Medieval Europe

Medieval knights fought with a pragmatic ruthlessness that seems quite at odds with modern beliefs about chivalry. Period accounts tell of knights killing each other's horses, grappling foes and bearing them down to be stabbed to death, and dealing vicious shield bashes, chokes with sword blades, and "murder strokes" using the handle of a reversed sword. Knights did have a concept of honor . . . but in duels and warfare, victory mattered at least as much as how one fought.

Modern myth also tends to portray knights as brutal sluggers with little technique. A perusal of written manuals of period martial arts - collectively known as fechtbucher -puts the lie to this. The design of knightly weapons was rugged in order to overcome heavy armor, but the techniques for using them were quite refined. These martial arts weren't restricted by borders or culture. Germanic and French knights bowed to different kings but shared nearly identical weapons and fighting styles.

On the unarmed front, complex striking arts such as pankration and boxing fell out of use when the infrastructure for martial sports disintegrated with the Roman Empire. The prevalence of heavy armor made wrestling much more useful, though, and every warrior learned at least basic grappling. The heavier the armor, the more important this became - penetrating metal armor is difficult, but sliding a knife through your foe's visor is easy once you have him prone and pinned.

As the Middle Ages wore on, both armor and the weapons needed to defeat it became heavier. Early knights wore mail, relied on shields to block, and fought from horseback with spears. With the development of high-backed saddles, it became possible to charge with the lance "couched," or held under the arm. Armor improved, making it possible to discard the shield and fight with two-handed weapons better able to overcome the armor. The period saw a steady development of weapons, armor, and techniques for using them.

Warfare wasn't the only forum for the martial arts. Mock battles and tournaments - melees and jousts - kept knights' skills sharp. They also served as a way for a knight to spread his reputation and display his expertise. Trial by combat was another fixture of the era. An accused criminal could claim this right and battle his accuser (either could use a willing champion), with the "court" finding in favor of the victor.

Noblemen weren't the only warriors of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. Commoners such as England's yeomen and Masters of Defence, Asiatic horsemen such as the Mongols, and the feared Vikings of Scandinavia all practiced martial arts. For much of the period, though, the premier armed martial-arts styles in Europe were those of the knights.

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