Get Thee a Waster!

By J. Clements

“…take a good waster in thy hand”
- Anonymous, Mery Talys, 1526 

One of the most common historical training tools for the practice of swordsmanship throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance was a wooden sword or waster.  These were not light round sticks but heavy sword shaped training weapons. Wooden training swords are of course used in many martial arts around the world, most notably in Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Indian styles.  Yet, less widely known is that in Europe wooden practice weapons were also employed.   They were used not just as substitutes for wide Medieval cutting blades but also for slender tapering Renaissance swords and even rapiers.

Though until recently not widely employed for training by today’s historical fencing enthusiasts, wasters are becoming more popularly accepted.  There is considerable evidence for their historical use throughout the literature of the period.  In examining this interesting material the advantage and utility of wooden training weapons becomes clear. A wooden weapon was readily available and able to withstand use and abuse while leaving expensive steel weapons for real combat. A wooden sword is also useful for one very obvious reason: you can make contact on a person in such a way that they would not be injured or unduly hurt by the strike, as they would practicing with blunt steel.   This, combined with the obvious wear and tear that is saved on valuable steel blades, made wasters popular instruments for teaching fencing. 

From at least the tenth century in many Italian communities rival bands of youth battled in open fields with wooden swords and shields. (Davis. p. 14).   In Medieval Pisa, there were also so-called giucco del mazzeascudo, or fighting “with wooden weapons sometimes altogether, sometimes two at a time; [with] a wooden helmet on the head and a padded breastplate of iron.”  (R. Davis, p. 175, note 8). Pretend wars between fighters wielding sticks and protected by shields, helmets, and body armour were a regular occurrence in Italian cities during the era. (R. Davis, p. 49).

John Stow’s 1598, Survey of London, recounted the following: “Ye may have read in mine annals how that in the year 1222 the citizens kept games of defence, and wrestlings, near unto the hospital of St. Giles in the field, where they challenged and had the mastery of the men in the suburbs and other commoners…The youths of this city also have used on holy days after Evening prayer, at their masters’ doors, to exercise their wasters and bucklers.” (Stow, p. 36).  Starting in the late 12th century in Bergamo, Italy, an infantry training exercise using wooden weapons was called “battle with small shields”.  In these pugne or “fights” all classes took part in the activity and Judges imposed heavy fines on anyone caught using iron weapons.  By the 14th century it became a form of public entertainment often degenerating into brawls among the youth. (Nicolle, Italian Miltiaman, p. 31).

One of the clearest examples of the use of wooden swords in Medieval fencing comes to us from the 1434 writings of the Portuguese King Dom Duarte.  In his Regimento, Duarte described: “And there he had weapons made of fine iron for other men, and he had lances and axes and wooden swords, and whenever he wanted to practice he armed himself with heavier weapons...made for learning different methods of defence and offence in which others are well versed.”[1]  Duarte further advised: “Have spare weapons and armor at your house for anyone who comes over. Have wooden weapons to play with. When you spar use heavier weapons. Sparring helps you to learn new techniques from suitable partners. If no one comes over, train with anyone you can.”[2]  English antiquarian Samuel R. Meyrick in his 1824, Antient Armour, noted a 1455 reference from a document in the Tower of London to, “Furst viij swerds and a long blade of a swerde made in wafters [read wasters]…for to lerne the king to play in his tendre age.” (chapter II, p. 144)  So, here we have an apparent description of eight wooden short swords and a wooden longsword being used for fighting instruction by the young king himself.   

One modern source stated that these “wafters” (wasters) were actually swords “with the blade set at right angles to the grip, so that a blow would be struck with the flat rather than with the edge”, but it gave no source for this claim. (Dufty, p. 9).  No historical evidence for training weapons with blades set like this has come to light and such items would be especially awkward to handle.  Even if only the last quarter of the blade were somehow forged so that just it was turned “sideways” for safer striking, it would be quite and impractical for executing most fighting techniques.

Fighting with sticks or cudgels was an accepted form of combat for judicial duels in Medieval Europe. In the 15th century, Olivier de la Marche, for example, told of a judicial duel between two tailors fought with shield and cudgel.  In his 1841, The History of Dueling, J. G. Millingen related a duel in 1455 at the French city of Valenciennes between two burghers using “knightly cudgels of equal length, and bucklers painted red”. (Millingen, Vol I, p 363).  The town even furnished the combatants with instructors to teach them the use of the club and buckler.   The early 19th century chronicler of duels J. P. Gilchrist related a 15th century statement that in duels among commoners, “The weapons allowed them are, batons, or staves…and a four-cornered leather target…[and] in France villeins only fought with the buckler and baton.”[3]  Shakespeare even included a judicial combat fought with sticks between a common armorer and his apprentice in his, Henry the VI, Part 2.   At right here, is a possible depiction of wasters held by two retainers from a Milanese chivalric manuscript from circa 1370-1380.

In his famous fighting treatise of 1410, the Flos Duellatorum, the master Fiore dei Liberi even briefly described the use of two short clubs he called bastone (“big sticks”).   In England, James Miller, a noted prize-fighter and Master of Defense, published a book in 1737 with plates detailing stick-fighting weapons including the cudgel, whose original purpose he wrote was for training in the backsword.  The use of wooden swords as we will see even continued into the 18th and 19th centuries as both military tool and sporting implement. 

A Medieval waster was apparently distinct from simple sticks, clubs, bats, batons/battoons, batunes/bastons, truncheons, etc., in that it was specifically made as a mock weapon for sword practice (although these other items could also serve that purpose). One fragment of an actual wooden short sword from the 15th century still survives and shows it to have a flat blade and a hilt complete with cross-guard and pommel.  The waster might also be known as a bastinado, bavin, or even a baton, and in England a cudgel or wiffle or whiffle.  In his 1598 Italian-English dictionary, John Florio defined Bastone as “a cudgel, a sticke, a staffe, a trun­cheon, a bat, a waster.” Florio also described Cesti as “foiles, wasilers or cudgels that fen­cers use in schooles.”  Randall Cotgrave’s English-French dictionary of 1611 defined Baston as, “A staffe, bat, cudgell, trunchion, club” as well as “a sword, and (more generally) any weapon of offence.”   Seen at right here, is a 1351 depiction from a sequence of a knight being armed. In the images he both enters and exists the scene holding a sword-like stick the length of which matches his weapon. It may represent some emblem of authority or could be a waster.

The term waster in English may derive from the quality of the tool being expendable or something that can be discarded or also a person who wasted, spoiled, or destroyed things.[4]  The Oxford English Dictionary lists the word “waster” (wayster, wafter, wasiler) as: “A wooden sword or a foil used in sword-exercise and fencing” or “A cudgel, staff, club.”  It also provides several examples where they are mentioned and refers to “Fencing with a ‘waster’; single-stick, cudgel-play…especially to play at wasters.”  Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary from 1913 similarly defined waster as “A kind of cudgel; also, a blunt-edged sword used as a foil.”  

Writing on old swordplay in the late 19th century, researcher-practitioner Captain Alfred Hutton listed it as “wafter”, not uncommon as “s” was typically written as an “f” in earlier forms of English literature.  Hutton concluded that in Medieval fencing those with little or no armor cultivated their skill through sword and buckler play by using a waster or cudgel as a substitute for steel (Hutton, The Sword and the Centuries, p. 2.).  His fellow fencing historian Egerton Castle described the English waster as a “dummy sword either with a rounded blade or one transversely set, so that only the flat could be used”. (Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence, p. 247).  He supplied no source however for why he thought they were round.  Castle called the waster “the ‘foil’ of the backsword during the sixteenth century.” He further related that “practice with cutlass, Düsack, or falchion was carried on with curved wooden lathes” and pointed out that at the time the French still used a Dusack-like wooden sword for sabre practice similar to the British single-stick or cudgel. Castle noted, “We find many allusions in Elizabethan literature to ‘wasters’, used with or without the buckler, as a substitute for the sword, and among apprentices and such people in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries ‘wasters’ seem to have been as popular a sport as ‘single-stick’ in later days.” (Castle, p.  209).[5]   

There is considerable evidence to persuade us that for many centuries wooden swords and other wooden practice weapons remained common training tools.  From the anonymous 1536 play, The King and Queenes Entertainment at Richmond, we even find the lines "play at wasters with me" when a character requests to practice fence. In Rabelais’s early 16th century fantasy, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, we read how Gargantua “had a fair sword made of wood, and the dagger of boiled leather.” (Chapter 1.VIII).  English literature, especially of the 16th and 17th centuries, is rich with references and analogies to the use of wasters for teaching of fencing and mock-combat play.  It is clear these activities were typically martial exercises not mere stick-fighting sports. B. P. Hall’s 1621, Heaven upon Earth, for example, noted clearly, “Even as with woodden wasters we learne to play at the sharp.” While Sir Thomas Overbury commenting on English masters in 1616, noted that to teach fencing, all the new Master needed was three large “bavins”, or ash sticks. (Aylward, p. 25).     Michel de Montaigne, in his 1575 essays wrote of seeing: “in the house…canes poured full of lead, with which they say he exercised his arms…in fencing”. (Chapter VIII, Of Drunkenness).   In the 1615, Charron's Wisdom, we read of how, “A weake arme wanting power and skill well to welde a waster or staffe that is somewhat too heavy for it, wearieth it selfe and fainteth.”  From the 1541, Rutland Manuscripts, we find: “For Bryngyng...of hiltes for the crosse wasters for my Lorde Roose” (Hist. MSS. Comm. IV. 313, iiijd), a statement that seems to imply that metal guards were even sometimes attached to wooden blades. 

The 1561 English translation by Sir Thomas Hoby of the Italian Baldassare Castiglione’s influential 1528, The Book of the Courtier, included in its “First Booke” the line: “houldyng in hys hand a sworde or any other waster” (Walter Raleigh edt. David Nutt, London, 1900).  Castiglione’s work reflects the courtiers of the duke of Urbino at the turn of the century and thus suggests wooden weapons were not unfamiliar tools among them. Both the Italian fencing masters Angelo Viggiani writing in the 1540s and Camillo Palladini in the late 1500s referenced the use of practice swords, such as the spade da marra and spade da gioco, as opposed to sharp or edged swords (spade da filo).[6]  Whether these were merely blunted steel blades or wooden swords is not determinable.  In the section Of the exercise and strength of the armes at the end of the 1594 English edition of Giacomo Di Grassi’s, His True Arte of Defence, we are told: “The sword as each man knowes, striketh either with the poynt or with the edge. To strike edgewise, it is required that a man accustome himselfe to strike edgewise as well right as reversed with some cudgell or other thing apt for the purpose.”  This would be a clear indication that wasters were indeed blade-shaped tools and not merely round sticks (Although, the original Italian edition of 1570 apparently referred to this bastone not as a wooden sword or stick but as a pell or a pole planted in the ground).  

One anonymous German Fechtbuch (“fight book” or “fencing book”) from the mid-1500s illustrates in color the use of several forms of wooden practice weapons including spears, daggers, and halberds with round balls in place of sharp points. Several treatises from the period, such as Paulus Hector Mair’s compendium of c.1540 and the work of Joachim Meyer’s in 1570, depict such round-tipped dagger wasters. There is no other reason for employing such tools other than to safely learn to make non-injurious contact when training realistically with a partner.  In his Il Torneo of 1627, the Italian knight Bonaventura Pistofilo described a poleaxe made of wood but painted like metal, “so that it should more closely approximate to reality”.  Presumably we can surmise these were intended for fighting practice, otherwise if they were only for display we might wonder why not just use actual metal ones?  In the 1616 poem, Honest Lawyer, written by one, S. S., we indeed tellingly read, "With wooden wasters learne to play at sharpe."

The English fencing master Joseph Swetnam at the end of chapter XI of his 1617 fencing text, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, even specifically referred to the use of wooden rapiers and for safety advised students to cover the points of their “woodden foile or staffe”.  In the anonymous satirical play of 1620, Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraign'd by Women, about the misogyny of the Master of Defence, we read how the Spanish gentleman Scanfardo refers to Swetnam asmy noble Gladiator, Doctor of Defence” to which the Swetnam character then describes himself only as “A Master, Sir, of the most magnanimous Method Cudgell-cracking” (i.e., waster practice).   

In his 1646, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Sir Thomas Browne referred metaphorically to wasters as safe arms: “For being unable to wield the intellectuall arms of reason, they are fain to betake themselves unto wasters, and the blunter weapons of truth” (Chapter III).  Samuel Butler’s fantasy poem, Hudibras, from 1663 noted the use of thick leather coat armor as being resistant to wooden weapons but not sharp blades: “His doublet was of sturdy buff, And tho' not sword, yet cudgel-proof; Whereby 'twas fitter for his use, Who fear'd no blows, but such as bruise.” (Part I, Canto I. lines 305-308).  Butler even described an imaginary fight between wooden and steel swords:

“Then Hudibras, with furious haste, Drew out his sword; yet not so fast, But Talgol first, with hardy thwack, Twice bruis'd his head, and twice his back. But when his nut-brown sword was out, With stomach huge he laid about, Imprinting many a wound upon His mortal foe, the truncheon. The trusty cudgel did oppose Itself against dead-doing blows, To guard its leader from fell bane, And then reveng'd itself again. And though the sword (some understood) In force had much the odds of wood, 'Twas nothing so; both sides were ballanc't So equal, none knew which was valiant'st: For wood with Honour b'ing engag'd, Is so implacably enrag'd, Though iron hew and mangle sore, Wood wounds and bruises Honour more” (lines 794-813). 

Wasters were also frequent non-lethal substitutes in bout of combat sport.  In the 1620 play, Philaster: Or, Love lies a Bleeding, by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, we also find the lines: “thou wouldst be loth to play half a dozen of veneys at wasters with a good fellow for a broken head” (Act 4, Scene 1).  From the anonymous, Pinder of Wakefield, published in 1632 we read of a grudge contest between the common men from rural Kendall and Halifax on Midsummer day. Among the various swords and weapons the bouting included were cudgels by which many heads were bruised and bloodied.  One amusing English tale from 1638 which provides an example of friendly mock sword combat with wooden swords reads: “A Country fellow comming into Cheapeside, tooke up a waster and a buckeler to play with an Apprentice, the Apprentice beating him soundly, breaking his head, etc. the fellow cast downe his waster againe, and said that if he had not thought that the Apprentice would still have struck on the Buckler, (as he thought) he would not have plaid.”[7] William Horman’s 1519, Vulgaria, includes the lines, “Let us pley at buckeler and at waster in feyre game”, and also, “This waster [rudis] is not laufull.”  From Robert Greene’s 1594 play, Selimus, Emperor of the Turks, we note the line, “I thought my selfe as proper a fellow at wasters, as any in all our village.”  In the Club Law from c. 1599 (attributed to George Ruggle) we find a description that, “To night is holy daye, and there will be waster play.”  William Gouge’s 1631, God's Three Arrows, also referred to “Such kind of recreations as…playing at wasters and foines.” (III. §11. 206).  In Cotswold, England, a series of popular local games held beginning in 1612 included cudgel playing (considered a lower class sport) among its activities. A contemporary woodcut of the Cotswold games included a small depiction of two adult figures playing with wooden swords and daggers. 

Medieval knightly tournaments were also well known for using safer mock weapons.  In the 1400s one form of tournament was the Kolbenturnier or baton course whose object was to bash the crest on the adversary’s helm. The weapon used for this was the Kolben, an octagonal wooden club or baton. (Clephan, p. 41).  Several Medieval fighting manuals, such as those of Hans Talhoffer in the mid-1400s, also depict such clubs as being used by commoners in judicial combats.  The 15th century “Book of Tournaments” by King René d’Anjou refers to using “a rebated sword such as is used in a tourney” and stated that both the sword and club (bâton) should not exceed the length of one arm. It further stipulated: “It should be four fingers wide, so that it cannot pass through the eye-slot of the helm, and the two edges ought to be as thick as a finger’s thickness. And so that it will not be too heavy, it should be hollowed out in the middle and rebated in front and all in one piece from the crosspiece to the end.” (Translation by Elizabeth Bennett, 1997). As well, 15th century German tournament societies specified the club of wood, like the tourneying sword, had to have a width of no less than 3 and 1/2 fingers.[8]  The 15th century treatise cries des joustes specified a baton two and a half feet long.[9]  Exchanges of blows in these tournaments between armored opponents were conducted in earnest, with each party trying their best to strike hard and accurately.  A more or less informal and friendly type of tournament fight was the Behourd, which frequently used wooden or rebated swords or even ones made out of whalebone (which were sometimes given leather guards and decorated to make them appear like steel blades). These combats were mostly fought between esquires or knights in training.

Use of wooden training swords are actually known to date back to ancient times. The Egyptians practiced a form of fencing sport using thin knobbed pointed sticks and the Romans specifically employed them for combat training. From Philip Francis’s 1743 translation of the Roman poet Horace we also find that, “The Gladiators, in learning their Exercises, played with wooden Swords, called rudes.”  In B. Holyday’s 1661 translation of the Roman poet Juvenal we read: “The fencer’s staffe or waster…was call’d rudis (as some think) because with such cudgels they practiz’d the rudiments of fencing, before they came in publick to fight at sharp.”   In the ancient Roman arena preliminary events occasionally included bloodless, sometimes farcical, duels between paegniarii or lusorii, who fought with wooden weapons called arma lusoria.   Among the gladiators, if a man repeatedly survived the arena and lived long enough to retire, a symbolic wooden sword or rudis was awarded as a token of discharge from service (Michael Grant, Gladiators, Barnes and Noble, 1967, p. 74 & 100).  One classical historian has concluded that Roman gladiators trained with wooden swords at a straw man or a two-meter high wooden post called a palus (precursor to the Medieval pell).  The same source tells us to give the gladiators strength training these wooden weapons were heavier than the real ones. (L. Friedlander-Drexel. Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms, as cited in Grant, Gladiators, p. 40). The emperor Caligula himself was known to have engaged in practice fights against gladiators using wooden swords. (Grant, p. 97).   

Describing the traditional training of soldiers, the Roman military writer Vegetius told how young legionnaire recruits were given a “double-weight shield frame and foil, so that when the recruit takes up real, lighter weapons, as if freed from the heavier weight, he will fight in greater safety and speed.” (M. P. Milner. Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, Liverpool, 1993).  The original Latin term used by Vegetius was not “foil”, but ligneas caluas, with ligneas meaning wood or wooden and caluas meaning cudgels, stick, or practice sword.  In his 1572 version of the 5th century text on training of soldiers by the Roman military writer Vegetius, John Sadler used both the terms “wooden waster” as well as “cudgels” and referred to “great wodden cowgels as heavy agayne as their usual…wasters”.[10]   Finally, Philemon Holland’s English translation in 1600 of the 7th century Roman historian Livy described, “Foule worke they made with their wodden wasters and headlesse pikes” (XL. vi. 1063).   

A wooden sword from Grotsetter in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, dated to the Late Bronze Age (now in the National Museum in Edinburgh) has been found as well as a similar example from Ireland, "made of yew, a rare hardwood, indicating its practical function, just as the pommel had been broken off apparently in antiquity." Wooden swords and weapons are mentioned in the Irish myth, the Táin, where an insult is made against Cuchulainn that he is only good at graceful tricks with wooden weapons. (Kristiansen, p. 326, citing Táin, p. 118-119).

What are the advantages and disadvantages of wooden swords as training tools?   Clearly, they are economical and save abuse of expensive steel weapons thereby preserving them for proper use.  Wooden weapons are also inherently less intimidating and threatening than steel and therefore are good for introducing new students to the necessary skills.   Getting knocked in practice by a wooden blade is less dangerous than being hit by the blunt edge of a thin metal one.  The disadvantages of wooden weapons are that they do not function identically to quicker ones of steel.  In order to understand the important but often subtle differences the student must acquire experience by using steel.  

Wooden practice weapons were thus not uncommon or unusual in European fencing history.  Recently, a pair of antique 19th century wooden practice foils, designed like smallswords, were discovered in Louisiana and purchased by a British fencing museum. Since the mid-1990s, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts ( has pioneered the modern use of wooden swords for practice and these tools make up a large portion of our training drills and exercises (or armatura).  Wasters provide an excellent training tool for physical conditioning as well as exercise drills.  They also save wear and tear on steel blades. High quality commercial wasters of many varieties are available today.  A good waster should be made of solid hardwood and be capable of taking strenuous contact.  They should be as close to the size, balance, weight, and feel of their steel counterparts.  Rather than overly-light versions, a heavy waster is best for both solo exercising and pell work.   Thus, to paraphrase the historical view, if you intend to train seriously in Medieval and Renaissance fencing my advice is: get thee a waster!

End Note:

Recruit handbooks for military-drill of the 18th and 19th centuries devoted much attention to fencing with wooden sticks as training for military sabre strokes.  In his 1798 military sword treatise C. Roworth commented on the difference between using sticks and steel blades, which did not encourage the use of a true edge, stating: “…if they practice only with a stick, the weight of the sword will render it so unwieldy when they are compelled to draw it on a real occasion, as to frustrate almost every offensive movement against an antagonist possessed of either science or agility.” (p.6, The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre, London, Printed for T. Egerton at the Military Library near Whitehall, 1798).  Yet, many other writers contradicted this view.  In his 1805 Scotch broadsword treatise Lt. Mathewson wrote that for his lessons and guards he “would recommend to be practised with flat wooden blades, in the form of the sword you mean to carry”. (Thomas Mathewson, Fencing Familiarized; or A New Treatise on the Art of the Scotch Broad Sword: Showing the superiority of that weapon, when opposed to an enemy armed with a spear, pike, or gun and bayonet, W. Cowdroy, 1805, p.8.) 

In its section “Of the Practice Drill with Sticks” one 1819 British military fencing treatise stated: “As no exercise with the Sword can be brought to perfection without some species of loose or independent practice, Sticks should be substituted for Swords in the present instance, as in fencing, Foils are used for the acquirement of that Science.”  In the broadsword fencing section of his 1840, Defensive Exercises, Donald Walker astutely noted, “As no exercise with the Sword can be brought to perfection without some specious of loose or independent practice, Sticks should be substituted for Swords”. But he wisely noted nothing “should be attempted with the Stick, which could not be performed with the sword”.  (Donald Walker, Defensive Exercises; Comprising Wrestling as in Cumberland, Westmoreland, Cornwall, and Davonshire; Boxing, both in the usual mode and in a simpler one; Defence against brute force, by various means; Fencing and Broad sword, with simpler methods; the Gun, and its Exercise; the Rifle, and its Exercise, London, Thomas Hurst, 1840, p. 115-116).  British cavalry Captain Valentine Baker wrote in 1858 how, “There should be a school of arms in each regiment, where loose play, mounted and dismounted, could constantly be practised.” He added “Good loose play with single sticks would be the best teaching for the cavalry soldier…” (Baker, p.58-59). 

The 1858, Athletic Sports for Boys, featured “exercises” and “drills” for “the young swordsman” to “progress as a broadswordsman or a single-stick player”. The short section on fencing offered “are many exercises with the broadsword, called Practices” and stated: “These exercises are always learned with the singlestick, or basket-hilted cudgel, in order to avoid the dangers which would be inevitable if the sword were used.” It also cautioned “the single-stick is only an imitation of the sword.” (Athletic Sports for Boys: A Repository of Graceful Recreations for Youth, (Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, NY, 1858, p.169).  In the introduction to his 1876, New System of Sword Exercise, Sir Richard Burton, however observed: “I would note the mistake of “loose practice” with the single stick instead of the sabre; it probably arose from a mistaken economy in saving swords and paddings. Single stick is a different weapon, a cane or light cudgel with a basket-hilt covering the back of the hand, like the imperfect guard of the Highland Clay-more; it is straight, not curved, and as the rod has no edges, so in practice every blow equally represents a cut.” (Burton, A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry, William Clowes and Sons, London, 1876). 

Naval historian Gilkerson tells us: “Perhaps in order to save wear and tear on the cutlasses – if not the sailors – wooden practice cutlasses known as ‘single sticks’ were formally adopted and retained in use as a sport and exercise in both the British and U.S. Navies well into the 20th century.  In White Jacket, Herman Melville even described the single-stick practice which he witnessed aboard the frigate United States in 1840:  “Single-stick as ever one knows, is a delightful pastime, which consists in two men standing a few feet apart, and rapping each other over the head with long poles.  There is a good deal of fun in it, so long as you are not hit; but a hit – in the judgment of discreet persons – spoils the sport completely.  When this pastime is practiced by connoisseurs ashore, they wear heavy, wired helmets, to break the force of the blows.  But the only helmets of our tars were those with which nature had furnished them.” (Gilkerson, p.103).

Wooden sabres were also used in the French cavalry during the mid-1800s and to the present day the French stick-fighting art of La canne uses hard slender reeds in a “cut and thrust” style of fighting as do other stick-fighting arts from the Canary Islands.   The traditional Irish fighting stick, the shilelah / shillelagh is a knotted cudgel typically made of oak or blackthorn wood.   It was written on in the 18th & 19th centuries as a commonplace method of self-defense.  The use of the shillelagh walking stick became common as British occupiers restricted weapons in Ireland.  As well, one form of 19th century polish wooden training sword was known as a palcat.  The 18th century English fighting sport of Singlestick used one larger stick. Techniques for longer staves (wattles) and cudgels were also known to exist. To prevent unfair use of the left hand in contests it was tied behind the back or at the waist in various fashions according to local rules. Several stick-fighting systems developed around the world and many still survive in forms of sport, folkdance, and ritual. Some of the craft still survives. In Portugal, the art of Jogo do Pau still exists as a cultural tradition, self-defense skill, and sport. French stick-fighting systems use many kinds of sticks: la canne d’armes (using a dress cane or walking stick), the sport form of canne de combat (using a 65” baton or walking staff), and the crooked cane used in lutte parisseinne.  The street combat system of La canne de armes developed during a ban under Napoleonic laws on carrying swords within the city of Paris. The cane is handled much like a sword and many fencers took to practicing it as a legal alternative to the sword. Italy also has a stickfighting art of suing the bastone. A tradition of stickfighting in Russia is known as Shtyk and uses a 5-foot stick called the polka.


[1] Hick, Steve, Dom Duarte’s Advice to Swordsman and the Search for his Regimento, in preparation. Dom Duarte, King of Portugal - 1434, Lisbon.


[2] The words used here for “spar” or “sparring” are verbs referring to proving or testing oneself, or essaying against, to play and train oneself, to demonstrate, to prepare, to perform, and to exercise. Hick, Steve, Dom Duarte’s Advice to Swordsman and the Search for his Regimento, in preparation.


[3] James P. Gilchrist. A Brief Display of the Origin and History of Ordeals; Trials by Battle; Courts of Chilvary or Honour; and the Decision of Private Quarrels by Single Combat: Also, a Chronological Register of the Principle Duels. Printed for the Author, London 1821, p. 32.


[4] The King James Bible, includes the word in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (54:16): “Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.”  Though, in this sense it seems to mean a person who uses a weapon to cause destruction.  Florio also identified Rouinatore as a “ruiner, a spoiler, a waster, a consumer”.


[5] He added: “Long after the sanguinary back-sword fights had gone out of fashion, cudgeling or single-stick play for prizes remained a national amusement, especially among country people, and in some parts of England proficiency with the stick was an accomplishment as much admired and cultivated as that of wrestling.” (Castle, p.209).


[6] Interestingly, the Italian master Viggiani in his 1575, Lo schermo, disputed the use of rebated practice swords, arguing that with such weapons proper attitude or the “psychology of combat” was learned imperfectly. Which certainly says a great deal about the entire premise of contact in foyning swordplay and fencing practice. (Lo schermo, Angelo Viggiani, Venice, 1575, fols 52v-53r).


[7] H. L. Oxon. Gratiae Ludentes; or, Jestes from the University. Thomas Cotes, London, 1638. Verse 116, “A Country man.”


[8] William H. Jackson, Tournaments and the German Chivalric renovatio: Tournament Discipline and the Myth of Origins, in Chivalry in the Renaissance, S. Angelo ed., Woodbridge; Boydell Press, 1990. p.80-81.


[9] Juliet Barker, The Tournament in England. pp.149. referring to the Bodleian manuscript Ashmole 764 folio 32r.


[10] Flavius Vegetius Renatus. The Foure Bookes of Martiall Policye,briefly contayninge a plaine forme, and perfect knowledge of martiall policye, feates of Chivalrie, and whatsoever persayeth to warre. Translated out of lattine, into English, by John Sadler. Thomas Marshe, London 1572.  Da Capo Press. The English Experience Facsimile Edition No. 41. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd. Amsterdam and NY, 1968.  Fol. 6, Chapter xj, page 9.



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, © 2001-2022. 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.