How They Trained

One of the historical topics that has always interested me is how did the Medieval and Renaissance warriors whose art we emulate actually train? While many of the treatises and other historical documents point very well to how our warrior forefathers fought most don't go into any detail as to how they trained (which makes perfect sense, from a historical point of view; it would be something like a modern how-to business book about stock trading including a section on how to use your cell phone. That's assumed common knowledge, and instructional books don't tend to include sections on assumed common knowledge).
However, there is at least one source that presents this rather clearly, although not in the direct prose style we might prefer. In the book "Knyghthode and Bataile" (MS.243) by John Neele there is a section devoted to a bit of martial poetry called "Poem of the Pel." It is from this poem that we are able to piece together a fairly good picture of how a warrior of this time frame daily trained. In so doing if offered sage and solid advice for the martial practitioner of that era, as well as our own modern one. 
Spoiler alert: As the title suggests, if you're not training with your pell on a regular basis you're missing a significant part of your training.  
The text for this translation is taken from this site. As you can read from the explanation, lines with an asterisk on them include questionable or incomplete translations. So here now I offer an interesting piece of our historical documentation, together with my own understanding, interpretation, or suggestions of certain sections: 

Vegetius it is, that I intend
After to go in lore of exercise,
Beseaching him that finds fault, amend
It to the best of his knowledge;
As ready will I be with my service
To amende this text, as further to procced.
*Now well to go, the good angel vs lede.

The first line refers to Vegetius, who is Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus. He was a writer in the late Roman Empire, working in the late 4th Century. He is primarily known for his book "De Re Militari" which guided military minds all through the Middle Ages. According to the Wikipedia article on Vegetius, in this book he "explains how one should fortify and organize a camp, how to train troops, how to handle undisciplined troops, how to handle a battle engagement, how to march, formation gauge and many other useful methods of promoting organization and valour in the legion." It is the section on training troops to which the poem refers, specifically to how one trains individually. 
First is to learn chivalry’s pace,
That is: to serve in journey & battle;
Great peril there is, that they there-in do face,
*That seyn : our enemy wil our host assail
*And jumpe light; to goon is gret availe,
*And XX Ml. pace in howrys fyve
*Wel may they goon, and not goon ouer blyve.

This is, I believe, a simple reminder to the training warrior that their work is serious, desperate, and deadly. If you serve by going to war, you can expect your enemy to attack your army with everything they have. So you, as the professional fighting man of the Medieval era, had better train with everything you have as well. 
And lightly may they go and come,
But faster and they pass, it is to run;
In running, exercise is good also
To smite first in the fight, and also when
To take a place our footmen will first run,
* And take it, also to search or sture
Lightly to come & go, running is sure.

Running is also right good at the chase,
And to leap dikes is also good
To run and leap and lay upon the face,
*That it suppose a mighty man go wood
And lose his heart without sheding blood ;
For how well a man may run and leap
May well decide and safe his party keep.

To swim is best to learn in summer season,
Men find not a bridge as often as a flood
* Swimming to avoid and chase a host will eason
Like after rain, the rivers go wide;
That every man in the host can swim, is good.
* Knight, squire, footman, cook and cosynere
* And gnome and page in swimming is to learn.

So, who knew cardio was a hot topic in 1458? Well, warriors trying to build up the stamina to stay in a fight long enough to defeat the enemy, clearly. Any one of us who has crossed swords in full HEMA protective gear knows that sparring with intent can quickly become very tiring. We, thankfully, are able to tell our opponent we're tapped and go sit down; at the very worst your pool in a tournament ends eventually and you can go rest awhile. 
For these historical fighters such a break was not always the case; plus by the time this tome was written, the armor was far heavier than our modern gear. So running was suggested as a way to build up your cardio-vascular stamina in order to be light and quick, to strike first, and to be able to run down your opponent if need be. Swimming is also suggested as a good exercise, but one that could really save lives in a campaign if a river crossing had to be made. Everyone from the knights and squires to the cooks and the pages should know how to swim, according to the poem. Good advice, indeed. 

The discipline and exercise of the fight
was this: To have a pel or pile upright
Of a man’s height, thus the old and wise do write
With this a bachelor, or a young knight
Shall first be taught to stand, and learn to fight
And with a fan of double weight he takes as his shield
And a double-weight mace of wood to wield.

This middle section is where the discussion of how to train alone really comes into play. As you can see, Vegetius' advice to train at the pell is enthusiastically passed on by Neele. A pell of about a man's height is to be put into the ground, from which one can develop proper distance, measure, footwork, as well as specific cuts. It is also suggested to use a training sword and shield of double weight to build up muscle and, again, cardio.  
However, also note the lines, "With this a bachelor, or a young knight, Shall first be taught to stand, and learn to fight..." I personally think this tells us a bit more about how one trained in this era. The warrior shall be taught how to stand, and how to fight. This is no crazed, undisciplined (pardon the pun) pell-mell hacking and wild flailing about. No, there was a teacher, a weapons master of some kind or another, carefully watching the young Schuler as he stepped, delivered an attack, countered, steped in at another angle, attacked again, etc. 
Because Vegetius' words held sway throughout the entire Medieval era, and his work was only displaced well into the Renaissance as more written material became available, it is fair to assume that this system was the general approach to training young warriors, knightly or otherwise. The young Schuler was most likely introduced to the pell at an early stage, learning the rudimentary foundations of his art, with the trainer nearby to watch and pick out his errors. As the Schuler advanced and became more adept, the trainer's expectations became more, the training longer and harder, the errors being pointed out smaller, yet nonetheless there was the ever-present pell there to train with. 

This fan and mace, either of which are of double weight
Of shield, swayed in conflict or battle,
Shall exercise swordsmen, as well as knights,
And no man, as they say, will be seen to prevail,
In the field, or in castle, though he assail,
Without the pel, being his first great exercise,
Thus write warriors old and wise.

Can it be stated any more clearly than in these stanzas? No swordsman would excel at his art at that time without regular exercise at the pell, just as modern HEMA fighters will not excel at ours without equal pell time. 
Have each his pel or pile up-fixed fast
And, as it were, upon his mortal foe:
With mightiness the weapon must be cast
To fight strong, that none may escape
On him with shield, and sword advised so,
That you be close, and press your foe to strike
Lest your own death you bring about.

Impeach his head, his face, have at his gorge
Bear at the breast, or spurn him on the side,
With knightly might press on as Saint George
Leap to your foe; observe if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? Wound him; make wounds wide
Hew off his hand, his leg, his thighs, his arms,
It is the Turk! Though he is slain, there is no harm.

And to thrust is better than to strike;
The striker is deluded many ways,
The sword may not through steel and bones bite,
The entrails are covered in steel and bones,
But with a thrust, anon your foe is forlorn;
Two inches pierced harm more
Than cut of edge, though it wounds sore.

These stanzas emphasize the need to train with intent, as we always should. We needn't always strike with mightiness but we must strike seriously, watching carefully what we are doing. You can do very slow, measured strikes if this is part of focusing carefully on form; striking limply because you're not really into it won't improve your skills at all. So otherwise, strike in training as you would in an actual fight. Go against your pell as if you're trying to strike off various limbs. Train, this aged text tells us, as if your life depends upon it.  
But it also tells us the overall importance placed on the thrust rather than the hew. Based upon the wording it would appear as if Neele suggested using the hew as a way to cut in towards your opponent -- should you happen to lop off an arm in the process, great, but if not that at least your point is on your opponent, primed for a thrust. Clearly, the fully armored knight of this period would use the half-sword, but these instructions could be interpreted as being meant for unarmored fighting as well as for actual battle (it is in the title, after all). From this perspective, it could be seen as the knight wielding his poleaxe against another with a cutting motion to percuss his enemy, then thrust into an opening.

In the cut, the right arm is open,
As well as the side; in the thrust, covered
Is side and arm, and though you be supposed
Ready to fight, the thrust is at his heart
Or elsewhere, a thrust is ever smart;
Thus it is better to thrust than to carve;
Though in time and space, either is to be observed.

This fan and mace, either of which are of double weight
That when the Bachelor Knight has exercise’d
Of heavy gear, and after takes light
*Harness, as sheild and sword of just assise
His heart advances, hardness to arise
My bretheren is delivered, thinks he,
And on he goes, as glad as he may be.

After having trained with a shield, sword, and/or mace that is twice the regular weight used in the fight, the "Bachelor Knight" will find the real things feel light in comparison. That's excellent advice, now or then, in regards to building up your muscle strength and stamina to wield your weapons effectively. 
And over this all, exercise in armies
*The doctour is to teach and discipline
For double wage a worthy man in the army
*Is likley to take, if he was proved digne
*Before his prince, ye, tymes •VIII• or •IX• ;
And what he had, and barely had the knight
That could not as he in the army fight.

Here now we have a specific mention of the afore referred to weapons master. The "doctour" in this section is the Latin doctore, which could be translated to mean teacher, instructor, or trainer. Whether as a larger unit or individually in an inner bailey, can't you just imagine a demanding yet skilled doctore drilling his young charges to make sure they become the best fighters they possible can be? Here is the historical ancestor of the modern drill sergeant, as well as the HEMA instructor working with novice students. 
Res publica right commendable is,
If knights and armies there abound,
For if they are present, nothing may go amiss
But if they are absent, al goes to ground;
*In gemme, in gold, in silk be thei fecounde,
*It fereth not ; but myghti men in armys,
*They fereth with the drede of deth & harmys.

Cato the Wise said: where as men error
In other things, it may well be amended
*But emendatioun is noon in were ;
*The crime done, forwith the grace is spent
*Or slayn anoon is he that there offended
Or put to flight, and ever after he
Is worth less than them which made him flee.

*But turne ageyn, Inwit, to thi preceptys !
With sword & sheild the learned Knight
At pel, the art of lance is no exception
A lance of more weight than is needed
Take him in hande, and teach him it to stear,
And to cast at that pel, as at his foe
So it goes that route, and right upon him go.

*Of armys is the doctour heer tattende,
*That myghtily this dart be take & shake,
*And shot as myghtily, forthright on ende,
*And smyte sore, or nygh, this pile or stake ;
Hereof vigor in the army will awake
*And craft to caste & smyte shal encrece ;
The warriors thus taught shall make peace

Our demanding doctore makes another appearance, drilling the students until they can smite mightly, but in so doing develop increased vigor. In doing so the Medieval armies would "make peace," whereas we modern HEMA practitioners win at sparring and tournaments. Either way, this poem tells us to train hard at your pell.
Of the army, the third or fourth part,
Are taught to shoot with bows long
With arrows; here is the doctrine and art
The strength to break the bow strong
*And swift and craftily the taclis fonge,
Starkly the left arm holds the bow
And draws with the right, and smite and overthrow

Set heart or eye upon that pel or pile
Shoot nigh or on it, and if you ride
On horse, with a bow big and hale;
Smite the face, breast, back or side
Compel them to flee or fall, as he is bid.
Constantly do this exercise,
On foot and horse, writes the old and wise.

That archery is great utility
It needs not to be told to any that here is
Cato, in the books wrote he,
Among the discipline of chivalry
And Claudius, that warred many years
Well said, and Africanus Scipio
With archery often confounded his foe.

* Use eek the casting of stones with sling or hand
It falleth ofte, if other shot ther noon is,
Men harnessed in steel may not withstand
The multitude and mighty cast of stone
It often breaks and bruses flesh and bone
And stones in some effect ar everywhere
And slings are not noxious to bear.

*And otherwhile in stony stede is fight,
A mountain otherwise is to defend
A hill, a town, a tour and every knight
*And other wight may cast stones on end.
*The stonys axe, if other shot be spende,
*Or elses thus : save other shot with stonys,
*Or use them, as required, both atonys.

*The barbulys that named ar plumbatys,
*Set in the sheld [is] good to take fyve,
*That used them of old, wer great estatys
As archers, the would shoot and drive
Her foes to flight, or leave them not alive
This shot suggested Diocletian
To his Emperor, Maxamilian.

The knights and warriors all,
Quickly to leap on horse and so descend
Upon the right or left side, as it falls
That exercise is best kept for the end;
Unarmed at first, then armed ascend
And after with a spear, or sword and shield
This feat is good, when troubled is the field.

"The knights and warriors all." Just a good reminder here that not all of the well-armored, well-trained professional fighters on a Medieval battlefield were actually knights. More on that later. 
And 60 pounde of weght he shall have to bear
And go each day a knight’s pace,
*Witaile & harness, and sword and spear
Freely to bear, all this is but solace
If this exercise is done often in time and space
Hard it may be, it time the pain will be eased,
The young men with this are best appeased.

Yes, the full set of plate armor weighed 60 pounds. Yes, carrying around an extra 60 pounds -- let alone fighting, running, moving swiftly and nimbly -- isn't easy. Yet does this extra weight make you like a turtle on it's back if you fall? Nothing could be further from the truth. Neele refers to it here and assures young warriors that, if you practice, you'll get better at managing the weight of the armor. 
Here is an interesting video to that effect:

And here another:

And exercise him within his armor,
As is the guise thesedays to wear,
And see that every piece of the harness is sure
Go quickly in and quickly get out of gear
And keep it clean, as if gold or gems it were.
Encouraged is he with a harness bright,
And he that is well armed, dares to well fight.

To ward and watch a host is to learn
*Both holsom is that fully and necessary
*Withinne a pale an host is to govern,
That day and night safely there-in they tary
*And take rest, and never oon myscary;
*For fate of which, ha worthi not myscheved
*Now late, and al to rathe? Is this not proved?

So much as changed since "The Poem of the Pel" was first published, yet when it comes to training with the sword, so little. The poem gives up a great glimpse into the daily training of this era, something as close to a snapshot of the time as we'll ever get. For the modern HEMA practitioner, it also guides us towards one of the most important tools we can use. Use your pell daily, this text tells us, practice at is with intent, working on all the various aspect one can in fighting, and you will prevail against your less-well-trained opponent. Sage advice from the ages, indeed.

So, how often do you train at the pell? What is your regular pell routine? What kind of pell do you use? Do you like it?

Stay loose and train hard!

-- Scott