On Judicial Combat and sportification of Fencing in XIV century.
Updated: Jul 25
As a topic that is core to my own understanding of Fiore, and as a prominent part of what I start off from when teaching, I want today to discuss the cause of the long debated difference between Liechtenauer and Fiore approaches to fencing. Please, please, read this entirely twice before exploding in anger throwing in your last 20 years of studying Historical Fencing. It is damn complex.
Where to begin? Well, from what the Art itself was back in the days.
First of all, let me make a first point: the students of the masters we study from that century were Knights (et similia, also squires, ok?), and this is quite settled.
"Young Knight learn..." might remind the KDF people out there something, and to Fiorists "Also I tell you, I said Fiore myself, that these lordly knights and squires to which I showed this art of fighting were so content of my teachings to not want any different Master than me, Fiore." should be immediately familiar lines, among the many others.
This said, just to make a clear base, let's move to step 2.
Both the early Liechtenauer tradition and the Fiore books say a thing: the Art of Fencing was practiced in two different ways, which Fiore calls "for amusement" and "for rage, that is for life". Despite Fiore writing this line when introducing grappling, he then gets to talk of the whole organization of the book without interrupting the continuity, as if everything applied also to the rest of the treatise. And in fact he tells us that grappling is the base for the structure of everything else (look at the last 5 paragraphs of the Getty introduction, from which the definitions are taken), so we could include also that dicotomy into the things to extend to the rest of the Art, as it is in the same explaination.
This is particularly interesting when relating it to the german concept of "fighting in earnest", as that is basically the equivalent of Fiore's "for rage, that is for life".
And in order for "in earnest" to exist, something "not in earnest" must exist too.
So, if you want to take up with this parallelism, I will lead you through one of the most intriguing longsword trips of your life, explaining why Fiore looks so different from Liechtenauer despite both having a basis in the german tradition, both being of the same time, and both being dealing with the same common fencing environment.
Premises to the art of thinking
We must set some points before taking off with this flight:
1) The Liechtenauer teachings are explaining you how to fight in the specific situation of being unarmored and with sharp blades. I am referring to the blossfechten teachings of the longsword, that will be the main discussion in this article, because being the longsword the most shared part between the two traditions, and the most used in general, it will be much easier to discuss it.
2) Fiore's teachings are aimed at someone that will have to fight in the lists, armored.
3) Both longsword traditions are repeatedly telling us that their art is good, true and real, and that we must trust their teachings as they come from someone that is a great master in the Art.
4) At the time, unarmored duels were generally not allowed, and punished, while armored combat was permitted as a means of setting a controversy in a judicial combat. (Superficial, I know, but enough for the purpose)
And now, let's take off
So, now try reading the premises in reverse order, keeping in mind both are dividing fencing in "for life" and "for sport" .
Done? If not,really, please do so. Read the premises above in reverse order, from 4 to 1.
NOW GO ON READING
The direct deduction is that basically the Art of Fencing without armor was already almost practiced no more, being instead much more like a modern martial art where people were taught from a grandmaster something that they weren't necessarly going to put in practice.
Breathe, boil down, read everything again if you need. If you then want to go on reading, I will bring some logic demonstration.
Thank you for keeping on reading.
Let's start from the german guy:
The Nuremberg Hausbuch is telling you that there are some "Leychmeisters" (false masters) that are used at bringing extremely winded and scenographic blows to impress the audience, but their art is poor, as in a real situation you must instead draw the straightest line between your blade and the closest target. You might want to read the first six paragraphs of the "Anonymous Advice" section of the Nuremberg on Wiktenauer HERE.
The first thing that comes to my eye is that people called "masters" were teaching knights to do "useless" spectacularized things to impress the audience. I can immediately think of a situation where this can happen and be useful: two knights fighting in front of an authority to determine who is winning a combat without too much risk of seriously harming each other. A fight in the lists, typical of the late XIV century, and fought in armor, and that would be ruled by an authoriry to choose a winner. When this was done for judicial combat, that fight was to go on until they were stopped (or one of the two was unable to go on), which is what Fiore calls "ad oltranza" ("with no end") and explicitly defines as his main interest and competence.
So to me, the Nuremberg anonymous was basically the medieval variation of myself, whining about how the modern application of the Art was far from the real one, not reflecting how you would have done in a real situation. Because he is instead trying to teach the reader how to fight in a real sharp duel without armor, where "impressing the audience" is the least important thing, probably, and exposing yourself to a risk to make a wider spectacular blow or parry is suicidal.
Well, the author is definitely talking about doing all you can to anticipate the enemy and hit before he can hit, and trying to always maintain the lead (Vor).
Then let's have a general look at Fiore's style.
From the Guard of sword in one hand:
"You are bad and of this Art you know little, do the deeds, that words here have no place.
Come one by one, those who can, that even if you were one hundred I would waste you all by this guard that is so good and strong.
I extend the front foot a bit out of the way, and with the left one I take a traversing step.
And making these steps I cover beating the swords, and I will find you uncovered, and of wounding I will make sure."
As you can immediately see, the diffenrence is blatant: Liechtenauer wants the first action, the Vor, and by that dominance wants then to keep control of what happens after it, the Nach. Fiore instead just waits for the opponent to take the Vor and make sure he wins the Nach by interrupting the opponent's action.
Now remeber Fiore is teaching someone that is going to fight in armour and thus might be trying to develop a mindset: he can risk to take a marginal blow or a scratch, if the reward is landing a powerful and decisive blow. A blow that might impress who is spectating the fight, even at the cost of exposing himself to a slight hit, as he is in armour.
I think you are now understanding the point that I am getting to, but the thing is subtle: Fiore might have been one of the Leychmeisters, or might have been teaching how to defeat the students of the Leychmeisters with their same weapon: making the onlookers see a decisive blow.
I want to take the second path, but the reason isn't just " italian pride". Fiore himself is telling you that these armored fights are much less dangerous than a real duel, just read:
"And the most I guarded myself from fencing masters and their students, and they were envoius and invited me to play with swords by cut and thrust in arming jacket and with no other armor than a pair of camosy gloves, and this all was because I didn't want to practice with them or teach anything of my art.
And this accident happended five times, and for my honor I have come to play in stranger places, without relatives or friends, having no hope in anything else than God, in myself Fiore and in my sword. And by the grace of God I kept my honor and was unharmed in my person.
Also I Fiore used to tell my students that had to fight in the lists that fighting in the lists is much less dangerous than fighting with swords by cuts and thrusts in arming jacket, as he who plays with sharp swords, for a single cover he fails, that blow gives him death."
There you can see he might even be referring to episodes when he was challenged to demonstrate his fencing was a real art and not only useful to fight in armor, and thus he probably knew the lessons to fight without armor, as he came out unharmed, but also accepted that these had to be implemented with different tactics to win a combat in the lists.
Conclusions, before you misunderstand me
So, am I saying that all what Fiore put in his books was armored fighting? Hell no!
There is a whole section specific for armored fighting. But I think that one just integrates the things that you just woudn't ever do without armor, so they are not part of the Art of Fencing with the sword, but fencing in armor:
"We are six guards in the fact of fighting armored,
which that Art in its entirety we know how to do.
And this art concludes completely the right truth,
pollaxe, sword and dagger it puts in great extremes"
I am saying he is teaching mostly the same things Liechtenauer himself did teach for the sword:
compare the guards, and the strikes, and you will see how close they are. Alber to Porta di Ferro, Pflug to Breve, Vom Tag to Donna, Ochs to Finestra.
Fiore's strikes also match the german openings, and the use of the false edge to the left and the true edge to the right also matches the concept of being stronger to the side of the primary hand.
There is so much they share, yet in my opinion Fiore had very clear in his mind the fact he was teaching people for the sole purpose of a "sport" fight where the important thing was to win, and that would have been done by "looking" the winner, so if you had to "abuse" the fact you were wearing armour, you had to do that and win, as it was part of the subtlety that would bring you the victory.
Looking at Fiore in this light, in my experience, allows you to understand much of the things that seem to "not work" when you try to apply it to blossfechten. That much close play, as an example. The fact he seems to switch mentality if he gets close, so that in the wide plays he is trying to get the cleanest possible hit, while in the close play he rushes in almost careless of the danger to perform a spectacular technique, possibly taking hold of the opponent's blade even if risking full force hits to his flanks...
It happens sometimes that in particularly risky techniques (drawn without armour) where he deliberately loses contact to the enemy's blade (example: second scholar of sword in one hand), he explicitly tells you those are to be performed in armour.
So, my opinion is that most of the difference we perceive in Liechtenauer's and Fiore's Arts of Fencing are indeed due to one being teaching the art in its "pure" blossfechten form, while the other is keeping in mind he is coaching someone for a fight where he will be wearing armor. A sports fight, we could say.
Thank you for reading.