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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.

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?

The material on fighting with two weapons in Fiore’s writings can be summarized very briefly.  The long sections on fighting with the sword in two hands, the sword in one hand, the dagger, the lance, and the axe all deal with a single weapon.  In the second Italian preface to the Pisani-Dossi version he even describes fencing with the sword in one hand as “the play of the one-handed sword without a buckler” (el zogho de la spada d’una mane sença bucolero, transcription courtesy of Wiktenauer).  This suggests that teaching fencing with the sword in one hand but no other weapon was notable.

A bridging section after the lessons on the sword in two hands teaches fighting with staff and dagger and two clubs and a dagger against a lance.  This section seems to be unique to Fiore’s manuals, and it is rarely discussed or performed.  Yet it is very short: only five images in the manuscript in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

In the section on fighting with the lance on horseback, many of the figures carry shields, but Fiore gives no instructions for using them and the figures just seem to hold them ready to receive their partner’s lance.  This section could be compared with the many jousting manuals which survive from the fifteenth century.

Thus, my question: “Why is there so little advice on fighting with two weapons?”

Did he think that how to use the target or shield or buckler was obvious?  Modern readers with long training in hand-to-hand combat do not find it so, but none of them was raised in fourteenth-century Italy or spent their youth fighting with edged weapons.

Did he expect students to be able to extrapolate from the other sections?  Fiore makes it clear that his system is for using any hand-held weapon, and it is easy enough to adapt his guards to sword and buckler and use the buckler to bind, push, and enter just like the empty hand.  Greg Mele has demonstrated this at events such as WMAW. Whether the same can be done for fighting with large shields remains to be seen.

Were his intended readers not interested in shields and bucklers?  While the sword and buckler was something of a bourgeois armament, shields remained important for men-at-arms, especially for combat on horseback and against archers.  While as early as the 1320s an anonymous writer on the Anglo-Scottish border remarked that the shield is rarely used in war because it impedes more than it helps, shields continue to appear in inventories and descriptions and depictions of men-at-arms into the early fifteenth century. The role of shields and bucklers in Italy about the year 1400 would be an excellent topic for research, but I am too busy with my ancient studies to pursue it. Dear reader, will you?

(edit 2015/02/15: corrected three small spelling mistakes)