Fiore’s guards of the longsword form a quite complete mechanical overview of the system of movement that Fiore’s art requires. If you can move fluidly through the guards, with every guard transition forming a blow, or one of the voltas (meza, tuta, stabile), then you are probably moving as Fiore would want us to.
Regarding the twelve guards, it’s worth remembering that there are really only the following nine:
- Iron door
Every one of these can do a volta stabile (as we see distinguishing the two forms of dente di zenghiaro, and the forward and rear-weighted forms of donna), and a meza volta (as we see from the right and left side donna guards, or indeed what happens when you meza volta from tutta porta di ferro and end up in zenghiaro). In the Getty, Fiore shows us donna left and right, and zenghiaro tutta and meza. But the Getty is actually the outlier here: the ordering of guards and the exact forms they take is different in the other three mss, as you can see in this table taken from The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest:
I don’t think there’s enough data here to come up with a convincing theory as to why they’d be different- it could be Fiore changing his mind over time, or it could be that whoever ordered the copy made asked for some changes, or something else entirely. I don’t think it makes any practical difference to how we use the guards.
Pulsativa, Stabile, Instabile
Now for the throbbing unstable stability issue: pulsativa, stabile, instabile.
The first thing to note is that only the Getty ms has these terms. And even within that ms, they are never used outside of the guards section itself. Here is a table with them laid out:
The ‘unstable’ guards are fenestra, longa, frontale, and bicorno. These are perhaps not good to wait in; the last three are clearly the end point of blows (in frontale’s case, a parry). And in all of them you are holding up the weight of the sword, so perhaps shouldn’t stay there too long.
The pulsativa guards are tutta porta di ferro and both donnas. Sure enough, you can parry hard from all these positions, and in a way that closes the line mechanically, leading with the true edge. But you can also do that from the stable guard, coda longa. Plus, I went into some detail about the parry from the left here; clearly, you could ‘pulse’ out of zenghiaro, but it’s a ‘stable’ guard.
Likewise, tutta porta di ferro is ‘good to wait in’, which would surely imply stability.
And breve is a ‘stable guard that does not have stability’ (!), presumably because you ‘move around’ in it looking for an opening.
My friend and colleague Sean Hayes has expended a lot of ink on this distinction in his article here, which you may find interesting. But in the end, my feeling is that a) we don’t have enough data for a firm understanding of what Fiore may have meant by these distinctions, and b) as they are not used elsewhere, nor repeated in the other mss (which are probably later), they are probably not that important.
I have exhaustively analysed the connections between Fiore’s guards, Vadi’s guards, and Marozzo’s guards, with cross-reference to the Liechtenauer tradition guards, in the introduction to The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest (pages 37-51) so please refer to that for further academic discussion.
Using the Guards in training
Regarding how to train with the guards, I have some thoughts you might find useful. The first is to deeply experience how improving the internal structure of the guard you are in changes how you can strike from it. In essence, you should hold every position with the minimum possible muscular tension, because the tension you hold the position with must be relaxed before you strike, which creates a telegraphing moment that an alert opponent can exploit. One exercise I use for this is called ‘The Stability Drill’, which I include in my Fundamentals: Footwork course, and describe in detail in The Medieval Longsword, pages 141-2.
The second is I build literally every technical drill in my syllabus using the guards as starting, middle, and end points of every movement. At every moment in every drill, unless your partner has messed up your position, you should be in something that looks and feels like a guard, or the most efficient path between two guards. Take this still of a pommel strike to the face. Is that not simply fenestra, pointing the other way?
(This is captured from the ‘Counter Remedies’ class video from my Medieval Longsword Course).
Likewise, if you watch my Syllabus Form video, you’ll see it’s basically a great long string of guard transitions:
However, as I wrote in The Medieval Longsword, any position you find yourself in can be considered a guard if you understand its tactical and technical properties. Slavishly copying a position from the treatise is useless unless you have some idea of what the position is for, what openings it leaves and what strengths it possesses. So let’s take a look at the critical components of a position held with the sword. They are:
• Which foot is leading
• Which side the sword is held on
• Where the weight is (forwards or back)
• The position of the sword (forwards, back, left right, high, low etc.)
• How the sword is held
• All of the above, relative to your opponent.
Let’s start with the sword. The further away your sword is from the centre, the longer it takes to get there, but the harder it will strike or parry when it does finally make contact. This is because the further your sword travels, the more time it has to accelerate, so the faster it is moving when it arrives. Which part of your sword is supported by the grip—edge or flat? This will determine what you can hit with. (The point should always be supported.)
Whose sword is closer to the centre—yours or your opponent’s? If you can get to a position where her sword is too far away from the centre to parry in time, you can hit her easily.
Now the feet: the position of your front foot relative to your opponent determines how close to her you can get with a pass. The position of your back foot relative to your opponent determines how far away from her you can get with a pass back, and how long a pass forwards will take, because it determines how far the foot has to go from start to finish.
The placement of your weight: the main target is your head, which is directly above your centre of mass (or should be!). So the position of your weight relative to your feet determines both how far your weight has to travel when striking your opponent, and how far your opponent has to travel when striking you.
Every guard position is a specific set of compromises, such as:
• A fast pass forwards at the expense of starting with your head closer to your opponent
• A harder strike at the expense of starting with your sword held back and to the side
• Making your opponent travel farther to reach you, at the expense of a longer and therefore slower pass forwards for you
• Keeping your sword closer to the centre, to close the line quicker, at the expense of having less power available when you get there.
Let’s take a concrete example of two guards that are often blurred together by beginners: tutta porta di ferro and coda longa. They both are held left foot forwards, with the weight on the front foot. This allows for a fast and easy pass forwards with the right foot. The sword is held either behind and to the right (coda longa) or pointing directly to the right (tutta porta di ferro). A strike from either guard usually ends in posta longa. If we take a thrust from below from coda longa, we see that we pass almost exactly through tutta porta di ferro, so it must take longer to do.
Likewise, when parrying from either guard, we would often use frontale. Measuring the distance from one to the other, we see that again, coda longa strikes harder but takes longer. This means that we must start the movement earlier to get there at the right time (before the attack hits us).
The “correct” choice of guard then is very often a function of measure. The farther away you are from the opponent, the safer it is to keep the sword farther back or offline.
It is necessary to study all the guards that your opponent may use against you, so that you may understand their tactical significance. At an advanced level, you might convey the appearance of being too far from the centre to defend in time, or being too far back to strike quickly, and take advantage of your opponent’s misjudgment of your position. Developing this skill of analysing the tactical elements of a position is also crucial to your success when faced with an opponent who is either trained in a different system, or is using non-standard positions.
Looking back at this section, we have a summary of the kinds of footwork we’ll need, followed by six different ways to hold a sword. This leads us to the seven blows (eleven if you split the thrust into five types), which then create the twelve guards of the sword. Taken together, we actually have a complete overview of the mechanics of the system. It’s an act of organisational genius on the part of Fiore dei Liberi, which prepares us for the upcoming plays of the sword out of armour on foot, which I’ll get into next week…
In the meantime, you may find this spiffy pdf compilation of the posts regarding the sword in one hand section useful, so feel free to sign up to my list, and get your copy.