10 Tips for Reading a HEMA Text

cod-1324_iiv

Cover of Vadi’s original manuscript

There have been several moments since I started fencing when I’ve noticed a massive increase in my abilities. One of these is when I first picked up a historical text and started reading it instead of just training it and following my instructor’s take on things.

Despite the fact that the fencing treatises are literally essential to HEMA (as in they are part of its essence) most practitioners don’t read the texts directly, getting their dose of the H aspect indirectly, through their instructor. There are lots of problems with this, but I think the most fundamental issue is that 2 hour highly physical training session are a poor medium for transferring conceptual knowledge about the structures, body mechanics and tactics of good fencing.

When I think about how to teach Vadi, often a lesson plan for a two hour training session will be based upon maybe 9 lines from the book. I’ve mapped out what a “complete” curriculum might look like, and think it impossible to really cover the book in less than 20 sessions. To be honest, even that requires skipping over some of the specifics, and probably minimises time reinforcing previously learned concepts. By the time you’re done, you will have forgotten concepts form the start, and never build a complete framework in your head if this is all you do.

Compare that you can read the book in a few weeks, and re-read more quickly it to cement the concepts in your mind, and you’ll see that reading is really a much better way of getting the conceptual framework necessary for understanding fencing in full. This won’t magically turn you into a brilliant, perfect fencer. What it does is give you the understand required to be able to analyse your fencing, and your opponent’s actions, and identify what the correct response should have been (often: the exact opposite of what your untrained instincts actually did). Reading, therefore, is an essential component of becoming a skilled HEMA practitioner.

However, it’s not easy. Reading a historical martial arts text is tricky at the best of times, and sometimes utterly baffling due to wide separations in centuries, languages, geographies and a complete lack of a common cultural context with the author. Reading these books is very different from reading a modern how-to manual, and you need to come at it from a different angle if you want to be successful. I was discussing this very issue with my club in the pub after training the other day, which inspired me to write a list of top tips that have helped me in working through Vadi.

You should take this article with a pinch of salt. I am not an expert in medieval history, or medieval manuscripts. I have thoroughly worked through one text and flicked through several others. The texts have a wide range of styles, content and clarity of expression. Generally the closer you get to the modern time the easier the manuscripts are to read, but this is not a hard and fast rule. So some of the tips below may not help you with whatever manual you are working with, but if even a few of them help you break the barrier of actually getting stuck in with a text, I think this post was worthwhile

1. Read through multiple times

Above I distinguished between manuals I had “read” (one) and “flicked through” (eight). Now, I read a lot, probably in the order of ~70 books a year. With a modern book, I will pick it up, start at page 1, finish at the end and put it down then forget about it. Some tougher, non-fiction books I might read specific chapters or go back and forth a little bit. When I say I’ve “flicked through” eight manuals, this is what I’ve done with those manuals.

With Vadi, I have read the longsword section in the order of 50 times or more. Some of the confusing sections must be over 100 reads. It did not make much sense to me on the first read through.

My general advice would be to read through the book 3 or 4 times before you start to really try to tackle it. This will give you a general picture of the system that will help you not get lost, and you might have picked up a few things, but you will still have a ways to go. When you read it again more carefully, things will start to click and you’ll begin making connections to other bits you read.

2. Read Slowly

You will not read a historical fencing text nearly as quickly as you are used to reading a modern work. Putting a description of a martial art to paper is hard enough at the best of times, but when you factor in that these texts are hundreds of years old, translated and not necessarily written in prose, you should be aware that you will not be able to comprehend the text if you read at your normal speed. Slow down, and don’t be afraid to read paragraphs multiple times before moving on.

There are some sections in Vadi (indeed, whole chapters) that took months of re-reading before I really felt I understood was going on. If progress feels slow it’s probably because you’re comparing it to your “normal” reading, which this isn’t. Don’t feel disheartened. It’s going slowly because it’s hard, not because you are bad at it.

3. Read confusing bits out loud

This was a bit of a surprise one for me, and might be Vadi specific. However, especially in the early texts, you should remember that most of the words are written as verse, not prose. Even with the translation, the natural rhythm is closer to the spoken rather than written word. This also helps to force you to slow down in your reading.

4. Make links between different parts

In Vadi, whilst each section nominally is on a particular topic, there are numerous examples where he seemingly repeats or even contradicts himself, or describes an earlier concept in a new way, with more detail or perhaps just emphasising something else. Really getting to grips with the concept will require you to think about parts that are conceptually close but in disparate places within the book. This same is true with Fiore, where  (for example) aspects of the dagger and wrestling sections are fundamental to the longsword. Don’t assume that just because something has a chapter with a title that there is only one place you will read about it. I believe that despite having an almost worthless chapter on “mezzo-tempo” actions in Vadi, the actions are described (better) in 3 other locations in the text. When combined with the section itself, this gives you some general principles and three actual examples to work with to try and extrapolate the principles and apply them in novel contexts.

5. Write notes

You will need to write notes as you try to puzzle things out. One of the best places for thi
s is on the text itself. In the case of Vadi, I madeimg_20161014_220636-copy a word document version of the text on Wiktenauer. This is an image of my printed copy of this document. As you can see, it has all of
my comments plastered over it (including an alternative translation to one of the sections). I find these immensely helpful when making links between sections of the book and to build my understanding slowly with every read through of a section.

If you’re going to make a copy like this, check the copyright information in Wiktenauer. It’s fine with most of them but not all, but Wiktenauer is very clear about what the copyright situation is on every piece of text or image.

 

 

6. Read with sword in hand

Whilst you can pick up a lot just be reading, you will get to sections that you just can’t make work in your head. Usually, the only way I can get it to make sense is by picking up a sword. This will result in a process of going back and forth from the text to waving my sword around in the air as I try to put the words on the page into motion. Having a partner can help but it’s not necessary. You can get a lot out of just seeing how your body moves to see if it makes sense.

An example of this for me in Vadi was with the guards and – specifically – with the pommel grip. It took me three or four times going back and forth between trying the guards and some cuts in the air, then looking at the text again to see how closely I matched, before I realised that I needed to hold a pommel grip to make the guards work. These things rarely click right away.

7. Work Backwards

This advice works particularly well for cases where you have an image and a few lines of text to describe the action. The main problem with this situation is that the image is often at an unknown point of time in the action, and the authors are not necessarily that clear about what precedes or succeeds that point in time.

To solve this, you will need to stand in exactly the position as depicted in the manuscript, and work backwards through the actions mentioned until you arrive at a starting point. Working forwards I tend to find that I end up in a position that isn’t quite right and doesn’t seem to quite work. This guarantees the end is correct and attempts to reconstruct it.

8. Try multiple theories

I have some bad news for you: the texts are not always (ever?) crystal clear. Some sections are genuinely ambiguous, in either the translation or the original. When you find sections like this, write notes on all your possible interpretations. Sometimes this can be solved by reference to other sections, careful re-reading or alternative translations. In other cases, test them all out with a friend to see which feels right.

9. Read the Translator’s Notes

It is likely that the text you have chosen was not written in your native tongue. Even if it was, it may have stylised writing and random spelling that means you are reading a modernised version of the original. This means you are probably working from a translated copy.

The start of every translated text I have ever read (not just for HEMA) begins with an introduction from the translator. Usually it starts with them telling you how no translation is perfect and you should really go read it in the native tongue. Assuming you don’t want to learn (e.g.) medieval Italian regional dialects, or would rather get started whilst doing that alongside, the translated copy is probably what you’ll have to go with.

However, the notes often detail certain key things that are ambiguous or tricky to translate, OR connotations that are present in the original language that get lost in translation. The notes will allow you to get some idea of the subtleties without needing to become an expert in a long dead language, and they can be really helpful.

In Vadi, the word “rota” is used to describe an upward blow. It also means “to turn” or “to rotate”. There is a whole chapter that the meaning changes entirely depending on whether you interpret it as referring to rising blows, rotating blows or (potentially) rising rotating blows. Indeed translators are split on how they describe this chapter. You need to be aware of these complexities if you are to understand the text.

10. Find multiple Translations

Part of the translator’s usual spiel is to tell you how they cannot translate without also interpreting the text. This means that multiple translations can, at times, appear very different. Having multiple translations can really help on tricky sections that don’t seem to make sense. Whether the alternative is more accurate or just a clearer way of expressing the same point, it is a useful tool.

I have three translations of Vadi. I’m not qualified to judge which is the most accurate, but from a clarity perspective I don’t believe any of them are “better”. They are, however, surprisingly different in both style and content for a variety of reasons. I’ve found that for most sections the translations are pretty close in content, with minor differences in style. However, in general, the more complicated or confusing a section is, the bigger chance there is that the translations differ dramatically in substance. Therefore I highly recommend working with multiple translations.

Why does this happen? Well, for a start, even reading medieval text is not trivial. One word in Vadi has been transcribed to Italian in Windsor as “fe” (makes) and as “se” (knows) in Rubolli and Porzio/Mele. These letters are written nearly identically in a medieval text – make your own mind up about who is right from the image here.

cod-1324_08r

The original text can also be ambiguous. In one line, Vadi states either that the Volante (a mezzani/mittelhau/middle cut) banishes fendente and thrusts or that it is banished by them. Unsurprisingly, the translations have differed on which they chose (and thankfully Rubboli marks that this *is* ambiguous so the laymen can understand why).

For an excellent description of some of the issues translators face, I highly recommend this article on translating the Paris version of Fiore’s manuscript. Whilst specific to a manual, many of these issues are faced throughout, and it’s good to have an appreciation of the hard work and dedication that is freely given by those working hard to translate these texts to modern languages.

Conclusion

I hope these tips have been useful to you. As I mention above, I make no claims to be an expert in this: but all of the above are things that I do and have found helpful in understanding Vadi from the text. If you find these help, I’d love to hear about it – and if you’ve got other top tips, please pop them in the comments below so that I can use them as well!

Advertisements

Principles of Vadi’s Guards

As I mentioned in my opening post, one of the single, most striking differences between Vadi and Fiore is the guards. A superficial glance at the two sets of guards could lead one to think they are quite similar. Both have 12 guards, for instance, and there are many names in common to in each set. Indeed, some of the guards match perfectly in name and form and can be basically considered to be the same guard.

However, I think this superficial reading would be a mistake. The similarities between names should be largely ignored – Fiore’s posta di donna has more in common with the German Vom Tag than Vadi’s guard that shares a name.

Vadi also has a number of unique features in his guards that, I believe, make his system fundamentally different to Fiore. Indeed, some of the features of his guard system are – to my knowledge – unique to any system of medieval longsword. Curious? Read on…

What is a guard?

Before we get to Vadi, I just want to be clear about what guards are. They could be:

  1. A ready position, to stand waiting to attack or block
  2. A position to close a line of attack
  3. A start position for an action
  4. A transition point as part of an action (e.g. a strike itself)
  5. An end position for an action

Indeed, all of the guards in either Fiore or Vadi are several of these – typically a ready position, and 1 or more of points 2-5. Any and all actions which you do should start and finish in a guard position, going through a trajectory (perhaps another guard) at the proper speed and angle between the two – whether that action is a step, an attack, a block or just a change in guard to gain an advantage.

Vadi gives us a lovely turn of phrase to explain this:

And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You should go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary. (Vadi, 11V)

Anecdotally, I find strong evidence for this in all weapons and systems, not just Vadi or longsword. I often find myself in situations where someone wants to spar with me using a weapon that I have very little clue how to use. My first (and often only) question is usually: “What are the guards?”  This is usually all I need to perform adequately with an unfamiliar weapon (general principles about distance and timing and decent reaction times and fitness don’t hurt there either). This is because learning the guards a system has is effectively learning how to move within that system.

In practice, of course, it’s not always so simple and your knee jerk reaction will usually take you out of guard -I am still often falling back to Fiore’s guards when under stress. But then…. that’s why we train.

Principles of Vadi’s Guards

Beyond the general principles of guards, Vadi gives us some specific advice that seems to apply to all of his guards, but wouldn’t necessarily generalise beyond his system. I list these in decreasing order of confidence in my conclusions.

And follow then as the saying goes,
Place yourself in guard with the sword in hand,
If you pass forwards or back remain side-on. (Vadi, 05r)

So that you will not play in vain,
Face the side to which you turn,
And enter there, if this is not strange. (Vadi, 05r)

These two quotes come from Vadi’s section on the Principles of Swordplay indicate a preference for remaining side on with your opponent. This is one thing that I was getting wrong at first, and switching to this makes a big difference, especially for the high guards, such as posta di vera fenestra. However, this isn’t always easy to apply for some of the low guards, and can lead to some awkward  positions (c.f: Posta di Cingiaro di Fora).

On one side you make defence
The forehand blows go on one side,
The backhands attack from the other. (Vadi, 05r)

Whilst the 2nd two lines don’t add much to the discussion of the guards (although Vadi talks about these two kinds of blow a lot and it is significant in the system), the first line seems to suggest another principle, that the guards are held firmly on one side of the body.

What I’m unclear of is the sense in which they “make defence” on one side. This could mean that the guards close a line of attack by directly interfering with a strike targeting a specific region of the body, or that by having only one direction to move the sword you will always be moving it in the right direction for defence. Or both. Nothing in the text tells me which way to interpret this, so for now I’m assuming it can be either (as this seems to be accurate in the guards themselves). The result of this is that the guards are all held firmly to one side – there are no centre guards (note: I will use “centre” to refer to the left/right middle, and “middle” to refer to the top/bottom middle). For what it’s worth, the positioning of the guards reflects this principle (a future post on the specifics will be next).

It is necessary that the sword should be
A great shield that covers all,
And grasp this fruit,
That I give you for your mastery.

Be sure that your sword does not
Make guards or strike far away,
O how sensible this thing is,
That your sword makes short movements. (Vadi, 14r-14v)

The first part of this paragraph gives weight to the interpretation of the guards closing down a line of attack, although on its own it would be quite cryptic. The second half, whilst giving a principle for his guards, is also an example of a recurring theme in Vadi: that one should make as small movements as possible and play close to the body. This is repeated advice, and would be odd not to be a principle within the guard system, seeing as this appears time and again throughout the text.

Interestingly, a common issue I’ve had doing Fiore has been that my defences are far too wide. Despite best efforts, I have been unable to train myself out of this bad habit. However, I find that Vadi’s guards are significantly easier to keep tightly to the body, and I have noticed an improvement in my fencing as a result. This is particularly true of guards where the sword is over the lead leg. More on that below.

 

Here are the guards with their names,
Each of your sides is shown.(Vadi, 16r)

This is is the rather cryptic opening to the entire section on the guards. Guy Windsor, in his translation notes, details a lot of the issues he had with translating the particular sentence, but explains that he takes this to mean that Vadi will show guards that are pairs to each other on either side – the right and left version of every guard. Indeed, most guards in Vadi have an obvious counterpart on the other side. Crucially, however, 4 don’t seem to have an opposite. As I will argue below, I think there is evidence for these 4 guards also having an opposite pair that is just left unshown in Vadi – much as Fiore misses some guards in the guard section and shows them in the plays. Likely, this is to keep to the magic number of 12 guards.

Unique Features

The unique features of Vadi’s guards are that he has 6 guards where the sword is held over the lead foot. This is not present in Fiore, except maybe in his posta breve, which in one manuscript looks like it might be – but this is usually interpreted as a centre guard. Likewise, it isn’t present in any of the standard 4 Liechtenauer guards or – to my knowledge – any of the other secondary guards that appear in the various texts in that tradition.

I think there are three categories of guard that explain this feature. To understand the first, we need to look at Vadi’s advice on defending the blows.

Defensive

 

Parrying well however many blows.
When you parry the roverso, keep in front,
The right foot, and parry as I have said.Parrying the mandritto,
Keep in front your left foot.
What seems clear at first needs a few caveats. My current understanding of a mandritto vs roverso blow is that mandritto is a blow from your strong-side, and roverso from your weak. I think that the left/right instruction relating to footwork should also relate to strong/weak (Vadi uses the word stancho and dritto, which have been translated to left/right, but are not the usual Italian words for left and right). Finally, think on this: what if your opponent is the opposite handedness to you? His mandritto is then correspondingly reversed. I am assuming for now that the foot you lead with doesn’t change if the opponents hands change (i.e. if he attacks me with a right-side cut, I defend with my left foot forward). This last point I am unsure about; from experience with Fiore, generally reversing your footwork for plays makes them suddenly start working again. More research with sword in hand is required to decide.

If this interpretation is correct, following Vadi’s advice will result in your lead foot being on the side that the opponent’s sword is coming from. As a result, in order to defend against the blow, your sword will also need to be over that foot. Remembering that Vadi explictly tells us to travel between guards when blocking, this leads me to the conclusion that some of these guards have sword over lead foot because their primary use is in covering from an incoming attack. The three guards covered by this are posta longa con spada curta, posta di donna and corona (left to right, below).

Note that all of these guards are ones that lack a partner. It is precisely because of their apparent use parrying that I believe they can be used with either foot forward – attacks can come from either side, after all (and Vadi explicitly tells us to attack on both sides). In my head, these correspond to a low, middle and high cross or parry, which can be varied depending on blow or what move you want to set up in response.

This kind of footwork is, I believe, core to Vadi’s system, where by your defence should initially be in jiocco largo (wide play), and only if you see an opening should you close to do all the fun jiocco stretto (closer play) stuff. These concepts will be explained in their own right in a separate post.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am less confident about the inclusion of posta di donna in this list as there is little description of its use to back it up. There are supporting passages for the use of corona and curta in blocking though.

Offensive

Two other guards where the sword is over the lead leg are two of his low guards – mezzana porta di fero forte and posta di cinghiaro di fora. Exact replication of these guards is probably the hardest part of interpreting Vadi’s guard as, in keeping with the principles, they lead to some odd positions.

Trying to stay side on with these guards is actually very tricky. At first I was leading with the wrong shoulder forward, when compared to the picture. This is quite natural for porta di ferro forte, but was basically impossible to remain side on with posta di cinghiaro di fora. Fixing the leading shoulder leads to an oddly positioned system.

The whole thing makes sense when you treat this guard as an end position for a fendente (downwards blow), in one of the following circumstances:

  1. A mandritto fendente
    1. From a guard with left leg forward using an acressere or no step
    2. From a guard with right leg forward using a passing step
  2. A roverso fendente
    1. From a guard with left leg forward using a passing step
    2. From a guard with right leg forward using an acressare or no step

(an acressere is where you step with your lead foot first, and your back foot follows)

When you do this, your natural end position has the leading shoulder matching Vadi’s pictures. If you add this to the fact that Vadi gives us explicit instructions to attack the opposite side at a time when you are already in distance, the guard position makes perfect sense: this is the end position for if you’ve attacked (say) a mandritto fendente with passing step, and then immediately cut to the other side without making another step.

This isn’t the only use of the guards of course, but I think it is one of them.

Posta di Falcon

This isn’t so much a category as “the other one”. original_posta_di_falconI’m going to confess here that I’ve had little luck with this guard and have no real working theory for it’s use. The description is entirely defensive: it doesn’t feel like a defensive guard. Sadly, there aren’t many clues in the text.

I have been using this on both sides, because I can see no good reason not to. Having said that, there is not strong evidence for it having an “other side” as with the defensive guards. But I don’t want it to feel lonely, so for now I say it does. I am prepared to be convinced otherwise though.

Summary

To sum up the general points on Vadi’s guards made above:

  1. Body position should be side on to the opponent
  2. The sword should be held firmly on one side of the body, not in the centre
  3. The sword should be close to the body and not too wide,
  4. Each guard has an opposite number with the other leg leading and sword on the opposite side

I will make a follow up post soon showing my interpretations of the specific guards, with comments on their use. For now, thanks for making it through what ended up being a rather long post.

How to hold a sword in Vadi

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.

vadi_grp.png

Assortment of pommel grips from Vadi’s guards and plays

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.

Application

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.

vadi_fen_sag

posta di vera fenestra                                           posta sagitaria

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:

vadi_handle.png

In this way I have you with the left hand, I will not hold back striking with cuts and thrusts

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.

Conclusion

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?

First Impressions of Vadi

This week, I trained and sparred as an acolyte of Vadi. Not the easiest thing to do, seeing as the rest of my club are all doing Fiore. However, I think I managed to make it work. By which I mean I managed to test out some of the basics of my interpretation. Not that my interpretation was particularly effective. This is a relatively short post discussing what I tried and my first impressions.

What I tried

My understanding and interpretation of Vadi is still in its formative stages so there wasn’t a great deal I could do. We were training basic jiocco largo techniques from Fiore using a range of different cuts. In terms of how I decided what to test, the thought process was essentially “OK this is the exercise… what do I remember from Vadi that relates to this…” As such it was a bit of a random selection of principles that I’m sure I got some aspects wrong.

The first and simplest thing I did was to switch to doing the same drills, but using the guards from Vadi over Fiore’s. This was relatively straight forward, although the guards where Vadi holds the sword over the lead leg were a little confusing sometimes as it changes the need to step, and also the distance we ended up in. I feel this confusion might be an advantage against an unfamiliar opponent.

Next I tried two pieces of advice from Vadi in training the drills:

  1. When at the cross, attack with the false edge to create an opening
  2. Backhand middle and low cuts use the false edge

The text for reference, for point 1:

And if the companion strikes and you all of a sudden
Parry, making then to the head
A blow with the false edge
And as he lifts it, strike a good roverso

And for point 2:

The forehand blows go on one side,
The backhands attack from the other.

The true edge falls on the forehand side,
And note well this truth
The backhand and false edge go together.

(he says elsewhere this doesn’t apply to fendente)

Finally, in sparring I took his advice in sparring to try a range of attacks (which to be fair I do anyway, but I did it a bit more so).

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.

Impressions

The false edge cut when in a bind worked well from parrying a forehand fendente. However when we switched to roverso, I couldn’t make it work. I’m going to re-read some of Vadi’s advice on footwork as this may be the issue.

Many of the false edge cuts I performed felt awkward, but I expected this to. Part of this is getting used to it, but also I was trying out several different interpretations of this piece of advice. Pairing false edge with riverso cuts is one of the pieces of advice Vadi gives that sounds straightforward and turns out it isn’t. I intend to dedicate a whole post to this issue, but in summary here’s a quandary for you: if I’m in a left side guard, which side is my backhand (riverso)? Or if I’m in one of Vadi’s guards with sword and lead leg on the same side? I don’t yet have an answer to this.

Once in a bind, the advice to throw lots of attacks was effective. However, as the first attack it resulted in a lot of doubles. There is some textual evidence to suggest the opening move should be a fendente, and this advice applies specifically to working at the bind. However, I will first go back and see what he says on the other cuts and see if I’m doing them wrong before I use that as a working theory, as this could just be unfamiliarity with some of the false edge cuts and his guards.

My wrists hurt. Vadi has a lot of crossed wrist guards, and the emphasis on holding the pommel with your left hand gives you a powerful uncrossing action. But yeah, they hurt. Actually my whole left arm feels like it got a lot more of a workout than normal. Again might be interpretation issues.

Conclusions

None yet. It’s far too early to draw any conclusions from this, as any issues with my fighting could be due to interpretation, and many successes could be down to surprise of a new move more than anything else. Although I must say I do like the false edge cut from the bind.

One thing of note: for those that read my previous post on Vadi’s prefferred sword, I speculated there that the Rawlings sword would be better for Vadi if you used the extended pommel on a longsword blade. I can confirm that I tested this yesterday, and it was indeed an improvement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measurements of a Sword in Vadi

One of the interesting things in Vadi is that he dedicates a short chapter to the proper size and shape of the sword. Although brief, I think this chapter is extremely interesting for two reasons. First of all,  most authors don’t do this (I’m not aware of any others at least). If we have any idea of the type of sword they prefer its from looking at the art work in their treatise, and comparing the size of swords to the size of the fighters. However, more interesting for me are the actual measurements that result from his advice. As we’ll see, I think Vadi’s sword advice represent yet another area where he clearly differs from Fiore, again rubbishing the claim that Vadi is not really that different to the earlier Italian master.

vadi_sword.png

Vadi’s depiction of a sword for use by someone in armor

Given that Vadi carefully spells out what type of sword I should be using, it would be churlish of me to ignore him. So I asked myself the simple question: do I have the right type of sword? We’ll explore Vadi’s advice on swords by comparing it to the practice swords that I own.

I have two practice swords, which are both about as common as you can get. My nylon is a Rawlings Synthetic from the Knight Shop with steel quillons (crossguard). My steel feder is the literally off-the-shelf standard from Peter Regenyei. Apart from the steel quillons on my nylon, there is nothing at all unusual about either and no customisation at all (and the quillons aren’t that uncommon either). To be clear, I’m pretty happy with both products and this isn’t intended as a review of either. This post is simply to answer one question: do these swords measure up to Vadi’s standards? As I’ll explore at the end, Vadi has quite different views of swords to even his closest contemporary, so if it doesn’t measure up, that doesn’t automatically make it a bad sword.

my_practice_swords.jpg

Regenyei on top, Rawlings on the bottom

 Pommel

As you wish to avoid any trouble,
The pommel should be round to fit the fist
Do this to not enter the trap.

This is some pretty straight forward advice. I want a round pommel, that will be comfortable to grip in my hand (I will make a post in the near future showing why this is important for Vadi).

Whilst the Regenyei is nicely rounded, the Rawlings has this “scent stopper” shaped pommel that flares quite sharply. Definitely, I wouldn’t describe it as round.

Likewise, the Regenyei is much more comfortable to hold in your fist. I feel like you can even see in the pictures the difference in in comfort when gripping the sword by the pommel. The grip also feels a lot more solid and secure with the Regenyei.

All in all, the Rawlings pommel is not ideal. It’s uncomfortable to grip it directly, and this would cause problems if using a grip where you held the pommel. The Regenyei, however, is basically perfect – according to Vadi.

Handle

And do this as it is always done:
The handle should be always a span
If it is not of this measure there is confusion.

Once again, pretty clear. What’s particularly useful – and striking – is that this and all measurements that Vadi gives are relative to the fighter (short fighters who favor longer swords take note). I’m not sure why it will be confusing to have a shorter pommel, but the instruction on length is pretty clear – the handle (without pommel) should be the length of my hand span.

Again, the Rawlings sword comes up a bit short here. My thumb comes to the middle of the pommel, so the handle is slightly to short. Once again, the Regenyei fits perfectly.

Crossguard

So your mind is not deceived,
The crossguard should be as long as the handle
And pommel together, and you won’t be condemned.

This is the second time Vadi has stated that his measurements are so that my sword doesn’t confuse me. I assume Vadi doesn’t have some weird crazy paranoia about living swords trying to trick their wielders, and he probably means this metaphorically (at least I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt… for now). I’m really not too sure why a shorter/longer crossguard would confuse me though. I haven’t got pictures of this, but both crossguards are the same width, which is a span. So they are both about 5cm too short.

You want the crossguard strong and square
With a wide and pointed iron,
It must cut and thrust to do its duty.

crossguards

The Regenyei’s crossguard is nicely square, where as the Rawlings has a very slight curve. Neither has “pointed iron”, but this is a good thing – they are practice swords after all.

Length

The sword should be of the just measure,sword_height
The pommel should come under the arm
As it appears here in my writing. 

I actually find this description a little ambiguous here, and I don’t know if this is a product of the translation or the original text. Should the sword come literally just under my arm (i.e. to my armpit) or is this expressing a maximum size?

I think it is probably the former. If it is, the Regenyei is about 5cm too short (coincidentally: if I got the longest blade Regenyei does and had the same pommel and handle, this would make it the perfect size).

The Rawlings – being slightly shorter than the Regenyei – is also too short.

This is, I think, really interesting. I’m tall, but not that tall, and yet more or less the longest feder on the market is the sword for me.

Also shorter friends take note: Vadi is pretty explicit about this in several places, both in terms of direct advice and the fact he gives relative measurements. If you are short, you should have a short sword. If you are tall, it should be long.

Armoured Fighting

Take note and understand this guide
If you wish to test the sword in armour,
Make the cutting edges four fingers from the point,
With the handle as is said above,
With pointed crossguard, and note well the text.

I’m not going to talk about this in great detail. There’s two things of interest to me here. One, note that Vadi is really talking about maximising the effectiveness of the sword by making every point sharp but allowing you to grip the sword in the middle comfortably. The second is that Vadi is giving us specific instructions for how your sword should differ depending on use. I’m not aware of any other (longsword) masters who cover both armored and unarmored that do this.

Vadi’s Sword vs Fiore’s Sword

I think Vadi’s instructions on sword construction present a very interesting contrast to Fiore. It is widely agreed that Fiore’s style is better suited to a shorter longsword, yet Vadi (supposedly the same) advocates a very long sword. I’m hoping the contrast is representative of deeper differences in the style rather that just personal preference.

One thing I think this might be is that Fiore does not seem to have the concept of a specialised sword for any specific purpose. Going by art work, in general the swords always look pretty much the same. Although some images in the one handed sword section look like an arming sword, by and large the handle has more than sufficient room for an additional hand. Likewise, the sword in armor has no significant differences with the unarmoured sections.

fiore_sword_difference

Sword in one hand, sword in two hands and armoured sections from the Getty manuscript

Vadi has no one handed sword section, and both in description and depiction, the swords for unarmoured and armoured fighting are very different.

vadi_sword_difference

Armoured and unarmoured sections of Vadi

Fiore and Vadi do refer to the two-handed sword slightly differently. Fiore refers to it as spada a doi mane where Vadi refers to is as spada de doi mane. I don’t know if this is significant.  My knowledge of 15th century Italian is somewhat lacking. I don’t even know how to say “please don’t kill me with your two handed sword!”, let alone make sure to be specific as to which sword it is that I don’t want to be killed with.

Even without knowing the finer points of how to prevent my own murder in renaissance Italy, I think there is strong evidence in the text to support this claim: that Vadi’s sword is one intended solely for two handed use, where as Fiore is teaching us how to use a sword that could at a push be used in many situations.

Summary

The Regenyei sword clearly matches Vadi’s specifications much more closely. Actually, the pommel on the Rawlings is something that I’ve never been particular happy with. It would be nice if The Knight Shop produced a pear shaped pommel that wasn’t quite as long as their extended pommel. However, I suspect that if one wanted to make the Rawlings a closer fit to Vadi’s specifications, the extended pommel used for turning a single handed sword into a longsword  would make it much a closer fit. I will likely try this and report back.

Do note that if you are a different size to me the results would be different.  I’d be very curious to hear if the swords that you use match to Vadi’s specifications – if you’re willing, post the results in the comments below.

This is part of a series of posts, where I’m reading Vadi for the Esfinges challenge.

Credit and thanks for all translations in this post go to Guy Windsor, with additional thanks to Wiktenauer for hosting it freely and publicly online. Images  from Vadi are taken from scans by the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma, where are the images from Fiore are courtesy of the J Paul Getty Museum.

Esfinges 30 Days of Hema: Day 1 of Vadi

I’ve decided to participate in Esfinges’ 30 Days of HEMA Study event. The basic challenge is simple: starting April 1st, every day for 30 days, I must read and study a historical, European fencing treatise for 15-30 minutes. There are some additional steps:

Day 1 – declare what treatise and/or section you are going to focus on.
Day 7 – explain why you chose it
Day 14 – quote a meaningful line and explain why it’s useful to you
Day 30 – post a drill to train a technique from that source, or pics/video of  your interpretation

True to form, I’ve slightly nerded out and I’m ahead of where I strictly need to be for this. So this post is going to combine day 1 and 7. I’m also going to post various thoughts on my interpretation along the way as well as the “required” steps for the event. All posts should be taken as a “work in progress”.

Chosen Text: Vadi

My chosen text is De Arte Gladiatoria 384px-Cod.1324_16rDimicandi by Phillip di VadiVadi was a late 15th century Italian fencing master. We have one and only one copy of his work, and know very little about him for certain. He was probably the Governor of Reggio and/or a councilor for the Duke of Ferraro. In either instance he would have been working for the D’Este family – the same family which Fiore de’i Liberi dedicated his works to the best part of a century before.

The book itself is dedicated to the Duke of Urbino. Guy Windsor, in Veni Vadi Vici, suggests that it may have effectively been an application to join the court – and apparently a failed one, as there is no record of Vadi ever being at the court of Urbino.

The text is primarily, although not entirely, dedicated to unarmored fighting with the longsword, although there are increasingly smaller sections covering other areas, such as: armored longsword, pollaxe in armor, lance, dagger and a random collection of arms. However to put it in perspective: Vadi dedicates more space to longsword than all other areas combined. Indeed, he himself says:

I only esteem the sword of two hands,
And this is the only one I use at need,
And of which the verse of my book sings.

Everything else does feel very much like an afterthought. Correspondingly, my main focus will also be on the longsword – this is my main weapon after all.  But, to be fair, there is a lot of material on this topic. After a rather flowery introduction, Vadi has 15 text-only chapters focusing on differing aspects of the longsword, followed by by 3 illustrated chapters, covering some basic principles principles, 12 guards and 54 plays.  Quite a lot to get through in just 30 days (OK, I have more like 40 because I started early). This is why I’m referring to the event as a “challenge”.

Why Vadi?

There are lots of reasons why I chose Vadi. Partly, it’s down to the fact that I already train Fiore, so Vadi is hopefully an easy next step. It also rounds out my “Italian” credentials, so I can justifiably claim I do “Italian Longsword” (when most people say this, they just mean “Fiore”).

But the main reason I chose Vadi is that there is relativelyspearsticks little about him published online – whether in text form or YouTube videos. Part of that is that there is relatively little written by him, but I think it is also a reflection of the common view from many people; that Vadi is plagiarised, or at best highly derived, from Fiore.

If you just look at the section on plays – and in particular, the non-longsword plays – you can really see where this view comes from, as there are some similarities that are just weird if they are not directly copied from Fiore. For instance, note the play on the right. How often do you really think two sticks vs spear really comes up? Certainly there isn’t any other master I’m aware of that covers this particular pairing of weapons. When you add the close geography,  and the likely link to the D’Este family, it seems clear that Vadi copied at least some things from Fiore.

In general though, I think this impression is a little unfair on Vadi. One thing that struck me when I flicked through the book some months back is that whilst some things feel very similar, there are definitely aspects that feel very different. The below image shows the first two guards in Vadi’s book – on the left, mezana porta di ferro forte (strong middle iron door) and on the right posta di donna (guard of the lady).

guards

Both of these names could be lifted straight from Fiore. Other the qualifier of “strong” on the first guard, the names are both names of Fiore’s guards.  However, the actual positions shown are entirely absent. In both, the sword is held over the lead foot – something not present at all in Fiore. Guards or Posta are absolutely fundamental to any sword fighting system  – they teach you how to move – so if the guards are fundamentally different, how can the two systems be the same?

This has given me a vague feeling that there are more differences than we really know between the two authors, that I hope to explore over the next month. Indeed, I generally have a sense that we’ve missed a trick with Vadi. I’ve previously played around with mezana pora di ferro forte with a degree of success. But this hasn’t been serious scholarship… mostly just “that looks cool I wonder what happens when I use it”. The Esfinges challenge is the catalyst to me taking a proper look at Vadi, and seeing if there isn’t something more to it than most of us have given him credit for.

Who knows, I might even think of something no one has considered yet – which is the advantage of going with something that no one really studies!

Stay tuned for future updates.

(Credit and thanks for all translations in this post go to Guy Windsor, with additional thanks to Wiktenauer for hosting it freely and publicly online and images taken from scans by the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma)