Some thoughts on Guy Windsor’s “The Medieval Longsword”
Guy Windsor, Mastering the Art of Arms, Volume 2: The Medieval Longsword (School of European Swordsmanship: Helsinki, 2014) (link to author’s online store)
Sometimes reviewers are tempted to review the book which they wish was sitting in front of them, rather than the book which actually is there. This is not a discussion of possible interpretations, their strengths and weaknesses, and why the author prefers the one which he does. Instead, it is an experienced teacher’s best attempt to teach Fiore’s art to people today from scratch, and it does that very well if somewhat narrowly.
The Medieval Longsword is divided into twelve chapters (an excellent number!) plus some supplementary material. Practically, it has a beginning where Guy explains his approach and goals and describes the manuscripts and some general theory, a middle where Guy teaches body mechanics from basic footwork and strikes to techniques and counter-techniques, and a conclusion where Guy teaches how to apply these techniques and principles in increasingly unpredictable situations. Guy explains that he structured the book like a beginner’s course according to his experience teaching students at his school in Helsinki and seminars in other countries. The stances and techniques are illustrated with clear black-and-white photos, and described in his own words including paraphrases of the manuscripts. This book only covers unarmoured combat with the sword, as few beginners have a suit of armour. A beginner would do well to start from Guy’s interpretation, since it is backed by close knowledge of the Italian text, knowledge of biomechanics and other martial arts, and by peer review by the group of instructors who teach at the Western Martial Arts Workshop (WMAW) in Racine, Wisconsin.
I am perhaps not the best judge of whether Guy’s descriptions are clear, as I have trained in a very similar way for years and have no practice partner at the moment. After a quick reading, I think that Guy rejects overhand thrusts in favour of turning his knuckles down as he thrusts from above, and am surprised that he does not describe how to cut roverso mezano (a backhand horizontal cut with the back/short/false edge of the sword) from high guards, since he mentions that these guards can deliver this blow. On the other hand, his description of his first two four-part drills is pellucid.
Guy includes an eclectic mix of ideas and sources to fill in things which the sources do not address. Twenty-first century burghers with desk jobs are not fifteenth-century Italians raised from childhood for a life of arms, so we need to learn different things in different ways. The bibliography is very brief and focused on Fiore’s manuscripts, other fencing manuals and fighters’ memoirs, and books on pedagogy or popular psychology. The works on medieval book culture, memory training, animal lore, and Aristotelian physics from his previous book The Swordsman’s Companion are conspicuously absent, perhaps because Robert Charrette’s book now points readers to them. Guy’s allusions to these things are very subtle, and I am not sure that everyone who should learn about them will follow Guy’s offhand comments to Bob’s introduction to specialists’ books and articles. In my limited experience teaching at a university, beginners usually require a bit more direction than that.
People familiar with Fiore’s art should watch for Guy’s pedagogical interpretation of the structure of the manuscripts. Guy envisions Fiore walking students through increasingly complex types of crossing, from narrow defenses against dagger thrusts, to the different responses against cuts and thrusts with the sword in one hand, to the bewildering complexity of the sword in two hands. This is not called out as clearly as it could be, perhaps because Bob Charrette has recently described a similar idea in detail, but at the very least it is elegant to reproduce the structure of the manuscripts in teaching. He also has lots of advice on how to create the right type of sword-crossing for a given technique, and on what to do when one partner in a drill gets distracted. Unfortunately, this book does not address the tricky social problem of what to do when one is training with another group and notices one’s partner choosing the wrong measure or acting halfheartedly! This book takes the problem of how to train very seriously, but many of its solutions (such as special exercises to build “fencing memory” so that one can analyze one’s success and failures in sparring) depend on a whole group adopting its training program.
Readers who attend the right conferences and read the right forums will also notice when Guy touches on standing questions. Sometimes Guy acknowledges controversy and the existence of alternative views, as in his even-handed treatment of the role of sparring and competition in recreating these arts. Other times he just mentions that there is disagreement then gives his own view and why he holds it, as in his comments on parrying with the flat, the “three turns of the sword,” and why one manuscript divides guards into stabile, instabile, and pulsativa types. Yet other times he does not acknowledge that there is any controversy at all. The group of Fiore instructors who teach at WMAW have recently asked each other whether Fiore taught students to turn or “wind” their swords in the crossing as some other teachers did. This book contains Guy’s answer (pp. 174-176), but not the word “winding” or any other marker which could help readers find other perspectives. I agree with Guy that many of these questions are unanswerable with the sources which we have, and many have a fairly clear right answer, but I might have acknowledged doubt about one or two.
Guy’s style is distinctive, serious, and martial. It certainly transmits a sense of personality, although it lacks the playfulness and variation of Fiore’s best writing. Guy keeps to his purpose with intense focus, so that his book does what it tries to do very well. His book is very confident, even when he states that something is unknown and that interpretations will continue to develop. I found this tiresome, because my belief that some things are debatable constantly clashed with Guy’s flat statements, but beginners may appreciate it more than they would hedging and qualifiers.
What can one learn from this book? A great deal about how to fence, how to teach fencing, and how to learn fencing. I should think that any practitioner or teacher of any martial art could learn something from this book, despite its nominal audience of beginners in one system. This book contains a sketch of a justification for why Guy does what he does, but not much on alternatives and other interpretations. This will not be a problem for beginners, at least not until they begin to read the manuscripts or meet people from other groups, but it makes the book less useful than it could be for people who do things differently or hold Guy’s theories to the same high standards that he holds theirs too. What one cannot learn from this book is the cultural and historical context of Fiore and his works. Guy’s offhand mention of tournaments and judicial duels may puzzle readers who have never studied late medieval deeds of arms, or don’t understand how a duel could have anything to do with the law; they are also likely to overlook the dry comment that Il Fior di Battaglia “comes from a different cultural and educational background from ours, one in which memory training was fundamental.” This book could produce effective swordsmen, but I am not sure that it could produce fencers who can work with the manuscripts beyond the level of “where does my hand go?” Depending on your perspective, that is either utterly irrelevant or a fundamental failure.
That said, Guy has done much more than any other student of Fiore’s art to explain why he does what he does in writing, and it would be unreasonable to criticize a book for failing at a task which it was not meant to achieve. It is symbolic of his attitude that he teaches with a copy of his main text open on a lectern for students to check, and that his book includes specific advice on what to do when one decides that one has been practicing something historically incorrect. I think that students of Fiore’s art will find this book helpful, but I also hope that others (especially others who don’t teach at WMAW!) will be inspired to justify their interpretations or criticize Guy’s in writing, and that yet others will acquire the academic skills and perform the necessary work to put Fiore into his historical context. From now on, any serious work on Fiore’s art must show awareness of Guy’s interpretation.
Once again, I have trained with Guy and with Bob Charrette, and I agreed to review this book in exchange for an electronic copy. I confess that in correspondence I have sometimes sounded as if I knew more about Fiore’s art than I really do, and that I probably know less about late medieval Italy than Guy does. I only wish that his learning and curiosity were more visible to the innocent reader.
(update 2014/09/13: added five missing words and some markup)
(update 2015/11/24: added link to Guy’s online store)
(update 2022-08-15: fixed link to image of book cover)