Top Myths of Renaissance Martial Arts
July 25, 2013 5:24 AM   Subscribe

The diverse range of misconceptions and erroneous beliefs within historical fencing studies today is considerable. But there are perhaps some myths that are more common, and more pervasive, than others. This webpage presents an ongoing project that will continually try in an informal and condensed manner to help address some of these mistaken beliefs.
posted by cthuljew (39 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Disappointed about lack of Ninja Turtles references.

This exhaustive essay besides that.
posted by dismas at 5:30 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do wish someone with more knowledge than me (like anyone), could provide a thoughtful critique of this page. Perhaps Neal Stephenson will finally join?
posted by leotrotsky at 5:55 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Artw at 5:58 AM on July 25, 2013

37. Japanese katanas are the ultimate swords in the universe because they routinely cut completely through Volkswagens and employ secret powers of "Ki".

False. ...And if you believe otherwise, nothing will likely convince you.

Maybe not, but they can cut through a Volkswagon's weight in meat. *NSFL*
posted by orme at 6:15 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Finally, I can sleep.
posted by davebush at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

[this is good]
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:27 AM on July 25, 2013

There's a lot of good info there, but it's buried under an oppressive weight of defensiveness.
posted by fatbird at 6:32 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

buried under an oppressive weight of defensiveness

I'm reading these in the voice of Dwight Schrute.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:37 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just another reminder that the purpose of a sword fight is to not make the sword make little ping sounds, it's to stab the person to death or cut off a few fingers. They where usually pretty short and like boxing, required a lot more footwork then you'd think.
posted by The Whelk at 6:52 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've lately been enjoying watching videos of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in action. For those who are interested, here are some samples of what the article is talking about:

Longsword sparring

Rapier vs longsword

Techniques for fighting in armor
posted by tdismukes at 6:57 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Why not read some primary sources for yourself? Here are some in no very great order:

Fiore dei Liberi - Flos Duellatorum and Fior di Battaglia (two versions of the [more or less] same material, both untranslated [but beautifully illustrated] Italian; two other versions exist but are not as complete.) Here is a translation of the Flos Duellatorum. A translation of the Fior di Battaglia can be purchased here (and if you are interested in medieval and renaissance martial arts, there is no better publisher going).

Filippo Vadi - De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, a clear descendent of Fiore. (English trans. on top of the original [beautiful] plates. Untranslated PDF may be found here.)

Antonio Manciolino - Opera Nova (English trans., incomplete, I think? I have the more professionally done translation available here, from the same person who did the Fior di Battaglia trans. above)

Giacomo di Grassi - True Arte of Defense (English trans.)

Angelo Viggiani - Lo Schermo (English trans. of pt. III)

George Silver - Paradoxes of Defense and Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defense (English)

That ought to get you started.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:02 AM on July 25, 2013 [17 favorites]

Foci for Analysis: "I'm reading these in the voice of Dwight Schrute ."

Determined. Worker. Intense. Good worker. Hard Worker. Terrific.

posted by Chrysostom at 7:11 AM on July 25, 2013

18. Some swords could cut through plate armor.

False. Although maile armor ("chain mail") was not foolproof against strong sword cuts, a fighter in full plate armor was however effectively immune to the edged blows of swords.

Unless he came up against a black belt ninja-samurai with a katana!
posted by ian1977 at 7:16 AM on July 25, 2013

They where usually pretty short and like boxing, required a lot more footwork then you'd think.

So "running away" really was a recognized renaissance tactic?
posted by notyou at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

8. Swords were not primary weapons during the Middle Ages.


Well, this is baloney. Spears and axes were more effective and easier to master, and loads cheaper to produce in quantities required to outfit an army. Never underestimate the power of peasants with pointy sticks.

Even among professional men-at-arms, it depended on where and when - the English loved the billhook, and were butchering knights and pikemen with it right up to Flodden Field.

For the nobility and well-paid household soldiery, yeah, they were all into swords when fighting dismounted. They'd still die when the phalanx came for them.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Swords were... false. But, as I was FALSE. But, FALSE FALSE FALSE FALSE!
posted by blue_beetle at 7:38 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Slap*Happy: "Well, this is baloney. "

What's amazing here is the very next sentence in the ARMA page: "Swords were neither cheap nor easy to make and took considerably more training to wield effectively than did simple axes, spears, and club-like weapons." (note agreement with your thesis) And it goes on like that for two paragraphs.

"Primary" in the sense of a combatant chiefly using one in a fight before relying on other weapons, and not in the sense of "army weaponry consists mostly of".
posted by boo_radley at 7:43 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

They missed the most important point: how does "Renaissance martial arts" turn into "MARE for short"?
posted by goatdog at 7:50 AM on July 25, 2013

Yeah, they glossed over that, but I think MARE stands for "Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe". For what it's worth, I have never seen that acronym outside of this article.

Re: sword as "primary weapon": Fiore says of the longsword, "I am the sword and I am lethal against any weapon; the spear, the axe and the dagger are worthless against me." (trans. Leoni). It's worth noting that one of the primary uses of these arts was the judicial duel, although Fiore (and, later, Silver) in particular keeps an eye towards battlefield applications.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:55 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I asked this question many years ago and got a very interesting discussion on the quality of steel available and the effect that had, including a lot of detail on metallurgy.

Short version: contrary to the FAQ, the general run of steel in Europe was crap and the average weapon, including swords, suffered accordingly.

That said, I did a course in western swordfighting at Academie Duello in Vancouver, and it tended to back up much of what was said here: Swords were light and easily wielded, even in armor; footwork was incredibly important; and you didn't act like you had a light sabre, slashing off limbs--instead, you worked your opponent's vulnerabilities.
posted by fatbird at 8:20 AM on July 25, 2013

I did a course in western swordfighting at Academie Duello in Vancouver

Devon Boorman is a fantastic teacher and an all-around great guy. He makes a lot of training videos available for free at, and for $10 a month you can get access to all of them, which is a ton.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:30 AM on July 25, 2013

What, no love for I.33, the earliest known medieval martial arts manual? Sword and buckler is the coolest! It's got both sword fighting monks and sword fighting women.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sword and buckler is pretty great, though I prefer the Bolognese tradition. If you really want to go hog wild on I.33, dig deep into your wallet.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:24 AM on July 25, 2013

I prefer the Bolognese tradition

Sausage fight?
posted by yoink at 9:44 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lebanon Bologna is my weapon of choice.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2013

The diverse range of misconceptions and erroneous beliefs within historical fencing studies today is considerable.

So true. I, for example, had an entirely different sort of fencing in mind, and was sadly disappointed.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:54 AM on July 25, 2013

Doth protest, over-much?
posted by clvrmnky at 11:20 AM on July 25, 2013

Interesting to see this so soon after the Steve Ditko post. This guy could teach Ditko a thing or two.

Don't fear the reader, my friend.

There's a generosity of spirit that you find in the best informative writing, be it Burke's Connections, Sagan's Cosmos, Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, or Asimov's many many such works. An evident interest in sharing the fun of being well-informed on a favourite topic, as well as the knowledge itself. That spirit seems entirely lacking here, which makes for some heavy going.

Most readers would rather be persuaded by your facts and arguments and let their understand evolve in private than be dope-slapped by the author in public.

I read the entire article out of respect for the process here, but this is the sort of writing that make me think, "That looks like an interesting topic, I think I'll go look for an interesting author who covers it."

Oh yeah, I did learn a couple things I didn't know before, but only because I slogged through the entire article. Thanks.
posted by Herodios at 12:52 PM on July 25, 2013

Wow, so I don't even know where to start. I am a HEMA player, and I've been putting together the links for a FPP about Western Martial Arts. Which I guess I will still do, because the article linked is by a very controversial figure in the historical swordsmanship community. ARMA is not particularly well-regarded, and the techniques that Mr. Clements uses and teaches are not well-thought of by other scholars in the field or fencers. For example, he will defend to the death an interpretation of period manuals that has the fencer trying to parry with the flat of the blade -- a method that entirely sacrifices the protection of hands with the crossguard. The video that he posted in defense of this technique shows no actual fencing, just directed cuts to various ares of his body. Oh, and no safety equipment. With steel. Granted, blunted steel, but one can break bones, collapse tracheae, and do grievous head injuries with a blunted steel sword.

And he's really, really not "The worlds foremost practitioner of authentic Chivalric Arts of Defense". I promise.

I guess look for my first FPP sometime early next week. :)
posted by Concolora at 12:52 PM on July 25, 2013 [10 favorites]

I didn't even know Dwight Shrute had a blog.
posted by w0mbat at 1:11 PM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

If only words were the primary weapon....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:14 PM on July 25, 2013

They ARE sharper than knives. Makes me wonder how the other half dies.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:17 PM on July 25, 2013

Long sword and short sword was the preferred style among the real fighters at the game I played. Until a couple of us found one of those old Italian manuals-of-arms on the Internet. That's when I and and a handful of others switched to short sword and one handed spear. It was so effective that combination had to be disallowed by rule.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:42 PM on July 25, 2013

Swift as a deer. Quiet as shadow. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Quick as a snake. Calm as still water. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Strong as a bear. Fierce as a wolverine. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Then man who fears losing has already lost.

There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: "not today".
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:27 PM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

That's when I and and a handful of others switched to short sword and one handed spear. the same time? Which old Italian manual teaches that?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 3:35 PM on July 25, 2013

Steely-eyed Missile Man: “ the same time? Which old Italian manual teaches that?”
Yes, short-spear in the off-hand, short-sword in the main. For sizes we bastardized what we found in Silver's Paradoxes of Defense. The spear was the shorter of from the ground to the armpit or the maximum allowable length by the rules. The sword was whatever length could be drawn inside the guard of your spear.

Sadly, I think I lost my bookmark for the illustrations we used several computers ago. After several hours of fruitless searching—including looking at almost everything on the ARMA Historical Fencing Manual page and the Wiktenauer manual page—I can't find the manual we found. Although it's been more then a decade, I can still picture the illustration showing a man armed with a spear in his left hand and a short sword in his right, along with several techniques for defeating sword and board, sword and dagger, and sword and short-sword. The style I recall most closely matches this 15th century German wrestling manual, so perhaps the plates I'm thinking of are from a German rather than Italian manual.

I did find the article "The Spear, the King of Weapons" [PDF] by Mathieu Ravignat, but it doesn't have a spear and short-sword section. The techniques most similar to the ones we used are the spear off-hand and dagger main-hand from dei Liberi shown in this article.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:31 PM on July 25, 2013

Short version: contrary to the FAQ, the general run of steel in Europe was crap and the average weapon, including swords, suffered accordingly.

Surprise: So was, in general japanese and chinese steels of the era. All suffered from massive inconsistency. All were fundamentally blister/cementation steels -- where wrought iron and charcoal would be layered atop each other into a large pile and then fired, often with air forced in to raise the heat. This would force carbon into the surface of the iron, creating a layer of steels. The steel would be scraped off and then forged. Later versions were able to transform the entire iron bar into the same steel, but again, it was vastly inconsistent.

The art of the swordsmith was going through lots of these bits of steel and finding the bits with the right qualities to be forged into the weapon needed. There were stellar smiths in both Europe and Japan, and there were a lot of crappy smiths in both areas as well.

Don't assume by the current population what the average quality was. Fine Japanese swords were carefully preserved, so we have a large population of cherry-picked top quality specimens, and they are, by and large, amazingly good steels. In Europe, we have large armories preserved, so you see a much wider -- and much more representative -- sample of the product.

While the Persians had come up with something somewhat close to crucible steel, it wasn't until the combination of puddling (which gave you much purer iron) and crucibles, which allowed you to actually melt steel, then directly alter the alloy that consistent steels became possible, and instead of having to search through dozens of blooms to find the few bits of steel of the right hardness, you could order steel anywhere from soft-and-tough to hard-and-brittle. The first built your lathe, the latter was the cutting bit, and so ran the Industrial Revolution -- though it took Henry Bessemer to replace consistent but expensive crucible steel with consistent and vastly cheaper steel poured in tons from the Bessemer Converter.

As to swords. Most modern steels are lousy sword steels. Why? Because they're not made to be sword steels! But there are plenty of modern steels that are superb for the purpose, either alone or stacked.

As to the stacking and folding? That wasn't there for strength, or originally there for beauty (though the Japanese and Damascene smiths certainly took advantage of it for appearance.) It was there to beat the slag out of the steel, some left from the wrought iron, and some introduced in making the steel. That slag needed to be beaten out of the sword, or it would create a weak point. Hammering thin and folding was the easiest way to do this.

Aside: Wrought iron basically does not exist anymore -- anything calling itself such is really just a mild steel. About the only time it'll be made is when something historical needs repair and they really want to match the original wrought iron. Otherwise, mild steel is better in every single way for an application that needs wrought iron. Note: That doesn't apply to cast iron, which has very different properties and is still quite common today.
posted by eriko at 9:12 AM on July 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

Concolora - I'm looking forward to seeing your FPP!
posted by tdismukes at 6:53 AM on July 27, 2013

Me too.
posted by homunculus at 1:10 PM on July 28, 2013

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