A medieval arming sword (ie a military sword) was held in a fist-like grip with the hand flush against the crossguard, the knuckles parallel with the blade’s edges and facing downwards; that way, the blade was aligned edges up and down with respect to the ground, rather than the flat of the blade being aligned with the ground. This orientation had a direct bearing on parries; an edge up and down orientated hold favoured a parry with the flat of the blade rather than an edge parry. Edge parries severely damaged the blade.
The sword’s grip was not held so tightly that the swordsman’s hand and wrist were effectively locked and inflexible as that tired the arm very quickly and made fighting difficult. But if it was held too loosely, the swordsman was unable to manipulate the weapon with ease and could be readily disarmed merely by a hard strike on the blade by his opponent. The grip was held lightly enough to allow both the index finger and the little finger to be released (medieval illustrations show this); in effect, the grip was held by three fingers with the thumb closed round it. There is evidence to indicate that swords of the Middle Ages were manipulated to some extent with the fingers, rather than by the wrist or the whole arm; for example, a finger was placed over the crossguard from around the fourteenth century if not earlier. To use the fingers and wrist when delivering a cut, the hold on the weapon had to be light enough to allow the fingers to tighten at the right moment and the wrist to flex. This also helped to diminish the effect of hand shock; to minimise hand shock, the strike had to be at a point along the blade called the centre of percussion at which all forces were balanced – similar to the ideal strike point with a tennis racket. The hold also had to be tightened when parrying. Thus, the hold was firm but flexible, loosened and tightened according to circumstances.
BELOW From the Talhoffer's Fechtbuch, 1467
BELOW RIGHT South German longsword c. 1540–80. The blade is 107 cm. The sword weighs 1.59 kg (Wallace Collection, London)
The lead hand acted differently on the grip from the second hand so that the weapon could be manipulated with considerable speed and dexterity. The lead hand directed the sword in the vertical plane, while the second hand directed it in the horizontal plane. The lead hand pushed, while the second hand pulled. The lead hand led the strike while the second hand provided power to it. The second hand could be almost released to allow the hand to pivot the blade by pressing the pommel with the palm.
Essentially, there were two ways of playing the longsword: one suited to fighting in a full harness of plate armour against a similarly armoured opponent; the other suited to fighting without armour. When an opponent wore no armour, his whole body from top to toe was a target, whereas when he was armoured, the gaps between the plates of the harness were the focus of attack. Whereas a strike against an armoured man might knock him down, it was unlikely to cut through the plate without enough force behind the blow. A thrust in the right place could penetrate it. That all depended on the quality and form of the armour. A ‘target’ was any spot on the body that, when struck, would be significantly damaged or result in almost immediate death. Thus, unarmoured play was cut and thrust, while armoured play was focused more on the thrust. The object of all strikes was to incapacitate or kill.
Until about the end of the sixteenth century, the stance taken up a swordsman prior to engaging in combat had little to do with defence in the sense of closing a line of attack to an opponent. While these postures are often referred to as ‘guards’, few of them actually guarded the swordsman from an attack in any given line in the way that guards of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did. Rather, they were ready positions from which to launch attacks. Here, ‘line’ refers to the quarters into which the body is divided in terms of attack and defence; they are not actually ‘lines’. Thus, there are two high lines (inside and outside as defined by the position of the sword in relation to the body) and two low lines (similarly, inside and outside). Such terminology would have been quite alien to a medieval swordsman, however. In England, at least, he would have talked about ‘wards’ for both guards and parries and the concept of lines was not devised until sixteenth-century rapier play.
The longsword existed in two forms. The earlier of the two was derived from bigger versions of the medieval single-handed sword and had a blade with parallel edges. Its blade was wider and a little heavier than the later version which had a narrower blade which tapered for a good part of its length to a sharp point. Powerful cuts predominated with the bigger bladed weapon, whereas the sword with the more pronounced point was better designed for thrusting into the gaps between armour and visor slits. Nevertheless, the techniques for both types of longsword were essentially the same although styles varied from region to region; no universal style of swordsmanship existed for any type of weapon until the advent of the modern sport of fencing in the nineteenth century.
(Royal Armouries – http://www.pinterest.com/source/collections.royalarmouries.org/)
They were distinct and different from each other although the positioning of the feet was similar, almost always with both legs bent. The reason for having flexed knees is just as valid today in sport fencing as it was in sword combat of the past. With flexed knees, the swordsman is not rooted to the spot. Moreover, the guards required the feet to be placed some distance apart, one in front of the other which in itself forced the swordsman to flex at least one of his knees. This sort of stance lowered the centre of gravity of the swordsman, improved his balance and increased his flexibility of movement. No swordsman can move quickly if he has straight legs. The weight is not usually evenly distributed but placed either over the rear foot or the front one.
Ochs was a high guard. The hilt of the sword was held just in front of and just above the temple, the blade extending horizontally, the edge angled slightly, the point threatening an opponent’s face. The sword could be held on either side of the head but without altering the position of the lead hand; this meant that when it was held in an outside position, the arms crossed at the wrists. From Ochs the swordsman could thrust, cut down diagonally or cut upwards from below. Each action required the swordsman to move his feet and turn his body. Swordsmen did not necessarily move along the imaginary straight line of modern sport fencing but would circle and move diagonally.
From Pflug, the swordsman passed forwards (or backwards) and lowered his point towards the ground, without otherwise changing his arm positions, and arrived at Alber. The weapon was held centrally in front of the torso. This was an open low line guard for which many attacks could be launched and defences actions made. This guard was the antithesis of guards in modern fencing as it did not close a line.
When the swordsman passed forwards again, raised the hilt above his head or over the right shoulder, with the blade at 45 degrees from the horizontal, he arrived at vom Dach, another high-line guard. The blade extended directly back behind him, not at an angle across his back. Any of the other guards could be reached with the minimum of movement from this guard so that a wide range of attacks and defence actions were possible from it. Nebenhut was a low-line open guard. The blade was held to the side with the point angled to the rear and downwards. From here, the swordsman could move into any of the other guards with ease. And as with the other guards, the sort of attacks possible from Nebenhut was governed by which of the two edges of the blade faced the enemy.
The blade had a long edge and short edge (also called the true edge and false edge; these terms are merely a convention to identify one edge from the other as the edges were, in fact, the same length). The long edge (or true edge) was the edge adjacent to the knuckles as the hand held the sword’s grip; ie when held normally in the fist with the blade pointing vertically up, the long edge faced forward and the short edge faced the swordsman’s body.
All these guards could be varied simply by changing from right leg leading to left leg leading and by adjusting the position of the arms, up or down, left or right. For example, Ochs had eleven or more variations. Indeed, the lack of a precise system encouraged these variations and none of the guards properly closed a line. Such a refinement as precise guards, each closing a line, never came to medieval swordplay and only emerged during the evolution of rapier play in the sixteenth century which was much more systemised. It was important for the swordsman to practice his guards so that they were effective as ready stances for both attack and defence. Thus, with Ochs, it was crucial to avoid holding the sword too far back as well as to avoid allowing the arms to become targets for an opponent’s blade by presenting them too far forward. Leaning in any direction from an upright posture was not advisable with any guard as it unbalanced the swordsman.
Armed with the longsword, the swordsman had the choice of five main attacking cuts. These were also given colourful names: Zornhau (rage cut), Krumphau (twisted cut), Zwerchhau (side cut), Schielhau (squint cut) and Scheittelhau (crown cut). The rage cut was delivered diagonally from the right shoulder, while the twisted cut was delivered downwards with crossed wrists (or ‘twisted’ wrists; hence the name) using the short or false edge of the blade. The side cut was a horizontal strike. The squint cut was a downward strike with the false edge at an opponent’s neck (or shoulder). The crown cut was a vertical cut to the top of the head. Clearly, these worked best from one of the high line guards but could be achieved by changing position and guard.
Fighting was a dynamic encounter between two adversaries and one opponent was not going to stand around waiting to be attacked by the other. On the contrary, he was going to try to strike first. Moreover, once an initial attack had been blocked, the medieval equivalent of the riposte naturally followed for the defender which then had to be parried or countered by the original attacker. There were a wide variety of counterattacks that could be mounted in the face of an attack. Then, there were methods of parrying, methods for closing the distance with the enemy to get to close quarters and grapple. Strikes with the pommel and strikes with crossguard were possible. There were kicks, trips and body blocks as well as disarms and what in modern fencing parlance are called prise de fer, attacks on the blade, the aim of which was to move aside the enemy’s blade in such a way that he lost control of it to his attacker.
Fighting with any sort of weapon is not merely about guards, cuts and thrusts. It is about bladework and footwork combined, the getting in and out of distance, and timing. Distance or measure is the space between two opponents. Then, as now, an ideal distance is just outside striking range of an opponent. However, depending on how a swordsman fought, how he closed the distance and regained it, his agility and precision with his strikes, he could decide to be inside that distance or a long way outside it. Then, as now, there was no perfect distance; it all came down to styles of fighting and skill. And, indeed, to height; size conveyed advantages. Timing, both with respect to what the opponent was doing and with respect to the duration of a movement or action against him, was central to fighting. Sheer speed alone was not necessarily advantageous. Some masters taught rather flamboyant styles of swordsmanship, extravagant flourishes and broad theatrical sweeps, but these had no place in a fight to the death. The simplest moves, executed well with appropriate timing, could be deadly. The object was not to prolong an entertainment but to kill as quickly as possible.
All attacks, parries and counters were executed with movement of the feet. A swordsman never stood still. The so-called fencing step, typical of eighteenth-century fencing and modern sport fencing, was not formalised and adopted until the late sixteenth century although it is likely to have been used in earlier times. A fencing step is to step forward with the front foot and move up the back one to a position that restores the relative distance between them before the step was taken. It is not a pace as in walking, nor a pass; the feet do not cross. To step backwards, the rear foot goes back, followed by the front one using the same principal. Passing would have been more familiar to the medieval swordsman. He would also have been accustomed evasions; ie stepping to the side and leaning to avoid a strike. This could be very effective because the longsword, although not heavy, was not wieldy enough for a swordsman to move it faster than he could his body. In both medieval longsword and arming sword, an avoidance without a parry was perfectly feasible.
Not all attacks were made to the upper body, particularly when the opponent was not in full harness. The extremities, especially the legs, were prime targets; a blow to a leg could incapacitate. Indeed, a strike to the back of the legs, commonly known as the coup de Jarnac after a duel in the mid-sixteenth century, could sever the hamstring of one or both legs; cut them, and the adversary was incapacitated as he could no longer stand. Equally, attacks to the hand and forearm were common; if a swordsman cannot hold his weapon because his opponent has chopped it off, he is at the mercy of his attacker. Moreover, the hand and wrist, the knee, the thigh, the lower leg and foot were sometimes the nearest targets. Attacks to the head and neck as well as to the shoulders were potentially fatal as were strikes to the abdomen and the groin.
There were three sorts of cut: downwards, upwards and horizontal. These could be executed with the long (true) edge or the short (false) edge. Clearly, the sword had to be presented in an appropriate stance before any attack, although a swordsman could deceive his opponent about his intentions by adopting one guard only to strike in an unexpected way. To do this, a swordsman had to be able to move his sword freely through natural arcs and lines which meant that all actions came from the shoulder and the elbow, using the upper arms, although the wrist and fingers came into play as the blade made contact with the target. The object with any cut was to strike with a portion of the blade about 15–30 cm (depending on the individual sword) from the tip.
The blade could be raised prior to a cut in order to strike down. Equally, it could be moved to the side, behind or below the centre line prior to an attack. Swordsmen often employed an element of deception in what they did to avoid signalling their intentions to opponents as well as to create openings by making an opponent react to a feint or a false attack. Following a strike, irrespective of whether it missed, was parried or landed on target, the attacker had to recover to a new position and represent his sword ready to continue the attack or to defend against a counter.
Longsword play and, indeed, swordplay of any sort during the medieval period and the early renaissance, involved phases of continuous movement of feet and blade, punctuated by brief pauses. Pauses were necessary because to play a sword was strenuous work but constant movement was essential if an enemy was to be defeated quickly and without receiving injury in return. Swordsmen needed to be fit and well practised. None of these attacks was delivered by a lunge, an action which only became part of swordsmanship with the advent of rapier play and towards the end of the sixteenth century. Indeed, the lunge did not really exist in a form that would be recognisable today until the beginning of the seventeenth century. The lunge was best suited to use of the point with a weapon held in only one hand. Without the benefit of the lunge, thrusts were mostly delivered by first withdrawing the blade before pushing it forwards with conviction.
Sword cuts made on the diagonal had greater power than those delivered vertically or horizontally simply because rotation of the hips and waist were possible which put the whole weight of the body behind them. Although the body was always turned into any sort of cut, the rear foot had to take a step to the side to add power when the cut was not diagonal and this was less powerful. Cuts could be delivered by stepping or passing forwards or backwards. All the elements of any action had to be coordinated, otherwise it was ineffectual and neither cut not thrust would penetrate. Even when a man was not in a full harness of armour on a battlefield, he was likely to be wearing a brigandine (a sleeveless, shaped garment of leather or canvas, lined with small rectangular steel plates riveted to the material and padded with a layer of felt), a jack (similar to a brigandine but with plates sewn in rather than riveted) or a gambeson (a form of quilted armour made from linen and wool and typically padded with horse hair; sometimes called an arming doublet when worn under plate armour), all of which would absorb ineffectual blows and stabs.
Some cuts were harder to execute than others. One of the most difficult was an upward cut from Nebenhut, the guard in which the blade trailed behind the swordsman. It required a more complex action than merely swinging the blade upwards in an arc. Instead, the hilt was pushed forwards while pulling the tip round diagonally so that the hands finished up at head height on the opposite side of the body, the point angled downwards towards the opponent’s face. In this cut, the blade was swung up to strike the lower legs, thighs, groin, forearms or stomach; indeed, it could strike more than one of these targets. The blade followed through to vom Dach.
A parry was executed by moving the defending blade to close the line in which the attack was coming, with the defending blade angled slightly outwards. The blade was never presented vertically or horizontally as such parries were quite useless. If the parry was in the high line, the blade could be simply moved across to intercept the attacking blade, much like modern fencing parries of quarte or tierce. When it was in the low line, the point had to be dropped and the hilt lowered to about waist height unless it was already at that level. The parry had to be made with confidence and precision to ensure the attacking blade did not accidentally find a target by pushing back the parry or sliding down the blade to the defender’s hands. Timing was crucial: parry too early, and it was avoided; too late, and the attack struck home. Unlike modern fencing, a parry in medieval swordplay required effort to prevent the opponent’s blade from simply coming through it. After all, the strike had some force behind it. At the same time, the movement of the parry needed to be no greater than was necessary to close the line in which the attack was coming, otherwise the excessive movement exposed the defender’s body to another strike.
Parries were ideally made with the flat of the blade, rather than an edge. This both preserved the cutting edge but also avoided getting the blade broken. The force of an impact was magnified by an edge to edge contact because the energy was focused on one spot. There was a limit to the stresses any blade could withstand before it failed. Inevitably, edge to edge contacts did sometimes occur, of course. Parrying with the flat played to the blade’s strengths, ie its resilience and flexibility. To parry with the flat, the swordsman had to rotate his wrists to some extent to ensure he presented the flat. Moreover, using the flat made the counter or riposte easier to execute because the blade did not have to be re-orientated for a counter.
Similarly, any prise de fer or beat was executed with the flat, not the edge. The beat was a preliminary action to an attack to knock the opponent’s blade aside to create an opening for a strike. A prise de fer was a more complex action. Typically, in medieval swordplay, it was an action called a bind in which the forte of the attacking blade engaged the foible of the defender’s weapon and swept it in a circular motion from a high line to a low line by pushing it downwards and forwards. The more the defender tried to oppose the force on the blade, the more he was trapped by the action and was unable to escape it. The defence, then as now, was to yield and step aside.
BELOW Meyer, 1570
By the swordsman coming in close to his opponent and releasing one hand from the hilt, it was possible for him to disarm his opponent with the aid of leverage and footwork. Equally, a one-handed grip could be used to extend the range of a strike. The longsword could be held with one hand on the hilt and one grasping the mid-section of the blade to block or lever as well as to strike with the pommel. The weapon would have been used against men armed with one-handed sword and shield, against pikemen and against halberdiers. The longsword was both versatile and powerful. It could inflict serious wounds in which a limb was partially or completely amputated. It could decapitate. And it could go right through a man, even if he was wearing armour.
Purely defensive play did not exist – equally true of play with the arming sword, backsword, or falchion – and parries were often combined with counter-cuts in single-time actions. And at no time in a fight did a fighter lower his guard. He only did that after he had killed his opponent.