On the Pell

By J. Clements

Against a Stake

One of the simplest training tools for practicing strikes in Renaissance martial arts was the pell.  The pell was an ancient training device for practicing swordplay and training soldiers in arms.  It typically served as a practice target for striking with a shield and a wooden sword. A pell is something like the Medieval equivalent of a boxer’s punching bag. It consists of an ordinary wooden post or tree trunk planted firmly in the ground. A pell might be man-height and roughly six to twelve inches in diameter.

A rare figure of a knight training at a pell appears in the early 14th century, Les Etablissmentz de Chavelerie, now in the British Library (Royal MS 20 B XI, f. 3).  The pell is depicted as a simple knotted tree trunk of perhaps six feet in height and 4 inches diameter. A velum image of circa 1240-1305 by Jean de Meung from Traduction de Vegece (Ms 332 fol.1 in the Bibliotheque Inguimbertine, Carpentras, France) also includes an armored figure wielding a mace and shield against a pell. (The images are otherwise nearly identical except the first uses a sword on the pell and the second uses a mace). An early 14th century French image in the British Library (Sloane 2430) of a knight training from a work on the art of chivalry by Jean de Meun, features a similar illustration of a figure with heater-shaped shield and kettle-helm striking a post with a short sword.

The term “pell” may likely come from an old word essentially referring to a wooden stake. There are several literary references from the 1300s to possibly related phrases such as “pelting” in combat, and to “pele your opponent.”  The phrase "pell-mell" (meaning charging in a hectic or chaotic manner) also reportedly derives from the word. References and artwork from the 8th to 15th centuries also refer to or show warriors at the “practice post.” Training devices similar to the pell were known to be used by the Roman legions.  We also know that during the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for several types of wooden devices to be constructed for jousting and tilting practice (i.e., the quintain). Similar targeting devices are familiar in many fencing and stick-fighting arts. The pell is also reminiscent of the Japanese “makiwara” striking target used in karate or even the Chinese “wooden man” practice dummy of wing chun.  It is worth noting that wooden swords or sticks are described as being used on pells and not steel blades.  This is understandable as even a blunt blade would likely break after repeatedly striking a solid post.  Even in the 19th century, illustrations of French cavalry sabre instruction on foot depict striking a padded pell as still being a key exercise. Similar drills were performed in the British and Prussian military.

A pell offers a sturdy, resistant target that a fighter can use to hit with his weapon and slam his shield into. He can also place his shield against it while the sword passes forward to simultaneously execute a combination attack. Cuts, thrusts, slices, and hilt strikes can all be practiced with strength. The shield in particular can hit and smack out at the pell in a manner that would be unsafe in a live two-person drill.  These actions along with shield blocking are the primary movements performed in training against a pell. As a stationary target, a pell has limitations after all and it obviously never hits back—but then, it never complains you’ve hit too hard either.  Today, the pell is popular among many historical fencing students and Medieval combat reenactors where it’s once more being used to exercise and teach beginners targeting and strength in striking as well as attack combinations. Interestingly, even Medieval fighting enthusiasts entirely unfamiliar with the fact that pells were historically used have been known to construct their own stick fighting targets out of old tires, punching bags, and rolled up old carpet.

In his section on the Quintain (a rotating jousting target) from his 1840, Defensive Exercises, Donald Walker tells us that the pel comes from the Latin palus and that in the Emperor Justinian’s code of laws the use of pointless spears against the pel is mentioned as a sport. Walker also informs us that pels were sometimes fashioned in the shape of a “Turk or a Saracen, armed at all points, bearing a shield upon his left arm and brandishing a club or a sabre with his right.”  He then adds the Italians called this exercise “running at the armed man” (Walker, p. 122-124). The Latin words palos (literally “stake”) or palorum referred to a stake, prop, stay, or pale sharpened at one end and stuck in the ground and is related to “palisade” –a fence made of wooden stakes.  One English translation of pale even meant a stake or a pointed stick.  Being stuck in the ground a pell obviously will not move when being forcibly struck. The pell was also sometimes known as a “post quintain.”  

The Roman Way

In his commentary on gladiators, the Roman writer Juvenal in the 1st century offered the earliest mention of the pell when he asked, “Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter whether with swords or with spears, going through all the maneuvers?”  Novice gladiators are recorded as having practiced with wooden swords at a post or a man made of straw (Grant, p. 34 & 40).  This is, in fact, the origin of the common phrase “straw man” to refer to a false and easily defeated opponent.

But the most famous source for the use of the pell comes from the first Roman Christian military writer, General Flavius Vegetius Renatus, sometime between AD 383 and 450.  Vegetius’ tome on the art of war, Epitoma Rei Militari (“Epitome of Military Science”), argued that no one of his day any longer had experience in the old methods of military training and discipline.  Writing shortly after the Roman military disaster of Adrianople in 378 A.D., Vegetius yearned for the older ways of the early Republic, deplored the use of foreign mercenaries, and advocated a highly trained professional army of citizens drawn from the hardy rural population. Vegetius described that pell training sessions for these soldiers were conducted twice a day.

Often cited as influencing Renaissance military thinking, Vegetius was also quite popular among earlier Medieval writers on warfare. To improve Frankish military methods in the 9th century the archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus, even produced an annotated version of Vegetius under the title, De re militari. (Hanson, p. 152).  It was Eidio Colonna who in 1284 first brought Vegetius into vogue for the Medieval military mind. (Cockle p. 16). An English translation of Vegetius was also produced in 1408 under direction of Lord Thomas Berkeley.

Vegetius described innovations to Roman training as being based on the gladiator pattern, stating how: “a stake was planted in the ground by each recruit in such a manner that it projected six feet in height and could not sway. Against this stake the recruit practiced with his wickerwork shield and wooden stick [weighing the same as a real sword] just as if he were fighting a real enemy. Sometimes he aimed against the head or the face, sometimes he threatened from the flanks, sometimes he endeavored to strike down the knees and the legs. He gave ground, he attacked, he assaulted and he assailed the stake with all the skill and energy required in actual fighting...Furthermore, they learned to strike, not with the edge, but with the point...”

On “The Post Exercise” Vegetius wrote: “We are informed by the writings of the ancients that, among their other exercises, they had that of the post. They gave their recruits round bucklers woven with willows, twice as heavy as those used on real service, and wooden swords double the weight of the common ones. They exercised them with these at the post both morning and afternoon.”  To this he added, “This is an invention of the greatest use, not only to soldiers, but also to gladiators. No man of either profession ever distinguished himself in the circus or field of battle, who was not perfect in this kind of exercise. Every soldier, therefore, fixed a post firmly in the ground, about the height of six feet. Against this, as against a real enemy, the recruit was exercised with the above mentioned arms, as it were with the common shield and sword, sometimes aiming at the head or face, sometimes at the sides, at others endeavoring to strike at the thighs or legs. He was instructed in what manner to advance and retire, and in short how to take every advantage of his adversary; but was thus above all particularly cautioned not to lay himself open to his antagonist while aiming his stroke at him.” (M. P. Milner. Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, Liverpool, 1993).

However, Latin being what it is, an alternate translation of the same section 11 and 12 from Book I of Vegetius, yields us: "The ancients, as books reveal, trained recruits in the following way. They wove rounded shields of wicker, like basketry, in such a way that the frame would be double the weight of a battle shield. Similarly, they gave the recruits wooden foils, also double weight, instead of swords. Next, they were trained at the stakes not only in the morning but also in the afternoon. For the use of stakes is greatly advantageous not only for soldiers but also for gladiators. Neither the arena nor the field of battle ever proved a man invincible in arms, except those who are carefully taught training at the stake. However, single stakes ought to be fastened in the ground by individual recruits, in such a way that they cannot wobble and they protrude for six feet. The recruit practised against this stake, just as if against an enemy, with that wicker shield and foil as though with a sword and shield, so that he might aim as if for the head or face; now he is threatened from the sides, sometimes he endeavours to cut down the hams and shins; he retreats, attacks, leaps in, as if the enemy were present; he assails the stake with all his might, fighting with all skill. In doing this, care was taken that the recruit should strike in this way in order to cause a wound, in case he partly lays himself open to a blow… Further, they learned to strike by stabbing, not by cutting. For the Romans not only easily conquered those who fought by cutting, but mocked them too. For the cut, even delivered with force, frequently does not kill, when the vital parts are protected by equipment and bone."

Vegetius was careful to point out that a deficiency in cutting with the sword was that the fighter exposed his right flank to the enemy more so than he did with a straight stabbing action.  This would make great sense given the Roman army’s method of fighting in close formation with large shields and short stabbing swords while wearing heavy armor and carrying a spear.  That the Medieval swordsman, fighting in maile and plate armor, with or without a shield or buckler, and using a much longer and better quality steel blade than his Roman forebears, would still find it relevant is intriguing. It arguably establishes further continuity in the legacy between classical and Renaissance martial arts.  In the twelfth-century Metalogicon, John of Salisbury, student of the great Abelard, had already showed familiarity with Vegetius, as well as recognition of the Roman use of both cut and thrust.  Salisbury wrote: “In the ancient Roman military system, men were trained…in the use of weapons, and learned ahead of time, at home…to strike with the edge or thrust with the point of his sword.” (McGarry, p. 198-199). In chapter 13 of his manual on the art of war, De regimine principum, from c. 1295, Italian nobleman and archbishop Aegidius Romanus Colonna wrote how the thrusting sword was “the most useful form of sword, because it gives deeper and more mortal wounds and is less strenuous in use.” (Hoffmeyer, p. 21).  However, as Dr. Sydney Anglo has pointed out, the Romans did cut very effectively as well as thrust with the gladius at the post and in 436 BC the author Dionysius of Halicarnassus even wrote of a Roman battle against the Gauls where the legionnaires “would cut the tendons of their knees and topple then to the ground.” (Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, p. 108).  Sword expert Hank Reinhardt is fond of stressing that the Roman gladius, being a wide flat blade, is also a fine cutting implement in addition to its superb thrusting capacity. His experiments with reproduction swords of this type confirm its utility in this manner.  The myth of just how thrusting came to be seen as having been “rediscovered” in the 16th century is best left to another topic entirely.

Knights at the Pell

William Caxton’s 1489 version of Vegetius from, The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye, translated from the French, Les Livre des Faits d’Armes of Christine de Pisan’s c. 1408 (itself a Medieval working of Vegetius), is among the more influential editions and gives us several intriguing insights into Medieval fencing practice.  Six translations into French of Vegetius were already circulating at the time Christine wrote hers.  The quotes below are from the Caxton edition edited by A. T. P. Byles (Early English Text Society, London, Oxford University Press, 1932). The section on training of knights (i.e., legionaries) begins with pell work: “They made him take axes and swords and all manner of other weapons of war and assault and force themselves to smite against certain stakes…and there made great dexterity of arms, as hit he against their mortal enemy.” It also states: “So ought then to be shown unto them the turning of swiftness to cast and fight with both their arms, and the manner how they shall avoid or withdrawal themselves from strokes that in traverse or siding may come.”  It then adds, “and so assaulted the stake all about avoiding and turning here and there, and in this manner of fighting and assaulting they learned.” (p. 20 & 31). [1]  

These instructions emphasize performing active footwork in moving away from imaginary attacks while counter-striking.  This is also consistent with the fighting methods as described in fencing texts of the period in general. It is evidence that training in techniques and actions consisted of performing them against a pell as one would a live opponent.  Pell exercises were surely not done “lightly” but surely with intent –that is, as if the practitioner were really fighting and trying to injure an opponent.  There would be little value to exercising muscles against a practice target by doing so “softly” or “slowly.” 

An early 15th century English version of Vegetius paraphrased in verse form offers a different reading that sheds additional light on Medieval sword training. This little known “Poem of the Pell” from the anonymous, Knghthode and Batayle (BL MS Cotton Library: Titus A. xxiii. Fols. 6 and 7), is from Dyboski and Arend’s 1935 edition (paragraphs 38-43, p. 14-15).  Six stanzas of seven lines give a rare description of working with sword and shield against the post as it presumably was performed. Overall, the description is one of energetic, athletic, intense practice by aggressively striking at all angles and stepping agilely. A simple translation renders the following interpretation of the verses:

Line

Verse

Interpretation

1-2

Of fight the discipline and exercise

Was this: to have a pale or pile upright

The discipline and exercise of fighting was to use an upright pole called a pale or pile (i.e., a “pell”).

3

Of mannys hight [man’s height], thus writeth olde wyse;

Everyone agrees it should be about a man’s height.

4-5

Therwith a bacheler or a yong knight

Shal first be taught to [stand] & lerne fight;

With a pell a knight in training first learns to correctly strike from secure postures.

6-7

A fanne of doubil wight tak him his shelde,

Of doubil wight a mace of tre to welde.

Use a practice shield of double-weight and a heavy stick (or wooden sword).

 

8-9

This fanne & mace, which either doubil wight is

Of shelde & sword in [con]flicte or bataile,

Using a double weight shield and weapon to exercise with aids warriors in preparing for real fighting. (Interestingly, the wooden sword of double weight is here rendered as “mace”, i.e., a club or cudgel, and in other versions as “hevy stavys”, heavy staves).

10-11

Shal exercise as wel swordmen as knyghtys,

And noo man (as thei seyn) is seyn prevaile

Experienced fighters all suggest that warriors won’t be good in combat unless they first train rigorously at the pell.

12

In felde or in gravel though he assaile,

Senior experienced fighters knew that pell practice was necessary for any kind of armed combat.

13

That with the pile nath first gret exercise;

14

Thus writeth werreourys olde & wise.

 

15-16

Have [use] his pile or pale upfixed faste,

And, as [it] were uppon his mortal foo,

Everyone should practice hitting strongly on the pell as if it is a real opponent.

17-18

With wightynesse & wepon most he caste

To fighte stronge, that he ne shape him fro,—

Use a heavy practice weapon and learn to strike hard with ease by using the whole body behind the blow.

19-20

On him with shild & sword avised so,

That thou be bloos, and prest thi foe to smyte,

Practice moving in close to hit hard, stifle and press the opponent or else you’ll be vulnerable.

21

Lest of thin owne deth thou be to wite.

 

22-23

Empeche his hed, his face, have at his gorge,

Bere at the breste, or [serve] him on the side

Aim strikes to the head, face, and neck. Attack to the front or side. Or, alternatively: Attack with a forward motion or from a diagonal angle.

24

With myghti knightly poort, eue as Seynt George,

Imagine yourself like St. George fighting the dragon.

25

Lepe o thi foo, loke if he dar abide;

Move about quickly and practice caution.

26

Will he nat fle, wounde him; make woundis wide,

Think of really striking an opponent in actual combat.

27

Hew of his honed, his legge, his thegh, his armys;

Strike as if cutting to his hands, legs, thighs, and arms.

28

It is the Turk: though he be sleyn, noon harm is.

Although it’s only practice, get yourself psyched up.

 

29

And forto foyne is better than to smyte;

Thrusting is better than cutting because cutting exposes you and edges may not penetrate armor or bone to hit vital organs while the thrusting point almost always proves lethal.

30-32

The smyter is deluded mony [ways],

The sword may nat through steel & bonys bite,

Thentrailys ar cover in steel & bonys,

33

But with a foyn anoon thi foe fordoon is;

34-35

Tweyne unchys entirfoyned hurteth more

Then kerf or ege, although it wounde sore.

 

 

 

36-38

Eek in the kerf, thi right arm is disclosed,

Also thi side; and in the foyn, coverrt

Is side & arm, and er thou be supposed

In cutting out the right arm and side are exposed, whereas a thrust attacks straight and directly, though both actions have their own proper application.

39-40

Redy to fight, the foyn is at his hert

Or ellys where, a foyn is ever smert;

41

Thus better is to foyne then to kerve;

42

In tyme & place ereither is tobserue.

Reading the Poem of the Pell

During the period verse was often used for all manner of teaching and remembering information. It is fairly self-explanatory in its words and there are only a few archaic terms or phrases that cannot be understood easily.  Attempting an interpretation is not difficult but, as with any study of historical fencing sources, it is subject to the potential bias of our modern practice methods. 

The poem offers us an interesting and valuable source for information on how the pell was actually used for sword training and from it we may derive some clues for using the device in practice again today. What is interesting is the subtle nuances into the nature of Medieval swordsmanship that can be gleaned from its lines. Essentially, it is advice on using the pell for learning combat skills. 

The poem declares those who have not used a pell simply aren’t going to fight well.  It also explains the importance of using double-weight weapons, something that is not unfamiliar in 16th century fencing texts (and common in kenjutsu, Japanese swordsmanship, where large, extra heavy wooden practice swords called suberito are occasionally used in practice).  Tellingly, the “Poem of the Pell” begins by using the words “discipline” and “exercise” in regard to the act of fighting. This is yet further evidence of the substantial level of sophistication behind these fighting arts and underscores that knowledge of the craft was much more highly developed than any clumsy “hacking and slashing.”

Exercising at the pell allows the practice delivery of full-force blows from ready-positions—something crucially important if you hope to shear through maile armor or thick leather with a wider cutting blade. Intriguingly, one of the poem’s earliest lines states that a “swordman” or a knight “Shall first be taught to stand and learn to fight.”  This may likely refer to the fighter having received instruction in the core strikes and the fundamental counter-strikes against common attacks (which make up much of the content of period fighting manuals).  However, it may also simply indicate that fighting stances or on-guard ready postures are a preliminary necessity to beginning pell work and that the pell cannot be properly used without first knowing them.  Practical experience reveals that fundamental warding and striking stances are vital to the use of both the Medieval sword and shield and the long-sword. 

The poem also refers to several “targets” to strike. These specifically include the hand, legs, thighs, and arms. It is worth noting the inclusion not only of the hand as a feasible and worthwhile area to attack, but also makes the distinction made between the thigh and the leg.  This would indicate a conscious awareness that the lower legs were considered separately as an important target.  The poem additionally directs to practice hitting an opponent’s head, face, and neck (“gorge”).  Another line states to press at their chest or spurn their side. This could mean to strike at their torso and abdomen/hips but may also be an instruction to move forward or diagonally (traverse) when striking. Also of note is what the poem does not say about practicing with a sword and shield or with a double-hand sword.  It makes no reference to hitting with either edge of the sword, which was in fact a key aspect of employing a two-edged blade as described in several Medieval combat treatises. Nor do the verses refer to anything that may be directly interpreted as a form of back-swinging or wrapping blow.  It does not allude to any such form of back-edge strike delivered with a snap of the wrist (something popular today among some historical combat enthusiast who sometimes now use pells). 

What may be most surprising is how the poem alludes to keeping a proper “fighting attitude.”  Towards its final lines appears the suggestion to use mental imagery to simulate the necessary emotional content required for performing effectively in earnest combat. At one point, it even advises the reader to imagine himself as akin to “St. George” or his opponent as being an “infidel.”  A fighter typically had to strike with strength, determination, and ferocity, not to mention remain resolute in the face of someone doing the same in return.  He typically was called upon to do this standing unfailingly side by side with his fellows. It is no surprise that this would be reflected in exercising in dealing blows against a practice target.

In the midst of roughly describing how to use the pell for basic practice the poem appears to express the understanding that in the end this was not for sport but rather for the deadly earnest purpose of killing other human beings. This is consistent with Vegetius’ description of its function. It states to “fight strong” and to smite by being “close and oppress your foe.”  It also appears to warn the fighter to take care when attacking, as in line 25 it states, “look if he dare abide.” [2]   The possible meaning here is to pay attention as to whether the opponent reacts defensively or seeks to counter-attack.

In regards to Vegetius’ famous advice for the Roman legionnaires on thrusting over cutting, the verse version follows his but with some alteration.  It concludes by adding that both the cut (kerve, i.e., to carve) and thrust (foyn) have a proper time and place to observe (be employed). This is further evidence of how thrusting was a well-known and respected technique among skillful fencers long before the methods of the 16th century. Caxton’s version used the phrase to “smote edgelyng” (make an edge blow) in reference to cutting.

Continually Working the Post

Vegetius’ account of Roman sword training at the pell continued to have influence into the 16th century.  Following directly from Vegetius, Machiavelli even suggested in his own 1521, Arte of Warre, that armies of the time be trained at the post in the old Roman way.  In his 1572 version of Vegetius, The Foure Bookes of Martiall Policye, John Sadler wrote of Vegetius as saying, “bothe in the morninge and in the afternoone, the younge souldiers were occupied at an exercise called the stake. And this use of the stake, is not onely necessarye for our souldiers, but also for all maisters of fence. Neither was any ever thought either in the place of exercise, or in the field, a tried and valiant fellowe, that had not been very well exercised at a stake.”  Sadler’s translation offers some insight into the practice as he tells us the stake was five feet tall and driven firmly into the ground.  Agaynst this stake, as against the enemy, the yong souldier did advance hymselfe with his wicker [wooden targe] and his waster, as with a sworde & a buckler. Sometyme he stroke alofte as it were at the head or to the face, sometyme hee made at the side, sometyme belowe at the legges, sometyme even leape at it, and as earnestly and artificially would hee fighte with the same stake, as if his enemy had bene in place before him in which custome of exercise, this was generallye to bee observed: that so the younge souldier should strive to hennowe his enemie, that he him selfe in no part laye open to any blowes.” (Sadler, p. 9).

In 1563, Giovanni Maria Memno argued that Venetian citizens should be trained in using weapons and that in such schools dummies should be used on which to practice in the manner instructed by Vegetius. (Hale, Military Education, p. 238).  Sir Walter Scott has his character Oliver Proudfute, the bonnet-maker, practice with his sword against a wooden “Solodan or Saracen” in The Fair Maid of Perth (W. Scott, p. 143).  Some unique insight into methods of training come to us from Richard Mulcaster’s, Positions, published in 1581.  In Chapter 18, “Of Fensing, or the Use of the Weapon”, he states those who used warlike weapons “for valiauntnesse in armes, and activitie in the field, gamelike to winne garlandes and prizes, and to please the people in solemne meetinges…Hereof they made three kindes, one to fight against an adversarie in deede, an other against a stake or piller as a counterfet adversarie, the third against any thing in imagination, but nothing in sight, which they called ‘Greek’, a fight against a shadow. All these were practised either in armes, or unarmed.” [3]  

It is reasonable that delivering combinations of cuts and thrusts against empty air alone is itself insufficient practice for weapon skills. Training against a striking target is really a necessity in order for the fighter to develop the strongest and most fluid motions possible. Indeed, there are a great many actions that for some swords make the most sense only when delivered with force in opposition to another blade or a target area of the adversary—because certain movements require some resistance in order to then quickly wind or bind around the opponent’s weapon. This effect is absent when striking at empty air where (while the weapon can move more freely and easily) for many techniques it cannot be torqued or maneuvered around in the same manner. Obviously, repetition of strikes against a practice target in this manner also helps instruct in the necessity of moving with appropriate intensity and striking with sufficient force than would occur without such exercise. Training against a test target then, in addition to teaching how to apply impacts accurately with the edges or point, also taught, far better than could empty air, how to use resistance in stopping and reversing strikes in combination techniques.

Surprisingly, there are few references to the use of pells as teaching tools or practice devices in many of the surviving fighting manuals from the Middle Ages or Renaissance. The reason for this may be that advice on common exercising methods was simply not a concern for the authors. However, writing on practicing of cuts in the 1570 Italian edition of his fencing treatise Giacomo Di Grassi included exercise at the pell: "In order to [learn how to] attack with cuts, you should practice cutting every day, with both mandritti and riversi, using a piece of wood planted in the ground or some other device fit for that purpose." (Di Grassi, p. 147). Interestingly, the pell advice was omitted in the later 1594 English edition.

Indeed, the pell all but vanishes from fencing literature by the early 17th century and the ascendance of the thrusting rapier as the premier duelling weapon for gentlemen. The prolific military writer Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen in his 1616, De la malice Romaine, also illustrated Romanesque soldiers in the classical fashion practicing sword thrusts at pells topped with head-shaped busts. Wallhausen declared the exercise "very useful not only for soldiers but also fencers." (Anglo, Martial Arts, p. 287). Such pells with a wooden Saracen's or Turk's head on them were often used for spear and archery practice. But with few exceptions, by the mid-1600s the pell ceased having the prominent role it once held for fencing study. 

The Pell Legacy

A pell was simply a target that roughly simulated a human target. It was likely used to learn proper striking technique, including development of focus, aim, power, and distance. In martial arts techniques are learned by the process of building "muscle-memory" through long-term repetition of movements. This is aided by then applying them freely in unrehearsed ad hoc combinations. Pell work was a way to train alone by hitting against a resistant target with force and accuracy. In the same way that boxers use a heavy bag and Eastern Martial Arts practitioners use striking targets, ancient Roman and Medieval European swordsmen used the pell.

As a training device for fencers the pell has an ancient heritage behind it. Though, it was not "ubiquitous" in Medieval fencing. Having trained on a variety of pells for many years I’ve concluded what it offers a student is the same advantage that a punching bag offers a boxer. It primarily provides a focus target for developing aim as well as a means of sharpening sense of distance.  By offering resistance it additionally enables combinations of moves to be practiced in a more realistic manner not possible against empty air.  It is no wonder such a simple tool has been in existence for so long. Though developing force in strikes was reasonably a major goal of pell exercise, a fighter obviously also needed to learn to strike with precision and accurate range. Without control of blows there logically would have been less chance to actually hit a target. To be an effective swordsman the movements of the entire body-feet, arm, hands-had to be coordinated. In order to strike with the proper focused force the arms, trunk, and feet all needed to move in coordination. As a fighter moved around the pell dodging and traversing with his feints and strikes he would have developed this

Given that this violent age saw almost constant warfare, the subtle martial wisdom and experience as expressed in the poem was surely not derived arbitrarily nor would such advice by veteran warriors have been taken lightly.  Modern reconstruction and replication of Medieval or Renaissance swordsmanship techniques using the pell as a training aid has revealed it does indeed provide some of the very same benefits as a boxer receives from working a punching bag.  It can provide quite a good workout as well as allow you to calibrate the precision, focus, and force of strikes.  This can be achieved while defensively and offensively coordinating your shield with proper footwork.

In a real sense, trying to redevelop and learn Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship today while not using a pell is arguably much like trying to learn to box without ever hitting a punching bag.  You can do it, but it’s a lot harder and you won’t be nearly as good as you could be otherwise.  Whether Medieval swordsmanship practitioners today are utilizing a solid wooden stick (a waster) or a padded contact-weapon, they are advised to follow the wisdom of their medieval forebears and use the pell “to stonde and lerne to fight.”

See also Essential Training: The Pell

[1] “they made hem for to take axes and swerdis and almaner of other weapons of were and assayed & forced them self to smyte ayenst certain stakes…and there made grete appertyses [dexterity] of armes / as hit he ayenst theyre enemy mortall.”

“So ought thenne to be shewed unto them the tournez of swiftness to caste & fyghte with bothe theyr armes / and the manere how they shall glaunche or with drawe themselves from strokes that in travers or sydlyng may come.”

“And so assawted the stake al about glanching [avoiding] and tournyng here and there / and in this manere of fyghtyng and sawtyng they lerned.” 

[2] The section concludes with advise on practicing in armor and keeping armor clean and in good condition: “And exercise him uche in his armure, As is the gise adayes now to were, And se that every peeece herneys be sure Go quycly in, and quyk out of the gere, And kepe it cler, as gold or gemme it were; Corraged is that hath his herneys bright, And he that is wel armed, dar wel fight.” Knyghthode and Batile. A XVth Century Verse Paraphrase of Flavius Vegetius Renatus’ Treatise “De Re Militari”, R. Dyboski, Ph.d, and Z.M. Arend, Ph.D., B.A. Humphry Milford, Oxford University Press, Amen House, 1935, paragraph 58, p. 19.

[3] Richard Mulcaster. Positions wherin those primitive circumstances be examined, which are necessarie for the training up of children, either for skill in their booke, or health in their bodie.  1561. Imprinted by Thomas Vautrollier for Thomas Chare. London, 1581.

 
 

Note: ARMA - The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and the ARMA logo are federally registered trademarks, copyright © 2001. All rights reserved. No use of the ARMA name or emblem is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of the authors is strictly prohibited. HACA and The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999 by John Clements. All rights reserved. Contents of this site © 1999 by ARMA.

 

theARMA@comcast.net