Unformatted text preview: CHAPTER 1 SURVIVING FIGHT-BOOKS AND THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF MEDIEVAL COMBAT TECHNIQUES …the noble warrior who cultivated his battering power in the lists and tournaments and the accuracy of his eye by tilting at the ring or quintain… learned little of what would avail him were he deprived of his protective armour. Indeed, the chivalrous science never had anything but a retarding effect on the science of fence. -Egerton Castle The purpose of this dissertation is to bring to light, and put into context, a series of little-
known fighting treatises from the thirteenth to the early fifteenth centuries. An analysis of these treatises challenges the dominant position of fencing historians that these treatises were mere “collections of tricks,” and it also attempts to show how the fight-books themselves shed light into the stubbornly opaque martial culture of both medieval chivalry and of the larger body of men (and women) who faced the challenge and prospect of violence during the period. My thesis is that, despite the regional differences, the surviving medieval treatises represent a coherent art of combat that leveraged the efficiencies of technology and culture into what amounts to a medieval martial art, an art which made efficient use of both the weapon and the defensive armour but which was bound into notions of normative or idealized behavior expressed in the chivalric ethos. Further, I argue that there are two lineages for these arts, one essentially civilian (fencing) and one military (fighting), and that these two lineages made distinct assumptions about the amount of force which would have been necessary and appropriate in a combat. Despite these different assumptions and applications of power, both traditions shared principles that were known and taught through informal methods prior to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when they began to be recorded in writing for the first time. Finally, I argue that these systems demonstrate far more expertise and skill-in-arms than is usually assumed, and that this 1 skill translated directly to cultural conceptions about the relationship between the right of self-
defense and the sense of individualism which characterized European culture. Indeed, the value in the surviving fighting treatises is, apart from the new insights into chivalric culture of the period, as much about the appropriate use of self-defense as it is about the principles and techniques depicted. Owing to my sources’ origins—one Italian and two German—I focus on the cultures of Western Europe, ranging from the British Isles in the west to the German principalities and Italy in the East. Along the way, I hope to create a sense of context for how the treatises present fighting as a systematic martial art, in the Aristotelian tradition of the definition of the word arte, and finally, to show how the production of such books might fit into the pedagological traditions of informal education that characterized both the knightly and common orders. Indeed, the linkage of skill or prowess and control over violence and political legitimacy makes the sophisticated content of these books particularly interesting, owing to the connection between the free bearing of arms and the sense of individuality common in European cultures of the period. On a broad scale, this connection reflects and perhaps contributes to the conception of the tension between the church, the state and their relationships to the individual. What fighting meant is potentially as important—or perhaps more important—than the content of the books themselves. Regardless, these “martial arts” of medieval Europe yield a largely unexplored window into the martial culture of all three of the medieval orders—those who fought, those who worked, and those who prayed. In order to accomplish this, I offer a detailed analysis of three representative treatises, utilizing a comparative approach which combines textual analysis with my years of “hands on” experience examining and teaching these systems to many hundreds of students. By doing so, I 2 hope to clearly establish the systematic nature of all three sources, comparing them and bringing in parallel references from medieval treatises on war, romances, chronicles, iconographic sources, and surviving artifacts. My intention is to take these pieces of corroborating evidence and use them to place the fighting treatises into their proper historical and literary contexts. In so doing, I hope to establish first that many medieval combatants practiced variations on what we might profitably think of as a European “martial arts” tradition that existed as early as the twelfth century and well into the age of gunpowder. I also hope to further establish the importance that the existence of such an art represents: that martial necessity drove rational, deliberate, and elegant solutions to the problems of personal defense. These solutions helped to crystallize and reinforce traditions of individual empowerment and responsibility that sparked the long tradition of individualism that characterized European culture as it rose into the Renaissance and through the Enlightenment. Introduction Students of medieval warfare and chivalric culture have long struggled to understand how medieval men fought. Surviving records, as preserved in chronicles, scattered accounts, diplomatic letters, rolls of decrees and court records, romances and knightly or princely handbooks, reveal very little about how medieval weapons were used. Surviving iconographic sources, for the most part stylized and created without precision of detail, have lent few insights and few studies have related them to physical technique or to the experience of the man-at-arms.1 Surviving physical evidence, for the most part weapons and armour, have been grossly misunderstood and are generally ignored in favor of common misconceptions. A few works on 1 An exception is J.R. Hale’s masterpiece, Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. For the most part, iconographic reference has been useful only in the study of surviving elements of physical culture, particularly arms and armour. 3 wound pathology, such as Bengt Thordemann’s Armour from the Battle of Wisby,2 and Veronica Fiorato’s Blood Red Roses,3 are sometimes used to reinforce the brutality of field combat with shock weapons,4 built as they are on the “worm’s-eye view” established by John Keegan in his groundbreaking 1976 work, Face of Battle.5 The need to fill in the part of the “story” relating to medieval fighting, combined with the paucity of sources, has driven generations of historians to fill the gap with surprising assumptions. Successive waves of students exploring the middle ages through historical analyses have been regaled with assertions that medieval men, encumbered both by excessive armour and technical ignorance, fought with fury but without precision. John Keegan,6 alongside Victor Davis Hanson,7 found armour to have been unimaginably hot and impractical. The medieval fighting man is still thought to have been somehow less practical and less effective than his modern counterpart. Historiography As gunpowder supplanted the martial arts of medieval Europe, these arts underwent a profound transformation as personal combat retreated into the quasi-legal domains of the duels so beautifully and frightfully illuminated in Shakespearean theater. Out of this tradition, in turn, 2 Bengt Thordemann, Poul Nörlund and Bo E. Ingelmark, with Introduction by Brian R. Price, Armour from the Battle of Wisby, Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001. First published in two volumes by Kungl, Vitterhets Historie Och Antikvitets Akademien, Uppsala, 1939. 3 Veronica Fiorato, Anthea Boylston, and Christopher Knüsel, Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 4 Re-enactors, for example, have considerable expertise in what amounts to experimental archaeology, but the few formal studies made by authentically-minded medieval re-enactors have been largely ignored within even the most recent academic treatments of medieval battle. One such work, The Medieval Soldier: 15th Century Campaign Life Recreated in Colour Photographs. London: Windrow & Greene, 1994, is superb but stands alone. 5 John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, New York, Penguin Books, 1976. 6 Ibid., p. 106. 7 Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Knopf, 1989, pp. 78-9. 4 came the modern sport of fencing, and it is for the most part only fencing historians who have examined and attempted to explain these little-known manuscripts. This tradition, most recently and exquisitely analyzed by Sydney Anglo, has nonetheless characterized the medieval treatises as unsystematic and disorganized. Likewise, military historians have completely ignored them, not because they have been unknown, but because they have never before been placed into an appropriate historical context. A small army of enthusiasts, fencers and martial artists have succeeded in rescuing the works from popular obscurity, and have produced some very fine translations and interpretations. But these works are very weak on context, and in fact generally focus on the technical aspects of the manuscripts while missing the overall principles and strategies. It is perhaps easy to invent for ourselves an idealized conception of the Middle Ages and of the feudal society that formed its foundation. Given the relative scarcity and inaccessibility of source material, generations of scholars have generally filled in the gaps of knowledge with contemporary experience, which tell us more about the era of the scholar than of the medieval period itself. Indeed, true objectivity must remain an unattainable ideal, as the perspective of the commentator will forever require qualification before the presented evidence may be deemed credible. My hope is to convey an understanding of these treatises within their historical context, examining the cultural environment as well as their pedagological heritage. Personal or “Micro” Combat and the Study of Military History It is true, as Egerton Castle asserted in 1893, that the knight’s harness provided a potent and practical defensive capability. But it is not necessarily true that this defensive capability translated into offensive disability or stagnation, or that his approach relied exclusively on 5 endurance. Indeed, to defeat an armoured man with shock weapons would instead encourage skill, precision and the efficient application of force. While a man could eventually if inefficiently be battered down in armour of mail or plate,8 he could more quickly be rendered ineffective or dispatched by attacking around the armour or applying focused energy at a critical point in his defense.9 Indeed, this is commonly accepted as the main reason for key changes in the design of the medieval sword at the dawn of the fourteenth century: it became both more acutely pointed and the handle was extended, allowing a second hand to be placed on the hilt, yielding both control and leverage.10 These are enhancements that require skill to maneuver the point between plates of iron and steel. But writers looking at the Middle Ages and Renaissance have long followed Egerton Castle’s lead, when he asserted, “Paradoxical as it seems, the development of the ‘Art of Fence’ was the result of the invention of firearms.”11 And further, little material exists to suggest a regularized training process involving an understanding of certain basic principles and of the techniques arising out of them. There was no coherent theory of personal combat that guaranteed success to the skilled man over an opponent relying on brute force. The strong man, the durable man, the man who could ride hardest and best take the punishment dealt out to him by the weapons of his opponent, was the winner. This was the period of pre-theory. It needed a revolution to change its combat techniques.12 8 Andrew W. Boardman, renowned War of the Roses scholar, argues from forensic and chronicle evidence that strength and endurance were predominant at least during his period, when fully-armoured knights equipped in the latest Italian or German “white armour” tended towards the use of dramatically more powerful pole-weapons, such as the poleaxe. While Boardman even includes a plate from the fifteenth-century German treatise by Hans Talhoffer, in none of his texts does he discuss the use of such weapons, for which Talhoffer was known at the time of the Wars of the Roses. At least three of Hans Talhoffer’s treatises survive from 1443, 1459, and 1467. 9 See the techniques suggested by Hans Talhoffer and the fifteenth century anonymous treatise, La Jeu de la Hache, preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Manuscrit Français 1996. See also armoured combat sections in Fiore dei Liberi’s treatise, fols. 32v-35r, reproduced in Fiore dei Liberi and Massimo Malipiero, Il Fior di Battaglia di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale, Udine: Ribis, 2007, figures 203-226. 10 Ewart R. Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991. See also Eduard Wagner, Swords and Daggers: An Illustrated Handbook, London: Hamlyn, 1975, for a more popular presentation. Oakeshott’s work is considered to be the standard reference, and he provides a broadly accepted development typology. 11 Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Defense, London: George Bell, 1885, p. 18. 12 Arthur Wise, The History and Art of Personal Combat, London: Hugh Evelyn, 1971, p. 31. 6 Early writers on medieval military history, such as Sir Charles Oman, tended to see the knight as unimaginative in war, encumbered by absurd and weighty iron defenses, unable to effectively operate without armour or horse. As Oman wrote in his 1898 thesis, “…when mere courage takes the place of fighting skill and experience, tactics and strategy alike disappear.”13 His opinion was hardly changed by 1924, as he wrote in his magisterial two-volume A History of War in the Middle Ages, “…The [Hundred Years] war was carried on by a series of forays, sieges, and chivalrous but unscientific exploits of arms….”14 Arthur Wise, writing in 1971, concluded similarly, “The result was the fully armoured man, carrying some sixty pounds of sheet metal on the surface of his body. When he fought mounted, he had a certain mobility still, but when he fought on foot that mobility was considerably restricted.”15 John Keegan propelled the “new military history” into the mainstream with his magnificent 1976 work, Face of Battle, but the idea of unskilled reliance on physical endurance and strength was once more given fresh currency. Keegan, re-launching the “battle piece” narrative—this time from the soldiers’ rather than the generals’ point of view—sought to provide “a picture of understanding of the practicalities of the fighting and of the mood, outlook and skills of the fighters, which were themselves part of the eye-witness chronicler’s vision.”16 As compelling, worthy and influential as this study was, however, Keegan’s interpretation of those precise qualities he sought to illuminate—the soldiers’ “outlook and skills,” was flawed. Keegan, like many traditional academics, drew his conclusions based on synthesis of secondary sources, including those made by Charles Oman,17 Ferdinand Lot,18 Sir Harry Nicholas,19 and Col. Alfred 13 Sir Charles Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages, A.D. 378-1515, ed. J.H. Beeler Ithaca, Cornelle University Press, 153, p. 58. 14 Sir Charles Oman, A History of The Art of War in the Middle Ages, Volume Two, London: Greenhill, 1991, p.126. This is a reprint of the original 1924 edition. 15 Wise, p. 33. 16 John Keegan, The Face of Battle, New York: Viking Press, 1976, p. 86. 17 Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (2nd edition), London: Methuen, 1924. 7 Burne.20 Within the text, and seemingly without primary support, he recycles the traditional views of knights unable to move with efficiency or real effectiveness. For example, he asserts that during the retreat of English spearmen, “the men most exposed…trot[ed] backwards before the French spearpoints, ‘wrong-footing’ their opponents (a spearmen times his thrust to coincide with the forward step of his left foot).”21 It is not clear in the text where Keegan drew this or similar details from as they are not found in the sources cited in his bibliography. Based on the idea that neither men nor human responses have changed significantly since the Middle Ages, Keegan drew extensively on comparisons with modern circumstances. At the start of the chapter, for example, Keegan highlights a Vietnam protest in Grosvenor Square in London from 1968.22 It is likely that this kind of adaptation of modern studies informed many of his interpretations, but Keegan’s approach, echoed by Col. Grossman’s superb 1995 book On Killing, confuses students of medieval combat by ignoring romance literature, iconographic sources, and the fighting treatises and instead substituting modern experience.23 This approach is valuable, but should perhaps be used only as a supplement where historical data is missing or is in need of interpretation. The medieval fighting treatises, contemporary with the Battle of Agincourt, could have dramatically improved the authenticity of Keegan’s analysis. 18 Ferdinand Lot, L’Arte Militaire et les Armées au Moyen Age, Paris: Payot, 1946. Harry Nicholas, History of the Battle of Agincourt, London: Johnson 1827. 20 A. H. Burne, The Agincourt War, Fair Lawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1956. 21 Keegan, The Face of Battle, p. 99. In fact, the fighting treatises often suggest moving the right foot with the thrust of a sword or spear, what George Silver called in the sixteenth century, “agreement of hand and foot.” Figures in the Fior di Battaglia show figures with either foot forward, but the right foot is shown clearly on Getty fol. 39v, reproduced in Massimo Malipiero, Il Fior di Battaglia di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale, (Udine 2007), figure 255. Similarly, the mid-fifteenth century fighting master Filippo Vadi shows the same foot arrangement on fol. 28v, reproduced in Luca Porzio and Gregory Mele’s facsimile, entitled Ars Gladiatoria Dimicandi: 15th century swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi, Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, p. 142. 22 Keegan, The Face of Battle, p. 97. 23 Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Boston: Little-Brown,1995. 19 8 In Sitù In order to establish the relevance of the fighting treatises it is thus necessary to eschew this tempting method at filling in missing gaps in the historical record and instead try to remain within the milieu that produced them. One of the earliest authors to have attempted to understand the man-at-arms in his cultural milieu was Ewart Oakeshott, although he too attempted to draw “modern” parallels: Like the commandos and paratroops of our times, they [the knights] were fighting men who behaved within the mystique of their own specialized training. Ordinary men, whose work lay in the fields or the smith or the countinghouse, might not understand the strange loyalties and feuds, the apparent cruelties and the absurd generosities which surrounded these furious horsemen….24 The tripartite order that medieval society envisioned for itself was founded upon the martial prowess of the knights.25 This prowess, well-examined by modern cultural historians, laid the foundation for the nobility’s political legitimacy,26 but subsequent scholarship of the last twenty years has called into question the earlier negative view of the knight’s skills in war, including his tactical abilities, fighting skills, and even his strategic acumen. A rising tide of scholarship has given him ...
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