The staff is one of the most simple and universal of weapons. Used by cultures around the world and across time, it is as effective as it is pervasive. Though the dimensions and qualities of these staffs vary historically and geographically, in Western Europe these staffs appear to have usually been made of ash wood, as were most other pole arms, and were of various lengths and diameters depending on the situation for which they were intended, and the time and place in question. Although there were various traditions across Europe, with likewise various names applied to them, for the purposes of this article we are simply going to call them quarterstaffs, after the English style.
Although it undoubtably has rustic origins, it is after all just a piece of wood, the quarterstaff was understood as a foundational weapon by many late medieval and Renaissance fighting masters. From the 14th century the staff is described as part of the arsenal of the medieval fighting man, and its use if very similar to that of the spear. Along with wrestling, fighting with the staff was a foundational skill that informed the use of various other weapons. This made mastery of the staff compulsory for any knight or man at arms who would wield weapons of war, as can be seen in Fiore de Liberi's fighting book.
A staff was also easily portable, a useful walking aid for any traveler, and much more social acceptable than walking around all the time conspicuously armed to the teeth with weapons of war. Especially within the civilian context, using a staff for personal defense was often seen as legally and ethically superior to resorting to an edged weapon in civil conflict, as it did not necessarily imply that you intended to murder anyone with whom you fought. Training with the staff probably also had the benefit of being marginally safer than training with edged pole arms. In the sixteenth century we have manuscripts from two German fighting masters that give explicit and thorough instruction in the use of the staff, Pualus Mair and Joachim Meyer.
In England, the staff was extolled by George Silver as the most English of weapons and among the very best. "the short staff has the vantage against the battle axe, black bill, or halberd: the short staff has the advantage, by reason of the nimbleness and length: he will strike and thrust freely, and in better and swifter time than can the battle axe, black bill, or halberd, and by reason of his judgement, distance and time, fight safe. And this resolve upon, the short staff is the best weapon against all manner of weapons, the forest bill excepted." 1599, George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence.
Silver goes on to describe how a staffs primary strength is its reach and speed. Being unweighted with a blade, the staff can dart in and slap aside heavier weapons. This means that the staff was seen as a particularly fast and nimble weapon, despite its considerable length.
Later, in the Elizabethan period, the staff saw a revival as the archetype of English weapons, and was adopted as something of a national symbol. Fencing masters took up the staff as a symbol of their authority, and training was renewed and staff fighting became the foundation of later bayonet fighting systems.
The quarterstaff has seen a resurgence of interest among martial artists of late, and we think that's a great thing! Here is a video from our friends at the Gothenburg Free Fencers Guild teaching some of Meyer's quarterstaff basics.
Our quarterstaff is fashioned from ash wood that we hand select for a straight and tight grain. It is 1.2 inches in diameter and ~72" long. Ash is a lighter weight wood than the hickory that is often used in contemporary examples, an attribute that is both historically accurate and that enables the staff to move with the fluidity extolled in the period sources. At only $55 it is a bargain, and we suggest that, to save on shipping, you purchase several staffs with your friends or club, which will significantly reduce the total cost of shipping. To get details on a group order please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 612-331-6473.
Finally, if you are just beginning to train with a staff, be careful. It may not be sharp, but a staff is deadly. Thrusts with a staff have no 'give' at all, and it is possible to hit someone very, very hard without really intending to. That is, after all, how the Englishman above defeated three Spanish swordsmen with only his staff...