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Most authors of martial arts treatises and books at least touch upon the idea of Universal Virtues or Principles. These are lofty, sometimes pithy, “simple” words or phrases meant to invoke the underlying core of the Art. Let’s take a look at how three different authors looked at the idea of Universal Virtues.

Fiore dei Liberi

First, Fiore dei Liberi produced/wrote/it’s hard to really accurately put this into one verb the Il Fior di Battaglia1 in or around 1409. He was a man who loved his lists of important principles. The first occurs in the introduction of the Getty copy of the manuscript. When discussing the layout of the book, Fiore says he starts with abrazare, translated as “grappling” or “wrestling”. Fiore lays out the necessary requirements for abrazare:

“Also I say that wrestling requires eight things, which are strength, speed, knowledge (that is knowledge of advantageous binds), knowing how to fracture (that is how to break arms and legs), knowing binds (that is how to bind the arms so that a man has no defense and cannot leave freely), and knowing how to injure the most dangerous points. Also, knowing how to dislocate arms and legs in different ways. These things I will write and draw in this book step by step as the art requires.” Getty, Introduction, emphasis mine

You can see that the first two are general physical things – physical strength and physical speed (really quickness but more on that later). The remaining five are all knowledge – binds, breaks, throws, strikes, dislocations. Given that Fiore says abrazare is the base of his art you can argue that this list forms the basis of his entire art – no matter the weapon, these are the things you need to know. Obviously the nature of the binds, breaks, throws, strikes, and dislocations change depending on the nature of the weapon but there it is. There is everything you need to know about Fiore’s art laid out in the first few pages. But while these are extremely & universally important principles, they are NOT universal virtues. Those come later on in the manuscript. 

At the end of the sword in two hands section Fiore graces us with his segno (“sign”) a visual memory device for the Art.

This image is chock full of symbolism. There has been an ocean’s worth of digital ink spilled by far more eloquent and studied folks than I about this page but I will give you my quick rundown based on a decade of study and lessons from those more equipped folks. 

  • In the center of the image you have a man dressed in scholar’s robes who is almost wearing a crown. This is pretty self-explanatory – study is an important aspect of the Art but mastery is a job never done.
  • Surrounding the figure are seven swords arranged to hint at the seven blows of the sword Fiore describes.
  • At the figure’s feet stands an Elephant. In medieval bestiaries elephants were “known” to not have knees; if they fell down they died. This message is doubled by the tower on the elephant’s back. The text around the elephant reads: “Fortitude (Strength) I am the Elephant and I carry a castle in my care, and I neither fall to my knees nor lose my footing.” Oh look, strength. We saw this is the list for abrazare. But here it is speaking both the physical strength and the concept of strength. 
  • To the figure’s right (reader’s left) is the Tiger. Again, bestiaries had interesting ideas and the tiger was described to look like a hunting hound and noted for its speed. Hence the tiger is also holding an  arrow – arrows are fast. The text around the tiger reads: “Quickness/Celerity. I am the Tiger, and I am so quick to run and turn, that even the thunderbolt from heaven cannot catch me.” Quickness here isn’t just about baseline speed – how fast you can run, move, jump, etc. It is, perhaps more importantly, about being quick in a specific moment.
  • Above the figure sits the Lynx, a cat “known” to be able to see slightly into the future. In her paw, the lynx is holding a mathematical compass. The text reads: “Prudence/Judgment. No creature sees better than I the Lynx, and I proceed always with careful calculation.” So judgment is telling you that all of these physical skills you have don’t mean a thing unless you know when to implement them. Understanding measure, understanding the interplay between you and your opponent, etc.
  • Finally, to the figure’s left (reader’s right) sits the Lion. This one has changed the least between medieval symbolism and modern. He holds a heart and anyone who has even seen Wizard of Oz is already singing “If I were king of the forest!”. The text reads: “Courage/Audacity. No one has a more courageous heart than I, the Lion, for I welcome all to meet me in battle.” Yup. This lion got his courage. 

So looking at the four virtues in conjunction you have the interplay of Strength, Quickness, Judgment, and Courage. None of these can outperform the others without upsetting the balance2 – if you are so strong that you are no longer quick then that’s bad. Same for being insanely quick but having no courage to enter into the fight. You get the idea. These are Fiore’s Universal Virtues that go beyond the techniques, beyond the principles. These are how to LIVE as well as fight.

Zach Wylde

Next up, chronologically, is Zach Wylde. Published in 1711, Wylde’s English Master of Defence; or The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish3 covers the use of smallsword, broadsword, staff, and wrestling. Wylde begins with smallsword and, after giving some definitions of the parts of the sword, launches into what he calls his “Nine Principal Observations”. They are as follows:

  1. Posture – the basic stance one is to take. His Medium guard
  2. Place – standing in your stance, never let your arm move from the middle of your body.
  3. Compass – Wylde says this comes in two forms:
    1. Offensive – never make a thrust that is not in the “killing part”4
    2. Defensive – when you parry, use the wrist & never let your tip stray more than 4 inches in any direction from the Place.
  4. Step – here he describes a lunge as “stretching to your full distance”
  5. Time – Wylde nonconcisely describes the concept of tempo: thrusting into your opponents given tempo or taking the initiative & thrusting first quickly. He also hazards against counter-tempo actions; “thrusting at the same juncture”.
  6. Distance – here Wylde talks about measure, the distance between you and your opponent. 
  7. Patience – here Wylde shows his Jedi roots. Don’t get over passionate, but remain calm to not destroy your judgment.
  8. Intention – make your attacks when you see the opportunity or use feints to draw your opponent out.
  9. Practice – here he admonishes you to practice every day. 

You see a similar setup to Fiore – physical skills (Posture, Place, Compass, and Step) followed by fencing conceptual skills (Time and Distance) finally followed by Virtues (Patience, Intention, and Practice). In a similar way, Wylde here gives you the broad strokes of what you need to know about his Art – keep your guard and your calm. When you parry, make a small motion. Attack quickly with intention in the proper measure and tempo. The more you practice the better you get. 

Daniel Mendoza

Last but not least in the HDA curriculum is Daniel Mendoza. His book, The Modern Art of Boxing5 published in 1789, begins with “Chapter 1: Of the Requisites to Form a Good Boxer”. Here Mendoza lays out the three requisites (he actually lays out five but then says that because Activity [movement] and Wind [cardio] can be acquired by practice they can sit under the umbrella of “Art”):

  1. Strength – physical strength, Mendoza says between Strength & Art strength has the advantage because great strength can break the most artful guard.
  2. Courage – spirit, hardiness
  3. Art – the Art of boxing, skills acquired through practice

Mendoza explains that all of these are important but tend not to be found in one person because someone who is strong and courageous will have little reason to study the art. And that’s all he has to say on this. The rest of the book is primarily about Art – skills and the practices to acquire said skills.  


Hopefully you can see the similarities between these three set of Virtues – they all contain a component of physical prowess, technical skill, and character traits which combine to make an “ideal” fencer/fighter/boxer. People have made arguments before about the movement from Imagery to Abstract – using animal symbolism ala Fiore to concepts ala Mendoza & Wylde – shows “progress” of human thought. I think that any such distinctions are silly. People learn and engage with information in a variety of ways. For example, I constantly use “Find your Elephant” to encourage myself, my students, and even my children to find their balance. But I am also very comfortable taking Mendoza’s bare bones list of three and running with it. After all, I think it is the nature of those of us who seek to understand Universal Principles to want to find perfect sound bytes, the most laconic way to say something. But we do need to be able to provide for people whose brains work differently. No one way is right but they are all The Way.


  1. All translations and images taken from Pocket Armizare.
  2. Mike Cherba, of NW Armizare, likes to use the imagery of a wheel with all the aspects of the Art as spokes. If a spoke is too long or short in relation to the others, the wheel doesn’t turn smoothly.
  4. Jim Emmons, Salla delle Tre Spada, talks about the curiosity of targeting in rapier and smallsword in his excellent paper “The Curious Case of Forward Target in Rapier and Small Sword”:
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