Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: pollax

Last night, Rami and I got together and played our first games with the proper printed Patron Deck and Liechtenauer expansion pack. This was lots of fun, and very exciting for us to see the project coming to completion.

The Patron deck reflects the choices made by our Patron, of course. While we couldn’t put in absolutely everything he asked for, we did manage to include some pretty cool new tricks.

Our dashing Patron

My favourite is the pouch of poison dust, the idea for which came from the pollax filled with poison dust in Il Fior di Battaglia.  The way it works in the game is that when you get into a stretto bind, you throw the dust in your opponent’s face, which causes a break-off. But, you also get to take one of your opponent’s virtue cards, and the other one is invalid until the next break-off. This simulates the effect of blinding powder in their eyes.

The Patron deck doesn’t have all of the Liechtenauer material, of course; most obviously, it lacks the five meisterhau. Our idea was that the Liechtenauer Expansion Pack would work like an advanced course (which is pretty much how I see the medieval Liechtenauer material; it doesn’t cover any of the basics of normal swordplay). But he does have nasty tricks like Uberlauffen, which allows him to counterattack with an oberhau against a mittelhau or unterhau.

What, too much German? Don’t worry, there’s a glossary in the rules.

The Patron deck has the same suite of blows and stretto cards as the other three decks, though the balance of the blows is different, to reflect what I see in the sources. But he has some very cool Liechtenauer-specific actions up his sleeve, such as Mutieren and Duplieren. Their basic function is to allow the player to use a cut or thrust when they would normally be confined to stretto plays.

Liechtenauer wrote (I paraphrase from memory) “if he [the opponent] is strong in the bind, duplieren. If he is weak in the bind, mutieren). That’s the gist of it, anyway. So, in these cards, you can use Duplieren to play another cut, if your opponent has more Fortitudo (ie is stronger); if you have more Fortitudo, you can use Mutieren to play a thrust. It’s moments like this when apparently odd features of the game will resonate with those who know the sources as pretty much direct quotes, that to me makes this game such a worthwhile use of my time.

Sigmund Ringeck, brought to life!

The Liechtenauer Expansion pack has only six guards. They are Vom Tag, Pflug (left and right), Ochs (left and right) and Alber. Why? Because Liechtenauer wrote that they are the most important. And as an expansion pack, which can be used with any character deck, these are in addition to the regular suite of 12 guards. Of course, the Patron already has these in his deck. For the Patron, the Expansion pack adds the five meisterhau, Indes, Fuhlen, and Absetzen. This makes it perhaps less useful to him than it is to a Fiore-based deck like Galeazzo, Boucicault, or Agnes, but that is what you would expect; a swordsman trained in Germany would likely see less new stuff in Liechtenauer’s system than someone with a different basic training.

We did come across a problem with the Krumphau. As you can see from the card, there is a lot of text. But not enough. As I see it, the krumphau is used in at least three ways:

1) to defend from your right against an oberhau

2) to defend from your left against an oberhau

3) to attack from your right against left ochs (Liechtenaur states that it “breaks left ochs”).

[Liechtenauer practitioners please note: this is a card game. Yes, you can strike at the hands with the first action of the krump, but that is a level of granularity that we just had to skip. Likewise Fiore specifies all sorts of targets (face, throat, chest, arms, cheeks of the arse) and, with a couple of exceptions, we have just left out the targeting. A blow lands or it doesn’t. It would have made the game orders of magnitude more complex to try to specify where it lands, or, as in this case, to include what I think of as the “single-tempo krump”].

In each case, the blow that actually hits the opponent is coming down from the other side to the one you started on: if you krump from the right, you’ll end up striking with a left oberhau.  To attack left ochs from a right-side guard such as Vom Tag, beating it out of the way and striking; the blow that hits the head is effectively a false-edge backhand oberhau, so you’d play a left oberhau. But that violates the rules of Eligibility; you can’t strike a left oberhau from Vom Tag (please see my post on posta di donna for the explanation as to why we can’t allow you to do everything from a guard in the game that you can in real life).

So we are going to have to change the text on the card, and because it’s going to be so long it wouldn’t fit on the card in a legible font size, we will have to put the full rules regarding this card in the separate Rules sheet. That kills me, because we have always tried to make all the info fit on the card, but hey ho, accuracy above all. For those of you reading this who have already got the Expansion Pack, let me summarise the use of Krumphau here:

You can play a Krumphau with a left oberhau/roverso fendente card from any right-side guard that allows a right oberhau/mandritto fendente or right mittelhau/mandritto mezano. You can do this when your opponent is in left ochs/fenestra sinestra, treating that guard as Extended. Note, to play a left oberhau/roverso fendente against left ochs/fenestra sinestra would normally be not Eligible from a right-side guard; you’d have to change guard to do it.

You can also play a Krump with a left oberhau/roverso fendente from a situation where only mandritti/ blows from the right are normally eligible, as a counterattack against your opponent’s right oberhau/mandritto fendente strike; or with a right oberhau/mandritto fendente against their attack of left oberhau/roverso fendente.

In effect, it allows you to counterattack when normally you couldn’t, and to strike from the other side when normally that would not be Eligible.

I think you can see why this won’t fit on the card!

There are a few very minor corrections to make to some other cards, but we expect to get these decks released in print very soon.

These first imperfect decks will be sent to our Patron, of course. We finished the session by writing a letter to go with them.

Hand written with a dip pen using an antique nib (a Waverly; the same brand and model that Rudyard Kipling insisted on), and sealed with wax using a seal I was given by Chris Vanslambrouk, in Florence last year (thanks, Chris!).

There has to be some advantage to being the Patron, no?

Then, of course, away with the wine and out with the single malt.  Alles ist gut, ja?

You can find all of the print and play pdfs, printed decks of Galeazzo and Boucicault, and all the rules sheets, here. And print-on-demand versions of all the decks so far except the Patron and the Liechtenauer Expansion, here.

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?


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!

Let me tell you a story about how the Internet is supposed to work. It’s also about collaborating on research, and finding truth.

A short while ago, a student of mine, Kliment Yanev, came up with an excellent theory on the botanical identity of the poisonous dust plant that Fiore calls the titimallo. It was a good theory, and made sense, so I posted it on my blog. So far so good.

Then, on the Book of Face, in the comments under my “go read my blog post about poisonous plants” update, Ilkka Hartikainen pointed out that in this translation of Il Fior di Battaglia, the translators Eleanora Litta and Matt Easton identify the plant as being of the genus Euphorbia.

You’ll note that this is offered with lots of fascinating details, but without any supporting evidence for the actual identification of the plant, so I didn’t do anything about it.

Then, Alexander Petty, one of my Facebook friends, posts this:

While your student’s run-in is no doubt intriguing, we can in fact go back to period manuscripts for reference to and a description of the plant itself. Folio 101 of the Egerton 747, a Latin herbal of Italian origin produced at the beginning of the 14th century, clearly displays “Titimallus.”


Zoom in on the picture posted and you’ll be able to see both the descriptive paragraph on the right(“Titimallus” beginning with the blue “T”), as well as the actual plant labeled as such on the bottom left. I will list a modern transcription at the bottom should you wish to exercise your Latin. Indeed, I have not bothered to look, but I am almost certain that the Sloane 4016, an Italian herbal much closer to Fiore’s work both in region (Lombardy) and time (c. 1440), would contain the same plant as well.  [He goes on to add links to the relevant sources. You can find them all on the FB thread.]

And this:

From there on out, the herb is recorded well enough to our present history. Take for instance this “Tithymalus” from the late 1700's (First word to appear in the description, bottom-left): the illustration basically matches that of the above 14th century page, bottom-left, also titled “Titimallus.” I've super-imposed the two for easy viewing.


And finally this:

Then of course, to the present day, this picture matching both of the afore-mentioned illustrations. This particular species is native to North America, but still belongs to the genus Euphorbia, particular species of which Fiore was most likely referring to.


So, it turns out that a) my first post was wrong; b) Ilkka, Eleanora and Matt were right; c) there is a clear and unambiguous trail of documentary evidence indicating the identity of the titimallo. This is very exciting to us Fiore boffins, not that we would ever go about casting blinding powder out of trick pollaxes, no, not ever, really.

Perhaps more importantly, it also creates a perfect example of how the academic process is supposed to work: you have a theory, you publish it, others respond to it; if there is no contrary evidence presented, do nothing; if there is clear evidence that your theory is wrong, you abandon it for the better theory. And at every stage, you give full credit.

At the same time as this flurry of erudition unprecedented in the annals of Facebook, Kliment (who has no FB account (and never will, don't even mention it) and so couldn't see the thread) had checked with a medieval linguistics friend, who said “uhm, I don't see a way to go from ‘dittamo' to ‘titimalo'” and added “titimalo (sometimes ‘titìmalo', ‘titimàglio', or ‘totomàglio'), derived from Latin tithymallus or tithymalon, ultimately from Greek, is the name of a different plant in modern Italian, one of a few species in genus Euphorbia, apparently known in English as “spurge:s” At which point Kliment emailed me triumphantly that “we were wrong”!

On a slight tangent, Piermarco Terminiello (finder and translator of Giganti's lost 1608 book) added: “The good old “caustic blinding powder in the pollaxe” trick is also mentioned in Paride Del Pozzo’s judicial treatise, so it’s not just a flight of fancy by Fiore.” On a further slight tangent, the FB thread continued with a fascinating (to me at least, and perhaps to you too) discussion by Ilkka and Alexander on the etymology of the word titimallo

Let me point out, in case it isn’t obvious, that if Kliment hadn’t sent me his theory, right now I would still not know the identity of the titimallo. Being wrong is often a necessary stage on the way to being right. Sharing your theories and data are the best way to test them. And the internet makes the entire process unbelievably fast. Perhaps the most startling aspect to this whole adventure has been the fact that Facebook is actually good for something other than stoopid memes!

[There is some cool stuff in this post, but the actual identification of the famed titmallo is wrong: full story here! GW]

One of my favourite passages in Il Fior di Battaglia is this, where Fiore shows the use of a poison-dust pollax:


Have some poison dust sir!

The text that goes with it is hilarious. The text above the image reads (in Tom Leoni's translation)

This axe is hollow all around and filled with a corrosive powder that makes it impossible to open the eyes as soon as it comes into contact with them–and may even cause permanent blindness.

I am the axe, heavy, cruel and lethal, and I deliver bigger blows than any other handheld weapon. If I miss with my first attack, the axe becomes a useless liability. But if I don't miss, my axe can come to the rescue of any other handheld weapon. If I am accompanied by good weapons, I can defend with the pulsative guards of the sword.

Oh, my lord, my noble lord the Marquis! I've put so many dirty tricks in this book, I know you'll never resort to them. But read them anyway, just for the love of knowledge. 

And he then goes on to give the recipe. Tom's translation is:

This is the recipe for the powder that goes in the axe, as I showed in the previous picture. Take the milk of the thyme and dry it in the sunlight or in the oven, and make a powder out of it. Take a pinch of this powder and an ounce of powder of fior di preta, and mix them together. Then put the mixture in the axe. This can also be done with any fine caustic powder — as you can find some fine ones indeed in this book. 

Where la latte dello titimallo is translated as  “the milk of the thyme”. This has always struck me as unlikely as a) I've never heard of thyme having milk and b) thyme is generally considered a friendly herb.

One of the great benefits of running a school such as mine is that many of my students, off their own bat, go and dig up interesting stuff about the Arts we practise. One such student, Kliment Yanev, has just returned from a work trip to Trieste, and sent me this (quoted with permission):

I had the pleasure of meeting Carlo Fonda, someone born on the language border between Veneto-Giulia and Friuli, particle physicist, science disseminator, and most importantly local wildlife expert. He took me on a tour of the nearby mountains and showed me a plant with some interesting properties. It is covered by a thin layer of sap, which when exposed to light turns caustic and burns the skin. It can be handled safely in the dark, as long as all remains of the sap are removed from the skin before it is exposed to any light. Modern Italian name is “dittamo”, Latin “Dictamnus Albus”, not far from “titimallo”. Common in Friuli, even more common on the slopes of the Adriatic coast, but available almost everywhere in Europe.

This seems very convincing to to me: we have found our titimallo! (No, I will NOT be including this play in our basic syllabus. Put that mortar and pestle down!)

And get this: there is a poisonous herb that can only be collected by the light of the moon (how would you find it at night, pre-flashlight?)  and processed in the dark; pick it in daylight and you may go blind! How totally fantastic is that?


Recent Posts

Jaegerstock, part 3

Now that we have a working Jaegerstock, let’s take a look at lessons two and