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The beginning of wisdom: Why Fiore dei Liberi is responsible for modern science

“The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name” – Confucius.

In this post I will demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that every wonder of the modern age is attributable to the systematizing of knowledge, pioneered by Fiore dei Liberi. Yes, really.

I have recently returned from a very rewarding trip to Australia, teaching seminars in Sydney for the Stoccata School of Defence, and in Melbourne for the SCA and the Melbourne Swordplay Guild. On one of the rest-days, my kind and gracious host Scott Nimmo took me to the Melbourne Museum, which was a delight, as you can see.

Spiders

(Scott also took these pictures, reproduced here with permission.)
When not running away from spiders, I had my eyes wide open, and came upon this extraordinary exhibit.

The Ordering of Things

Why extraordinary, you ask? Because it is so Fiore. Really. Let me explain.

This display lays out the standard taxonomy of the Kingdom Animalia. 2,500 years ago, give or take, Aristotle divided the living world into Plants and Animals; in the 18th century Carl Linnaeus added minerals to make his famous taxonomy (hence the first question in the game 20 Questions: animal, vegetable or mineral?), and invented the genus-species double-barrelled Latin naming convention still used today. From these first steps, the modern system has developed. For those not familiar with it, or who have forgotten it from their schooldays, it goes: Life, Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. The great advantage of this system is that the classifications can be made based on the natural, visible, characteristics of the organism. (These days, scientists are moving towards a system based on DNA analysis, which is no doubt spiffy and super-accurate, but won’t make any sense to the average 8 year-old, or be any damn use to someone who has no access to a DNA sequencing lab. But I digress.)
Anyhow, this display explains the Linnaean classification system by taking a specific butterfly (the one on the left, a Cairns Birdwing, ornithoptera priamus) and placing it in its Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species, working from the most general to the most, well, specific.

  1. It starts with the Kingdom, Animalia (animals), defined as: “Animals are organisms that lack cell walls and eat other organisms.” And you can see six examples, all from different Phyla.
  2. Next up, the Phylum, Arthropoda (arthropods): Arthropods are animals with an external skeleton, a segmented body and jointed legs.
  3. Then Class, Insecta (insects): insects are arthropods with three body parts, six legs and a pair of antennae.
  4. Then Order: Lepidoptera (butterflies): butterflies and moths are insects with two pairs of wings with overlapping scales.
  5. Then Family: Papilionidae (swallowtails): swallowtails are butterflies that have a spur on their forelegs that they use to clean their antennae.
  6. Then Genus: Ornithoptera (birdwings): birdwings are a type of Swallowtail butterfly. The males have a dense row of elongate hairs on their hindwings.
  7. And finally, species (ornithoptera priamus), the Cairns Birdwing butterfly has a unique combination of colour markings.

And there’s a picture of the esteemed Linnaeus. This is the best representation of this system that I have ever seen.
So far, so very systematic, and this sort of classification is thought of as being the beginnings of a truly scientific approach. But so what?

Here’s the point. Swordsmanship instructors have been using this kind of systematic thought for centuries before the scientists got in on the act!

The earliest scientist to classify plants according to their inherent natural characteristics rather than their (human-imposed) names or uses is generally reckoned to be Andrea Cesalpino, in his 1583 publication De Plantis. (He was Italian, of course. Until, well, the rise of the British Empire, all progress in human affairs had an Italian root. Overlooking a brief century or so in the middle when the French got a look-in. I may be overstating the case slightly.) But swordsmen have been classifying the natural phenomenon of combat since long before Mr Cesalpino.
I.33, the oldest combat manual we have, from about 1320, begins with the immortal lines: “fencing is the ordering of blows” and then proceeds to show seven guards. The rest of the manual is organised according to the starting guard position of the defender. Pretty systematic.

Fiore is next, from a tad before 1410. And oh my, what a feat of systematic classification. Taking the ordering of the Getty manuscript as our base, and “the ordering of blows” as our theme, we have:

  • 20 plays of abrazare: blows made with the empty hand, or wrestling grips. Preceded by four unarmed guards and ending with two plays of the dagger against the bastoncello, introducing:
  • 76 plays of the dagger. This begins with 5 “grips”, two with the dagger and three without, then four blows of the dagger (all thrusts; straight down, forehand, backhand, and from below), then four types of other action (disarm, break arms, locks and throws), then the 76 plays, organised into the plays of nine masters, each showing a different cover, depending on circumstances. (See here for an amusing summary. Note that 2 and 7 are for use in armour only.)
  • Then defences of the dagger against the sword, in which you must distinguish between cuts and thrusts. And defending against a cut only, you must distinguish between being able to enter on the inside or the outside, which depends on what exactly happens when the attack meets the parry. Then defences of the sword against the dagger: if your point is up, strike down; if it is down, you can strike up or down.
  • Then sword against sword: the master of the sword in one hand and the 11 plays that follow, in which you must not only distinguish between cut (plays 1-7 and 10) and thrust (plays 8 and 9) but also the presence of armour (play 11), and what line is open: in the first play, you enter on the inside, in the second, you have beaten the attack wide and can strike on the outside.
  • Then there are 6 ways of holding the sword, leading us into the seven blows: which are six cuts (forehand and backhand from above, below, and across) and the thrust, which is divided into 5 types: forehand and backhand from above and below, and up the middle. Note that Fiore makes an explicit distinction in some cuts whether it is done with the true or false edge.
  • Then the twelve guards of the sword in two hands, as if they were created by the blows that you make (top tip: they are).
  • Then the 20 plays of the zogho largo, and the 23 plays of the zogho stretto; the plays are divided up according to what exactly is going on when the blades meet, just as we saw with the defence of the dagger against the cut, and indeed the plays of the sword in one hand.

(This is getting rather complicated: it would take a book to explain it all. Wait a second, I wrote one, and you can pre-order it here!)
And so the treatise goes on, with the plays of the sword in armour, with axe, spear, mounted, etc.
Sticking with the idea of classification for a moment, let’s take a look at the whole system, which as the title of the Pisani Dossi manuscript makes clear, deals with combat on foot and on horseback, with armour and without, with sword, dagger, axe or spear.
So let’s take one sword blow, and define it according to the following criteria: On foot or Mounted; in Armour or Without; the Weapon; Guard or Blow; Cut or Thrust; (if cut) True edge or False Edge; Forehand or Backhand; Descending, Rising, or Horizontal.

  1. On foot or Mounted: on foot.
  2. In armour or without: without
  3. Weapon: sword (spada)
  4. Guard or blow: blow (colpo)
  5. Cut or thrust: cut (taglio)
  6. True edge or false edge: false (falso)
  7. Forehand or backhand: backhand (roverso)
  8. Descending, rising or horizontal: horizontal (mezano)

So this blow is a false edge horizontal backhand cut: roverso mezano.
Fiore is not alone in this; all swordsmanship authors worthy of the name, from here on classify their blows properly. Perhaps the most famous example is Viggiani’s tree of blows, from Lo Schermo, 1575:

ViggianiTree

As you can see, Viggiani orders the blows similarly: by cut or thrust; if cut, with true edge or false; then by backhand and forehand; then by the line of the blow. So to find the equivalent of Fiore’s roverso mezano, we start by going up the trunk, take the left branch (taglio col filo, cuts with the edge), then the right (falso), then keep right (roverso), then first left (tondo). And finally, the botanists got in on the act some 8 years later. Welcome to the classification party!

Pedantry compels me to point out here that this classification system is not as absolute as that for living beings; a single type of blow can exist with several, even all, weapons, unlike a living species which can only be in one Class, Phylum, etc. But the purpose of Art is to order the natural world into systems so that they can be studied and taught (or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would have it: bring order to consciousness); and to this end, I trumpet this thought loud from every rooftop in the kingdom: truly systematic thought began with the oldest Art of all: the martial. (Ancient cave-painted men? All armed with spears and bows. Don’t tell me they only hunted with them. Thus, weapons before painting: arts martial before arts decorative.)

And thus the study of swordsmanship, as a branch of philosophy, can and should be credited with the birth of science as we know it. And Fiore was the first swordsman that we know of to lay out his Art in a truly systematic way. So: we put a man on the moon? Thanks, Fiore. Heart transplants? Much obliged, maestro Fiore. Computers, aeroplanes and Internet porn? Whose your daddy? Feee fucking ORE!!

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