Weapons or Traditions? Part One

Practice Knighthood, and learn Art that adorns you, And in wars brings honor. Wrestle well, grappler. Glaive, spear, sword, and knife, Manfully handle, And in others’ hands ruin. - Johannes Liechtenauer (tr. Cory Winslow)
Opera Nova, Containing the explanations and the advantages that can be obtained in the use of any sort of arms - full title of Antonio Manciolino’s fencing treatise (tr. Tom Leoni)

This is the first of a three-part series that looks at the following question: are medieval fencing traditions ways to use particular weapons, and not others? Or are they something else?


Many people come to historical European martial arts for the weapons. Perhaps they're chasing their dreams of becoming a musketeer, a knight, a Scottish highlander, or a Norse raider. Perhaps they're looking for something more that feels more "real" than Olympic-style fencing (a tradition that does not get as much respect from some parts of the HEMA community as I feel it is due ... but that's a topic for another post). Few of us come to HEMA without opinions on the type of weapons we want to learn.


Perhaps for this reason, it's common to hear different historical European martial arts traditions described in terms of the weapons they teach. Thus, Liechtenauer's kunst des fechtens is frequently described as "German longsword," while Fiore dei Liberi's armizare is "Italian longsword," the Bolognese tradition becomes "Italian sidesword," and so forth. The opposite is equally common: if someone wants to study longsword, for instance, they'll usually be told they should study one of the "longsword systems" (by which the speaker usually means KDF or armizare). If someone wants to study sidesword, they'll be pointed to one of the "sidesword systems" such as Bolognese.


This approach is not entirely wrong, but it has the potential to be misleading. Liechtenauer himself was quite clear that his system taught five weapons, not just longsword: combat grappling, sword, knife, spear, and glaive (in the dialect of the zettel, sper and glefen, the distinction between which is not as clear in middle high German as it may seem when translated into English). Later KDF authors would go on to apply Liechtenauer's system to even more weapons, such as arming sword and buckler, longshield, poleaxe, dussack, sidesword, halberd, and pike. Bolognese authors did not consider their system weapon-specific, either, as Manciolino's subtitle illustrates. The same could be said of most European martial arts systems for which texts survive, not only in the Middle Ages but even into the 19th century. The authors we study did not, with very few exceptions, think they were teaching the use of particular weapons.


Put it this way: imagine that you are a medieval person who is an experienced initiate of kunst des fechtens. You go to your teacher, and say, "Meister, I have learned the use of the longsword, but I have no idea how to use a one-handed sword." Or suppose you are a senior student of a Bolognese school, and say to your teacher, "Maestro, you've taught me the principles of the one-handed sword, but I know nothing of two-handed fencing." What would he say?


Each teacher would respond the same way: "Yes you do. Haven't you been paying attention?"


In our next post, we'll take a closer look at what this means.


Pictured: a woodcut from Marozzo's treatise, illustrating the many weapons of Bolognese fencing.

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