The Flower of Battle – A Medieval Manuscript of Martial Arts
The Flower of Battle is an Italian martial arts manual from the Renaissance. This manual was written by Fiore Furlano, a knight, diplomat, and itinerant fencing master who lived between the 14th and 15th centuries. The Flower of Battle is one of the oldest known European martial arts manuals and the oldest surviving one written by an Italian master.
At present, four copies of the manual are known to exist. These four copies are illuminated manuscripts, which means that in addition to texts, they also contain illustrations. These images serve to explain the texts in a visual manner. Although the contents of the four copies are similar, their illustrations are different, which makes each of them unique.
The Author of the Flower of Battle
The Flower of Battle was written by Fiore Furlano, whose full name was Fiore Furlano de’i Liberi de Cividale d’Austria. He was known also as Fiore delli Liberi, Fiore de Cividale d’Austria, and Fiori delli Liberi da Premariacco. He is believed to have been born during the 1340s in Cividale del Friuli, a town in Patria del Friuli, a medieval ecclesiastical state based in the northeastern part of Italy.
Fiore’s father is recorded to have been a man by the name of Benedetto, and the family belonged to the Liberi House of Premariacco. Although Liberi may be regarded to be merely a surname, an alternative interpretation is that it is an indication that the family enjoyed the status of imperial immediacy. This meant that they were free from the authority of any local lord and placed under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Fiore’s family may have belonged either to the nobili liberi (meaning ‘free nobles’), which was a lower tier nobility consisting of unindentured knights, or the rising class of Imperial Free Knights. Some historians have suggested that the family gained imperial immediacy through Cristallo dei Liberi of Premariacco, who was granted the status in 1110 by Heinrich V. The relationship between Cristallo and Fiore, however, has yet to be proven.
Fiore Furlano, author of the Flower of Battle. (Michael Chidester / Public Domain)
Fiore informs his readers in the prologue of his work that he learned martial arts from various Italian and German masters, above all, one “Master Johane, called ‘Suveno’” (or Johannes Suvenus). This Johannes Suvenus was in turn was a student of Nicholai de Toblem. Unfortunately, little is known about either men, though it may be assumed that either one or both men were famous during Fiore’s time.
Fiore also mentions some of the warriors who had trained under him, along with some of their exploits. For example, there was “the valiant squire Lancillotto da Becharia de Pavia, who exchanged six strikes with a sharpened steel lance against the valiant German knight Baldassarro, in a fight that took place in the lists at Imola”, and “the noble and gallant knight Piero del Verde who fought Piero della Corona. Both were German and the fight took place in Perosa.”
Other pieces of information found in the prologue of the Flower of Battle include the fact that Fiore had been a martial arts student for 40 years. Fiore, however, does not claim to have attained perfect mastery of this subject. He does assert, however, that “if, instead of studying the ‘Art of Armed Combat’ for 40 years, I had spent 40 years studying law, papal decrees, and medicine, then I would be ranked a doctor in all three of these disciplines”, thus implying the difficult nature of his art.
Fiore also states that during his career, he encountered some martial arts masters who were envious of him, and who had challenged him to “fight with sharp edged and pointed swords wearing only a padded jacket, and without any other armor except for a pair of leather gloves; and this happened because I refused to practice with them or teach them anything of my art”. As a consequence, Fiore was obliged to fight in this extremely dangerous manner to defend his honor as many as five times.
Fiore goes on to say that “I had to fight in unfamiliar places without relatives and without friends to support me, not trusting anyone but God, my art, myself, and my sword. And by the grace of God, I acquitted myself honorably and without injury to myself”.
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Fiore Furlano was forced to fight alone without support of friends or family as witnesses. (werner22brigitte / Public Domain)
Fiore’s autobiographical account in the prologue is the main source of information about the life of this martial arts master. Unfortunately, he is not mentioned much in the historical sources, and the only known ones refer to him in connection with the Aquileian War of Succession, which broke out in 1381. The conflict occurred when a coalition of secular nobles from Udine and surrounding cities attempted to remove the newly-appointed patriarch of Aquileia, Philippe II d’Alençon.
The records show that Fiore supported the secular nobles and was granted residency in Udine in August 1383. In the following month, he was given the task of inspecting and maintaining the city’s weapons, including its artillery pieces, i.e. the catapults and large crossbows. In February of the following year, Fiore was sent to recruit a mercenary company.
In May, Fiore was sworn in as a magistrate to keep the peace in one of the city’s districts. The war lasted until 1389, when a new patriarch was appointed. Fiore, however, is not mentioned in the sources after May 1384 and it is possible that he left some time after that.
Even less is known about Fiore’s life during the 15th century. It was during the early years of this century that the Flower of Battle was composed. Some scholars assume that by 1409, Fiore was working as a fencing master at the court of Niccolo III d’Este, the Marquis of Ferrara, Modena, and Parma.
It has also been stated that Fiore later went to Paris and was teaching fencing there in 1418. A copy of Fiore’s manual made during the 1410s/20s has been found in the French capital. It is unknown as to the place and year of Fiore’s death and it is presumed that he died during the 1420s.
The d’Este family, whom Fiore was working for during the 15th century, had two copies of the Flower of Battle. Both manuscripts, however, have been lost since the 16th century. As for the four copies that have survived till this day, they are likely to be contemporary reproductions.
The Manuscripts of the Flower of Battle
It is unclear, however, whether Fiore was directly involved in their production. The four manuscripts are as follows – Getty MS Ludwig XV 13, Morgan Library M.383, Pisani Dossi MS, and BnF MS Latin 11269. The Getty MS Ludwig XV 13 and Morgan Library M.383 both have the title Fior di Battaglia, and are in the United States today, the former in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, while the latter in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
The Morgan Library holds one of the manuscripts of the Flower of Battle. (Michael Chidester / Public Domain)
The Pisani Dossi MS is entitled Flos Duellatorum and is currently held by the Pisani Dossi family in Italy. Lastly, the BnF MS Latin 11269 is entitled Florius, de arte luctandi (the original title seems to have been lost, and the current one was given during the 17th century) and is in the possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, France. Incidentally, unlike the other manuscripts, this is the only one written completely in Latin.
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The Pisani Dossi MS is entitled Flos Duellatorum. (Michael Chidester / Public Domain)
A comparison between the four manuscripts shows that they are quite similar in terms of content, although its sequence may vary from one copy to the other. The manuscripts, apart from the BnF MS Latin 11269, begins with a preface, in which we learn much about Fiore’s life. It is likely that the BnF MS Latin 11269 once had a preface but has since been lost.
The Getty MS Ludwig XV 13 and the Pisani Dossi MS are both dedicated to Niccolo III d’Este, and that they were written at the marquis’ request, and the sequence of their contents laid out according to his design. On the other hand, the Morgan Library M.383 does not have a dedication, and the text is said to have been laid out according to Fiore’s design. This may account for the difference in the sequence of the manuscripts’ contents.
Of the four manuscripts, the Getty MS Ludwig XV 13 has the most content and will be used as an example here. The manuscript’s preface is followed by the following topics – Grappling, Baton, Dagger, Sword vs Dagger, Sword in One Hand, Sword in Two Hands, Sword in Armor, Axe in Armor, Spear, Mounted Fencing, and Spear vs Cavalry.
Page from the Getty MS Ludwig XV 13, one of the Flower of Battle manuscripts. (Michael Chidester / Public Domain)
One topic that is noticeably ‘missing’ from the Getty MS Ludwig XV 13 is the Seven Swords. In fact, in this manuscript, the Seven Swords is treated as part of the topic entitled Sword in Two Hands, whereas it is treated as a topic on its own in the Pisani Dossi MS and the BnF MS Latin 11269. The Seven Swords is essentially a full-page diagram showing a man with seven swords in the center and four animals around him.
Fiore provides the following explanation for the diagram, “This master with these swords signifies the seven blows of the sword. And the four animals signify four virtues, that is, prudence, celerity, fortitude, and audacity. And whoever wants to be good in this art should have part in these virtues.”
Fiore goes on to explain the four animals and the virtues they symbolize in more detail. The virtue of prudence is represented by the lynx, celerity by the tiger, fortitude by the elephant (interestingly depicted carrying a castle on its back), and audacity by the lion. The Seven Swords is an interesting diagram, as it reveals the philosophy that underlies Fiore’s martial arts training.
The Philosophy of the Flower of Battle
This philosophy is applied and elaborated on in the other topics of the manual. This is visible, for example, in the topic on Grappling, where the martial arts master states that “Grappling wants seven things—that is, strength; quickness of foot and of arms; advantageous holds; and breaks; and binds; and strikes; and lesions”. Notice that in addition to the virtues, the art of Grappling also involves technical knowledge.
Indeed, Fiore’s Flower of Battle deals heavily with technical knowledge in the various forms of martial arts that a warrior might be practicing. For instance, on the topic of Sword in Two Hands, Fiore provides a list of 12 guards that a warrior may adopt during a battle.
An example of a guard is the low Iron Gate, which is “a very strong guard, and a good guard in which to wait for an attack by every kind of hand-held weapon, whatever its length, as long as you have a good sword that is not too long. And from this guard if you make cover with a passing step you move to the Narrow Game. Or you can exchange thrusts, striking home with yours. Or, as you step, you can beat the opponent’s thrust to the ground. And this guard can cover attacks from all angles”.
The Art of the Flower of Battle
A technical manual that relies only on words may not fully convey the teachings of its author. Therefore, Fiore’s Flower of Battle is filled with illustrations, which serve to show his readers what he is trying to say, and how to perform the techniques he described. For modern scholars, these illustrations are also treated as works of art.
Naturally, comparisons have been made between the illustrations found in the different manuscripts. For example, the illustrations found in the BnF MS Latin 11269 are noted to be similar to those in the Getty MS Ludwig XV 13. In spite of these similarities, however, those in the former are fully painted.
Incidentally, the BnF MS Latin 11269 is the only manuscript with fully colored illustrations. Another interesting feature of the manuscripts is that the figures are shown wearing crowns or garters, which have gold leafing. This is to show the reader which position he is supposed to be in.
BnF MS Latin 11269 is the only manuscript of the Flower of Battle that is in full color. (Michael Chidester / Public Domain)
Finally, it may be remarked that the Flower of Battle was not the only work of its kind to be produced in Europe during the Renaissance. In fact, martial arts manuals may be considered to be a literary genre in their own right and many manuscripts from the Renaissance period have survived.
Nevertheless, it seems that Fiore’s Flower of Battle did not have a major impact in the development of martial arts during the Renaissance. Instead, it was the works of Johannes Liechtenauer (a German master who lived during the 14th century) and Filippo di Bartolomeo Dardi (a 15th century Italian master) that dominated the field during that time. Nevertheless, the influence of Fiore (or his teachers) is visible in the works of certain masters, including Philippo di Vadi and Ludwig VI von Eyb.
Top image: The Flower of Battle is an Italian martial arts manual from the Renaissance. Source: sheikoevgeniya / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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