Fence with all your strength …”

 

So art helps nature, nature strengtheneth art .”
– Tasso, 1575

By J. Clements

In teaching or demonstrating the techniques of Renaissance weaponry, an issue is sometimes raised as to how realistically or how slowly one should train and practice –with intent and energy or not?   Similarly, in delivering blows another question comes to the forefront: how much force or strength should one use when training?

No one would argue that a fearsome full-arm blow with a longsword is not harder to displace than would be a shorter (although quicker) blow from the half-arm. No one could reasonably argue either that a longer outstretched blow would somehow do less damage than a shorter one, since it’s logical that a smaller swing cannot possibly have as much force as a larger one moving in a greater arc. It’s a simple fact of physics that the larger the circumference a blow travels, the more force is behind it.

Today, while many of us train by swinging blunt weapons through empty air or hitting pells, and occasionally trying to cut at static targets, the historical fighters by comparison had to strike other men with sharp weapons, and do so in a manner that prevented them from hitting back. It would appear obvious that to do this effectively they did so strongly. But did historical fencers really need to hit that hard?   In other words, how important was strength in Renaissance swordplay?   Can we go “soft” today, or do we need to try things with force and energy?

Tales of might…and the myth of strength

Chivalric literature of the Middle Ages is resplendent with accounts of knights delivering especially powerful hits, and strong sword blows are frequently identified with the prowess of warriors. Romantic literature of the 13 th and 14 th centuries is full of tales and commentary about the power of cuts made by knightly heroes. The necessity of physical strength as an attribute for a man at arms is found throughout writing of the period. Characters such as Siegfried, Roland, Arthur, Lancelot, etc. were all known for their tremendous horse cleaving, armor splitting, or tree-felling blows. In Germanic chivalric romances the term gewalt or kraft, meaning physical strength or applied physical force, is closely associated with the acts of knights. This constant reference to the force of strikes, although often terribly exaggerated, must reflect something of the nature of wielding such weapons in combat.   If we take it as any evidence of what was valued in knightly combat, then certainly hitting very hard, or cutting deeply, was considered important.  

But, the popular impression has been that Medieval fencing relied mainly on strength and endurance more than any technique.   Part of this myth about strength being the basis of knightly fencing skills stems from lack of information among those later writers who misinterpreted historical sources. But the larger part of the view derives from a complete and widespread lack of understanding about how earlier arms and armor (especially swords) were actually employed. Unfortunately, this has been true of many historians of Medieval and Renaissance warfare as well. The influential 1885 work on the art of war in the Middle Ages by the young Sir Charles Oman, which asserted the total insignificance of infantry and complete primacy of the untutored clash by mounted knights in heavy armor, was to misinform Medievalists for some 50 years. Perhaps this prejudice has its origins in 19th century fencing schools and the view that compared to their own contemporary featherweight fencing tools, older arms and armor were ponderous and unwieldy.  

Leading Medieval and Renaissance fencing historian, Professor Sydney Anglo, has pointed out that the common view of chivalric combat as being an untutored art based solely on strength, endurance, and brutality is entirely false.   Yet, for more than a century this was the common expert opinion articulated by earlier fencing researchers such as Egerton Castle (in his 1885, Schools and Masters of Fence ), Jacopo Gelli ( L’arte dell’armi in Italia , 1906), and Frenchmen, Gabriel Letainturier-Fadin ( Le Duel à travers les Ages, 1892, and , Les joueurs d’éspee à travers les siècles , 1905). [1]   The great Egerton Castle was among the worst proponents of this reliance on strength “only” claim. For example, he declared: “The rough untutored fighting of the Middle Ages represented faithfully the reign of brute force…The stoutest arm and the weightiest sword won the day…Those were the days of crushing blows with mace or glaive, when a knights superiority in action depended on his power of wearing heavier armour and dealing heavier blows then his neighbor, when strength was lauded more than skill.” (Castle, p. 5). Despite the accomplishments of his work, his simplistic views on 14 th and 15 th century sword skills were inaccurate and unfounded.   In ignorance Castle described the 16 th century in contrast as “the days when something more than brute strength became a requisite in personal combat” (Castle, p. 2). In 1887, the noted historical fencing writer, Gustav Hergsell himself, also mistakenly asserted that in wielding the sword “the heroic master was determined not by conditioning and technique, but by strength.” [2]   Yet since then, the fact that knights were much more than witless bashers relying on brute strength, clumsy weapons, and weight of their protective armor (as the cliché so often goes) has now become firmly established.

Still, the myth of the knight relying only on strength has not easily evaporated. Throughout much of the last two centuries, the popular view of pre-rapier fencing has typically been that these skills and weapons were more about strength and endurance than agility and finesse   (while the reality was actually that all these things were important and necessary).   For example, in his 1932, The Art of the Foil, respected Italian fencing maestro Luigi Barbasetti declared incorrectly of Medieval swordsmanship, "Its technique, with the weapons employed at this time, was founded exclusively on the muscular qualities of the fencer. While there was no dearth of masters, they certainly were not of a school that followed precise and general methods". (Barbasetti, p. 204). As two modern influential theatrical combat researchers described: “The technique of medieval sword fighting was hardly subtle. The winner was usually the biggest and strongest knight who could continue pressing the attack, an attack consisting almost exclusively of slashing, smashing blows. This was the time of the two-handed or the ‘hand-and-a-half’ (bastard) swords…Great strength and endurance, not skill, was praised...” (Turner & Soper, p. xvi-xvii).   Another modern researcher of Elizabethan theater writing on the subject of fencing in the Medieval era absurdly explained: “Thus swordplay in the days of knightly paladins was an endurance contest more than a test of skill.” (Morsberger, p. 7). They could not have been more wrong. One noted French fencing author in the mid 20 th century even confidently stated: “In the Middle Ages swords were heavy and clumsy and great strength rather than skill was required to wield them”. (De Beaumont, p. 1).   Ironically, the fundamental aspect of real swordplay which entirely escaped this modern fencing master was that it is not the mass of an edged weapon which does damage; it is its impact velocity and sharpness in relation to the surface area it contacts.

The myth of earlier swordsmen having to fight by strength alone is discredited by the great 14th century German master, Johannes Liechtenauer himself who alluded to buffel or “buffalos” as a demeaning term for untrained fencers who likely, rather than using skilful technique to strike, relied on their strength and raw force alone to strike wide blows.   It wasn’t that Liechtenauer was against strength itself, but on its substitution for lack of skill. You can certainly be skillful and strong. His chronicler, Hanko Doebringer, writing on how to face multiple opponents similarly instructed the best technique (“taught by the old masters”) was the Eysern Pforte (a position with the blade in front toward the ground and pointed off to the side). He stated, “With this you could even fight against four or six farmers” (i.e., untrained men –who presumably relied on strength). Similarly, from Hartmann von Aue’s 13 th century tale, Iwein (based on Chrétien DeTroyes’ 12 th century, Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion ), we read of a knightly warrior’s martial craft where, “With practice the weak man can too learn to fight far better, otherwise the state of swordsmanship, as an art, may not have achieved this level of skill. Here was the union of skill and strength.” [3]   We can recall also how the 13th century term Preudomme or prudhomme –referring to a “man of prowess”, described the perfect knight in whom reason and bodily strength were perfectly balanced.” [4]   Zabinski has related how a major component of Liechtenauer's longsword fencing was learning the pressing and winding against the strong or weak portion of an opponent's weapon as needed for leverage so that a physically weaker man could overcome a stronger adversary with skill. So, again, it was use of strength without skill, not strength alone that was critiqued.

A description of what Medieval people thought of the origin of knighthood and the ruling warrior class comes to us from Gutierre Diaz de Gamez’s early 15 th century biography of Pero Nino.   Describing how the estate of nobles was formed, Diaz tells us that in ancient times the “people of the Law had one way, and the Gentiles another.”   The Gentiles, he says, “sought out a way to choose men for war and thought to take into battle those who practiced “the mechanical arts”, such as stone cutters, carpenters, and smiths for these were men “accustomed to strike great blows, to break hard stones, to split wood with great strength to soften iron which is very hard”. They reasoned such men would “strike mightily and give hard blows” and thus would conquer their enemies.   Doing this, Diaz tells us, they armed well these men and sent them into the fray where “some were stilted in their armour, and some lost their strength through fear, and some took to flight, so that all their host was brought to defeat.”   Following this Diaz informs us next the patriarchs said this had been ill-planned and that rather they should have sent the butchers “who were cruel and accustomed to shedding blood without pity, men who slaughtered great bulls and strong beasts.”   These they believed “would strike without mercy and without fear” and would avenge us on our adversaries. Armed well they were sent into the forefront of battle, but once there their courage failed them, and they took to flight.   Then the patriarchs decided when they next went to fight they would set men upon heights to see how the battle unfolded and recognize those who fought with good heart and struck good blows and did not give in to either fear or dread of death but stood fast. Then when the battle was over they took these men and gave them great honor and thanks for their prowess. Diaz described, in conclusion, that these men were then formed into a host and bade to do no work other than to maintain their arms and horses and that all their endeavors should be in these matters alone. These men, he goes on to say, were then given command to lead others into battle. [5]   We may note from this the view that the ideal attributes of a warrior were a combination: strength, courage, and caution –the very virtues praised in a fighter by the master Fiore dei Liberi in his fencing treatise of 1410.

What do the historical sources tell us about strength?

There is little question the historical source manuals are full of advice on the need and value of striking strongly and fencing with force.   Liechtenauer himself advised , “Hit hard and be good at it!” Hanko Doebringer in his verses of the 14th century grandmaster Johannes Liechtenauer commented on fencing using one’s whole strength: Mit ganzem leib ficht / was du starck gerest treibn, or “If you want to strike strongly, use the whole body.” (translation by Marlon Hessler, 2002). G. Zabinski also documents that Hanko Doebringer's writings on Liechtenauer's teachings from c.1389 similarly state, "if one wants to fight strongly, he should perform…with the entire body and entire strength". Zabinski's translations of the teachings of Liechtenauer offer several pieces of evidence on the role of strength. From Zabinski's research into the mid-15th century "Goliath" manuscript we find repeated more than once Liechtenauer's instruction, "Do with the entire body what you want to perform strongly." Describing how when delivering blows one should move properly from the left to right "so that you are able to strike strongly…" Liechtenauer instructed how it was "the first art of the long sword" that "above all the things you should learn to strike correctly, if you want to strike strongly…" When teaching on close range fighting where the adversary's sword is pressed, Liechtenauer even advised specifically to not hastily attempt this "without strength." Interestingly, while striking strongly was surely important in combat, when Liechtenauer listed the attributes necessary for skilled fencing he did not include physical strength as a factor. Yet, the proper way of holding the longsword was described by Liectenaur so that one could strike more strongly and firmly. Zabinski also records Liechtenauer as declaring that "a weak man would more certainly win with his art and cunningness than a strong man with his strength" else "what would be the use of other arts?"

The master Fiore dei Liberi from his treatise of 1410 included as one of his four symbolic animals the elephant, representing strength ( fortitudo ), which he said “carried all.” Rather than being a metaphor, by this he meant not just to have a strong stance that permitted striking strong blows but to be physically strong –certainly a necessity given the weight of arms and armor a man was expected to carry at length. The mid 15 th century fencing manual popularly known now as the Codex Wallerstein , advising on fighting at close quarters also instructed : “It is to be noticed that close-quarters fighting should have three elements: strength, reach, and agility. Strength is needed to go low in the balance position and stand firmly on the ground.” (Zabinski, plate 29, p. 66).  

From his work of c.1449, Peter von Danzig first offered a general lesson in the longsword that begins with instruction to "fence strongly" and "Fight with all your body and drive with strength." In the beginning of his work von Danzig even states to "Strike in and hard" -something certainly not accomplished without applying strength.(translation by Mike Rasmussen, 2003). The Master Sigmund Ringeck in the 1440s stated: “This is the first tenet of the longsword: learn to strike properly from both sides so that you learn to fence well and with strength.” Under the tactical basics section of his commentaries Ringeck also instructed, “Always fence using the strength of your body.” Indeed, we may wonder why, when fighting for their very lives, men would fence any other way?  We can also note that Ringeck advised, “skillfully wield spear, sword, and dagger in a manful way.”   Fillipo Vadi writing in the early 1480s equally directed to “Brandish manfully the sword.” As well, Joachim Meyer writing in 1570 on the Zornhau (“Wrath cut”), a high diagonal strike from over the shoulder, noted it was the strongest blow “in that all one's strength and manliness is laid against one’s opponent in fighting and fencing…” Such manful ways are arguably strong ones.

The Codex Wallerstein further described: “a weak fighter in a serious combat can be equal to a strong opponent, if he has previously learned agility, reach, fighting-tricks and death-tricks” adding that, “in a friendly combat strength has always the advantage.”   From the anonymous manual of c.1500 known now as the Goliath we again read, “Mark that this is the first art of the long sword, that before all things, to learn the strikes rightly, you will always fence strongly.” As with earlier works, it adds: “With the entire body fence as strongly as you can.” It adds that in by knowing how to strike both left and right "is how you fence correctly and strongly." The Goliath repeats further the earlier teaching of Peter Von Danzig, "With the entire body fence as strongly as you can drive."

Stating the qualities of a good fighter the master Filippo Vadi in the 1480s declared, “Good eye, knowledge, dexterity are needed, and if you have both heart and strength, you’ll be a problem for everyone.” True, Vadi stated, “cunning wins [over] any strength”. But even here, in echoing Liechtenauer, Vadi did not say cunning overcomes only strength, but any strength, which could mean the opponent’s advantage in any regard…muscle, height, reach, speed, experience, armor, weapons, etc.   Vadi’s work further described the need for the virtue of a swift eye, strength, knowledge, and quickness.   Once more, we see the combination of skillfulness with physical ability. This is exactly the idea of fencing with all your strength.   This idea was expressed when Doebringer wrote of Liechtenauer himself as having taught, "it is always the art that should go before the strength." As Cervantes related in his 1614, Don Quixote, “force is overcome by Art.”

Fittingly, toward the end of Jörg Wilhalm’s fighting guidebook from the early 1520s, an image is included of three men: a rich man, a poor man, and a fencer. It essentially reads that the wealthy man has money but no real wealth because he does not have skill or strength. The poor working man has strength of body but no skill or money, while the man who has skill has true strength and wealth.

Considering then the words of so many Renaissance fighting texts which emphasized the need to employ strength, we might consider just what this means.   What are we to make of their advice to fence “strongly”?   Did they mean using muscular power to hit hard?   Or were they only referring in general to endurance and physical toughness? Literature of the Renaissance uses the words “strong” and “strength” to variously mean not just muscularity, but tough, formidable, sturdy, resilient, mighty, or skillful, such as when referring to a warrior’s “strong hand” or “strong shield.” For example, at a tournament a knight might challenge all comers to "try their strength against him" in single combat. The phrase “strength of arms” so often found in chivalric tales can indeed mean skill, but this skill, this might, is certainly about muscularity as much as training, experience, courage, agility and expertise. The quality of strength in Renaissance martial literature has been suggested as being more metaphorical to mean all manner of attributes associated with prowess and stamina except for physically powerful strikes with a sword. But logically, it cannot be argued that fighting strongly means everything other than hitting with strong full-arm strikes.

Be strong and hit hard

How important then was physical strength to Renaissance methods of fighting?   Does using strength really mean to hit hard?   Can we imagine warriors of the age not hitting hard with weapons such as maces, polaxes, and flails?   Here we might recall the instructions of the Roman military writer Vegetius’s (widely read in the Renaissance) describing the traditional training of soldiers. Vegetius told how young legionnaire recruits were given double weight swords and shields to train hard striking at posts. In this way when the recruit took up real and lighter weapons, “as if freed from the heavier weight, he will fight in greater safety and speed.” Aegidius Romanus in the early 14 th century wrote that a military leader needed to be attentive to exercitatio , or individual drill, noting that, “having arms unaccustomed to striking and limbs untrained for fighting” was useless for soldiers.   He also included the importance of practice as toughening to endure hardship as well as “hardness of body”.

Writing on knighthood in the 1130s, Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, stated, "As you yourselves have often certainly experienced, a warrior especially needs these three things: to guard their person with strength, shrewdness and care; to be free in their movements; and quick to draw their sword." In the late 1300s Boucicaut describing a knight's exercise noted that "he would practise striking numerous and forcible blows with a battle-axe or mallet." Another example in the late 1300s from Jean Le Meingre on the training which a young esquire seeking knighthood would undergo described how, "he would practise striking numerous and forcible blows with a battle-axe or mallet' and that "he would practise with the other young esquires at lance-throwing and other warlike exercises, and this continually." (Lacroix, p. 146). Petrus Vergerius in the early 1400s wrote how in war skills alone were useless without the strength and endurance needed to bear the rigors of campaigning.   Similarly, Albert Battista in the mid 1400s advocated: “In all training no end may be preferred to that of physical soundness” saying “Games which require dexterity, endurance, strength, qualities of eye and nerve, such as fencing…” A number of other 15 th century humanist writers on physical education also stressed repeatedly the importance of muscular strength and conditioning.   We might also recall the various images of weight-training in Medieval artwork showing heavy stone lifting or throwing by fencers as well as the use of heavy sticks equivalent to later “Indian club” exercise tools.

We see this same view toward bodily strength in the 16 th century. For example, Castiglione much later wrote the ideal courtier had to possess “strength, lightnesse, and quicknesse,” as well as “an understanding in all exercises of the bodie that belong to a man of warre.”   As Dr. Sydney Anglo wrote in his 1997 article on Tudor spectacles, “physical strength and skill in martial exercise were only part of the manifold talent expected of the ideal Renaissance prince.”   Even later rapier masters were concerned with physical strength for fencing. Francesco Alfieri in his 1640 text wrote on exercising by saying it was “ necessary to acquire dexterity and agility with practice” by learning to handle a staff or other heavy object such as a spadone or pike that “would strengthen the wrist and alleviate the weight of the sword.”   Sir Philip Sidney himself in 1580 wrote: to play with weapons because "it is good in itself, and besides encreaseth your breath and strength, and will make you a strong man at the tourney and barriers."

That the value of physical strength was known as important in striking blows is also self evident. In armored tournaments fought with blunt swords or clubs in the Middle Ages, the very idea in many was to hit hard and accurately so as to stun the opponent or force him to acknowledge the blow.   We might therefore ask how could it possibly be that this would be true for non-lethal tournaments that provided combat training for knights, but not be true in earnest life and death encounters with sharp weapons? King Francis I in the early 1500s even suggested certain restrictions to limit accidents from strong blows in tournaments such as making the use of the two-handed sword optional for combat at the barriers, because it was “a whepon daungerous” whose force few gauntlets could sustain without “perisshyng the grete strokes”. (Anglo, Spectacle , p. 151-152).

In 1536, the master Achille Marozzo instructed that students should conduct their exercises with stiff blades and that strong blows should be thrown at them “in order to make them good at parries and strong in the arm.” (Castle, p. 43.). In Chapter 3 he then advised they be shown "good and strong strokes".   In 1570, the master Giacomo Di Grassi (who wrote on ways of strengthening the arms and the body for fencing), declared, “let everie man that is desierous to practise this Art, indevor himselfe to get strength and agilitie of bodie.”   Again, here is the idea of strength associated with skill. The various instructions Di Grassi gave on gaining strength and speed, including instruction on how to learn to strike with more force, make sense only when we understand that he was teaching to hit hard and fast.   Why else would you need to learn how to increase your striking power if you weren’t hitting hard?   Several times he made reference to this need to strike hard and strong.   For example, when cutting from the high ward at single sword he wrote, “deliver it as forcibly as he may” and from the high ward with sword and dagger he stated, “he ought in like sort discharge a thrust as forcibly as he may.”   And in the high ward with sword and buckler he said, “When the thrust is discharged…it must be driven & forced with all that strength which it requires, and that is very great.”

Commenting on using the short military cut-and-thrust sword in battle, George Silver in section 23 of his Paradoxes of Defence, wrote of the “strong blows, at the head, face, arms, bodies, and shoulders” used “with violent thrusts at the faces and bodies.” Adding how its advantage was its ability “to strike, to cut, to thrust both strong and quick.” In his final Silver even argued that it was necessary for fencers to “make trial with force and agility, without which the truth between the true & false fight cannot be known”. (Paradoxes, p. 70).  Silver also referred to how English “plough-men” would by nature fight using all manner of close-in actions “with great strength & agility.”  Similarly, more than a hundred years earlier Martin Siber in his Fechtlehre of c.1491 had repeatedly advised “in all your fighting you are nimble”.

There are numerous examples we can call on from the historical source literature concerning the necessity for power in blows. In the foreword of his 1440s work derived from Liechtenauer, Peter von Danzig instructed to "Strike in and hard." Hans Leckuechner’s rule number 4 for the beginner fencer from his manual of the 1470s, for example states: “He who moves after the blows, has no right to be proud of his art.”   If we understand him to be warning against moving without coordination, this would be because failing to put the whole body behind a blow in a harmonious manner robs it of considerable power –and this is what striking strongly is all about. Another reason for the necessity of moving the feet is that your target (opponent) will also be moving –either away from or toward your action.   And should they displace your cut with their own counter blow, unless yours has sufficient power to recover correctly you are in big trouble. George Silver in his 1599 treatise, Paradoxes of Defence , wrote of the cutting power of “the blow being strongly made.” (Chapter 13).   As Silver said, it was strongly made blows that wounded and killed, not light lacerations or short stabs. It goes without saying that human flesh is highly susceptible to sharp metal things.  

The example of the famous 17 th century samurai duelist, Miyamoto Musashi, is perhaps also worth noting here in relation to this. Musashi was notorious in duels for engaging his opponents with a bokken (wooden sword) or even a crude stick, while they used sharp steel blades.   Musashi was undefeated in these encounters, sometimes cracking his opponent on the head, collar, or wrist so that they were immediately incapacitated, permanently crippled, or outright killed.   Facing the razor keen edge of his opponent’s sword, he certainly didn’t dash in and shoot out his arm to tag his foe and then dive for cover yelling, “I got you! I got you!”   He hit fast, he hit accurately, but he hit very hard. Thus, we cannot downplay the importance of strength of muscle in personal aggression. As the “Goliath” manual instructs, “with potent strikes stab or cut in all encounters.”

Yet, a misreading of Giacomo Di Grassi’s statement, that cuts are of little effect unless drawn, when combined with the use of simple slashing draw cuts by slender rapiers as described by rapier masters such as Capo Ferro, have contributed to certain a misunderstanding that a light quick action can render an effective and debilitating cut without regard to strength in delivery. [6]   Writing in 1854, English military officer John Jacob noted, “Great mistakes exist regarding the respective powers of the edges and points of swords.”   He declared of well-made English blades that, “The things cut of themselves, however unskillfully handled” and commented later how, “Straight swords will not cut, save in skillful hands; curved blades cut fearfully, with very little or no skill on the part of the soldier.”   That same year, Captain Nolan wrote of the ferocious sword cuts by Nizam tribesmen in northern India (using British issue blades!) that severed limbs and heads. When one was asked by Nolan, “How do you strike with your swords to cut off men’s limbs?” An old Nizam trooper answered, “‘Strike hard, sir!”.   To which Nolan replied, “Yes, of course; but how do you teach them to use their swords in that particular way?” The old trooper responded, “We never teach them any way, sir; a sharp sword will cut in any one’s hands.” (Nolan, p.112).   We should keep in mind the comments of Captain O’Rourke, who in 1870 said of Nolan’s writing on the Nizam: “The secret of their success, if, indeed, it may be called a secret, consists in the fact that, by the constant use of Indian clubs, and constant practice with their swords, they are perfect models of muscular development, and, their swords being ground to a fine edge, they find it an easy matter to produce effects that startle and amaze those who look only at these effects without tracing them to their legitimate causes.” (O’Rourke, p.89).  

Even in his 1606 treatise on the slender thrusting rapier, the master Salvatore Fabris wrote, “If you are strong and your opponent is weak, you are at a great advantage.” Master Fabris also declared, “The strength of the sword should be a function of the placement of the blade, not of the brawn of the arm or wrist." (Leoni, Fabris, p. 30 & 167)

We must also consider the advice of English fencing Master Joseph Swetnam from his 1617, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence.  When explaining the use of a “slippe” or the dodging of a cutting blow, he recommends not responding until the opponent’s attack passes.  But as in this case he is teaching how to defend against a slender backsword cut with an even more slender and light rapier, he cautions not to strike and edge blow in return but preferably to thrust only.  To do this he naturally warns against doing it with too much force lest you move your guard off and expose yourself in the attempt: “for in fight if you doe strike, you must forbear strong blows, for with a strong blow, you may fall into divers hazards; therefore strike an easy blow, and doe it quick, but to thrust, and not strike at all, is to they best advantage.” (Swetnam, p. 121). So, obviously if using a light and narrow blade that employs more finesse than force, and which can snap under the stress of edge blows, his advice here makes perfect sense.

As can be concluded, cutting effectively is a factor of the swordsman’s blade, physical conditioning, and skill. In his 1614, The Private School of Defence, George Hale wrote of a "a Noble man, who from two and twenty Duelleoes returned Conquerour: Being demanded the reason by some that considered the qualitie of his adversaries in shew, and the uncertaine chances of the field: hee answered, Strength, Length, Courage, Temper and Cunning. So he concluded Nature in Art, and attributed the managing of those parts hee was borne with, to the ability of those hee was taught." Hale said of strength, "That which wee call strength, is not onely a Bucke-beating abilitie of the arme."

Observations and analysis –the necessity of strength

Obviously, different cuts call for different arm motions and a swordsman used a variety in his repertoire. But the strongest cuts are those using the full body behind them for more momentum and with the arms stretched out for the most torque.   A great many techniques in the German school often require the arms to stretch out (the Kron and the one handed “spring” come to mind –the latter a move also advised in the 15th century English fencing poem MS 3542). Indeed, the entire purpose of the fighting stance of Zornhut (“guard of wraith”) with the weapon essentially pulled down behind the back, and the rage strike of Zornhau made from here is solely to deliver an extremely powerful cutting blow. The master Peter von Danzig even described the Zornhau as being a “bad peasant blow.”

G. Zabinski’s recent translation of the Codex Wallerstein at one point (plate 13) reads: “So, you fight long against someone, and you come to him at the distance of the sword, so both of you are hand-to-hand. Then, you should stretch your arms and your sword far from you, and put yourself into a low body position ( die Waage ), so that you have a good grip and long reach in your sword, and so that you attack and parry against all which is necessary. The reach is that you stand behind your sword and lean yourself; the grip is that you stand low…and make yourself small in your body so that you are great in your sword.”   Plate 14 adds, “when you get engaged in close quarters with someone, keep the sword flat and stretched forward with the point to the face and wind him with the short edge.”   The edition of Joachim Meyer’s fighting compendium published in 1570 offers a description of the main cuts where the arms must also be stretched out: “The Direct strikes are named such as they strike against the opponent with the long edge and outstretched arms. There are four…from these all the others come forth…These are named the Lead or Principal Strikes.” (translation by Mike Rasmussen, 2003).   Filippo Vadi’s section on half-swording at one point for instance also comments, “Go with outstretched arms, bringing the edge in the middle of your partner.”   The Goliath manual as well as the compendia of Paulus hector Mair from the 1540s and those of Joachim Meyer from 1560-1570 also depict numerous exchanges of techniques with great swords where the figures have their hilts raised high and their arms fully outstretched for strength of leverage. Even Hanko Doebringer commented on the need for a swordsman to straighten the hands when cutting, writing: "This you should notice when he strikes and does not straighten his arms, so his sword is shortened". (translation by Bart Walczak, 2003).

Learning how to properly strike with force in this way is one of the biggest obstacles facing modern students.   They have to be taught the difference between cutting from the full arm and from the half-arm, and the hand.   Many practitioners do not instinctively grasp the necessity of stepping into their blow to add power or of using passing footwork to put their hip and shoulder into a cut from the full arm. They invariably pull their blows and step short and often cut by pulling the hilt from their shoulder down to their hip instead of stretching out with their arms as so many of the images in the source manuals depict.   In my estimation they can’t learn strong full-arm cuts using the body by striking short blows. Nor can they develop the proper body mechanics to then strike shorter blows with force from the half-arm without first practicing these full-arm ones.   To now suggest otherwise to students, I think, does a disservice to our craft and disrespects the historical fencers who came before us.

There is a clear value and need for short strikes (quite effective on the forearms and hands), but not without understanding the necessity of acquiring skillful use of powerful, far-reaching, full-arm cuts.   There are several short quick techniques delivered from the half arm described by the Italian masters that involve striking upward from a low position and many others in the German school that strike downward from middle position –as for example with the “Adder’s Tongue”, ‘Garden Hoe”, and Peacock’s Tail”.   But power and reach in striking strong blows comes from stretching out the arms with footwork to bring the momentum of the full body behind it (–which is itself another matter entirely and one also found repeatedly in the texts). A slicing draw may or may not then be affected as needed.

It cannot be ignored that the stances taught for longsword in Renaissance fighting manuals are positions devised for both guarding against as well as delivering powerful blows, not short, light taps, or soft, drawing slices.   While quick downward cuts with a longsword can be effective against an opponent’s unarmored hands and forearms, no deadly wound with stopping power can be achieved through simple lunging snaps made from the elbows or wrists.   There is plenty of evidence from the historical Masters instructing with long swords to pass and step into blows so as to put the whole body behind cuts and to strike from the shoulder.   The historical Masters tell us to strike strongly, to strike repeatedly and nimbly from opening to opening at quarter to quarter, but they say nothing about killing adversaries by shooting out quick drawing slices or short jabbing thrusts. [7] In his longsword section from the 1570 edition of his Fechtbüch, the master Joachim Meyer wrote on "How one shall Fence to the Four Openings, explaining the importance of knowing the four target areas before learning how to strike strongly, or else "your sword's blade will be held off and you will be repulsed with better countering strikes."

Though human flesh is highly susceptible to terrible injury from impacts by sharp metal things, in combat one had to be sure of taking out an opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible, and not striking in the hope of wounding with minimal effort.   You must be sure he is unable to strike back. Against armors, both soft and hard, cuts that would have been debilitating or lethal on bare flesh alone, might have no effect if they were too weak. But if executed with appropriate strength, they could traumatize the tissues and bone below and incapacitate the target. This may be why the German masters so repeatedly stressed the need for “fencing with strength.”   One could never count on just using blows sufficient for only fighting unarmored opponents, but had to be able to strike hard against cloth doublets, leather and maile defenses, and even attempt to damage underneath plate armor.   While a cut or even a thrust might not penetrate them, a strong blow might yet still cripple the opponent or at least open them to a follow on thrust.   Thus, in one sense, a skillful fighter would have been one who was able to strike quickly with the appropriate kind of blow as needed on a variety of targets, armored or not. Besides, practicing to fence strongly and hit hard also applied to other weapons besides swords.

Considerations and applications –using strength in modern practice

We certainly can conjecture that, with few exceptions, these skills were intended to be used with sufficient force to cause injury.   Medieval training in arms originated for the purposes of a man being able to engage in violent acts of self-defense while controlling the natural human instinct to run away from danger. Dealing mayhem and death to one’s fellow man is not an innate ability.   He had to not only learn to wield a weapon effectively as a tool in various life-threatening situations, but when confronted with enemies bent on his harm, to also stand fast in the face of assault and resist the impulse toward stress and fear.  

Surely then, Medieval and Renaissance swordsmen and warriors studied their combatives (skills for hand-to-hand fighting) with an emphasis on proper intent –i.e., learning and executing moves with realistic range and force in order to acquire a correct sense of motion, balance, and counter-timing.  They weren’t just putting on shows, and they weren’t using them only for pretend play.   It is only logical that to be properly learned techniques must have been performed with energy and speed during practice.   Thus, the need to fence strongly.   Of course, this kind of skillful execution does not come easily or immediately. It has to be developed over time by starting out slowly so the student develops correct form and body mechanics.

What does all this mean for novice Renaissance fencers today?   Should they start out trying to swing hard? No. They should practice slowly at first and learn proper control and form –the correct body mechanics. But they should aim for power and force in their blows, and this means not just striking quickly with energy, but seeking good physical conditioning to achieve this.

Fencing with “all your strength” certainly does not mean swinging away with all your might on every action.   Doing this (especially if relying on rage or aggression) can over telegraph the blow, unbalance you, and leave you exposed to a counter-attack. Fencing strongly also does not mean using only the minimal effort necessary to hope you successfully parry blows or disable your target.   It means using sufficient force –and in real fighting this force must be a strong one.   The historical record of wounds and deaths in sword combats reflects not only that swords easily cause terrible wounds but that humans can sustain considerable injury and continue fighting. It also reflects that an opponent, therefore, had to be taken out as quickly and efficiently as possible. You would not want to hit someone only to find you did not do so forcefully enough to stop him from hitting back. There are certainly plenty of actions in fighting where the opponent's own strength, his momentum and force, can be turned against him. With minimal effort and using proper timing and motion, leverage can work wonders to throw, disarm, or otherwise subdue an adversary. However, to offend with a weapon still requires a certain commitment of energy.

Should you always hit hard? The real question is, “Should you ever hit softly?” In real combat the answer is obvious.   In safe practice the answer is also self-evident.   You don’t want to injure your partner, but you want to use sufficient force to potentially prepare you for actualities of fighting in earnest.   But how do we learn to safely do the former by training in the latter?   The solution would seem to be clear; once you have developed proper form, next train full force and against inanimate targets, and then use good control when working with a partner. Over time, through repetition the performance of a technique or action will become smoother, faster, stronger, and more instinctive. The more experienced you become the more strength you can use. [8]

This is the way when intending to land a serious punch a skilled boxer hits as hard as possible not through his muscle power alone, but through speed, good form, and good technique combined with physical strength. The only time slow or soft movements would have had any value was during initial instructional periods whereby students could see the proper form and biomechanics of actions.   It is a long-standing maxim of martial arts that if a fighter never trains with realistic speed and intent, he can easily fool himself into thinking all manner of techniques are viable that would actually never work in real combat.  Many things appear to work fine in slower motion with a cooperative partner or even in the soft energy of mock fighting, but fall apart when faced with earnest intent. Historical warriors evidently understood this. [9]

We might consider that the speed and power with which ones trains will affect the quickness and strength of techniques when used for real. The old adage, train like you fight and fight like you train, is a sound one. A baseball pitcher for example does not train by pitching his balls slowly or softly nor does a high jumper train slowly or softly. To do something strong and fast you must practice it strong and fast. When you are accustomed to working techniques at speed, with the intent of actually hitting, and against the timing and consent of an opponent, it can drastically change how valid some actions with weapons can seem when compared to their use in casual playing or slow, soft, pre-arranged practice.

A reasonable goal for modern students of Renaissance martial arts is not to fall prey to the illusion that soft and slow practice alone would prepare them for real fighting –let alone give a full understanding of the physicality of what could occur in the chaotic violence of genuine personal combat.   We must endeavor to train with an appropriate mindset that acknowledges the brutality and viciousness of historical fencing and by necessity, the need to train with speed and strength once we have learned fundamental techniques and principles. [10]

In my own classs, I get all kinds of students of all ages and ranges of fitness. I adjust my teachings to each of them, but we still demonstrate a “standard” that we are striving for and which is an ideal goal. They may not all be able to reach it, and that’s fine, they do it to their own level of interest and satisfaction.   But at least they have no delusion about what the craft was for.   And for some, it provides something with which to contrast themselves. I know in my travels around the US to our various Study Groups, I often say to members, “Ok, you are progressing, you are doing fine, but you are not yet at a high level of earnest intensity”, so I demonstrate it for them, and the clarity it provides is eye opening.   When next I see them they have transformed. It’s quite satisfying.   Given my size and build, I also encounter a lot of students who are much larger with a lot more body weight and who are able to hit very hard. I always end up exploiting their natural efforts and hit them back just as hard, telling them in the process they are relying too much on trying to “whack” and “smack” rather than wield their weapon skillfully with proper form –which will permit them to more efficiently use their inherent strength.

Some conclusions

To summarize, skill in arms, or prowess, means agility and endurance as well as physical strength. And a powerful sword cut results not just from brute physical force, but the elements of a well-executed motion (the point moving in a circular arc, the hilt moving forward) combined with coordinated footwork, body motion, speed, strength, as well as edge placement, grip, focus, and follow-through. Cutting effectively with an edged weapon is, after all, not identical to hitting with say, a stick or club. These factors may be among the very reasons why there was such a craft as “swordsmanship,” but not “axe-manship” or “mace-manship”, etc.

There is no such thing as soft or slow personal combat.   Real fighting is an ugly and destructive activity, and killing is a messy, violent affair.   You cannot hit both slow and hard , and if you hit fast –with correct body mechanics –you will have stronger blows.   It is a hard to imagine a 15th or 16th century warrior entering into combat who had never trained at delivering forceful blows at full speed or in displacing such blows aimed at him. There is nothing to suggest that learning to fight well was acquired by practicing how to hit softly at inanimate targets or gained only from slow drills and exercises, either alone or with a partner. Certainly the use of the pell as a training device was one in which hard and accurate hits was the very purpose, and even solo training by cutting at empty air did not require any pulling of blows.  

The anonymous early 15th century "Poem of the Pell" (a paraphrased verse form of Vegetius's writings on military training) from the, Knghthode and Batayle (BL MS Cotton Library: Titus A. xxiii. Fols. 6 and 7) offers a rare description of Medieval sword and shield training exercises against a wooden target post. The poem instructs to, "To fighte stronge." (Dyboski, line 18, p. 14-15). The late 15th century fencing compilation, Der Alten Fechter , published in the early 16th century, offered twelve essential rules for the beginning fighter which summarized much of the Medieval German approach to sword fighting, also including the command, “deliver mighty blows out of the length.” This is not done except by striking with the force generated by muscle and proper body-mechanics.

The conclusion we can reach is that learning to hit hard with weapons was a standard prerequisite for fighting effectively. After all, in the end the biggest necessity for fencing strongly is that your opponent is not going to just stand there. You cannot afford to close with an opponent and then wind up your blow from a set pose; you must instead cut quickly and from a safe distance. When we think about it, would we really expect a master of arms to advise his students when fighting for their lives to fence "with half their strength"? Or "with most of their strength"? Or how about "less than all your strength"? It might be understandable that today, a modern enthusiast, unremarkabl e as a fighter and without the conditioning of our ancestors, would be desperate to interpret the word "strength" as meaning anything other than physically strong. But in terms of personal violence the words and meaning are clear.

This attitude can result from the sword tag of play-fighting and stunt-fencing.  But in terms of personal violence the words and meaning are clear. Fighting with “all your strength” doesn't mean to fight with “half” or with “less than all” nor does it mean just use proper body-mechanics to hit strongly without actually using “strength.” It is common sense in personal armed combat to strike with force and in doing so, strike strongly.

The central issue of the Renaissance Art of Defense is first and foremost a matter of directed violence for self-protection—not of stunt display, sporting contest, or aesthetic performance. This issue of using strength in fencing practice then, lies in regard to the necessity of learning to effectively apply force.   No one doubts that a ferocious attack is more dangerous than a timid one, that a strong fighter can hit harder than a weaker one, or that a faster blow can hit harder than a slower one.   While a fast blow can indeed be controlled to hit lightly, a slow one can not be made to hit strongly. Force is, after all, a matter of momentum and speed. You can’t hit hard by going slow, you can’t hit hard by going soft, and you can’t pretend that hitting hard is unnecessary. When someone is trying to kill you, you don’t hit slowly or weakly, and you don’t displace his blows by being slow and soft.   Instead, you should fence strongly.

“To use their utmost power and strength in fight”

– Tasso, 1575



[1] Sydney Anglo. How to Win at Tournaments: The Techniques of Chivalric Combat . Antiquaries Journal, LXVIII, 1989. p. 248.

[2] Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre 1467 , Modern German translation by Gustav Hergsell, 1887, English translation by Mike Rasmussen 2003.

[3] Hartmann von Aue, Iwein. Translation with an introduction by John Wesley Thomas. Lincoln , London , University of Nebraska Press. 1979, Line 7000.

[4] George Duby. France in the Middle Ages 987-1560 . Translated by Juliet vale. Blackwell, Oxford , UK , 1987, p. 180.

[5] Gutierre Diaz De Gamez. The Unconquered Knight - A Chronicle of the Deeds of Don Pero Nino, Count of Buelna. Joan Evans, translator. George Routledge & Sons, London 1928, p. 4-5.

[6] Fencing of later centuries changed significantly from the stronger full-arm blows of earlier swordplay. Fighting on horseback either with straight thrusting blades or curved blades against unarmored opponents, there was much less necessity among cavalry troops for powerful cuts. Similarly, gentlemen duelists were not trying to shear through limbs or hack into body cavities in their honorable quarrels. In selecting texts for military sabre in the late 19th century, the Italian Ministry of War declared for instance, that the new system of sabre fencing, developed by the respected master Giuseppe Radaelli, gripped the weapon with too much strength, delivered cuts with the force of a hammer, and encouraged the use of counter-cutting instead of parrying — as if these were all bad things in cut and thrust swordsmanship !   Yet Radaelli actually espoused a method of using his slender saber where the elbow alone was the axis of all blows delivered from the forearm.  

[7] To understand this we might take a sharp sword and lay upon a block of raw meat, then slowly press and pull the blade across, filleting a thick slice off like a chef.   It would certainly prove the gruesome danger of a sharp blade against flesh. But such an action would be useless for fighting.   It would be too slow and weak to cause a wound before the opponent either avoided it and struck back or just struck first instead. Logically, to be effective a strike has to strike with much greater speed and force so that it can neither be easily avoided nor easily set aside.   Either way, soft and slow is not going to succeed. Determining just what level of effort is required for this then is not a matter of seeking the “least necessary” strength, but rather the most effective and most efficient. When striking, one cannot risk exposing themselves with too much of a wind up before hand nor overextending themselves after with too great a follow through should they fail. Instead, blows must be quick and strong but also skillfully delivered with good timing and range.

[8] Just as there are “hard” and “soft” styles of traditional Asian martial arts (and the two don’t often see eye to eye) there are individuals as well as historical fencing groups today who are comfortable with a “soft” approach.   However, in ARMA, we intentionally chose the “hard” approach. Our reasoning is that this is what was needed in real combat –combat which required force and speed.   Further, the techniques in the historical source manuals we all follow were intended for real combat and were invariably lethal. So, while we all utilize a slow approach for instructing beginners, and even for veterans exercising at a slower pace to perfect their form, in ARMA we emphasize the violent nature of personal combat and the necessity of brutal efficiency in performing techniques with earnest intent –that is, in range, at speed, and with force.   It takes practice.   But the results are demonstrable.   We like to say, if “running” is your goal, then you certainly have to walk before you can learn to run. But you don’t learn it by “running in slow motion.”   And the best way to understand how to run is to be shown an example of it by someone who can really run. We believe the historical fighters we wish to emulate –who trained for real combat –surely must have followed this same logic, and to an even higher degree.   The records of historical sword deaths and injuries support this view.   Our test-cutting experiments support this.   And, it’s to be noted here, test-cutting against static targets using extra-sharp and thinly-edged blades can lead to misunderstanding about the force necessary to cut effectively against more substantial moving targets that are hitting back .  

[9] As to how “easy” is supposedly is to hit strongly by just using muscle, I am reminded how at several public test-cutting demos and class sessions we’ve held, attendees and students were invited to try their hand at cutting thick cardboard tubes, and the larger guys –usually   with rattan fighting backgrounds --invariably halled-off and just bashed the target, sending it flying but barely scratching it –then Hank Reinhardt walks up with the same blade and with a swipe shears through the tube effortlessly (sometimes even twice in a row).  

[10] There’s no question that to really strike effectively with a real sword you have to make strong actions and full motions and aim with the edge, focus your energy, and use correct body mechanics to ensure it all works together.   This kind of proficiency is achieved through rehearsing movements, first slower to acquire good form and fluidity, then faster with more intensity until you are striking quickly and solidly.   But, even when you are only practice fighting with a friend, with no intention of hurting one another, you still need to use the correct full arm movements and passing steps that you’ve learned.   Except to control the amount of force you use and the location of where you strike, you really shouldn’t move your body any differently in solo exercise than in partnered drills or free-play. At first, in order to acquire the proper body movements and the requisite balance and footwork involved, fighting skills must be taught slowly and then practiced slowly.   A man learns to handle a weapon well by repetition of those movements he has been shown or has discovered.   However, in order to display their proper execution and effectiveness, they must also first be demonstrated as realistically and as safely possible by an accomplished teacher –and this means with realistic speed and power .   Otherwise, a student will have no means by which to judge the application or value of any technique or action and no ideal standard by which to emulate it.   A student certainly must practice in “slow motion” in order to learn technique and skill in the beginning –they cannot learn if from the start they only are shown things hard and fast. But once they have acquired the proper motions and foundation, they must practice applying them at full speed and force. This is best achieved when they are presented an example to go by.   After all, slow-motion ballet did not protect a man in war. Strong and ferocious fighting did.

*The verses of Liechtenauer (in the manuscript of the Preußische Königliche Staatsbibliothek at present in the deposit of the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, ms.germ. quart. 2020) are translated here courtesy of Grzegorz Zabinski from his work in progress. Personal correspondence, 2003.

 
 

Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2016. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.

 

theARMA@comcast.net