What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part V: Learning the Art

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The sword masters of the early-modern period agree that one must learn the sword by doing and, indeed, this is a precept of many modern WMA groups–reading the fight manuals and seeing their illustrations is one thing, but one cannot truly understand the art and craft of the sword (or any other aspect of medieval/Renaissance hand-to-hand combat) without actually experiencing it, working through the techniques described.

With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that most training in swordplay occurred by direct instruction. The farther we go back in history, the harder it is to determine exactly what that looked like, but we can make some safe assumptions. During most of the medieval period, training in arms was a part of a young nobleman’s education, and it was expected that those who had charge over him, whether he was raised by his own family or placed in the household of another noble house, would provide for such. This likely started as an informal affair and became more formalized during a young man’s time as a squire while that system was in use.

While a few of the fighting manuals show grappling techniques, many do not, and those that do tend to show more advanced techniques of traps, breaks, locks and such. I can’t remember a manual that demonstrates how to throw a punch or how to kick someone. As is the usual assumption when the specifics of a skill are not described when the skill is mentioned in an instructional manual, the common belief is that those people writing the fight manuals took for granted that a person looking to undertake instruction armed combat understood the fundamentals of unarmed combat. We might say something along the lines of, “those young men who didn’t learn how to defend themselves with fists and feet during their childhood lack the constitution and mental preparation necessary to learn the sword.”

From the grappling techniques recorded in fighting manuals, the medievals and their Renaissance successors had a relatively comprehensive grasp of unarmed fighting, retaining some techniques that descended from Roman practice and perhaps even from Greek Pankration as well as formulating techniques specific to the weapons of their own day. As I said before, to a certain extent (and most so with unarmed fighting), the capabilities of the human body and body mechanics being what they are, and people being of generally the same amount of intelligence and insight across geographies and times, unarmed fighting is unarmed fighting, regardless of what little stylistic spins you put on it.

As we also discussed earlier, in the medieval period, both because of the cost of equipment and the nobility’s concerns about peasant revolt, formal training in the sword and those weapons preferred by the nobility were probably restricted to the nobility. But the later the period, the more widespread the availability of swords.

By the 16th century, at least, swords were available and affordable enough that those of the burgeoning middle class could afford them. As mentioned in Part II, owning a sword, and carrying it if you could get away with it, were social signifiers as much as practical, defensive goals.

We have papers and statues affecting the London guild of masters of arms from the 1530’s, and a number of woodcuts from the same century depicting the fechtchules, where those who could pay the dues and commit to the rules of membership could study the arts of war under an acknowledged master. These woodcuts display training in the longsword and quarterstaff, in the grosse messer (the “big knife” single-handed sword; the kriegsmesser or “war knife” is the two-handed variant, of German usage), and to a lesser extent, in other weapons.

Generally, students accepted to a fight school where called “scholars.” After studying for a time and proving adeptness in  the foundational skills, they could progress to “free scholars” and then to “provosts.”

Doing so required “playing the prize,” a public demonstration of skill through sparring matches with other members of the school as well as (potentially) the school’s master and even potentially visiting masters (though this was usually reserved for someone seeking the title of master himself–according to Parisian law of the period, he would need at least three other masters to certify his skill with multiple weapons).

A raised platform for visibility was an expectation for the event, and the person playing his prize might be expected to provide beer or other drink for his schoolmates (for the afterparty, I guess), so we are again returned to the linkage of social status (or at least wealth) with attendance at these schools.

Bear in mind that, in England at least, “foyning” (thrusting) was made illegal (I’ll pick this up in the next post) in 1534. Sparring was conducted with bated (i.e. blunted) steel; some amount of injury was expected. The crowds, though, were also used to executions as a form of public entertainment (ultraviolent films had not yet been produced, after all), and it seems that there was a ready audience who wanted to see the blood flow. Remember that armed fights are usually over very quickly, and if the exhibition, as it was intended to be, consisted of controlled action emphasizing finding the opening with discipline and technique enough to pull the strike when it was clear that it would have connected, then there was room to add more blood to the show.

I don’t have the documentary evidence to back this up, but I’ve heard more than one historian say that (an as a folk etymology it makes sense) the organizers of such exhibitions arranged for pugilism to warm up the audience–unarmed fighting lasting longer and being a bit bloodier when conducted with bare or lightly-padded fists and actual intent. Over time, the pugilism aspect became more and more of the focus, hence our modern reference to boxing as “prizefighting.” Remember, the scholars, free scholars and provosts were “playing the prize.”

The 16th century also saw the burgeoning field of science applied to the sword, particularly math and geometry. Indeed, Mercutio describes Tybalt (in Romeo and Juliet) as “More than prince of cats, I can tell you. O, he is the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance and proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk button, a duelist, a duelist; a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado! The punto reverso! The hai!” (Act 2, Scene 4). It was in particular the Spanish who made comparisons (in the rapier fight) with dancing–the importance of precision of time and distance, with careful footwork. For more information on this aspect of the science of arms, see Sydney Anglo’s book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, which includes both frontispieces showing the fencing master/author as mathematician and scientist (bearing compass and other tools of the trade) and images parodying the overuse of mathematical principles as the major focus of fencing instruction (there is one in particular of a dwarf farting, with the wind from his buttocks parsed out into geometrical diagram).

I want to emphasize, again, that despite the prevalence of the written fight manuals in this period, the bulk of real instruction took place through personal relationships, whether or not commercialized. The richest employed private instructors, while the middle class sought the public instruction available through the guilds and schools run by masters of defense. Without a practice partner and the opportunity to work through precise (and sometimes complex and counter-intuitive) maneuvers, it is difficult to do more than properly practice stances, movement between them, basic cutting technique and blocking technique when working solo.

Let’s conclude this part by bringing it to the writer’s craft and the gamer’s table. If you have a martially-skilled character, how did he learn, and how did that affect him. Was his teacher patient or demanding? Was his instruction in solitary practice between single student and instructor, or as part of a group whether in military drill (which, as we have mentioned, would have focused more on formation and movement than the techniques of individual combat) or fight school. In a group, what were the rivalries, tough lessons and embarrassments, not to mention successes, that shape how the character thinks about fighting now?

For the D&D (and other fantasy game) players, what about a fighter whose purpose in adventuring is not the righting of wrongs or the accumulation of wealth, but the gathering of practical fighting experience in multiple weapons to undergird his dream of establishing a fight school? Unfortunately, D&D’s approach to weapons is almost entirely gamist, without much in the way to distinguish when a dagger is a better weapon than a halberd, or that its the skill of the arm much more often than the weapon itself that causes the grievous injury, but I digress.

On that note, think about what the experienced swordsman actually thinks about fighting. The assumption in D&D and its many sister games is that the fighter is expected to jump into the fight, to push the party into combat encounters. But the person who knows how fragile life is in hand-to-hand combat, that even the lucky unskilled peasant can kill a well-trained knight, probably doesn’t rush to fight when there are alternatives. And almost certainly avoids doing so fairly when he has the option of seeking advantage. Yes, there will be some for whom ideology overtakes all practical concerns, but that should be far from the norm (and when it is, it’s all the more believable when it does occur).

For the next post in the series, click here.


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