What is Historical Fencing?
Historical Fencing is the practice of fighting with swords by using historical resources. This can take many shapes and forms. From reading a manual and trying to copy what its author penned, to collecting data and trying to re-create a historical art.
What is HEMA?
HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts. Specifically it is the study of historical resources to recreate European fighting arts. Another term used for it is WMA, or Western Martial Arts.
The largest alliance of HEMA members is the HEMAA. The HEMAA is a non-profit organization dedicated to being a service provider for clubs and events that wish to engage in Historical European Martial Arts.
What are some of the Weapons studied?
The longsword was developed as a dueling and martial weapon during the 1300s (the earliest treatise is from 1389) and remained in fashion almost into the 1700s, or at least it remained in fencing treatises up until then! While no older treatises than 1389 have been discovered, longswords constructed in the 1200's have been found indicating an art that is very old.
There are two schools of longsword to consider. Those that stem from Johannes Liechtenauer, a German, and those that stem from Fiore de Liberi, an Italian.
The side-sword was a single-handed weapon capable of cuts and thrusts. Morozzo was an Italian who developed techniques to use the cut and thrust sword as well as a buckler in the mid 1500s. By the late 1500s and 1600s the rapier became a more popular weapon. However, in England, the side-sword or a variation of it called the short, or broad sword, remained in use until the 1600s as a direct challenge to the rapier an was advocated by George Silver.
The rapier was developed around the late 1400's as a civilian weapon. Agrippa, believed that by focusing on four guards and the thrust, one could fence better than they could using the many guards and thrusts and cuts of Morazzo. The rapier was a socially acceptable weapon to wear around town and many treatises were created for its use.
Two primary schools of rapier thought were Italian and Spanish. The Italian method was popular throughout Europe and focused on linear movements and the lunge. The Spanish method focused on maintaining a 90 degree angle with the sword and opponent while using circular movement.
Laws and customs of the late 17th and 18th century altered the rapier, transforming it into a smaller, thrust-only small sword which became the forerunner of modern fencing.
The saber was a horseman's weapon that during the 17th century was popular in Eastern Europe and used for mounted as well as foot combat. Poland, for example, developed numerous sabers that relied on fast cross-cuts. The saber remained popular in Europe for military purposes into the 20th century. Like the rapier, the heavy saber was lightened for sporting purposes and is still used in modern fencing.
Below are brief overviews of the various schools of swordsmanship To learn more find the actual texts or those who accurately use the styles.
PHOENIX WESTERN MARTIAL ARTS CLASSES
The Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship teaches numerous systems. We are a member of the HEMA Alliance and have been successful as a club, running demonstrations and our members have won medals at numerous tournaments and have been asked to teach classes all over North America.
If you live in the Phoenix Arizona area and are interested in learning historical fighting, please use my personal contact information. I will let you know when my class meets, or give you information on where to do your own research! The link below has further information about the organization I help run.
Spain was unified in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, forming an ultra-catholic, ultra-powerful country that would within one hundred years settle the New World, drive the Turks out of the Mediterranean Sea, expand into Italy, see wars with France and lose a climactic battle against the rising star of England in 1588. The Spanish School of Swordsmanship was created (in part) from their experiences in warfare and it colored their style in a distinct manner.
Jeronimo de Carranza is considered the father of the Spanish School of Fencing, in what is known a bit incorrectly as the Magic Circle, or what the Spaniards called, "Destreza". His book published in 1582, The Philosophy of Arms, of its art and the Christian Offense and Defense, not only laid down the groundwork for the Spanish School, its title can give us insight as to the underlying principals of the style which lasted for 300 years.
The title alone tells us that Destreza was more than a manual on how to fight with a rapier, it was also a philosophy that was to teach a fighter to use his brain, his body and his training to further the efforts of Catholic Christianity. During Carranza's time, the Catholic faith was still reeling from the effects of the Reformation, the enlightenment of the Renaissance and the ever present Turkish, Muslim threat. Spain, as the self appointed defender of Catholicism, meant that its people, Carranza included, were interested in the success of their faith. Carranza's work had a moral aspect to it, not just physical.
Destreza took ideas from the Greeks in terms of mathematics, notably geometry to devise a system of fighting based on circles and angles. A fighter for instance imagined a circle around him that told him where to step, how to advance and at what range to keep his opponent.
On the left is the "Magic Circle". This was drawn on the floor as a training tool and there is no 'magic' to it, the names such as 'Magic Circle' and 'Circle of Death' were added later, not by the contemporary Spanish masters. The footprints indicate how to circle clockwise and counter-clockwise, so that a right handed fighter might always keep his blade pointed at his foe, creating a right angle with his arm, blade and leg.
The circle itself indicates direction. The lines within the circle reveal ways the student of Destreza can cross the circle for the purpose of attack or defense, by stepping in and out.
The human body drawn in the center would be a reference point for instructors, with it they could demonstrate the circumference of the circle, but also analyze the human form and make recommendations on when and where to attack.
These lines and patterns are based on the geometric ideas of the Greeks, while the interest in the human form is a byproduct of the Renaissance. The circle is just the start! There are other circles, including one around each combatant!
The Spanish fighter was known as a "Diestro". The Diestro held his blade extended, using a slightly pronated hand to keep his opponent at bay (Italian Terza). Rather than lunge at the opponent, the Diestro sought to make contact with the blade. This blade on blade contact was called "atajo", and it was believed a fighter could 'sense' the intentions of his enemy through the contact. This blade sense was known as 'tacto'. If attacked, the Diestro sought to side-step the blade and deflect with a 'deviso'. There were no solid parries in the Spanish system, enemy attacks were evaded with a shifting of the blade and the movement of the body.
The image on th left is from a 1628 manual, Academie de L'Espree, by Girard Thibault of Antwerp, who borrowed from Carranza's method. He is also the one who first showed circles on the floor as a tool for training.
The image shows the circle and method of holding the sword. Note the blade is held high to keep the tip continually pointed at the opponent's face. The arm is fully extended, but the elbow is not locked.
Unlike the Italian School of Swordsmanship where fighters made dramatic advances upon one another, Destreza is about aversion. Unlike the Italians, the Spanish who used Destreza were not out to prove anything. They were seeking to fight and come away unscathed as the victor. This is perhaps from the military background of the time where survival trumped any ideas of showing off manly valor, especially against opponents who were of a different faith and who didn't 'deserve' to be treated with honor.
In terms of attack, the Spanish system did not use lunges, but instead advised taking single steps as a means of performing a thrust, known as an 'estocada'. Cuts were also performed with steps, with the blade (edge or tip) striking at the same moment the lead foot completed the step. This allowed the body to be behind the force of both thrusts and cuts, but did not over-extend a person as might occur with an Italian lunge.
This continual circling, side-stepping and avoidance techniques made the Spanish School both feared and reviled.
George Silver of England in his 1599 manual, Paradoxes of Defense, likened the Spanish to dancers. In William Shakespeare's, Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597, Tybalt the villain uses the Spanish style of fencing, which would no doubt earn ridicule and 'boos' from the audience. Romeo, using a much more direct Italian style, slays him.
One must bear in mind that England was no friend of Spain. In 1588 the Armada nearly invaded England and its defeat only about a decade prior to Silver and Shakespeare's work perhaps explains why the English speaking world held equal fear and disdain of anything originating from Spain.
The Spanish method is very effective. With a fully extended sword and a circular movement pattern, the Spanish diestro has plenty of time to react to attacks. The holding of the arm can be tiring, however as an Italian fencer named Salvator Fabris mentioned in his Scienza d'Arme, published in 1606.
Despite any weariness from holding the blade, the method was lauded and virtually unchanged for 300 years! The masters knew what they were doing!
Where as the Spanish School of Fencing derived from a background of warfare, the Renaissance and religion, the Italian style was based on combat, personal duels of honor and Renaissance notions, ranging from the scientific to the humanist.
The Italian School of Fencing was more wide-spread than the Spanish. The Italian method wasn't necessarily better, but it was far more prolific (There are several types). Italians embraced the humanist spirit of the Renaissance and several masters wrote treaties on swordsmanship. Additionally, Italians traveled far and wide across Europe establishing their style of fencing as the predominant method. From the late 1400's to the 1600's, the Italian style was the premier in sword play, only to be replaced by the French who tailored fencing to a gentleman's duel and eventually a sport.
I mentioned earlier that groups who fight are limited by rules and tools. The case was true in Italy. Italian fencing may have had some military origins, but soon enough it became used for duels of honor and judicial combat as well as civilian defense. This introduced rules to their method of fighting that changed over time. The tools changed as well. Morozzo's texts deal with a cut and thrust blade, while later Italian masters such as Di'Grassi used longer rapiers for primarily thrusting and by the mid 17th century many rapiers had no edge at all! The Italian School of Swordsmanship covered a wide breadth of time that continued even into the age of Baroque (Classical) Fencing of the eighteenth century. Because of this, the various masters had different ideas on their art. A student of the Italian texts should bear in mind what rules and tools the masters were using when they wrote.
Achille Morozzo is the Carranza of Italian Fencing. He was from Bologna (There is even a Bolognese School of Swordsmanship), from which a great many masters originated from. His Opera Nova, published in 1536, was the foundation of countless other Italian masters and remained in print well into the 1600's. Favoring a cut and thrust sword, his methods demonstrated wide stances and guards that were later modified to fit the rapier as it changed over time. Morozzo used a 'transitional' sword. Meaning a blade that bridged the gap between longsword and rapier. His style can also be called transitional in that it bridged the High Middle Ages martial arts to the Renaissance.
Camillo Agrippa was a true Renaissance man, famed for not only fencing but mathematics and engineering. He may even have been an associate of Michelangelo. His work, The Science of Arms, with a Philosophical Dialogue , published in 1553, took elements of Marozzo's work and simplified them. He took Marozzo's thirteen guards and reduced them to four, while at the same time advocating the use of the rapier as a thrusting weapon. Like Carranza, Agrippa was fascinated with the mathematical aspects of swordsmanship and today historians are fairly certain Agrippa influenced Carranza whose works were published three decades after Agrippa's. The title indicates that science and philosophy were cornerstones of his method, but one will note the lack of faith being mentioned in the title.
Giocomo Di'Grassi left his native Italy and moved to England where he taught the upper classes the art of fencing with the rapier, much to the chagrin of the military minded English masters such as George Silver. Di'Grassi's manual on fencing, His True Art of Defense, was published in 1570 and again (in English) in 1594 and used a heavier rapier requiring a more withdrawn guard and stance.
The image depicts Di'Grassi's low ward (left) with a dagger. Notice how drawn back the rapier is. Later styles were more extended.
Salvator Fabris left Padua Italy to travel all over Northern Europe where he was exposed to many styles of rapier combat. In 1606 he wrote the most complete, comprehensive and successful rapier manual, Scienza d'Arme. Fabris was well-learned in his art and not only described his theory and methods in great detail, he also showed fencers what not to do and frequently mentioned poor-techniques from other masters. His particular style was unusual in that the body was held very low (this requires much practice even according to Fabris!).
Nicioletto Giganti practiced his art in Venice and in 1606 wrote a fencing manual with a name so long that I will simply encourage you to Google his name. Giganti's manual was written in a very matter-of-fact and simple how-to terms. There is no discussion or digression in his work, which makes it one of the easier reads! Fabris is more thorough, but much harder to process, while Giganti's work is well-suited for the 'basics' on rapier combat.
Ridolfo Capo Ferro published his work in 1610. The Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing not only shows humanistic tendencies, the title goes on to call himself a master, applaud his city and pat the back of a local monarch, it also indicates the work is an art. The word may not mean much, but an art opposed to a science bears closer examination.
A science is very percise. To get result A perform B. An art works more like; to get result A perform B, but if that doesn't work try C, D, E, F...
This indicates that Capo Ferro meant his work to be used as a spring-board, not as a rigid primer on how to fence. He sometimes even contradicts himself in his own manual, calling feints dangerous and then telling the reader how to use them. His work is famous for its detailed diagrams. Most of these show guards, attacks and ripostes. What happens between is not shown, nor what to do if an attack or riposte misses. Incidentally, Fabris explicitly mentioned what to do if an attack succeeded or failed going so far as to show how to wrestle!
The image on the left depicts Capo Ferro's idea on a lunge, a uniquely Italian attack. Many lines have been drawn to show proportionto give the student an idea of what a proper lunge should look like. His diagrams are true products of Renaissance artistry. The lunge was vital and unique to the Italian method!
Many Methods! Over the years the Italians developed many methods to their swordplay.
Salvator Fabris showing secunda (a guard position) in 1606. The body is bent, the knuckles face out and the fighter can uncoil into a lunge that remains in secunda or flows into quarta.
Capo Ferro showing secunda in 1610. The body is upright and similarly weighted as the image above. The knuckles are facing out and the arm is slightly away from the body.
Francesco Alfiere in 1653 shows an entirely different secunda. The body is more evenly weighted and leans forward opposed to Capo Ferro who leaned back. The arm is extended straight forward and the knuckles facing out.
Unlike the Spanish style, the Italian School of Swordsmanship is on the surface very linear. Opponents faced one another presenting narrow targets, they engaged in attacks and parries from the front. However, closer examination of the diagrams from any of the masters shows that the Italian method didn't advocate walking directly into an opponent, rather they suggested that a fighter move in at an angle, while the sword parried the opponent in what is known as single-time with opposition.
While a Spanish Diestro might circle like a hawk, the Italian fighter charges like a bull; but don't be fooled, it's a clever bull.
Because the Italian style was more about face-to-face combat, the masters were particularlyinterested in quickly finishing a fight. Emphasis was placed on Measure (distance from an opponent), Tiempo (Timing of an attack, as well as how long it takes) and Velocita (How and where an attack should take place). These elements blended into a single-time or single-tempo system where a fight would be over in literally one move. Either the attack, or the immediate counter to an attack.
Italian masters broke techniques into measurement of time known as tempi. For instance, once tiempo (right time to attack) was acquired the Italian fighter was encouraged to attack using the smallest tempo (action) possible. A shoulder powered hack would take two tempi, leaving openings for the opponent to seize the tiempo and strike first. To prevent this, a thrust using the lunge was advocated because it took less time.
In easy terms: Soon as you are ready to attack, do it and do it fast before the other guy does. If the other guy attacks, counter at the exact same time.
When both opponents are of this mindset we see a very aggressive style of combat that brings opponents close together and invites hand to hand combat, beats of the blade, and other acts of physical power, such as tripping or pinning the arm. And critics of the Italian system, such as George Silver, claimed that it often led to both duelists dying!
Because the rapier was primarily a thrusting weapon, the Italians had specific terms for types of thrusts. "Stocatta", a thrust under an enemy's blade and "Imbrocatta", a thrust over the enemy's blade. On top of this they had specific terminology of how to deliver the stocatta or imbrocatta. A "Botta Lunga" for instance was the lunge, the use of a forward leaning step to deliver the thrust, not a flinging forward of the arm. It gets better! "Passata Soto", was a lunge that was so far extended and low to the ground, that the fighter needed to plant his off-hand on the ground so as to not lose balance. (I'm still researching to see how often something like that was used)
For a person interested in Historical Fencing, the Italian method is fantastic because many of the manuals are online free of charge (though English translations are a bit harder to get). Additionally, there are many Italian fencing masters to choose from. I've mentioned only a few. Be aware that each manual had its own set of rules and tools. Your own techniques needs to reflect that. Alfiere might believe thrusting is the only way to go, but if you are using a cut and thrust rapier and his manual was for a long, thrusting only, blade; you'll see a problem in implementing his methods. Additionally, a quick glance at the works of the masters is not enough to 'learn' their methods. Find someone who has really looked at the text or interpreted it for true understanding or be prepared for serious study on your own!
Personally, what I take to heart is the Italian footwork as a means of blade control as well as their single-time method. When two fighters schooled in the Italian method meet, the combat is swift, decisive and leading up to the moment of attack (or counter attack) very subtle!
The images to the left show the means to side-step and thrust (called an inquartata), while maintaining control of the enemy's blade by use of the forte in quarta (a guard). When an Italian fighter avoids an attack it is known as a "void" So, as aggressive as their methods are, the Italian masters advised side-stepping as a perfectly valid technique and it is one I'm fond of.
This image depicts an angled pass (note the victor is stepping to his right with his rear leg) and the offhand is used to take control of the blade and a thrust is delivered. What is interesting is the forward momentum of the attacker. It implies that if he missed his thrust, he could still pass his opponent and yank him as he did so. Most Italian texts show guards, ripostes and lunges performed correctly. One has to imagine what would happen if something didn't go right, though Salvator Fabris was kind enough to explore in detail what to do! (Hand to hand!)
Not everyone of the late 16th and early 17th century were favorable toward the rapier. In Elizabethan England numerous Italian instructors (including Di Grassi and Saviolo) moved in on the teaching market, much to the annoyance of the local English masters.
One such master was George Silver who wrote the Paradoxes of Defense in 1599 that decried the use of the rapier and had special vitriol toward the Italian masters themselves. Silver found the teaching methods of the rapier were too aggressive and cited numerous examples of rapier-men killing one another in a duel. Additionally, Silver scorned the rapier as poorly suited in the pursuit of war. In this he was quite correct, but perhaps did not notice (or care) that the rapier was a civilian weapon meant almost specifically to counter a weapon of like-kind.
Silver also, did not like the movement of rapier-men calling it False opposed to his own methods of the backsword (shortsword) which he called True.
In short, Silver believed that there were 4 True Times. These were times that kept a person safe and were as follows: Hand, Body, Foot, Feet.
Meaning the hand (being fastest) had to present a threat with the sword followed by the movement of the body, and then the movement of the foot, or if passing, the 'feet'. At anytime the order was changed, such as the foot moving before the hand, Silver noted there was no threat but there was a target!
Silver claimed that the Italian fencers taught both True and False concepts which made them particularly deceptive. In practice the Italians used their fabricated scenarios and the movements and actions were true. In a real fight, both men ended up dead or sorely hurt because they quickly became false.
Silver wrote in the early 1600's an addition to the Paradoxes of Defense titled Brief Instructions of my Paradoxes of Defense. The manual was not published until the Victorian era!
In his instructions Silver laid out a complete system using the short/broad/backsword. He gave specific details on the length of the blade and advocated using it in four guards in which cutting and thrusting could be used. Silver's movements were simple, generally requiring a pivot to swing a fighter's body just out of range of an attack, and create an opening for a true-time counter-attack.
Silver's system valued the defense and riposte over attack, which suited him fine. Silver noted that rapier-men were likely to kill each other in a duel, while those using his system would wait patiently, think better of fighting, and both go home alive!
Above is an image of Silver demonstrating the proper length of a sword. It is shorter than a rapier, but broad enough to cut. Silver encouraged the use of both the cut and the thrust as effective means of winning a fight.
Silver's method provides a wonderful contrast to the rapier. His simplistic movements and subtle use of True Times makes for a very interesting experience!
The longsword was a weapon held with two hands used to cut and thrust. While rapier-play and Silver's backsword date from the 16th and 17th century, the longsword emerged as a weapon of choice in the 14th century and remained in fashion for centuries.
Fiore de Liberi wrote the Flower of Battle to teach his noble patron, D'Este, the art and science of combat. Liberi covered extensively the use of hand to hand, the dagger, the longsword, the single-sword, the spear, the poleaxe, mounted combat and how to make vile caustic powder to blind a man!
There are four existing copies of the manual (including the Getti and Pisani-Dosi), but none of them are complete and none of them are the originals. Still, enough survives to make a coherent system and the most complete system of the medieval era.
Fiore's longsword technique was very practical and designed to be used in or out of armor. Fiore's system is thus very versatile and relies on the cut as well as the thrust to ensure an unarmored or armored foe could be dealt with. While there are clear German elements to Fiore's system, the Italian method is more efficient and combat orientated with little to no winding.
Unlike the much later sword systems, which rely almost entirely on the blade, Fiore's longsword used every part of the weapon. The blade can cut, the tip can thrust, the quillions can jab, the pommel is used quite often and against an armored opponent the sword can be reversed and used as an axe!
Because cutting and thrusting are used the number of wards (guards) are many. Whereas in Italian rapier combat there are but four, Liberi has over 10, with some guards having 'left' and 'right' versions.
Fiore's longsword is a fascinating system that is hotly debated, partially due to the lack of a complete manual and those that do exist aren't as explicitly detailed as later texts.
An example of a Fiore plate. Each plate has an explanation which is called a 'play' and the outfit of the characters determine who is the master and who is the student or player in the play.
Fiore's system from 1410 was later taught by Filippo Vadi in the 1480's and continued to grow in an Italian style. Morozzo's manual from 1536 taught the use of the two-handed sword, though the weapon had less emphasis on it than the side-sword, and Franesco Alfiere's manual of 1653, though primarily a manual on the use of the rapier, had plates and sections on how to use a two-handed sword.
Above is an example of similar (not identical) Italian wards from different time-periods.
Vadi 1480's Marozzo 1536 Alfiere 1653.
During the late 1300's a system of the use of the longsword developed based on the teachings of the German master Johannes Liechtenauer. The earliest manuscript of his teachings comes from 1389 in a text-only verse format. In comparison, the Italian master Fiore's 'Flower of Battle' (with pictures) was written not long after in 1410.
Because longswords from any nation in Europe are relatively similar and the human body works the same no matter where a person is from, the national differences between the 'German' and 'Italian' system is more in the details rather than in the core beliefs. At least when looking at the later 1300's and early 1400's.
Many of the German wards have Italian counterparts, footwork is similar if not identical, and many of the concepts are the same. This is different than the later rapier styles where there were more nationalistic differences in theory (Spanish vs Italian), not just in the details.
Currently, some think there was a pan-European sword-fighting system, others believe national styles, as in rapier, developed uniquely or even in opposition of one another. I'm more of the belief that the early longsword masters were well-traveled (they often said as much) and the mercenary wars of the mid to late 1300's, ranging from the Hundred Years War to the wars between the Italian city-states, encouraged a healthy trade of ideas and teaching between warriors. For example, English mercenaries such as John Hawkwood were highly active in Northern Italy and often hired German replacements for their losses. To me this is a clear sign that while there might not have be a pan-European system, there was assuredly a European salad-bowl of martial arts that masters picked from.
The masters interpreted the salad-bowl as best they were able. Fiore, for example, in his 'Flower of Battle' stated that his book showed the techniques he believed to be the most useful and that were plenty of other methods he deemed to leave out.
I contend these early and similar interpretations in turn led to 'national' styles as the students of the masters spread their teachings in a more localized area. There was also a profit-motive behind this. In the Holy Roman Empire, for example, there were approved masters with charters. It would be in their interest to maintain a monopoly on swordsmanship, and over time this might create what would be seen as a 'national' style.
What makes the German longsword system different than Italian is a larger emphasis on the cut, the use of winds, the use of hip-throws, and a different take on how to oppose wards. While Fiore had wards and counter-wards, the German master Liechtenauer had wards and master-strikes designed specifically to break wards.
While Fiore has plays for blades crossing at the tips, middle and strong, the German system has a decision tree at the bind based on 'hard' and 'soft' pressure as well as techniques for distant and close binds.
What made the German system truly unique was how it began to change and adapt in German society over time. Liechtenauer and Fiore developed a similar martial combat system, but the longsword's usefulness on the battlefield was short lived after the 1400s. Longsword techniques continued to be taught, but more for dueling and judicial purposes. Metalurgy changed as well so that longswords became longer and shaped different which changed some of their performance and what techniques were possible.
By 1570 the German tradition still existed, but in a more sport, or judicial context and in what could probably truly be described as a 'national' method. Joachim Meyer's fighting book was the last in the German tradition and had come a long way from Liechtenauer's system with different techniques, an absence of thrusting and different wards as well as a different blade.
In modern studying the German system has a wealth of information and stylistic choices ranging from 1389 to 1570! From martial combat to sport play!
Above are three examples of the German ward "Vom Tag", all of which progressed from Liechtenauer in 1389.
Ringeck 1438 Danzig 1452 Meyer 1570
The differences between the two systems is a matter of presentation. During the 1300-1400s European mercenaries and knights interacted with one another. In Italy for example there were Germans, Bretons, Italians, French and English mercenaries active throughout the mid 14th and early 15th centuries. No doubt martial practices were well known to them all and there is only so much one can do with a longsword. Is this a pan-European longsword school?
Yes and no. As a teacher by trade I instruct students on a variety of topics. So do other teachers. Though we all have the same subject (history), we don't focus on the same things. My instruction on WWI and its causes will be different to another instructor's teaching of the same material. I find longsword much the same. The masters presented what they thought was important and left out what they thought was not. This has created distinct teachers and in turn regional styles. So, while they are very similar there are differences in how and what the masters taught.
German = The German style of longsword is divided into armored and unarmored combat. What works in the unarmored instruction will not work against an armored opponent.
The German style is very offensive with intense value placed on gaining the combat initiative. This can be seen in the Master-strikes: five attacks designed to 'break' the four common wards of the Liechtenauer tradition in unarmored combat only. These master-strikes are single-time attacks meant to 'jam' an opponent before he can attack. They are also all cuts and their ending position does not necessarily create an opportunity to thrust. In armor, the cut is not as valuable as the thrust.
Germans wind when their swords bind in an attempt to deliver thrusts, short-edge cuts or grapple. In unarmored combat this is fine, but in armored combat the short-edge cuts, especially to an armored head, will be ineffective.
German grappling uses a variety of hip throws done with forward momentum to prevent the same technique being used as a counter.
Germans use the short-edge to deliver cuts in unarmored combat. This form of attack works well in the bind and is also used as one of the German Master-strikes, the shielhau.
Italian = The Italian style of longsword of Fiore was put in a manual that showed techniques that could be used in and out of armor. This marks a large difference between what Liechtenauer presented where he had separate techniques. All of Fiore's cuts are either powerful, or designed to have a follow up thrust.
The Italian style of combat is deceptive and does not require offensive action. There are several defensive wards, such as Full Iron Door, where the blade is held close to the body and the point is aimed at the ground and to the right! Other wards present targets in the form of bait, thus setting up for a counter-attack. Meanwhile, while the Germans have Master-strikes, the Italian tradition has contrary wards. Contrary wards are those that oppose one another. Whoever moves first is in danger.
Italians perform differently at the bind than Germans. Germans wind and seek strikes, often cuts. Italians do not wind and instead either move to grapple, or seek a thrust, pommel-strike, or a cut that can quickly be transitioned into a thrust. Again, this is because the Italian tradition is universal, to be used in or out of armor.
In grappling, the Italian method is designed to quickly topple an opponent, or secure the opponent's arm opening him up to a solid pommel-bash. There are no hip-throws or any technique that would require lifting an opponent off the ground.
The Italian method does not use short-edge cuts in most scenarios. The short-edge is not as powerful as the long-edge, and so such cuts are delivered to soft targets, namely the throat, head and hands and, as per Fiore's instructions, followed up with a thrust. This is because his methods are to be used in and out of armor and against an armored opponent the short-edge is not as useful.
1. Germans use high guards and Italian low guards. Not true. Two of the four primary German wards are held low, the fool and the plow, while three of the Italian wards are very high, Woman's Guard, Window and Falcon (from Vadi).
2. One is 'better' than the other. Not true. They both do their job very well. Germans teach specific in and out of armor combat while the Italians show one universal method. That alone explains the difference in presentation. Personally, I find the Italian teaching of Fiore faster at the bind, but I'm quite fond of the single-time Master-strikes of the Germans.
3. German masters started to move towards judicial/sport combat and Italian masters remained battlefield orientated. True. The 1400's saw a decline of the longsword as a useful battlefield tool. Armor was simply too strong and other weapons, such as the spear (lance), were better suited for armor penetration. After Fiore, the only other well-known Italian master for longsword was Vadi, whose material is not much different than Fiore's. Morozzo and other Italians taught a form of longsword in the 1500's, but these weapons were much longer and larger than the traditional longsword.
In the German tradition the shape of the longsword altered as did its purpose, going from the battlefield to civilian uses, until by the late 1500's the longsword was used in 'sporting' combat under the master Meyer rather than in warfare or even in the duel.
4. Germans use their thumbs Italians don't. True. In certain German techniques, namely attacks from Ox and the Zwerchau Master-strike, the thumb is placed on the blade for stability purposes. Fiore never mentioned using the thumb on the blade, nor does any of his plates show this technique.
5. Germans attack and Italians counter-attack. Somewhat. The German tradition values offensive action with attention paid to: before a fight begins, the first strike and what happens after the blades meet. Italian methodology doesn't seem to care who strikes first and has plenty of options (that either party can use) at the bind making the system equally good at being offensive or defensive in nature. Again, this is a presentation difference. One teacher clearly favored being highly aggressive while the other allowed for an either defensive or offensive fight.
6. German and Italian is a thing. Historically, no! The terms are somewhat incorrect. True, Liechtenauer spoke German and was from the Holy Roman Empire, but Fiore cited Germans as well as Italian as being his teacher, and Italy, as a country, didn't exist at the time of his writings.
A more accurate way to compare systems is to compare masters and their descendants and remember the use of nationality should be considered loosely.