Combat: Fighting by the Book


Fighting by the Book:
Accuracy in Historical Combat Re-creation

by Ser Maelgrim Crouthur

Most of us are familiar with the image of Conan wheeling his mighty blade over his head, or of King Arthur cleaving through hordes of Orkney soldiers with Excalibur.  There are those who think of Drizzt Do’Urden’s swirling scimitars or Roland’s Saracen-slaying Durendal when we imagine swordplay.  A very few of us even think of William Marshall at the tournament or Sigmund Ringeck teaching his master’s techniques.

Whether in historical fact or fantastical fiction, sword-fighting is an intriguing element.  But how was it done?  And how can we, today, learn to do it?

Over the past several decades, numerous medieval and Renaissance reenactment societies have sprung up across the globe.  They vary in size, focus and location.  From local foam-fighting and costume groups to international re-creation organizations, these societies display a bewildering array of attitudes in their approach to authenticity, research and method of re-creation.  One thing that a great many have in common, however, is that the re-creation of combat plays an important role in their program.

Approaches to the study of historical combat vary as greatly as the myriad of groups that study it.  Some focus on reenacting particular battles - much like American Civil War enthusiasts.  Others take a much more free-form melee approach.  Some use rebated steel blades, while others use wooden batons, and still others use shaped foam simulators.

However, whatever their choice of weapon simulation or their attitude towards historical authenticity, most of these groups tend to share a fundamental approach towards recreating medieval and Renaissance combat: their system of fighting is dictated by rules devised by the group itself.  This means that, whether out of a concern for safety, lack of knowledge, or even through a sophisticated a training program based around the tenets of the organization’s rules, many re-creation societies study or teach sword-fighting that would likely be utterly unfamiliar to medieval or Renaissance soldiers and swordsmen.

This is curious, as many organizations are quite well-informed as to the dress, diet, language and social hierarchy of their chosen time period.  It seems dichotomous that a re-enactor should have a firm grasp of Middle High German, know how to recognize a landed baron by the number of trefoils upon his coronet, and be able to tell you the difference between a capon and cap-a-pied, but not be able to recognize fundamental differences between rudiments of English and Italian sword-play.

A central reason for this is the fact that until recently, many of the fighting texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance have been languishing in relative obscurity in their respective libraries and museums.  These fechtbücher (fight books) were written by professional masters-at-arms during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but have been inaccessible for years due to either their archaic and esoteric terminology, or their location (many are kept - not surprisingly - in Europe).

Indeed, their recent “discovery” and interpretation has led to the foundation of several schools of Western Martial Arts across the world.  These schools study the techniques as recorded by the ancient masters, and strive to interpret the texts in a sensible and combatively sound manner.  Great leaps in understanding our western martial heritage have been made by these schools.

Because they focus on the technique and application of these fechtbücher, the schools cannot be considered re-creation societies so much as martial arts leagues.  Therefore, it is not likely that the curriculum of these schools includes traipsing around in the mud and rain in armor while fighting, standing for hours in the hot sun behind a line of archers, or chasing bandits through the woods.  While the medieval soldier would have certainly had at least a passing familiarity with the classroom side of combat, he would also have needed to apply those lessons in a practical environment.

For the medieval re-enactor, these schools and their texts are a godsend.  They provide much-needed instruction that would have been a staple of many medieval soldiers’ daily routine.  In this way, re-enactors can feel at least somewhat confident that they are actually sword-fighting in a medieval fashion as opposed to fighting in a way that “seems right.”

The problem for both the scholar of Western Martial Arts and the historical re-enactor arises when considering the following question.  How much of the written record is reliable?  Do the texts that survive accurately reflect the fighting arts that were used in medieval warfare?  Are they meant to teach specifically for trial by combat, in a one-on-one confrontation?  Are they the work of creditable martial artists, or merely convincing con-men?  Would we know the difference at this far-removed date?

Clearly, it is next to impossible to re-create exactly the situations in which a medieval soldier worked and fought.  Even if a large enough army of authentically-equipped well-trained Western martial artists could be pulled together, it is highly unlikely that they would be willing to be brutally killed by real, sharpened swords for the sake of furthering our knowledge of good technique.

The best that we can hope for is to study the technique in both a “classroom” setting and then to apply it as realistically as possible in a “practical” setting.  This need not be restricted to merely swordplay; fighting texts exist for use of the sword, staff, axe, pole-arm, dagger spear and even unarmed combat.

To ensure that true historical combat skills are developed, the rules for recreating combat must be open enough to allow for use of most techniques in ant situation.  While this does not mean that armored arm-breaks should be applied in a woods battle, it does mean that at least simple disarms, grapples and shield-knocks should be considered during most melees.

If the rules are tools by which the combatants can safely recreate medieval fighting arts, and not a strait-jacket which bars the use of techniques that would work in a real-life situation, then perhaps the melees which occur in woods and fields across the world every weekend would begin to look more familiar to a historical master at arms.

Most of us who are involved in historical re-creation appreciate it more when the illusion is complete: when we can believe - for a moment - that we are fighting in a desperate 13th Century battle, then the experience is much more rewarding.  After all, just knowing that the technique you just used was taught by Fiore dei Liberi in 1409 is a satisfying feeling.

And it’s nice to think that maybe Aragorn used the Zornhau when fighting Orcs with his sword Anduril, too.








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