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Another medieval mystery: the three turns of the sword…

The elusive three turns of the sword…

One of the key skills in research is being able to judge when you have sufficient data to form a tentative conclusion, or a firm conclusion that’s open to revision, or case-closed no point discussing it any more certainty. This last case is relatively rare, but it does exist: nobody seriously doubts that King George VI preceded Elizabeth II on the throne of the UK, or that Wellington beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But when it comes to the details of sword actions, well…

Recreating historical swordsmanship from historical sources offers an abundance of data (the contents of the treatises we study), but very often there are details missing, or certain terms remain entirely undefined. There is a classic example of this in Il Fior di Battaglia, in which Fiore describes the ‘three turns’ in footwork, and goes on to say that there are three turns of the sword. This topic was recently revived on Facebook by the excellent Michael Chidester (founder of the awesome, which resulted in a lot of discussion, and a lot of theorising. It was brought to my attention by Mateusz Przygoda; I’ll get on to his theory in a moment, let’s have a look at the data first.

Let’s start with the Italian. I’ve reproduced the whole section, with the relevant part in bold. The transcriptions I’m using here are from the extremely useful concordance of the Fiorean manuscripts, The Flower of Battle of Master Fiore Friulano de’i Liberi Volume II, ed. Michael Chidester. (I have checked all extant versions of the treatise, and am using only the Getty ms as my reference because they all agree, insofar as they mention these turns at all).

[22r-a] Noy semo doi guardie una sì fatta che l’altra, e una è contraria de l’altra. E zaschuna altra guardia in l’arte una simile de l’altra si è contrario salvo le guardie che stano in punta zoé posta lunga e breve e meza porta di ferro che punta per punta la più lunga fa offesa inançi. E zò che pò fare una pò far l’altra. E zaschuna guardia pò fare volta stabile e meza volta. Volta stabile si è che stando fermo po’ zugar denunci e di dredo de una parte. Meza volta si è quando uno fa un passo inanzi o indredo e chossì po’ zugare de l’altra parte denanzi e di dredo. Tutta volta si è quando uno va intorno uno pe’ cum l’altro pe’ l’uno staga ferma e l’altro lo circondi. E perzò digo che la spada si ha tre movimenti zoé volta stabile, meza volta, e tutta volta. E queste guardie sono chiamate l’una e l’altra posta di donna. Anchora sono IV cose in l’arte zoé passare, tornare, acressere e discresse(re).

And in Tom Leoni’s translation:

We are two guards and we are alike but we are contrary to one-another. As with all other guards in this art, alike guards are contrary to one another, with the exception of the point guards (Posta Longa, Breve and mezza Porta di Ferro); with point guards, the most extended guard can reach the opponent first. Anyway, what one guard can do, its opposite also can. These guards can perform a volta stabile and a mezza volta. A volta stabile lets you play forward or backward (from one side only), without moving your feet. A mezza volta is when you pass forward or backward, letting you play on the opposite side forward or backward respectively. A tutta volta is when you use one foot to describe a circle around the other foot; in other words, one foot stays in place, the other circles around it. The sword also has three kinds of movements: volta stabile, mezza volta and tutta volta. These two guards are both called Posta di Donna. There are four more concepts in this art: pass forward, pass backwards, extension of the front foot (step forward) and withdrawal of the front foot (step back).

I think we can agree that the instructions for the footwork turns are admirably clear. I’ve put my interpretation of these instructions online in many places, not least here:

So how about those turns of the sword then? Surely Fiore repeatedly uses these terms in the texts that go with the various plays? Um, no. Not once, at all. A thorough search of the treatise does yield many uses of the term ‘volta’ or ‘voltare’, but not in the sense of a specific turning of the sword. The closest is on 25r

Io t’ò posta una punta in lo volto come lo magistro ch’è denanci dise. Anchora porìa aver fatto zò ch’ello dise zoè aver tratto de mia spada subito quando io era appresso lo incrosare della parte dritta: de l’altra parte zoè d’la stancha io debeva voltare la mia spada in lo fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi, como à ditto lo mio magistro ch’è denanzi.

But this line just says: “I must immediately turn my sword in the fendente”, or as Tom puts it: “turn a fendente”.

In the famous 8th play of the master of coda longa on horseback, f44v, he says:

Questo si è lo ottavo zogho ch’è contrario di tutti gli zoghi che mi sono denançi, e maximamente delli zoghi de spada a cavallo e delli lor magistri che sono in guardia d’coda longa. Che quando li magistri o scolari stano in la ditta guardia, e io gli t(i)ro una punta o altro colpo, e subito elli me rebatteno o taglio o punta che faza. quando elli me rebateno subito e io dò volta ala mia spada e cum lo pomo mio, io gli fiero in lo volto. E poy passo cum la mia coverta presta e cum lo riverso tondo gli fiero dredo la testa.

This is the eighth play, which counters all the plays before this — especially those of mounted sword and their Masters in Coda Lunga. When the Masters or students are in this guard, I attack them with a thrust or other blow, they will try to parry. So when I deliver a thrust or other blow, I quickly turn my sword and strike them in the face with the pommel. Then I pass with my quick cover and strike the back of their head with a riverso tondo.

But there is no indication of whether that turn is full, half, or stable!

The counter to this play is also a turn and pommel strike, which is described like so:

Lo nono son che façço contra lo contrario che m’è denançi, che quando ello dà volta ala sua spada, subito lo mio mantenir metto come voy vedete depento che cum lo pomo in lo volto non me pò ferir, e s’io levo la spada in erto, e dello riverso io piglio volta, ben poria esser che la spada ti saria tolta. E si quello mi falla che io non lo faza, dello riverso dela spada ti darò in la faza overo de lo pomo te ferirò in la testa tanto farò mia volta presta. Qui finisse lo zogho a cavallo de spada a spada. Chi più ne sa men dia una bona derada.

I am the ninth play, and counter the play that we just saw. As the opponent turns his sword, I place my handle as depicted and the pommel won't strike me. If I lift my sword and turn a riverso, the opponent could lose his sword.  If this doesn't work or if I don't do it, I can strike the opponent's face with a riverso or his head with my pommel, since the turn of my sword will be very quick. With this ends the play of mounted sword against sword. If you know any more, give me a good portion of your wisdom.

Again, great stuff and very useful, but the turn is not defined in any way.

The rest are generic uses of “turn”, which I'll cover briefly here for the benefit of my readers who don't know Italian. Such as on 27r (Anchora quando io ò rebatuda la la punta o vero che sia incrosado cum uno zugadore gli metto la mia mane dredo al suo cubito dritto e penzolo forte per modo che io lo farò voltare e discoprire, e poy lo fiero in quello voltare che io gli faço fare, “After beating the opponent's point or crossing his sword, I place my hand behind his right elbow and lean strongly, causing him to turn and offer an opening. As he does so, I can strike him.”), or along the lines of what we find on f24r, regarding the boar’s tooth guard:

Questa si è dente di zengiaro però che dello zengiaro prende lo modo di ferire. Ello tra’ grandi punte per sotto man in fin al volto e no si move di passo e torna cum lo fendente zò per gli brazzi. E alchuna volta tra’ la ponta al volto e va cum la punta erta, e in quello zitar di punta ello acresse lo pe’ ch’è dinanzi subito e torna cum lo fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi e torna in sua guardia e subito zitta un’altra punta cum acresser di pe’ e ben se defende delo zogo stretto.

Tom’s translation:

This is Dente di Cinghiaro (Boar's Tooth), since it learned its offences from the boar. It can deliver strong underhand thrusts all the way to the opponent's face without stepping; it then comes back down with a fendente to the arms. Sometimes, it can deliver a thrust to the opponent's face, point up, while quickly extending the front foot, and recover with a fendente to the head and arms; then it immediately delivers another thrust with the extension of the front foot. It defends well against the close play.

Incidentally, “volto” in the same sentence is “face”, and is not related to “volta”. Later on (on 24v, in the text for the “mezana dente di zenghiaro”), he uses ‘talvolta’ to mean ‘sometimes' (guastagli la mano e talvolta la testa; destroy the hand or sometimes the face).

In the guard of coda longa with the pollax, he did go so far as to say:

[36r-a] Coda longa io son, contra posta de fenestra voglio fare de tutto tempo posso ferire. E cum mio colpo di fendente ogni azza e spada in terra sbateria, e al zogo stretto forte me faria. Come voy troverete qui gli zoghi di dredo de guardagli a uno a uno che ven prego.

Tom translates this as:

I am the Coda Longa, against a Posta di Finestra, and I can strike at any time. One of my fendenti can beat any axe or sword to the ground, placing me in a strong position for close play. You will now see my plays; please be so kind as to examine them one by one.

As you can see, in Tom’s opinion at least, ‘tempo’ here is being used in its more general sense of ‘movement’. “Against fenestra I want to make all the actions I can do” is my more literal translation. It would be lovely if he was saying “against fenestra do a “tutto tempo” movement with the axe, but neither Tom nor I would read it that way.

And that’s it for data.

So here’s my conclusion:


Now, that is not to say that you can’t have a theory, and find that your theory creates all sorts of useful training scenarios, or leads you in useful directions regarding your physical practice. But to claim that any specific way of ‘doing the turns of the sword’ is supported by the treatise is simply nonsense. We don’t know, because Fiore doesn’t say. Until more data appears, speculating on what these three turns may be is just that, speculation. Personally, I try to limit the time I spend speculating with insufficient data, and instead apply the time to working with the problems for which there is enough data to form at least a tentative conclusion. It’s tempting to draw all sorts of cross references with (for example) Vadi’s mezzo tempo of the sword, or even with the much later Bolognese  sources that mention (as e.g. the Anonimo does) ‘half turns’ and ‘full turns’. But unless we know what Fiore meant by the terms, it’s impossible to compare them with their later incarnations.

Now back to Mateusz’ response to the discussion. In his message to me, he wrote:

I’ve got a Fiore question. There's been a discussion on ‘Scholars of Fiore dei Liberi' facebook group about the turning of the sword. People were posting their interpretations, mostly about different blade rotations, some of them seem to be really complicated concepts (or rather very specific movements with complicated descriptions).

However, in the manual Fiore explains the three Volte and then he says “Furthermore you should know that the sword can make the same three movements, namely stable turn, half turn and full turn”.

I was wondering if someone like Fiore would describe such complicated concepts (as people in this discussion were showing as their interpretations ) with so little explanation. He explains quite broadly the stepping and turning, is it possible that he has ignored the blade rotation? Because I can't really see how I could apply his instruction about the body turns to the blade turns, it just doesn't make much sense.

Therefore, I started to think that maybe he didn't really mean any blade rotation at all. I think he might be just saying that the blade is supposed to move with the fencer when they do the turn. For example:

1. Volta Stabile from Posta di Donna. If I did the turn without moving the sword, its point would face upwards (as in the forward version). The manual shows the back-weighted version with the point down, so I have to move (or turn) my sword with me, so its position changes.

2. Mezza Volta from Posta Fenestra. If I did the turn with a step without moving the sword, it would end up on the same side as my front leg. The manual shows otherwise.

So could it be that this sentence about the sword doing the three Volte isn't any secret message about the blade mechanics at all and is just a simple reminder that the sword should change its position when the fencer does one of the turns (which are quite clearly described)? It seems so obvious for HEMA practitioners, but might not be so obvious to someone not familiar with the guards from the manual. Like the two examples, I gave before. Plus, I've seen people trying to do Vom Tag on the right with the right foot forward to increase their range. So maybe Fiore didn't want his scholars to do that. I can imagine a teacher or an instructor being like “Hey! Do Volta Stabile with your sword as well! And don't put your heel on the ground! Aye, now it's better”.

What do you think about it?

My short answer is:

Personally, I think it’s the best and most likely explanation of them all. But of course, it’s still speculation.

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

One Response

  1. Personally, as an absolute beginner, Tom’s description was also my instinctive interpretation. I just assumed it was all so simple. Only when reading more learned ideas did I become more uncertain and confused.

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