A discussion of levels of training (fundamentals, techniques, tactics and creative application) in general, then briefly examining Fiore's use of the term volta as idea about creative application and its use in Schola training.
Getting Inside the Loop:
Levels of Comprehension in Training and the Volta of Fiore dei Liberi
Brian R. Price
Schola Saint George
Teaching or reconstructing historical fighting styles based on surviving manuscripts has been increasingly popular since the publication of John Clements’ 1998 book, Medieval Swordsmanship. While much of the book’s technical content has been challenged, its influence in popularizing the study of swordsmanship as a martial art cannot be denied. Indeed, it has spawned a host of groups focused in different aspects of the surviving arts, and one of these groups is the Schola Saint George.
Many students of historical swordsmanship, however, focus almost exclusively upon the reconstruction of specific techniques found in surviving fighting treatises. Without discussing the problems with the iconography or of interpreting ancient text, these reconstructions are often of limited value, largely because they lack the generally unexpressed connective tissue that binds the techniques together into a cohesive system.
Starting with the assumption that the main treatise guiding the Schola—Fiore dei Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia—does represent a system, the challenge is to reconstruct not only the techniques, but to weld them together into a rational system of combat that can survive and prevail under a determined assault. For the school’s principals, this requirement underlies much of what the school does and how interpretations are judged. Surviving technical reconstructions must not only answer (or not obviously conflict with) the surviving text and illustrations, but must also prove martially efficient. They must represent the best of known interpretations in terms of what seems to work in the dynamic whirl of combat.
To this end, I look at the material in the surviving material in the following way. Underlying the system are fundamentals generally not called out in the text or set apart with specific explanations or illustrations. These fundamentals of movement, stance, balance and carriage for the backbone of the system and must be inferred from the book(s) as a whole. This is necessary interpretative work, but the result should be students whose carriage reflects what is shown in the original manuscript, validated for function in the fighting arena.
Atop this interpretative foundation lies the work itself, the collection of techniques expressed in the text. While these can be understood on a technical level—this is the point for which many schools strive—I believe this alone is insufficient to understand even the techniques themselves, although it forms a good starting point for those new to interpretation.
Each technique is, I believe, merely a specific expression of a core principle that arises in a specific circumstance. In every “play” (zogho) or technique, there is a unique element that can be found and applied to the combat environment generally. For example, Fiore’s poste are, I believe, representations of distilled positions. Between each of these poste is a valid position that may be adopted in a fight given resulting constraints of position and time, which are themselves infinite in number. Fiore dei Liberi could afford neither the time nor the vellum to record an infinite number of these positions even if he could, and the resulting distillation of possible fighting positions forms a system of recognition and classification more than it does a constraining limit to possible positions found in a fight.
This is the expression of the core principle that is critical to understanding the work as a system. Stephen Hand has written about this process ably if incompletely in “xx”; I wholeheartedly recommend this article as a starting point for intermediate and advanced interpretation. The recognition of core principles is key, however, to approaching the next level of analysis, building an understanding of tactical expression that flows from the text.
Tactics (from the Greek taktika, the arrangement of troops) is in the context of historical fighting treatises the set of principles and preferences that guide the selection of a given technique in a given situation. Here, too, the historical texts are difficult to interpret, because only rarely is tactical advice given, and for the purposes of the Schola, Fiore hardly gives any at all. Essentially, tactical knowledge must answer the question, “when would I do technique A instead of technique B?” While not well expressed in the treatises, or at least not obviously expressed, a knowledge of tactics essentially orders or organizes the surviving techniques into a system of combat. It is the presence of the system that both draws a good number of our students and which separates the simple interpretations from advanced ones.
In Fiore, these tactics are generally well hidden, expressed I believe in the ordering of the plays. But even so, they are hard to isolate with some weapons’ forms and must be called out as interpretations (but hopefully not extensions. Interpretations are in the text, while extensions are not).
Even if, however, we attain a workable tactical, systemic understanding of Fiore’s plays, we still do not have enough to make turn students of a viable combat system into skilled combatants, even with extensive drill and commitments to learning the system. What is needed is the last block—the highest level of fighting expression—what John Boyd wrote about so densely if astutely in his many briefings on creative use of military force for the defense establishment during the 1970s.
The problem with the conventional approach to studying historical martial arts is that a powerful rigidity is infused into the students’ approach to the fight through the study of the plays as technical still-lifes. Most sparring within many (although not all) Western martial arts groups tends to either be somewhat wild and undisciplined (little resembling the treatises they study) or overly static, almost robotic. In either case, more experienced combatants form a justified and unfavorable opinion about the efficacy of the fighting systems in question.
In the first case, undisciplined fighting is often the result of sparring without a sense of tactical organization. While some combatants may require years of “helmet time” in order to feel comfortable enough to apply the interpreted tactics, others can adapt in this regard very quickly. But because they don’t know the tactics, or don’t know them well enough, they can’t make use of them in a fight and they use whatever they know or can figure out on the fly. The result is usually a wild careening that little resembles the careful precision suggested by the fighting treatises.
In the second case, static—nearly paralyzed—performance is the result of an overly rigid application of the examples provided in the historical texts. Students wait—and wait, and wait—for the exact circumstances shown in the fighting treatises, which they have hopefully practiced, to appear. When they don’t, they are unsure of what to do and tactical paralysis, sluggishness, or tentativeness is the result.
Combatants from other combat arts recognize these deficiencies intuitively. Combatants from groups like the SCA—the Society for Creative Anachronism—for example, build helmet time from a very early moment in their fighting “careers,” applying creativity if not training to their time on the field. Most of them simply put on their armour and take to the field, learning on the fly as they go. This extreme emphasis on creativity in the SCA field yields a spectrum of results ranging from the extremely highly skilled to those who are barely able to hold their own against beginners.
But what combatants from the SCA and groups like it do have is a lot of time applying martial or tactical creativity to the highly charged, extremely fast full-contact environment that SCA combat provides, backed up by social recognition (the renown mechanism, as I have written elsewhere). They experience combat as a series of random or near-random encounters, which, according to modern studies on motor control and motor learning, yield very high rates of retention and adaptation. We learn best by doing, in a very real sense.
Most WMA groups, by contrast, tend to perform repetitious and set-play drills ad infinitum. These drills, while useful to an extent, fail to build the rapid creativity and adaptation required in a combat environment. To be sure, precision and control are required for safe and superior swordsmanship, but if precision is pursued without creativity or application, the result is the above-mentioned rigidity or sluggishness which results in combat ineffectiveness.
The U.S. military has adopted, as it’s training philosophy, the key tenet that training—in order to be effective—must be realistic. It must recreate the “fog of war” and reinforce hard-won skills earned through drill and repetition. John Boyd, writing about air-to-air combat and later, about ground combat, emphasized the need for creative adaptation in the execution of military encounters, and I strongly believe that he was correct in his analyses and syntheses on combat effectiveness.
For WMA groups and for the Schola Saint George in particular, this means emphasizing—alongside drill designed to foster precision and control—creative exercise of combat decision-making in a realistic environment. We emphasize sparring as part of this development, but also the use of “creative problem-solving” drills in order to encourage the student to devise, quickly and under pressure, solutions to new tactical problems. With luck these solutions will be simplified through the application of the tactical system, enabling them to get inside the “decision loop” of their opponent and triumph on the field, regardless of the relative strengths between themselves and their opponent.
Towards the Volta
In Fiore’s parlance, power is developed through the three volte discussed in the section on footwork, found in Getty fol. 22r (126). Here Fiore discusses the “three turns” as fundamental to his movements, and we use these within the Schola to build the movement framework based on the volta stabile, the mezza volta and the tutta volta.
But at the end of the paragraph, he also writes that, E perzò digo che la spada si ha tre movementi çoe volta stabile, meza volta e tutta volta, “And therefore I say that the sword [also] has three movements, that is to say, volta stabile, mezza volta and tutta volta.” So three turns both for the body and for the sword.
Schola students study these three volte during the second module of training as they look at the zogho largo, where I believe Fiore’s tactical system is most clearly expressed. But we find these three turns—the tre volte—also in the daga, in the lanza (the spear), in the azza (the poleaxe). It is a systemic approach to how the combatant responds to cover in by the opponent.
For some time, however, we have stressed with senior students the importance of creative application of Fiore’s system to a fluid combat environment. We have used John Boyd’s OODA loop to accomplish this, speaking of “getting inside the opponent’s decision loop,” which comes from Col. Boyd’s belief in the need to “turn inside” the opponent, not only in air-to-air combat, but inside his mind as well.
We can use Fiore’s volta for this purpose as well. The idea behind the physical application of the tre volte is to turn your blade inside the opponent’s cover. A volta stabile is made in response to an imperfect cover—so the volta is made to avoid the cover and is redirected to a still-available target on the same side. If cover is made (perfect coverta), however, then a mezza volta is made to change sides. If the opponent over-commits—becoming instabile—we may efficiently recycle his power using a tutta volta. Of course we see applications of these principles in plays 1, 2 and 4 of the zogho largo.
But once we know the opponent’s likely actions, we have a special opportunity to be inside his mental volta—if we think of Boyd’s OODA loop as a turn, a volta. To get inside the opponent’s mental volta, his cycle of observation, recognition, analysis and action, we can anticipate his likely movements and be ready with a decisive response of our own, one that may well come as an unhappy surprise to the opponent. It can seem as if the combat is “in the head” of his opponent—he has turned within his volta—his mental volta—and arrived before the opponent. He has achieved advantage in terms of mental tempo and volta, he has out-thought his opponent and can prevail regardless of the physical differences between himself and his opponent.
While a great deal can be written on this topic, and hopefully will be, I would propose that within the Schola generally we bear in mind the importance of emphasizing this fourth level of experience and training, and that we work hard to develop and improve our methods of training at this level. On a technical level, the terms volta and tempo can apply equally as analogues for Boyd’s decision loop, and perhaps they bring the idea closer to what Fiore might have taught, were we fortunate enough to hear him speak on the topic.
NOTE: I’d like to thank SSG instructor Colin Hatcher, with whom I had the pleasure of discussing these ideas over the past weekend and who is thus directly responsible for the existence of this article.
 John Clements, Medieval Swordsmanship, Paladin Press, 1998.
 Footnote Stephen Hand’s article.