On the Sanctity of the Masters

One recent development has been playing on my mind of late: the height of pedestal on which we place the masters of the various historical fencing techniques we study. In our collective hero-worship no one seems to have considered that the masters’ techniques either just plain don’t work or work only in a limited set of circumstances. This type of hagiography does not to advance our understanding of historical swordplay nor does it provide a useful basis for the future of the sport.

The context in which a particular master wrote is the key piece of information missing from the picture. All swordplay styles developed at a particular time and place in order to attack and defend against particular weapons and styles. The reality was that a student of Capo Ferro was unlikely if ever going to find himself in a duel with a Johannes Leichtenauer longswordsman. The two styles are separated by at least a hundred years (or more if the longsword purists are to be believed). The Capo Ferro rapier technique is designed to fight another rapier technique just as the Leichtenaur longsword style is designed to fight an opponent wielding a longsword.

(If you want to put this to the test, come to the Swordplay 11 in Brisbane this September and enter the Skill-at-Arms tourney.)

Similarly, changes in context modify how a weapon is used. Without getting into the hideous debate about his worth, all longswordsman know that Leichtenauer as professed by Joachim Meyer is very different to that of, say, Ringeck or HS 3227a (Dobringer). The key change is that in Meyer’s time, the longsword was no longer a battlefield weapon but a weapon of the salle and guild exposition. In this context, the thrust was banned and opportunities appeared for the inclusion of a whole range of winding techniques that are simply not workable under in the high stress environment of life-and-death combat.

Does modern historical swordplay competition (if that’s not an oxymoron) compromises our understanding of historical technique? Not at all. Any technique which has been proven through decades if not centuries of hard-fought experience should always prove superior to johnny-come-lately trickery if used in an appropriate context against the weapons it was intended to fight.

Does modern historical swordplay competition (I’m still not happy with that phrase) change the way we apply historical techniques today? Definitely. In the same way that circumstances changed swordplay throughout the ages, we adapt to our current conditions.

The texts written by fencing masters of long experience are just as valuable now as they were in the past as training manuals and guidance on the tactical (and sometimes philosophical) aspects of the fight. However, they are not carved in stone and they are certainly not immune to challenge when used outside the boundaries of their own context.