Friday, July 30, 2010

Proper Measure for a Sword Part II

Did a little number crunching & manuscript gazing and here are some numbers I came up with. I picked a few guard positions and plays out of the Getty, the Florius, the Pissani-Dossi and Vadi and measured the length of the sword shown. I then measured (as accurately as possible) the body of the figure. The final step was coming up with the ratio between sword length and body height - sword length divided by body length. This was not very scientific, but it works for me.

Fiore Getty ratio = 0.66
Fiore Florius ratio = 0.66
Fiore PD ratio = 0.74
Vadi ratio = 0.66

The average ratio comes to 0.68.

Of note is that it is the Pissani-Dossi that shows the greastest ratio, not Vadi, which I expected given Vadi's instructions for sword length - ground to armpit. On me (6' tall) that creates a sword which is 54" overall, creating a ratio of 0.75 - so that fits.

Again, I am 6' or 72" tall. If the average ratio, based on the illustrations is 0.68 then my "ideal" sword would be:

72" x 0.68 = 48.96"

Let's look at some of the swords I've used for training:

A&A Fectherspiel - 48.5" overall
A&A Spada di Zogho - 46.5" overall
Albion Liechtenauer - 47.5" overall
Tinker Longsword - 47" overall
Purpleheart waster - 48" overall

I just found it interesting that, contrary to some assertations given in the SFI thread, many of the reproduction trainers available today are proportionally correct for a person of "average" modern height.

NOTE: I know that the illustrations are not exact and it is a mistake to take them as photographs, but they are not drawn by complete amateurs either. Given that several samples from the guards and plays yielded extremely similar (i.e. more consistent than I can draw) sword & figure lengths, it is also a mistake to discount the illustrations (and the illustrators).


Proper Measure for a Sword

This post is a response to this thread on SFI where the majority of the discussion is now on the proper length a sword should be, with quite a few people asserting that a “proper” blade needs to be longer than we typically see because we are taller (on average) than our medieval counterparts. I'm responding here rather than on SFI because most of those involved over there are Liechtenauer-ists where I am a Fiorist – so my comments are aimed more at the Italian tradition than the German.

First, to get this out of the way – folks in the Middle Ages were not as short as people think. To the average person (including most of those I talk to in my store), “medieval man” was tiny – a good 10-12” shorter than we are today. However, the evidence shows that the difference is more like 2-3”, still a significant variance, but not as crazy as people seem to believe. Here's a good article on the subject.

The first thing we have to do is ask what we are really trying to accomplish. Are we trying to discover what the “Medieval Masters” believed to be the proper measure of a sword? Or are we trying to discover what we believe to be the proper measure of a sword? These may seem like the same question – after all, if we base our beliefs on sword length on our interpretations, then aren't we doing both? Yes and no. Why? Because even the masters can't agree.

Silver describes his ideal one-handed sword as being a yard in length (assuming a modern yard = 36”) plus or minus an inch or two, depending on the person. He then says that his ideal longsword will have the same blade (34-38”) but with a longer handle. It's interesting that these are the dimensions seen on the majority of modern training longswords.

Vadi describes the ideal sword as being proportional to the user, extending from the ground to the armpit and with a hilt as long as your forearm. For myself, at 6', that means a length of 54” and a 14” hilt, which isn't a longsword, it's a true two-hander (spadone, montante, etc.). Indeed, if you look at Vadi's illustrations versus Fiore's, taking into account the somewhat questionable reliability of the illustrations, it is obvious that Vadi's sword is bigger than Fiore's. It is also telling then that Vadi does not include any one-handed or mounted plays whereas Fiore does.

Here is a listing of some modern training swords with their blade and handle lengths:

Arms & Armour
  • Spada di Zogho Blade: 35.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Fechtbuch Blade: 37.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Fechterspiel Blade: 37.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Spadone Blade: 47” Handle: 16”
  • Montante Blade: 45” Handle: 14”

  • Liechtenauer Blade: 36.5” Handle: 11”
  • The Meyer Blade: 36.5” Handle: 11.25”

CAS Hanwei
  • Practical Hand & a Half Blade: 34” Handle: 9.75”
  • Practical Bastard Blade:38” Handle: 11.5”
  • Federschwert Blade: 37” Handle: 14.5”
  • Tinker Longsword Blade: 35” Handle: 12”
  • Tinker Bastard Blade: 33.38” Handle: 9.38”

The key (and on this many of the folks at SFI agree) is that the sword is proportional to the user, the argument is what that proportion should be. And that is where personal preference comes in. As we've seen, not even the master's could agree on what the ideal sword is. And neither should we!

So, does it really matter? Does it really matter if I use a sword with a 38” blade or one with a 36.75” blade? It depends. Yes it is an issue because you want to make sure that you are using an accurate tool for your art (i.e. using a Viking style sword to do Fiore longsword – yeah, not so much). That being said, I think far too many people get caught up in the importance of the tool – that is all a sword is – over the importance of the art. During large classes at Northwest Fencing Academy, it is not unusual for me to use 2 or 3 different swords – we like to match swords (Tinkers to Tinkers, A&A's to A&A's, aluminum to aluminum, etc). In addition, my primary solo trainer is a Purpleheart Armories waster. So while training my sword length varies between 35-38”, with different length handles and different balances. But this is a very good thing because it teaches me to adapt – I do not get caught up in getting a tool to fit my art but in making my art fit the tool. But trust me, even though I firmly believe this, that doesn't stop me from pining away for a beautiful custom longsword trainer to call my own!

A great example of this is a pair of modified shinai that the Academy used to use for free-play. One shinai had about a 36” blade and the other a 34” blade – and boy did it make a difference! We would use the disparate lengths to, in my opinion, our advantage – constantly training with, and against, a shorter or longer sword gave me some of the best free-play lessons I've ever received. Nothing teaches you to work on gauging distance and following your strikes like deceiving your opponent's parry and snapping out a beautiful thrust – that falls 1” too short!

To sum up, whatever sword you want to use for your practice is okay by me, so long as it fits within the parameters of your art (no I.33 with a spadone). Many medieval masters, including Vadi, tell you that, in a judicial duel type situation, you should make sure that the swords used are equal (“sisters”), but I think that in order to be well-rounded students of Armizare (or KdF or whatever) we need to practice with, and against, a variety of weapons. No, excuse me, with and against a variety of tools.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Analysis on Armizare Armoured Combat

This week let's take a look at the four defensive methods in Armizare and just what that means for interpreting the armoured sections of the manuscripts, specifically the axe section.

The Four Ways to Defend

In Armizare there are four ways to defend against an opponent's attack:

• Cross it
• Deflect it
• Exchange it
• Break it

Let's look at these four things a little closer.

Cross It

Crossing your opponent's attack mean just that; parrying your opponent's blow such that your weapons cross to your advantage. He divides the sword in two hands section by where the cross occurs; at the point (weak), at the middle, and at the strong. The importance of crossing in Armizare is clear from the fact that what to do after the cross has been achieved encompasses the majority of Fiore's art. Vadi is even more explicit on the importance of the cross:

"The art of the sword only consists in crossing / putting both strikes and thrusts in their rightful place / bringing war to those who oppose you." - Porzio & Mele 19

Deflect It

Deflections are an interesting beast in Armizare because they appear throughout the manuscripts but only singly – never as a series of plays (like the cross does). Why is this? The first, and most obvious answer, is that if your deflection is done properly, there is no follow on other than hitting the other guy. If your deflection does not go well (either you mess it up or they bind against it) you are now in a cross. The deflections are scattered throughout the manuscripts; it appears at the beginning of the sword in one hand section, the end of the sword in two hands section and in the mounted section. In the first two instances, the master is described as using the same defense against several different attacks (cuts, thrusts, thrown swords/spears) on foot, while in the last he is shown as being on foot against horsemen. In all of these instances we are given the same tactical advice:

“I'll advance the right foot, which is in front, off the line, pass at an angle against the opponent's weapon and beat it to his left side. After making my parry I'll instantly attack” - Leoni, 64

All of the illustrations show the master in a left side guard, Dente di Cinghiaro with the two handed weapons. Fiore explicitly says that you could hold any left side posta – Posta di Donna & Finestra and that the plays would work just as well as from Dente di Cinghiaro. Why only on the left side though? Because the majority of people in the world (just as true in Fiore's time as ours) are right handed. Why does this matter? Why, gentle reader, that is a wonderful segue into...

When to Cross & Deflect

“Right-sided guards will parry and, while parrying, pass and strike with a thrust. Left-sided guards will parry and beat aside, and strike with a cut – but are not as good for answering with a thrust” - Leoni 78

The general rule as to when to cross and when to deflect is this:

If your sword is on the opposite side as your opponent's attack, cross it.
If your sword is on the same side as your opponent's attack, deflect it.

That is why Fiore shows all the deflection coming from the left side – 9 times out of 10 a right-handed person will attack from their right side, so in order to deflect properly, your sword must be on your left side.

Exchange It

The exchange and break of thrusts can be seen as subsets of crossing (they are) but because Fiore calls these out as being defenses against the thrust, I separate them as well. The especially handy thing about these two techniques is that the exchange can easily flow into a break if needed.

The exchange of thrusts is just that: an exchange of attacks. In modern fencing parlance it can be viewed as a thrust with opposition (or a parry followed by a riposte with opposition). Here is what Fiore has to say about it:

“This play, called exchange of thrusts, is done this way. As your opponent attacks you with a thrust, step out of line with your front foot, then pass obliquely also offline, crossing his sword with your arms while thrusting in his face or chest with your point high” - Leoni, 55.

Break It

The break of thrusts is another option for defending against a thrust. The footwork is the same as for the exchange, but instead of exchanging with a thrust, you cut a fendente against their blade, driving it to the ground, then executing numerous follow on plays.

While it is possible to break a cut after crossing it (for instance crossing in Frontale, then driving their blade down) it is more difficult to exchange cuts (although you could consider the 1st play of Gioco Largo as an exchange of cuts...).

Interpreting the Armoured Sections

Because the longsword is the basis for all weapons techniques in Armizare, you can find all four defense methods in the sword in two hands section. However, the armoured sections of the manuscript are arranged differently – instead of including all four methods, Fiore focuses on one option per weapon. Which method is shown is based on the nature of the weapon when fighting in armour.

• Cross it = Sword in Armour
• Deflect it = Axe
• Exchange it = Spear
• Break it = Axe

Sword in Armour – Crossin' It Up

The longsword, when used against armour, is held in the half-sword grip – one hand on the hilt the other about halfway up the blade. This grip allows the sword to be used like a very short spear and/or dagger. Because of the relatively light weight of the normal longsword (Fiore and Vadi do show specific armoured combat swords – essentially the bastard child of the longsword and poleaxe. Yes, I want one!) blows made with the sword would be ineffectual against most armour, hence the focus on the thrust to get into all the little gaps in armour.

The parries described in this section use the bit of the sword between your hands to parry an opponent's attack, leaving the point and the hilt free to attack. One effect of the half-sword grip is that your weapon is shortened, so you have to get in close. The result is that after the initial parry & thrust, all of the plays in this section are Gioco Stretto plays, including collar throws with each end of the weapon and the ligadura sottana.

Axe – I Will Break You

“I am the axe, heavy, cruel and lethal, and I deliver bigger blows than any other handheld weapon.” - Lenoi 77

The major difference between the axe and the spear and sword when used against armour is that the axe has sufficient weight to make effective blows against armour – possibly puncturing but more likely crushing it. Even if the axe blow does no external damage, the transfer of force will likely cause broken bones and/or severe trauma. As such, for the first time in the armoured sections, we have a weapon throwing blows, and guards that have to deal with that fact. As one would expect, the primary guard for blows in the axe section is Posta di Donna and so she is faced by Dente di Cinghiaro, who's forte is deflecting right-handed blows. But the axe is also a very efficient thrusting weapon, with the potential to pierce breastplates and other armour.

The primary focus, however, of the axe section is what happens when you break your opponent's attack – as often happens because the heavy heads tend to...ah...encourage a low bind :) Accordingly, we see the canonical follow up to the break, complete with stomping on your opponent's axe, as well as a thrust adaptation, a between-the-legs trip, a disarm and a ligadura.

The final two plays feature “unique” axes that, as far as I am aware, are only found in Fiore. The first has a weight attached by a rope or chain to the axe head, the play being exactly what you would expect – you wrap that thing around their legs, drag them around for a bit, then beat them senseless. The other unique axe that has a hollow head for delivering an “eye-melting powder”.


“This axe is hollow all around and filled with a corrosive powder that makes it impossible to open the eyes as soon as it comes into contact with them – and may even cause permanent blindness.” - Leoni 77.

How awesome is that!

Spear – The Exchange of Pain

The spear shown in Fiore is approximately 5-6 feet tall with a pointy end and a (usually) iron shod end. Like the sword in armour section, your opponent's armour limits your targets and the nature of the spear makes blows ineffective against armour. All of the techniques in this section are exchanges of thrusts – three from right side guards, three from left side guards.

From the right:
“I will pass obliquely out of line with the right foot, and crossing his lance I will beat it away to the left.” - Leoni 78

From the left:
“We pass out of lone by first stepping offline with the foot that is forward. And all of us (mandritto or riverso side) come together with a thrust after the parry, since the lance can only strike this way.” - Leoni 80

The spear section also includes Fiore's “common” polearm counter – which, in truth, is nothing more than an adaptation on the advice given in the two hand sword section – If your opponent parries such that your point is taken offline, strike him with the butt of the spear.

Putting it All Together

So, know we've reached the meat & potatoes part of the post where, if you've read this far, you're asking what the point is. Well here goes.

When I first started studying Armizare, I was intrigued as to why the sections in the Getty seemed to get shorter and shorter. The longsword section is the longest (22R – 31V); the sword in armour (32V – 35R), the axe (35V – 37V), and the spear (39R – 40R) each being shorter than the last. The reason is that the foundation for Armizare weapons combat is found in the sword in two hands section and the armoured sections simply represent sub-sets of that section. Because of the limitations of certain weapons against armour the three sections all address different aspects of the four defenses while in armoured combat.

To get a clear picture of armoured combat with the poleaxe, which combines attributes of the sword and spear, it is therefore necessary to take all three armoured sections as one. When you do so, you will naturally find techniques such as the collar throw, playing around with the butt end of the axe, etc. that you find in many of the other axe treatises out there. Much like the unarmoured longsword features all four defenses, so too can the poleaxe use all four in armoured combat.

I've talked about this before (here) but what is new is that rather than looking at them as high crossing, middle crossing, low crossing, I know look at the three armoured sections in Fiore as exemplifying one of the four defenses; cross, deflect, exchange & break.

Fiore's system, Armizare, is just that – a system, a series of principles that does not merely address the art of fighting with specific weapons, but the art of fighting.