Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Clements #17 Shape, Dimension, and Geometry in Sword Design

Geometry is an important part of Medieval and Renaissance fencing and in the swords they employed. Knowledge of the rules of geometry permeated Western civilization for hundreds of years. It built cathedrals and castles, enabled siege weapons, and inspired everything from illuminations to sculpture and painting. It was even seen as expressing the divine. Geometry was one of the medieval Trivium, part of the artes liberales taught within the classical humanist curricula, which itself included as its physical education program the artes martiales –or "martial arts". It's not hard then to grasp that long proven ideas for using geometry in architecture and artwork would crossover into the realm of self-defense.

In 1482, the master Filippo Vadi linked fencing and geometry for use of all weapons from dagger to sword to spear. In 1553, the master Agrippa considered geometry fundamentally important and based his rapier method on Euclid while adding reference to Pythagoras. The image of the geometry compass or divider (referencing the principle of measure) appears symbolically in many Renaissance martial arts sources, including the important mid-15th century Germanic fighting manuscript, the Codex Wallerstein. For the noted Spanish master, Carranza in the 1580's, fencing was, through its concern with lines, angles, triangles, and circles, subordinate to geometry. The Spanish masters increasingly focused their theories on geometry for their court fencing well into the 1600s.

Circles and triangles in geometric arrangement were a feature of the Italian soldier Ghilsiero's "theoremi" on the rapier of 1583. In 1606, the Italian rapier master Fabris also saw it as the principle foundation of swordsmanship. That same year the work of the master Giganti described the use arms as being a speculative science that was essentially geometrical. In the 1620s, the Flemish master Thibault famously included pages of text and illustrations dealing with geometric ideas for using the rapier. 

There has long been a recognition that familiar spatial relationships exists for how weapons can cross, legs and arms bend, and feet step. Just how useful it was to relate geometry to fencing in this way is something speculative. Yet, the Pythagorean visualization of geometric forms (such as expressed in cryptic diagrams) would ideally assist a fencer with understanding the spatial relationships critical to mastery of fighting motions —especially the angled thrusts of the slender rapier's new foyning method. But geometry was not emphasized in Germanic martial art sources nor by great master, Fiore die Liberi, in his treatise of c.1410. It wasn't a factor within the rapier teachings of Capo Ferro in 1610 nor was it directly addressed by every 17th century fencing master. By the Baroque era, as the old martial arts had become obsolete and firearms caused swordplay to be reduced to a limited form, application of geometry in Western fighting arts was all but abandoned.

It should not surprise us, though, that given the symbiotic relationship between swordsmen and swordsmiths they may have very often shared the same working knowledge of geometry. While Medieval and Renaissance swordsmiths may not have been formally trained in geometry, as any master craftsmen or artisans might, they surely understood how measuring aspects of shape, dimension, and ratio applied to producing symmetry and harmony in good weapon design. For the most part, the overall dimensions of a sword blade –which includes it’s cross-sectional shape– is what is going to help determine its center of gravity. That in turn, determines its center of rotation which then determines it's center of percussion, which together lets you know something of how to best use it. The handling qualities that characterize different swords to optimally cut and thrust and ward are less a scientific matter of "balance point" than they are a holistic and intuitive one. This feeling of how to wield a blade differs with the functional intention of each sword type. That means every swordsman had a subjective choice to make in selecting a sword that was best for them. That they could do so with regard to the "natural laws" found in geometry is curiously comforting.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Roman Legion – Structure

Roman legionnaires were the quintessential fighting machines of their time, a perfect amalgam of courage, discipline, and athletic ability. Consider marching over 20 miles a day with heavy armor, swimming across rivers, constructing bridges and roads, and waging war. In other words, each legionnaire was an intrepid decathlete meets MacGyver, which kind of explains Roman dominance. Still, the Empire’s success on the battlefields was not simply founded on elite soldiers but on sound tactics which optimized their effectiveness. For many years, the Roman army used the tried and trusted Greek phalanx formation, which was effective till enemies evolved into faster, more mobile units. The Romans duly adapted and organized their army into the following groups. 

Velites: The Velites were the youngest and the most inexperienced soldiers, who were also the poorest to serve in the Roman army. Their name is derived from the light pilum or hasta velitaris which they carried. The Velites were used for initial skirmishes. Usually, their job was to throw their pilums at the enemy and retreat to the back to be replaced by the first line of heavy infantry – the Hastati. 

Hastati: The Hastati, like the Velites, were made up of young individuals who just happened to be wealthier and could afford the classic Roman armor.  They carried the traditional pilum and the short Roman sword, the gladius. The Hastati wore helmets adorned with plumes that reached a foot and a half in height, which made them look bigger and more intimidating. They were the first to meet the enemy in melee combat and if things didn’t go to plan, they fell back and let the crème de la crème of the infantry, the Principes, strut their stuff.

Principes: These soldiers were, age-wise and in physical terms, at the peak of their powers. They considered it their obligation to give victory to the Roman army. The Principes were wealthier than the Hastati and, at times, wore better armor. They would initially interchange with the Hastati, giving the latter much needed breaks, before engaging in earnest battle. Most importantly, this group could fight.

Triarii: The oldest and the most experienced soldiers made up the Triarii. They wore armor similar to the Hastati and Principes but had a somewhat different role. They were the Roman army’s last resort and would only get involved if the heavy infantry met with resistance. The Triarii charged the enemy with phalanx style spears and this shock attack usually allowed the Hastati and Principes time to regroup. 

Cavalry: The primary function of the Roman cavalry was to ensure that the infantry was not outflanked. Also, they were in charge of hunting down enemies who fled from the battlefield. It is interesting to note that the Romans, for all their skills, were not the greatest on horseback and so the cavalry included a fair number of African and Gaul mercenaries.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Which Sword are You: One-handed or Two?

Which of these two medieval sword forms was the more effective weapon – the one-handed or the two-handed sword? This post will not attempt to influence opinion either way. What we will do is provide a summary for both and let you decide. So, here goes.

Let’s take arguably the most common of each of these swords, the one-handed Arming sword and the two-handed Longsword, as reference points. The Arming sword measured about 28–31 inches and was a light, versatile weapon that could be wielded by one hand. This meant that the free hand or the offhand could be used to hold a shield or buckler for protection. This one-handed sword was very effective in close-quarter combat due to its small size and maneuverability.

At 33–43 inches, the heavier, two-handed Longsword was more difficult to wield. However, this did not make it an inferior weapon. In fact, the two-handed sword was extremely effective in conjunction with full-body armor. During the latter part of the medieval period, armor evolved and the shield was no longer a necessity. A bigger sword in two hands generated more power and was especially needed to damage similarly armored adversaries.

The growing popularity of two-handed swords did not wipe the one-handed sword from existence. In fact, the latter was used by light troops even after gunpowder came into the picture. One can say that it outlasted its longer, heavier counterpart.

So, which of these two was the better tool? In the battlefield, a full-armored soldier with a two-handed sword was the fiercer proposition. For day-to-day protection, the one-handed sword was by far the more convenient option; carrying a Longsword to the marketplace just does not seem cool or feasible. In a war scenario, the Longsword and armor almost always beats the Arming sword and shield. Without armor in let’s say a random street duel, the Longsword is severely disadvantaged against the smaller one-handed sword which affords the luxury of a free hand to hold another weapon or a means of protection.

Verdict: If you are a person who likes to bet safe, keep the money in your pocket on this one.

One-handed and two-handed swords were not limited to the Arming sword and the Longsword, respectively. For more extensive information on these weapons and swords in general, click here.