“ Fence with all your strength …”
So art helps nature, nature strengtheneth art
In teaching or demonstrating
the techniques of Renaissance
weaponry, an issue is sometimes
raised as to how
realistically or how slowly one should train
–with intent and energy or not?
Similarly, in delivering blows another question
comes to the
forefront: how much force or strength should one
No one would argue that a fearsome full-arm blow
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
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
Can we go “soft” today, or do we need to try
force and energy?
of might…and the myth of strength
Chivalric literature of the Middle Ages is resplendent
accounts of knights delivering especially powerful hits,
strong sword blows are frequently identified with the prowess
of warriors. Romantic literature of the 13
centuries is full of tales and commentary about the power of
made by knightly heroes. The necessity of physical
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
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
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
But, the popular impression has been that Medieval
relied mainly on strength and endurance more than any
Part of this myth about strength being the basis
fencing skills stems from lack of information among
later writers who misinterpreted historical sources. But
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
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
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
Yet, for more than a century this was the common
opinion articulated by earlier fencing researchers such
The myth of earlier swordsmen having to fight
alone is discredited by the great 14th century German
Johannes Liechtenauer himself who alluded to
or “buffalos” as a demeaning term for untrained fencers who
rather than using skilful technique to strike, relied
strength and raw force alone to strike wide blows.
It wasn’t that Liechtenauer was against
itself, but on its substitution for lack of skill. You can
His chronicler, Hanko Doebringer, writing on how to
opponents similarly instructed the best
technique (“taught by
the old masters”) was the
(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
(based on Chrétien DeTroyes’ 12
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
can recall also how the 13th century term
–referring to a “man of prowess”,
described the perfect knight in whom reason and bodily strength were perfectly
Zabinski has related how a major component
longsword fencing was learning the pressing
against the strong or weak portion of an opponent's
needed for leverage so that a physically weaker man
overcome a stronger adversary with skill. So, again, it
use of strength without skill, not strength alone that was
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
century biography of Pero Nino.
Describing how the estate of nobles was formed, Diaz tells
that in ancient times the “people of the Law had one way, and
the Gentiles another.”
Gentiles, he says, “sought out a way to choose men for
thought to take into battle those who practiced “the
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
Doing this, Diaz tells us, they armed well these men and
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
had been ill-planned and that rather they should have
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
would set men upon heights to see how the battle unfolded
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.
We may note from this the view that the ideal
attributes of a
warrior were a combination: strength, courage,
–the very virtues praised in a fighter by the master
dei Liberi in his fencing treatise of 1410.
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
included as one of his four symbolic animals the elephant,
representing strength (
), 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
–certainly a necessity given the weight of arms
and armor a
man was expected to carry at length. The mid 15
century fencing manual popularly known now as the
, 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.
adds that in by knowing how to strike both left and right
how you fence correctly and strongly." The
further the earlier teaching of Peter Von
Danzig, "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,
could mean the opponent’s advantage in any
reach, speed, experience, armor,
Vadi’s work further described the need for the virtue of
swift eye, strength, knowledge, and quickness.
more, we see the combination of skillfulness with
This is exactly the idea of fencing with
idea was expressed when Doebringer wrote of Liechtenauer
as having taught, "it is always the art that
before the strength."
As Cervantes related in his 1614, Don Quixote, “force is overcome by Art.”
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.”
Considering then the words of so many Renaissance
texts which emphasized the need to employ strength, we
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
about muscularity as much as training, experience,
and expertise. The quality of strength in
literature has been suggested as being
more metaphorical to mean
all manner of attributes associated
with prowess and stamina
for physically powerful strikes with a sword. But logically,
cannot be argued that fighting strongly means everything
than hitting with strong full-arm strikes.
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,
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
esquires at lance-throwing and other warlike exercises,
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:
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
century humanist writers on physical education also stressed
the importance of muscular strength and
We might also recall the various images of weight-training
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
century. For example, Castiglione much
later wrote the ideal
courtier had to possess “strength, lightnesse,
quicknesse,” as well as “an understanding in all exercises
the bodie that belong to a man of warre.”
As Dr. Sydney Anglo wrote in his 1997 article
spectacles, “physical strength and skill in martial exercise
were only part of the manifold talent expected of the ideal Renaissance
Even later rapier masters were concerned with
strength for fencing. Francesco Alfieri in his 1640 text
wrote on exercising by saying it was “
to acquire dexterity and agility with practice” by
handle a staff or other heavy object such as a
spadone or pike
that “would strengthen the wrist and
alleviate the weight of the
Philip Sidney himself in 1580 wrote: to play with weapons
"it is good in itself, and besides encreaseth
and strength, and will make you a strong man at
the tourney and
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
fought with blunt swords or clubs in the Middle Ages,
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?
Francis I in the early 1500s even suggested certain
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,
, 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”.
The example of the famous 17
samurai duelist, Miyamoto Musashi, is perhaps also
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
Musashi was undefeated in these encounters,
cracking his opponent on the head, collar, or wrist
they were immediately incapacitated, permanently crippled,
Facing the razor keen edge of his opponent’s
certainly didn’t dash in and shoot out his arm to tag
and then dive for cover yelling, “I got you! I got you!”
He hit fast, he hit accurately, but he hit
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,
are of little effect unless drawn, when combined with
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.
Writing in 1854, English military officer John
“Great mistakes exist regarding the respective powers
edges and points of swords.”
declared of well-made English blades that, “The things cut
themselves, however unskillfully handled” and commented
how, “Straight swords will not cut, save in skillful
blades cut fearfully, with very little or no
skill on the part
of the soldier.”
year, Captain Nolan wrote of the ferocious sword
Nizam tribesmen in northern
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
returned Conquerour: Being demanded the reason by some
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."
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."
and analysis –the necessity of strength
different cuts call for different arm motions and
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
great many techniques in the German school often require
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
(“guard of wraith”) with the weapon essentially
behind the back, and the rage strike of
made from here is solely to deliver an extremely powerful
blow. The master Peter von Danzig even described the
being a “bad peasant blow.”
G. Zabinski’s recent translation of the
at one point (plate 13) reads: “So, you fight long
someone, and you come to him at the distance of the sword,
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 (
), 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
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
in 1570 offers a description of the main cuts where
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
instance also comments, “Go with outstretched arms,
the edge in the middle of your partner.”
as well as the compendia of Paulus hector Mair from
and those of Joachim Meyer from 1560-1570 also
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:
should notice when he strikes and does not straighten
arms, so his sword is shortened". (translation by Bart
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
the full arm and from the half-arm, and the hand.
Many practitioners do not instinctively grasp
of stepping into their blow to add power or of using
footwork to put their hip and shoulder into a cut from
full arm. They invariably pull their blows and step short
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
the body by striking short blows. Nor can they develop
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
There is a clear value and need for short strikes
effective on the forearms and hands), but not without understanding
the necessity of acquiring skillful use of powerful, far-reaching,
There are several short quick techniques delivered
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
guarding against as well as delivering powerful blows,
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.
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
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."
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
from impacts by sharp metal things, in combat one had to
sure of taking out an opponent as quickly and efficiently as
possible, and not striking in the hope of wounding with minimal
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
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
strong blow might yet still cripple the opponent or at
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.
practicing to fence strongly and hit hard also applied
other weapons besides swords.
and applications –using strength in modern
We certainly can conjecture that, with few exceptions, these
skills were intended to be used with sufficient force to
Medieval training in arms originated for the
purposes of a man
being able to engage in violent acts of self-defense
controlling the natural human instinct to run away from
danger. Dealing mayhem and death to one’s fellow man is not an
He had to not only learn to wield a weapon effectively
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
studied their combatives (skills for hand-to-hand
–i.e., learning and executing moves with realistic range and
in order to acquire a correct sense of motion, balance,
They weren’t just putting on shows, and they weren’t using
only for pretend play.
is only logical that to be properly learned techniques must
been performed with energy and speed during practice.
Thus, the need to fence strongly.
Of course, this kind of skillful execution does
easily or immediately. It has to be developed over time
starting out slowly so the student develops correct form and
What does all this mean for novice Renaissance
Should they start out trying to swing hard?
No. They should
practice slowly at first and learn proper control
–the correct body mechanics. But they should aim for
force in their blows, and this means not just striking
with energy, but seeking good physical conditioning to
Fencing with “all your strength” certainly does
swinging away with all your might on every action.
Doing this (especially if relying on rage or
over telegraph the blow, unbalance you, and leave
to a counter-attack. Fencing strongly also does not
effort necessary to hope you successfully
parry blows or
disable your target.
It means using
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.
are certainly plenty of actions in fighting where the
own strength, his momentum and force, can be turned
With minimal effort and using proper timing and
can work wonders to throw, disarm, or
otherwise subdue an adversary.
However, to offend with a
weapon still requires a certain commitment
are certainly plenty of actions in fighting where the
own strength, his momentum and force, can be turned
With minimal effort and using proper timing and
can work wonders to throw, disarm, or
otherwise subdue an adversary.
However, to offend with a
weapon still requires a certain commitment
Should you always hit hard? The real question
is, “Should you
ever hit softly?” In real combat the answer is
In safe practice the answer is also self-evident.
You don’t want to injure your partner, but you want to
sufficient force to potentially prepare you for actualities
of fighting in earnest.
how do we learn to safely do the former by training in
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.
This is the way when intending to land a serious
skilled boxer hits as hard as possible not through his
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
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
fighting, but fall apart when faced with earnest intent. Historical
warriors evidently understood this.
We might consider that the speed and power with
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
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
arts is not to fall prey to the illusion that soft and
practice alone would prepare them for real fighting –let
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.
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
But at least they have no delusion about what
the craft was
for some, it provides something with which to contrast
I know in my travels around the US to our various
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
When next I see them they have transformed.
Given my size and build, I also encounter a lot
who are much larger with a lot more body weight and
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
To summarize, skill in arms, or prowess, means
endurance as well as physical strength. And a powerful
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
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
After all, in the end the biggest necessity for fencing
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.
we think about it, would we really expect a master of
advise his students when fighting for their lives to
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
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.
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
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.
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
in regard to the necessity of learning to effectively
No one doubts that a ferocious attack is more
a timid one, that a strong fighter can hit harder
weaker one, or that a faster blow can hit harder than a
While a fast blow can indeed be controlled to
hit lightly, a
slow one can not be made to hit strongly. Force
all, a matter of momentum and speed. You can’t hit hard
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
How to Win at Tournaments: The Techniques of
. Antiquaries Journal, LXVIII, 1989. p.
 Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre 1467 , Modern German translation by Gustav Hergsell, 1887, English translation by Mike Rasmussen 2003.
Hartmann von Aue,
Translation with an introduction by John Wesley Thomas.
Diaz De Gamez.
The Unconquered Knight - A Chronicle
of the Deeds of Don
Pero Nino, Count of Buelna.
Joan Evans, translator. George
Routledge & Sons,
Fencing of later centuries changed
significantly from the
stronger full-arm blows of earlier swordplay.
horseback either with straight thrusting blades
blades against unarmored opponents, there was much
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
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 —
if these were all bad things in cut and thrust
Yet Radaelli actually espoused a method of using
slender saber where the elbow alone was the axis of all
blows delivered from the forearm.
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
would be too slow and weak to cause a wound before the
either avoided it and struck back or just struck
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.
way, soft and slow is not going to succeed.
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
after with too great a follow through
should they fail.
Instead, blows must be quick and strong but
delivered with good timing and range.
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”
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.
the techniques in the historical source manuals we
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
with earnest intent –that is, in range, at speed,
It takes practice.
But the results are demonstrable.
We like to say, if “running” is your goal, then
certainly have to walk before you can learn to run. But
don’t learn it by “running in slow motion.”
And the best way to understand how to run is to be shown
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.
records of historical sword deaths and injuries support
Our test-cutting experiments support this.
And, it’s to be noted here, test-cutting against
targets using extra-sharp and thinly-edged blades can
to misunderstanding about the force necessary to cut effectively
moving targets that are hitting back
As to how “easy” is supposedly
is to hit strongly by just
using muscle, I am reminded how at
test-cutting demos and class sessions we’ve held,
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).
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
kind of proficiency is achieved through rehearsing
first slower to acquire good form and fluidity,
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
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
movements he has been shown or has discovered.
However, in order to display their proper execution
effectiveness, they must also first be demonstrated as realistically
and as safely possible by an accomplished teacher –and this
with realistic speed
Otherwise, a student will have no means by which
the application or value of any technique or action
ideal standard by which to emulate it.
A student certainly must practice in “slow motion” in
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
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,
*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.