Silver-Pommeled Swords and Old Italian Cannonballs

In the wake of an execution . . .

On December 10, 1579, the city of Augsburg executed Paulus Hector Mair for the embezzlement of between 32,000 and 40,000 guilders during his forty-two-year career as a civic servant and treasurer. [i] On December 14, Augsburg officials and citizens gathered to begin an exhaustive inventory of Mair’s possessions. The inventory took weeks to compile and culminated in large public sales held in January and May 1580, during which the vast collections of books, martial artefacts, arms, armor, and artwork that Mair had amassed would be liquidated, along with even his smallest and most personal articles.

Though Mair died in disgrace, his legacy looms large within histories of martial culture and practice, and he is well-known to both scholars and martial arts practitioners. Benedikt Mauer’s article on the contents of Mair’s book and art collection has offered an overview of Mair’s impressive library and its context. Jeffrey Forgeng and Kazuhiko Kusudo have illuminated aspects of Mair’s biography and involvement in martial culture and sporting activities.[ii] Most recently, Daniel Jaquet presented a cross-cultural comparison between Mair’s De Arte Athletica and the Chinese martial treatise of Qi Jiguang, examining the reception of each body of work by modern martial arts communities.[iii]

However, most scholarship on Mair and his collection has focused on the Fechtbücher, or fight books, that he amassed, compiled, authored, and commissioned. Few studies have engaged meaningfully with the other categories of art and material culture that Mair’s posthumous inventories list or considered how these objects—and the Augsburgers who gathered to count or purchase them—reveal new facets of Mair’s involvement in the martial culture of his city.

Fig. 1: Christoph Weiditz the Younger, hand-colored by circle of Jörg Breu the Younger, Paulus Hector Mair, from the Geschlechterbuch der Stadt Augsburg, circa 1540s, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cod. icon 312b, fol. 64v.

Paulus Hector Mair and his City

Though his precise dates of birth and parentage remain unclear, Paulus Hector Mair was born into an upwardly mobile family around 1517. [iv]  He began his career in the city administration of Augsburg in 1537, and he oversaw the finances of the civic works from 1541. During the 1540s and 1550s, Mair increasingly devoted his energies to collecting weapons, images, books, and armor, and to compiling, writing, and publishing works related to martial knowledge. The works that he commissioned also dealt with the histories of martial sport—as in the histories of the tournament contained in De Arte Athletica—and in claiming knightly identity for the citizens of Augsburg—as in the Geschlecterbuch der Stadt Augsburg (fig. 1).[v] Mair was an avid social climber, forging connections to members of the most powerful patrician families of the city, such as the Johann Jakob Fugger, to whom he dedicated the Geschlecterbuch.[vi]

In death, also, Mair reveals aspects of Augsburg’s social networks and the material culture that surrounded them.  The documents preserved in the city’s archive record counts of objects and estimates of their value given by numerous citizens and others who gathered to take stock of Mair’s possessions in preparation for their liquidation. Among those mentioned as “counting” objects is one Antoni Pfeffenhauser. This is likely Anton Peffenhauser (1525–1603), one of the last in a line of great Augsburg armorers, who created luxury armors for the Holy Roman Empire’s elite.[vii] In addition to this famous smith, the counters who gathered to take stock of Mair’s property included Wilhelm von Montfort, a member of a venerable Swabian noble family. Indeed, as Mauer has pointed out, Mair cultivated relationships to both the patriciate of Augsburg and the high nobility of southern Germany. Following his confession and death sentence in 1579, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria (1548-1626) implored the city council to consider a less severe punishment for Mair.[viii]

Martial Equipment: Old and New

Mair’s inventories take stock of the possessions that he kept in his official apartments which stood adjacent to the old Augsburg Rathaus.[ix] Though most of Mair’s martial objects were found in two small rooms on the ground floor, their distribution throughout his living quarters indicates their importance to him.

As befit a citizen of Augsburg and a man of his station, Mair owned armor. Indeed, all male citizens of Augsburg were expected to have equipment on hand to arm themselves if need arose for the city’s defense.[x] However, Mair’s armors went beyond civic necessity. The inventory records one new harness “together with its case and all that belongs to it,” valued at fifteen guilders, suggesting a small garniture. This armor, along with two “old” maces, was stored in Mair’s study, rather in the room on the ground floor where most of his martial possessions were found. In this space, there were at least two other armors, thirteen arming garments, two mail shirts stored together with an old helmet, six old siege helmets, two “old, bad armors,” as well as various bits of armor that were, despite being “old,” described as “neat and clean” though dissimilar. [xi] It remains unclear whether Mair acquired all of these objects for his own use, or whether some, particularly those described as old, may have constituted a collection of martial artefacts. The latter is a tantalizing possibility, given the sensitivity to medieval martial traditions and material culture demonstrated in Mair’s fight book commissions.[xii]

In addition to armors, Mair owned numerous arms. As Kusudo has shown, Mair was involved in Augsburg’s lively target-shooting societies, and one of his last works seems to have been his chronicle on marksmanship, now in Wolfenbüttel.[xiii] Mair was an enthusiastic participant in his city’s shooting societies for both firearms and crossbows. Accordingly, his inventory and sales records list no less than seven crossbows, many together with cranequins and bolts. Mair also owned at least one matching pair of pistols, and at least four long guns. His collection of bladed weapons was impressive, comprising 29 swords, many whose pommels were ornamented with silver. Among these were longswords, at least one two-handed sword, numerous rapiers, and many swords described as old. In addition to these weapons, Mair owned at least three matching pairs of fencing swords, appropriate for an author and collector of fight books. The inventory contains tantalizing more echoes of Mair’s sumptuously illustrated martial treatises. Foremost among these in my mind are “Six Yellow Messers.” Though this description leaves the materiality of these blades unclear, the allusion to a yellow-color evokes the wooden or leather-covered practice messers or dusacks that are illustrated in Mair’s De Arte Athletica, where such sparring weapons are universally represented with yellow pigment (fig. 2).

Beyond the obviously useful martial equipment, Mair owned various curiosities whose value seems to have resided in their age or, perhaps, their now-unknown stories. For instance, the inventory records an “old Italian ball”—perhaps a cannonball—as well as the two maces kept in a place of honor in Mair’s study alongside his best armor.[xiv]

Fig. 2: Jörg Breu the Younger and workshop, Fencing with Dussacks, from Paulus Hector Mair, De Arte Athletica, vol. I, circa 1545-55, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. icon. 393.1, fol. 100r.

Everyone loves a Bargain: The Buyers of Mair’s Collection

The sales of Mair’s possessions in January and May 1580 distributed his collection of fight books, artworks, and martial artefacts, along with the most mundane accoutrements of his professional home, throughout the social strata of Augsburg. The records reveal the allure of martial objects for even the city’s elite. David Roth, a member of a prestigious family whose members had sat on the city council for decades, purchased numerous bladed weapons, including a damaged pair of fencing swords, daggers, and a Reitschwert with a silver pommel.[xv] The plainer of Mair’s two Reitschwerter and one of his maces were purchased by Wolff Vischer, chamberlain to Marcus Fugger, then head of the international Fugger bank.[xvi] Caspar Ettinger, who worked alongside Mair and the Fuggers in the civic administration and who had also been involved in the inventory’s compilation, seems to have been among those enthusiastic buyers who were undaunted by the age of many of Mair’s objects. He acquired, for instance, a siege helmet, two mail shirts, a brigandine or jack, a crossbow and three “bad, old armors,” as well as artworks such as paintings. [xvii] Perhaps most poignant among they buyers, though, are two his own five sons, Esaias and Jakob Leonard, whose names appear alongside objects such as guns and pairs of fencing swords. Though the council granted Jakob Leonard two of his father’s guns free of charge, Esaias—who’d also had the grim task of contributing to the inventory—paid three guilders to reclaim a pair of his father’s fencing swords.

An Inconclusive Conclusion

This contribution represents only a brief overview of Mair’s expansive and diverse collection and its context. Though familiar within the community of martial scholars and HEMA practitioners, the documents surrounding Paulus Hector Mair’s collection and patronage, as well as his fall and the liquidation of his assets, offer fertile and hitherto untilled soil. In particular, further examination of Mair’s tangible world, beyond the manuscripts that he collected and produced, will continue to shed new light on the ways that martial objects and knowledge were collected, described, and circulated through early modern towns.

[i] Benedikt Mauer, ‘Sammeln Und Lesen – Drucken Und Schreiben. Die Vier Welten Des Augsburger Ratsdieners Paul Hector Mair’, in Medien Und Weltbilder Im Wandel Der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Theresia Hörmann and Wolfgang E.j. Weber, Documenta Augustana, 5 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2000), pp. 107-32. Due to revisions of the numbering system in the Stadtarchiv Augsburg since Mauer’s publication, some of the document numbers now differ from those cited in his chapter. For monetary comparison, a master carpenter in Augsburg earned roughly 45 to 50 guilders per year.

[ii] Jeffrey L. Forgeng, ‘Owning the Art: The German Fechtbuch Tradition’, in The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520-1630, ed. by Tobias Capwell (London: The Wallace Collection, 2012), pp. 164–76; Jeffrey L. Forgeng, ‘The Martial Arts Treatise of Paulus Hector Mair’, in Die Kunst Des Fechtens, ed. by Elizabeth Vavra and Matthias Johannes Bauer (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2017), pp. 267–83; Kazuhiko Kusudo, ‘P.H. Mair (1517-1579): A Sports Chronicler in Germany’, in Sport and Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by John McClelland and Brian Merrilees (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2009), pp. 339–54.

[iii] Daniel Jaquet, “Collecting Martial Art Knowledge on Paper in Early Modern Germany and China: The Examples of Paulus Hector Mair and Qi Jiguang and Their Reading in the 21st Century,” Martial Arts Studies, (9), pp.86–92. DOI:

[iv] Mark Häberlein et al., Augsburger Eliten des 16. Jahrhunderts: Prosopographie wirtschaftlicher und politischer Führungsgruppen 1500-1620 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1996), 503-04; Mauer, 109.

[v] See, for instance, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codices 10825-10826, fol. 4v; Munich, Bayeriches Staatsbibliothek, Cod. icon 312 b.

[vi] Cod. icon 312 b, fol. 1v.

[vii] Augsburg, Stadtarchiv, Urgichten K262, 1579-80, Inventarium 1579, p. 3, „Zalte Antoni Pfeffenhaueser […] das Helden buch.“; Wendelin Boeheim, Meister der Waffenschmiedekunst vom XIV bis ins XVIII Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrage zur Geschichte der Kunst und Des Kunsthandwerks (Berlin: W. Moeser, 1897). 158-61. Surprisingly, Peffenhauser appears only infrequently as a „counter“ and primarily counts books, rather than armors. Tantalizingly, an “Antoni Plattner,” returns as a buyer on January 22, Urgichten K262, Hector Mayers Nachlass Verstiegerung 1580, p. 33.

[viii] Mauer, 111.

[ix] As Mauer has observed, this inventory records only the objects in Mair’s quarters adjacent to the Rathaus, and omits any possessions located in the family home he share with his wife, Felizitas Kötzler, am Kappeneck. Mauer, 110.

[x] Mauer, 123.

[xi] Urgichten, K262, Inventarium 1579, p. 20. 19 December, „Den Kemerlin auf dem Boden,“ „Zahlen Anthoni Nußhard umb 4- halb harnische und ain doppelhandschen der Zugehör.“ The meaning of doppelhandschen remains unclear, the term may describe exchange gauntlets or reinforces.

[xii] See, for instance, the representation of fourteenth-century clothing in images of sword-and-buckler fencing reproduced from earlier sources in Augsburg Univeritäts/Oettingen-Wallersteinschebibliothek, Augsburg. Cod. Cod. I.6.2.4. Mair, Paulus Hector and Jörg Breu the Younger, Collected Fechtbuch, fols. 14r-v.

[xiii] Kusudo, 349-50. Kusudo discusses Mair’s Marksmanship Chronicle, Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod-Guelph. 1.2.1 2o.

[xiv] Urgichten K 262, Inventarium 1579, p. 25, „Zalte Wilhelm von Mondfort, 1 […] alten welschen aisen küglin“

[xv] Urgichten K262, Hector Mayers Nachlass Verstiegerung 1580, p. 25, „David Roth […] 1 Reitschwert mit silber beschlagen […], 2 alte zerbrochne Fechtschwerter und 2 dolchen“

[xvi] Urgichten K262, Hector Mayers Nachlass Verstiegerung 1580, p. 25, „Wolf Vischer, herren Marcus Fugger’s kemer . . .ain Reitschwert.“

[xvii] Urgichten K262, Hector Mayers Nachlass Verstiegerung 1580, p. 21, 11 January, 1580, „Nota: Dem Herren Jo. Leo. Mayr dürch meine herren vere(h)t werden 2 feu(e)rbüchsen,“ at not cost; Urgichten K262, Hector Mayers Nachlass Verstiegerung 1580, p. 111, „Zalte Elaias Mayr […] 1 par fechtschw. R 3.-“; For other mentions of Ettinger in connection with the Augsburg mint, see Hildebrandt Reinhard, Quellen und Regesten zu den Augsburger Handelshäusern Paler und Rehlinger 1539-1642 : Wirtschaft und Politik im 16./17. Jahrhundert, Deutsche Handelsakten des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit, XIX (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996), 1: 1539-1623, 195-96.

“A true son of Mars”: Ascanio della Corgna’s urban duels


Sixteenth century Italy was a place of constant conflict and shifting political and military balances. Men of status such as Prospero Colonna, Francesco Maria I della Rovere and Ferrante Gonzaga, often served as condottieri, hired military commanders, and became renowned for their martial exploits. This was also the case for Ascanio della Corgna, a noble from Perugia and nephew to Pope Julius III. Ascanio became famous serving as a condottiero in numerous battles, for his ingenuity as a tactician and military engineer, and for his competence with arms both in battle as well as in tournaments.[1] His military career earned him the title of the marquis of Castiglione del Lago. An anonymous poet, contemporary to Corgna, referred to him as “vero figluol di Mars”, a true son of Mars, which highlighted his martial prowess and fierceness as a warrior, as well as his recognition as such.[2] His temper also led to his involvement in several judicial duels of honour.[3] Two of them gave and boosted his reputations as a lethal fencer: the first against Ugo di Carpegna and the second against Giovanni Taddei.

Against the Count of Carpegna

Ascanio’s first famous duel was fought against Ugo, Count of Carpegna in the city centre of Bologna. The Count was the general of the military force that Ascanio had served in since 1535. A series of events caused offense to Ascanio, who then challenged his leader. The duel was conducted in the marble-laid yard above the step of the church of San Petronio. The choice of the location served as an elevated platform where the fighters would be visible to the large crowd of city dwellers and soldiers that had gathered at the base of the steps of San Petronio to watch the duel.  The two fighters brought seconds, and Pietro Strozzi, another wealthy commander, acted as a referee to the duel. Both Ascanio and the Count of Carpegna were already experienced, skilled fencers, with the first having the advantage of youth and the latter of further experience. Each duelist fought with a sidesword and a slightly shorter one handed sword. The duel was bloody and lasted several rounds. Strozzi stopped the duel several times, usually because the Count was injured and enquired if satisfaction had been achieved for della Corgna. The duelists exchanged insults, with the Count of Carpegna accusing Ascanio he challenged him to gain fame and that Ascanio’s requests for him to yield were impossible because they were beneath his status. Eventually with the intervention of the referee and their seconds, the two men reached a compromise and the Count apologised. Ascanio had just defeated his commander, a man of notable status and martial fame in front of the town of Bologna.

The “duel of the century”

Ascanio della Corgna’s second duel took place in Pitigliano, near Perugia, on 26 May 1546.[4] The fight was so ferocious and attracted so much attention that was popularized already by contemporary and early modern historians as “il duello del secolo”, the duel of the century. Ascanio challenged one of his military subordinates to a duel, a younger Florentine noble named Giovanni Taddei. The reason behind Ascanio’s challenge was an insult by Taddei, either for refusing to follow an order or for insulting him in front of other officers who afterwards reported it to their leader. Therefore, in many ways this encounter found Ascanio in a reversed role compared to his first famous duel: he had to fight a younger military subordinate of his who was already a skilled fighter and who would make a name for himself if he defeated the seasoned commander, much like in the case of him and the Count of Carpegna. The preparations of the duel lasted two months, during which time officials were appointed and weapons were chosen. This preparation time allowed the news of the duel to spread in the area and reach great publicity. The two combatants would once again fight with two swords each. The Count of Pitigliano that had allowed the duel appointed himself as the referee.

On the day of the duel the crowd of the city and soldiers gathered outside the city walls. Two elevated stages were erected for the more illustrious guests, invited either by the two men or by the city officials, demonstrating the importance of the event as a social spectacle. Weapons were provided for the combatants sealed, most likely in boxes or other wrapping, to ensure that each fought with the same weapon and had no unfair advantage against the other. The combat was ferocious, but in this case Ascanio emerged swiftly as a clear winner. Taddei first received two thrusts to his right arm, which would have hindered the effective use of his sword, and eventually was killed by a third thrust to his torso.

Niccolò Circignani, The duel of Ascanio della Corgna and Giovanni Taddei, fresco, Pallazo della Corgna.

A case of swords

One of the matters worth further discussion in both of Ascanio’s duels is the choice of weapons for each participant: a pair of single handed swords. This is not an instance of sword and dagger, but two similar swords, one longer and one slightly shorter. Considering the period of their use, it is safe to assume that the swords, or at least the longer one, used were what is commonly referred to today as sideswords.[5] In the fresco of the Palazzo della Corgna depicting this duel, the duelists are also seen wearing some type of glove on their left hand. The glove reaches all the way to the elbow, and it is safe to speculate that it would offer partial protection and was therefore made of leather or most likely mail.

In his Opera Nova, arguably the earliest European to record a nearly complete martial arts system and contemporary to the duels discussed here, Achille Marozzo wrote that the use of a case of sideswords is an excellent and strong choice of weapons that few know how to use, and they should not be used by those who do not know how to fence.[6] In his book, Marozzo treated the use of various weapons such as the two-handed sword, the partisan, the spiedo, the bill, and the sidesword alone or paired with the cloak and the dagger. However, nowhere in his exhaustive treatment of these weapons their use becomes abundantly clear as being something as advanced as in his initial statement regarding the use of the paired sideswords. This is a testament to the martial skills particularly of Ascanio, as well as of his opponents. It is safe to assume that besides his military experience and training, Ascanio was taught how to fence with a fencing master because of his status and chosen profession, most likely with a variety of weapons. Della Corgna’s connection to Achille Marozzo extends beyond the geographical and chronological frame and the use of weapons. Ascanio first served under the command of Guido Rangone as a standard bearer and then as a captain.[7] Rangone was mentioned by Marozzo as another student of his own fencing master, Guido Antonio de Lucca, for whose school Marozzo wrote in his dedication that “it produced more warriors than the belly of the Trojan horse”. Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the sketch and fresco depicting his duel with Taddei both combatants are also using a glove on their left hand, most likely with mail exterior.

His success and overwhelming victories in both duels reinforce the profile of a skilled and experienced fencer. This is especially the case considering that in of the duel against Taddei Ascanio was considerably older and that in the cases of both duels discussed here he was missing his right eye (lost in the battle of Casale Monferrato in 1536), a handicap that would normally weigh in in favour of Taddei because of the dexterity needed in the use of weapons and especially paired arms, his feat becomes even greater.    

Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova (Modena: Bergolae, 1536),
cap. 76.

Urban spaces and fame

A common denominator in both of Ascanio’s duels is the crowd that gathered to watch. The bloody, and in the case of the second duel lethal, fights were transformed into a spectacle for the residents of the cities that hosted them. The crowd in the rooftops and balconies around the church of San Petronio in Bologna hosted part of the spectating crowd, and the elevated landing outside the church served as a stage that allowed citizens to observe the violent spectacle.

In the case of the duel against Taddei the fight was conducted outside the city walls of Pitigliano. Crowds from the city was gathered to watch as well as several of Ascanio’s soldiers. Shopkeepers and homeowners with windows and roofs that overlooked the grounds of the duel rented them out.[8] Not many details regarding the space are given in any of the contemporary accounts. However, it is interesting to highlight some of the details in the fresco of the fight. The duelists are depicted fighting in some form of enclosure much like those used in foot combat tournaments. Additionally, a judge is present holding a staff, which also reflects the same tournament practice. These elements match the descriptions of the narratives of the duel but add some extra depth and detail aligned to the trends of the time of the event. The variety in the garments of the crowd present is fascinating, with colours and outfits that hint to people of different statuses and from various life stratas.

A comparison of the descriptions of the ‘duel of the century’ and the duel of Ascanio against the Count of Carpegna leaves the modern reader with the impression that the latter was a far more interesting spectacle, particularly because of the setting. This might be because of the lack of detail on the combat between of Ascanio and Taddei. However, it is worth considering that their duel was so memorable because of the two-month buildup that led to it. Both men were skilled fighters and had both won famous duels prior to their encounter, with Taddei even winning in one with Ascanio acting as his second. This created an intricate and appealing narrative that most likely excited the public in a period that judicial honour duels were not uncommon.[9]


Among other exploits of his illustrious military career, Ascanio fought against the Ottoman Empire in the Siege of Malta (1565), and acted as one of the commanders of the force that defeated the Ottoman navy in Lepanto (1571). Shortly after the Battle of Lepanto, Ascanio died of fever in Rome. Scenes of his life and his victories are celebrated in the frescoes of the Palazzo della Corgna in Castiglione del Lago, including his record as an undefeated swordsman. Ascanio embodied the finest martial qualities of Italian nobility in the sixteenth century, and his skill helped his reputation reach heroic heights during and after his lifetime. The two duels discussed here helped in the creation of his personal myth –perhaps partially justifying the accusations by the Count of Carpegna – and highlight a martial aspect of the civic life of a military man. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Moreno dei Ricci, Jacopo Penso and ‘Opera Nova’ for their bibliographical assistance and help studying Ascanio. Grazie ragazzi.

[1] Guido Lana, Ascanio I della Corgna ed il suo tempo (Castiglione del Lago: Nuova Stampa, 1999), p. 13.

[2] Ettore Calzorale, ‘Ascanio della Corgna, I combattenti umbri e il gran “soccorso” di Malta nella canzone di un anonimo coevo’, Bolletino della Deputazione di storia, Patria per l’Umbria, 94 (1997), 173.

[3] For an overview of the types of duels in sixteenth century Italy as well as of the context that cultivated their practice see Fredrick Bryson, The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel; a Study in Renaissance Social History (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1938).

[4] Ariodante Fabretti, Le biografie dei capitani venturieri dell’ Umbria (Montepulciano: Angiolo Fumi, 1842), pp. 603-604.

[5] Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, European Martial Arts: From Vulcan’s Forge to the Arts of Mars (Botticino: Gairethinx, 2019), p.218

[6] Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, ( Modena: Bergolae, 1536), cap. 76.

[7] Giovanni Tarcagnota, Delle historie del mondo, vol. 4 (Venice: Giunti, 1592), pp. 188-189.

[8] Bruce Ware Allen, The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle Between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John (Lebanon: ForeEdge, 2015), p. 221.

[9] Marco Cavina, Il sangue dell’onore: Storia del duello (Rome: Laterza, 2005).

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.

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