HF exclusive: A fencing system predating the Dussack by a century

HF exclusive: A fencing system predating the Dussack by a century

Post by Zoergieb » Wed, 11 Oct 1995 04:00:00

        The following article was taken from the Fall 1995 issue of
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****Medieval Wacky Wackers****

A Sports Fencing System Predating the Dussack by a Century
by J. Christoph Amberger

For more than a hundred years, Egerton Castle's ***Schools and Masters of
Fence*** has featured prominently in the bibliographies of almost all
Anglophone fencing historians.
        Judging from the liberal use of his opinions in modern fencing
books, Castle's work can be considered the standard work of reference for
fencing history. The scope and depth of his research, it appears, have
absolved later generations from questioning and redefining the boundaries
he has set.
        Or did they?
        Unfortunately, Castle writes off most systems and methods
preceding the Mediterranean rapier systems as irrelevant to the Art of
Fence. Thus, few modern authors make do without paraphrasing Castle's
comments about the
rough and untutored fighting of the Middle Ages [which] represented
faithfully the reign of brute force in social life as well as in politics.
The stoutest arm and the weightiest sword won the day (...) Those were the
days of crushing blows with mace or glaive, when a knight's superiority in
action depended on his power of wearing heavier armor and dealing heavier
blows than his neighbor, when strength was lauded more than skill, and
minstrels sang of enchanted blades that naught could break. (1) Of course,
some details just don't want to agree with this hypothesis. Medieval
society ruled by brute force? What about the Church's international
diplomacy and power politics? The weightiest sword? Why, then, would it
take a practitioner of the Noble Science of Defence 14 years of hard,
relentless practice to achieve the status of Master?
        Or what about the old Franco-Burgundian tapestry in the Burrell
collection at Glasgow, Scotland? In my opinion, this work of art, entitled
***Hercules Initiating the Olympic Games,*** could be as important to the
history of fencing as the Bayeux Tapestry is for arms and armor.
        The tapestry dates from the mid-1400s and shows Hercules, Theseus,
three Amazon queens, and a number of baton-armed combatants against the
backdrop of what the medieval mind imagined Mt. Olympus to look like.
        Hercules is not actively involved in the competition. He carries
the staff of the magister ludi or umpire (still represented in the
director's pe in 19th-century duels), and, in contrast to all other
figures, appears to be wearing metal arm defences.
        Of course, the artist did not attempt to produce an authentic
image of a mythological Greek event. (The concern about "authenticity" is
a modern, and, if you believe Heine, thouroughly bourgeois phenomenon.)
Hercules occupied a high place in the esteem of the Burgundian dukes who
probably commissioned this tapestry. Accordingly, it should be regarded as
a contemporary interpretation of a classical subject, reflecting the
artist's immediate experience and environment, as far as costume,
armamentsand in all probability the system of baton combat itself are
        The background and arms and armor context of this tapestry have
been discussed before. (2)  However, little attention has been paid to the
actual analysis of the fighting style itself. This is surprizing
considering that this could be the earliest depiction of the first genuine
sports fencing system in human historyabout a century younger than that
of the Central European Dussack, which even Karl Lochner grudgingly
accepts as the first true sports-oriented combat system. (3)
        The weapons used are batons, considerably less than three feet
long. They vary in quality from crudely smoothed cudgels (fig. 5) to
elaborately decorated staffs that may have been painted, maybe even
wrapped with colored cloth (figg. 8 and 11). Some are tipped with
spherical knobs, perhaps made of metal. Two (fig. 14 and fig. 12) have
additional decorations in the middle of the baton, maybe encrusted with
precious stones. All batons have a circular hand guard reminiscent of the
"Wacky Wacker" foils that have recently become popular in the United
        What sets apart this system from other images of contemporary
combat systems, however, is the use of the left hand for passive and
active defense. This circumstance makes it possible to arrive at
reasonable conclusions regarding target area and striking techniques.

The use of the left hand in combat
        The classical literature of the art of fencing includes the use of
the unarmed left hand from the earliest printed volume. In Sainct Didier's
***Traicte contenant les secrets du premier livre sur l'espee seule***
(1573,) (4) the left hand was used to deflect and grab the opponent's
blade. It was kept near the opponent's point, or close to the own body to
protect vital points of one's anatomy, either on the torso or the lower
        Later on, fencers faced the opponent with the right side of the
body turned toward him. In this position, the role of the (averted) left
hand greatly diminished, atrophying into a means of maintaining balance
and providing additional impetus to forward body movements like the lunge.

        Labat, Danet and Angelo still occasionally lapse into active
defense with the left hand or lower arm. In addition, both Danet and
Angelo describe ethnospecific guards such as the Spanish or German guards,
where the left hand is used to cover target area in the guard position. In
England, the left arm and elbow are used as passive protection of the
lower face in late 18th century singlestick play. And in 1892, the
***Deutsche Stossfechtschule***, written by  the association of German
fencing masters advises epee fencers to maintain "the left hand extended,
fingers closed, with their outer or inner side flat on the left side of
the chest. The hand can thus be used for defense if appropriate."  (6)

Comparable wards
        The use of the left hand as depicted in the tapestry plays a major
role in determining the background and purpose of the system. Donald
LaRocca from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York comments:
        Particularly interesting to me is why the left arm would be held
in warding-off position in front of the body. This would make sense in
unarmed combat only, and not in the Kolbenturnier, in which the combatants
were fully armored and sought to knock the crests from one anothers helms.
Perhaps an unarmed prelude or warm-up was practiced in which this form of
baton fencing was useful. (7)
        The use of the club (Kolben) is documented not only in the
tournament, but also in judicial combat, (8)  where it was supplemeted by
shield and cuir bouillon armor (leaving the fighters barefoot and bare
handed.) This tradition dates back to Louis the Pious who ordered that "a
man (...) charged with theft for the first time can clear himself by oath
but thereafter if two or three accuse him, he can defend only by combat
and shield, the device then recently introduced where doubt as to
credibility existed." (9)
        Hutton assists with his account of "How Two Tailors fought to the
Death with Shield and Cudgel," commenting that
any person, gentle or simple, who might have the misfortune to take the
life of another in self-defence could claim sanctuary on declaring that
the fight had been a fair one, and that he was ready to maintain the same
with his body in the lists; and this done, all process of law against him
had to cease, nor was any person allowed to molest him except by taking up
his challenge. The weapons, too, were curious. They consisted of a stout
wooden club and a shield of wood.  (10)

        But the clubs used at tournaments and the ordeal had little in
common with those depicted in the tapestry. Moreover, the thesis of a
warm-up procedure or prelude becomes untenable upon analysis of the areas
protected by the left hand.

Where they hit
        Out of the 15 figures wielding batons, seven are using the left
arm in a defensive or passive offensive function. Two (figg. 2 and 3)
protect their lower necks by positioning the left hand either on or above
the endangered area. The intention is to protect not only the clavicula
but the nervus vagus and the carotid sinus, a traditional karate striking
point. A shock to the baroreceptors in the carotid artery forces the
nervous system to respond with a drastic drop in *** pressure, which
cuts off the *** supply to the brain almost immediately. Fainting is
immediate and unavoidable, and yet the helpless victim has actually no
more than a slightly bruised neck. (11)
        Fig. 1 appears to protect against this by covering target area.
Fig. 2, however, will use his left in a sweeping motion, maybe grasping
the attacker's baton. Both cover heart and solar plexus with the upper arm
and elbow. A similar possibility is implied in the left hand position of
fig. 5, where the left arm covers the heart, solar plexus, and the
"floating ribs". These can be broken by a relatively light blow and damage
both liver and stomach:
        Such a blow is commonly delivered from the side, traveling toward
the center of the body. This is a favorite nightstick target. (12)

        Face and neck are protected by a steep lateral*** guard,
which can be turned into a ***, Schlaeger-like slash by a combined
motion of arm and wrist, as well as shifted into wider head guards similar
to those used in figg. 1, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11. Figg. 4 and 8 protect the
heart (or solar plexus), both actively and by covering target. A similar
stance can be found in the Ready Position (Tindig Serrada) and Lock and
Block Position (Laban tayong) of Escrima. (13)
        The face is protected by both the baton and the empty left hand
(figg. 6 and 7). Fig. 7 also provides a hit at a possible striking
technique: It is the spitting image of the transitional stance of the
abaniko, a fanning strike executed horizontally, diagonally, or
vertically. Body and arms provide a powerfull *** motion.14 In
Escrima, this manoeuvre is used to set up an opponent, feint, and pick the
target area. Figg. 4, 7 and 5, could represent successive stages of this
        Unfortunately, the figures only provide tantalizing bait for
speculation if it comes to recontructing the actual motions and actions of
this system. But there are some inevitable conclusions you can arrive at:
        The target area includes head and torso. Both arms are used for
offense and defense. Hits, maybe even thrusts, were aimed at the head,
face, neck, belly, and torso and caught or parried with the ulna of the
left arm (as in Victorian singlestick) and with the protective angle of
both weapon and baton arm (as in modern Schlaegerplay).
        It is safe to assume that this system was not used as a practice
or warm-up exercise: Practice systems tend to focus on the actual target
area used in serious competition. In the Kolbenturnier, all parts of the
body would have been covered by armor. Moreover, in the tapestry the thumb
of the left hand tends to be separated from the closed body of the hand,
making it a sensitive and highly fragile appendage if the full force of
club blows would have been brought to bear. This speaks for controlled,
low-impact strikes unpracticable at either the mortal combat of the ordeal
or the tournament.
        Another argument is that the three female figures are also
equipped with batons. Fig. 13 is in an at-ease position. Fig. 12 appears
to at least protect her arm with the baton (if she isn't actually lashing
out), while fig. 16 could be in the process of an overhanded angled
thrust. There are cases of women fighting in club ordeals, but women were
only spectators at tournaments. (Here, however, the classical allusion to
the Amazon queens may have gotten the better of the artist.)
        Castle's judgment of the quality of medieval fencing systems may
be overly simpistic. The Glasgow tapestry indicates that there may have
been well-developed sports fencing traditions in a period we have come to
regard as the Dark Ages. Hercules and his gang appear to prove that even
back in the 15th century, it was not that  important what size a man's (or
woman's) weapon was. It mattered how he used it.\

1       Castle, Egerton         ***Schools and Masters of Fence from the
Middle Ages to the 18th Century,*** London: George Bell & Sons, (1884)
1892 (revised ed.); p. 6

2       Wells, William and Norman, A.V.B. "An Unknown Hercules in the
Burrell Collection," in ***The Scottish Art Review,*** vol. 8; No. 3,
(1962); p. 11 f.
3       See Lochner, Karl E.    ***Waffenkunde fuer Sportfechter und
Waffenliebhaber,*** Wien: self-published, 1960; p. 31 and ***Die
Entwicklungsphasen der europaeischen Fechtkunst***, Wien: self published,
1953; p. 20
4       cf. Dubois, Georges     ***Essai sur le trait d'escrime de
Saint-Didier publie en 1573,***  Paris, 1918

5       "Mastering the sword requires learning to project power into the
weapon, but if a person generated power only on one side of the body,
disorders would result. To avoid this, sword practitioners hold the empty
hand with the index and middle fingers extended and the thumb folded over
the other two fingers. When power is projected into the sword, it is also
projected from the extended fingers of the empty hand to balance the
energy. This is known as the secret sword."        See Yang, Dr. Jwing-Ming
and Bolt, Jeffery A.  ***Northern Shaolin Sword,*** Boston: Yang's Martial
Arts Academy, 1985; p.23

6       Verein Deutscher Fechtmeister  ***Deutsche Stossfechtschule nach
Kreussler'schen Grundsaetzen,*** Leipzig: Verlag von J.J. Weber, 1892; p.
7       Letter to the author dated July 5, 1995.8       In England, the
club survived as a tool of judicial process for property disputes until
the end of the 16th century.
9       see Goebel, Julius ***Felony and Misdemeanor: A Study in the
History of Criminal Law,*** vol 1, (1937) Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1976; p. 79.

10      Hutton, Sir Alfred      ***The Sword and the Centuries,***
(London: Grant Richards, 1901)New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995; p. 16

11      Mashiro, N.     ***Black Medicine: The Dark Art of Death,***
Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1978; p. 32

12      Mashiro; p.50

13      See Wiley, Mark V. ***Filipino Martial Arts: Cables Serrada
Escrima,*** Rutland, Vt and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1994.
14      See Wiley, p. 69