Why the Centrality of the Longsword?

There is a reason why it is swords not daggers, polearms, axes, maces, or warhammers, etc., that are the focus of so much martial teachings from the Medieval and Renaissance eras. The "white arm," the queen of weapons, is the most versatile and most celebrated. And it is study of the straight double-handed incarnation of the sword which provides us the broadest lessons on fighting. In a host of languages the majority of surviving instructional material is on the longsword, not on the German messer, not on the Italian side sword, not on the Spanish rapier, nor the English quarterstaff. Whether as warsword, bastard sword, great-sword, or two-hander, the long sword of war existed in a multitude of forms as numerous (if not more so) as its shorter single-hand cousins of the same epoch. None of this is arguable or deniable-and it demands we examine the reasons. The bottom line is that understanding unarmed fighting as the basis of fencing is not in anyway contradicted by then focusing that fencing on the longsword. If this were not so, why then would so many Masters of Defence have written so many introductory treatises centered around that weapon in the first place?

By Salvatore Bertucci

In the time that I have been a member of the ARMA I have seen some confusion and wonder over why we focus on the longsword as the basis of our training methodology when there is a number of weapons and weapon combinations that co-existed in Europe for the historical period we study. Sometimes this focus stems from a preference in a different weapon as alluded to above, or due to the teachings of specific Masters. In either case there is some need for further explanation and clarification as to why we rightly consider the weapon to be the foundational one for practicing Renaissance martial arts.

Since in the ARMA we try to focus on the teachings of the historical Masters of Defence, this explanation will begin there. Our study spans several centuries. Some of these Masters shared a consensus about the Art while others had differing or even somewhat opposing views. The origin and basis of fighting is one subject where this becomes easily noticeable, and is pertinent as well to the topic of this discussion.

The Contestants

Perhaps the most farfetched claim comes from the anonymous author of Le Jeu de la Hache, an important 15th century manual in the fact that it is one of the few French martial arts texts in existence, and also it is unique in the fact that it solely focuses on the manner in which the poleax is used. During the introduction to the technicalities of axe-play the author makes the claim that, "[Every man] make himself dexterous in virtuous and honourable occupation, and principally in the noble feat of arms, that is to say in Axe-play, from which proceed and depend several weapons above-named." [1] The weapons that are referred to are "axe, light lance, dagger, great sword, and small sword" (In this context "small sword" does not mean the small foyning weapon of the 17th and 18th centuries, but more appropriately what would now be called an Arming sword)[1]. Since the poleax appears to be a specialized weapon, the claim that the use of other weapons find their source in the poleax may seem a bit bewildering of a statement; however, if you are willing to generalize the polaxe to the point where it is really nothing more than a modified spear you could gain some credence. It being well known that spears are one of the earliest weapons known to mankind, with evidence of their use dating back to 400,000 years ago [2]. *[But what is a spear other than a wooden staff, itself a double-hand striking weapon and variation of the primeval long club?]

The next known contender for the "source of all fighting" comes from the 15th century manuscript Cgm 582 where Johannes Leckuechner makes the similar, albeit more understandable claim for the messer [3]. While it might seem difficult to believe that "all fighting" would be based upon a weapon that is geographically unique to Germany and other northeastern European countries, at its broadest generalization the messer is a type of one-handed sword. The use of single-handed swords has been well documented to date as far back as 3000 B.C. [4]. As such it would not be terribly unusual to claim them as the source of all fighting due to their long heritage and sole purpose of combat.

The final and most well known participant as the source for all fighting is wrestling, be it known as ringen, abrazare, combat-grappling or whatever. Unlike the two weapons listed earlier, wrestling has three different and varied Masters to its credit, the first of which is found in the late 14th century teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer [5]. Similar claims of the importance of wrestling were also made by 15th century Masters Fiore dei Liberi [6] and Pietro Monte [7]. Unarmed violence being the root of all fighting is an easily recognizable fact considering that it is found in modern chimpanzees [8]. Indeed, one's limbs are the only tool that a person can be sure to have available at any given time should the need for violence arise. Also, as was noted by scholar Jeffrey Hul, there are many aspects of German society that favored the use of wrestling in diverse classes and from a young age [9]. It is possible that similar societal pressures existed in the rest of Europe, but I have yet to see any strong evidence supporting that.


So what are we to take away from the teachings of the Masters? Should we simply follow the majority, and assume the other two have no idea what they're talking about? That would be a risky train of thought even under the best circumstances; however, even briefly skimming through Le Jeu or Hans Leckuechner's fighting treatise will show the skill and depth of knowledge of these two authors within their topics. As such, that would be an exceptionally foolish path to follow given the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Why then do we see this dissension among the sources? Is it really just a matter of preference?

There are several possible theories on why these statements that seem to contradict each other are strewn throughout the source literature, and frankly the why behind all of these is purely conjecture because not a single Master (that I am aware of) has stated why "X" is the source of all fighting. They simply say it and move on. Simple weapon preference is by far the weakest of these theories. Another, which is similar to the "Preference Theory" (PT) is the "First Weapon Theory" (FWT). In the FWT the assumption is made that distinct from being the author's favorite weapon, it is the method by which the author was first introduced to the Art of Defense. One of the prime reasons that the Art is so important is because it is based upon a system of principles or rules [10]. As such, these principles (whether they be known as Vor, Nach, Indes, Tempo, Mensure, True Time and Place, or anything else) will work the same in any situation. As such, it could very well be that the author learned these principles (which are the basis of the Art) with weapon "X", and therefore, for the author, all fighting does come from this weapon.

Still another theory is that such statements are designed to comfort the audience. One simple fact is that the audience during the time these manuals were written is vastly different from the audience that is reading them now. In our modern era a complete novice who has just heard of a poleax can simply go out and buy two training tools, print off the free internet version of Le Jeu, and begin to go through all its complexities with a buddy, whereas the original audience would probably be an individual that had already invested time into said weapon before spending a large amount of money to purchase a book or acquire access to a manuscript in order to gain more insight for the use of it, and it would probably be of comfort to be told that the many things learned in this investment would be applicable to the other weapons with which a knight should acquaint himself, though it is comforting to know that the statement will apply to both audiences. [*The polaxe is a distinctly knightly weapon, particularly of judicial duel and chivalric tournament, and unlike for swords, that can perform a wider array of techniques, there is no evidence of its use by common men-at-arms.]

This brings up the point that all the surviving manuals we have were written for educational purposes. As such, every single one of them is designed to teach (though admittedly, some succeed more than others). One important strategy of teaching is to relate the subject being learned to another that is well understood. This could easily be applied to wrestling, especially within the German sphere of influence. In this situation it could be easily seen that after several techniques are shown the author is essentially saying that, "These are things you already know from wrestling since childhood," followed by more examples and techniques.

For Modern Practitioners

So, how does any of this relate to modern practitioners and the ARMA training methodology and study approach? It is an uncontested fact that the martial arts of Renaissance Europe is a broken heritage, such that it must now be reconstructed. In our efforts to reconstruct these fighting methods the ARMA has taken the stance to make the study of the longsword central in our curricula, as discussed in the article by Director John Clements [11]. Apart from the reasons mentioned there, it must also be admitted that even when these skills were in their prime there appears to be no unanimous consensus on how to fight among the Masters. However, one thing that all Masters are in agreement on is that the Art is based on principles that, once learned in any weapon, are applicable to all weapons. Therefore, as members of a time period where the original masters are unavailable, it makes logical sense to use the tool that has the largest amount of material demonstrating how to use these principles as the primary learning tool. (An exhaustive list will not be included in this work.)

Does this mean we feel that some Masters were incorrect in their statements? Absolutely not. However, as was said before, the context of the modern scholar is different than when these manuals were written. Back then everyone wrestled because there were so many social and practical forces exerting their influence towards wrestling. It is one of the many things that passed away along with having all religious services spoken in Latin, and burning people at the stake; therefore, for anyone to say that "The Society of Liechtenauer all state that all fighting comes from wrestling. So all RMA training MUST start with wrestling or it is WRONG," would be asinine at best. Does that mean that the unarmed arts of Europe should be ignored all together? Again, no. Any martial artist in RMA would be doing themselves a disservice in ignoring unarmed skills, which is why the ARMA has gone to such lengths and efforts to develop a ringen program that fits within our holistic mindset and methodology. (Indeed, we were arguably the first to ever do so.)

It should also be mentioned that there is nothing wrong with wanting to emphasize wrestling-even as it was deemphasized among 16th and 17th century rapier Masters. As has been stated elsewhere, no ARMA member is required to adopt and follow the ARMA curricula. If you want to join and focus on wrestling, giving less time to longsword, then more power to you. The same goes for anyone pursuing this craft. If you want to reconstruct the martial arts of Europe by focusing on the rapier, or the messer, or poleaxe, or wrestling, or peasant staff then that's great, and we wish you luck. Naturally we don't think that you will be as successful, but if you're happy with your results and progress then that's what's important. We don't begrudge you anything.

In conclusion, with the understanding that the Art of Defence is based on a set of universally applied rules and principles, we've considered the sources and the context of the skill sets of modern practitioners. In doing so we arrived at the idea that the best way for MODERN students to reconstruct this dead art would be through the use of the longsword in understanding said principles. We do this by maintaining the understanding that we are not sword fighting, but fighting with swords. Fulen learned while using the longsword will still apply to the poleaxe, or messer, or wrestling. Fighting will always be fighting whether it is with dagger, sword and rotella, or simple sticks. Learn the correct principles with any weapon, and you will be able to apply them to any other.

Works Cited

1. Anglo, Sydney. Le Jeu de la Hache. A 15th century Treatise on the Technique of Chivalric Axe Combat. http://www.thearma.org/spotlight/NotesLEJEUDELAHACHE.htm. Accessed 3-9-11.

2. Thieme, Hartmut. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 2/27/97, Vol. 385 Issue 6619, p807

3. Leckuchner, Johannes. Cgm 582. www.thearma.org. Accessed 3-9-11.

4. Times Higher Education. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=175686&sectioncode=26. Accessed 3-10-11.

5. MS 3227a. Codex Dobringer. 86r.

6. dei Liberi, Fiore. MS M. 383. Folio 3, verso & recto, Folio 4 recto.

7. Anglo, Sydney. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. p. 173.

8. Aldhous, Peter. Watch out when escaped chimps are about. New Scientist 5/6/2006, Vol. 190 Issue 2550, p14-14.

9. Hull, Jeffrey. Getting Punchy: Fist Fighting, Wrestling, and Fight-Books. http://www.thearma.org/essays/Getting-Punchy.pdf. Accessed 3-10-11.

10. Leoni, Tom. Understanding the "A" in WMA. http://www.salvatorfabris.com/WhatIsArt.shtml. Accessed 3-11-11.

11. Clements, John. The Centrality of the Longsword in the Study of Renaissance Martial Arts. http://www.thearma.org/essays/Longsword_Centrality_in_RMA.htm. Accessed 3-8-11.


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