ARMA Exclusive

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

By Dr. Sydney Anglo

Yale University Press, 2000.

A groundbreaking revolutionary work of scholarship by ARMA's leading adviser.

Both practitioner and scholars of historical fencing have long awaited this book and it is worth the wait. It would be no exaggeration to call this book the most important work on historical fencing and European martial arts in more than 100 years. There can be no question that its revelations will come as a wave of knowledge to the masses thirsting for facts about our European martial heritage. It comes as a cold bucket of water for those thinking previous books on the "history of fencing" had covered it all. From now on, surely no work on fencing or any fighting arts will be produced without citing its enormous material as a major source. This is the major reference work on the history of Medieval & Renaissance fencing for our generation.

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All images reprinted by permission of the publisher. Yale University Press, 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Balletic homicide on the duelling field; stabbing and wrestling in tavern brawls; deceits and brutalities in street affrays; mounted encounters by armoured knights locked in desperate hand-to-hand combat – these were the martial arts of Renaissance Europe. In this book Sydney Anglo, a leading historian of the Renaissance and its symbolism, provides the first complete study of the martial arts from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth centuries.

The Twentieth century has been captivated by oriental martial arts and their roots within Eastern societies. Yet the West too, as Anglo shows, developed its own styles of ritualized combat, similarly linked to contemporary social and scientific concerns. During the Renaissance physical exercise was regarded as central to the education of knights and gentlemen. Soldiers wielded a variety of weapons on the battlefield, and it was normal for civilians to carry swords and know how to use them. In schools across the continent, professional masters-of-arms were the artists who taught the lethal skills necessary to survive in a society where violence was endemic and life cheap.

These ancient masters-of-arms, anxious to advertise their skills and record them for posterity, have left a wealth of evidence to reconstruct and illustrate their arts – much of it used here for the first time: detailed scholarly treaties, sketches by jobbing artists or magnificent images by Durer and Cranach, descriptions of real combat, and an abundance of weapons and armour.

With copious and precise illustration, Anglo explains the significance of martial arts in Renaissance education and everyday life. His book provides the fullest illustrated account of the social implications of one-to-one combat training.

In this extensively illustrated book Sydney Anglo, a leading historian of the Renaissance and its symbolism, provides the first complete study of the martial arts from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century. He explains the significance of martial arts in Renaissance education and everyday life and offers a full account of the social implications of one-to-one combat training. Like the martial arts of Eastern societies, ritualized combat in the West was linked to contemporary social and scientific concerns, Anglo shows. During the Renaissance, physical exercise was regarded as central to the education of knights and gentlemen. Soldiers wielded a variety of weapons on the battlefield, and it was normal for civilians to carry swords and know how to use them. In schools across the continent, professional masters-of-arms taught the skills necessary to survive in a society where violence was endemic and life cheap. Anglo draws on a wealth of evidence –from detailed treatises and sketches by jobbing artists to magnificent images by Duerer and Cranach and descriptions of real combat, weapons and armor –to reconstruct and illustrate the arts taught by these ancient masters-at-arms.

Sydney Anglo is research professor of history at the University of Wales. Among his publications are Spectacle, Pageantry and Early Tudor Policy (1969), Machiavelli: a Dissection (1969) and Images of Tudor Kingship (1992).

Yale University Press
New Haven and London, August 2000
416 pp. 180 black-and-white illus. +32 colour plates 256x192mm.
ISBN 0 300 083352 1 35.00

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Chapter Contents:

I Violence in the classroom: Medieval and Renaissance masters of arms
II The notation and illustration of movement in combat manuals
III Foot combat with swords: myths and realities
IV Sword fighting: vocabulary and taxonomy
V Staff weapons
VI Bare hands, daggers, and knives
VII Arms and armour
VIII Mounted combat (1): jousting with heavy lance
IX Mounted combat (2): cut, thrust and smash
X Duels, brawls and battles


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Exclusive Excerpts from
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe


Both the significance of these arts, and the fact that they have been largely ignored by historians, are easily established. While nobody has ever doubted the importance of expertise in the handling of weapons to the knightly classes of medieval Europe, our knowledge of what these skills were and how they were acquired remains generalized and inexact. More remarkably, the same holds true of the Renaissance when, despite the constant reiteration by humanist educational theorists of the value of training the body as well as the mind, we still know next to nothing about the practice of physical education and the provision of combat training for youths.

Furthermore, the techniques of personal violence were studied not only by emperors, kings, and princes, but also by their most humble subjects. The carrying and the use of lethal weapons was normal throughout the social hierarchy.

From the late thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, artists worked with masters of arms trying to record the techniques of personal combat.

... the masters sought to bring their skills to a wider audience...recording series of movements and of conveying information…systems of movement notation and illustration.

…and it is largely because of their endeavours to give some sort of permanence to their ideas that we are able to attempt a reconstruction of a very important but relatively little-studied subject in the history of ideas – the martial arts of renaissance Europe.

But it is still necessary to establish the martial arts within the broader contexts of intellectual, military, and art history while establishing more precisely what these activities were, and how they were systematized.

But their neglect [by historians] still constitutes an historiographical curiosity. The only serious treatment of these matters has been by historians of fencing, by students of arms and armour and, more recently, by re-enactors and enthusiasts for historical modes of combat. Unfortunately, historians of fencing were at their most active a century ago when they confined themselves principally to tracing the evolution of swordsmanship towards a wholly notional ideal constituted by their own practice; while, in any case, sword play was only one part of the many activities which together constituted the martial arts of the Renaissance. Specialists in arms and armour have carried out much meticulous research but, in their case, the centre of interest has inevitably been more with artefacts than activities. Serious modern re-enactors, on the other hand, while frequently aware of a far wider range of combat techniques than the old fencing historians and far more pragmatic in their approach to physical action than the armour specialists, still tend to base their reconstructions upon a limited number of primary sources – although this situation is changing rapidly."

Paschen1667.JPG (75336 bytes)A great many problems are involved here: the influence of historical, military and civil fashion; the definition of what precisely constitutes fencing; and debate concerning the use of point an edge, general principles of fighting, the mechanics of movement, and the psychology of combat."

In conclusion [in The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe] I briefly consider the relationship (or irrelation) between the techniques of personal combat – as taught by medieval and renaissance European masters – and real fighting either on the battlefield, the dueling field, or in streets and taverns.

...the licence with which I interpret the ‘renaissance Europe’ of my title requires, perhaps, a word of explanation. Although the bulk of the material in this book derives from late fifteenth – to early seventeenth-century sources, I believe that in the history of ideas there are few precise cutoff dates and I have, accordingly, pushed as far back as the thirteenth century and as far forward as the eighteenth (occasionally even to the twentieth) century simply because the sense of the material demands it. In those earliest treatises there are techniques of exposition, as well as descriptions of modes of combat, which were to be repeated and developed by the maters of the sixteenth century and later.

Similarly, some combat techniques receive their most sophisticated exposition in later works which I use to throw a retrospective light on texts which are otherwise obscure, while it has also seemed worthwhile, from time to time, to demonstrate essential continuities. No master of arms woke up one morning to find that his teaching had been rendered obsolete overnight because the Middle Ages had suddenly ended or that he had just missed the Renaissance by a few minutes.

From Chapter 4

La Communicativa

FechtbuchLangenschwert18.JPG (36875 bytes)The problem facing the teacher, admired in hypothesis by Marcelli and Hope, is to a large extent the central issue of my own study. While most masters agreed that there was no substitute for practical demonstration by an instructor, many of them still tried to convey the essentials of their art in books and found, inevitably, that this was a difficult thing to do. Indeed, without some sort of agreed technical vocabulary and taxonomic conventions, it was almost an impossibility.

Unfortunately, since all treatises had to be studied by their readers without benefit of the authors’ ‘motions’, how was comprehensibility to be achieved?

Marco Docciolini must have expressed the misgivings of many when he explained that while, in his own book, he had tried to describe as clearly as was within his power the rules and methods necessary for the exercise of the sword alone or accompanied by some other arm, he knew that ‘having to describe many minutiae and many particular things concerning this art, it is almost impossible to represent it with the clarity that it perhaps demands’.

The majority of masters thought otherwise and preferred straightforward exposition although, whatever the literary form used, most authors would have agreed with Marcelli that their principal aim was to achieve clarity. It is also evident that they believed it possible to achieve this: first by deducing, from a multiplicity of sword, arm, foot and body movements, some communicable general principles; and then, by analysing particular actions and arranging them in sequences, to form some kind of system. This required both practical expertise and intellectual grasp; and the rarity of such a combination of skills was remarked by Fiore who claimed that, out of a thousand ‘so-called masters’, you could scarcely find four good scholars; ‘and of those four good scholars there will not be one good master’.

Certainly all those masters who chose to write down their views were obliged, consciously or unconsciously, to consider the relationships not only between the theory and practice of fencing but also between the language and content of their works; and some believed the task to be well within their capacity. FechtbuchLangenschwert34.JPG (47889 bytes)

These issues may be illuminated, somewhat paradoxically, by two examples of unintelligibility. Of these, the first, Johann Liechtenauer’s Art of the Long Sword, is a seminal work in the history of swordsmanship. The fourteenth-century German master had a thorough grasp of his art, understood how men fought, and had worked out not only general principles of combat but also a method for instructing his disciples. Unfortunately, his work is recorded in gnomic verses of such obscurity that – without the key provided by the comments, elaborations and pictorial representations bequeathed to us by his followers (and their followers) – it would remain for ever enigmatic.

This may, in part, be due to the deliberate obfuscation of a master reluctant to cast the pearls of a secret art before swinish uninitiates – although a similar contempt for ‘men rustical and of vile condition’ did not prevent Filippo di Vadi from trying hard to make his manuscript as clear as possible to ‘courtiers, scholars, barons, princes, dukes and kings’.

On the other hand, since Liechtenauer’s verses appear to have had a mnemonic function, it is not strange that they should be abstruse. One would scarcely remember a mnemonic which did not leave out more than it put in. But beyond that, Liechtenauer’s obscurity is also the result of a nomenclature and a system of classification which fail to match the sophistication of the combat techniques they record. In this respect, the other example of communication failure provides an interesting comparison. The literary remains of English masters of arms at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are exiguous.

The existence of these writings can only be due to some desire on the part of the masters to instruct potential readers and, unlike Liechtenauer’s verses, they seem not to have been either consciously arcane or elliptical. Face to face, and sword in hand, these men may even have been effective teachers; but they had no conception of what was required to explain the complexities of movement to anybody not physically in their presence. They assume so much knowledge, and use so many unexplained technical terms, that their writings are now barely comprehensible.

Of course, it is possible to gloss several of the terms and to make informed guesses about others but, even when that has been done, no clear notion of the combat technique can emerge because there are no relevant English texts or pictures which would provide us with the kind of key we have for Liechtenauer. The terminology used by these medieval English masters did not survive in later works and, given the present state of our knowledge, much of their meaning is simply not recoverable.

Yet the basic components of sword combat must have been evident to anyone who considered the matter seriously. The weapon had to be brought into action and held effectively. The swordsman could adopt a variety of stances; move his sword in different ways; attack an opponent with different parts of his blade, from different angles, and aiming at different targets. He could move in various directions, leading with either right or left foot, and adapting his pace according to circumstances. Movements could be performed to lure an opponent into responding in a certain way, thereby giving opportunity for another type of assault.

And, of course, when an opponent was himself trying to launch attacks, his blade could be either knocked aside or deflected in such a way as to initiate one’s own counter-attack. In other words, there were stances, positions and targets; passes and counter-passes; cuts, thrusts and feints; parries and ripostes. Masters of arms would have understood all this from combat experience and from teaching; and some basic matters, such as the different types of cut possible with a sword, were standardized very quickly. And diagrams illustrating vertical, horizontal and oblique strokes have featured in fencing manuals throughout their history and were also used to clarify the handling of staff weapons. Yet it took centuries for any uniform method of organizing all this material to develop, and for a generally accepted language of swordsmanship to emerge: while some crucial issues, such as getting the sword into action and gripping it properly, were consistently overlooked.

In 1389, Hanko Dšbringer explained this last point: Here note that Liechtenauer divides a person in four parts, as if he were to draw a line on the body from the crown of the head down between his legs, and another line along the belt horizontally across the body. Thus there are four quarters, a right and a left over the belt, and also under the belt. Thus there are four openings, each of which has particular techniques which are used against it.

FechtbuchSchwertnemen10.JPG (41475 bytes)The system (even when presented in a disorderly fashion) was comprehensive, intelligent and practical and it is not surprising that Liechtenauer’s divisions, headings and nomenclature – amplified and rearranged to make for better understanding – remained the foundation of German swordsmanship until, in the early seventeenth century, the long sword lost its status as the principal German weapon for personal combat. Not only was the tiny original text constantly swollen by annotations and explanations but later masters also relentlessly added to the list of postures and blows so that, although Liechtenauer’s original list for the long sword was never superseded, the number of names necessary for understanding the combat grew to a bewildering multiplicity.

The medieval and renaissance German masters also copied each other’s works, added their own opinions, incorporated fresh information as they came across it, and included material on judicial duels, tournaments and even analytical studies of arms and armour. The result was a kind of bibliographical snowball...

While some of these masters expanded Liechtenauer’s text verbally, others sought to clarify the phases and variations of different types of combat by using illustrations rather than long descriptions. The pictographic method of MS. I.33 only reappeared with the advent of printing, and the manuscript manuals never adopted it to elucidate the art of the long sword. But, for the historian, the loss of an easily read notation is more than out-weighed by the recording of an abundance of postures, thrusts, cuts and wrestling techniques; by a concern to depict footwork accurately; by proper identification of target areas; and by the way in which the whole system was firmly set within a coherent, all-embracing combat philosophy. Essentially, the descriptive method boiled down to providing a separate name for every conceivable fighting posture and to illustrating these from a rich repertory of frozen action pictures – a method which long remained the norm not only in Germany but elsewhere in Europe. As a way of conveying information it was, without doubt, cumbersome; and a modern reader might easily conclude that a system of swordsmanship described in this fashion must have been correspondingly inefficient, especially in view of the cannibalism of the German manuscript tradition.

Yet any descriptive system of movement, however well conceived, must inevitably be obscure to someone unfamiliar with its conventions.

The truth of the matter is that, considered as a corpus rather than as individual items, the German FechtbŸcher are not at all obscure and they enable us to recognize that Liechtenauer’s opaque verses concealed a martial art of deadly seriousness and efficacy which was sufficiently communicable to have occupied the energies of masters and their pupils for nearly three centuries.

pell.jpg (50615 bytes)But the differences between the texts are as revealing as their similarities.

[Liechtenauer gives] the same openings, counters, stances, the techniques for evading an opponent’s blade, counters to be used when an opponent attacks first, the principal cuts, engagements or binding with crossed swords, cuts at an opponent’s hands; and advice on close grappling, including using the pommel of one’s sword.

In all, of Liechtenauer’s original 211 lines dealing with the long sword, Pauernfeindt cites 166, every one of which is omitted by the author of La Noble Science who otherwise renders the sense of the German text with care. Evidently, while the long-sword fighting of the German school was considered well worth translating into French, its idiosyncratic nomenclature (ox, plough, fool, from the roof, rage cut, crown cut, squint cut and so on) was not. The Frenchman’s decision is understandable. But fanciful terminology long remained the order of the day: and not only in Germany. A colourful multiplicity of guards and blows was also characteristic of the early Italian masters, first under German influence and then continuing under its own momentum. 

Marozzo, says ‘Every time’ that you parry or are attacked you will always assume one of the above mentioned guards.’ And this is the trouble. Many of the guards are obviously only stages of one and the same movement and, as Viggiani was soon to point out, it was possible to break everything up into an infinity of pieces. It is this arbitrariness which makes it pointless to attempt to match the blows and guards of the various masters who have left us a record of their two-hand sword fighting. It is not difficult to find similarities between many of the postures depicted in Fiore, Talhoffer, DŸrer, Marozzo and others: but, when all is said and done, the difference between many of the guards is too trifling to merit the dignity of the separate titles which were accorded them.

The precise definition of the art of fencing was something which never troubled medieval and renaissance masters though it has bothered historians who want to establish the origins of what they refer to as scientific fencing, by which they mean modern sword play – with the emphasis on play. It took centuries before the words fencing, Fechten, escrime, esgrima, scrimia, scherma and so on, came to indicate exclusively the use of the single sword without any other weapon or unarmed self-defence skills. Many medieval masters taught such fighting, but it was only one of several martial arts in their repertory and never the most important. They generally accorded primacy to the long sword: and the use of that, as we have seen, was anything but unscientific.

The book also contains a wealth of rare and previously unknown material from numerous Masters of Defence and their works.

Copyright 2000 Yale University Press, All Rights Reserved, Reprinted by Permission of the Author

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Consultation with Professor Sydney Anglo


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