A Path not Taken
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

A Path not Taken

a beach in twilight with sand, an area of rocks and seawead, pebbles, and steep cliffs covered with trees and brush
A beach at low tide in Greater Victoria, BC. Photo by Sean Manning 4 April 2021. At high tide there are two beaches!

The modern international historical fencing movement began in the 1990s, but before that there were isolated or short-lived attempts to collect old fencing manuals and practice their teachings. Like some exiled scholars before me, I am taking advantage of the situation to read books and find references which I could not at home. I read the following long before I discovered the historical fencers or was in the habit of listing all the useful passages I read. It was published in 1969 and describes the foundation of SCA Heavy combat in California. It begins:

Fencers and kendo men occasionally take part in tournaments. At present, some people are experimenting with rapier and dagger. No doubt still other weapons will appear. It will be interesting to see how they do.

It is likely interesting to consider the methods of their appointment. Except for a recent discovery of an old German manual by Jakob Sutor, which treats only a few kinds of arms, nobody has yet turned up contemporary instructions for sword and shield or the like. If any of you out there know of some, the Society will be grateful for the information. Meanwhile, reconstruction has been by trial and error. The influence of judo and karate is noticeable in the results. We would love to know if the men who stood at Hastings or Crécy- a time gap which may well have seen considerable evolution- had developed similar styles or quite different ones. In the later case, which set would be more effective?

Jakob Sutor published a manual in 1612 which drew on earlier books by Joachim Meyer for the traditional German weapons and Michael Hundt for the new Italian fencing. The Society for Creative Anachronism grew out of a medieval-themed party in Berkeley, California on May Day 1966 which had some fighting with epées and wooden swords. Until about 2010 they were probably the most popular kind of medieval-inspired fighting in English-speaking North America, especially for mass battles with hundreds on a side.

Bronze, copper-gilt, book and tin … treasures enough for any wandering adventurer! This was bought in the late and much lamented Snowden’s Used Books of Victoria, BC

There was probably a facsimile of Fior di Battaglia in the University of California system, and with enough digging they could have uncovered a bibliography of fencing literature and ordered xeroxes or microfilms of Manciolino or Meyer. I think that this attempt died out because it was just so much more laborious to find these books (and find the books which listed these books) before digital library catalogues. The antiquarians before the First World War and the fencers with a history hobby were not always careful about citing their sources and explaining where they had found information. And what these manuals taught seemed so different from mid-20th-century sport fencing or fight scenes in Chrétien de Troyes that even if they had been available, the wonderful mix of fans and academics and writers and hippies which founded the Society for Creative Anachronism might not have been able to accept it. It was later and within the “rapier” end of the SCA that people began to collect and work with old fencing manuals and contribute to what eventually became the global historical fencing movement.

It is hard to trace these isolated early attempts because many did not keep records and because fencers are proud people whose stories can grow in the telling. But I think that some of these early attempts belong in the history of the historical fencing movement.

The passage quoted above was published as Poul Anderson, “Richard the Lion-Hearted is Alive and Well in California,” Amra no. 50 (1969), reprinted in L. Sprague de Camp (ed.), The Blade of Conan: The World’s Greatest Fantasy Writers Pay Tribute to Robert E. Howard (Ace Books: New York, 1979) pp. 275-290 (quote on pages 287 and 288), and purchased at the much lamented Snowden’s Used Books in the 600 block of Johnson St., Victoria, BC.

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(Scheduled 25 Jan 2021)

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