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The Fiore Translation Project: sidetrack #1, the manuscripts

One very good question that has come up in the comments on my Fiore Translation project, is why focus on the Getty MS? It’s the manuscript that’s had the most attention, the most work done on it. Why not focus on the Pisani Dossi, the Morgan, or the Florius?

In case you are new to this, let me explain what those things are…

To quote from The Medieval Longsword, pages 5-6:

The four surviving copies of Fiore’s manuscripts are:

Il Fior di Battaglia (MS Ludwig XV13), held in the J. P. Getty museum in Los Angeles. “The Getty”, as it is generally known, covers wrestling, dagger, dagger against sword, longsword, sword in armour, pollax, spear, lance on horseback, sword on horseback and wrestling on horseback. The text includes detailed instructions for the plays. Regarding dating, in this manuscript Fiore mentions a duel between Galeazzo da Mantoa and Jean le Maingre (Boucicault), which we know took place in 1395. He does not mention Galeazzo’s death, which occurred in 1406 (a crossbow bolt in the eye at Medolago). So it seems likely that the manuscript was written between 1395 and 1406. The treatise was published in facsimile by Massimo Malipiero in 2006, and a full translation into English was published by Tom Leoni in 2009.

Flos Duellatorum, in private hands in Italy, but published in facsimile in 1902 by Francesco Novati. “The Novati” or “the Pisani-Dossi” follows more or less the same order and has more or less the same content as the Getty. The main differences are that the spear section comes between the dagger and the sword, and the dagger against sword material is at the end. The text is generally far less specific than in the Getty, but it is the only version that is dated by the author, who states that he is writing on February 10th 1409 (1410 by modern reckoning). He also states that he has been studying for 50 years, which would put his date of birth around 1350, assuming he began training at the usual age of 10 or 12.

Il Fior di Battaglia (Morgan MS M 383), “The Morgan”, held in the Pierpont Morgan museum in New York, proceeds more like a passage of arms: first comes mounted combat with lance, sword, and unarmed; then on foot, spear, sword in armour, sword out of armour, and sword against dagger. There is no wrestling or dagger combat shown except against a sword, though they are mentioned in the introduction. I conclude that the manuscript is incomplete. Most of the specific plays shown here are also in the Getty, and these have almost identical texts.

Florius de Arte Luctandi (MSS LATIN 11269), recently discovered in the Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise in Paris, is probably a later copy. “Florius” has Latin text and is beautifully coloured. It follows the approximate order of the Morgan, though is more complete, containing all the sections seen in the Getty and the Novati.

It is much easier when dealing with multiple versions of the same source to pick one as your main focus and refer to the others when necessary. Most scholars working on Fiore agree that the Getty is the most useful source, since it is as complete as any other, and has the fuller, more explanatory, text.

The Medieval Longsword came out in 2014, so unsurprisingly it doesn’t refer to the most recent major Fiore publication. 

My goal in studying Fiore is primarily to understand how sword fights work. I am a martial artist first, historian second. From that perspective, it makes sense to focus on the most complete version of the book (which would rule out the Morgan), with the best illustrations and the most complete, explanatory, text. The Getty is the only sensible choice. 

But, and this is a very large but, it would be very foolish not to take advantage of the other sources. Here’s how I see them:

The Morgan 

You can download a copy here. Morgan MS.M.383 copy

The first thing to note is that the Morgan starts with the lance on horseback, and proceeds in the reverse order to the Getty. This means the book is following the order of a passage of arms, rather than the (probably) best pedagogical order. 

It is also sadly incomplete. Though the introduction mentions dagger, for example, the book ends at the play of the sword in one hand.

The ms has been rebound out of order. I would order it like so: Folia 1-14 are correct. There’s a page missing after 14, then the order should go: 16, 15, 18, 17, [page missing], 19, [rest of ms missing if it ever existed].

Where we have the same plays and actions, the text for the Morgan is remarkably similar to the Getty. This is uncontroversial; you can check the transcriptions on Wiktenauer here.

To my mind the Morgan is principally useful for the one key theoretical insight it offers: the play of the sword on horseback showing the crossing of the swords:

Top right image from f6r.

Quisti doi magistri sono aqui incrosadi a tuta spada. E zoche po far uno por far l’altro, zoe che po fare tuti zoghi de spada cum lo incrosar. Ma lo incrosar sie de tre rafone, zoe a tuta spada e punta de spada. E chi e incrosado a tuta spada pocho gle po stare. E chi’e incrosado a meza spada meno gle po stare. E chi a punta de spada niente gle po stare. Si che la spada si ha in si tre cose, zoe, pocho, meno, e niente.

These two masters are here crossed a tutta spada (“at the whole sword”). And what one can do the other can do, thus [they] can do all the plays of the sword with the crossing. But the crossing is of three kinds, thus a tuta spada (at the whole sword) and a punta de spada (“at the point of the sword”). [Note the inconsistency here: he says ‘of three kinds’, but mentions only two at this point.] And he who is crossed a tuta spada, little can he stand. And he who is crossed a meza spada (at the middle of the sword), less can he stand. And he who is crossed a punta de spada, nothing can he stand. So the sword has three things in it, thus: little, less, and nothing.

This is of course a matter of leverage: when the crossing is near the hilt (a tutta spada), you have some strength, you can stand, withstand, support, or hold, a little. At the middle, less, and at the point, nothing. Please note, fencers with a more modern background (shall we say, from 1550 onwards), will be leaping up and down in excitement because in more modern systems, generally featuring swords with more complex, hand-protecting, hilts, parries are done with what Fiore would call the tuta spada against the punta di spada. Or what rapierists would call the forte against the debole, and smallswordists the fort against the feeble (or foible). But, please note, in every single case where Fiore describes the blade relationship at the parry, he specifies middle to middle. This is, I think, for two reasons. Firstly, with an open-hilted sword, you cannot afford to put your hand so close to the enemy blade, you must parry further down the sword. Secondly, parries are not done as a gentle but firm closings of the line; they are rebattimenti, beating actions. The tuta spada is not moving fast enough to hit with enough force to beat the opponent’s weapon aside.

Other than that, while it's an interesting source, it doesn't add anything to our understanding of the Art. I'd love to be proved wrong on that, so if I've missed something, let me know.

The Florius

You can see scans of the MS on this wiktenauer page.

Ken Mondschein has published a paper on it here. This is one of those “Fiore scholars, you have no choice, you have to read this” moments. It's basically everything we know about Fiore, his life, and a lot of fascinating insights into his patrons and milieu. Plus, it's even free. Go.

As I see it, this is a very pretty, but not very useful, version of the book. I paid the BnF about a thousand euros for the scans (which I’m not allowed to share, because they are a tight-fisted lot at that institution, but they've now put them online, see above), and while I don’t regret that, it didn’t actually change a single thing I was doing in class. No new techniques or concepts. The artwork is stylised to the point where it’s not a usable reference source, and the text is as short and even less helpful than the Pisani-Dossi. As Ken wrote “the Paris manuscript changes the source material so considerably, and in a manner so consistent with it originating in the court of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, that we must consider it almost a separate work.” Scholars need to know about it, and study it to some degree, but martial artists can move swiftly on. Again, if I've missed something, let me know!

The Pisani-Dossi

You can download a good pdf of the book here: Flos_Dvellatorvm_in_Armis,_sine_Armis,_Eqvester,_Pedester_(Novati) copy

There is a cadre of Fiore scholars that remember the bad old days when a very poor photocopy of the Pisani-Dossi ms, with extremely bad English translations pasted over the original text, was the ONLY version of Il Fior di Battaglia that we had. 

Seriously. That was all we had to go on. No wonder we struggled. I first saw the photocopy in 1994, and felt totally justified in keeping smallsword as my main focus. By the early 2000s, we had heard of the Getty, but it was almost impossible to see a copy. I blagged some not-very-clear scans in 2002, and better ones in 2005. In 2006 we saw full-res scans for the first time, when Brian Stokes gave a lecture on them at the WMAW event in Dallas. Oh my, did we get excited. We saw the first micro-filmed scans of the Morgan in about 2002, and better images became available by about 2010. As for the Pisani-Dossi, a decent quality un-messed-about-with pdf became available in about 2002. Halleluliah. 

Now do you understand me when I say you don’t know how lucky you are?

To be clear, the version we are all working from is the facsimile made by Francesco Novati and published in 1902. The original is in the Pisani-Dossi family vault, and to date has been seen only by Brian Stokes, because it is basically impossible to arrange a viewing: it requires all the heirs of the family (who do not get on) to be present for the vault to be opened. However, as far as we know, the facsimile is accurate (according to Brian).

This ms is as complete as the Getty, but as we saw in the discussion of the sword in one hand master, the text is much less useful, generally. However, as we also saw here, it does include some illustrations and plays that add significant depth to our understanding. Especially noteworthy is the crossing of the sword in zogho stretto from the roverso side, shown here:

Questa e coverta de la riverssa mano

Per far zoghi de fortissimo ingano

This is a cover from the backhand side,

To make plays of the greatest trickery.

Per la coverta de la riverssa mano acqui to afato

De zogho streto e de ferire non fera guardito

By the cover of the backhand side I have got you here

You can’t defend yourself against the close plays or the strikes.

I am also jolly fond of the third master of the dagger from this ms; it has a gloriously fun disarm:

Qui comenca zoghi de mi riverssa zoghi forti

Per tali zoghi non savez asay ne sono morti

E li zoghi li mie scholari seguizano

E pur de parte riverssa comenzazano.

Here begin the plays of my strong backhand plays

By these plays you don’t know how many have died,

And the plays of my scholars that follow

And only of the backhand side, they begin.

Per lo zogho del magistro la daga o guadagnada

E de ferirte te fazo grande derada.

By the play of the master I have gained the dagger

And by striking you I’ll cause you great discombobulation.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The non-technical smack-talk cries out for non-technical language play. Derada is not discombobulation, but the sense is the same.

One of the principal reasons I include this play in my Dagger Disarm Flowdrill, part of my basic syllabus for Armizare, is to specifically refer to the Pisani-Dossi, to make sure all of my students are aware that there is more than one copy of the source.

Let me just make the point about the text very clear. Here is the Pisani-Dossi version of the Exchange of the thrust:

Aquesto e de punta un crudelle schanbiar

In l’arte piu falsa punta de questa non se po far.

Tu me trasisti de punta e questa io to dada

E piu seguro se po far schivando la strada.

Here is a cruel exchange of the thrust,

In the art you cannot do a more false [deceptive] thrust than this,

You came to strike me with at thrust and I did this to you,

And [to be] more secure you can go avoiding [out of] the way.

And now the same play from the Getty ms:

Questo zogho si chiama scambiar de punta e se fa per tal modo zoe. Quando uno te tra una punta subito acresse lo tuo pe ch’e denanci fora de strada e cum l’altro pe passa ala traversa anchora fora di strada traversando la sua spada cum cum gli toi brazzi bassi e cum la punta de la tua spada erta in lo volto o in lo petto com’e depento.

This play is called the exchange of thrust, and it is done like this, thus. When one strikes a thrust at you immediately advance your foot that is in front out of the way and with the other foot pass also out of the way, crossing his sword with with your arms low and with the point of your sword up in the face or in the chest as is pictured.

You can see then that one is general, and the other very specific. If you want to know which foot to move where, there’s only one ms that will tell you, and is also complete.

So, for anyone wanting to recreate Fiore’s art, there is only one sensible choice of source to focus on. But, and it’s a big but, you should also be intimately familiar with the Pisani-Dossi, and the Morgan, and at least aware of the existence of the Florius. Now that we have established why I’m focussing on the Getty, let’s briefly look at the overall structure of the Ms.

If you don't already have it, you can download a pdf of the ms here:

FiorDiBattaglia_MS_LUDWIG_XV_13_sRGB_150dpi copy

This is (again) taken from The Medieval Longsword, pages 8-13:

The Structure of il Fior di Battaglia

Il Fior di Battaglia is a vast and complex treatise, covering an enormous range of weapons combinations, techniques, counters, and fundamental concepts. As it was written around 1410, it comes from a different cultural and educational background from ours, one in which memory training was fundamental. As a result, the lack of theoretical discussion in the work, and the way the information is presented, can present stumbling blocks to the modern reader. The sheer amount of information is daunting, and as it is spread over some 90-odd sides of vellum (conventionally numbered 1 to 47 recto and verso)*


keeping the structure clear in your head as you read can be difficult, so I’ll lay it out for you. The first three written sides (p. 3 recto and verso, p. 4 recto) are taken up with a text-only introduction. This covers the following points:

• A brief autobiography of Fiore himself

• A list of his more famous students and some of their feats of arms

• A brief discussion of the secret nature of the art, and Fiore’s opinions about different modes of combat (fighting armoured in the lists versus fighting in arming doublets with sharp swords)

• A further description of Fiore’s training, and his opinions regarding the necessity of books in general for mastering the art

• A connection of Fiore himself and the book with a higher authority (Nicolo, Marquis of Este) who commissioned the work

• An overview of the book and its didactic conventions, begin- ning with some background information on wrestling, and advice to the student on what is required

• Discussion of poste (the guard positions used in this art)

• A description of a crown and garter convention by which one can tell at a glance who is winning the fight in any given image.

This last is critically important to following what is going on in the treatise, so I’ll expand on it here. The figures that begin each section are shown standing in guard, and wear a crown to indicate their masterly status. They are the “first masters”. Following them are one or more “remedy masters” (also called the “second masters”), who illustrate a defence against an attack. Following each of them in turn are their scholars, who are identified by a garter, who execute the techniques that follow the previous master’s remedy. After a scholar or master may come a “counter-remedy master” (the “third master”), wearing a crown and a garter, who illustrates the counter to that remedy, or to a specific scholar. Occasionally, there is a fourth master, who may be called the “counter-counter-remedy master”, who wears the crown and garter too. Fiore specifies that most sequences don’t get beyond the third master (i.e. the attack is met by the remedy, which the attacker counters), and it is perilous (perhaps because it is insecure) to go beyond three or four. This visual convention is unique to Fiore as far as we know, and makes it easy to be sure who is supposed to win from any illustrated position, and what stage of the fight (principle or guard; defence; counter to the defence; counter to the counter) is being shown. When reading the treatise, you can immediately identify who is winning in a given picture by his bling—the most bling wins!

The finish to the introduction is particularly interesting: “The coloured letters, the illustrations and the plays will show you all the art clearly enough for you to understand it.” In other words, this book should be enough to transmit the art completely. A bold claim, and one that is borne out I think, once the conventions are understood.

Weapon by Weapon: the Sections of the Manuscript

The manuscript is divided into sections, which are linked together. The primary divisions (mentioned in the title of the Pisani-Dossi) are on foot, on horseback, in armour and out of armour. The secondary divisions are by weapon. We begin on foot, out of armour:

• Abrazare: wrestling. This has one remedy master, and a total of twenty plays. The first sixteen are unarmed, then come two with a short stick (bastoncello), and two with the stick against the dagger, connecting us to

• Dagger: this is a huge section, with 76 plays, divided upbamongst nine remedy masters. This is followed by defence of the dagger against the sword, and hence

• Sword in one hand: this contains one remedy master followed by eleven plays, which will be detailed later in this book. They lead us to

• The sword in two hands: this starts with a description of footwork, then six different ways to hold and use the sword, then twelve guards. The plays are divided into

• Zogho largo, wide play: 20 plays, including two remedy masters

• Zogho stretto, close play: 23 plays deriving from a single remedy master, which is followed by

• Defence from sword guards on the left side—a single remedy master, with no scholars, who is followed by

• Staff and dagger against spear, and two clubs and a dagger against spear. This seems to finish the unarmoured material (though some of the dagger plays required armour). 

There follows:

• The segno page, or “seven swords”; a memory map for the system as a whole, and illustrating the four virtues required for success in the Art.

From here on, we are mostly in armour:

• Sword in armour—six guard positions, one remedy master, one counter-remedy master, and a total of sixteen plays.

• Pollax—again six guard positions, eight plays with no specific remedy master, and two more showing variations on the axe: one with a weight on a rope, the other with a box of poison dust on the end. This is followed by the:

• Spear—first we see three guards on the right, one play and one counter-remedy, then three guards on the left, and one play.

And finally, mounted combat:

• Lance—five plays, each with their own master, including one counter-remedy,

• Lance against sword—five plays, including three counter- remedies.

• Sword—one guard position, shown against two attacks, with nine plays.

• Abrazare—seven plays including three counter-remedies.

• On foot with ghiaverina, a type of spear, against mounted opponents, one master followed by two plays.

• Lance and rope—a last play of lance against lance, showing a specific trick for dismounting an opponent.

• Sword against sword—a last, probably allegorical, play, in which you chase your opponent back to his castle, in which his villanous friends are waiting.

In this book we shall confine ourselves mostly to the three sections of the sword on foot, unarmoured. This does not suggest that these sections are somehow a standalone treatise; on the contrary, under- standing them has required many readings of the entire manuscript, and exhaustive recreation of the entire system on foot. The sections complement and reinforce each other: when a longsword pommel strike comes in, treat it like a dagger attack: when you end up too close to use your pollax, use the wrestling plays. There is much to learn about the spear from the plays of the sword, and so on. I have left out the plays in armour simply because most readers will not have access to a complete harness, and there is no point doing armoured plays without it. Likewise, we should not imagine that the work is done: there remain (in other sections) plays that have not yet been convincingly interpreted by anyone, and the mounted combat material is beyond the scope of any but the very best riders, with highly trained horses.

In any given section there will usually be one or more “remedy masters” wearing a crown, illustrating the defence against a partic- ular attack. These are followed by scholars, wearing a garter, who complete the play of the previous master. There are often also counter-remedy masters, wearing a crown and a garter, which counter either the scholar that comes before them, or the master himself. In other words their action may be specific to one scholar, or more generally applicable to the remedy itself.

The plays are the illustrations of the techniques, so a picture of a player (wearing no crown or garter) getting beaten by a master, scholar, or counter-remedy master. One technical sequence, such as a parry and strike, might take up one, two or three such illustrations, each of which is a play. As the term implies, there is often a lot of “play” in the execution of these techniques, and several different ways to enter into a given play. Fiore scholars tend to keep the key plays in memory, in the order that they appear in the Getty MS. It has become the norm to refer to the plays by their number—such as “the third play of the second master of zogho largo”. This is more useful than saying “p. 25 verso, bottom left illustration”, because it puts the play into its context. It is also how Fiore himself refers to the plays. In this numbering system, the illustration showing the master is the first play, and all the images that follow him, up to the next master, are numbered two, three, etc. This makes it very easy to find the play referred to—simply find the right master (wearing a crown and no garter), and count from there. So when reading this book, if you keep a copy of the treatise handy, you should be able to find the source for every technique I describe.

*Footnote: These Latin terms are the technical names for the front and back surfaces of a page: the recto is the right-hand (usually odd- numbered) page in an open book, and the back of that page (which, when the page is turned, becomes the left-hand page, usually even- numbered) is the verso. Definition from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Also it is worth noting that the pagination in general use and which I am using here is different to that employed by the Getty museum; because the first page has a “3” written into the corner, we number the treatise from page three onwards; the Getty numbers the pages from the first extant page. Malipiero gives both uses, the Getty’s version in brackets.

I hope that’s made it clear where I’m coming from, and given you some insight into the currently known copies of the book. The next instalment of the Fiore Translation Project will be coming out on Tuesday, which happens to be Christmas Day. Merry Christmas everyone!

This project is being published in stages (including side-tracks like this one). You can get part one, The Sword in One Hand, as a free PDF by subscribing to my mailing list below, or buy it in ebook format from Amazon or Gumroad. You can get Part two, Longsword Mechanics, from Amazon or Gumroad too!

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

2 Responses

    1. Hi. No, no plans. I’m an engineer, not a theoretical physicist- I’m interested in the research that will lead to better ways of training and fighting, rather than pure knowledge. I’ve looked at these other sources, and concluded that they don’t offer any significant insight, especially as they are a) derivative and b) much later- indeed they tend to post-date the weapons they illustrate. I’m happy to be proved wrong- and if I am, then I’ll at least do a concordance of them.

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