Monday, June 18, 2007

How to Hold a Lance in Combat on Foot

What’s the best way to hold a lance or spear when fighting on foot? A variety of fighting manuals illustrate its use in single combat. Typically, the hands are an arms length apart, so the point halfway between the hands is a useful point of comparison. Fiore dei Liberi, writing ca. 1409, shows a halfway point that varies from the middle of the spear to two thirds of the way back from the point. Filippo Vadi, who owes much to Fiore, shows a similar preference in his manuscript dated 1482-1487.

The earlier portion of the Codex Wallerstein, probably from the first third of the 15th c., shows a halfway point about two thirds of the length of the shaft back from the tip. Talhoffer’s 1459 manuscript, now in Copenhagen, shows spears held either near the middle of the shaft or about two thirds of the way back. Paulus Kal’s fechtbuch from the third quarter of the 15th c. shows spears held near the middle of the shaft, also with the hands about an arms length apart.

Olivier de la Marche gives an interesting description of a combat with lance on foot between Galiot de Baltasin and Philippe de Ternant. De Ternant took his lance with “the butt in his right palm, and the held the lance at the balance point with his left, and carried it more upright (droicte) than couched.” In contrast, his opponent held his “in the ordinary way one holds a lance for pushing” De Ternant’s stance is evidently seen as somewhat unusual, and different from the default position, which was so common that it did not need description.

Holding a lance with one hand at the butt gives maximum reach. Why was the position disfavored? Di Grassi, writing in the 16th c., describes the arguments for different hand positions on a pike. Although the pike is a longer weapon, the same tradeoffs apply, if to a lesser degree, with a shorter lance or spear:

This renowned weapon hath beene of divers diversly handled, in single combat: (for the manner of using it in the warres, maketh not at this present for my purpose.) Therefore it shall not be amisse, if (speaking of the manner of his use in these are daies) I declare also mine opinion concerning the same. There have beene some (who greatly regarding ease & little paine) would have the Pike to be borne in the middle. Other some, more strong of arme, but weaker of hart, (to the end they might be the farther off, from hurte) accustomed to beare it at the beginning neere the heele or blunt end thereof: which two waies in my judgement are to be refused, the one being too daungerous (I meane the bearing of it in the middle) the other too difficult (I mean, the bearing it at the blunt end,) because a man is not able to stande long at his ward, neither to defend himselfe strongly, nor offend safely, considering, much of his force is taken away, by susteining and bearing it at the said end. So that, when a forcible blow commeth he hath not sufficient power to beat it off. And forasmuch as the Pike is a long straight lyne, which hath his motion in the head or beginning thereof, which motion be it never so finall, neere the hand, is yet verie great at the point, it is requisite, if he would strike just and straight, (when he so holdeth it at the end) that he be greatly practised, and have great strength whereby he may be both skilfull & able to beare it so just & even, that the point thereof strike or hit there where the hand & eie would have it. This is verie hardly accomplished, aswel beecause it is a thing impossible to strike by the straight lyne, as also for that the armes being weakened with the paize of the Pike, do shake and deliver unstedfastly. Therefore, for the avoyding of these two inconveniences, the Pike must be born within an armes length of the said heele or blunt end, in which place, it is sufficiently distant from hurt, & it is not borne with much difficultie if the hands be placed an armes length one from another of the which the hinder hand must be stedfast, I meane, holde the Pike harde, and the forehand somewhat loose: So that the Pike may shift through it to and fro.

Presumably similar logic was thought to apply with the shorter spear or lance: grips at or closer to the center of the shaft were less tiring, and allowed swifter parries and better point contol.


lazfin said...

Will, you won't believe this, but we were just discussing this very issue in my spear class on Sunday! Thanks for including the source material in your post. I LOVE that little jab Di Grassi gets in about people who hold at the end being "weaker of hart"! I just can't make that work anyway; even my ash shaft wobbles a bit when held from the end. Did Di Grassi ever address the issue that perhaps you should consider how your OPPONENT is holding his spear before you chose your grip? My other question, how do you prefer to grip that beautiful rattan spear of yours? -Shay-

Will McLean said...


My preferred place to hold the lance depends on circumstances. 2/3 back seems to work pretty well for me at long range, but further forward is often needed at close range.

It just occurs to me that di Grassi is writing when single combats often happen across the barriers, which prevent closing to close range without mutual consent. In that context, a single optimal place to hold the shaft makes more sense.

Will McLean said...


Is your ash shaft tapered or is it constant section? If it's not tapered it may more wobbly than a medieval shaft

Shay said...

Will, interesting point about the barriers. Thanks for that. As for the tapering, I'm guilty as charged! I don't use a tapered shaft so I guess that explains the bit of wobble. It's a 1.25 diameter shaft so there's not much left to taper. Sigh. Maybe my next one. -Shay-

Lafayette C. said...

Perhaps you'd like to qualify the title with the addition of the word "Single" between "in" and "Combat," because there are plenty of 16th- and 17th-century military manuals suggesting that the rear hand holding a pike/lance should be at the butt when the soldier puts the lance into the "Charge" posture within the confines of a massed formation. But then, maybe there's no need to add that qualifier because I'm not sure about how applicable thee techniques would be in an earlier (i.e. medieval) environment.