“I am the sword and I am lethal against any weapon; lances, axes and dagger are worthless against me. I can become extended or withdrawn; when I get near the opponent I can enter into close play, perform disarms and abrazare. My art is to turn and to bind; I am expert in defense and offense, and always strive to finish in those. Come against me and feel the pain. I am Royal, enforce justice, propagate goodness and destroy evil. Look at me as a cross, and I will give you fame and a name in the art of arms.” –Il Fior di Battaglia, folio 25r, Fiore dei Liberi, 1410 (tr. Tom Leoni)
Fiore dei Liberi’s il Fior di Battaglia, a medieval martial arts manuscript dated to 1410 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum and catalogued as MS Ludwig XV 13, uses an innovative instructional design to teach the techniques and principles of L’Arte dell’Armizare (the Art of Arms). Among the features of this system is the organization of longsword guards (positions from which the fighter attacks, defends or counterattacks) into three classifications: Stabile, Pulsativa, and Instabile, or stable, striking, and mutable. Knowing the play of these three classifications of guards is an essential part of understanding Fiore’s strategy and tactics in the fight – in other words, the actual application of martial technique against an antagonistic opponent.
In order to better describe how the three types of guards are used strategically and tactically, I’ll first outline the pedagogical model of the manuscript, and then briefly outline the core elements of longsword play as taught by Fiore’s 24 First Masters on folios 22r through 24v. These masters teach lessons both specific to the sword and general to all weapons. For example, the four masters who teach the cuts and thrusts teach them for sword, axe and spear, but not for dagger, which are taught separately. Conversely, the First Masters of the armoured and mounted combat sections have lessons applicable to the sword, whether used single-handed or with both hands. The focus of this article is on the play of the longsword, but since the manuscript teaches an interconnected system, I will draw from its entirety.