Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

This book, by Dr. Sydney Anglo, is one that I have been trying to acquire and read for over tw o years now. I finally got ahold of a copy (thanks Mike) and I'm about half-way through it.

First the positive feedback; this is a wonderful book if you are looking for a general overview of most of the manuscripts used today in HEMA. The few manuscripts that he hasn't mentioned (that I noticed) are because they are relatively recent discoveries and the book was published in 2000, so things like the new Florius Fiore MS just weren't known about. I also believe that Dr. Anglo does a good job of tracking certain ideas (especially the attempt to "rationalize" fencing via mathematics) through the years. To me, however, the most striking thing about this broad cross-comparison of sources is how much the varied masters agreed upon. While there were significant differences (for instance in the number and naming of guard positions) overall you get a sense that swordsmanship, whatever it's form, boils down to a few key elements; control, timing, speed and strength.

My problems with the book stem mostly from the fact that while I have no doubts about Dr. Anglo's abilities as a scholar, I wonder at his experience in martial arts. For instance, when he describes pollaxes as being "awkward" and "inefficient" against armour it makes me wonder. I have never found axes to be unwieldy, nor have any of the folks I've talked to who have handled surviving examples. And as far the axe's efficiency against armour goes, the whole purpose of the weapon's design is to defeat a man in armour; i.e. to crush, to pierce, to hook and to cut. But I can accept that my umbrage with these points could be merely personal. The next however I cannot. When discussing the fact that Agrippa used multiple figures in one plate in order to show movement (example), Anglo criticizes 19th century historian Jacopo Gelli because Gelli claimed that Agrippa was showing "combats of three against two, or four against three" when in fact Agrippa was jsut indicating motion. Anglo specifically states that Gelli's misconception came about because he did not read the Italian, merely looked at the plates. The ironic part is, in the beginning of the book, Dr. Anglo discusses the Flos Duellatorum by Fiore dei Liberi, which he claims holds illustrations that depict encounters with "multiple attackers". The illustrations he is referring to are this one from the sword in one hand section and another very similar illustration from the two-handed sword section. The problem is that these illustrations do not depict combat against multiple opponents; they depict that the same basic covering action can be used against a thrust, cut, or thrown weapon. This common misconception when looking at Fiore's work can only be explained by not reading the Italian. Ironic huh?

All quibbles aside, Dr. Anglo's The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe is worth reading and owning. As with any secondary source just make sure to take what you read with a grain of salt.

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