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Fiore dei Liberi: Master of the Sword

By Minjie Su

Have you ever wondered how medieval people really fought with swords? Have you ever wanted to wield such a weapon yourself and fight against some monster like an Arthurian knight? If you have, then Fiore dei Liberi is the person whom you would want to learn from.

Swordsmanship is more than ‘point the sharper end towards your opponent’, and there is more than one kind of sword to point. For anyone who has ever browsed the homepage of the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) alliance, the first thing one learns is that each club follows different medieval and Renaissance treatises. Fiore dei Liberi is the author of one of these treatises. But what makes him so special? Well, first, his treatise – Flos duellatorum or Fior di Battaglia (Flower of Battle) – is among the oldest surviving manuals on chivalric martial art. It explains in detail how to fight under a variety of circumstances – with or without armour, on foot or on horseback, etc. Second, the surviving manuscripts of the Fior are overall richly illustrated, thus offering visual instructions to enhance the reader’s’ understanding. This makes Fiore very popular among HEMA practitioners and medieval reenactors.

So, who is Fiore dei Liberi? There is not much information about him, but, gathering from what he wrote himself in the prologue to the Fior and from other relevant sources, a sketch of his life can be made. Fiore dei Liberi was possibly born around 1350. He claims that, by the time he composed the treatise, he had already been practising for half a century. Fiore was the son of the lord of the Italian town of Premariacco in the province of Udine. Considering Premariacco’s location on the German border, it perhaps comes at no surprise that Fiore was trained under a Johannes from Swabia, southwestern Germany; influence from the German school can be traced in his work. He had clearly established his reputation as a martial art master before 1383, when he was tasked with the inspection of the crossbows and siege engines of the arsenal in the province. He was also named by a German soldier as his teacher around 1380. Later Fiore became associated with the d’Este court and tutored many pupils of the great houses of the time.

The Fior survives in four manuscripts: Getty MS Ludwig XV 13, Morgan Library M.383, the Pisani-Dossi copy, and BnF MS. Latin 11269. Content-wise, they are all similar to each other, but the visual presentations vary. Among them, the BnF copy is particularly interesting, for not only it seems to have used a different source and translated the text into Latin, it also contains extremely detailed, vivid, and realistic illustrations.

Here are some of our favourite stances and instructions from the Fior, to give you a glimpse into the world of 14th-century swordplay.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 1v

The Fior starts with a picture of a man surrounded by four beasts, each representing a quality essential to good swordsmanship: lynx with its discerning eyes is a model of caution (prudentia); tiger, for speed (celeritas); lion, for courage (audacia); elephant, which is placed at the bottom as if supports both the page and the man, stands for strength (fortitudo). Learn well from these four beasts, Fiore proudly claims, then we shall have no fear.

The Lady’s Guard (Posta di donna)

The Lady’s Guard is an all-powerful, extremely bold posture, allowing the swordsman to attack as well as to defend. In this guard, one holds the sword high, as haughty and proud as a grand lady. The blade itself is hidden behind your back, so it is hard for the others to estimate the attack range. Plus, hewing from above also gives the sword extra force; it turns the sword’s weight into advantage and makes easier to ‘break’ your opponent’s guard.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 12v

What else makes this guard so powerful is its flexibility: it can be turned into other guards easily, such as the lady’s guard on the left (posta di donna la sinestra). It can also be adopted on horseback, but then one will have to keep the sword in front of one’s chest rather than behind the back.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 2v

The Window Guard (Posta di fenestra)

Another powerful is called the Window Guard. It allows the swordsman to hide his own intention as well as to trick the opponent. Grounded in the middle, the sword can go into several directions to strike. Like the Lady’s Guard, the Window Guard can also be wielded from both left and right. In addition to flexibility, it also has the merit of swiftness.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 12v
BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 13v

Fist vs. Dagger

But what if you are unarmed, while your opponent is? Fiore also gives some tips over how to turn the tables. Suppose your opponent is charging at you with a dagger, you can hold him at the wrist with your left hand. Roll it so the opponent’s hand loses all strength, then punch him at the chest.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 21v

Or twist his entire body while attacking him under the chin, so he will be cast onto the ground.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 22r

Fist vs. Fist

When both fighters are sword/daggerless, the fight apparently becomes some sort of wrestling. Yet the movements and principles are very similar to combats with weapons. A master swordsman must also be well-versed in pugilism.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 39r

If your opponent reaches your shoulder, do not worry, you can easily turn his move into your advantage and twist his shoulder instead.

As in the case of fist vs. dagger, one can go for the same weak spot – under the chin – to cast the opponent off balance.

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 39v

…Or go for another weak spot, one that makes your opponent fall tristi confusus honore (confused with sad honour).

BnF MS. Latin 11269 fol. 40v

Several books have been published offering the manuscript images and a translation Fiore dei Liberi’s Flower of Battle:

The Knightly Art of Battle

The Flower of Battle: MS Ludwig XV13

Complete Works Fiore Dei Liberi

Fiore Dei Liberi’s Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior Di Battaglia

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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