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English Longsword: The Harleian Manuscript

Most period two hand sword texts or fechtbücher of the 14th and 15th centuries were of German or Italian provenance so folios 82 – 85 of Harley ms 3542 provide a rare and welcome  glimpse into a medieval method of English two-hand sword combat. Contained within this work (ff.84v -85r ) is  a well-written verse that hitherto, due to its use of supposed cryptic terms, prompted much speculation amongst two hand sword researchers and practitioners. The thesis (linked below) that these introductory  paragraphs refer to clarifies the terms used in the verse thereby providing a much greater understanding of English two hand sword combat methods than was previously possible.

The obvious problem encountered when interpreting ff. 82-85 of MS Harley 3542 is the lack of illustrations to support the descriptive text. The text in question has often been described as too cryptic to understand, indeed it is thought by some that this was deliberate in order to prevent the knowledge falling in to the wrong hands. Anglo1  on the other hand thinks that the author was unable to effectively describe the methods contained in Harley 3542.  I find myself disagreeing with both points of view because as I wrote in my paper:

Common sense tells us that period texts would have been clearly understood by their target audiences; if we, the modern audience, are unable to understand those same texts it is not because the methods they describe are too complex but that the ‘dictionary’ we have been using is lacking some important definitions.

Therefore the first order of the day was to find every single word used in the manuscript in period sources in order to compose a lexicon specific to it. Once found the contemporary period uses of these words allowed me to ascertain the author’s intended meanings; knowing the intended meanings suddenly opens up this source to the full scrutiny of experienced practitioners of Western martial arts. It also shows that supposed ‘scribal errors’ such as wath (commonly thought to be an error for ‘what’) and thath (supposedly an error for ‘that’) are in fact nothing of the sort, wath actually means ‘peril’. If indeed wath meant ‘what’ the transcribed sentence would read:

A whole round and a half what so it betide

This makes no literal or martial sense since it is akin to being a question! However if we replace the supposed scribal error with what I believe to be the author’s intended meaning the ‘cryptic’ suddenly becomes non-cryptic:

A whole round and a half peril so it betide

In other words the author/master regarded a ’round and a half’ as an effective attacking combination that brings peril to the opponent. When the whole manuscript is treated in similat manner the vast majority of its methods become clear, thus, in my opinion, countering Anglo’s opinion of its author’s descriptive abilities. In fact Anglo appears to be somewhat unimpressed by the English sources, which he finds not to be ‘consciously arcane or elliptical’ (although in my opinion they are not meant to be). Anglo[1]goes on to say

Face to face, and sword in hand, these men may even have been effective teachers

Mertin Siber[2] on the other hand gave the impression that European masters regarded the English school of two-hand sword play rather more favourably:                                                      

The six goings hold wards which are quite
preciously good, wherein is wealful comprehension
of the cunning of quite many goodly masters: from
Hungary, Bohemia, Italy; from France, England and
Alemania; from Russia, Prussia, Greece, Holland,
Provence and Swabia.

It should also worth noting that the English two-hand sword sources reflect a rather different approach to recording knowledge than European sources in general and to attempt a direct, manuscript to manuscript, comparison of teaching methodology is not always  possible.

For a complete transcription of the Harley verse, see here: http://www.aaoema.com/Two-Hand-Sword-Translation-SECURE.pdf.


1   The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Sidney Anglo, 1.  Yale University Press, 2000

2  Mertin Siber’s Longsword Fight-Lore of 1491 AD. (Transcription from Jeffrey Hull’s paper published on ARMA).

Terry Brown 03/10/2012. London, England

About Terry Brown

Male, Age 65. martial background: 44 years studying the Beggars Art (Fong Yang kung fu) 16 years studying Khong Chang (Singapore's national martial arts) 31 years studying and researching Englsih martial arts. Author of the book 'English martial Arts Author of the transcription of ff.84-85 of Harleian 3542. (A verse describing the use of the Two hand Sword).

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