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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 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:

  • Fiore has a posta frontale, the stance in front of the forehead. Frontale is an adjective which was often used as a noun to refer to things worn on the forehead. It so happens that about the time he was writing, wealthy men-at-arms like to wear an engraved plate on the forehead of their bascinets:
    A smooth stone effigy of a knight wearing a pointed bascinet with aventail

    A detail of the effigy of Sir Thomas Wendesley (d. 1403) in Bakewell, Derbyshire showing the engraved plate on the brow of his bascinet. Photo by Trevor Lilley, 2014, courtesy of http://effigiesandbrasses.com/3411/19985/

    Dr. Toby Capwell gives this the modern English name brow plate for want of a Middle English one (Armour of the English Knight pp. 74, 75). We know that the Italian name was frontale because an Italian merchant ordered one of his suppliers to “make, in front of two bascinets, two frontali of iron with designs cut with a burin, and cut two visors for them and make two little tubes of iron for them, …” (Luciana Frangioni, “Martino di Milano” p. 85 note 73 “fare, dinanzi a 2 bacinetti, 2 frontali di ferro intagliati a bolino e tagliare 2 visiere a’ detti e fare 2 tuelli di ferro a’ detti, e per fate a ll’uno 1 capeletto e all’altro 2 roletti.”)

  • Fiore has a posta di bicorno, the stance of the bicorn (two-horned-thing). In English and French, a bicorn/bicorne was a type of portable anvil with two long narrow points which appears in inventories of armourers’ shops from 1344 onwards; later in the 15th century, an anonymous English writer suggested that among the officers of a baron on campaign should be “an armourer with bicorn, and his other necessaries.” (Grose, A Treatise on Ancient Armour and Weapons (London: S. Hooper, 1786), p. 85). It is generally thought that it had the same meaning in Italian, although this is difficult to prove because many Italian dictionaries draw on poetry more than inventories of shops. (Thanks to Kel Rekuta for linking the posta and the tool no later than 2007, Mark Shier for reminding me of it).
  • Fiore often describes footwork using the noun traversa and the verb traversare “to go across, sideways, at an angle.” In the world of armour, a cervelliera traversata was a polished skull-cap, and a traversatore was someone who did this kind of polishing. By the late fifteenth century Milan had a guild of traversatores with a Latin rule.[1]
  • Fiore often uses the verb rebattere to describe beating an oncoming weapon away (eg. in the spear section of the manuscript in the Getty Museum). It seems that this was also a term in metalworking, because one Italian merchant stocked “little hammers for beating” (Frangioni, Chiedere e Ottenere, p. 119: martellini … da ribadire).
  • Fiore names his diagonal downwards blows fendenti “cleavers, splitters” (the present participle of fendere). In 1368, a merchant stocked 1 choraza fenduta dinanzi … i velutto sanghuingnio worth f. 2 s. 14 (One cuirass split [past participle!] in front … (covered) in blood-red velvet: Luciana Frangioni, “Corazze ed altre difese del busto in una documentazione mercantile di fine trecento” in Anna Maria Falchero ed., La storia e l’economia: miscellanea di studi in onore di Giorgio Mori, Varese 2003 (Edizioni Lativa), 1, pp. 315-322). The more common way to indicate that an armour opened down the front was to call it spaccata dinanzi “split in front”, but our merchant was a Tuscan who had lived in Avignon and Fiore was a Friulian with German connections; it might be interesting to see what terms were preferred in his dialect.
  • Fiore often contrasts things which are half (mezzo/a) and things which are full (tutto/a) such as the pair of guards porta di ferro mezzana and tutta porta di ferro, and the three types of step mezza volta, tutta volta, and volta stabile. Buyers of armour discussed with their supplier whether an item was of half proof (di mezza pruova) or of full proof (di pruova, di tutta pruova) or not proved at all.

Most of these expressions are characteristically “Fiorean.” They are neither part of the international language of fencing which spread across the French sphere of influence from the 12th century onwards (with words like scirmire “fence,” parry, cover, and so on),[2] nor part of the vocabulary which he shares with German fencers such as the position corona/Kron “crown.”

I don’t know of anyone who has asked this question before, so I have to make up possible answers myself:

  • Was the language of armour simply part of the world of people who hired fencing masters and performed deeds of arms? Some arms and armour terms appear in places as far apart as northern England and Tuscany, so clearly the jargon of arms and armour was common among those who followed the wars. But nobody has noticed such a strong flavour of “armour words” in the German sources, or the Spanish sources, or the English sources.
  • Did Fiore have some connection to armourers? Friuli is very close to Veneto, and there were many armourers in Venice, while Matt Easton thinks that Fiore’s students have strong associations with Milan which was also an armouring center. In the preface to the Morgan and Getty manuscripts Fiore says that when he was young and deciding to pursue a life of arms he wished savere tempere di ferri “to know how to temper iron.” Yet Fiore links himself with the village of Cividale and with Ferrara in the Romagna, neither of which were famous for their armour.
  • Is this simply pareidolia, the flaw in human brains which make us see men in the moon, the Virgin Mary in our fried chicken, and international conspiracies in our favourite newspaper? Then one should be able to make an equally strong case that Fiore’s language has a strong flavour of some other kind of jargon. Historical fencers don’t always read as many texts other than fencing manuals from the world that produced their art as they should, so disproving my idea would be an excellent excuse to broaden their reading.

I hope that my gentle readers will suggest other ideas in the comments: they don’t have to be something that they are sure about.

[1] The Latin text of the rule is transcribed in M. Paola Zanoboni, Artigiani, imprenditori, mercanti. Orginazzione del lavoro e conflitti socialinella Milano Sforzesca (1450-1476) (Firenze: La Nuova Italiana, 1996) pp. 247-255 ↑ Back to text
[2] Early French fencing jargon is another of those topics where most of what we ‘know’ is third-hand summaries of unpublished research, but there is a very interesting article by Oliver Dupuis called “The Roots of Fencing from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries in the French Language Area” in Acta Periodica Duellatorum 2015 which shows French cognates of many terms which appear a few centuries later in Italian fencing manuals. ↑ Back to text