Sunday, January 16, 2011

Medieval Fight Book

by Jeffrey Hull

Just so everyone – both friend and foe alike – is perfectly clear regarding this:

The good folks who produced the forthcoming programme Medieval Fight Book for National Geographic Television; set to air on Tuesday evening (18 January 2011); shall be using my very own translations of passages from the Fechtbuch (1459-Thott) by Master Hans Talhoffer.

I want to thank Sion of Wild Dreams Films and Richard of NatGeoTV for providing me this venue for my work. They have proven to be decent & honest fellows, and I wish them good luck.

I hope that Medieval Fight Book shall be an enjoyable experience for all you good readers/viewers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Master Talhoffer, Systems, Technical References, and Presentation

I cannot abide blatant disrespect of the old masters by modern neophytes (though it helps keep me away from internet forums), even less so than I can abide disrespect to living masters (those in deed, not necessarily in name). Since I began studying the Chivalric Arts, I have - amazingly - met very few who take the masters at their written word. The vast majority instead often simply ignore them altogether, and generally argue against them (“Was Leichtenauer a sport fencer?”). And these selfsame novices often claim to “specialize” in the study those same masters they ignore. Perhaps it is a symptom of the endemic lack of martial artists in the Chivalric Martial Arts; the lack of experience in doing what they read, leading to so much questioning, and so much reinvention of the wheel. It seems that the current representative of the Art to UNESCO (did I get that right?) is truly representative after all (despite all the contrary fervor), himself being entirely devoid of martial arts experience, nor having any accreditation that he did not bestow upon himself (being instead a LARPer by background, as with so many other re-enactors turned “martial artists”). But enough with the inspiration.

As you can see, Master Talhoffer is the man in question lately. I’m only willing to share a fraction of what I know here beyond what I have already shared on his works, but at the urging of my brother in arms, I’ll spill a little bit more. Due to this master’s differences in presentation, and exactly what he chose to pass along to others in his works, we will branch off into a few different areas, in which I will be very brief. I am also intentionally leaving out supporting references, which are numerous. I won't be spending much time on this.

On Translation

As I've said before, I think one of the things contributing to Master Talhoffer’s bad rap among some modern scholars is that the first modern English translation of his work wasn’t really a translation. It was mostly garbled mistranslation and extremely speculative replacement of what he actually said, and conjecture on the same. That's what you get when you try to bring a subject foreign to yourself to light. Thank God he included a transcription in the back.

On Presentation

Firstly, a short discussion on presentation. Presentation, presentation, presentation! This is what has led to many a modern misconception when it comes to the old technical references. It is also something that leads to getting a lot of things right with them. No two writers will present any given system in the same way when writing their separate treatises on them, thus many modern misconceptions of wildly divergent systems. Not only is this because of the author's different perspectives and preferences, but also because they would not want to copy the other’s work. Master Talhoffer is no different. One major reason we have so much information on Master Leichtenauer’s longsword system is because so many different masters wrote works elaborating on that system. It wasn’t a different Art, but a unique system for teaching it; a particular way of organizing and presenting it. So, we have numerous different perspectives and presentations for that system with which to cross-reference and reconstruct it accurately. Master Talhoffer, however, didn’t present his system as such, though he undoubtedly followed that same system; he presented his work as a technical reference (rather like the Wallerstein Codex, but far more professionally). Now on to the goals of the various technical references.

Presentation of a System vs. a Technical Reference

Obviously, many masters sought to present us with the flesh and bones of their systems and curricula. Masters such as Fiore, and many of those following Leichtenauer’s system (and Leichtenauer himself), and the authors of the Man Yt Wol and I.33 sought to present them as such. However, this is not a requirement as many now seem to expect and assume, and is one of those things recently brought into question about Master Talhoffer. Apparently, some moderns have come to expect a system of every technical reference. But sometimes, a technical reference is just that. A technical reference is a supplementary part of the whole of any given system (though the system in this case is actually irrellevant, apart from the Art of the Longsword). The modern system I study, for example, is, to paraphrase Master Fiore, too vast to retain without our technical references. The curriculum is broken up into many instructional treatises detailing its techniques. However, any instructional martial art work can be considered supplementary. Master Talhoffer was obviously not parroting Master Leichtenauer, as so many that came after him, though again, he undoubtedly followed Master Leichtenauer’s system. This is the major strength of his works. They are a technical reference in the truest sense, and supplementary due to the fact that he does not advise on nor teach the greater system that the techniques are based upon. Thus he was free to show us many unique techniques, besides the additional perspectives on older ones, and to take his own creative approach to the Art in his work.

Master Talhoffer’s Presentation

Master Talhoffer’s presentation of his work, however, is ingenious in my opinion and thus far, to my knowledge, unique. He, with purpose, uses few words and little advice to describe his techniques, much to the chagrin of many a reader. But with means most fully realized in our present age, he often shows the same techniques at various points in time (beginning to middle, or end) to make up for it, in part. This is one method he used to more fully transfer his instruction that is found rarely in his Germanic contemporary’s works. One more method, that I cannot emphasize enough, is his entirely misunderstood and universally mistranslated differentiation between free techniques and techniques from the bind. This simple differentiation unlocks most of his techniques easily. Yet another unique aspect of his work is his transitional instruction from blossfechten (unarmoured fencing) to harness fencing, in which he begins to show armoured longsword techniques with models not wearing their armour. This continues into the pollaxe section as well, and provokes thought on the versatile utility of said techniques in or out of harness, and the ability to train for them without necessarily using harness.

A Systematic and Coherent Outline

This is another shot taken at the Master. It seems rather obvious to me, but Master Talhoffer divided his work into chapters for each weapon, and of course, for the most imperative: unarmed skills. But never the less, each individual chapter is organized in principle, if not method. Something one will not find in the presentation of Master Leichtenauer’s curricula, yet shown by Master Talhoffer, is his first two plates detailing the proper methods for cutting upward and downward with either edge, setting his work off on a proper ground for systematic presentation.

As most know, and for which I have laid out a few reasons, Talhoffer’s works are not the best for the novice, but a lack of understanding should not make one think that they “know better” than the master, nor tear down his works or skills with ignorant remarks. The adage is as old as the Art itself, but humility will take the Disciple of Mars a long way.

Copyright January 4, 2011
Benjamin “Casper” Bradak