Lost Arts: The European Longsword Part I

This series is meant to examine different martial arts that were practiced widely enough for there to be several reliable sources, which have either…

By: T.P. Grant | 10 years ago
Lost Arts: The European Longsword Part I
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

This series is meant to examine different martial arts that were practiced widely enough for there to be several reliable sources, which have either fallen out of practice or have suffered a lengthy break in its instructor lineage in the case of an art experiencing a revival. This series is an attempt to provide a fuller understanding of the development of martial arts through the ages.

For a more detailed statement of purpose please read the first article in the series.

The highly popular HBO series Game of Thrones has been breaking ratings records right and left due to, among other things, its highly stylized medieval style combat. Characters such as Jamie Lannister, a master swordsman, are helping generate interest in the quickly reviving area of European Martial Arts.

Many European Arts will be featured on Lost Arts due to the fact that many of them were largely lost after the end of the Renaissance as gunpowder warfare pushed those arts to the margins of society. The warriors and soldiers of Europe adjusted their training, weapons, and tactics as both minor and major conflicts continually pushed evolution and change.

One of those lost European arts is Longsword fencing. One of the most iconic forms of combat, the art of the Longsword was widespread through Europe from approximately 1350 to 1550 AD, spanning the end of what is known as the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance periods. For a modern reference that is significantly longer than breech loading firearms have been the dominant tool of infantry.

The longsword is an ideal place to start because those wielding one had to have multifaceted skill sets: the ability to dictate range, fight at distance, fight in the clinch, and to both defend and execute takedowns. While most aspects of longsword fighting are gone today, the clinch fighting and takedowns formed the foundations of several modern arts.

In fact the art is so big, it cannot be covered in one article. We will start with fighting without armor, known in German schools as Bloßfechten, or “bare fighting”. This is an excellent place to mention that I am no expert and will be speaking very generally here. There is not a unified art of Longsword fencing – it is an umbrella that covers a huge variety of styles that vary based on what country, city, and even school the practitioner hails from. This article will cover basics that were fairly universal.

The natural question to ask in all this is, if these arts are lost how do we know about them? The answer is that several dozen combat manuals have weathered the ages to make it to modern day and have served as the primary sources for different organizations looking to revive these arts. Some of the classic works include the Flos Duellatorum, Joachim Meyer’s Longsword manual, and sources from the German School of Fencing, to name a few. These works are not abstract or theoretical, they are eminently practical, built off the actual combat experience of both instructor and students.

Illustration from the Codex Wallersteih Bloßfechten demonstrating how to gain control of an enemy’s weapon with one hand and strike him in the face with the pommel of the sword with the other.

There are many historical recreation and European Martial Arts groups that draw on these sources to create their own interpretations of the manuals. Interpretations being a key word because we don’t actually know what all of them meant. The illustrations, while wonderfully drawn, are often a bit hard to determine action from. Often the copies being worked with are translations and the originals can be in dialects that even people who speak modern versions of the language can have trouble reading.

These groups provide crucial information through trail and error both in drill and sparring, to help us contextualize the techniques. It is important to remember though that these are recreations of the art, the true art is lost. The different recreators may have personal biases that impact how they interpret the manuals: be it loyalty to a style, previous exposure to other martial arts, personal preference on techniques, or just preconceived notions of what sword fighting should look like from popular culture.

Then there is also the problem that we are limited to combat manuals written in a time when less than 10% of the population was literate. It is highly likely that if you complied all the manuals together that would likely represent around 1% of the total fighting knowledge of the period.

Despite that we have a pretty good idea of how they fought and what it looked like, so let’s get into it. A longsword fighter was defined by his weapon, so let’s take a quick look at that. Simply put a sword is a length of sharpened metal with a sharp point.

The longsword has many names: the Spanish espadón, montante, or mandoble, the French passot and épée bâtarde, the Portuguese montante, the English bastard sword, the Gaelic claymore, and the German zweihänder and langes schwert could all be classified as longswords. The blade would be from around 90 to 110 cms, or around 3 feet, long with a straight, double edged blade and large, two-handed grip. Swords were diverse weapons – a warrior could make a cut, thrust with the point, strike with the pommel, or inflict a laceration by drawing the blade across flesh.

A basic diagram of a Longsword

One important thing to get out of the way is that the swords were not exceptionally heavy, compared to other weapons of the age. Studies on historic swords have disproved the old myth that two handed swords were basically clubs with edges as they found that the average longsword fell between 3 to 6 pounds, which is light for its size and with the weight too balanced to make for a good club.

Longswords were light, nimble, and razor sharp, and in an unarmored fight they would be absolutely lethal. The swords were expensive, as was training in them, so the average person would not have likely had a longsword. While combat in set piece battles would take place in armor, unarmored confrontations were apparently common enough to warrant a great deal of training time being devoted to it.

We know of many duels from the time period that could be behind the focus on unarmored combat; an Italian diary of the early 16th century, for example, mentions a contemporary swordsman named Bevilacqua who fought more than 20 unarmored duels, winning all of them. Additionally encounters with bandits, both rural and urban, that would not have afforded the great deal of time required to done the armor worn in combat. There is also the fact that training can be a good deal of fun, and it is possible not all those training were looking to apply their skills in the context for which it was intended.

The surviving information we have is mostly from the Italian and German schools and the basics of using the swords are very similar. The basic attacks include cuts from above, from side to side, and a rising cut, in addition to thrusting attacks and placing the edge against an enemy’s body and executing a both pushing and drawing monition of the blade into the flesh. More advanced attacks included attacks coming at angles – both angle of the blade and those involving footwork.

Attacking first however does not appear to have been the preferred method of fighting though. The majority of sources cover techniques coming off defending an initial attack. This makes sense as any time a fighter came within range to hit their enemy, they were also vulnerable to being hit and any overextension on an attack caused by a parry or a miss could result in a quick death.

So it appears that the longswords-man would have been, in modern terms, a counter fighter. This is not to say he was unable to attack, but any offense would have been measured, commitment to an action only made when success seemed certain. In unarmored fights a combatant could not “take one to give one”, so all out attack was not really a possibility against a skilled enemy. It was far safer to exchange some cautious offense and draw an opponent into over committing to an ill-advised action.

Here is a video demonstrating some of defensive techniques – notice the use of footwork angles similar to modern striking and the varied methods the weapon could be used to inflict damage.

(via TheRealGladiatores)

Due to the defensive nature of tactics, sword fighters in personal combat might spend a good deal of time out of range, waiting for the right moment. Controlling that distance was an absolutely vital skill and the German school of Longsword fencing divided distance into four categories.

Wide range entailed that a fighter had to take two steps to touch his weapon to his opponent, Middle range only needing a single step. Near range required no steps and close meant the two combatants were able to grab each other. This range would be jealously protected, especially in unarmored fighting, as the smaller the range became the more likely it became that someone would be killed, so changes in range had to happen on a fighter’s own terms and not his enemy’s.

Movement and balance were key to this style, so footwork was vital. In unarmored combat even one hit from a longsword could prove fatal, and if not fatal the blow would almost certainly wound and make it very difficult to fend off the next attack. So the first rule was don’t get hit.

There were a variety of ways to ensure not being hit. The simplest was evasion – use one’s footwork and speed to elude a strike and then quickly exploit the opening the miss created. As a result attacks needed to take the shortest and most direct line of attack, covering distance as quickly as possible. All that had to be accomplished while staying on balance so that a counter stroke could be avoided or blocked.

So the fighter stances, known as guards, had to be effective ready positions to strike with offense and react defensively.

High guards were denoted by a fighter holding his sword high, ready to strike. One of the most common was to hold the sword at head or higher level, leaving the lower body open but promising a hard downward strike to anyone who closed within range.

This stance pictured above had a variety of names. To the German school it was known as Vom Tag, while some Italians called it La Poste Di Falcone, the guard of the falcon. The Vom Tag also included resting the blade on the right shoulder, relaxed but again ready for quick strikes against a careless opponent. This idea of intercepting an attack with a counter-attack was a highly effective form of defense. It formed a mental barrier that an attacker would have to overcome. The threat of the promised strike by the blade held high was an obstacle to overcome, and then the attacker would have to actually physically deal with the blow to land their own offense.

Other guards offered a bit more in terms of defense than just the threat of a counter-stroke. Angles of attack were known as lines, and hold in blade to block an attack was known as “closing a line”. The guard known as the Ochs to the Germans involved holding the blade at head level with the point aimed at an opponent both closed upper lines and offered a quick thrusting counter attack as well as cuts. This was likely the ideal result of defense for many fighters – a clean kill without the danger of momentum or the enemy using his last breath to land a final blow.

Illustration from Meyer’s longsword where a fighter on the left uses the Ochs to both block a high attack and thrust to the face.

In addition to the closed line attacks, fighters from Ochs could perform more traditional parries where an attack is deflected with the blade away from the body and then breaking blade contact to reply with a strike. Those types of parries are not unique to any guard and variations of them can be done from just about anywhere.

High guards had a great deal of power and violent potential and were a favorite of fighters looking to be aggressive. Here is a quick example of some high guard attacks and defenses done at sparring speed.

Longsword techniques: Zwerchhau, absetzen, nachreissen (via Anton Kohutovič)

Low guards tended to be more defensive, looking open but actually providing a strong defensive posture.

Illustration from the Flos Duellatorum of the Half Iron Door guard, about which author Fiore dei Liberi says “I kill with strikes and thrusts”

Low guards carried many names and variations: the Boar’s Tooth, the Iron Door, and some are even refereed to as the Fool’s Guard. These can be equated to when boxers drop their hands, appearing to have let down some of their defenses, but in fact are still in a position to defend themselves.

An unwary attacker facing a low guard would end up walking right into a rising cut or thrust before his blow ever lands. In addition to intercepting counter-attacks, a defender can parry and then strike easily from the low guard.

There are also middle guard positions, which carry a versatility to them but if the blade is held forward it leaves a fighter able to be engaged by beats and binds. What is very important to keep in mind is that these were not fixed, rigid positions. Fighters would flow and move between the guards and different techniques as naturally as an elite boxer combines defense and offense.

As distances closed and blades met, rather than break contact the two combatants might engage in a battle of binding and weaving blades in an effort to gain an advantage in position and leverage. This infighting combined Near range and Close range in what were very high stakes engagements for fights.

Here is a video of an interpretation of the Codex Wallerstein, which focuses on Longsword infighting – notice it includes techniques and then the counters.

Codex Wallerstein Longsword Section (via MEMAG)

Once inside these close range fighters employ another weapon at their disposal, or they could turn to Ringen am Schwert, Wrestling at the Sword. Achieving a takedown was a huge advantage in a sword fight, the prostrate fighter having a limited ability to defend himself. But clinching and takedowns had to be timed when the sword was out of play and then achieved quickly.

A quick video demonstrating the speed and violence grappling could bring to a sword fight:

Hip Throw – Ringen am Schwert (“Wrestling at the Sword”) (via vaingloria)

The picture that begins to form is one of a fairly complete fighter. The ability to move and fight at range, fight on the inside, fight in the clinch, and wrestle. The ground fighting was present but minimal, the effectiveness of a choke to inflict quick death pales in comparison to that of a knife, dagger, or sword. The grappling side of things will be tackled a bit more in part two of the Longsword mini-series.

What can be seen here is a highly developed martial art that incorporates many aspects of modern striking when you look at the concept of footwork and angles. A universal concept to be sure, but you can see in some of these videos that the practitioners are angling off an opponent’s strike much like a boxer would. There is very little in the way of unarmed striking included in Medieval combat manuals – most of the unarmed combat is focused on grappling. The use of footwork to create angles both defensively and offensively was likely far more developed in weapons fighting than in unarmed striking in this time period.

Patrick Wyman pointed out that due to the two-dimensional nature of the source images it is entirely possible, and even likely, that modern interpretations might take too linear a view on the movement of these fighters and that much more angling and circling took place. It is important to remember that those recreating the art today are, at best, enthusiastic part-timers when compared to period experts and it is highly likely we will never know what Longsword fighting at its peak of practice and skill looked like.

Those modern recreators and martial arts do give us a pretty good idea however, and are doing important and wonderful work bringing awareness back to these arts. To close with we will take a look at a sparring match from a Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) event. Rules have been put into place and equipment has been modified for safety, and a point system is in place to determine a winner. The trainers of the Medieval periods understood the importance of sparring and would have strove to create as safe a way to do it as possible, so while not perfectly historical, this exercise is not ahistorical either.

Swordfish 2010 Steel longsword Final Axel vs Anders (via GothenburgHFS

Special Thanks for Patrick Wyman who is assisting with this series with his historical and medieval expertise.

For more MMA and Grappling analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.

Share this story

About the author
Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories