Renaissance Swordsmanship …5-Year Anniversary

March 2002 marks the 5-year anniversary of my humble, raging little book, “Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated US of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Swords” in 1997. Actually, the book is 6 years old if I count the year it was in preparation putting it all together (but, since I was actually gathering the information since the early 90’s…we’ll, you get the picture). What is remarkable is that this simple publication has had such an impact and is still going strong. It’s now a perennial and, for differing reasons to be sure, must reading for most everyone in the historical fencing community.

The real story behind the book however, the funny part, is a story few know. The details are blurry to me now, but the book originally was nothing more than a small study guide for my friends and close students at the time. They asked me, what’s a good book to read on the subject but there weren’t any. Then they asked me what was the difference between modern fencing and the historical stuff? They asked me what was the difference between a sport epee or foil and a real rapier…Whew, what a question! I knew from my trips to renn fairs and sport fencing classes and historical-fantasy societies that most people were pretty clueless out there and basing things on movies and games.

So, I endeavored to answer my friends using my own notes. I started to prepare them a study guide, and make some drawings to go with it and before long the little thing was 75 pages long or so. I then showed it to Hank Reinhardt, and he said something to the effect of, “You know what, if you could double this you would have the start of a real book”. The idea then struck of a general overview of Renaissance swordplay that would approach it, as it deserved, as a martial art. I could show it was far more than what was seen in the movies or could be learned in a typical fencing class.

So, being quite na´ve at the time about the world of publishing I doubled it and sent the unfinished 150 page entire manuscript out to about 10 or 12 publishing houses! To my shock, two responded within two weeks (I had heard it took 6 months and you should expect at least 50 or so rejections from publishers). I naturally jumped and went with the very first one, Paladin Press (then known by its reputation for radical books on guns, knives, bombs, etc.). I had no clue who Paladin was nor cared and immediately signed with them. As I can recall it, they essentially said, “We want it”. I said “Great! Give me a few months to Finnish it”. They basically said, “No, you don't understand. We want it now…as is, it’s good to go.” So, a series of back and forth frantic additions and rewrites and nerve wracking edits went on and on. I managed to get an extension of 3 months, which turned to 6. I was adding and tweaking all they way up to it going to press, knowing the whole time the book was little more than a choppy, rushed assortment of very good martial advice combined with some juicy bits about period weapons and fighting. Sometimes, as an author and amateur researcher, you have to have the courage of your convictions and just go for it, go on record with what you know, and what you think you know. You have to say, enough is enough, risk the criticism, and go with what you have or you’ll be eternally revising and correcting (publish or perish, as they say).

Certainly, now if I could, I would redo it at three times the length, emphasis Silver, Swetnam and the Pallas Armata far, far more than I did, as well as include direct supporting material from Marozzo, Agrippa, Giganti, Fabris, and Capo Ferro (my main sources). Of course at the time, back in ’95 / ’96, there were nowhere near the translations or editions of period fencing manuals around then that there are now. What a difference that would have made. There was no Internet resources, no SSI, and no Dr. Anglo. The exciting thing is, the book really did kick in the door on this subject, it showed publishers and booksellers alike that there really was an audience and a market for books on historical fencing and Western marital arts. It jump started an sleeping giant of serious study of this subject and I have no doubt gave impetus to countless others to pursue their own efforts. It gave me the recognition to go back and complete work on the book I was originally doing when I stopped to write the little “study guide” on renaissance methods, i.e., my Medieval Swordsmanship (itself just a holistic introduction to a diverse and complex subject).

So, as the book got better known, it quickly took on quote a reputation. Most readers either loved or hated it. It was hailed by many as a godsend, what they had long believed they finally found justification and support for with a kindred spirit. Others…well they found many of their prized myths and misconceptions shattered and thrown back in their face (a lot of sport fencers and theatrical fencers were none too happy as were a few gurus among historical role-playing societies embarrassed by the magnitude of information contradicting them). So, among some within at these communities the humble little book and your author got vociferously attacked (and sometimes ridiculously). It book really upset the status quo (which explains why a small minority went so pathetically personal in their complaints, they couldn’t address the content so they attacked the messenger). It would be an understatement to say portions of the book were “in you face”, which was due in part to my attitude at the time and Paladin’s own controversial style. The book’s content stepped on toes, bruised egos, and slapped faces of many who had been regurgitating the tired old myths of 19th century fencing and Hollywood nonsense (not that in all this time we have seen any of them publish much on the subject themselves!). So, I’ve become something of a lightening rod in the historical fencing community and subjected to an array of amusing personal insults by “saying it like it is” for the good of readers and asking others to back up their words with skill. But, all this makes it all the more satisfying as well as ironically amusing to see lines and phrases lifted directly from the text appear in the online writings of some of those very critics!

My mistake, in hindsight, was distilling a wide range of reference works and historical texts into a sort of amalgam approach in order to present fundamentals of how Renaissance swordsmanship was different from both later fencing and fantasy fencing. I assumed, wrongly it turned out, that telling readers to go look at the historical sources for confirmation would be enough; that encouraging people to just go study it on their own would be correct thing to do. I assumed, wrongly again, that that the source materials I used were commonly available and either were already known or would be read (just like I had) as validation afterwards. Instead, my effort at discerning essentials of various masters and filling in the blanks as a guide to inspire readers was not enough. I took it for granted that the logic and truth of how the Renaissance being a very violent time. I took it for granted that the sources I acquired my understanding from were unequivocal and that, all romanticism of gentlemanly duels aside; the Renaissance involved a range of sword forms and different manners of using them. I took it for granted that the obvious reality was it involved far more than the sporting and theatrical versions we had been inundated as the "real thing". I have since learned not to take the reasonableness of some enthusiasts for granted.

As with my 2nd one, the book however continues to have major impact and positive effect upon the study of historical fencing. While an updated version correcting many of its mistakes, errors, and inconsistencies would be wonderful, its not going to happen anytime soon –such is the reality of the publishing world. The book certainly does not represent what I know now nor everything I knew at the time. I know more than anyone what mistakes its contains and what material I have revised or amended, and as I wrote in the book, historical information is tentative and our information is only as good as our sources at the time. I would have loved to include another 30 pages on differences between various forms of Renaissance swords and their blade geometries and how this affected their manner of use, as well as additional evidence and documentation for what rapiers can and can't do when it comes to edge blows. Yet, my voluminous forthcoming works on Renaissance Swords and Historical Fencing will surpass it while still supporting its value and usefulness (upcoming ARMA Training Manuals and videos will also go well beyond its introductory presentation of techniques).

I still get emails about the book every month from readers thanking me for my efforts and for what it has given them. It’s a good feeling. Despite its flaws and drawbacks, when I flip through the work I still see it’s a darn useful little book. Its influence has been noticeable and widespread and its got a many years to go yet before it becomes superseded by newer publications. …Four years now and it’s still the ONLY book of its kind out there …which given the material now available and the gaps and holes in my little effort, is actually a sad thing to say. Hopefully it won’t stay that way for long.

John Clements
ARMA Director
March 2002

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