Valour and Art: The two facets of the technique of the pike

Pike, the most noble staff weapon

The works comprising the historical genre of pragmatic literature for disseminating fighting technique are now generally known as fight books.[1] Similar content may be found in tournament books and more general works on military matters. Late medieval and early modern fight book literature generally deals with single combat, whether playful (schimpf) or serious (ernst), and not the activities of combatants on the battlefield. The weapons depicted, however, are not exclusively sporting or duelling weapons, which is most apparent in the case of the pike.

The pike, or the long infantry spear, was the main weapon of European armies from the late medieval period onwards. This was a period marked by changes taking place in the battlefield, as the dominance of heavy cavalry was superceded by infantry armed with staff weapons.[2] The earliest pikes were slightly over three metres (ca. ten feet), later averaging at four to four-and-a-half metres (13–15 feet). Pikes were used in co-ordination with firearms until they were superceded by the bayonet in the early eighteenth century. Single combat with pikes was featured in fencing competitions and fighting at the barriers; generally, pikes would be found in early modern German households for military and guard duties.[3]

This article discusses the contrasts in the use of the pike in the military and non-military domains, drawing from fight book literature. The designation “pike” will be used in the general sense to refer to “long” spears used on foot. This choice perhaps requires some justification.

By any other name

Identifying weapons in historical sources has its share of challenges. Whereas illustrations may be satisfactory in depicting weapon types attested in material finds, the words used in written sources may be more difficult to connect to their intended referents, since the words are not necessarily used in their modern antiquarian senses. For example, the Latin words pilum, gladius, and scutum are now usually used to refer to specific types of Roman javelins, oblong shields, and short swords, but in the late medieval Royal Armouries manuscript I.33 scutum is used of the buckler (a small round shield) and gladius of the archetypical one-handed medieval sword.

Similar considerations apply to the concept and designation of “pike”. One of the earliest attestations of the English word, in the plural form picas, can be found in the eleventh-century Old English marginalia of BL, Add MS 32246, where it is used to gloss the Latin word dolones, defined in the text as gladii in baculis positi qui in manu geruntur [‘swords put on shafts, which are used in hand’] .[4] According to Servius’ commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid (7.664), the Latin word pilum covers both the Roman military javelin and the Macedonian sarissa, the equivalent of the pike in antiquity, but he also relates Varro’s view of dolo being an ingens contus cum ferro brevissimo [‘a huge spear with a short tip’]. It is, however, difficult to say what exactly the English glossator has had in mind.

As for fight book sources, in his fifteenh-century manuscript book, Paulus Kal depicts the use of a moderately sized lance on horseback and on foot, referring to it as both spere (5v) and spies (8v, 10v, 11v), ostensibly using the qualified expressions “half-spear” (halber spies) and “long spear” (langer spies) in the sense of two-handed or one-handed couched grip, respectively (7v–8r).[5]

Curiously, Kal refers to (apparently) the same weapon on foot, held with two hands, as lannger spieß (20r). Later this term is reserved for the distinctly longer type of spear, the length being a decisive factor when considering its practicality for different uses. The soldiers in a pike formation do not engage individual duels in an open space, and the focus of training is in manoeuvring as a formation, accomplished through drill.

Drill and technique

The unquestionable classic of military pike drill is the corpus of illustrations by Jacob de Gheyn, first published in Dutch in The Hague in 1607. [6]This drill manual, however, only deals with movements up to and including ‘charging’ the pike against infantry or cavalry. The details of using it for offence and defence are not addressed.

As expected, the relevant entries in Thimm’s bibliography (1896) start with Jacob de Gheyn, covering derivative and other similar works.[7] Francesco Alfieri (1641) also deals with drill, but the pike plays of Johann Georg Pascha (1657, 1673; fig. 1) and Antonio Vezzani (1688) are more akin to dancing than combat.[8]

Fight book authors not mentioned by Thimm in this context, who nevertheless discuss the pike in their printed books, are Pietro Monte (1509), Achille Marozzo (1536), Joachim Meyer (1570), and Giacomo di Grassi (1570).[9] George Silver delves into technique in detail only in his manuscript Brief instructions.[10] Paul Hector Mair, whose encyclopedic work is preserved in three two-volume manuscript books, incorporates twelve Stend or ‘stances’ for the pike. These sources elucidate technique for single combat in the urban environment of a Fechtschule (fencing school) and, to some extent, for combat.

Francesco Fernando Alfieri, La Picca (Padova: Sebastiano Sardi, 1641), Plate 9.

“Nel giuoco, e nella guerra”

The most salient quality of the pike, which is also brought up by military authors, is its length. Cesare d’Evoli notes from the outset that pikes should be at least fifteen feet long, the longer the better.[11] Monte, too, suggests longer pikes against those of the Germans.[12] It has been said that a pike could only be used for short forward thrusts, which is true to some extent of the longest kinds, if wielded from near the butt.[13] Excessive length, of course, will make the weapon less manoeuvrable, but this is of little consequence in a dense pike formation.

Di Grassi explicitly notes that he is not discussing using the pike for war, therefore treating its various urban martial uses. Accordingly, for ease of handling, he suggests gripping it at an arm’s length from the butt. Both Mair and Meyer depict the rear hand gripping the butt of the pike, but the pikes in the illustrations seem to be no more than three meters (ten feet) long.

A shorter pike would certainly accommodate the technically and physically demanding one-handed grip first mentioned by Monte.[14] Meyer details the use of the tail of the pike for parrying, followed by swinging the tip up for a riposte, all done with the right hand alone. In addition, his very first technical example employs a one-handed thrust, shown in an illustration not referred to in the text, also mentioned by Monte. Meyer’s one-handed recovery from losing control of one’s pike seems to be connected to this thrust.

In combat, the pike may be ‘charged’ against infantry or cavalry. Meyer refers to the former position as a variation of the middle or straight guard: in this ‘field guard’ (feldhut) the butt of the pike is pulled further back than the flank, perhaps to accommodate the length of the military pike. Paulus Hector Mair seems to refer to a similar position as a ‘free stance’ (freystand): this appellation might stem from the rough military stance not being dictated by the precepts of art. Di Grassi notes that two opposing straight guards will only result in mutual impalement.[15]

Despite the differences, the motoric basis of the more ludic pike play can be traced to the simple and straight-forward military technique. The turns and grip-changes of Meyer’s einlaufen (‘running in’) are similar to charging the pike backwards from the shouldered position, and even exercising one’s skill in one-handed play can be derived from picking up the pike from the ground. Added pompa and leggiadria would only have meaning if there was an audience to appreciate ‘pomp’ and ‘elegance’, be it fellow guildsmen or just curious townsfolk watching a competition.

Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme (Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1570), p. 112.

Concluding notes

A distinctly military weapon like the pike finding its way to the relatively peaceful context of urban pike play is perhaps not unlike the development of the tournament into harmless pageantry of the nobility. At the same time when the significance of cavalry charging with couched lances diminished, the military significance and practice with the pike coexisted with the development of a more playful culture of its use.

City-dwellers are known to have made better infantry men than their more rustic counterparts due to their communal cohesion, first noticeable in northern Italy in the twelfth century.[16] Interestingly, some traces of a distinctly urban identity may be seen in Italian fifteenth-century fight books of Fiore dei Liberi and Filippo Vadi, who wish that their teachings should not fall in the hands of the rurales or homini rusticali.[17]

The fight book authors active in the era of the pike were well aware of the distinction between war and play. The topic is addressed by Alfieri , and before him, Meyer spares a few words to discuss pike technique for the battlefield.[18] Here the repertoire is distinctly less complex, employing only beating the opponents pike to the side and going around it. Meyer notes that a pikeman must not only be strong, but also besonnen and use his pike fürsichtlich .[19] This emphasis on ‘caution’ echoes Di Grassi’s giuditio, and may be read as an advertisement of the military benefits of his instruction: to wield a pike, one needs caution to complement strength and valour, caution being something fencing masters have to offer through their art. Considering the technical repertoire of the bayonet systems employed by the military later on, including the one-handed Fangstoß (‘throw point’), this attitude seems to have gained some ground.

[1] For a thorough introduction to the topic, see Frank Fürbeth, ‘Fechtbücher.’ In Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon: Das Mittelalter, vol. 6, ed. by Wolfgang Achnitz (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 648–653; Sergio Boffa,  Les manuels de combat (Fechtbücher et Ringbücher). Typologie des sources de Moyen Âge occidental 87. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), pp23-36; Daniel Jaquet, Combattre au Moyen Age: une histoire des arts martiaux en Occident, XIVe-XVIe. (Paris: Arkhê, 2017), pp. 55-100.

[2] J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Second revised edition, translated by Sumner Willard & R. W. Southern. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997), pp. 111-12, pp. 182-90.

[3] Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 169; Ann B. Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the RIght of Arms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 214, pp.135-8.

[4] London, BL, Add MS 32246, fol. 12v.

[5] Munich, BSB, cgm 1507.

[6] Jacob de Gheyn, Wapenhandelinghe von Roers Musquetten ende Spiessen (The Hague: Robert de Baudouz, 1607).

[7] Carl Thimm, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling (London: Bodley Head, 1896).

[8] Francesco Fernando Alfieri, La Picca (Padova: Sebastiano Sardi, 1641); Johann Georg Pascha, Kurze Unterrichtung belangend die Pique, die Fahne, den Jägerstock, das Voltesiren, das Ringen, das Fechten auf den Stoß und Hieb, und endlich das Trincieren verferrtigts. (Wittenberg: Melchior Oelschlegels, 1657, repr. 1659); Johann Georg Pascha, Deutliche Beschreibung Unterschiedener Fahnen-Lectionen In Acht Spiel eingetheilet, Nebst dem Piquen-Spiel, Pertuisan und halben Piquen/ oder Jägerstock (Hall in Sachsen: Melchior Oelschlegel, 1673); Antonio Vezzani, Esercizio accademico de picca. (Parma: Stamperia Ducale, 1688).

[9] Pietro Monte, Exercitiorum, atque artis militaris collectanea (Milan: Giovani Angelo Scinzenzler, 1509); Achille Marozzo, Opera nova (Modena: D. Antonio Bergola, 1536); Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der freyen Ritterlichen unnd Adelichen kunst des Fechtens (Strasbourg: Thiebolt Berger, 1570); Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme (Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1570).

[10] George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence (London: Edward Blount, 1599); Cyril G. R. Matthey ed., The Works of George Silver (London: George Bell, 1898), pp. 124-27.

[11] Cesare d’Evoli, Delle ordinanze et battaglie (Rome: Tito & Paulo Diani, 1586), p. 1.

[12] Monte, G8r.

[13] John Waldman, Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons Between 1200 and 1650 (Boston: Brill, 2005), p. 7.

[14] Monte, D1v.

[15] di Grassi, p. 116.

[16] Verbruggen, pp. 144-63.

[17] Francesco Novati,  Il Fior di Battaglia di maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco. (Bergamo: Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1902), p. 194; Carlo Bascetta,, 1978. Sport e giuochi: trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo (Milan: Edizioni il Polifilo, 1978), p. 152.

[18] Alfieri, pp. 11-13.

[19] Meyer, 3.66v.

Cite this article as: Antti Ijäs, "Valour and Art: The two facets of the technique of the pike," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 04/05/2020,

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