Understanding the Florius Manuscript

Understanding the Florius Manuscript

Part One: A Beautiful Mess; the Florius as a Martial Arts Treatise

The Flower of Battle (Flos Duellatorum in Latin or Fior di Battaglia in Italian) of Fiore dei Liberi (c. 1350—before 1425) comes down to us in four manuscripts:

Another Fiore manuscript attested in the Estense library, MS CX, is currently unknown and presumed lost.

Three of the manuscripts internally date themselves to 1409 (1410 modern calendar), and two – Getty and PD – are dedicated to Niccolo d’Este III, Marquis of Ferrara, Parma and Reggio. Discovered earlier this century by Ken Mondschein, the Paris manuscript is newer, likely between 1425 – 1430, and currently lacks a prologue, and thus a dedication. Further, the Paris ends “This is the book of Fiore the Furlan, May God Have Mercy on Him” which tells us that at the time of its creation, Fiore was deceased.

Dating and Authorship

The Paris manuscript is not a copy, but rather should be considered a “posthumous collaboration” between Fiore dei Liberi and the unknown scribe who created it. A number of things point to this:

  • Verses are rewritten, more than “translated” into elegant, Humanist Latin, well-beyond the Latin used by Fiore himself in the Pisani-Dossi prologue;
  • The source material is sometimes changed so considerably (for good and ill), and in a manner so consistent with it originating in the court of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, that we must consider it almost a separate work. By recasting knightly martial arts in refined Latin, it shows the humanistic interrelation of the academic and the practical

BnF MS Lat 11269 is not only a unique and beautiful work of art, but a witness to the birth of an aristocratic humanist idea, a piece of official Estense propaganda, and a direct predecessor to Baldesar Castiglione’s famous statement that “the principal and true profession of the courtier ought to be that of arms.” 

The artistic style, dating and the manuscript’s Humanistic language and flourishes all suggest that it was likely created by and for Leonello d’Este (21 September 1407 – 1 October 1450), third illegitimate son of Niccolo III and Stella de’Tolome and Marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena and Reggio Emilia from 1441 to 1450. Contrary to other prior d’Este family leaders, such as Azzo VII, Niccolo II or Niccolò III, who had a drive for power and control, Leonello is recognized principally for his sponsorship of the arts, literature, and culture.

Leonello surrounded himself with humanist thinkers and writers, including the poets Basinio Basini and Francesco Ariosti; rhetoritician Angelo Decembrio; and Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote a seminal work on architecture. He also commissioned many minor scholars to translate books in the university and castle library into humanist Latin As a martial arts treatise couched in humanist Latin and illustrated with somewhat classical figures, the Paris manuscript fits well into this milieu.

Perhaps even more convincing, Leonello used a leopard as his personal impressa, or emblem. Niccolò III had a taste for giving his offspring non-traditional names drawn from romances, and Leonello, of course, means “little lion,” so the leopard becomes a play on both his name and his illegitimacy: the leopard was itself a “bastard,” believed to be the illegitimate offspring of a lion and the mythical pard. Playing off of this, in the Paris manuscript, the guard “Bastard Cross” becomes True Cross, and True Cross becomes Guard of the Leopard.

So, we have the right dates, the right artistic style, a humanistic literary reworking of a manuscript in the ducal library, the removal of a “bastard” guard and replacement with Leonello’s own badge, and finally, small page adornments of leopards at the end of the manuscript. While not a smoking gun, it makes Leonello the likely patron, or at least recipient, of the project.

A Rough Road Through the Centuries

Whatever loving care was taken to produce this work in the 15th century, the following centuries were not kind. The manuscript was rebound in the 17th century, likely after water-damage destroyed the opening pages, and unfortunately, it was rebound in a haphazard order that was clearly not its original format. Just a few of the many organizational problems that clearly arise from nothing more than haphazard rebinding:

  • The sword instruction is interrupted by a third of the dagger, then begins again.
  • Some of the Third Remedy pages are shoved in before the Third Remedy itself
  • The sword in armour guards appear after the sword in armour plays.

The overall result creates a seemingly haphazard authorship that clearly was not true when the Paris manuscript was created. Sadly, this is not the only problem the work presents to modern readers…

A Broken Pedagogy

As a piece of Humanistic art, meant to elevate the “knightly art” and honor a powerful patron, Florius de Arte Luctandi is a magnificent work; a prime example of the interest of the educated aristocracy to see the arts and sciences of their class — hawking, hunting, riding, fencing and ordering of battle — elevated and enriched to stand beside rhetoric, poetry, music, jurisprudence and so forth. But what about as a practical martial arts work? Do the many, Humanistic flourishes and fine Latin paraphrasing enrich and refine Fiore dei Liberi’s older works?

Sadly, no.

In fact, the manuscript is filled with so many breakdowns in the careful pedagogical paradigm established by dei Liberi, not to mention the actual errors and misunderstandings by the scribe and artists involved in its composition, that one of the only things we can say with almost certainty about is composition is that it almost certainly was not created with oversight by an actual practitioner of the art it represents, nor was it likely ever intended to be used as a practical manual of arms!  As modern practitioners, when we  evaluate  the  work,  we  need  to  keep that second phrase in mind: it likely was never intended to be used.

While that may astound us today, we need to recall that the role of illuminated manuscripts was one part as a “book” and one part an object d’art, something that glorified the patron be its beauty and rarity, not necessarily its contents. It is quite likely that Leonello d’Este received the Florius, paged through it, and gave it to his librarian, never to look at it again.

So how do we know the manuscript is flawed?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Fiore teaches in the other three copies of his book via Four Masters, represented by crowns:


Each Master has students, who wear a gold garter on their knee, whereas Counter and Counter-Counter Masters wear a crown and garter. So to know who wins a given play, just look for the gold garter!

In the Paris manuscript, however, the system is haphazard. Lacking any prologue to explain the intent, we still have crowned Masters, and students in garters — sometimes. Often, the Scholar/student is represented by wearing armour, even when the technique is for unarmoured combat. This would be a perfectly good alternate system, if the artists adhered to it.
Which, of course, they don’t.

Both men in Armour: Who’s the Scholar?

Garters, not armour.

No Armour, No Garter,

No Crown – No Nuthin’

On the other hand, why be limited — crowns and armour!

Hey, I want a crown and armour too!


Errors (Not “Variations,” not “Insights”) in Transmission

Alright, so the pedagogical system of visual cues is broken, and the pages have been rebound wrong, but if we have the other three manuscripts, we can sort that all out, right?

Well, sure, but…remember: it was almost certainly was not created with oversight by an actual practitioner of the art it represents. As much as I would love to say that the only evidence of this is the misunderstanding of when to use crowns, when garters, unfortunately, in reality there are consistent mistakes in the illustrations and text that cannot be reasonably construed as “variant plays” or “insights” by the unknown author (as, for example, can be said about the differing plays in Filippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimianci.) There are well more than a dozen of these transmission errors found throughout the manuscript ((all of which are detailed in Flowers of Battle Volume III: Florius de Arte Luctandi)) as well as some minor ones, but we will look at just a small sampling here.

First Master of the Sword in Two-Hands at Wide Play (Zogho Largo)

Students familiar with the Getty or Pisani-Dossi manuscripts should have looked at the last image I showed above and immediately recognized it as the Master of Close Play (Zogho Stretto). Indeed, it even shares the crowns worn on each Master’s head (a reminder that in close play, what man can do, so too, can the other).

Unfortunately, the creators of the Florius manuscript have intended this image to be that of the First Master of Zogho LARGO, as evidenced by both the text, its appearance as the first longsword Remedy, AND the play that follows, which, indeed, is the conclusion of the first Master.

Here is the First Remedy as he appears in the Getty MS ((The Morgan and PD manuscripts show both figures crowned, as is shown in the Florius — which remains an error in transmission.)). Note the following points:

1. Only one man wears a crown.
2. The Master is crossed left-foot forward, creating an asymmetrical crossing.
3. The figures are crossed in the last third of the blade.

None of these differences are insignificant, and all are necessary to actually be the crossing of the First Remedy. Taking them in reverse order, the First Remedy is *specifically* called out as the crossing at the punta — so it simply cannot occur at the half-sword. Secondly, although Fiore does not in his text demand a left foot forward crossing, he always shows the largo crossings with the left foot forward, and Vadi is explicit on this: when you parry the riverso, keep forward the right foot and parry as said/when parrying the dirrito, then you will let the left foot be forward. ((Vadi, Cap. XI)) Finally, because of this asymmetrical crossing, the combatants do not have parity in the bind. They are not both “Masters,” because only one of them can execute the play that follows.

Taken together these three points show that either the Florius artists misunderstood the important elements of the artwork they were copying, or they were working from an unknown text that was itself in error!

Exchange of Thrusts and Follow-On Grapple (Scambiar di Punta e Prese)

Arguably, the Exchange of Thrusts (Scambiar di Punta) is one of the most important core plays, if not the most important, in the entire art of arms. A powerful counterattack with opposition, it is delivered with the entire body on the step, and is described rather meticulously in the Getty Manuscript.

Fiore further clarifies the play later:

As I have said in the Exchange of Thrusts (the second play before me), you need to perform an accrescimento and a pass off the line. Do the same in this play, except that in the Exchange of Thrusts the arms are low and the point high, as I said before.

Which is what the Getty and Pisani-Dossi manuscripts show. Here is how it appears in the Florius:

Scambiar di Punta in the Florius Ms. Note that the hands are not low, as advised by Fiore, and indeed, the sword isn’t actually binding, nor is the point even on target!

The most cursory look at the artwork reveals three clear problems:

1. The hands are not low and supported by the body, as shown and described in the other texts:

2. Look at the Scholar’s hilt — the blade’s aren’t bound, which is the very definition of a thrust in opposition!

3. The thrust is missing!

It is tempting to want to argue that this just an alternate play or a variation of the Scambiar di Punta, but as that play is a cornerstone of the art, nothing in the text suggests an alternate play, and the follow-on play is precisely the same as follows the Scambiar in the other sources, there is simply no supporting data for such a theory. The more likely theory is that the artist simply drew what he felt he saw — one combatant thrusting another — with no real knowledge of what the core technical points were.

This is even more likely when we see how badly the Florius garbles the follow-on presa, which is also the first play of Zogho Stretto. As shown in the Getty:

This play derives from the Exchange of Thrusts we just saw. Let’s say the student in the play before me didn’t immediately thrust to the opponent’s face, hesitating instead with his point without directing it to the opponent’s face or chest because the latter was in armour. In this case, the student should pass forward with his left foot and perform this grab. Next, he should use his sword to strike, since the opponent’s weapon has been grabbed and cannot be freed.

In the Florius, the caption is so vague as to meaningless, but when the play is repeated in the Zogho Stretto section, all becomes clear — or rather, the author’s confusion becomes clear:

I hold your handle thus, just as we spar,
With my sword’s point I’ll give your face a scar.

I will strike and without anything stopping me, hold your sword hostage, so badly do you handle it. Look, you grab mine, but I keep it, transfixed by which you now die.

Unclear at what he was looking at, the artist has drawn

1. the Scholar’s sword on the wrong side of the opponent’s weapon;
2. the Player grabbing his own blade with his right hand.

And the scribe has the Player (despite the other figure wearing the garter) winning the technique!

While it is tempting to argue that the Florius has shown us a hitherto unknown Counter-Master, that interpretation only works if the Scholar has completely garbled the initial grab (making it a lousy counter, and in between plays the “Counter-Master” has become a lefty! Not sure what the artist is portraying, the scribe has simply created some text. Considering that the play is depicted wrong both times, there is simply no conclusion other than the transmission is garbled. ((For the determined: yes, we tried, in the name of science, to make this play work. Even if the opponent’s sword is as shown, and you quickly let go with the right and slide your left hand up the hilt, it doesn’t work against a non-compliant opponent. And if his blade is in the correct position shown in the other manuscripts, you will run right on to his point.))

Miscellaneous Examples

While the above are some of the most egregious errors and can send new students down blind allies, there are a number of other errors that are more easily spotted:

Sixth Remedy of Dagger

Getty Ms: A direct cover with the edge of blade into the attacker’s wrist, so that his blade is hooked over the top of the Master’s, causing a bind.

Florius: The dagger is on the wrong side of the attacking blade! Besides making the follow-on plays impossible (perhaps why Florius doesn’t show them?) it is also an excellent way to get one’s self killed.

Tor di Spada la Soprana

Getty Ms: This is the high disarm. I push forward with the handle, while squeezing his arms with the left hand until he abandons his weapon. Then, I can give him a good dose of strikes. The student after me shows the opponent’s sword on the ground.

Florius: This may be the biggest “blooper” in the entire manuscript — the Scholar’s sword hilt and left arm are both on the wrong side of the Player’s weapon, making the play mechanically impossible. Ironically, the left foot, which is on the Player’s outside, gives an advantage of leverage for the disarm, albeit not enough to make up for the other problems.

These errors in transmission, as well as a number of others woven through the manuscript, combined with the fact that this is a posthumous work that emphasizes formal, academic Humanistic qualities at the expense of the plain-spoken clarity characterizing its siblings, whether Leonello d’Este was its patron or not, the intention of Florius de Arte Luctandi  might have been
 a ‘memorial’ to the ars martialis, but it was never intended as a practical, instructional treatise. The work is a new artistic work, derived from an older, more practical template. But what was that source?

We will examine possible answers and clear connections, both to the surviving Flowers of Battle texts by Fiore dei Liberi, and at least one, surviving, German “Blumes des Kampfs” manuscript, in part two.