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Useful Notes: European Swordsmanship
Given the breadth of information that could be covered under this topic, this page desperately needs knowledgable contributors. Don't be afraid to start a new section if your area of knowledge or expertise has gone unmentioned.
The swordsmanship discussed in this article mainly pertains to Medieval and Renaissance martial arts practised by the Germans, Italians, English, Spanish and French in particular. This article does not cover classical or Olympic fencing, which is a sport rather than a martial art.
In most media, swordsmanship as practised by Europeans before the Early Modern period is considered to be slow, pondering and lacking in finesse. This is not historical fact, although such depictions may be forgiven on the basis that what we do
know has surfaced relatively recently. It can be thought that such depictions are based on "absence of evidence is evidence of absence", which is fallacious but not the point of this article. In stark contrast, Eastern swordsmanship — especially Japanese — is given deific significance and abilities, with many people unironically believing that a katana is capable of stopping a bullet or penetrating tank armour
. While there is no doubt that such swords and their martial arts were and are formidable, their Western counterparts certainly match them in both potential and practise. Observant students of European and Japanese swordsmanship will also note a stunning amount of similarity in the techniques utilized in both styles.
To learn about the virtues of Japanese swordsmanship, see Kenjutsu
Western swordsmanship has historically included each of the following armaments at various times:
- The Longsword: a type of straight, double-edged sword with a grip long enough for two hands and a simple cross-guard that was in use circa 1350-1550. Longswords were usually about 120-135 cm (4-4.5 ft) in total length with blades of about 90-105 cm (36-42"), and weighed between 1100 and 1600 g (2.5 and 3.5 pounds). They were designed to be used mainly in two hands.
- Although occasionally considered a form of longsword itself, the bastard sword was actually a related sword somewhat shorter than the true longsword, sized in between the longword and arming sword in length, and could easily be used as both. Also generally called a "hand and a half" sword, since the grip was generally not long enough to fully accommodate both hands, but rather one hand and a couple fingers of the second.
- The Arming Sword: the classic medieval knightly sword, designed for use in one hand, and a direct descendant of the Roman spatha and Viking-era swords. They were seldom more than 90 cm or 3 ft in total length, and most weighed about 1200 g or 2.5 lb. Arming swords were typically not wielded alone, and instead were more commonly wielded as:
- Sword and shield: Exact construction depended on the time period, but the shield was almost universally made of layered wooden planks faced with linen or leather. The rim could be either leather or iron. Early shields were held using a center grip in the manner of a buckler, with an iron boss to protect the hand. Later, leather straps called "enarmes" were used. Many shields could be carried on the shoulder using a sling called a "guige". Shield shape evolved and varied throughout the time period, from the round shields most common in the Migration Era and Early Middle Ages, to the kite shield with its elongated tip to protect the leg, to the classic knightly "heater" shield. The increasing prevalence of plate armor in the 15th centuries soon rendered the shield superfluous, so the sword and shield combination largely faded from use by the later Middle Ages, being displaced by the longsword and other two-handed arms such as the halberd on the battlefield, and the easier to carry sword and buckler for personal defense off the field.
- Sword and Buckler: A buckler is a small, usually round shield about a foot in diameter with a simple grip for the left hand in the center. They were either made entirely of steel, or out of wood with an iron boss and an iron or rawhide rim. While the sword and shield became less popular as time passed due to the increasing presence of full-body plate armor, (which made the shield redundant) sword and buckler remained in use, particularly for personal defense, where the smaller buckler was easier to carry than a full-sized shield. This weapon pair was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and is the source of the word "swashbuckler".
- The Messer: A characteristically German type of great knife or short sword with a slightly curved single-edged blade, typically being 75 cm (30 inches long) and weighing between 900 and 1200 g (2-2.5 lb). The hilt had a simple cross-guard with a small side protrusion called the "nagel" to provide some minimal protection for the hand, while the handle consisted of two bone or wooden panels riveted to the flat tang and ended with a small pommel. They were wielded alone or with a buckler.
- An extension of this was a weapon known as the kriegsmesser; essentially a messer the size of a full-length longsword! Little is known for certain how this particular weapon was used, but what evidence is available suggests it was wielded in much the same manner as the longsword and two-handed sword.
- The Two-Handed Sword: The largest sword in western martial arts which ranged about 140-170 cm (55-67 in.) in total length and weighed 5-7 lb. Blades were about 100-130cm (40-50") and often featured a ricasso with parrying hooks at the base, and the enormous hilts featured crossguards and handles of 45 cm (18 in) each on large examples. It could only be practically used on foot with two hands. It was favored by elite mercenaries and bodyguards, as well as anyone facing multiple opponents.
- The Side Sword: A single-handed cut-and-thrust sword popular from about the mid-15th to late 16th centuries that fell between the medieval arming sword and the later rapier in terms of form and handling characteristics. The main change from medieval times was a more protective hilt and a ricasso that facilitated wrapping a finger over the crossguard for better point control during thrusts. The blade was slightly longer and narrower than before but could still cut very effectively. The side sword could be wielded alone or with a buckler, dagger, or shield in the other hand.
- The Rapier: A single-handed sword with a complex hilt and a long, narrow blade that emphasized thrusting. Long rapiers typically weighed between 900 and 1400 g (2-3.1 lb) and had blades about 97-114 cm (38"-45") long from cross guard to point, although the more extravagant examples could be even longer. Having developed from the side-sword, they were most popular from the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Although in later times it became increasingly common to wield the rapier alone, the rapier was frequently used with a companion weapon such as the parrying dagger, the buckler, improvised weapons such as a cloak or lantern, or—most unusually of all—a second rapier.
- Espada ropera: A Spanish dressing sword, double-edged, the precursor to the rapier. It was usually slightly heavier and longer than a typical rapier and was worn in court as part of one's ropa, or clothing. Often had a cup hilt in addition to a cross guard. The word rapier derives from “ropera”.
- The Backsword: A broad-bladed, single-edged one-handed sword often fitted with a basket hilt that fully protected the hand. These and double-edged basket hilts were sometimes called broadswords to distinguish them from rapiers. These were common military swords during the 17th-18th centuries and had an enduring popularity with the highland Scots.
- The Smallsword: A small, nimble thrusting sword which eventually replaced the rapier and was popular from about 1650-1800. They were shorter than rapiers, with blades of about 33"-36" (84-92 cm) long and could be as light as 500 g or 1 lb, with 1000 g or 2 lb being the upper limit. Instead of a swept hilt they had a relatively simple shell guard and knuckle bow. The modern fencing foil is descended from practice versions of this weapon.
For further detail on sword types, see Swords
While we use the word "swordsmanship" here, the martial art commonly incorporated these as well:
- The dagger, which was commonly worn both on street and on battlefield.
- The spear, halberd, poleaxe, and other shafted weapons a knight might use.
- Grappling, which could be practiced unarmed but was also frequently useful in armed combat.
Pinning down common concepts in European swordsmanship is difficult, because at least one historical swordmaster will have a technique that contradicts the established concept. Time, geography and armament all influence what is considered "proper" fighting, so each individual type of fighting requires its own explanation.
Medieval and Renaissance Kunst des Fechtens (lit. "Art of Fighting"), German Longsword
The contributions of the German fightmasters ("fechtmeister") of the medieval era cannot be overstated. They provide the greatest volume of information and instruction of any other group of historical masters. One of the first of these men was Johannes Liechtenauer, who was born in the late 13th or early 14th century and whose teachings would go on to be the most influential in Central Europe. Until the release of these techniques by fechtmeister Sigmund Ringeck in the 15th century, only a select few picked by Liechtenauer or his students could learn this art. Note that Liechtenauer wrote his manual in merkverse, which is a coded poem. The function of this is twofold; firstly to prevent outsiders to the art from gleaning its secrets and secondly to provide a mnemonic device for Liechtenauer's students.
The Italian school of the longsword is best codified by the fencing master Fiore dei Liberi. However though there are subtle differences in the guards, the German and Italian schools are very closely related to one another, with many of the same cuts and techniques. Some new scholarly research suggests that Fiore himself might have been a student of Liechtenauer, and incorporated his teachings into the Italian school.
Most German masters reference Liechtenauer's Bloßfechten
at least, which is the most fundamental part of the martial art. It means "unarmoured fighting", being at its most effective when used against an adversary with light or no armour. The Bloßfechten is not quite that limited, however, as the techniques and concepts taught reappear throughout later sections and students are encouraged not to use just one part of the manual, but to use concepts from different parts together. Prime examples of masters who wrote based on Liechtenauer's merkverse are Dobringer, Ringeck and Talhoffer.
German manuals mostly deal with the longsword and messer, although sometimes sword and buckler techniques are also included. While they also include spear, dagger, wrestling and general unarmed techniques, they are directly related to the teachings on swordsmanship, working in unison to produce a holistic martial art for combat with any weapon or none at all. Note, however, that it is necessary to comprehend and practise the unarmed aspects of the martial art for true competence, as sword fights were often resolved with the assistance of wrestling and grappling.
The most important aspect of German swordsmanship is its baleful attitude towards defense
. German masters advocated offense as the best means of survival, under the premise that an adversary too preoccupied with defending poses no threat to you. There are no techniques in the manuals that are purely
defensive in nature, as the Germans advocated either defending an attack in a way that simultaneously defends against the incoming attack and
delivers a counter of one's own, or defending with a technique that allows regaining initiative to prepare for delivering a killing blow or another strike. Ideally, one strikes before the adversary, takes initiative and presses that advantage to end the fight instantly. Obviously, this cannot be relied upon, so there are various techniques for bindsnote
and other occurrences. In any sword fight, the most "perfect" action to the least "perfect" action is as follows:
- Strike in such a way that you make contact with your adversary while closing off their line of attack. In this case, your strike is both a deadly offense and indomitable defense.
- Strike in such a way that your strike defends from your adversary's strike while continuing to threaten them.
- Passively defend from an adversary's strike. (It is him who should be pushed into defensive.)
German swordsmanship also has a tendency to feature the false edgenote
as an offensive tool more often than its foreign equivalents. Generally, the true edge is a superior offensive tool, but the false edge is marvelous for sneak attacks and other, more tactical applications. For instance, one may employ the false edge under the assumption that their strike will be parried. If this is the case, one's hand is held differently to when a true edge strike is made, allowing for different options when it comes to binds and redoubled strikes.
One core concept is that all practitioners should move from guard position to guard position. A guard position is not necessarily a defensive position, although some may act in this way. Instead, guard positions are stances from which one can begin techniques and thereby threaten an adversary. This way, Liechtenauer's art of swordsmanship begins and ends all techniques in guards; this ensures that all practitioners are ready to defend themselves at all times unless they are already attacking an adversary, in which case they are forcing said adversary to respond. Following are the four main guards:
- Vom Tag
- Middle: Held at the left or right side, at the chest or shoulder, with the sword pointing directly upwards or at a small backwards angle. This is the most versatile guard from which to launch attacks, as any strike can come from this guard with near equal efficiency. This is the same as hasso-no-kamae in kenjutsu
- High: Held above the head with the sword angled no more than forty-five degrees backwards. From this position, descending strikes are powerful and fast. This is the same as jodan-no-kamae in kenjutsu.
- Ochs: Held with the hilt at ear height or a little higher, blade pointing at one's adversary or hanging somewhat, and held on either the left or right side. This is a strong guard from which to thrust, launch descending strikes and defend from incoming descending strikes.
- Pflug: Held with the hilt at hip height, blade pointing at the adversary's head or torso, and held on either the left or right side. Much like Ochs, it is a strong position from which to thrust, but it is better at launching rising strikes and defending the lower openings.
- Alber: Held with the hilt at hip height, blade pointing down and forward at an even angle, and held in the middle of the body. A highly defensive guard, it invites attack while remaining in a strong position to defend from any strike which doesn't target the head from above. This is the same as gedan-no-kamae in kenjutsu.
The strikes are aimed at one of the four openings.note
A strike should come from your stronger side (ie. right if you are right-handed), either from above (oberhau
) or below (unterhau
) and go together with legwork. In all fights, it is your goal to cause your adversary to over-commit to the defense of an opening and strike at whichever opening is both closest and undefended.
There are five special strikes within the German school referred to as the Meisterhau
, or "Master Strikes". These are designed to attack and defend in a single technique while displacing the most common and useful guards, the best form of defense as mentioned above. The design of these strikes are such that, even if done imperfectly, they aim to lend you advantage for further techniques. Following are the five strikes:
- Zornhau: A descending diagonal strike favoured for its simplicity, ease of use and versatility.
- Zwerchhau: A horizontal strike with a hanging point, aimed at the adversary's neck or head. It displaces high strikes and guards, aiming to close off the high line of attack.
- Krumphau: A variable strike that attacks the hands or blade of one's adversary, forcing an opening for an additional technique.
- Schielhau: A descending strike with the false edge, used to break low pointing guards and defeat adversaries that rely on strength.
- Scheitelhau: A descending vertical strike performed with the arms outstretched using geometry to defeat low guards and strikes.
Except for Zornhau
, these are all displacements
, or techniques designed to defeat particular guards or strikes.
Harnischfechten (Armoured Combat)
What is known to an even lesser degree than Blossfechten is the fact that a fight against an armoured adversary was significantly different from a fight against a lightly armoured or unarmoured one. The reason for this is that a sword cut is a poor offense against an adversary in mail or plate, which provides complete protection against cutting. Thus comes the need for a separate set of techniques:
- Half-swording, where the off hand grips the blade at the middle of its length. Used this way, a sword becomes more akin to a short spear and lever, where the point seeks out weaknesses in armour;
- Blunt strikes, where the pommel is used to bludgeon the opponent. This can be done simply by striking with the pommel, if it's convenient at the moment (for example, when the pommel gets close to the opponent's face while you attempt a more complicated technique). The other way is the mordschlagnote technique, where the sword is gripped with both hands on the blade and swung so the pommel or crossguard (or both) strikes one's adversary. This way, the sword imitates a mace or warhammer. Furthermore, the crossguard can be used as a hook for controlling an adversary's neck or limbs;
- One may also, of course, wrestle the opponent to soften him up, then throw him to the ground, disarm, or finish off with a dagger.
Such techniques are also useful against unarmoured adversaries at short distances or in confined spaces where swinging a sword is impractical or impossible. There are also a variety of miscellaneous instances where such techniques may be useful, even in an area where regular sword technique is entirely applicable. For instance, a sword may imitate a staff with half-swording; by pulling on one's own blade with the off hand during a bind, they can make a second strike to the same side of their adversary, this time with the pommel. While risky, such a technique can also take one "inside" the enemy's sword, a range too close in for their adversary to effectively wield it. Manipulating range like this is also an important technique against polearms, which are generally better at defeating armour than swords.
By examining armoured an unarmoured techniques, it becomes apparent that the martial art is meant to be implemented as a whole rather than strictly following the headings set out in the historical combat manuals. As such, we may take the separation between techniques as recommendations. Even Blossfechten techniques, with the sword reversed so as to use mordschlag, become applicable to armoured combat. Conversely, the armoured half-swording techniques can find application outside armoured combat as discussed above.
Work in progress.
The wrestling element of the German system covers the whole spectrum of unarmed techniques, including strikes, grapples, throws and locks. Being predominantly a warlike martial art for the knightly class, however, most unarmed techniques are grapples that end in throws; these allow an unarmed combatant to floor an adversary in full plate armour if they can enter into extremely close range combat. Almost all offensive techniques aim to take hold of and manipulate the following points:
- The head.
- The shoulders.
- The elbows.
- The hips.
- The knees.
All the above locations are excellent points of control, as it is most difficult to resist and adversary's strength when manipulated. It is not, however, good enough to take control of an adversary's body; they must then be subject to a lock, break or throw. Given the difficulty of locking or breaking the limb of a fully-armoured adversary, most techniques opt for a throw, which in turn sets up a killing technique. To adequately throw an adversary, a combatant must take control of two of the above points, although three is preferable.
Once two or three points have been taken control of, a combatant may push one end of the body while pulling the other, turning their adversary's body into a natural fulcrum and throwing them via their own imbalance. This is easiest with three points of control, which one may take with only two hands. One example may be to place one's forearm against the collarbone of an adversary so that the elbow is near to one shoulder and the hand near the other. At the same time, the free hand takes control of a knee. Once both hands have taken points of control, the upper arm pushes while the lower hand pulls. With control of three points, it is possible to throw even a large adversary to the ground.
Roßfechten (Mounted Combat)
Work in progress.
Medieval and Renaissance English Fencing
While the German longsword is the most popular WMA being researched at the moment, the English style of fighting is getting a bit of a spotlight due to the sources in... well, English, and thus interpretations are a lot easier without the barrier of translation. Interestingly enough, there are quite a fair few common ground between the English style of fighting and the styles in mainland Europe, but there are some key differences.
One cannot talk about the English style of fighting without mentioning George Silver, who was an English gentleman living around the time of Elizabeth I. Little is known about the man himself, except that he seemed to be a Master of Defence, as people who taught such things were called in those days. His works are written in more modern English, and they gave us a glimpse of what the English fencing is like. His works are:
- Paradoxes of Defence (1599): this is more of a treatise rather than an actual manual for fighting. In this, Silver argues that the Italian rapier is a poor weapon of choice and the traditional English method of fencing is superior. Ironically, his methods of fencing share a lot of common ground with the Italians, and there's a theory that suggests that Silver's thinking comes from the fact that most "Italian masters" that he would have met would not be up to the standard, as otherwise they would have opened schools in Italy instead of England. His grievances against the rapier can be summed up as follows:
- Rapiers are too long. Silver believes that there is a "perfect length" for weapons, and for swords (one-handed or two) he thinks that the blade should be just short enough so that if you hold your dagger with your off-hand straight arm in front of you, the tip of your sword should be able to pass behind the said dagger. This is due to the fact that longer weapons are too hard to uncross when in close distance. In fact, this is actually his method of fighting against rapiers, for you make "narrow space" by putting the point aside and coming straight to your opponent; once you're "inside" your opponent's pointnote he can't do much, except retreat and try again. Silver also talks about quarterstaff as well.
- Rapiers have no protective hilt. In those days, swords in England are starting to have a "basket" hilt. This is, obviously, a serious improvement over any sword that doesn't have one, since one is now less vulnerable to having one's sword removed at the fingers. (Basket hilts, and any other protective guards, would by virtue of added weight also have helped shift the sword's point of balance back towards the hilt, which is a real design advantage for a fencing sword.)
- Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence (written in cc 1600s, published in 1898): This is the actual book by Silver that talks about the methods of fighting using various weapons. It seems to be unfinished as there are some parts that are quite puzzling (or it might be that people haven't quite figured out what he meant). Interestingly, in this Silver doesn't go into the techniques much, unlike other manuals at the time (particularly Italian school) where there is a lot of "if your opponent do X, do Y". Instead, Silver's idea of fighting is based on principles. The four main principles are:
- Judgement. Exactly What It Says on the Tin. You use your judgement to figure out what to do.
- Distance. There are three distances: close, wide and far distance. Close distance is the distance where you can hit your opponent (or your opponent can hit you) by just moving the hand/hand with weapon, which Silver calls "attack in the time of the hand" (the concept of "time" in this will be discussed below), or where you can cross your sword touching your opponent's sword, which Silver calls "half sword" (contrast with the German definition of "half swording"). Wide distance is further out, where you have to make two steps, or have one foot passing over the other, before you are able to hit your opponent. Far distance is any distance that is even further than this. In Silver's view, you should always fight in the wide distance, since the hand is too fast for you to react to. Thus, in close distance, "the hand of the agent being as swift as the hand of the patient, the hand of the agent being the first mover, must of necessity strike or thrust that part of the patient which shall be struck or thrust at because the time of the hand to the time of the hand, being of like swiftness the first mover has the advantage." In other words, in close fight, the one who moves first will probably hit (or not), and the one reacting is less likely to be able to defend himself. In wide distance, however, since your opponent needs to stepping in to strike, and your hand moves faster than his stepping in, you will always be able to do something before the blow lands.
- Time. "Time" is an interesting concept in Silver's methodology. "Time" here can refer to two things: one is the time it takes for the movement to finish (time of the hand, time of the body, time of the foot and time of the feet); the other is the order of things being done (eg: time of the hand and body). For the latter version of time, Silver has two classifications: true time and false time.
- True time refers to moving the hand, body and feet in that order when attacking, while false time is the other way around: feet, body and hand. True time is generally preferable because you're putting forth your weapon before you put forth your target, ie your body. Thus your opponent will have to deal with the threat you have launched at him (assuming that, like most people, he's not Taking You with Me) rather than your body. Whereas if you move your body or feet first (which brings forth your body), your target becomes available before you've made a threat, and you opponent (whether suicidal or not) will be able to hit you. Of course, Silver also advocates fighting from wide distance, where you need to put a step in before you can strike your opponent, so this takes practice; the hand moves faster than everything else and it is all too easy to have finished swinging your weapon before you have managed to get your opponent into range of it. Thus the trick is to slow down the movement of the hand so that your weapon hits your target (assuming it isn't defended against) the moment your foot lands onto the ground.
- Place. Silver has one very famous statement in 'Brief Instructions': "because through judgment, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his place, the reason that he has lost his true place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is out of necessity driven to that will be agent." Basically, the true place is a situation in which you can do whatever it is you want without risk of being hit by your opponent.
- Aside from the four principles, Silver also talks about the four governors (actually three, but he counts the last one as two)
- Judgement: Same as above
- Measure: Knowing the distance when you can strike your opponent and when your opponent can strike you.
- Two-fold mind: Silver considers this to be two governors. A twofold mind in Silver refers to the idea that when you come forward to attack, "so must you have at that instant a mind to fly backward upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary". The idea is that when you attack, you have no idea whether that is enough to stop your opponent from riposting or not. Thus, once you've finished with the attack, you get out of distance in case your opponent attacks you back. Silver is very keen on defending, and he says "And here note that in all the course of my teaching of these my brief instructions if both the parties have the full perfection of the true fight then the one will not be able to hurt the other at what perfect weapon soever."
While Silver's work is more principle-based, he does give us a glimpse of the techniques that he'd like us to do. According to Silver, there are three wards in one-handed swords (or shortswords as he calls them):
- Open Ward. Face your opponent with your sword foot back, raise your sword above your head as straight up as comfortable. This is the open ward. It is very similar to the high vom tag ward as depicted in the German longsword above except with a shortsword. This ward is "open" since all lines of attack are open (for your opponent, that is), but since you're in a charged position you can make very fast downward attacks.
- Guardant Ward. This is something more or less unique to Silver. The description given is "to carry your hand & hilt above your head with your point down towards your left knee, with your sword blade somewhat near your body, not bearing out your point but rather declining it a little towards your said knee, that your enemy cross not your point & so hurt you, stand bolt upright in his fight, & if he offers to press in then bear your head & body a little backward". This is a ward more or less a counter to the open ward, as your sword is covering the line of attack that your opponent is most likely to use, and Silver also gives details on how to deal with other lines of attack as well.
- Variable Ward. The "other" category basically. Anything that is not the open or guardant. However, Silver talks about the stoccata and passata ward under the variable ward:
- Stoccata: Hold your sword as normal with your sword foot forward. You're now in stoccata ward.
- Passata: Same as stoccata, but with sword foot back.
- There's also the imbrocata and mountanta, in which you hold your sword on either side of you head with your point at your opponent, much like the Ochs in German longsword. However, Silver doesn't like presenting the point to the opponent, as he thinks that it gives the opportunity for your opponent to do something with it.
An interesting note here: so far what we've discussed is actually agreed with by the Italians. However, Italians like to give point to their opponents and don't like the Guardant ward, and they give detailed instructions on how to deal with people doing something to the point. It's also interesting to note that the names are actually Italian and they originally refer to the thrusts that can be done from those positions. For all Silver's railing against them, he isn't scared to rip them off.
Little is known for sure about the medieval English longsword. While Silver provides some commentary on the matter, he is largely concerned with Renaissance-era single swords, and therefore provides small illumination (his comment basically comes down to "[two handed swords] are to be used in the fight as the short staff."). Furthermore, the English longsword does not have the wealth of manuscripts that the German or Italian longswords do, and therefore those traditions must be taken as a template from which to interpret the English sources that do exist. English longsword sources discovered so far are: Harleian MS 3542 (written around 1450), the Cotton Titus MS (late 15th century) and Additional MS. 39564, signed by “J. Ledall” (early 16th century).
In a tactical sense, the English longsword is less forthright than its German brother. While the German style places emphasis on getting in distance and controlling the bind, English longsword sources instruct us to only be in distance for long enough to deliver a technique. It solves the problem of the bind by doing its best to avoid them. To this end, its sequence of striking is very kinetic, focusing on flowing combinations of techniques that keep an adversary at bay. For instance, where a German falling diagonal strike might end in a hip-height pointing guard, an English one ends with the sword pointing towards the ground, allowing energy to continue flowing so as to more easily continue into the next technique.
Within the English tradition, a falling strike is known as a "hawk" and a rising strike with the true edge is known as a "rake" (the rising strike with the false edge is called a "rabbit"). Few other techniques are elaborated on, as the sources concern themselves with using such hawks and rakes in sequence and with footwork. One technique named with very narrative intent is the "Dragon's Tail", which is a horizontal beat where the sword circles one's head again and connects with the enemy's temple.
The unfortunate truth about the English longsword is that there is only a tiny amount of available sources, much of it fragmented, and it's possible that there be may no more to be had. That said, by using the German and Italian texts as core technique sources, reconstruction is still possible, especially with the aforementioned tactical approaches towards sparring.
Work in progress
La Verdadera Destreza, Spanish fencing.
La verdadera destreza (meaning “the true art”) was the Spanish system of fencing detailed first in Don Francisco Antonio de Ettenhard's Compendio de los fundamentos de la verdadera destreza y la filosofía de las armas.
This Spanish system of fencing was intended not only to be used with swords but also with any sort of weapon. Many masters of destreza directly contradicted the Italian fencing masters, maintaining that cuts (both tajos, forehanded cuts and reveses, backhanded cuts) could be just as useful as thrusts (estocadas) depending on the situation. Many Spanish writers on fencing specifically detailed ways of defeating an opponent using an Italian or German style. Destreza was based on reason and geometry and had a strong focus on movimiento natural, or attacks from above to below. Practitioners were taught to visualize a circle between them and their opponent. There was also a strong emphasis on leverage, with the blade of a sword being divided into up to 12 sections, not just the forte and the foible used by Italian and German schools. The atajo was a specific technique for applying leverage on an opponent's weapon, stopping him from raising his weapon without touching the blade above. The word “atajo” later passed into the Spanish language as a way of “to interrupt” or “take a short-cut”, due to its purpose of impeding an opponent's attack. Another principle of destreza was non-linear movement, direct movements toward the opponent being considered dangerous and risky for the opponent. Instead, movements towards the left or right to gain a more favorable angle of attack were considered better. Distance was important; the ideal distance was to be as close as possible but to still be able to attack. The Spanish swordsman typically held his sword at a right angle from the elbow or shoulder. Unlike the English school, destreza, like Italian fencing schools, favored presenting the point to the attacker.
Glossary of Terms
Components of a Sword
- Blade: The main offensive part of the sword with sharp edges and a point, which is a separate entity from the hilt.
- Tang: The tail-like extension of the blade which passes through the parts of the hilt.
- Edge: The sharpened area of the blade used for cutting.
- True Edge/Long Edge: The edge facing away from the person holding the sword, in line with the knuckles.
- False Edge/Short Edge: The edge facing towards the person holding the sword, in line with the wrist.
- Flat: The flat surface on either side of the blade.
- Fuller: One or more grooves that run along the flat of the blade on each side, reducing its weight without compromising its strength.
- Point: The sharp tip at the end of the blade used for thrusting.
- Ricasso: A blunt rectangular area of the blade just above the crossguard. A small ricasso can facilitate wrapping the index figer over the crossguard, as is the case in rapier, while a longer ricasso can accommodate a hand for half-swording, as in some longswords and many two-handers.
- Parierhaken/Parrying Hooks: A pair of small flanges or hooks just above the ricasso on certain two-handed swords, used to protect the hand and potentially help catch or trap an opponent's blade when parrying. These were usually located above the ricasso.
- Taper: A descriptor of the sword's narrowing towards the point. Swords exhibited both 'profile taper' and 'distal taper'. 'Profile taper' is the more obvious, being the tapering as viewed looking at the flat of the blade. 'Distal taper' is the more subtle way that a sword's thickness changes when viewed edge-on, and it has important consequences for the blade's mass distribution and stiffness in the thrust. As a rule of thumb, swords with a more triangular or acute profile taper are designed with thrusting in mind, while those that taper relatively little until just before the point are easier to cut with.
- Strong: The part of the blade closest to the cross guard where one can bind against an opponent strongly, i.e. "using strength against weakness". In longsword the blade is generally divided into strong and weak, but rapier masters sometimes divided the sword into three, four, or even five parts based on their role. The Spanish even went so far as to divide the blade into sections labelled from 1 (nearest the point) to 10 or 12, due to the principle of leverage used for atajo.
- Weak: The part of the blade closest to the point. A student should aim to hit his opponent with the weak because it has more reach and contains the "center or percussion" (CoP) or "sweet spot" where the blade doesn't vibrate when it strikes the target. In a bind one cannot oppose strongly with the weak against an opponent's pressure, which is where "using weakness against strength" comes into play.
- Hilt: The grip, crossguard/handguard and pommel when considered as a single entity.
- Crossguard/Handguard: The mediating component between the blade and grip which protects the hand and helps to deflect or trap an opponent's weapon. A simple cross with quillons projecting on either side was the most common type of hand guard until the 16th century, when finger and side rings started appearing and eventually full "swept-hilt" and "basket hilt" styles developed.
- Finger Ring: A small semi-circular bar that protects the index finger when wrapped around the ricasso. A pair on either side is called the "arms of the hilt"
- Knuckle bow: A curved bar that extends downward over the grip to protect the fingers.
- Quillons: The two ends of the crossguard which project out on either side.
- Side Ring: A ring of metal projecting from either the crossguard or the arms of the hilt at a right angle to the blade, meant to protect the hand during parrying actions.
- Grip: The handle of the sword, constructed around the tang of the blade. Generally a wooden core was fitted over the tang and wrapped in cord or leather to provide a better gripping surface and appearance. Some swords such as the German messer and Italian cinquaedea had more knife-like handles, consisting of a slab tang sandwiched between two bone or wooden panels.
- Pommel: The metal fitting that completes the hilt, improving the sword's handling by providing a counterbalance to the blade and preventing the grip from slipping out of the hand. It could be used as a formidable blunt weapon in its own right.
Tropes associated with European swordsmanship:
- Attack! Attack! Attack!: The German school of thought holds that you should seize the initiative and not give your opponent a chance to recover it, which means attack relentlessly so that he is entirely focused on defending himself. If he takes the initiative from you by forcing you to defend yourself, your response should contain a counterattack that both protects you and threatens him.
- Completely averted with the English school of thought which puts heavy emphasis on defense.
- Blade Lock: The binden, binds, as well as the atajo. However, instead of just trying to push back the opponent, you are supposed to meet an adversary's strength with weakness (stepping aside) and their weakness with strength.
- Bilingual Bonus: It helps a lot if you understand German, Spanish or Italian.
- Combat Pragmatist: Most historical European forms are this to an extreme degree.
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Many. They are designed to kill your opponent and forbidden in friendly encounters.
- And potentially many more that we'll never know. Medieval masters often refused to write down their techniques in order to keep potential enemies from learning them, and there's little doubt that those who did write manuals might have kept some tricks to themselves.
- Diagonal Cut: The basic oberhau of the German school, albeit the Clean Cut is optional. Most diagonal cuts, unlike the trope, aim to end at the centre line of the target. Played straighter with the Zornhau Master Strike, which is employed for its power and decisive nature. La verdadera destreza also greatly emphasized movimiento natural, a descending cut from an angle.
- Dual Wielding: While wielding two of the same weapon was usually rare, it was sometimes suggested as in the case of rapiers. Also, most single-handed weapons could be and often were used with a dagger, buckler, cloak, or other off-hand weapon.
- Duel to the Death: These martial arts saw application in judicial duels.
- Averted in the English and Scottish systems as one could be hanged for murder if he killed someone in a duel in England, and the Scots avoid killing each other as it could ignite a clan war. Thus most duels in England/Scotland were to the first blood.
- Fantastic Fighting Style: What many people consider this to be before being made aware that these existed. Furthermore, due to the lack of martial lineage, all of these arts are interpretative; we cannot be entirely sure the way we do them is the way they were done historically. By that measure, some elements of their practise may be fictional.
- Halbschwerten used to be a prohibited technique in the SCA heavy combat until it was noted to be a perfectly historical style. Mordhau is still, though.
- Flynning: Completely averted.
- Liechtenauer goes to the extent of saying "Exercise is better than art, because exercise without art is useful, while art without exercise is useless."
- Improbable Use of a Weapon: Many of those unfamiliar with the teachings react to half-swording with bare hands or offensive use of the hilt as if it were this.
- Improv Fu: Encouraged, given that these methods tend to use elaborated techniques to explain principles, to the extent that an incoming technique may have several correct counters.
- Invulnerable Attack: The aim of single-time combat; one strikes in such a way that their technique intercepts their adversary's technique. If taken to its ideal conclusion, this is performed in such a way that one's own attack makes contact while defending from the incoming attack.
- Knight In Shining Armour: The intended audience for the earlier works. However, the content of the manuals implies that back in the day people were a lot more pragmatic about fighting than the trope suggests.
- Master Swordsman: The authors of the manuals and many of their students.
- Magic Knight: What the authors of the Codex Dobringer thought themselves to be, if the inclusion of magic spells is any indication.
- Multi-Melee Master: The Liechtenauer system demands this, teaching effectiveness with the longsword, messer, spear, dagger and one's bare hands. The principles of La verdadera destreza are also intended to be applied to other weapons beyond the sword.
- A sword belt rarely only contains a sword; most have space for a dagger as well.
- National Weapon: Although subject to modern interpretation.
- Italian Rapier
- Italian Spadone
- Spanish Rapier (Espada ropera)
- Spanish Montante
- French Smallsword
- German Longsword
- German Messer
- Italian Longsword
- English Longsword
- English Backsword
- Scottish claymore (either the two handed version or the basket hilt)
- One-Hit Kill: Each strike, done with technique and understanding, should aim to be this.
- Four of the five German Master Strikes can be this; three of them are explicitly designed this way.
- Again, averted in the English and Scottish system due to their laws and customs.
- Single-Stroke Battle: The historical reality in many cases. Only if opponents were a near-identical match would a fight last more than a couple of strikes.
- Special Attack: The Master Strikes of the Liechtenauer tradition of Germany.
- Swipe Your Blade Off: When faced with a superior, enemy, or Worthy Opponent, the Crusaders would salute them by Stabbing the Sky, Staring Through the Sword, and then Swiping their Blade Off.
- Swiss-Army Weapon: The longsword, which can be used as a sword, spear, staff or war hammer.
- Sword Fight
- Sword Plant: Knights often did this before a battle, as it turned their swords into makeshift crosses to bless themselves with.
- Sword Sparks: This can happen, even with blunted training swords.
- Unblockable Attack: A decisive thrust, strike or cut from a bind should be this if done well.