Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Arrows Can Penetrate Mail—How You’re Looking at This Incorrectly

Todd Cutler et al. just presented a video proving what every serious scholar of the period already knows:  That arrows rarely injured men at arms in plate.  The records of the period make this extremely clear, and only the confirmation bias of the archery fan boys combined with the general ignorance about the actual function of archery in late-period medieval battles made this video necessary at all.  If you seriously don’t understand what archery was for, ask me privately and I will reluctantly explain it again, but when you are finally forced to admit that it wasn’t about killing men at arms (and after this video, no one with even a shred of intellectual honesty can possibly doubt that), it should be obvious.

This essay is really about a separate issue:  Arrows penetrating mail (if you’re ignorant enough to think there’s such a thing as “chain mail,” don’t bother reading this, you need more education first).  When you finally prove to the archery fan boys that arrows didn’t penetrate plate, they immediately harp on the false notion that only a few men at arms had plate, and arrows could still penetrate mail, so archery stilled RULED!  So there, you mean old pedant!  Of course, how much plate was worn depended upon the period, but here we’re discussing the Age of Plate (roughly c. 1375 until the end of the period), and more specifically the Hundred Years War; after that things changed quite a bit as men at arms became less important on the battlefield because they were replaced by common soldiers (NB:  A man at arms was anyone who was able to arm and equip himself as a knight in full armor—get over your mistaken belief that the term refers to common soldiery with an iron cap and ratty-looking leather armor).

The simple truth is that arrows of a certain type could penetrate mail, but most people miss the most important fact about that seemingly simple statement.  The arrows that could penetrate mail were those of the bodkin type—slender points with little or no blade.  Anyone who has ever looked at hunting arrows, however, will immediately notice that they are invariably broadheads—wide blade-shaped points, not narrow spiked points.  That’s because arrows kill by causing blood loss, not through the percussive effects we associate with firearms.  The wider the blade, the more it cuts, and the more blood loss it causes, so the faster the target dies.

We start seeing these bodkin points in the early 14th century, coincidental with the development of the Age of Transition when men at arms started adding plate armor to their mail.  We have plenty of accounts from the period prior to this in which arrows had almost no effect on men at arms in full mail; in one famous episode, King Louis IX of France wrote that after fighting a battle in their hauberks on one day, he and his men elected to fight in just their aketons and gambesons (another word almost everyone gets wrong) on the next day because the pinprick wounds caused by (broad-headed) arrows against their mail made the mail painful to wear—which means that they were hit a lot and didn’t die.  The reason the bodkin point was developed may have been to solve this problem, or it may have been to pass more easily between plates of Transitional armor, or (probably) both.

But think about this:  If arrows killed by causing wide cuts that led to severe blood loss, how did that change with the transition to bodkin points?  Ah, comprehension starts to dawn in those readers not utterly blinded by confirmation bias!  Right, they no longer did a very good job of killing at all.  Wounding, certainly, possibly even rendering combatants hors de combat, but rarely killing except in exceptional and unlikely circumstances.

So yes, arrows could penetrate mail, but the key point is that mail forced archers to use a type of point which would rarely cause a fatal wound (barring long-term infection, of course).  That’s the important lesson to take from this:  Armor worked, even when it didn’t fully protect the wearer.

Readers of this blog may wonder why this subject is even being discussed since it has absolutely no relevance to Fechtbuch combat, which has nothing to do with archery or to war (Fiore’s hubristic claims to the contrary notwithstanding).  The reason is that the same revelation applies to swords (and, to a lesser extent, spears) in Harnischfechten.  When people look at early-period swords they are often struck by the very broad points exhibited by such weapons, comparing them unfavorably to the more acute points on later swords (starting with the Type XV).  In fact, as with arrows, those earlier points were intended for use against unarmored targets and were actually far more deadly than the narrower later style points, just as broadheads are more lethal than bodkins.

As armor changed through the Transitional Period, the old percussive blows favored in the Age of Mail were discarded in favor of thrusts into the gaps of the plates, just as Ringeck taught (NB:  Percussive blows didn’t normally penetrate mail, but they could break and damage the parts under it).  They first tried to overcome plate defenses with bigger, heavier swords (e.g., Types XII and XIII), but these proved inadequate to the task, so narrower points that were capable of passing into the small gaps between plates and then penetrating the links of mail underneath were required.

So when people studying Harnischfechten today wonder about the lack of effectiveness of mail at stopping sword thrusts from 15th-century swords, they entirely miss the point, just as the archery fan boys miss the point about arrows penetrating mail:  The mail forced the use of less-effective points on swords, thus making combat safer despite not being able to stop the pointier sword types.  Armor worked—get over your misconceptions.

Note:  If this essay (or others on this blog) seems harsh or angry, blame the confirmation-bias plagued idiots who keep shouting false information to push their notions of how things “must have been.”  If not for literal decades of having to correct them endlessly only to have them throw screaming tantrums when exposed to facts which disprove their ignorant and baseless theories, this essay would no doubt have been far more gentle and mild, but enough is enough.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Armored Sword and Shield Combat

I have written a small essay surveying what little we can know about armored sword and shield combat in the High Middle Ages.  In it, I discuss how the efforts at interpreting sword and shield combat by other authors have been deeply flawed by their reliance on specious connections between unarmored Fechtbuch techniques using dissimilar equipment.  I also examine what we are capable of extracting about how the sword and shield form was practiced by considering the non-Fechtbuch iconography of the period along with analyses of certain chronicles.  The article can be found here:

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Changing Interpretations: The Zornhau Versetzen

It is often said that “the only constant is change,” and the study of historical martial arts does nothing to deny that aphorism.  I recently had someone complain that a picture in my book, The Knightly Art of the Longsword (, 2009), shows me doing a displacement differently from how I teach it now, and he was right.  But as I wrote in the introduction to that book:  “While the art of the longsword is an old one, it is but newly rediscovered and our interpretations are relatively recent. The process of interpreting medieval Fechtbücher is more art than science, and even someone very familiar with the German language can be easily confused by the writings of our fifteenth-century antecedents. Moreover, we’re learning new things and discovering new sources all the time, things that can have a great impact on our understanding of our art.  As a result, our interpretations can (and should) change significantly over time…” (p. 7).  That process is ongoing, and, indeed, I do a number of things differently now.  For many of these, see the corrigendum and additions in my book, Longsword Training Guide ( 2018) pp. 265-274.

One of the things I do differently now is the way I understand how to displace with a Zornhau.  In the picture referred to above from The Knightly Art of the Longsword, I displaced with my point up in the air, as in the picture on the right.  This way of displacing came from looking at the art in the Fechtbücher, many of which depict displacements done in just this way, such as in the next picture from the Cluny Fechtbuch folio 12r.

Over time, however, that way of using the Zornhau to displace came to seem unsatisfactory in practice.  This led to a careful study of the texts, which made me see it as inaccurate.  When studying the Fechtbücher, the artwork can be tremendously valuable for interpreting techniques, but it must be remembered that the drawings were made by hired artists, not by the practitioners.  Any skilled karateka who looks at the inaccurate and unrealistic figures on karate trophies given out today can easily appreciate the problem.  Thus, it is important to place more trust in the text than in the art, even though the text can be quite problematic, too.

In the Nuremberg Hausbuch (Ms 3227a), the anonymous author frequently and adamantly insists that we should cut the man, not his sword, for example:  “Do not strike to the sword, instead go for the openings” [Ms 3227a fol. 18v].  At first glance, that seems to apply to a cut rather than to a displacement, but the displacement used is a Zornhau, too.  Referring to it, Peter von Danzig says we should do the cut “without displacing” (Von Danzig fol. 23r) in order to counter a Zornhau.  What I take that to mean is that you don’t cut the sword to displace, you cut the man, just as the Nuremberg Hausbuch teaches us, and that you do it with a Zornhau.

Continuing in the Nuremberg Hausbuch, we are told:  “No matter how you fight always aim your point at your opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you… And as soon as the opponent binds your sword then your point should not be more than half an ell [~12”] from the opponent’s breast or face” [fol. 24r].  In other words, when you bind, whether you were the attacker or were displacing, cut straight in so that your point is near to your opponent, even if it’s not aimed straight at him (if it is aimed straight at him, that would mean you had hit him, unless you cut in front of him, as, for example, you do with the Zornhau Ort) so that if he moves or yields the bind you can instantly thrust (see also ff. 21r-v:  “Since you know at once that you have a shorter way to the opponent since you already have your point on his sword, as close and as short as possible”).

This is echoed by von Danzig.  Writing about how to displace, he said:  “You are not to displace the way other fighters do.  When they displace, they hold their points up or to the side. This means that they cannot attack the four openings in the displacement with the point… If you want to displace, then do it with a cut or a thrust and strive to reach the nearest opening immediately” [fol. 26v].

So the idea is that a displacement isn’t a thing by itself, the way to displace is to cut in such a way that your sword gets in the way of his, but if he were to make a mistake, your cut would land.  Consider the Zwerchhau, for example:  It can be used as an attack, but it can also be used to displace a Zornhau.  In both cases, whether in the Vor or in the Nach, the cut is the same.  There isn’t one version for the cut and a different one used to displace, they are both just Zwerchhaue, and the Zornhau should work the same way.  As von Danzig said, if you want to displace, do it with a cut or thrust, not with some hypothetical “block,” and do it so that your point ends up near to your opponent and not up or out to the side.  Thus, when you look in my latest book, Longsword Training Guide ( 2018), the Zornhau displacement looks quite different from the way it did in my earlier longsword book, as the picture to the right shows.

For a detailed explanation of how to cut and to displace, watch this video I made in order to help people understand the new interpretation discussed above:

Incidentally, this principle is why a feint should never work against a skilled practitioner of Liechtenauer’s art:  Since we are taught to cut the man rather than to his sword, when an opponent feints a cut, our “displacement” should simply hit him when he moves his sword around for his real attack.  For more on this, see this video:

I hope this short essay helps explain both how I got things wrong at first, how I do them now, and why.  This principle, while not immediately obvious and somewhat subtle, is one of the true secrets of Liechtenauer’s art.  It is an important part of what separates it from a mere beating of sword on sword, and elevates it into one of the most sophisticated and elegant martial arts of all time.  And yes, I was wrong.  I freely admit it, and it won’t be the last time, but I would rather admit to an error than to continue to be wrong.  The only way to be certain you’re doing things incorrectly is to never change your interpretations, because that proves you have ceased to study and train.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Striking with Spears?

I have long been troubled by the unarmored spear plays in Talhoffer's Königsegg Codex, as in the picture here, et. seq.:

The problem with these plays (and there are only a very few—ff. 45r- 49r in MS XIX.17-3—is that there are a few which show the spears being used to strike (as in the picture below).  This is the justification a certain well-known but severely misguided HEMA interpreter to apply longsword striking techniques to the spear, which drives me pretty insane.  It just wasn't done with spears, but a certain sector of the HEMA community just loves the ideas of taking techniques from one form and applying them to a different form the way Fiore sometimes did.  Sigh.

One of the reasons spears weren't used for striking is that the spears were tapered, as you can see in this (and almost every other) spear pictured in the Fechtbücher:
I don't want to go too deeply into why they were tapered, but the short version is that by tapering the shaft you balance the spear against the weight of the spear head.

The problem with striking with a tapered spear is that they are therefore thin near the point at which you're striking, and so are extremely likely to break.  And yet, there are those plates in Talhoffer, mocking what I thought I knew and understood (and justifying that HEMA fellow in his making up of nonsense techniques).

Looking at the striking spear plates, I saw that they are not tapered in the drawing, but it's a mistake to see too much in the bad art of medieval books, so I didn't want to just claim "But these 'spears' are different!"  And yet, that's what I was thinking—as if they were really "quarterstaffs with benefits," like the ones in Silver that have iron caps on the end.  “Why not a metal point?” I asked myself.

Now, however, I think I have the answer, and it also explains why these "spear" techniques are shown unarmored, and in an unarmored section of the book (sometimes armored plays are shown out of armor, but not usually in the armored section of a book):  I think they are boar spears.

There is a very short section in “Fechtregeln” (“Cologne Fechtbuch”)  (MS Best.7020 (W*)150), from c. 1500, which talks about techniques for boar spears.  For example, “Item hy na volget eyn stuck ym swynspeyß.” (“Item: Here follows a technique in the boar spear.” fol. 20v.).  The techniques described in the Cologne Fechtbuch are very vague (text only, too—no pictures), and it’s hard to see any connection to the spear/staff techniques in Talhoffer, so this is obviously something of a reach, but it does solve the question rather nicely.

After all, boar spears, if they were tapered at all, were usually tapered toward the butt, not the point, to make them stronger at the front end and so that you could push into the thicker part of the shaft for a better grip in a hard push (with the boar pushing back!).  You can see this here:

The term used for the weapon in the Königsegg Fechtbuch is either “spüß” (which is just “spieß” or spear)  or “glän,” a term which is more problematic, at least for me.  The translation in Wiktenauer gives Glän as “glaive,” but the German word for glaive is “Glefe,” not “Glän.”  The confusion shown regarding this term comes from the fact that Glän is an archaic German word for lance, which took me a long time to track down in a very old German dictionary.

Moreover, while boars were hunted in partial armor sometimes (Gaston Phoebus talks about wearing leg armor when doing so on foot), that didn’t apply to commoners, as the picture from Gaston’s book I posted above shows, which matches with what we see in Talhoffer.

Balanced against this rather complex argument (Occam’s Razor, anyone?) is the fact that the weapons in Talhoffer don’t look much like boar spears as they are traditionally depicted, with either a metal cross bar or a tied-on crossbar of antler to prevent sir swine from crawling up the spear to gut you.  Nor are Talhoffer’s spears reverse tapered as the boar spears often are.  Still, it’s a fairly crude drawing, so I don’t lend to much weight to this objection, even though it must be recognized.

I confess, however, that in spite of this weakness, I like the boar spear idea.  It makes sense in a way in which just claiming spears were used as staves for striking blows does not, and it answers all the questions (out of armor, striking with the weak part, etc.) this issue raises.  This will therefore be my working hypothesis for now.

Edited 10/20/19:
Today, as I was reading Andre Paurñfeydt's work, I came across confirmation of my hypothesis. He wrote:
"When your opponent opposes you with a sword or a boar spear, and you only have a messer, then stand down low, (with) the point against him on the right side. When he strikes a buffalo strike from the roof, step into the triangle and displace the strike short, so that he exposes himself." (1515 edition, p. H, tr. Robert Kraaijeveld).

The accompanying picture:
confirms a high vom Tag guard and the intention of swinging down from above with a Zornhau. Thus, it becomes clear that boar spears were used for heavy strikes, just like a staff, which strongly supports my hypothesis above.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Zornhau Ort vs. Zornort: Get Them Straight!

There are two techniques with similar names which can cause some confusion for translators, namely the Zornort and the Zornhau Ort, which I translate as the Point of Wrath and the Point of the Wrath Cut, respectively.  Several authors conflate the two terms, failing to distinguish them as very different techniques.  One example of this can been seen in Christian Tobler’s In Saint George’s Name (e.g., p. 29 et seq.), but I have seen the error in several other sources, too (I chose the example I did because Tobler is a much better translator than I—which makes this very surprising to see—not because I am criticizing his translations in general).

The Zornort is very different from the Zornhau Ort.  The principle difference is that while both are thrusts, and both start from a Bind of the Zornhau, the Zornort is done in an Upper Hengen (it is Liechtenauer’s First Winden), while the Zornhau Ort is done into Long Point.  One of the reasons this can be confusing is that any given master usually only uses one or the other term, not both, and the two terms do seem very similar, after all.  When comparing sources, however, the distinction becomes clear.

Peter Von Danzig explains the Zornhau Ort very clearly, and the matching picture below from Goliath illustrates it, showing a thrust into Langenort.  It is a bind of the Zornhau to counter a Zornhau, followed by a thrust into Langenort done am Schwert when your opponent is soft in the bind.
Wer dir oberhawt / zorñhaw ort dem drawt (Who cuts at you from above, / The Point of the Wrath Cut threatens him.  Codex 44 A 8 fol. 13r.)

Text: “The Zornhau breaks with the point all cuts from above and yet is nothing other than a strike which a peasant farmer would use. Use it as follows: if you come into the Zufechten and your opponent strikes from his right side to your head, then likewise also strike from your right side from above without displacing and bind strongly against his sword. If he is soft in the bind, shoot with the point straight in and long to the face or chest.” (Id.)

Ringeck uses the same term for that play:
Wer dir ober haw°et / Zor[n] haw ort im dröwet (Who cuts from above / The Point of the Wrath Cut threatens him. Rinegck fol. 19r.)

Conversely, in Talhoffer 1467 we see the Zornort:
Zorn ortt Im dröw. (Threaten him with the Point of Wrath.)

Which he clearly distinguishes from the Long Point of Wrath.  This could well be a Zornhau Ort in the sense von Danizg and Ringeck use Zornhau Ort, but Talhoffer is not explicit about that:
Das lang Zorn ortt. (The Long Point of Wrath.)

Jörg Wilhalm shows the technique on two different sides, but is consistent as to terminology:
Das ist der Zornortt (That is the Point of Wrath. CGM 3711 fol. 4r).

Das ist der ander zornortt (That is the second Point of Wrath. Id. fol. 4v.)

As this makes plain, the sources are clear as to the difference between the Zornhau Ort and the Zornort, and they are consistent in their use of each.  This analysis is supported by considering the Zornort in context as shown in different sources.  Talhoffer and Wilhalm may not specifically name the Zornhau Ort (unless that’s what Talhoffer means by the Lang Zornort), but we do see the Zornort as pictured in Talhoffer and Wilhalm being described in Ringeck and von Danzig.  It is the First Winden done from the bind of the Zornhau, as Ringeck describes here:

“When you strike a Zornhau and he displaces it and remains strong at the sword hold strongly against it. With the strong of your sword, slide up to the weak of his blade, wind the hilt in front of your head while remaining am Schwert, and thrust into his face from above.” (Ringeck ff. 20r-v.)

Compare that description of the Winden with this play from Falkner:
In zornnortt thu° recht winden (Do the right [correct] winding in the Point of Wrath / If you wish to find the face open) (fol. 3r.)

It is clear that Falkner is describing the same technique as Ringeck in ff. 20r-v:  You cut with a Zornhau; your opponent binds and is hard in the bind, so you wind up into an Upper Hengen and thrust.  While Ringeck doesn’t name this play (although later in the book, on the chapter on Winden he calls it the First Winden, see ff. 124v-125v), Falkner unequivocally calls it the “zornnortt,” making this impossible to misinterpret.

In conclusion, these techniques are two sides of the same coin.  Both come from a bind of the Zornhau (i.e., a Zornhau displaced by a Zornhau), and both are thrusts, but if your opponent is soft in the bind then you thrust into Langenort for a Zornhau Ort, while if he is hard in the bind you wind up into an Upper Hengen with a First Winden or Zornort.  They are, however, very different from one another and the two terms should not be confused or conflated.

Source Cited:
Tobler, Christian.  In Saint George’s Name: An Anthology of Medieval German Martial Arts.  Freelance Academy Press, 2010.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Feather Sword: Another Word You’re Using Incorrectly

One of the most pernicious errors of lexicology to be found among the HEMA crowd is the use of the word “Federschwert” (lit. “feather sword”), or just “Feder,” to describe the swords used in training and in the competitions known as Fechtschulen (that a Fechtschule is a competition and not the term for a martial arts school is yet another ignorant mistake they make, but we will set that aside for now).  This mistake is as deeply entrenched as it is completely misunderstood among HEMA groups—so much so, that they are not even aware there might be an issue.  They do not even know to question it, and most wouldn’t care if they did.

The first use of the term Feder I have been able to find comes from Egerton Castle, who uses it to refer to the practice rapiers used by the Federfechter (Castle 1893 p. 106).  The “Freifechter von der Feder zum Greifenfels” was a fencing guild founded around 1570.  The origin of their name is unclear, however, their arms depict two hands holding a feather and two sword blades with feathered wings for crosses.

The Federfechter were in conflict with a previously established fencing guild called the Marxbruder (“The Brotherhood of Saint Mark”), a group established sometime before 1470.  They were the only group authorized by Frederick III to certify masters of the sword at that time.  Hans Talhoffer may have been a member as their badge shows up at least twice in his Thott Codex from 1459, once on his coat of arms and once on a necklace around the master’s neck (MS Thott.290.2º ff. 101v and 102r respectively).

The Marxbruder and the Federfechter generally represented two different sides of the culture of Germany.  The Marxbruder was primarily comprised of working men, while the Federfechter were generally scholars and what we today would call “white collar” workers.  As a result, the Brothers of St. Mark viewed the Federfechter as somewhat effete and unskilled.

This perception of the Federfechter, coupled with what the Marxbruder considered an infringement of their monopoly, led to acrimony between the two groups.  This acrimony resulted in a series of fierce encounters in both Fechtschulen and in words.  For example, this is an excerpt from a poem written by a Marxbruder named Cristoff Jung:

Ein Marx Bruder bin Ich worn
Dieser thut den Federfechtern Zorn.
Dann Gennssfed’n und Khil
Braucht man nit zum Ritterspiel
(A Marxbruder am I, / One who causes the feather fencers anger … Because goose feathers and quills / Are not needed for knightly games; tr. by the author) (Wassmanndorff 1870 p.37.)

The derision is manifest, as is the clear implication that the Federfechter would do better to stick to their quill pens and leave swords to the Marxbruder.

Note, however, that none of this indicates the use of the word Feder to mean a practice sword, except by Castle, who wrote long after the period and who does not support his assertion. Indeed, linguistically, the term Federschwert appears to refer to fighting with words rather than swords—in other words, using feathers (i.e., quill pens) to do your fighting (e.g., see Heidecker 1739).

Thus, it seems obvious that the use of the term Feder or Federschwert to refer to practice longswords represents a thorough misunderstanding of the word and the practice should be abandoned immediately by anyone with any pretension to academic accuracy.  Like the mistaken use of the word gambeson (see my previous blog entry), it presents one more distasteful example of the HEMA community’s utter lack of concern for scholarship.  Only the "feather brained" will continue to get it wrong.

Some will ignore this, arguing that language changes all the time and that we should just accept that fact, allowing the ignorance of hoi polloi to rule us.  Nonsense.  Certainly language changes over time, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should eschew such changes when they represent error and misinformation, or when they diminish the precision or clarity of the words being changed.  Just insisting that because a large group of people fail to know the correct term for a thing means we should change what that thing is called is to embrace willful ignorance.  For it to happen in a group which should pride itself on scholarship is deplorable.

What, then, should we call practice swords?  As with many such problems, the answer is easily found simply by looking at the terminology in use at the time. Wassmannsdorff provides us with an account of a Fechtschule held in Stuttgart in 1570 in which a Marxbruder by the name of Hildebrand blinded his opponent with a bloß-Fechtschwert (p.19).  This term can be seen in other sources as well.  Thus, the term used in period seems to have been Fechtschwert (pl. Fechtschwerter), and there is no reason not to follow that practice today.

[1] Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Fencing—From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century. London, 1893, p. 106
[2] Christoff Jung von Breißlaw in Wassmannsdorff, Karl. Sechs Fechtschulen der Marxbrüder undFederfechter: aus den Jahren 1573 bis 1614. Heidelberg, 1870, p. 37. Accessed 5/16/19.
[3] Heidecker, Gotthard. DieLeyr Tyri: Das ist: Altfränkische Possen, mit welchen P. Rudolf Baffer. Frankfurt, 1739, p. 20.  Accessed 5/16/19.