historical European martial arts

historical European martial arts

Some Thoughts on “Cutting with the Medieval Sword”

The heroine of this Arthurian romance is in peril, and not the sexy kind! The long, slender longsword is typical for the period when Fiore’s art and the Kunst des Fechtens were created. From BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 Guiron le Courtois folio 90r

Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)

A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.

A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.

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How to Hold Bronze Swords

A Destreza Training Sword (with the proper wooden grip!) from Darkwood Armoury held parallel to the arm with a finger hooked over the crossguard in a ‘rapier grip’

All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.

People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.

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A Path not Taken

a beach in twilight with sand, an area of rocks and seawead, pebbles, and steep cliffs covered with trees and brush
A beach at low tide in Greater Victoria, BC. Photo by Sean Manning 4 April 2021. At high tide there are two beaches!

The modern international historical fencing movement began in the 1990s, but before that there were isolated or short-lived attempts to collect old fencing manuals and practice their teachings. Like some exiled scholars before me, I am taking advantage of the situation to read books and find references which I could not at home. I read the following long before I discovered the historical fencers or was in the habit of listing all the useful passages I read. It was published in 1969 and describes the foundation of SCA Heavy combat in California. It begins:

Fencers and kendo men occasionally take part in tournaments. At present, some people are experimenting with rapier and dagger. No doubt still other weapons will appear. It will be interesting to see how they do.

It is likely interesting to consider the methods of their appointment. Except for a recent discovery of an old German manual by Jakob Sutor, which treats only a few kinds of arms, nobody has yet turned up contemporary instructions for sword and shield or the like. If any of you out there know of some, the Society will be grateful for the information. Meanwhile, reconstruction has been by trial and error. The influence of judo and karate is noticeable in the results. We would love to know if the men who stood at Hastings or Crécy- a time gap which may well have seen considerable evolution- had developed similar styles or quite different ones. In the later case, which set would be more effective?

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Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals

reprints of four early European fencing manuals on an ironing board covered with a colourful cotton print

Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.

So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century.
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Cross-Post: FS Geibig Erscheint

In honour of his retirement from Veste Coburg, a Festschrift for arms-and-armour scholar Alfred Geibig has been published. Contributions in English and ?German? are by Heiko Berger, Raphael Beuing, Dirk H. Breiding, Heiner Grieb, Heinz Huther, Armin König, Arne J. Koets, Stefan Mäder, Jürg A. Meier, Ingo Petri, Christopher Retsch, Mario Scalini, Tobias Schönauer, Jens... Continue reading: Cross-Post: FS Geibig Erscheint

Some Addenda to the History of the Historical Fencing Movement

The mysterious (and tracking-heavy and script-heavy) website historicaleuropeanmartialarts.com has a history of the current historical fencing movement. Although they don’t provide an email address, I would like to add a few lines to their chronicle.

1972: James Louis Jackson publishes Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals (Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints), a facsimile of the English version of di Grassi, Vincento Saviolio, and George Silver’s Brief Instructions. This book is purchased by many university libraries and becomes the starting point for many English-speaking fencers.

1979: Archaeologist William Gaugler founds a program teaching masters of classical Italian fencing (the fencing taught to army officers and potential duelists in the late 19th century) at San José State University in California (Britannica). His books and students have a major influence in the historical fencing community in North America after the year 2000 and help keep this tradition alive in North America where it is threatened by versions of fencing optimized for winning bouts under the Olympic rules and electric scoring. Two articles are Tony Wolf, “The Future of Fencing is in its Past: An Interview with Maestro John Sullins.” Journal of Manly Arts, August 2003 https://www.ejmas.com/jmanly/articles/2003/jmanlyart_wolf_0803.htm and Puck Curtis, “In Search of the Rudis,” A Midsummer Night’s Blog 18 June 2014 http://www.puckandmary.com/blog_puck/2014/06/in-search-of-the-rudis/

1999: J. Christoph Amberger persuades a publisher to print an expanded version of the proceedings of his fencing-history fanzine Hammertz Forum as The Secret History of the Sword. While the main text is focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, the appendices list people and businesses to contact including Patri Pugliese.

?September? 1999: first Western Martial Arts Workshop (WMAW) in the Chicago area. At some point it sets up a bi-annual schedule at the DeKoven centre in Racine WI, with occasional smaller, off-year events without the WMAW name: they numbered the event in 2019 as their 14th and the event in 2007 as their 8th.

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Sword and Buckler Fencing in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven

two monsters with serpentine lower bodies fighting with clubs and bucklers
I don’t know of any mermen fencing so how about these marginalia monsters? Fighting with clubs instead of swords was popular as a way of managing danger, some of the legislators trying to take control of duelling proposed to allow clubs but ban sharp weapons (Ariella Elema, “Tradition, Innovation, Re-Enactment: Hans Talhoffer’s Unusual Weapons.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 7.1 (2019) https://doi.org/10.2478/apd-2019-0001). From Besançon BM MS.551 Miracles de Notre Dame folio 87r c/o Manuscript Miniatures

For at least 15 or 20 years, people who attend the right events and drink with the right people have known that much of the fencing jargon in later fencing manuals first appears in French chivalric literature of the 12th and 13th century. In 2015 Olivier Dupuis published an article in Acta Periodica Duellatorum so the evidence is available to everyone. But he overlooked one important source, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. This was written in German but inspired by a “welsh (Romance-language) book” brought to Austria by one of the hostages for Richard the Lion-Heart named Hugh de Morville. Ulrich was so impressed by it that he translated it into German. We don’t have any one manuscript in French or Norman or Occitan which tells the exact same story. Translating a romance could be a creative process in the middle ages, and ancient and medieval writers loved to disguise fiction as “a translation of a manuscript in a foreign language which I discovered.” But in terms of content Lanzelet is very much a romance of the late 12th century, with strong parallels to Welsh and Irish stories. Fencing appears in three or four stories in this romance.

The first story comes from Lancelot’s education by his guardians in the Otherworld. There were no soldiers or horsemen there and he was still a child so he learned other skills:

At the youth’s request the lady did a wise thing, for he seemed to her a lively boy: she sent for mermen (merwunder) and had them teach him to fence (lêren schirmen: 279). In this exercise he would never give up before he had to. He had also to play prisoners’ base, to jump extraordinary distances, to wrestle strenuously (starclîche ringen: 284), to hurl stones, both big and little, a good distance, to throw darts (he was never wearied by any of his instruction), to still-hunt, to hawk, to chase with the full pack, and to shoot with the bow. The men who came from the sea gave him skill. In all ways was he wise and manly, but about knightly horsemanship (ritterschaft) he knew nothing whatsoever, for he never mounted a horse, and he was ignorant of armour (harnasch). And so he grew to be fifteen years old in that land.

– lines 275-301 of the Bibliotheca Augusta transcription based on W. Spiewok’s edition from 1997. I have adapted the translation in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet: A Romance of Lancelot, tr. Kenneth G. T. Webster, ann. Roger Sherman Loomis (Columbia University Press: New York, 1951) pp. 28-29

Ulrich makes fun of his hero when he first gets on a horse and takes a spear in his hand.

The second story comes from one of Lancelot’s indiscretions with his host’s daughter or wife (this time it is his daughter, there are signs that she was his wife in an earlier version of the story like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). They take great pleasure in each other for the night, but dawn is coming:
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Paradoxes of Sword Design

cross-sections of six swords near the guard
Cross-sections of six swords near the hilt. From Peter Johnson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” at Arctic Fire 2012 https://youtu.be/nyAc5HbUuqw?t=2630

In February, I started to think seriously about swords after sketching the swords from Ghalekuti (which I will blog about one day). I am the “armour” sort of historical fencing person not the “swords” sort (thanks Steve Muhlberger) and I don’t have access to many originals in good condition. A group of European and American bladesmiths and engineers have been thinking about how to describe swords and how they want to move. The names I know best are Michael Tinker Pearce, Vincent le Chevalier, and Peter Johnsson; other people would mention Angus Trim and George Turner.

Swords are simple objects, but designing a specific sword requires trading off all kinds of goods against one another. The longer sword is more of a nuisance to wear and slower to draw, the stiffer sword may not be as effective in cutting, the more complex hilt limits how the weapon can be held. These seemingly simple objects hide a lot of engineering that you can slowly train your eye to see and your arm to feel.

This is a topic where not much has been formally published, but two great web resources are “Understanding Blade Properties” by Patrick Kelly and Peter Johnsson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” from Arctic Fire 2012 (warning: YouTube). Peter Johnsson is probably the most charismatic speaker discussing these ideas today and he has his own theory of how the medieval cruciform sword was designed. Because his talk is 80 minutes long and on a scary Google website I want to call out two things which I noticed.
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What is a Martial Art?

A display of wicker shields, helmets and face-masks, bows in bowcases, and sabres on a whitewashed wall
Captured Turkish arms from the 2. Rustkammer, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, July 2013

Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.

Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.

We shall divide this sermon into six parts.
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