Monday, 31 January 2011

Medieval Fight Scenes

As a follow on from the last post, a little something about the relationship between fictional fighting and the real stuff, seen through the lens of that most heavily armoured of brawlers, the knight. You see, even in the Middle Ages, there was a big difference between the way fights probably were (according to various fight manuals, at least) and how they were written. Some key points:

  1. In the chansons de geste, knights exchange blows with no sign of any skill but lots of power. In fact, medieval fight manuals have as many technique things in as any book on asian martial arts, from different parrying positions to wrestling holds and other things.
  2. Knights in modern fiction fight with swords. Knights in medieval fiction fought with swords (always with names, and usually made by someone famous) after breaking their lances first. Medieval fight books come complete with techniques for everything from dagger to club, and Anglo-Saxon warriors were famous for their use of the axe.
  3. Aside from Robin Hood (who may or may not have been there to promote the Lincolnshire clothing industry if we are to believe the historians) you don't get many archers in medieval literature. Or foot soldiers. Or indeed anyone with weapons who didn't also have more noble blood than you could reasonably wash out of a tabard afterwards. In practice, archers played an increasingly important role on the battlefield, while some knights even brought companies of foot soldiers with them to tournaments (they were mostly horrible cheats).
  4. In the books, armour is there as the main defence, until the hero gets a bit wound up, in which case they slice through large portions of people (from the top of someone's head right down through the horse, in one chanson de geste). In practice, full plate was pretty good at keeping people safe, and chain did a reasonable job with slashes, but wasn't really up to much in the piercing department.
  5. Even in the books, knights didn't fight very fair, but they did occasionally get off their horse when an opponent fell off. In reality, most of them would have ridden down anyone who didn't surrender.
  6. You don't see much of knights wrestling or rolling about fighting like schoolboys in the books, but huge portions of the work of Fiore and Talhoffer are devoted to wrestling holds, even in armed combat. One I particularly like involves clashing in a diagonal cut, forcing the opposing blade upwards, and then getting into a horrible tangle with the opponent's limbs at close quarters. At least, that's how it always turned out for me in practise.
  7. One word of warning with the fight books. As with all books of this type, whether modern or historical, the authors probably wanted to do a number of things that count against them showing the full picture. They may have wanted to preserve some secrets, so that people would have to come to them to learn. They almost certainly wanted to show off the bredth of their knowledge, so they put in as many techniques as they could think of, without too many filters when it came to which were occasional techniques and which were for everyday use. They also wanted to show their view of the art, so you get one man's opinion, rather than a complete view. Still, they can be well worth reading.


Donna Hole said...

Ooh, insider info. I liked this one and the last post. I'm trying to write a fantasy, and I appreciate you sharing your research.


Tessa Conte said...

Love your posts, but then I've already told you that ; )

You're interview is up now btw!!! Thanks for letting me pester you!