As I mentioned in my previous post on Vadi’s preferred sword construction, Vadi is very explicit about certain aspects of the sword. One of these is that the “The pommel should be round to fit the fist”. As promised, this is my explanation of why.
A modern day, first-world problem. Someone asks you to pose for a picture and tells you to “act natural”. Your brain kicks into overdrive. “Natural? What do I naturally do? Do I smile like this? Where should I look? OH GOD WHAT DO I NORMALLY DO WITH MY HANDS?” We’ve all been there. Fortunately, this didn’t seem to be a problem in 15th century Italy.
As you can see from every single one of these images, the hand position is clear: the right hand is just under the crossguard, the left hand is resting on the pommel in some way (with various changes in grip depending on angle). In case you think I might have cherry-picked to prove a point: this is nearly every single image in Vadi’s book where both hands are clearly shown on the sword and the fighters aren’t grappling. Most of his plays that have images are wrestling-with-sword or half-swording, and many of the guards have the left hand obscured by the body.
I think its safe to assume that this depiction is not accidental, especially when combined with his advice on pommel construction. It is very unusual to get this level of consistency in the images from a historical text. Additionally, the fact that Vadi is holding a long sword in this manner is by no means a given – there are many ways to hold a longsword. Consider this advice in the Nuremberg Hausbuch (aka Dobringer Codex aka MS 3227a):
Also know that a good fencer should at first grip his sword safely in a secure manner with both hands between the cross and the pommel because this way he will hold his sword safer than by having one hand holding the pommel. He will also strike harder and more accurate this way if the pommel overthrows itself, swinging in behind the strike. This results in a much harder strike compared to having one hand at the pommel and drawing the strike. Drawing the strike this way is not as perfect and strongly, because the sword is like a pair of scales. If the sword is large and heavy, the pommel also must be heavy – just like on a pair of scales.
(Sometimes I really wish the Italians would just stop flouncing around and write as clearly as this).
Clearly there are advantages to not holding the pommel, so there must be some reason why Vadi is doing it in all these images.
Interestingly, this insight didn’t first come from directly spotting this in the book. I first spotted this when trying to perform various cuts from all of the guards, and finding that my hand would naturally slide down to the pommel as I tried to perform the motions. I then went back to the book to check the guard positions in more detail.
Vadi has two guards in particular where one’s wrists are crossed where this is particularly pronounced: posta di vera fenestra (guard of the true window) and posta sagitaria (archer’s guard). These positions are basically impossible to hold comfortably with your hands close together. Your arms actually get in the way of each other.
Likewise, the process of uncrossing your arms when making a parry or a blow feels unnatural if the hands are too close together. With the hand on the pommel you’re able to pull with your left hand to quickly uncoil and deliver a blow or parry. This is particularly true if you are doing a middle and low cuts from the roverse side (roverso volante and roverso roto in Vadi’s terminology – but more on that in a later post).
This last is particular important. Vadi informs us:
I don’t want your blows to be solely roverso,
Nor just fendente, but between one and the other,
If between is the common one.
Hammering the head on all sides.
This kind of attack where you alternate openings and edges is far easier with your hand on the pommel. We see a similar hand position in Meyer, who also has this sort of approach.
The pommel-grip is particularly helpful when you’re performing cuts with the false edge of the sword. junck-ritter made an interesting post recently about how using the false edge allows you to get a deeper angle of thrust from a high guard, and how this is even more pronounced with a pommel grip when compared to having both hands on the handle. Whilst not intended as a commentary on Vadi, the point is extremely applicable – especially as Vadi advises us to work with the hands high at the crossing.
The same properties that help in getting the deeper angle of thrust is useful when performing false edge cuts, which (as I mentioned in my last post) Vadi advises us to use for at least 2 of the 7 blows of the sword. The additional range of movement is essential to performing a false edge cut, as opposed to something that might awkwardly bop your opponent on the nose and simply piss them off. When your hands are next to each other, you simply don’t have the range of motion to do this effectively, and your own body gets in the way of a smooth and clean motion.
There is at least one obvious disadvantage that is also present in Vadi, however, although for reasons it won’t come up as often in a modern sparring context. You’ll notice from the pictures above that there is a rather large gap between the two hands – a little bit larger than a hand, you might say. This gap leaves you open to your opponent grabbing the hilt of your sword. This gives them a lot of control over your weapon, especially if they do it fast and take you by surprise. Vadi advises us to do this, once in the section on general principles of swordplay:
And if it comes to you then to want
To enter underneath and grab his handle
And also in the plays:
Something very similar to this play also appears in some of the German texts, including Ringeck (I don’t have a translation with permission to copy, so I won’t share the text directly, but you can find it on the Wiktenauer page by searching for “A Sword Taking”).
As I mentioned, this is hard to pull off in a modern context, primarily because even with someone holding their sword by the pommel, our gloves are usually so massive that they massively reduce the amount of room on the handle for you to grip. This makes the move hard if not impossible to perform in sparring. Hopefully with some of the new options for gloves due to come out soon or in the coming years this will become easier.
I feel very solid and sure of the conclusion that performing Vadi’s techniques effectively requires a pommel grip. As well as the text, the difference in feel when you shift your hand down just 5 inches is staggering. Positions that feel bunched and uncomfortable become almost natural. This is one of the few instances where text, image and biomechanics seem to mesh exactly with the first attempt, so in my mind the evidence couldn’t be stronger for this without Vadi getting up from the grave and saying “Yeah, I meant that.”
Or I supposed he could have just written “hold the pommel with your left hand” clearly like in the Dobringer Codex, but that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it?