- Freestyle fencing with the historical arsenal
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In addition, for those who want to pursue Western martial arts, below is an overview contributed by Parke about the books made available through Chivalry Bookshelf Press.
Western Martial Arts Books Overview - Parke
Western martial arts have been exploding in popularity since the mid-1990s. Every year, more historical fighting manuscripts come to the attention of martial artists and new translation projects are begun. This is an exciting time for the field as new discoveries are being made all the time and the Internet has helped to create a global community of like-minded individuals.
Below is a beginner’s guide to some of their books. It’s a beginner’s guide in both the sense that it is written for people trying to figure out where to start and the sense that it’s written by a beginner (with all the caveats that implies). So this should be read as a guide about what the authors’ want to accomplish and how clearly they do it, not a vouching of the accuracy of their interpretations of historical materials.
Two points need to be made about all the books. First, they all solely address one-on-one combat. Second, there is a significant bonus: most of the authors are active on Sword Forum International’s Historical European Swordsmanship forum and are generous about answering questions. (Just be sure to use the search feature to check whether your question has already been answered. Some questions keeping coming up over and over.)
The most popular weapon among students of historical European martial arts is the longsword, even though numerically speaking, it seems to have been a small percentage of weapons used on the battlefield. This sword was primarily used with both hands but could be used one-handed, leading to its other names: the hand-and-a-half sword and because it did not fit neatly in the categories of either one- or two-handed swords, the bastard sword. It was only used by knights once plate armor developed to the point that carrying a shield was no longer necessary. A number of historical treatises discuss using a longsword with and without armor.
Its modern popularity stems from the weapon’s romanticism and its versatility. It gets plenty of screen time in fantasy and medieval movies. ARMA and other groups teach the longsword as a foundational weapon as it incorporates so many of the fundamental principles of attack and defense.
Modern martial artists have focused on reconstructing two traditions in which longswords played a prominent part, the German tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer and the Italian tradition of Fiore de' Liberi. These traditions, despite using the same kind of weapon, had different philosophies, different techniques, and, what’s tough on beginners, different vocabularies.
At the risk of being a little crude, the German tradition was based on the recognition that there was no way to hold a longsword that perfectly defended from all kinds of attacks. Therefore, it is important to attack your opponent’s weak spots before he attacks yours. The focus is on attacking when you have the initiative and getting it back when you lose it (which in practical terms means that each defensive maneuver includes counterattacks).
Also, the German tradition elaborated numerous techniques for what to do when your sword is in contact with your opponent’s sword (binding). The techniques, called windings, protect you from your opponent while putting you in position to attack like pushing your opponent’s tip aside while lining up your own tip for a thrust to the face or chest. The German tradition also emphasized a handful of master cuts to be used to break opponent’s guards. (Guards, also called wards or in Italian, posta, are set ways of positioning your body and weapon, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Holding the sword over your head, for example, allows you to quickly cut downwards but can be tiring and exposes your arms to attack.)
While the German tradition emphasizes the initiative, the Italian tradition is more subtle in its principles. It is difficult to pin down. Sometimes it is characterized as defensive but leading interpreters have said that this is a drastic oversimplification and that it is possible to be quite aggressive in the Italian style. Perhaps one way to put the difference is that the Liechtenauer tradition focuses on how to attack a person standing in a guard while the Fiore is much more patient to wait to attack when the person is vulnerable as they are shifting between guards.) Probably the safest way to distinguish between the German and Italian approaches is to an accumulation of many slight differences more than any clear cut division.
Although these approaches might differ, modern students often keep themselves abreast of both traditions. A number of people develop an eclectic style that borrows from both. (And there is some evidence that the traditions at least minimally influenced each other.) Fortunately, the starting points for someone wishing to begin studying each tradition is fairly obvious.
Christian Henry Tobler has written two well-received books on the German tradition. The better one for beginners is the second one, Fighting with the German Longsword. Drawing on a range of historical texts, it is a step by step guide, complete with solo and paired drills, to train properly for the footwork, the grip, the primary and secondary guards, the basic cuts, the master cuts — a chapter on each of the five — and grappling. Of all the books currently available on the longsword, this has the most coherent training system. Its one drawback is that while the book shows front and side views of many of the actions, the sequences of photographs could have had more photographs taken from the middle of the techniques (but then, so could almost every other martial arts book). The bulk of this book is devoted to the longsword in unarmored combat. It also has chapters on armored combat with both the longsword as well as the spear. (As plate armor renders cuts ineffective, the emphasis shifts towards thrusts into vulnerable parts of the armor.)
Johannes Liechtenauer only codified ideas about combat in the form of short, cryptic verses that by themselves are all but incomprehensible. Subsequent masters of arms wrote commentaries that explained the meaning of the Liechtenauer’s ideas and added some of their own. The one that has received the most attention is by Sigmund Ringeck.
Tobler’s first book, Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, is a translation and interpretation of a Ringeck text. The book covers the longsword, sword and buckler, wrestling and equestrian combat. Except for some minor organizational shuffling, the book follows Ringeck closely, meaning that its pedagogy is more geared towards the medieval mind than the modern. This makes it less obvious how to train with it, which is the benefit of the second book.
Because Western martial arts are rapidly evolving, Tobler’s interpretations have changed from the first book to the second. A list of changes in the first book can be found at http://www.selohaar.org/fechtschule/changes.htm.
The books are physically quite different. Fighting with the German Longsword is a trade paperback. Secrets is a gorgeous oversized hardbound book. If you were to get just one, Fighting with the German Longsword is the better choice for a beginner, but if you’re really interested in this, you’ll likely eventually own both.
A different interpretation of Ringeck can be found in David Lindholm and Peter Svärd’s Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Art of the Longsword, which is published by Paladin Press. This good-looking hardback has a nice feature: beneath every line drawing is another drawing showing where the feet are and how they move during a technique.
The main beginner’s book on the Italian tradition is Guy Windsor’s The Swordsman's Companion. The book has numerous descriptions that would be of interest to even those not studying the Italian tradition. It describes sword-fighting principles, first at length and then reduced down to a one page appendix. Windsor has a knack for clarifying through categorization (e.g., the nine footwork options, the six types of sparring opponents). Especially helpful for those with no prior experience in martial arts, there are two appendices outlining a warm-up session and a training program.
Like Tobler’s Fighting book, it contains solo and paired drills and an initial discussion on equipment. It also includes an analysis of how the seals (“signo”) of the Italian masters symbolize their principles through different animals — sounds strange but it is quite interesting — and a chapter on unarmed drills. The parts on specific plays, however, could really use a glossary as there are a lot of Italian terms. (Glossaries can be found online, however, and there are always Post-Its.)
Windsor’s book feels very different from Fighting with the German Longsword. It feels more like a training program to use the longsword against all kinds of attacks and defenses instead of a tightly focused plan to destroy someone (like the German approach). This makes the book feel more diffuse but potentially more dynamic. (Not everyone would agree with that comment, however.)
The translation of Filippo Vadi’s fifteenth century Arte Gladiatoria is a more advanced book. While it is historical treatises like this that make medieval and renaissance martial arts possible, they do not offer much guidance for beginners as it is not necessarily clear how to translate the color plates and their brief descriptions to effective techniques. But again, if you stick with the Italian tradition, you’ll likely want to get it eventually.
Sword and Buckler
To those grown up on Hollywood movies and the “tower” shields of fantasy and roleplaying, the buckler, a little round shield sometimes not much bigger than a Frisbee, looks underwhelming. But this modest shield, when coupled with a one-handed sword, balanced deadliness and convenience, which made it popular in historical times. As Stephen Hand and Paul Wagner argue in an essay in Spada, the modest buckler provided enough cover of the obvious lines of attack (mainly to the hands) to allow you to close in with your opponent and deliver lethal blows. (And some bucklers had a spike mounted on them, making them dangerous offensive weapons.)
The oldest recovered medieval fighting manuscript — the Royal Manuscript I.33 — is exclusively for unarmored sword and buckler combat. The two main books for studying it are The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship by Jeffrey Forgeng, which includes the color prints of I.33 and a translation of the accompanying text, and Medieval Sword and Shield by Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand, which is an interpretation of the manuscript.
The book by Wagner and Hand is a model of clarity for martial arts books. It lays out the underlying principles and their application with pictures that show not only what an attacker wants to happen but how to defend against it. The I.33 manuscript is German and shares the emphasis on initiative. (And recall that Tobler’s Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship also had a section of the sword and buckler.)
Round shield and sword
The larger shields popular in film and epic fantasy were falling out of favor just as men began working writing sword manuals, leaving us with no known account of how to use them. Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand — the I.33 guys — figured out a way to reconstruct the use of round shields by using German master Hans Talhoffer’s advice on shields for judicial duels. This article can be found in Spada.
Hungarian cavalry sabre
Spada also contains an article on the all-but-forgotten Hungarian cavalry sabre. If your idea of what a curved sword can do comes from the katana, this article will be a pleasant surprise. The Hungarian sabre has a false edge near the tip — that is, near the tip it is sharpened on both sides and not just the main cutting edge. This allows techniques like a grappling move in which you swing your sword back over your sword as you grab your opponent’s hands (raised over his head for a downward strike). The curve of the sabre allows the blade to go behind your back and have the tip curve around to hit your opponent at waist level.
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