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Tag: Australia trip

“The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name” – Confucius.

In this post I will demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that every wonder of the modern age is attributable to the systematizing of knowledge, pioneered by Fiore dei Liberi. Yes, really.

I have recently returned from a very rewarding trip to Australia, teaching seminars in Sydney for the Stoccata School of Defence, and in Melbourne for the SCA and the Melbourne Swordplay Guild. On one of the rest-days, my kind and gracious host Scott Nimmo took me to the Melbourne Museum, which was a delight, as you can see.


(Scott also took these pictures, reproduced here with permission.)
When not running away from spiders, I had my eyes wide open, and came upon this extraordinary exhibit.

The Ordering of Things

Why extraordinary, you ask? Because it is so Fiore. Really. Let me explain.

This display lays out the standard taxonomy of the Kingdom Animalia. 2,500 years ago, give or take, Aristotle divided the living world into Plants and Animals; in the 18th century Carl Linnaeus added minerals to make his famous taxonomy (hence the first question in the game 20 Questions: animal, vegetable or mineral?), and invented the genus-species double-barrelled Latin naming convention still used today. From these first steps, the modern system has developed. For those not familiar with it, or who have forgotten it from their schooldays, it goes: Life, Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. The great advantage of this system is that the classifications can be made based on the natural, visible, characteristics of the organism. (These days, scientists are moving towards a system based on DNA analysis, which is no doubt spiffy and super-accurate, but won’t make any sense to the average 8 year-old, or be any damn use to someone who has no access to a DNA sequencing lab. But I digress.)
Anyhow, this display explains the Linnaean classification system by taking a specific butterfly (the one on the left, a Cairns Birdwing, ornithoptera priamus) and placing it in its Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species, working from the most general to the most, well, specific.

  1. It starts with the Kingdom, Animalia (animals), defined as: “Animals are organisms that lack cell walls and eat other organisms.” And you can see six examples, all from different Phyla.
  2. Next up, the Phylum, Arthropoda (arthropods): Arthropods are animals with an external skeleton, a segmented body and jointed legs.
  3. Then Class, Insecta (insects): insects are arthropods with three body parts, six legs and a pair of antennae.
  4. Then Order: Lepidoptera (butterflies): butterflies and moths are insects with two pairs of wings with overlapping scales.
  5. Then Family: Papilionidae (swallowtails): swallowtails are butterflies that have a spur on their forelegs that they use to clean their antennae.
  6. Then Genus: Ornithoptera (birdwings): birdwings are a type of Swallowtail butterfly. The males have a dense row of elongate hairs on their hindwings.
  7. And finally, species (ornithoptera priamus), the Cairns Birdwing butterfly has a unique combination of colour markings.

And there’s a picture of the esteemed Linnaeus. This is the best representation of this system that I have ever seen.
So far, so very systematic, and this sort of classification is thought of as being the beginnings of a truly scientific approach. But so what?

Here’s the point. Swordsmanship instructors have been using this kind of systematic thought for centuries before the scientists got in on the act!

The earliest scientist to classify plants according to their inherent natural characteristics rather than their (human-imposed) names or uses is generally reckoned to be Andrea Cesalpino, in his 1583 publication De Plantis. (He was Italian, of course. Until, well, the rise of the British Empire, all progress in human affairs had an Italian root. Overlooking a brief century or so in the middle when the French got a look-in. I may be overstating the case slightly.) But swordsmen have been classifying the natural phenomenon of combat since long before Mr Cesalpino.
I.33, the oldest combat manual we have, from about 1320, begins with the immortal lines: “fencing is the ordering of blows” and then proceeds to show seven guards. The rest of the manual is organised according to the starting guard position of the defender. Pretty systematic.

Fiore is next, from a tad before 1410. And oh my, what a feat of systematic classification. Taking the ordering of the Getty manuscript as our base, and “the ordering of blows” as our theme, we have:

  • 20 plays of abrazare: blows made with the empty hand, or wrestling grips. Preceded by four unarmed guards and ending with two plays of the dagger against the bastoncello, introducing:
  • 76 plays of the dagger. This begins with 5 “grips”, two with the dagger and three without, then four blows of the dagger (all thrusts; straight down, forehand, backhand, and from below), then four types of other action (disarm, break arms, locks and throws), then the 76 plays, organised into the plays of nine masters, each showing a different cover, depending on circumstances. (See here for an amusing summary. Note that 2 and 7 are for use in armour only.)
  • Then defences of the dagger against the sword, in which you must distinguish between cuts and thrusts. And defending against a cut only, you must distinguish between being able to enter on the inside or the outside, which depends on what exactly happens when the attack meets the parry. Then defences of the sword against the dagger: if your point is up, strike down; if it is down, you can strike up or down.
  • Then sword against sword: the master of the sword in one hand and the 11 plays that follow, in which you must not only distinguish between cut (plays 1-7 and 10) and thrust (plays 8 and 9) but also the presence of armour (play 11), and what line is open: in the first play, you enter on the inside, in the second, you have beaten the attack wide and can strike on the outside.
  • Then there are 6 ways of holding the sword, leading us into the seven blows: which are six cuts (forehand and backhand from above, below, and across) and the thrust, which is divided into 5 types: forehand and backhand from above and below, and up the middle. Note that Fiore makes an explicit distinction in some cuts whether it is done with the true or false edge.
  • Then the twelve guards of the sword in two hands, as if they were created by the blows that you make (top tip: they are).
  • Then the 20 plays of the zogho largo, and the 23 plays of the zogho stretto; the plays are divided up according to what exactly is going on when the blades meet, just as we saw with the defence of the dagger against the cut, and indeed the plays of the sword in one hand.

(This is getting rather complicated: it would take a book to explain it all. Wait a second, I wrote one, and you can pre-order it here!)
And so the treatise goes on, with the plays of the sword in armour, with axe, spear, mounted, etc.
Sticking with the idea of classification for a moment, let’s take a look at the whole system, which as the title of the Pisani Dossi manuscript makes clear, deals with combat on foot and on horseback, with armour and without, with sword, dagger, axe or spear.
So let’s take one sword blow, and define it according to the following criteria: On foot or Mounted; in Armour or Without; the Weapon; Guard or Blow; Cut or Thrust; (if cut) True edge or False Edge; Forehand or Backhand; Descending, Rising, or Horizontal.

  1. On foot or Mounted: on foot.
  2. In armour or without: without
  3. Weapon: sword (spada)
  4. Guard or blow: blow (colpo)
  5. Cut or thrust: cut (taglio)
  6. True edge or false edge: false (falso)
  7. Forehand or backhand: backhand (roverso)
  8. Descending, rising or horizontal: horizontal (mezano)

So this blow is a false edge horizontal backhand cut: roverso mezano.
Fiore is not alone in this; all swordsmanship authors worthy of the name, from here on classify their blows properly. Perhaps the most famous example is Viggiani’s tree of blows, from Lo Schermo, 1575:


As you can see, Viggiani orders the blows similarly: by cut or thrust; if cut, with true edge or false; then by backhand and forehand; then by the line of the blow. So to find the equivalent of Fiore’s roverso mezano, we start by going up the trunk, take the left branch (taglio col filo, cuts with the edge), then the right (falso), then keep right (roverso), then first left (tondo). And finally, the botanists got in on the act some 8 years later. Welcome to the classification party!

Pedantry compels me to point out here that this classification system is not as absolute as that for living beings; a single type of blow can exist with several, even all, weapons, unlike a living species which can only be in one Class, Phylum, etc. But the purpose of Art is to order the natural world into systems so that they can be studied and taught (or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would have it: bring order to consciousness); and to this end, I trumpet this thought loud from every rooftop in the kingdom: truly systematic thought began with the oldest Art of all: the martial. (Ancient cave-painted men? All armed with spears and bows. Don’t tell me they only hunted with them. Thus, weapons before painting: arts martial before arts decorative.)

And thus the study of swordsmanship, as a branch of philosophy, can and should be credited with the birth of science as we know it. And Fiore was the first swordsman that we know of to lay out his Art in a truly systematic way. So: we put a man on the moon? Thanks, Fiore. Heart transplants? Much obliged, maestro Fiore. Computers, aeroplanes and Internet porn? Whose your daddy? Feee fucking ORE!!

The second day of the Sydney seminar began with revision and expansion on the first day’s work, taking some of the dagger plays into a freeplay-type context, then going over much of the sword material again. This established a base, upon which we built an understanding of how the material fits together, and how we can develop the skills needed to apply the art at speed: the bridge between set drills and freeplay. The focus throughout was on how our actions are dependent on those of the opponent. What he is doing determines what will work against him. This lead us in to thinking about avvisamento, foresight, learning to predict the likely blade relationship by manipulating what the opponent sees and can use. (I am working on a post about training methods for developing this skill.)

I try to leave plenty of time for students to ask questions: it is my job to lead them to the next level of their training, which is of course dependent on their current level, experience and interests. The stand-out question was “how do we prevent sniping at the hands in freeplay?” To which my answer is always “don’t expose them when you attack”. Turns out that this gang of Silver fans, like everyone else, was moving in false times. So we spent quite a bit of time working on the basic mechanics of striking without leaving an opening to your hands.

Time and again on this trip it was drummed into me that my best contributions to this Art, and to the students training in it are: the study of mechanics and the coherent organisation of my interpretations into syllabi. These far more than the specifics of those interpretations.

By the end of the weekend I think all the participants came away with a clear picture of the mechanical and tactical structure of Fiore’s system, and an idea of how to develop their skills in an efficient and effective manner. Well done to all!

Monday was spent mostly at the amazing Alexander the Great exhibition at the Australian Museum, then free fencing the Stoccata crew in the evening. This was great fun, and to stimulate their already keen desire to smack me about, I offered a prize of an SES patch for the best hit I received. This was won by Richard Cullinan with a tasty little one-two at single rapier. I didn’t even see it before it landed. Lovely!

This whole trip has been a delight: the students in my classes, their instructors my hosts, the company and the food- even the trips back and forth were not too bad. So, fingers crossed for a return in 2014!

I could get used to this. Sat outside in the shade tap-tapping away, (still at a lugubrious 10wpm or so) in glorious 30 degree weather. Not sure I'd get much work done in the long run though. But Sydney is a lovely city. I spent Thursday and Friday being shown the sights, including the most excellent Aquarium, including the totally lethal iddy-biddy blue-ringed octopus and the astonishing dugong, proof that 60kg of lettuce a day will make you fat.
The weekend seminar went very well, I thought (and confirmed by the student feedback, according to Paul). On the Saturday we cantered through a basic overview of Fiore's glorious system, its core mechanics and its tactical base, starting with the idea that your actions are predicated on those of your opponent. We started with the first play of the dagger (Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: The Medieval Dagger, p 52; as many of the students present now have the book I'll include page references where applicable), and varied the drill by who moves first (p 50). We then looked at being lead into the specific play by the attacker's response to the defence, using the fourth master variations (Chapter 11, pp 87-94). This set up the core idea of the seminar in a concrete, visceral way.
So onto swords, with basic cutting exercises followed by distinguishing between cut and thrust, in the context of the defences of the dagger against the sword (pp 139-147). We then applied the same basic idea using the plays of the sword in one hand, specifically the first, second and eighth. And all that before lunch!
After lunch we covered the key plays of the sword in two hands, specifically the second and third of the second master of the zogho largo, then the second and third of the zogho stretto, using the four crossings drill as a magnifying glass for examining the blade relationship that will lead you into one play or another. You can find videos of all these drills on the wiki, of course.
I continue to be baffled, given that it has been three years now since I figured this out and made it public, why anyone would continue to view Il Fior di Battaglia as a catalogue of techniques organised inconsistently by measure, rather than the detailed development of a single basic idea (hit his sword away) based on what actually happens when you apply it to an opponent with ideas of his own. One of the great pleasures of this trip has been the way that the Australians have been so receptive to new ideas, and gladly abandoned old ways of thought when presented with something better.
I'll carry on with my adventures down under in a couple of days: right now I have to get my spine ready for a 30 hour trip home. It may take longer as I am changing planes in Heathrow, and they had three whole snowflakes at the same time, so all is plunged into Chaos. Hey-ho to the frozen North!

I have been in Australia for a week now, and enjoying the sunshine (why do I live in such a freezing cold country?), the warmth of which has been eclipsed by the generous hospitality of my hosts. In Melbourne Scott Nimmo and his wife and kids welcomed me into their home with enthusiasm, and here in Sydney I am staying with my old friend Paul Wagner and his wife Julie. It has been wonderful to make new friendships and refresh old ones. But to business:
I am here to teach a series of seminars, the first of which happened last weekend in Melbourne. I had been asked to teach a day of biomechanics followed by a day of syllabus construction. I wish every group would ask for a day of mechanics first! It makes everything else so much easier. The whole weekend was filmed for future reference.

Day One
We started by establishing my expectations (everyone finishes training healthier than they started it; if you have a question, ask; no macho bullshit) and introducing the idea of mechanics: grounding, power generation, efficiency, and going through a basic warm-up focussing on the point and purpose of each exercise. The usual 12 minute series took nearly an hour, and laid the groundwork for the rest of the day: take something you think you know and make it better.
We then walked through beginner's course mechanics: finding where your weight should be on your feet, tongue position, tailbone alignment etc. all tested with gentle pressure to allow for systematic correction.
From there we looked at footwork, and how the system is a means of taking natural actions and ordering them so they can be studied, refined and taught. This included the stick exercise and the four guards drill (or the first few steps thereof).
We then looked at holding the sword- I love that moment when a keen and intelligent scholar of the Art lights up with the realisation of two things simultaneously: I've been holding my sword wrong for years; and now I know how to fix it.
The rest of the day was spent analysing the tactics, source and mechanics of the first two steps of first drill. During that time I also went round and did some very slow and careful exercises with each student sharp on sharp, at the end of which they understood at a visceral level why I say “if you haven't done it with sharps, you haven't done it at all.”
The delight for me came from the avid, gleeful way that this group of students, many of them instructors in their own groups, absorbed and adopted what I had come to teach.

Day Two
This class was all about the syllabus, why it is structured as it is, and how to use it and the tools I have created (the wiki and my books). Only two of the students present had not been there the previous day, and both were quite experienced, so I pressed on without much revision. After the warm-up (which is never just a warm-up) we began with the four guards drill and the first six plays of abrazare, in order and by the book: a lesson if ever there was one in how changing circumstances change your response. His other leg is forward? Then the lines of strength change and so does your exploitation of them.
From there we regrettably skipped the dagger, as no-one had them, and went into part one of the cutting drill, building on the previous day's work. It was necessary to teach from first principles the point and purpose of such solo work.
We then covered the four basic syllabus drills, creating each from first drill using the four-corners multiplier. I then taught the four crossings drill and we used that to create the 3rd play of the 2nd Master of the zogho largo, as another variation on first drill, and thence of course to the stretto form of first drill. We continually returned to part one of the cutting drill to create the memory palace in which to store the material.
With an hour to go I asked them what they wanted, and a few specific questions aside, they wanted more mechanics! That's my kind of group, really: depth beats breadth every time.
A flattering number of the students are making the trip to Sydney- I look forward to seeing them all again tomorrow. The plan is to present an overview of the main mechanics and tactics of Fiore's Art. No doubt I'll let you all know how it went next week.

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