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Left to Right An analysis of the tactical choice inherent in Fiore’s Zogho Stretto and the sword and buckler system of I.33

Guy Windsor Helsinki, January 2010

Our oldest source for European historical swordsmanship, Royal Armouries MS I.33, emphasises again and again that when entering the fight, we beset our opponent, who is standing in guard, and as he comes to bind our sword, we counterbind and enter. The most often repeated example of this is with the besetter entering with halfshield, against the defender, who is waiting in first ward (underarm). The sequence of actions and counters goes like this: Patient Agent First ward Besets, entering measure with halfshield, directed slightly to the right to cover the line of the patient’s sword. If patient were to do nothing, agent strikes with a cut to the head from the right.

Falls under, binding the sword up from the left, stepping out to the left.

Counter-binds, pressing the patient’s sword down to the right, then shieldstrikes.

Yields to the bind, stepping right, and steps through, changes sword, or wraps the agent’s arms. It is stated in the text and borne out in practice that an overbind (a bind from above) will beat an under-bind (a bind from below). This begs the question then of why the defender would choose to wait in a left-side guard held low. It is more usual for a right handed swordsman to prefer to defend from his right side. The answer is almost certainly in the presence of

the buckler; by defending from the left, we acquire the outside line of the sword, and the path to the target is not impeded by the buckler. When defending from the left it is usually easier to meet the incoming sword from a low guard than from a high one. The agent’s choice is clear then: he approaches, besetting. By directing his sword somewhat to his right (we know the besetment is angled to the right, as the follow-up in the case of the patient not acting is a rising strike from the right, illustrated on p11v.), he effectively covers the path of the patient’s sword to his head; the patient is forced to bind, and cannot just strike. It is also necessary for him to step to his left to acquire an open line, and to avoid the sword. As the patient does so, the agent overbinds and enters. As he does so, the patient must yield, and step to his right, controlling the agent’s buckler. In almost every instance in this manuscript, the agent is required to create a threat, to draw out the patient’s sword in a bind, and then counterbind against it. This is the same basic sequence as we see in the zogho stretto (close play) plays in Fior di Battaglia, though here the agent enters with a committed strike. This is perhaps due to the context of the fight. In either a judicial combat or a tournament, it is likely that the attacker would enter as boldly as possible, to either satisfy the laws of the judicial combat, or to display their prowess to the spectators in a tournament. If we look for the closest analogue to the first sequence from I.33, the most obvious choice is the plays of the sword in one hand. The section begins with a specific starting point (the same in all manuscripts, shown here from the Getty):

And the text:
“... Io acresco lo pe che denanci un pocho for a de strada e con lo stancho io passo ala traversa. E in quello passare mi crosso rebattando le spade ue trovo discoverti e de ferire mi faro certi. E si lanza o spada me ven alanzada, tutte le rebatto chome io ditto passando fuora di strada. Segondo che vedretti li miei zochi qui dreto.”

I step the front foot a little off the line, and with the left I pass across. And in this pass I cross the sword with a strike (rebattando), and I find him uncovered and strike him for certain. And if a lance or a sword is thrown at me, I batter all of them aside as I said, passing off the line. Secondly I do the plays that follow me. (trans mine)

The first two plays that follow look like this:

In the first play, the attacker has bound the sword, leaving

himself open on his left side- the defender enters with his left hand and foot. In the second, the parry has been successful, and the attacker has omitted his bind, and so the defender can strike immediately on the same side. The first plays of I.33 are clearly analogous: the agent (attacker) enters; the patient (defender, waiting in guard) parries, bringing his sword up; the agent binds to his right: only at this point does the action really differ. With a buckler, the entry is easy and logical. Without one, it is much more risky, and we do not see it successfully attempted anywhere in Fior di Battaglia. Instead, the defender invariably enters, as we see above left, and below. This play shows an attack parried with the false edge which is then bound to the right (first picture, defender on left), allowing the defender to enter (but preventing him from striking directly).

Now if we compare the first play of zogho largo, we see a striking resemblance to the play of the sword and buckler where second ward is beset by schutzen. Compare these illustrations:

In both cases, the points are high, and the swords crossed near the points. How we get there is made explicit in I.33, much less so in Fior di Battaglia. In I.33, the scholar (agent in this case) has entered with schutzen, against which the Priest (patient) binds. So, as the agent approaches, he closes the line (literally “protects” himself against) the patient’s direct blow from the right shoulder. So the patient binds, against which the agent either presses the patient’s sword down and thrusts, or strikes on the other side. Interestingly, the agent (the one who beset) is “the first one ready for it”. Fiore’s text is less explicit regarding how the action occurs: “Here begins the play of the sword in two hands, in wide play. This Master has crossed his sword at the point with this

player, and says “when I am crossed at the points, I quickly turn my sword and strike the player on the other side with a fendente to the head or arms, or I thrust to his face as you see next” (trans Leoni). Given the structure of the treatise, as Fiore himself describes it, the master is almost certainly receiving the player’s attack. What causes the player to turn away from the direct line of the attack and end up in the position shown is not stated, but it commonly occurs in training that a fencer plays to the sword not the man: as the defender’s sword moves to parry, the attacker redirects to meet it. This can and does lead to the position shown. In contrast, the patient’s action in I.33 is quite differentpresented with a closed line, he chooses to bind the agent’s sword, which is of course done near the point when possible. Anticipating this bind, the agent is well placed to intercept and press it down as stated- he is the first one ready for it. So, while the technical situation is very similar (a crossing near the points), and one of its resolutions is effectively the same (thrust), the tactical situation is quite different. To find an analogous tactical position we turn to the crossing of the sword in zogho stretto.

Master and scholar crossed

First play following the crossing

Second play following the crossing.

In the first picture, we see the master and scholar (note, not master and player) crossed near the middle of the swords. It’s

clear from the picture that the scholar’s inside line is open (his left), and the master’s outside line is open (his right). The text explicitly states (as we saw in the I.33 play) that either one could perform the plays that follow. Given the relative positions at the crossing, it makes sense that the master would do the first play following the cross, and the scholar would do the second. In the play immediately preceding this one, the last play of zogho largo, the scholar (who would usually be the defender, or patient) actually attacks first, drawing the patient’s parry, and deceiving it, turning to the other side with a punta falsa. It is reasonable then to allow that the master here may also have attacked, and as the scholar comes to parry, has redirected his blow to bind the sword. This is preferable to allowing the parry to conclude, as it prevents the defender from gaining control of the attacker’s weapon. From here, the master enters, grabbing the hilt. If the scholar (patient) sees the blow redirecting, he has time to pass forwards as the cross happens, and enter with a pommel strike (the second play following the cross). The master’s action is then tactically identical to the agent’s in I.33; he enters, draws the parry/bind, binds against it, and strikes. The technical situation is different, due to the difference in armament. It is unwise to assume that because a tactical choice is made in one manuscript, the same thing must be occurring in a different text, a century later, in a different language with a different martial context and different weaponry. However, it is interesting to note that the most contentious aspect of my interpretation of zogho stretto (that it arises from the points being in presence due to the attacker binding against the parry) is the tactical cornerstone of an earlier system. Guy Windsor, Helsinki, January 2010