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ARMA's 2002 Interview with
Senior Advisor, Dr. Sydney Anglo
- author of The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

Have you been surprised by the extraordinarily positive reception your book has received within the historical fencing community?

Dr. Anglo: “I haven’t been surprised because I haven’t really been aware of the nature of the reception of my book.  I’ve seen several favourable reviews in academic journals and in journals devoted to fencing; and I know that there have been some notices on the Internet.  But, apart from [ARMA members]…I haven’t had all that much feedback.” 

In hindsight, what would you have done differently with the book if you could have?

Dr. Anglo: “Even with hindsight I could do little different because I would still have to work within the same constraints: an upper word limited which (in fact) I exceeded by precisely 100%; and an upper limit on the number of illustrations which could be printed.  I wish that some reviewers would take these practical exigencies into consideration before pontificating about the fact that this, that, or the other is not discussed; or before lamenting that I should have quoted at even greater length from the primary sources rather than paraphrasing them.  I often feel that such critics might try writing a book themselves.  Of course, if space had been unlimited then I should like to have dealt at greater length with several of the sources merely touched upon in the book (especially some of the German manuscripts).  I should like to have greatly expanded the chapter on notation (especially with reference to Narvaez and the Spanish tradition).  And I should like to have explored more fully the nature of the instruction provided by medieval and renaissance masters – although here, unfortunately, the sources remain scanty.  I should also like to have gone into far greater detail when discussing the nature of military training and its relation (or otherwise) to personal combat skills.” 

Has the book been well received in the academic community? / As a result of your research, has there been any impact within academic or scholastic circles that you are aware of?

Dr. Anglo: “Yes, the book has been well received in scholarly circles:   or at least it has been well reviewed in such periodicals as the English Historical Review, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly,  Renaissance Journal,  Wilson Quarterly, Renaissance Quarterly, Sixteenth Century Journal, and Times Literary Supplement.  However, it often takes a very long time (at least three or four years) before one can discern whether or not an innovative academic study has made any impact on other scholars’ thinking.   So I don’t know.” 

Have you met resistance in the past to the idea that European civilization produced sophisticated martial arts, given that the term was actually used in the 16th century?

Dr. Anglo: “Well I have been peripherally aware of some hostility within certain “closed shop” fencing circles where my use of the very term “Martial Arts” has been criticized.  However, in view of the fact that such critics have failed to offer a better collective term for the material I discuss (sword fighting, wrestling, and mounted combat with lance or sword) I can’t say that I am greatly bothered.  And I should like to point out that neither Malcolm Fare in The Sword nor Christoph Amberger in Fencers Quarterly had any difficulty with the book’s title or in understanding what I was trying to do nor had any of the scholars who reviewed my book in the academic journals mentioned above.” 

Were there any reviews of the book you felt any particular reaction to?

Dr. Anglo: “I have, throughout my career, had a strong tendency to agree with favourable reviews of my works and to disagree with the unfavourable.  However, I’m happy with adverse comment provided that it is intelligent, constructive, and soundly based and, in general, I have been pleased with the reviews of the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe.  There is only one (which I stumbled upon on the internet) which I thought a poor piece of work:  not because it damns my book with faint praise but because its author parades scraps of irrelevant and ill-digested erudition and even misrepresents what I say – though whether through malice or a failure to understand plain English, I cannot say.” 

Can you tell us something of your academic and personal background?

Dr. Anglo: “I think that my personal background is irrelevant and my academic background is well-enough known and, in any case, uninteresting.” 

What are your present or recent areas of research or writing?

Dr. Anglo: “I am completing a large book on the reception of Machiavelli in Europe up to the early Seventeenth Century; and I am also preparing a history of twentieth-century piano playing.  I range wide, you see.” 

What Renaissance martial arts projects, if any, will you working on in the future?

Dr. Anglo: “As you will understand, one always turns up a great many interesting things in the course of working on a large project, which do not in the end find their way into the book.  There are several such splinters concerning renaissance martial arts which I should like to polish and publish – though when I’ll get round to it is not at all clear.  But I’ve no intention of abandoning the subject.” 

A reoccurring theme within the book seems to be the acknowledgment of how ignorant most all 18th & 19th century fencing masters and fencing writers were of earlier Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts.  Can you comment further on this?

Dr. Anglo: “I don’t think I have much further comment on this topic except that “ignorance” is, perhaps, unduly pejorative – in that it fails to take into account either the limited source material available to fencing historians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or the intellectual constraints imposed by the context within which they worked.  There are, of course, no such excuses for modern scholars.” 

Untitled-5.JPG (67257 bytes)Can you share you thoughts on the notion that modern fencing masters can claim authority to teach authentic Medieval and Renaissance combat skills?

Dr. Anglo: “I don’t really have much to say about modern fencing masters.   In principle I can see no reason why they should not be able to teach medieval and renaissance combat skills effectively – provided that they are prepared to do the necessary intellectual labour to master the abundant source materials and, further, to undertake the necessary training to familiarize themselves with the use of appropriate weaponry.  If, however, such fencing masters believe that they can simply adapt their own modern, sporting expertise to the exposition and demonstration of medieval and renaissance combat techniques then they are clearly living in a world of make-believe and are positively harmful.” 

What are your thoughts or concerns on emerging commercial efforts to translate and interpret the historical manuals?

Dr. Anglo: “I have very mixed feelings about the current scamper to push out historical manuals either on the internet or in poorly produced editions.  Theoretically, of course, the more evidence that is made available the better.  Unfortunately, historical manuals pose considerable problems which require for their solution much more than enthusiasm, good will, and a pragmatic knowledge of fighting.  Texts need to be accurately transcribed, meticulously collated one with another, and scrupulously translated.  The language has to be studied, scribal details in manuscripts investigated, words and phrases glossed, and so on.  It is all very labour intensive, takes a great deal of time, and requires the close collaboration of historians, linguists, and martial artists.  Everybody seems to be trying to run before they can even crawl – let along walk.   I am not happy about it.” 

So you think producing interpretive guides is not as wise as say, just offering translations alone?

Dr. Anglo: “I feel that texts and translations are one thing, and interpretative guides are another.    A really well-edited text and intelligent translation has an independent and lasting value.   Interpretative comment (I mean of a pragmatic rather than a linguistic or historical  kind), however interesting and valuable, is likely to prove ephemeral, and is better issued separately.   This is not to say that scholarly editors and translators do not need advice from practical fighters.   On the contrary, such collaboration is essential.   But the kind of hybrid editions which are now coming into vogue are not, in my view, authoritative, and are not the best way for the subject to advance.”

ARMA: As always, our appreciation for those useful comments.


Read ARMA's 2000 interview here

1999 consultation with Professor Sydney Anglo


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