Circle of Steel
Western Medieval Martial Arts
An Authentic 600 Year Old Documented Tradition
During the Middle Ages, the warriors of Europe developed a powerful style of combat that was equally victorious on the battlefield in times of war, on the street for suppressing riots or in personal defense, and in a personal or judicial duel to the death. As the wars raged across Europe, fighting techniques were tempered in the forge of battle, and the swordsmen of each country perfected the techniques which they would pass on to the next generation.
Though the techniques of killing in any country are inherently part of an oral folk tradition, passed on from one warrior to another, starting in the late 1300's we find books teaching fighting techniques were being made in small numbers, each one carefully reproduced by hand. Some of these books contained only a few dozen illustrated techniques, but others, such the works by Fiori Dei Liberi and Hans Talhoffer, catalog literally hundreds of individual techniques and counters. By the 1400's these manuscripts were produced in an ever increasing number, with some authors writing multiple books in their lifetime. This continued throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with books being written in many countries, though the vast majority came from Germany and Italy. If the 1400s were the heyday of Medieval close combat, then this was also the golden era of the Fechtbuch (fight-book).
During the 1500s, everything changed with the invention of printing and the rise of teachers who accepted civilians as students. Before this time, these books were kept among professional warriors, as the real killing techniques and counters were guarded secrets. The Italian master Fiori DeiLiberi says in his 1410 book Flos Duelatorum (Flower of Battle) that these techniques should be kept secret For the men who would defend the country in times of war, in riots, and in duels and should never become known to the common people who are born to bow their necks to the yoke and serve. Fiori would never show his techniques in public, except as he used them in battle, and he taught all his students in private, swearing them to secrecy about what they learned. He writes Flos Duelatorum only because he was an old man, far past his time of needing to ever use these skills again.
The first manual to be mechanically reproduced, was Achille Marozzos Opera Nova (The New Work) in 1536. The title is quite accurate, for he changes things from the older way of military instruction, and here shows combat with the civilian in mind, and a simplified method, with close in counter-techniques being conspicuously absent. Techniques for armored fighting, where your whole body is suddenly a metal weapon, which were only important to the soldier of the day were also ignored. In other ways, however, Opera Nova also preserved military weapons that were fading in popularity, like the long sword, and is still a classic work by one of the great masters of the Western Arts!
Starting from Marozzo, and on into the Renaissance, the majority of books published were on the civilian aspects of swordplay, and this civilian element would (over the next few hundred years) change the art into simply a sport modern Olympic fencing! The Renaissance and after, therefore, hold little interest for me, and are not my expertise, so I will leave this work, as so many things, for others to accomplish. Though there were many great later masters with profound insights into the civilian weapons of their time, I prefer the earliest Medieval German and Italian military sources, and work mainly with Talhoffer, DeiLiberi, Durrer, Vadi, and Marozzos books, as well as the anonymous Solthurner text.
Today, many of these manuscripts still exist, and have been translated so that we may unlock their secrets, if we can understand them and will practice what is shown. One of the first key elements you find in reading them is that they contain a large amount of unarmed combat material - a fact that few know! A Medieval Knight, or Man-at-Arms, would be expected to know unarmed combat and dagger fighting in addition to the sword and spear skills we associate with them today. In the surviving combat manuals, most contain long sections on unarmed striking and grappling, unarmed defense against the dagger, and dagger fighting. They show systematic joint locks, breaks, throws, disarms, counters, ground grappling, strikes, clinches, holds and more. The unarmed system is also fully integrated into the sword and spear work, with the majority of the techniques shown involving some degree of "close work. You will see identical techniques (particularly throws and arm locks) done with all the different weapon forms, showing the integrated nature of this system.
On a technical level, the Medieval combat techniques shown in the 1400s are direct and lethal, reflecting their battlefield nature. You killed the man quickly, stuck him with his own dagger if you were unarmed, broke his arm, threw him down, or drew your own weapon. Primarily this was a standing grappling style, with a full compliment of striking tactics. Ground fighting was used mainly to hold a man down while you drew your own blade and stabbed him, or held him to be pinned by a few spear men from your unit. The name for ground fighting is literally Unterhalted (holding down). The German masters made a separation between military Kampfringen (combat wrestling) and Ringkunst (art of wrestling) which was for sport. Most folk-styles were jacket wrestling traditions, emphasizing the standing throws, though there were a minority of ground-grappling styles as well.
Only when showing the techniques used in judicial combat or dueling, where no one was going to interfere with the fight, do you see grappling holds as we think of them now, being applied. Just like the ones used when standing, you now see chokes, arm and neck breaks, gouging, fish-hooking, and a host of other gutter fighting tactics we love, being applied on the ground. The armor was used to grind into the foe and tire him, and often we see men picking up weapons that have been dropped, or drawing a dagger, while rolling. The duels were big show, with elaborate preparations for the combatants, involving prayer, ritual bathing, and so on. They would walk onto the field from their pavilions proudly, in front of the assembled crowd, but then once they stepped into the list, there could be no one there but the two of them, the marshal, and God. Many images we have of period ground work show it under these settings, in an octagon ring just like a Medieval UFC (no kidding).
This system of unarmed combat is of completely Western origins, and is far older than comparable Asian styles such as JuJitsu, Chin-Na, Aikido, or Hapkido. If you research most styles of martial arts taught today, you will learn that they are less than 100 years old and may or may not have any relation to life and death combat most do not, and are practiced today as health or meditation systems. With the Medieval fight-books, we are discussing traditions and specific techniques that are over 500 years old. Many will talk of "Samurai Heritage" or the "Shaolin Spirit" by way of making their art sound ancient, but where is the true history for the specifics of what they teach? What actual link is there on a technical level? For many practitioners, there is none, what they do is merely "inspired by" some older art, and all their wishing doesn't make it so. With the Western Historical Combat Arts we have the verifiable link to history by way of the Master's written works. Our way of knowing that this is what was used, for real, on the battlefield and the street.