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The Knightly Art

An Overview of European Martial Arts in the Late Middle Ages




2006 Gregory D. Mele


Introduction
The history of personal combat has usually been relegated to fencing historians, who in turn
defined medieval combat as rough, untutored fighling
1
on the battlefield, between nobles,
whereas truly scientific, systematic, and civilian martial arts arose with rapier fencing in the mid-
16
th
century.

It was perhaps inevitable that as most fin de siecle fencing historians looked at the evidence they
had available to them, they looked at the records of the medieval masters-at-arms, and simply
didnl see vhal lhey lhoughl of as fencing. Fencing derives from lhe vord defense, and since
lhe MiddIe ges had simIy meanl lhe arl of defense, secifically when armed with any hand
weapon, be that a sword, knife or quarterstaff, be that in a duel, a street brawl or on a battlefield.
But by the late 19
th
century, the art of fencing focused on single-combat within the formal, and
increasingly non-lethal, duel. For most, training was really only for the friendly combat-sport that
had grown out of the martial art. Broadsword, heavy saber and bayonet fencing continued to be
practiced, but usually only by current or former military men, and with increasingly less
frequency, as the revolver at last made the sword completely obsolete on the battlefield. Even in
military fencing, the aesthetics of the age meant that grappling and in-fighting was strictly
forbidden in the fencing salle. Unarmed combat was a separate discipline, divided into boxing
and wrestling, each of which were also increasingly had their sportive, rather than defensive,
applications as a focus.


What was taught?
In contrast, the medieval master-at-arms taught cognate martial arts: complete systems of armed
and unarmed defense, designed for both the battlefield and personal defense. Their diverse
curriculum combined unarmed and weapons combat, both in and out of armour, fought both on
foot and on horseback. Training in this robust art was usually based on a foundation in close-
quarter combat and swordsmanship. Close-quarter combat was itself comprised of two key
components: wrestling and dagger combat. As a battlefield art, wrestling was particularly
aggressive, focusing on ending a fight quickly through either joint-breaking, throws or lethal
force, rather than seeking submission. Dagger combat was split between unarmed defenses
against the dagger and dagger vs. dagger dueling; a far more likely scenario for the 15
th
century
knife-fighter than it is for his 21
st
century counterpart.

Swordsmanship formed the basis for training with all long, hand-weapons. The central weapon
vas usuaIIy eilher lhe Iongsvord or lhe svord and buckIer. The Iongsvord, oflen caIIed a
hand-and-a-haIf svord by modern arms and armour enthusiasts, was a fairly new weapon that
had appeared in the 13
th
century. The first sword to offer a two-handed grip, it generally

1
see Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the 18th Centur, Dover (reprint), 2003. p. 9
measured between 44" and 54" [112 and 137 cm] in length, and was stout enough to combat fully
armoured foes, yet at roughly three to four pounds [1.4-1.8 kg] in weight, it was also fast enough
to use against lightly armoured and unarmoured opponents. Like the older sword it evolved
from, lhe Iongsvords slraighl, doubIe-edged blade was ideally suited for both cutting and
thrusting, and could be flat and wide, narrow and hexagonal, or diamond shaped in cross-
section. This versatility made the weapon extremely popular with the knightly classes; so much
so that this so-caIIed svord of var aIso became an element of civilian dress in the late Middle
Ages and Renaissance.

The older, one-handed or arming sword continued alongside the longsword, and when
combined vilh lhe buckIer, a smaII hand shieId measuring belveen 9 and 18 (23 lo 46 cm), vas
the other common exemplar weapon for the medieval fencing instructor. Sword and buckler was
a common sidearm for common soldiers and travelers, and fencing with them was a popular
medievaI sorl eseciaI vilh universily sludenls (oflen lo lheir rofessors horror.) Through the
use of these weapons the master taught all of the basic blows, defenses, entering techniques and
disarms of his martial art.

Full plate armour had been developed by 1400, and was virtually impervious to sword cuts. To
defeat this, the master-at-arms taught how to turn the sword into a short spear by gripping the
blade in the left hand; this allowed it to be strongly thrust into gaps in the armour. This
shorlened svord or haIf-svord combal aIso incIuded a number of disarms, lhrovs and
wrestling techniques, very similar to those taught with the dagger. Through these techniques, the
student linked the lessons of close-quarter combat, armoured combat and swordsmanship. This
formed a basis for fighling vilh lhe sear, lhe oIeaxe (a 4.5 lo 7 two-handed axe or
warhammer, similar to the halberd) and mounted combat.

It was a diverse and complex martial art, perfectly in keeping with the ethos of the warrior
culture that created it.

What survives today?
Sadly, these martial arts were victims of the same pragmatic culture that produced them. As the
nature of both warfare and personal defense evolved what was no longer useful was abandoned.
Although many of the older medieval weapons continued to be taught and practiced throughout
the Renaissance, by the turn of the 18
th
century their use seems to have survived in only a few
places as traditional curiosities.

Today, there are a number of traditional European styles of stick-combal vhose hislories cIaim
descent from the two-handed swordplay of the late Middle Ages, such as French grand baton or
Portuguese jogo do pau. But in reality, there is no documental or lineage evidence and very little
technical or lexiconal proof to support these claims, or show that any of these arts have a clear
origin prior to the 18
th
century.

A number of folk wrestling traditions surviving throughout Europe, such as those of Iceland,
Cornwall or Brittany, some with claims of great antiquity to their art. Unfortunately, folk culture
is oral culture, so there is little way to verify these claims. While, not surprisingly, there
sometimes are a number of similar throws, holds and takedowns found between all surviving
forms of Western wrestling and the medieval material, the techniques of the medieval masters
were battlefield arts, not sportive ones. Consequently, the medieval material focuses on ending
the fight immediately through a use of strikes, joint-breaks, chokes and potentially lethal throws;
most of which are banned for safety in folk and Greco-Roman wrestling. There is also fairly little
ground-fighting, which is a key element of most modern grappling. Although these folk
traditions certainly may have grown from, or in parallel to, those taught by the medieval masters-
at-arms, they have less in common with their curriculum than do most modern close-quarter
combatives.

What do we have, and where does it come from?
The medieval masters-at-arms arts did not survive the centuries as a living tradition, but
fortunately, they were prolific writers. By the turn of the 15th century, an entire corpus of fencing
treatises documents not only the presence of highly developed cognate martial arts, but actual
fencing guilds, whose masters were plying their trades in cities, universities, and courts
throughout Europe. Surviving fencing manuscripts from Germany, Italy, England, Spain,
Portugal, and Burgundy give us a detailed, and often reconstructable, look at martial arts more
than half a millennia old. Of these, the lion's share of the medieval material are German and
Italian treatises.

Liechtenauer's Legacy.
The surviving record of European swordplay begins with a unique, south German manuscript,
Royal Armouries Ms. I.33,
2
dated to c.1295. This curious manuscript, written by an anonymous
priest, shows a cleric teaching his schoIar, or sludenl, svord and buckIer combal. The
manuscript is comprised of captioned illustrations that teach a clear, well-developed and
eIucidaled syslem of combal. Il aIso refers obIiqueIy lo a common melhod of svordIay, bul
does not describe how its own instructions might relate, or differ, from that method.

WhiIe Ms. I.33 is a sohislicaled lexl, vhen Iooking al il from our side of hislory, ils hard nol lo
see lhe anonymous riesl as somelhing of a medievaI one hil vonder. Desile olher German
sword and buckler styles some common guards and techniques, and a few later manuscripts that
seem to show small sections copied from Ms. I.33, there is no real, clear historical evidence that
lhe riesls arl survived him in any kind of eslabIished lradilion. The firsl evidence of a
continuous, European tradition begins two generations later, with the German grandmaster,
Johannes Liechtenauer.

We know virtually nothing of this man, aside from shreds of data left by his students and their
descendants. Johannes Liechtenauer was born sometime in the first half of the 14th century,
possibly in Liechtenau, Franconia, but his actual birthplace, family and rank remain unknown.
He traveled through the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and
northern Italy) and Eastern Europe for a number of years, training with local masters and
synthesizing their teachings into a new method. His primary weapon was the longsword, but his
direct teachings also include wrestling, dagger and spear fighting, both in and out of armour.

By the later 1300s, Liechtenauer had settled down and begun to teach, precisely where is
unknown, although Swabia or Austria are likely. Tradition has it that he gathered a circle of

2
Ms. I.33 has recently been translated by Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A
Facsimile & Translation of Europe's Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS I.33, Chivalry
Bookshelf, 2003.
students, to whom he taught his art, simply known as Kunst des Fechtens (Art of Fighting), and
from whom comes nearly our entire record of German martial arts of the next two centuries.
Liechtenauer preserved his teachings in rhyming, mnemonic verses that were designed to
intentionally obscure his art from anyone who had not been trained by the master or his inner
circle. The grandmaster swore his students to secrecy, presumably until they were recognized as
a master, and then they were expected to hold their own students to secrecy, as well.
3


ul lheres an inleresling lhing aboul secrels, oalhs nol vilhslanding: il doesnl lake Iong before
someone breaks lhe secrel, usuaIIy for lhe good of (inserl your reason of choice here). In this
case, the Liechtenauer circle seems to have determined thal lhe arl vas being corruled by
Iesser maslers. Whelher lhis vas lrue, a maller of rofessionaI rivaIry, or somelhing eIse,
foIIoving Liechlenauers dealh al lhe cIose of lhe 14
th
century, his students, and then their
students, began to write treatises lhal inlerreled lhe Maslers crylic verses and exIained bolh
the technique, and the philosophy, of his school. The first of the surviving manuscripts was
crealed in 1389, erhas shorlIy afler lhe grandmaslers dealh, and is a comiIalion of fencing,
medical and astrological writings.

The new generation of the Liechtenauer tradition began writing treatise after treatise, and used
their works to secure the patronage of the Imperial nobility. Throughout the 15
th
and early 16
th

centuries a succession of German fencing masters wrote treatises based on the principles laid
down by Liechtenauer, expanding his original teachings with new techniques and new weapons,
such as the sword and buckler, falchion and poleaxe.

The last great master of the Liechtenauer lradilion ve have record of vas }oachim Meyer, vhos
manual of 1570 is a massive, incredibly detailed and lavishly illustrated fechtbuch, covering all of
lhe lradilions veaons: Iongsvord, dagger, shorl and Iongslaves, oIearms, dagger fighling, and
the dusack.
4
He was also the first German master to introduce a new weapon and a new style of
fencing, the Italian rapier, which he modified to fit the Liechtenauer conceptual framework. This
massive work was filled with detailed engravings and was a complete, step-by-sle hov lo
fencing manuaI. Meyers manuaI vas infIuenliaI enough lo be rerinled in 1600, again in 1660,
and lo be IargeIy rerinled
5
in at least two 17
th
century manuals by other authors.
6


The Italian Masters
Medieval Italy was a patchvork of feuding rinciaIilies, free-reubIics and cilies under IaaI
rule, all of whom seemed to excel first and foremost at finding reasons to go to war with one
another. Condottieri, or mercenary soldiers, came from all ranks of society and traveled from city
to city, army to army, selling their services. Culturally, it was also far ahead of the rest of Europe
in lerms of educalion and Iileracy. WhiIe Germany in 1400 vas a very definileIy medievaI
society, Italy was already entering its Renaissance.


3
Hans-Peter Hils, Master Johann Liechtenauers kunst des langen schwerts Frankfurt am Main, 1985.
4
Jeffrey Forgeng has also just-published a modern edition of Meyer in The Art of Combat: A German
Martial Arts Treatise of 1570, Greenhill, 2006.
5
Plagiarized as a modern writer would see it. However, plagiarization is largely a modern era (18th century)
concept.
6
Jacob Sutor, New Knstliches Fechtbuch (1612) and Theodore Verolini, Der Kunstliche Fechter (1679)
Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco was born into this factitious society around the year 1340. A
member of a minor noble house in Friuli, a region of northeastern Italy, he seems to have been
almost immediately drawn into the life of the itinerant swordsman. Like Liechtenauer before
him, dei Liberi traveled widely and studied under a variety of Italian and German masters,
systematizing their lessons into his own, unique art. He eventually entered the service of the
overfuI Marquis of Ierrara, NiccoIo III dIste, and at his request, composed a book, Il Fior di
Battaglia (The IIover of allIe), for him in 1409. This Iarge manuscril covered lhe use of lhe
principal knightly weapons of sword, poleaxe, spear and dagger, as well as wrestling, in and out
of armour, on foot and on horseback.

In his books roIogue, dei Liberi rovided a number of delaiIs of his ovn Iife, lhe mosl
interesting of which is mention of the five duels he fought against rival masters. He also names
his principle students, most of whom were well-known mercenary and military commanders of
the late 14
th
century. Although dei Liberi wrote that he had read and owned many books on the
art of fencing, no record survives of what these works or their authors might have been, and the
Il Fior di Battaglia stands as the earliest surviving Italian martial arts text. Although he remains a
shadovy figure, as lhe falher of IlaIian marliaI arls, dei Liberis fame vas sliII greal enough lo
produce two biographies over the ensuing centuries and to have his name appropriated today for
both the main drag of his home town and a rather lack-luster winery.

Approximately seventy years later, Filippo Vadi of Pisa produced a small, painted martial arts
book De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi (Of lhe rl of Svord Combal), dedicaled lo GuidobaIdo da
MonlefeIlro, Duke of Urbino. cIear disciIe of lhe dei Liberi schooI, his vork aIso has some
clear departures in nomenclature and methodology, and may either represent a sub-tradition of
the dei Liberi heritage, or be evidence of lhe schooIs evoIulion during lhe 15
th
century.

A second great tradition of Italian swordsmanship originated in Bologna around the same time as
dei Liberis, and Iong oulIived il. Lippo di Bartolomeo Dardi, an expert in mathematics,
geometry, astrology and astronomy, was a professor at the University of Bologna, and founded a
fencing school there in 1412.
7
Tradition names him as the author of a now lost work on geometry
and swordsmanship. The Dardi SchooI laughl a slaggering variely of veaons and close-
quarter combat: the one-handed sword, used alone and in conjunction with bucklers, shields, the
dagger, cloak, and an armoured gauntlet, the two-handed sword, halberd, bill, spear, winged
spear, partizan, partizan and shield, dagger, cloak and dagger and unarmed defenses against the
dagger, to be used in both civilian and military encounters. Although this school originated in the
15
th
century, it is only known to us through the line of masters who began to publish printed
books in the 16
th
century, lhe mosl famous of vhich vas chiIIe Marozzos Opera Nova (Nev
Word) of 1536. This is lhe man vhom Viclorian schoIars vrongIy considered lhe falher of lrue
fencing. Whalever lhe lilIe of his vork, Marozzo vas neilher a founder nor a particular
innovator; other than being a printed book, depicting men in the pumpkin-shaped pants
characteristic of the 16
th
century, there is little in his book that would have seemed odd to dei
Liberi or Vadi. But whether he was really the hot new kid on the block or nol, Marozzos book is
both massive and illustrated, qualities that allowed it be continue to be reprinted well into the
1620s, suggesting that the Bolognese tradition continued throughout the Renaissance.


7
Francesco Novati, Flos Duellatorum, in arnis, sine arnis, equester, pedester. 1906., p. 108, note 179. This
school has also been dated as late as the 1420s.
R Records also remain from maestri darme from unrelated traditions of the late Middle Ages and
early Renaissance. The most notable was Pietro Monte, another master in the service of
Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino, who was the author of a variety of printed books on philosophy,
the martial arts and related practices. His Collectanea, written in the late 15
th
century and
published in 1509, not only presents a unique system of combat, but covers a dizzying variety of
weapons, wrestling plays, physical conditioning, jousting tactics and techniques, and arms and
armour nomenclature.
8
Finally, from 1553 we have the only surviving treatise of a possible
Neapolitan school, Le tre giornate, of Marcantonio Pagano. Despite being written well into the
Renaissance, Iaganos vork focuses on medievaI veaons: lhe lvo-handed sword, partisan, and
a slashing spear, the coltello inhastato (oIe knife).

Although later fencing masters continued to dedicate space to lance, halberd, sword and buckler
and two-handed sword, by the late-16
th
century all of these traditional weapons were being
rapidly eclipsed by a new, purely civilian style of fencing built around a new weapon, the rapier.
Although Bonaventura Pistofilo produced a massive work on spear, halberd and partisan in 1621,
and the rapier master Francesco Alfieri turned his attentions to the two-handed sword in 1653,
the world had changed, and it was clear that the old arte dellarmizare (art of arms) was passing
away.

England
Once we leave central Europe, our records get very thin. While fencing masters were apparently
wandering from city to city and court to court throughout central Europe, refining their arts and
setting up show where they could find patronage, it seems that the English nobility had not
warmed to the discipline of arms being an open commodity. A 13
th
century law of King Edward I
stating:

Foreasmuch as Fools who delight in Mischief, do learn to fence with Buckler, and
thereby are the more encouraged to commit their Follies, it is Provided and
enjoined that noone shall keep schule or tych the Art of Fencing with the
Bouckler, within the City, by Night or by Day, and if any do so, he shall be
imprisoned for Forty Days.
9


Whereas continental fencing masters came from mercantile and knightly families, in England
they were often associated with simple tradesmen, such as cheese makers and fish-mongers.
Therefore, much of lhe knighlIy lraining in IngIand may have conlinued in lhe oId foslering
tradition, with a household knight appointed to train youthful charges. In either case, the
association with the lower classes and the lower levels of literacy in a rural country like England
than were seen in contemporary Italy and southern Germany may be why the total corpus of
surviving medieval English fencing literature consists of three fragmentary poems on the use of
the longsword and staff, written in a rural dialect of Middle English that reads to modern
audiences like Chaucer trying to write an instructional manual after an all-night drinking binge.




8
Until very recently, these books have gone largely unnoticed. For more see Sydney Anglo, The Man
Who Taught Leonardo Darts, Antiquaries Journal, LXIX (1989), pp. 261 278.
9
Luders, A and Tomlins, Sir T. E., Statutes of the Realms, 1810 - 1828.
France
Although a country known as the birthplace of chivalry, we have even less information from
France than we do England. While medieval French literature resounds with clear depictions of
combat and even evidence of a developed technical vocabulary, we have only a single combat
manual, Le jeu de la hache (xe-Play), a 15
th
century treatise on the poleaxe.

Iberia (Spain and Portugal)
The records of the Iberian peninsula are almost as scant as those of France, and focus entirely on
mounted combat. The earliest Iberian work was written by a king, Dom Duarte of Portugal, in
1423. This short work, the Regimentio de las armas, is not a fencing manual, but rather addresses
how a knight should train at arms. Duarte wrote a second, longer work, the Bem Cavalgar (Art of
Good Horsemanship), in 1434, which focused largely on the art of jousting, with a small chapter
of wrestling.
10


Throughout the 15
th
- 16
th
centuries, a succession of Iberian noblemen, such as Pon de
Menaguerra of Valencia (1493) and Juan Quixada de Reayo (1548) produced treatises on
mounted, armoured combat, with sword and lance, both in battle and in the lists.
Conclusions
Contrary to the popular notion of armoured knights blindly hewing at one another, medieval
masters-at-arms taught sophisticated methods of fighting in battle, personal defense or judicial
combat, in and out of armour, both on horse and on foot. Although none of these traditions have
survived to the modern day, the large corpus of illustrated and text fencing books the masters
recorded provide us a key to unlocking this rich time capsule of our martial heritage.


10
Several large portions of Duartes Bem Cavalgar has been translated in Richard Barber and Juliet Barker,
Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, New York
1989, pp. 197 - 205.