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Mounted knight versus man-at-arms on foot: who would win?


You There is a critical feedback system between transcription, translation, and interpretation. Getting the words in the original language right is a good first step, which allows for better translation, which enables better interpretation, which in turn may resolve issues of translation or transcription. It would be foolish to begin with interpretation and try to make your translation work from there, but when there is some doubt regarding the transcription or translation, sometimes one version works in reality, and the other doesn’t. For this reason I’ve been hesitant to translate the mounted combat section. Sure, the language is quite clear and straightforward, but still, it seems odd to me to publish a translation of descriptions of actions that I haven’t tested in reality. This is a common problem for historical martial arts translators, but doesn’t seem to bother those translating fiction so much. Though I reckon Sir Richard Burton was careful to test every translation in practice when working on the Kama Sutra.

If you find this process inherently interesting, you'll enjoy my book From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice.

I had the opportunity recently to work on the plays on foot against attackers on horseback, from folio 46r. I went to visit Jason Kingsley (of the Modern History youtube channel), who has a superb riding facility, and is an expert jouster and horseman. I am neither, so we had a go at recreating the plays of the ghiaverina on foot, which meant that Jason did the riding, and I got to stay on the ground, which was much safer all round.

Now that I’ve worked through them, here’s my transcription and translation. I’ll comment as I go.

Qui sono tre compagni che voleno alcider questo magistro. Lo primo lo vole ferir sotto man che porta sua lanza a meza lanza. L’altro porta sua lanza restada a tutta lanza. Lo terzo lo vole alanzare cum sua lanza. E sie de patto che nissuno non debia fare piu d’un colpo per homo. Anchora debano fare a uno a uno.

Here are three companions who want to kill this master. The first wants to strike under-arm so carries his lance by the middle. The other carries his lance couched by the end. The third wants to throw with his lance. And it is agreed that none of them may make more than one blow per person. Also they must do it one by one.

This is an interesting set-up. As we have seen elsewhere, there are three different kinds of blows each represented by a different companion. Though they want to “kill” the master, there is an agreement in place that they will only make one blow each, and will come one at a time. Fiore uses the expression ‘a meza lanza’ and ‘a tutta lanza’ in the same way that he has used ‘a meza spada’ and ‘a tutta spada’ (see the discussion of the crossings of the sword for more information). I’ve translated them as ‘by the middle’ and ‘by the end’; ‘a tutta lanza’ means that the whole lance is extended, as you can see from the image. So how does the master handle them? Effortlessly, it seems:

Vegna a uno a uno chi vol venire, che per nessuno di qui non mi son per partire. Anche in dente di cenghiaro son presto per aspettare. Quando la lanza contra me vignira portada o vero de mane zitada, subito io schivo la strada zoe che io acresco lo pe dritto fora de strada e cum lo stancho passo ala traversa rebattendo la lanza che mi vene per ferire. Si che d’ mille una non poria fallire. Questo ch’io fazzo cum la ghiaverina, cum bastone e cum spada lo faria. E’lla deffesa ch’io fazo contra le lanze, contra spada e contra bastone quello faria li mie zoghi che sono dredo.

Come one by one who wants to come, I’m not for leaving here for any of them. Also in the boar’s tooch I am ready to wait. When the lance will come against me, carried or thrown from the hand, immediately I avoid the way, thus, I advance my right foot out of the way and with the left I pass across, beating away the lance that comes to strike me. If there were a thousand, not even one would fail. This that I do with the ghiaverina, I do with a stick or a sword. And the defence that I make against the lance, against the sword and against the stick I will make my plays that follow.

The first line of this reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark “the lady’s not for turning”. It’s the same construction: ‘non mi son per partire’: ‘I’m not for leaving’. The ‘fuck you’ is clear in the subtext. He re- iterates that this action is done against the lance whether it is held or thrown, though he uses a new locution: ‘schiva la strada’, which literally means ‘avoid the way’, and of course means ‘get out of the way’. This is perhaps the sixth or seventh time we’ve seen the instruction to step the front foot out of the way and pass across.

I always assumed that this would be quite hard to do, and so the next line about being able to do it a thousand times was hyperbole. Well, you’d get tired after about a hundred, but otherwise, this is way easier to do against a mounted lancer than it is to do against one on foot. Jason is a superb mounted combatant, as one would expect the companions to be (at least by our modern standards). As his lance approached me, the point was rock-steady, and because he was on a horse, he didn’t come straight at me- his lance was angled off to his right by perhaps 30 degrees. This gave me plenty of space and time to do the action, and the steadiness of the lance made this absurdly easy to do. The only real challenge was being careful not to hit him or the horse, which of course would not be an issue if we were doing this in earnest.

The plays that follow are these two:

Questo si’e zogho del magistro ch’e denanzi che aspetta cum la ghiaverina quegli da cavallo in dente di zenghiaro in passar fora de strada e rebatter chelo fa elo intra in questo zogho. E per che ello sia inteso, io lo fazo in suo logo, che cum taglio e punta lo posso ferire in la testa. Tanto porto la mia ghiavarina ben presta.

This is the play of the master that is before, that waits with the ghiaverina, for the one on horseback, in boar’s tooth, passing out of the way and beating and then enters into this play. And because he understood it, I do it in its place, that with cut and thrust I can strike to the head. Thus I carry my very quick ghiaverina.

In terms of interpretation, this is easy enough. Having stepped out of the way and beaten the incoming lance aside, you can strike with cut or thrust. The language is a little awkward, with some apparently redundant phrasing, such as ‘and because he understood it’. Likewise at the end, ‘tanto’ usually means ‘a lot of’, but it’s one of those words that has a range of uses (such as in ‘ogni tanto’, every now and then). I take this last line to mean essentially ‘this is why I’m carrying a ghiaverina. It’s very quick and takes care of those pesky horsemen’.

If you’re familiar with the plays of the spear on foot, then this last play of the ghiaverina will come as no surprise.

Anchora e questo zogho del ditto magistro ch’e denanzi in posta de dente de zenghiaro, in suo scambio io fazo questo ch’ello lo po fare. Quando la lanza e rebattuda, io volto mia lanza, esi lo fiero cum lo pedale, che questo ferro sie temperado e di tutto azale.

This is also a play of the aforesaid master that is before me in the guard of the boar’s tooth, in his exchange I do this which he could do. When the lance is beaten aside, I turn my lance and then strike him with the butt, the which iron is tempered and completely of steel.

As before, in terms of interpretation this is perfectly straightforward. Because the butt of your ghiaverina is shod with steel, you can turn the weapon and hit him with the butt instead of the head. We’ve seen this before in the counter-remedy of the spear, on f39v, where he also mentions that the butt (pedale) is shod.

The language is a bit less straightforward though. I read ‘in suo scambio’ to mean ‘in his exchange’, in other words, in his technique. Others (Hatcher and Leoni, for instance) both read it to mean essentially ’in his stead’, in other words ‘I can do this instead of that’. From a practical perspective, it makes no difference, of course. Likewise though there is no doubt about the sense of it (hit him with the butt because it’s shod with steel), the specific locution is tricky. “Ferro” is iron, of course. And it also has the connotation of ‘the metal bit attached to a stick’, as in the English word ‘ferrule’. Temperado is ‘tempered’, as steel may be, and as iron cannot be, a fact Fiore would certainly have known. The last word, ‘azale’, is probably a version of acciaio, steel as Florio’s dictionary has azzale for steel. (See here:

I may be making a meal of this, but I think it’s useful to show my working (as my maths teacher used to insist on).

So, what do these plays look like in real life? Here are Jason and I (and the inestimable Warlord) working through them, in the latest instalment of his excellent Modern History TV:

See also: my interview with Jason Kingsley on The Sword Guy, here.
and my book From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice.

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

2 Responses

  1. Hi, the video with Jason and Warlord is so fascinating!

    I’d like to propose an alternative interpretation for “Tanto porto la mia ghiavarina ben presta.”

    In (modern, at least) Italian, “tanto” means “so much”, or just “much”, and it can be also used with the meaning of “so much that […]”.

    “Presta” can be “fast” or “ready”. They would both make sense here.

    So, either: “I move my spear so fast, that I can hit him in the head with a cut or a thrust.”

    or: “I keep my spear so ready , that I […]”

    After watching the video, and imagining Warlord at full speed, my vote is on “fast” 🙂

    By the way, in the video you say that you think the scholar has his right foot forward in that play, but if you look at the other three versions of the manuscript, they all show a leading left foot more clearly than in the Getty.

  2. Wonderful to see how the assumption of moving in closer to the horse was found to be more efficient.

    An excellent session and it looked like everyone had a great time

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