historical European martial arts

historical European martial arts

Cross-Post: Call for Papers “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective” November 2017

Sixt Wetzler of the Deutsches Klingenmuseum, Solingen, is organizing a conference which some of my readers might be interested in. It will take place in Germany on 9 and 10 November 2017. St. Martin Conference is the title of a new series of academic conferences held at Deutsches Klingenmuseum (German Blade Museum) in Solingen, Germany.... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Call for Papers “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective” November 2017

An Elegant Counter

A few years ago, an article on the locomotor costs of moving in armour was published which made many steel-clad heads meet desks. Most of those heads belong to people who would be happy to explain what was wrong with the article in person, but are not used to writing up what they know with... Continue reading: An Elegant Counter

Quaestiones Forojulienses: Why Do Fiore’s Jargon and Armour Jargon Overlap?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought.

This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Fiore dei Liberi was a startlingly intelligent man, and the words he chose to describe his art reflect this. He worked very hard to find words and design mnemonics which would help his audience understand and remember. Many of these words are still clear to students today, while some require a gloss. Because few of us hunt boar with spears, we need to be taught that the boar kills by ripping diagonally upwards with its fangs, and so does posta dente di cinghiaro (the position ‘boar’s tooth’). Quite a few of the words which he chose have another technical meaning within the world of arms and armour:

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I Was Wrong about the HEMA Movement

Photo of a stunning church entrance with a multicoloured stone archway with double doors set inside it
I understand that its traditional in the German-speaking countries to nail these manifesti to a church door, but since this is the 21st century, and there do not seem to be any historical fencers in Innsbruck, a photo of San Anastasia in Verona will have to do.

There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.


When I got involved in historical fencing, I thought that it was a community of amateur scholars with a broad interest in history like the serious re-enactment groups I knew. The end of the community which I became involved with was led by former members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who had drifted away from the organization as their interests drew them in a more historical, less creatively anachronistic direction. While my academic déformation professionnelle means that I often have small differences with people whose focus is on recreating past skills and experiences, I can usually find enough common ground to have a conversation with them, and sometimes I have a source to contribute which is much more useful to them than to the academics who originally discovered it. It was obvious to me that turning 15th century manuscripts into working martial arts required a broad familiarity with academic research in medieval studies, and the historical fencers whom I knew seemed to agree.

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Three Swords

Three swords and a solid wood scabbard on a textured linoleum floor with a pencil for scale

Travel involves leaving things behind, and the holidays are a time to get reacquainted with them. This week I thought that I would talk about three swords and the different problems which they attempt to solve.

At the top we have a Naue type II by Neil Burridge, the only man alive who has mastered the process of hammer-hardening the edges which was used on Bronze Age European swords. Neil can make bronze swords which would be very hard to distinguish from the originals, and provide them with scabbards copied from Bronze Age graves and paintings and reliefs. But his swords are sharp, and the only hints about how people in the Late Bronze Age used their weapons are the two-faced evidence of art and the weapons themselves and parallels in later martial arts. Burridge’s swords tend to be bought by collectors and museums to display, by archaeologists to experiment with, by reenactors to wear, and by enthusiasts to reap a dreadful harvest of plastic bottles, Tatami mats, and gourds.
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How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?

A photo of two naked fencers with round strapped shields and long thrusting swords.
Capo Ferro’s engraver illustrates the perils of lifting one’s shield to parry a feint to the high left, giving one’s opponent a chance to strike low unseen (Gran Simulacro, Siena 1610 edition, plate 42). Photo c/o Wiktenauer http://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Capo_Ferro_42.jpg

A discussion on another blog revised an old controversy, namely what size of sword the Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro expected his students to use. I am not a student of any seventeenth-century art, whether rhetoric or fencing, so I can’t contribute to the discussion with a perspective on what length of sword works best with his techniques, or what length was most common in northern Italy in 1610. I am a student of ancient literature, so this week I will talk about some things from the ancient world which help me to interpret his manual.

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Recreating Combat in the Viking Age

A number of people are trying to recreate prehistoric European martial arts: ones which have left neither a living tradition, nor manuals. One of the most serious attempts focuses on early medieval combat with sword and shield and is lead by Roland Warzecha:

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Quaestiones Forojulienses: Why is there so little advice on fighting with two weapons?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought.

This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Fiore’s teachings have a clear philosophy of combat and a clear structure, with longer sections which teach the core of the art and shorter sections which develop a single principle in detail, add some techniques which are useful for a particular weapon, or just demonstrate that his art can be used with whatever tools are to hand. He provides adequate instruction on unarmed combat, although enthusiasts sometimes complain that he does not address wrestling on the ground and that his stances are not very good for standing and exchanging kicks and punches. He provides very thorough instruction on fighting with a weapon in one hand and with short or long weapons in both hands.  But he has very little advice on fighting with two weapons such as sword and buckler or lance and shield.  Why not?

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Quaestiones Forojulienses: With which edge should one make each cut?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought. This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Blows, steps, and guards make up the vocabulary of an early European martial art.  While Fiore describes these things more clearly than his contemporaries did, his words still leave some ambiguity.

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