Principles of Fiore Dei Liberi's Martial System

Journal of Western Martial Art
June 2002
by Robert Lovett


Fiore dei Liberi of Cividale d'Austria was a medieval swordsmaster, born sometime between 1340 and 1350 in Cividale del Friuli, a small town on the river Natisone in Italy. This article is based on his writings, specifically his treatise entitled "Flos Duellatorum" written between the years of 1409 and 1410. The only source of Liberi's background can be found in the prologue of the manuscript. According to the prologue, he had been practicing the art of swordsmanship for 50 years at the time of his writing. It also describes that his family is of noble origin, however, but not well placed. He initially learned the art of swordsmanship as a child and young man in his village where he fought in friendly assaults and duels as was the custom in that period. However, in order to learn the art from the best of his time, he left his village and went to Germany to learn and train in swordsmanship under the direction of the scholar Johannes Suvenus (a former scholar of Nicolaus con Toblem).

The knowledge he acquired under Johane's direction elevated Fiore dei Liberi to a master swordsman of his time. He participated in numerous battles in and around Italy for the last 20 years of the 14th century. In 1383 he fought in Udine on the side of the town during the civil war. In 1395 he was in Padua for a duel and four years later in 1399 he was in Pavia. Little is known of his life and deeds around this time until the beginning of 1400, he entered the court of Niccolo III d'Este, Marquise of Ferrara, as the master swordsman. He acquired a commission in the early 1400's as a master swordsman on behalf of Signore di Ferrara. He then began to write the manuscript for the nobility on behalf of Signore di Ferrara. In 1410 Fiore dedicated his treatise to his Marquise. After 1410 there are no records of his life or of his death. It is believed that he died some time before 1450.

The Principles of Fiore dei Liberi's martial system is based upon the translation of the Getty Collection's MS by Eleonora Litta and Mat Easton and the interpretation of that translation by the Exiles, Company of Medieval Martial Artists. Before identifying and expounding upon these principles it is necessary to define what is meant by the phrase "principles of a martial system".

The dictionary definition of the word "martial" is stated as:

a. Of, suitable for, appropriate to, warfare
The word "system" is defined as:
n. Complex whole, set of connected things or parts, organized body of material or immaterial things
The phrase "martial system" must therefore pertain to an "organised body of material suitable for and appropriate to warfare". This phrase certainly seems to apply to Fiore dei Liberi's own manual as it is stated, in the introduction of the work, that:
... in his youth wanted to learn the art of combat in the barriers, (of) Spear, Axe, Sword and Dagger, and (of) fighting on foot or mounted, in war or not in war/armoured or not armoured.
This seems quite straight forward, Fiore dei Liberi wrote a treatise laying out an organised body of material suitable for and appropriate to war. This seems to imply that Fiore may well have laid out his book in a methodical manner according to some sort of plan or system and not in any sort of casual, sporadic or unintended manner. Even without the translated text, it can be clearly seen that there is some sort of order to the manual, laying out the unarmed first, followed by dagger and subsequently sword and long sword, ending in armoured combat where he shows half-swording, poll axe and spear. If one looks closely, without the text, it is apparent, that similar moves and techniques are performed again and again with all of the different varieties of weapon, whether in or out of armour.

If you look at the book with the text available, then this systematic approach can be clearly seen, as Dei Liberi constantly refers the reader back to different techniques that he has already shown, clearly intending that the lessons learned should be applied to different situations. This certainly seems reminiscent of the London Maisters of Defence, where Swetnam is seen to comment:

...that an expert Master of Defence can of one kinde of weapon make many...

Having identified what a martial system is, and that Fiore dei Liberi intended by design to layout the system that he practised, which he succeeded in, it is necessary to turn our attention to what we mean by "principles", and how this meaning relates to a martial system. The word "principle" is defined in the dictionary as:

  1. Fundamental source, primary element
  2. Fundamental truth as a basis of reasoning
  3. Law of nature seen working of machine
  4. Constituent of a substance, esp. one giving rise to some quality.
Therefore, when trying to distil the "principles of a martial system", it is necessary to look for those constituent parts that impart a certain quality or qualities to a particular organised body of material suitable for warfare, or referring back to the title of this essay:
Identify those constituent parts that impart to Fiore Dei Liberi's organised body of material suitable for warfare a certain quality or qualities.
When looking at treatises and books especially those printed from the 15th centuryonwards, these principles are often stated quite explicitly by the various authors, in an effort to try and identify those parts that they think are important to the understanding of their own system and to the understanding of systems used by others. These authors have had a varying degree of success, arguably the most successful being George Silver in his work title "Paradoxes of Defence", written in 1597.

In this work, Silver lists those constituent parts that he believes are essential to the understanding of his own martial system, the most famous of which being the Four Grounds and the Four Governors. So successful was he that these Grounds and Governors appear to be universally applicable, however, they were not the only principles that he described. Among others he included the stages of a blow, the length of weapons and many more.

Before the 15th Century, authors were not so generally well disposed to, as were the later authors, providing the constituents in such an explicit manner. In spite of this, there are some gems that are stated explicitly but unfortunately this is not always the case. So, how does the serious interpreter of medieval martial arts find these principles?

If one studies a variety of medieval manuscripts, they seem, at first glance to be merely a collection of loosely grouped techniques, depicting a particular move for a particular situation. However, if one breaks the technique down further one may be able to identify the basic building blocks that make such a technique possible.

If the researcher studies another technique in the same manner, identifying the basic building blocks of the new technique, then he may find some common elements between the two techniques. At this point it may be possible to start making hypothesis about the principles that a particular system may have. It is only when all the techniques have been studied in a similar manner that it will be possible to fully identify the principles involved in a system.

This is a difficult task, made even more difficult by the fact that few medieval treatises depict only one source and tend to be an amalgamation of different sources. The most obvious example of this is the system depicted by Talhoffer in his treatises, where he clearly depicts Ott the Jew's wrestling system, departing from the system that he uses when showing grappling with a weapon.

Fiore dei Liberi does not present us with the same problem, luckily. Fiore's system, by his own admission, is a collection of techniques picked up presumably while on his travels, from other Masters and probably from his own personal experience, that he found particular useful and over the course of his life invented a system, or fitted into an already existing system, that, at that time, was particularly unique. That is if the reactions of jealous Masters is anything to go by, and the fact that he insisted those who he taught did so only after taking a sacred vow not to share the teachings with anyone else.

This essay will therefore identify and discuss those principles, both explicit and implicit, and will be split into these two headings accordingly.

Explicit Principles of Fiore dei Liberi's Martial System

Fiore's manual can be viewed as being a large collection of individual techniques grouped by armoured and not armoured, further subdivided by weapon type. It may, therefore, appear that when looking for the principles of Fiore's system that we need to start from there, however, a close look at the manual will show that between each division there is a brief section that introduces each new part.

In these introductions Fiore discusses some of the concepts that are relevant, not only to that section, but indeed to the whole manual. It is from these concepts that this essay will begin, before moving onto the techniques that make up the larger part of the manual.

Knowing the Opponent

In the introduction to the Wrestling section, Fiore, states that if one is to wrestle with an opponent then it is suggested that it is essential to know the following about him:
  1. The opponent's strength, especially if the opponent is stronger
  2. The opponent's size, especially if he "is bigger in the body", presumably meaning if the opponent is heavier, though he could mean taller.
  3. The opponent's age, whether he is younger or older, presumably trying to assess the experience of the opponent.
  4. Whether the opponent uses the guards of wrestling or not, i.e. what stance the opponent takes.
These four things are important, certainly, as they affect the strategies that are to be used in combat. If the opponent is stronger then it would be pointless to pit strength against strength, if the opponent is taller then it will be more difficult to close the range and be able to effectively attack, if the opponent is heavier then he will be more difficult to throw, if the opponent is younger then he may be less experienced, or if older then more experienced, and finally if the opponent uses wrestling guards then it shows that he has possibly been taught about wrestling. This will also affect the stances that will be taken in reply and therefore what sort of targets and options may or may not be available to attack by either party. All of these points are, undoubtedly, important factors when entering a combat against anyone, and many Masters of the past have devoted considerable amount of time to addressing these very issues. However, can they be classed as principles of Fiore's system? To answer this let us address these issues in turn.


Strength is an important factor. If the opponent is stronger, then as already mentioned, it is pointless trying to overpower him. Instead tactics should be adjusted so as to avoidsituations were the more advantageous strength can be employed. The opposite is also true, if the opponent is weaker, then it is more advantageous to employ greater strength to overpower him and tactics must be adjusted accordingly.

Is strength a principle of the martial art? The answer is probably not, however, it is a requisite of the martial artist. As with most physical activity the stronger and fitter the practitioner is, then the more successful that practitioner will be.

In practical terms, however, the issue of strength will help decide whether or not the combatant will close or will keep out of range, or at least not in a position where strength will be a deciding factor. The question remains; How will the practitioner decide whether to close or not, if the only factor that he is concerned with is strength? The answer is simple - the practitioner will have to rely on his judgement, based on previous experiences. This is not the only factor, obviously. These will be discussed during the course of the essay.


Liberi says that the combatant must know whether the opponent "is bigger in the body". Liberi is obviously concerned with a size issue, and there are two ways that this statement can be looked at.

The first way is to take this literally and look at the phrase as being one that is concerned with weight. Certainly from the point of view of closing this is an important issue. The heavier that someone is then the harder it will be to throw them, or move them, and the combatant would be at a disadvantage if the heavier person attempted to do the same to them. Once again, as with strength, this seems to be a question of judgement. The combatant needs to judge whether the opponent is or is not heavier, and then decide - based on this information- whether it is advantageous to close or to remain at distance, thus negating any weight differences. It is interesting to note in this regard, when observing small and stocky people in sparring situations, then they tend to want to close with lighter people, whilst lighter people try to stay away from the close situation.

The second way of viewing this statement is in regards to height. This is a subject that many Masters have touched on in their own treatises, whereas few have written about the importance of weight. If Liberi is really referring to height with his statement, then he his essentially referring to the reach that the combatants have and this obviously affects the distance that a combatant can fight at. The taller person will have the advantage because of the greater reach of his arms. This means that a tall person, will always have the opportunity to hit the smaller man first, and the smaller man at the same time will not be in a position to be able to hit his opponent. In other words, Liberi could well be addressing the issue of distance, which is of vital importance to his system. Part of Liberi's system relies on the concept of being able to close with the opponents. To be able to do this Liberi needs to be able to close the distance between the two opponents. If one is taller than another, then the shorter one will have to travel further, which obviously takes more time.

With this one particular issue, Liberi could well be addressing the issue of distance and of time. In an ideal world the combatant would want to weight the distance into his favour, making it as short as possible, while at the same time reducing the amount of time that an opponent has to react to an attack or to a counter.


dei Liberi advises that before a person enters into combat that it is necessary to assess the age of the opponent, and work out whether he is older or younger. The reason for this is not obvious. Perhaps, Liberi was concerned that people fighting those older than them that they would take it easy and gave the old codgers a chance.

A more likely reason is most probably one concerned with the amount of experience and prudence that the opponent may or may not have. In general terms, a younger fighter might be hasty with their attacks, not think about the consequences of their actions and in general lack experience of combat. A younger, less experienced opponent may also perform unexpected actions that may take a more experienced combatant by surprise - especially if he is expecting a certain response from an action.

An older fighter may be completely opposite to this, and be more likely to be more cautious when attacking, thinking through the consequences of their actions and the expected responses of their opponent. In other words the older man would be more experienced, and possibly a successful fighter to have survived.

In both cases, this will affect the tactics that are used. For example, when fighting an opponent, being more cautious with the older fighter, while, on the other hand, trying to bait the younger combatant into doing something rash. This again is relying on the combatant's judgement to assess an opponent.

Use of Guards

Dei Liberi advises the combatant to assess whether the opponent uses wrestling guards. If an opponent does not use guards then it is possible that he is unskilled or untutored in combat. Although this might seem to be an advantage one must also be cautious as the untutored can easily do something completely unexpected to an attack or attack in an unexpected manner. This is dangerous for a trained combatant.

Alternatively, if the opponent uses guards of wrestling, then it shows that the combatant has been trained to some degree. This could be easier for a trained man to deal with. Responses to attacks and the attacks themselves would be more likely tofollow a certain pattern, though this is no excuse for complacency, as the opponent may well be able to do something that is new and therefore unexpected.

Also, if an opponent is taking up certain guards, it may be easier to judge what form the attack may take and which areas may be targeted. This immediately aids the combatant to some degree. In addition to this, if the opponent takes certain guards, it may be possible to manipulate him by adopting certain other guards, narrowing the choices that are available to him thus forcing him to attack a more limited amount of openings. It may also be possibly to influence the opponent by the combatant adopting certain guards, which he will be forced to match, though if experienced he will try to avoid this particular trap.

Once again, Liberi is relying on the assessment of an opponent via the combatant's judgement, and although this is important, it does not fit the requirement of being a principle of his system.


Although these separate issues discussed here are important individually they cannot be classed as a principle. However, if they are grouped together as Dei Liberi has done then I would suggest that they are certainly important features of his system. To be able to fight effectively and more importantly win the fight it is imperative that as much information is known about the opponent. Once a correct judgement has been made then it is possible to formulate a correct and hopefully successful strategy that will aid towards victory.

However, when looking at the individual statements, and trying to identify the reasoning behind them it can be seen that Liberi was aware of certain principle elements. These would include:

In the following sections, the reader will see these same issues occur again and again, and it may be possible to further identify these elements and expand upon them within the confines of Dei Liberi's martial system.

The Seven Requirements of Wrestling

In the introduction to the wrestling, Dei Liberi states what he considers to be the main requirements for wrestling. These include:

Although these appear in the introduction to wrestling they should be considered to be requisites for the whole system. The reason for this becomes apparent when it is realised that Wrestling forms the basis of the whole system. For example, the Dagger section could be viewed as an extension of the Wrestling section. The lessons learned from the Dagger and from the Wrestling are the basis of Giocco Stretto, or the Close Plays, both in armour and out of armour.

Already it should be seen that the issue of strength is raised once again. As already mentioned, strength is a benefit in physical activity, both mental strength and physical strength. Here Dei Liberi is referring to physical strength rather than any mental qualities. Strength has already been discussed, so it will not be discussed any further here, apart from noting that strength must be important to Dei Liberi's philosophy. Though it may well be worth noting that Dei Liberi could well have meant fitness instead of strength, and with that we must also consider aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness and flexibility. All of these things are vital for a successful martial artist today, imagine how much more important they would have been if one's life depended on these things. Once again, it must be concluded although this is important it is not a "principle" of Liberi's art, though it's importance to the martial artist cannot by stressed enough.


Speed is the second requisite that Dei Liberi mentions. In a literal sense, this is of course important, if the combatant can move faster than his opponent than obviously he will always have the advantage, however we can also look at this in another way.

Modern martial artists have often tried to impress their students with what appears to be lightening fast reflexes and almost inhuman speed, yet upon closer study this false reality falls apart and in fact, what the observer is seeing is the illusion of speed.

To explore this a little bit more we need to look a little bit more at what speed is, on a basic level. Speed is a product of the simple equation of time and distance. In other words, speed is the amount of time that a body takes to travel over a certain distance. So how does this apply to the situation of the illusion of speed?

A move is executed, from a particular position, then it will take x amount of time to reach its target. If the distance is shortened between the start position and the target, yet the speed taken to execute the speed remains the same then the time taken to execute that particular move will appear to be quicker. It is this manipulation of distance that certain martial artists are using to make it seem that they are quicker then they actually are.

Already in this one concept that Dei Liberi mentions we are looking at two main issues; time and distance. Once again we come across two concepts that are almost universally discussed by Masters from the time of the Renaissance onwards. However, the issue of distance needs to be expanded to encompass two different, yet related issues. These two issues are distance and space.

In this essay distance will mean the space between two points, the majority of the time this will be the starting point of an attack and the finishing point of an attack. This is vitally important to any martial art. When one decides to attack, from a particular position, then there will probably be several routes that this attack can take. Some of these routes will be longer than other routes.

Why is this important? The answer lies simply in effectiveness. If an attack takes the shortest distance between the start and the intended target then this is probably the best attack to make, and it is this particular type of issue that has caused one of the longest and probably unresolved arguments in the history of fencing, that of the superiority of the thrust over the cut. This argument will not be raised just yet, and was just mentioned in order to illustrate a particular point.

Space, however, is something that is not often mentioned within treatises, but is often illustrated. In some ways space is a by-product of distance, but this is not strictly true. Space is an area that can be moved to where it is impossible for an opponent to strike; yet it provides every opportunity for the combatant to strike his opponent. Dei Liberi uses this quite often, but it is a difficult concept to explain by using words only due to the shifting nature of space around the opponent and the combatant during the course of an engagement. This essay will look more at Space when looking more directly at particular techniques of Dei Liberi. The reason this concepts needs to be bought up here is that it is easier to take advantage of these areas of Space if the combatant can move quickly and with speed.

In addition to the ideas of Time, Distance and Speed, it has been also mentioned that to exploit these three physical attributes then it is necessary to move quickly. This point refers back to the concepts of fitness that have been mentioned as being possibly some of what Dei Liberi meant when he was referring to strength, but he could well have thought that the swiftness of a person and their ability to react quickly to ever changing situation was an important attribute.

With this one point, dei Liberi could well have been focusing attention on any one of the following concepts:

Equally, he could have been referring to the physical ability to move quickly and the mental agility to be able to adapt quickly to ever changing situations.

Maybe Dei Liberi wrote this to promote exactly this sort of thinking. Maybe Dei Liberi intends the reader to sit and ponder the written words and to consider them in as many different ways as possible, as all of these points are vitally important not only in relation to a system but also to the martial artist.

Knowledge of Binds, Locks, Breaks, Injuring and Throwing

These last five points of dei Liberi's Requisites are vitally important, and should be regardedas separate issues. However, because of the nature of this subject these requisites have all been grouped together because they do not refer to first principles.

If the combatant wishes to do any of these things then he has to recognise that the situation is right for any particular technique to be performed. For each situation the combatant must be able to judge that the distance between him and the opponent is correct, that the space he exists in, or is going to move to, is the correct one giving him the advantage. This concept is similar, if not the same as, Silver's concept of Place, and referring back to the earlier points, that the position and attack of the opponent is one that is going to be beneficial to performing one of the above.

Therefore, it is essential to have a perfect knowledge of these things but each one is based upon knowledge of things underlying these categories. These things are the principles of Dei Liberi's system that this essay is attempting to identify.

Before moving on though, it is worth looking at some issues that these categories raise.

Having knowledge of binds helps a combatant to know where to hold his opponent. In wrestling there are certain points that a combatant can grip that will give him more opportunities to offend his opponent either by throwing or locking or some other action. If a wrestler holds his opponent in a certain way then he will be able to reduce the amount of options that are available to his opponent thereby reducing the risk to himself.

This idea of binding can be extended to the concept that a bind occurs wherever two weapons are meeting. This can be arm against arm, dagger against sword, sword against sword and so on. From such a binding position, it may be possible to redirect the opponent, thus closing down options that are available to the opponent, whilst opening more for the combatant.

A knowledge of locks allows the combatant to decide how and where he will lock an opponent's arms, thus rendering him immobile, unable to attack or counter, and in a position where the lock can be increased to the point of breaking or throwingan opponent. This point leads nicely into the area of knowing how to break your opponent's arms and legs.

A knowledge of injuring is referring to the best ways that a combatant can hurt his opponent, without utilising the previous knowledge - i.e. not binding, locking or breaking bones, but rather knowing those areas that are more vulnerable to attack by other means, most probably, in an unarmed context, by striking.

Knowledge of throwing someone without putting the combatant in danger is basically one that allows a combatant to recognise when a person's balance can be destroyed, either through an action that the opponent has made, or by recognising a position that the opponent is in that can be exploited, or by realising a move that can be made.

All of these things rely upon knowledge of the body and more importantly how the body moves. To be able to lock an opponent's arm it must be recognised in what ways the joints move naturally so as to be able to force them to move in the opposite direction. It must also be necessary to realise in what way the muscles work and where the stronger ones are so as to exploit the weaker muscles elsewhere. To be able to throw someone efficiently without ending up on the ground at the same time relies upon being able to recognise how the opponent's body is balanced and positioned in order to be able to push with a minimum amount of force to effect a throw.

To sum up: it could be argued that one of the principles of Dei Liberi's system is that of Biologic [1] - using a knowledge of the human body to give an advantage within a fight and using that same knowledge to allow a combatant to attack his opponent. It can also be seen that once again, judgement is playing a huge part of the system, it is necessary for a combatant to be able to judge when the opponent is positioned correctly so as to be able to exploit it using either a bind, lock, break, throwing or strike to a vulnerable area, or if the opponent is not positioned correctly to use some sort of method either by binding, adopting certain positions or through redirection of force and energy, to reposition the opponent in a place that gives more advantage to the combatant.

Guards and Posta

Dei Liberi mentions Guards and Posta, and although he does say that they are the same thing, he also takes some time to try and explain the difference between the two phrases. For a clear understanding of Fiore's system, it is necessary to examine Posta and Guards as he tells us that:

"And these are the beginnings of that art, which is of the art of fighting/arms, in which these masters stay in guard."

In other words, it is from the Posta and Guards that Fiore has illustrated that the first attacks and primary defences are made. As Fiore writes also:

"because they are positioned in a place and in a way right to make a grand defence"

It is through a thorough understanding of Posta and Guards that the practitioner of his system will find it easier to make initial attacks and defences, understand how to counter these initial attacks and defences and if necessary understand how to counter the counters that may be employed.

"Then we say that knowing the guards, or Posta, it is easy."

Fiore starts by telling us that we should stand so that the weapons we are holding do not touch, whether they are our hands or daggers or swords or axes. There are two ways that this could be interpreted.

The first and most obvious is that he is raising the question of distance. In other words he informs us thatwe should stand out of range of our opponent. This makes perfect sense for if we are standing inside the range of our opponent's weapon then we will probably not have the time to react and be able to defend ourselves. This is very important to realise. The hands move incredibly quickly, and although a weapon may slow this speed down, we still do not have the time to react to an attack that is made while we are standing that close. By the time that light has travelled from the weapon to our eyes, our brain needs to interpret that information and judge where the best place to defend ourselves from that blow then making our own body move to perform that request the blow has most probably landed.

By providing extra distance for any attack to land we immediately ensure that we have a bigger amount of time to decide how to defend ourselves, and even allowing our brain the chance of deciding how to defend, rather than just reacting in panic.

The second way of interpreting this is that Fiore literally does not want to be in contact with the opponent's weapon from the outset of an engagement. Later, during the course of an engagement, he may wish for the weapons to touch. The reason for this is to do with something called kinaesthetic awareness. This is where, through using only the sense of touch, you are aware of where things are situated around you. If you close your eyes then you are aware of the position of your own body. If you are holding someone's hand then you are also aware of where that persons body is in relation to your own by the angle that their hand is being held. In addition to this, if that person moves while you are holding hands then you will feel that movement and be able to judge, without looking, what movement that person has made.

This is also true if someone is holding a weapon and your own weapon is touching it. You are aware of the angle and position of where the weapon is being held, and from that the position of the hands, arms and consequently the rest of the body. If the weapon moves or the body that is holding the weapon moves then this movement can be felt in just the same way, and the brain using the clues available to it, will accurately work out what those changes are.

However, the reverse is true. Your opponent will also know where you are in relation to the weapon through the same process of kinaesthetic awareness.

As well as being aware of where you are and your position, if weapons are touching then it will be possible for you to feel if your opponent launches an attack, or for your opponent to feel if you launch an attack.

All of this can be judged and felt without the use of the eyes.

However, to my knowledge it is quite rare for people to fight with their eyes closed.

The next issue that Fiore considers, yet again, is this:

And they stay ready and still one in front of the other, in order to see what the playfellow wants to do.

When taking up this position out of range of your opponent, we should wait standing ready and staying still. How many times have we seen fighters bouncing up and down in front of their opponent? In my opinion, this shows a lack of concentration and focus. Also, it means that during stages of that movement that the combatant will be unprepared to react to any attack made.

Di Grassi also touches upon this very point in his treatise of 1594. He says:

"As concerning the motion of the feet, from which grow great occasions as well of Offence as Defence, I say and have seen by diverse examples that as by the knowledge of their orderly and discreet motion, as well in the Lists as in common frays, there has been obtained honourable victory, so their busy and unruly motion have been occasion of shameful hurts and spoils."

It can be seen that this advice is extremely similar to Fiore's advice. Any movement must be done in an ordered and more importantly a discreet fashion, but also keeping movement to a minimum and not move unnecessarily.

If you do not move like this but instead in a "busy and unruly motion" then you will receive "shameful hurts and spoils". The reason is quite simple the hand, the body and the feet always move in sympathy to each other, thus moving unnecessarily and without thought will mean that you and your weapon will be moving constantly in and out of positions where it can be and cannot be employed either for defence or for attack. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those moments where you are out of position to do anything effective.

On top of this, the fighter who is constantly moving unnecessarily will be constantly destroying his perception of distance. For each movement that is made the brain has to catch up and re-evaluate the relative positions of everything. Even though this time is miniscule it is still a delay, that when added to the other miniscule jobs that the brain is doing while fighting, is one that can be avoided.

In addition to this we must not forget that Fiore strangely says:

"one in front of the other

Here, Fiore, I think, is advising that you should always face your opponent. This at first appears in contradiction to some of the positions that Fiore shows, where he appears to have his back turned to the people that are attacking him. However, in each of these images, the Master waiting to receive the attack has his head always turned to his opponent, in a position where either the weapon or the hand can be quickly employed for defence and attack. Also, he only shows these positions where he has the back turned when he is facing a longer weapon than dagger.

This certainly shows that Fiore had an understanding that the longer the weapon is than the longer a person has to react to any attack that may be made, whereas, by his own admission, he considers the dagger to be the quickest and the deadliest of all the weapons, recommending its use against all manner of weapons both in and out of armour. I would imagine that Fiore also rates the speed of the hand on it's own to be fast, but does not think that an attack from an empty hand is as dangerous as that from a dagger, due mainly to the fact that the hand does not have a sharp point capable of piercing armour and heavy clothing.

Fiore advises also to wait and see what our opponent wants to do. Fiore is not, in my opinion, stating that he wishes only to counter, but rather he wishes to assess the opponent. In this position, where two people are facing with an intent to fight then it is possible to tell much about that person, for example it may be possible, from watching, to assess the character of your opponent and, as already mentioned, what sort of skill or training that person has had from the way that he stands and the positions that he adopts. It may also be possible to judge what sort of attack that he is expecting you to make, what attack that he is planning on using, whether he is nervous or confident. Yet again, as with the first section of this essay, Fiore is trying to assess the situation, and more importantly the capability of his opponent.

The next statement about posta and guards that Fiore makes is:

"And these are the beginnings of that art, which is of the art of fighting/arms"

It is from this beginning position that the rest of the fight flows. From a position that you adopt you must be able to both attack your enemy and defend yourself from attack. Fiore mentions nothing about attacking here, but he does say that:

"...are positioned in a place and in a way right to make a grand defence, waiting like this..."

The emphasis in this section seems to be one of defence rather than one of offence. Fiore wants to first ensure the safety of the combatant.

Fiore always mentions the words Posta and Guard together, making no real distinction between them. To understand Fiore's art it is vital that these guards and posta are understood perfectly. It is from these positions that the whole art of combat, as Fiore defines it, begin.

Fiore defines a guard in the following manner.

"And guard means that the man guards himself, and defends himself with it, from wounds by his enemy."

This seems straightforward. A guard is something that a man may defend himself from injury from his enemy. In other words, if an opponent would strike a combatant, then whatever that combatant does by putting his weapon in the way to stop the strike from hitting him is a guard, though not necessarily a good one.

A Posta, he states, is different from a guard, and Fiore gives this definition:

And Posta means the way of positioning your enemy and offending him, without danger for yourself.

Again, this seems to be pretty straightforward. Fiore is essentially saying, that even before any blows between two antagonists are exchanged then there is a method of affecting the position of an opponent.

These two definitions seem quite understandable when considered separately, but Fiore, also informs us that,

"Posta and guard is the same thing."

This essentially suggests that the Posta and the Guard both share the same function, and cannot be separated as two separate issues. When a combatant adopts a Posta from Fiore's manual, then he is performing two functions simultaneously which are to guard his body from an attack that the opponent may make, whilst at the same time he is affecting the position of the opponent. This is because, when a Posta is adopted, then certain lines of attack are denied to the opponent but it will threaten attacks coming from certain other areas. It is pointless for the opponent to threaten those lines that are already defended, as they are closed off, so he will adopt a position that will simultaneously threaten those lines that are not defended by the combatant, whilst at the same time trying to close down those areas that are threatened by the combatant's weapon.

In this way, by moving to different positions, and thereby threatening different lines and defending other lines, you force your opponent to move to different Posta.

At this point it is well worth returning to a point raised earlier:

Also (he wants to) know if he uses the guards of wrestling

Although this refers to wrestling, it does apply to the rest of the system with all the weapons. By adopting different Posta and observing how well the opponent alters his position it is possible to judge and gauge the competency and skill of the opponent.

Remedies and Counters

Fiore refers to the Posta as the First Master. It is from these Masters, or more importantly the Posta that they depict, that the entire initial attacks anddefences belong. The attacks and defences that are available at any one time are wholly dependant upon the Posta that has been adopted at any one time.

We will see later in this essay that it is by moving swiftly between these Posta and very slight, related variations of them that defence and attacks may be made.

Fiore then refers to the Second Master or Master Remedy. This Master he describes as wearing a crown and his students wearing a garter. These are both coloured gold. He says of the Second Master that he shows those plays that counter the First Master. In other words, with Master Remedy he is showing techniques that can be used to give the upper hand, or even the conclusion to, an engagement. This is expanding on what the First Master showed, which was the initial attack and defence. It is possible for a fight to remain wholly within the purview of the First Master, but only if the two combatants only attack and defend. As soon as this pattern is left then the combatants are starting to use the skills and knowledge set of the Second Master.

The next Master that Dei Liberi mentions is the Third Master, who he calls Master Contrary. This Master is depicted wearing both a crown and a garter, thus symbolising that he has the knowledge of the First Master, the Second Master and the Second Master's students, and armed with such is able to show a technique that will counter anything that anyone might do if they are using a technique introduced by the Second Master. To explain this is a simpler manner Fiore shows an attack, followed by a counter to that attack, followed by a technique that will counter the first counter.

The last Master that Fiore mentions is the Fourth Master. This Master he calls Master Contra-Contrary. This Master counters all those plays or techniques that might be tried by the Third Master. At first you may think that this is referring only to the plates within the manual, until you actually try to find a play belonging to the Fourth Master. The Fourth Master never appears within the manual. This is slightly odd. Upon reviewing the section where he is discussing Masters it is quickly noticed that Fiore never describes the Fourth Master, apart from saying that he counters Master Contrary.

So, the question must be asked, why does he mention the Fourth Master but never show him? The answer is obvious when it is realised, as with all of these things. Fiore, although using the opportunity to inform the reader about the layout of his book, is actually telling us something very important about an engagement, and he is using the Masters to try and illustrate this point. Fiore, when he refers to a play, he is referring to an engagement during a fight. This does not necessarily mean that the fight will be over at the end of an engagement.

The First Master refers to the first attack or to the first defence, depending of course whether someone is defending or attacking. All of the defences and the attacks flow from the "Posta". The Posta simultaneously being a position where one is defended and from where one can immediately launch an attack. A fight could stay in this stage, or never flow on to the Plays of the Second Master. The Second Master shows what counters could be done from a particular attack. Most engagements will reach this stage, where a counter is being tried. As soon as the counter is used the "Play" becomes "owned by" the Second Master - or Master Remedy.

The Third Master shows the next level of counter, the counter to the counter. At this point the "Play" becomes "owned" by the Third Master. The "Play" may not be over at this stage however. It is possible that a third counter, one which stops the Third Master to be employed.

If the Fiore's manuscript is reviewed it is noticed that although there are an abundance of Second Master Plays there are very few Plays belonging to the Third Master, and none for the Fourth Master. Fiore's own words help to shed light upon this very subject.

Although few plays can reach the 3rd Master in this art And the more you do it, the more dangerous it is. And saying this is enough.

Essentially Fiore is saying that few engagements can reach the point where the counter to the counter can be employed, and even fewer will reach the next level. The reason being is that as an engagement continues towards no resolution then the engagement becomes more and more untidy and less ordered. As it becomes less ordered, the engagement will eventually become a tussle that is no longer reliant upon skill and knowledge of the art of combat but more upon the luck of the antagonists.

This is because more and more variables are being introduced to the engagement, for instance the counter first executed might have been executed improperly, thus putting one of the combatants in the wrong position thus giving him the chance to use another counter to try and gain the advantage within the encounter. If this counter fails then both of the combatants will be too far out of position to try and do something sensible, though it may be possible to employ another counter, it is probably more likely that the engagement will end with no victor and both parties falling back to safety to attempt a new play.

If the engagement is not stopped then the extra layers of complexity and randomness that are introduced cannot be properly accounted for to such an extent where further combat could be a very risky business.

Through Fiore's system, he is obviously expecting most engagements to end with the first counter, or the Plays that belong to Master Remedy. He does show a Third Master, but in the majority of cases this is shown as something to do to escape the situation that has been created by stopping the engagement so as a new play can be started.

This pause between two engagements may be long or short depending where the two combatants end and how they are positioned. If either one of the combatants are positioned correctly, then without any other movement necessary, that combatant may decide immediately to attack once more. This new engagement, will start by being under the ownership of the First Master, and depending upon the actions of the opponent may develop into the Plays of the Second or Third Masters or it may succeed, and thus end the fight.

Alternatively the pause may be longer if both parties decide to regain their position once more, outside the distance of their opponent. Once we start considering this particular section of Fiore in such a manner, it can be seen that not only is Fiore attempting to display his system in a way that can be easily understood, but also he is attempting to describe the nature of an engagement and the way that it may or may not develop. In considering this, it is worthwhile returning to a point that Fiore already made about the Posta,

And these are the beginnings of that art, which is of the art of fighting/arms

This tiny sentence, when read whilst considering the interaction between the different Masters, or stages, that an engagement might go through it can be seen that the Posta are the beginnings of the art of combat, as it is from the Posta that both the initial attack and the first counter may be launched from, which will lead into one or two more counters or levels of the fight.

Target Points/Vulnerable Areas

In the introduction Dei Liberi informs the reader as to what he considers to be the most vulnerable points, even though he is referring to wrestling and to the opponent not being armoured, these points will be vulnerable no matter what sort of weapon you may have. These vulnerable points may be hidden or covered by armour, but still some of them will be still available for exploitation.

All of these points if hit or damaged in any sort of way can and will cause an opponent a great deal of trouble, which will further increase your own advantages of winning the combat. Notice how all of them, apart from the hips, are concentrated around the face region.


Before moving on to the implicit principle's that are hidden within techniques, it is worth summarising what principles and concepts have already been identified.

Implicit Principle's of Fiore's System

So far, this essay has dealt with the Explicit Principles and Concepts that exist within Fiore's system. It can be seen that Fiore is certainly aware of some of the common themes that have been prevalent throughout many other Master's works, but he also proposes some other interesting concepts and thoughts, which, although referring to the way that the manual is presented, also refer to the way that a pass within an engagement evolves.

To further study Fiore and to truly find Fiore's foundations it is necessary to look at the techniques that he uses to illustrate points. For the majority of the book it is difficult to look only at the text or only at the pictures, as the two are extremely inter-related.

It is hoped by taking each section in turn, looking at each section both as an overview and in particular that we can see some of the principles already identified and thus possibly prove their existence, and also identify more common threads within the document.

The Principles of Unarmed Combat

The first section deals with the Art of Wrestling, and although it is not the biggest section of the manuscript, in conjunction with the dagger, is the most important part of the system. It is in the wrestling section that some of the key concepts are introduced and then caught up and developed in other parts of the system. A good knowledge of Wrestling is extremely important, as many other writers and authors have noted. These authors include Silver, Castiglione, Piedro Monte and many more. It is through wrestling that a martial artist gains an awareness and an appreciation of how one's body moves and how it reacts when subjected to external pressures, which helps in the maintenance of balance, not only in wrestling but also when receiving fully committed blows with weapons. Wrestling relies also on good footwork, which results not only in good balance, but also smooth and swift movement. Also, when wrestling, you must use well-defined, strong actions; otherwise, the opponent will take advantage of the weakness. This is just as true with weapons as it is without weapons.

So, with the wrestling Fiore introduces concepts of movement, balance, utilisation of force and pressure both used against the student and when the student uses it against someone else, plus ensuring that strong definitive attacks and defences are made without the distraction of the weapon. With a sound grounding in unarmed combat then the addition of weapons will make for a smoother transition and a greater familiarity and feel for working both at the close distance and at the longer distance.

This section consists of four Posta, which are repeated throughout the whole system, and of 16 techniques, which does not seem a lot of techniques when considering a system of wrestling. What must be remembered, however, is when we are looking at any sort of wrestling text that originates from the 14th and 15th centuries, that people will be familiar with wrestling. Wrestling matches and competitions would often be held as part of the entertainment in festivals throughout Europe, and everyone would be familiar with the basics. However, Fiore makes a very important distinction between the wrestling that people may use for sport and entertainment and the type of wrestling that is done for more serious needs.

And let us start from the wrestling, which is due to two reasons, which are amusement and anger, that is for life, with any trick, falsehood and cruelty possible to do. And I want to talk about the one, which it is done for life, and to show for reason and most of all how to gain holds as custom when you fight for life.
This important distinction must be remembered at all times when reading and learning Fiore's system. Fiore starts the section with 4 Posta:

These Posta easily show how movement is formed within Fiore's system, using even steps and paces. Two of the guards, Posta Longa and Dente di Cinghiale, threaten the face, one with an attack that works in a close range environment with an attack upwards, Dente di Cinghiale, whilst the other threatens the face from a longer distance, Posta Longa.

In both cases the two guards defend the face from attack with the lead hand, which referring back to the discussion on Posta also threaten their own attacks through both grabbing and striking. It is through the movement of these two guards that we can see not only how various defensive actions can be made but how quickly one can attack in reply, with a quick attack from the lead hand, which is less powerful than the strong attacks from the rear hands. It can also be seen, just looking at these two positions, how one can start in one position, Dente di Cinghiale and without moving the feet, strike by shifting the weight forward onto the leading foot, moving into Posta Longa. This results quick and fairly strong strikes, with much of the weight if the body leading to fairly strong blows.

Similarly, by shifting the weight back, from Posta Longa, moving into Dente di Cinghiale, it can be seen how quickly a close in blow can be slipped, allowing for possible counter attacks. It must be noticed how in both cases, there was no footwork, all the movement relying entirely upon the shifting of weight back wards and forwards, sometimes with a slight movement of the foot.

It seems from these observations alone that Fiore may well be recognising the relationships that exist between the various parts of the body when moving, however, at this stage, such a hypothesis could well be premature and more information is necessary before reaching any sort of firm conclusion.

The other two guards also share the same characteristics of Posta in that they are both threatening attack and defence. Porta di Ferro, although much more defensive in nature can be a nasty position, as it is very easy to slip into any of the other Posta, or to use the defence that it provides to close and attack on the low lines.

Posta Frontale, looks much more pedestrian and not very good for attack or defence, but when one looks closer at the position, it can be seen that it is very similar to some of the stances shown in some 17th and 18th century boxing texts that are available. Like the Porta di Ferro the other Posta can easily be moved into, with or without stepping. This guard only threatens the high line and looks very well set up to strike and gain holds in the face area, where Fiore advises his students to attack if their opponent is not wearing armour. This implies that this guard is better to use in an unarmoured situation rather than an armoured situation.

It is interesting to note that these four Posta appear in the section of Liberi's manual that is dedicated to the long sword.

End Note

This essay is not finished, and is an ongoing project. The intention of the author is to continue this essay to expand upon the implicit and the explicit principles that can be found within the system that Liberi depicts, yet the author feels with the small amount of information that this essay covers a systematic approach is already discernable.

It is the hope that this essay will allow students of all levels to benefit, by giving a greater appreciation of the writings and practises of Fiore from looking at his surviving texts from a slightly different angle than they may have done so far.


  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Edited by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, based on The Oxford Dictionary, Fifth Edition revised by E. McIntosh, Etymologies revised by G. W. S. Friedrichsen, Book Club Associates, 1963
  2. Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, Joseph Swetnam, 1617 transcribed by Steve Hick
  3. Fior Battaglia, Fiore Dei Liberi, 1410, translated by Eleonora Litta and Matt Easton
  4. Introduction on Fiore dei Liberi from the prologue of Flos Duellatorum, 1410, Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
  5. Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver, 1598
  6. Medieval Combat, Hans Talhoffer, 1467, translated by Mark Rector
Illustrations from:
  1. Flos Duellatorum, Fiore Dei Liberi, Novati Facsimile
  2. Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, Joseph Swetnam, 1617
  3. Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver, 1598
  4. Alte Armatur und Ringkunst, Hans Talhoffer, 1459

Further Reading

As a last point, if you have found this essay useful then I would heartily recommend an article by Pete Kautz called "Fiore dei Liberi's 7 Rules of Wrestling, Medieval Attributes Training from the Master".

  1. [1] Biologic here is referring to the rules that the body must conform to, i.e. a limb will move in certain direction, if you move the arm and foot then the arm will not finish moving until the foot has finished moving. This is not to be confused with Mike May's Biologic Combatative System which, I believe uses these rules or types of rule to build up a martial system.

Journal of Western Martial Art

About the author: has been involved in medieval re-enactment and combat reconstruction since the age of 15, and has been studying Historical European Martial Arts since 1996. He trained with Ancient Maister Terry Brown and the Company of Maisters for a brief period, and from there decided to concentrate his study and practise on Medieval Martial Arts, and has been concentrating on the treatises of Fiore dei Liberi since 2000. Rob Lovett is a British Federation for Historical Swordplay (BFHS) Instructor and the Director and one of the founding members of The Exiles, which has just celebrated its 10 year anniversary. The Exiles are affiliated to the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA), are members of the BFHS and maintain friendly ties to the Company of Maisters.