Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences
Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2005
Considering Kata and The Flower of Battle
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
In the dark days of October 2001, I covered the Western Martial Arts
Workshops for FightingArts.com, the online martial arts journal.
The event was held at Riverside Church, a Gothic Revival warren of
mullioned windows and dim lighting on Manhattan's Upper West
Side. It was a difficult time generally, and some of the non-New
Yorker participants lamented the cancelled flights that prevented this
or that renowned European teacher from attending. We locals were
mostly happy to be alive. I found it comforting to immerse myself
in a mock-medieval world that was so removed from what the past month
had brought (but with some decidedly modern twists, such as women
participants' zeal for whacking each other (and men) with
During the course of the weekend, I happened on Bob Charron's class,
based on the teachings of the Flos Duellatorum (also called "Fior di
Battaglia") - in plain English - "The Flower of Battle." Charron
has spent many years researching, translating, and finally interpreting
the techniques laid out in this 15th century manuscript, authored (more
or less, as these things go), by a gentleman named Fiore dei
Fiore dei Liberi was an Italian master who was probably born around
1350 and died sometime before the mid-15th century. He was
well-educated for his times, as were his noble students.
According to the Flos, he studied combat arts for 40 years, and
successfully fought five famous duels before setting pen to paper – er
Fiore eventually attained a post as a master at arms at the court of
Nicolo III, Count D’Este. The Flos was written for the noble,
well-educated elite of this sophisticated court. It is the second
oldest manual of combat arts found thus far in the West (the oldest is
a 13th century fragment on fighting known as Tower Manuscript
There are three extant versions of the Flos, named for the library
collections where they may be found: the Getty-Ludwig, the
Pierpont-Morgan, and the Pissani-Dossi (also called the Novati).
Scholars believe the three manuscripts were student copies made around
1410. Fiore’s original text has not been found, at least not
Of all of them, the Getty is apparently the most complete, containing
lavish illustrations and whole paragraphs of text describing fighting
techniques. The Morgan copy is less complete than the Getty,
containing fewer techniques, but it also has a fair amount of
descriptive text. The Pissani-Dossi version consists of the
illustrations with rhyming couplets rather than much prose text.
What is most interesting to students of the martial arts (and not just
Western martial arts) is the structure of the Flos. The
techniques themselves begin simply and become increasingly
complex. At the beginning of the Flos, the partners engage in
empty-hand techniques. As the MS continues, the partners advance
to daggers, then swords, and finally, to lance techniques on
horseback. It is not simply the progression that is worth noting;
Charrron's work on the Flos suggests that the principles and techniques
introduced in the empty-hand sections are utilized again and again with
various weapons. (I do not know if Charron's investigation has
led him to reproduce the horseback techniques for analysis. I think at
least, not yet.)
Techniques are depicted between individuals of unequal skill, since
this is, indeed, a teaching manual. One, who wears a crown, is
obviously a master, while the uncrowned partner is apparently, a
student, or “scholar.” In advanced techniques, both partners wear
crowns, with the higher-ranking person identified by a garter worn
under one knee. These later sections introduce counters to
previously successful techniques.
Then there is the segno, a plate inserted in the manuscript after the
illustrations of basic stances in the Novati version (Figure1).
1 - The Segno. Flos Duellatorum Pissani-Dosi MS Carta 17 A.
The plate shows a man surrounded by animals from a Medieval
bestiary. At the top, above the man’s head, is a lynx holding a
pair of calipers. At his right sits a lion and at his left hand,
a tiger, who holds an arrow. At his feet, there is an elephant,
bearing a castle on his back. According to Charron, the animals
represent philosophical concepts that would have been recognizable to
any educated person of the time, including Fiore’s noble
The lynx, with his calipers, represents precision and reason. The
lion stands for justice and the law, while the tiger opposite him
represents speed and impetuosity. The assumption is that the
opposites control each other; i.e. the noble lion controls the wild
tiger. The elephant represents strength, stability and maybe also
In between the animals are descriptions of the various guard positions
(what we would call kamae). The qualities of the different guards
relate to the characteristics of the animals depicted.
One of the differences often cited between Western and Asian martial
arts is the lack of metaphysical concepts underlying practice.
It’s like Fiore was reading our wistfully collective minds by providing
what was a state-of-the-art (at the time) philosophical basis for his
But perhaps the most striking similarity to Asian martial arts
techniques is that the Flos was not written to teach battle skills per
se. The noble author was actually writing for, and teaching, his
noble patrons. The techniques outlined in the Flos could
conceivably be used for self-defense, but one of its key purposes was
to train young noblemen to acquit themselves well in tournaments and
other gentlemanly tests of martial skill, such as officially sanctioned
duels. While this might disappoint some, when you look at the
Flos it is not hard to believe. The Flos falls into line with
later Western manuals of swordsmanship in that people with means, who
might command, but are not that likely to actually fight on the
battlefield, would also have the resources and time to formally
The Flos and Fiore’s career suggest he was teaching what in use,
temperament and structure was a Western martial art.
Unfortunately, in the way of things Western, Fiore’s art gave way to
more complicated, technically advanced means of fighting. Until
Charron, it seems no one really took seriously the idea that modern a
martial artist could bring Fiore’s ancient system back to life after
more than five centuries of neglect. So, here’s the
question: Can one really recreate a Western martial art?
Japanese martial practices are to some extent passed down - physically,
verbally, even pictorially in some cases. It is generally
acknowledged that not all elements of a given style have taken the
march through time. Some techniques have been preserved and
others given up (I think this is at least as likely as to assume they
have been “forgotten.”) Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, Tenshin Shoden
Katori Shinto Ryu and Yagyu Shinkage Ryu are examples of martial
traditions that have been in almost continuous practice. All of
these styles have scrolls created by teachers and students that have
been handed down through generations of practitioners, but, more
importantly, the techniques have been kinetically passed along.
Scrolls are not videotape; like Fiore’s Flos, they are keys to
technique and aids to memory rather than step-by-step how to’s.
Without physical practice, the scrolls (or vellum) have little meaning
Of course some other Japanese arts are also recreated (think judo) or
even invented (think ninpo). (1). Nearly all Japanese martial
practices lapsed during the Western Occupation after the Pacific
War. Some teachers died in the interim, some gave up. Some
modified techniques to make them less "martial," partly as a condition
of being allowed to teach them again, in some form, or out of a sense
of defying Japan's early 20th century militarism. A small few
were able to keep their practices more or less intact, through what I
expect was stubborn determination.
Some say all martial arts are "re-created," as the reasons for practice
have evolved over time, from possible actual fighting techniques to a
middle-class recreational pursuit, to pick an extreme line of
progression. Every generation finds its own reason for
practice. Looked at in this way, arguments for “authenticity” are
moot (see Donohue 1997).
That does not stop some practitioners from romantically yearning for
some sort of "authenticity," not realizing that it is a naïve
idea. Perhaps they hope against hope that some miraculously
detailed scroll, together with some ancient proto-video tape or magic
lantern show exists that shows some long-ago master performing
techniques as he originally conceived them.
Some may assume that a manual like the Flos affords more re- creative
detail than art forms that are passed down over time, like a fly caught
in amber. The Flos has several tantalizing aspects that would
make one think it was feasible - clear illustrations, a logical order,
a philosophical underpinning that, though based in a Medieval way of
thinking, is somewhat intelligible to us today. However, in all
likelihood, we are only perceiving a reasonable facsimile of what
Medieval teachers like Fiore were thinking. Charron's work shows
that it is possible to devise a system of martial arts training based
on Fiore's manuscript, even if questions of authenticity are obviously
impossible to settle with any finality.
But is the Flos actually better, somehow less intruded upon by modern
sensibilities, sitting forever in three antique book collections,
unsullied by interpretations of subsequent masters, serene in its glass
coffin - I mean case - like Snow White, until the handsome prince,
Charron or some other educated guy, wakes it with the kiss of acquired
It ain't necessarily so; at least, I don't think so.
Charron, for his part, has worked for years on interpreting the
techniques depicted in the Flos, but he is no way satisfied that he
understands what is really happening in some of them. His
research, done in comparison study with other techniques we know were
done in the same time period, has led him down enough blind alleys to
give him a healthy sense of self-doubt about what he is doing.
For example, the verses in the Pisani-Dossi (Novati) version that
accompany these ancient masters, students, and ubermasters are obscure
to say the least:
I’m well ready to throw you to the ground:
If you don’t have the contrary, I’ll do it now (Fiore n.d. 3).
Though there is some technical description in the other two versions,
there isn’t much, and a certain amount is obscured by both the dialects
(an ancient Northern Italian mixed with Latin) and the poetic
sensibility of the author. Charron has found that the
illustrations seem to be accurate, as far as they go.
But the biggest sticking point for Charron is the philosophical
concepts that surround and underpin Fiore's techniques. When I
asked Charron about the meanings in the segno, he responded that we had
to look at it with the mind of a Medieval noble. Easy for him to
say; unfortunately, I seem to have left my medieval mind in my other
suit. Here is the thing; When we look at the elephant that is
depicted at the feet of the man in the segno for example, we see an
animal that most of us have seen in zoos, a few of us have seen as work
animals (or maybe on TV), and virtually none of us have ever seen live,
in the wild. However, to a Medieval European, even a noble one,
an elephant was a fantastic creature. To cite an example, let’s
look at Medieval scholar Isidore’s description of far-away, more or
less human, creatures:
The Cynocephali are so called because they have dogs’ heads and their
very barking betrays them as beasts rather than men. These are
born in India…The Blemmyes, born in Libya, are believed to be headless
trunks, having mouth and eyes in the breast…(in Lowney 2005, 18)
We should note that Isidore’s Etymologies was consulted for up to ten
centuries after its 6th century composition. Scholar Chris Lowney
notes ten new editions of Isidore’s work were produced after the
1400’s, right up through Fiore’s time (2005, 19). That Fiore used
an elephant to represent stability and reliability may make sense to
us, we think, but what the hell did it mean to him? I mean really?
In my purely anecdotal and admittedly limited study of Japanese sword
kata (and in other classical movement forms, like Japanese classical
dance and Western ballet), the transmission from body to body has
worked well. Notation for ballet did not exist until recently and
even at that, interpreting it assumes, and requires, knowledge of
ballet technique, or it is all but useless. Moreover, it is by no
means a complete description. Movement notation is more like a
set of reference points to hang the memory of the dance on.
Revivals of say, Balanchine ballets are enormously influenced and
helped along by dancers who originally took part in them. They,
in turn, train other dancers, who, in turn, will pass along knowledge
of Balanchine's techniques and choreography to generations to come (at
least, as long as people are buying season tickets). The tragedy
of Martha Graham's company not being allowed to perform her work due to
a copyright dispute is not that we simply can't see it, but that it may
be lost altogether in twenty years or so, as the people who trained
with her are unable to pass it, physically, along. Anyone who
sees live dance as opposed to film or videotaped performances knows
exactly what I mean. Video is the vellum manuscript of
today. It records the dance, but it is not the dance.
This is because body-to-body is also mind-to-mind. As most
experienced iaidoka know, the kuden (spoken tradition) is as important
as physical training.
Though my study of sword forms is unique and necessarily small, it
always impresses me to see someone else do Muso Shinden Ryu, for
example, and to easily recognize kata. Instructor Phil Ortiz
recently treated one of our New York Budokai classes to old film of
Otani Sensei and several other teachers of Muso Shinden Ryu and
Tenshinsho Jigen Ryu iaido. He and I were both pointing out and
naming kata being performed. That is one of the beauties of
body-to-body (and mind-to-mind) transmission. We know it when we
see it, because we know it.
All this assumes that the teacher is a qualified one who knows what
she’s doing. It's true that unqualified people can and do
establish themselves as teachers of various movement traditions.
In that case, a teacher could (a) simply not teach what she doesn't
know, and therefore stuff is lost; or (b) (my personal favorite) fill
in gaps with independently derived interpretations that (unless she is
clairvoyant) are probably not part of the original practice.
One does not have to look far to find over-interpreted aspects of stuff
creeping into people's practices (see Klens-Bigman, 1999). I have
seen videotape of Americans practicing some sort of kenjutsu with himo
(a thin sash) tied around their regular-sleeve keikogi. One ties
one's kimono sleeves back with himo to keep them out of the way.
If your sleeves are not in the way, you don't tie them. However,
some teacher saw the himo being used somewhere, thought it looked cool,
and decided to make it part of his school's uniform for kenjutsu,
without knowing its proper function. However, one person’s cool
is another person’s silly.
While costume elements are a benign aspect of invented tradition,
techniques can be invented as well. We were once introduced to a
kumidachi practice, wherein one of the kamae involved holding the sword
horizontally above one's head. For that reason, Otani sensei
referred to the kamae as torii - that is, the gate found at the
entrance to Shinto shrines. Unfortunately, he only showed us the
technique that one evening, then disappeared on one of his long
business trips to Japan. The sempai who took over responsibility
for teaching, with not much more experience than we had, could not
remember the technique properly and filled in the gaps himself.
What started as "torii" became "toriai" and took on a different
character than what we were originally shown. Eventually, it was
dropped from the repertory, since none of the sempai could agree on
what its function was, let alone what it was called. We chose to
abandon, rather than reinvent the technique, and it was probably just
The beauty of the Flos lies in its sparseness, but it is also a
danger. There will always be a lack of depth to picking up a
Medieval fighting manual since we can never know the social milieu that
produced it, even if, with many years of work, we are able to replicate
the techniques we see there to some extent. Nature, as they say,
abhors a vacuum, and Charron, to his credit, is trying like hell not to
give in to the temptation to fill it. But it's frustrating.
However, in a Japanese martial art that has enjoyed some kind of
continuous practice, a certain, perhaps small amount of that mindset
might still exist in what is passed down through generations of
practitioners. It is not only the movement that is being passed
along, it is also the verbal vocabulary, and the mental/philosophical
underpinning that is being passed along too. In his exhaustive
study, Miyamoto Musashi, His Life and Writings (2004), Kenji Tokitsu
interviewed several contemporary practitioners of Niten Ichi ryu, the
style Musashi founded. Tokitsu hoped to establish some idea as to
what was in Musashi's head in determining some of the more cryptic
parts of the his Book of Five Rings through the sword techniques as
they have been handed down. Though Tokitsu in no way resolved
some of the enigma that surrounds the work, the insights of the
teachers he interviewed give us some idea of where Musashi may have
been coming from - more so than if Tokitsu had confined himself to
manuscripts alone. Moreover, the evolving, underlying reasons for
practicing martial arts continue to give meaning to contemporary
students, even if those meanings have changed substantially over time.
While there are plenty of puzzles behind old styles of martial arts, I
suspect those who practice a traditional Japanese martial art have more
clues to them by virtue of passed-along knowledge than someone who
simply comes upon Fiore's Medieval puzzle, armed with only a liberal
arts degree and the desire to dig around (even if it is along with the
best of intentions).
Is there a best solution to this dilemma, and if so, what is it?
Maybe it can be found in a tradition that has both written scrolls and
an uninterrupted, to the extent that is possible, lineage of
practitioners that together create an unbroken line of
But, it depends on what is important to you.
If romance is more important, then it makes sense to pick out something
that interests you and invest it with the fantasy of your
choosing. There must be a Klingon batlith school out there
somewhere. (There are still one or two martial arts schools in
NYC - and probably elsewhere - whose techniques are based almost solely
on the martial arts movies of the '60's and '70's. Think about
If neither romance nor history is important to you, pick out modern
(i.e. sport) budo. Good exercise, fun and no mental heavy
In the case of the Flos, Charron, if he ever hopes to realize his
recreation of Fiore's system, with have to come up with his own
meanings for practice, acknowledging that no amount of careful research
is going to uncover all of the secrets of 15th century Italy. The
techniques that he has researched seem to work on a practical level,
and informally, philosophically as well. Already he admonishes
students with "How's your elephant?" emphasizing stable body positions
as a part of practice. Publication of his interpretive efforts
has yet to come about, however. The Flos is like a set of nesting
boxes – take off a lid and there is another box inside. Moreover,
some of the boxes are missing altogether.
What about those of us who practice the descendants of the ancient
forms? I guess our consolation is (1) the techniques still work,
on myriad levels, with many meanings; and (2) we can point to our
ancient forbears, even though we cannot imitate them.
(1) Of course, interpretation of the extent of
‘creation” or re-creation” for these and other art forms remains in
flux. Most newer arts claim descent from earlier forms, whether
objective analysis backs up that assumption or not.
Donohue, John J.
1997 “Ideological Elasticity: Enduring form and changing function in
the Japanese martial tradition,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 6:2,
1999 “Borrowed ritual, invention of tradition: the
construction of the ‘traditional’ martial arts dojo” http://ejmas.com/proceedings/GSJSA99klens.htm
2003 “The Flower of Battle: An Interview with Bob
Charron” (parts 1 and 2).
Knights of the Wild Rose
n.d. Flos Duellatorum (Pisani-Dosi (Novati)
2005 A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s golden Age of
Enlightenment NY:Free Press
2004 Miyamoto Musashi – His Life and Writings Boston: