Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda
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Categories: Medieval

Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda

People who are interested in martial arts from the 14th century onwards can work from books meant to describe those arts. But that does not mean that other types of evidence suddenly become irrelevant. A fundamental principle of historical research is that claims should be backed by multiple kinds of evidence. We can study arms and armour, the culture of violence, and poems about people training. And we can also study pictures of people fighting. The painter of a book of Old Testament stories in Fulda (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, manuscript Aa 88) shows many things which resemble fencing manuals painted a few decades later. The library in Fulda estimates that it dates around 1350-1375 and that seems about right to me.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers.  The leader on either side has crossed swords

Fol. 142r shows the swords crossed at what Fiore calls the tutta spada (near the hilt). Early European fencing manuals tend to envision weapons being crossed equally close to both hilts, whereas from the 17th century onwards theorists liked the idea of crossing closer to your hilt than theirs to get mechanical advantage. The fencer in red is leaning forward. This was recommended by some masters, like the author of Royal Armouries manuscript I.33 and Salvator Fabris. It makes it hard for enemies to strike at your legs, but can lead to overbalancing and make it hard to change directions quickly, so other martial arts prefer an upright stance. On the right, the soldier in green is in Fiore’s Posta di Donna and the Germans’ vom Tag, with the sword over one shoulder and the other leg forward. Most early historical martial arts have a version of this position.

Notice that two of the soldiers are wear steel caps with brims (aka. kettle hats) over their bascinets with camails. This was relatively popular, but how they kept the kettle hat from sliding around on the smooth steel of the bascinet is not clear.

If I may beat a dead horse, the fencer on the right in green seems to be starting to cut from his right shoulder while his left leg is still forward. He is probably about to step forward once the strong of his sword is between him and his opponent’s weapon. Moving the hand and then the foot is recommended by quite a few people today but not the teachers of some 20th century Japanese martial arts.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers. The leader on the left has beaten through the parry of a fighter on the right to cut him in the head.

Folio 158r shows a parry called Posta Frontale or Kron. The defender holds his hands high and his crossguard across his body to receive a downwards cut. The fencer in red has parried poorly and his opponent was able to strike through to his head. Some Japanese schools tell stories of their students cutting so hard that when an opponent tried this parry, the opponent’s handguard was driven into his skull.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers. The leaders of the two sides have crossed swords, and the leader on the left is reaching forward with his left hand to grab his opponent's hilt or wrist

On fol. 164v, the fencers are crossed the same way, but the fencer in green has let go with one hand. His sword is between the hand and his opponent’s sword, so it is safe to do so. The most likely reason is that he is about to pass forward and envelop his opponent’s arms or grab his opponent’s hilt. This is one of Fiore’s favourite solutions to a crossing of the swords.

a painting of two groups of soldiers in late medieval clothing with swords crossed

Folio 169r shows a parry or riposte. The fencer in violet has cut, and the fencer in red has parried by cutting down and across from the right. If it shows the parry, he has collected his opponent’s sword on his crossguard and is ready to riposte with a cut from his left. If it shows the riposte, he might be doing what the Germans call a Stürzhau, rotating his sword around its centre of gravity to send the pommel up and the blade whipping down in a cut to the forehead. That is not an effective technique against an opponent in a helmet, but a painter might not know or care (and the same situation also be finished with a thrust).

a painting of two groups of soldiers in late medieval clothing with swords crossed

Folio 178v shows sword in two hands against sword and buckler. The sword used with the buckler has a long hilt, so it could be used with one hand or two. The fencer in red is delivering a stop thrust or attack on preparation: as his opponent raises his weapon to strike, he uses the tempo to thrust.

These are small pictures and cramped. Fencing in the European tradition requires a significant amount of space, and artists (and film directors!) rarely want the scene to be mostly empty space with just the weapons in it. Its tempting to explain the things which are not the way I like to fence as artistic conventions, and the things which are the way I was taught as accurate. The swords are rather short and broad for longswords (perhaps an Oakeshott type XVIa?). But many of the details in this manuscript can be plausibly interpreted as fencing similar to the kind taught in manuals of the 15th and 16th century. Did the painter just enjoy fencing? Writers of the high middle ages often link urban clergy and artisans with fencing. Or was he inspired by an early fencing manual? It would be very unlikely that Royal Armouries MS I.33 and the Nürnberg Hausbuch were the only fencing manuals in Europe in the 14th century, since the Nürnberg manuscript is a miscellany containing many martial texts and the Royal Armouries manuscript is very sophisticated. If we keep being curious, and keep looking at all kinds of sources and not just fencing manuals, we will continue to find marvelous things.

You can learn more about manuscrupt Aa 88 on Wikimedia Commons or the Fuldaer Digitale Sammlungen

Help keep steel ringing on steel and paper swishing across paper with a monthly donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

(begun 3 October 2021)

Edit 2022-01-08: added links to Wikimedia commons page for all the pages and to the page at the library

Edit 2022-06-02: apparently one master to define the Stürzhau (not so clearly, but he was no Italian) is Joachim Meyer. He spells it <Sturtzhauw> (Wiktenauer).

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1 thought on “Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda

  1. Jonathan Waller says:

    I’d suggest that the reason why we blades crossed around the middle in the Medieval period and later strong to weak in later works is to prevalence of the cut. Entering with a cut had the advantage or covering against both cut and thrust and both of which will tend to meet in mezza/half sword. Even if the blades meet Strong to weak. The quickest action to prevent a repost is to shift your blade to the the middle.
    Later as swords favor the thrust then Entering with the point becomes prevalent and the crossing at the strong makes more sense for control and leverage but also for keeping the point in presence for a more rapid and direct reposte.
    This ties into hilt complexity and design allowing a position held with the sword arm and hand held more forwards which favours the thrust.
    The changes in hilt design come out of the increase in civilian sword use and the lacknof protection afforded by armour etc and so it needing to be provided by the hilt of the sword, as well as bucklers and daggers. As these fall out of use and the thrust dominates leading to longer blades, strong to weak dominates, leading to approaches like detreza and its associated cuphikt designs. until the social inconvenience of the long blades brings an evolution to shorter and light blades and less and less need for a large and robust hilt.

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