Centrality of the Longsword
“there is only one Art of the sword” it is “the basis and a core of all the arts of fighting.”
By John ClementsWhy the longsword? – This is a question I have often asked myself and one which many students of this craft has also asked of me over the years. Personally, I have always favored the double-hand sword. The symmetry of a long, straight, two-edged blade with cross-guard has a formidable elegance all its own. Though I grew up playing "sword and shield" then got into modern "foyning" fence and, as most adolescents do, for a time became fascinated with the katana, the later discovery that there was a systematic historical method to using the European longsword became the real revelation. Even as I readily adore training with all manner of Medieval and Renaissance weaponry, and particularly the rapier as well as sword & dagger, for me the longsword has held a special place. I have long felt this was the case historically as well. Recently, the centrality of the longsword to the Renaissance arts of fighting has become even more apparent.
No other historical hand-weapon was arguably as resourceful as the longsword. It possesses a versatility suited to battlefield, single-combat, or common-defense against the widest array of arms and armor. The longsword could be manipulated as spear and war-hammer as well as short-sword. Whether as warsword, bastard-sword, spadone, estoc, Schlachterschwerter, or greatsword, I have come to see the double-handed straight sword as containing within its practice nearly everything that is found in other weapons. Its core basis is identical to that for using so many others, be it dagger, spear, polaxe, or short side-sword. Extensive study of this weapon has convinced me that practice in it provides the greatest foundation for understanding the diverse teachings of Renaissance martial arts, from unarmed grappling to sword & buckler and even the rapier.
Background & Context
There is no question that the largest pool of surviving instructional literature on pre-Baroque European fencing concerns the use of different forms of late-Medieval double-handed sword. The longsword dominated the literature on unarmored and armored foot combat for more than 200 years. From the mid-1300s (and into the early-1600s) the weapon was the focus of considerable exploration until the ascendance of the rapier in the face of new military technology and changing civilian self-defense conditions during the mid-1500s.
Instructional material on the longsword makes up an extensive component of Renaissance martial arts teachings. We need only consider the foundational writings on Johannes Liechtenauer's method beginning in 1389, the important work of Fiore Dei Liberi from 1410, through the voluminous contributions of many 15th century Fechtmiesters that followed, up to Fillipo Vadi in the 1480s, and Pietro Monte by 1500, to a host of anonymous works and rewritten teachings into the mid-16th century. One of the final expressions of its teachings culminated in the published treatise of Joachim Meyer in 1570.
When we think of swordplay in the Renaissance the slender thrusting sword, or rapier, almost immediately comes to mind as the representative weapon of the Age. It is the basic techniques of the single-hand rapier that survives today in its post-Baroque descendants of modern sport fencing. Yet, when considered separately from its earlier cut-and-thrust cousin (the military side-sword of the early 16th century) the true rapier had a narrower and more specialized self-defense role. Even during its highest period of popularity in the early 17th century, it remained one of many swords types contemporary with more traditional military cutting blades and common polearms. The martial conditions of which these slender thursting swords were employed and the challenges they were called upon to face had also both changed considerably over that which earlier had once necessitated the development of the earlier longsword. When we deliberate on the true rapier, its origin as a civilian weapon of street-fighting and its later incarnation as the dueling weapon par excellence among the aristocracy, its place within Reniassance combatives was not a central one considering the totality of fighting arts in the era.
Indeed, for the fighting method of this slender thrusting sword, the true rapier is found in less than a dozen instructional texts from the middle of the 1500s to the middle of the 1600s (e.g., Lovino, Ghisliero, Heredia, Narvaez, Saviolo, Fabris, Swetnam, Hale, Giganti, Capo Ferro, Alfieri, etc.) Even then, the authors of several of these important works often still included material on older short swords or back-swords as well as polearms or even the two-handed greatsword.
More so than any other single weapon the fearsome longsword, with its utility, versatility, and inherent use of half-gripping the blade and close-in body-to-body action, embodies the knightly Art of Combat. By contrast, the later rapier, though it developed from earlier tapering single-hand swords, was specialized more to unarmored private duelling. It was really only when military conditions began to change and armored faded in the face of firearms, that the longsword became impractical for civilian security and "cavalier" affairs of honor, as well as unnecessary for general war.
What Role in the Art of Defence?
What was it then about the use of longer double-handed blades that earlier attracted so much focus from fighting men and fencing masters? What was it about this weapon that they considered it with such apparent regard? What was it that compelled them to give it so much attention over (presumably) more common single-hand swords which were their contemporaries as well as predated them? Why was so much instructional material devoted to the long double-handed sword rather than to single-handed versions or pole-arms? The answer to the question of the longsword primacy is its popularity was no matter of some mere knightly symbolism but a direct factor of its pragmatic utility.
Of the longsword, the grandmaster Johannes Liechtenauer in the late 14th century taught, "there is only one Art of the sword" and it is the "basis and a core of all the arts of fighting." In his later fighting treatise of 1570, the master Joachim Meyer wrote how the weapon, "is celebrated among other weapons for artfulness and manliness, and because of it I have what's needed for good understanding from which to make progress, and thus quickly see with clarity how with wise handling all this can be applied in other arts and disciplines." Of his tapered double-edged spada a doy mane or “two-hand sword,” the master Fiore dei Liberi in 1410 declared it “mortal against any weapon” adding that it: "fights near or far, closes in for disarms and wrestling, can break and bind, cover and injure, and is a royal weapon, the maintainer of justice used to increase goodness and destroy malice." [Getty 25r].The weapon may have been less numerous in warfare than simple (and cheaper) polearms wielded by common infantry, but there is no mistaking that by the 1300s all social classes employed swords, including the double-handed version. The ease by which the longsword transitions from one-handed to two-hand techniques, between cuts and thrusts and slices, and shifts between half-swording and full-gripping, gives it an unprecedented versatility. Simply put, there are blows and cutting strikes performed in a certain way with a two-handed weapon that are not performed with a single-hand one.
There are things you do with a cutting and thrusting blade---whether armored or unarmored on foot or mounted---that you do not do with a trusting-only sword in one hand (nor even with a shafted pole-arm held in two). The left hand is also free to do things that cannot be done with a shield or another weapon held in the second hand, while half-swording provides flexible options that are not as available to shorter weapons. Whether for war, duel, or common self-protection the weapon proved itself in diverse conditions. It is no wonder it served as such a sound basis for learning how to fight.
The nature of armed close-combat is such that fighting with the longsword cannot be properly practiced without learning the basics of timing, range, blade pressure and body leverage. These key elements cannot be skipped in order to move onto "other aspects" of the Art. They are its core essence and until a student acquires these fundamentals, the nature of the real Art will continue to elude them. Wielding this weapon properly is about so much more than holding stances and making assorted strikes or parries. Beyond cutting, slicing, or thrusting, a good deal of this skill involved closing-in to bind and seize the opponent—knocking, disarming, or throwing them. When training with a longsword is approached correctly these elements are encountered at once and acquired very quickly by the student. While at the same time, it also becomes clear that the weapon is not about simplistic parrying and riposting while just warding and stepping in and out of timing and range.
Beyond Both Cutting or Thrusting
There is a self-evident urgency to training with weapons. They contain an immediacy of threat over that found in grappling or wrestling. Weapons have been called the great equalizers, for it is their lethality that gives them precedent over unarmed combat. In the historical training of warriors there is a simple truth: arms inherently require unarmed skills, but unarmed skills do not inherently require armed training. No historical warrior could be effective in battle or duel if he had just studied in unarmed skills alone. Armed and unarmed skills were not separated; they were integrated within the martial arts of Renaissance Europe.
While the basis of all fighting arts can be reduced down to the same essential principles as found in unarmed combat (leverage, timing, range, etc.), and the source masters even tell us all fencing is based on wrestling, it has always been armed combat that has historically taken precedence. Fencing is not simply "armed wrestling." It is fencing.
Though their actions have a common basis, the techniques that can be used in the context of a sword fight are not identical to those of unarmed combat. This is surely why the historical source teachings make such a distinction between close-in actions of seizing and disarming ("or wrestling at the sword"), and grappling and ground fighting as a subset.
Something that cannot be overlooked here is that if a fighter has trained in grappling and wrestling then takes up the longsword, this does not mean at all that they will be able to suddenly apply their unarmed training to effectively wield the weapon against a skilled swordsman. You have to learn how to integrate the tool into what is possible in a fight. Weapons take precedent. I have seen this repeatedly over the years. Many senior members in the ARMA can attest to the difficulty they had when they started out trying to use even the most basic of their unarmed skills against a well-trained swordsman.
In my own experience, because I never trained in any wrestling or grappling, don't feel tactically comfortable there and don't consciously go to those techniques, I came (as a natural result) to specialize more in my practice upon these earlier actions occurring just before that range (the disarms and trapping). But, curiously, I acquired my unarmed close-in skills specifically through training in the longsword. The longsword taught me tremendously about feeling leverage and sensing pressure during any portion or range of the fight, not just when blades are crossed. I learned to apply my second hand and my whole body as needed even as I remained focused on wielding my weapon. I didn't gain any of this crucial aspect through any experience in rapier, sword & dagger, or staff weapons.I have no doubts that learning unarmed skills did not give me corresponding knowledge of fighting with a weapon. In other words, while I had previously learned how to kick and punch, and so was comfortable fighting at close ranges, it was however through studying the longsword that I was able to incorporate such actions when wielding a weapon. [It must be further noted, that, at such close ranges, modern fencing styles not only fail to instruct in basic defense against body contact and free-hand actions, but under those conditions also coaches to habitually perform suicidal techniques.]
Making the Longsword Central Again
Historically, schools and masters of fence from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance did teach a variety of weapons together with wrestling/grappling skills. Yet, for some time they focused on the longsword (or sometimes the polaxe for armored single-combat, and later the rapier instead of the longsword for unarmored duel). They had to do this because their lives depended on competent ability. Ours now do not. In our modern study we have to therefore engineer a certain restructuring of the craft for modern practice (without reformulating a new systemization in the process!).
If you train long-term in the longsword vigorously you will also come to an understanding of unarmed throws and holds. The same clear connection cannot be said nearly as much for training in unarmed skills alone. From my experience studying and teaching this craft, I am fully convinced that if you practice the longsword I guarantee you learn some wrestling moves and unarmed striking---but the reverse is not true. If you learn the longsword you can instantly adapt it to the single-hand sword alone (from which all double-hand techniques originate) as well as apply it to using a buckler or even a larger shield. If you train in longsword you learn elements instantly transferable to the dagger or to the staff. But for the reverse, not nearly as much transfers from any of those weapons alone over to techniques applicable for striking strongly and warding carefully with the longsword.
It is perhaps the lost of central training in the importance of longsword that helps explain why the martial arts of the Renaissance faded and vanished. I suggest the very reason that this Art of Fighting was not already reconstructed by enthusiasts over the last century is not because of any lack of source material for its study, but because of the overall loss of longsword training within modern fencing culture itself.It cannot be overstated how profound a missing skill set there is within modern fencing styles with their total lack of any double-handed weapon, let alone any grappling component or use of the second-hand. The disconnect between these styles and the old systems of knightly combat was too great to be bridged through a mere similarity with the rapier of centuries past. They were (and still are) simply unable to rely on their methods to rediscover the forgotten Art. It requires practice of the longsword. You cannot fully understand or reconstruct this style of fencing via training in epee or saber or knife or quarterstaff or cane. You certainly can't understand it just by mixing wrestling and boxing with foil fencing. None of these things provide what the longsword does in terms of a well-rounded understanding of the core elements of close combat as a true martial art.