A 15thcentury Treatise on the Technique of Chivalric Axe Combat
By Sydney Anglo B.A., Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S., F.S.A ARMA Senior Advisor
ARMA is proud to present officially for the first time on the Net by permission of the author and of the Society of Antiquaries, the complete and unabridged Le Jeu de la Hache, a rare Burgundian work on the Medieval polaxe or the Art of Axeplay. Professor Sydney Anglo, the leading scholar researching historical fencing manuscripts (and ARMA member), has kindly allowed us to offer his translation of this unique work. Covering the deadly and effective style of knightly polaxe fighting for foot combat and tournament, this text (the only one of its kind) describes a sophisticated and considerably developed method of using a powerful weapon that found its place combating plate armor in the 1400's and 1500’s. Part axe, part spear, part war-hammer, and part short-staff, the versatile polaxe was used something like a mace and a sword as well as a pole-arm. It was ideally suited to facing heavy armor in single combat or battlefield. Able to smash, stab, hook, block, trap, and soem even cut, it was formidable. While accounts of knightly duels with the weapon rarely resulted in death (seeThe Deeds of Jacque Lalaing), in war against lesser armored opponents it could be devastating. Although described by period works from the Solothurner Fecthbuch to Talhoffer to Dei Liberi,Vadi, and Monte, it is a weapon rarely practiced today by Medieval combat enthusiasts. Increasingly though, it is gaining in popularity thanks in part to the efforts of Prof. Anglo's scholarship and the renewed interest in actual Medieval martial arts. His singular article below, originally published inArchaeologia, (CIX) 1991, p.p. 113-128, features a wealth of insights into the martial arts of the knightly warrior class. ARMA is excited to also announce that Professor Anglo will in the future be adding updates to the article exclusively for ARMA. *Note: Full illustrations will be added shortly.
With that so furiously at him he flew, As if he would have over-run him streight; And with his huge great yron axe gan hew So hideously uppon his armour bright, As he to peeces would have chopt it quight. That the bold Prince was forced foote to give To his first rage, and yeeld to his despight; The whilest at him so dreadfully he drive, That seem'd a marble rock asunder could have rive.
Thus the monstrous Gerioneo, intent on bringing matters to a swift conclusion, sets about Prince Arthur in theFaerie Queene (V. xi. v). However, despite enjoying the advantage of having three bodies - and, therefore, three pairs of arms which enable him to shift his axe from side to side with bewildering rapidity - Gerioneo is outfought. One by one his arms are pruned away, 'like fruitlesse braunches' until, at last, his bodies are hacked quite through so that they fall 'all three one senselesse lumpe'. Yet, although Prince Arthur's technique is clearly superior to the brute force of his adversary, Spenser's account is hopelessly vague, and we can form no idea as to how the hero achieves success.
There were skills in axe-fighting: but Spenser would have had no opportunity to see them displayed. Combat with axes had never been popular in England and, even in the reign of that enthusiast for chivalric exercise, Henry VIII, only one such encounter is recorded.1 Nor would it have been easy for the poet to read up his subject in books. He might have had access to printed versions of the chronicles of Olivier de la Marche whose narratives still constitute the main source for our knowledge of fifteenth-century Burgundian contests; or he might have consulted the relevant chapters in Pietro Monte's treatise on military exercises. But there was almost no other theoretical writing concerning axe play. Such discussion as existed tended to touch upon the matter only in passing; and, of these texts, the most important remained in manuscript until the late nineteenth century.2 Indeed, there is only one treatise devoted exclusively to the technique of axe combat - Le Jeu de la Hache (Bibliothèque Nationale, Manuscrit français 1996) - and that is now published for the first time in this present article (pl. XXXII).
Even had Spencer studied this text, he would have found it puzzling and but little suited to his poetic purposes, for the technique favored by Gerioneo - lifting the axe high and then crashing it down again - is only once mentioned by the author of the manuscript, Le Jeu.3 Moreover, the axe used by the contestants in this treatise could not have cleaved through one body, let alone three, because it had no cutting edge nor, indeed, anything like a conventional axe head.
Staff weapons have never greatly attracted scholars, and there exists only a rudimentary typology for thepolaxes used in chivalric combats from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century.4 On the basis of surviving examples and manuscript illustrations there were, roughly speaking, two principal types of polaxe : those bearing an axe blade with a cutting edge, or those with a hammer-head - the former balanced at the back with a hammer, spike or curved fluke; later by spike or fluke (pls. XXXIIIa-c). Generally, the top of the haft terminates in a long metal spike, either rectangular in section, or shaped like a spearhead or thick dagger blade. The bottom end of the haft would normally be protected by a metal ferrule, and this could be sharpened into a spike which, if sufficiently developed, would amount to a 'dague dessoubz'.5 The metal head would be fixed to the haft by strong pyramidal bolts often projecting so far as to constitute transverse spikes - as can be well observed on an axe in the Royal Armories (pl. XXXIIId). Thus, whether viewed sectionally, or from the front or side, the head would always appear cruciform. As was the case with all staff weapons, long steel bands, variously referred to as straps or languets, would run down the haft from the head, sometimes on two sides, and sometimes on all four. These both strengthened the structure and, if opposed by an edged weapon, helped prevent the haft from being severed. Frequently, though not invariably, a metal rondelle would be attached to theselanguets at roughly a third to half-way down the haft, as a protection for the hands; and some illustrations show a second rondelle a little way up from the bottom of the haft. Finally, it seems way up from the bottom of the haft. Finally, it seems likely that many axes were fitted, near the bottom of the haft, not with a rondelle but with a thick leather strap or ring, somewhat akin to the arrêt de la lance on a jousting stave, though serving a different purpose: that is to prevent the whole weapon flying through, and out of, the hands when the axe was wielded long.6 This particular feature may be seen on one of the very rare axes to survive with the original haft - the example in the Bayerisches National Museum at Munich - and it can also be discerned in a number of manuscript illustrations, though seldom with great clarity (pl. XXXIVa).7
The descriptive terminology, or morphography, of these weapons is as unsatisfactory as their typology: though this, it is fair to say, may reflect the vagueness and paucity of late medieval and early Renaissance descriptions. With few exceptions, narratives of axe fighting date from the middle decades of the fifteenth century and are Burgundian in origin; and, of these, the only chronicler who made a serious attempt at accurate and detailed reporting is Olivier de la Marche. Yet even he uses a wide range of terms for the various parts of the polaxe which he usually designates by the word hache, through he sometimes prefers baton.8 On one occasion only, when describing the encounter between Jacques de Lalain and an English knight in 1448, does Oliver specify a taillant, that is an axe head with a cutting edge: and it is, I think, significant that another account of the same combat similarly makes special reference to this feature.9 Olivier frequently mentions the use of the hammer-head (maillet or mail); and, much less often, to strokes with the curved fluke (bec de faucon); while he also speaks ambiguously of the head of the axe (la teste). References to thrusts with the top spike (dague dessus or point de dessus) are common, though less so than thrusts, blows or parries with the butt-end of the axe (bout d'embas, queue, dague d'embas, dague dessoubz, and point d'embas); and there is one enigmatic allusion to the mail de la dague which I cannot understand.10
The author of Le Jeu offers a more consistent terminology for the axe of the latter half of the fifteenth century; and it is noteworthy that, at no point in his treatise, is there mention of a taillant or cutting edge. Instead, the head of the weapon has a hammer (mail) balanced by a curved fluke (bec de faucon), and surmounted at the top of the haft with a dague. The intersection of the head and haft is referred to as la croix which, in turn, is sometimes distinguished from la croisee which I take to mean the transverse spikes. The lower end of the haft is, with very few exceptions, indicated by the word queue; and the term demy hache is used to specify the centre of the haft between the two hands, especially when the axe is held and used like a quarter-staff.11 There are several references to the gros bout [28, 46, 50, 52, 64, 65] which seems to indicate the butt of the axe considered passively as that part of the haft which is being held - as distinct from the queue which is always used actively.
These features do not constitute an axe n the modern sense of the word but rather form what is often termed a 'pole-hammer' or 'bec de faucon'. On the other hand, 'la hache' in Le Jeu is essentially the same weapon as that described as '1'Azza' in the text of Fiore dei Liberi, as 'der axst' in the 1467 version of Talhoffer's Fectbuch and as 'aza vel tricuspis' in Pietro Monte's treatise.12 The only differences are that the illustrations in Fiore show a spike at the bottom of the haft (pls. xxxva-c), which is also described by Monte, but is never mentioned in Le Jeu; while Talhoffer, who rarely shows a point at the lower end of the haft, depicts a straight spike opposite the hammerhead instead of a curved bec de faucon (pls. XXXVI-XXXIX). It is also noticeable that Le Jeu never refers to rondelles which are also absent from Fiore and Talhoffer and from the axe illustrations in Kaiser Maximilian's Freydal and in a meticulously drawn, early sixteenth-century manuscript version of Monstrelet's chronicle in the Bibliothèque Nationale (pls. XXXIVb, c): though they do feature in other pictures of axe combats.13
It is evident that both the style and dimensions of the polaxe were matters of individual taste; and our knowledge of the normal length of these weapons is limited both by the exiguousness and ambiguity of early documentary evidence, and by the fact that so few axes survive with their original haft.14Le Jeu does not mention the length of the weapons to be used: though Pietro Monte, in 1509, specifically states that the axe, up to its hammer-head, should be 'one hand' longer than the height of the man using it.15 If to this is added the length of the dague, then something well over six feet would have been quite common, while an overall length of nearly eight feet would not seem out of the way for an exceptionally tall man such as Henry VIII.16In 1627, Pistofilo descries the gimcrack axes of his own day, with the martello made of wood but painted like gold, silver or shining steel, 'so that it should more closely approximate to reality'.17 He says that the haft should be 'tre braccia' in length - which is the height of a 'giusto Cavaliere' - but subsequently records with approval that it has become normal in his own time to use an axe four 'braccia' in length, which he considers to be both better in appearance and more effective in combat.18 Certainly some illustrations, including those in Fiore, Talhoffer, and Freydal, tend to confirm that polaxes were generally about the length of the knight wielding them. But there was no regularity about this, and some illustrations suggest lengths intermediate between this and the much shorter one handed axe or hatchet.
Though visually impressive, polaxes do not feel especially effective in the hand; and it is difficult to resist the impression that they were designed principally for showy fighting within the lists: a view borne out by accounts of fifteenth century combats where knights battered each other unmercifully, denting, puncturing and even knocking bits off each other's armour, and yet eventually emerged unscathed and often not even out of breath.19 This suggests that armour was very efficient, but that axes were not.20 Things would undoubtedly have been different had the fights taken place without defensive armour, as depicted in the 1467 version of Talhoffer's treatise. But this kind of battling in doublet and hose is not recorded by any of the chroniclers; and it is interesting to note that the earlier version of Talhoffer of 1443, has the combatants in full armour (pl. XXXVIa, b). Similarly, had knights been allowed to fight to a finish, it would have been easy for the less exhausted warrior to polish off his opponent either with axe or, as in the romance, Curial and Guelfa, with a dagger thrust through the eye.21 But in fact, for an active, skilful knight in armour, axe combat within the lists, with the number of strokes limited by the terms of the challenge, would have been rather akin to quarter-staff play between well padded adversaries - an energetic and bruising exercise, yet with only moderate danger to life and limb.22
This combat took place at Greenwich in October 1510. See Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illusive Families of Lancastre and Yorke, H. Ellis, (ed.), (London, 1809), 515. As my friend Claude Blair has pointed out to me, the Danish axe had certainly been much used in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman warfare. But Spenser would have known even less about that than about axe play in tournaments.
Olivier de la Marche's Memoires were available in printed editions of 1562, 1566 and 1567. Also available in print (theoretically at least) was the excellent analytical discussion of axe combat in Pietro Monte, Exercitiorum atque artis militaris collectanea (Milan, 1509), Lib. I, caps. i, xii; Lib. II, caps. x-xiii. I discuss this text more fully in my article, 'The man who taught Leonardo darts: Pietro Monte and his "lost" fencing book', Antiq. J. 69 (1989) 261-278. There are also sections on axe combat in Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco, Flos duellatorum in armis, sine armis, equester, pedester, Francesco Novati (ed.) as Il fior di barraglia (Bergamo, 1902), 171-3; and in the 1443 and 1467 versions of theFechtbuch of Talhoffer for whom I have consulted the edition by Gustav Hergsell, Livre d'escrime de Talhoffer (Prague, 1901) I, 25-7, and pls. 79-103; III, pls. 76-81.
See Le Jeu . Nor is this blow favoured by Monte. But it does, of course, occur from time to time in accounts of fighting. See, for example, the Chronique de Jean Le Fiore Seigneur de Saint Remy, F. Morand (ed.), Société de l'histoire de France, 2 vols. (Paris, 1876-81), I, 207: 'en frappant des haches I'un sur l'autre, de hault en bas et sans pousser, de si grand force et puissance que, à la vérité, il sembloit qu'ilz deuissent fendre les bachinés'.
For a concise, well illustrated account, one may still turn to Guy Francis Laking, A Record of European Armour and Arms through Seven Centuries, 5 vols. (London, 1920), III, 87-104. There are useful indications in Charles Buttin, 'La hache d'armes', Revue de la Société des Armis du Musée de l'Armée59 (1956), 45-54; Marti de Riquer, L'Arnes del cavalier, Armes I armadures catalanes medievals(Barcelona, 1968), 156-8; and in David H. Caldwell, 'Some notes on Scottish axes and long shafted weapons', in David H. Caldwell (ed.), Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800, (Edinburg, 1981), 253-314. Mario Troso, Le armi in asta delle fanterie Europec (1000-1500) (Novara, 1988) refers to several polaxes, but does not discuss them systematically.
There is a reference to the 'dague et la virole de dessous' in the Chronicque du bon chevalier Messire Jacques de Lalain, lxxii, in J. A. C. Buchon, Choix de Chroniques et Mémoirés (Paris,1842), 6840. Pietro Monte specifically refers to a point at the bottom end of the haft. See below, note 12.
I must thank my friend, A. V. B. Norman, for drawing my attention to this feature which I had quite failed to notice. He also reminded me of the superb illustration of an axe with both rondelle and leather ring in British Library, Harleian MS 4826, fol. 1*. This has been well reproduced in Derek Pearsall,John Lydgate (London, 1970), opp. 166.
The Munich axe is reproduced in Laking, op. cit. (note 4), III, fig. 888. Two such rings, one just below the languets and the other about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the haft, feature on the axes in illustrations for Anthoine de la Sale's Le perir Jehan de Sointré, British Library, Cortonian MS Nero D.IX, fols. 46r, 103r, A. V. B. Norman has pointed out to me that one of the combatants in the latter illustration is wearing an armour fitted with an arrét de cuirasse, and has raised the possibility that leather ring might have served much as the arrét de lance. The idea is interesting: but - on the basis of the weight and balance of poleaxes in general - it seems unlikely. Nor have I come across any corroborative evidence for this kind of use of the axe; and certainly there is nothing in the relevant chapter of Le petit Jehan to support the hypothesis. I am inclined to think that the feature is the illustrator's idiosyncracy - that it is his way of showing that the warrior in question (a worldly abbot) is wearing a borrowed suit of armour.
Olivier de la Marche, Lib. I, cap. xxi, uses the term baton several times in his long account of the feats of arms undertaken by Lalain in 1450.
Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires, J. F. Michaud and J. J. F. Poujoulat (eds.), (Paris, 1837), 4243: 'Messire Jaques fit presenter une longue hache, à poinete dessus, et d'une costé un bec, qu'on dir de faucon, et de l'autre un mail rond, à trois pointes de diamond: et, au dessous de la hache, une bonne forte dague. et l'hache de l'Anglois fut une forte hache, pointue dessous, et un grand taillant, d'un costé, et de l'surre un long mail: et plus bas avoit rondelle, pour la garde de la main: et dessous fut pointue d'une courte dague'. The English knight's axe is also described in the Chronieque du Lalain, op. cit. (note 5), 668a: 'er étoit celle hache à taillant et à martel et à longue et large dague devant: si étoir le taillant d'icelle hache long et aigu'.
Olivier de la Marche, op. cit. (note 9), 431b.
Demy hache is distinct from the milieu of the axe which is simply the middle of the haft regarded passively as, for example, something to hook at with the bec de faucon. See Le Jeu . The use of thedimidia asta vel aza is discussed by Monte, op. cit. (note 2), Lib. II, cap.xiii. But the term demy hacheis not used by the chroniclers and was probably a subtlety beyond their observation.
Fiore dei Liberi, op. cit. (note 2), 171-3; Talhoffer, op. cit. (note 2), pl. 79; Monte, op. cit.(note 2), Lib. I, cap. I, where he describes the weapon as follows: 'Aza vulgariter assumpta ferrum et lignum continet et sie inter arma inhastata intelligitur. In longitudine est oliquanto maior homine: In superiori parte se haber quodammodo ut martellus nisi quod superius fortem haber cuspidem et una pars martelli est obrusa: alia vero acuta. In inferiori parte que calx vocatur alia cuspis inest quoniam sepissime cum calce aze decertari debet'. It is curious that Saint Remy, op. cit. (note3), II 317-18, describing the combat between Charny and Merlo in 1435, distinguishes sharply between the bec de faucon and the axe: 'Nous avons veu que le chevalier, qui cy est venu, aporte ung becq de faucon, en lieu de hache, et vous scavez qu'ilz doivent combattre de haches; et nous semble qu'il y at grant différence'. And he goes on to say that as for this bec de faucon: 'ce que on n'a point veu ou royaume de France; car becq de faucon n'est mie hache, ains sont deux choses'.
The Monstrelet is Bibliothèque Nationale, MS français 20360, fol. 303v. See also the well known illustrations in the Hastings MS, reproduced in Viscount Dillon, 'On a MS Collection of Ordinances of Chivalry of the fifteenth century', Archaeologia 57 (1900), pls. VI, VII. Rondelles may be seen on a number of surviving polaxes, including the example at Munich referred to above (note 7). See also above, pls. XXXIIIa, d.
For some approximate contemporary dimensions, see Riquer, op. cit. (note 4).
Pietro Monte, op. cit. (note 2), Lib II, cap. xii: 'Aza sive tripuncta in longitudine usque ad martellum ex quantitie unius manus esse debet longior homine ipsam deportante'. Also cf. Monte's earlier description cited above (note 12).
The polaxe in the Royal Armouries Collection at the Tower of London, Inventory Number VII-1510, has an overall length of 93.5 inches: though there is, as far as I know, no documentary evidence to support the idea that it really was used by Henry VIII.
Bonaventura Pistofilo, Il Torneo (Bologna, 1627), 60: 'Il martello si fà di legno, e di competente grossezza in conformità dell'hasta, della quale parcið esso dourà esser alquanto più grosso. S'indora, ò s'inargenta, o si fà di color dell' acciaio ben lustro, e simili, accioche paia più conforme al vero'.
Ibid., 59, 247. The combats, in Pistofilo, are merely balletic posturings; and he especially recommends breaking the axe at the final blow - which is why the weapons should not be made of a wood 'molto forre' (Ibid., 257-8).
For a very convenient, if somewhat chaotic, summary of a number of fifteenth-century axe combats, see Viscount Dillon, 'Barriers and foot combats', Archaeol. J. 61 (1904), 267-308.
Philippe de Commines's story of the aftermath of the battle of Fornovo in 1495 - which has been cited by Ewart Oakeshott, European Weapons and Armour from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution (North Hollywood, Ca., 1980), 49, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the polaxe against men in armour - is not at all relevant. Commines specifically remarks that the knights were so well protected that they would not have been killed had they not been outnumbered by three or four to one. Moreover, their assailants were armed not with polaxes but with much more deadly axes for cutting wood - 'haches à couper boys' - with which they beat open the knights' visors and then smashed them about the head. Cf. c similar episode in the Chroniques of Wavrin, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS français 87, fol. 299v, where a mounted knight is being slain by four civilians - one armed with a dagger, the others with wood axes.
Curial and Guelfa translated from the Caralan by Pamela Waley (London, 1982), 25. This must have been a favorite Catalan practice for it also crops up in Joanot Martoreil's Tirant lo Blanc, caps. lx, lxxxii.
See R. G. Allanson-Winn and C. Phillipps-Wolley, Broad-sword and Single-stick. With chapters on Quarter-staff etc. (London, 1890), 4-17.