Assault on the church

The passage commented on this article is taken from a chronicle written in the last years of the fifteenth century by the notary Iacopo Malga from Brescia. This interesting passage demonstrates the bellicosity of the inhabitants of Brescia’s valleys, in particular that of Val del Garza and Val Trompia. In the last years of the twelfth century the hermit Costanzo founded a church and a monastery on the mountain (Conche mountain) that separates these two valleys. He was later sanctified after his death[1]. In 1443, following the transfer of the religious complex to the nuns of Santa Caterina in Brescia, the Dominican fathers set out in search of the remains of the holy founder, hidden inside the church. The remains were found only in 1481 and then brought to Brescia in the same year. This transfer was at risk of degenerating into a proper carnage, as Iacopo Malga reports:

Fig.1: The complex of Conche, Photo credit: Mik2001.

“[…] Men from neighbouring villages were involved in the transfer of the saint’s body from the church of Conche. The inhabitants of the villages of Nave, Caino, Lumezzane and certain other villages had heard of the discovery, and many went to Conche, armed with partesane (partizans), giaverine, and even sticks. They had the support of some citizens of Brescia, such as the late Count Luigi Avogadro and others who had an interest in those lands. Their intention was to force the local friars to give up the relics. One of them, the Venetian Tommaso Donato — prior priest of the convent of San Domenico, a talented theologian, good preacher and currently patriarch of Venice — decided to hide the body inside the church tower, to ensure that the villagers would not find it. It was a useless attempt because the villagers — furious — climbed the bell tower, damaged it and took the body from the friars by force. They carried it, kept inside a chest, down the mountain into the land of Nave. Some of these villagers animatedly discussed friar Tommaso inside the church, and also tried to kill him with the ronche (bills), but he managed to escape. The villagers acted like this out of devotion to the saint: they said that few would know him as long as his body remained in Conche. Some of them were imprisoned, but they came out of prison cursing the saint and swearing they never knew him[2].

On the one hand, the passage quoted above shows all the bellicosity of the inhabitants of the valleys, driven into homicidal fury for several reasons. In addition, we should consider, at least in part, the religious devotion towards the saint and the willingness — reported also by the notary — to give his remains a more prestigious allocation. On the other hand, some noblemen supported the expedition. The counts of Avogadro, mentioned in the chronicle, had kept Lumezzane as a fiefdom since 1427 and had every interest in the glorification of a saint who had worked in the vicinity of their territories. The expedition was not that of a feudal army, but these noblemen probably manipulated the commoners and created a kind of “popular militia”. The local rulers appropriately exploited the ferocity of the inhabitants of the two valleys, on more than one occasion. In 1512, the people of Nave, under the leadership of the condottiero Valerio Paitone, heroically resisted the French assaults, at least until the sacking of the 26th July[3]. The Venetians integrated the inhabitants of the valleys into the cernide, the military corps recruited in the mainland of the Serenissima[4]. The militiamen of the valleys were harquebusiers, unlike those of the Brescia plain, who formed regiments of pikemen[5]. The governors of Brescia in their reports to the Consiglio dei X repeatedly celebrated the value of these highlanders and their attachment to Venetian rule[6].

Fig.2: Saint Costanzo and Beato Innocenzo, Saint Maurizio Church of Niardo (Brescia),
Photo credit: Luca Giarelli.

The reference to the arms used by the inhabitants is also quite interesting Partisans, chiaverine, bills and even sticks[7] are mentioned in the passage cited above. Except for the bills, we do not know and cannot exactly establish the type of the first two arms described. There is no exact correspondence between the current terms and those used at the time in the territories of Brescia. They were certainly hafted arms, hardly distinguishable improvised agricultural tools — in particular in the case of the bills[8].

Fig.3: Italian bill from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1500 c., inv. 14.25.159. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curiously, all three villages mentioned in the testimony, namely Nave, Caino and Lumezzane, were all known for arms manufacturing. In 1609-1610, swords pommel were produced in Lumezzane and at the beginning of the nineteenth century flintlock mechanisms and bayonets[9]. Swords were produced in Caino from the end of the sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century[10]. In Nave, the same production has been recorded starting from the fourth decade of the sixteenth century, despite two forges that were already active from the end of the fifteenth century[11]. It is not known what exactly was produced in those forges in those earlier years but we can speculate that it was either arms or agricultural tools.

In conclusion, the passage reported covers two important aspects of Brescian history relevant to modern research on martial culture: first, the (successful) attempt by Brescia noblemen to create a “paramilitary” force, exploiting the bellicosity of the inhabitants of the valleys; second, the mention of the arms used by the villagers. It is indeed a peculiar fact, although not directly connected with the story, that the origins of the armed men could be traced to three cities known for their arm production. Nonetheless, as the Brescian illuminist Carlo Maggi wrote in 1781, the manufacture and use of arms were closely linked in the Brescia territories, and it contributed in making their inhabitants particularly warlike[12].

Cite this article as: Paolo De Montis, "Assault on the church," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 31/01/2021,

[1] San Costanzo was born in the second half of the twelfth century, perhaps in Niardo in Val Camonica. He was from a noble family and served in the comune of Brescia as an official and general, until he decided to walk away from his wealth and become a hermit. He retired and went to live in Conche, a locality between the villages of Nave (Val del Garza) and Lumezzane (Valtrompia). There, he devoted himself to the study of the sacred scriptures [Carlo Doneda, Notizie di San Costanzo Eremita bresciano e Memorie istoriche del monastero di S. Caterina di Brescia (Brescia: Giammaria Rizzardi, 1755)].

[2] Cronaca del notaio Iacopo Malga, Le cronache inedite bresciane, Vol. I, ed. by Paolo Guerrini (Brescia: Moretto, 1922), 4-135 (pp. 35-36).

The remains of San Costanzo were brought to the church of Santa Caterina di Brescia, apart the bones of one of its arms, and then splitbetween the church of San Domenico and the Duomo. The relics are currently kept inside the parish church of Nave. The saint is the patron of Nave and Niardo, and he is celebrated on the twelfth of February.

[3] Carlo Pasero, Francia, Spagna, Impero a Brescia (1509-1516) (Brescia: Tipo-Lito Fratelli Geroldi, 1957). Sanuto claims that on 25 April 1512: “[…] the French had gone to loot the valley of Nave: they returned to Brescia wounded and humiliated, many of them having died. San Marco wanted to show him that he was the defender and the protector of the Venetians” [I diari di Sanuto, Vol. XIV (Venice: F. Visentini, 1886), p. 293].

[4] Carlo Pasero, “Aspetti dell’ordinamento militare del territorio bresciano durante il dominio veneto”, Commentari dell’Ateneo di Brescia, 1937, 9-39; Francesco Rossi, “Le armature da munizione e l’organizzazione delle cernide nel bresciano”, Archivio Storico Lombardo, 1971, 169-186; John Halle, “Brescia and the Venetian Military System in the Cinquecento”, in Armi e Cultura nel Bresciano 1420-1870 (Brescia: Tipo-Lito Fratelli Geroldi, 1981), 97-119 (italian traduction: 121-139).

[5] An interesting document found by the author in Nave’s archive reports about a military drill, which took place in the village on 24 October 1563. Captain Hieronimo Negro arrived that day in the village, along with his faithful sergeant Tamburino, to conduct the drill of the territorial ordinance. We know that the men who participated in the drill were harquebusiers from a specific reference in the document: “[…] so (the captain) distributed or had distributed to those equally powder for the harquebuses” (Nave Archive, Sezione Antico Regime [1509-post 1785], busta 1, fasc. 4, n. 65).

[6] Report by the Captain of Brescia Marino Cavalli, 1554: “This second valley is the Val Trompia, crossed by the Mella. It has many good lands and about 18,000 souls, and they are men who are estimated to be more ferocious and more belligerent than all the others […] They are very loyal to the Serenissima”.

Report by the Captain of Brescia Antonio Lando, 1611: “I have visited the three valleys – Valcamonica, Val Trompia and Val Sabbia: they are worthy of all esteem. In these valleys there are 900 service soldiers, good and very well disciplined by Captain Giacomo Negroboni […]” [Relazioni dei rettori veneti in terraferma. Vol. XI: Podestaria e capitanato di Brescia, ed. by Amelio Tagliaferri (Varese: Dott. A. Giuffrè for the Istituto di Storia Economica, 1978), pp. 49 e 211].

[7] According to current terminology: Chiaverina: A kind of spear with a wide blade and two wings in the haft.

[…] Partizan: Dagona-shaped blade with two wings at the bottom. It derived from the spiedo alla bolognese towards the end of the fifteenth century or in the first decades of the following century. It remained in use as a representative arm for most of the eighteenth century” [Carlo De Vita, Armi Bianche dal Medioevo all’Età Moderna (Firenze: Centro Di, 1983), p. 30].

[8] Mario Troso, Le armi in asta delle fanterie europee dal 1000 al 1500 (Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1988), pp. 137-253.

[9] Il Catastico Bresciano di Giovanni De Lezze (1609-1610), Vol. I, ed. by Carlo Pasero (Brescia: F. Apollonio, 1969), p. 190; Giovanni Battista Brocchi, Trattato mineralogico e chimico sulle miniere di ferro del dipartimento del Mella con l’esposizione della costituzione fisica delle montagne metallifere della Val Trompia, Vol. I (Brescia: Nicolò Bettoni, 1808), p. 95. Lumezzane is also home to the Erede Gnutti company, famous throughout the world for the quality of its foils.

[10] Sandro Rossetti, Le fucine della Valle del Garza (Brescia: Grafo, 1996), pp. 52-59; Caino, ed. by Roberto Gotti (Brescia: Punto Marte, 2011).

[11] Rossetti cit., pp. 39-47.

[12] Carlo Maggi, Del genio armigero del popolo bresciano. Saggio politico (Brescia: Daniel Berlendis, 1781), pp. 23-24.

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,