghibelline resistance in the Patriarchate War of Succession.

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.

Continue reading The Friulian Civil War

Galeazzo da Montova: Portrait of a Condottiero Captain

(c) 2013, Gregory D. Mele

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.

Continue reading Galeazzo da Montova: Portrait of a Condottiero Captain