The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

By Sydney Anglo
Yale University Press, August 2000
ISBN 0 300 083352

Reviewed by John Clements

It would be no exaggeration to call this book the most important work on historical fencing and European martial arts in more than 100 years. With it Dr. Anglo establishes himself as the unquestioned modern expert on the subject of Medieval and Renaissance martial arts history. He does not merely shed light on long held myths and misconceptions, he unleashes a white-hot spotlight on many mistaken beliefs and sacred cows. Dr. Anglo makes an airtight case that the skills described within historical European fighting texts must be properly studied as "martial arts", and not as the traditional view of merely "fencing" (in the modern sense of the word). For most all of its history "fencing" meant not just swordplay, but the armed skills of fighting with weapons and always included unarmed techniques.

At 384 pages and with more than 200 illustrations this is an immense treasure-trove for all those interested in swordsmanship and the history of European combat. The magnitude and wealth of information contained on masters of arms and their works from the 13th to the 17th centuries is, to put it simply, incredible. Dr. Anglo begins his volume not with a "history of fencing", but with the documentation for "masters of arms" (or masters of defence) within European civilization. His primary concern is how they created systems of notation to convey information about combat movement, the various ways they went about achieving this communication, and what they thought they were achieving as a result. He establishes that, fitting within the classic Western tradition of arts and letters, many masters of arms were purposely recording their martial teachings as literary works for the education of future students. He achieves a detailed task of putting the works of the masters of arms into their historical and social context while discussing the limitations of researching these texts. He also presents the material with frequent dry humor and appreciation for irony.

The book is hard to put down and pleasantly written to avoid either academic jargon or lightheartedness. Most any chapter can be opened and read on its own. Though at times not an easy read (keep your dictionary handy) and while occasionally leaving the reader begging for further clarification at his teasing references, the range of the material covered is impressive. The work contains fascinating sections on definitions of swords and rapiers in historical documents as well as others such as "Foot Combat With Swords: Myths and Realties", "Diagrams, Mathematics, and Geometry in Swordplay", "Lawyers, Humanists, and the Martial Arts", and "Arms and armor". Annoyingly however, the footnotes are all in the back, which makes it inconvenient to look up what are in many cases highly relevant comments.

Interestingly, what the book is not is a chronological summary of every historical fencing master from the period with a detailed description their significance and their techniques. Instead, we are given many valuable insights and observations on the works of the masters, including lesser known ones such as Andre Pauernfeindt, Hector Mair, Paulus Kal, Antonio Manciolino, Pietro Monte, Francesco Altoni, Frederico Ghisliero, Pedro Heredia, and others. Of the ten chapters, that on methods of notation and use of geometry within fighting texts is the longest and contains some of the book’s major elements. It covers considerable ground not previously addressed in this subject. The comprehensive chapter on period wrestling and grappling (or unarmed fighting) is unquestionably the most detailed and authoritative treatment of the subject yet attempted. The chapters on mounted combat (with lance and sword) bring an authority and credibility to an area traditionally overlooked or given to incredulous speculation. There are also detailed sections on dagger use from the period. The most fascinating chapter however is that on vocabulary and lexicon of swordsmanship in which Dr. Anglo traces the major works and their significance as well as how the authors viewed their subject. This is accomplished with the goal of placing them (finally) within their rightful place of European military, artistic, social, and cultural history. It presents European martial culture in regard to a classic Western tradition –that of emphasizing technical learning and printed knowledge in every art and science.

Along with the innumerable juicy facts and tidbits he offers on the works of historical fencing masters, what Anglo does best is present the subject within its proper historical and cultural context. As a historian of ideas, he insists on fixing the content of Medieval and Renaissance fencing manuals clearly within the greater intellectual, philosophical, and scientific elements of European civilizations. This is no small accomplishment –and one long overdue. It will be no mistake to say this book will change the whole perspective by which historical Western martial arts are viewed. It is a joy that the work is so heavily illustrated. This fact further underscores the magnitude of the wealth of this material. The fact that the work is entitled "martial arts" and not "fencing" is itself very telling. Anglo makes a point several times to emphasize the tremendous errors of 19th century fencing historians improperly denigrating Medieval & Renaissance fencing skills and how this ignorance persist still today within sport fencing and its authorities. Anglo does not hide the disregard he holds for the irrelevance of either sport fencing or its historians to the book’s subject matter.

Dr. Anglo comments on the 19th century bias that incorrectly viewed Medieval swordsmanship as primitive and untutored. He debunks the mistaken belief of fencing having ever gone from "cutting" to "thrusting" and the view of thrusting as somehow being a recent evolution to a superior form of fencing. He instead describes how warriors have always relied on both from cutting and thrusting and how there have always been many forms of swords and many established styles for using them. The related section on the historical facts behind "thrusting vs. cutting" is itself an exceptional passage that reveals a wealth of previously unknown elements.

Anglo’s concern throughout the work is not that of a modern sport fencer trying to trace the origin of a sport, for he considers today’s fencing to have little relation to the violent killing arts of his subject matter. Nor is his approach that of an arms collector or museum curator concerned with objects rather than application and effects. Instead, his view is that of the historian and specifically a historian of ideas. Thus his interest lies in what the masters thought they were trying to accomplish and how they tried to accomplish it. This is of course the very same obsession that now occupies many serious practitioners studying this subject as martial artists.

The only real weakness of the book is that the subject could easily fill another volume. There is also unfortunately very little discussion of the contents of the source texts or their combat instructions. With few exceptions, Anglo’s insights into the subject are fascinating, informative, surprising, and in most cases quite accurate for a non-practitioner with zero background in any martial arts or fencing. There are only a very few times where his assumptions fall into error born of a lack of hands-on experience or training and even these are forgivable, such as his low regard for the sword & buckler style described in MS. I.33. There is one absurd note however, where Dr. Anglo falls for the unsubstantiated (and virtually untested) belief that a katana might somehow "cut a rapier in half". A far more likely result from a rapier trying to directly resist the strike of a heavy cutting sword would be the rapier breaking. After all, compared to wider swords slender rapier blades are quite rigid and, unlike training versions, are not very flexible. Yet blocking a solid cut would be the least likely thing a rapier would ever be used to do against a heavy sword.

There can be no question that Anglo’s revelations will come as a welcome wave of knowledge to the masses thirsting for facts about our European martial heritage. It will also come as a cold bucket of water for those thinking previous books on the "history of fencing" had said it all. From now on, no work on fencing or European fighting arts will be produced without citing its enormous material as a major source. It is will surely be long considered the major reference work on the history of Medieval & Renaissance martial arts for our generation. In doing so Anglo cements the unquestionable title as the foremost authority on historical fencing manuals.


Personal Comment:

As both practitioner and amateur scholar I’ve long awaited this book and I am excited to say it was worth the wait and I found it satisfying on a personal level. Astute readers may also notice several major similarities between elements of my own swordsmanship books and HACA’s many articles & essays, and Dr. Anglo’s own keen observations. This is not to make claim to any direct influence, but rather that our ideas and contentions are sound and obvious and that anyone reasoning upon the facts of history should be able to discern them just as well. It certainly gives us confidence to see information that supports our understanding of Medieval & Renaissance martial arts and offers vindication for propositions we have long held from our own research and training experience. After reading Dr. Anglo’s book there can be no mistaking his views and opinions on historical fencing. Some select excerpts from his The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe:

On historical fighting:

"...the techniques of personal violence were studied not only by emperors, kings, and princes, but also by their most humble subjects. The carrying and the use of lethal weapons was normal throughout the social hierarchy."

"There were many different types of sword, and they were not all handled in the same way. There were many different masters, and – however much they traveled about to gain experience, copied each other, or developed similar solutions to similar questions – they each had their own ideas about how to do things…the history of fencing is a good deal less straightforward than was at one time supposed".

On histories of fencing and views towards masters of arms:

"Historians have tended neither to understand what they did nor why they did it. The few who have attempted to deal with medieval and renaissance fighting masters have shied away from the brutality of the truth. They have not merely concentrated their attention almost exclusively on swordsmanship but have, even with that limited sphere, singled out only those elements which can be related to the evolution of modern fencing and it obsession with the thrust."

"The masters taught everything that pertained to physical violence in times of peace and of war. They dealt with every weapon and with every trick of unarmed combat."

"The business of the master of arms was to prepare his pupils for all eventualities..."

"For many centuries, the fighting taught by professional masters was relevant either on the battlefield, in the formal duel or in a brawl. The space given to the difficult skills required in each case varied from author to author, place to place, and (certainly) from time to time."

"The central issue for nineteenth-century historians and their followers was the development of the rapier – a notion which they used to denigrate the medieval masters and, indeed, most swordsmanship prior to the seventeenth century."

"Modern scholars often disagree about the nomenclature of bladed weapons even when dealing with their own native tongue; the polyglot nature of fencing literature further complicates matters; and for anyone interested in how people used swords for fighting, curatorial concerns (or with hilts than with blades) are of limited value."

"Another weakness of nineteenth-century fencing historiography is the underlying assumption that swordsmanship somehow evolved throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance – that it advanced on a regular, direct path from primitive concentration on cutting with the edge to thrusting with the point, via an experimental combination of both modes."

On modern research & study:

"[Neglect of this subject] still constitutes an historiographical curiosity. The only serious treatment of these matters has been by historians of fencing, by students of arms and armour and, more recently, by re-enactors and enthusiasts for historical modes of combat. Unfortunately, historians of fencing were at their most active a century ago when they confined themselves principally to tracing the evolution of swordsmanship towards a wholly notional ideal constituted by their own practice; while, in any case, swordplay was only one a part of the many activities which constituted the martial arts of the Renaissance. Specialists in arm sand armour have carried out much meticulous research but, in their case, the centre of interest has inevitably been more with artefacts than activities. Serious modern re-enactors, on the other hand, while frequently aware of a far wider range of combat techniques than the old fencing historians, and more pragmatic in their approach to physical action than the armour specialists, still tend to base their reconstruction upon a limited number of primary sources – although this situation is changing rapidly."

"Despite rapidly expanding modern interest in the martial arts of renaissance and medieval Europe, and the sometimes heroic efforts of historically minded practitioners, no authentic schools survive where one might perfect combat technique under the guidance of teachers whose pedagogic pedigree extends back to a Liechtenauer, a Marozzo, or any other occidental past master."

"The task of reconstruction is inherently difficult and is made even more so by some firmly entrenched but erroneous orthodoxies of which perhaps the most misleading is the assertion that systematic swordsmanship only started to develop during the renaissance and had been wholly unknown to the medieval masters."

"...the post-renaissance western tradition of small-sword fencing was not, and is not, the only way to fight with a bladed weapon."

On unarmed skills:

"[They are] one other area of personal combat which was taught by masters throughout Europe, and was practiced at every level of the social hierarchy whether the antagonists were clad in defensive armor or not. No medieval or renaissance fighting man was completely educated without acquiring some skill in the use of his bare hands, dagger, or knife.

On accounts of street-fights & duels:

"The techniques involved – dealing with unequal odds, left hand parrying, wrestling throws, ruthless battering about the head, stabbings, wards, and a total commitment to death and destruction – are all much the same as those described and illustrated by masters of arms from the late fourteenth century onwards. And, however much such behavior may later have been frowned upon by academic fencers, similar practices were still being taught long after they are conventionally supposed to have vanished from the sophisticated swordsman’s repertory."


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Read here about HACA's 1999 Consultation with Professor Sydney Anglo


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