What is the Goal of Historical European Swordsmanship?
by Gregory Mele
Historical European Swordsmanship (HES) is a subset of Western martial arts, in most cases referring to reconstructed martial arts (the notable exception being classical fencing). There is a meme in the HES community that those who practice HES “study Fiore” or “do Silver’s backsword”, etc. While this is fine as a form of nomenclatural shorthand, it is not, strictly speaking, accurate. When it is used as justification to study a single text in isolation of either its peers or the larger milieu from which it derives, it can completely undermine our goals.
While schools such as the Chicago Swordplay Guild study what survived of the teachings of fencing masters such as Fiore dei Liberi over the past 600 years, no one “taught Fiore” besides Fiore, and when he died, his precise, personal art died with him. This is not unique; indeed it is quite true of living, traditional martial arts as well. Transmission is always a challenge, and once a master has made an art his own, what he transmits can be altered or changed, sometimes quite deliberately. Let me give an example, based on a well-known Asian martial art in which I had the pleasure of studying: aikido.
There are literally millions of people studying aikido today. Most of the major lines of aikido trace their roots back to the direct students of Morihei Ueshiba, the art’s founder. Yet, there are significant technical differences (and at times tactical ones) between the schools – all largely based on when the founder of the sub-school studied with Ueshiba, and his own martial arts background.
You’ll discover that some branches of aikido are quite soft, others are harder, and almost all have very different curricula for weapons. Many no longer emphasize atemi – the strikes used to set up a throw – while others use two or three strikes in each kata. But, each major line of transmission is based on what the student learned from Master Ueshiba, and combined with his own martial pedigree. Even within any one of those groups, however, you can take any three teachers of one branch of Aikido and, while all will teach nearly the same curriculum, each teacher will emphasize some things differently from his or her peers.
Compared to what we study at the Chicago Swordplay Guild, aikido is a living art whose founder has only been dead a little over 40 years. Armizare is 600 years old, and went extinct sometime in the 17th century. If you were trying to reconstruct aikido today and all you had were a handful of books, not all by the mainline of the art, and the use of “frog DNA” – studying similar actions in other throwing or grappling arts – which aikido would you get? That of the mainline Aikikai? The judo-influenced style of Tomiki? The older, harder Yoshinkan? Or would you get an entirely new branch of the larger “aikido family”?
My personal belief and guiding principle is that you’d get a new “tree”, grown from old root-stock. We can’t teach “Fiore’s art”, as Fiore taught it, because we can’t even be sure that any of the four manuscripts with his name on it were directly actually penned by him. We know almost for certain that the newly discovered manuscript (the Florius manuscript in Paris) was not. We know that the manuscript housed at the Getty Museum is derived from the manuscript presented to Niccolo d’Este, but is not that manuscript. Likewise, the Pisani-Dossi manuscript is dated “1409”, yet it has notable disagreements with the prologue of the Getty regarding some basic details of Fiore dei Liberi’s life. No single copy of the Flower of Battle has “all” of the same plays for the weapons used. Some show variations mentioned in the text of another copy, but there are also a few discrepancies, among such simple things as the proper way to name the guards of the sword, or which foot appears forward in a technique.
Without an “Ur-text” or “master copy” known to be in the author’s own hand, we cannot assign primacy to any one text. And even if such a text existed, the author himself is not available for consultation or verification of simple questions such as: How do I shift my bodyweight in this throw? Should my rear hand be six inches off of the stomach when I am in posta breve? When is it better to exchange a thrust, and when is it better to break it? Like an old Time-Life commercial, the only answer is “read the book”.
Therefore, we must reconcile all of the texts we have, as best we can, to try and recreate Armizare in a form that Fiore dei Liberi would recognize. We begin with the four dei Liberi manuscripts (Getty, Morgan, Pisani-Dossi, and “Florius”). This will at least give us a concordance, and where one text is the outlier from its peers, a good idea at what might be the correct, or at least “canonical” application of the technique. This is as close as we can get to that “Ur-text” and to the mind of dei Liberi himself.
By adding a study of Filippo Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria dimicandi (“Of the Art of Swordsmanship”), we have a snapshot of how the dei Liberi tradition passed beyond its founder and was being taught two generations later. As I will discuss in another post, this helps us to verify or refute our interpretations, but also shows that even within 70 years, at least one branch of the art had adapted and changed in some significant ways.
Finally, if our goal is a living martial art, and not a museum piece, then we must accept that at some point the texts in our core tradition may not provide all of the answers we seek. This is when we may be forced to “add frog DNA” to our dinosaur. When this happens, there is a natural hierarchy to employ for which material gets primacy:
- Contemporary traditions (Liechtenauer tradition) from neighboring lands, or near-contemporary traditions (the Bolognese masters) from Italy, that taught the same weapons, used in the same milieu.
- Later living traditions from the same region – such as Greco-Roman wrestling, folk wrestling, classical fencing, etc.
- Non-native martial arts that apply comparable weapons in comparable milieus – such as applying classical Japanese arts to medieval European ones.
- Study of modern kinesiology, body-mechanics and motor-learning.
- Practical experimentation with accurate arms and armour.
- Pressure testing in mock-combats and combat sports.
Note that “sparring” and “experimentation” occur well down the line. It isn’t that these activities aren’t an important part of reconstruction; rather, until you have a solid foundation, there is nothing to really test. Fencing and wrestling in an agonistic, as opposed to antagonistic, environment, without solid theory or technique may be fun, but it is uneducated brawling at worst. At best, we simply fall back on whatever prior training we may have, so that we are now doing judo, escrima or kung fu with a new weapon in our hand or a new uniform on our body. But it won’t be Armizare, anymore than using a replica rapier like an electric foil is 17th century fencing.
Martial necromancy is a tricky business. We cannot remove the “historical” from Historical European Martial Arts without losing the point entirely. Otherwise, why not just build a dinosaur with Fiore feet, Liechtenauer arms, a Japanese head, and a Filipino tail? On the other hand, for the reconstruction to be valid, we cannot downplay martial; it must work, and it must work under pressure. Beautifully executed set-plays in pitch-perfect historical gear are museum dioramas, not combat, if they become the end in and of themselves.
Finally, our reconstruction must be an art, in the classical sense. Governed by rules, it must be flexible, capable of adaptation and nuance by those who have integrated those rules. That is what allows us to use the art, to answer those questions where the Master remains silent, and yes, if such is the desire, to apply it to new/modern situations.
To me, we must have all of these things, or we have none of them. But first and foremost, the best mindset to take for reconstructing HES is to see ourselves as caretakers of the art. Whatever we might think that we can add, subtract or modify for “modern defense” or “sparring”, we have an obligation to try and understand the art as it was meant to be and to pass it on as whole as we can – otherwise, within a generation it can be lost all over again.
It can be a bitter pill to think that even after decades of carefully following all of these steps, we simply will never “do it just like Fiore”. But it needn’t be. If we establish a system that holds the Master’s teachings at its core, if everything that extends from it can verified and codified based on the conceptual and tactical framework of his art, if those interpretations can hold up under pressure testing, then we have created new growth from old roots, much as dei Liberi, Liechtenauer, Fabris, etc. did themselves. If that new growth is then transmitted to the next generation, then Historical European Swordsmanship moves from a “reconstructed martial art” to a “reconstructed and living tradition”.