The art of middle age fencing

By Frank Cinato et Christian Perreault

Escrémir is the word used by the medievalist to describe any type of combat, whether it’s with a spear or a sword. For more than twenty years, passionate people have been trying to find the bases of this western martial art.

We will define escremir as the art of defending oneself. This usually requires two weapons: one for offensive and the other for defense. So, the lance and the shield will often be used. Melee weapons, such as the sword, the sax, the ax, etc., could also be used. But always coupled with the shield.

The adversary should not be perceived as an enemy but much more like a mirror that guides the movement. This philosophy supports a practice in a context of courteous fight or choreography (cinema, theater), without search for direct performance as is the case for a competition. This is a mastery of the mind to achieve perfection of movement, skill and apply a rigorous technique in order to make the combat realistic. Several sources allow us to trace with precision the combat as it was at the time (see box). As an introduction to the art of escremir, it is essential to know some basic weapons and their uses.

From the scythe to the sword …

Many texts have been written to classify and describe the armament of the medieval warrior. Too often, the authors of these typologies are only avid of technical terms and, consequently, merely mix the public and even the most seasoned medievalists. Take, for example, the famous Scottish claymore popularized by films such as Highlander. It should be known that the word claymore comes from the Gaelic claidheamh mr (pronounce: cliv mor) which means “great sword”. For the Scotsmen of that time, this weapon did not have a well-defined format and its name only designated a sword larger than the others, without precise length, without special guard. In fact, all nations have adopted generally similar weapons and each has described them in his own language. In this article, we propose a more general way of perceiving medieval weapons.

How did the fighters get their weapons?

In the Roman era, the armament of the combatants was provided by the state, which had a permanent army consisting of soldiers (combatants who were to receive military service while being paid a salary). When this notion of state gradually fell at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the permanent armies disappeared with it, at least in the form and extent that the Romans had given them. Under the Merovingians and Carolingians every soldier had to procure his arms, and if they had not the means, peers of the same rank had to pay to equip him. The historian Philippe Contamine calls this system the caregivers and the starters.

When feudalism appeared, the lords and the orders began to give land and to arm combatants in exchange for war services. This can be seen as a permanent army; a good number of their vassals also serving combatants, the lords could mobilize an army rather quickly, without committing themselves to conscription. Indeed, the latter is difficult to enforce under political structures weakened by perpetual changes. It may therefore be considered that the feudal system was a good one under the circumstances. In fact, the more structured society was in the Middle Ages, the easier it became to organize armies. This phenomenon is so evident that at the beginning of the Renaissance, armies truly composed of soldiers reappeared.

What were the usual weapons of the Middle Ages?

The shield

Throughout the medieval period, trends were observed in the choice of weapons: sometimes the spear was preferred, sometimes the ax or the sword, but there was one that never went out of fashion: the shield. Throughout the Middle Ages, it has always been an integral part of the arming of combatants. This contradicts what many people think. Indeed, the main weapon of the Middle Ages is not the sword but rather the shield. On the other hand, if it never disappeared from the battlefield during the Middle Ages, its form varied: oval, round, almond, heart, shield.

Why this constancy in the choice of this weapon?

Firstly because of its low cost, but more particularly because of its efficiency. This efficiency comes from its mobility, which distinguishes it from a piece of armor that cannot adapt to different situations. One would be tempted to consider it as the defensive weapon par excellence and that would be true. On the other hand, what to avoid is to think that it is only a defensive weapon. If his mobility makes him a good choice against attacks of all kinds, it also gives him high offensive qualities. Too often, one forgets that the shields can be used to strike too. The proof of the existence of shields can be seen, for example, in the German manuscript called I.33. Indeed one can read there the word Scbiltslacb (which means shield stroke) and to see there the representation of the action.

The sword

With the advent of epic poems and novels of chivalry, the sword became the very symbol of the knight. Throughout the Middle Ages, its form changed, always adapting itself to defensive innovations and to the novelties of the art of war. Contrary to what the majority of Hollywood films show us, the most used format was the one-handed sword. This is explained by the importance of fighting with the shield; since the shield occupied one of the two hands, a fairly light weapon could be held by the other.

On the other hand, other forms of swords were used, according to the requirements and the role that the fighters held in the Ost (knight, infantryman, archer, etc.). Here are a few examples: the bastard sword, which could be held in one or two hands, the swordfish used to mow the legs of the horses, or the rider’s sword which had the characteristic of being longer to Improve the range.

The weapons of hast

The word hast comes from the Latin hasta which designates the spear. In medieval times, it refers to all weapons with a relatively long wooden handle, provided with metal parts. The most used is the lance. But if it has always existed throughout the Middle Ages, it has known its time of glory until the sword comes to supplant it. Most of the hast weapons have derived from peasant tools, such as scythe, knife or ax. The main ones are: the pertuisane, the vouge, the fauchard, the halberd, the guisarme and the pike.

Far from being exhaustive, this overview is an introduction to situate the weapon and its combatant in a context more realistic than the one that is frequently presented to us. It may be useful in your next evaluation of a medieval image. But above all, it will allow you to thoroughly appreciate this chronicle, and to better understand the techniques of the art of escremir that will be exhibited there.

Multiple sources:

Here are some valuable documents that have come down to us from the Middle Ages and that allow us to better understand medieval fencing techniques.

The tapestry of Bayeux (XI-XII) is an invaluable iconographic source, although it does not represent in detail the techniques of fighting. The multitude of representations of warriors informs us however on certain aspects, like the handling of the spear.

There is also the anonymous manuscript of Franconia, known as Tower of London Fecbuch I.33, written in Latin and German. This text is the main reference for the art of fencing in medieval times.

The manuscript Flos duelatorum or Fiore de Liberi (the flower of duels) is written in Italian and is richly illustrated. He mainly deals with bare hands and two-handed swords.

The manuscript called Talhoffer dates from the 15th and is written in German. It describes the handling of a number of weapons, including the two-handed sword.

This article was originally published in the magazine Oriflamme Volume 1 in June 2000.

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