Friday, December 29, 2017

Some Thoughts On Using Medieval Art to Document Medieval Combat

Recently, I had a discussion with a gentleman about an aspect of medieval combat, viz., using a buckler in full plate.  Rather than engaging in well-reasoned discourse, the gentleman chose to simply post a handful of manuscript pictures, believing that a picture being worth a thousand words, he could thus make his point without having to lower himself to debate me.  Perhaps he thought it an excellent way to express his lofty disdain.  In any case, we will use that “discussion,” along with several other examples, to examine the bigger picture of using medieval art to document our understanding of medieval combat.

Unfortunately for him, his pictures didn’t prove his point at all.  Consider this picture of St. Michael:
It would seem to prove that bucklers were not at odds with full plate all by itself.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  St. Michael is almost always depicted with a shield, usually a buckler, regardless of the period or the kind of armor he’s wearing:
This is because of the superstitious symbols associated with St. Michael in church myths, not because anyone ever saw him using a shield or buckler—he was not, after all, real.

This picture depicts a scene from the Battle of Battle of Otterburn from a very late edition of Froissart’s Chronicles:
Looking at the figures in the foreground, we can see several fully armored figures using bucklers; again, my friend’s point made, right?  Alas, not so.  The battle took place in 1388, but the painting clearly depicts late-fifteenth century harness of a sort from long after 1388.

Or consider the Battle of Crecy, fought in 1346.  To look at this picture from the Arsenal Library in Paris, one would assume that the men at arms on both sides fought ahorse:
Yet we know very well that most of the English men at arms fought on foot.  Looking at the picture, we would also assume that the men at arms of both sides fought in full plate harnesses of the middle fifteenth century, and yet we know the battle occurred almost 100 years before that.  This is a frequent problem in the study of armor; for example we see an effigy of a famous person, not realizing the armor depicted thereon is typical of a much later period, when the family finally got around to having the effigy made.

Sadly, not even all Fechtbücher can be trusted.  This plate from Paul Hector Mair shows two figures practicing Langenschilt combat in full plate:
Sadly, Mair seems to have been less of a practitioner than a collector; he copied older Fechtbücher, often embellishing them to make them more appealing.  When we look at the original page that was copied for the above, we see that it depicted the combatants in the leather “cat suits” which were universally shown in other manuscripts; Mair just put them in armor because he thought it looked cooler; here’s the same technique from Mair’s source, Codex Wallerstein:

Likewise, Mair showed sword and buckler fighting with the combatants wearing plate gauntlets:
None of the sources he copied showed the models wearing gauntlets; indeed, if you understand how bucklers were actually used in combat, you’ll realize that bucklers were used as gauntlets; never to block, but primarily to protect the sword hand (see:  “What’s a Buckler For” here:  <>)
Thus, wearing gauntlets while using a buckler was pointless.

In a previous discussion, that same gentleman expressed the notion that a poll weapon with an axe blade on one side and a spike on the back should be termed a pollaxe.  I do not blame him for this; indeed, in my book on pollaxe combat I called this kind of weapon a pollaxe.  When we see fully armored men at arms using a poll weapon, especially a non-utilitarian one, we assume it to be a pollaxe, since halberds were typically used by lightly armored common troops and pollaxes by men at arms.    When Peter Falkner’s Fechtbuch became available, however, everything changed.  Falkner points to this exact sort of  weapon, and calls it a halberd, and subsequent research on my part confirmed that to be typical:
Again, the art led many of us (me included at first) astray, and we were set to rights only when we got more information about the art we were seeing (indeed, I believe my acquaintance still considers this a pollaxe in spite of the detailed evidence to the contrary I presented).  In fact, the defining characteristic of a pollaxe is the hammer head, as hard as that might be to believe.  Without the hammer, it’s not an axe at all.

What led me to even question the use of bucklers by fully armored men at arms?  Studying how they were used, of course, and ignoring the art.  A buckler is never used to block in any source I have ever seen from the Middle Ages (see my article cited above).  George Silver talks about a buckler being used (out of armor) with a broadsword, and talks about blocks with it (very vaguely, only saying to use it like a dagger), but the weapon he depicts is much larger than the medieval buckler (or even most Renaissance ones—look at diGrassi for example), and is obviously different in use.  This might be because  the closed hilts on the broad- and backswords Silver favored obviated the need for a “gauntlet” for the sword hand.

And, of course, partly armored troops might have a real need for a buckler, so we see that in a lot of cases, as in this example:
Yet someone might say: “But it’s armored combat!”  Yes, but remember I stipulated “fully armored in plate.”  Indeed, one of the paintings presented to me as proof of armored buckler use was a depictions of some of Charles the Bold’s elite guards; Englishmen billmen who were issued significant plate armor, but who carried swords and bucklers as backup weapons.

The simple fact is that you don’t need to block cuts from one-handed swords when you are fully armored in plate, because arming swords are useless against plate.  Look at depictions of armored sword and shield combat during the age of plate, and you will usually see the shield dependent from a guige strap which would prevent the shield from being used to do anything but to block the face by lifting it, as in this picture from BNF Français 120 Lancelot du Lac, but nothing else:
That’s because an arming sword can’t do much to someone in plate.  And if you’re wearing gauntlets (“fully armored”), then you have nothing for which to use the buckler; there is no sense in carrying one at all.

So we can find lots of reasons a medieval painting might show armored men, even fully armored men at arms, using a buckler:  Anachronism on the part of the painter, or an attempt to depict foreigners he has never seen, a mistake by the painter (or patron in the case of Mair), artistic or religious rules for certain characters, a depiction of partly or lightly armored troops, etc.  But there’s no reason for a fully armored man at arms to use a buckler, and when we weed out the problematic sources, we almost never see it.

In conclusion, using medieval art to document aspects of medieval combat is problematic at best, and entirely misleading at worst.  If you don’t know the exact circumstances and context of the artwork you will almost certainly misunderstand it.  If you aren’t exactly sure what you’re seeing, you might believe the English men at arms fought on horseback at Crecy (or Agincourt, for that matter, since many paintings show that, too), or that a poll weapon without a hammer head is a pollaxe, or that fully armored men at arms used bucklers in combat, or that the Langenschilt was used in full plate.  You must not simply google whatever you want to prove and then demand everyone accept random medieval art as documentation for whatever odd kind of argument you believe to be true.  If you haven’t documented the art itself, in context, then the art has no value whatsoever as documentation, and even then it can still be wrong.  At best, random bits of medieval art can be used as a suggestion for a hypothesis, which must then be subjected to careful, educated, rigorous research in order to determine its validity or lack thereof.  It can never be an argument itself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On Using a Sword in Armored Combat with Both Hands on the Hilt

I see that the Popular Names are trying to reinvent the Kunst des Fechtens.  Again.  Sigh.  The new subject is about whether you should hold your sword with both hands on the hilt in Harnischfechten.

First, let’s define some terms purely for ease of discussion.  One of the lesser-known terms today for halfswording is “gewappeter hant” or “armor hand” (see Krakow Gladiatoria fol. 3v below).  It refers to what we all think of as a halfsword grip, with the right hand on the grip and the left hand holding the middle of the blade.  That appellation alone should make this entire question plain (as in, “armor hand” is what you use in armor), but what the hell, let’s play it out.

And while no one I know uses this term, let’s call it “unarmored hand” when you have both hands on the hilt.  I make no implication with this, it’s purely for the sake of clarity.

Source Material:

Next, let’s turn (as you know I always do; I’m such a rebel—not like the popular kids who just intuit all of this without regard to those boring, stuffy old masters) to the source material.  There are a tiny little handful of techniques in all the material which depict the use of the unarmored-hand grip in Harnischfechten.  I include literally all of them below:

1.)  Fiore:  The figure in the bottom-right corner is in the Middle Iron Gate:
“My name is Middle Iron Gate, and whether you are armored or unarmored I make strong thrusts. I step offline with my left foot and I put a thrust into your face. I can also place my point and blade between your arms in such a way that I will put you into the middle bind, as depicted and identified earlier.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

“This cover is made from the True Cross Guard, when I step diagonally offline. And so that you can see what can be done from this cover, my students will show the plays that follow it, and since they are experienced in mortal combat, they will show these skills without hesitation.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

There then follow a couple more plates in which Fiore shows different things you can do from (2.) above.  Note, however, that each one is just another way to follow on from the displacement of the unarmored-hand thrust.  When you consider that, you realize that Fiore shows exactly one single technique done in the unarmored-hand grip.  One.  And that the guy doing the unarmored hand is the enemy—the one who loses the engagement.  Note, too, the date of the source:  The first quarter of the Fifteenth century; extremely early.  More on this below.

3.)  Gladiatoria:
“Note the fifth technique: Now if you have thrown your spear and he wants to over rush you with his spear, then take your sword in both your hands and strike out his thrust up from below. And when you have struck out his thrust, take your sword at the armor-hand and work with him for the spear.”

In other words, the only action taken using the unarmored-hand grip is to slap the spear thrust away, after which you assume the armor-hand grip and go to work.

4.)  Talhoffer’s Ambraser Codex (c. 1450):
“This is the first instruction in which one lets the student step ahead, especially it is the upper [posture] after forming up, and it is also advantageous against a thrust. -- This is the other position in the advantage.”

In reality, this is similar to the play in Fiore above (although here the defender uses an unarmored-hand grip, unlike in Fiore).  Rudolph intends an Unterstich, and Ludwig will displace it from above (although Master Hans says nothing about what to do after the thrust).


There we have it, that is all of the plays in the Fechtbücher which depict the unarmored hand in Harnischfechten.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Those plays shown above are the source for the large amount of unarmored-hand fencing shown in videos from this recent sword-tag event.

So, what do we have?  One kind of thrust (a simple Unterstich), and two ways to displace it.  Of those two ways to displace it, only one was done with an unarmored-hand grip, and we were only given the displacement, nothing to do from it, so it’s not even a full technique.

Note, too, that in both those techniques, the person who attacks using the unarmored-hand grip is the one who will lose the engagement, so the masters aren’t suggesting you use an unarmored-hand grip to attack, they’re showing you what to do if your opponent does.  Note, too, that both of these are quite early works, so it’s possible that this might be a throwback to an earlier time when halfswording was not universal (remember, it’s unlikely that all, or even most, men at arms followed Liechtenauer’s teaching).

My personal belief is that in the Ambraser play shown above, Master Hans is saying that since someone might use an unarmored-hand thrust, and since such thrusts have such long range, you can use this upper guard as a way to close to the Zufechten without having to worry about the range disparity; note how he talks about closing (“step ahead,” he says).  That explains why there’s no follow-on actions described for after the displacement—you’re supposed to go to an armor-hand grip.

Then we are given a way to displace a spear thrust, but the follow-on after the displacement is done with an armored-hand grip; as with the Ambraser Codex technique, he’s showing you a way to mitigate the spear’s advantage of reach, not telling you to fight with the unarmored-hand grip.


There are no cuts with the sword (contrary to what I’ve seen in videos recently from a major sword-tagging event), no actions done from or in a bind, no attacks at all other than a single Unterstich (which is never shown being done by the man who wins the engagement) in any of the Fechtbücher unarmored-hand plays.  Nothing.  One thrust (done by the loser), and two ways to displace longer-ranged attacks.  This does not support the argument for the existence of unarmored-hand fighting in armor.  The cool kids need to stop trying to impress the ignorant and gullible and instead learn to focus on the source material we have been given.  In short, take your left hand off of your grip and put it on the blade where it belongs.  Also, stop misrepresenting our art, you’re embarrassing us.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Drills

I worked up a new pollaxe drill yesterday, and it got me to thinking about what, exactly, a drill should be.  Judging by what I see on YouTube, most schools think a drill is either a solo exercise like a karate kata, or else a sort of repetitive exercise where they bang on each other’s swords, usually while aiming at one another’s blades rather than at their partner as they should.

Solo exercises are found in many martial arts, and have a minor value even in ours.  In my school, I use solo drills to help rank beginners work on guards and on simple cuts (to learn to cut solely with the hands, not the arms, and at the correct angle, etc.).  We later use the simple cutting drill on the pell to reinforce angles of attack so as to ensure we are cutting straight rather than flat (edge alignment).  After just a few months, the guards drill is absolutely useless because the student will be using the various guard in actual technique practice and in real drills (see below), and thus the guards drill is completely superfluous.  The simple cuts solo drill likewise becomes useless because of pell work and a simple partner cutting exercise we do.

Binding and working “am Schwert” (“on the sword”) is central to the Kunst des Fechtens.  Moving from one technique to another by oneself thus focuses on something practiced only minimally by us.  Of course, we do free cuts, but they are usually to or from a bind (although there are certain specialized exceptions); if you are moving from cut to cut without actions at the bind, it is extremely likely you have done way too much playing of sword tag and not nearly enough real KdF practice.  Thus, once you have learned how to make the basic movements, solo practice is nearly useless (not counting pell work as solo practice).

Likewise, repetitive banging on each others’ swords is pointless; it, too, derives from way too much completely undisciplined playing of sword tag in which am Schwert techniques are not even considered.  Central to that kind of “exercise” is the idea of leaving the bind without limiting your opponent’s response for safety, an idea entirely contrary to Master Johannes’ teachings, as is aiming at the blade rather than the man.

Both of these approaches are wrong for the practice of the KdF (except as noted).

Having already discussed the limited value of solo drills, let us turn to partner, or “structured” drills.  First, we must distinguish between what I call “drills” and “forms.”  A form (my term for them) is a choreographed exercise intended to teach the student how to execute techniques correctly in a sequence with good form.  Like drills, these are performed with a partner, but unlike drills, they are entirely predetermined; there are no choices or decisions in their execution.  Meyer uses these extensively, calling them “devices.”  They are somewhat like Japanese kenjutsu kata, and fulfill exactly the same purpose.

In contrast, a drill is an exercise wherein one partner preforms an action from a limited menu of allowed choices, and the other partner must respond correctly, then the partners reset, and the actor chooses a different action to which his partner must respond correctly.  I call the person who is acting from the menu of choices the “Teacher” and the one who must respond the “Student.”  These titles don’t have any reference out of the context of the drill, as the teacher may be of lower or higher rank, and they will switch places once one iteration of the drill is completed; they only refer to each partner’s role in any given drill.  The Teacher’s job is to act in such a way as to allow the Student to learn to do his techniques correctly under pressure and to be forced to do so when he doesn’t know what’s coming, just as in combat.

Here’s an example of a simplified longsword drill:   The Student attacks with a Zornhau.  The Teacher either:
(1.) Pretends to start to displace, but stops, thus ensuring that the student is really aiming for the cut, and is not going to turn to the Teacher’s sword, or,
(2.)  displaces the Student’s cut and remains hard in the bind, to which the Student should respond with the First Winden, or,
(3.)  displaces and then leaves the bind to cut at the other side of the Student’s head, to which the student should respond with bricht Abnehmen, or, … etc., etc. (This is a simplified version of one of our drills).

Some drills can be quite complex, requiring that when the Student responds correctly to a given technique, the Teacher then responds to that technique with another, forcing the Student to respond correctly to the second technique.  For example, in (2.) above, when the Student winds, the Teacher may push the Winden aside, requiring the Student to shift to the Second Winden in response.

Drills such as these come as close to real combat as is possible in the practice of the KdF.  Since it is not possible to do accurate free play with any of the unarmored forms, drills are essential to learning as much about how to fight as we can in these safety-conscious days.  The point is to force the Student to react correctly with a historically accurate and canonically correct response to an attack with correct form and function while under pressure.  This teaches students to learn to keep a flexible mind (i.e., not to anticipate, which is why (1.) above is so important), and to act with proper form even under pressure.  This is only possible when the student has truly learned to execute his techniques perfectly at a “muscle memory” level.

Contrast this kind of drill with the mere “banging swords” which seem almost universal elsewhere.  Sword banging (to coin a phrase) teaches nothing about the Kunst des Fechtens; in those, you don’t have to think, don’t have to plan, are taught to leave the bind without rendering your opponent harmless, and to attack the sword, not the man.

By practicing both correct drills and correct forms, students of the KdF come as close as possible to understanding the true art of combat without falling prey to the inaccuracies and bad habits inherent in the game of sword tag.

In my book on the longsword I included a handful of structured drills of the sort explained here, but I also included a structured way to create drills for any situation.  I have since come to realize that was a mistake, because people using my book to learn the art have a very tough time creating realistic drills which correctly express the central tenets of the art.  Thus, I have written a book which includes twelve structured drills of the sort described above, sixteen forms, instructions for pell work, solo drills for beginners, and much more to help with the actual training process.  I have taken it down from for revision, but look for the expanded second edition soon.

Here is a video of two of my students performing a structured drill:
Drill #8:  Sprechfenster
Setup:  Teacher starts in vom Tag and Student in left Langenort.
1.)  First Choice:  Teacher steps straight in and attempts to beat Student’s sword down to allow himself to get close.
Response:  Student responds with a Durchwechseln.
2.)  Second Choice:  Teacher steps around Student’s point with a slope step as he attacks with a Zornhau.
Response:  Student counters Teacher’s Zornhau with an Absetzen.
3.)  Third Choice:  Teacher simply waits in vom Tag.
Response:  If Teacher does not act within five seconds after assuming vom Tag, Student attacks with a long thrust into right Langenort.
3a.)  Advanced Choice:  Teacher counters Student’s long thrust (in (3.) above) with a lower Schielhau.
Response:  Student counters Teacher’s Schielhau with a Schnappen (not shown in the video as they were doing a simplified version.)
(I apologize for the bad quality of the video, but I hope it gives an idea of what a drill looks like.)

Copyright © 2017 by the author.  All rights reserved, but this article may be shared as long as full credit is given and it is distributed for free.