Medieval Swordsmanship - 2nd Edition Closing Comments

In a work of this size and scope, not every aspect of Medieval swordsmanship can be addressed with the necessary detail. Additional elements of fighting such as of engaging, the use of feinting, the elements of gaze, tense exhalation, or aggressiveness, and the different types of possible attack forms could all be addressed at length. Much could also have been said of the important and common fight of sword & shield versus pole-arm. Indeed, pole-arms were the dominant weapon of the Medieval battlefield and going into combat armed with one was standard for many warriors throughout the period. However, in single combat a long-shafted pole-weapon or spear could meet its match against the skillful use of sword & shield. There is also much more that could be examined regarding use of extra-large shields. A larger shield, though supplying greater area protection, is far slower and less maneuverable. Too large a shield prevents many of the deflecting and striking motions that make a more traditional size so effective. An extra-large shield cannot cover two opposite lines of attack in short time. If raised high to cover the head, an attack can drop down to the legs. If a shield is lowered to protect the legs, a blow can shift up to the head and so on. The nature of Medieval sword & shield fighting does not lend itself to the static use of large, immobile planks that do not allow effective footwork and agile combinations. Too large a shield ends up keeping the user’s own weapon from their opponent and becomes a wall behind which their adversary can also hide.

When it comes to weapon-sparring, it is also of great importance to stress that including the head as a target should not be neglected. Helmeted training and sparring is a necessity in gaining a proper understanding of both techniques and concepts. The head and face are major and important targets for both cuts and thrusts and are not as easy to defend as is commonly thought. The ability to directly strike to a combatant’s head or face can be quite enlightening to those who are unused to it. Thrusts to the face can be particularly dangerous when one has not developed proper responses and counters. The experience of learning to effectively attack to as well as defend the head cannot be ignored without creating significant deficiencies in a fighter’s skill. Although unhelmeted practice and sparring is certainly an effective and reasonable means of learning, it nonetheless has obvious limitations (especially in sword & shield fighting). For realistic sparring the head is an obvious and vital element that really must be included. In studying Medieval swordsmanship, sparring that regularly or continually excludes the head should rectified as soon as possible.

Finally, keep in mind that Medieval martial culture was varied and diverse. Only portions survive of how warriors taught and trained in the use of arms. But we know that they did put considerable effort into the craft. Among the earlier Vikings and Anglo-Saxons the sword was often the weapon only of the leading warriors. Their great love of single combat and duel also made the sword a favored weapon. A man who could no longer rely on his sword was a second-class citizen. His property and home had to be protected by others. He had to hand over his sword and the defense of family to his heirs. One exercise of control practiced at Anglo-Saxon courts consisted of throwing sword blows at a participant’s eyebrows (!). If they flinched they were deemed unworthy of further training. The Vikings were said to have had a similar method of sword and shield training called the "Worod". Part of this consisted of swinging swords at the foreheads of young students. Those who flinched were dismissed. To the Vikings, certain fighting skills were sometimes known as Riddaraskap. Saxo the Dane tells us of a warrior who "…taught by fencers, he trained himself by sedulous practice in parrying and dealing blows". He also tells of a king decreeing his soldiers learn "…from champions the way of parrying and dealing blows". Yet, no training, no matter how good, can prepare a man for the reality of battle. The most that can be done is instill basic responses and physical conditioning. But training together also gave men the sense of camaraderie that was especially essential for a tight knit group of fighters in an age when fighting man to man occurred more often than not by being close enough to look your enemy in the face.

The chronicler Roger of Howden wrote in the 11th century that, "…without practice the art of war did not come naturally when it was needed". For the knightly classes there was the always idea of "Preudome", or being a "man of prowess" skilled in military arts. Prowess in arms was itself one of the fundamental tenets of chivalry. Early Knightly tournaments were intended very much to train men in the use of their arms between wars and were much more martial, brutal and with far less pageantry than later ones. The earliest were conducted as "grand melees" in a large field. Later on there were also informal challenges issued such as the "pas d’armes" or "passage of arms" where in a group of knights might invite all others to meet them in honorable combat at a at a specific place and time. Although not generally to the death, some of these became quite bloody. We also know that there was at one time a distinction made by knights between forms of combat conducted "a’ plaisance", or with blunts, and that which was "a’ outrance", with sharps.

Late Medieval texts even describe young knights training with weapons of double weight in order to develop strength. But, Medieval warrior skills were for the most part the indigenous fighting arts of an entire people and not specifically limited to the knightly warrior classes (who by far had the better arms and armor). Unlike his peers in German, Italy and elsewhere, the traditional Medieval English weapons expert essentially was a "blue-collar" commoner whose profession was looked down on. Often this Master-at-Arms taught only in private or at least without official permission. From as early as 1286 an edict in England had forbade private schools of fence within the city of London –ostensibly to "control villainy" and "prevent criminal mischief" said to be "associated" with such activities. Yet, despite being ill armed the common folk always had need to protect themselves and if called upon even to defend the kingdom from invasion. By the late Middle Ages there were sword-masters fighting experts both teaching and fighting for pay, yet they themselves were typically commoners.

Today, students of historical fencing will often take too much of a technical approach to swordsmanship. This is natural in the early stages of learning, but later they may obsess with "technique, technique, technique" and over generalize them. They scour the historical manuals searching for clues and techniques while overlooking principles. They will theorize and theorize rather than examine the practical applications of physical actions with weapons. Techniques are merely the execution of the mechanics of a move. They are never done in a vacuum, but in reference to what the adversary himself is doing or not doing. Even at the highest level, when a technique is selflessly and reflexively executed, there is still the un-conscious recognition of the target’s immediate action. Techniques must involve reference to understanding underlying principles.

The effectiveness of a properly handled Medieval shield & sword combination is formidable. Though, this is not that easy to realize since its proper use is all but absent in most movie and theatrical combat presentations as well as Medieval fantasy societies. The conditions under which they must operate are not conducive to either the aggressive hitting techniques that are common or the subtle and tight movements it sometimes uses. Instead, performers and choreographers prefer hitting directly at the shield, having the fighter pull it out of the way as they are attacked, and even acting as if it is somehow an encumbrance. None of this is consistent with the physical realities of the tool or the actions and motions of employing effectively it. Fighting with a weapon is not about technique alone nor is it about simply technique and physical actions. There are considerable mental elements that must be understood in order to be more effective. General principles of fighting lie at the very heart of any understanding of weapon use and any tactics applied. The four major principles of personal combat are: Timing, Distance, Technique, and Perception. They could all be address at length on their own. All fighting involves understanding timing, controlling distance, applying technique, and utilizing perception. These familiar elements, defined in various ways, have been identified and stressed by masters in countless martial arts.

They are fairly self-evident ideas and serve only to coherently direct how we think about actions. They are concepts that should not be ignored. None is really more vital than any other and no one alone ensures victory. It is by comprehension of their mutual relation and interaction that they can then benefit a fighter. It is when these principles and concepts are openly violated that a fighter falls into bad habits and becomes vulnerable to an opponent who better understands and applies them. These principles cannot really be taught but must be learned by each individual and developed through practice and experience. When we understand timing (measure) we know when to strike and when not to strike. When we can control distance we know where we can strike and where we can not strike, and where the adversary can and cannot strike. When we can apply learned technique with proficiency we can fluidly attack and defend with both speed and intensity. When we can use our perception on a higher level we can foresee, anticipate, and respond with immediacy and efficiency. The German Medieval masters expressed the idea as "fuehlen" (feeling), or the gauging of an opponent's "pressure".

If we don’t know timing, our actions will be off and we will leave ourselves vulnerable. If we can’t control the distance, our techniques will be too short or too long and we will leave ourselves exposed. If we don’t learn proper technique we will not be able to attack or defend well and we will be hopeless. If we don’t develop our perception we will function only on the simplest level and miss all the greatness of the art. It is these general principles together which essentially represent and embody personal fighting skill. Skill can make up for lack of strength, but strength alone is hard pressed to replace skill. Weapons alone do not win fights. Physical ability alone does not win fights. Mental ability alone does not win fights. But all three together can.

There are really very few general "truths" to what one should or should not do in a sword fight and they can be summed up as: 1. Hit the opponent. 2. Don’t get hit. Just how to go about this is where things become a little more complex --which is exactly why it’s called fighting! There are of course other ideas which are present in fighting and swordsmanship but which are themselves more obvious and inherent principles, such as aggressiveness, caution, and speed. The Northern Italian master Fiore dei Liberi himself makes regard to the ideas of audacity, prudence, celerity, and strength. By this he is acknowledging the concepts of initiative, caution, quickness, and force. These ideas go without saying since, without aggressiveness we cannot take or keep the initiative in a fight. However, we should never become overly aggressive to the point where we are reckless or foolhardy. This is where caution and prudence is needed. The balance between the two is a matter of experience. While defense is passive, it is also safer and allows for strong countering. But offense is active and allows openings and vulnerabilities in an adversary to be exploited. Each swordsman will find his own preference between fighting offensively and defensively.

The fundamental concepts of swordplay must be learned accurately to avoid bad habits and long term errors that will inhibit greater skill. Later on, as you develop ability, your own personality will emerge in a "style". But the basics will always need to be practiced and relearned. To grasp the correct martial attitude for realistic training, we must practice with passion. In both drills and sparring attacks, parries, and other techniques must all be committed with enthusiasm, speed, and energy. They cannot consistently be made "lightly", "theatrically", or just semi-fast. Of course, to do this with earnest appreciation for the underlying principles requires safety equipment.

Unfortunately, exclusive reliance on any form of mock weaponry alone leads enthusiasts to experience significant misunderstanding of the nature of Medieval swords (as well as other arms and armor). Certain types of blunt props and fake sword substitutes can seriously distort the nature of swordsmanship and the significance of this must be underscored. It is through practice with accurate replicas of real swords that will reveal just how different they function from any mock versions. In the end, one should endeavor to supplement whatever method preferred by cross-training with others. Training exclusively with only one means of drilling, exercising, or sparring is very limiting and eventually leads to a narrow interpretation of both technique and fighting. Serious practice requires much more than drills and exercises. It requires forceful, full-speed free-sparring to the full body target –i.e., contact-sparring. In contact-sparring the presumed value of fixed drills and arranged practice routines often crumbles in the face of a skilled adversary who uses unorthodox and unrehearsed actions to earnestly hit. The longer you train and study Medieval weaponry and fighting arts, the more readily apparent this becomes.

John Clements,
December 1998


Amendments and Revisions to Stances & Guards:
Corrections and revisions to the amalgam section on fighting postures (p. 186-200): There is no "Queen’s" guard, and no actual "middle" guard other than the two Pflug stances The "Outside" stance is merely a high-guard over the shoulder, the Ochs is not the same as the "hanging guard", the hanging position itself is actually a technique and not a guard. The Boar’s Tooth is actually a low forward posture and not a Pflug-like position.

Primary Stances Pflug, Ox/Finestra, Alber (Low), Vom Dach (Roof/High), Coda Longa (Tail)

Secondary guardsPosta Breva (Short); Langerorte/Posta Longa (Long); Posta di Vera Finestra Manchina (True Left Rear Window); Bicornio (Two–Horned); Zornhut (Guard of Rage); Boar (Posta di Chingiale); Falcone (Hawke’s Bill); Porto di Ferrro/Eisrne Pforte (Iron Door);

Alternate names include: High (Oberhut); Low (Porto di Ferrro Mezanna – Middle Iron Door); Window (Finestra)/Ochs – Monte’s Prima and Seconds; Woman’s – Posta di Donna Altera (proud woman’s guard).

Halb Schwert/Mezza Spada (half–sword guards) – Serpentino; Breve Serpentino; Serpentino Superiore; Sagittarria; Posta Vera Croce; Posta Croce Bastarda; assorted reversed & "palmed" guards.

Amendments and Revisions to Cuts & Strikes:
The eight fundamental cuts or strikes in Medieval swordplay are fairly consistent among assorted schools, masters, and styles. The German schools recognized three major forms of cut: Oberhau (over cuts) diagonal or vertical downward blows made form above; Unterhau (under cuts) upward or rising made from below; and Zwerchhau or Mittelhau, (crosscuts) horizontal right-to-left or left-to-right blows. Diagonal cuts were Zornhau and vertical were Scheitelhau. There were several names for various specific individual cuts such as: Kron (the "crown"), Doppelhau ("double-cut"), Streithau (the "battle cut"), and Vater Streich (the "father strike"). Draw cuts and slicing pulls were usually known as Schnitt. Johannes Liechtenauer distinguished five principal cuts, the Meisterhau, that remained the cornerstone o the German schools: Zornhau ("rage cut" or "strike of wrath"), made diagonally from behind the right shoulder; Krumphau ("twisted" or "crooked" cut), made downwards with the short/false edge; Zwerchhau (horizontal side cut); Schielhau ("squinting cut"), made downwards with the false edge at the enemy’s shoulder or neck; and Scheittelhau (the "crown cut" or "parting strike"), made vertically downwards and literally aimed at the crown of the head. Sigmund Ringeck (c. 1440) referred to Liechtenauer’s primary cuts as the "five strikes". In 1410 Fiore Dei Liberi described seven cuts or blows, two Fendenti (right or left downward cuts from a high position) two Sottani (right or left upward cuts from a low position), two Mezani or Mezzane (horizontal cuts), and Ponte (the straight thrust). In the 1480s Philippo Vadi taught the same six cuts and one thrust, but called his horizontal cuts Volanti. Vadi referred to Diritto Fendente (right downward) and Riverso Fendente (left downward) cuts. Vadi’s right-to-left cuts were Derito and his left-to-right cuts were Manreverso. While Vadi speaks of "seven cuts", he lists only three (Fendente, Volanti, and the Rota), but as each of these can be employed either left or right, along with Punte (his thrust) they make for seven attacks. Neither Fiore nor Vadi distinguished between different angles vertical or diagonal) of cut, all descending cuts were Fendenti. In the 1480s Pietro Monte advised Manudextri (blows from right to left) and Manusinistri (from left to right). Monte taught only 2 primary blows, both diagonal rising cuts from either right or left (and a thrust, Stocchata Vel Puncta, as his primary attack). Blows from the right delivered from the Prima stance, and blows from the left from delivered from the Seconda stance. His cuts and thrusts were invariably used in swift combinations of 2 to 3 strokes. ("Hawk") The 15th century English text, Harliean Manuscript (BL MS. 3542), referred to "downright blows" called Haukes and Half Haukes. Forms include hauke, half hauke, broken hauke, broken half hauke, contrary hauke, and double hauke.

See Introduction to Stances & Guards in Medieval Swordplay


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