Fiore de’ Liberi’s name is little known name among Japanese Budo enthusiasts, although his work was of primary importance in Medieval European fencing history. We are pleased to present an overview of his personal life and of his richly illustrated 14th-century manual, the “Flos Duellatorum”, presented in a downloadable version. The similarity between Fiore’s techniques and those of the Japanese classic tradition is amazing
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
The little we are aware of about Fiore de’ Liberi from Premariacco we owe it to the information that the author provides about himself in the prologue to his work. Fiore lived between the 14th and the 15th centuries (1340-1420) and was a knight, a diplomat and an itinerant fencing master. The son of Benedict and scion of the Liberi noble house of Premariacco, he was born in Cividale del Friuli, then part of the Patriarchate of Aquileia. Some scholars trace Fiore and Benedetto to that Cristallo de’ Liberi of Premariacco to which Henry V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, granted Imperial Immediacy (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) in 1100. Immediacy was a status under which individuals or entities were allowed to enter into a relationship of direct dependence with the emperor. This would imply that Fiore was of high status.
In the prologue Fiore talks of his natural inclination to the arts of war, which led him to start his martial training at an early age. He relates that he studied under several Italian and Germanic sword masters, who taught him the secrets of fighting with sword, spear and dagger, but also barehanded, on foot and horseback. The author also explains that he investigated how the weapons are made and studied the characteristics of each in terms of offence and defence in their application to death combat.
Fiore chose to make his credentials known to his readers through the quality of his teaching, rather than elaborating on his personal curriculum details. Among those who trained him, however, he takes care to mention Johannes Suvenus, a student of Nicholai De Toblem. In the original text, both names are given in Latin, therefore there is no way to know if they were of Italic or Germanic lineage. Both were important characters in the contemporary world of arms.
The author of the Flos Duellatorum only provides us with generic information about his career as a commander and master of arms. Fiore mentions of having acquired much knowledge in his frequentations of the contemporary noble courts. He also reveals to have taught the art of combat to nobles and knights and their squires, both Italic and German. Fiore names some of the famous Condottieri that he instructed, such as Piero Paolo del Verde (Peter von Grünen), Niccolo Unricilino (Nikolo von Urslingen), Galeazzo Cattaneo dei Grumelli (Galeazzo Gonzaga from Mantua), Lancillotto Beccaria from Pavia, Giovannino da Baggio from Milan and Azzone from Castelbarco. For most of them we can find biographical references in the sources of the time. Some were members of the main noble houses of their time and at the forefront of contemporary Italian politics.
Fiore’s teaching methods and the contents of his art were secret. No one was admitted to the lessons except the appropriate pupil and occasionally a close relative. No one was allowed to partake in the training without having taken a solemn oath not to reveal any of the techniques demonstrated. Fiore called his fighting techniques archano censeo, a “secret science” intended exclusively for the noble and those who deserved it. At the time, the class of nobles and knights was seen as the only one capable of ruling with justice and protecting the weakest. The refusal to teach martial arts to those deemed unworthy has been a constant in all martial arts literature between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Secrecy was an important component of the teaching for the masters of the time. Internal knowledge of an opponent’s techniques or fighting style would offer an advantage in fighting or killing them. Teachers also had an economic interest in protecting their knowledge, from which they drew their resources. Secrecy also added a particular character of mystery and importance to the teaching imparted.
Despite the abovementioned precautions, during his wanderings around Europe some of Fiore’s encounters turned out to be anything but friendly. In the Flos Duellatorum, he describes a competitive atmosphere between masters and reveals that tensions caused by his refusal to share his art often resulted in bloody duels. The author mentions that he was forced on five different occasions to challenge some masters to a duel to defend his honour. These duels were fought with sharp two-handed swords (longswords), without armour except for a padded robe and chamois gloves. Fiore prevailed in all duels without being injured.
Birth, Transmission and Structure of the Flos Duellatorum
Fiore explains to have studied the fighting arts for over 40 years. He declares, however, to be aware of not having been able to achieve perfection in the art of fencing – a boundless subject matter – despite his best efforts. The author informs us that he wrote his manual when, after decades of activity, he felt his desire to constantly keep training fade. At that point, Fiore decided to produce a manual – that he illustrated in his own hand – to avoid that his vast personal experience ended lost.
The Flos was produced for the noble and well-educated aristocracy that composed the sophisticated courts of northern Italy. It is the second oldest manual on the subject of the fighting found in the West to date – the oldest remains a 13th-century fragment known as Tower Manuscript I. 33. The first version of the Flos Duellatorum probably saw the light during the first decade of the 15th century, followed by at least two other more extensive versions.
Fiore de’ Liberi’s work has been handed down to us in four different manuscript copies, named after the library collections where they can be found: Getty-Ludwig, Pierpont-Morgan, Pisani-Dossi and Latin 11269, which is conserved in the Library National of France. The scholars believe that these manuscripts were copies made by or for Fiore’s students around 1410. Fiore’s original text has not survived. Two more copies are said to have survived, the location of which however is currently unknown. The most complete manuscript is the Getty-Ludwig, which contains rich illustrations and numerous explanatory paragraphs of the fighting techniques presented.
The Flos Duellatorum is one of the most important medieval manuals on combat. It contains one of the most comprehensive contemporary presentations of an integrated fighting method, both armed and unarmed, armoured and unarmoured, on foot and mounted. It consists of short rhyme captions, which are richly illustrated, and includes instructions on the longsword, dagger, spear, axe, spear and grappling. The subject matter covers both basic techniques and fundamentals, and today should be of interest for any diligent martial artist, medieval or otherwise.
The manual is presented in more or less the same format throughout the different manuscripts. The subject is divided into sections, each intended to present a specific branch of the art of combat. At the beginning of each section is represented a group of masters, identified by a golden crown on their heads, each in the act of demonstrating a specific guard with the weapon in question. Next, we have the image of a master defined in the text as “Remedy”, whose function is to present a defensive form following a basic attack. The third element is composed by the students, who wore a golden garter on their leg, whose function is to present variations of the “remedy” previously provided. This is then followed by a master defined as “Contrary”, represented with both crown and garter, whose task is to demonstrate the counter-techniques to use against the “remedies” presented in the two previous sections. In some parts, there is also the representation of a counter/counter-technique, shown by characters in crown and garter.
What is most interesting for the martial arts enthusiasts of all latitudes is the structure of the Flos Duellatorum. The techniques presented start from the basics, to then become more and more complex. Further, the explanations in the first part of the manual focus on empty-handed techniques, then gradually switch to empty-hand against weapons and various types of weapon against weapons, both on foot and horseback. It is worth noting the didactic progression of the manual. A closer examination also reveals how the principles and techniques introduced in the empty-handed sections are then used uniformly applied in the weapons sections.
The Master of the Seven Swords
In his work, Fiore made considerable use of symbolism and abstraction. One of the most interesting pages of Flos, known as the Master of the Seven Swords, displays a master (Fiore himself?) surrounded by animals taken from a medieval bestiary. These are symbolic figures representing the four virtues or warlike qualities of prudence, audacity, strength and speed.
Above the man’s head is placed a lynx with a calibre, representing reason. The underlying symbols are accuracy, timing and distance judgment. On the right, a lion with a heart under its paw, symbolizing courage or audacity, “virtue on which this art is based”. On the left a tiger with an arrow that represents speed and decision, as a tiger never retreats. Below, under the master’s feet, is an elephant with a castle or a siege tower on its back – not a metaphor for muscular power or physical strength, but a symbol of a strong and balanced posture, such as to allow powerful blows and agile movements.
Among the four animal figures, we find the descriptions of the guard positions (which we would call kamae), and each type of guard has a quality that refers to the characteristics of the animals represented.
One of the often-cited differences between Western and Sino-Japanese martial arts would be that the practice of those of our part of the world would be characterised by the complete lack of metaphysical concepts. Fiore’s work would seem to disprove this, providing us with a philosophical basis to support his techniques. It would seem reasonable to deduce that the Flos was not written solely as a self-defence manual: on the contrary, the author was a noble who wrote and taught nobles who would have had important positions in the governance of their courts. Fiore, therefore, taught western martial arts in which the practical purpose (combat) implied a more profound one (personal formation), similarly to the arts of Bujutsu.
The western martial arts of Fiore’s time soon disappeared, following the emergence of more complex and technically advanced combat systems. Japanese warrior practices remained substantially similar in a country where the Middle Ages only ended in the second half of the 19th century. This is the main reason why they have been handed down to the present day, despite their changed forms, and the probable cause for their appearing more philosophically based than the modern combat systems in the West. These systems are based on number and obedience to preordained patterns passed down from above, and not on individual value, as in medieval systems of chivalry. In a way, the two conceptions are polar opposites: enlightened warrior against war machine.
- Deborah Klens-Bigman (1999): The Flower of Battle: An Interview with Bob Charron
- Lagomarsini, Claudio (2011). “Un manuale d’armi d’inizio sec. XV: il “Flos duellatorum” di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale
- Fiore dei Liberi e il Flos duellatorum (2019) in vitantica.net
- Fiore dei Liberi – The Flowers of Battles (2001) in aemma.org
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