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Exclusive Interview
with Dr. Sydney Anglo, official Senior Advisor to ARMA and author of
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

Director John Clements Interviews Dr. Sydney Anglo
March 2000

ARMA: Aside from what is obvious by the title, what is the overall theme of the book? Is there a major thesis or premise?

Anglo: I am certainly not defending any thesis in this book but have proceeded on the incontestable assumption that, although personal combat skills loomed very large throughout medieval and renaissance Europe –and although the surviving sources are wonderfully rich –they have been consistently ignored by historians of ideas, art historians, military historians and even historians of the duel. Moreover, their study poses important problems relating to the ways in which ideas concerning movement and combat technique might be adequately explained to students not actually in the presence of a master –in other words, to readers. My book may, therefore, best be described as an intellectual history of the martial arts of renaissance Europe –and as an attempt to demonstrate the diversity both of the material itself and of its implications for the historian.

ARMA: Wow. Great. That is very much the same approach many serious practitioners take as well, albeit from the physical/martial aside. And this subject certainly has been ignored by historians for too long.  I also noted with pleasure that the book was dedicated to the late A. V. Norman (historian of arms & armor) and to Claude Blair, the armor expert, gentlemen greatly admired by us.

ARMA: Why "Renaissance Martial Arts" and not "Medieval" or "Medieval and Renaissance"?

Anglo: Although the bulk of the material in this book derives from late fifteenth to early seventeenth century sources, I believe that in the history of ideas there are few precise cut-off dates and I have, accordingly, pushed as far back as the Thirteenth Century and as far forward as the Eighteenth (occasionally even to the Twentieth) Century simply because the sense of the material demands it. In those earliest treatises there are techniques of exposition, as well as modes of combat, which were to be repeated and developed by the masters of the Sixteenth Century and later. Conversely, when considering, for example, methods of notating movement in fencing, it would be arbitrary not to pursue the subject as far as Rada (1705) who represents the idea’s most elaborate development. Similarly, some combat techniques receive their most sophisticated exposition in later works which I use to throw a retrospective light on texts which are otherwise obscure; while it has also seemed worthwhile, from time to time, to demonstrate essential continuities. No master of arms work up one morning to find that his teaching had been rendered obsolete overnight because he Middle Ages had suddenly ended or that he had just missed the Renaissance by a few minutes.

ARMA: Yes, I have said very much the same thing in my writings, expressing that while its has typically been ignored, dismissed, and even ridiculed by traditional fencing authorities, there is a strong connection between Medieval & Renaissance fighting methods. I’ve also pointed out that that no one woke up one morning to see the morning paper declare "Middle Ages Over – Renaissance Begins!"

ARMA: What primary audience, if any, is the book aim toward?

Anglo: I never conceive or write a book with any particular audience in mind. The subject, the evidence, and the nature of the problems which arise during the course of study, all dictate the form and style of the final work. However (given the wide-ranging nature of the material), I should be disappointed if anyone interested in the history of personal combat, in renaissance culture and graphic art, in the history of the duel, the art of war, and chivalry, did not find the book of some interest.

ARMA: Well, nonetheless, as I’ve expressed to you before, this is sure to be "THE" book among historical fencers for some time to come and it will be extremely gratifying to see audiences in other areas on interest begin to appreciate what we are so fascinated by.

ARMA: What can you tell us of the concept of European fighting skills as representing true "martial arts"?

Anglo: I don’t see how systematic swordfighting, staff-fighting, wrestling, lance play and mounted fencing – can be thought of as anything other than martial arts. If the high levels of technical expertise which can readily be demonstrated from a vast array of European combat manuals (along with the system of apprenticeship and graduation of masters) do not constitute "true martial arts", then what does? And even if it is felt (however mistakenly) that the hocus-pocus and recondite philosophy so admired by orientalists is a necessary diagnostic of "true martial arts", then the elaborate vocabulary of the German masters and the mathematical, musical and metaphysical meandering of the Spaniards, offer everything that a lover of obfuscation could desire. European fighting skills were martial arts and were recognized as such by their teachers and practitioners.

ARMA: No argument here, sir, you’re preaching to the faithful. It’s also interesting I think to note that many Medieval fighting arts actually contained significant metaphysical & psychological components that were later abandoned, yet most all these obscure elements remain virtually unknown to most of today’s enthusiasts.

ARMA: How would you say your research differs significantly from Egerton Castle’s 1891 tome on historical schools and masters of defence?

sanglo2.jpg (13267 bytes)Anglo: Apart from an inevitable overlap of some sources, I have very little in common with Egerton Castle either in form, content, conception or execution. I admire Castle’s work for what it was: and that was a late-nineteenth-century attempt to write a general history of fencing. But Castle had no conception whatever of personal combat prior to the sixteenth century; he discussed only a limited number of sources; he did not always read those carefully (sometimes not at all!); and his primary interest was to trace the evolution of swordsmanship towards the sport of his own day. This was, in many ways, a doomed enterprise because the sport of his own day had almost nothing to do with personal combat in medieval and renaissance Europe. Thus I take a far wider view of what such combat really was; I discuss many more sources (even for the period covered by Castle); I restore the crucial violence and brutality he omitted; I pay due attention to the skills of earlier masters not known to him; and I am above all interested in the masters’ techniques of communication both by words and diagrams which were scarcely addressed by Castle and individual authors: most notably on Manciolino whom Castle had obviously never read, and on Thibault whom he never tried to understand.

ARMA: Whew...exciting. Your emphasis on the violent martial context of these arts is exactly what is needed. We in ARMA have been stressing this from the very beginning. As you know, Castle has been the "Bible" of historical fencing for so many of us for so long, yet it is relatively rare title, yours will now introduce a whole new generation to the material in a far more comprehensive manner. It will surely do much to compensate for the connect-the-dot sport fencing histories and omission filled and error ridden "encyclopedias" now out there.

ARMA: Do you emphasize the divergence of military and civilian fencing in the 16th century? What about how this relates to the subsequent change of emphasis from cut to thrust?

Anglo: I do not emphasize this distinction because, on the whole, the maters themselves had little to say on the topic until the closing years of the sixteenth century – and most fighters took a wholly pragmatic view of personal combat. Moreover, I try to show that the changing emphasis from cut to thrust (while certainly an historical reality) has been greatly exaggerated by historians.

ARMA: How much do you include, if anything, on the nature of swords or weapons themselves or on the change in the 1500’s from military to civilian forms?

Anglo: Although, inevitably, I do discuss swords and other weapons, this is not a major feature of my book. The subject is highly technical and likely to remain for ever controversial. Also, even to attempt to do justice to weaponry would have required another and very different book.

ARMA: Interesting. Fair enough. The material is certainly covered in-depth elsewhere.

ARMA: What do you anticipate will be among the more controversial or even radical elements that are included in this work?

Anglo: I imagine that, for historians of ideas, the most controversial aspect of my book is the fact that a historian of ideas should even have considered that the martial arts of renaissance Europe constituted a subject worth of investigation. I hope that, in the event, I shall have demonstrated that such skepticism is misplaced and that the problems posed by these arts are, in fact, central to European cultural history. For fencing historians, I suppose that the most radical elements of my work will be my insistence upon the violence of personal combat; upon the significance of all-in fighting not only in unarmed combat but also in combination with bladed weapons; and upon the remarkable achievements of medieval masters whose systematic skills were far in advance of anything dreamed of by Egerton Castle and those who have accepted his view of the evolution of swordsmanship. For art historians, the mere fact of the long and virtually continuous tradition of combat illustration may come as a surprise. And for dance historians, the complex systems of notation which were slowly developed by the masters might be both surprising and suggestive.

ARMA: Fantastic. This is exactly what has been desperately needed for so long in this subject. As you know, In ARMA we try to study the texts as integrated combat arts and not just "swordplay" and it has always bugged us that while Asian fighting arts are taken seriously by scholars as being dynamic and important aspects of Asian culture, the same has not been the case for European.

ARMA: How does your own research contrast with what has so far been done in this field?

Anglo: I think that I have answered this question in my replies to earlier questions [4, 5, 8 above]. However, I can sum up the situation quite simply --I am the first historian of ideas to have taken this material seriously and to have attempted to place it within its general cultural context and to relate it both to the psychology of dueling and to the exigencies of the battlefield. I am not claiming to have answered all the questions (or even to have asked all the rights ones): but my book is, at least, a step in the right direction and should help enthusiastic scholars and scholarly enthusiasts who wish to develop the subject further than I have been able to do in the space available to me.

ARMA: Indeed! I’d also say you are the first modern era historian to attempt this who also has the linguistic and academic skills to do it right.

ARMA: You’ve explained about some things which you are not at liberty to discuss publicly, but what future research projects in this subject do you have underway or planned? Are you writing any other articles or books at the moment?

Anglo: As would be expected, I have an enormous accumulation of material (books, manuscripts, and illustrations) which has either not found its way into my book at all or has only been touched upon briefly. Among the projects which are already in an advanced state of preparation (and which have been at least provisionally accepted for publication in various learned journals) are the following: The English two-hand sword manuscripts; a study of the transformation of the illustrations in Capoferro; a similar study of the transformation of Viggiani’s manuscript into print; and an annotated English translation of Quixada de Reayo. There are, of course, many other possibilities and I am in the early stages of negotiating a series of editions/translations of various key combat manuals. But that’s another study and may lead nowhere. As for books? I am, at present, completing a vast tome on the European Reception of Machiavelli. But, although this has a great deal about the art of war, it will be of only tangential interest to martial artists.

ARMA: Lastly, we have to ask: Granted that you are not a fencer or martial artist, from what you were exposed to last summer with us, what was your impression of the ARMA interpretation of historical fighting compared to other examples you’ve seen?

Anglo: As I mentioned in our meeting last year, I was greatly impressed by what I saw and what we were able to discuss in the time available. I was especially interested in the clear demonstration of the speed and efficiency which characterized the use of the long sword. Perhaps even more, I was delighted to see my own assessment of the potent combination of swordfighting and all-in combat vindication by the pragmatic skills of the re-enactors. I think that we are all moving in the same direction along different routes, and that very soon we are going to converge.

ARMA: Well thank you sir. It was an edifying pleasure for us as well. I must say that personally, I am impressed by what you have been able to accomplish in your own insights and impressions of the old texts given that you have no background in any fencing or martial arts.

In closing, we are all grateful for you considerable assistance to us as a ARMA consultant --and honorary member --these past two years. We are grateful for all your work and very excited about what effect your book will have on the historical fencing community.


Return to Book Preview

Read ARMA's 2002 Interview

Read ARMA's 1999 Consulting with Professor Sydney Anglo


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