Inspirational Readings: The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

[This post is the first of a series of reviews of books that might be interesting to GMs who like researching the real world in order to make their game worlds more plausible / lively / poignant / whatever. My suggestion is: stay as academic as you can afford. Read history books, above all. I know what you might be thinking: But if my campaign is not set in any real world historical setting, why should I bother? Well, I can see your point. But I think that having reliable, reasonably detailed information on real world events is a good starting point in any case: one thing is saying “my fantasy setting is, you know, feudal”, another thing is reading some medieval history in order to familiarize yourself with what feudalism really was, as opposed to what Hollywood made us think it was.]

Sydney Anglo (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. Yale University Press.

This book might be a real eye opener for many readers. For most gamers, I assume. That must have especially been the case when it came out in 2000. The book makes it clear, and then details with scholarly attitude and a bit of humour, that from the XIII century onward Europe has seen a flourishing of martial art systems, both armed and unarmed. They involved wrestling, dagger fighting, and weapons such as the longsword (one-and-a-half hand sword), the sword and buckler, the rapier (modern Italian spada a striscia), a range of pole weapons, and finally the smallsword before moving to the XIX century, out of the focus of this book. They have been developed, taught and transmitted in different languages, in different social milieus and with different economic arrangements. They were no less sophisticated than anything we find in the East Asian martial arts.

If you (like me and most of us) only know Agrippa, Capoferro, Thibault from The Princess Bride, prepare yourself to learn quite a bit about their works, as well as the art of earlier masters such as (in inverse chronological order) Di Grassi, Marozzo, Fiore de’i Liberi, the Lichtenauer school and even the anonymous author of MS I.33, the earliest swordfighting treatise in the Western world.

The book has just the right amount of martial detail to give you an informed idea of the technical content of each treatise. The author, being a respected Tudor England historian, focuses on textual transmission, culture, and social customs. And yet, this is no vague, broad social historical survey. It tells about weapons, their prescribed use and the debates about the respective merits of each combat system, about the etiquette of duels and chivalric tournaments, about the purported battlefield applications of this or that martial art, about the (often bad) reputations of fencing masters. All this is pure gold for premodern campaigns, be they set on Earth or not.

What is really crucial about this book is that unlike most books on Historical European Martial Arts published in the last twenty years, it is a scholarly work. It is not the most accomplished on the practical, fencing side (I am not even sure the author is a fencer himself), but it is the best documented and most closely sourced. Sadly enough, the author’s standards drop dramatically when he strays off his path and ventures outside his field of expertise. The few, sparse references to Japanese martial arts cite as only sources two popular books with hardly any primary source to speak of: that explains some hints of katana worship in a book otherwise cautious and level headed.

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