ARMA Editorial - July 2004
Reviewing Reviews

By John Clements
ARMA Director

To find today persons of exceptional skill in Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts is exceedingly rare. To find individuals well-versed in the teachings of the historical source texts as well as knowledgeable in authentic sword specimens is also exceedingly rare. To find those highly experienced in all these areas is even rarer indeed.

The vast majority of modern sword enthusiasts have-fortunately-never had to deal with an emotionally charged individual bent on doing them real harm with a bladed weapon, let alone trained hard on a regular basis to deal at close range with such personal danger. Keeping this reality foremost in mind as we investigate and explore historical European arms and armor (and their associated combative systems) is what we must all endeavor to do. To the ARMA, this means rejecting the distractions of role-playing, competition games, and escapist reenactment performance in favor of seeking documentable knowledge and genuine skill.

When it comes to new or corrective information regarding either historical or reproduction swords many pop-culture educated sword fans on the internet and at renn faires react angrily. People often respond this way because they have an emotional investment in their own personal beliefs about historical swords and sword combat-beliefs frequently derived from little more than video games, anime, fantasy role-playing, or movie and television fight scenes. Now no one should be insulted or embarrassed by this, it's just the way things are.

Similarly, it can be recognized that problems arise in the appraisal of modern sword replicas when individuals who have little or no experience in the examination and handling of authentic historical specimens, as well as little experience in vigorous test-cutting with well-made sharp blades, will nonetheless offer evaluations regarding the "quality" of such "replicas." Even with the best intentions, merely considering objects which were once functional fighting tools for committing grisly violence as little more than artifacts for decoration or slicing up plywood surely caricaturizes their significance. More profoundly, basing interpretations of what would be combat effective in real sword combat on such false impressions only leads to fantasies of history. To understand that Medieval and Renaissance swords (as tools for serious martial training) were excellent and finely made weapons requires a certain appreciation that the methods of using them comprised sophisticated and effective martial arts. That's something to consider.

A good analogy here might be to consider the way two different drivers might both have very dissimilar impressions of a new sports car. A driver of a minivan in suburban traffic, for instance, would consider its handling and performance one way, while a NASCAR racer would appraise it very differently. For that matter, a cross-country trucker would surely consider it by still another perspective. Each person brings their own experience to determine how good a sports car it is-and some will be far more discerning than others. Much the same is true in evaluating replica swords. Every person will consider one in terms of what they know or think they know about the real thing and what they can do with it.

Over the years I've handled many modern swords that were quite fine but also all sorts that were either too light and flimsy or too sluggish and heavy to be functional weapons. I've handled ones that cut like razors on soft materials but bent or snapped like twigs once they encountered substantial targets with force. I've tested blades that were well-balanced and resilient yet couldn't hold a decent cutting edge worth a darn. I've also evaluated others which performed quite well in practicing until during test-cutting their edges just folded right over or even shattered as they struck firm materials. So, when I evaluate a modern manufactured sword I cannot help but compare these experiences to all those actual historical specimens I have known (some personally) to have functioned superbly without any difficulties. After all, a fighting blade that was durable, robust, and readily held a keen edge was at one time commonplace. That's not true today and we also have the problem of inaccurate non-functional (costume/decorative) swords helping confuse the matter.

But when "reviews" of modern manufactured swords have no credible means to compare the performance or handling characteristics of new pieces to actual historical specimens, we might well wonder what good are they? A modern sword surely needs to be evaluated in terms of how it compares to the real ones, not to the presumptions and tastes of modern enthusiasts who, in all fairness, very likely have in their lives never yet handled real swords let alone martially practiced authentic fighting techniques. What value we might ask are Internet reviews of reproduction swords or modern versions of "historically inspired" swords if they do little more than look at such objects in terms of appearance and how well they cut cardboard and plastic jugs?

Assessing modern swords is fun and I think it's wonderful when anyone has a great interest in swords, especially enough to share their thoughts with their fellows and the public. But a supposedly "functional" sword surely then needs to be reviewed after being tested practically upon materials it would have historically encountered in its day-raw meat and bone, soft padded cloth, hard leathers, wooden shafts, iron shield rims, plate steel helms, and riveted maile armors. More importantly, a sword should have to show it is resilient enough to withstand being forcibly beaten and knocked around by other swords and wooden shafts without bending or breaking. As well it must be able to strike to deflect and displace other metal blades without its edge shattering in the attempt.

Without making concern for such qualities the primary objective of any appraisal of a modern sword purporting to be "functional," such "reviews", however well-intentioned, all are but useless to those seeking genuine weapons. Perhaps this failing is another reason why there are so many overpriced, over hyped, underperforming swords being aggressively praised online by emotional sword fans and defended by profit-motivated commercial resellers? Though it may make us uncomfortable, it's something to consider. For that matter, whenever you read a review you have no way of knowing what relationship the reviewer may have with the manufacturer, whether they are friends, foes, distant colleagues, or in some way even business partners. It can't hurt to think about it.

Thankfully at least, it's becoming increasingly easy nowadays for the average fan to tell the difference between a mere wall-hanger and a functional bladed weapon. But according to many commercial sword reviews any manufacturer who produces a sword seems to automatically become an "expert authority" on the real thing. Whereas the reality is, excluding technical knowledge of production, manufacturers often know little more about the qualities of real swords than do their customers.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect such reviews to be anything more than whatever personal experiences and motivations any reviewer might have. There's no real standards and in the end its subjective after all. So, for the needs of serious students of historical fencing and spathology, it's understandable if, from our point of view, truly useful reviews are few and far between.

See Also:
Hey Mister that sword real?

About the Author:
Having pursued the craft since 1980, John Clements is one of the world's foremost authorities on Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills. Clements has authored two books and more than a dozen magazine articles on historical swordplay. A leader in historical fencing studies, he has researched swords and sword combat in ten countries and taught seminars on the subject in eight. He has lectured and demonstrated at numerous museums and universities and is a frequent consultant on Medieval and Renaissance combative systems. He works full-time teaching and writing on historical European fighting arts.


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