The Study of Swordplay
At the Academy of Steel we use of a variety of weapons, from knives to polearms and, of course, swords. Our styles and forms are based on historical manuscripts from all over Europe. We are always striving to learn new techniques and perfect them. This can be a long and arduous road, but it’s always great fun to experiment and come away with greater knowledge of our art.
I am the sword, the King of Arms, Royal, Bold, and True,
All other arms will bend the knee to me when I pass through:
The cruel Lance, the mighty Axe, and the vicious Knife:
I fight them all, in vigour wax, bring misery and strife!
Enemies I shall constrain, and enter in the fray.
Challenge me and feel the pain: you’ll wish you’d stayed away!
I’ll take your Sword and throw you down, you’ll think you were in Hell.
The breaks and binds that are my Art, I do them all so well.
A Cross am I the Royal Sword, Kings’ and Princess’ own,
And all who make a cross with me, shall win their great renown.
The longsword is one of the most celebrated weapons in history, literature and films. It is a largely misunderstood weapon; the martial skill and discipline behind its use are often overshadowed by Eastern Martial arts systems. However, over the past few decades, much of the ‘secret’ history of European swordsmanship has come to light with the discovery and translations of Medieval Manuscripts. The use of the longsword requires a knowledge not only of cuts, but also binding, grappling and disarms.
Longswords (sometimes known as war-swords or great-swords) have been in use since 1150 and are believed to have initially been designed to be used from horseback and later against armoured opponents.
We will be focusing primarily on the study of Fiore dei Liberi’s Italian style of longsword dueling. This isn’t to say that we won’t touch upon the Liechtenauer traditions (as it is our belief that one can be used to augment the other). However, the Italian treatises seem to be more extensive in their description of the use of wards and plays, so we will use this as a jumping off point.
The sword and shield is the iconic weapon combination of the Saxons, Vikings and later Norman Knights. We take influences from the 12th century I.33 Anonymous Tower sword and buckler manual and the work of Roland Warzecha and Dave Rawlings as well as from our experiences in historical re-enactment. Great leaps have been made recently in reconstructing the use of these weapons.
The sword (or any weapon really) and shield combination is dynamic and requires dexterity and dedicated practice in order to master it. The shield has had a place in warfare since antiquity (and is used to this day by riot police and military forces) and comes in a variety of shapes of sizes from the kite shield to the buckler. It’s also an invaluable tool while fighting as part of a group. Far from the clumsy, barbaric thrashing seen in many Hollywood interpretations of medieval combat, the sword and shield combo is very technical relying as much on entering into binds as duelling with a longsword.
Spears and Polearms
Spears are one of the oldest weapons in history and are still a mainstay of modern armies in the form of bayoneted rifles. Polearms come in all shapes and sizes from the spetum to the glaive. They are marvellous at keeping an opponent at bay, while at the same time offering some defence with the long shaft. Spears were the defining weapon of the Greeks and Romans who combined their use with large shields in what we know as a phalanx. Later variations would incorporate barbs or axe-like cutting edges to the design resulting in weapons like the halberd. Polearms can be used to hook and drag opponents to the ground, the shaft often being used to trip an opponent or make piercing, killing thrusts. Heavier poleaxes would have been used to crush armour or at the very least bludgeon and disorientate a steel clad opponent.
Many of these plays using polearms can be adopted by the longsword while using the half-sword (one hand grips the blade like a spear) or adopting the ‘murder stance’ (reversing the sword and using it in much the same way as a hammer).
While knives aren’t necessarily thought of as a knightly weapon, there are a number of techniques depicted in Fiore’s manuscripts pertaining to the use of knives against swordsmen, against other opponents wielding knives and methods that deal with responding to an attacker armed with a knife in much the same way modern self-defence classes might be taught.
Once again, there are many species of knives designed for specific tasks such as stabbing or slashing. The knife was the most common weapon in the medieval period and could be used for domestic purposes as well as martial application. The inclusion of knives can change the dynamic of a fight. They can be used to block or create locks while grappling. Knife fighting can be fast paced, fraught and a lot of fun.
While hand-to-hand combat isn’t exactly our main priority, it is necessary to gain a basic understanding of grappling and wrestling in order to become a well-rounded fighter. There are certainly more informed martial arts classes out there that focus wholly on this area, but they rarely accommodate for the inclusion of medieval weapons.
When two swordsmen engage one another and get so close that the sword becomes ineffective, or even a hindrance, it’s prudent to drop it in order to wrest the weapon from your opponent or throw them to the ground. In Italian this is called abrazare (wrestling) and it is the cornerstone of many of the close plays in which two swordsmen seek to disarm or unbalance one another.