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Review – Teaching and Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship

Brian R. Price, ed.
ISBN 1-891448-46-3

This slim volume is very much a mixed batch. Reading it I could not quite decide if that was intentional, or the result of somewhat imprecise invitations to contribute, and I’m unlikely to ever know which it was.

Brian Price put together this collection of essays from a very wide variety of modern teachers and interpreters of historical swordplay some years ago, and it is intriguing to compare what was published here and how things are standing now, particularly as there is a growing movement toward providing a space for competition in historical sword play.

Putting aside any carping, most of the articles in here were fascinating, and there is a high degree of agreement between different teachers around the approach to Teaching and Interpreting swordplay. A handful of articles deal with specific technique, a handful use specific technique to illustrate a teacher’s approach to interpretation or teaching, and some like Stephen Hand’s look at a philosophy of teaching and interpretation.

It was this latter topic that particularly interested me (although Johann Heim’s article on versetzen introduced me to a lovely set of longsword ideas), and the topic that had broad agreement from the other authors. There is a core didactic problem with teaching from historical manuals, or from interpretations of historical manuals. If we go back 10 or 15 years, there was such a paucity of material available, and in such poor quality, that there was a fair degree of emphasis on interpreting the illustrations, not the accompanying text. Serious students quickly discovered that this was woefully inadequate, and that the text was the important thing, with the illustrations supporting the text, rather than the other way around.

That’s where things get messy. As Chris Tobler notes, these texts are not only in very foreign languages, they are littered with dense jargon and precise technical terms that are seldom explained. That makes interpretation – in both senses of the word – difficult, but there’s evidence from these articles that there is a definite trend toward collaborative and cooperative interpretation, enchanced and not detracted by differing interpretations of specific techniques.

The nice thing that is happening is that there has been a general recognition that historical manuals contain codifications of principles, exemplified by specific applications of those principles, and illustrated in part by the images. There are a variety of these general principles held up as exemplars – Silver’s times, the Lichtenauer Versetzen and the guards in Fiore/Vadi.

Balanced against these more philosophical articles are some really nice descriptions of different ways of managing the activity in the salle, different approaches to drills, and even a nice article on how to deal with different personalities and body sizes.

A few of the articles are a bit grating – Price’s own contribution spends some time talking about himself and his experiences, and Chelak’s felt somewhat vague – but overall this is a collection well worth reading.

The context of teaching and interpreting swordplay in the modern world is obviously hugely different to the historical context, and there are significant modern difficulties that need to be overcome. It is encouraging that there is patently a broad and intelligent community of teachers and interpreters considering the difficulties, and communicating a variety of very nice solutions.

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