Medieval combat manuscripts present an interesting dilemma for their modern students in that they are not “How To” manuals in the modern sense. If you were to pick up a modern book on Western Martial Arts (or any martial art) the first physical lessons taught are usually stance, footwork, and how to grip the weapon (if there is one). Of these three basic elements, the manuscripts attributed to Fiore de’ Liberi only expressly teach one.
That one thing is footwork. Fiore describes three types of footwork; the volta stabile, the mezza volta, and the tutta volta. In the Getty MS it appears “A volta stabile lets you play forward or backward (from one side only), without moving your feet. A mezza volta is when you pass forward or backward, letting you play on the opposite side forward or backward respectively. A tutta volta is when you use one foot to describe a circle around the other foot; in other words, one foot stays in place, the other circles around it” (Leoni 46). There are no images of the footwork patterns. Furthermore, Fiore states that “there are four more concepts in this art: pass forward, pass backward, extension of the front foot (step forward) and withdrawal of the front foot (step backward)” (Leoni 46). So, in total we are presented with four separate pieces of footwork; the volta stabile, mezza volta, tutta volta, and the step, which we are to combine in countless variations to execute the techniques. The most common footwork directive Fiore gives is to “Extend your front foot off the center-line and pass at an angle with the back foot” (Leoni 49), in essence a step followed by a mezza volta.
Stances are taught, but not like they are in modern books. In a modern martial arts book the stance will be described in detail; where the feet are in relation to the body, how much weight is placed on each foot, whether the knees are straight or bent, the alignment of the feet, the alignment of the spine, etc. The “basic stance” (which most Fioreists assign to Porta di Ferro from the abrazare section) is never described in detail, but details, such as foot placement, have been discerned by looking at the images. Each guard is represented by an image and text that is descriptive only of that guard’s capabilities and what to do from that guard, not how to achieve each it.
There is absolutely no discussion of how to grip the various weapons in any of the Fiore manuscripts. Instead, we the interpreters must look very carefully at the images: Do the figures have both hands facing the same, or opposite directions on the weapon? Where are they gripping the weapon? These questions must be asked of every image and correlated between all known Fiore manuscripts (and Vadi – See Below).
So why are these seemingly simple and “basic” elements mostly missing from medieval combat manuscripts? Because these elements were assumed to be “common knowledge”. Remember that these manuscripts were created not as “How To” manuals but as memory aids. Fiore states that Galeazzo da Mantova, a student of his, convinced him to write his knowledge down because “there is so much to this art that even the man with the keenest memory in the world will be unable to learn more than a fourth if it without books. And a fourth of this art is not enough to make someone a Master” (Leoni 8). There is the Old Man himself telling us, his modern students, that this manuscript is not intended to teach us the art, but to help us remember it. That is the true purpose of the Fiore manuscripts, indeed of the majority of medieval combat manuscripts: To be portable memory devices. Much like any modern student does not write down the lecture verbatim in their class notes, much of the information in the manuscripts seems to be lacking, because it was “common knowledge”. What exactly is the Player attempting to accomplish prior to the play of the First Master of Abrazare? Is he coming into grips or is the technique supposed to happen from an already established grip? We don’t know. I can take my wrestling background and extrapolate what I think is going on (as others have done and continue to do) but until we have Fiore’s words as to what the Player is trying to achieve we will never know. For us, that is not common knowledge. These manuscripts were written for men who had been fighting and training for the majority of their lives; they did not need to write down the basics – they knew the basics. The challenge is for us as interpreters to re-discover those basics. Here is the beauty of this art – all of our answers will be different. While there is a base, common denominator in how the human body is designed to move, every individual will bring a different “common knowledge base” with them to training.
The problem with this approach is the introduction of “Frog-DNA”. In the movie Jurassic Park, the scientists are attempting to clone dinosaurs from incomplete bits of DNA material, so they use frog DNA to fill in the gaps. The problem is what they cloned were not dinosaurs in the purest sense; they were a dinosaur/frog mix. This is the challenge facing those of us working with these manuscripts; every piece in our “common knowledge base” is Frog-DNA because we do not live in the mid-14th century and for many of us, this is not our first introduction to martial arts. The majority of our “common knowledge base” is cultural influence; to my grandfather fighting meant boxing, pure and simple. To me, growing up during the tail end of the heyday of B martial arts movies, such as Enter the Ninja, fighting meant lots of jumping around and screaming. Now, if you witness two young Americans fighting, they will more than likely try to emulate various mixed martial arts moves they’ve seen.
So should we just give up, accept the fact that we will never produce a “pure” form of armizare, and just make stuff up when confused? Of course not, not if we openly acknowledge and attempt to keep our Frog-DNA to a minimum. When interpreting a manuscript there is a hierarchy of sources, so to speak: the primary source, other works by that "author", works by other authors in the same lineage, other works in other lineages, finally, other works in similar styles of combat. As an example, my hierarchy runs something like this:
Fiore, Getty MS
Fiore, Pissani-Dossi, Morgan, and Florius MSS
The German Tradition
The Bolognese Tradition
Catch & Greco-Roman wrestling
Aikido, Judo & Jiu-jutsu
That is by no means all the sources I use for longsword study, just a highlight.
To sum it all up, the medieval combat manuscripts need to be understood as study guides to aid the student's memory, not "How To" manuals. Much work has to be done in order to extrapolate the very basics of a combat system, examining many images and deciphering pages of text. This process becomes even more fun when dealing with a manuscript like Le Jeu de la Hache, which has no images nor provides any indication of stance, footwork mechanics, or guard positions. Is it a bad thing to use one system as the basis for another, if that other provides no support structure for itself? No, not so long as you (the researcher) are very clear about your sources and reasons for using one system as a basis for another. It is ideal to use as many basics as are provided in your primary manuscript, but if you must use another, do so knowingly and openly. I know that some will agree with me, some will not care, and some will disagree.
Clear as mud?