All posts by gregm

A Video Look into a Scholar’s Prize

This past weekend (April 22)  the Chicago Swordplay Guild held its first Prize at Forteza Fitness, Physical Culture and Martial Arts

Although this was the first Prize to be fought at Forteza, Playing the Prize has been part of rank advancement in the Chicago Swordplay Guild since 2001, and we proudly embrace the traditions of our ancestors.  Family and friends of the candidates, Guild members past and present, and guests from other martial arts schools, are all invited to attend this public exhibition of arms. Much like the original Prize, ours are a combination of formality and raucous celebration. Refreshments and music entertain the audience before the Prize begins and during breaks between challenges. Rather like watching a tournament, spectators are encouraged to cheer good blows, and to boo wild, uncontrolled blows.

A Brisk Longsword Match Between Erin Fitzgerald and Shannon Winslow

This cheerfully irreverent atmosphere offsets the formality of the Prize itself. The list (cordoned off combat ring) is decorated with heraldic banners representing the Guild and the virtues ascribed to the medieval warrior (if you’ve been paying attention to our website, you already know that these are strength – speed – knowledge and courage!).  The Prize begins with a formal opening ceremony, taken from their Renaissance precursor, and then each candidate is called forward one at a time, their challengers are announced, and combat begins.

The fighting is serious, the fighters are not: Trey Ptak challenges Rob Rutherfoord’s right to not only call himself a Scholar, but to bear the title of Mr Fancy Pants. (Don’t worry, the pants have since been burned.)

Armizare students fight their Prize with the longsword, while Renaissance Swordsmanship students fight with the single rapier. Challenges at the Scholar level are fought under a set of rules somewhat more “permissive” than those of the 16th century, in large part because of access to additional safety gear:

  • Each match is 3 minutes in length;
  • The entire body is a target;
  • Strikes may be made with the point, edge or pommel of the sword;
  • Disarms, grapples, leg sweeps and throws are permitted, but combat will stop once both parties are unarmed, or one is thrown to the ground.
  • Combatants acknowledge their own blows, and the Judge intervenes only to part combatants with his baton for safety reasons or because a throw or disarm has occurred.

As this is not a tournament, but an examination, each Challenger is given a specific task for their match with the Prizor, based on the observations of the instructors. For example, if the candidate has trouble initiating attacks, one Challenger might be told to hang back, forcing the Prizor to pursue and open with attacks. Conversely, a Prizor who starts strong but tends to “stop and look” might find their opponent continuously presses in with an unrelenting barrage of blows.The purpose is to push the Prizor physically and mentally, under the added stress of the watching eyes of friends and family.

One place where we have decidedly improved upon the past is that Guild Prizes are distinctly co-ed. Weapons are a great equalizer in terms of strength and size, and female students face men and women Challengers equally. Guild membership has traditionally been about 1/3 female, but this past Saturday saw three ladies take the field as Prizors, out of six competitors in total!

Shannon Winslow gives Prizor Nate Wisniewski the “What For”, Before Getting Taken for a Ride

The candidates await their judgement by the instructors and challengers.

Once all the bouts were over, if the Prizor was judged victorious by the four Masters, he would be declared “a well-tryd and sufficient man with divers weapons”. He would then (after collecting the change littering the stage)  swear his oath of obligation, and be escorted by his new peers back to the school and from there off to do much drinking.  Our modern Guild’s Scholar’s oath is adapted directly from the Elizabethan one, requiring the student to treat those above and below him or her with respect, to train diligently and with pride, but not vanity, to be sure that their actions and deeds in the list or the classroom bring renown, not shame, to their fellows and teachers, and to be a good citizen. Students kneel and swear this oath on the hilt of a sword, receive their license and are gifted with a green garter tied under the left knee – a symbol of their rank. Finally, they sign their names in the Guildbook – a custom-made, leather-bound volume containing the history, rules and doings of the Chicago Swordplay Guild. (One such guildbook is in Ghent, home of the oldest surviving fencing school in the world. While the modern guild is a sport-fencing club, the records and entries in its book go back to its founding in 1614!)

And then, it was time for a celebratory Guinness….

Or course, it would be quite foolish to preserve all of these Renaissance customs without including the celebratory drinking at an inn! And so, with all due diligence, the tired, and bruised newly-minted Scholars were escorted by their colleagues to O’Shuaghnessy’s Public House for a pint or four. Slainte!

Our hearty congratulations go out to Christina, Erin, Heather, Jake, Robert and Nathan and our thanks to Shannon, Dan, Davis, Jacques, John, Phil and Trey for serving as Challengers!

You can find more videos of the Prize on YouTube.


Congratulations to our new Swordplay Scholars!!!

The Guild extends a hearty cheer and congratulations to the following new Scholars:

Christina Bailey – Armizare

Erin Fitzgerald – Armizare

Heather Hilchey – Armizare

Jake Paral  (CSG North) – Armizare

Robert Rutherfoord – Renaissance Swordsmanship

Nathan Wisniewski – Armizare

These six all took the list at our new sala d’arme, Forteza, against three of their peers in a successive series of three minute bouts. The rules of combat allowed all manner of cut, thrust, pommel strike and standing grapple, only stopping for safety, if one person was thrown to the ground or if both parties were disarmed. There was a wide diversity of skills displayed, as well as a few…er…curious moments, which will no doubt be revealed in good time as the “Poofy Power Pants” make their presence known. (Really, just wait for it.)

Prize Playing has been part of the CSG curriculum since 2001, and we are please to say that this was one of the most spirited we’ve ever held.

Our congratulations to all – now go heal up those bruises!

Scholar Prize Playing: April 22nd!

What is a “Prize Playing”?
The Chicago Swordplay Guild utilizes a ranking system based on the medieval academic system,formalized around the 14th century. This system, in several variations, was ultimately adopted by the historical fencing guilds of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain and generally included three to four ranks, or grades, beginning with Scholar and ending in Master at Arms.

One of the most important steps in the progression through the grades was the concept of prize playing. This is the western equivalent to the promotion testing of Asian martial arts systems. The “plaingy for the prize” is comprised of two steps. The first step occurs as an internal event, comprised of written and physical tests to assess the student’s skills. The second step is for the student to submit a challenge for a public prize playing (free fencing exhibition), for the grade being tested for. Prize playings were public, boisterous events, often fought in inn yards on raised stages, and included music, food, and rowdy, cheering (or booing audiences). These were the precursors to the “prize fighting” that would become associated with boxing in the 1800s.

In this same tradition, the Chicago Swordplay Guild and Forteza Fitness & Martial Arts are pleased to present this public exhibition of arms. We hope to see you there!


Armizare Academy: A Celebration of the Knightly Arts

The Chicago Swordplay Guild is pleased to host this invitational, three day event in honor of Maestro Fiore dei Liberi and his Art.

In 1410, Fiore dei Liberi, an aging condottiero and master-at-arms to some of Italy’s most renowned warriors, presented a book to the bellicose Niccolò III d’Este, Marchese of Ferrara (1383-1441) containing the sum of four decades of knowledge won in the training hall, siege, battle and  five duels with rival masters. He named this work Il Fior di Battaglia, the Flower of Battle, composed so that the “art might not be forgotten”.

Six hundred years later, a small circle of martial artists gathered from around the world to prove him right! This event, affectionately called “The 600: Prepare for Fiore!”, was such a success with attendees, that we decided to make it a recurring workshop! Since “The 602? seemed to be missing some flair, the event has been renamed Armizare Academy. Each Academy session will have a central theme, but will also include a renowned instructor from a similar, outside tradition, to help put our art in context. This year’s outside focus will compare Arimzare to the German Kunst des Fechtens of the Liechtenauer tradition.

You can find out more here:

Meet our Roomies at Forteza: The Bartitsu Club of Chicago

As we recently announced, next month the CSG will be vastly expanding its programs in a new home: Forteza Fitness & Martial Arts. Located in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, Forteza is a 5000 sf facility, whose brick and timber construction, wooden floors and turn-of-the-century (20th c, that is) appointments and gym equipment makes it a perfect home for the study of 19th c martial arts.

Bartitsu has recently been popularized by its appearance in the Robert Downy-Guy Ritchie reinterpretations of Sherlock Holmes. We are excited to be sharing our home at Forteza with one of Bartitsu’s chief revivalists, renowned martial artist, movement expert and fight choreographer, Tony Wolf.

Find out more by clicking the not-so-subtle logo below!

“Ground fighting? I got your ground fighting right here…”

(c) 2011 Ben Fisher-Bruns

Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild

There’s a discussion on Facebook right now that was prompted by an excellent blog post from Alex Putnam-Spreier of the Northwest Academy of Arms, and I thought I should put in my two cents. I don’t consider Facebook the best format for a lengthy discussion about these things, so I’m posting it here. I’m using Tom Leoni’s translation of the Getty throughout for any quoted passages.

The discussion is around the age-old question of why Fiore and the other Italian masters don’t include ground fighting in their books. It’s a good question. Nobody really knows for sure what the answer is. Most of the technique-specific info on Italian close-quarter combat (and by that I mean grappling and dagger defense) of the middle ages and Renaissance comes from Fiore, Vadi, and Marozzo. As far as I can tell, the only places in these three masters’ books where “ground fighting” (which I’m calling any situation where one or both combatants are already off their feet and on the ground) is explicitly or implicitly addressed, are as follows:

1: The Master of Throws from Fiore’s dagger section. He’s pinning a downed opponent to the ground with his feet.

2: The part in the two-hand sword section of the Getty concerning the leg cut, where he says, “If you had fallen on the ground, striking the opponent’s leg would be fine, but not in any other circumstance, when you are fighting with a sword against a sword.” Not “close-quarters,” but it does refer to a technique on the ground.

3: Marozzo’s nineteenth presa, which is the sacrifice stomach throw (equivalent of tomoe nage). It’s a throw, but you have to put yourself on the ground in order to do it.

4: This last one is debatable, but there is also the play of the first scholar of the fourth remedy master of the dagger from the PD. Carried to its logical extreme, this play winds up with both combatants on the ground with the player’s elbow either dislocated or broken. It’s not necessarily ground fighting per se, but it could involve the scholar putting himself on the ground intentionally for purposes of harming the player, so I’m including it for completion’s sake.

And that’s pretty much it with regards to ground fighting. If I’m missing something, I have no doubt someone reading this will inform me of it. (As an aside, since I don’t have a good translation of all of Marozzo and it would take quite a while for me to read it in Italian, does anyone know of anything from the other sections that addresses this subject? I’d be curious to find out.) The point is that ground fighting does not play a significant role in the historical Italian arts as presented in these three books.

So why is that? One well-worn argument is that we’re dealing with an armed culture, and grappling on the ground with daggers in hand is seldom the wisest course of action. This is true. In German manuscripts that deal with daggers on the ground, it’s generally a situation where one combatant has pinned the other, and only then does he draw a dagger and stab the opponent.

Also, there’s the old standby of “fighting on the ground is the last thing you want to do on a medieval battlefield, because you’ll be spitted/trampled to death by your opponent’s comrades/everybody else.” This is also true. But what about unarmed ground fighting outside of a “battlefield” context? What about simple self-defense (say, a dagger assault that’s turned really ugly and wound up on the ground)? Why does that not show up?

One could use the “armed culture” argument to say that, because you must always assume the opponent is carrying a weapon on their person, you should devote the vast majority of your training to learning how to deal with an armed attack. Maybe that’s why the abrazare section is so brief in Fiore. He gives you a nice, simple, well-contained set of techniques for an unarmed grappling situation, and then moves straight on into dealing with weapons. One assumption is that, if you know your abrazare, and you can defend yourself from a man armed with a dagger using only your empty hands, you should be able to handle pretty much anything an unarmed opponent can throw at you. This idea has been raised before.

In which case, the lack of ground fighting may simply be a reflection of the lack of purely unarmed fighting to begin with. In essence, the master may be saying, “It’s more important to learn to defend yourself from weapons, so learn these grappling moves and don’t worry about fighting on the ground too much. As long as you stay on your feet, you’ll be safe.”

I seriously doubt that that’s the answer to the initial question. That may be part of it, but if it is, it ain’t the whole story. Mr. Putnam-Spreier brought up a good point when he referenced Fiore’s comment about throwing the opponent without putting yourself in danger. In the opinion of Mr. Putnam-Spreier (and others), this means being able to throw the opponent while remaining standing, first and foremost. I’m guessing that any self-defense teacher worth their salt will tell you that it’s better to end the fight quickly and stay on your feet so you can get the hell out of Dodge as soon as the opponent goes down.

Fiore seems to have been no different. In his explanation of the crown/garter iconography and the organization of the treatise, he says that “Few plays, however, can go beyond the Third Master, after which lies danger.” The most common interpretation of this sentence that I’ve encountered is that the fight should not go beyond two counters, because after that the sequence of events becomes too difficult to predict. Ideally, the fight should last only as long as it takes to perform one action. This is a very pragmatic way of approaching a fight. It’s echoed by modern authors such as Steve Pearlman, who says that one should train to end the fight as quickly as possible, because there is no good reason not to.

In weapon sparring, we’ve all seen how ground fighting really tends to occur either after both people have failed at zogho largo, or one person has decided to close to zogho stretto, and neither combatant has been able to throw their opponent cleanly (i.e., without falling). In other words, ground fighting only occurs in weapon sparring after both people have fucked up. Interestingly, this echoes George Silver’s opinion:

“…when 2 men shall meet that both have the perfection of their weapons, against the best no hurt can be done, otherwise if by any device one should be able to hurt the other, then there were no perfection in the use of weapons, this perfection of fight being observed, prevents both close fight, & all manner of closes, grips & wrestling & all manner of such devices whatsoever.”

In other words, if you do everything right, there should be no reason to even come to grips, much less wrestle on the ground (not that Silver doesn’t use grips and throws; he certainly does. But the point still stands).

This leads us to another possibility: perhaps ground fighting was not addressed, not because it was merely considered unimportant, but because students were actively discouraged from even engaging in it. It was considered either too dangerous, or indicative of poor overall weapon skill.

However. Everyone knows that, if you get in enough fights, eventually you’re gonna wind up on the ground. Fiore knew this damn  well; he says that cutting below the knee is fine if you wind up on the ground. Of course, he may have made that remark only because he was talking specifically of the leg cut, and wanted to make himself clear about not cutting below the opponent’s knees. Again, perhaps he would have discouraged his students from even considering going to the ground, and therefore not have addressed what to do when you get there. Perhaps the emphasis was placed on staying on your feet at all costs, and the leg cut remark was only to clarify his earlier statement about not cutting below the knee.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the Italians had an entire system of ground fighting that they simply didn’t explain in detail. Maybe it looked something like the uUnterhalten techniques of the Kunst des Fechtens. Mr. Siggs and others have addressed the topic of “Fiore ground fighting,” by which they mean the application of Fiore’s principles to a fight on the ground. This is a perfectly valid extrapolation, and I’ll get back to it in a second.

First I want to bring up Pietro Monte. (God, do we need a good translation of his books. I read something on the web about some folks attempting a non-academic translation of either the Collectanea or De Dignoscendis Hominibus or both, which is fine with me, because I want to read the fuckin’ things and it would take a while to re-learn all my Latin well enough and I’m not gettin’ any younger. I also heard a rumor that Dr. Forgeng was working on it, but I have no idea if that’s true.)

Monte was a Spanish condottiere who was working in Italy and is associated with the court of Urbino in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In addition to writing on athletics and martial arts, he’s supposed to have written a conceptual refutation of Aristotle that predates Galileo by a hundred years. Which has nothing to do with ground fighting, but is pretty damn cool. Anyway…

Monte wrote his opinions on different types of sport wrestling that were practiced in various countries during his time. While in this case he was writing about combat sports and Fiore was writing about actual combat, the two disciplines overlap in many cultures and we can reasonably assume that someone studying “combative abrazare” would probably have been familiar with aspects of the “sport” variety. At one point Monte says that he prefers a style of wrestling where the goal is to throw the opponent to the ground and grabbing the legs is not permitted. He acknowledges the effectiveness of grabbing the legs in an actual fight, but prefers only upper-body holds for sport.

Moreover, he has a very low opinion of the Germans and their style of ground-wrestling. He seems to be of the opinion that wrestling on the ground, especially stripped to one’s underwear, is 1) not a particularly practical self-defense art with little utility for war, 2)  is a somewhat barbaric activity. [Makes one wonder what he would think of the popularity today of no-gi BJJ competitions.] In this, he is not alone among historical writers. Many of the English self-defense authors (Donald Walker, for example) had little use for ground wrestling, describing it as ungentlemanly, or simply unmanly. It’s really no wonder they thought this way about ground wrestling: consider that some of the best ground wrestlers of the nineteenth century were Lancashire coal miners and American carnival strongmen. It was a low-class activity, whereas pugilism, or “fist-fencing”, was the fighting art of gentlemen.

Monte’s opinion seems to indicate that similar attitudes have been held (at least by some people) for centuries. Now, whether his opinion holds true for the condottieri in general, or for the military or social elite of the Renaissance Mediterranean world, or whatever, is not knowable without a lot more documentation. But it is definitely the opinion of at least one prominent soldier of early-Renaissance Italy.

Taken at face value, what might Monte’s opinions mean when looking at Fiore? Well, Fiore shows no ground fighting in his abrazare section. Moreover, most of the throws involve only upper-body holds, with the legs used only as a fulcrum. This might make sense for a person who had been practicing (perhaps since childhood) a type of sport wrestling similar to what Monte describes. Of course, Fiore may have done no such thing.

(A few interesting points: in Fiore, there is no such thing as a double-leg takedown. Also, at no point does he use both hands to grab an opponent’s leg. Either he’s using one hand to control the opponent’s arms or upper body, or he has a weapon in one hand while grabbing the leg and is using it to control the opponent’s weapon.)

One question is: does a lack of ground wrestling for sport translate into a lack of ground fighting for actual combat within the same culture? It seems like it might have in southern England (catch wrestling being a Lancashire specialty, and therefore more popular in the north). And whether that’s a causal relationship, and in which direction, is an open question. But there certainly are cultures outside of Europe where ground fighting does not play a large role in either wrestling or martial arts. The Chinese have a cultural distaste for ground fighting (heck, the Chinese have a cultural distaste for physical contact, period; hence the preponderance of long weapons and long-range striking techniques in a lot of Chinese martial arts). Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming has said as much in his books on chin na and white crane gungfu. I found an old gungfu book that Pete Kautz once wrote a review of. It was written in the ’30s, and according to Pete the ground control techniques all seemed to be borrowed from jujitsu after contact with the Japanese. Also, in the chin na book I just mentioned, Dr. Yang states that it is “unpredictable and dangerous to tangle with an opponent on the ground.” Therefore, the ground fighting sections of that book borrow techniques from jujitsu and aikido, and are performed in the photographs by Japanese martial artists. (However, the authors are careful to point out that the principles of chin na still apply to the ground holds. More on this later.)

There are people here who will not appreciate the comparison with Chinese martial arts. The point is that there are cultures with long-standing martial arts traditions that use no ground fighting. Competitive shuai-jiao (Chinese wrestling) is standing-only, and its combative equivalents are standing-only. This is one of the most often-criticized flaws in CMA.

It is possible that this is also an inherent flaw in historical Italian martial arts. Maybe they just didn’t engage in ground fighting, and therefore weren’t very good at it. There is certainly not much direct evidence of it in the manuscripts. However, that does not mean that the principles expressed by, say, Fiore, do not still apply in a ground fight. This is because Fiore’s armizare is a good art, not a crap art. If it were a crap art, you would expect its foundational principles to break down when applied outside of their intended context. Greg has outlined three principles that seem to apply throughout Fiore’s art:

1: Break from above, strike from below.
2: Break from below, strike from above.
3: Seize the center.

These can all apply to ground fighting. Similarly, principles from an art that deals extensively with ground fighting, like catch wrestling, can still apply to (for example) a medieval judicial duel. One fundamental principal of catch wrestling is to always keep the opponent’s body in an unnatural position, and to always keep him uncomfortable. This is good advice, regardless of whether the fight is standing or on the ground.

Will Fiore’s principles, applied to a ground fight, look exactly the same as they would in a “standard,” stand-up fight? Of course not. Will catch wrestling principles, applied to a duel, look the same as they would in a wrestling match? Hell no. But the principles all hold true. It’s entirely possible that Fiore, if taken to the ground by a wrestler and not having a weapon to hand, would still hand them their ass in a matter of seconds. He comes across as such a devious bastard in his books that I would consider that a pretty reasonable outcome.

No one art does absolutely everything well. Most arts do at least a few things well. If they’re good arts, their principles can be adapted to situations they were not explicitly designed for.  None of this means that the Italians either did or did not know how to fight on the ground. Indeed, this is really just a set of speculations, more than a working thesis. But when there is a clear preference for or against certain kinds of combat in a given art, a little speculation as to why can yield insights, if not answers.

The Role of Filippo Vadi in the dei Liberi Tradition, Prt II

(c) 2010 Gregory Mele

While Filippo Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria dimicandi differs in the main very little from the work of Fiore dei Liberi in terms of technique, the assertion that Vadi’s work does not differ in method of communication is simply incorrect. The true originality of the De arte gladiatoria dimicandi stands in the sixteen introductory chapters that come before the illustrated leaves. These elegantly written verse chapters constitute the center of Vadi’s work and detail the main principles of swordmanship. They also mark a notable difference in the pedagogical method of the manuscript itself from all three of the dei Liberi texts.

Dei Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia are experiential manuscripts. In the Getty and Pierpoint Morgan manuscripts, the author clearly describes the various guards, attacks and mechanics of the individual techniques. Each illustration follows in a logical sequence, so that a technique is followed by its counter, and then the counter to that counter follows. Dei Liberi also goes to great length to show the repetition of key mechanical concepts, so that an armbar learned in the wrestling section is often pointed out in the dagger plays, and again in the use of the sword.

But while these technical connections are made clear and reinforced throughout the manuscript, the tactical considerations of the system remain largely unstated. Fiore’s first sequence of two-handed sword techniques is shown with the opponents having crossed swords as if both have just made forehand blows. While the enemy stands with his right foot forward, the scholar has his left foot forward. Fiore is silent as to why the swordsmen have come to such a position, and merely procedes to explain how to fight from this position.

This method, whereby the core mechanical elements of the system is taught with seemingly very little context of how to use those elements, is reminiscent of medieval methods for training art students. While students were directly taught how to prepare their paints and hold their brushes, they then spent years learning to perfectly mimic their master’s work before creating any original compositions of their own. The idea behind this sort of learning is that in the process of repetition, the students would learn to “see” the underlying principles of the masters’ works hidden behind the same simple techniques the students had been taught. In much the same way, after the fundamental body mechanics and techniques of dei Liberi’s system have been learned, it is only through the repeated, systematic practice of the individual sequences that a true understanding of the tactical application of those techniques becomes clear.

Conversely, Vadi was a product of the early Renaissance, and wrote the De Arte Gladiatoria as an explanatory manuscript. For example, while Fiore remains “tactfully silent” about the left leg position in the crossed swords techniques, Vadi clearly addresses this issue in Chapter 11:

You also get a good deal
by parrying well all of the strokes
When you parry the reverse blow
keep forward
the right foot and parry as said,
when parrying the forehand blow
then you will have the left foot forward.

He then spends the remainder of the chapter showing the ways the swordsman can immediately make a follow-on attack from this position. Likewise, whereas Fiore’s techniques often convert a cut or parry into a thrust, Vadi specifically advises:




Be well aware and understand my writing;
if your partner strikes with the sword,
be sure to cross the blade with yours.
Your guard should never go out of the way,
your sword should cover while pointing to your foe’s face;
your blows the head shall hammer.
Cross play and you will not be conquered.
If your foe crosses wide, thrust;
because you don’t want to be divided from him.

While the similarly organized Flos Duellatorum may have stood as a fully discernable work to an initiate of the system, its reliance on rhyming couplets for text confounds a non-initiate as much as it clarifies. The more detailed Fior di Battaglia in the Getty and Morgan collections give far more detailed and generally clear instructions on the application of its corpus of techniques, and show the mechanical connections between similar techniques in the varying sections. Yet they spend little time discussing the tactical considerations of the art. Only by diligently working through the system, and actively looking for the underlying connections will a student learn to see those principles themselves. This is Vadi’s great strength; in his 16 introductory chapters the swordmaster from Pisa seeks to clearly explain both the how and the why of his art. In so doing his De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi not only succeeds in its original goal as an instructional treatise, it also provides us with a useful tool into further understanding the works that preceded it.

The Role of Filippo Vadi in the dei Liberi Tradition, Prt I

(c) 2010 Gregory Mele

When I teach at workshops and seminars, I am often told something along the lines of this:

I’m surprised that the man who co-authored the reproduction on De arte gladiatoria dimicandi doesn’t work more with the hallmarks of Vadi.

It’s a fair question, and suggests that in 2001, when I was working on my edition of Vadi, I did not yet have enough understanding of the larger dei Liberi tradition to separate Vadi’s brilliance from the marketing hype aimed at securing him a position at the court of Urbino. While Filippo Vadi defines his art as “newly made”, and specifically draws attention to several supposedly unique features, a study of his work against Fiore dei Liberi’s shows that this is a bit of clever marketing on Vadi’s part. As such, Vadi’s value is not in the tweaks he provides to the mainline of the art, but rather in his often detailed explanations of the art’s fundamentals and theory.

A recent email from one of my students asked about Filippo Vadi’s innovations and his role in the dei Liberi tradition, and how they influence what we teach at the CSG. These were such excellent questions that I thought I would share them, polish up my replies and post them here.


As long as I’ve known it, the CSG offers two main initial courses of study: the Renaissance rapier masters of the early 17th century and the medieval dei Liberi tradition.  In each class session we all practice abraçare, dagger, and longsword as learned from Fiore dei Liberi’s treatises.  To attain the rank of Scholar one must have a certain knowledge about Fiore.  Translated quotes from Fiore are often cited in class.  Even rapier students are required to learn the abraçare and dagger sections of Fiore, in order to play their prize. In short order, the CSG “teaches Fiore.”

Actually, no. No one “taught Fiore” besides Fiore, and when he died, his precise art died with him. This is not unique. There are literally millions of people studying aikido. Most of the major lines of aikido all go to the direct students of Morihei Ueshiba, the art’s founder. Yet, there are significant technical differences (and at times tactical ones), between the schools – all largely based on when the sub-school’s founder studied with Ueshiba. [N.B. – More on this idea and how it relates to reconstructing Armizare at this blog post.]

This comparison gives us a good idea of why Vadi is clearly within the dei Liberi tradition, yet distinct from the root, and it tells us what learning to fight from one of Fiore dei Liberi’s students might have looked like. It also helps explain why we have multiple texts by the Bolognese masters, all within about a 40-year period, and although the art is the same, no two of them use the same, precise combination of guards or emphasize exactly the same things.

I’m aware that our working understanding of Fiore, and medieval swordplay in general for that matter, is not completely and wholly taken from Fiore’s treatises alone.  Our understanding is a composite of other concepts borrowed, or better explained, by other masters such as Silver, Manciolino, Vadi, di Grassi, etcetera, contextual period research, all glued together with some basic biomechanical principles that are found in all martial arts.  Our knowledge of Fiore’s art is greater because of the contributions of these other masters and vice versa as they “fill in some of the gaps” that are not laid out in each and every text.

Correct, but note that we reference those texts only in so far as they add clarity, or provide a viable answer to what cannot be answered by what is in the five dei Liberi Tradition texts (Getty, Morgan, Pisani-Dossi, “Florius”, and Vadi).

But what befuddles me, is that the CSG teaches Fiore – but with what seems to me, the glaring anomaly of Vadi’s Posta di Falcon.  Most certainly we use concepts as laid forth by Vadi (such as mezzo tempo and working from within the bind) that help us better understand Fiore, but we seem to go about it like we’re learning solely the art of Fiore in class.  It has been hastily explained before to me that Falcone is included in what we do because Vadi is ostensibly a continuation (or further evolution) of Fiore’s work. Wouldn’t a more applicable label be then, Fiore’s art as seen through a student of Vadi? But yet this doesn’t seem to be true either.

This is and isn’t true.  Once upon a time, posta di falcon, which is itself simply a variation of the mainline posta di donna, was used far more extensively in the novice curriculum then we use it now. But if you look at core Guild curriculum, it does not appear in most of the guardia drills, nor is it used in the various set-plays any more. It is something that students are exposed to in the introductory classes and then see little more of. So why is it still there at all?

Although posta di falcon is in practice a variation of posta di donna, it behaves with very different timing and line than the latter. (Nor can it place the thrust the same way.) It is also analogous to the “high vom Tag” used by German fencers or the guardia alta of the Bolognese school, which are the two major counterpart traditions to Armizare. So, for the novice student, it is shown to explain the evolution of a “high guard”, and in part so that they can play with the mechanical differences and be familiar with them when encountering students of other traditions.

If we’ve been learning “Fiore’s guards + Falcone,” then why do we not include Vadi’s other guards that are unique to him, like Posta Sagitarius or his Posta di Chinghario?  Vadi also omits certain guards that Fiore shows (Posta di Donna la Soprana, Coda Longa, Dente de Chinghario lo Mezzana).  More confusing yet is when I look at Vadi’s guards, some share the names of Fiore’s guards but are framed and pictured in a way reminiscent of an entirely different guard (example: Vadi’s Posta Longa looks like Fiore’s Posta Breve).

Boy, is there a lot to answer in what seems a simple observation! Since it seems that Vadi radically reworked the guards, and since the art is based on movement from guard to guard, this must mean that he radically altered the art itself, right? Maybe not.

Let’s begin by looking at Vadi’s list of sword poste. He presents twelve key positions for the longsword, whose names and descriptive rhymes are often similar, if not identical, to those of Fiore dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum, the Pisani-Dossi Ms, which Vadi’s work most resembles.

De Arte Gladiatoria(Vadi) Flos Duellatorum (dei Liberi)
1.       Mezana porta di ferro Same name and position as the guard shown in carta 18 A.
2.       Posta di donna Same name, and similar, but not identical to the “posta di donna” shown in carta 18 B.
3.       Porta di ferro piana terrena Flos Duellatorum calls this the “porta di ferro son la piana terrena,” while other versions of Fiore’s work call it the “tutta porta di ferro”
4.       Posta di falcon No parallel, the position is unique to Vadi.
5.       Posta breve Same name and similar position to the position shown in 19 A. However, Fiore shows the guard with the left leg forward and the point raised.
6.       Posta sagitaria The position is similar to a lower and more forward version of the “posta finestra” seen in carta 18 A.
7.       Posta di vera finestra The same name but mirror image of carta 19A, so that the guard is carried on the left, rather than the right. This also makes this poste similar to Fiore’s ‘posta de donna” in carta 18 B
8.       Posta corona Nominally the same as the “posta frontale o corona” position depicted in carta 18 B, although the carriage of the guard is somewhat different
9.       Posta denti di chinghiare Same name and position as the guard shown in carta 18 B
10.    Posta lunga Same name and position as the guard shown in carta 18 B
11.    Post frontale Despite the name, no definite parallel.
12.    Posta di cinghiaro No exact parallel. The position resembles that of the denti di chinghiare, above, but with a left leg lead.

Part of Vadi’s goal may have been to show his art as unique, which is certainly how he promoted his work to the court of Urbino. Another possibility is that all of these guards likely originated from older sources. The Bolognese masters also used coda longa (or properly, coda longa e distessa), dente di chinghiale and porta di ferro (but these two terms mean an entire class of guards). Eisenpforte (“iron gate”) and Kron (“crown” – corona) are old German guard names, for the same positions Fiore shows as porta di ferro mezzana (“middle iron gate”) and posta frontale o corona (“frontal guard, called crown”). We have to remember that what we have is a snapshot in time of how the guards look c.1409 in Ferrara, c.1482 in Urbino, and c.1500 – 1570 in Bologna. We have no linking information per se, nor anything on their origin.

But as regards Vadi and dei Liberi, in many cases the reader is seeing Fiore’s guards, they just don’t know it. Remember Fiore’s injunction that “all guards make volta stabile and mezza volta“? This is often translated to mean that dei Liberi’s poste have both forward and rear-weighted variations (as he clearly shows with posta di donna and dente di cenghiaro), and left and right side variations.

Now, let’s look at Vadi’s dente di cenghiaro on Folio 17v. Before we assume that this is a “new” or a “revised” guard, we should ask ourselves how what is shown relates to dei Liberi’s advice. Or does it? What about his version of posta di donna?

As to the other poste, while Vadi drops several, he adds none (besides posta di falcon) that can’t be found in one of the four Fiore manuscripts. While his posta di donna looks odd, consider it in light of one clear change Vadi does introduce into the art – an emphasis on attacking with the acressimento, rather than the pass. In this light, the guard’s new form makes perfect sense – it allows the swordsman to strike out with a fast cut made with an advance of the lead foot, followed by immediately retracting sword and foot back into guard. But is this really a significant change to the art itself, or a demonstration of how to use an old, well-known guard while emphasizing the advancing step?

The name posta sagitaria is borrowed from one of Fiore’s guards for the sword in armour (of which Vadi maintains six, but renames them), but it is in reality posta di finestra, adapted to the narrower stance Vadi favors. The one that might catch our notice is on Folio 17r, which looks like a poorly drawn posta di donna, but is called posta di vera finestra. This is where we need to remember that dei Liberi’s own poste vary slightly from manuscript to manuscript, and that each manuscript names twelve, not because that is how many there are, but because the number twelve is numerically significant.

Vadi’s artwork and captions derive from the same line as the Pisani-Dossi and Florius manuscripts, and there is something very interesting there. Here we see posta di donna as we know it, we have posta di finestra, and then we have the guard Vadi calls posta di vera finestra, which the Pisani-Dossi manuscript calls posta di donna di vera finestra. This is an interesting position, a very old guard that appears extensively in early and High Medieval artwork when the fencer is wielding a buckler or a shield. Dei Liberi shows it again as a variation of posta di donna used with the sword in one hand. This guard looks much like posta di finestra, but has the elbow dropped so that the point is lifted and offline, creating a position that is midway between the “canonical” posta di finestra (point forward) and posta di donna (point refused). In practice, it plays like both of them.

(If this all seems confusing, at least we are in good company, as this seems to have confused the artist who created Florius too – he garbles this while drawing the spear plates, and draws the spear on the wrong side of the head of the combatant’s head.)

This is all academically interesting, but poses an interesting challenge for us as martial artists. We can either add every oddity as a discrete position, teaching about 22 guards in all, or we can follow Fiore’s core advice that there are 12 core poste, teach the 12 that are generally consistent throughout his work, and look at the others as variations of those 12. The Guild uses the latter solution, with the idea that as students progress, they will be exposed to all of the variations, including Vadi’s, and learn how they are used.

What about Vadi’s “new footwork”, that narrow stance of his that is shown framing other guards and found in his other plays?

As I said above, Vadi shows an emphasis on the acressimento, and he certainly wants us to know that this is a major innovation and “better stepping than the way of our ancestors”. The question is: Can we believe him?

In my opinion, Vadi’s narrower stance, combined with favoring a right foot forward stance on some of his cutting guards shows an early example of the alterations in swordsmanship that we see occurring throughout the 16th century.  Armoured harness was falling out of use and unarmoured dueling was becoming more common, ending in the reduction to the four, point-forward, sword-side leading guards utilized by the rapier. This thesis seems supported by how stripped-down the armoured combat portions of Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria is, compared to dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum.

But for all of this talk about his new footwork, Vadi doesn’t demonstrate much use of it in his actual techniques, which clearly derive directly from dei Liberi. Even without understanding a word of Italian, a short comparison of some the rhyming captions for the sword poste, or guards, makes the relation between the texts obvious:


Fiore (Pisani-Dossi)

1.       Son mezana porta di ferro forte
per dare con punte e fendente la (16r)
Mezzana porta de ferro son la forte
per dare cum punta e fendente la (c.18r)
2.       Son porta di ferro piana terrena
che taglier e punte sempre si (16v)
Tuta porta de fero son la piana terena
che tagli e punte sempre si refrena (c.18r)
3.       Son posta breve di spada longeza
spesso ferisco, con lei torno in freza
Io son posta breve e ho de spada lungeza
spesso meto punta e in lei torno in (c.19r)

Of Vadi’s 25 techniques for fighting with the sword while unarmoured, eight are direct reflections of the illustrations and captions found in dei Liberi. Proceeding to the armoured techniques, Vadi reduces and renames the basic stances, but they remain mechanically the same as the earlier masters. Each of the four poleaxe and five armoured sword techniques that Vadi shows are again directly paralleled in both illustration and text with the Flos Duellatorum. Likewise, although he again has a slight alteration in guards, Vadi’s spear plays derive directly from the work of his predecessor. He then concludes with 47 dagger techniques, including two techniques to be used by a swordsman attacked by a knifeman while his sword is sheathed. As with the sword techniques that began the illustrated plates, many of these techniques correspond directly to the Flos Duellatorum, while the final eight, uncaptioned plays at the very end of his book are presumably of Vadi’s own devising.

So, besides his poste variations, there is nothing in Vadi’s technical repertoire that is unique or distinctive, or really, wasn’t apparently copied from another manuscript in the mainstream tradition.

Thus Vadi’s treatise does not represent a “new art,” but rather a glimpse into one line of evolution of an established tradition. His focus on the sword as the centerpiece of the art, his alterations of the basic guards to keep the sword more forward of the body, and his promotion of a narrower stance and smaller, faster cuts all prefigure many of the the tactical considerations of 16th century masters at arms, but are ultimately small changes to the system first laid out by Fiore dei Liberi nearly eight decades earlier.

So why bother with Vadi at all?  We’ll look at what makes the old boy shine in part II.

Reconstructing a Martial Lineage; not Resurrecting the Dead

What is the Goal of Historical European Swordsmanship?

by Gregory Mele

Historical European Swordsmanship (HES) is a subset of Western martial arts, in most cases referring to reconstructed martial arts (the notable exception being classical fencing).  There is a meme in the HES community that those who practice HES “study Fiore” or “do Silver’s backsword”, etc. While this is fine as a form of nomenclatural shorthand, it is not, strictly speaking, accurate. When it is used as justification to study a single text in isolation of either its peers or the larger milieu from which it derives, it can completely undermine our goals.

While schools such as the Chicago Swordplay Guild study what survived of the teachings of fencing masters such as Fiore dei Liberi over the past 600 years, no one “taught Fiore” besides Fiore, and when he died, his precise, personal art died with him. This is not unique; indeed it is quite true of living, traditional martial arts as well. Transmission is always a challenge, and once a master has made an art his own, what he transmits can be altered or changed, sometimes quite deliberately.  Let me give an example, based on a well-known Asian martial art in which I had the pleasure of studying: aikido.

There are literally millions of people studying aikido today. Most of the major lines of aikido trace their roots back to the direct students of Morihei Ueshiba, the art’s founder. Yet, there are significant technical differences (and at times tactical ones) between the schools – all largely based on when the founder of the sub-school studied with Ueshiba, and his own martial arts background.

You’ll discover that some branches of aikido are quite soft, others are harder, and almost all have very different curricula for weapons. Many no longer emphasize atemi – the strikes used to set up a throw – while others use two or three strikes in each kata. But, each major line of transmission is based on what the student learned from Master Ueshiba, and combined with his own martial pedigree. Even within any one of those groups, however, you can take any three teachers of one branch of Aikido and, while all will teach nearly the same curriculum, each teacher will emphasize some things differently from his or her peers.

Compared to what we study at the Chicago Swordplay Guild, aikido is a living art whose founder has only been dead a little over 40 years. Armizare is 600 years old, and went extinct sometime in the 17th century. If you were trying to reconstruct aikido today and all you had were a handful of books, not all by the mainline of the art, and the use of “frog DNA” – studying similar actions in other throwing or grappling arts –  which aikido would you get? That of the mainline Aikikai? The judo-influenced style of Tomiki? The older, harder Yoshinkan? Or would you get an entirely new branch of the larger “aikido family”?

My personal belief and guiding principle is that you’d get a new “tree”, grown from old root-stock. We can’t teach “Fiore’s art”, as Fiore taught it, because we can’t even be sure that any of the four manuscripts with his name on it were directly actually penned by him. We know almost for certain that the newly discovered manuscript (the Florius manuscript in Paris) was not. We know that the manuscript housed at the Getty Museum is derived from the manuscript presented to Niccolo d’Este, but is not that manuscript. Likewise, the Pisani-Dossi manuscript is dated “1409”, yet it has notable disagreements with the prologue of the Getty regarding some basic details of Fiore dei Liberi’s life. No single copy of the Flower of Battle has “all” of the same plays for the weapons used. Some show variations mentioned in the text of another copy, but there are also a few discrepancies, among such simple things as the proper way to name the guards of the sword, or which foot appears forward in a technique.

Without an “Ur-text” or “master copy” known to be in the author’s own hand, we cannot assign primacy to any one text. And even if such a text existed, the author himself is not available for consultation or verification of simple questions such as:  How do I shift my bodyweight in this throw? Should my rear hand be six inches off of the stomach when I am in posta breve? When is it better to exchange a thrust, and when is it better to break it? Like an old Time-Life commercial, the only answer is “read the book”.

Therefore, we must reconcile all of the texts we have, as best we can, to try and recreate Armizare in a form that Fiore dei Liberi would recognize. We begin with the four dei Liberi manuscripts (Getty, Morgan, Pisani-Dossi, and “Florius”). This will at least give us a concordance, and where one text is the outlier from its peers, a good idea at what might be the correct, or at least “canonical” application of the technique. This is as close as we can get to that “Ur-text” and to the mind of dei Liberi himself.

By adding a study of Filippo Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria dimicandi (“Of the Art of Swordsmanship”), we have a snapshot of how the dei Liberi tradition passed beyond its founder and was being taught two generations later. As I will discuss in another post, this helps us to verify or refute our interpretations, but also shows that even within 70 years, at least one branch of the art had adapted and changed in some significant ways.

Finally, if our goal is a living martial art, and not a museum piece, then we must accept that at some point the texts in our core tradition may not provide all of the answers we seek. This is when we may be forced to “add frog DNA” to our dinosaur. When this happens, there is a natural hierarchy to employ for which material gets primacy:

  1. Contemporary traditions (Liechtenauer tradition) from neighboring lands, or near-contemporary traditions (the Bolognese masters) from Italy, that taught the same weapons, used in the same milieu.
  2. Later living traditions from the same region – such as Greco-Roman wrestling, folk wrestling, classical fencing, etc.
  3. Non-native martial arts that apply comparable weapons in comparable milieus – such as applying classical Japanese arts to medieval European ones.
  4. Study of modern kinesiology, body-mechanics and motor-learning.
  5. Practical experimentation with accurate arms and armour.
  6. Pressure testing in mock-combats and combat sports.

Note that “sparring” and “experimentation” occur well down the line. It isn’t that these activities aren’t an important part of reconstruction; rather, until you have a solid foundation, there is nothing to really test. Fencing and wrestling in an agonistic, as opposed to antagonistic, environment, without solid theory or technique may be fun, but it is uneducated brawling at worst. At best, we simply fall back on whatever prior training we may have, so that we are now doing judo, escrima or kung fu with a new weapon in our hand or a new uniform on our body. But it won’t be Armizare, anymore than using a replica rapier like an electric foil is 17th century fencing.

Martial necromancy is a tricky business. We cannot remove the “historical” from Historical European Martial Arts without losing the point entirely. Otherwise, why not just build a dinosaur with Fiore feet, Liechtenauer arms, a Japanese head, and a Filipino tail? On the other hand, for the reconstruction to be valid, we cannot downplay martial; it must work, and it must work under pressure. Beautifully executed set-plays in pitch-perfect historical gear are museum dioramas, not combat, if they become the end in and of themselves.

Finally, our reconstruction must be an art, in the classical sense. Governed by rules, it must be flexible, capable of adaptation and nuance by those who have integrated those rules. That is what allows us to use the art, to answer those questions where the Master remains silent, and yes, if such is the desire, to apply it to new/modern situations.

To me, we must have all of these things, or we have none of them. But first and foremost, the best mindset to take for reconstructing HES is to see ourselves as caretakers of the art. Whatever we might think that we can add, subtract or modify for “modern defense” or “sparring”, we have an obligation to try and understand the art as it was meant to be and to pass it on as whole as we can – otherwise, within a generation it can be lost all over again.

It can be a bitter pill to think that even after decades of carefully following all of these steps, we simply will never “do it just like Fiore”. But it needn’t be. If we establish a system that holds the Master’s teachings at its core, if everything that extends from it can verified and codified based on the conceptual and tactical framework of his art, if those interpretations can hold up under pressure testing, then we have created new growth from old roots, much as dei Liberi, Liechtenauer, Fabris, etc. did themselves. If that new growth is then transmitted to the next generation, then Historical European Swordsmanship moves from a “reconstructed martial art” to a “reconstructed and living tradition”.

The 600 – Prepare for Fiore!

In 1410, Fiore dei Liberi, an aging condottiero and master-at-arms to some of Italy’s most renowned warriors, presented a book to the bellicose Niccolò III d’Este, Marchese of Ferrara (1383-1441) containing the sum of four decades of knowledge won in the training hall, siege, battle and  five duels with rival masters. He named this work Il Fior di Battaglia, the Flower of Battle, composed so that the “art might not be forgotten”.

Six hundred years later, a small gathering of martial artists from around the world will prove him right!

The Chicago Swordplay Guild is pleased to host this invitational, three day event in honor of Maestro Fiore and his Art. The schedule of events includes:

Classes taught by an international slate of instructors:

  • Bob Charrette, LaBelle Compagnie (USA)
  • Sean Hayes, Northwest Academy of Arms (USA)
  • Mark Lancaster, The Exiles – Company of Medieval Martial Artists (UK)
  • Rob Lovett, The Exiles – Company of Medieval Martial Artists (UK)
  • Gregory Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild (USA)
  • Roger Siggs, Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild (USA)
  • Guy Windsor, School of European Swordsmanship (Finland)

The schedule and class descriptions are included in this PDF:

Fiore 600 Schedule

The 600 Class Descriptions

In addition to formal classes there will be a round table discussion and Q&A on Fiore and his work, and two feats of arms:

  • A Friday “Vespers Tournament” – an unarmoured tournament of sword, dagger and lance, open to all attendees.
  • A Saturday, Armoured Pas d’Armes – an invitational tournament, celebrating the knightly art, to be fought with sword, lance, and axe.

(Full details of the tournaments will be forwarded to attendees.)

Located at the picturesque DeKoven Center, home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop, the conference is a retreat with attendance limited to the 60 students that DeKoven can host. Your registration fee  includes entry, lodging and all nine, hot meals.

This is a unique event and a unique opportunity to train in a private environment with some of the most renowned, modern teachers of the art of Armizare. Act now, because spaces will go fast. We look forward to crossing swords with you!



September 10 – 12, 2010


The DeKoven Center
600 21st Street
Racine, WI 53403

(Details for getting to Racine can be found on the WMAW website)


On campus; all rooms have two single beds. You will be able to request the roommate of your choice when you register, and we will make every effort to accommodate you.

Nine hot meals.


$325.00 inclusive.

To Register:

  1. Download the class schedule and the following registration form:
    600 reg form(2)
  2. Fill out and email the completed contact form to:
  3. The Registrar will confirm your registration and send you a PayPal bill.
  4. Come and have a good time!

Remember, submit all of your registrations and registration questions to