Category Archives: Featured

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:

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”.

After The 600

Any day you get to train in the Art of the medieval Italian sword master, Fiore dei Liberi, is a good day. When you find yourself at The 600 – a 3-day,  “All Fiore, All the Time” workshop hosted by the Chicago Swordplay Guild, you’ve pretty much died and gone to heaven.

At least, that’s the opinion shared by the close to 50 western martial artists from the US, Canada and Europe who converged on the DeKoven Center in Wisconsin last month to honor Fiore, his Art and the 600th anniversary of the presentation of his Il Fior di Battaglia (the Flower of Battle) to his patron, Niccolò III d’Este, Marchese of Ferrara (1383-1441).

Held from Friday, September 10th through Sunday, September 12th on the beautiful, picturesque grounds that are also home to the biannual Western Martial Arts Workshop (WMAW), The 600 gave students of Fiore’s Art a deep, personal immersion experience, with intensive training offered by well-respected instructors from the Historical European Swordplay community: our own Gregory Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild (USA); Sean Hayes, Northwest Fencing Academy (USA); Guy Windsor, School of European Swordsmanship (Finland); Mark Lancaster, The Exiles, Company of Medieval Martial Artists (UK); Scott Wilson, Darkwood Armory (USA); and Bob Charrette, Forteza Historical Swordwork Guild (USA).

In addition to the formal classes offered, The 600 also included a fascinating panel discussion and Q&A on Fiore and his work, taking full advantage of the amazing brain trust of instructors we had on hand. It was the first time the CSG has included this kind of activity, and it was a big hit with the participants. The weekend also included two feats of arms – an unarmoured tournament of sword, dagger and lance open to everyone; and an Armoured Pas d’Armes, an invitational tournament that celebrated the knightly art with sword, lance, and axe.

Several of the instructors remarked that the participants’ skill level and familiarity with armizare enhanced the teacher’s ability to challenge us more, mentally and physically than was typical in more “generalist” events. This made the learning experience all the more valuable to us. It also contributed to the glazed look of happy exhaustion shared by every student! Here are some of the class highlights:

Application of Fiore’s Art to Positions of Disadvantage (Scott Wilson) – We all love Scott Wilson for his incredibly beautiful swords (Darkwood Armory), and many of us enjoyed shopping from the back of his truck in between classes on Saturday. But, Scott is also a longtime martial artist and an excellent instructor. In this class, Scott gave us some very interesting ideas about using Boar’s Tooth as elbow shields against strikes and as offensive tools for CQC.  Perhaps the most interesting lesson that Scott shared was his interpretation of Fiore’s daga vs. spada.  Against a mandritto, Scott had us move directly into the strike, using the dagger to block the blow with as close to zero pressure as possible.  After the block, Scott redirected the sword down and to his right, and from there used his dagger for a counter attack.

Improve Your Survival Odds with Proper Cutting Mechanics (Sean Hayes & Gregory Mele) – Sean is always one of our favorite guest instructors, bringing a depth of knowledge and contagious enthusiasm to all of his classes. While this was not a class on cutting basics, he worked us on the basics with gusto, helping us to hone our cutting skills using a coiled back-weighted stance for power and “hand protection”; correct hand-foot timing; how to cut fendente by pushing with the top hand and pulling with the bottom hand; targeting our cuts to strike “below the beard” (using our own Jacques and his beard “Francois” as a visual aid); and projecting power with more effectiveness. We also learned from Greg how good solo drills are not just about moving from one guard to another – they are dynamic tools for examining how to attack and defend as if you are facing an opponent. After practicing a few sequences where we learned both agent’s and patient’s actions, we partnered up to train and examine why the patterns of attack/defend work as they do in a montante sequence called “Driving the Foe Before You”.

Down You Go: Two Ubiquitous Throws of Armizare (Greg Mele, assisted by Jesse Kulla CSG) – In this class, about a dozen students threw themselves into two of the most basic throws in the system – the “rear leg takedown” (hip throw) and the “collar throw” (diving throw) – learning important applications when unarmed and when using various weapons. When dealing with daggers, for example, Greg told us not to do just block with our hands, but to “swat his hand away like a bear.” Think of your defensive action as a powerful attack of its own. With swords, a pommel strike should be thought of as an “upper cut”.  Instead of just striking your opponent, really knock his head back and up and follow through with a “diving throw”.

Playing with the Plays: Making Techniques Adaptable, Applicable and Fun (Guy Windsor) – Incorporating his concept that what we need to know tactically is always shown somewhere in the Maestro’s manuscripts (largely the Getty), Guy gave us some great training tools that center on linking Fiore’s plays.  By examining the circumstances you are in, you can know what to do next (his “Decision Tree”). Guy also loves to draw on plays from all over the Getty, demonstrating how he sees the book as always interrelating, no matter what section you are reading.  One of his favorite plays, for example, is the 8th Play of the Master of Coda Lunga on Horseback- the hand grab and pommel strike – found on the 6th to the last page of the manuscript and which Fiore says “counters all the plays that come before this” (Tom Leoni translation).

KISS – Keep it Simple Student (Mark Lancaster) – Our good friend from across the Pond taught his heart out and kept the laughter flowing, in spite of the fact he was still recovering from a slipped disk. In this class, Mark showed us how the four unarmed poste follow through into Fiore’s daga section and then into plays of the longsword as just a variation on a basic theme. One key lesson: students of armizare need to have the core of Fiore’s art internalized so that we don’t have to think about how to frame the poste and which guards have what characteristics.  Mark also shared his insights on the position of the first Master of the Dagger.  As Greg has pointed out to us numerous times, this position is seen several times throughout Il Fior di Battaglia, especially in the sword in one hand section.

Zogho Stretto – Breaking the Distance (Mark Lancaster) – Mark, also lovingly referred to “Puss in Boots”, took us into tactical options we have with the incrossada.  When both players pass and cut fendente, binding on the forte of the blade and getting all sloppy in the Zogho Stretto, we have what he calls a “Train Wreck”.  (Not a Fiore term, but the Maestro would have agreed had medieval Italy had a Metro system.) Avoiding this situation was the crux of his class, and Mark threw a lot of tactical options at us that we could employ.  A couple key points: The attacker is always closing to Zogho Stretto if he is using single-tempo action.  The defender can choose to engage at Stretto, or he can step out of range, moving offline or even taking a small step back to engage at Largo. The first decision lies with the defender.  Mark also talked about the option of stepping without really going anywhere.  Here you step forward and then back into place to change your lead foot, but distance stays the same.  This was a challenging class for a lot of us, but we walked away with plenty of food for thought and fuel for future training.

How to Open a Can Without Cutting Yourself: Techniques for Fighting in Harness (Sean Hayes, assisted by Gregory Mele and Alex Spreier (Northwest Fencing Academy) –  About 10 hearty students put on their kits – from full harness to virtually no harness – and joined Sean as he taught us how instructions for  armoured fighting techniques are not only covered in Fiore’s spada en arme (sword used while in harness) sections of his manuscripts, but also in the abrazare, dagger, single-sword and two-handed sword sections.

Ponderous, Cruel and Mortal: Dei Liberi’s System of Axe Play (Greg Mele) – This introductory class to Dei Liberi’s instructions on the poleaxe drew many new students of this weapon, including CSG’s very own master of the rapier, John O’Meara. Greg began with the poleaxe poste and then took us through set plays that drew on core actions of sword and spear play. As one energetic CSG novice noted, the poleaxe as a weapon is dramatic and well balanced, and its movement, “equal parts graceful and threatening”. No wonder it’s a favorite among so many of us.

Attacker’s Choice: Responding to the Bind and Connecting Largo to Stretto (Guy Windsor) – For many of us, the most influential classes of the weekend were those taught by Guy.  As one CSG free scholar noted: Guy’s interpretation of stretto and largo while crossed at the half-sword is a game-changer.  His key point is that Zogho Largo and Zogho Stretto are more than a statement of measure. Zogho Largo is defined as a crossing of the swords during which your opponent’s point is not threatening you, and the bind is soft enough that you can leave it without immediate fear of being struck. Zogho Stretto he describes as a crossing of the swords in which the opponent’s point threatens you, and he is bound hard enough that to remove pressure from the bind would lead to your immediate and painful death.  Guy took us deeper into the plates and writings found in Fiore’s Flower of Battle, giving us a brilliant method for visualizing and teaching the concepts of range as it pertains to Fiore’s system.

Patterns of Remedy: Treatise Organization and Internal Connections in Fior di Battaglia (Bob Charrette) – Hat’s off to Bob, because his fascinating presentation really fed the minds of the armizare scholars at The 600! Bob has reexamined Fiore’s system of Remedies, Scholars, Counters and Counter-Counters, setting it into visual synoptic tables that reveal an even higher level of internal organization and forethought than is generally recognized.

Spontaneous Tactical Response Skills for Freeplay (Sean Hayes) – Sean is a master at developing live drills that directly lead a student into free play.  His class systematically developed each drill, first keeping things simple and even “choreographed”, and eventually added more and more variables until we were pretty much doing focused sparring.  We also learned some great drills for training with odd numbers. The 3-person drill we did, where as soon as you defend, you turn and attack the third training partner, really turned up the intensity while allowing us to keeping training safely. At the end of the class, we were thoroughly warmed up enough for a few rounds of focused and spirited freeplay.  Sean had us do two-minute rounds, with one person from each training trio marshaling and giving advice.

Round Table Discussion – All Instructors

Rainy skies on Friday had us quickly change the afternoon schedule from medieval mud wrestling (so to speak) to a panel discussion that we students found both invaluable and amusing – thanks to the verbal cutting and cross-sniping between the instructors.  The discussion kicked off with Mark’s question as to whether Fiore’s teachings were meant for battlefield combat or judicial tournaments. The consensus was “both”. As Greg put it, the “Art of Arms” is designed to teach you how to fight, with the question of what circumstances coming later.  If you train for battlefield combat, you can apply those lessons to one-on-one circumstances and tournaments.  However, if you just train for tournaments, it is difficult and perhaps deadly to apply those lessons on the battlefield. Other topics discussed involved what Fiore meant by a “zuparello” (a cloth “armor” jacket for fighting vs. a doublet); the importance of studying all of the Fiore manuscripts, not just one, and in turn studying all sections of the manuscripts; what is canonical in the manuscripts and what is not (if Fiore shows it or describes it, it is canonical); and how we need to expand our study beyond weapons and combat methods to the culture and physical artifacts of the time.

Of course, most of us came to test out our fencing skills, and we had plenty of opportunity!

Unarmoured Tournament. The first fencing forum was an unarmoured tournament using the sword in two hands, sword in one hand, and spear. And was this FUN! The format was a variation on the Belgium rules, where each bout was fought till one player had accumulated three points.  And the rules are tough – a strike to the head or the sword arm counted for three points.   The winner of each bout remained “king of the ring”, and was allowed a king’s strike after being hit.  It paid to be king: double-kills went to the higher strike on the body, with the king taking any ties.  With the exception of the arming sword portion of the tournament, fencing was clean and crisp. Unfortunately, a lot of us started to default to our various Bolognese, backsword, SCA, and FMA experience – which we vow to you, Greg, will not happen at the next Fiore Con! Of course, following the tournament came the beer, scotch, cigars and hilarious storytelling.

This year’s victors were Keith Jennings, CSG (Longsword), Scott Wilson, SAS (Arming sword – he edged Keith out by one fight), and Dave “Sparky” Farrell, CSG (spear). Had all bouts been combined, Keith would have been the victor. We are proud of you guys! And an extra salute goes to Mark Lancaster for his Fiore-inspired sword throw at Jesse during the martial challenge. Awesome, scary, and really cool!

Armoured Tournament. The armoured deed of arms was an expansion of last year’s event at WMAW 2009. With the sun shining and crowds cheering from the sidelines, CSG’s Jesse Kulla, Dave “Sparky” Farrell and Leo Lastre stood as defenders and took challenges with sword, dagger, spear and axe from Bob Charrette, Sean Hayes, Alex Spreier and Scott Wilson. Scott’s spear bout with Leo is regarded by many as the highlight of the feat of arms. A “huzzah” with a wink must also be given to Bob Charrette for his cunning use of the powder-filled hollow poleaxe on Jesse.  All in all, this whole event was just absolutely great to watch! See videos of the tournament on YouTube!

Our gratitude goes out to everyone who made The 600 possible! More images of the event are available for viewing.

WMAW 2011. CSG’s next major workshop is WMAW 2011, which will take place at the DeKoven Center in WI sometime in early Fall. Check for regular updates!

The 601? Will there be anything like The 600 Revisited? Stay tuned. The rave reviews we’ve received on The 600 have us thinking about another all-Fiore workshop in 2012…