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Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance

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Training with weapons: weapons as part of the daily life of the warrior.

In Baldesar Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, the court of Urbino debates the nature of the ideal courtier, or the ideal servant of a prince. Among the various things tossed out for debate, we see universal agreement on one matter: there is no question that those who serve the mighty should not merely be proficient with weaponry. Skill with weapons is taken for granted as the very first duty of anyone in service. Much of that skill is assumed to have come from oral traditions, and to have relied on a great degree of individual practice. However, there is actually a great deal of surviving evidence on this training, and it sheds a great deal of light on the weapons they used, and the theories of fighting practiced. This is important not just for understanding the weapons themselves, but because it allows us to step into the physical presence of those who wielded weapons, whether in tournament or on the battlefield. Just as a ballerina, because of her training, tends to move in certain ways even when she's not dancing (for example, it's easy to spot a ballerina by the way her toes will tend to point far out to the side when she walks, even though she moves smoothly), a skilled fighter has certain reflexes and ways of moving "built in." Just as martial artists or police officers can often pick people who are trained to fight out of a crowd, a knight or courtier would have been able to see details in posture and movement that were common to them, and not possessed by the typical craftsman or peasant.

Also, just because most of the people who trained with weapons and armor did so within an oral culture, this does not mean that many of them did not also write down the methods and theories with which they train. There are at least a hundred surviving manuscripts regarding the use of weapons that were written prior to 1620, and a very large proportion of these survivals come from the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Given the tiny fraction of surviving written material compared to what must have existed at the time, it is reasonable to think that it was not uncommon at all for a highly-skilled teacher to have written sources regarding his work. Pietro Monte, mentioned three times in The Book of the Courtier, himself published a manual in 1509, in which he goes into exhaustive detail regarding regional differences in fighting and equipment.

Medieval European fighting styles tended to be more practically-oriented and less flashy than later rapier-oriented methods or those with which we are familiar from Asia. This is because they needed to be applied not in the controlled settings of a gentlemanly duel, but in the midst of a vast chaos of clashing people and weapons, and had to be applied against people who might, or might not, have any inclination of adhering to chivalrous concepts. They included techniques to be performed with many different weapons, and techniques to be done when armored, some for when fighting unarmored. As one would guess, people in different regions tended to develop different methods, and we have strong evidence for this. The fighting manual of Johannes Lichtenauer, compiled in the late fourteenth century, gave rise to what is now called the "German school" of swordsmanship. Surviving manuals within this school include those of Ringeck (who criticized a tendency to fancy "playfighting" among students), Hans Thalhoffer (whose work spends much time with judicial combat, including a fight between a man and his wife), and Renaissance masters such as Joachim Meyer, Jacob Sutor, Paulus Hector Maier, and Christian Egenolph, each of which included earlier methods, and sometimes left extensive commentaries on them. Lichtenauer's book was compiled by his student Doebringer, and much has been lost, but we do know that he traveled extensively while training, and had trained in Bohemia, Krakow, and Silesia. Since Lichtenauer came from a part of Franconia that was very near a seat of the Teutonic Order, there is currently speculation that his methods may actually have been used by the Order. The "German" school is a very mobile one, and used techniques that raise the shoulders and twist the body and arms . There are twisting or "winding" techniques that show strong parallels with characteristically Hungarian and Turkish sabre techniques as well, implying that as Lichtenauer created his method he drew from generally existing Central European traditions, or otherwise strongly influenced them. These techniques can be done in the "gothic plate" used in the Empire, which generally have small pauldrons (shoulder plates), but many of these techniques are impossible to perform with the more restricting Milanese armor.

The Italians, on the other hand, also had numerous works; among the best-known early works being the Flos duellatorum (Flower of Battle), which primarily covers the longsword and greatsword, and also has sections dealing with armored fighting, and even techniques for the spear that can be performed when standing in the middle of a mass of footmen. A thorough knowledge of such techniques was critical even for a man-at-arms, especially for sieges where a knight's horse could be an expensive liability.Although its author, Fiore dei Liberi, was originally taught in the "German" school, his work shows major differences and is thus a valuable contrast for understanding regional differences in fighting, and in some ways, especially its use of the point of the sword, can be seen as an original link leading to the later development of the thrusting rapier.

But not all medieval fighting manuals deal with the sword. Falchions, spears, axes, and various polearms are also addressed. A fifteenth century Burgundian manuscript, Le Jeu de la hache (The Play of the Axe, or Axe-play) even addresses the pollaxe, a form of specialty polearm found mostly not on the battlefield, but in knightly tournaments on foot, such as this joust that took place in Bordeaux. In these tournaments, contestants would fight with a certain number of passes or blows allowed to each other, and this manual describes several such bouts and how to successfully fight in them. Although fought on foot, this form of joust was still a distinctly knightly enterprise, and while injuries were rare, when they happened they could be quite severe.

A surprising amount of these manuals spend significant amounts of time addressing techniques best suited to self-defense off the battlefield, or in using "backup weapons" such as the dagger. Several techniques using or defending against the dagger are in fact still in common usage with military and law-enforcement entities today, which speaks volumes regarding the usefulness of the techniques. They were by no means primitive.

The methods with which medieval warriors fought are very different from those represented in film or in modern fencing. In the words of Lichtenauer/Doebringer, "When your opponent cuts, cut. When your opponent thrusts, thrust." Parrying or blocking was strongly discouraged, and there were very strong reasons for this. In Lichtenauer's school and most other medieval methods, parrying is considered to be a sign of excessive passiveness, of not taking a strong offensive and determining the rhythm of the fight. This makes more sense in a mass battle than in the significantly more calm dueling atmosphere one normally associates with fencing. When one has to worry not about one opponent, or even three, but potentially six or even eight opponents at once, there is simply no time to defend against a single cut and then attempt a response in the parry-riposte method of modern fencing. One had to rely on one's armor and footwork while "countercutting," that is, moving in such a way that one's offensive and defensive movements are the same, so that one's cuts defended from the cuts of the enemy. It must be stressed once more that these weapons did not merely cause surface wounds such as many later cavalry sabres did, but instead caused huge, deep, shearing wounds that could kill a fighter before he hit the ground. It was not enough merely to hit or touch one's opponent, but to cut him.

Another reason that medieval methods of fighting did not include much in the way of parrying or blocking is that medieval weapons were inherently offensive. One's defense was provided by one's armor, shield, and footwork, and the weapons of the time reflected this. A sword that was designed to cut deeply, and is usually no more than half a centimeter thick on the blade is not designed to absorb repeated shocks from a hard edge, and clashing the edges of two swords together as is routinely seen in films quickly results in two swords that are so badly damaged that neither can produce an effective cut.

As a knight or professional soldier trained with his weapons, he developed a sense of distance and timing that set him apart from his contemporaries who were not so highly trained. Highly-trained men-at-arms, mercenaries, and the city militias of the guilds learned not merely how to cut, or even to cut effectively, but to cut with extreme precision at full force. An example of this would be a famous Polish hero, Camerarius Andrzej Moliszewski, who was said to be able to cut a coin off a boy's head without disturbing the lad's hair. This sense of distance carried over into other parts of daily life, and, as courts surrounding men such as this developed, may even have been one of the spurs moving medieval and renaissance art away from stylized images and into the celebration of perspective. The body produced by training such as this would also have been different: a guildsman wielding a polearm may not have been notably different physically, but a man-at-arms training from childhood would have been significantly more agile than his untrained contemporaries, and likely a better dancer in the process.

Therefore, when one sees a panel painting, manuscript, or other work of art in which someone is portrayed in armor or bearing a weapon, it has a significance beyond merely that the person is armed. The weapon or armor will be used to make a statement regarding the person depicted. If someone commissioned that artwork or manuscript, then any armor depicting the patron in armor or armed will be a statement of that person's social standing, and perhaps one declaring intentions or goals. In 15th-Century Central Europe, members of the Hussite Revolution were infamous for fighting with heavy two-handed flails. In this period, if one sees a donor in plate armor depicted with such a weapon, one can do more than speculate on whether or the flail could be considered a knightly weapon or appropriate: one can immediately see such a depiction as a statement of political or sectarian loyalty. Tournament illustrations can also be used to "read between the lines" depending on the postures or techniques that are depicted as well as the heraldry shown. In the end, to understand these weapons and armor, we must look at the contexts in which they were presented, and the contexts in which they were used.

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