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The Fiore Translation Project #13 The Guards (part 3 of 3)

Welcome back!

The last page of guards looks like this:

And it includes coda longa, bicorno, frontale, and dente di zenghiaro la mezana.

Posta di coda longa

Questa sie posta di coda longa ch’e destesa in terra di dredo. Ella po metter punta, e denanzi po covrir e ferire. E se ello passa inanci e tra del fendente in lo zogo stretto entra senza fallimento. Che tal guardia e bona per aspettare. Che de quella in le altre tosto po intrare. Stabile

This is the guard of the long tail that lies on the ground behind, it can place thrusts and in front can cover and strike. And if she passes forwards and strikes a fendente, she enters into the close play without fail. This guard is good to wait in, as you can quickly enter into the others. Stable

Coda longa hides the sword behind you, concealing its length. With a bit of practice you can strike extremely quickly from here, and because it is chambered behind you, you can cut with great force. As Fiore says, it’s good to wait in, and you can get quickly out of it and into another guard- that movement would probably be a strike or a parry.

Posta di Bichorno

Questa e posta di bicorno che sta cossi serada che sempre sta cum la punta per mezo de la strada. E quello che po fare posta longa po fare questa. E similemente dico de posta di fenestra e di posta frontale. Instabile

This is the guard of two horns that stands so closed that it always stands with the point in the middle of the line. And that which long guard can do, this can do. And I say the same of window guard and crown guard. Unstable

In 2008 I made a breakthrough interpretation of this guard, which lead to my writing an article called “Finding Bicorno”. Looking through that article in preparation for writing this post, I found that it was in some need of updating, so I am going to expand at great length on this guard now, incorporating the entirety of the updated article. 

Here we go…

Bicorno, the two-horned guard, has proved the most elusive of Fiore’s poste to pin down. There have been several interpretations to receive general currency in the Fiorean community I haven’t found any of them completely satisfying. Let me take you through the story of the process by which I arrived at what I believe is the correct interpretation, which will also serve as a general illustration of the process of interpreting these sources.

Step one: the text. 

Questa e posta di bicorno che sta cossi serada che sempre sta cum la punta per mezo de la strada. E quello che po fare posta longa po fare questa. E similemente dico de posta di fenestra e di posta frontale.

This is the guard of two horns that stands so closed that it always stands with the point in the middle of the line. And that which long guard can do, this can do. And I say the same of window guard and crown guard. 

This has been variously translated by scholars, all of which have stumbled over “cossi serada che”, not least because serada (closed) is no longer in Italian usage (it remains in Spanish). I and many others also missed the construction “cossi…che”, which simply means “so…that”. 

Price in Fiore dei Liberi’s Sword in Two Hands (p.146), for instance, leaves “cossi serada” untranslated:

“This is posta di bicorno, which stands cossi serada, that is, it stands with the point in the middle of the line. And that which the posta longa can do, this can do. And similarly therefore as posta di fenestra and posta frontale”.

Leaving aside the grammatical oddness of the last sentence, the translator has clearly not understood the construction cossi… che, nor the term serada, and had to twist the rest of the sentence into some sort of sense. 

The Exiles translation, posted on their website in November 2007, reads “This is the Posta do Bicorno that “stays much public” that always stands with the point in the middle of the road. And that which Posta Longa can do this can do. And similarly I say this of Posta di Fenestra and of Posta Frontale.”

“That stays much public” makes no sense at all. They have since upgraded the translation.

My own effort read “This is the guard of two horns that stands closed like this, and always stands with the point in the middle of the line. And that which long position can do, this can do. And I say the same of window guard and crown guard.” I was not sure whether that meant that bicorno could do what longa, fenestra and frontale do, or that fenestra and frontale could also do what longa does. I sent the passage with a query to Tom Leoni (in February 2007), who while confirming my impression that it meant the latter, took the time to correct my “stands closed like this”, a head-slapping moment when I recalled what I had learned on about the fourth week of my basic Italian course back in school. My current translation now reads:

Questa e posta di bicorno che sta cossi serada che sempre sta cum la punta per mezo de la strada. E quello che po fare posta longa po fare questa. E similemente dico de posta di fenestra e di posta frontale.

This is the guard of two horns that stands so closed that it always stands with the point in the middle of the line. And that which long guard can do, this can do. And I say the same of window guard and crown guard. 

The text of the Novati version reads:

Posta de bicornio io me faco chiamar

Si io ho falsitate asay non men domiadar

I call myself the two horned guard

I have such deception that none can beat me. 

Interesting, but doesn’t really add anything.

As we know that bicorno can do what longa does, the text for longa is also required:

Posta longa sie questa piena di falsita. Ella va tastando le guardie se lo compagno po inganare. Se ella po ferir de punta la lo sa ben far. E gli colpi la schiva, e po fieri sela lo po fare. Piu che le altre guardie le falsita sa usare.

Posta longa, instabile.

This is posta longa, full of deception. It goes tasting the guards of the companion to deceive. If it can make a thrust, it knows well how to do it. And it avoids blows, and can can strike, that it can do. More than the other guards, it uses deception. 

Long Guard, unstable.

(See last week’s post for my notes on this guard).

The name bicorno is not necessarily any indication of its function. Of the twelve guards shown, longa and breve (long and short) are obviously descriptive, and Fiore states that dente di zengiaro is named after the wild boar because it uses the same way of striking. None of the other guards are so described, and it is more likely that the names are a culturally specific mnemonic. Kel Rekuta suggested (in an online discussion in 2008) that the guard is named after a small portable anvil used by armourers, but that is neither definitively established nor terribly useful in determining the guard’s function. As you may recall from this post, I think it’s part of the ‘naming the guards after the Pilgrim’s progress’, where the ‘two-horned’ devil waits on the long road to heaven to trick the Pilgrim down to hell.

Step two: the pictures:

There are four illustrations of this guard, all of which have odd-looking hand positions. The Getty version has the left hand above the right forearm, and possibly turned so that the thumb is towards the chest, the back of the hand to the viewer.

The Novati clearly shows the left hand with the thumb towards the blade, but the right hand oddly open, with the thumb on the handle in line with the false edge of the blade.

The Morgan is regrettably damaged, to the point that the face of the person depicted is lost, and it looks as though parts of the image, including the hands, have been redrawn. This needs to be verified by examining the original, which I have not yet been able to do. As it is, the right hand is practically invisible, and the left is so crudely drawn that no definitive statement can be made about its position.

In the Florius ms, we can see the rear hand is turned over, so the back of the hand is towards us.

It has been established beyond reasonable doubt (by Sean Hayes for one, though not in print) that in art of this period, blades are never shown edge-on, and there is a convention in medieval art of rotating objects in the horizontal plane into the vertical to make them visible (a chess board is the best known example). This has lead most researchers to hold this guard flat-up, and some to also rotate the left hand on the grip.

While this kind of license is academically supportable, it is something of an open door to reading whatever we like into the illustrations. I have found that the vast majority of illustrations in these manuscripts are reliable, accurate depictions of what the illustrated position should look like. There are artistic mistakes, of course, but they are few and far between. These ways of holding the sword are all very well, but do not accord with the pictures very closely, and make no particular sense of the text. Regarding the position of the left hand, the reversed position is unlikely because a) it is not clearly illustrated anywhere b) the usual position is clearly illustrated for this guard in the Novati and c) Fiore had previously illustrated five alternatives to the usual way of holding the sword on pages 24 recto and verso, yet not included there this strange reversal. 

That notwithstanding, I used both versions for some time, for want of something better. But I was never completely sold on any of them, mostly because I found I never used any of them in free fencing, and had to construct special drills for them to make sense in. 

Having puzzled over this for some years, and having finally worked out what the text actually meant, it just took one final piece of the puzzle to slot into place. Having met Thomas Stoeppler, a licensed physiotherapist whose main area of research is the Liechtenauer system, with a background in Chinese internal martial arts, at WMAW 2006 in Dallas, Texas, I was intrigued by some of what he was teaching, and so invited him to teach a seminar in Helsinki. He came in August 2007, and focused on his mechanical interpretation of Liechtenauer’s longsword material, in particular Paulus Kal (recently edited by Christian Tobler), and the so-called Döbringer manuscript.

As a physiotherapist he is better qualified than most to analyse the structural aspects of movement and positions, which his other martial training has also emphasised. While he was demonstrating and explaining the langort position as illustrated in Kal, he pointed out that the contact between the wrists created a closed kinematic chain, which was self-supporting and hence very stable. A light went off above my head and I dashed across the salle to my copy of the Getty. As I did so, a senior student looked at me and said “bicorno?”. And there it was. Simple, absolutely supported by both text and pictures, and making abundant sense.

Bicorno found…

This interpretation of bicorno is held with the back of the left hand in contact with the inside of the right wrist, and the sword turned slightly in the right hand so that the thumb is on top, trued edge down.

The easiest way to get into the position is to start in posta di donna, and allow the sword point to drop forward, with the sword rotating around its centre of gravity. This is the single most efficient possible way to get the point in line from donna (and inspired by Stoeppler’s explanation of arriving in langort from Vom Tag).

You can see me doing it in the very beginning of this video (though I'm starting from donna la sinestra):

If we now examine the stability of this guard by testing its groundpaths and contrast them to that of posta longa, we see the following:

(Stable here means that the body can mechanically support pressure against that part of the sword. Do not confuse this with Fiore’s “pulsativa/stabile/instabile” thing, which I’ll discuss next week.)

This reversal of the stability properties of the positions comes from the alignment of the blade relative to the forearm: in longa, the edges are in line with the bones of the forearm; because of the turn of the sword, in bicorno the flats, especially the inside flat, are supported by the forearm.

This reversal is so extreme that if we apply enough force to bend the sword by ninety degrees, the swordsman’s structure is unaffected. As you can see here, Ken Quek is in bicorno, and I'm pushing his point aside- but the sword is bending, his structure is unaffected.

This means, of course, that due to the closing up of the space between the hands, the thrust becomes much harder to parry: you have to literally bend the sword out of the line. This makes bicorno not only devastatingly fast to thrust with, but very hard to parry; literally, “the point stays in the middle of the line.”

The instability of the edges also means that they are very mobile; any attempt to break the thrust naturally creates a yielding action in the blade, and makes this position very good to feint with: as longa avoids blows (avoiding a blow is clearly the same thing as avoiding a parry), so does bicorno; start in donna, flick the point out to bicorno, as your opponent parries, dip your point around his blade, and walk your thrust in.

We do this in our Woman in the Window drill as we saw in part #11 of this series.

Likewise, if we find ourselves crossed at the sword, either at the punta di spada or the meza spada, for example after parrying a fendente attack with frontale, the mechanically fastest possible riposte is to drop your point in their face, which is a) very fast b) hard to see and c) mechanically stable in the plane of the flat and so very hard to parry.

We have shown then the mechanical and tactical advantages of this position, and how the interpretation follows the picture exactly, and makes sense of the text. The last test of the likelihood of this interpretation being accurate was teaching it. Most fundamental techniques are simple and therefore easily taught. In seminars held in the USA, Sweden and Finland over the last ten years, mixed-level classes were able to effectively enter and use this position with about 5-10 minutes of instruction. 

In summary then it is easy to do, fits the system perfectly, follows the picture and text precisely, and in every case against someone standing on guard prepared for an attack, I have landed the first strike with it, and struck again with the feint. So it thrusts well, and deceives well.

What more can anyone ask for?

The only pieces of evidence I’ve found against  this interpretation are:

  • The images in the Florius (which I think can be discounted as unreliable- see here), and the rather vague drawing of the hands in the Morgan. In the Getty, the drawing of the left hand is a squiggle- it’s as if the illustrator was deliberately obscuring the placement of the back hand. 
  • The reversed back hand grip can be documented in other manuscripts of this period (or somewhat later).
  • The reversed back hand grip is also found in other martial arts (e.g. some Japanese swordsmanship styles).

Nothing terribly convincing, and certainly not sufficient for me to doubt that my way of doing it a) follows the text b) follows the images (in the Pisani-Dossi, the hands are clearly drawn, and support my theory)  c) makes mechanical sense d) actually works in practice and so might be right.

I go on about bicorno at further length in The Medieval Longsword, pages 122-126.

Now let’s move on to the Crown. 

Posta frontale ditta corona 

Questa sie posta frontale chiamada d’alchun magistri posta di corona, che per incrosar ella e bona, e per le punte ell’e anchora bona. Che se la punta gle ven tratta erta ella la incrosa passando fuora di strada. E se la punta e tratta bassa, anchora passa fuor di strada rebattendo la punta a terra. Anchora po far altramente che in lo trar de la punta torni cum lo pe indredo e vegna da fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi, e vada in dente di cengiaro e subito butti una punta o doe cum acresser di pe e torni di fendente in quella appia guardia.

This is the frontal guard, called by some masters the crown guard, that is good for crossing and for thrusts it is also good, so if the thrust comes high it crosses it, passing out of the way. And if the thrust comes low, it also passes out of the way, beating the thrust to the ground. Also she can alternatively, in the striking of the thrust, return with the foot backwards, and come with a fendente to the head and to the arms, and go into the boar's tooth guard, and immediately throw a thrust or two, with an advance of the foot, and return with a fendente into whichever appropriate guard.

Lots to unpack here. I’ll break it down into chunks.

1. This is the frontal guard; which other masters call the crown. Why refer to other masters, and why call this guard by a different name? The obvious correlate from ‘other masters’ with surviving treatise legacies are the Kron guard from the Liechtenauer system, and Frontal and Corona from De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi. 

Frontal in De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi  is quite different:

And while we’re with Vadi, here’s his Crown guard:

I go into the differences in some detail in The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest, pages 37-75.

2. This guard is good for crossing, and also for thrusts. This may imply that “crossing” (incrosar) is done against cuts, but frontale is also good against thrusts, or frontale is good at crossing against cuts and thrusts, and is also good for thrusting from. 

But, in the very same paragraph, he describes defending against a high thrust and uses the verb incrosare; so it’s pretty clear that incrosare, to cross, can be used whether you’re defending against a cut or a thrust. 

Just for fun let’s have a look at the terminology used in the specific defences done against a thrust, the break and the exchange: in the exchange, the verb he uses to describe what you do with the sword is ‘traversando’, ‘crossing’. In the break, you ‘catch the fendente… and strike across the thrust’, (pigla lo fendente… e tra per traverso la punta).

3. If the thrust comes low… that can mean two things. Either you are in frontale as illustrated, and the thrust comes in below your sword, or, you are in some other guard such as tutta porta di ferro, and you are attacked with a thrust, and move into frontale to defend against it. The text could indicate either. One would imagine that a ‘crown’ guard would be at head height (just as the tail is held right about where you would expect a tail to sprout from)

As I use it, frontale is the end point of a parry done on the high inside: I use frontale as the position that I move through at the moment of blade contact whenever defending from my right against anything coming in at me at chest height or above. It’s also the starting point of a thrust to the face or chest, and the starting point for a fendente, usually a roverso, as we will see in the plays of the sword in two hands in zogho largo. You can see from this image of the first two plays that the crossing is being made in frontale, and the continuation from there is explicitly a cut or a thrust.

Posta di dente zenchiaro mezana (middle boar's tooth guard)

Questo sie dente di cengiaro lo mezano e perzoe che sono doy denti di zengiaro l’uno tutto, l’altro sie mezo, pero e ditto mezo, per zo chello sta in mezo de la persona, e zo che po fare lo tutto dente, po fare lo mezo dente. E per modo che fiera lo zengiaro a la traversa per tal modo se fa cum la spada che sempre fieri cum la spada ala traversa de la spada del compagno. E sempre butta punte e discrova lu compagno. E sempre guastagli le mane e tal volta la testa egli brazzi.

This is the middle boar's tooth because there are two boar's teeth, one is whole and the other is middle, it is called middle because it is in the middle of the body, and that which the whole tooth does, so does the middle tooth. And in the way that the boar strikes across, in that way one strikes with the sword, that always strikes with the sword across the sword of the companion. And it always throws thrusts and uncovers the companion and always destroys the hands and sometimes the head and the arms.

The text here straight up tells us that this version of cenghiaro works the same as the previous version. It is probably added here to make up the cardinal number of twelve guards. It does not appear in the Pisani-Dossi, which repeats fenestra (but on the left, which in the Getty is only mentioned on page 31, and shown with the pollax on page 36r). Here though it is mentioned that the rising blow from this guard can be aimed at the sword, as a cover, where in the previous version, the only targets mentioned are the head, arms and hands. So, you may parry from here (much as from the middle iron door). Given that the measure must be quite long for you to be safely in this guard, it is not surprising that the hands are the principle target (“always destroys the hands, sometimes the head and the arms”).

So there we have them- the last four guards. Next week I’ll look at the twelve guards as a whole, and then we’ll crack on with the plays of the sword in two hands, in zogho largo. 

If you're finding these posts useful, please consider buying one of my online courses, or one of my books, and/or dropping something in the tip jar. And remember to get your free copy of the pdf compilation of the Sword in One Hand posts, by signing up below.

This project is being published in stages. 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!

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