In most entertainment media, and even in many supposedly educational media such as textbooks and documentaries, swordsmanship as practiced by Europeans before the advent of the rapier in the 16th century is depicted as slow, clumsy, and based upon brute strength rather than skill. Thanks to decades of study based on both archaeology and primary sources, which has accelerated since the birth of the internet, we now know that this old ignorance-based misconception is false. Copious evidence tells us that the historical sword arts of Europe were sophisticated, elegant, and ruthlessly effective. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that Europe was a violent place where any skill that would give you an advantage in combat would be highly valued, and frankly the truth is just so much cooler than the fiction we've been brought up with. As happens in so many other fields, media and popular belief lag behind the latest advances in expert knowledge. European swordsmen get a bad rap, though thankfully you'll occasionally find a work of fiction whose creators did a bit of research. In stark contrast, Eastern swordsmanship — especially Japanese — is given deific significance and abilities, with many people actually believing ludicrous urban myths that say 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 practice. Observant students of European and Japanese swordsmanship will also note a remarkable amount of similarity in the techniques utilized in both styles. To learn about the virtues of Japanese swordsmanship, see Kenjutsu; here we're going to talk about the Western tradition on its own terms. Pinning down common concepts in European swordsmanship is difficult, because at least one historical sword master 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. If you want to see some fun and educational web videos about historical weapons and fighting, check out the channels Schola Gladiatoria, Skallagrim, and Lindybeige. Disclaimer: The information presented here is merely educational, and is not intended as a substitute for professional instruction. We will not be held liable for any accidents or injuries that occur as a result of historical fencing activities. Do not attempt the techniques described herein without proper safety equipment and supervision by experienced historical fencing teachers.
The Weapons of European SwordsmanshipThe following armaments have been used by various schools of European swordsmanship at one time or another. Consult the glossary of terms for the parts of the sword discussed. Please also note that terminology and classification are sometimes subject to interpretation or disagreement, and are affected by changes in the usage of language over time:
This page is mainly about swordsmanship, and most of the fighting manuals that were written give the sword a prominent place. It is justly viewed as a fine and noble weapon, one that represents the martial arts of Western Europe more than any other. That being said, it is important to keep our view down-to-earth and realistic. The sword did not endure as a weapon because it can chop as well as an ax, or pierce as well as a spear, or concuss through armor as well as a mace. While some swords are better than others at certain things, they simply cannot compete with the more specialized weapons of warfare at doing what they were designed to do. What the sword is really good for is being your trusty sidearm. Unlike those other weapons that are a hassle to carry around when you aren't fighting (though that category may have to include the two-handed sword), a sword is designed to be worn on your person all the time. You can wear it while travelling, you might be allowed to wear it in town depending on the time period and local laws, and you can wear it into battle along with your primary weapon and your dagger. It has a moderate length and hand protection, can inflict appalling damage on unarmored opponents, and can be made to perform decently against armor if it has the right blade type. On a Medieval or Renaissance battlefield, you wouldn't want to be the only guy with his sword drawn while taking part in the initial clash of lances or pikes because a sword hasn't got enough reach or shock power. It's when the fighting gets thick, the plan goes South, and it's every man for himself that you're going to pull out your sword, because it thrives in the confused conditions of close combat. And if you get ambushed in street clothes while riding or walking about your business, it's probably going to be the only weapon apart from a buckler or dagger that comes to hand. You'd best choose the right sword for the job by consulting this list:
List of Sword Types
- The Longsword: a 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). Late examples sometimes have extra guards such as side rings. They were designed to be used mainly in two hands.
- The historical term "bastard sword", was considered synonymous with "longsword" during the first revivals of the 19th century, but is today commonly used to refer to a sword somewhat between the full-sized longsword and shorter arming sword in length that could easily be used in one or two hands. "Hand and a half" sword is a modernnote term that also applies, since the grip was generally not long enough to fully accommodate both hands, but rather one hand and a couple fingers of the second. Medieval primary sources indicate that a bastard sword was not the same thing as a longsword in the Late Medieval period, as the two weapons frequently both show up in event lists from tournaments, but there are no sources which indicate what style of weapon was actually meant. It's also worth mentioning that the term "bastard sword" is completely non-existent outside England and France.
- The Arming Sword: the classic straight double-edged 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" shieldnote . 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 type of great knife or short sword that was popular in 15th and 16th century Germany with a slightly curved single-edged blade. They were typically 75 cm (30 inches long) and weighed between 900 and 1200 g (2-2.5 lb). The hilt had a simple cross-guard with a small side protrusion called the "nagel" (which means "nail") to provide some minimal protection for the hand, while the handle consisted of two bone or wooden panels riveted to the flat tang and was capped with a small pommel. They were wielded alone or with a buckler.
- A development 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 messer is also sometimes confused with the "falchion," a similar weapon which was in use across Europe from the 11th century on.
- The Two-Handed Sword: The largest of the European sword types which ranged about 140-170 cm (55-67 in.) in total length and weighed 5-7 lb. Their straight, double-edged blades were about 100-130cm (40-50") long and often featured a ricasso with parrying hooks at the base, while their hilts were usually very large and featured grip lengths and cross-guard widths of about 45 cm (18 in) each on large examples. Because of its size it could only be practically wielded on foot using two hands. It was favored by elite mercenaries and bodyguards, as well as anyone facing multiple opponents. German Landsknecht mercenaries used the biggest versions, which were called "Zweihander" (two-hander) and weighed 7-8 lbs. The famous Scottish claymore is also an example of this type.
- The Side Sword: A single-handed cut-and-thrust sword with a straight, usually double-edged blade that was popular through the 16th century. It fell between the medieval arming sword and the later rapier in terms of form and technique. The main changes from medieval times were a ricasso that facilitated wrapping the index finger over the cross-guard for better point control during thrusts, and a more protective hilt that might include finger rings, side rings, and a knuckle bow in addition to the cross-guard. There were many cut-and-thrust swords for military use that are not necessarily side swords, and "side sword" is essentially a useful but imperfect modern term for swords that have developed hilts but whose blades are too short or broad to be described as rapiers. A side sword could be wielded alone or with a buckler, dagger, or shield in the other hand.
- The Rapier: A thrust-oriented single-handed sword consisting of a long, straight, and narrow double-edged blade, the edges being often vestigial, and a hilt with a complex hand guard consisting of protective bars or plates. They were most popular throughout Europe from about 1550-1650, though the Spanish continued to use a shorter and lighter version of the rapier well into the age of the smallsword. Like the side sword, it featured a ricasso and was designed to be used with the index finger wrapped over the cross-guard. It should be noted that although a primarily civilian weapon, rapiers are NOT especially fragile; they weighed about the same as an arming sword and were very stiff. 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 most extravagant examples could be even longer. In fact, they became long enough that they knocked over so many objects in England that Queen Elizabeth the 1st decreed a maximum legal length for them! It could be used either alone or together with some kind of companion weapon or off-hand defense. Among these were the parrying dagger, the buckler, dueling gauntlets incorporating plate or mail, and improvised parrying devices such as a rolled-up cloak or lantern. A flashy and uncommon style taught by some masters employed a rapier in each hand.
- Espada ropera: A type of straight double-edged Spanish dress sword first mentioned in the mid-15th century that is thought to be the precursor to the side sword and rapier. It was worn in court as part of one's ropa, or clothing, which from its translation into French is probably the origin of the term "rapier".
- The Basket-Hilted Broad Sword and Back Sword: The backsword was a single-handed sword with a broad, straight (or slightly curved) single-edged blade, fitted with a basket hilt that fully protected the hand. These and their double-edged basket-hilted cousins were sometimes called broadswords to distinguish them from rapiers; the use of "broadsword" to refer to the arming sword is an anachronism. These were especially favored in the British Isles from the 17th century onward and found enduring popularity with the highland Scots. Other countries had their own basket-hilts, such as the Italian Schiavona.
- The Smallsword: A small, nimble sword used almost exclusively for thrusting which eventually replaced the rapier and was popular from about 1650-1800. Their straight, symmetrical blades were shorter than those of rapiers at about 33"-36" (84-92 cm) long, and they could weigh as little as 500 g or 1 lb, with most weighing no more than 1000 g or 2 lb. Compared to the rapier's highly protective complex hilt, the smallsword had a simple shell guard supported by two small hilt arms, a single up-turned quillon, and a knuckle bow. Unlike the rapier which was held with the index finger wrapped around the ricasso, a smallsword was usually gripped with the thumb and index finger pinching the quillon block. The blade was made with a triangular or sometimes quadrangular cross-section and usually hollow-ground to be as stiff and light as possible, a feature that is still seen on modern sport fencing swords. The "cholichmarde" was a blade style with a thickened forte that concentrated the blade's mass where parrying was likely to occur. The modern fencing foil is descended from practice versions of the smallsword.
- The Spadroon: A light single-handed cut-and-thrust sword that appeared in the late 18th century as an officer's weapon. The blade was usually straight and single edged, and the guard usually had a knuckle bow and upturned quillon. A bit of a cross between the smallsword and the saber or hanger, many designs ended up with the worst of both because they lacked the weight to make strong cuts, and the blade was too flexible for reliable thrusting. For these reasons it a was short-lived design, but it did appear in fencing manuals of the time and some spadroons were better than others.
- The Saber: A single-handed sword mostly associated with military use and cavalry in particular, introduced into Western Europe during the 17th century by Hungarian and Polish cavalry. The most familiar type had a curved single-edged blade and a knuckle bow or basket guard. However, there were also straight bladed and double-edged sabers as well as a variety of guards. Polish or Hungarian examples might have a thumb ring and a cross-guard with langets at the base of the blade. During the Napoleonic wars there was a furious debate over whether sabers designed for the cut or the thrust were more deadly in battle, with much ink spilled on the subject. The naval cutlass was essentially a short heavy saber, adapted to the close-quarters fighting of a boarding action. A style known as the hangar was also a short, but lighter, usually issued to troops for whom it was a secondary weapon, such as artillerymen.
Scabbards and SuspensionMost swords were worn in wooden-cored scabbards covered in fabric or leather and metal fittings, suspended from a sword belt of matching material with two straps to hold it at an angle. Right-handed people usually wore their sword on the left hip so they could draw it across the body, but Roman legionnaires always wore their swords on the right, and there are multiple medieval depictions of warriors wearing their swords on the sword-arm side. It can be more convenient to draw from your dominant side in some circumstances; for instance, if you are carrying a shield, drawing cross-body tends to either be slower or involve swinging the shield out of the way - a bad idea in combat for obvious reasons! In the late 16th and early 17th centuries when rapiers were at their longest, special "hanger" belts helped to keep them suspended low and at a more horizontal angle. By the mid 17th century it was common to wear rapiers, smallswords, and hangers tucked into a waist sash or held at the hip by a baldric across the shoulder. In the early 19th century, entirely metal scabbards became common for military swords such as sabers, which were more durable but not as good at keeping the edge sharp. For further detail on sword types, see Swords.
The dagger was commonly worn both on street and on battlefield by men of all social classes. It was the most common weapon of brawling and self-defense, since not everybody could wear a sword, and was a necessary backup weapon for all soldiers including knights. In the Middle Ages it was primarily used in an "ice pick" grip with the point down, which was optimal for close quarters and armored combat, and people would wear it on the right side of their belt so they could draw and stab at very close range. Basically, if you're too close to each other to even swing a sword, it's time for that dagger to come out. They can be used in wrestling either standing or on the ground, and are especially good at finding and penetrating the gaps in armor. In the Renaissance we begin to see more point-up techniques and use of the dagger as a parrying companion to the sword, as well as wearing of the dagger across the lower back. In the Middle Ages there were five main types:
- The Quillon Dagger, which was hilted like a miniature sword with a metal pommel and cross guard.
- The Ballock dagger, named for the two lobes at the base of the blade that look like a pair of bollocks. The handle is often rather knob-shaped, and the phallic symbolism was not lost on the people who used it. More sensitive modern types may call it a "kidney dagger".
- The Basilard, a dagger or short sword with a hilt shaped like a capital letter "I".
- The Ear Dagger, with two ear-like projections on the butt of the handle.
- The Rondel Dagger, where the handle is fitted with two circular metal plates as a guard and pommel. These discs really encourage the ice pick grip, and the flat disc of the pommel facilitates driving it home with two hands or bracing it against your breastplate for extra thrusting power. It is probably the most featured dagger type in the late medieval fencing treatises, and is often depicted in pictures and effigies of knights.
For all the glamour of swords, giving every man a Blade on a Stick and relentlessly drilling some basic moves and maneuvers into them is the quickest way to turn a bunch of volunteers or conscripts into an army. Staff weapons weren't disdained by the professionals either, and many manuals deem it necessary to expound upon their proper use. The technique of the pollaxe, for instance, is of equal or nearly equal sophistication compared to the sword. Ash was usually the favored wood for the shaft, since it is both strong and springy, but other hardwoods were used as well. Dedicated thrusting staff weapons tended to have shafts with a round cross section, while those for chopping or hammering tended to have a square or octagonal cross section to help the wielder keep the edge aligned properly. Contrary to popular belief, a hardwood shaft can block repeated hits from an edged weapon without being chopped in two. This does tend to wear it down over time, however, and some polearms address this by having tongues or straps of metal called langets that run some distance down from the weapon's head. Here are some of the ones that appear in fencing manuals:
List of Staff Weapon Types
- The Quarterstaff: A Simple Staff made of ash or some other hardwood, usually round in cross section and 6 to 8 feet (1.82-2.74 meters) long. George Silver calls this the "short staff". Joseph Swetnam, writing in 1615, distinguished between the "quarterstaff" of 7 or 8 feet (2.1 or 2.4 meters) and the "long staff" of 12 feet (3.7 meters). Despite what you usually see in Robin Hood movies, rather than being held with both hands in the middle and used to strike with either end, it was more effectively used with the lower hand on or near the butt end and the forward hand near the middle, and used for thrusting like a spear as well as for striking. Compared to the polearms of war with their points, edges, and nasty bludgeony bits, a mere wooden staff isn't as lethally efficient at inflicting harm, even if a well-placed thrust can poke out someone's eye or smash a couple of teeth. There's not much that it can do against significant armor, either. What it is useful for is brawling and self-defense, since compared to the restrictions on swords and pole weapons there's practically no jurisdiction where you aren't allowed to carry a walking staff, and the reach advantage over an attacker wielding a sword somewhat compensates for the reduced damage potential. The staff was also used as the main training weapon for other polearms, as the techniques learned on the staff translated equally well to spear, halberd, polehammer, and other more complex weapons. Silver went so far as to praise it as being one of the best weapons in his estimation.
- The Spear: A round pole of ash wood mounted with a leaf-shaped steel point on the business end, this is a simple but effective weapon that should never be underestimated. It can be used either on foot or on horseback, against an armored or unarmored opponent, and wielded either in one hand together with a shield or with two hands by itself. Spears mostly fall into one of two length categories. A long spear is about eight to ten feet (2.43-3.04 meters) long, while a short spear measures about six feet (1.82 meters). The long spear offers splendid reach, helping the wilder to keep the enemy at a distance while probing for a gap in their defense. The short spear on the other hand is more useful for fighting in heavy armor, since a long weapon becomes a liability at the close ranges that armored fighting tends to involve. While a regular spear cannot chop, hammer, or hook like the fancier polearms described below, there's nothing handier for the thrust. You can manipulate the point very easily because it's not loaded down with extra bits of metal. Don't think of it as Boring but Practical; think of it as Simple Yet Awesome.
- The Halberd: A multipurpose infantry weapon about eight feet (2.43 meters) long, with a head consisting of an axe blade on one side, a spike on top, and a fluke or spike on the other side. They are mainly distinguished from the pollaxe by tending to be longer, having a head with a larger cutting edge forged in one piece and attached by socket rather than the modular construction of the pollaxe head, and being designed more to be used by lightly armored foot soldiers as opposed to heavily armored knights. Strongly associated with the Swiss but used throughout Europe, they were an important weapon to round out pike formations.
- The Pollaxe: One of the few staff weapons to be associated more with the knightly class than the common man, the pollaxe was mainly designed to be used by men on foot in heavy armor against other dismounted men in armor. The pollaxe is not simply a pole-axe or an axe on a pole. The etymology is disputed, and may in fact have something to do with the word "pole", but it is also said to mean "poll" as in "head" (as it still does when talking about horses), or to come from a time in the English language when "poll" meant what we call a hammer, and the word "hammer" meant what we would call the pick-end of a weapon. The head was usually modular and consisted of a small axe blade or pronged hammer head on one end, a hammer or beak on the other end, and short quadrangular spikes on the top and sides. The butt of the weapon was usually capped with a steel point so it could be used for thrusting as well. Most pollaxes were about five to six feet (1.52-1.82 meters) long overall, since reach isn't as important for men in full armor and it had to remain usable in a tight press. The shaft usually had two or four langets about a third of the way down to protect the shaft from being severed, often with a disc-shaped hand guard at that point.
- The Lucerne Hammer: A long-shafted hammer weapon popular in Switzerland from the 15th-17th centuries, sometimes considered to be a type of pollaxe. The hammer head would have a bludgeoning face with three or four prongs on one side to help it bite into armor, a beak on the opposite side, and a spike on top. The shaft was usually about 7 feet (2.1 meters) long, a bit more than the average knightly pollaxe.
- The Bill: A favorite weapon of the English, and also popular in Italy as the Roncone, the bill's main feature is a large hook-shaped blade that's sharpened on the inside. Resembling the agricultural billhook used for pruning tree limbs, the military bill also has a top spike, a back spike, and often some lugs at the base of the blade. The hook is particularly useful for hauling knights out of the saddle or hamstringing an opponent on foot. These tend to be about eight feet (2.43 meters) long.
- The Pike: An extremely long infantry spear of about 16 feet (4.87 meters) in length. These are mainly associated with the mass battles of The Late Middle Ages, The Renaissance, and The Cavalier Years, since they allow a disciplined infantry block to present a bristling forest of points several ranks deep, but fencing masters also taught the use of the pike in individual combat.
- The Partisan: A cut-and-thrust staff weapon with a double-edged triangular blade, often with two lugs or smaller blades at the base. These tend to be about eight feet (2.43 meters) long.
Body-on-body close combat involving strikes, joint locks, throws, and ground fighting. Wrestling could be practiced unarmed, but was also frequently useful in armed combat.
Schools of European Swordsmanship
The Origin of Schools of Fencing in Western Europe
Medieval combat experts such as Tobias Capwell and Roland Warzecha believe that Early Medieval civilizations such as the Vikings and Anglo Saxons must have had refined fighting techniques to match the finely crafted weapons which have been discovered by archaeology, but unfortunately we do not know and may not ever know for sure exactly how they fought. Tantalizing descriptions of combat appear in epic poetry and the sagas, but besides the fact that the sagas were composed long after the events they describe and may contain artistic license, they only offer glimpses without laying down a comprehensive and organized system. The fact that human biomechanics remain the same throughout history and that the form of weapons can offer clues about how to use them has encouraged many who seek to reconstruct Viking Era combat or high medieval sword and shield as an exercise in experimental archaeology. These groups and individuals have offered compelling theories about what such combat may have been like, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will deal with the fighting systems for which we have actual instructive texts. By the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, we see the first references to the practice of fencing outside of the landed warrior aristocracy. There began to be men of lower nobility or common birth who made a living off their skills, either by starting their own schools to teach pupils or by fighting on behalf of others as hired champions in judicial duels. Suspicious nobles and city governments viewed these individuals as unsavory troublemakers or even criminals, and repeatedly tried to crack down on schools for spreading knowledge of fencing among those who were considered liable to abuse it, but the fact that these bans against unlicensed schools were repeatedly renewed implies that they were broken very often. The weapon combination that they were teaching was sword and buckler, and it is probably no coincidence that the first manual that can actually be used to reconstruct medieval fighting, Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33, deals with this subject.
Sword and Buckler According to Ms. I. 33
work in progress Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 (pronounced "one-thirty-three"), also known as the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, is a sword and buckler manual of anonymous authorship from Franconia, Germany and dates from ca. 1300. The manual is written in Latin with certain fencing terms in German, and consists of 64 pages illustrating wards, counters, and plays with sword and buckler between a priest and his student. The last part features a woman named Walpurgis demonstrating a certain counter, hence the alternate title. The instructions are for the most part clear and well organized, but there are some problems of interpretation. While the sword, buckler, and hand positions are clearly illustrated, accurate depiction of footwork and distance between the combatants is largely neglected by the artist. To some degree those details have to be conjectured from other period artwork as well as later manuals. There is nothing undeveloped or primitive about this system of fighting, and it has all the ingredients of the later systems: footwork, guards, counters, tempo, measure, techniques from the bind, a combination of cuts and thrusts, and integration of sword fighting with wrestling and unarmed combat, The combatants wear simple robes with the hem tucked into their belts (so as to avoid tripping) and wield simple cross-hilted arming swords with round bucklers. The buckler may have a spike on it to make it more dangerous as a punching weapon. They wear thin-soled leather shoes, putting most of their weight on the balls of their feet. The correct stance is to start with one's feet about shoulder width apart and take a generous step back with the rear foot, sinking into a stable stance with both knees bent. The lead foot and knee face toward the opponent, while the back foot and knee are turned about forty-five degrees outward for balance. An attack is made with a passing step forward, where you bring your back foot into the lead position, and then turn your new back foot outward, all in one smooth motion. Like other forms of fighting, there are essentially three distances: close distance, where the opponents could hit each other without taking a step forward; wide distance, where you cannot reach your opponent without taking a step forward; and out of distance, which is any distance farther than that. Generally the combatants approach each other until they are in wide distance, at which point they adopt a ward or counter, and the ensuing attack or bind will bring them into close distance. There are seven wards (custodiae) or guard positions from which to launch attacks. Rather than lying in these positions for any length of time, one should adopt a ward once in distance and attack immediately, so that the opponent has less time to counter. Note that these guards assume the fencer is right-handed:
- Under the arm (sub brach), in which the buckler is held in front of the body while the sword is held point back and tucked under the buckler arm. This is probably the most basic and generally useful ward, and the natural attack from it is a cut from below.
- Right shoulder (humero dextrali), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is chambered over the right shoulder. The natural attack from this ward is a descending diagonal cut from right to left.
- Left shoulder (humero sinistro), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is chambered over the left shoulder. The natural attack from this ward is a descending diagonal cut from left to right.
- Head (capiti), where the buckler is held out in front and the sword high above the head with the point back. This is chambered for a vertical descending strike.\\
- Right side (latere dextro), where the buckler is held out in front and the sword held off to the side with the point back. The natural attack from this ward is a horizontal cut.
- Breast (pectori), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is drawn back close to the chest with the point towards the opponent. The natural attack from this ward is the thrust.
- Long-point (langort), in which the sword and buckler are held out at arms length with the point at the opponent. This is in a sense the ward that the system is built around, since any cut or thrust initiated from the other wards will end in this position.
Der Kunst des Fechtens: Late Medieval and Renaissance German Knightly Combat
Although there were masters and schools of fence all over Europe in the years 1300-1500, most of whom left nothing of their techniques to posterity, the German school is by far the tradition for which we have the largest number of surviving sources. This bibliographic richness makes it one of the most straightforward to reconstruct, hence its high popularity among medieval fencing groups. What grew to become the most influential school of fence in late medieval Central Europe sprang out of the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer, a master born in the late 13th or early 14th century who synthesized a highly effective system out of the various traditions he encountered in his travels. At first Liechtenauer's teachings were only written or recited in the form of coded poetry or Merkverse, known as the Zettel note , and only a select few picked by Liechtenauer or his students could learn this art. The function of the Zettel was twofold: firstly to prevent outsiders to the art from gleaning its secrets, and secondly to provide a mnemonic aid to help Liechtenauer's students remember the teachings. We would have very little idea what these verses were supposed to mean if not for a number of masters, some of whom remain anonymous, who effectively ended the secrecy by writing the earliest glosses or explanations of Liechtenauer's poem in the 15th century. Not only did Liechtenauer's successors perpetuate his work, but they also added their own techniques and ideas to the system.
Bloßfechten (Unarmoured Combat)Most German fencing manuals at least include Liechtenauer's Bloßfechten, 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 pseudo-Hans Dobringer, Sigmund Ringeck, and Hans 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. Remember, 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. Liechtenauer's philosophy is based on taking the shortest possible path to victory and keeping up the pressure on your enemy with a proactive offense. There are no techniques in the manuals that are purely defensive in nature, as the Germans advocated either responding to an incoming attack with a move that contains a simultaneous defense and attack (in modern terms, a single-time counterattack), or responding with a defensive void or parry that enables one to follow up with an immediate counterattack (in modern terms, a double-time counterattack). Ideally, one strikes before the adversary, takes initiative and presses that advantage to end the fight quickly. This is called fighting in the vor or "before". However, this cannot be relied upon, so there are various techniques for bindsnote , voidsnote 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 close off their line of attack while hitting them with your own attack. In this case, your strike is both a deadly offense and indomitable defense. This is striking in indes, which in this context means "in-the-moment".
- Void or parry your opponent's strike in a way that creates an opportunity for you to hit your opponent with a counterattack in the next moment, thus regaining the initiative. This is defending in the nach or "after".
- Void or parry in a way that merely neutralizes the immediate threat, without threatening your opponent or taking the initiative from him. (It is him who should be pushed into defensive.)
- Vom Tag ("from the day," but sometimes called "from the roof" instead)
- 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.
- 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.
- Ochs ("ox"): Held with the hilt near one's head 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 ("plow"): 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 ("fool"): 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.
- 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 a follow-up attack.
- 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.
Harnischfechten (Armoured Combat)While few people today are familiar with bloßfechten techniques, which were meant to be used on an unarmored or lightly armored adversary, even fewer are aware that there was a separate repertoire of techniques specifically for fighting a well-armored opponent. By the end of the 14th century—which is around the time when the first manuscript of Liechtenauer's verse is thought to have been created—full plate armor had developed to cover almost the entire body of the wearer. Full plate is basically impervious to strikes or cuts with the sword's edges, removing this from one's list of options. However, the longsword can do more than just cut. Not only does it have a point, but the crossguard and pommel are weapons as well. Better still, it is essentially a length of metal about four feet long that you can grip in several different ways and use as a short staff or spear to wind and compete for leverage, potentially setting your opponent up for a nasty fall. Halbschwert, or "half-sword" where the off hand grasps the blade at the middle of its length while the dominant hand remains on the grip, is the primary method of using the sword in harnischfechten. While its initial purpose is to deliver stronger, more accurate thrusts, blunt strikes and wrestling are also initiated from this position. Four basic half-sword guards are used in Ringeck's version of Liechtenauer's harnischfechten, which resemble the four guards of bloßfechten in purpose if not always in appearance. Unlike in bloßfechten, where attacks are made with a passing step and there are right and left versions of each guard, the harnischfechten guards are only held on your dominant-hand side and you must keep the same foot forward as you advance and retreat.
- First: In this guard, the hilt is held high over the head while the point hangs down to threaten your opponent's face. A high thrusting guard, it resembles Ochs.
- Second: In this guard, the hilt is held at your side below your waist, with the point upward towards your opponent's face. A low thrusting guard, it resembles pflug.
- Third: In this guard, the sword is held horizontally over your forward knee with the point going to your offhand side. A low guard that invites attack, it is like Alber.
- Fourth: In this guard, the hilt is raised to the side of the chest near the armpit while the point is held forward. It is similar to Vom Tag in that, while not a cutting guard, it is the most aggressive of the four. In purpose it is like a mounted knight couching his lance in a braced position so that his whole body is behind the point. If your point finds a gap while working from one of the preceding three guards, you should transition into the fourth guard and push your opponent back mercilessly.
- Thrusting with the Half-Sword: Although it does sacrifice some reach compared to having both hands on the grip, half-swording gives you very precise control over your point so that you may seek the gaps in your opponent's armor. The forward grip also provides more leverage, making it harder for your opponent to set aside your point. Instead of attacking the four openings, you are required to target a limited number of weak points and gaps in the armor into which you can thrust your point. These are:
- The visor, which might have vision slits large enough to insert a blade or a gap where it meets the chin defense.
- The throat, which depending on the armor may have a gap between the neck defense and helmet, or between the helmet and breastplate.
- The armpits, usually protected by the mail shirt or mail gussets.
- The groin, usually protected by mail breeches or the hem of the mail shirt.
- The buttocks, similar to the groin.
- The back of the thighs and knee, unless it is an armor specifically for foot combat rather than riding.
- The inside of the elbow joint.
- The inside of the gauntlet cuff, which overlaps the vambrace at the wrist.
- The palm of the hand, where the leather glove inside the gauntlet is exposed to allow a proper grip on one's weapon.
- Blunt Strikes, where the pommel is used to bludgeon the opponent, preferably on the head or in the face. One way to do this is from the regular half-sword position or with both hands on the grip, which might be expedient if your pommel gets close to the opponent's face while you attempt a more complicated technique. The other is using the mordschlagnote technique, where the sword is gripped with both hands on the blade and swung so the pommel or crossguard (or both) strikes your 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.
- Wrestling Techniques are heavily intertwined with the techniques of armored fighting. While you and your opponent are seeking openings for a thrust, opportunities will arise to try and capture your opponent's sword, restrain and redirect his limbs and body using your off hand, or throw him to the ground where you can finish him off with your dagger.
Ringen (Wrestling)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.
Roßfechten (Mounted Combat)Work in progress.
Work in progress. The second of the primary "schools" of longsword being practiced today, the Italian school is best codified by the fencing master Fiore dei Liberi. In addition to his occupation as a fencing instructor, Fiore was a 14th century knight, mercenary and diplomat. In his own writings he mentions having widely travelled and studied with 'countless' Italian and German fencing masters, and on several occasions fighting duels against such men or their students due to arguments over his or their teachings. He reports that all of these occasions were fought with sharp swords and without any form of steel armour, and that he won each such encounter without injury. There is some historical evidence of his students and their impressive performances in arrangements of single combat. One such pupil, Galeazzo Gonzaga of Mantua, is known to have twice beaten the famous French marshal Jean II le Maingre, also known as "Boucicaut" note . One of the marked differences between Johannes Liechtenauer's Kunst des Fechtens and Fiore dei Liberi's Fior di Battaglia note is the scope and differences in layout. Whereas Liechtenauer's Zettel provides a short summary of his teachings of unarmoured longsword, mounted combat and armoured spear and longsword, Fiore's manuscripts provide a painstakingly detailed and orderly overview first of wrestling and the use of the dagger note , out of which then arises the use of the longsword. The longsword and the dagger are the two principle weapons of Fiore's system, comprising the largest sections. Also present are sections detailing use of the baton, spear, pollaxe, mounted fighting and fighting in armour, as well as numerous unequal circumstances such as spear against sword or sword against dagger. Tactically, Fiore's and Liechtenauer's longsword systems appear extremely similar to the layman. This is largely a result of physics and human biomechanics; given the same weapon and a similar cultural context for its use, battle-tested martial systems will naturally develop along similar lines. Nonetheless, there are key differences in the systems. Fiore's material prefers to perform a parry against incoming attacks before transitioning to a counter after having dealt with the immediate threat, whereas the Liechtenauer tradition generally expresses the desire that all techniques should strike in such a way as presenting a strong offence while also simultaneously defending by closing off lines of attack. Some instructors, such as Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatoria, have expressed the opinion that Fiore's approach is generally more practical due to the inherent difficulty of simultaneously employing a strong attack and defence in the chaos of a fight. Another key difference between the two systems is the approach to a bind. Whereas the German traditions make great use of the principle of winden, Fiore's characteristic response to such a situation is often some manner of close-in grappling technique or disarm, whereby the practitioner rushes in to close-range where an effective cut or thrust becomes more difficult to execute. Guy Windsor, chief instructor of the School of European Swordsmanship, has suggested that these preferences might be the result of sword length; with even just very slightly shorter blades, it becomes easier to successfully close the necessary distance with an opponent after a bind, whereas with longer weapons the prospect becomes much riskier.
The Origin of the Italian School of Rapier, and the Four GuardsBy the middle of the 16th century, a new style of fencing was developing in Italy that was more geared toward the use of the side sword or rapier in unarmored duels and self defense, as opposed to the earlier systems' greater emphasis on warfare and judicial combat. In 1553, the engineer and architect Camillo Agrippa published his Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia (Treatise on the Science of Arms with a Dialogue on Philosophy), the most important early work on the rapier in Italian. Aggrippa certainly didn't "invent" the Italian style of rapier single-handedly, and the groundwork had already been laid by the Bolognese tradition of side sword fencing described in Achille Marozzo's highly popular manual Opera Nova of 1536. Nonetheless, Agrippa's book presented significant innovations in both technique and teaching methods. Aggrippa's use of classical nude figures, multiple poses to illustrate different stages of the same action, and geometrical diagrams of actions such as the lunge represented his desire to prove that the art of fencing could be treated as a science based on rational proofs rather than uncritically accepted tradition received from earlier masters. In terms of techniques, he declared his opinion that the thrust was superior to the cut in most situations and structured the system around that, with a corresponding change in stance, body mechanics, and footwork. He threw out the large number of different guard positions used by the Bolognese school with their colorful mnemonic names, reducing his to just four hand positions. He named his four guards A, B, C, and D, but all later Italian masters referred to them by number:
- First (Prima): The first guard that you can adopt upon drawing your sword, in which the hilt is held out high above your head with the true edge facing up, the point forward, and the palm of the hand turned toward the swordsman's outside.
- Second (Seconda): The second guard which flows from the first, in which the sword is held to cover your outside line with the palm of the hand pronated towards the ground.
- Third (Terza): The third guard, which Capo Ferro says is the only one you should rest in for any length of time, in which you hold the hand in the position used when shaking hands with the palm facing your inside. You may want to turn your edge a little outwards rather than keeping it perfectly vertical so that you will be stronger in a bind.
- Fourth (Quarta): The fourth guard, the last in sequence from drawing the sword, if which you hold the sword to protect your inside line with the palm of your hand supinated upward.
Stance and Footwork in 17th Century Italian RapierBy the beginning of the 17th century, the Italian school of rapier fencing was at its apogee of popularity throughout Europe and at its full development as a style. The classical canon of Italian rapier includes the manuals of Niccolo Giganti, Ridolfo Capo Fero, and Salvator Fabris. Further into the 17th century the Italian school and the rapier started losing ground to the new French school of smallsword fencing. This summary is going to focus on rapier as codified by these three masters, presenting a general overview that will temporarily ignore significant differences in their methods. 17th century Italian rapier is by far the form of Western swordsmanship where the body mechanics are least intuitive and most difficult for a beginner. This is because it involves sustained poses and dramatic extensions of the body that tax joints and muscle groups that we don't normally use in everyday life. Before going any further, we need to present stance and footwork. If you are right-handed, then your right side and your right foot are always going to lead. The opposite is true if you are left-handed. The side of you that is presented is said to be on your outside line, and the side of you that is drawn back is on your inside line. Start with your heels together, and your feet forming a right angle, with your lead foot pointing forward and your back foot pointing to the side. Step back with your hind foot, placing it about two foot lengths behind the lead foot and making sure that if you imagined a straight line under your lead foot, your hind heel would not intersect it. As you step back, bend your knees and settle into a stable stance as if you're sitting in a chair, with your bottom positioned over the line created by your heels. You need to keep your bottom at the same level as you step so that your body won't bob up and down, the only exception being when you sink into the lunge. The defensive way to stand is to lean back slightly, drawing back your shoulders and placing more of your weight on your back foot while straightening the lead knee. This increases the distance for your opponent to reach your vital targets such as the chest and head, but allows you to lean forward when it's time to attack. If you have a companion dagger, then you will have to open your stance a bit and hold the dagger out just behind your rapier. If you're fighting with the rapier alone, you should hold your off hand at about the level of your throat with your wrist and elbow tucked close to the body, so that the arm will be less of a target but you can potentially use your off hand for a Bare-Handed Blade Block. The offensive posture that you adopt while attacking is to put more weight on your lead foot and lean your body forward for extra reach. The steps in Italian rapier include:
- The advance and retreat. For the advance one raises their front foot while pushing off from the ground with their back foot, and when the front foot lands the back foot follows it so that you're back in the same stance, only a step forward of where you started. For a retreat, simply reverse the order: Push off with your front foot as you step back with your back foot, and then withdraw the front foot so you are back in guard. Generally, this is how you are going to step once you are in distance with your opponent, meaning that either of you could hit the other with a single pass or lunge.
- The lunge. The main attacking move in the 17th century systems is the lunge, which is essentially a deep advancing step where the back leg straightens and the back foot remains on the ground while the front foot shoots forward to give the swordsman as much reach as possible. Agrippa's early lunge is a bit more conservative, while the 17th century systems had a deep extended lunge. It's a bit different from the 19th century classical fencing lunge with the smallsword or foil, where you put the foot farther forward, sink very low with the knee no further ahead than the foot, and keep the body very upright. The 17th century rapier lunge does not put the foot quite so far forward, and instead rolls the knee over the foot somewhat to get that reach while leaning the body forward at the same time. The purpose is to make recovery quicker, since the foot is slower to move than the body, and the less time the foot spends in midair the better. Rolling the knee forward can cause injury for people who do not give themselves the right kind of conditioning, so be careful.
- Variations on the lunge include the reverse lunge, where you lunge in place by keeping your lead foot in the same position while bending your lead knee forward and shooting your hind foot straight back; the side lunge, where your hind foot leads a lunge to the side that takes your body off line while you thrust your opponent; and a variation on the reverse lunge where you take your body off line by shooting your hind foot back and slightly to the outside.
- The pass. This is where you pass your back foot so that it's now forward, and is the largest step you can take. The front foot will remain straight and the back foot will remain turned outward as you pass the later in front of the former. At the end of the step you will collect yourself back into stance with your sword hand side foot in front as it was before. If you and your opponent start out of distance, meaning that neither of you could hit each other with one pass or lunge, then walking forward by passing one foot in front of the other is the quickest way to cover the distance; once in distance, you should only use advancing and retreating steps until you are committed to your attack.
Measure and TempoMeasure basically describes how much distance there is between the opponents, and how far an attack must travel in order to hit the target. Measure is related to Tempo, which is the amount of time that it takes to perform a single action. Both measure and tempo are quantities which are relative rather than absolute. For example, if one fighter is taller and has longer arms than the other, then the distance that he has to cover in order to hit his opponent is less than the opponent must cover in order to hit him. Therefore, they are in different measures even though they are the same absolute distance away from each other. Tempo is the same way. If you are very close to your opponent and just extend your hand and shoulders forward in order to hit him, that one action takes place in a single tempo, while if you are farther away and also have to take a step in order to hit him, that one action also takes place in a single tempo, even though that particular action takes a greater amount of absolute time to complete. The order in which you move the parts of your body is of life-and-death importance. Whenever you attack, which requires bringing yourself closer to your opponent, your sword hand must precede the rest of your body. Moving your body in reach of your opponent's point before first moving your sword forward to cover yourself and threaten your opponent is just asking to get yourself skewered, since in that case your opponent can attack you with little risk to himself. In the correct fashion, your sword enters the danger zone first and the rest of your body follows behind it. As long as you are presenting your point and threatening him, he will first have to deal with that threat before he can try to hurt you. With that in mind, let's consider the different measures from narrowest to widest:
- The narrowest measure, or the one which requires the least time and distance for you to hit your opponent, is when you get so close that you only need to extend your hand forward and then enter the offensive posture by leaning your shoulders forward into the attack in order to hit him.
- The narrow measure is one step further back than the narrowest measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and then push your hips forward by shifting your weight to your lead foot and bending your lead knee (while your feet stay planted on the ground) order to hit.
- The wide measure is one step further back than the narrow measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and perform a lunge with your lead foot in order to hit.
- The widest measure is one step further back than the wide measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and perform a pass by passing your hind foot in front of your lead foot in order to gain the maximum possible reach. Any distance greater than this widest measure is "out of distance", which is when you cannot close the distance and strike within a single tempo.
Blade WorkThe kind of long, narrow rapier depicted in most of the rapier manuals we're concerned with was designed primarily to be used in a civilian setting where the combatants would be wearing street clothes without significant defensive armor. The thrust is emphasized for several reasons: the point is further ahead than the center of percussion, which is further back on acutely pointed blades than ones with a broader tip, meaning that it has more reach; it was considered more lethal, since cut injuries were often more superficial than they looked, while the point could slip through ribs or the skull and mortally wound by penetrating an organ such as the brain, heart, or lungs only a few inches; and lastly, in the contest for tempo and measure it was considered to usually be the quickest path from point A to B. The blade had a thick spine so that it wouldn't flex easily and was often of a hard temper so that it could be both narrow and stiff. Cuts continued to play a secondary role, and unlike an estoc blade which was usually little more than a long quadrangular spike, most rapiers did have sharp edges, at least along the weak or "debole" since the strong or "forte" was sometimes left more dull for parrying. Cuts included forehand, reverse, and a cut from the wrist called the stramazone that used the tip of the sword for slashing. Rapiers typically have blades at least 40 inches long, because length has certain tactical advantages. One is that it gives you more reach than your opponent, which gives you the advantage in measure: he needs to get closer to you than you need to get to him, and you have more opportunities to attack him at a range where he can't hit you while he attempts to close the distance. Another is that it lends itself to single-time attack and defense. The blade is long enough that you can set aside your opponent's attack with your forte while still being able to skewer him with your debole.
Medieval and Renaissance English Fencing
While the German longsword is the most popular Historical European Martial Art being practiced throughout the Western world at the moment, the English style of fighting also has some appeal for Anglophone practitioners as it lessens the translation barrier to making interpretations. Interestingly enough, there is a fair amount of common ground between the English style of fighting and the styles in mainland Europe, but there are some key differences.
George SilverOne 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 Early Modern English that is relatively easy for the layperson to understand. Probably the most famous thing about him is his beef with the Italians in general and the rapier specifically. 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 (ca. 1604-1620): This is Silver's followup to Paradoxes of Defense, where having previously delivered his polemical argument, he now sets about actually describing his own methods of fighting with various weapons. The exact dates when he was working on it are unknown, and judging by bits of it that are rather confusing it's possible he never actually finished it; In fact it languished as an unpublished manuscript seen by few if any people besides Silver himself until 1898, when a certain Captain Matthey published it as an instruction manual for British soldiers fighting in the Boer War. 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 from which you extrapolate what to do in any given situation. 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."
- 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.
English LongswordLittle 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). The latter is particularly interesting to scholars, as it's one of the few treatises known to focus extensively on describing the footwork, whereas in other manuals the footwork is glossed or implied. Some have speculated this has much to do with the manuscript's origins as being that of a student taking notes for private study, rather than being the work of a master. On the surface, English longsword bears numerous similarities to the German and Italian traditions. 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." A slicing cut similar to the German schnitt is known as a "rake." A "rabbit" is a cut or beat to the opponent's weapon to gain the line for an attack. 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.
La Verdadera Destreza: The True Art of 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. Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza and Luis Pacheco de Narváez were among the most revered masters. This Spanish system of fencing focused on the teaching of the sword, usually what would be called a rapier, but was also intended to be applicable to any sort of weapon. Destreza was based on reason, geometry, and the body's natural movement. In contrast to what they perceived as the strained and unnatural low stances of the Italians, Spanish fencers held the body upright, starting with the feet close together in a relaxed but balanced posture. The sword arm was held fully extended in a straight line, with the point presented to the opponent to deter him from attacking recklessly. The fencer moved with deliberate but natural steps in the manner of walking, sometimes taking larger steps but never using a deep extended lunge in the manner of Italians. A significant principle of destreza was non-linear footwork, which also contrasted with the relatively linear Italian rapier fight. Directly advancing toward the opponent was considered dangerous and risky for the student. Instead, they were taught to make movements towards the left or right to gain a more favorable angle of attack. Distance was important; the ideal distance was to be as close as possible but to still be able to attack. Spanish masters maintained that cuts (both tajos, forehanded cuts and reveses, backhanded cuts) could be just as useful as thrusts (estocadas) depending on the situation. There was a strong focus on movimiento natural, or attacks from above to below, and 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.
Glossary of Terms
Components of a Sword
- Blade: The main offensive part of the sword with sharp edges and a point, considered as a separate entity from the hilt.
- Tang: The tail-like stem of the blade to which the hilt is attached.
- Edge: The sharp portion 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 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 finger 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.
- Counter Guard: A part of the developed hilt that protects the inside of the hand.
- 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 secures the hilt on the end of the tang, improving the sword's handling by providing a counterbalance to the blade and preventing the grip from slipping out of the hand. It can be used as a formidable blunt weapon in its own right.
Tropes That Apply to European Swordsmanship
Tropes Associated with the Weapons and Techniques
- An Arm and a Leg: Although severing limbs was not a primary tactic, it was certainly known to happen. One play in Talhoffer shows a fencer chopping another fencer's weapon hand clean off with his messer.
- Attack! Attack! Attack!:
- Just about all the systems caution against throwing yourself recklessly against the enemy without thinking about defending yourself. Even the famously offensive minded German school does not tell you to attack blindly; the Germans tell you to do this the smart way, by attacking in such a way that you defend yourself at the same time, or counterattacking in a way that regains the initiative.
- General Georges Boulanger in his duel with Prime Minister Charles Floquet in 1888 demonstrated how to do this the wrong way: He kept charging at his opponent with no technique whatsoever, some say because he didn't even know how to parry. His opponent spitted his throat with a simple parry-riposte, and Boulanger was lucky that he even survived.
- Inverted 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.
- Bling of War: If you had money to spend, it was considered a shame not to have some decoration on your arms and armor. Of course, there were degrees of this. Etching, gilding, bluing, and even damascening do not necessarily weaken the blade, and there are some sparkly weapons that are perfectly functional, but others had impractical things like solid gold hilts and ultra-high relief chiseling that put them in the category of art objects rather than useful weapons.
- Bullet Proof Vest: While there weren't bulletproof plate cuirasses compact enough that you could wear them like a concealed bulletproof vest, there were garments of mail and brigandine construction that could be worn inside or underneath a regular doublet. These could be very finely made so that they would stop sword and dagger points while being very flexible and discreet, which is one reason that many rapier duels required both combatants to strip down to their shirts to show that they weren't concealing any armor.
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Most systems have more than a few techniques that are designed to kill your opponent and forbidden in friendly encounters. There may have also been 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: During the Middle Ages these martial arts saw application in legally sanctioned judicial duels between a defendant and his accuser, usually in the case of a serious crime for which no confessions or witnesses were available. This was generally expected to result in death for the loser; either they would be killed in the duel, or their loss would confirm their guilt in the sight of God, and they would be executed afterwards. As this practice declined it began to be replaced by unsanctioned private duels, which could be similarly lethal if the participants believed the only way to get satisfaction for their grievance was by killing their enemy.
- 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.
- Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age: Beginning in the 16th century, some fencing masters such as Agrippa would lament how the "diabolical invention of artillery" and the arquebus made it possible for some amateur with a couple weeks of training to blow away a Master Swordsman at a hundred paces, and how the sword represented the ancient values of chivalry that they believed to be decaying in their time.
- Eye Scream: Getting one's eye poked out was a common hazard during practice before the era of fencing masks, and there were a lot of one-eyed swordsmen roaming about. Fencers tried to prevent this by wrapping the points of their foils in tennisball-sized pads that were bigger than a person's eye socket, but this didn't always work.
- 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.
- Flynning: Any temptation to look like swashbuckling stage heroes is Averted in all cases, and sometimes defied by the authors of the manuals. Liechtenauer goes to the extent of saying "Exercise is better than art, because exercise without art is useful, while art without exercise is useless." In other words, a technique doesn't have to look impressive in order for it to work, and a technique that only looks impressive but doesn't work will get you killed. The German system holds that an attack that threatens your enemy is best because it forces him to defend himself; if you strike at just his sword he can move it out of the way without danger to himself and counter while you're recovering. There are legitimate techniques in double time where you beat away your opponent's sword, but you must follow up with the counter or you've wasted your chance. The same goes for inefficiently large movements; The shortest movements are fastest, so whoever attacks in the shortest distance and time from point A to B will always win.
- 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 is to attack and defend in the same action; 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. This is just a mindset, however, as there is no attack that cannot be countered if your opponent has enough time to react. There were supposedly a lot of pretentious masters who claimed to have an unstoppable secret technique to kill one's opponent without danger to oneself, and taught it only to their best pupils in the greatest secrecy, but more sensible writers warned that there was no such thing as a guaranteed winning move, and that anyone offering to teach it was practicing fraud.
- National Weapon: Although subject to modern interpretation, there were various schools associated with a linguistic and cultural area that taught a particular way to use a weapon:
- Italian Rapier
- Italian Spadone
- Spanish Rapier and 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)
- Off with His Head!: Like chopping limbs, decapitating a person in the heat of a swordfight was very difficult and usually not as efficient as—for example—a descending cut into the skull; nevertheless, allowing for some artistic license in the illustrations, Talhoffer shows a decapitation in one of his plays, and experiments with replicas on animal carcasses suggest it to be possible. In places such as Central Europe where execution by beheading was customary, a specially designed executioner's sword was used.
- One-Hit Kill: Each strike, done with technique and understanding, should aim to kill the oponent outright.
- 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 was that the fight would be decided with the first blows. Only if opponents were a near-identical match would a fight last more than a couple of strikes.
- Special Attack: The five Master Strikes of the Liechtenauer tradition of Germany are both its trademark moves and some of the most central to the system.
- Swipe Your Blade Off: The traditional fencing salute involves bringing the hilt close to the face as if to kiss the cross, extending the blade high towards the worthy competitor, and giving the blade a dramatic swish before putting up a guard. This has nothing to do with swiping blood off, however, which is not something that the manuals usually discuss.
- Swiss Army Weapon:
- The longsword, which can be used as a sword, spear, staff or war hammer.
- The pollaxe (as well as its later derivation, the halberd) is this, being a hammer, an axe, a spear, a pick/hook, and a staff, all kit-bashed together into one weapon. The halberd is even literally this, since the Swiss were among the first to adopt it for regular infantry use.
- Sword Fight: While not exclusively about sword-on-sword combat, in most of the manuals it is the main subject.
- Sword Sparks: Sparks flying off the blades can happen, even with blunted training swords.
- Unblockable Attack: A decisive thrust, strike or cut from a bind should be this if done well. The idea is to control your opponent's weapon while leaving yourself free to hit them.
Tropes Associated with the Masters and their Students
- Author Existence Failure: Thibault was going to follow his Academy with a second part on cavalry, but died before it was completed.
- Combat Pragmatist: Most historical European forms encourage you to be completely ruthless and use every trick at your disposal.
- Ignored Expert: Although significant headway has been made in recent years, contemporary instructors of European Martial Arts still face an uphill battle against decades of pop culture and "common knowledge." Much of this experience continues to be dismissed as fraudulent in the face of sources such as Dungeons and Dragons, to the frustration of modern practitioners.
- 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.
- Renaissance Man: Perhaps not surprising, considering much of it was during the Renaissance, but lots of manuals digress into advanced geometry and mathematics to explain their precepts. Lots of masters were multi-talented, such as Agrippa who was an architect and engineer rather than a professional fencing master, and Thibault who used Albrecht Durer's study of human proportions to illustrate a mathematical proof of his system's efficacy. The Spanish masters in particular seemed to think you had to know a lot about everything in order to be a good soldier, basically looking at it as a lifetime's work.
Tropes associated with the fencing manuals
- Bilingual Bonus: It helps a lot if you understand German, Spanish or Italian.
- Doorstopper: While manuals came in all shapes and sizes, those with the most text or illustrations could be huge. Thibault's Academy of the Sword was physically enormous and 423 pages long.
- Long Title: The manuals were written back when you had to advertise everything in the book on the title page. Therefore, you got examples such as:
- Thibault's Académie de l'epee, ou se démontrent par reigles mathématique, sur le fondement d'un cercle mysterieux, la theorie et pratique des vrais et jusqu'a present incognus secrets du maniement des armes, a pied et a cheval. (Academy of the Sword: wherein is demonstrated by mathematical rules on the foundation of a mysterious circle the theory and practice of the true and heretofore unknown secrets of handling arms on foot and on horseback.)
- Saviolo's His Practice, in Two Books: the First Entreating the Use of the Rapier and Dagger, the Second of Honor and Honorable Quarrels.
- Joachim Meyer's Gründtliche Beschreibung der freyen Ritterlichen unnd Adelichen kunst des fechtens in allerley gebreuchlichen Wehren mit schȯnen und nůtzlichen Figuren gezieret unnd fůrgestellet, which means A Thorough Description of the Free, Chivalric, and Noble Art of Fencing, Showing Various Customary Defenses, Affected and Put Forth with Many Handsome and Useful Drawings
- George Silver's Paradoxes of defence, wherein is proved the true grounds of fight to be in the short auncient weapons, and the short sword hath the advantage of the long sword or long rapier, and the weakness and imperfection of the rapier fight displayed.
- Practically every book by Johann Georg Pascha, for example Kurze Unterrichtung belangend die pique die Fahne, den Jägerstock, Das Voltesiren, das Ringen, das Fechten auf den Stoss und Hieb, und endlich das Trincieren verferrigts (Brief Information About the Pike, the Flag, the Half-Pike, the Vaulting Horse, the Grapple, the Fence of Thrust and Blow, and Finally the Carving Knife)
- Take That: Certain authors took the chance that writing afforded them to mock or insult other masters whom they disagreed with. Silver heaped ridicule and contempt upon Bonetti and Saviolo, while Thibault criticized Salvator Fabris for advocating contorted and unnatural postures. Even earlier than that, Liechtenauer was openly critical of show-fighters (see Flynning above).