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The five principles of dueling with Weapons of War from "The Flower of Battle"(Getty MS Ludwig XV 13)

This article originated from a long discussion I had with Guy Windsor back in December 2023, when we met for the very first time in Spain. Right at the start of the event, I approached him and asked him to discuss our interpretations of the "three turns of the sword", which I will call by their Italian name of Voltas. In my mind, Guy had been the "final boss" against my interpretation of this passage until then, because many times over the years, when teaching it, I had been opposed the fact that "Guy Windsor thinks otherwise though".

I was thus very surprised when, discussing the matter, he turned out to be actually very welcoming of my interpretation and confirmed that it was a rather convincing one, capable of shaking the grounds of the "Voltas are footwork" kind of interpretation that still sort of dominates the community. We ended up talking for many hours, discussing a lot of Fiore stuff, and it was absolutely wonderful. We even registered a podcast six weeks later, where we discussed even more details. You can find the episode here:

But now, let's dive into this beautiful topic and see what's up with it!

As those of you who ever trained with me surely know, I deem the "Getty manuscript" to be the most relevant among the different vesions of Fiore's book, when we want to truly understand his work, athough the other ones can offer some specific insights here and there.

The reason behind this opinion, which is quite more popular today than it was 15 years ago, is tied to the nature of the book itself, which is written like a manual of its time. In particular, the overall structure of the book is entirely built in an iterative way, where the more you progress through the book, the more specific the information given to you becomes, as it applies to what will come from there onwards in the book. This is not immediate today, after the Enlightenment era changed the way we approach learning, but back in the day the most widespread way to learn something was iteratively repeating it, while adding a little bit more every time, so that you would build the new knoledge on the previous foundations. Today we are instead used to manuals that approach teaching by topics, and for this reason we are not as used as they were back then at recognizing the patterns of iterative teaching.

The Structure

The book starts off by laying out the general expectations Fiore had for his students, and the first one is for them to be already capable fighters. This happens in the very introduction of the book, when he points out that his job is teaching knights and squires for combat in the lsits, and that the goal of the book is that of allowing someone who has already trained under his tutelage to have something that can help their memory.He then proceeds with a very simple series of basics that will apply to the whole rest of the book, by naming Posta Longa (Long), Posta de Dente di Zenghiaro (Boar's Tooth), Porta di Ferro (Iron Gate) and Posta Frontale (Front), which will be the core of his system.

After this, he starts showing us the structure of the book, with the Masters (Magistri), the Scholars (Scholari) and the Partners (Zugadori), showcasing some basic grappling plays that identify the main objective as either breaking the limbs or throwing the opponent to the ground, gaining control over them. Then, before moving on to the dagger, he proceeds to explaining a few specific actions that can be performed with a baton without requiring an edge.

After this, at the beginning of the dagger section, we have a deeper dive into the guards, where the master shows us the concepts of simple, redoubled and crossed-arms guards, as well as the different variations of Porta di Ferro.

Since from there on we will be working with sharp weapons, he proceeds to show us the different directions from which you can wound your opponent, and then the basic principles of fighing against an armed opponent, in order of priority:

  1. seize their weapon

  2. damage their limbs to prevent retaliation

  3. defeat them

You can start from any of these actions and then proceed to the next one, but having done the previous one will always make the following ones easier.

We then see the various plays of the dagger, and a short demonstration of how to handle an opponent with a longer weapon when wielding a short one like a dagger. After this, the last introductory chapter deals with the basic techniquest for fighting with symmetrical weapons that would prevent the immediate access to grappling, fundamentally seeing the various ways to access the Zogho Stretto, the grapple, when both fencers are wielding long weapons. This is the "sword in one hand" part.

The FIve Principles of the Art

At this point, we reach one of the most undervalued pages of this illuminating book: folio 22 recto, teaching us the principles of the longsword... and every other following section. So, those are the fundamental principles that apply to figting with Weapons of War, the fighting "properly intended", the Ars Gladiatoria Dimicandi as Vadi would have called it.

In this page, Fiore tells us about the last "five things" of the Art: Voltas, Passing, Returning, Increasing and Decreasing. I'll now analyze this paragraph, divided in three parts and presenting both the original and my translation, and I will discuss my take on those five concepts.

ITA -Noy semo doi guardie, una si fatta che l'altra, e una è contraria de l'altra. E zaschuna altra guardia in l’arte una simile de l’altra si è contrario, salvo le guardie che stano in punta, zoè posta lunga e breve e meza porta di ferro chè punta per punta la piu lunga fa offesa inanzi. E zo che po far una po far l’altra.-

ENG - We are two guards, one resembling the other, and one counter of the other. And any other guards in the art one similar to the other, they are counters, with the exception of those that stand on the point, so the long and short guards, and the middle iron gate, because thrust for thrust the longest one will offend first. And what one can do, the other can. -

This paragraph is positioned right above two drawings of Posta di Donna. This is also the very first appearance of this guard, which is in fact absolutely characteristic of the weapons that will follow from there on. One of the drawings shows a more reactive version of the guard, with the arms low and the sword pointing upwards, the body mostly facing forward and ready to exchange. The other one shows an extremely loaded version of the guard, with the arms up above the head, and the point of the weapon dropping.

I strongly believe that this introductory passage is intended to remind the reader that they should adapt their stance and position to the needs of the moment, and that the most important thing to keep in mind is that whenever the opponent poses a threat (through a guard tha offers a set of threats, as Fiore made clear earlier in the book that what routes you can take is dependent on what guard you are in), you must immediately answer that, and if there is no immediate, advantagous and clear answer in the "game of guards", you can use their same guard to even the grounds, and work from there, with th exclusion of guards that offer the point, because then you would both be at risk.

But let's go on!

ITA -E zaschuna guardia po fare volta stabile e meza volta. Volta stabile si è che stando fermo po zugar denanzi e di dredo de una parte. Meza volta si e quando uno fa un passo o inanzi o indredo, e chossi po zugare de l’altra parte de inanzi e di dredo. Tutta volta si è quando uno va intorno uno pe cun l’altro pe, l’uno staga fermo e l’altro lo circundi. -

ENG -And each guard can do Stable Volta and Half Volta. Stable Volta is that without moving one can play back and forth on one side. Half Volta is when one takes a full step forward or backwards, and this way they can play back and forth on the other side. Whole Volta is when one goes around one foot with the other one, one staying in place and the other going around it.-

This part of the paragraph describes the Voltas, and it begins by telling us that every guard can do Stable and Half Voltas, which implies that not every guard can do a Whole Volta. Then Fiore tells us that the Stable Volta consists in playing back and forth on the same side of your body without taking a full step. This, in its simplicity, means that without taking a full step, you can still play forward and backwards with your body and weapon, either shifting weight, striking, parrying, changing guards on the same side, or taking any other action that your body allows on that side. Voltas needed thus to be described here, before looking at the guards of the Longsword, right after stating that you must choose your guard depending on the opponent's threat, because any action ensued from the enemy's guard choice, may that be a shifting of weight, a further change of guard or an attack, can be identified as one of the Voltas.

Then Fore tells us that Half Voltas consist instead of those actions that, taken with a full step, will then allow you to go playing back and forth on the opposite side of your body, which was impossible without the step. Parrying with a step, attacking with a step, stepping into a different guard... all of these actions allow you to move the fight on the opposite side of your body, and to play with your weight and weapon on that other side, so they are Haf Voltas.

This also generates the exception about the central guards, the guards that stand on the point: from any of those guards, neither shifting your weight, nor changing the arms' extension or changng the lead foot makes a difference in your ability to respond to another guard that stands on the point, as when a mutual thrust will happen, the blade's length will be the determining factor in a fencer's chace to injure the opponent while staying at a safe distance.

So, while the central guards can sure take a Stable or Half Volta, that is of no use as a countermeasure against a similar guard, while any other guard can take advantage of Voltas when facing the same or a similar guard.

Last of them, Fiore describes the Whole Volta. Whole Voltas are described as those actions where you are going with one foot around the other one that says in place, and I suspect he is fundamentally talking of actions that require a pivot of sorts.


My main take from the Voltas description is that while many people are interpreting them as footwork, they actually represent a categorization of actions depending on the footwork necessary to perform them. And this brings us to the last part of the paragraph:

ITA -E perzò digo che la spada si ha tre movimenti, zoè volta stabile, meza volta, e tutta volta. E queste guardie sono chiamate l’una e l’altra posta di donna. Anchora sono IV cose in l’arte, zoe passare, tornare, acressere, e discressere-

ENG -And for this I say that the sword has three motions, namely Stable Volta, Half Volta and Whole Volta. And these guards are both called Posta di Donna. There are four more things in the art, so Passing, Recovering, Increasing and Decreasing.-

In this conclusion, Fiore tells us that because of what he just said, the sword has three motions, which can be sumed up as follows:

- Stable Voltas, where you act on the same side of your body, such as parrying with an Increase or Decrease or without a step, thrusting with an Increase or Decrease or without a step, changing guard on the same side of the body without a step.

- Half Voltas, where you act bringing the action on the opposite side of your body, such as attacking or parrying with a Passing Step, thrusting with a Passing Step, changing guard on the other side of the body with a step.

- Whole Voltas, where you pivot on a foot and the other one needs to circle around it during the step.

He then moves on to listing the footwork actions that define the Voltas without describing them. As a quick reference, this is how I interpeted the footwork from the rest of Fiore's teachings:

- Passing: taking a full step forward with the back foot.

- Increasing: advancing a foot a little bit.

- Decreasing: retreating a foot a little bit.

- Returning: taking a full step backwards to bring back the front foot.

Returning (Tornare) is the hardest term to defineamong these, but, to my reckoning, in all of Fiore's work there never is an instance where he refers to passing while referring to a step backwards, with the exception of "Meza volta si e quando uno fa un passo o inanzi o indredo"  (Half Volta is when one takes a full step forward or backwards) right on this page. At the same time, every one of the few instances where "torna" (Return) is used to describe a footwork action, it alwasy refers to bringing the front foot to the back, as in taking a full step back to coadiuvate an action, to gain a little bit of measure or, in one occasion, to subtract it from a strike. In this last case (page 26 recto, in the Getty) the action to Return the foot is specifically opposed to that of just Decreasing it, further solidifying this interpretation.

Note: If I was to use an english translation for the term "Volta", which refers to a motion, an impulse, an action that implies motion and a change of facing, but not necessarily a proper rotation, I would go with "Swing", because a swing is a motion that has a fulcrum (your body) but that isn't really intrinsically calling for a circular rotation.


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