“The Sword. I am mortal against any other weapon … I will make those who fight against me weep. And I am royal and maintain the justice: I increase goodness and destroy malice.” — Fiore Dei Liberi, Ghetty Manuscript, 25 Recto, Durban and Easton Translation
So you want a world full of gritty medieval combat, but you can only count on your fingers how many times you have held a sword? Do you want a healthy dose of realism, but don’t do martial arts? Is the above picture new to you? Do you want to avoid the hosts of problems that comes with fantasy fighting? If you have said yes to any of the above, read this blog!
I am PipperChip and do Historic European Martial Arts (hereafter called by its acronym: HEMA), and I made this blog post just for you! This is a whirlwind introduction to medieval fighting for the busy world-builder. This is one subject where the truth is much stranger than fiction.
HEMA recreates and preserves the martial arts of Europe, as seen from manuscripts, treatises, and other primary sources from 1300’s to as late as the 1800’s, covering a wide variety of weapons and techniques. Getting involved in this hobby can be easier than you think! This post will introduce you to some of the basics of fighting. So dust off your degree in Medieval Studies and prepare to fight earnestly!
Real European Fighting Traditions
When most people think of a “martial art,” they think of kung-fu or some other mystic East Asian thing. Martial arts were never limited to Asia: wherever fighting happened, warriors learned how to fight and survive from other warriors. Each group had the potential to approach combat in unique ways. Any talk of European traditions should mention the two most widely recognized varieties. One is the older, well established German tradition and the other is the slightly younger Italian Tradition.
The German Tradition is perhaps the most commonly studied tradition. Johannes Liechtenauer is among the oldest recorded masters in that school, who lived in the 14–15 centuries. The German school can be described as thinking of combat in terms of timing, and does not often come into grappling, focusing on footwork, binding and winding. Talhoffer, Ringeck, and Meyer are also in the German tradition.
The Italian Tradition is the second-most popular tradition to study. Fiore de’i Liberi is thought as the grand master in this tradition, and he lived in the mid- to late-15th century. The Italian Tradition focuses on protecting an imaginary line between you and your opponent, and is not afraid to grapple. Fiore’s manuscripts tend to be a little more detailed than many of the German manuscripts, so it is a good place to start. It also happens to be the one I know the most about.
There are records of other traditions as well: such as the Iberian and English traditions. One should remember that each tradition can have many masters, and that I have only mentioned two prominent ones. Their manuals can be easily found, especially because almost all of them predate copyright law, so take a look for more inspiration. You can spend years puzzling over these manuscripts, though, so continue reading here!
What You Ought To Know
Know the parts of your weapons. Some basic anatomy will help you talk about weapons in an intelligent way:
The strong is the lower section of the sword, where you can control an opponent’s blade more easily when you block with it. The weak is the section towards the top, where it’s hard to block a blade. Both sections are important in swordplay. When people cross weapons, they are said to have entered a “bind,” because the metal weapons will deform a little and “stick” to each other. Moving weapons around each other while maintaining contact is “winding.”
Weapon are tools to solve particular problems. Warhammers and short spikes are for breaking through plate armor. Blades are for cutting soft armor or people. Hooks are for tripping and binding opponents’ weapons. Not that a warhammer cannot harm an unarmored person, or that a sword can’t hurt someone in plate, but that these weapons are tools which are designed for specific purposes and excel in those areas. All weapons were developed to solve problems in that warriors faced in that culture or war.
It should also be mentioned that swords were often “generalist” weapons, as they performed okay in many situations. This is especially true of longswords (specifically hand-and-a-half swords). You can also look at swords as being arranged on a spectrum from “specialized for thrusts” (like a rapier) to “specialized for cutting,” (like falchion) with most swords somewhere in between.
There is no ultimate weapon. A claim that some weapon is “the ultimate” is often a sign of ignorance. For example, many people think katanas are the best. Katanas actually have many flaws: they are too short, heavy, and stiff for a sword of their size compared to their European counterparts.
Even the metallurgy of katanas is not unique: damascus steel, or pattern-forging, can be seen in Ulfberht swords from the 9th century in northern Europe, making them older than most katanas. (Also, it’s called damascus steel.) Many people erroneously assume that the stiffness of the katana is a good thing, but observing a cutting competition with katanas will show many bent swords that must be carefully bent back, which is terrible for those in combat situations. European swords would naturally bend back after such a cut, being made of a softer and more flexible material.
I choose the katana here because it is a good example of people thinking a weapon is more than it is. A critical eye on any weapon sees the weaknesses of that weapon. Any weapon you choose has downsides; there is no ultimate weapon!
Wrestling, Punching, Blade-Grabbing, and Half-Swording are viable techniques. In the most general terms, fighting is about removing your opponent’s capacity to do harm before they can inflict harm. Anything that enables this outcome is fair game, and anything that hinders this outcome is bad! This means flips and flashy maneuvers are ruled out, but punching, pommel-strikes, cross-guard strikes, and even sword grabbing are recommended by various masters in various situations.
And yes, you can grab a sharp, immobile blade without getting cut. In fact, a blade will never breach skin unless the blade moves relative to the skin in question. I tried this with some kitchen knives, hitting them against my kitchen counter. I never got a single nick: the key is to hold it very tightly along the sides of the blade! Many masters recommend grabbing swords in various situations to render them useless to the enemy or increase leverage for you. Half-swording is a technique which stiffens the sword to help penetrate weak points in armor, but sees use outside of armored fighting as well. This leads me to my next point.
Always aim for the weak spots. It was well known that hitting someone in a shield or in the middle of a piece of armor is generally sub-optimal. That armor will cushion or deflect any blows you throw at it. Yes, armor is often shown as useless, (I’m looking at you, Star Wars), but it actually did protect people!
When plate armor was first introduced, it turned men into tanks. In fact, the German word for tank is the same as for breastplate (“Panzer”). What do the masters recommend? Hit them in the joints or face, where the armor was weakest or nonexistent.
There is a flip side to this point: characters should wear armor on things they want to protect. Helmets have priority! Modern sports are often less dangerous than combat, and they often demand helmets over all other protection!
Spears and Pole-Arms are weapons of war. A Pole-arm is any long weapon with a metal bit on at least one end of some wood staff. These kinds of weapons work well in formations, keep solders safer without compromising their combat effectiveness, are often capable of tripping and then piercing through people in plate, and are much cheaper than swords. Unlike in AD&D, these long pole weapons can move their points faster than swords and daggers, so using a sword against them gets tricky. The fact that pike formations survived into the age of muskets should indicate how useful these kinds of weapons are in warfare.
Shields are weapons, too. It is often better to think of a shield and weapon as a weapon system. Some shields, especially the big ones, are too large to do much with in the middle of combat, but bucklers and other small shields can be quite actively used. At the very least, a shield allows a fighter to take more aggressive actions because of the added capacity for defense they provide. Having a defensive item that can also be used in offense is a great advantage in combat!
Hand-held weapons were lighter than you think, and those people in armor were more mobile. Especially if you think D&D got their weapon and armor weights correct. If a weapon is too heavy, a fighter can’t help but telegraph when he will strike. If the defender can see the weapon coming and dodge it every time, it is useless. Also, fighters often need weapons that can change targets quickly, and can be used to parry! Even the big, two handed swords weighed no more than ~6.2 lbs or ~2.8 kg. One handed weapons often weight no more than ~2.3 lbs or ~1.04 kg. Waraxes were no exception, and were often very small!
Armor was also meant to retain flexibility, mobility, and give protection. If something protects you, but you can’t effectively move in it, it is useless. To allow maximum movement, plate was fitted to individuals so they only sacrificed a little movement for a lot of protection.
There are many names for very similar things. Pole-arms are really hard to categorize. You can get a typology to describe swords, like Oakeshott’s typology, but the truth is many very similar weapons have very different names across languages, and people sometimes make unhelpful distinctions between weapons. Compound this with the fact that the same name can be applied to multiple weapons, and you may understand why I find it best to not be too picky about what a weapon is called. For an interesting case study, look at “claymore,” which range from big two-handed swords to basket-hilted sabers to any sword produced in Scotland.
Some Good Additional Sources
This is just some starting points. Knowing about real-world martial arts will make fantasy fights much more believable and avoid a host of problems. This post, however, is just scratching the surface. There are some good further sources:
- HEMA Alliance. An alliance of HEMA clubs, they can point you to nearby clubs with actual fighters. Nothing beats first hand experience! Some clubs, offer short introduction lessons so you can try it out.
- Schola Gladitoria / Matt Easton. 15 years a HEMA instructor, a historian, and a sword collector, Matt Easton is perhaps the most authoritative source on youtube for HEMA subjects.
- Guy Windsor is a great HEMA authority, and his book “The Swordman’s Companion” is a excellent beginner’s book. He also has some good videos demonstrating different techniques for you to get an idea of how they work.
- Lindybiege. A quirky historian who often thinks critically thinks about weapons and tactics, the lindybiege channel often delivers short arguments or points about weapons and life in by-gone eras. He also makes museum displays and reenactments much more entertaining!
- Skallagrim. A HEMA practitioner who has great videos demonstrating the durability of blades, armor, and various techniques. He also has an entertaining but accurate series examining fantasy weapons.
- Wiktenauer. This is a wiki for HEMA. Absolutely wonderful for quick summaries of styles and masters. A good starting point to learn about different treatises.
Often, it does not take much effort to put real fighting into fantasy. Use these techniques to show how awesome a character is, or have these martial traditions play a defining role in your world. A strong base in real fighting opens the door for better fantasy fights in all your worlds. As always, when the time comes, do as Master Talhoffer says and FIGHT EARNESTLY!