Reflecting on The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

Anglo, Sydney. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2000.

Finally! After two years of reading, I finally finished reading Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe! I can say for certain, it was a deep and detailed book cataloguing and comparing fight books or manuals from the medieval period and the Renaissance, so detailed that I had to reread many a paragraph to understand what the author was referencing. Nevertheless, Anglo knows his source material, as he freely cross-references and contrasts the manuals of each weapon and school of thought. What is at the core of his work is exactly how did soldiers, armies, monarchs, duelists, and ruffians fought during the medieval period and the Renaissance. Without much for historians, researchers, fencers, and reenactors to go off of when diving into this period of time, Anglo takes up the fight books that many a fencing master and occasional soldier wrote, as these are some of the closest sources that modern people have to look back into the past.

The first two chapters discuss who these fencing masters were, as well as their respective students – what kinds of people were drawn to pick up the sword and learn to fight. excluding nobles and monarchs, they were those who society deemed as outcasts, thugs, thieves, and men of low moral character. In some respect to that perspective, the fencing masters did not divulge all their secrets and know-how of swordsmanship and ability to kill in their manuals. For this reason, Anglo discusses three aspects of manual writing may give insight as to why these fight books were vague and less informational than at first glance. The first is each fencing masters’ writing ability: it varied from master to master. Some masters were adept at conveying their general idea and technique tot eh reader; others inadvertently made clear that their writing ability did not rival their fencing abilities. To Anglo, some authors babbled on about this technique and that technique that does not manifest in the reader’s mind after reading their descriptions, while others do so. Conversely, after the advent of the printing press, many fencing masters putting pen to paper had the luxury of including images of their chosen technique. However, as Anglo points out, sometimes an image with a caption was more confusing and frustrating than helpful. Firstly, the images presented are only a snapshot or the ending of the technique, which gives the reader thought as to how to end in such a pose. Secondly, the captions assigned to the image may not be describing the correct technique; perhaps one later on in the manual. Lastly, the caption may not even describe anything of substance relating to the pictured technique. All three issues create a conundrum for those who wish to figure out exactly how these medieval and renaissance fencers fought.

Moreover, the terminology on how to best convey the training methods and skills from the fencing masters to far off pupils was still be debated during these times, as covered in chapters three, four, and five. How one author from England chose to describe his system was different from another; furthermore, how an Italian fencing master decided to write down his own terminology was vastly different from a Spanish or German author. To make matters for complicated, as Anglo covers in chapter three, many fencing masters took to using mathematical diagrams, formulas, and other related jargon to ultimately “simplify” a fencing bout into a mathematical equation. At points during this phase of fencing manuals, as Anglo asserts, a good portion of these authors did not clearly bridge mathematics with fencing, or, to put it bluntly, the authors did not fully understand what they were writing about and created more confusion for their readers. 

These terminology issue make themselves known as Anglo shifts his focus to staffed weapons, knives and daggers, armor, and mounted combat. Throughout his investigations of these manuals, he admits limits to his knowledge and research, outright confirming that he does not know exactly what a Renaissance author is trying to convey. In shifting away from the weapons and describes the kinds and types of armor these warriors of the past wore into battle, he highlights this continued issue of terminology as almost no two authors can agree on what the knights wore into the battle and certainly what they were called and what their individual purpose was. Of course, as Anglo continues to write, the art historians, museum curators, and the like can help fill in those gaps; however, when looking at the manuals written, as this is what Anglo uses throughout his book, the authors are less than helpful.

In the last three chapters, he tackles mounted combat and the duel, specifically how the perception of the duel changed as fencing and other military matters progressed further than just fighting with the steel. With mounted combat, Anglo separates it into two categories: jousting and fighting in the lists and what manifested itself on the field of battle. The former was more of a game when compared to the latter. Though there was a level of brutality that was present in the early jousting and tournaments that would make modern spectators queasy, fighting in the lists paled in comparison to mounted battlefield combat. However, Anglo points to a handful of writers who mentioned the benefits of participating in such tournaments, specifically the jousting; they write that such experiences can help a soldier be ready for the battlefield, if only they approach the tournaments with such a mindset. the way one holds a lance and aims it while controlling the horse was one that many of the few writers endorsed.

As Anglo ends with the duel, there is a change in what the fight book authors say about the duel. Many authors Anglo cites lament that such an activity has changed for the worse. The duel to many of these later Renaissance authors was a fight between armored knights, fighting for more than just material possession – honor! Duels during these contemporaries’ time was essentially open to any person with a sword, a shirt, and trousers and had a bone to pick with just about anyone else. However, what is ironic to note is that Anglo opens his book with the authorities and other social and moral pillars of society decrying that such fencers were only ruffians, not upstanding or honorable men.

Throughout the pages, paragraphs, and sentences, Anglo fills each with detailed information to which anyone interested in finding out more of what became the basis for the modern HEMA movement. Even those not with a HEMA background can find any part or aspect of Anglo’s work worthwhile, especially those wanting to know how the individual soldier or duelist fought during a time when swords were more openly wore. All in all, Anglo offers a well-researched and detailed account of fighting for at least three hundred years of European history.


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