All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.
Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)
A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.
A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.
Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:
All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.
People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.
Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:
Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city? The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt! O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you! Era the whole land outgrows us, You must surely hear our words! (80) Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness, The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind. Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land, The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field]. Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85) The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you. We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go, Cobwebs are spun over our field gear, Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us, The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90) Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!
Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
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?
Jean Cabaret d’Orville, The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon. Translated and introduced by Steve Muhlberger (Freelance Academy Press, 2021) ISBN: 978-1-937439-54-5 USD 49.95 Publisher’s website My esteemed colleague Professor Emeritus Steve Muhlberger in Ontario has finally finished a major project, a translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke from 15th century... Continue reading: Shameless Plug: The Chronicle of the Good Duke
In print and on this blog I have written a lot about how I think the basic debate in the study of Greek warfare from 1989 to 2013 was about whether we should read Greek writers as giving faithful glimpses at a timeless unchanging practice of warfare, or as class and civic partisans whose stories about the good old days were just as wishful as the ones we hear today. People who like to talk about abstract ideas often link the second approach to words like deconstruction and postmodernism and names like Eric Hobsbawm and Jill Lepore. But they were not the only thoughtful people to realize this, and in October I found some similar thinking in an unexpected place.
Back in 1924, Sir Charles Oman revised his history of warfare in Middle Ages after being introduced to the works of Hans Delbrück. Have a look at his new account of the battle on the Marchfeld between Austro-Hungarian and Bohemian forces in 1278, in one of the chapters which he says he specially reworked in response to the German historian.
Early in the pandemic, British History Online was free to access. And I remember reading an Anglo-Norman proclamation from Edward II or Edward III forbidding anyone whatsoever from bringing any daggers, swords, hatchets, bows and arrows, long knives, aketons, plates, steel caps, or other offensive or defensive arms into sight of the palace at Westminister... Continue reading: Apropos of Nothing
Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.
So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century. Read more