Report by J. Clements
Attending the Royal Armouries seminar held by the European Historical Combat Guild (EHCG) August 4th & 5th in Leeds was extraordinary. Never before has there been such a Medieval & Renaissance martial arts event of this kind: a gathering of first-class historians, scholars, academics, curators, conservationists, medievalists, re-enactors, and martial artists held in the largest arms museum in the world no less. We were surrounded by all manner of real swords, armor, and weapons as well as having samples to examine on hand.
The lectures and presentations were fascinating and first rate. It was quite a site to see more than 80 international participants from seven countries practicing with all manner of weapons. The future trends of Medieval and Renaissance martial arts also a major topic of discussion as was current study and training methods. ARMA was warmly received by everyone we met. We were sincerely honored to have been specially invited to present at such an event and we noted with modesty that for many our reputation for skillful display had preceded us.
The custom built Royal Armouries Museum located in West Yorkshire, England, is the worlds foremost museum of arms and armour. Over four stories of weapons and associated artifacts fill floors dedicated to warfare, tournaments, self-defense, and hunting. The Armories hosts an extraordinary diverse collection of all periods including some exceptionally rare examples of swords and samples of armor. Dynamic displays, video screens, and informative graphics convey arms and armor as practical tools not mere artistic or cultural objects. Topping off the uniqueness of the Royal Armories effort at education and entertainment is their original Fight Interpretation Team (headed by John Waller) offering realistic live performances of arranged combat sequences derived from the historical manuals and individual research. The fight interpretations have a well-earned reputation for accuracy. The Royal Armouries own official statement declares it is convinced of the value of teaching through demonstration and performance and of learning through participation and doing. Master of the Armories, Guy Wilson, explained he was delighted to host this inaugural seminar of the Guild and wished the Guild a long and active life.
The event opened Saturday morning in the Royal Armouries Bury Theatre with Head of Fight Interpretation and Guild Master, John Waller, welcoming everyone and expressing how special the seminar was in being the very first held in a major arms collection. John Waller gave the opening remarks commenting on the great changes he has seen in the subject since he began with it over 30 years ago, with the access to the historical manuals and the intensity of efforts by so many individuals. He noted how successful the new Guild movement has been and its unique position is associated the armories. John Waller stressed the need in the historical fencing community for honor and an end to petty ego politics. John Wallers goal behind the seminar was aimed at bringing together individuals or groups which share a belief in, and practice of the philosophies advocated by the Guild, whilst learning or teaching European Historical Combat. The event offered the chance to stimulate the exchange of knowledge and discussion between academics and practitioners to improve the understanding of European historical combat, plus exchange ideas with and benefit from the expertise offered by Guild teachers.
This was followed with the first presentation, an aptly named lecture Fence and Insensibility, by Jeffrey Forgeng, Professor of Humanities and Paul S. Morgan Curator at the Higgins Armoury Museum in Worchester Massachusetts. Jeffrey Forgeng set the tone for the weekend by offering an original and highly effective viewpoint for interpreting the works of historical martial arts. Anyone who has worked with historical martial arts manuals knows that recreating their techniques is often like listening to a train station loudspeaker for instructions for a game of Twister. His presentation looked at some of the difficulties posed by the historical texts and various ways of dealing with them. A slide show conveyed some of the difficulty of going from text and pictures of the manuals to translations of them and then to interpretation and practicum. Offering much to consider, it focused on examples from the Walpurgis Fechtbuch (Royal Armouries MS I.33) and Joachim Meyers treatise of 1570. We feel his approach gave us in particular a very useful tool and we have plans now to adopt much of his ideas in our own study of the manuals. Interestingly, as it happened Jeffrey Forgengs lecture material was also very complimentary to the content our own presentation the following day.
After this, a second lecture was given by Tobias Capwell, BA, MA, MA, of the University of Leeds medieval studies program. Tobias is an accomplished jouster and also a member of Mike Loades Historical Action group. His presentation on 15th-century pictorial depiction of European fighting arts was lively, informative, and entertaining. He presented several original ideas and stressed that while much of the modern understanding of Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills has been derived from surviving manuals, these manuscripts are not the only source of information available.
He gave considerable evidence from 15th century artwork that contemporary artists displayed a keen interest in the realistic portrayal of combat at close quarters. The aim of his talk was to examine a cross-section of some of the most interesting examples of the period and to consider the implications of their evidence. Capwell stressed the problem with art historians labeling historical combat depictions as fantastical based solely on their own highly limited and often quite faulty understandings of the actual function of historical arms and armor. Many period artists actually included technical details in their works that conveyed authority and underscored the authenticity of often pseudo-historical (and sometimes fantastical) subject matter. A fascinating slide show of examples relating Fiore Dei Liberis techniques to those found in wall frescoes was illuminating. Just as with Jeffrey Forgengs, Tobias lecture also coincidentally fit very nicely with the material ARMA presented the next day.
Tobias made a strong impact by showing the importance of pictorial evidence. It was an excellent and revealing presentation of the understated relationship between period artwork and the manuals. He discussed the problem of period artwork not considered evidence or reliable having often been dismissed as "artistic license". He noted doing so severely limits our range, size, and depth of research, and that it is wrong to discount artists depiction of their environment. Intriguingly, he addressed how the problem of how to use art in manuals to enhance our practice is actually the very same as their actual historical purpose (which he called a rare alignment of historical and of modern use --something that seldom occurs in historical studies, pointing out for example, that Medieval prayer books in contrast are seldom used by modern Christian to pray). Finnaly, Tobias brought up an important question which must be our very first in regard to artwork in the manuals: how realistic is this? He compared material in the Getty edition of Fiore Dei Liberis Flos Duellatorum with contemporary frescoes by the painter/muralist Aretino Spinello of Arezzo. The very same dagger and wrestling moves could be discerned. He also pointed out where both Fiores and Talhoffers mounted combat techniques appeared in Veronese drawings and Burgundian tapestries.
More than 60 fighters using everything from short swords to great swords to rapier and dagger took to the floor of the great two-story events hall for a mass session (the small photo at right does not do justice to the scene). Dozens of spectators stood or sat off to side watching the sweat. Several hours of instruction was given by John and Jonathan Waller in the Guild fighting method. They stressed the factors that determine the way in which a combat takes place and their philosophy of teaching and beliefs such as: contact, balance, and intent. John Wallers system is based on principles many of which are borne out by European fighting manuals and martial arts around the world. Instruction placed emphasis on body mechanics, weapons used, clothing/protection, environment, and intention.
Saturday night concluded with a formal coat and tie reception in the Armouries Tournament Gallery and a private dinner in the War Gallery. The cuisine was excellent, the event festive, the companionship pleasant, the conversation vibrant, and the surroundings actual armor and weapons displays extraordinary.
We enjoyed the company of more than 60 of our fellows as well as the arms collection. We had the opportunity to chat at length with Guy Wilson, Master of the Armouries, on military history, arms conservation, and the museums philosophy, fight interpretation program, and exciting future plans. Following the dinner for many attendees was a night on the town to indulge in some of Leeds youthful nightlife.
On Sunday, the seminar continued opening with a lecture on the main stage by ARMA on Medieval Long-sword of the Italian and German Masters, followed by examples of Renaissance dagger fighting and grappling techniques. I started out discussing the term martial arts and the current revival of historical European fighting skills, relating them both to not only the period practices of the manuals but also earlier Victorian interest in the subject. This was followed by a short example of the ARMA Study Approach and Training Methodology emphasizing the ideal of Ernst Fechten and the component of emotional content. Jeff and myself then gave an energetic demonstration of some fundamental long-sword Floryshes using steel blunts and wasters. From here, a presentation on the four basic guards of Liechtenauer and their modifications in the Italian school was given. Some basic half-swording was also worked into this.
We then demonstrated an extended example of basic counters to fundamental cuts, explaining the principle behind each technique, we then showed some half-swording and our special close-in Schwertnemen and gioco stretto which our method has become known for. We then changed gears and to the audiences delight Jeff expertly displayed several highly effective and formidable preses and counters to dagger thrusts and stabbing attacks, followed by several more unarmed defenses against dagger strikes. He countered, trapped, disarmed, or arm-locked me while employing takedowns or seizing holds. We even managed some impromptu counters and variations to keep things unpredictable. The whole time we presented our material in a causal and frequently humorous manner, but stressed the seriousness of the historical purpose behind the craft. The material was also pleasantly tied back into the prior days lectures by Messrs. Forgeng and Capwell, in many ways bringing it all back full circle.
Continuing from our session was a lecture on Swords in the Royal Armouries collection by Graeme Rimer, Head of Collections at the Royal Armouries Museum. Mr. Rimer began with an onscreen presentation show covering the Armouries history and its collection as well as the move five years ago from the Tower of London to the new facility in Leeds. He described the Armouries' extensive sword collection covering both European and Oriental material from the early Middle Ages to the 20th century.
Rimer also discussed the unique philosophy behind the Armouries presentation of arms
and armor and then for everyones delight presented several pieces from the closed
collection with the opportunity for delegates to inspect, handle, and discuss them. The pieces included several varieties of 18th
and 19th century sabers and cutlasses, a lovely great-sword blade from c. 1400
(but with an awful 19th century replacement hilt), a long German swept-hilt
rapier and a very long Spanish cup-hilt rapier both of c. 1600. Each of the long rapiers
had fairly wide but very rigid blades, were light, very well-balanced, and entirely dull
in the sense of a true cutting edge as on the great sword or sabers. Attendees in white gloves swarmed around the
pieces, hefting them, passing them from hand to hand and remarking on their minute details
and characteristics. For most it was their
very first time holding a real antique sword.
The RA's Fight Interpretors
Spending time later in the interpreters locker room helping friend and Senior Fight Interpreter Keith Ducklin with his harness also gave Jeff and I the chance to acquire an astounding amount of information on the wearing and use of real armor. We examined closely their arrangement of gambesons, arming caps, ties, mail gussets, footwear, etc. It was an invaluable learning opportunity for us and we took a lot of photos and notes. One of the greatest assets of the Royal Armories fight interpreters is the astounding amount of extremely subtle information they have accumulated in regard to the function and wearing of historically accurate armor. We noticed that perhaps because the fight interpreters have been so intensely close to the subject on virtually a daily basis, they are not really aware of the uniqueness and value of some of the information they possess. We realized this on our earlier visit to the Armouries in 1999. So, in our discussions with them we tried to express our observations on just how unique we felt their information was. The experience they have gathered from fighting almost daily for years on end has given them a profound level of information that I do not believe they fully realize the significance of. They hold a subtle knowledge base acquired from countless insights into the design and wearing of accurate harness and handling of antique weapons combined with experiment in historical fighting techniques.
We discerned very quickly they possess an exceptional degree of tips, advice, and insight on a range of subjects such as: the actual strapping and belting of real armor, the proper placement and functioning of arming points, the actual design of gambesons and arming coats, the wearing of under garments, the purpose behind obscure design elements and how all of this relates directly to practical issues of movement, comfort, and functionality. This kind of information just can not be gained by weekend re-enactment, partially accurate armors, or book research alone. We realized it can only be accumulated by people in their unique and enviable position to work daily at historical combat amidst a huge collection of armor and weapons, an extensive private library, have a wide array of personalized harnesses to play in, have access to expert modern armorers and a staff of arms curators, and the opportunity to inspect and examine actual historical pieces. Additionally, the humility with which they express their opinions in spite of the above cannot help but earn our respect. This is yet another reason ARMA values its special relationship with the Royal Armouries and the John Wallers Guild.
ARMA Wallace Demo & London Research
The Leeds event was not our only excitement. Earlier in the week, at the invitation of curator, conservationist, and re-enactor David Edge, Jeff and I conducted a special one-hour demonstration of Medieval German and Italian long-sword and dagger fighting at the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London. After viewing swords and armor in the collection the day before and again that morning, we gave a display that, because of the size of the crowd of about 75 people, ended up having to be done on the front lawn outside of the museum (which then attracted an even large number of spectators!).
It was a hot summer day for London, but being from Texas we barely noticed, and gave it our best. The display went well and despite the absence of David Edge due to an emergency appendectomy (!) from which he will fully recover we were especially pleased a special viewing spot was made for Dr. Sydney Anglo (whom I am happy to announce is now our official Advisor and has already begun reviewing our websites material for accuracy).
We were also excited while in London to finally meet our colleagues in the Exiles group, who attended the Wallace demo. We were fortunate to discuss a few aspects about translation and interpretation of Fiore dei Liberis Flos Duellatorum with them. This was an added pleasure as the Exiles are doing what we now believe is very likely the foremost work on Fiore and have without question the most accurate interpretation and translation we have encountered. In just casual conversation and quick demonstration we were quite impressed with the sophistication shown in their understanding of the Fiore material. Even during consultation on Fiore with Dr. Anglo himself, he remarked from just his brief conversation with the Exiles that day that he was quite impressed and declared they appear to be doing very good work. We were disappointed we were unable to talk at length with Rob Lovett and Matt Easton, the Exiles leaders, or see in detail their skills, but it is high on our list for next time and we look forward to further consultation and collaboration with them on their Fiore efforts.
Research wise, the trip was extraordinary fruitful for us. Not only did we gather extensive notes from the seminar presentations, we pursued several other avenues of investigation, We were able to spend several productive hours in the new Erand Library at the Wallace Collection (poised to become the center of arms and armor and historical fencing research in London).
Under curator David Edges direction, the Wallace library has in excess of 400 titles on arms and armor, including whole shelves of works in French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Russian, Polish and other eastern European languages. I also was ecstatic to be able to spend several fascinating hours consulting with Dr. Sydney Anglo, Dr. Anglo and I talked at length about his recent book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, and the historical manuals, as well as my current areas of research in them. I then visited the British Librarys rare book reading room with Dr. Anglo and was able to spend the entire day and part of the evening conducting specific research. I examined several original editions of period fencing manuals, collected some remarkable material, and even made several discoveries. Upon our arrival in Leeds Jeff and I spent Friday at the armories engaging in conversation with the fight interpreters and then spending considerable time in the Royal Armories own library collecting an additional range of rare material.
One exciting thing I have to mention at this time is an Italian rapier manual written by a commoner which offers evidence the rapier was indeed a street-fighting weapon of all classes. The work also contains some of the most intriguing examples of grappling and wrestling techniques in Renaissance swordplay. Another exciting item I came across which I will write more about soon is a largely unknown 17th century English work on the rapier written by a nobleman. It offers vindication of several personal theories I have about gripping rapiers and cutting, which in fact I have been teaching for several years.
Additionally, we acquired information on yet another previously unknown anonymous German manual of over 600 pages and illustrated (!). We also learned of a newly discovered collection of over 200 fencing books, mostly 18th century but with 20-30 17th century works, that will be made public within the next year. Additionally, we learned of still another large private collection of more than 2000+ fencing books (the third of its kind in Europe so far).
Overall, our trip and the event was an invaluable opportunity for us and we hope to soon present online some of what we gathered in a form useful for students. We are grateful for ARMA having been given the honor of an invitation by the Royal Armories and the recognition of our work by the Guild. Thanks to our respected friends and hosts within the Guild we enjoyed an exceptional degree of camaraderie. The seminar was exceptional. John and Jonathan Waller as well as the entire Guild staff along with the Armouries are to be commended for having successfully presented what was the most significant event of its kind.