Friday, November 16, 2012

Striking With A Spear

I have long been skeptical--OK, I have laughed mercilessly--of those who want to believe that spears were used like staves, that is, for striking actions as well as thrusting actions.  For one thing, there's no clear evidence for that in foot combat in any Fechtbuch.  For another, spears just aren't built for that.

There is a hint in one of the Talhoffer books that talks about a "schlag" or strike with a spear, but that word isn't as rigidly used as we tend to think of words being used today, and in the context I really think it just referring to a "strike" with the point, i.e., a thrust.

However, a recent post on Will McLean's blog opens a different possibility.  In a quote from a description of a 16th-century barrier combat, the text says:
"with the but ende of the spere strake the Almaine that he staggared"
In more modern English this would read:
"[the] German struck [him] with the butt end of the spear [so] that he staggered."

Now I still reject a striking action with the business end of the spear:  The fact is, as Will has shown, that spears were tapered toward the point, making them thinner there, so striking actions were almost certain to break the spear if any real force was used, and what good is a light stroke?  A strike with the other end, however, which is the thicker end, obviously, might be a different matter.  Having said that, we still must ask several questions.  First, was the strike a swinging blow or a thrust?  Don't assume the word "struck" in the text is definitive--we often see the word struck used for thrusts (e.g., in jousting descriptions).

Second, how relevant is 16th-century barrier combat to Kampffechten?  Many sources (e.g., Anglo's "Renaissance Martial Arts") are quite clear about how artificial such combats were, with everything from artificial techniques to weapons pre-scored to break spectacularly.  It might be that a stunning blow with the butt of a spear was useful in a "friendly" (Will would say "consensual" to distinguish it from a judicial combat) barrier fight but would have been laughed at by someone seeking to kill his opponent in Kampffechten.  We don't know.  And third, if this was a generally viable technique, why doesn't it show up in any Fechtbuch?

Having said all of that, there is one plate in a Fechtbuch that shows an attack with the butt of a lance; it's in the Roßfechten section of two of Jörg Wilhalm's books.  Here is the technique from one of them:

I'm not sure how this relates, however.  We know that the forward motion of a horse changes the effect of strikes (e.g., Dom Duarte's comments about using the motion to add force to a sword blow), and we have speculated that a pommel "thrust" with a sword in foot combat could be effective against someone even in a closed visor because of the percussive effect it would have.  Thus, it's entirely possible that a "thrust" with the butt of the spear would be similarly effective in foot combat.  And such an attack might have been useful, if you held the spear long your hands would be closer to the butt-end of the spear, so you would be able to use it better in close combat (where you couldn't use the point because you wouldn't have room).

So, once again, we have a fascinating bit of evidence that doesn't actually tell us anything definitive.  Sigh.  Still, sometimes by building up little tiny bits of apparently useless data we construct a good argument.  No deep, carefully researched conclusion here, just food for thought.


Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Fiore's art applies more or less universally to all weapons - it definitely involves striking the opponents spear with yours in a swinging motion, and applying the sword stuff to the spear could lead you to believe in strikes.

There's also the line in Fiore, "Strikng is done outside on the street", implying that this is a technique that requires a great deal of room (and therefore is likely referring to striking).

I believe Silver also considers all the pole weapons to be similar, so there's that as well.

That said, even staves were more often used for thrusting than striking.

Hugh Knight said...

See, this is the problem with the wildly overdone approach most people take to Fiore: They ignore the fact that while similar techniques can be done with different weapons, you have to learn to do them differently based upon the specific characteristics of each weapon. Where that important information is left out, you can't extrapolate safely between forms.

The line from Fiore to which you refer relates to a displacement, not a strike with the head of the spear.

There is no clear strike with the head of a spear in any source, including Fiore and Silver. You can't just say that the author treated weapons similarly, because each weapon also has differences, and you must understand both.

The simple fact is that medieval spears were tapered in order to balance the head of the spear. Thus, a strike with the head would almost certainly cause the head to break off.


Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I will bow to your expertise on that Fiore passage, my understanding was that it was referring to strikes, but it could definitely be just referring to displacements.

Otherwise, all true.

Some other points I would offer up in defense of strikes: spearheads are often rather bladelike. They wouldn't have to be if they weren't used as blades.

And even if you're worried about the shaft being weak near the head, it's possible to strike with the shaft.

There's also this line in Fiore's spear: "And the guards of the left side cover and beat and with a strike they injure, and cannot place thrusts well."

And in the spear on foot against a mounted lance:
"This is a play of the Master before me, who waits with the ghiavarina for the horseman, in the Boar's Tooth, passes out of line and parries, entering this play. NB: as I do in its appropriate place, I can strike him in the head with cut or thrust, since my ghiavarina is very quick."

Hugh Knight said...

With respect, spear heads are bladed to do more damage as they enter. Arrowheads designed for hunting are the same way--they have wide, sharp heads so as to cause more damage, not because they are intended to be used for striking.

As for the bit about the ghiavarina, as I understand it (and I am open to correction), this is not, strictly speaking, a spear--hence the different name. It is more akin to a glaive in that it can be used both for striking and thrusting.

Also, beware of translating "strike" to mean a swinging blow. We find the word "strike" used in several jousting sources to refer to a thrust of the lance, not a swinging blow.

As for being able to strike with the shaft, that is what this post was about--as long as by "shaft" we're talking about the butt end.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I think trying to split hairs between a spear with a long head and something else is a fruitless pursuit... At what point does a long-head spear become not a spear? It's going to be pretty arbitrary at some point.

There is reference in Norse texts to spears specifically designed for cutting - hewing spears, which were probably something like a glaive, partisan, or ghiavarina.

If early spear-type weapons (hewing spears) were able to cut, and later spear-type weapons (glaives, partisans, ghiavarina) were able to cut, it seems odd that this tactical option would be given up.

Why would you purposely make a more limited weapon if you could make one that could do both? Legitimate question for which I don't have an answer - if you have some insight on that, I'd be interested in it.

Hugh Knight said...

First, the Norse sagas cannot be used as evidence. They were written hundreds of years after the period they purport to describe and have been shown by scholars to be severely flawed with regards to actual Norse life.

Second, where do you get the difference between a long head and something else? With respect, I'm missing something because I don't know what this is in reference to.

Glaives and partisans are not spears. They are poll weapons that have a cut and thrust capability. As to why you wouldn't necessarily make a weapon that can both cut and thrust, that's obvious: Because to do so requires that you make the head heavier. You may not care--in which case you'd go for something like a partisan--or you may--in which case you prefer a spear.

Hugh Knight said...

Ah, wait, I think I understand your point about long vs. short: By long you're referring to the difference between spears and poll arms like the glaive or partisan, correct? If I'm right, then I answered that without realizing it, as you can see.