Not much is known about the discipline of fencing in the first centuries of the Middle Ages.
We can presume that the art of fencing in the classical world was a rational and refined science, from the many iconografic evidence and the few chapters dedicated to it in the military manuals of the Roman times, but it seems to have disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately no technical manuals have been found, but the medieval illustrations and epic texts of the centuries around the year 1000 shows us mostly combat in armour (haukberg), with powerful cutting blows, in Italy like in the rest of the continent.
The change from classical refined fencing to such kind of fight may be partially due to the kind of armour in use, that forces to throw powerful blows with the aim of breaking the haukbergs, and also in part to a return of fighting methods that had already been typical of Northern Europe in the ancient ages.
However, the emphasis on the powerful blows typical of this period could be due at least in part to an epic “topos” more than to the reality of combat.
In the epic literature of the period it is possibile to find only a few references to real fencing techniques.
For example, just to mention a few, in the “Chanson de Guillaume” of the epic cycle of Provence, it appears an action named “tour français”, in which the fencer that executes the technique, after having parried with the shield, turns on himself and hits the opponent to the nape of the neck.
Again, in the last battle of the epic poem “Havelok the Dane”, the hero succeeds in severing the usurper’s hand with a “mezzo tempo” (half-time) blow, i.e. a blow that hits the opponent while he’s bringing his attack; often it is the right hand of the opponent, that he brings ahead to hit, which remains hurted.
Both those techniques indicate some refinement of discipline and techniques, in contrast with the idea of a raining aimed only to the development of strength and endurance.
Finally, again in the epic cycle of Provence, we find that some characters are indicated as “fencing masters”.
Coming back to the Italian peninsula, in the XIII century novel about the Arthurian hero Tristan known as “Tristano Riccardiano”, we find that fencing training is mentioned many times as a daily activity of young squires and knights.
And also in the XIII century we begin to find more documents that inform us more specifically about the status of fencing science and fencing schools.
In Italy martial training had never been restricted to the noble class like in the rest of Europe.
The same can be told of the joust and other similar military exercises, except for the quintane that was generally permitted to the popular classes also in the rest of the continent.
We have proof of the existence of several “societates”, entities in many aspects similar to modern no-profit ocieties, dedicated to the training of young people in the use of arms, both mounted and on foot, in many citystates of the Italian regions of Lombardy, Tuscany, Emilia.
Such “societates”, made up of well-off but not noble citizens, had names like Società dei Forti (Society of the Strong), dei Gagliardi (of the Brave), della Spada (of the Sword), della Lancia (of the Lance), della Tavola Rotonda (of the Round Table), etc.
However, the first proof of the existence in Italy of true fencing masters is not related to such groups but to the noble class.
We know that a Master Goffredo, fencer, taught to the warlike clergyman Patriarch Gregorio da Montelongo in 1259, in Cividale del Friuli, the same town that was to become the fatherland of the first Italian fencing writer, Master Fiore dei Liberi.
In the same town between 1300 e il 1307 there have been some legal acts regarding a Master Arnoldo, “scharmitor” (fencer), and in 1341 another document names a Pertoldus, fencer, probably a German.
In the same century and in the same town we find Master Domenico from Trieste, Pietro, another fencer, also a German, and Master Franceschino from Lucca (Tuscany).
Always in the North-Eastern region of Friuli we find notice of other three fencing masters active in the XIII century.
We have to say that in that century the German school was in a period of great splendor, and it is precisely in that country and in that century that the first fencing treatises of the Middle Ages appeared.
The oldest treatise available today is the Manuscript I.33 of the Royal Armouries of London, dated around the year 1300.
Some other interesting German fencing treatises will follow during the XIV and XV century, mostly about the two-hand sword, up to the XVI century, when the prevalence of the Italian School will be already well established.
But also in last centuries of the Middle Ages Italy had been very active in this field: since the XIII century the Bolognese School was well known and appreciated in the rest of Europe.
Even if we don’t have the names of single masteres that thaught in Bologna in that century, we have the names of three (!) Italian masters that were present in Paris in the year 1292: Master Tommaso, Master Nicolò and Master Filippo.
In the following century we find the first names of Bolognese masters: Master Rosolino was teaching in 1338, Master Francesco in 1354, Master Nerio in 1385.
In 1410 Master Fiore dei Liberi, born in Cividale del Friuli, was living and teaching in Ferrara (in the region of Emilia).
After an adventurous life, spent among several wars, journeys and the learning of fencing from both Italian and German masters, the old Master Fiore, upon request by his Lord, accepted to write a book, the most ancient Italian fencing treatise that seems to have survived, the Flos Duellatorum (Flower of the Duellers).
We have three manuscripts that contain Fiore’s work, one in Italy and two in the U.S., and each one presents many differences from the others, so we can presume that each copist, probably an expert fencer himself, made some changes to the original text.
The book is mainly composed by drawings that illustrate the different fencing techniques, each one matched by some verses.
In the Italian manuscript, named Codice Pisani-Dossi, the text is often limited to a couple of verses, that probably had to be learned by heart by the students, specially the illiterate ones.
In the two U.S. manuscripts the text is more extended and clear, and it permits to clarify several techniques that are rather obscure in the Italian manuscript.
Master Fiore puts at the beginning of his work the warning that it is impossibile to remember all the techniques without a book, and that there cannot be a good “scholar” withour a book, and even less, obviously, a good Master.
So we have some evidence that writing fencing books for the students was a well established tradition already in Master Fiore’s times, even if we have to remind to the reader that before the invention of the press all those books were in just one copy, hand-written, and probably most of them are definitely lost.
The “school subjects” in Master Fiore’s school were wrestling, unarmed defence against the dagger, dagger combat, some techinques with sticks and staffs, pike fencing, one-hand sword and mostly two-hand sword, a eapon born in the XIII century as an answer to the introduction of plate armour, and very popular among knights in that period.
In fact Fiore dei Liberi dedicates a part of the book also to armoured combat with the two-hand sword, armoured fight with the pole-axe, mounted combat with the lance, the sword and even bare-handed, techiniques to be executed with the dagger against an opponent armed with a sword and viceversa, sword unsheathing techniques, etc.
In short, he supplies us a complete martial instruction and, frankly speaking, a high level one, including concepts that today are the basis of modern sport fencing like “distance”, “time”, half-time or “mezzo tempo”, “parry and risposte”.
It is worth mentioning what are the basic virtues of the fencer for the Friulan Master: celeritas, fortitudo, audacia, prudentia (quickness, strength, courage and prudence), virtues that are somewhat in opposition between them, and between which one must find an equilibrium.
The next treatise available to us is the one that we offer hereby to the reader, in the first English edition ever presented to the public, the “De arte gladiatoria dimicandi” of Master Filippo Vadi from Pisa, written for the Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro between 1482 and 1487.
Be it sufficient for the moment to say that between Vadi’s treatise and Fiore dei Liberi’s one there are so many similarities that we have to presume that the Pisan Master had the possibility to see the teachings of Fiore dei Liberi, by means either of a copy of his book or of the teachings of some master coming from Fiore’s tradition.
Meanwhile, during the XV century the Bolognese School appear to have been led by Master Filippo (or Lippo) di Bartolomeo Dardi.
We have evidence of him and his school since 1413.
Besides being a fencing master, this eclectic figure was an Astrologer (and consequently an Astronomer, as there was no difference at that time), a Matematician, and from the year 1434 he was also Geometry Professor at Bologna University, the oldest University in Europe.
Dardi obtained that title for having written a book (now lost) about the relation between fencing and geometry.
This literate fencer died in 1464, leaving behind him a heir like Master Guido Antonio Di Luca.
A reknown fencing master, “from which school more warriors came out than from the belly of the Troyan Horse”, Di Luca taught how to fight, for example to the famous mercenary commander, the “condottiero” Giovanni de’ Medici, better known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, as well as to the most famous of the Italian Renaissance fencing masters, the bolognese Achille Marozzo. Renaissance fencing masters, the bolognese Achille Marozzo.
In 1509, in the same city of Urbino where Vadi had teached, the Spanish Master Pietro Moncio, also known as Monte or Monti, was writing his long treatise in Latin.
Monte taught fencing at the court of Urbino, specially to the Duke Guidubaldo, and he was celebrated by the famous writer Baldassarre Castiglione in his book “Il Cortegiano” (The Courtier”) as a perfect gentleman and knight.
Some copies of such treatise, for many years believed to be definitely lost, have been recently discovered.
Another student of Di Luca was the popular fencing master Achille Marozzo, General Master at Arms in Bologna, who taught fencing with one hand cut-and-thrust sword, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and target, sword and round target, sword and palvese, sword and cloak, Bolognese dagger, Bolognese dagger and cloak, two hand-sword, pike, partisan bill, long pole-axe, defence against the dagger etc.
He wrote a treatise, the “Opera Nova”, that was destined to be re-printed many times during the XVI century and to be considered the symbol of the Italian school that would dominate the continent, almost unchallenged, for the following centuries.
Its structure is the following:
Book 1: sword and buckler, half sword play (and grips) with sword and buckler
Book 2: sword and dagger, dagger, dagger and cloak, sword and cloak, case of 2 swords, sword and large, buckler, single sword, sword and round target, sword and square target, the guards (with sword and buckler and single sword), sword and pavise, sword and pavise against staff weapons, sword and target against staff weapons, sword and cloak against mounted opponent
Book 3: 2-hand sword, half sword play (and grips) at the 2 hand sword, 2-hand sword against staff weapons
Book 4: pole-arms
Book 5: honour and duelling rules, unarmed defence against dagger.
Another important writer of the Bolognese school in the first years of the XVI century is Antonio Manciolino.
Manciolino’s treatise, also called Opera Nova, is made of 6 books.
I’ll report here also a brief summary:
Introduction: Fencing rules and principles (time, distance, etc.)
Book 1: Guards (very similar to Marozzo’s ones) with sword and buckler, Blows, Blows and defences from every guard
Book 2: Techniques with sword and buckler
Book 3: Half sword play (and grips) with sword and buckler
Book 4: Techniques from every guard with sword and buckler, 2 swords, Single sword
Book 5: Sword and cloak, 2 against 2 with sword and cloak, sword and dagger, sword and round target
Book 6: Pole-arms.
Every book has an introduction, sometimes written in a very learned way (too much learned, probably not written by the author but by some writer, on his instructions), but always regarding fencing principles.
The only place in which you can find something about honour and duels is in the introduction to Book 5, in which it is laid down very clearly that it is not a fencing masters’ job to speak about that.
Manciolino says that honour, law, duel reasons, etc. are a matter for the philosopher or the student of law, not the fencer.
Marozzo, on the contrary has almost a whole book (Book 5, the last one) dedicated to honour matters.