Alphabet - Of 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.