Archive for the ‘Dueling’ Category

by Christian Henry Tobler

This article amalgamates a series of three posts I made on social media, along with a new concluding section, addressing the various modes of safe attack in the Liechtenauer tradition of medieval combat.

Part 1: “Hit or Miss”

attacking1Hs. 3227a, otherwise known as the ‘Nuremberg Hausbuch’, contains an incomplete commentary on the verse treatise by Johannes Liechtenauer on the use of the longsword,
along with other martial arts material, and works on such wide-ranging matters as metallurgy, medicine, and astrology. Debate continues as to whether it is the earliest appearance of Liechtenauer’s martial art, and how early it is at all.

Regardless of its dating, the commentary offers a viewpoint on the art differing from those found in the other notable commentary works, arguably one more focused on principles than specific techniques. (It may represent a branch of the tradition; one student’s reading of it; etc.) One of these differences is the stress put on the idea of the Vorschlag (“first stroke”) – a concept not explicitly found elsewhere. Repeatedly, the anonymous author lauds the idea of seizing the initiative by ‘winning’ the first stroke – that is, being the first to attack, with a thrust or hewing stroke.

Opinion varies today as to whether this means that one should make a dedicated, deep attack, always intended to directly hit the opponent, or if the intent is to use the Vorschlag to bridge the gap between wide and close measure. My own opinion now is that, depending on the situation, the Vorschlag can accomplish either.

The commentary in 3227a tells us that one should ‘win’ or ‘gain’ the Vorschlag, and that this independent of whether one has “hit or miss”. After the Vorschlag has been won, one should then (regardless of whether they hit or miss) strike the “after stroke” – the Nachschlag. Now, surely this cannot mean that we would attempt to break wide measure only to outright miss both sword and opponent. More sensibly, it applies only to whether we have hit the opponent or not.

A key to understanding this lies in acknowledging that the management of measure is in the hands of both fighters, not just the attacker. The defender might remain on guard, or step forward (or backward), in response to the attack. With that, consider this scenario:

Fencers A and B close to wide measure, with A initiating an attack. Fencer A elects to close carefully from wide to close measure, using the initial attack – the Vorschlag – to safely bridge the distance while maintaining control of the center – the line of engagement. To this end Fencer A strikes such that their point is a constant threat to B, closing just enough to come into Langenort (“long point”) in front of B. Such a strategy is consistent with the precept, found in 3227a and many other places, that one “strike while approaching to his head or body, keeping your point before his face or chest.” This is all the more resonant, given 3227a’s praise of the sword’s point as the center of all swordsmanship. Such a strategy is touted even more strongly in the chapter on Sprechfenster (“Speaking Window”) as elucidated in the later commentaries.

Using this conservative entry paradigm, we can imagine three basic outcomes. In the first, Fencer B remains where they are, and Fencer A ends in the guard Langenort with the point before the opponent; A is now free to continue on in with a Nachschlag to strike B. In the second, Fencer B also steps forward, and now A’s stroke or thrust has sufficient reach to strike B in one tempo. In the third, B also steps forward, but parries A’s Vorschlag (but A can still now strike a Nachschlag).

So, even with a conservative entry strategy, making full use of the threat of the point, we might hit or miss. In all three scenarios above, you still ‘win’ the Vorschlag – you’ve struck first, put your opponent on the defensive, and…have closed distance safely, without being struck. Of course, option 3 is also the one that offers Fencer B a way to turn the tables and regain the initiative, by reacting in a way that not only parries (or, alternately, avoids the attack) but involves a counter attack; but the point, for our purposes here, is that the defender *must* react or be struck.

Now, reading the earlier parts of Hs. 3227a, it might be easy to conclude the above is the only safe way to bridge wide measure with the Vorschlag. Read further, however, and it becomes clear that there are other options for safe entry into the fight that involve more *direct* attacks – ironically performed by *indirect* entries.

In the chapter on the Twerhau (“Thwart Stroke”), the author sings its praises, telling the student explicitly to enter with that blow employed as a Vorschlag and to directly hit the opponent in the head, such that the blade “tightens around the head like a belt”. Experienced practitioners will find this an apt description of the way the Twerhau (elsewhere, including below, rendered as Zwerchhau) wraps around the victim’s head. Certainly, the description seems to assume an approach that allows for this to happen, even if the opponent remains on guard.

How is the ‘Twerhau as Vorschlag’ attack a safe entry? Well, unlike our ‘drive down the center’ scenario earlier, the Twerhau does not own or control the current centerline, but rather creates a *new* line of engagement due to its being executed with a deep step outward and forward to the right with the right foot. The angle of the attack requires much more committed action on the part of the defender. Further, the high line used by a Twerhau targeting the head grants it considerable reach. Of course, once again, Fencer B can still parry this attack (that is to say, Fencer A now ‘misses’), forcing A to continue on with the Nachschlag, often a Twerhau to B’s other side. In short, there are various ways to find safe ways into the fight; choosing a deceptive angle of attack is just one of them.

Winning the Vorschlag does not require “hitting the other guy”, but rather seizing the initiative, through various means, in a fashion that forces their reaction. Neither should this require an extremely powerful, fight-ending blow, but instead one just committed enough to force a response. That said, winning the Vorschlag doesn’t preclude hitting the opponent either – as we have seen, this is situational. What 3227a does stress is that ‘hit or miss’, the Nachschlag should always be struck immediately after the Vorschlag. The Vorschlag’s primary purpose is to seize the initiative and enter the fight, not kill the opponent in one tremendous decapitating blow. The assumption therefore is that it won’t be your last stroke, simply one that engages, perhaps wounds, and certainly draws a response.

All of this is, naturally, very simplified, but hopefully illustrative of the diverse ways one can employ the Vorschlag for safe and conservative entries into fights. Much goes into whether one hits or misses with an initial attack – time, measure, line, and the opponent’s intent and/or reaction. There is more than one way to win the Vorschlag, and with it one comes to the fight in relative safety, “hit or miss”.

Part 2: Using the Vorschlag to Break the Guards

attacking2In part 1 of my exploration of the Vorschlag, a fencing concept expressed in the German medieval manuscript Hs. 3227a, I opined that it could be employed in diverse ways, including simply gaining the center, or directly assaulting a target using an off-angle attack. I’d like to turn our attention now to four examples of using this concept – the Vier Versetzen (“Four Oppositions”), the four strokes of the sword used to ‘break’ Liechtenauer’s four primary guards for the longsword.

A deep reading of the commentaries reveals a layered set of plays designed for attacking opponents of varying skill levels. I will present this first succinctly, and then expand upon each in turn. In short, the first option for each stroke given to us by the masters is a single tempo, first intention attack. What follows are techniques for breaking a particular guard relying on second intention attacks. The former should work against less skilled opponents; the latter against the more highly-trained ones.

Before proceeding to particulars, let me remind the reader of which guard each stroke breaks, and how:

Krumphau (“Crooked Stroke”) breaks the guard Ochs, employing an attack across the line of engagement coupled with a deep outward step to strike the hands. The angle of attack creates safety.

Zwerchhau (“Thwart Stroke”) breaks the guard vom Tag, closing the guard’s high line of attack and also re-angling for safety using footwork per the Krumphau above.

Schielhau (“Squinting Stroke”) breaks Pflug by striking into the line against the opponent’s sword with the sword inverted, gaining contact with the blade and then flowing into a thrust into the chest. A modified version of this attack is also leveraged against the extended guard Langenort. Safety is created by directly addressing the opponent’s sword.

Scheitelhau (“Scalp Stroke”) breaks Alber by attacking along a high line, outreaching the lowered sword of the defender. Properly timed, it also deceives the defender into reacting too soon, and strikes the scalp line or face of the opponent. Safety is created through superior reach and by a trick of timing arising from driving the hands high to attack.

These are the ‘platonic ideal’ plays of the strokes used to break the guards. Of the three, only Schielhau explicitly makes contact with the sword before finalizing the attack. The remaining three go right for a target, using either angle of attack (Zwerchhau & Krumphau), and/or advantages in measure and timing (Scheitelhau) to directly do so; contact with the opponent’s sword may or may not occur.

These first intention attacks are less likely to succeed against a seasoned swordsman, particularly one trained within this system of fighting. Fortunately, we have alternative implementations of these four strokes, doubtless designed with trickier opponents in mind. The mindset behind these could be explained colloquially with the phrase “be careful, don’t go for broke on the first shot!” The following actions, explained in the glosses after the platonic ideal exemplars, rely on either a pre-planned second intention attack, or in the attacker being able to deftly respond (in the moment: Indes!) to the imminent failure of the already discussed first intention actions. That’s just fancy wording for this advice: “if they’re too smart and are on to you, shift gears. If they’re really smart, plan to do that from the get go”.

All of this should make better sense when we step through each of the strokes’ second intention attacks. I will proceed in Liechtenauer’s order, from Krumphau through Scheitelhau.

The Krumphau’s first intention attack upon the guard it breaks, Ochs, is to assail the hands. Should the attacker gauge his opponent to be too wily for such a stratagem, they might instead feint an attack to the hands and then, in second intention, fall short with the stroke to ‘change through’, that is, pass beneath, the defender’s blade and strike beneath it with thrust or cut. This might also occur if the attacker, keen on the first intention attack to the hands, and seeing the defender pull the hands back, then changes through beneath the defender’s Ochs.

To break vom Tag, the attacker can strike a Zwerchhau in first intention to the defender’s left side, drawing his fire. In second intention, the attacker can pull this attack short to strike around with a Zwerchhau to the opponent’s right side. Similarly to our situation above with the Krumphau, the attacker might do this in response to a committed parry from the defender. [Sidebar: It’s also worth noting that Lecküchner, in his Messerfechten treatise, describes the same actions for his Entrüsthau, the messer equivalent of the Zwerchhau; that the much-abbreviated (i.e., less likely to cut) back edge is used for the first intention attack is testament to the Vorschlag’s primary function: safe entry.]

The Schielhau can be used to attack Pflug in first intention by striking with the short, or back, edge to the defender’s blade, commuting the stroke to a thrust to the chest in an extended tempo. Fighting a more skilled defender, the attacker might strike such that they can readily change through below the opponent’s defending point, to thrust anew outside the defender’s sword. Again, this can be done pre-planned, or in response to the defender leaving their guard to parry.

The Scheitelhau break Alber by overreaching that low-lying guard. Knowing the defender is apt to raise their sword, likely into a position akin to the position called Kron (“Crown”), the attacker can, in second intention, either let their sword ‘rock’ over the defender’s weapon to the thrust to the face, or invert the sword upon contact to thrust down to the chest. Note here that a) the attacker has a choice of second intention actions, depending on the defender’s commitment, and b), the latter option works best as the ‘pre-planned’ choice.

In all the above examples, the second intention options follow after the ‘platonic ideal’ first intention ones. Fighting savvier opponents demands that one leverage more sophisticated options. Conversely, less sophisticated opponents should be attacked in first intention; dazzling them with compound attacks is likely to confuse them, increasing the likelihood of drawing an unpredictable reaction…and risking the dangers of a double kill. Also note – and this is important – that the second intention attacks are ‘shallower’; they seek less distant targets, incurring less risk against a more dangerous defender.

In Liechtenauerian lingo, we could say the second intention actions proper (those that are planned) are all Fehler (“Feints”), while the ‘unplanned’ application of those actions are done Indes (“During” or “Instantly”). In any case, all of these attacks are examples of Vorschlag, and Liechtenauer’s treatise is laid out, quite purposefully, to ensure that we are trained to seize the initiative with not only courage, but foresight.

And speaking of foresight…

Part 3: Nachreisen and Vorschlag

Chasing is diverse and manifold, and should be done with striking and thrusting with great foresight against combatants who strike free and long strokes, and will really observe nothing of the true art of the sword. – The ‘Von Danzig’ Fechtbuch

attacking3The Liechtenauerian term Nachreisen translates into English as “chasing”, “pursuing”, or, more literally, “traveling after”. It is mentioned early in the glosses of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for the longsword and later merits its own chapter. Nachreisen describes methods for exploiting opportunities offered by the opponent’s management (or mismanagement) of timing and/or measure.

Nachreisen manifests in two basic forms. One form involves pursuing the opponent when they miss and attack. If your opponent strikes at you with extension, but you don’t let them connect, you can strike them with relative impunity as their blow goes by. The miss is an opportunity.

Of course, the opponent may react in time as you strike toward them, parrying your timed counterattack. One then continues to follow the opponent’s actions, but now in contact with their sword.

It is the other form that is pertinent to this article. In this case, you attack into the opponent’s preparation. If the opponent pulls the sword back to charge a blow – a thrust or strike – you follow them and hit them as they are moving away from you. These are opportunities for performing a Vorschlag; that is, to seize the initiative and strike first. Strangely, this important aspect of
Nachreisen is only explicitly described in the ‘Ringeck’ gloss:

This means that you should learn Chasing well, which is twofold. The first do when he wants to strike to you; then note when he jerks the sword up for the stroke, then follow after him with a stroke or thrust to the upper opening before he can come against you with his stroke. Or, fall with the long edge above to his arms and thereby press him from you.

The use of Nachreisen as a preemptive method is only alluded to in the closely-related glosses found in the “von Danzig”, “Lew”, and “Speyer” Fechtbücher. This appears in the heading on the Four Openings:

First you should seek them from the Zufechten with the Chasing [Nachreisen], and by shooting into the Langort [Longpoint].

However, just how and when one employs Nachreisen in this capacity is left open. We’re therefore fortunate in having Ringeck’s comments.

Following an opponent’s retracting movements needn’t involve them charging a stroke. They might also pull back to prepare a thrust, or move from a guard that closes a line, such as Ochs or Pflug, to an open guard like vom Tag or Alber. Each of these cases lessens the threat from the opponent’s point by retraction of the blade or its being angled out of presence. Removal of threat is a de facto dropping of defenses and therefore an opportunity for attack.

Nachreisen facilitates either of the Vorschlag strategies discussed in Part 1. That is, you can either make a shallow attack to gain the center or drive a deeper, more committed, attack, with even greater safety if you exploit retreating motion on the part of your opponent.

This principle also informs the guard-breaking strategies described in Part 2. Exploiting wasted movement as an opponent forms/changes guards adds another level of surety and safety on entering the fight.

Hence, Nachreisen is a powerful tool in seizing the initiative…in striking the Vorschlag. Its applications, described in the mid-point of Liechtenauer’s treatise, are, as the ‘Von Danzig’ commentaries have it, “diverse and manifold”.

Last Thoughts: Universal Strategies

We should not be surprised to find these strategies in Liechtenauer’s teachings, elucidating various attack strategies. Writings by later Italian masters of fence are still more succinct, and yet accord with all I have put forth above. Giovanni dall’Agocchie, writing in 1572, defined five tempi (times) for striking the opponent. I list these here (with thanks to Tom Leoni), along with correspondences found earlier in this article.

  • After parrying the opponent’s attack (Zornhau-Ort; breaking guards in second intention)
  • After the opponent’s attack has fallen harmless out of your presence (Nachreisen, used after your opponent misses)
  • When he lifts his hand to strike you (Nachreisen into his preparation)
  • When he changes guards without reason, and before he stops in the next (Nachreisen, again)
  • While he lifts his front foot, or passes forward (Vorschlag to control the center…hit or miss)

Nicoletto Giganti adds another, also easily understood through the lens of Liechtenauer’s art: you can attack when your opponent waits too long in a guard. Here, one may very safely attack into the center, the opponent’s reaction time protracted by their relaxation into stillness.

The Liechtenauer masters’ modes of attack are not novel. Rather, they represent manifestations of universal fencing laws, well understood across the centuries.

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DSC_0230NB: Although reconstructed European martial traditions, or “HEMA” receive the most attention, there are still a number of living, European fighting arts that continue to be passed on, master to student, as they have for generations. Some of these, such as French savate and la canne, are relatively well-known, others, such as jogo do pau (Portuguese stick-fighting) have been virtually unknown outside of their own country until recent years.

 Italy, particularly the more conservative south, is a treasure trove of old fighting traditions, that over the centuries have been practiced by everything from shepherds to mafiosi!  Maestro Roberto Laura is an inheritor of several of these traditions and a long-time researcher into their methodology, mythology and verifiable history. In Sword of the People he tries to sort fact from fantasy, legend from history while presenting the depth, breadth and beauty of Italian fighting arts.

Currently being translated from its German original, and available in 2017, we are pleased to present this first sneak-peak at this unique and beautiful book.




For this endeavor, it must be noted that the knife was not considered a traitorous weapon, but as the ‘Sword of the People’ throughout the entirety of southern Italy, starting with the rural area outside of Rome.

Corrado Tommasi-Crudeli,

La Sicilia nel 1871, Florence, 1871

This book introduces readers to the path of traditional Italian knife and stick fencing schools, with the hope to thereby contribute to their conservation. It does not presume to be complete, but rather to lay a cornerstone for others to build upon.

But how should the history of the Southern Italian knife be told? For the uninitiated, these old arts were largely hidden. It is a history of secrecy, of omertà. A blending of blood-oaths, covenants and fear of reprisal combined with pride in belonging to a secret and chivalrous society, created a culture that to sought to prevent the secrets of the blade – as well as the shepherd’s stick – from falling to the ears of outsiders. This fear of exposure, when combined with the widespread illiteracy in the lower peasant classes and urban sub-proletariat of 19th century Italy, created a purely oral tradition.

Thus my research for this book began in the dark. At first it was shaped predominantly by speculation and assumptions. Over the years, I engaged not only physically but also mentally and literarily with this sub-culture of the land of my birth. I read a lot of secondary literature on the history, art and culture of southern Italy; books that at first glance seem to have little to do with the subject of the knife.

To understand any complex, incompletely understood and orally communicated area of study it is important to appreciate its essence, especially its relationship to history and culture. Only then can a judgment be made that differentiates between whether a given piece of information is likely true, or possibly not. This desire to truly understand forced me to pursue lines of inquiry that were often little more than indistinct traces or rumors. Rather than producing frustration, the mysterious nature of the search for these truths was and remains an important part of the appeal of this work. The lack of a written record around this oral tradition meant that no other approach was possible. Over the course of this uncertain journey I met both true masters, as well as those that merely assumed the title. Many provided valuable information and perspectives. With some I studied briefly, while with others I still study as I write this.

Both the true masters of this tradition, as well as the researchers who dedicate themselves to its study are critical links between the past and the present. This research opens for us all not only a world of historical Italian tradition and culture but an exploration of our own contemporary values and perceptions. Today, despite many years of effort and publication by numerous researchers Italy remains largely unappreciated and ill-understood in the sphere of martial arts.

My aim is to introduce you, the reader to this rich but currently still largely unknown tradition. This book presents not merely principles, techniques, tactics and patterns of movement, but outlines key historical factors and cultural aspects of traditional Italian fencing. As a result of this broader mission, you will find this book not laden with images of techniques, as is the case with many martial arts treatises. Instead, the broader context of these complex orally-transmitted Italian traditions is front and centre.

Without a fundamental understanding of the historical background of an epoch — its culture, traditions and the mentality of the respective population — a martial art becomes soulless; a pure instrument of death, a system of mechanics, effective, perhaps, but dead as an art. Italian martial arts are far more than mere fencing: They captivate with expressiveness and elegance, with rhythm and cultural depth. Their culture and spirit are shaped by an urban versus a rural outlook. They are partially inspired by religion, and arise from legends and myths around soldiering and chivalry. Further, the crime syndicates of southern Italy — la mafia, camorra, etc. — who maintained a mythology of being one part chivalric champions, one part criminal,  one part anarchists, also influenced them. I do not believe that deep passion for a martial cart can truly develop without at least some cognizance of its rich cultural origin and context.


Chapter 1-1.4

Chapter 1

Traditional Italian Knife Fighting

An Introduction

The gods did not reveal everything to man from the start,

but in time, through seeking, we may learn and know things better.

Xenophanes of Colophon


1.1          Preamble

Prior to delving into the history and culture of Southern Italy’s knife traditions, in this first chapter, I describe how I arrived at my ”personal interpretation” of the tradition. It will describe not only the journey, but also the thoughts driving it. However, the path alone is not the goal. Because the actual goal within European fencing traditions was and is to simply strike without being struck yourself, as well as the development of a personal style. Therefore I will voice some thoughts on what, in my opinion, one should pay attention to in order to avoid being too easily lethally struck. Of course, implementation  and realization is not possible overnight, and my personal research on the subject will never really be concluded.

It is difficult to foresee how something, or oneself will develop over time. Thus, my early beginnings in the art of knife fencing were extremely interesting and exciting, but also somewhat obscure. The following therefore describes my development within the Italian tradition and contains several conclusions regarding the technique, tactics and ethics of knife fighting.

It is also my aim to show that the Italian way of “commoner fencing” is more than a mere collection of techniques and tactics/strategies. These traditions not only have value as a means of defense, they also have athletic merit. Beyond that, however, they also have value as a highly cultural art form with a great degree of sophistication that is certainly comparable to the art of dancing. But most of all, these traditions are living embodiments of the philosophy of an earlier time.


1.2          TIKF – An Attempt at a Definition

DSC_0345Traditional Italian Knife Fighting (TIKF) is an umbrella term of my devising, but it is also the path to an individual fencing identity. It is impossible for me to limit myself to one school by name, since I have passed through schools of numerous regions and teachers/instructors. Sometimes these schools are so similar, nearly identical, that it only the teacher’s expression of the art, or the spirit of how it is taught that is different. I have trained in several schools like this, and it would be impossible to say that I study this one lineage or another as my official moniker, because the other schools would then lack the respect they are due. Most schools of the South did not have a formal name anyway; one merely spoke of “knife and stick” or rather of the “school of the thrust and the cut” (scuola di punta e taglio) or generally of fighting with a knife, scherma di coltello.

Finally,  it seems advantageous to me to use a name that today can be understood universally/internationally. The overall tradition is not derogated thereby since the principles, techniques and tactics of the individual systems and schools within my TIKF curriculum certainly keep their handed-down didactics and their traditional name.

My interpretation of the traditions does not concern only their technical implementation, but also their didactical, tactical-analytical and philosophical paths. Moreover I do not claim that my school is better than other traditions or systems. Traditional Italian Knife Fighting is, viewed technically and fundamentally, a synthesis of the traditions described in this book, but it is much more than that. It is an invitation to doubt constructively, to analyze using your own intellect/mind/head. And therefore TIKF is not a hybrid system, selecting out what I consider the best techniques and tactics. On the contrary, TIKF teaches all traditional schools it encompasses with the goal of having the respective student internalize, adapt and express it to his size, abilities, temperament, etc.

The advantage of this approach is that, as soon as a practitioner achieves the necessary fencing ability, or rather, when he has mentally and physically absorbed the closed system of a tradition, can continually adapt the school to his requirements. Thus he can, as the case may be, improve it. Traditions maintain a core method, philosophy and approach, but they also adapt, refine and test themselves, or else, they become a fossil. In the long run the student should not have to content himself with my choices, instead he should, assuming he wishes it, be able to develop himself freely.

Here is an example of modern adaptation in the service of preserving a traditions’ martiality. A student should train without fear of needless pain and injury. Especially in the beginning, students discover that constant pain can contribute to an inability to act freely, constantly fearing that further pain is inflicted. Based on these concerns I asked Hendrik Röber from Trinity Combat Gear to design padded dueling knives, a padded variation of the traditional wooden practice knives that are used in the South of Italy. Once technical safety has been achieved, you then can confidently go back to wood, and the occasional pain teaches, rather than inhibits. These training aids are outstanding, especially for actions directed at the weapon-bearing arm that require a great deal of practice.

Many years have passed since my initial forays on this topic, since the start of this passion and this research. I met many teachers, saw different approaches and interpretations, heard multiple stories. All these teachers (in the course of this chapter I will only name those who still influence my school or those whom I still work), as well as all my long-term students have supported me on this fencing journey. They helped me to recognize both the correct the wrong steps and how to better differentiate between the two. Above all however – and that sounds almost absurd – my journey to the Southern Italian knife schools started not in Southern Italy, the traditional home of these arts, but rather in the North of the bel paese.


1.3          An Excursion Into the Past

In actual fact I did not really start down this path alone. At the start, we were a small group of conspiring German enthusiasts, but because I spoke the language, I was the one who undertook most of the initial travel. My initial companions provided me with analytical, financial and moral support (because it was not always easy to find teachers, convince them to teach, or navigate old rivalries or cultural conflicts of which I was unaware). My colleagues and I met up after each trip to go over the knowledge I had gained, analyze the techniques and record it. Many of those companions who supported me with word and deed and sometimes accompanied me on my travels are still with me today.


1.3.1       First Steps

 “Each beginning is imbued with magic…!”

Hermann Hesse

The first trip in 2001 took me to the Province of Ravenna, where I received instruction by Antonio Merendoni, one of the first  modern researchers on the Italian tradition, and the first who recorded these arts in writing and on film. He wrote L’arte italiana del maneggio delle lame corte, dal 1350 al 1943. Storia e tecnica (The Italian art of the short blade from 1350 to 1943. History and Technique). This first teacher introduced me to the general principles, of both military and civilian knife and stick fighting. From him I received my first teaching diploma for Italian knife and stick fighting in December 2002.

Based on his lessons I changed my perspective away from the cut, for example, as is taught in many Filipino and modern styles, to focus on the thrust. He also taught me the need for well-thought-out/deliberate guards (fencing positions). Ultimately, Merendoni changed my perspective in regards to the required scope and structure of a system: he guided me away from a technical to a methodical-tactical orientation. Somehow those years had something romantic about them. We were pioneers, virtually plowing along on our own.


1.3.2       Genoa, Liguria

In 2006, my next stop was Genovese stick and knife fight, the bastone genovese. I was taught by Claudio Parodi, the last remaining Maestro of that tradition, and author of the book Bastone genovese, coltello e gambetto. I, too, am now a licensed a teacher of this art. The tradition from Genoa was important to me because I was born not far from there, and it was therefore an art from the land of my ancestors. Consequently, my mentor in that tradition was also the first real traditional fencing teacher who taught me. Didactically, however, there was no appreciable difference between my initial experiences in Ravenna and this tradition from Genoa. Both teachers structured their lessons in a similar manner and with a consistency, logic and simplicity that had been unknown to me until then.


1.3.3       Manfredonia, Apulia

Maestro Salvatore D’Ascanio

That same year the opportunity arose to study the Apulian fencing school of knife and stick from Manfredonia. This South-Italian tradition, does not actually have a specific name, but is called by some the School of the Knights of Humility Cavalieri di Umilita) and by others Fioretto (foil), was my introduction to the secretive and also more complex methodology and didactics of the southern traditions. In regards to the Manfredonian school, I was able to gain experience with diverse instructors, and experienced different interpretations of a single art, revealing a more differentiated picture of what was the core of the art, and what was individual preference. I built my foundation by training with a small group of conspiratorial enthusiasts. After that, I went to one of the traditional knife families still residing in Manfredonia today, where I received further instruction. This branch is based on the teachings of the deceased Maestro U Sardun.

Here I would like to pay homage to Maestro Salvatore D’Ascanio, who had enormous influence on my development in the techniques of this tradition. Maestro D’Ascanio improved my dynamics, and taught me how to differentiate the core elements (mechanical and aesthetic) of this school from surface differences. Simply put, he was the one who conclusively decoded the subtleties of the Manfredonian tradition in its entirety for me (see Chapter 6), even though we will see that this branch deviates somewhat from the previous ones in technique, didactics and terminology. And this is an important lesson as well: sometimes what seems like a branch is closer to the roots of a tradition than its trunk.


1.3.4 Sicily and the A.S.A.M.I.R.

Maestro Orazio Barbagallo, ASAMIR

A few years later, the chance arose to learn the Sicilian fencing schools of the knife and stick within the ASAMIR. Initially, I received instruction in the shepherd’s stick of the Scuola Fiorata (“Flowery School”) from Calatabiano. This caused me to question my view of a “proper cover”. Maestro Orazio Barbagallo, founder of ASAMIR and my mentor in regards to Sicilian culture, was an excellent source for the old tradition of the Scuola Ruotata (“Circling School”) from Riposto. He was the first person to open the door to the Sicilian schools, and to this day he is my teacher in the traditional Circling School of the shepherd’s stick, as he learned it from the Maestro degli Maestri (“Master of Masters” or grandmaster), U Scapellinu. Thanks to him, I was able to get to the roots of this tradition, as he put me in contact with Maestro Salvatore Scarcella, an icon of the Corto Ruotato Tradizionale from Riposto (Circling Knife School, see Chapter 7). Maestro Scarcella is a teacher who, with a single movement of his armed hand, can demonstrate at exactly the right moment how and why your actions were ineffective. He was the first who showed me that a simple thrust is more than it appears. It is due to him that I became familiar with the true Sicilian knife. Maestro Scarcella has six decades of fencing experience and clearly demonstrates that.


DSC_02401.3.5       Canosa, Apulia

Almost parallel to my Sicilian training I began learning the peasant tradition of defense with knife and stick, the system of heaven and marvels, Cielo e Meraviglia, from Canosa in Apulia. I trained with one of the few remaining masters of this art (see Chapter 8). He made accessible to me this system of close-quarter combat with the knife, which appears lost, or rather less trusted and emphasized, in the fencing schools focused on dueling conventions. This special form of “wrestling with a knife” exhibits some clear connections to medieval dagger fencing, illustrating the technically close relationship with European fencing masters from centuries long passed. Therefore, the many system-specific, close-quarter combat bindings improved my ability to quickly turn a conflict from defense into offense without having to act from wide measure.



1.4          The Pillars of the Structure

Litografia_di_Bartolomeo_PinelliAs we will see, every fencing school focused on knife dueling uses the same progression: First you learn the school (scuola), the basic movements, in strictly set lessons, also called “figures” or “thrusts” (lezione, figure, puntate). Depending on the tradition, these individual lessons sometimes develop into extended solo forms. This is followed by the “schooling” or “instruction” (insegnamento), where the basic solo movements are now practiced with a partner. The insegnamento also includes, tactics, tricks as and use of the strategic use of the various fencing guards. This traditional procedure has, of course, been adopted in TIKF and is part of how we insure the core spirit and method of the art is preserved.

In addition, instruction in my school consists of the ”didactic trinity”: Play, Defense and Attack (trinità diddattica: gioco, difesa e attacco; but this is a neologism, not a traditional term). First, the student learns the system-specific “play of the figures”, which consist of the basic movements necessary for changing positions. Then follows the specific defenses with the blade and the empty hand from the “play of the figures”. After that, the student is introduced to the various basic attacks and tricks that also occur out of “walking the circle”. The last step connects the three key points – play, defense and attack – so that one flows into the next, or rather, so that there is no longer a clear dividing line: A defense becomes an attack, just like an attack becomes a defense; a circular or spiraling movement is used for defense and attack, and the  attacks and defenses are applications forms of the circular walking.

However, this goal can only be reached through simplification and pragmatism. Here I follow a guideline from Nietzsche, which he expressed as follows in his Anti-Christ:

“The formula for happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.”

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Alphabet - Publisher blogs are often used to spotlight books and media projects, and ours is no exception. However, today we’re not talking about a Freelance Academy project, but rather something too beautiful not to draw your attention to: Dimicator – Medieval Swordplay, the new, lavishly illustrated e-journal by respected swordsman and artist, Roland Warzecha.

There has been nothing like Dimicator for practitioners of historical European martial arts – a recurring, visual instructional guide that makes use of both old-school and cutting edge technology to immerse the reader in the world of medieval swordsmanship. We spoke to Roland to ask him about this project, how it compares to his work in creating a training DVD, and where he sees the ejournal going over the next couple of years.

1. For months now, you’ve been teasing audiences on Facebook with sneak peeks at “Dimicator”. Tell us what the Dimicator project is, and how you came to conceive of it.

For quite some time I had been looking for the right format to present the results of my years of research into medieval fighting arts and the associated weapons to a wider audience. I had considered a book or a website, but both would have required a lot of material to prepare before I could go public. A series of elaborate articles, in contrast, has the advantage that I could start publishing much sooner.

When I had decided to leave my old club to found my own school, it provided me with the chance to put all my ideas and concepts regarding teaching and training into practice. Because I had to find a new name and create a new corporate design, it also felt like the right moment to finally start publishing. So you are quite right to speak of Dimicator (which is medieval Latin for combatant) as a project. One brand which comprises my school, the website, the popular Facebook page, the Vimeo video site and now the e-book series.

2. You’ve become known in the larger HEMA community for your work with Manuscript I.33, our oldest-known, European fencing treatise, and Dimicator is also the name of the school you’ve created to study this work in depth. Is it fair to say that the electronic Dimicator then is a digital record of your I.33 curriculum?

Yes, I guess you could look at it this way. The content of the first as well as the up-coming second issue definitely reflects an important part of what we have been working on the past year. I have the luxury of exclusively training with experienced senior students who have up to 5 years of regular sword and buckler practice under their belts. They are all devoted students of the art and skilled fighters, who have what it takes to pressure-test any new idea that I may come up with. After all, we will never know for sure if our reconstruction of an extinct fighting system does indeed reflect historical reality. So constant peer review is a necessity and reconstructing sword and buckler combat will remain a work in progress. This is also why I feel that a series is an appropriate format for publishing my views.

3. The first issue is called: “Striking from Shield Shoulder”, and starts with understanding the handling characteristics of the sword. If a reader has never handled sword and buckler before, will following the issues of the magazine let them learn “from the ground up”?

Well, the foreword asks exactly the same question: Can you learn swordfighting from books? The historical sources say that, while you can very well explain combat by practically showing and demonstrating it, you can nowhere near as profoundly write about it – and then they proceed to do exactly that. Frankly, I would be astonished if anyone who has never undergone tuition in martial arts would master the manouvers described in Dimicator magazine, particularly when I consider how much time and effort it takes to teach a particular action to my students in the salle.

However, I know that I would have greatly benefitted from a publication like that if it had been available when I picked up sword and buckler after years of practice in traditional martial arts. So I am confident that my publications will be useful to students of buckler combat and spare them some of the dead ends and wrong turns that I took in past years. It is also my hope that lovers of swords and history as well as authors and even scholars, who are not actually considering to pick up martial arts, may get a better understanding of the complexity and refinement of medieval European swordsmanship.

4. You used a different form of media – DVD – to also teach students fundamentals of sword and buckler play in the instructional program “Sword and Shield” by Agilitas. How do you compare working on the two projects? How do you see them integrating – if at all – for bringing your ideas and methods of swordplay to a broader audience?

I am very grateful that Agilitas offered me the chance to create a DVD that provides basic instruction comprising universal body mechanics, fencing theory and tactics as well as a number of solo drills that I hope are useful for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. Video has the undeniable advantage that it conveys speed and flow of a particular physical action in a way that written text and illustration cannot. It instantly reveals if a researcher also is a competent practitioner. I have always used video to present my work to the public and, in fact, it were those video clips, edited and up-loaded by Tobias “Toke” Wenzel, which helped us to put our name onto the international HEMA map and ultimately lead to being invited to do the DVD.

I would say that a video sequence transports a lot more information than an illustrated one. But in a sense, this is also its drawback. If you look at a static image in a book, then the author has specificly chosen it because it best visualizes a particular detail. So pictures are more focused than a video sequence, in my opinion. I find it much easier to direct a reader’s attention to essential detail in a book. Also, he can take his own time to digest, other than with video. So both media have their strengths and definitely supplement each other. Contentwise, the e-book offers new insights that we have gained ever since the DVD was made, which is exactly why I chose to start with “Striking from Shield Shoulder”.

When I compare working on both DVD and Dimicator, my preference is clearly with the e-book series. It brings all my talents together to not only produce my very own fechtbuch but also create something beautiful. Plus, I am in complete control of every detail and have all technical means for its production at my disposal. I enjoy this independence.

5. The artwork in this first issue is breath-taking, and builds on the sort of art you used for the posters you designed for Freelance. But why traditional illustration over photography or 3-D illustration? Was the choice artistic or informational?

The decision to go for illustration was an easy one, after all, this is what I can do best. I am very pleased that my art work is well received and appreciated by readers. I think that in a world where everybody constantly sees and takes, manipulates and distributes photographs or video, the respect for these media is decreasing, regardless of quality. I would even go as far as to say that, because of CGI, they have generally lost credibility. It has become impossible to tell if something is fake or real and so we have developed an underlying sense of general scepticism when we are presented photo or film. In contrast, it is almost a relief to look at illustration. It never pretends to be something that it is not and is stimulating in a way that is hard to achieve with photography. This is also an advantage of traditional over 3-D illustration: I often find 3-D stunning at first, but quickly lose interest. Even tiniest detail is rendered and accurately finished which makes it sterile, in a sense, and ultimately boring to look at. At second sight, there is nothing left to discover.

As an author and instructor, illustration is better suited to direct my readers’ attention and make them focus on a particular detail. I find photos too distracting in this regard: Instead of paying attention to the actual issue, the reader may be occupied with irrelevant thoughts: What is this location? Where did she get that sword? Why didn’t he take off his glasses? Are these turn shoes hand-stitched? Looks like his bad hair day etc. – well, you know what I mean. Illustration, in contrast, makes it easy to invite the reader to take a fresh perspective and leave irrelevant real life oddities behind.

6. You’ve told me before that a part of your love for illustration was originally to be a comic book artist. In that industry there are often amazing artists, but their challenge is always production deadlines. How do you keep yourself “on track” with such an elaborate project, especially now that the “word is out”?

Hahaha, it remains to be seen if I will manage to stay on track. But I have made the plan to pursue this objective for at least two years (that would be 6 to 8 issues, I guess) before I evaluate its success and reception and decide, whether it pays to continue or not. I am usually quite good at realizing my plans, after all, I have worked freelance all my life, which definitely taught me work-discipline. But I honestly cannot wait to go back to work on the magazine, whenever there is a slot in between jobs and obligations. If I could afford it, I would be working on it constantly, it is just so much fun.

7. What advantages do you see to this e-journal format over a more traditional, bound edition?

I am not restricted by the constraints of print production, so I can publish any number of pages, be it 7 or 31. Costs are minimal so I can sell at a low price. I can publish instantly when I choose to and distribution is worldwide. I also get a lot of direct feedback from readers via email or Facebook which enables me to improve from issue to issue at a much quicker pace compared to traditional print publication.

8. As beautiful as issue one is, people are going to ask: “will I ever be able to get a print edition?”, so let me ask it for them. Will people see a print edition, eventually, or will they have to content themselves with their home laser printers?

I am an old school book lover and I believe in paper. It is sensual and it lasts. So yes, absolutely, there will be a printed edition as soon as I have collected enough material for a book. Currently I am thinking of a first volume to collect issues 1 – 4. I definitely want to see this book on my shelf – and everybody else’s!

9. Finally, the next most asked question: So what should we expect in the issues to come?

Issue #2 is already in the works and the instructional section will show how to enter a fight from Left Shoulder and which plays may eventually ensue from there. I decided to first cover general tactics, so I can put the more sophisticated I.33 approach into context. Future issues will also cover shield-striking, as well as facing a left-handed opponent. I guess I have enough material for years.

The second issue will also include a brief history of sword evolution from the Viking Age to the medieval period and point out combat requirements that brought about the respective changes in weapon design and swordsmanship. So Dimicator magazine is not only designed to provide instruction to practitioners of sword & buckler, but also to impart the results of my years of research into the early medieval period and its arms and martial arts which precede the fechtbücher and the weapons covered therein. After all, for millenia swordsmanship meant combat with sword and a shield, and I hope to be able to show up interesting links and developments that ultimately lead to the fighting arts we see in the fencing treatises, which only appeared at the close of the age of the sword.

I would be delighted if many readers would join me on this exciting journey into our past.

Dimicator: Medieval Swordplay is available via Amazon and will work on Kindle and various other e-reader platforms.

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Alphabet - Earlier this month, Freelance Academy Press had the pleasure of attending the  International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which went from Thursday, May 9th through Sunday May 12th. We had a booth in the exhibitor’s hall, and again received a fair bit of interest in our title roster, including our Deeds of Arms series, particularly the Combat of the Thirty volume, and Dr. Noel Fallow’s forthcoming entry on the Twelve of England.

However, the real highlight was that for the first time our press was a  co-sponsor of two sessions, entitled “Affairs of Arms”.

The first session was A Presentation of a Judical Duel, and that pretty much says it all. Freelance president and founder Gregory Mele presented a short paper on the history and customs of the judicial duel, before turning the floor over to a bit of interpretive history: a physical reconstruction and demonstration of a judicial duel at the turn of the 15th century.

The premise of the duel was a follows: c.1410, somewhere in northern Italy, a young, Italian squire, Giacomo Culla accuses an English knight of having been seen coming from the chambers of a well-known guildswoman “before morning mass”. The guildswoman, Natalia of Philadelphia was seen “with her hair loose and her bodice undone”, and the knight, had “marks of passion about his neck. Further complicating this claim is that both the squire and the knight are in the service of the lord, Sir Geoffrey Peel, an English adventurer (mercenary) in the Italian wars, and the knight’s wife, a native Italian woman, is currently pregnant, and so the squire claims outrage on the lady’s behalf.

It is not the charge of adultery, however, that precipitates the duel, however, but rather the knight’s claim that the squire Giacomo is a liar, and his demand that he recant his claims. This exchange of challenge and response, known as a Cartello, also outlienes the form of the duel.

Sex, scandal and political scheming – what more could one ask for?

The redoubtable Will McLean took Greg’s initial idea for the duel’s storyline and wedded it to a document from the Lord Hastings’ Ms, to create the final script for the duel, which can be read in its entirety on his “A Common Place Book” website.  In addition, our friend David Hoornstra caught the entire presentation on video, which he has graciously allowed us to post on our YouTube page:

A huge thanks to Annamaria Kovacs for presiding over the session and for all who participated in the presentation of the duel:

Jesse Kulla and Dave Farrell of the Chicago Swordplay Guild as Giacomo and Sir David, respectively;

Bob Charrette as Sir Geoffrey Peel, the presiding noble, attended by members of La Belle Compagnie ;

Will McLean took on the role of the Herald and Michael Cramer the Priest;

The accused Natalia of Philadelphia played by respected 14th century clothing scholar, Tasha Kelly of La Cotte Simple, fame, who had the misfortune of being left with “Schroedinger’s Virtue” due to the uncertain nature of the duel’s resolution. (Unsure of what we mean? Watch the video!)

Our second session, Wrestlers, Brawlers, Horse Archers, Oh My: Not-So-Knightly Arts of the Middle Ages was in the vein of last year’s presentation: a “paper” that was more of a physical demonstration of some aspect of martial culture.  In “Fiore dei Liberi’s Abrazare: Wrestling for War versus Wrestling for Love”, Keith Nelson demonstrated the unarmed combat at the heart of Fiore dei Liberi’s martial art of armizare, and how his various grips, throws and breaks differed from medieval sport wrestling. The presentation was well-received, but the “talk” of the session was Russ Mitchell’s “The Good, the Bad, the R5 and the Ugly: Non-Knightly Warfare and its Instruments”, in which Russ demonstrated the full war kit of the Hungarian medium cavalry – horse archers and swordsmen who uniquely merged eastern and western military traditions. This was a glimpse into one of the great financial and military powers of late Medieval Europe that goes all-but unnoticed  by Anglophone scholars, and attendees were impressed by Russ’s ability to speak extemporaneously and with great detail on his subject.

(Note: if you have any photos from this session, please let us know!)

Finally, during a DISTAFF session, our friends from La Belle Compagnie gave a tour-de-force presentation of how a knight was armed during the Hundred Years War, showing not just one such harness, but four from the 1330s, 1380s, 1415 and 1450! Best of all, the entire presentation was also caught on film!

In the end, our sessions were well-received, old friends were visited, new friends made, new publishing projects developed…and oh yes, we sold some books!

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A late-medieval sword duel from a contemporary image.

n the last few months, I have had a chance to deepen my understanding of judicial-dueling jurisprudence, especially as it developed in Italy in the era of Fiore de’ Liberi. I will post a few of my findings here, hoping that they will be of interest to the students of the subject.

Let us start from a reliable period definition of what a duel was as commonly understood in the fourteenth century, and how it differed from other kinds of physical and violent ways in which to settle disputes. According to law-historian Marco Cavina, we are on solid ground when looking for this definition in the writings of fourteenth-century jurist Giovanni da Legnano, who authored an influential treatise on the subject in the period that interests us.[1] Entitled Tractatus de Bello, de Represaliis et de Duello, Giovanni’s treatise defines the duel as “a deliberate physical fight between two, for purification, glory or augmentation of hatred.”[2] The author then specifies that those for glory and augmentation of hatred[3] fall outside the scope of duels as commonly understood at the time, leaving the third specie (gratia purgationis) as the only fitting subject for the rest of his treatise.[4] Giovanni describes this type of duel as one by which a person accused of a misdeed can, lacking preponderant evidence, purge or purify himself of the accusation by proving his case through physical strength (viribus corporeis), and traces the roots of this practice to Lombard law.[5] The duel emerges as a legal proceeding of sorts, between an accuser and a defendant, to unfold through actions of physical strength, and following the dictates of centuries-old jurisprudence.

More specifically, a judicial duel of honor is a type of duel in which the initial offense is to the honor of the offended rather than to his body or property. Historians classify it as distinct from the older duel as an ordeal. Dueling as an ordeal was a sub-specie of the Germanic ordeal (Urteil) with which officials interpreted failure or success in a predetermined physical endeavor as representing God’s judgment in legal disputes that could not be adjudicated through factual evidence.[6] Besides pertaining to cases about personal property, liberty or physical injuries rather than honor, dueling as an ordeal also differed from the duel of honor in another important sense: the litigants in the former fought almost always through professional surrogates called pugiles, while in the latter the accuser and defendant were normally the ones also entering the field of

Giovanni da Legnano, the jurist who authored an influential text on dueling law in the 14th century.

arms.[7] Although scholars disagree about whether Giovanni da Legnano’s definition pertains to the duel of honor,[8] they concur that this form of preordained single combat gradually replaces dueling as an ordeal between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries (as we will see later in more detail).[9]

Perhaps the earliest extant records of dueling to settle legal disputes are in the Lombard Edictum Rothari (AD 643), where it appears as a privilege of the higher class, the liberi. Between that time and the eleventh century, it remains an established juridical procedure in Italian common law for cases lacking material evidence, with the outcome (the judgment of God) having legal force. Dueling for honor comes into being and grows in importance when, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the bellicose values of the feudal knightly class gradually harmonize with the ethos of the nascent urban nobility, which emphasizes honor. In particular, Cavina theorizes that the chivalric code, centering on the cult of the oaths of fealty and of the value of a word given, would become the glue that holds together the aristocratic class. Accordingly, by the mid-1300s the judicial duel for the point of honor is so ingrained in the mores of the Italian nobility that jurist Giovanni da Legnano begins treating is as an institution of natural right (ius naturale).

Meanwhile, theologians and moralists gradually reject the idea of dueling—with the violent death that often comes as a result of this practice—being compatible with biblical and Christian doctrine, although this happens slowly and not without significant exceptions. For instance, there is the fact that an appropriate missa pro duello functions as one of the opening rites before combat, that clerics known to have taken part in duels are at times still allowed to celebrate mass, and that even Thomas Aquinas condones dueling in the Summa Theologica. Even in spite of these exceptions, the attitude of theologians remains one of increasing intolerance for dueling. Finally, dueling becomes the target of increasingly-frequent papal attention in the sixteenth century, until the council of Trent (ending in 1563) makes it categorically illegal under canon law, thereby turning it into an underground activity.

Stay tuned for more information about this fascinating topic, including first-hand accounts of duels in the time in question!

[1] Cavina, Marco, Il Duello Giudiziario per Punto d’Onore: Genesi, Apogeo e Crisi (Sec. XIV-XVI)(Turin: G. Giappichelli Editore, 2003), 63-70. Cavina states that Giovanni da Legnano completed the treatise in 1360 and that, based on the number of surviving commentaries, it was a highly influential work on the subject.

[2] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, de Represaliis et de Duello, ed. T. E. Holland (Washington: Oxford University Press, 1917), 175: “Duellum est pugna corporalis deliberata hinc inde duorum, ad purgationem, gloriam, vel odii exaggeratione.”

[3] These are, respectively, dueling in tournaments (or as public spectacles) and acts of private, premeditated aggression between two rivals, the latter including such ideas as the vendetta. See Cavina, Il Duello Giudiziario, 68.

[4] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, 183-184: “Et [duellum quod fit gratia purgationis] proprie et stricte ‘duellum’ apud vulgares nuncupatur.

[5] Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de Bello, 176. “cum aliquod crimen alicui imponitur, et ad probationem provocans forte carens aliis probationibus … offert se probaturum viribus corporeis, duello suscepto, et provocatus sic se purgat … et de hoc habetur etiam iure cautum … in Lombarda.”

[6] Cavina, Marco, Il Sangue dell’Onore (Rome: Editori Laterza, 2005), 8.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Cavina, Marco, Il Duello Giudiziario, 67.

[9] Cavina, Il Sangue dell’Onore, 17.

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