The Metaphysiks of Armizare; Theory to Doctrine, Doctrine to Practice
By Christian Cameron, IAS
This article is not founded on my belief that I am a particularly gifted swordsperson. Rather, it is founded on the observation that too many swords people with solid training and principles in the art don’t seem to be aware of ways to think about their art or put together various essentials of training which they fully understand into a single, coherent ideal of a system, which they can thus translate into performance (and then practice). Put simply; they know a lot, and yet, they do not fight well.
Let me add that I don’t think I’m going to tell any experienced swordsperson anything they have not heard before. I’m just going to try to codify some things, like a philosopher or theologian. Hence that threatening word, ‘Metaphysiks.’
Everything I say below can be found in the writings of any of the early masters, most specifically Fiore. But they can also be found in different, more modern form, in modern fencing manuals, which tend to be ignored by students of historical swordsmanship. I want to spend a moment on this. I’m an historian; I spend a great deal of time trying to ‘get inside the heads’ of various important persons of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. I am familiar (too familiar) from my knowledge of literature, of philosophy, and even theology, that many times Medieval and Ancient thinkers had thoughts that are very similar or the same to those of modern philosophers and theologians, and yet are given different names and often treated differently because they happened ‘in the past.’ Modern philosophical phenomenologists, for example, have a tendency to spend a good deal of time on Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty1 and not recognize how much of phenomenology might be found in say, European medieval thought or ancient Indian thought or even in the Greek philosophers.
What does this have to do with swordsmanship?
When we look at Fiore, we see an extensive combat system. It’s important to look at it and see that this is, in fact, a document produced in the early fifteenth century, by a fifteenth century mind, for other fifteenth century minds to appreciate and understand. The layout of the book (Fior di Battiglia2 ), while comprehensible to a modern mind, is based on a set of reasons from examples and appeals to ‘scholastic naturalism’ and includes deliberate use of allegory3 (think of those animals). It is NOT laid out for us the way, for example, a modern epee coach would lay out his system4 . I’ve launched on this digression only to assure the reader that I am not trying to ‘import’ modern fencing technique to my historical art. I am, however, trying to make it a whole tactical system with a useable doctrine which appears to me to be inherent, to examine the metaphysical5 aspect of the thought processes that might have been utterly obvious to a man at arms in 1400 and are now opaque, based on a whole lot of considerations.
Perhaps the simplest level of difference lies in the use of the sword. When I go to spar next Sunday night, I risk, at worst, a very minor injury. The number of blows I receive or deal out is inconsequential to my real life; I may be, at worst, mildly humiliated by a series of double hits.
But to a man-at-arms in 1400, every fight represented a possibility of death and a risk of professional humiliation that would carry over into every aspect of his social and financial life. This is an obvious difference; every instructor mentions it, and every student thinks about it, but it’s worth thinking about again in the way we read Fiore and his ideas on fighting. People who use sharp swords to make their livings can afford neither double hits nor errors. They have to structure both training and actual fights to prepare for worst-case scenarios that would, to us, result in nothing worse than a ‘bad fight’ on the salle floor, but to them might result in capture, death, or public humiliation.
Let us, for a moment, be novelists, and try and enter the mind of a man-at-arms in 1400 going to fight publicly, in the lists, with a long sword6 . Let’s examine for a few minutes how he might prepare for a particular fight, and then let’s see what that might tell us about our own fights, different as they may be, and perhaps glance at those interesting early pages in Fiore and all those animals and arms and see what Fiore had to say.
Let’s posit that our man-at-arms is well trained, by professionals, whether by other men-at-arms, by the Master-at-arms in his father’s castle, or by a fencing master. He knows both basics (cuts, thrusts, covers, footwork) and advanced techniques like those held within Fiore’s plays. But (first limitation on our man-at-arms) Fiore himself says that no one can hold the whole of the art in their head. Let’s add to that thought and say that very few fighters, even professionals, can actually master a wide variety of techniques. That is, then, as now, a swordsperson can understand and execute a wide variety of techniques, from simple to complex, but the subset of them that we can deploy effortlessly and almost irresistibly is much smaller.
Let’s take Fiore’s favorite, the combination cover/riposte found repeatedly in the Getty mss. The Master waits in Dente di Cianghiaro and covers the attack with a false edge cut (parry) and immediately attacks with a fendente down the same line. Every student of Fiore knows this combination, but to master it requires (exactly) the same amount of attention that an Olympic fencer gives to his four-six disengage. The timing must be precise; the initial crossing of the opponent’s blade correct; the cover must move the opponent’s blade to an exact place to open the line; the counter-attack must be precise and exactly in tempo. This isn’t really luck; this is just practice. In fact, with enough practice, the Master can cover a variety of attacks that are not exactly perfect and utilize them to obtain the same result.
Right. Here’s the thing; our man-at-arms has a living to make and a horse to groom; he can’t master too many of these techniques. Here’s a bit of data from the modern world; a former Olympian once said you only need an Olympic level four-six disengage and two other techniques to make the highest pool in any tournament (later, and with some irony, he added that he had meant ‘alongside a thorough proficiency in every other part of fencing…). I think that is a valid comment for our man-at-arms, especially as he ALSO has to concern himself with fighting on horseback, basic military tactics, managing the men under him, and his financial contracts, not to mention his own ‘real life’ of wife, children, etc. So I’ll posit that our man-at-arms has three very good techniques, as well as a host of others he ‘knows’ and a few that are ‘good.’ It could be five or ten; three is not a magic number, merely one we can all appreciate.
Second limitation; fatigue. Anyone who fights knows that fatigue degrades performance. Sometimes the degradation is remarkable; techniques you can reliably perform ‘fresh’ are too slow or imprecise ’tired’ and for those of us who fight in harness, the fifth fight of the day is an almost entirely different fight from the first. Our man-at-arms, if he is going to fight in the lists, needs to know all about his own body and fatigue. It is interesting to me to note, scanning Chivalric combats in our time period, how few offered the combatants multiple opponents in a single day on foot7 . Many deeds offered three weapons against a single opponent; even those were often spread over days. A modern HEMA tournament with pools and combinations can force an ‘unarmoured’ contestant to face seven or nine combats, each for multiple passes, in a single day; an armoured deed will routinely expect the chivalric combatant to face five or seven combats and sometimes more (I think seventeen is the most I’ve done.). Right then… Fatigue, then, as now, is a factor; and if we imagine that our man-at-arms faces battle instead of chivalric contest, the level of fatigue may become the single greatest determinant of technique.
Third limitation: The adversary. In a chivalric contest, an adversary might be a total stranger or a well-known rival or even a friend. Leaving aside the well-known adversary, a stranger could be a baffling intellectual problem. Fiore is quite clear in demanding that we spend time examining our adversary8 , evaluating his reach, his strength, his sword, his courage. In armour a major point must have been analysis of the opponent’s defences; how much armour, worn where, with what limitations9 ? What range of movement, what uncovered joints? (I will not, in this article, discuss armour, but of course, there is your own’; you own weaknesses, your own limitations on movement, on range of motion, etc.)
Fourth limitation, mentioned several times by Fiore but in medieval terms10 ; the man-at-arm’s own mind. His valor, or courage, is really nothing more (we now know) than the sum of his training and his self-confidence and his experience of combat. But the very ways in which Fiore addresses valor, ‘ardimento’ tell us about hesitation, insecurity, and doubt. The knights in chivalric romance almost never experience doubt. That’s not because real knights didn’t experience it; that’s because they knew it was a killer, and they assumed that people like Gawain and Lancelot must have been free of it.
So. here is our professional warrior. He’s entering the lists from a pavilion; he sees his opponent for the first time. He has three great techniques and a bunch of good ones; he’s fresh, and he’s confident. He examines his adversary as Fiore says; whether he is stronger or bigger, older or younger, and whether he comes on garde in one of the gardes of abrizare. And where he’s armoured.
This is because, then, as now, everything should proceed from easiest to hardest.
The first question our man-at-arms asks of his opponent is ‘Are you easy?’ If the man comes into the lists, postures a little, and then settles into some untrained posture…
He’s easy. This virtually defines how to handle him. Any man-at-arms of the era must have known a few techniques to he could perform in perfect safety against a virtually untrained opponent.11
Even with an untrained opponent, our man-at-arms, who plans to die in bed of old age, is cautious. When the adversary holds his blade out in an incompetent version of posta breve, our man-at-arms will test his garde with a safe crossing… If the adversary shows no sign of understanding what to do from that cross…
We can all imagine what happens next. (We don’t’ have to imagine, though, because the first three plays of Spada a due mana12 show us exactly.)
Case Two. Our man’s adversary strikes a garde. Immediately we’re on a different plane. Now our adversary has declared that he’s trained; now our man-at-arms must play a different game. Even so, we can read his mind. We can read it because most gardes proclaim their intentions, despite various deceptions. So let’s limit this; our man-at-arms has three techniques at which he excels. So the next question must be, ‘can I reach the position to execute my best technique with my opponent in this garde?’
Let’s say, for example, that our man-at-arm’s best technique is the Dente di Cianghiaro sotano to a fendente combination. If the adversary is in Posta Di Donna and showing ‘fendente’, why, everything is ready for a very brief confrontation…
Well, except for the whole ‘your life is on the line’ part. Caution should now cause our man-at-arms to circle warily, watch for footwork errors, and try some very safe single-intention attacks with excellent body structure and an intention to retreat. Just to make sure our adversary isn’t lightning fast, or superbly trained, or surprisingly strong in binds. A testing period must usually happen, unless one or the other contestants is exceptionally aggressive or confident. Leaving this aside though, if our man’s best technique is the Dente-di Cianghiaro sottano combo, and his opponent throws a fendente, he’s going to perform it. And the deed is done. Again, we know what happens.
But what if the annoying adversary refuses to provide a nice straightforward fendente? (like everyone.) What if the adversary instead throws ‘light’ fendentes out of measure, or to the hands; or deceptive fendentes that change line behind the head from dritto to reverso? Or no fendentes at all? What if our adversary resolutely insists on throwing thrusts to the hand, and sottanos from a left side guard?
Our man needs to parry and make other choices. He needs to move to the next best of his techniques. Nor can he linger, playing for the moment when the fendente appears; he has to know very quickly that there won’t be a fendente. Maybe the man has seen our guy in the lists; maybe he just doesn’t have a strong fendente.
Right, let’s say our men-at-arms has a superb ‘exchange of thrusts.’ So he unlimbers it (this is how I think of the moment when I change tack in a fight; I reach into the bag of tricks and pull out another). He’s seen a couple of careful thrusts. He offers an open line (which of course he knows how to do; an invitation…) and prepares himself to exchange. He’s also calling on his courage; after all, he’s gong to have to step forward into a thrust. I mean, he’ll actually pass forward while parrying, but the ‘feeling’ is of pushing forward into the oncoming blade…
Our adversary throws a thrust, with or without deceptions. And again, we know how this ends…13
In the worst case, our adversary either never throws another thrust, or has read our man-at-arms all too well. In the worst case, our adversary is as good as our man. They circle, fighting for mesura. They try to achieve the situation that allows them to use their best techniques. Time is passing, and fatigue is setting in. And confidence is ebbing. Both opponents have used their best techniques, or rather, failed to use them. It is possible that our man’s dente-di cianghiaro combo failed. Perhaps our adversary’s deceptive thrust was covered.
Now what happens?
Remember, life and reputation is on the line; this is not a bout on the salle floor.
Our man-at-arms must now take greater risks. In fact, if you examine his meta-system, you’ll see that it’s all risk based; first, try to do something easy and safe, then try something a little less easy and a little less safe. Now our man is facing, as he gets tired, the possibility that he has to attempt something difficult and risky. He can attempt to pull off a technique that he knows, but has not perfected; he can try to use his best techniques again (but against the possibility that his adversary has read them and will now have a devastating counter14 ) he can wait for his adversary to make a mistake (like as I say, re-using one of those practiced techniques). All of these are valid approaches. This isn’t a novel. I won’t tell you which he does, although I will propose a likely fourth choice that perhaps he ought to try;
Fiore’s system in Fior di Battiglia doesn’t dwell on single intention attacks. I assume this is because everyone had a teacher and a pell, and everyone had a good thrust and a bunch of good cuts. But I am going to note that if BOTH opponents are tired (and this might be where that young man/old man thing comes in15 ) then it would be the lowest risk to try simple attacks on exposed targets. Alternatively (the fifth option) it may be time for grappling; grapples that fail when the adversary is fresh may be easy when he is tired. Sniping from distance while preparing to grapple if the opponent stands his ground or closes might be the natural result of detecting opponent fatigue.
In summation: our man-at-arms has started with low-risk techniques and gradually moved to more complex techniques, until he has reached a state of fatigue at which he feels his own performance has degraded and he returns to simpler techniques, OR he feels he’s fresher than the opponent and plays to close after ‘testing his armour’ with some simple hard blows. Our man-at-arms did all those without much conscious thought. This is his doctrine. A doctrine is ‘an established procedure for a complex operation’ according to the US Military. It’s the way you choose to perform your art every time you face an opponent. Its single greatest advantage is that you do not have to think, only execute; you can be tired and afraid and under-slept and you still know, in your bones how to deal with a complex problem.
As a side point, and to provoke debate, this is how I read all the plays of every part of Armizare; Fiore is telling us; ‘try this, this works against most people’ and he moves within techniques from simple to complex, and then, in meta-theory, he moves from ‘you’ll face this all the time’ to ‘this hardly ever happens but…’ As well as from ‘this is perfectly safe given these controls’ to ‘this punta falsa play is chancy at the best of times and even has a counter.’16 You may agree or disagree with this digression, and it will not change the fundamental point. Our man-at-arms has a doctrine because he has to know how to fight when tired or demoralized, when his opponent is bigger or smaller or older or younger; the sheer variety of permutations plus the risk of his life will mitigate him to have a set of standard responses and standard, low risk solutions.
So… what about you and me and the salle floor?
This fencing theory begins and ends with training and practice. The foundation is a thorough knowledge of the art, but the walls and roof are the perfection or near perfection of a number of techniques to be deployed tactically. If you think of training this way, you’ll never be bored in class again; you can always improve your fight by working on the details of your technique, with purpose. Choose three things you like, you enjoy, and you have the aptitude for, and work on them a great deal. But don’t forget the rest; it’s no good having a profound theory like Porthos if you can get hit with a single intention cut to the wrist. Practice, practice, practice.
When you face an opponent, think, briefly, before you step in distance, about your doctrine. You can do this as a meditative ritual, staring at your sword hilt, or you can do it intellectually. Either way, do it. Remind yourself of the two or three things you do well, and consider what your first garde will be and why.
There’s no requirement that you base your doctrine on lowest risk to highest. I know very good Olympic fencers who often begin with a complex attack; I know one who likes to start difficult bouts with a fleche. Our lives are not on the line. But… assuming we are fencing with strangers, it really is useful to start with the ‘are you easy’ step in the doctrine. So many HEMA fencers have simple flaws in basic gardes (especially centerline thrust defences) that it is worth having, for example, a really fast centerline thrust and a nice offline-step wrist-cut in your arsenal to deploy early. Think of the energy and time you can save when you find your opponent has no response to an outside-inside deception thrust. (NB. As an instructor, I think it is unsporting to hit a person the same way more than twice in a bout and I will not, no matter how bad a particular defence is; there’s more to life than winning. But for a student, if you can land five straight thrusts, do it. If nothing else, your opponent just learned what he or she needs to focus on next class.)
And it is probably worth noting, if you’ve made it this far, that when you practice those ‘easy’ techniques, you want to practice instant following parries and/or withdrawals. Why? Well, you don’t want to get hit while deploying an ‘easy’ against that deceptive 8th grader (this happened to me when I was 19.) Like our man-at-arms, a little caution and humility will keep you from being scored against during the testing process. It is possible to launch a good attack with the ‘intention’ of withdrawal or a parry; you set your mind to it as the next step, you are prepared for a good hard counter-attack. Again, that’s just practice. And doctrine; don’t get hit while making simple attacks is a fundamental part of my fencing doctrine; it affects the way I practice and the way I learn new techniques and, well, everything.
Now, of course, all too few opponents are easy. The next step is against a peer; she may be better than you, the same, or slightly ‘worse’ (actually, these terms are meaningless as different people fight differently on different days). Regardless, against a peer, you look for the opening for your best techniques. Perhaps you’ve even gone so far as to practice set-ups for garde changes to allow/force the exchange you want to make your technique work. Right? I mean, you have considered that no one is going to throw you a straight fendente unless you put them in a position where they have to throw it, right17 ?
Let me give you an example. My favorite play in armour is to wait in the Vera croce garde18 from Fiore until my opponent either throws a thrust or offers his blade in posta breve. That’s’ all very nice, but no one does anymore. (OK, people do occasionally but it’s a treat and it hardly ever happens). So I have a veritable arsenal of techniques (which require practice) to lure my opponent into thrusting or presenting their blade. The simplest is that I’ll wait in Dente di Cianghiare. Now, with a flick of my blade, I’m in Vera Croce, but I don’t look like I’m in Vera Croce. And my Dente di Cianghiare is an invitation (to some) for a thrust. This is the simplest level of the techniques to enable my vera croce technique.19
Pardon the digression; it was done merely to illustrate the effort required to reliably get hits from your best techniques in your doctrine, leaving as little to chance as possible. Ideally, one might have techniques to lead any opponent from any garde to the line you desire; the real life truth is this will fall afoul of our ‘three things’ theory (maybe that’s just me and you have ten things, in which case, I admire you).
Regardless, we move, in doctrine, from easy to hard. From the simplest quick hits to the most complicated second intention techniques.
Until we’re tired. Then like our man-at-arms, we have to evaluate our own fatigue and our opponents. I actually have two different sub-doctrines because I’m over 50; one for when everyone’s tired (last pool) and one for when I’m the only one who is tired. I have whole array of stupid and simple techniques to unlimber when I’m tired. I shut down all the complex stuff, make parries…
It doesn’t matter what I do; it’s enough to know that fatigue is a determinant in doctrine. Learn how you degrade and play to that; some people play close ‘well’ when tired, others can’t afford the energy burn, etc. Consider whether your deceptions are any good when you are tired; my observations is that most people’s deceptions, at some point, become a literal loss of a tempo; no one is deceived, and in fact, some opponents will just hit you.
But the point is, have a doctrine that includes fatigue.
Have a doctrine that includes nerves; have a doctrine you can play with a hangover or a pulled muscle. Base the doctrine on your theory; on the overall impact of the system you have learned, on what interests or excites you in the system, on what you are currently studying. Any of those is fine. And then practice the elements of your doctrine within that system repeatedly, so that the theory becomes physical reality in your hands.
Here is a summary of the regimen.
- Learn Armizare. You can’t cut this step; you need to know the whole of the art, not just a few pieces.
- Learn a variety of simple attacks and covers that will give you most of your hits and defend you when you are tired. (Never be tired of working on that straight thrust from poste breve…)
- Find some particular techniques that appeal to you. It doesn’t really matter why; they could be better because of your long arms, or simply have the highest cool factor. Practice them endlessly. Practice them 10K times, under duress, against opponents, against resistance.
- Based on the techniques you prefer, create a tactical doctrine, and start to practice sub-techniques to lead your opponents into your carefully practiced techniques.
- Learn to identify other combatant’s mastery of specific techniques. And to counter or avoid them.
- Be critical of your own attempts, especially at deceptions. No matter how well you perform a play, if your companion doesn’t buy your deception, you need to work on it more.
Last tidbit. This regimen is especially frustrating if you mostly only face combatants from your own club or salle. After all, they see you all the time and they know your best tricks. But this should only add to your determination, as de Charny says, to go further afield and test yourself and your art against other clubs and salles. Eventually you will find yourself in Italy, in armour. See you there.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, and politics. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine established by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945. ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 ↩
C.S. Lewis ‘Allegory of Love’ (Oxford 1936) gives a superb overview of the birth of allegory in the west and its domination of the medieval mind. When a medieval thinker shows you a lion and tells you to have courage, he means it. ↩
An excellent example might be found in Epee 2.0: The Birth Of The New Fencing Paradigm, by Johan Harmenburg; an entire system, almost an independent theory, laid out in modern ‘science-speak.’ ↩
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things. We’re examining the ‘first principles’ of fighting. ↩
So, this is to me an essential point; I only practice the art because I WANT to enter into the mind of the man-at-arms of 1400. I am, as Guy Windsor said, a reenactor first. And a phenomenologist. I want to experience the past. ↩
Deeds of Arms’ and ‘ ‘Jousts and Tournaments’ by Steven Muhlberger, Chivalry Bookshelf 2002 ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 1v ‘When you engage in abrazare, you must assess whether your opponent is stronger or bigger than you and whether he is younger or older. You also need to take note of whether he places himself in any of the guards of abrazare’ Trans. Tom Leone ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 35r ‘Io son scolaro dello magistro contrario che m’è denanzi e complisco lo suo zogho. quando lo zugadore è voltado subito io lo fiero di dredo sotto lo brazzo suo dritto. E per sotto lo camaglio in la coppa della testa, overo in le nadeghe del culo cum riverencia, overo sotto gli zinochi, overo in altro logo che trovo discoverto.’ ‘I can take my pick: I can hit him in the back of the head under the mail coif, or in his buttockjs (with all respect) or under the knees or anywhere I see an opening.’ ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 32r ‘Più de mi Leone non porta core ardito, però di bataglia fazo a zaschun invito’ ‘I am the lion. Nobody carries a more courageous heart. I offer everyone battle.’ Translation Tom Leone. NB this is incorrectly done on the Wiktenauer, where it claims the Lion rules Forteza (2/11/17). ↩
Do you? Untrained opponents, especially fast, strong ones can be tricky unless you know the ways to get them without fuss. It makes a good class for advanced students of the art… ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 25r/25v ↩
Ludwig XV 13 26v ↩
I’m not here to outline a whole theory of fencing; Fiore does it better than I. But there is a whole style of ‘modern’ (1950s) fencing that says, analyze the opponent, read his best attack, wait for him to use it the third time, and take him with a counter. This is pretty intellectual, but it is also very reliable, especially if you have plenty of Ardimento and Prestesa too. ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 1v ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 27v ↩
If you have not, that’s fine. Welcome to theory. And thanks for reading this far! ↩
MS Ludwig XV 13 Folio 32v ↩
Again, this is not quoted because I am so very good, but merely as an example of how the theory of deception, mentioned repeatedly in Fiore’s text, can be used to place an opponent in a position to be hit with a Fioresque technique. This may appear to be a modernism; it is not. It’s in Fiore. ↩