Friday, January 15, 2010

What Made a 13th Century English Fencing School?

A Speculative Article

Though most of our medieval/Renaissance (or whatever you want to call it) European personal martial arts literature comes from the fifteenth century and later (much of it with evidently 13th and 14th century roots, at least), we have only a single work from the thirteenth solidly connecting the disparate centuries. However, surviving (or currently known) written works or not, we have the well known edict of the great King Edward I which, in part, bans fencing schools from the vicinity of the free city of London.

This edict was part of a larger list of proclamations that were in large part an attempt to lower crime rates and gang activity in London. Similar to an early attempt at gun bans. As now, not particularly effective, but more an impotent political statement of intolerance. Anyway, as interesting as that is, what we can infer from it about the state of the martial arts is more within our sights.

If fencing schools were even 1% as common in 13th c. London as taverns and beer sellers, there would easily be a selection of dozens, particularly if they were so prolific as to be high enough profile to catch the attention of the King, if only through his intermediaries, for banning within the precincts of the city. Additionally, chances are that these were neither confined to London, nor a recently constructed fad or novelty. How far back does the fencing school stretch in post-Roman England? Or in England, are they a relic of the practices or policies of the civilizing occupation of the Roman Empire itself? We can only speculate, but I would wager that they had been a facet of life since at least the time the Norman occupation had settled in, if not stretching back to Anglo-Saxon London, though we have only indirect evidence at best.

This leads us to the question: What do most people think of when pondering the fighting methods of the 13th century? Most might have a vision of the mailed knight, armed with his triangular shield on his neck and his formidable single handed sword; razor sharp, broad and quick. Perhaps a dagger at his belt, and a spear in his mailed fist. The great warrior of the high middle ages indeed, but is this the man and the means for training in the urban fencing schools of down-town London? Possibly, but not likely, particularly given the focus of King Edward’s edict. Though, given his contempt for the rulers of London, he would probably have given a wry smile if his proclamation had indeed intruded upon the exercises of London’s ruling class.

While there were almost undoubtedly fencing schools in London that catered to the gentry population, the true target of the King’s law was obviously the majority of schools that catered to the common citizen (and likely non-citizens as well, given their implied leniency in clientele). The highest echelons of London’s leadership undoubtedly avoided schools altogether, circumventing the law via private tutors (the King likely not having their class in mind for the law at any rate).

To continue, though the large triangular or round shield was a common, popular and effective weapon of war in the 13th century, it was certainly not something carried about on one’s person during daily life, even for a gangster. It is also something not likely to be taught in the common fencing school, particularly one that catered to the needs and desires of the common citizenry of London. Though apparently plenty of citizens did own them, and they brought them out for use during the regular war-games and training events held around city, which seems to be where the use of such implements was primarily practiced.

So, where shall we begin our theorizing on the content of the common fencing school of 13th century London? Why not at the source of all fencing: Wrestling. Even assuming, for no particular reason, a disconnect between native, Roman and Anglo-Saxon traditions supplanted by Norman ones, or later developments, we have records of popular wrestling as martial sport in and about London from at least the 12th century (along with teenage ice-skate jousting, and other dangerous games). This facet of the personal Art of Defense really needs no supporting evidence in my opinion, but it is a foundational art who’s beginning is lost in the ancient mists of time to Theseus and Hercules, and has never lost popularity at any point in history, even if occasionally sportified. It was undoubtedly instructed in the schools of martial arts in medieval London.

Next in apparent popularity, and likelihood of study in the school: the sword itself. During the time in question, we have two types of swords that probably saw use in various schools of arms; the single-handed sword, and the sword-of-war. Given the starting point of most of those likely to read this piece, we will begin with the longsword.

The sword-of-war, as it was sometimes called at the time, was the first longsword. Like the contemporary triangular shield, however, it was, as its name states, a sword used almost exclusively for war; not something convenient to carry about on one’s person on a daily basis. It was the proto-longsword, and like its shorter fore-bear, it was usually equipped with an exquisitely sharp cutting blade. Indeed, though longsword designs became more diverse in later years, this type never lost popularity and would not have been entirely out of place two-hundred years later.

Despite the sword-of-wars relatively recent popularity at the time, knowing what I know about men like myself who live for the Art, it would probably have been quickly adopted and applied to the Art by many a fencing Master. Yet its place as a weapon of war, and not of common carry, likely left it as a weapon that was not so popular in the common urban schools, but firmly entrenching itself in for a stay from this point on in the schools of the gentry and professional warrior class.

So this takes us back to its predecessor: the single-handed sword. The classic single-handed sword of the time was much like the sword-of-war; cruciform, broad, quick, razor-sharp, and broad-bladed with a flat, sharp-edged point at the end of a steady taper. A sword that could pierce, but was designed to cut an opponent to ribbons. There were a variety of blade forms available at the time, but this is the core template. This was the type of sword carried day to day by gentry and gangster alike. This is the type of sword that was used in the all too common brawl, street fights and gang fights that broke out between predator, prey and rival factions within the city.

Though it does not often come to mind, the most common way to carry the sword at the time (or any time), day in and day out, was by itself. This means that the practice of the single-sword alone was a definite focus of the 13th century English fencing school. This weapons popularity is attested to by its specific mention in this same edict from King Edward banning weapons in London after curfew was sounded.

For our next speculative aspect of study in the school, I think the buckler, as companion to the sword, is an obvious choice. The existence of the I.33 book, though a valuable resource, is entirely unnecessary for this theory. The buckler has long been a stereotypical English weapon. Such a stereotype could certainly apply to the Germanic lands as well given the material on it extant there, but nowhere else was it quite the common weapon of choice as in England, or for so long. Before Robin Hoode ever took up the longbow in modern cinema, he was a formally trained sword and buckler man. The very term “swash buckler” is obviously an English one, and the bravos and gangsters of London were well known to use this weapon. It was far more handy than a war-shield, as it did not weigh much more than an extra purse, and was therefore an excellent trade-off for daily carry in a rough neighborhood. It is most certainly a weapon that would have been studied in every formal school of London.

Another weapon at the top of the English pantheon of national arms is the staff. Legal records of London and elsewhere stretch far into the past for this weapon. Handier than the sword or the buckler, it was a constant companion for many Englishmen, being less obvious or out of place than a pure weapon such as a sword for many people, and occasionally more legal. As now, the fact that it was not purely a dedicated weapon even gave an edge in court to defendants who had to resort to its use. The staff is also the basis for the use of the spear, making it an ideal training tool whether one in actuality used a spear or a staff.

Next, the dagger is an obvious choice due in no small part to the fact that it seemingly never parted from the side of anyone in medieval Europe at any time. It was an essential weapon for everyone from scoundrels to nobles. A weapon of last resort in battle, a companion weapon when handy, and a primary weapon when no other was worn. The study of the science of its use seems only a given in this regard.

And here we begin to touch upon the foundation of traditions, but that is another article…

In summary, there are many more weapon arts that the 13th century London fencing school were likely to have taught, but the above are some of the more obvious or primary weapons they were likely to have offered study in. These can be inferred in both directions, from historical records in the earlier past and from the later fencing manuals themselves. Though it may have been mentioned in the past that evidence such as the King’s edict referring to fencing schools is evidence that they did indeed exist (aduuuuuuuh), I don’t recall hearing about any speculation on how they may have operated or what curricula they may have taught, so I hope this offering may have spurred some thought. It seems a common assumption now that the Master Leichtenauer not only invented longsword fencing out of thin air, but the formal study of martial arts in Europe, no less. This is probably a simple lack of thought on the matter, as obviously this is not the case, as the Grand Master himself says (presumably, through Doebringer the priest) that he did not invent the Art; it had existed for hundreds of years.


Copyright Jan. 2010, Casper Bradak

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