The Byzantine fencers of the ‘Menologion of emperor Basil II ’ declares the upper combat guards of Byzantine swordsmanship


The following article introduced by Mr. Dimitrios Skourtelis, icon maker and historical researcher, he is also member of the Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ’Leontes’,  and member of the Meyer Freifechter Guild. The book ‘Menologion of emperor Basil II ’ is an illuminated manuscript who has the lives of Greek Orthodox saints. Actually it is a synaxarion published at the end of 10th century and it was a gift for the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire Basil the second of the Macedonian royal family. This is a premier masterpiece of Byzantine art, and it is signed from eight artists, Pantaleonta, Georgios, Michael the young, Michael Vlacherniti, Simeon, Simeon Vlacherniti, Mina and Nestor. This was extremely rare for the Byzantine art. Now this manuscript is at the Vatican library.

In photo. We observe that the high trousers attached with straps in the zone. These would not be visible if the soldier had not lifted the sleeve put its edges of his zone for more freedom of movement. This habit is described strongly in the Epic of Digenes Akritas. Standard Byzantine habit was the knotting the mantle at the chest, for the same reason. The soldier (στρατιώτης ) has wrapped the edge of the cloak in her hand as a makeshift shield. This is not an executioner maneuver, but it is a swordsman maneuver, and is proof that the artists of Menologion had observed fencers to complete their artworks. Also this makeshift shield refers to the Epic of Digenes Akritas. At the martyrdom of the saints in the Menologion, the executors did not presented as Romans legionaries, but instead as Eastern Roman soldiers (Byzantines), with their uniforms. If we observe them we can see them handsome, with the typical innocuousness spirit of the Byzantine art, which consider the man as Icon of God, as a result the Byzantine art does not want to shown the executer malformed. Epic of Digenes Akritas, Athens National library manuscript. The artists had observed the forms of the young soldiers of their time, and they reflected not only their forms but also their combat stances before they strike the final blow. So from those manuscripts we have a blurred image of Byzantine swordsmanship. With all respect to the memory of the saints of the Orthodox Church we isolated the forms of the executioners and we quote, with the believe that we can give a good image of some stances of the Byzantine soldiers. By George E. Georgas, mail: g_e_georgas@yahoo.gr The first thing that we can notice from the illustrations of the manuscript, is the type of sword used by executioners, which essentially the artists ‘ photographed ‘ the soldiers of their time. Therefore the sword of this era is straight , Double-edged and One-handed ,so it is a type spathion that was popular at the time of Basil II . The second element that gives us the artists is that these executioners- soldiers do not carry a shield, but they keep their sheath at their off hand. This could be said that there is not something remarkable as long as the executioners do not need defense equipment for this purpose. The execution of a helpless man. However , in my point of view this detail is very important to us because in later frescoes, such as at the icon of St. Theodorus who slay the dragon, the saint holds his sword and his sheath in the same way as the executioners-soldiers of the ‘Menologion of emperor Basil II’. Also in other martial arts of the East, the use of the sheath is important, something that we also can observe in the Ottoman martial art of the 15th-16th century with the use of saber type swords. Icon of 15th century .The St. Theodore Teron , the image located at the Byzantine Museum of Athens The most important is that all the portraits of the warriors of the ‘Menologion’ are almost the same with the legendary fechtbook of Walpurgis or the MS I.33, for the upper stances. Besides, other stances would not have reason to be ordained at the ‘Menologion’, where shows to us executions of the saints and not duels. The difference with the fight book of Walpurgis, is that the warriors did not have small shields but at their place they have the sheaths of their swords. If we exclude this matter, the images of the ‘Menologion’ can give to us great information about the place of fencers foots on each stance, once in MS I.33 the foot location does not given good and the reader of the fight book must have a nice imagination to understand the correct place of the foots. Also this is another proof that the author of the MS I.33 maybe he was in contact with one way or another with the Byzantine swordsmanship, something that I approached in my previous article on the research that made Mr. Timothy Dawson on this matter. Let us observe each stance:

Here we can easily recognize the 4th guard of the MS I.33 , ‘to the head give the fourth’

Here we have the 3rd guard, ‘to the left the third’

The same here as well

Here we can recognize easily the 4th guard ‘to the head give the fourth’

Here we have a left-handed in the 2nd guard position

Here we have another image of the 3rd guard position.

Here maybe the warrior has start his strike from the 4th guard and the artist ‘catch’ the time after the begin of the strike.

Here we have a classical way of execution that the legionaries of Rome did. We must not forget that the Byzantines did not call their selves ‘Byzantines’ , but they called Romans, the emperor Leon the wise was very clear when he wrote ‘we fight as the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks’

Here we have another image of the 3rd guard.

Here we have a warrior in the 2nd guard position

Here we have a warrior in the 2nd guard position

And here as well

Here we have a warrior wielding a club in the high guard. Can you recognize this guard with long sword? Off course it is the Vom Tag as given 5 centuries later from Joachim Meyer!

File:MS I.33 01r.jpg File:MS I.33 01v.jpg Here we can see how the author of MS I.33 gives the guards. ‘Stygian Pluto dares not attempt, what dare the mindless monk, and the deceitful old woman. It is to be noted, how in general all fencers, or all men holding a sword in hand, even if ignorant in the art of fencing, use these seven wards, of which we have seven verses: Seven wards there are, under the arm the foremost, to the right shoulder is given the second, to the left the third, to the head give the fourth, give to the right side the fifth, to the breast give the sixth, and finally have you the langort. ‘   It is clear that the ‘Menologion of emperor Basil II ’ it is not a fight book where we can have description or details of duels or combat advices. But from its impressive images we have a ‘photo’ about the guards that used from the Byzantine soldiers. Unfortunately we have not yet found a book or a manuscript or scroll where we can found how our ancestors named each guard or to have details of drills or combat techniques. From the other hand all the imperial books or the tactical books that written from imperial generals such as the Kekavmenos, give information that the Byzantines used also the combat style of Romans and ancient Greeks. So if we read old Roman books about that or even German fight books where the authors of them describes the Roman combat style, easily we can have an image about how was the Byzantine swordsmanship. This can be more easier if some one is initiate in the art of fencing, he can understand the progressive attacks and defenses from each guard. Also there is never change the attack with the rise of the fist, anywhere in the world we can go and at anytime we study. For example read what the fencing master N. Pyrgos wrote in his book ‘Oplomachia fencing and swordsmanship’ published at 1872: ‘The fencer as he strikes rise his fist at the level of his forehead or higher, if he has opponent taller than him the rise of the fist makes easier the execution of strikes and it contribute and makes his opponent to strikes in time.’   In the land that those techniques were borne, they are study, tested and taught. Those who want to learn the Byzantine method of combat can contact with: Mail: g_e_georgas@yahoo.gr Tel: 6945876172. Bibliography Οι Βυζαντινοί ξιφομάχοι στο Μηνολόγιο του Βασιλείου Β’, Δημήτρης Σκουρτέλης, Τα ακριτηκά Επη Βυζαντινή πολεμική τέχνη, σε Γερμανικό εγχειρίδιο μάχης του 14ου αιώνα, Γεώργιος Ε.Γεωργάς ,Μάχες και Στρατιώτες, τεύχος 15 ‘Οπλομαχητική Ξιφασκία και Σπαθασκία’,Ν. Πυργος, έκδοση 1872. Αυτοκράτορος Λέοντος του Σοφού, Τακτικά, εκδόσεις ελεύθερη σκέψις Cigaar, K N 1996 Western travelers to Constantinople. (Leiden: E J Brill Leiden). Γεώργιου Φραντζή, Εάλω η Πόλις, εκδόσεις Βεργίνα Davids, A 1995 (ed) The Empress Theophano — Byzantium and West at the turn of the First Millennium. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Forgeng, J L 2003 The medieval art of swordsmanship. (Leeds: Royal Armouries, Leeds). George Silver, The paradox of Defence Timothy Dawson, Αrms & Αrmour, Vol. 6 No. 1, 2009, 79–92 The Walpurgis Fechtbuch: An Inheritance of Constantinople? Komnena, A 1986 Alexiad. (Translation E R A Sewter) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books). Stelten, L F (ed.) 1990 Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Epitoma Rei Militaris. (New York: Peter Lang, New York). Treadgold, W 1995 Byzantium and its army: 286–1081. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). Timothy Dawson, Byzantine infantryman Eastern Roman empire c.900- 1204, Ospray publishing Raffaele D’ Amato, Byzantine imperial guardsmen 925-1025 Ospray publishing ——————————————————————

George E. Georgas is the founder of the Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’. He is certificated fencing instructor of the Hellenic Fencing Federation and also national referee of the Hellenic Fencing Federation at the epee. He is instructor of Meyer Freifechter Guild with the rank of Fecther and he is the Guild Unterhauptman for Greece. He is also member of Learn Sword Fight (Gladiatores). He is in the Administration Council of the ‘Pammachon’. He is also instructor of weapon fighting of the Association of Historical studies ‘KORYVANTES’. He is studying the ancient Greek and Byzantine warfare, such as the use of rompaia, spathion and paramirion types of swords and other weapons such as the spear. He is also give stage fighting lessons to the theatrical team ‘The Blue Rose.’ 1a - AKADEMY LEONTES - INTERNET

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