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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.

Image of an illuminated manuscript with four pictures of standing men overlaid with swords, each with a caption over his head

Getty Museum MS. Ludwig XV 13, folio 23r. The colpi fendenti, colpi sottani, colpi mezzani, and punta address the reader in succession. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Colpi Fendenti

Noy semo fendenti e façemo questione De fender gli denti cum drita raxone : Noy del ferir non auemo tardo E tornamo in guardia de uargo in uargo.

Noy semo fendenti e in l’arte façemo questione de fender gli denti e ‘rivar alo zinochio cum rasone. E ogni guardia che si fa terrena, d’una guardia in l’altra andamo senza pena. E rompemo le guardie cum inzegno, e cum colpi fazemo de sangue segno. Noi fendenti dello ferir non avemo tardo, e tornamo in guardia di vargo in vargo.

(We are the Fendente and in the art our function is to cut the teeth and go to the knee with reasoning. And every guard which is done at the ground [low guard], of one guard to the we go without trouble. And breaking the guards with intelligence and with the blows we make a sign of blood. We, fendente, will not wait to injure, and return to guard move after move.)

Colpi Sotani

Noy semo colpi chiamadi li sotani, Che sempre may cerchamo de ferir le mani; E dal zenochio in su façemo questione E tornando cum fendenti fazemo lexione.

Gli colpi sottani semo noi, e cominzamo a lo zinochio, e andamo per meza la fronte per lo camino che fano gli fendenti. E per tal modo che noi intramo??? per quello camino noy retornamo, overo che noi remanemo in posta longa.

(We are Under Blows, and we commence at the knee, and go for the middle of the forehead, for the path which is taken by the fendenti. And for this way that we enter per this path we return, or we will remain in the Long Position.)

Colpi Mezani

Noy colpi meçani andamo trauersando; Dal zenochio in su andamo guastando; E rebatemo le punte fora de strada E redopiando lo colpo de ferir è derada; E si noy del meçano colpo intramo in fendent, . Asay cum tali colpi guastamo zent.

Colpi mezani semo chiamadi perché noy andamo per mezi gli colpi soprani e sottani. E andamo cum lo dritto taglio de la parte dritta, e de la parte riversa andamo cum lo falso taglio. E lo nostro camino si è dello zinochio ala testa.

(Middle Blows we are called, because we go in the middle of high/downwards and upwards cuts. And with the right edge/cut to the right side, and of the reverse [left] side we go with the false edge/cut. And our path is from the knee to the head.)

(transcriptions of the Getty and Pisani Dossi manuscripts courtesy of the Sala d’Arma Achille Marozzo via Wiktenauer, translation of the Getty manuscript by Matt Easton and Eleonora Durban)

It is easy to find examples in Fiore's manuscripts of rising blows with the false edge, descending blows with the true edge, a horizontal blow from the right with the true edge, and a horizontal blow from the low left with the false edge. Nevertheless, questions remain.

– Should we read the sottani’s words literally and exclusively, so that they must always be delivered with the false edge upwards?  Posta Longa with the sword has his hands oriented that way.

– Do the cuts speak loosely, as Antonio Manciolino did when he described the blows for his students?  Manciolino wrote 120 years after Fiore, but his description is similar:

If, then, you will naturally throw a blow at your enemy travelling beginning at his left ear and continuing toward his right knee, or to whatever part you want, provided that the blow was thrown at the left side of the enemy, it is called “mandritto”. But if you were to throw that contrarily, that is, to his right side, either low or high as you wish, it will be called “riverso”. And if dropping the sword between the middle of the division of the two aforesaid blows, that is, straight down through the head, it will be called “fendente”. But any blow that you would deliver from the ground upwards toward the face of the enemy, if you wish either from the right or the left side, it will be called “falso”. And if you will push the point into the enemy, it is known by all to be called “stoccata”, either with the right foot or with the left forward, either over or under hand.

Antonio Manciolino, Opera Nova book 1 chapter 2 tr. W. Jherek Swanger

Manciolino often tells his readers that they should cut “but not go beyond guardia di faccia,” a guard holding the sword extended at shoulder height “straight with the point towards the enemy’s face.”  He gives this warning after cuts which naturally end with the palm facing down (book 4 chapter 7), left (book 1 chapter 4), or up (book 1 chapter 15).  Although the initial description says that falsi are rising cuts to the face, the rest of the book contains examples of sideways or lateral falsi traversati to other targets (book 1 chapter 3, book 2 primo assaulto, book 2 secondo assaulto, book 3 first strait of the half sword falso-to-falso). When Manciolino suggests that cuts with the true edge are descending and cuts with the false edge are ascending he is speaking roughly, and his statements that blows end in guardia di faccia seem to mean that they end with the arm extended and the point towards the enemy’s face, not that the palm of the sword hand faces in a particular direction.

– Is any transition between poste good?  Moving from a low guard on one side to Posta di Finestra on the other engenders a rising cut with the true edge.

– Should we follow Vadi, who also teaches seven blows and is explicit about which edge to use?  His manuscript has some strong similarities to Fiore’s despite being 70 years later.

Forehand and true edge go together/Backhand and false edge stay together/ Except the fendente which wants the true

Philippo Vadi, De Arti Gladiatoria Dimicandi preface chapter 5 tr. Guy Windsor

– Is it true, as many say, that Fiore dislikes crossing his wrists with one palm up and one palm down when he holds a weapon in two hands? This would imply that Vadi’s rule was right.

– Is it true, as Matt Easton says, that Fiore prefers to cross swords with his point up and hands low? Or is this an illusion of how he chose to organize the manuscripts?

– When the colpi mezzani say “E andamo cum lo dritto taglio de la parte dritta, e de la parte riversa andamo cum lo falso taglio,” do they mean that forehand cuts go with the true edge and backhand the false, or that cuts originating on the right go with the true edge and cuts originating on the left the false? Some of Fiore’s stances, such as Posta di Donna, are so wound up that it is convenient to cut backhand from a guard on the right or forehand from a guard on the left.

– Is this even a good question, or should we focus on learning to do whatever cut with whatever edge best suits the situation?

Thus, my question: “With which edge should one make each cut?”