is a fair assessment to say that the study of Medieval combat,
is the study of armoured combat. Those who fought did so with
weapons designed to injure flesh by defeating armour. Those
who could afford armour wore it and those who couldn’t,
as one who has fought in a variety of armours, as well as
without anything more than a helmet, I can assure the reader
that once mail or plate is added to the equation, the impact
on technique can be profound. Certain strikes and actions
simply cannot work against certain armours, and the lightly
equipped combatant can quickly find the danger of closing
with a steel-clad juggernaut. Likewise, the armoured combatant
finds that his own movement, perception, and technique needs
to adjust to the extra gear. Plus he can find that the fine
harness of the mounted knight when fighting against a lightly
armoured foe who understands how to keep their distance, can
often be as much of a hindrance as a help.
masters like Fiore Dei Liberi, Hans Talhoffer, and Pietro
Monte distinguished between armoured and unarmoured fighting.
They included entire chapters of "harness fighting"
to address exactly these issues. To the student of the Renaissance
school of personal defence, armour and its effects on combat
are not particularly relevant or important. But for the would-be
Medievalist, to say you study the longsword, the hache (polaxe),
or the sword and shield, but do not ever train in armour,
is to completely misunderstand the nature of Medieval combat.
Regardless of whether your interest is in foot or mounted
fighting in the Age of Mail or the Age of Plate, the factor
of historically accurate armour must be considered.
Brief Lesson in "pseudo-history"
any martial art is difficult, and often infuriatingly so when
that art corresponds to almost a thousand year time period.
Therefore, to try and insure that author and reader are speaking
the same language, following are founding principles of the
basis for my discussion.
by "Medieval," I am speaking of the period roughly
measured from the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the
end of the 5th century to the second half of the 15th century
AD. By the latter 1400s, the militaristic technological and
cultural innovations of the Renaissance were already well
underway, and combat styles and philosophy had begun the transformation
into the methods so well recorded by the 16th century masters.
This does not imply a disconnection between the two schools,
especially in the armours worn or the use of two-handed weapons,
but it does signal the shift in focus on melee weapons, particularly
the sword, from that of the battlefield, to that of "personal
from an armour standpoint, the Medieval period can be further
divided between the Age of Mail, and the Age of Plate. The
Age of Mail begins with the lightly armoured Germanic tribes
that would create new kingdoms from the old Roman Empire,
and ends with the High Middle Ages of the 13th Century. This
is a huge period, which begins with warbands of lightly and
unarmoured men, with only a small elite core of "professional"
warriors. The sword was invariably the property of a champion,
a noble, or a king, and body armour was generally held only
by the wealthiest of warriors. But this same "age"
ends in an era where the mounted knight was clad head to toe
in mail, and the professional, armoured "serjeant"
and footsoldier had become commonplace figures on the battlefield.
In this feudal period, the mounted knight came into his own,
bringing with him specialized accoutrements, such as the lance,
the heater shield, and a longer bladed slashing and stabbing
Age of Plate, begins roughly in the 14th century, with the
further rise of professional infantry, be it the English longbowman,
Genoese and Flemish crossbowman, or the vaunted Swiss pikeman.
This century marked a pronounced "arms race" which
began with the supremacy of the mail clad knight, and ended
with the same figure, now clad head to toe in steel plate,
struggling (often failing) to maintain his dominance on the
a whole specialized subset of the armourer’s craft was
developed to reduce casualties in the ever more fanciful,
and less martial, tournament and joust. These heavy, often
ponderous harnesses never intended for battlefield have helped
lead to the popular misconception that the plate armoured
knight was a clunking, shambling, Medieval "Tin Woodsman."
has been debated that, with the increased invulnerability
of armour, actual weapon skill declined, particularly in use
of the sword, and did not really revive until armour began
to fall out of fashion in the later 16th century. It is interesting
that 15th century longsword manuals often show one set of
tactics when the combatants are fighting unarmoured and then
show a simpler, but just as brutal set for fighting in plate
armour. The armoured style relied on greater thrusting while
also usually resorting to grappling and wrestling. The student
of the longsword was also advised to forego his edge all together
when facing armour, for it was considered useless in such