Martial arts, or the “Arts of Mars” are often associated with Eastern forms.  Despite this, every culture throughout history has had its own combat style, and Europe of the medieval and Renaissance period was no exception.  Each martial art grows form its particular context, and the styles that arose out of Europe in this period are myriad. The IAS practices the medieval Italian tradition of l’arte d’armizare. It is a rich tradition, more than 600 years old and set down by Fiore dei Liberi, master of arms to the court of Niccolo d’Este.

During the early Renaissance, the Italian city-states were in a constant sate of flux and were defended by “free companies” ofr condottieri – mercenaries hired by the cities to defend and protect their interests.  It is during this time that we find professional masters at arms training soldiers in the art of defense, including one of particular interest to us – Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1350-1420).  His manuscripts, dating to the early 15th century (1409) are the earliest known texts relating the Italian lineage, and are the third oldest after the Royal Armouries “Tower fechtbuch” (I.33) and the so-called “Döbringer”hausbuch (HS 3227a).


Fiore dei Liberi’s disciplines can be summarized by the treatise’s title: Flos Duellatorum in armis, sine armis, equester et pedester, “Flower of Battle in armour, without armour, mounted and on foot.” It is a holistic presentation of knightly combat in all its forms: grappling, dagger, sword in one hand, sword in two hands, spear, poleaxe and mounted combat.


Martial arts are developed as a response to cultural needs, and these needs intersect with the technology of the culture to produce an art appropriate to the context in which it will be used.   Some common contexts in which armizare was used included war, cases of civil unrest, dueling, sport, and the political/social need to demonstrate prowess in these areas.  A given art can actually encompass all of this, as is clearly stated by Sigmund Ringeck, a 15th century German master: “Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play.”  Other masters and authors have written about use of their arts both in potentially lethal and in sportive contexts also.  It is well-documented that European society from the medieval, Renaissance and modern eras have employed various forms of law-enforcement officials, and in the ordinary course of their duties these men would have needed martial expertise that was scalable – that could be used to subdue rather than kill, but also to kill if necessary.  And even the use of the arts of war does not necessarily dictate an all-or-nothing “scorched earth” policy: the condotierri of medieval Italy were businessmen who practiced war as a trade, and frequently resorted to less than total war in the execution of their battles, the better to preserve the assets (soldiers) that allowed them to do business in the first place.   

The IAS remains faithful to the holistic nature of Fiore dei Liberi’s art.

I Fiore, know how to read, write and draw, and have books on our subject, a subject that I have studied for at least forty years. Yet, I do not consider myself to be a perfect Masters of this art, although some of the great lords who have been my students do hold me in such regard. Let me just say that if I had spent the same forty years studying jurisprudence, canon law or medicine with the same assiduity that I have dedicated to the art of arms, I would be a doctor in each of those disciplines. And I have undergone great effort, labor and expense in being a good student. But enough about this.

Fiore dei Liberi, Fior di Battaglia (Getty Ms)

Sir Fiore Furlano de Civida d’Austria degli Liberi da Premariacco was a Medieval master of arms, who has been credited by fencing historians over the last three hundred years as the father of Italian swordsmanship.  His literary work, il Fior Bataglia (Flower of Battle), composed in early 1409, is one of the oldest, most extensive, and most clearly elucidated martial arts treatises from the Medieval period. Consequently, six centuries after his death, Fiore dei Liberi is one of the most significant figures in the modern study of Historical European Martial Arts.

Most of the biographical information we have on Fiore comes from his own manuscripts, though there is important information found in civic records.  Fiore is believed to have lived between 1350 and 1420, but the exact dates of his birth and death are not known.

In the introduction to MS LUDWIG XV 13, he begins:

In his youth, Fiore the Friulan from Cividale d’Austria, son of the late Sir Benedetto of the noble family of Dei Liberi of Premariacco in the dioceses of the Patriarch of Aquileia, wanted to learn the arts of arms and of combat in the lists. He wished to learn how to use the lance, the axe, the sword, the dagger and how to wrestle; he wanted to learn combat on foot and on horseback, both with armor and without.  

(Translation: Tom Leoni)

After this rather formal beginning, in which he also extols the virtues of his patron, Niccolo d’Este III, ruler of the principalities of Ferrara and Modena, his tone shifts to a more colloquial note for the rest of his manuscript.  He tells his audience of his years of training with Italian and German masters, how he became sought after as a teacher of arms, and of the five duels he fought:

Out of envy, some Masters challenged me to combat with sharp swords in a gambeson and without any other defensive weapon besides a pair of chamois gloves. The reason was that I had refused to associate with them or to reveal to them any parts of my art. This happened no less than five times, and all five times I was compelled by honor to fight in strange places, far away from relatives or friends and without anything to rely upon besides God, the Art, myself, Fiore, and my sword. By the grace of God, I came through each time with my honor intact and without any physical injuries.

In 1383, a Maestro Fiore de Cividale, dimicator (“fencer”) was listed in Udine as a commander in the civil war on the side of the alliance of towns in the Friulian Civil War (an alliance which included his birthplace of Premariacco). Fiore was placed in charge of the crossbowmen and town artillery, and his duties included procuring arms for the defense of the towns.  Following the end of the war, Fiore became one of a group of mounted horsemen who were made a kind of medieval “rough rider” — a combination of traveling marshal and enforcer, charged with quelling insurgents and reestablishing Udine’s control of the countryside. Even today, there are streets in Udine, Cividale and Premariacco named “Via de Fiore dei Liberi” in his honor, though specifically what the towns are grateful for is unclear.

Following the civil war, the next record of the master at arms is from 1395 when he was at the famous duel fought in Padua between one of his students, Galeazzo da Montova, and the famous Marshall Bouccicault of France, an event that drew over 10,000 spectators. The duel was over an insult delivered by Bouccicault, accusing the Italians of cowardice.  Although the men were to fight with lances on horse, Bouccicault became agitated with a delay and attacked da Montova while still on foot. Galeazzo managed to disarm Bouccicault, who grabbed a poleaxe from either an attendant or a guard (accounts vary), when the lords of Padua and Mantua  intervened, ending the fight.  The two met again in a duel in 1406, fighting with lances on horseback, and Galeazzo’s lance lodged in his opponent’s visor, dragging him from his horse. Galeazzo was declared the victor, and  Bouccicault vowed to never wear a visor again, which helped facilitate his capture by the English at Agincourt in 1415.

In 1399, four years after the aborted first duel  between Bouccicault and da Montova, Fiore was recorded in civil records as serving as a condottiero in Pavia. After this his association with the court of Niccolo III d’Este begins, although the nature of their relationship is unclear.  Fiore’s manuscripts, citing a composition date of 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), are dedicated to Niccolo and entered the Estense library, but there are no payments or land grant receipts citing Fiore in the Estense records, and it is unclear if he ever dwelt at the Este court.

There are no clear records of the master after 1409/10, however, one of his early 20th century biographers, Francesco Novati, claims to have seen records (currently lost) of his presence in France sometime around 1420 and this may be corroborated by the discovery of the fourth dei Liberi treatise, Florius de Arte Luctandi, in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Artistically, that manuscript can be dated to sometime between 1420 – 1430, and Fiore dei Liberi is referred to posthumously, but an exact date of death, and whether it was in Italy or France, is unknown.

Fiore tells us of six of his students, all knights or squires (squires were fighting noblemen who were not knighted; in equipment, training and employment they were virtually indistinguishable from knights).  Each of the six was well-known in his day, and are still known to history, as condotierri – mercenary captains of arms in late Medieval Italy.  They are:

• The previously-mentioned Galeazzo da Mantova:  “the  famous, valiant and hardy knight Galeazzo di Capitani from Grimello, better known as Galeazzo da Mantova,” who fought Marshall Bouccicault in Padua. Galeazzo was a member of the famous and powerful Gonzaga family, and his relative, Francesco Gonzaga, was the lord of Mantua.

• Piero del Verde, a German knight, who fought Piero della Corona, also German, in Perugia.

• Nicholas von Urslingen, another German knight, who fought Nicholas the Englishman in Imola.

• Lancilotto da Beccaria, a squire from Pavia, who fought six passes of the blunted lance on horseback, “against the valiant

• Giovannino da Baio, a squire from Milan, “who had to face the valiant German squire Schramm for three passes of the blunted lance on horseback in the castle of Pavia. The same also had to fight three blows of the axe, three of the sword and three of the dagger—on foot—in the presence of the noble prince and lord the Duke of Milan and her ladyship the Duchess, as well as numerous other lords and ladies.”  At the actual deed, the men chose to ride two additional lance passes and on the fifth, Baggio impaled Sirano’s horse through the chest, slaying the horse but losing his lance in the process. They fought the remaining bouts as scheduled, and emerged unscathed from the combat, due to the strength of their armour.

• Azzo da Castelbarco, knight, who fought in separate combats Giovanni Ordelaffi and the knight Jacomo di Boson.

In claiming these men as his students, Fiore is assuring Niccolo that his claims to skill as a teacher are not boasts, but grounded in a reality that his patron could readily understand – and as readily verify. You don’t use a powerful and important man such as Galeazzo da Montova as a reference if you can’t back it up.

Evidence of Fiore dei Liberi’s  posthumous influence can be found in the close-related work of another Italian master at arms, Fillipo Vadi of Pisa, who lived two generations after the Furlan master. Elements of his manuscripts appear in whole or in part in a number of later compendia of fencing techniques, such as the warbook of the German nobleman Ludwig VI von Eyb the Younger (fl. 1500).  Giving no other name to his art than l’arte dell’armizare or “art of arms,” his method survived well over a century, and his name survives to this day as a street name in Premariacco, Italy.

In 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), Fiore dei Liberi completed a work entitled Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”). Its title an obvious pun on his name, this large, illustrated manuscript was a summation of forty years of martial knowledge, including only those things the master felt “most useful” and “safe”. It was dedicated to the bellicose young lord, Niccolo III d’Este, the ruler of the principalities of Ferrara, Modena, and Parma – a powerful early Renaissance prince, knight, and commander of armies.

A page of equestrian or "a cavallo" techniques from Florius de Arte Luctandi.
A page of equestrian or “a cavallo” techniques from Florius de Arte Luctandi.

Four copies of il Fior di Battaglia, which is the earliest surviving Italian source on the martial arts, survive today and form the basis for the modern study of armizare. Each has important similarities to and differences from each other.  The key similarity is the organization of the material, which systematically covers, abrazare (wrestling & hand-to-hand fighting), daga (dagger, with an emphasis on self-defense and armoured combat techniques), spada a un mano (single-handed sword), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), spada in arme (sword used in armour), azza in arme (poleaxe used in armour), lanza in arme (spear used in armour), and finally all weapons a cavallo, or on horseback.  The key martial techniques, called zoghi or “plays” by Fiore, are identical between manuscripts, but each manuscript contains plays and key information not seen in the others, and each is done in a different artistic style.  Two begin with abrazare and proceed through the weapons to mounted combat, while two others go in the reverse order: from horseback down to ground combat, which reflects the order of combat in a judicial duel of the time.


Sword disarm from the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.
Sword disarm from the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.

MS Ludwig XV 13  Held by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

Pisani-Dossi manuscript Held privately by the Italian family of the same name.  A fascimile was produced in 1902 by Francesco Novati, along with an extensive introduction.

MS M.0383 Held by the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York.

MS.Latin 11269 or Florius de Arte Luctandi  Held by the French Bibliothèque Nationale.

The MS Ludwig XV 13 and the Pisani-Dossi MS are both dedicated to Niccolò III d’Este and state that they were written at his request and according to his design. The MS M.383, on the other hand, lacks a dedication and claims to have been laid out according to his own intelligence. The MSS Latin 11269 lost any dedication it might have had along with its prologue.

Two now-lost manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi existed in the Estense family library during and after Niccolo d’Este III’s reign.  The larger is almost certainly the presentation copy given to Niccolo.  The smaller manuscript is something of a puzzle. Neither of them matches the four surviving manuscripts in physical description or page count:

Codex LXXXIV is noted in two catalogs of the Estense family library in Ferrara, one from 1436 and one from 1508, after which no information is known. The manuscript is described as 58 folios bound in leather with a clasp, with a white eagle and two helmets on the first page.  This contains more pages than any of the surviving copies.

Codex CX is noted in the same two surveys of the library. This manuscript is described as 15 small folios on unbound parchment, with each page having two columns.  This MS has smaller pages, and fewer of them, than any of the surviving copies.

Elements of dei Liberi’s work also appear across the alps. Die Blume des Kampfes (“The Flower of Battle”) is a nickname given by modern researchers to a group of three German manuscripts that share a common technical syllabus and set of illustrations with Fior di Battaglia. 

Cod. 5278 is the oldest of the three, dating to the late 1420s and contains simple line drawings reminiscent of dei Liberi’s work, but lacking many signature characteristics such as garters and crowns and generally less organized than the Friulian master’s work.

Dagger vs. Sword technique from German Ms. Cod. 10799 (1623), depicting one of dei Liberi's teachings in full, 17th century garb.
Dagger vs. Sword technique from German Ms. Cod. 10799 (1623), depicting one of dei Liberi’s teachings in full, 17th century garb.

The second manuscript is Ludwig VI von Eyb’s Kriegsbuch (“Warbook”), composed around 1500. The warbook contains a significant degree of overlap with the 5278 but with colored artwork and German descriptions of most of the techniques

Cod. 10799, dated 1623, is the final entry and is again textless, but is illustrated with fine watercolors depicting the figures in contemporary, 17th century clothing. It is also the most extensive of the three by far, Aside from the Blume des Kampfes material, the 10799 also has a good deal of extra content including portrayals of laying down and taking up the sword, Germanic sash wrestling, armored dagger and buckler, and the sword dance.

All 4 manuscripts share a generally similar structure, but with important differences in content and style.  MS XV Ludiwg 13 begins with an introduction that covers folio 3, recto and verso, and folio 4, recto only. The 315 pen and ink illustrations, executed in a Northern Italian, possibly Venetian style, begin on 8 recto and continue to 49 recto9. Most pages have a grid of four images on them, with occasional groupings of two and three images, three instances of a single image and single a grouping of five images. The script is Batarde, a variation on Gothic script that was popular in the 14th through the 16th centuries.

The text of the Fior di Battaglia is organized into logical units of related actions, beginning with abrazare (wrestling and grappling arts), moving to dagger combat (with a large proportion of unarmed defenses against attacks), and then a bridging section of dagger against sword to bring us to techniques for the use of the sword in one hand, which is followed by the use of the sword in two hands. After this is a short section showing various combinations of sword, spear, and stick. At this point, at folio 34 recto, there is a thematic diagram of the key principles of the art.

The material to this point has shown unarmored combatants. The next three sections show the use of techniques for fighting in and against a harness composed of mail and plate, using sword, poleaxe, and spear. After this we are shown equestrian combat principles, with the armored figures now on horse. They begin with the lance and progress to the sword, followed by techniques for wrestling from horseback, including a means of throwing the other man’s horse to the ground. The manuscript concludes with a statement from Fiore pointing out that he is really a humble old man, and an entreaty to recall his virtue and nobility. The final folio shows a single image of two horses tied to a tree.

An example of a Magistro Contrario "Counter Master" wearing a crown and garter to denote his peadgogical position - from the dagger section of Florius de Arte Luctandi
An example of a Magistro Contrario “Counter Master” wearing a crown and garter to denote his peadgogical position – from the dagger section of Florius de Arte Luctandi

Fiore’s introduction explains the visual program of his manuscript. He discusses key elements of the first section, the abrazare or wrestling, and then explains the visual notation he will use throughout the manuscript. Briefly, he employs a system of masters, scholars and players to demonstrate key principles and techniques of his system. Each section of the manuscript begins with one or more crowned “Fight Masters” who show principles and poste (or guard positions); these figures are unopposed. They are followed by one or more crowned “Remedy Masters” (Magistri Remedii) who show defenses against attacks, with the attacks being made by a “Player.” The Remedy Masters are followed by their Scholars, who wear a “device” or garter on one leg. The Scholars show the plays that stem from the defensive technique of the Remedy Master, and they execute these against the Players. Then follows is a “Counter Master” (Magistro Contrario), who wears both a crown and a garter, who shows the technique that defeats the original Remedy Master, and thus all of his Scholars.  Fiore also refers to a rare Counter to the Counter Master (Contra-Contrario).

 In 2018, IAS Founder Gregory Mele and IAS Adviser Tom Leoni began publishing a series of modern, English translations and commentary on the entire corpus of Fiore dei Liberi’s work, and those, such as Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, derived from it. Find out more at The Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Arts of Fiore dei Liberi.

Armizare can be divided into three principle disciplines: close quarter combat, long weapon combat and mounted combat, each of which can then be fought either in armour (in arme) or without armour (senza arme). Close quarter combat forms the basis for many of the grappling and disarming techniques used in later sections of the manuscript, and the dagger section forming the single largest collection of techniques:

Long weapon combat begins with the introduction of the sword and swordplay forms the basis for all other long weapon combat. The treatise also includes several other “knightly” weapons used on foot, both in and out of armour, such as the spear and poleax. There are also several unusual weapons, such as monstrous, specialized swords for judicial combat, and hollow-headed polehammers, meant to be filled with an acidic powder to blind the opponent!

Finally, mounted combat, reintroduces many of the disciplines already presented, this time adapted for combat on horseback, again in or out of armour. 

  • Abrazare
  • Lanza (lance)
  • Spada d’un mano contra lanza(sword vs. lance)
  • Spada contra spada
  • Ghiavarina (a partisan-like weapon shown on foot against mounted opponents)

Within these subsections, dei Liberi taught his art through a series of zoghi (“plays”) —formal, two-man drills akin to the kata of classical Japanese martial arts— that were both technique and tactical lesson.

Alphabet - A

brazare is of two kinds. One is done for pleasure or entertainment.The other is done in anger, or for one’s life, employing every trick, deception and cruelty imaginable. I want to talk about the second kind and show, in good order, how to come to grappling successfully in the most common situation of life-and-death combat.

When you engage in abrazare, you must assess whether your opponent is stronger or bigger than you, and whether he is much younger or older. You also need to take note of whether he places himself in any of the guards of abrazare. Be sure to pay attention to all these things. And whether you are stronger or weaker, use the grapples that arise from the binds and be sure to know how to defend against those which the opponent uses against you.

Fiore dei Liberi, Fior di Battaglia

Two of the four surviving copies of Il Fior di Battaglia begin with grappling, which in armizare is known as abrazare, literally: “embracing” or “playing at the arms”. As is seen in the quote above, the Founder distinguishes abrazare from “wrestling” (lotta), by describing one as  being for sport or exercise, the other for combat and self-defense. He further expands what he means by listing eight requirements as the foundation of abrazare, the first two of which are physical characteristics and the rest of which are categories of techniques. These include:

  • 4594698349_f619aa501c_bStrength (Forteza)
  • Speed (Presteza)
  • Grips and Grapples (Prese)
  • Joint and Bone Breaks (Rompere)
  • “Binds”; ie: joint locks (Ligadure)
  • Strikes (Ferrire)
  • Throws (Mettere in Terra)
  • Dislocations (Dislogadure)

As can been seen, although grabs, joint locks and throws are components of abrazare, so are bone-breaking and striking; areas associated more with combative grappling than wrestling, per se. In contrast, notably absent in abrazare are elements commonly associated with submission wrestling, such as ground-fighting and chokes.

Part of the tactical choices — or limitations — in abrazare are related to both intention (self-defense) and adaptability to both civilian and military contexts, in this case reflected by being usable in armour and without:

The guards of abrazare, the Second Master (i.e., the Remedy) and his students, the Third Master (Counter to the Second and his students) and the Fourth Master (Contra-counter) act as the pillars of the art of abrazare, both in and out of armor. Similarly, they support the art of the lance, with their weapon, guards, Masters and students; the same they do for the axe, the sword in one and two hands, and the dagger. Overall, these Masters and students support the whole art of arms, on horseback and on foot, armored and unarmored–through the principles they follow in abrazare.

In this way, the 16 abrazare techniques that Fiore shows in the Flower of Battle both teach unarmed wrestling and form a foundation for all of the body mechanics and grappling that occurs throughout the rest of the art; so much so that in a  very real sense, zogho stretto, or “close play”, in armizare can be thought of as “grappling with weapons”. It is impossible to understand armizare, as Fiore intended it to b used, without understanding the lessons of abrazare, and it is impossible to understand abrazare without understanding the implications in fighting in armour, perhaps more so than in any other tradition from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance.

Alphabet - I

am the noble weapon called the dagger, who much desires close play. He who understands my malicious deceptions and my art possesses a good part of every subtle exercise at arms …Whoever sees me in the deed of arms, will see me make covers and thrusts with abrazare, taking the dagger from the opponent with turns and binds. And weapons or armour are worthless against me.

Fiore dei Liberi, il Fior di Battaglia

In the early Middle Ages, the dagger (called a daga by the Italians) was often carried as a back-up weapon by spearmen and archers as a substitute for the sword; it was only in the second half of the 13th century that the dagger begins to be depicted as a sidearm worn with the sword, in form it usually looked like a sword in miniature. By the following century, wearing sword and dagger had become commonplace, and by the late 14th and 15th centuries, men-at-arms are almost universally depicted with a new sort of dagger – the rondel.

A dagger of Vadi's recommended proportions by Arma Bohemia based on an example from the Bayerisches Armeemuseum Ingolstadt. German, first half of the 15th century.
A dagger of Vadi’s recommended proportions by Arma Bohemia based on an example from the Bayerisches Armeemuseum Ingolstadt. German, first half of the 15th century.

The rondel dagger derives its name, subtly enough, from the “rondels” or discs that serve as both a guard and pommel (early examples, sometimes had spherical pommels, but this was uncommon by the mid-15th century). The two discs serve to “lock” the dagger tightly into the wielder’s grip, particularly when wearing armoured gauntlets. This locked grip allowed the wielder to strike with great force, particularly in an overhand grip, emphasizing the dagger’s principle role of punching through mail and the articulations of plate armour.

The length of the dagger should be just to the elbow, with an edge and two corners. The grip should be the length of the fist, as the shape is shown depicted here below.

Filippo Vadi of Pisa, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi (c.1482)

The blade is less clearly defined, and can be double-edged, single-edged or even edgeless, turning the dagger into a giant ice pick! All are quite long, as the above quote from Vadi shows, and taper to acute points, since the emphasis is on thrusting. In general, however, there are several forms of rondel that are more common then others. The first and most common is single edged, with a thick, blunted spine, which may or may not flatten into a small “false edge” for the last two or three inches of blade length. The second is hollow-ground, triangular (“two-cornered”), and edgeless (or nearly so), designed specifically for punching through armour. Sometimes the last few inches of these blades flatten into a more traditional profile, giving the dagger a narrower surface at the point of impact for finding purchase. The third form is also a glorified punch, but seems to have been rare, and was of round or quadrangular cross-section. Finally, rondels do appear with a more traditional, double-edged dagger blade, but these seem to have been the rarest of all.

The techniques for using -- and defending against -- the dagger are equally suited to armoured and unarmoured combat.
The techniques for using — and defending against — the dagger are equally suited to armoured and unarmoured combat.

The sword was carried on the left hip while the daga/pugnale was worn on the right. There were a number of ways in which it the dagger might be carried and suspended. In civilian wear, the dagger was worn on the waist belt, with or without a sword, usually beside or behind the purse. It could be hung vertically, horizontally or at an angle in between, as the owner preferred. If a sword was not worn, the dagger and purse might be rotated forward, even to the center-front of the torso. In armour, the dagger was often attached directly to a metal “plaque belt” or to the fauld of the armour, and again could be suspended either vertically or horizontally. During the 14thcentury, the dagger was sometimes attached to the body armour by a long leading chain, so that, even if it slipped from the hand upon being drawn, it could not be dropped. By the end of the century this fashion had faded away, and as the plaque belt disappeared in the 15th century, in armour the dagger began to be worn on either a narrow waist belt, or directly on the sword belt. In the 16th century, the dagger was often worn at an angle at the right side, or across the back, with its hilt turned to the left, both of these methods facilitating a left-hand draw, as the sword was drawn with the right.

Two techniques against a forehand dagger blow (Fiore dei Liberi’s First Remedy of the Dagger) as represented by Filippo Vadi of Pisa.

Dagger combat, both unarmed against a dagger and with a weapon of one’s own, builds directly upon the lessons of abrazare, and forms the single largest section in each of the various copies of il Fior di Battaglia. The nearly 80 “plays”, or techniques, that encompass the dagger section are organized into nine Remedies — specific defenses against a particular type of attack. For example, the First Remedy teaches how to defend against a forehand blow with a dagger in a reverse or “ice-pick” grip, while the Third Remedy details how to defend against a backhand blow from the same grip. The Eighth and Ninth Remedies work against rising thrusts in a forehand grip, while the Fifth Remedy introduces how to defend if the student is first gripped by the attacker — a “mugging” scenario familiar in modern self-defense classes. Other Remedies demonstrate how to defend against attacks with the arms joined for more strength, for specifically fighting in armour, or for when one has already drawn their own dagger.

All dagger instruction is built around five principles, applied in order:

  1. Disarm (Disarmato)
  2. Strike (Ferrire)
  3. Lock (Ligadura)
  4. Break (Rompere)
  5. Throw (Mettere in Terra)

The combination of these five actions allows him to introduce a complete curriculum of not only knife-fighting, but unarmed combat at striking range, joint-locks and arm-bars, entering techniques from out of distance to create throws and a series of disarms that will be used not just in close-quarter combat, but with longer weapons, such as the sword or pollaxe.

Alphabet - O

f all the weapons devised by Man in the long lapse of the centuries, the sword is the only one which combines effectiveness in defence with force in attack, and since its Bronze Age beginnings has gathered round itself a potent mystique which sets it above any other man-made object.

Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword.

The sword of early medieval warriors was a refinement of the yard long, double-edged slashing swords developed by the Iron Age Celts and the Germanic tribes of late Antiquity that supplanted them. In form, they were wide-bladed, single-handed weapons designed for fighting with a shield. Usually between 36″ and 42″ [91-107 cm] long, with a weight of only two to three pounds [0.9-1.4 Kg], the early knightly sword had either parallel or slightly tapered edges and an abrupt or somewhat rounded point used for hacking cuts and limited thrusting. The earlier blades were usually a relatively thin, flat cross-section with a wide central fuller to reduce weight and allow for great flexibility. Later swords either had only a partial fuller, with the last third of the blade ending in diamond or hexagonal cross-section, or were of diamond cross-section throughout, but maintained a deeper, narrow fuller running nearly the entire length of the sword. There was no specialized term for this weapon; it was merely called a sword.

Reproduction of a 15th century arming sword, courtesy Arms and Armor, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Reproduction of a 15th century arming sword, courtesy Arms and Armor, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The same changing battlefield conditions of the High Middle Ages that led to the development of the longsword, also led to the development of new varieties of arming swords, as the one-handed weapon was now sometimes called, because it was as a sidearm worn while “in arms”. Fullers were often made short and wide, allowing the weapon to be stiffer near the tip as a new emphasis was put on the thrust. By the mid-14th century some swords carried this emphasis even further by replacing the fuller altogether with a riser, a raised spine, making a very stiff blade, and/or with sharply tapering edges, producing the silhouette of a broad isosceles triangle.

In the late 15th century, some arming swords had a simple ring affixed to their guard, so that the index finger could be wrapped around the cross for greater point control, without being endangered if the opponent’s blade sliding down its length. By the end of the century, this simple ring was also sometimes accompanied by a knuckle bow, and the first “complex-hilts” were born.

Introduction to wielding the sword in one hand, from the Getty Ms., f. 20.

Although the Founder shows one-handed swordsmanship both on foot and on horse, it is notable that he does not go to pains to show a distinctive arming sword; instead the same “longsword” found throughout the work is shown used in one hand.  In the section for fighting on foot, a single Remedy is presented, a master standing in a low guard, comparable to position of the sword in the scabbard, who is threatened by three combatants, each of who executes a singular attack – a cut, thrust or thrown weapon. With a bit of the braggadocio that often characterizes his verse, dei Liberi advises them, “Go ahead and come on one by one, if you know what you’re doing; even if there were a hundred of you, I’d still mess you all up with this guard, which is so good and strong,” and then proceeds to show how to use a single, rising parry to defeat their play.

Fiore dei Liberi’s likely purpose in the composition of this section was to show how the lessons of close quarter combat he had already taught with the dagger could be applied to a long weapon such as the sword; a weapon whose unique properties he would discuss more at length in the next section of his work. For modern students, however, when combined with the techniques shown for fighting with the sword when a-horse (which themselves appear in other medieval works detailing one-handed sword play), and the Master’s off-hand comment in one of his texts that this is the method for wielding “the sword without the buckler” it also supplies us with a survival of what could be called a “primordial school” of medieval swordsmanship; fundamental techniques for the old, knightly arming sword that had been developing for over a millennium by the time our first-known fencing text was composed, and which persisted throughout Europe because of their basic utility long after discernible “schools” or “traditions” had formed.