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Why you should train dagger techniques whether you like them or not.

I include dagger techniques in almost every longsword class I teach, but just about everyone who comes to my classes does so because they’re mad about swords. So why do I insist they learn the dagger stuff? For Fiore scholars, I’m preaching to the choir, I know. But for the rest of the swordiverse (yes, that is a word), here’s why:

1) It’s the best and easiest way to teach mechanics

When crossed blade on blade with their opponent a good swordsman can feel through the pattern of resistance exactly where the opponent’s lines of strength and weakness are. This happens instinctively, after many years of patient practice.

Most beginners can be taught to feel that in an hour or so if they can use their hands on their partner’s limbs, instead of registering the feeling through a bit of metal. Learning the basic grappling that is the foundation of most dagger techniques enables the students to very quickly understand lines of strength and weakness, and apply that understanding to making techniques work. Of course, learning to defend against a full-on crazy-person dagger assault is very, very difficult. But learning the basic principles of attack and defence and to apply them hands-on in class is relatively easy. This understanding can then be applied to the sword techniques.

2) It’s the best and easiest way to teach tactics.

Sword training starts very slowly. It has to. Most beginners are not able to fully control a four foot long piece of steel, so using it to express themselves (such as “no, you don’t get to hit me. But I get to hit you. Yay!”) is out of the question. This means that we can only teach them tactical decision making, and responsiveness, after many months of practice. But by introducing them to the dagger early, we can get even beginners making tactical decisions in the first few hours of training. There was a complete beginner in the last seminar I taught, and within an hour or so of class starting he was able to go past set drills, and into more advanced decision making in real time exercises. When we switched to swords he was back to choreographical drills only, because he was still learning to control the weapon. Going into more complex territory would have been impossible. But because of his experience with the dagger, he could see and understand exactly how his training would progress in the future.  He had a process for developing basic drills into more sophisticated variations, all the way up to freeplay.

3) Daggers are cool.

Fact. No explanation necessary.

a beautiful German rondel dagger from the Wallace Collection. Click on it to see it in their online gallery.

 

4) It’s where Fiore put all the ‘defence against pommel strikes and entering techniques’ material.

There is but one Art, and Fiore is its prophet.

Ok, that may be overstating the case a tad, but amongst Fiore practitioners it is a truism that Fiore’s work represents one system of combat applied to many circumstances; wrestling, dagger, sword, armour, and so on. I’ve never encountered any evidence to oppose that view, so let’s take it as read for now. So, in a perfect world, we would all practice the wrestling, and the mounted combat, and the poison-dust pollax, all of it. But time in the salle is usually limited, and most people in my experience gravitate towards either the “knightly combat” end of the spectrum, and spend as much time as possible in armour, or towards the “un-armoured longsword” end of the spectrum, and spend most of their time with just the sword.

What does the master himself say? Well, on folio 2r, he states:

The guards of abrazare, the Second Master (i.e. the Remedy) and his students, the Third Master (Counter to the Second and his students) and the Fourth Master (Contra-counter) act as the pillars of the art of abrazare–both in and out of armor. Similarly, they support the art of the lance, with their weapon, guards, Masters and students; the same they do for the axe, the sword in one and two hands, and the dagger. Overall, these Masters and students support the whole art of arms, on horseback and on foot, armored and unarmored— through the principles they follow in abrazare. (From Tom Leoni’s translation Fiore dei Liberi: Fior di Battaglia. 2nd ed. (Eng.), Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012, page 6. I can't find it on the Freelance site, or I'd link to it here.)

This passage is the foundation for the oft-stated (but less commonly followed) admonition that “abrazare (wrestling) is the foundation of the art”. And it’s true, I do advise being familiar with the wrestling material. You can see my interpretation of the first six plays of abrazare here.

https://youtu.be/QJm_EHOStRQ

However, it’s as well to note that Fiore devotes six pages (folia 6r to 8v) to the abrazare, which includes 20 plays, 16 if you discount the final four which show the use of the bastoncello as an aid to wrestling and used to defend against dagger blows. But he devotes 24 pages, covering 76 plays, to defence against and use of the dagger (this does not include plays of the dagger against the sword; that’s another two pages). That is actually more than the combined total of sword plays (11 of the sword in one hand; 20 of the zogho largo, 24 of the zogho stretto, a couple of extras, then 16 of the sword in armour. Including armour, and the plays of the sword against the dagger,  there are 33 pages of material for the sword on foot). There's no doubt that the dagger material provides a much broader base for learning the grapples than the abrazare section does.

And in none of those 33 pages detailing combat with the sword on foot does he cover a single defence against a pommel strike. There is one much later, on folio 45r, the ninth play of the master of coda longa on horseback, but that’s it.

The only illustrated defence against a pommel strike: the legendary 9th play of the master of coda longa on horseback.

So, assuming you’re not on horseback, then the pommel strike is the be-all and end-all, un-counterable magic super-technique?

No.

You defend against it exactly as you would against a dagger attack. You have literally dozens of ways to deal with it, including the famous ninth play, above.

This works in both directions; problems understanding or being able to do a longsword close-quarters technique can often be solved by working through the relevant dagger play. And yes, Fiore does even at times tell us to do exactly that. For instance, the 14th play of the zogho stretto:

The 14th play of the zogho stretto (Getty ms).

This play comes from a play of dagger– the first Remedy Master. In that, the left hand was used to disarm the opponent by placing it under the dagger; similarly, the student here places the left hand under the opponent's right hand to disarm him. Or, he can then place the opponent in a middle bind, as the play that follows the first Remedy Master of dagger mentioned above. And that bind belongs to this student. (Leoni, page 56)

Could he be more explicit about the way that dagger techniques apply to the longsword?

Fiore also gives us two counters to this particular stretto play:

The 15th and 16th plays of the zogho stretto: counters to the 14th.

The first of these is functionally identical to the counter to the ligadura mezana. Let's have a quick look at the first master plays we've referred to:

The first four plays of the first master. Disarm in blue; ligadura mezana in red, counter to the ligadura in green. Bow before my amazing graphic design skills.

There's the disarm, there's the lock, and there's the counter. Knowing these plays already makes learning the sword plays above much easier.

So, for all you longsword practitioners out there (or indeed practitioners of any other kind of swordplay that includes entering in with grips or pommel strike) who are convinced by my excellent explanation of the usefulness of training with the dagger but don’t know where to begin, what should you do?

Well, you could start by taking a look at the relevant bits of my Syllabus wiki: http://www.swordschool.com/wiki/index.php/Fiore_basic_syllabus

It has stuff like this video of a dagger seminar I taught a while ago:

https://youtu.be/uXY_MpbsgAk

You could check out my book on the subject. You can even get it in German!

And yes, I even have a course on it. But before you dash off to buy it, be aware that I’ll be launching it with a hefty discount to my email list in a week or so, so it might be a good idea to sign up below in anticipation of that happy event.

In my books and courses I separate the dagger material and the longsword material, because Fiore does, and because you can’t fit it all into one book (or course). So next week I’ll discuss my thoughts on integrating the material in training. Stay tuned!

1. Leoni, Tom. Fiore dei Liberi: Fior di Battaglia. 2nd ed. (Eng.) Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012. Page 6.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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