Between Canon and Art
In the study of historical fencing, where does interpretation end and restoration begin?
By John Clements
The issue of interpretation versus reconstruction, or what can be called "canon," is a topic I considered at length many years ago. As I began to investigate more and more martial arts manuals from the 14th to 17th centuries, noting the different levels of detail among them, I realized that one work would often inform our study of another. The more learned from one the more could be "seen" in the teachings presented by some other. But a central question quickly manifested itself: When studying a work of historical combat how acceptable is it to practice techniques or fighting moves that are not directly presented in the specific work?
This was a critical matter, as I was determined not to allow
and attitudes from traditional Asian styles to cross-pollinate
efforts. I was adamant not to permit ideas and concepts from
arts practices to corrupt what was being rediscovered and
a sense, purity of interpretation became my goal even as we were
in examples of different fighting moves from assorted Asian
combat disciplines of which modern pop culture is saturated. In time,
though, things became easier
and easier as the unique motionality
and form of Renaissance martial arts
intrinsically exerted themselves. The more skillful we became,
its distinction from other styles manifested. (And the more our
knowledge of the genuine lost historical teachings grew, the more the
farcical concoctions of stunt-fencing and historical role-play were
In my efforts, I eventually came to a certain understanding about the
process of reconstructing these forgotten combat methods: In exploring
any particular martial arts treatise it is common to reach a point at
which, as the result of practicing one initial teaching, another technique
or action becomes readily apparent even though it is not specifically
included within the source in question. This occurs regularly whenever
you engage in vigorous practice of fighting skills. When it happens
the natural inclination is to accept the intrinsic insight that occurs
as self-evident. Even If not directly attributable to the specific source under examination,
its validity is implied from the core principles of the larger teachings
themselves. It can then be cross-checked by finding correspondence to
it in other contemporary source teachings.
An alternative view, however, is to declare anything not specifically found in a historical source to not be canonical. Thus, the reasoning goes that including any technique or action not described in the source arguably corrupts, or at least contaminates, efforts to accurately reconstruct those source teachings. In other words, at a certain point reconstruction becomes interpretation. It's a simple matter: if for example, master or treatise X does not contain technique Y or Z, then you cannot do Y or Z and still claim you are exactly representing those specific teachings of source X. This is certainly a reasonable view. However, it is true only to a certain degree. And I believe it ultimately leads to its own contradiction.
If you only -- only -- perform what is in a particular source work, then fine. You get to show only what is in whatever historical material you are referring to at that time. But what you have then is parts. You end up with a mere few dozen moves, not an understanding of a combat system, not a whole method, and not a martial discipline or a fighting art. The method becomes compartmentalized. You are not practicing the "martial arts" of the historical era so much as demonstrating interpretations of isolated actions that are sourced to one historical document. And you certainly cannot say you have that particular master's whole teachings because you never know what may have been left out or the author chose not to include in the source being relied upon.
In contrast, by examining the whole body of related contemporary European martial literature, you begin to see a pattern: that the major source works present keystone techniques as examples from which the student is able to reasonably and soundly extrapolate other connected actions. I am firmly convinced that is exactly why their authors consciously chose the specific ones to include that they did, because they are seminal. They wisely knew which were the essential techniques that once understood would inherently teach still others. I'm convinced they were compiled for that very reason. Years of discovery and analysis matched with years of instructing in just what I uncovered taught me this insight. Having to write down or draw out what I knew or what lesson I wanted to convey in print, let alone in video lessons and live seminars, also confirmed for me that there are certain things which just unlock everything else.
If a particular source shows, for example, a mere four or five plates on polaxe, does that then mean there are only that many possible actions that this author knew or approved of with that weapon? Does that mean to study those teachings the student today must be limited to exactly those few actions and no other whatsoever? Should not the logical extension of the same source's content on longsword or spear simply be extended to that weapon, thereby providing a far larger repertoire of polaxe techniques? It's common sense that the concepts a master provides for fighting with each weapon he covers are to a large extent interchangeable. It is a simple matter of saving space and avoiding repetition for them to not have presented the general teachings for every case. I believe they knew their readers were wise enough to understand this. Many works even contain no text at all but only reference artwork featuring a small portion of what are in-arguably very fundamental actions (stances, strikes, displacements, closures, weapon seizures, leg-hooks, etc.). These collections are surely meant as samples of centerpiece moves from which to learn the larger method. They provide a starting point by reminding the student of the basics. They are hardly meant to be the entire craft itself.
Still, the bottom line is that no one can claim content that is not present in a source. The evidence has to be there. Instead, we must admit when conjecture and speculation is the result of reasoned extrapolation. And no student of the subject can dismiss that process out of some adherence to "canonical purity." Again, if you focus on core principles and larger concepts and do not pursue a "technique-based" approach to the craft, you will understand far more, for insight and analysis of the source teachings does not occur in a vacuum. The challenge now as students of this craft is not from where to start but where to draw the line.
We might for instance do an exhibition for the public and be asked if the late-14th century master Fiore dei Liberi would have done a certain kind of reasonable technique. We could offer an informed opinion based on the totality of the four editions attributed to his teachings combined with what we know about armed combat at the time to elaborate on the simple sophistication of his method. We process the matter through what we know of the movement form and motions derived directly from exercise in performing his larger teachings. Or we may end up just saying simply, "We don't know." But it be would not be right to flatly declare, "No, absolutely not because it's not in his work!"
I'm reminded here of my favorite line in the 14th century teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer; the one that reads how the simple truth of his words will be self-evident to anyone who can otherwise fight. This passage doesn't mean you have to know his secrets beforehand in order to understand his writings. It means, rather, that the simple truth of his method will be grasped by anyone else who also knows how to properly fight because his teachings just make good martial sense because they're founded on the common laws that underscore all close-combat. As the master Joachim Meyer wrote in his famous treatise of 1570 when discussing practice:
In other words, the manner by which Meyer presented his material was such that he did not mean any particular technique was only to be used in whichever fighting stance he described it as being performed in, but by whatever one it works from. The Art is flexible and principles apply holistically. Meyer even stated that, "everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat." Are we to really believe that only Master Meyer was wise enough to know these things that are general knowledge even among many modern amateurs? I hardly think so.
Added to this is the unarguable fact that the better written
not just techniques or moves but general elements and higher
that form the basis for their fighting methods. (The symbolism
they contain speaks volumes not directly related in their
A perfect example is how many later works in the German school
on things only vaguely referenced at in earlier sources consisting of
images and less technical descriptions. The only counter
argument is to suggest that an author chose in this instance not to
include certain moves because he considered them risky or less
effective, a view that has precedent.
I think it foolish to imagine any one resource contained and represented the entire repertoire of moves and skills these experts knew at the time. Nothing whatsoever suggests any particular example action in the sources is somehow meant to be employed (or practiced) as some unaltered sole means of defense in the violent life-threatening chaos of personal combat. The fact that no source I am aware of asserts something like, "this content is the only thing you will ever do or ever need and there is nothing else" is a dead giveaway on this, although both masters Filippo Vadi and P.H. Mair say, for example, that they included in their material only what they witnessed and were personally confident worked. This itself is a confirmation that there was more they knew existed. In the words of the master Viggiani from his 1551 Lo Schermo, "if I wanted to show you today the entire art and the entirety of the mastery of arms... not only would I not know how to do so easily, but moreover I could not do it in the space of a year." I won't even address the historical possibility of botta secreta ("secret techniques"), but I will defer to Master Joachim Meyer's consequential statement on how his readers should endeavor to "advance the Art on their own."
So, it's a perfectly legitimate approach to say, for the sake of authenticity, "We will ONLY demonstrate the X plate technique from Talhoffer." But from that you cannot then say in the negative, "Talhoffer would never have performed nor approved of Y technique or Z action since he did not specifically show it," because you don't really know that. You can't prove the negative. Rather than assuming facts not in evidence it assumes lack of evidence as factual absence. Instead, I submit support for experimentation and inclusionary study within modern practice of Renaissance martial arts comes from how reasonably actions relate to other contemporary sources. Now, this certainly doesn't mean you can go from a Zornhau (diagonal forward-edge downward cut) to arguing for spinning back-kicks. There have to be boundaries and parameters, and these are found, I argue, by holistically examining the totality of the material, contrasting and comparing it based on understanding the nature of the activity itself.
In a great many ways there are parallels between how people typically approach religious scripture and how they now approach historical fencing literature. There are all sorts of ways to read meanings into the material. There are ways of translating nuances, interpreting intention of the authors, taking pieces out of context, reaching conclusions out of the wording. Disagreements over core tenets are inevitable to one degree or another as students make it meet their own needs, processing the lessons into applications for practical exercise and drill. Different people will naturally see incompatible things in the teachings based on their own subjective experience and education. Pretty soon one view of the material becomes irreconcilable with another. Short of time-travel to learn the real teachings of Renaissance martial arts, I don't believe there is any way around this. We can debate the accuracy of translations, and the integrity of transcriptions, and we can analyze and challenge physical demonstrations of their application, but some things will really never be definitively resolved because the martial arts, like all personal and military conflict throughout history, will never be a true science.
Back in the late 1990s, when I was shifting the original old "HACA" club from a generalized fencing interest to an exclusive focus upon the source teachings of the historical masters, I ran into friction with our founder, Hank Reinhardt. Hank was resistant to the new emphasis on reconstruction through scholarship and interpretation. Frankly, it intimidated him. He knew next to nothing about it, and what we were already beginning to show directly eviscerated most of his theories and conjectures on how to fence with different swords and weapons. Most of all, I saw discovery of the material undermine his confidence as an authority on historical close-combat. Hank said to me that he "wasn't going to be slave to some old book!" Thus began his preaching about how "we really don't know" if these works represented anything other than hype and self-promotion like today's modern authors of knife-fighting courses and assorted self-defense systems. This notion of the source teachings somehow being uncertain has since been dismissed as the foolishness it was. But the essential point, that we "can't truly know," has a certain validity.
There is a simple question to consider in the effort to study and interpret the source teachings of Renaissance martial arts: Can we or can we not accurately reconstruct them? If we can not... then whatever anyone does is going to be dubious and always corrupted by modern influences. If we can, however, then the question is raised of what means we determine accuracy? What standards of authenticity and historicity are to be valued?
Everyone who professes to be a serious student of this subject relies upon the same general sources. There are simply no other surviving sources of historical authority. Differences among practitioners then are only in matters of execution of actions, which themselves result from differences of practice, that in turn derive from differences of goals, motives, and especially aptitude, and that most significant of differences: accurate training equipment. This makes for quite a wide diversity of efforts going on, without even accounting for the different values at work among various organizations and loose affiliations. Ultimately, all efforts to restore these teachings to a modern practice comes down to approximation. Since no one today knows for sure how these arts were actually taught or learned and no one is using them for real life combat, all training comes down to different degrees of approximating the reality of what they once were.
The only way to really judge whatever is being done to match the historical descriptions and images then is to evaluate its physicality. That is, in the performance of techniques and execution of fighting actions we can consider the motion, the speed, the force, the energy, and the coordination by which they're accomplished. In other words, how skillfully. Some practitioners will move better than others. Why is that? Because they are better. How is that? Because they train better. Because they were taught better. And perhaps because by nature they are just more adept at it. But even then we must consider that whatever is done is still a modern interpretation, not the original.
A decade or so ago in the ARMA we were devising drills and exercises as a means of rediscovering the source teachings. We were exploring the Art by trying to learn its techniques and terminology. This stage was a necessary though backward approach. Nowadays, by contrast, we essentially know the Art and our drills and exercises come directly out of understanding its core principles. Performing techniques correctly and knowing the meaning of terminology flow from this.
As a result of studying the historical sources and attempting to practice their teachings what then have we come to know? We have learned how to do the actions and techniques they describe. We have learned to apply the principles and concepts they explain. We practice this in the manner their examples provide. We perform it not as mere posed postures or slow motion imitation, but with the prerequisite energy and speed, the intensity, intrinsic to such violence. We wield weapons, manipulate limbs, and work bodies in the very same way they describe or illustrate. In interpreting the whole of their lessons we have recovered the motions involved. And in doing this, comparing ourselves to the historical images, we discern how we indeed look the same. We thereby come to understand how they needed to move. Appreciating this functionality, we believe we know what form their style must have taken. Having become adept at it, we then find we understand the meaning of their words with insight and clarity. This is how we can now reliably present a confident reconstruction of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe.