On armoured combat and Battle of the Nations

One of the activities which HEMA practitioners are likely to be exposed to is that of Historic Medieval Battles, or HMB for short, a sport in which people fight each other while wearing full plate armour. The most famous HMB event is Battle of the Nations, or BOTN, and some examples of BOTN matches can be seen here:

Battle of the Nations, 2013, 1 vs 1

Battle of the Nations, 2014, 5 vs 5

Battle of the Nations, 2013, 21 vs 21

As can be seen, this sport involves using the edges of swords and axes to strike armour-clad opponents, the goal being to strike them hard enough that they are knocked down. This type of approach is frequently criticised by HEMA practitioners, who often claim that armoured combat would only have involved the use of the half-sword to thrust at vulnerable targets not covered by armour, and that striking against a man in armour is not historically accurate. As can be seen in the videos above, plate armour is very effective at protecting the wearer from percussive strikes, so focusing on thrusting into areas not protected would seem to make a lot more sense than striking them.

However, it is worth pointing out even within medieval armoured combat treatises, while the thrust may be the more common attack, there are still examples of strikes done against armoured opponents, and therefore from the perspective of medieval fencing treatises, striking in armoured combat cannot be inherently wrong. Strikes are often used in pollaxe treatises for example.

MS Ludwig XV 13. Folio 37r.

MS Ludwig XV 13. Folio 37r.

Ms. KK5012. Folio 63r.

Ms. KK5012. Folio 63r.

Within German treatises, we see a strike being done with the cross of a longsword in the Mortschlag technique.

Cod.icon.394a. Folio 38r.

Cod.icon.394a. Folio 38r.

Additionally, Fiore dei Liberi even mentions what to do if you are in armour and your opponent strikes at you “with a blow of the edge”[1]. Fiore tells us that “I have not a care for your edges, for I know the art and I will give you the better part of my point”[2]. This tells us that Fiore did not believe using the edge of a sword against a man in armour was a good idea, however it also tells us that there were men who would use the edge of a sword against a man in armour. If no medieval warrior used the edge of a sword against a man in armour, Fiore would not have needed to include this information.

So within medieval combat treatises, certain strikes are recommended, while it is acknowledged that other strikes might also be used by an opponent.

It is of course also worth bearing in mind that not all combat done during the medieval era would have taken place according to the techniques recommended within a treatise, either because fighters had never studied one of these treatises, or studied under a master who had written one of the treatises, or because those techniques were simply not appropriate in their particular context.

Ringeck specifies that we should attack areas that are not protected by armour.

Then you must quickly recognise his openings. At first try and strike him in the face, but also in the armpits, in the palms of the hands, or in from behind the gloves, or in the knee pits, between the legs and on all the limbs, where the coat of mail joins inside. Because these are the best place in which to strike him.”[3]

However, stabbing someone in an unprotected area is clearly dangerous, and was not always appropriate. In a knightly melee, steps would often have been taken to prevent people from being stabbed and possibly killed. King René de Anjou’s Tournament Book for example specifies that the swords used “should be four fingers wide, so that it cannot pass through the eyeslot of the helm, and the two edges ought to be as wide as a finger’s thickness”[4]. The declaration of the Pas d’armes of the Golden Tree similarly mandates that swords should be “without points and rebated such as reasonably appertains to a noble and free tourney”[5]. Of course, not all knightly melees required that the swords used be without sharp edges or points, but it seems that many melees would have taken place with swords that were not able to thrust effectively.

Striking with the edge of the sword is specifically mentioned in Sir Philippe de Lalaing’s Pas d’armes of the Perron Phae, which incidentally also makes it clear that not all pas d’armes used special tournament swords for safety.

The second chapitre is such that we shall come together on horseback, each armed at his pleasure, in war saddles, without rests of advantage or malengin, and we shall only run one course with the lance without a tilt, with sharpened lanceheads. And then taking sharp-edged swords in hand, we shall fight either with the estoc or striking edge to the advantage of each until the accomplishment of thirty-seven sword strokes dealt by both of us.[6]

It would also seem that some of these strikes delivered would have been exceptionally powerful. The declaration of the Pas d’armes of the Golden Tree states that knights should strike “with all their arm’s strength”[7], and the strength that could be put into these blows is reinforced by the following passages. The blows that were being given were in fact hard enough to damage the fighter’s armour, and being able to sustain these extremely violent blows was seen as valiant.

my lord the Bastard who was on the fourcourse, if he had wanted, turned his horse’s head (without using his hands) towards his man and dealt him a stroke with his sword on the helm. It was so strong that afterwards it could be seen on Lord Scales’s helm, on the side of the visor that had been split, that it was three inches wide, and a grain of wheat could pass through the gap. By this stroke the sword was fractured in two places.[8]

As soon as “Whoa!” had been cried, my lord the Bastard had stopped, but not my lord Scales who, whilst in the hands of the guards, dealt him some [more] strokes, as a result of which my lord the Bastard was forced to deal him a such a powerful stroke with the axe-head to his head, and did so with such force that he was master of [the two of] them, who most valiantly showed themselves to have had the power to have well sustained [the fight]. It appeared too in my lord Scales’s coat armour which was torn in several places. And my lord the Bastard had, in particular, the third lame of his harness at the bottom broken right away.[9]

The following blog article contains an account of a knightly tournament that happened in 1596. In this tournament, the goal was to strike your opponent hard enough to break your sword, and the knight who broke the most swords would have been the winner. It is also noteworthy that under these rules, a knight who stepped backwards to dodge a strike “as in fear” would receive no reward. This ruleset was designed to reward knights who could make very hard strikes, and also sustain similarly hard strikes being done against them.

Fullcontact – the Tournament in 1596

In Battle of the Nations, a fighter is allowed to keep their striking as many times as they want until the opponent is knocked down, and this rule also has historic precedence.

Item, the manner of the foot combat shall be such that each shall be armed as they thus see fit and, on leaving their pavilions, they shall each have a spear in one hand and a sword and targe in the other. There shall be one throw of the spear and, after this throw has been made, they shall fight with the swords until such time as he or the other shall have touched their knee or hand to the ground or lost his sword from one hand or his targe from the other.”[10]

We shall come against each other on foot three times carrying axes and daggers, nothing more, such as it shall please us. And on each one of the first two attacks we shall fight up to the number of thirteen axe stokes struck by us two and take three paces apart. And, at the third attack, we shall fight until one of us two touches their right hand to the ground.[11]

The second chapitre is such that we shall be armed on foot as is suitable for noblemen in such a case, and may carry targes and pavises at the choice of each and we shall be armed with spears, axes, and daggers, and shall have only one throw of the spear. Then we shall fight with the other weapons until one of us two be forced to the ground or disarmed at all points.[12]

In short, Battle of the Nations and other HMB tournaments may in fact be more representative of knightly tournaments, and therefore have more historical value, than many HEMA practitioners would like to admit. There were probably many knights who fought in melees like the ones described above but who never trained half-sword techniques under a master like Fiore or Liechtenauer. If a knight was used to striking armoured opponents, and had never trained half-sword techniques, then it is likely that in warfare, they would probably revert to striking their armoured opponents as well. Additionally, if a knight was hoping to take prisoners for the purpose of ransom, then again they would probably rather batter their opponent into submission with strikes than stab them in an unarmoured area and risk killing them.

I do not wish to support Battle of the Nations specifically. I have little interest in it, and much of the fighting looks very messy and could be improved. BOTN does not use a historical ruleset, and I think its historical value would be greatly increased if it were to stick to and recreate a specific tournament ruleset, such as that seen in René de Anjou’s Tournament Book, though on the other hand I also do not think it is very fair for a HEMA practitioner to put too much emphasis on this criticism, given that most HEMA rulesets are not based on a historic ruleset either. I also believe they should do a much better job of defining exactly what it is they are recreating and trying to achieve, which would not only help them focus their efforts on producing something of greater historical value, and make it clearer to viewers exactly what is happening.

The fact remains though that being able to strike an armoured opponent really hard, and to endure really hard strikes in return seems to have been an important element of many knightly tournaments, and so championships like BOTN may be closer to knightly tournaments, and possibly even to much medieval warfare, than some HEMA practitioners may like to admit.


[1] Fiore dei Liberi. MS Ludwig XV 13. C. 1404. Translation by Michael Chidester. Folio 33r.

[2] Fiore dei Liberi. MS Ludwig XV 13. C. 1404. Translation by Michael Chidester. Folio 32v.

[3] Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresden C487. C.1504-1519. Translated by David Rawlings. Folios 95r-95v.

[4] René de Anjou. Traictié de la forme et devis d’ung tournoy. C. 1460. Translation by Elizabeth Bennett.

[5] “The declaration of the Pas d’armes of the Golden Tree”. 1468. In: Ralph Moffat. The Medieval Tournament: Chivalry, Heraldry and Reality An Edition and Analysis of Three Fifteenth-Century Tournament Manuscripts. 2010. Page 244.

[6] “Sir Philippe de Lalaing’s Pas d’armes of the Perron Phae”. 1463. The Medieval Tournament. Page 307.

[7] ” The declaration of the Pas d’armes of the Golden Tree”. 1468. The Medieval Tournament. Page 244.

[8] “Feats of Arms at Tours”. 1446/1447. The Medieval Tournament. Page 321.

[9] “Feats of Arms at Tours”. 1446/1447. The Medieval Tournament. Page 324.

[10]Chapitres of the Bastard of Burgundy as the Knight of an Oppressed Lady for a Pas d’Armes“. The Medieval Tournament. Page 263.

[11] “Feats of Arms at Tours”. 1446/1447. The Medieval Tournament. Page 333.

[12] “Feats of Arms at Tours”. 1446/1447. The Medieval Tournament. Pages 307-308.

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One comment

  • Thanks for this well referenced and informative article! As someone who has dabbled with HEMA, then gone on to join a national team to fight at BoTN, I can say I agree with your argument.

    Further evidence can be found in the mass graves that have been studied across European countries, many originating in the Hundred Years’ War and Wars of the Roses. Some very brutal and sweeping motions that caused clean cut and/or shattered bones indicate that many died from very powerful blows, as if the aggressor was trying to get through armour with force rather than what I guess would be a HEMA styled approach of technique and exploitation of weak spots. That said though, they may have been unarmoured fodder subject to knights’ swords.

    Thanks for approaching the argument taking both sides into account, sure helps put it into perspective. Especially for the zealous HEMA instructors that look down on HMB, thinking that their Fiore training will ensure their victory in a HMB fight…