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Frog DNA, Concentric Rings and Old-Fashioned Necromancy: Reconstructing Historical European Swordsmanship

Never underestimate the boldness, difficulty -- or danger of hubris -- in trying to resurrect the dead!

Never underestimate the boldness, difficulty — or danger of hubris — in trying to resurrect the dead!

(c) 2014, Gregory D. Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild

Most of the modern WMA community is based, not on living tradition, but rather on reconstruction of martial arts long dead. While these arts survive in detailed written and pictorial form, they were recorded for contemporary, not modern audiences. This means that anyone who finds himself acting as an instructor is also acting as an interpreter. In the absence of time machines or necromancy, the greatest challenge in reconstructing these extinct traditions from written texts is how to “fill in the blanks” when the author is either obtuse, or simply silent about technical or tactical details.

We must then begin to look outside our core sources to related works or similar martial arts to find possible answers. Steve Hick and I nicknamed this process “using FrogDNA”, after the process of dinosaur recreation used in Michael Crichton’s thriller, Jurassic Park. But much as the use of frog DNA led to unforeseen and disastrous consequences in that novel, by using too many assumptions or preconceptions based on previous or “similar” martial experience we reconstruct our “dinosaur”, with an ever-increasing risk of getting an end result that looks little-to-nothing like the original. This way we run the risk to create an animal different to the  original. [1].

This class looks at the “concentric rings” approach to reconstruction, in which the researcher begins with a core text and then slowly moves outward in time and place to corroborate or refute his initial conclusions.  Beginning with the original text, the researcher moves first to related texts in a tradition, then to contemporary European works, followed by literary analysis of non-martial works from the period, before finally turning to hoplogical analysis of comparable, living arts. Using this method, the researcher seeks to gain a clear understanding of what the author likely meant, while minimizing how much of their interpretation comes from outside sources. We will use the problem of determining the role of measure in Fiore dei Liberi’s longsword techniques of wide and close play as a practical example, since it has been a recent debate in the community and Fiore’s work is what I know best.

The Necromancer’s Toolkit: Seven Rules for Reconstructing Historical Martial Arts

The martial arts necromancer needs to first set his lab in order.

The martial arts necromancer needs to first set his lab in order.

Understand the Difference Between a Living Art and a Book on that Art.

The HES community uses shorthand to discuss its various disciplines, saying, “I practice Capoferro,” or “I train from Ringeck”. We do not! We practice modern reconstructions of historical schools of fencing, with those reconstructions deriving from books left behind by masters of those historical schools. No one “did Capoferro”, besides Ridolfo Capoferro! Even his students trained in the style, or school, of Italian rapier fencing taught by Capoferro. We, on the other hand, are reconstructing a system of fencing, derived from the book written by Capoferro. This is a very different thing, for while his book teaches us what he considered fundamental skills of rapier fencing, and provides much of his repertoire, no book on a physical discipline can ever be complete. We do not, and cannot, know precisely what Capoferro taught in the training hall, nor how he taught it. We will never know what he considered an acceptable variation of the ideal, how deep a lunge was “deep enough”, let alone what drills he used to teach it. We can only know what Capoferro wrote, and we must accept that those two things are related, but not synonymous, or we are lost before we start.

Understand the Provenance of the Particular Manuscript You Are Studying:
While many of the surviving treatises were written by a single, known, and verifiable author, others are anonymous, while many – particularly in the medieval German lineage – are compendia, in which a scribe, not a master at arms, has recorded the teachings of multiple authors. Compendia can be particularly challenging, as the original source often does not survive or is unknown, and thus there is no way to be certain as to what the original author wrote, let alone who he may have been.

You Can’t Understand a Book without Understanding the Language.
Many of the historical treatises, particularly those prior to the 18th century, are written in antique forms of Italian, German or Spanish, and very few are in English, the native language of much of the modern WMA community. This means the researcher-student must either await a quality translation, or attempt the task himself. If you find yourself in the latter position, then remember this important rule: never mistake word-by-word dictionary definitions for a translation! Language has idiom, syntax and metaphor, and you cannot understand these things simply by sitting down with a dictionary and trying every meaning until you find one that seems to work. To translate a German or Italian fencing text, you must not only translate the words, and have a basic understanding of the grammar, you must understand how German or Italian authors conceptualize and express ideas. Babblefish is not your friend! Certainly buy the best dictionary you can, but get some training in the actual language itself and work with native speakers or those with academic proficiency in the language. Additionally, one should note that next to lexical, semantic, syntactic levels, any language also has a pragmatic level, meaning the words and expressions which obtain a secondary meaning (connotation) in certain contexts.

(For more on this topic, see Tom Leoni’s article, Philology in Historical Fencing Research.)

Trust the Author, but Remember that He’s Fallible.
Even today, with modern editorial methods, spell check, grammar checking, and all the rest, errors enter into books. Whatever their skills with the sword, fencing masters of the past were sometimes excellent writers, sometimes execrable ones, and their writing reflects this. Even the best of authors (or his paid scribe) simply sometimes misspells one word for another (such as finestra for sinestra) or writes “right” when he means “left”. Always begin by assuming the author knows his craft, and that what he wrote is what he meant. When the text and art, or multiple copies of the same work, simply can’t be reconciled with each other be willing to look at the possibility that the author may have made an error.

Compendia are particularly susceptible to these problems, as the compiler likely was a scribe, not a martial artist, and he may or may not have been familiar with the material he was recording. This does not make a compendia’s material any less useful or “valid”, but we must remember that each degree of separation that exists between a master at arms and the text describing his art creates the possibility for variation, alteration and outright error to enter into the work. For example, we do not have Johannes Liechtenauer’s teachings; we have them as recorded and commentated by other masters, such as Sigmund Ringeck. But we do not have Ringeck’s commentaries, either. Instead, we have a selection of them, as recorded by an unknown compiler. Thus, we are separated from Ringeck’s own thoughts and teachings by at least a single scribe – working from an unknown source – and assuming he transmitted the master’s teaching perfectly, we are still forced to look at Liechtenauer himself through the lens of a later master, whose direct relationship to the founder cannot be known.

Understand What the Artwork is Meant to Convey.
This is particularly important, depending on the period you study. Prior to the 17th century, 3-point perspective and foreshortening was a developing skill, so the proportion of the figures, the angle they hold their weapons at, even the exact measure they stand from one another is not “photo realistic”, and is often intentionally contrived. Perhaps more importantly, 14th and 15th century artwork is not meant to be “photo realistic”, since it is hard to make your illustrations “photographic”, when you have no conception of what a photo is! If you are working with earlier sources, it is crucial that you understand how a medieval artist conceptualized his world. (For more on this, see Sean Haye’s article, Memory and Performance: Visual and Rhetorical Strategies of Il Fior di Battaglia)

When in Doubt, Trust the Words, not the Artwork.
Many fencing texts are illustrated; few were illustrated by their author. Of those few that were, even fewer profit from having been illustrated by an amateur. It was expensive to produce a manuscript or a printed book with copperplates and woodcuts, and occasional, often subtle, mistakes occur in the illustrations (as the author’s themselves sometimes note). When a conflict between the artwork and the text arises, attempt to reconcile them, but always give primacy to the words of the master at arms, not the artwork he commissioned.

Read Beyond the Text.
Fencing texts do not exist in a vacuum. If you are studying the massive rapier fencing book by Salvator Fabris, you are studying a book that exists within the larger context of Italian rapier fencing, c. 1600. But it also exists within the larger context of both European fencing, c. 1600, and the wider history of Italian fencing. Even if our goal is to reproduce one master’s style as closely as possible, failure to understand his art in context can lead us to egregious interpretive mistakes that could be easily avoided by a little additional reading. So to truly understand Fabris’ art and how he meant it to be used, as well as to comprehend any vagaries in his text, it may become necessary to at least review the other rapier texts of his contemporaries, Capoferro and Giganti, and to look at the work of masters of both the earlier “transitional” period, such as di Grassi or Agrippa, and later Italian masters of the 17th century, such as Marcelli. This seventh rule provides the basis for the theory of “concentric rings” that follows.

(An excellent example of how one researcher applies this model to his chosen source can be found in Roger Norling’s article, Meyer’s Masters.)

Building a Better Dinosaur: The Concentric Ring Approach

Just like a paleontologist, you need to establish a clear picture of what it is you are recreating, which in turn establishes a framework upon which the surviving material can be hung, and the external additions, reconstructions or assumptions be clearly identified and inserted

Just like a paleontologist, you need to establish a clear picture of what it is you are recreating, which in turn establishes a framework upon which the surviving material can be hung, and the external additions, reconstructions or assumptions be clearly identified and inserted

Now that we have a set of basic rules to govern how we read and interpret a particular fencing text, we need a process that will lead us from our core source to filial texts and related martial arts, so that we keep those frogs, and their dangerous DNA, back in their aquariums where they belong! Here is the systematic process I have found helpful.

Chose a Core Text(s). The first step is to define what the art is you are trying to reconstruct. Is it medieval swordsmanship or 19th century pugilism? Backsword fencing or French smallsword? Whatever the answer, you should begin with a broad category and drill down from there to a single, baseline text. Once you have made this decision, begin applying rules one through six of the “Necromancer’s Toolkit” to that text.

For example, I begin with “medieval swordsmanship”, which gives me one of three traditions to work within: the Liechtenauer, dei Liberi or English lineages. I chose the dei Liberi school, which is represented by a body of five different, core manuscripts. However, as the writings of Fiore dei Liberi himself comprise four of those manuscripts, my “baseline” becomes using those works specifically attributable to the founder himself, with an emphasis on the Getty Ms, which is the largest and most detailed. So my translation, research and interpretation begins with the Getty Ms, and where I run into any unanswered questions or seeming inconsistencies, I will then immediately look to the Morgan and Pisani-Dossi manuscripts for answers, and compare this to the Parisian Florius de Arte Luctandi,[2] which is attributed posthumously to the master, and appears to be a humanistic treatment of his work, rather than a manuscript whose creation he oversaw. If I still cannot find a clear answer, or if dei Liberi himself is silent on a subject, it then becomes time to look elsewhere.

Texts by Other Masters in the Same School. At some point after you have made a thorough study of your root text, and have been working with physical interpretation, you will feel you have a general idea of the master’s system. Nevertheless, you will likely have a series of questions or contradictions that seem to have appeared in the text and you will probably have little understanding of how this system relates to its contemporaries.  This is the point in which you must apply rule seven from the “Necromancer’s Toolkit”.

So in our example, after working with the Getty Ms for some time, I may feel that there are a number of techniques where dei Liberi could have been clearer. By looking at the three, related texts, I am able to resolve many of the technical questions, but I find that I  can’t firmly grasp some of the tactical ones; not what to do, but why to do it. So I now need to look at the writing of other masters in the same tradition. With the dei Liberi school, that leaves me one option, Filippo Vadi, a master of the late 15th century, whose own treatise uses rhyming couplets and illustrations that are similar to, although not precisely the same as, the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.

Texts by Masters of Related Schools. Although it is somewhat artificial to lump the different European schools into categories of nationality, we can arrange them geographically.  Simply put, fencing masters of a certain region clearly encountered and influence each other, and develop certain technical and tactical sensibilities that influenced their fighting arts for centuries. For example, English masters clearly favored strong, static parries, or “stoppes”, usually made by stepping into an attack. This leads to an emphasis on double-time actions. These “stoppes” appear during the 15th century, in the very first English texts, and remain a constant of English fencing well into the 19th century. By the same token, although most medieval masters used rising, false edge cuts to deflect attacks, they received special emphasis from Italian masters, and false edge parries remained a component of Italian fencing straight through to the 19th century.

Continuing our example of the dei Liberi school, if Vadi fails to clearly provide the answers I need, my next step should be to turn to the masters of the Bolognese school. Although the surviving texts of this tradition are from the early 16th century, Dardi, the school’s founder was a near contemporary of dei Liberi (within a half generation), who founded his school in a city little more than a day’s ride away from the court of Ferrara. Besides being a product of the same culture, both schools trained in a wide variety of similar weapons, in and out of armour, and used a closely related technical nomenclature for their guards, blows and footwork, often even replicating the same plays.

Texts by Masters of the Same Era. Throughout their long history, European martial arts continued to evolve and refine themselves, particularly during the sweeping military innovations of the 16th and 17th centuries. The world of 1600 was radically different than that of 1450, and although weapons such as the longsword, halberd and dagger were still being taught, even within a long-lived lineage, such as the Liechtenauer tradition, we can see clear changes in how those arts were being practiced. Therefore, once we realize that we must move outside of our core text and begin to look at related traditions, we should look at all European contemporary traditions, as these are the arts that our own “school” would have grown up fighting with and against.

In our dei Liberi example, we know that Maestro Fiore was active in the late 14th century and his tradition survived until at least the late 15th century. He was from the far north-east of Italy, in a region closely connected with the German states, and tells us that he could have learned from German and Italian masters. Therefore, once I move beyond dei Liberi and Vadi’s writing,  I should also look at the Liechtenauer tradition at the same time I look to Bologna, specifically those texts written between the late 14th and mid-15th centuries, when I know that Maestro Fiore’s “school” was flourishing.

Common Themes of Historical Western Martial Arts
Although Iberia is as long way from Swabia, stunningly so in the days before the train or automobile, the mobility of Europeans was astounding, particularly military and mercantile men. While we have to distinguish between Elizabethan England and Philippan Spain on the one hand, we have to realize that they are both sub-sets of a larger, European culture on the other.     This is reflected in the martial arts as well. Fencing treatises are products of the literary and intellectual climate of the era they were written, so, regardless of nation, most European texts feature many common elements of structure and language; the more true this is as distinctive, international schools of fencing rose in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Combined with a common level of military technology and culture, we find that not only might most 15th or 18th century Europeans have a broadly similar style of combat, they had a common way of conceptualize it.

For example, once I have exhausted the Bolognese or 15th century German treatises, my next step is too look at how any of the late medieval traditions may have addressed the problem. When working with dei Liberi’s armoured poleaxe plays, I would already have moved to the instructions of Vadi and the one Bolognese master who teaches this weapon. I would have looked at 15th century German masters such as Talhoffer and Paulus Kal. Now, I would be ready to range further a field, and would find a unique, but contemporary, Bolognese text, Jeu de la hache. Beyond this, I might move back in the 16th century, looking at English bill and German and Italian halberd play – related, but distinct weapons, usually used with less armour. My goal would be to see how these similar arts addressed similar problems – using the weapons hooks, managing its length, feinting or disengaging from the bind with a 5 lb + weapon, etc. – to at least develop a basic tactical vocabulary common to all European polearm play. This way I can fill in my blanks with a solution that is least derived from consistent and universal first principles.

Solutions to Similar Problems by Similar Non-Western Martial Arts.
Finally, all martial arts are driven by the underlying laws of physics, applied to the same bipedal primate using either its natural weapons or a variety of lever arms. There are only so many ways to lock an elbow or thrust a spear. However, the devil is in the details. Since this is where the researcher is injecting the greatest amount of “FrogDNA”, before the scholar begins to pull from non-Western sources to answer his remaining questions, it is critical that he first understand the fundamental principles and mechanics of the art he is interpreting, and second, that he feel he has exhausted his “native” sources. It is entirely too easy to have a background in an art, such as Aikido, and assume that a throw is a throw is a throw, while missing the point that Aikido has a specific way it steps and projects its throws, that may have little in common with Western grappling.

When looking outside of WMAs for answer, the first step is to choose an art that most closely approximates the one you are reconstructing. With our example of the dei Liberi school, I would need to find an art that taught grappling, knife combat and the use of the two-handed sword, spear and polearm, ideally used in and out of armour. There are a number of arts that teach a few of these elements, but very few arts that meet all of those qualifications. Yet the further I move from the same assumed combat environment, the less useful the comparisons will be.

Practically, this means that while something like modern Mixed Martial Arts may provide a great deal of insight into grappling, it is usually applied as a ring sport, not a battlefield art, and has no insights into relating and integrating that grappling to swordsmanship. Therefore, a MMA practitioner may recognize dei Liberi’s armbars and throws, but may not understand why there is such a lack of chokes or ground fighting techniques. An art like Penkat Silat certainly was meant for mortal combat, and uses a variety of knives, staves and swords, but both the climate and tribal culture of Indonesia eliminated anything approximating armoured or mounted combat, and this changes what stances and techniques are emphasized.

Traditional, feudal Japanese martial arts, which combine grappling, two-handed swords and polearms, sometimes in and out of relatively full and heavy armour. Therefore the techniques and tactics these arts developed had to address a similar set of problems, and becomes perhaps the closest approximation to dei Liberi’s art we will find in living traditions. Form follows function. So once I have exhausted my native sources, this provides my first foreign analog.  Had my example been different – say backsword fencing – then the foreign art would have been different, perhaps Escrima or Chinese jian and dao (straight sword and saber) fencing. Regardless, the final step is to then find reliable exponents and source for that tradition that can provide you useful data, as well as a basic understanding of its unique cultural, as opposed to purely martial, characteristics  so that you don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Conclusion: Franken-Fechter; Or a Modern Prometheus…


In the end, one of the few great truths of the world is that the dead stay dead. We cannot “resurrect” the martial art of Fiore dei Liberi, anymore than we can the man himself. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that a book is not a living tradition, and even a living tradition, not necessarily a snapshot of how things were done “back in the day”. Even were we to “get it right”, whatever that means, we’ll never truly know, for we are left performing before the unseeing eyes of unspeaking masters.

But all is not lost. Even though the garden has, in some cases, been barren for generations, instructional books, primary accounts, iconography, contemporary literature and surviving artifacts all remain as “root stock”. By grafting our own research, analysis and experimentation to that root-stock, we can grow new flowers in the garden of the Western tradition. But it is a delicate process, and we must be careful to maintain as much of the original source as possible, and keep it central to our work. The end result will not, and cannot, be the same, but it may be close; a reasonable descendant of what came before.

But to do this we must first accept that we will need to go beyond a single source, or even a single tradition, in a search for context. Having accepted that, we then need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that once we leave our art’s native time and place we are firmly in the realm of “FrogDNA”. What kind of frog we use, and how much of his genetics, needs to be considered carefully, or the results can be disastrous.


My thanks to Sean Hayes, Steven Hick and Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, all of whom provided suggestions and improvements to various drafts of this paper.

NB: A slightly different version of this paper can be found in In the Service of Mar: Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop (1998 – 2008), Volume II (Freelance Academy Press, 2015)

[1] As much as researchers of any discipline tend to work in a vacuum, in truth, there is nothing unique in the reconstruction of antique martial arts; clear parallels can be found in the reconstruction of medieval cooking, music or dance, where textual instructions exist, but with a technical vocabulary and methodology unique to the text’s time and place, assumptions of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and a set of cultural aesthetics that may be at variance with the modern era. The methods by which scholars puzzle out a galliard, an ancient Roman lament or a Burgundian tart provides clear exemplars of both the possibilities and pratfalls of recreating a physical activity from a written source.

[2] The fourth dei Liberi manuscript Florius de Arte Luctandi, Bibliotheque National Ms. Latin 11269, which shares a number of commonalities with the Pisani-Dossi and Vadi manuscripts, including the rhyming captions. As none of the captions are exact copies of those in the other texts, it suggests they may all derive from an unknown common source or reflect transcription by memory from an oral tradition.

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Smile And Attack!


In my classes on how to enter a fight, one of the things I teach is to constantly smile. Smiling helps you to relax and remain calm. If you are calm, you can tense up in a controlled manner whenever required, instead of wasting energy and slowing yourself down by being too tense too early and for too long.

Think of throwing a ball, a frisbee, a spear or a dart: Your best throw requires moving from relaxation to a short instant of tension as the missile leaves your hand. Being tense all the while will result in an inefficient, jerky and awkward move that will hardly serve its purpose very well.
It is the same in swordplay: Tightness will make you numb, slow and tire you out. 04_Braveheart

Smiling also helps you to be confident and raise your spirits. While self-esteem is of course no guarantee that you will prevail, you have already lost if you do not believe in yourself at all. For lack of confidence in your skill and technique will undermine your physical ability to put them into practice in the first place, and it will be close to impossible for you to fight in a determined and likewise refined way.


Grim and frowning warriors of modern Tinseltown make poor role models for swordsmen. Unfortunately, we are unconsciously affected by these images and ideas, in particular when it comes to sword-fighting. Nowadays, fight sequences set in some sort of medieval or fantasy setting have become rather dark and grim. The entertainment’s industry’s lust for blood and gore is presumably designed to make for a more realistic and more vicious staging of fight sequences, in order to meet the demands of an audience that is privileged to have suffered relatively little exposure to violence. 02_Leonidas_300

Modern sword-fight heroes and heroines enter combat with howling fervour, their faces distorted to grimaces of rage as they recklessly flail at each other, usually driven by a burning desire for revenge. However, this passionate approach to combat may be easy to relate to for the average Joe, but it is, in fact, the exact opposite of martial arts.


As Stephen Pearlman has pointed out in his recommendable ”Book of Martial Power“, the aim of any martial arts education is to replace instinctive responses by martially sound ones. To become an accomplished fighter, one has to learn to divorce determination from tightness, calmness from slackness and re-combine them to a mind-set that is superior in combat (and not only there), but which does not come with our natural emotional make-up.

The skilled combatant has learned to do his job in cold blood in an effortless way – much in contrast to the yelling, grunting and howling primitive fighters we see on screen.
So if you need an image or a role model to inspire yourself, then rather be dashing and daring like Hollywood icons of old, e.g. Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, or their successors in movies like ”The Princess Bride”!


Think of them instead, and smile as you advance, cheerfully and with joy, as recommended in these quotes from a late 14th century German fight-book:

“Kunheit vnd rischeit / vorsichtikeit list vnd klugheit Vornu~ft verborge~heit / moße bevorbetrachtu~ge / hobsheit / fetikeit / Wil fechten haben vnd frölichs gemüte tragen”

Audaciousness and swiftness / wariness, stratagem and prudence, reason, clandestineness / measure, premeditation / prettiness / skill: / (all this) fighting wants to have and carry a cheerful spirit.

(HS 3227a, f. 18v, Germany, late 14th century)

“als balde als her nur siet / das her in mit eynem schrete / ader mit eynem sprunge dirreichen mag / wo her deñe indert in blos siet / do sal her hin varn / mit frewden / czu koppe ader czu leibe / künlich an alle vorchte wo her in am gewisten gehabñ mag / alzo das her ia den vorslag gewiñe /”

As soon as he just sees / that he, with one step / or with one leap, may reach / where he sees the other exposed, / there he shall rush / with joy / towards head or towards body / audaciously and without any fear, where he may have him most certainly / so that he at any rate may win the vorschlag /

(HS 3227a, f. 20r, Germany, late 14th century)

Transcription: Diek Hagedorn
Translation: Roland Warzecha

Original title photo: Sabine Bär, showing Lean Rasmussen and myself at the Berlin Buckler Bouts in May 2015.

You can download the title image for free in a printable resolution here.

Read a brief review of ”The Book Of Martial Power” here.

Read about the results of forced smiling and laughter compared to howling here.

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In Search of the Rudis

This article was originally posted at http://www.puckandmary.com/blog_puck/2014/06/in-search-of-the-rudis/. It has been re-posted here, with permission from the author, Puck Curtis, with our thanks.


Like many of the stories of my life, this one should start with me being a fool.  It was WMAW and assembled there were a collection of instructors trained through Maestro William Gaugler’s fencing program.  The Chicago Swordplay Guild wished us to deliver to Maestro Gaugler a gift.  Resting inside a carved box was a wooden gladius, a Rudis, of the kind which was traditionally presented to a gladiator who had earned his freedom to become a Rudiarius.  Engraved were words expressing their desire that this tradition should persist forever.


Maestro Gaugler

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Stable, Striking and Mutable: Fighting from the Guards of L’Arte dell’Armizare

“I am the sword and I am lethal against any weapon; lances, axes and dagger are worthless against me. I can become extended or withdrawn; when I get near the opponent I can enter into close play, perform disarms and abrazare. My art is to turn and to bind; I am expert in defense and offense, and always strive to finish in those. Come against me and feel the pain. I am Royal, enforce justice, propagate goodness and destroy evil. Look at me as a cross, and I will give you fame and a name in the art of arms.”Il Fior di Battaglia, folio 25r, Fiore dei Liberi, 1410 (tr. Tom Leoni)[1]


Fiore dei Liberi’s il Fior di Battaglia, a medieval martial arts manuscript dated to 1410 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum and catalogued as MS Ludwig XV 13, uses an innovative instructional design to teach the techniques and principles of L’Arte dell’Armizare (the Art of Arms). Among the features of this system is the organization of longsword guards (positions from which the fighter attacks, defends or counterattacks) into three classifications: Stabile, Pulsativa, and Instabile, or stable, striking, and mutable. Knowing the play of these three classifications of guards is an essential part of understanding Fiore’s strategy and tactics in the fight – in other words, the actual application of martial technique against an antagonistic opponent.

In order to better describe how the three types of guards are used strategically and tactically, I’ll first outline the pedagogical model of the manuscript, and then briefly outline the core elements of longsword play as taught by Fiore’s 24 First Masters on folios 22r through 24v. These masters teach lessons both specific to the sword and general to all weapons. For example, the four masters who teach the cuts and thrusts teach them for sword, axe and spear, but not for dagger, which are taught separately. Conversely, the First Masters of the armoured and mounted combat sections have lessons applicable to the sword, whether used single-handed or with both hands.   The focus of this article is on the play of the longsword, but since the manuscript teaches an interconnected system, I will draw from its entirety.

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Memory and Performance: Visual and Rhetorical Strategies of Il Fior di Battaglia

(First presented at the Renaissance Society of America’s Venice conference in 2010. Presented also as part of an academic session followed by an armoured combat demonstration, organized by Dr. Regina Pskai, at the American Association for Italian Studies conference at University of Oregon, 2013)

This paper is part of a larger study on medieval and Renaissance martial arts manuscripts, their art historical context, their relationship to medieval arts of memory, and the practical interpretation of the arts they represent. I will address the work of Mary Carruthers and Kathryn Starkey on medieval techniques of reading to show how a medieval martial arts manuscript makes use of visual rhetorical devices to address the problems inherent in notating fencing actions. MS Ludwig XV 13, dated to 1410 and commonly known by its title Il Fior di Battaglia or Flower of Battle, is a Northern Italian manuscript by a military captain named Fiore dei Liberi. The manuscript, currently held by the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a complex performance document which employs specific notational techniques to record for later use the elements of a physical performance.

The difficulties of understanding and interpreting historical martial arts texts lie partly with their semiotic remoteness from the present day. It is not simply that the teachers of those traditions are now long dead, or that the manuscripts themselves invariably seem to assume some prior knowledge of the arts they record, but also that they employ a literary, academic, and artistic vocabulary that is different from our own. To arrive at reasonable interpretations of the physical performance and use of these arts requires study of the complete cultural context in which these arts were performed. Only with this type of study can we begin to assign degrees of confidence to our interpretations of these arts.
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Wide and Close Play in Armizare, the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi  

Gregory D. Mele, ©2014

[N.B: This article greatly expands and upon an earlier one “Understanding Wide and Close Play in the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi”, first presented in 2008 and later published with photo interpretations in In the Service of Mars, Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop (1999 – 2009), Vol. I. In addition to a new introduction that is about a third of its entire length, substantial revisions and citations extend throughout the article, so those familiar with the earlier work will still want to read this in its entirety.]


I first discovered the works of Fiore dei Liberi in 1995, with a poorly photocopied, badly-translated edition of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. I soon found a copy of Novati’s original facsimile, and over time learned that a wide variety of Italian authors, from Giacopo Gelli to the famed fencing master, Luigi Barbasetti, had written on the man and his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further a new generation of Italian researchers, most notably Massimo Malipiero and Giovanni Rapisardi, were also working with this “father of Italian fencing”, building on the work established by Novati almost 100 years earlier.[1]

What all of these authors agreed upon was that control of distance was critical to how Fiore dei Liberi conceptualized his techniques, or “plays”, which he divided into two categories, one meant to maximize range, and one meant to collapse it. These two distinctions were:

Zogho Largo (wide play) only appears when discussing long weapons, such as the sword, spear or axe. At this measure, combatants may use the weapon’s edge and point, bind or grab the weapon’s head and, depending on the weapon’s length, make long-range unarmed attacks, such as kicks. Grabs will not reach any deeper than the opponent’s elbow; body-to-body contact is not possible.

Zogho Stretto (close or narrow play) is the measure at which dei Liberi describes abrazare (grappling) and dagger combat occurring. When fighting with longer weapons, it is the range at which one uses those same techniques: hilt/shaft strikes, grabs of the opponent’s sword arm, body, or head and includes body-to-body contact such as throws.

We second-generation researchers blissfully accepted this notion of wide and close play, picked up our swords and daggers and set to work. However, as we struggled to make sense of dei Liberi’s text, discovered the much larger and better explained Getty Manuscript, and wrestled with mastering a slightly archaic form of a new language, it became clear that sometimes, the more you learn, the less you are sure what you know.

Consequently, an ever-present bugaboo in the historical reconstruction (HEMA) segment of Western Martial arts is the need to interpret old texts, written in slightly (or very) archaic forms of modern languages, often by non-native speakers. While this is the daily trade of historiographers, and has been for centuries, very few “HEMAtists” are necessarily even truly fluent in those languages, let alone academics trained to analyze a text paleographically, linguistically and contextually.  Some seek to educate themselves accordingly, while others embrace a sort of textual isolationism (“I study Master Z and I don’t need to know what Master Y said or how that relates to  Thomas Aquinas” ) in a manner that is probably best reserved for the reading of sacred scripture by those comfortable with geocentrism or Young Earth Creationism.

But whatever the methods – or intentions – the end result is that we make mistakes, over-analyze or try to force-fit one language into another, blissfully unaware that neither modern Germans and Italians, nor academics trained in the medieval forms of their languages, need amateur scholars armed with dictionaries, Google Translate and good intentions to explain to them how these languages work!

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The Elderly Master: Unarmed Techniques from Fabian von Auerswald

by Tim Hall, David Rowe and Bill Grandy – Instructors at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, Historical Swordsmanship Division

An image from Fabian von Auerswald’s “Ringer Kunst”.

Fabian von Auerswald was a German Renaissance master of Ringen (wrestling). In 1537, at the age of 75, he completed a beautifully illustrated treatise on wrestling called Ringer kunst: funf und Achtzig Stücke (The Art of Wrestling: Eighty Five Techniques). It was published posthumously in 1539. This work was dedicated to the Lord John Frederick, elector of Saxony, and even states that he trained the lord’s sons as well as many of the men of his court. Considering the age of von Auerswald when it was first created, and considering the illustrations show an aged von Auerswald tossing around younger wrestlers, we should all be inspired by the vitality and skill the man must have possessed well into the latest years of his life. It is also notable that the woodcuts were created in the workshop of the famous artist Lucas Cranach. This was an expensive work to produce, and Lord Frederick, as von Auerswald’s patron, clearly felt the elderly master’s expertise was worth the expense.

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From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part II)

Bill Grandy, Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing

Free play with rapier and rotella (round shield).

In Part I of this article we explored a few variations of drills to help develop both tactical proficiency as well as fluidity between actions under pressure. Those drills allowed more dynamism than static drills, and yet they are still a step apart from full out free play.

When engaging in free play, one has to accept that it is less of a learning exercise and more of a test of one’s abilities under fire. While learning occurs, the moment your brain goes into competitive mode it is spending less time analyzing previous maneuvers and more time adapting to the present and future maneuvers. Because of this, in order to gain the most out of your free play, you should consider variations that limit you and force you to adapt certain tactics.

Here we will look at some forms of free fencing games. Some of these are essentially loosely structured drills, designed to bring free play into a more focused realm, while others are essentially free play with specific rules. Many of these games can be mixed-and-matched with each other. You will find that many of these are very unrealistic, and that is important to accept: These are meant to supplement standard free fencing, not replace it. Each of these games force a fencer to rely on specific goals. Furthermore, all forms of free play are fake (even when people lie to themselves and say that they use “no rules”, which still have certain rules for safety or rules for when to stop each exchange). When fencing against an opponent, everyone eventually plays to the rules, even if subconsciously, because “scoring the point” becomes more important in the short term than practicing realism. By forcing oneself to change the rules on occasion, a fencer will have a more rounded approach, so that even if he or she is “playing to the rules”, the fencer will still develop a wide range of skills, becoming a better fighter overall.

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From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part I)

Bill Grandy, Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing

Men practicing in a fencing hall from Joachim Meyer’s 1570 fencing treatise. (Figures in foreground have been highlighted for clarity.)

So you’re a student of Historical European Martial Arts. You’ve read your historical fencing treatises dozens of times. Your guards are perfect, and you’ve practiced your attacks and counters so often that you could do them asleep. Despite all of your practice, though, as soon as free fencing occurs you find yourself leaping all over the place, unable to properly strike with the appropriate footwork when you need to, and always forgetting to close the line when striking so that you receive double kills regularly. The core, basic actions you’ve practiced so often seem to rarely happen in the way you’ve drilled them, and you result to frantic flailing in the hopes of just landing that one touch where you were lucky enough not to be hit. “But I’ve drilled so much”, you tell yourself. “I guess real fighting must look completely different than drills.” Unfortunately, this hypothetical situation is all too common an attitude when it comes to the gap between practicing drills and entering non-choreographed free-fencing. If any of it feels familiar, then perhaps you should start questioning how you drill, not what you drill.

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The DeKoven Concord version 2.0

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Welcome to CFAA’s Newest Member: Swords of Chivalry


CFAA is very pleased to add Scott Farrell of San Diego, CA and his group Swords Of Chivalry* to our ranks. For those of you who might not know Scott, he is best known as the owner of Chivalry Today and its popular podcasts:


Swords Of Chivalry teaches several medieval weapon styles taken from the German/Lichtenauer school of European martial arts, including longsword, messer, sword and buckler, quarterstaff, and pollaxe. Scott calls their approach  “practical school of historical study and interpretation,” meaning that training focuses on learning and understanding historical techniques, with the intent of putting them into practice through exercises and free-play activities. Thus pressure-testing via sparring is  core component of the methodology, but training and preparation for sport and tournament competition, using historical sources and techniques only as much as they are relevant in achieving success in HEMA/sport fencing activities, is not.

Swords Of Chivalry began in 2007 when Tedd Padgett, owner Team Touché Fencing Center (the largest sport-fencing school in San Diego) asked Scott to do a demonstration of armored combat and a talk about the ideals of chivalry as part of a promotional event at his sallé. A summer workshop followed and evolved into a stand-alone four-week WMA training program for some of his students who were interested in learning more historical sword combat, finally becoming a weekly WMA class to meet student interest and growing client requests. In 2011, when one of Team Touché’s most active coaches, Stuart Lee, moved on to open his own school, Lionheart Fencing Center, Mr. Lee asked me to come in with youth and adult WMA classes (with Mr. Padgett’s blessing) to add to Lionheart’s schedule of weekly classes. Swords Of Chivalry is currently operating as a historical fencing program hosted at both Team Touché and Lionheart fencing studios in San Diego. There are two assistant coaches, Kyle Lazzarevich and Quinn Sellars. Classes currently have about 25 regular (weekly) students overall, at both Team Touché and Lionheart. There are four weekly classes: one for adults, and one for youth/teens at both fencing centers.
Scott is also a reenactor, long-time SCA fighter and lover of all things 14th – 15th century. He was recently chosen as First Amongst Equals in the armoured deed of arms. You can see a few of his bouts here:

(*Swords Of Chivalry also goes by the name “San Diego Longsword.”)


The Unorthodox Fighter


A while ago, I was asked the following question:
„I.33 and most of the other manuscripts are based on the idea that there will be a meeting of the swords and actions at that bind will determine the victor. How do you deal with an opponent who refuses to bind, using only his buckler to engage your sword?“

This is a really good question and a problem, modern practitioners have to deal with each time they are facing what Cornelius Berthold called the unorthodox fighter: An opponent who has a totally different approach and simply refuses to do what he is ”supposed to“. I remember a student with a background in Tai Chi, who in freeplay would never enter with his weapons in conjunction as recommended in I.33. He gave his fellow students severe problems.

Now, if we believe that the historical systems we study are martially sound, they are supposed to work against any adversary, regardless of his approach or style. Unfortunately, the sources very rarely tell us how to deal with them, if at all. The early 14th century manuscript I.33 does, in fact, recommend repeatedly, to follow-on with a thrust or strike against an opponent who remained passive. You could generally look at I.33 as a manual for what to do in duel if one fighter has already occupied the central space between him and his adversary (e.g. by having entered in halpschilt/Half-Shield or some form of schutzin/Cover), like e.g. on folio 9r, where the swordsman on the right has entered and claimed the center. His tonsured opponent keeps his distance and counter-binds to even out the odds:

At any rate, when you are confronted by a fighter who acts completely differently than what you are used to, stay true to what you have learned. Interestingly, I have often witnessed how people give up on their virtues and instead begin to mirror their opponent. So when one combatant approaches in a rather awkward way, say, he is jumping up and down and moving his weapons in frantic circles, oftentimes the bewildered adversary adopts this ludicrous dance, too. But how good are chances that you will beat an opponent who has trained his style or tactics for years when you have just started mimicking him for a few seconds only? Instead, be confident and have faith in your hard won skills and apply what you have practiced. As my former instructors said: „Never play your opponent’s game!“

Looking at the questionable tactics of refusing a blade bind:
If you do so against an apt adversary who has already seized the center, you have no chance to regain it. But this would be a pre-condition of coming out victorious and unharmed: Note that there is no safe way to hit your opponent without controlling the central space between you and him first – and this is true for all swordsmanship. All historical technique is designed to provide exactly this kind of control before concluding with a hit. Striking to hit without having won the center is gambling, not sound tactics, and it is exactly this failure that constantly produces double hits in too many modern engagements. Note also that you do not need a blade bind to win the center – if there is nothing to bind against and no imminent threat either, complete your action by hitting the appropriate opening.

Dierk Hagedorn, who is an expert on German fight books of international renown, believes just like I do that this is the true tactical context of ”vorschlag“ and ”nachschlag”, two terms from late medieval German combat jargon: The vorschlag is the first segment of a two-parted attack, designed to gain the center and thus pave the way to the opening you were striving for, to eventually conclude the attack with a hit, which of course would be the second and final part of the attack. The earliest known manuscript of the German so-called Liechtenauer tradition HS 3227a, dated to the late 14th century, describes it like this: wen her nü den vorslag / tuet / trift her zo volge her dem treffen vaste / noch / Be aware that any translation (including mine) will be coloured by interpretation. I would translate Dierk Hagedorn’s transcription of these lines from folio 20r into English like this: If he now delivers the vorslag, if he hits, he should then follow-after the meeting with pressure. The word “treffen” (= meeting, encounter, gathering) most likely applies to a crossing of swords. So according to 3227a, the combination of gaining the advantage with the vorslag, yet constantly focusing on the final target, is best tactics: ”vnd sal io den vorslag gewyñen / vnd iene~ mt nichte lassen czu~ dinge~ kome~ / als du bas h°noch wirst hören yn der gemeyne~ lere etc” (16r)
And at any rate he should win the vorschlag /  and not at all let the other one come to things / as you will later hear about in the general teachings etc.

The struggle for control of the center is crucial to any sword-fight, and it is decided in a crossing of blades. Informed by pressure sensed through his sword, the able swordsman will choose the appropriate response from his repertoire, while his skilled opponent will strive to do the same: ”weret her aber iener den vorslag alzo das her im den vorslag / is sy haw ader stich mit syme swerte / abeweiset vnd leitet / Dy weile her deñe ieme noch / an syme swerte ist / mit deme als her wirt abe geweist / von der blößen / der her geremet / hat / zo sal her gar eben fülen vnd merken ab iener in syme abeleiten vnd schützen der hewe ader stiche / an syme swerte / weich ader herte / swach ader stark / sey /” (20r/20v). My translation reads: But if he wards off the vorschlag, so that with his sword he turns away or drives off his vorschlag, be it blow or thrust, and while he is still at his sword, with which he is being driven away from the opening that he has been striving towards, then he should instantly sense and realize if the other, in his driving aside and covering against the blows or thrusts, is at his sword soft or hard, weak or strong. In fact, the ability to win the advantage in a crossing of swords, coupled with a relentless focus on the ultimate target could be called the essence of sword-fighting as promoted in 3227a. If the initial vorschlag was not won, then one should respond with appropriate means based on the pressure signals from the bind in order to gain control and finish with the nachschlag: “/ e den / das iener czu keyme slage kome / zo sal her deñe den nochslag tuen /” (20v) Before the other one manages to strike a blow, he should then deliver the nachschlag.

So without a shield, refusing to bind when the attacker is already in control of the center means that the fight is lost. If you have failed to bind against a determined attacker, then you have given up on the only instrument that could prevent him from slaughtering you. The manuscript I.33 on single combat with sword and buckler shows on folio 20v that, after a bind had already been established, one combatant does not attempt to win the struggle for control of the center, and rather retreats. The text accompanying the lower plate says (as transcribed by Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng): Ex illa ligatura superius tacta, que ducta est per sacerdotem, scolaris fugit ut supra dictum est, ut patet hic, quia fugit sub brachio quod immediate sequitur sacerdos, percutiendo capud ut hic.” Which could be translated to: From the bind discussed above, which has been lead by the priest, the student flees as has been said above, and as is shown here: for because he flees under the arm, the priest pursues instantly, hitting him in the head like here.

So if you want to prevail, winning the center by dealing with a blade bind is not an option, it is a requirement. Even if you have a buckler, but refused to bind with your blade, your shield may check the opposing blade once or twice, but for its limited reach, your parries cannot win you the center at medium measure. At that distance, it is very easy to out-maneuver a shield with a blade. See how at 2:27 Roland Fuhrmann’s sword is moving so much faster than my buckler:

If in single combat with sword & buckler you expertly enter, and with your weapons seize the center, and there is a shield in your way, but no blade, then this means that your opponent has separated weapons, much in contrast to responses recommended in I.33. So he is doing what my former student insisted on doing.
This is a crucial moment where you have to exploit and punish his mistake. If you fail to do so, the advantage goes back to him. The treatises usually do not deal with with situations arising from multiple mistakes. You are already outside the realm of martial arts if you need luck to even out the odds once again.
So here is a common mistake against the unorthodox buckler fighter: Launching an attack between his wide open arms. While he is not controlling the center, you are neither, and thus you are at best on the path to the double hit. If people separate weapons, NEVER keep advancing on the center line but proceed to attack at an angle. Thus you will have to deal with one weapon only, and you will avoid to find yourself threatened from both sides all of a sudden. It is the same as in skirmish: When the opposing side splits up in two groups, your formation should pick one and attack from the outside, avoiding the other. Your worst position would be being placed between them, where you will find yourself being attacked from two sides simultaneously.

In single combat, you could look at it from much the same tactical viewpoint: Where is the center (it shifts with you as you move sideways) and how do I conquer and control it? Once you have managed to do so, swiftly conclude your attack within the same tempo. So, for example, if he withdraws his blade, keep your distance so no opening is readily availbale to him and pick the target closest to your blade, be it his arm, body or head. Stick to what 3227a teaches you, namely raining attacks on him, just like Roland Fuhrmann did in the video sequence above. Mind your angle of attack, remember to not get between his weapons.
Such a fight should be short and rather boring.
The only way for him to prevent you from successfully using this strategy is to bring forward his blade and bind – and you are back in the logics of historical swordsmanship as reflected in the treatises.

There is one buckler technique, however, that is suitable for effectively binding an opposing blade at the distance under discussion, which you can read about on my public Facebook pages.

Read more on I.33 and “gaining the center” here.

The title picture of Christopher and Ingo was taken by Tom Jersø at the Berlin Buckler Bouts in summer 2015.

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The Origins of European Swordsmanship


A common feature of all historical European sword-fighting, as reflected in medieval and Renaissance combat treatises, is fencing with blade binds. In this refined fighting art, a crossing of swords informs a combatant on appropriate maneuvers, based on pressure feedback sensed through one’s blade. Actually, the concept of going where pressure takes you is, indeed, omnipresent in all martial arts. But when was it first applied to swords? Or has fencing with blade binds always been at the heart of European swordsmanship, even in antiquity or the early and high medieval period? Based on years of experimentation and careful examination of early medieval swords – dating to a time long before the first fechtbuch was written – , this video presents a thesis that offers an explanation for distinct changes in weapon design, but also points to the possible origins of later European swordplay.

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CFAA Welcomes the Freifechter

Freifechter logoThe Chivalric Fighting Arts Association is pleased to welcome its newest member, the Freifechter (http://www.freifechter.org)

Founded in the year 2000, ‘Die Freifechter’ are one of Germany’s oldest historical fencing clubs. Their training focuses on the single-handed, single-edged sword from various historical eras. Systems trained include Messer according to the so-called ‘Glasgow Fechtbuch’ and Johannes Lecküchner’s magnum opus from 1482, Joachim Meyer’s Dussack, Napoleonic era sabre/backsword according to Taylor/Roworth’s ‘Art of Defence’ and late 19th century sabre according to Alfred Hutton’s ‘Cold Steel’. Wrestling and dagger from various German Medieval and Renaissance sources round out the curriculum.

For more information, you can either contact us through the CFAA at secretary@chivalricfighting.org, where we will be happy to direct your request, or directly via their website : www.freifechter.org/kontakt/