Mismatched Weapons V.1

Here’s an Arts & Science’s entry on the topic of mismatched weapons in period I put together for a contest I entered a couple weeks ago. I plan on diving deeper into the topic at some point, but I figured I’d share with you what I have so far. Enjoy.

As Maestro Puck Curtis once put it, we in the SCA often engage in the “Super Smash Brothers” version of recreating historical combat.  Specifically, he is referring to the practice of matches consisting of whichever weapons combatants choose to bring going against the period norm of ensuring both sides walk in with matched weapons.[1]  That said, the practice of engaging in such bouts was not unknown in period.  This paper aims to explore this obscure practice, often mentioned in only a few plates in the back of a treatise, in order for us to better contextualize what we have recreated regardless of whether or not we have been doing so consciously up until this point.

Before I go any farther, I would like to first delineate a few parameters for this project.  This is first and foremost a partial history of the matter at hand, one which I sincerely hope to explore more in depth as time goes on.  First and foremost, I acknowledge my own limitations as a researcher, primarily in that I only speak so many languages.  As such, I have not as of yet been able to explore those treatises that do not currently have any English translations readily available.  Although I did search for any period treatises in Hebrew, my second language, my research has not turned any up and I severely doubt I will find any.  This is especially the case as Hebrew was not commonly an everyday spoken language until the early twentieth century. 

After coming to terms with my own language barriers, I gave myself a few additional restrictions in order to provide dive that was more deep than it was wide.  The first was that I would only cover instances where both parties were armed, which excluded the vast literature on unarmed defense against an opponent wielding any variety of weapon (primarily a dagger).  Second, I excluded those plays which covered “how to fight against a lefty”.  Third, I excluded all the literature on how to deal with opponent’s of significantly different heights from yourself, but included plays dealing with on foot vs horseback as I know several people who can attest to the horse being a weapon in and of itself.  Finally, I chose only to look into those treatises with systems which I myself have studied as a whole.  Too often, I feel, martial artists are tempted to pick and choose techniques without understanding the larger context in which they fit and I wanted to avoid such an approach for tainting my research.

            Out of all the authors I surveyed, Fiore presents himself as a well of information on the matter at hand.  This stems from the fact that as time went on, treatises became more and more specialized.  By the time we reach the early 17th century, authors such as Giganti and Pacheco present systems geared primarily towards civilian combat, particularly for those civilians engaging in duels.  Even in cases of civilian self-defense, you are likely to only have one or two tools at your disposal to aid in your defenses going about your everyday armed to the teeth is not only impractical, but also illegal in many of the major cities of the time.  Laws change depending on the specific year and town we look at, but the practice of outlawing civilians from walking around with swords and polearms within city limits was a fairly common practice in the 15th through 17th centuries.  A knight, or even peasant solider, on their way into battle would not have been faced with the same restrictions though.  Not only would It benefit the state for their soldiers to be well armed but carrying around several pounds of weaponry is less of an encumbrance when you aren’t planning on going to the market to pick up groceries.  As such, it was not uncommon, for instance, for a knight to ride into battle armed with a lance, sword, and dagger.  The result of this, is that Fiore inherently had more permutations he would have needed to address when writing his manuscripts.

            The first mismatched set of plays that Fiore presents us with are of using the baton to defend against an attacker with a dagger.[2]  Both of these involve a standing attacking delivering a straight thrust against a seated defender.  His third scholar responds by holding his baton between both of his hands and pushing the dagger downwards.[3]  His fourth scholar responds in much the same way, but instead pushes upwards against the thrust before rising to his feet.  Fiore then goes on to note how in this instance a hood or piece of rope would suffice in place of a baton.

            Out of every play discussed in this paper, these two excel in their ability to align with our modern notions of “self-defense”.  Whereas it may be hard for a 21st century audience to imagine having to employ a sword or polearm on “the street”, this play would in no way seem out of place in a modern martial arts class.  The notion of someone trying to stab you while you’re sitting down and having to defend yourself with whatever you can put between your hands in the instant, is a fairly timeless notion that doesn’t require a modern reader to consider local dueling laws or how effective any particular kind of armor might be.

            Further into the manuscript, Fiore goes on to address how to best respond when one fighter is armed with a sword and the other merely a dagger.  His first master’s first scholar arms himself with his dagger held in a “reverse” grip standing in Posta di Dente di Chinghiaro as it sets him up to deal with both cuts and thrusts.  From there he goes on to beat back his opponent’s sword as he passes back with his right foot in order to close into gioco stretto, where he has the advantage.  His second scholar instead passes forwards, pushing through his opponent’s elbow in order to strike.  Most notably, these are the only play of the section that addresses how to defend yourself with a dagger against a sword with all the rest portraying the person wielding the dagger as the aggressor.  Although we in the SCA occasionally deal in situations where we pit two opponents against each other, one with the dagger and another with a sword, the way in which we do this is akin to a duel with each fighter beginning out of measure.  This is contrasted with a self-defense situation where someone with a sheathed sword must quickly defend themselves.

            Fiore’s second master with a more, let us say, “dramatic” situation.  The play begins with someone, their dagger already pulled out, grabbing a swordsman by the collar and warning, “I will strike you with my dagger before you can draw your sword from its scabbard.”[4]  If you find yourself stuck in this particular pickle, Fiore’s first scholar advises you to immediately press the sheath of your sword under your attacker’s dagger arm the instant he raises it to strike, intercepting the line and preventing your assailant from easily striking you.  From there, merely draw your sword and immediately strike him before he has a chance to get out of the bind.  Fiore’s fourth master suggests a similar solution to the problem at hand but specifies that you should intentionally shove the end of your sheath in your opponent’s face and then pass back in order to better draw your sword.  Although we in the SCA generally assume a dagger to be little chance against a sword, it is important here to remember that context is everything and that in a self-defense situation, the shorter weapon is generally the first to be drawn.

            In these next set of plays, Fiore brings us up to a situation with two people, each on horseback, one armed with a sword and the other a lance.  Although we can assume that most knights of the time would have entered the fray both armed with lances, it is in no way unreasonable to consider a situation where one of their wooden lances breaks first and are thus forced to resort to using their sidearm.  In his first play here, Fiore suggests that the one with the sword chamber a cut starting over their left shoulder in order to beat aside his opponent’s lance as he rides by on the right side.  Fiore notes here how this guard works just as well against any other “hand held”[5] weapon (pole axe, staff, sword, etc.).  In response, Fiore’s first counter here is to hold your lance low in order to hit your opponent’s horse, noting that this provides you with lines that a sword will be unable to reach.  In discussions of cavalry tactics, I have often heard that “gentlemen” of the time would avoid attacking their opponent’s horse out of courtesy.  In this example, though, we find documented proof of knights engaging in precisely such discourteous behavior.  From this we can take away either that our own notions of chivalry stem from 19th century, idealized European view of history.  That, or Fiore was just a brute who didn’t care and was purely concerned with stabbing whatever was in front of him. Returning to the text at hand, Fiore presents us with a second counter where he advises us to attempt to “couch”[6] the lance under our left arm in order to prevent it from being beaten away.

            Our next example from Fiore sets up a scene where a lone infantryman stands with his ghiavarina against three men on horseback.  Seeing as how Fiore describes the cavalrymen approaching one at a time with each only delivering a single strike as if they are all extras in a Bruce Lee movie.  My best guess is that Fiore is grouping the three men together as a teaching tool instead of a “real world” example as he provides no solution to how to deal with a well trained melee unit that knows to attack together instead of letting one skirmisher pull them all off the line as his friends roll their now severely diminished opponents.  Fiore sets it up for us as such, “Here are three opponents who wish to kill this Master.  The first intends to strike underhand and he carries his spear at the mid-point.  The second carries his lance couched and fully extended.  The third intends to throw his spear.”[7]  To deal with the first attacker, Fiore advises us to set up in Posta di Dente di Cenghiaro step offline with our right foot and then pivoting to bring our left foot forward, beating aside the attacking spear.  Here he notes that this same play would work just fine using a staff or a sword instead.  If our opponent blows through our plan, Fiore’s second scholar advises us to use the momentum our opponent just granted us in order to bring the butt of our spear up and strike them.  Oddly enough, the Getty does not address how to deal with the opponent armed with a lance or the one intent on hurling his weapon towards us.  The Morgan manuscript, however, informs us that this same initial play should work regardless of what our opponent holds in his hands. The Florius and Pisani-Dosi manuscripts demonstrate how this same move can work against two (but not all three) opponents at once.

            Our final example from Fiore shows us just how sneaky a bastard he could be at times.  In this play, Fiore instructs us to take a rope and tie one end to our lance with the other tied to our saddle.  From there he tells us to strike our opponent and then cast the lance over their left shoulder and proceed to drag them from their horse.  Though lacking in subtlety, I found this to be the most entertaining play I ran across for this project.

            From here let us take our focus westwards and take a look at what Pacheco has to say about the matter at hand.  Having moved more solidly into the realm of civilian dueling, Pacheco, as hinted at earlier, presents us with significantly less material than Fiore when it comes to mismatched weapons.  Pacheco along with most of the other LVD authors, as well as their strange Dutch cousins, really only shows us how principles of the single sword can prove themselves against an opponent armed with a secondary device in addition to their own sword.  Pacheco, in particular, provides us with an example of how to deal with an opponent attempting to employ the use of a cloak.  It is important to note here that Pacheco is a purist who derides the use of anything besides a single, short sword in order to get the job done.  Specifically, Pacheco comments on how the while wrapping a cloak around your arm, your attention will inherently be divided and that during the process the cloak is likely to pass in front of your eyes, obscuring your view of your opponent’s sword. His suggestion to the fencer with the single sword is to take a step along the circumference on the right side in order “to execute the blow below the arm which has the cloak, without that being a place to impede it”[8].

            Coming back around to Italy, Giganti presents us with a couple of fun plays at the very back of his second book.  Contrasting with Fiore’s plays about sword vs dagger, here Giganti sets up a scene where we have to defend ourselves with a dagger against an opponent armed with both sword and dagger already drawn.  Giganti here encourages us to back up whilst parrying all manner of blows, all while seeming afraid of our opponent, a sentiment that should not be particularly difficult to draw up in a situation such as this.  This fearful persona will hopefully encourage our opponent to get more and more greedy with each of his actions.  Standing still, on the other hand, is instead likely to make them suspicious of what else we have planned.  After four to six attacks, he advises us to invite an attack to our left side where our opponent will rush in towards the suddenly open target.  From there we are encouraged to pass forwards, grab his hilt and stab him as many times as we’d like.[9]  Although Giganti begins this play with our dagger sheathed, this still resembles much more closely man of the “dice” tournaments we have seen across the SCA and provides us some helpful insight when faced with an otherwise frightening situation.

            Next, Giganti presents us with a possibly more frightening situation, that of having to face down an opponent wielding a polearm whilst all you have to defend yourself is your dagger.  His advice here mirrors almost exactly that of the previous play, except that he suggests uncovering our right side instead of our left.[10]  The reasoning behind this is that with a polearm, a right-handed opponent is more likely to attack with their left foot forward as opposed to having their usual right foot forward stance when holding a rapier.  The one advantage you as the defender have in this situation over the other is that once you get past your opponent’s point, all you have to do place your off hand on your opponent’s haft, an action that has a wider margin of error than trying to aim for just their hilt.

            Finally, we make our way to Fabris.  Here he gives us but one singular play, that of the sword against a polearm.  In this passage he advises us to hold our sword perpendicular to the ground with our tip pointed downward with our left hand bracing the blade.  Although I cannot say whether or not Fabris was familiar with Fiore, but nonetheless we can see parallels here between Fiore’s two-handed guards of the baton and dagger against, the first of which we covered earlier.  Going forwards, Fabris tells us that this will work against any polearm regardless of length as long as it “doesn’t have any lateral protrusions.”[11]  He alerts us to the particular danger posed to our left hand, but reassures us that if we do it right we should be safe, regardless of what our opponent does.  He then finishes by telling us to proceed forward against our opponent without stopping regardless seemingly disparate measure our opponent seems to have on us.

            With this I momentarily conclude my study of mismatched weaponry in period combat.  My hope is that this project has not only provided a few interesting historical tidbits, but that it will also be used to help us better contextualize SCA combat, both in its current state as those which we aim to shape it into.  Finally, I leave you with this quote from Fabris which I found particularly fitting, “I want to encourage the eager students of this art to investigate for themselves what kind of technique is most appropriate for this situation.  I have no doubt that if you apply yourself diligently you will find the answer to be easy, also because I have already shown you how you should hold the sword and the body.  If you have a nimble mind, you will soon be able to figure out this good technique and use it with just a little practice.”[12]

Works Cited

  1. dei Liberi, Fiore, Colin Hatcher, Michael Chidester, Kendra Brown, and Rebecca Garber. 1404. The Flower of Battle. Milan, Italy: Pocket Armizare.
  2. Fabris, Salvator, and Tommaso Leoni. 1606. The Art ff The Italian Rapier. 2nd ed. Copenhagen, Denmark: Chivalry Bookshelf..
  3. Giganti, Nicoletto, Piermarco Terminello, and Joshua Pendragon. 1608. The ‘Lost’ Second Book Of Nicoletto Giganti (1608). Pisa, Italy: Fox Spirit Books.
  4. Leoni, Tom. 2009. In The Service Of Mars. 1st ed. Chicago, IL: Freelance Academy Press.
  5. Pacheco de Narváez, Luis, and Tim Rivera. 1600. Book Of The Greatness Of The Sword (Third Part). Madrid, Spain: Herederos de I. Iniguez de Lequérica.

[1] Tom Leoni, In the Service of Mars, (Chicago, 2009), 245.

[2] In all cases unless otherwise noted I have decided to use Fiore’s “Getty” manuscript, as it not only is generally considered his best by scholars, but also is the sole version to contain the majority of his mismatched plays.

[3] Fiore’s first and second scholars in this instance are situations in which one side is armed with a baton facing off against an unarmed attacker, and as such fell outside the purview of this paper.

[4] Fiore dei Liberi, The Flower of Battle, (Milan, 1404).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Luis Pacheco de Narváez, Book of the Greatness of the Sword, (Madrid, 1600), 128r.

[9] Nicoletto Giganti The ‘Lost’ Second Book, (Pisa, 1608), 139.

[10] Giganti, The ‘Lost’, 143.

[11] Salvator Fabris, The Art of the Italian Rapier, (Copenhagen, 1606), 277.

[12] Fabris, The Art of, 277.

Written by Arik Mendelevitz

Known in the SCA as Warder Raphael di Merisi, Arik has a great love for the art of the sword and specializes in the Italian rapier of Niceletto Giganti. From time to time, though, he can be seen playing with Pacheco's version of Destreza, Bolognese sidesword, or Fiore's art of grappling.