Fiore’s Axe Material
Plenty of real and digital ink has been spilled over the effectiveness of the poleaxe techniques shown in Fiore dei Liberi’s four manuscripts (well, three, the Morgan has no axe section) because at first glance they do not look anything like the techniques described/shown in German manuals or in Le Jeu de la Hache, the only known manuscript that places the poleaxe as the primary weapon. The two main complaints are the paucity of techniques shown and the apparent lack of “signature” axe moves, such as displacements and thrusting with the butt of the weapon, or hooking actions with the head. I will address these concerns and give evidence for why they are misguided.
First a little background information on Fiore’s system. The four known manuscripts detail the art of Armizare, a 15th century Italian martial art. Armizare is a martial art in both the original meaning of the term, as an art of war (martial arts = the Arts of Mars) and in the modern sense, as a complete system of self-defense that encompasses empty hand and weapons techniques. The manuscripts are divided into sections; wrestling, knife defense, sword in one hand, sword in two hands, spear, sword in armour, poleaxe, and equestrian techniques (which encompass’ spear, sword and wrestling) and are dated to circa 1409. The primary weapon in the manuscripts is the long sword, a weapon with a ~37” blade and a handle long enough to be gripped by both hands. The art is based upon simple principles and is highly self-referential; once you’ve learned a particular technique, i.e. the Middle Bind (introduced in the wrestling & dagger sections), Fiore does not then later feel the need to detail how to do it. He simply says something like “Now do the Middle Bind, which you already know.”
Figure 1. Middle Bind, 1st Master of Dagger, Getty Museum.
Figure 2. Entry into Middle Bind in Sword in two hands section, Getty Museum. The text reads: “
This is still sound pedagogy; when teaching someone how to swim, after they have learned how to do the Front Crawl Stroke you can simply say “Do Front Crawl for 100 meters” not “For the next 100 meters I want you to lie prone in the water, arms extended, alternate pulling one hand down to the waist and back, while kicking, etc.” It simply is not necessary.
Fiore’s system is based, like every other martial art on the planet, on two things:
1. The human body. No matter how hard you try you will never invent a new way for the human body to move. Thus, all martial arts systems have the same foundation; the ability for movement in the human body. I am not saying that because I know armizare, I know Hung Gar or karate or Taekwondo. That’s silly. What I’m saying is that at their most basic level, all martial systems are the same. In fact it’s easy (and fun!) to look at armizare and other martial arts and see all the techniques that similar enough to be called the same thing. An arm-bar is an arm-bar is an arm-bar, no matter how you get there or what you call it.
2. The stick. After empty hands techniques, any weapon in any martial art can be viewed as a variation on the stick. These are my five common categories of stick:
• Small Stick – dagger, knife, kubaton
• Medium Stick – arming sword, escrima stick, bolo machete, axe
• Large Stick – long sword, katana, broom handle, axe
• Extra Large Stick – spear, poleaxe, naginata
• Moving Stick – arrow, javelin, anything that is thrown.
After size, the only differences in technique occur because of adaptation/specialization of the stick. If I have a plain ole stick, I can hit and I can bluntly poke. But adapt that stick by sharpening one end, and suddenly I can stab too. Even better, make the stick out of steel with a point and two sharp edges. Now I can hit, cut, slice, stab, etc.
But what does any of this have to do with answering the complaints about Fiore’s axe play? Everything.
Complaint #1 – Lack of Techniques
At face value, this complaint has some merit. After all, in the Getty MS there are 12 guards and 44 total plays illustrated with the sword in two hands. The axe section has 6 guards and 10 plays, two of which can be considered “tricks” requiring specialized axes. But this is the problem with only looking at the pictures, if you include textual advice given in the descriptions of the axe guards, the total number of plays jumps to: 14. Still pretty underwhelming, especially considering that Le Jeu features 68 paragraphs full of techniques, counters and counter-counters. But remember that the axe is the only weapon described in Le Jeu.
Remember what I said earlier about the system being self-referential? Also remember that I said the long sword is the primary weapon? Remember the talk about sticks? Good, because here is where those three ideas come together to form the core of weapon techniques in Fiore’s armizare. In order to understand how to use the poleaxe in Fiore’s system you must look at the axe section AND the spear section AND the sword in armour section AND the sword in two hands section. The sword in two hands section is, as previously mentioned, the foundation for weapon techniques in armizare. The other three, poleaxe, spear and sword in armour, are specialized techniques to augment those learned with the sword in two hands. Let me repeat that, the other weapons augment the lesson and principles learned in the two handed sword section. The best description of this comes from Greg Mele of the Chicago Swordplay Guild. The three sections (axe, spear, sword in armour) represent a specialized sub-group of techniques from the basic two handed sword, because being in armour changes what you can do (it alters your movement abilities.) The spear represents a sub-group of techniques for when your weapons are crossed at a middle height, the sword in armour for when they are crossed higher and the axe for when they are crossed lower (because of the mass of the heads, axe crossing tend to go to the ground). They are all interchangeable techniques of armoured combat. Adding the spear and sword in armour plays to that of the axe we now have, in the Getty MS, 22 total plays for the poleaxe. If we continue and add those from the sword in two hands section as well (because it is the basis of weapon combat in the system) we have 66 total plays. Now, because of differences in mass, etc. not all of the plays may be the most reliable, but they are all possible.
The two clearest pieces of evidence of this combining of sections both occur in the text accompanying the illustrations of guard positions with the axe. The first appears in the text for the guard position Vera Crose, where Fiore states “Trà pur ché ben t'aspetto ché zò che fa lo scolar primo dello magistro remedio della spada in arme cum lo modo e cum lo passar, tale punta cum la azza mia ti posso far” “With my axe, I can perform the same thrust with a pass as the first student of the Remedy Master of the sword in armor.” (English translation courtesy of Tom Leoni). Here Fiore is directly telling us that one play from this guard position is that of the 1st scholar of the Remedy Master of the sword in armour.
Figure 3. Posta Vera Crose with the poleaxe. Getty Museum.
Figure 4. Posta Vera Crose with the sword. Getty Museum.
Figure 5. Play of the 1st Scholar of the sword in armour. Getty Museum.
The second example is in the description of Posta Porta di Ferro Mezana or Posta Dente de Zengiaro (it is the former in the Getty and the latter in the Pissani-Dossi. I will henceforth refer to it as Dente de Zengiaro). In the text Fiore calls attention to the fact that Posta di Donna and Dente de Zengiaro have “faced each other numerous times” and that you should know what to do from here, i.e. a deflection upwards with a pass offline. This same advice is given in the two handed sword and sword in one hand sections as a good defense against any straight line or same side attack.
Figure 6. Posta di Donna vs. Dente de Zengiaro poleaxe. Getty Museum.
Figure 7. Dente de Zengiaro, sword in two hands, vs cut, thrust, or thrown weapon. Getty Museum.
Figure 8. Dente de Zengiaro di un man, vs cut, thrust, or thrown weapon. Getty Museum.
Complaint #2 – Lack of “Standard” axe plays
The other common complaint about Fiore’s axe material is that it lacks some of the “standard” axe plays found in other manuals. The “standard” plays referred to are displacements, thrusts, and/or deflections with the butt of the weapon and hooking actions done with the head. The simplest and very first defense featured in Le Jeu is a queue (butt) parry, yet Fiore does not show this technique anywhere. Why? One answer is that while he does not show it, but he expects his student to know it. Refer again to Figures 6, 7, and 8 above where Fiore advocates, repeatedly, that if your weapon is on the same side as the attack, you deflect it with a step offline. From Dente de Zengiaro with the axe, where the head (the heavy end) is off to your left, you must deflect with the head. If, instead, you were in Breve la Serpentina with your right hand leading, then the head would be on your right, with the haft crossing your body, and your opponent throws their blow, you will be unable to deflect it your head. Instead, you can still follow his directions by passing forward and parrying with the butt of your axe.
Figure 9. Posta Breve la Serpentina. Getty Museum.
Here is the text from Le Jeu de la Hache describing the first queue parry from that system:
When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander and you have the croix [head] forward, you can step forward with your left [rear] foot, receiving their blow on the queue of your axe…from there you can thrust at him with the queue…or strike a blow to his head.
You can see that the actions described in both of these manuscripts are very similar, if not identical. Additionally, in the spear section, Fiore shows the counter to his spear plays as driving forward with the butt of the spear, either striking or thrusting. Fiore does not discuss initial attacks with the butt of the axe because if you are holding the axe with the butt forward and thrusting then you are executing a spear or half-sword play, which are covered in their respective sections.
Hooking actions with the head are a little harder to track down in Fiore’s system, mainly because many of the hooking actions in other manuscripts occur at the knees and Fiore is very reticent about low attacks. In the two-handed sword section, Fiore specifically advises against low attacks with the sword. Fiore does, however, understand the tactical advantage of taking out your opponent’s knee as this technique appears in both the wrestling and dagger sections of the manuscript, and is even hinted at in the axe section where Fiore show the Scholar gripping the visor of, and throwing to the ground, the Player, who is attempting a low grab, possibly something akin to a single or double leg take-down (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Wrestling in the axe section. Getty Museum.
However, it is quite a jump, even for such a self-referential system, to go from a supplementary wrestling maneuver to a straight out attack. Does this mean that Fiore did not know how to use the head of your axe to hook your opponent? No, other hooks, usually of the opponent’s neck, are mentioned in the sword in armour section and can, as shown above, be extrapolated into the axe section. I would argue that he knew, he just did not find the low hook the most martially sound technique, so he did not include it. Fiore himself admits, in the introduction to the Getty, that his book does not contain every technique, just those he deems most worthy of knowing.
A further issue I have with this complaint is the use of the term “standard axe plays”. Medieval martial arts, indeed all martial arts, are deeply personal. Remember, above all else, when you read a manuscript, or a modern translation, or even this blog, that you are reading one person’s opinions. There is no “Italian Swordsmanship”, nor “German Swordsmanship”. There is the sword art of Fiore, that of Liechtenauer, etc. Every work on swordsmanship differs from the others. Even if the author uses an earlier author as the basis for his work, there will be differences. Filipo Vadi, whose manuscript has some illustrations that are almost direct Xeroxes of Fiore’s material, still advocates a unique method and style of swordsmanship. This applies even more to those of us now recreating these arts. It is impossible for us to practice “Fiore’s art”; we practice our interpretation of Fiore’s art. But the differences in interpretation are usually subtle things; one can usually tell a practitioner of an Italian system from that of a German system. I can even tell the difference between students of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, the School of European Swordsmanship and the Northwest Fencing Academy, all of which teach Fiore’s art, but with some subtle differences in execution. I do not teach or practice the art the exact same way my instructor does; but anyone who watches me can tell I am a student of Sean Hayes. When people ask, I claim that I teach armizare, the art of Fiore dei Liberi, as interpreted by myself, and influenced by Sean Hayes, Greg Mele, Guy Windsor, and others.
To make the claim that Fiore dei Liberi’s poleaxe material is incomplete, or somehow lacking, is to misunderstand Fiore's art. I hope that this can help clear up some of these misunderstandings.