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Pollaxe (Azza) Training @ AEMMA

The pollaxe is a type of European polearm which was widely used by medieval infantry. Also known by the names poll-axe, pole axe, polax, or Hache (French meaning axe), the standard spelling "pollaxe" is most common. The pollaxe design arose from the need to breach the plate armor of men at arms during the 14th and 15th centuries. Generally, the form consisted of a wooden haft some 4-6.5 feet (1.2-2 m) long, mounted with a steel head. It seems most schools of combat suggested a haft length comparable to the height of the wielder, but in some cases hafts appear to have been create up to 8 feet (2.5 m) in length.

Pollaxe training is limited to scholler students and above. Pollaxes are a class of weapons that can be catergorized as "polearms" or "staff weapons", and therefore, in combination with pollaxe training, AEMMA also covers spear training as well. The pollaxe weapons employed for training include 3 variations, one variety are pollaxes constructed with steel heads with sharpened spikes. These are historical reproductions and are only used for structured training drills. The second type are die-cast dense rubber heads.
These are found to be quite useful and viable for both training and tournament purposes. The third form of pollaxes are constructed with aluminum heads. These are still experimental but initial assessment indicates that they are fine for training purposes but have not been evaluated for tournament purposes at this time. Pollaxe training is predominantly based on Fiore dei Liberi's [ 1 ] treatise entitled "Flos Duellatorum" or "The Flower of Battle". The same source applies to spear training. However, in addition to Fiore dei Liberi's source, another important source is used to augment the training written originally in approximately 1400 entitled "Le jeu de la hache". A modern transcript is available internally at AEMMA, written by Professor Sydney Anglo, published in Archeologia [ 2 ], 1991 entitled "Le Jeu de la Hache: A Fifteenth-Cuentury Treatise on the Technique of Chivalric Axe Combat". The type of pollaxe trained with at AEMMA is commonly known as the "bec de corbin" or "raven's beak". The illustration on the right depicts the design of such a weapon.

Spear training uses metal head spears of the traditional "leaf-shaped" spear head such as the one in the illustration. The heads are fitted with a 3/4" ball-bearing welded to the tips in order to reduce the risk of injury. This same spear is used for both training purposes (unarmoured) and for armoured training and tournaments.

Brief History

Throughout the Medieval period and the later Renaissance, swords were the most higly regarded of all weapons. However, a good portion of attention was reserved for the family of staff weapons which offered a great variety of forms, each with its own domain in terms of usage and social status. Staff weapons described include halberds, partisans, pikes and bills were evident in the battlefields of Europe where they enabled the foot soldiers to deal effectively with cavalry opposition while at the other end of the social scale, the pollaxe was a chivalric weapon achieving primacy during the 15th century amoungst armoured fighting knights within the lists.

Fighting with staff weapons were illustrated and documented by swordsmasters across Europe in which the typical German fechtbücher would devote space to such combats involving the staff weapons having its first brief appearance in Hanko Döbringer's manuscript in 1389 through to the latter half of the seventeenth century. Talhoffer in the mid-fifteenth century covers both spear and pollaxe, while other fechtbücher illustrated combat with quarterstaff, halberd and pike.

An anonymous treatise, Le Jeu de la hache indicated that fighting with "light lance, dagger, great sword and small sword" were all depended upon knowledge of axe play. This may have been a tendentious position, however, the description of the "la hache" in Le Jeu de la hache is essentially the same weapon as that described as "l'azza" in the text of Fiore dei Liberi and as "der axst" in the 1467 version of Talhoffer's fechtbuch and as "aza vel tricuspis" in Pietro Monte's treatise. The only real difference are that the illustrations in Fiore depict a spike at the bottom of the haft.

Fiore does not clearly describe the proper length of the pollaxe haft which is unfortunate given that the length does appear to be inconsistent in the illustrations. Le Jeu de la hache makes no mention of the length of the weapons to be used though Pietro Monte in 1509 specifically states that the axe, up to its hammer-head should be "one hand" longer than the height of the man using it. If to this is added the length of the dague, then the weapon could easily reach over six feet and a pollaxe of overall length of nearly eight feet would not seem out of place for an exceptionally tall man such as Henry VIII.

Training

Training is scheduled on a rotational basis, in which a class that is focused on unarmoured pollaxe or spear training will be followed by the next training day's class working the same techniques but in armour. Training for schollers is offered three times weekly. For details on the scheduling for schollers training and fees, click here.

The images below depict a number of armoured bouts with either pollaxe or spear. Note the equipment worn by the combatants. Details on this can be found by clicking on armoured equipment requirements. Secondly, click on the images below to view a short video clip related to that image. Unfortunately, the video clips are available only in "wmv" format, meaning Windows Media Video.

click to view short video click to view short video click to view short video
This clip is an extract from a free scholler test. Murph on the left and Brian on the right exchange a few blows with pollaxes to warm up and gauge their distance. This clip is from a video of the Toronto Street Festival. Kelly on the left, David on the right. Notice the queue work by David against Kelly's "business end" of the pollaxe. The queue is very fast compared to the end with the head. This clip is from a the same street festival depict Kelly and David engaged in a spear fight. Again, the queue work is observed, useful in parrying an inbound spear point, pushing offline the inbound attack, reversing the spear and deliver with the point.

For details on AEMMA's training program, equipment requirements, armoured tournaments info, and ranking system, click on "training" on the navigation bar at the top of your browser window.


Notes

  1. Fiore dei Liberi - Fiore dei Liberi of Cividale d'Austria was born sometime between 1340 and 1350 in Cividale del Friuli, a small town on the river Natisone in Italy. According to available information, he had been practicing the art of swordsmanship for 50 years at the time of his writing the treatise entitled "Flos Duellatorum" or "Flower of the Battle". Accounts indicate that he trained in swordsmanship under the direction of the scholar and Swabian Johannes Suvenus (a former scholar of Nicolaus con Toblem). The knowledge and skill he developed under Johane's direction elevated Fiore dei Liberi to a master swordsman of his time.
     
  2. Professor Sydney Anglo, 1991, "Le Jeu de la Hache" - Archaeologia - (Society of Antiquaries of London) - It was generally believed, that combat with axes had never been popular in England and, even in the reign of that enthusiast for chivalric exercise, Henry VIII, only one such encounter is recorded. According to Dr. Anglo, there exists only one known treatise devoted exclusively to the technique of axe combat - Le Jeu de la Hache (Bibliotheque Nationale, Manuscrit francais 1996), a fifteenth-century treatise on the technique of chivalric axe combat and that has been published for the first time in Archaeologia. This article begins with general remarks on the possible source and author of the original text and makes numerous references to other treatises which denote axe-play or combat with pole-weapons, including Talhoffer and Fiori de' Liberi. The next section of the article includes a complete English translation of the original French text, followed by the entire French text, and an extensive bibliography.

Copyright © 2009 Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA)
Released: June 12, 2003 / Last modified: October 16, 2009