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Ultra-geeky sword post alert: this is a lengthy and detailed discussion of some really specific terms from Fiore. Expect pedantry and nit-pickery, in the service of a definition of terms which has little bearing on how we actually fight. Read on only if that sort of thing floats your boat. I have written this because a friend and colleague asked me what I thought about ‘largo' and ‘stretto' these days. It turned out longer than I expected.

Since study began on medieval and Renaissance Italian swordsmanship, the terms giocco largo and giocco stretto have been discussed at length. The earliest reference we have to these terms is in Fiore dei Liberi’s Il Fior di Battaglia, (c.a. 1400) and they are a consistent feature of most Italian sources from then until the middle of the sixteenth century, after which they are less common.

I'm going to be using the Italian terms a lot in this article, so let's take a moment to look at translating them into English. Giocco (or zogho in FdB) means ‘play’ or ‘game’. This is consistent and unremarkable, and has about the same connotations as the English word. I can’t think of an expression in either language where you might translate the term as anything else: it even works in mechanics, where slippage in a mechanism is ‘play’ in English, and ‘gioco’ in Italian. I should note that there is no connotation of measure with this term. Measure is misura.

Largo means ‘wide’, with connotations of ‘loose’, such as in the expression ‘questa giacca mi sta larga’, ‘this jacket is loose on me’, or ‘open’, such as in the expression ‘andare al largo’, ‘to go out into the open sea’. Sticking with the maritime theme for a moment, ‘off the coast of Pisa’ would be ‘al largo di Pisa’. Freedom of movement is implied, as is space to play in.

Stretto is the past participle of the verb ‘stringere’, which means ‘to constrain’, ‘to grip’, ‘to squeeze’. It has a lot of connotations, and you can see many of them at this convenient dictionary link: https://dictionary.reverso.net/italian-english/stringere There is no one perfect English equivalent. Stretto as an adjective is ‘narrow’ or ‘tight’, such as in the expression ‘questa giacca mi sta stretta’, ‘this jacket is tight on me’, with the implication of restricted movement. To return to the maritime theme: ‘una stretta di mare’ is a ‘strait’, a narrow channel of water between two pieces of land. It’s worth noting that it’s only used to indicate ‘close’ in phrases like ‘un parente stretto’, ‘a close relative’. Close would normally be translated as ‘vicino’. The single English word that best fits the set of meanings is “constrained”.

While these examples are modern, there is no reason to believe that the meanings of these words have changed over time; I’ve tried to find evidence that they may have, and failed. In modern HMA parlance, the usual translations used are ‘wide play' and ‘close play'. Neither is particularly apt; ‘loose play' and ‘constrained play' would be better, but there's little chance of changing them in the wider community after so long. But bear the connotations in mind.

For most of the time since we began studying these sources, most people have translated and interpreted them to mean ‘wide play’, as in fencing from far away, and ‘close play’ as in getting to grips; in other words, the defining feature is measure. I published this theory myself in The Swordsman’s Companion in 2004. Many of my colleagues (excellent people all) still hold that opinion, which you can read a full discussion of in Greg Mele's article here. The article is explicit: “Zogho Stretto (close or narrow play) is the measure at which dei Liberi…”

For the last decade or so I have held a more nuanced view of their meanings. I’ll confine my interpretation remarks to Fiore, as that’s where the most disagreement lies, and also where I have the most experience and expertise. And I’ll include here all my published opinions on the subject, so you can see how they have developed over time. Before I get onto this, I should be clear that the ambiguities occur only when discussing the sword; all abrazare and dagger plays are considered ‘stretto’, and the grappling plays of the sword mostly occur in the ‘stretto’ section. On this we can all agree.

Where we disagree is the notion that the term ‘giocco stretto' is effectively synonymous with ‘misura stretta' (which in Capoferro's Gran Simulacro at least is the measure at which you can strike without passing, which we might indeed call ‘close measure').

As I see it, in Fiore's plays, the defining tactical consideration (and the organising principle of the longsword section of his book) is the crossing of the swords, in which the measure is approximately the same, but the blade relationship, and so tactical situation, is quite different.

This gif illustrates the point nicely:

Getty Longsword Crossings

make action GIFs like this at MakeaGif

 

These are the three crossings from the Getty ms, centred on the front foot of the player. The outstandingly obvious conclusion is that the measure seems pretty much the same, but the blade relationship changes hugely. (With thanks to Joeli Takala who made a gif like this in 2010, which I reproduced because the original stopped moving.) There is no question that one of the two crossings shown at the middle of the blade is ‘zogho largo', and the other is ‘zogho stretto', as they are the first images from those sections. From one, we are free to strike, from the other, our best course is to enter with a pass ‘and come to the strette'. [I know that some researchers consider the images to be unreliable, but in my experience they are almost invariably very accurate. And once you start playing the ‘but the drawings aren't photos' card, you might as well discard all the pictures altogether, because it opens the door to making the images say whatever you want them to.]

So as I see it, “zogho stretto” is a tactical condition of the play, to which our best response is to enter in. Zogho stretto in general is ‘the condition of play in which you are constrained and cannot strike directly”, and zogho largo in general is “the condition of play in which you are free to strike”. “Le strette”, “the constrained ones”, is the term for techniques in which we come to grips. Yes, they are done from closer in than the “unconstrained plays”, but to say that they are defined purely by their measure is wrong; they are defined by being grappling actions.

That's the short version. I shall now expand at considerable length…

Back in 2009, I published an article that described my new understanding of largo and stretto, and includes an analysis and interpretation of all of Fiore's longsword plays out of armour. Please read it, and then we'll move on… you can download the pdf from here:

Crossing Swords 2009

Back again? Excellent.

Recall this passage:

It is my contention that zogho largo, wide play, describes the actions that are safe to do when the attacker’s point is driven wide. Zogho stretto, close play, describes the actions that we must do if the attacker’s sword is too close to us when we are crossed. The correct action then is to pass with the cover (i.e. without leaving the cross) and execute one of the close play plays.
As the defender, one should not seek out the close play; as Fiore states, from the stretto cross, either person can do the plays that follow. But by passing in, we prevent the attacker from winding the point into our face.

My interpretation of the basic form of these plays as it stood in 2009 can be seen in these videos:

Sword in One Hand:

Zogho Largo:

Zogho Stretto:

My current up to date and explained in detail interpretation of these same plays are Section 8 of my Complete Medieval Longsword Course

I should point out that introducing this interpretation of largo and stretto did more to prevent double hits in freeplay in my school than any other change to the way we conceptualise Fiore's art. Suddenly, people started paying much more attention to whether an action was appropriate in the context they found themselves, simply because they now had a way to define that context.

By 2014, my thinking had not changed particularly, despite my colleagues’ best efforts to persuade me that it was all about measure: in my book The Medieval Longsword, pages 43-45, 2014, I wrote:

Perhaps the most overt tactical distinction Fiore uses is between zogho largo, universally translated as “wide play”, and zogho stretto, which may be translated as “close”, “constrained” “narrow” or “tight” play. I find “constrained” to be the most accurate rendering, but “close” is currently the most common choice. This topic has produced perhaps the most persistent and widespread disagreement amongst Fiore scholars, so I will go into some detail regarding what I think these concepts mean, and how I use them.

Fiore’s plays of the sword in two hands are clearly divided into the 20 plays of the zogho largo and the 23 plays of the zogho stretto. There are also plays done with the sword in one hand, in armour, and on horseback. The distinction between, say, the plays of the sword in armour and those of the sword on horseback are pretty obvious. The distinction between what constitutes zogho largo and what constitutes zogho stretto has been far less clear. In my first book, I defined the terms gioco largo (wide play) and gioco stretto (close play) as functions of measure: when you are close enough to touch your opponent with your hand, you are in gioco stretto. If you can reach him with your sword using one step or fewer, you are in gioco largo. This is a useful distinction to make, especially when classifying and cataloguing techniques.

For many years, this stood as the standard interpretation of zogho largo and zogho stretto, however, this is clearly not how Fiore uses the terms. (Remember our earlier discussion of changes in interpretations? Here you can see my pressure-test system in action.) In il Fior di Battaglia, we clearly see actions done close-in but placed in the zogho largo section (such as the 14th play of the second master), and actions done from quite far away placed in the zogho stretto (such as the 12th play). So what, then, do “wide” and “close” play refer to?

Simply put, the relationship between the two swords when they cross. There is a plethora of circumstances in which you are free to leave the crossing and strike as you will—these are all considered “largo”. In other circumstances the conditions of the bind are such that if you leave the crossing you will immediately be struck. In these cases you are constrained to enter in under cover, and use one of the “close plays”.

In practice, the type of crossing that demands close play is very specific: you must be crossed at the middle of the swords, with the points in presence (i.e. threatening the target) and sufficient pressure between the swords such that if one player releases the bind, he will be immediately struck. Ideally both players have their right foot forwards, which makes it easier to enter in. This is a situation of equality, in which either player should do the close play techniques.

In all other circumstances, most commonly when the opponent’s sword has been beaten aside, it is safe to leave the crossing to strike your opponent. This is the fundamental condition of wide play. If it is necessary to maintain contact with the opponent’s sword and enter to grapple or pommel strike, you are constrained to the close play. So, the plays are ordered according to the kind of crossing that they follow. These conditions exist in a continuum. As the opponent’s sword gets closer, and the bind gets firmer, your ideal response changes. As it switches from “leave the bind and strike” (largo) to “keep in contact with the bind and enter” (stretto), so you will find your ideal response in one section of the book or the other. Identifying these conditions is perhaps the key tactical distinction to make in this system. Note that close play techniques can often be done in a wide play situation, but wide play techniques cannot be done from a close-play crossing without extreme risk. The techniques we see in the 10th, 14th, and 15th plays of the second master of the zogho largo (crossed at the middle of the swords) section are clearly “close”, and there is no practical distinction between for example the 10th play here and the 2nd play of the zogho stretto. It’s apparent then that we have a choice: either Fiore organised his book as a catalogue of techniques arranged by the measure in which they occur, with several errors, or ordered them according to the tactical circumstances in which they should be done, with no errors. Which would you choose?

As a rule of thumb, if your opponent’s sword is moving towards you, or pressing in, you must bind it to prevent it from hitting you (stretto). If it is moving away from you, you can simply strike (largo).

Wide and close play describe what happens, but can also be used to describe a set of tactical preferences, an approach to the fight. When fencing an opponent who is much more comfortable in wide play, we may engineer a situation where only close play techniques will work. We can also of course deny a close-playing opponent the context he wants, and slip away into wide play as he tries to constrain us. A good fencer will be comfortable with both contexts, though most people have a preference for one type of play or the other.

This interpretation is still my default, though I would express it differently now. In short, you are in ‘wide play’ when you are free to leave the crossing to strike, and in ‘constrained play’ when you have to maintain contact with your opponent’s sword to strike.

So where do I stand now? 

In combat, you are only likely to have your freedom of motion constrained by some threat or physical contact from your opponent. When it comes to making decisions under pressure, it’s usually unhelpful to have more options than necessary, because every choice slows you down. So I think the point of the largo-stretto distinction is to reduce the likelihood of getting hit by making it as clear as possible when it is safe to strike. It’s a tactical distinction, not a technical one. The tactical situation is determined by the following conditions:

Measure: how far apart are you? Yes, measure is a critical component of the condition of play, but not its defining feature.

Movement: where is everything going? Is your opponent pushing in, pulling back, binding strongly, yielding? And you?

Blade relationship: are the blades crossed, and if so, how?

I’ll expand on these one at a time:

Measure: 

If you are in range to strike without stepping, this distinction is crucial. Are you free, or constrained? Outside that measure, it’s irrelevant. Fiore does not explicitly discuss measure at any point- the term is used once only, on the segno page under the lynx: E acquello mette sempre a sesta e a misura. Clearly, if he had wanted to define the plays of the sword by their measure, he had the linguistic tools to do so. We can see that at the moment the swords cross, the measure is approximately the same in all three crossings, and it's at the moment of the crossing that tactical situation is defined. To be in either largo or stretto play, you must be close enough to strike.

Movement:

The measure and the blade relationship will normally be in constant flux. Sword fighters rarely stand still when this close together. The exact positioning of the players at a given moment is less important than the direction they are moving in. If your opponent’s actions are such that you have to bind their sword, you’re probably in a stretto situation. If they are moving away from you, then you are probably freer.

Blade relationship:

Is your weapon controlling your opponent’s? If not, it should be. 

Let me quote again from The Medieval Longsword  pages 159-161

Whoever masters the crossing, gets the strike. All medieval swordsmanship sources emphasise what happens when the blades cross. This crossing can be reduced to three critical factors: where on the blades the cross occurs, where the points of the swords end up, and how much pressure is being exerted. Up to now, almost every parry has been aimed middle to middle, and has worked as intended, beating the sword aside, with the exception of the “sticky” cut against the position of the sword in one hand. This was by way of introduction to the idea of binding the sword, which is a process of gaining mechanical control of your opponent’s weapon using your own.

In combat, the crossings of the sword happen so fast, and ideally last for such a short time, that it is unusual to respond to their specific conditions as they occur; more commonly, cues in our opponent’s prior movements indicate what will happen when the blades meet. It is nonetheless useful to analyse the possible crossings, to get an idea of what may occur and what you should do about it. This section is a bit like explaining traffic lights to a driving student.

Let’s start with where on the blades the cross is made. Most of the time you would be aiming for a cross at the middle of both swords, but Fiore divides the blade (as we have seen) into three parts: the tutta spada (the first section near the hilt), the mezza spada (the middle section) and the punta di spada (the last section, near the point). Mathematicians will have no difficulty working out that there are nine possible combinations of places on the sword where the crossing happens:

 We must also consider the position of your point, close enough to be a threat, or wide, and his, close or wide, so multiply 9×4 and we get 36 possible crossings. Add to that (or rather multiply) the degree of pressure between the blades (let’s be binary and say strong or weak—we could have a dozen gradations of strength) and we have 72 crossings. And lastly, which side is open—inside, outside or neither? So multiply by three and we get 216 possible meetings of the swords. That is patently absurd. Let’s carve it down a bit.

What matters most is what you can do from a given relationship of the blades. In practice, it is only possible to apply pressure when meeting at the mezza or the tutta of your sword. So where there is a punta involved, that sword (or both) are always weak in the bind.

Also, when crossed at the points, the points of the swords can’t be threatening either of you directly, as you are either too far away, or they are pointing up or to the side, so it can always be consid- ered “wide”. Likewise, when crossed at the tuttas, the points must be wide, or there would have been a strike already, you’re so close. Where one point is against another’s mezza or tutta, there should be sufficient leverage advantage that the punta is always weak in the bind, and will be driven wide. So, that same table now looks like this:

It should go without saying that you strike on the side he is open; if you aren’t sure, if neither side is clearly open, go to the other side (so if your sword is on the right of his, go to the left). This is because whatever force he is using to keep you out of the centre should open that line when you release your counter-pressure.

The only part of the table where there is any real ambiguity is the middle one, where the swords have met in the middles: the points may be wide or close, and the bind may be strong or weak. If his point is close, and the bind is strong, you must enter into the close plays. This crossing leads only to the zogho stretto. If his point has been driven wide, and/or there is little pressure in the bind, it is safe to either grab his blade and strike (if it is close) or just strike (if his point is wide). These are examples of zogho largo.

And what about Vadi? Well, he doesn’t divide his 20 plays of the longsword this way, but he does refer to largo and stretto play, principally in his Chapter 3: Theory of the Sword, especially on folio 5v. You can download my free translation of the entire manuscript from here and make up your own mind… Or if you're feeling wealthy, you could buy the snazzy hardback of the whole book: my new The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest!

For the perspective of a Bolognese fencer, Ilkka Hartikainen has an article on the terms here.

So let me sum up:

Being close enough to strike is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the term ‘zogho stretto’ to apply. If you are free to strike, and have room to do so, the play is ‘largo’. If you are constrained, the play is ‘stretto’. Fiore’s solution to the problem of being constrained is to enter in with a pass, to get to grips (he does love his wrestling); grappling plays of every kind are ‘strette'. It’s worth noting that we find different solutions to the same tactical situation (as shown in the crossing of the master) in the German medieval sources, which often recommend a winding action instead. 

Zogho stretto is a type of play, not a specific measure. All of Fiore’s stretto plays involve grappling, which requires you to get close. But that isn’t what the term means.

This interpretation makes teaching decision making at the crossing easy. A catalogue of techniques organised by measure is not useful; a distinction of when to do what is much more so. So whether you agree with my thesis or not, you can still use the idea behind it to make better tactical decisions in the moment. I think the best thing about this interpretation is that it is directly applicable to winning fights, of which I'm pretty sure Fiore would have approved.

Screen Capture from the Dagger Course: the four blows

Last week I talked about the importance of swordsmen learning dagger techniques, and I promised I'd explain how to integrate training the dagger material with the longsword material. This needs to be done at the level of syllabus design, as well as within specific training sessions or classes. Let's start with the syllabus.

NOTE: In this post I'll be referring to lots and lots of specific drills from my syllabus. It would get ridiculously long if I wrote them all out, or even embedded the relevant video at every step. But you can find all of this material online on video on the Armizare syllabus page.

My Armizare syllabus is divided into seven levels, the first four of which are considered ‘basic'. If we take a look at the first couple of levels you'll see that the dagger content is spread out, as is the sword. Level one, for instance, covers the following:

Mechanics and Conditioning:

  • Weight distribution on the feet
  • Tailbone Alignment
  • The basic guard position
  • The guard positions
  • Standing Step drill (aka push-hands)
  • Basic falling, solo
  • Stick avoidance drill
  • Understanding of safe training, control, and School etiquette

Unarmed:

  • Fiore footwork: 4 steps: accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare; 3 turns: volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta
  • Four unarmed poste: longa, dente de zenghiaro, frontale, porta di ferro

Dagger:

  • The meaning of the terms remedy, counter-remedy and counter-counter-remedy
  • 4 lines of attack: mandritto, fendente, roverso, sotto.
  • First remedy master (against mandritto or fendente)First 7 plays of the First Master
  • Roverso disarm (third master, from Pisani-Dossi MS), from Third remedy master (against roverso or fendente)
  • Fendente disarm (fourth master)
  • Sottano disarm (ninth master)

Longsword

  • Five of The 12 guards: Tutta porta di ferro, posta di donna (both sides), posta longa, posta frontale, dente di zenghiaro
  • Two of the Seven Blows: Fendente, Sottano
  • Sword handling drill up, down, around, around.
  • Cutting drill, part one only.
  • The salute
  • First drill
  • Second drill

As you can probably see, there is a minimum of learning large chunks of data (such as all seven blows of the sword), and an emphasis on teaching just enough new elements that the student can start working on applications. So they learn one blow of the dagger, and one defence against it, then the same defence against another blow, then another and another, before they learn all four blows of the dagger as a set to memorise. They also have sword handling drills, and two full-length sword drills. The difficulties they face learning the sword drills will make the dagger material in the next level very welcome; it will solve a problem for them.

In Level Two, they will find:

Mechanics and Conditioning

  • Forearm conditioning: Wrist and Forearm Exercises
  • Forearm massage: Self Massage
  • Basic Breathing exercises
  • Guard position analysis with pressure
  • Volta stabile and pass with pressure
  • The footwork combinations: 1) accressere fora di strada, passare alla traversa, 2) accressere, 3 passi, with tutta volta.
  • Able to competently warm up self

Dagger

  • The Nine Masters One thing from each of the Nine Remedy Masters
  • Dagger disarm flowdrill
  • The 5 things: disarm, strike, lock, break, takedown
  • Five things from four lines

Longsword

  • All of the Blows, including the Mezani, and the 5 Punte
  • All of The 12 guards
  • Sword handling drill 3: six grips
  • Exchange of thrust
  • Breaking the thrust
  • Four corners drill
  • First two plays of sword in one hand

Now that the base has been laid in level one, it's quite easy to build on it in level two. Incidentally, I'm sure that some Fiore scholars will be horrified to see the lack of abrazare so far; that is coming in the next level, at which point, as with the dagger material, it will actively solve a problem for the students, rather than be something they have to plod through to get to the shiny sword.

At this stage, the students have a complete set of basic techniques for the dagger; all nine remedy masters, and all five things that Fiore tells us we need to know (on f9v of the Getty Ms).

This pattern of interleaving dagger and sword (as well as abrazare, spear, and so on) continues throughout the syllabus, though the dagger material is essentially complete by level four. It would be remiss of me not to mention the section of the manuscript that explicitly ties the dagger and sword sections together: the defences of the dagger against a sword attack, and the defences of the sword in the scabbard against a dagger attack. We do cover these in the syllabus, but much later than you would otherwise expect, because the defence of the dagger against the sword requires a) both partners to be able to attack safely with the sword and b) both partners to be able to do a pretty tricky technique. They will usually get there in level four when learning the Syllabus Form, which begins with the defence of the sword against the dagger.

Integrating dagger into the class:

In a well-taught class there is a coherent reason for including every item that is taught. It could simply be ‘you're working on this level, and you need to know this new thing'. That is, if you like, the most basic level of teaching: filling gaps in the students knowledge. For this, you must have a syllabus, and the students must be able to track their progress along the path laid out in the syllabus.

At the next level, there is teaching a single idea across different contexts. For example, in our second drill with the longsword, we have a ligadura mezana at step three (the counter-remedy). This first occurs at time 0.13 in this video.

https://youtu.be/SUw7JSKgFAI

The counter-counter-remedy first occurs at 0.20, and is the 15th play of the zogho stretto (as referred to in last week's post). Most students find this particularly difficult against an enthusiastically applied ligadura. If I'll be teaching second drill, I'll adjust the whole structure of the class to lead up to it. Let me take you through what that would look like, and run you through the usual structure for a 90 minute evening class in my salles at the same time:

Salute

Warm-up (10 min or so). This will emphasise shoulder mobility, to prepare for the locks.

Four guards drill, other footwork drills: 5-10 minutes. Possibly include the standing step drill, and work the ligadura and its counter into that.

Dagger (10-30 minutes): starting with first play first master (disarm), then on to the third and fourth plays (ligadura mezana and its counter). This will be taught from scratch, or revised, depending on the level of the class, and may go on to tactical applications, or executing the plays in more complex environments (such as the dagger disarm flowdrill) if the students are ready for it.

Longsword (rest of the time; usually 30-40 minutes):

Sword handling first: sword handling drills, and/or cutting drill, and/or farfalla di ferro. This may be 5 minutes if sword handling is not usually a critical point of failure in the target (in this example, second drill), or 15 or 20 minutes if it is (e.g. when teaching the punta falsa).

Then second drill, step by step, for the remainder of the class. Assuming that the class is ready for the whole drill, then steps one and two should be pretty solid already, so most of the time will go on working on steps three (ligadura) and four (its counter).

So in this example, we are using the dagger plays as a lead-in to teaching the same basic actions with the sword.

At the next level of teaching, once these basic technical issues are fundamentally resolved, then we can start using the dagger material for training tactical principles, and attributes such as speed, timing, and grounding. For instance, working on counter-remedies. One major difference between knightly combat and modern self defence is that knightly combat is not usually concerned with self defence. It's a military art, for soldiers whose main job is to kill people for social or political reasons. So we have multiple examples of the dagger attacker *overcoming the defender*. By modern standards, this is murder, plain and simple, especially as that defender is often unarmed! (This is one of the examples I use to hammer home to beginners the idea that this is nothing like modern, politically correct, or self-defence-oriented martial arts.) Teaching a student to attack, flow around the defender's response, and strike (many times) is easier with a dagger than a sword. The basic tactical structure of any fencing sequence can be reproduced with the dagger, so you can teach the structure with the easier-to-control weapon, and then move on to applying the same principles with the longsword.

I should point out at this stage that it is *perfectly correct* to simply start at the beginning of the manuscript and work your way through from abrazare, to dagger, to sword, to armour, to polearms, and on to mounted combat. It works just fine. But Fiore certainly did not write his book as a training manual for 21st century computer programmers, nurses, lorry drivers or university students. He wrote it as a complete representation of his art, for a 15th century nobleman who was also an experienced warrior. It should come as no surprise that the ideal pedagogical structure for the average student that comes to my classes is a bit different to the ordering that Fiore gives us.

Let me finish off by saying that the way I solve this problem is not the only way; it's just what seems to work best in my experience. And it's worth mentioning that the exact approach I take in any class is actually student-led; I almost invariably ask the students present in my classes what they are interested in learning, and teach them that. For instance, I'll be in Auckland, New Zealand, teaching a seminar in November 4th and 5th (you can find out the details  here: if you're in the neighbourhood do come; I'd love to see you there). The organisers have specifically requested that I spend a day on the dagger, and then a day on the sword; that's fine by me!

Some useful resources:

The Syllabus wiki: http://www.swordschool.com/wiki/index.php/Fiore_basic_syllabus

You could check out The Medieval Dagger book. You can even get it in German!

And yes, I even have a course on it. But before you dash off to buy it, remember that I’ll be launching it with a hefty discount to my email list in a week or so, so it might be a good idea to sign up below in anticipation of that happy event.

 

The Prudentia virtue, from the Audatia Duel Deck Nikodemus Kariensis.

There are few things that all martial artists agree on, but I think this may be one of them: “it’s easier to fight someone if you know exactly what they are going to do”. To predict their actions. To see the future. This skill is one of the aspects that marks an experienced fighter in any discipline. They can read their opponent and see what they are about to do; but also they can create the situation so that the opponent is lead into a trap. Fiore de’ Liberi knew about this perfectly well back in the 14th century: it’s one of the four virtues he says a swordsman should possess. Avvisamento (foresight) in the Getty ms, Prudentia  (prudence) in the Pisani-Dossi and the Paris mss. For what is prudence if not the ability to foresee danger and avoid it?

Meglio de mi lovo cervero non vede creatura

Eaquello mette sempre a sesto e a misura.

No creature sees better than I, the lynx

And this virtue puts everything in its right place and its measure. (Tr. Tom Leoni)

Foresight is a virtue and a skill, and it can and should be trained. As you probably guessed, I have a well-developed system for doing exactly that. It relies as always on starting very simple, and gradually increasing complexity, while always focussing precisely on the one thing you’re working on. Because the virtue is first discussed in fencing literature in Il Fior di Battaglia, it makes sense to use longsword for my example, but you should be able to apply this to any martial art. This is the bare bones of the three-step process.

Step one: establish the base

1) Set up a basic drill. We’ll use first drill as an example:

https://youtu.be/1Dc9s21EDkI

2) Set up a simple variation, ideally with the defender responding differently: such as a counterattack, rather than a parry. (Such as in the Stretto form of first drill).

https://youtu.be/99H94CzB1Ik

3) The attacker’s job is to counter the defence; either parry the counterattack, or strike on the other side of the parry (as here in our set drills).

At this stage the attacker is just watching the defender, and the defender is just feeding the attacker one defence then the other. No variations. Ok, we have established our base.

Step two: create controlled complexity.

1) The defender now varies their defence, so that the attacker doesn’t know which one he will pick.

2) The attacker’s job is to predict the defence. If she counters it, then great, that’s a bonus. But we’re working on the skill of foresight, not the application of that skill. The attacker makes five attacks, and counts how many times she accurately predicted which of the two things the defender would do.

3) Change roles, 5 attacks, 5 defences. Try to be as random as possible.

4) Use the rule of c’s* to adjust the level of the drill so that the attacker has difficulty predicting the defence.

In a perfect world, you can always predict exactly what your opponent will do, and set things up so that if he does anything else, it will fail naturally, and if he does what you expect, he falls onto your prepared counter.

Step three: reduce their options

1) The attacker adjusts her attack so that the counterattack will naturally fail. In this example, that means aiming the mandritto fendente slightly further over to the left, and stepping slightly across the strada to the attacker’s left. There is no hole to counterattack into. So the defender either parries, or their action will fail.

2) The attacker adjusts her attack to invite the counterattack, by swinging the mandritto fendente round, offline a bit to the right. If the invitation is accepted, the attacker parries the counterattack; if it is declined, and the defender parries, their parry will be wider than usual, making the attacker’s counter much easier.

3) To start with, exaggerate these adjustments to the attack, and co-operate in the responses. Once the idea is clear in both player’s minds, they should ramp it up a bit.

4) Once this is going well, the attacker’s job becomes simply to predict the defender’s actions, and the defender’s job is to respond naturally to the attack with one of the two options. As before, use the rule of c’s to adjust the level of difficulty until the attacker is getting it right about four times out of five.

And finally: add complexity

So far so good. We have a drill in which there is only one degree of freedom; the defender’s action. Everything else is set; the roles of attacker and defender, the attack, the two defences, everything. So now apply the variation engines: “who moves first”, “add a step”, and “degrees of freedom” that you know from Preparing for Freeplay or The Medieval Longsword, to add complexity to the point where the attacker can only get it right three or four times out of five. This might be as simple as step three above, or as complex as full-on freeplay.

Be very clear about what you are training: if you are working on foresight, success = “I predicted exactly what they would do”. It doesn’t matter if you got hit or not. Of course, as your foresight improves, not getting hit should be a lot easier than before.

One more thing:

As you probably know, Audatia is based on Fiore's art. And it totally killed me that we couldn't have Prudentia being used to make the opponent show their hand. The closest we come to that is in this brilliant card, Eye of the Lynx, in the Boucicault deck:

 

*The rule of c’s is in The Medieval Longsword, and Preparing for Freeplay, and written out in this blog post here.

Yesterday I went to visit my friend Peter Mustonen. He’s an arms dealer; but our kind of arms dealer: gorgeous antique swords, knives, guns, armour, shields; you name it, he has a delicious example. I spent some time playing with swords, you know, as one does.

A Stantler sword, from 1580-1600. Original grip, original everything, beautiful specimen. You could stab it through anything.

While I was there he mentioned finding a book I might have an interest in. Nothing special, just a book.

Just a copy of the 1902 Novati edition of Il Fior di fucking Battaglia.

Let me put this in some perspective for you. My first encounter with Fiore was through fifth generation photocopies of the facsimile section of this book. This was the book that introduced Fiore to the modern world, and lead us to find the Getty, the Morgan, and eventually the Paris copies of the manuscript.

It contains a lengthy scholarly introduction to the work,

From Novati's introduction; a picture of Liechtenauer!

And a complete facsimile of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript (to date the only copy of that manuscript that we know of; the original is yet to re-surface), with a complete transcription.

The facsimile itself.

From a HEMA perspective, this is the book that launched a thousand scholari.

Now it belongs to me.

This means that as soon as I reasonably can, I’ll produce high quality photos or scans and distribute them. I might also produce a paperback reproduction of the whole thing, if there’s a market for it.

Just a short post today, because I have to go change my trousers. And, I have a book to read…

Tell your friends, tell everyone working on Fiore; this book is now OURS!!

We are in the middle of our annual monster seminar, the Fiore Extravaganza. We began with a day of pollax training from the medieval French manuscript Jeu de la Hache, taught by Lois Forster. Lois flew over from France with his armour and a squire (hi Vincent!). He is conducting an emprise, a feat of arms in which he travels round fighting people in armour, according to the same set of rules and with the same intent as was done in the 15th century. I saw him take on several such fights at Armizare 2015, and of course agreed to fight him while he was here. We used rubber-headed pollaxes, and fought to 30 blows. This is unlike other competitive freeplay, in that it only finishes when the “Lord” governing the fight (in our case Ville Henell) calls halt, which he can do whenever he pleases; there are no breaks, and no winner is declared. You win by taking part. The fight also ends if somebody drops their weapon (for any reason), or is thrown to the ground.
I was so impressed with Lois’ attitude and skills that I allowed two of my students to borrow my armour (yes, really) and fight him too.
You can see our bout here:

 

The next morning, the Extravaganza attendees and I planned the rest of the week in some detail. All of this pollaxy goodness inspired them to ask for a pollax form, to preserve the material in a trainable medium. So we went over Fiore’s pollax plays, and some stuff from Jeu de la Hache, and I used the next few sessions to teach them how to create a form in a systematic, rational, and useful way. This went so well I thought I'd share it here.
We started by deciding what the form was for, and then what technical content ought to be.
This is what we came up with.

Our initial notes on what the form should be for, and contain.

What is it for?

  • Self-Improvement. This was the first thing mentioned, and is a little vague. But a good base to work from.
  • Memory Guide: The form should make it easier for students to recall aspects of the pollax material.
  • Flow/Mechanics: practising the form should ingrain the correct movement style and habits, enabling fluent and powerful actions.
  • Expandable: the form should be built in a way that allows the various actions to be expanded on, to trigger memory cascades, and create loci for memorising other material.

What should it contain?

Then we thought about what kind of material it should contain. The first thing mentioned was the guards of the axe, so that became our starting point. Around that came grip and handling drills, ways of exploiting armour, strikes, disarms, locks, takedowns, and parries.
Many forms come in two parts; our Syllabus Form, and our Cutting drill are obvious examples, but I have come across the same thing in many other martial arts.
We decided to start with applications, which of course must be trained in pairs. Then it struck me that once we had a curriculum of pair drills, we could make part one the defensive actions (remedies), and part two the offensive actions (attacks and counter-remedies). This would allow us to embed the stimuli for the various actions of the form within the form itself.
So we started with a pair drill, the defence of dente di zenghiaro against posta di donna, and added posta di donna’s counter-remedy. These became step one of parts one and two respectively.
Over the course of a couple of hours, we came up with three solid drills beginning with the following pairs of guards: donna versus zenghiaro, posta breve la serpentina versus vera croce, and coda longa versus posta di finestra la sinestra. As we covered the various aspects of technique, I marked them on our board. You can see the marks in black. And once we had a black mark on every green circle, we had covered everything we had decided on.
So I added the red tactics box, to survey what tactics we had also covered. We had included Attacks, Feints, Yielding to parries (Go Around), Parry-riposte, and Invitations.
But we were not completely satisfied; counter-attacks were not well represented, and neither were crossings of the axe. So we chose to add a fourth drill, with vera croce opposed by fenestra la sinestra, which would include them.
Now we had to put these pieces in order, and glue them together with axe handling drills and references to Jeu de la Hache (the best medieval source for this weapon, I think). The first question was how to tie the two halves together. It was tricky, so we shelved it, and worked on the easier ones.
Ordering the drills was easy enough; we put them in the same order as the pairs of guards shown in the Getty ms. I wrote down the starting guard and finishing guard for each drill, like so:

The start and end of each application in blue; magic glue in red.

The start and end of each application in blue; magic glue in red.

Part 1:
Vera croce, finishes in a one-handed fenestra destra.
Dente di zenghiaro, finishes in Guard of the Cross (from Jeu).
Fenestra sinestra, finishes with your axe in one hand between the opponent’s legs, left foot forwards.

Part 2:
Breve la serpentina, finishes with a takedown, right foot forwards.
Donna destra, finishes in guard of the cross.
Coda longa, finishes in a ligadura sottana with the left hand.
Fenestra sinestra, finishes in posta breve la serpentina. From here you need to be able to go to the end position (whatever that will be), or back to the beginning of the form, or to the beginning of part two.

So we then worked together to make useful and interesting “magic glue” to tie the parts together. I wrote notes on our choices in red. We were careful to practice these together, to make sure that the form could be done in class, in our salle. We added several turns to reduce the form’s footprint.
The last task of the morning was to create the segue between parts one and two. We started out by calling it the butterfly, but I thought that was un-axe-like, and called it the Dragon instead. This was apposite, as one thing the students wanted to include was some of the queue/pedale/tail of the axe material we had done with Lois, and as readers of Veni Vadi Vici know, the dragon strikes by lashing with its tail. The Dragon had to be very clearly not a pair drill though, or we would end up creating another application set, leaving us with a form that would get longer and longer. In the end I came up with an exercise based on my own arm-conditioning drills with a long stick:

Over the course of the seminar, we plan to spend some time every day polishing and refining the form (and memorising it), after which it will be videoed and put up on the wiki.
Once the form was complete, we summarised the process we had used to create it, here:

The Process:
1) Purpose: decide what the form is for.
2) Components: decide what applications and other elements it should include, such as tactics, guards and so on.
3) Survey the components to make sure you have all the necessary aspects covered, and finalise the total content.
4) Order the components.
5) Create the magic glue that ties the components together, taking into account space constraints.
6) Test and bug fix: this requires a feedback mechanism, and is much easier with a group or team.
7) Train the fuck out of it!
This raised the question of how to train the form, and the potential risks of form training. We came up with this diagram:

Which I have recreated for you in Scapple:

In brief, the form can be used for solo practice and with partners to train applications; each step can be expanded to include other elements; it is a memory palace in which to store the things you have learned, and it can be used as a diagnostic. The primary risk of form training can be summarised as “it becomes ballet”. Compliant opponents allow your technique to become sloppy; form replaces function. There is also the risk of over-specialisation, in that you can confuse the content of the form with the entire content of the art. Drilling the applications properly should prevent balletisation, and expanding every step should prevent over-specialisation. But this is not an easy process.

I think the next instalment of my The Swordsman’s Quick Guide (after Ethics, which is due out very soon), will be a detailed write-up of creating and using forms in martial arts training. What do you think?

Credits:

This form, and to some extent this process, is absolutely not all my own work. This was a team effort, and the team comprises:

Anna Lahtinen, Antti Jauhainen, Gaja Kochaniewicz, Guy Windsor, Ilpo Luhtala, Kliment Yanev, Petteri Kihlberg, Teemu Kari, Tero Alanko, and Zoë Chandler.

When the form is polished, I'll video it in detail and post it to the Syllabus Wiki. In the meantime, if you find this kind of thing useful and you'd like to say thanks, please leave a comment below, sign up to my email list (there's a form below), throw some change in the tip jar, or go buy one of my books!

While I was at the Armizare 2015 event, I had a discussion about Fiore’s first play of the first master of zogho largo with Francesco Baselice. Let me summarise our interpretations, with reference to the text.

The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.
The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.

Qui cominza zogho di spada a doy man zogho largo. Questo magistro che qui incrosado cum questo zugadore in punta de spada, dise quando io son incrosado in punta de spada subito io do volta ala mia spada e filo fiero dalaltra parte cum lo fendente zo per la testa e per gli brazzi, overo che gli metto una punta in lo volto, come vederi qui dredo depinto.

Here begins the play of the sword in two hands, wide play. This Master that is here crossed with this player in the point of the sword, says “when I am crossed at the point of the sword, immediately I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side with a fendente, thus to the head and to the arms; or I place a thrust in his face, as you will see depicted next.

The key point for our discussion was regarding on the other side of what? I read the line “I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of the player’s sword].” Which lead to the interpretation you can see on pages 170-171 of The Medieval Longsword.

But Francesco read it as ““I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of my body].” So instead of striking on the other side of the opponent’s sword, he was striking to the head with a roverso fendente.

I have shot a quick video of the two versions and uploaded it here for reference. Sorry for the crap quality.

After I got back to Finland, many of my students asked what my cryptic reference on this blog to “a very interesting discussion about the first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo” was about, and I explained it up to this point. And then began to dig…

Clearly, on the evidence above, it is impossible to choose one interpretation over the other. Both follow the text, and picture (the fendente isn’t shown), and similar actions can be found elsewhere in the manuscript. The first two plays of the sword in one hand show striking on one side of the player’s sword, or the other, after a parry; the first two plays of the second master of the zogho largo describe a cut followed by a thrust, on the same side.

The text of the second play, showing the thrust, was the next place to look for more data.

In the Getty MS, it reads:

Io to posta una punta in lo volto come lo magistro che denanci dise. Anchora poria aver fatto zo chello dise zoe aver tratto de mia spada subito quando io era apresso lo incrosare dela parte dritta. De laltra parte zoe de la stancha io debeva voltare la mia spada in lo fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi, como a ditto lo mio magistro che denanzi.

I have placed a thrust in the face as the master before me says. Also I could have done what he says, so, have struck with my sword immediately when I was near the crossing from the right side. From the other side, thus from the left, I would have to turn my sword in the fendente to the head and to the arms, as my master that is before me said.

Hmmm. That is inconclusive, but it appears that the strike should be done very early; as you get close to the crossing, or immediately that the crossing is made. And he mentions that the blow is done from the left side. “Stanca” in modern Italian means “tired”, and in this period, means “left hand side”. Two pages on from here, in the play of the colpo di villano, Fiore tells us to “await the peasant’s blow in a narrow stance with the left foot forwards”, with “lo pe stancho” for “the left foot”. (You definitely do not want to put your “tired food” forwards!) So perhaps “stancha” here is more likely to refer to the body than the sword, but it’s hard to say. After all, posta di donna on the left, is posta di donna la sinestra.

So let’s go to the Morgan Ms: the text in both paragraphs is identical except for a few variant spellings. No help there then. So how about the Pisani Dossi manuscript?

The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.
The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.

Over the master, the lines are:

Per incrosar cum ti a punta de spada/ De laltra parte la punta in lo peto to fermada.

By crossing with you at the point of the sword, from the other side I’ll strike you with a thrust in the chest.

The differences are obvious, I trust. No mention of the cut, and the thrust is to the chest, not face. But it’s still “de laltra parte”, from the other side.

And the next play, the strike itself:

Per lo ferir che dise el magistro che denanci posto/ in la golla to posta la punta de la spada tosto.

With the strike that the master before me said/ I have quickly put the point in your throat.

[Note, again not face, or chest!]

And the image is basically identical to the strike shown in the Getty ms, as you can see.

So here is the critical point for this discussion; “from the other side” is not being used here to mean the other side of the player’s sword. It is quite clearly describing a thrust that remains on the same side of the sword, so it is probably being used to refer to the way you make the blow. You got into the crossing with a blow from the right, and you leave it with a blow from the left (as all Audatia players should already know).

So, Francesco old chap, you were right. I take my hat off to you sir!

Hat off to Federico :)
Hat off to Francesco 🙂

And as I said on the day, looks like I’ll have to revise that bit of The Medieval Longsword.  Given that the final draft of the book was finished in April 2012, that makes it three years before a change to the interpretation was developed. Dammit, that’s too long; I’d hope for at least one new thing a year! It makes me wonder what other bits of my interpretation are due for review. This is one of those plays that I've been happy with since about 2004.

I should also note at this point that the interpretation we were using is the correct response to the context in which we do it; but that context is not what Fiore is showing us in this play. It seems that in both plays, it's the inside line that is open, not outside for the first, inside for the second. It remains to be seen what knock-on effects this will have to the rest of my interpretation; at present it seems to be fairly self-contained, but who knows what other doors this might open…

Let me summarise the steps that lead to this correction to my interpretation.

1) I published my interpretation. This meant that Francesco, and others like him, could see what I was thinking, and therefore check it against their own ideas.

2) Francesco brought his alternative interpretation to me, and showed me that it did not contradict the source. This was made much easier by our being at the same event; there is nothing like discussing these things sword-in-hand. Thanks again to Mauro and Andrea for organising Armizare 2015!

3) That lead to me re-examining my interpretation in the light of the sources themselves; we are very lucky to have more than one copy of the manuscript.

4) I now publish the corrected interpretation, here (and will update The Medieval Longsword in due course).

Readers of this blog will have seen the same procedure in the way I was totally wrong about the identity of the titimallo flower, used in the poison dust pollax play. I shamelessly published an idea, which generates responses, which lead to the idea being abandoned, confirmed or corrected as needed. That's how the process is supposed to work, folks.

“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.

Spiders

(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:

ViggianiTree

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!!

Greetings! You may be thinking about pre-ordering my new longsword book through the Indiegogo campaign. In case you're wondering what the book contains, you can see the table of contents on the campaign page. Here is an example of one of the dozens of drills, with its accompanying photos.

The Exchange of Thrusts:

Fiore’s instruction is to step out of the way and pass across the line, and with your point high and your hands low, cross his sword and strike him in the face or chest (this is the ninth play of the second master of  zogho largo).

  1. Wait in tutta porta di ferro, attacker in the same guard.
  2. Attacker thrusts to your stomach;
  3. Pick up your point and cross his sword (middle to middle, edge to flat), hands stay low;
  4. Step your front (left) foot out of the way (to the left— this pushes his point further away from you);
  5. And pass across (so, diagonally left), thrusting to his face (no need to lift your hands: keep them low!)

Do this in one smooth motion: it feels like a simple strike that happens to collect his attack. But beware— it is critically important to make sure of your cover before passing in. Otherwise you eat steel.

The drill continues with what to do if you miss your strike.

The images below are uncropped, and at much lower resolution for browsing convenience. Most of the costs of publishing the book are in layout, which will be beautiful!

Jukka (on left) waits for Joni’s thrust
Jukka (on left) waits for Joni’s thrust

 

Joni attacks;
Joni attacks;

 

Jukka parries,
Jukka parries,

 

while stepping off the line;
while stepping off the line;

 

and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
while stepping off the line;
while stepping off the line;

 

and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.

The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.

Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.

In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:

“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.

Disarm and counter

  1. Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
  2. Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
  3. Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
  4. Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
  5. Defender collects dagger and strikes”

(Quoted from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger page 51)

There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:

  1. The attacker is not trying to kill you.
  2. The weapon is not sharp.
  3. The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
  4. You can’t run away or call the cops.
  5. You have to wait for the attack.
  6. You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
  7. The line of the attack is pre-selected.
  8. Your defence is pre-selected.
  9. The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
  10. The attack is done with little force.
  11. The attack is done slowly.

I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?

To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!

So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?

It does:

  1. Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
  2. Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
  3. Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.

It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.

But be aware that this drill does NOT:

  1. Teach a survival skill.
  2. Teach situational awareness.
  3. Teach decision making or judgement.
  4. Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.

But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*

It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.

So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).

Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?

* The “Rule of Cs” (abridged from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger p136) every drill is first worked through with the players:

  • Cooperating in creating correct choreography

This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.

Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate- if it works all the time, ramp it up- if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit. This is called:

  • Coaching correct actions

Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced scholar should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So,

  • Compete.

 

I have been working for the last nine months on creating a teaching tool for students of Fiore's art: a card game called Audatia. The game has been designed from the ground up as a way to make the abstract elements of Fiore's system, such as the terminology and the overall tactical structure, easier to learn. I know next to nothing about designing games, so of course I hired a professional, and as readers of this blog should know by now, I didn't do it all by myself. I have been working as part of a team, and my job is to keep the game faithful to the Art it is intended to serve.

Over the weekend we took the game to the gamers, by setting up playtesting at Ropecon. We were supposed to be on for two hours a day, over the three days, but three of us were at it non-stop for an average of 5 hours a day. Folk were queueing up to have a go, and many came back for more. It was fantastic. We learned a lot about what we had got right, and more importantly, what we had got wrong.

The best negative review we got was from an ex-student of mine, who said: “it's too realistic. You might as well just pick up a sword and fight.” Not an error I intend to fix.

It also proved itself as a teaching tool; the players, usually with no swordsmanship experience, quickly learned what an opponent in tutta porta di ferro could do, and what their best option was if when the blades meet you are in the zogho stretto. If tutta porta di ferro and zogho stretto are all Greek to you, then you need this game!

In class last night, a student asked a question about the uses of posta breve based on her experience playing the game at Ropecon; a question that might never have occurred to her if she had not played. That gave me the theme for the class, during which I realised that the game needed a tweak to make its representation of the guard more accurate. So the game proved its use as a teaching tool, and not only that, it set up a virtuous cycle of learning and development.

We have clearly hit some kind of a nerve, as we have been storming ahead on our indigogo project, having raised over 7,000 euros in under 7 days. If you haven't backed us yet, please do so now!

So, Audatia matters because:

1) it will help students of the Art of Arms pick up the theory side of things more quickly, encouraging them to engage with the system more closely, and helping to drive our understanding of this system forward.

2) it will draw new scholars into the Art, folk who play the game may well take up the practice of swordsmanship.

3) it will help bridge the gap between those who get why swords are cool and those who don't. If you're addicted to swords, you can use this game to help communicate why to your friends outside our sub-culture.

4) it is one more way in which those who have no idea that European martial arts exist can find out about them.

5) it will, if it does well, go some way to counteract the appalling misogyny in gaming culture today. We intend to create female character decks, because there were some fearsome women warriors in the middle ages. (I'll be blogging about this in detail soon.) And guess what: they will be wearing armour that would effectively defend them against deadly weapons, not pander to the prurience of little boys.

I think that's five excellent reasons, don't you?

 

 

 

 

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