Monday, May 30, 2011

Grand Unified Theory of Poleaxe Combat

This is an idea that has been percolating for sometime within the cavernous recesses of my mind. Oh, by the way, the title to this post is sarcastic – what this post is about is my process for finding common ground between the three poleaxe manuscripts I study. To put it simply, can I make the plays and tactics of the Anonimo Bolognese and Le Jeu de la Hache jive with the principles laid out in Armizare, which form the basis of how I approach martial endeavors? Yes I can.

But first some background information. The poleaxe (or pollaxe) developed from the large battle-axes of the Early and High Middle Ages into the form we see in many of the manuscripts around 1400. The weapon became a favorite weapon of the knightly class for foot combat, both for war and for tournaments. There are two principle forms of poleaxe; one with a straight, or crescent-shaped, axe head opposite a hammer face; the second with a hammer face opposite a curved, or straight, fluke. Both types were surmounted with a spear-like spike and were mounted on wood hafts, most often between 4.5' – 6', fitted with steel langets reinforcing the upper part of the haft. The bottom of the haft could be fitted with a spike, a steel cap, or simply left bare. While both types feature prominently in contemporary artwork and in surviving examples, it the hammer & fluke variant that is most common in the fighting manuscripts.

Arms & Armor Dane Axe

Arms & Armor Italian Pole-hammer
Arms & Armor Burgundian Axe

   Fiore dei Liberi wrote his manuscript(s) sometime around 1409 (according to the PD, which is the only one of the four to contain a date). Fiore's system of combat, hereafter referred to as Armizare, is a comprehensive martial art covering empty-hands techniques, dagger, sword, spear, poleaxe, and mounted combat. The principle weapon of Armizare is the longsword. There are currently four known manuscripts attributed to Fiore, another by a later student of his art (Vadi), with two other manuscripts known of but missing, and two other manuscripts that feature artwork and techniques from Fiore, but may not be directly a part of the lineage.

   Le Jeu de la Hache, “the Play of the Axe”, is an anonymous Burgundian manuscript that is the only known manuscript whose sole weapon is the poleaxe. Written around 1450, Le Jeu's techniques are presented in paragraph form (73 to be precise) sans illustrations. Included in those seventy-three paragraphs are advice for preparing yourself for combat, combat between right-handers and combat between a right-hander and a left-hander.

   The Anonimo Bolognese, technically the Ravenna Manuscript, is an anonymous mid-16th century manuscript that covers the single-handed sword, alone and accompanied by numerous other implements, the large two-handed sword, and is one of the last manuscripts to devote space to poleaxe combat in full armour.

Got that? Okay, now that we're all caught up, let's get to the meat and potatoes of this business.


Fiore describes four guards for the axe – well, six in the Getty, but four in the PD, Florius and in Vadi so majority rules eh? The guards are:

  • Posta Breve la Serpentina – Guard of the Short Serpent – Low guard with the head of the axe forward.
  • Posta di Vera Croce – Guard of the True Cross / Strong Cross – Low guard with the tail of the axe forward.
  • Posta di Donna – Guard of the Woman – High guard with the axe over the shoulder.
  • Posta Dente di Cinghiaro – The Boar's Tooth – Low guard with the head of the axe low & off-line.
  • *Posta di Coda Longa – (Getty only) Guard of the Long Tail – Low guard with the head of the axe back along the line of the rear leg.
  • *Posta di Finestra – (Getty only; similar position is called Posta Sagitaria by Vadi) Guard of the Window / Archer -  High guard with the head of the axe forward, parallel (or greater) to the ground.

Pissani-Dossi. Clockwise from Top Left: Breve la Serpentina, Vera Croce, Dente di Cinghiaro, & Posta di Donna.

   The author of Le Jeu doesn't actually describe the guard positions; he merely mentions that “when you are on guard with the queue (tail) of the axe forward...” or  “when you are on guard with the dague/croix (head) of the axe forward...” This tends to leave quite a bit of wiggle room for practitioners to decide what the guard positions really are. My interpretation (and, I believe the common consensus) are that the guards are very similar to the two Bolognese pole-arms guards; Guardia Alta & Porta di Ferro Stretta (see below).

   The Anonimo Bolognese follows the Bolognese tradition closely in giving only two guards for pole-arms:

  • Guardia Alta – High Guard – guard with right arm bent so that the axe head is held over the right shoulder & haft diagonally crossing the body, left arm held straight.
  • Porta di Ferro Stretta – Narrow Iron Gate – Low guard with the axe head forward, right arm straight.

These two guards, each held on either side of the body, give a functional total of four guards.

Marozzo. From left to right: Porta di Ferro Stretta (right leg forward), Guardia Alta, Porta di Ferro Stretta (left leg forward).

   But here's the kicker with the axe – whenever you adopt a guard with the axe you are simultaneously in two guards, one for the head & one for the tail. Thus, from Guardia Alta you are both in a high guard & a low guard at the same time. From Porta di Ferro Stretta, you are in a point forward and point back position. Each one of Fiore's four (not including Finestra or Coda Longa) are in Guardia Alta and Porta di Ferro Stretta

  • Guardia Alta = Posta di Donna and Dente di Cinghiaro
  • Porta di Ferro Stretta = Breve la Serpentina and Vera Croce

Guardia Alta - showing simultaneous Armizare guards.

Porta di Ferro Stretta - showing simultaneous Armizare guards.

While this might seems like I'm stretching to some of you, let's look at the common defenses from Fiore's four guards:

  • Breve la Serpentina – used to beat opponent's point to inside, or disengages underneath to beat to outside.
  • Vera Croce – rising diagonal parry.
  • Posta di Donna – defends with a fendente, either to a middle bind (Breve la Serpentina) or binding to the ground (Dente di Cinghiaro).
  • Dente di Cinghiaro – rising diagonal parry.

From Guardia Alta I can: a) strike a fendente, b) make a rising diagonal parry with the tail. From Porta di Ferro Stretta I can: a) beat opponent's weapon to inside or outside, b) make a rising diagonal parry. So why does Fiore seperate each of these guards out? Because Fiore bases all of the weapons combat he teaches on the longsword. This is why the sword in armour, spear and poleaxe sections are smaller than the unarmoured longsword teachings; Fiore only needs to point out techniques that are unique to that weapon – all the principles of Armizare you learned with the longsword still apply. Go read this for a refresher on my views on that, it's okay I'll wait.

Back? Good. According to the principles of Armizare (as I understand them) you have three options when your opponent attacks. You can: Cross, Deflect or Break. I know, I know – in my previous post I had a fourth, Exchange, but an exchange is just a special crossing. So is Breaking, but that drastically changes the line so I make it it's own. Back on topic – Cross. Deflect, or Break the attack.

Let's look at a basic attack – a descending blow from the left with the head of the axe (a mandritto fendente) and see how each of the three manuscripts defend against it from the various guards using each of the three methods of defense.

Cross – from Posta di Donna throw your own fendente, with or without a pass. If you control the line line, thrust them in the face. If you lose the line, bring your tail up sharply underneath their axe, stabbing them in the abdomen or hip.
Deflect – from Dente di Cinghiaro or Vera Croce. From either Guard, snap your rising diagonal parry up (with whichever footwork is appropriate) and either thrust them in the face, hit them with a fendente, or throw them.
Break – from Posta di Donna (or Coda Longa) cover with a fendente and a strong pass, bearing both axes to the ground. From here either snap your point back into their face, forcibly remove their visor then thrust them in the face, or stomp on their axe then thrust them in the face.

Le Jeu:
Cross – from the high guard, strike your blow into theirs without passing, then drive your pedale up, driving their axe aside & down, the stab them in the face. Alternately, step into their blow, taking it on the haft between your hands, and while driving your axe to your right, step behind them and execute a collar throw.
Deflect – from either guard, do your rising diagonal parry with the pedale such that you drive their axe wide. Then hit them in the head.
Break – Here is where my theory runs into issues admittedly. The author of Le Jeu is adamant that you should never allow the head of your axe to stray beyond the outline of your opponent. This reason Fiore is okay with this is two-fold, in my opinion. First is that in the rompere dei punta, you have control of his weapon, lessening the risk. The other reason has to do with the fact that as poleaxes developed they got longer, and Fiore was at what we can consider the forefront of poleaxe usage, therefore it is reasonable to assume his axe is shorter, meaning it is easier to recover.

Cross – The Anonimo only has two options from the crossing; either thrust your pedale underneath his haft, to the abdomen or hip, or control his axe and enter for a collar throw.
Deflect – The Anonimo features a deflection that is the same as Le Jeu's.
Break -  Again similar to Le Jeu, there are no breaks in the Anonimo.


talhoffer said...

For a "Grand Unified Theory" you should have not forgotten the Tradition of the German Masters like Talhoffer etc.

But despite that fact, I like your ideas :D

Alex said...

But remember that the title is sarcastic. However, given that I've dabbled with the German stuff I might do a future installment...