Historical sources: how much is enough? Too little? Too Much?

I believe every human being has an idea of what personal combat supposedly looks like, how it feels like and how it should be done. Body type, past experiences and training affect this, of course. Some also have more correct idea of their abilities, both in ability and inability, whereas some have more unrealistic expectations.

The historical martial artist, instructor or practitioner is no different. The strength of these ideal will color our interpretation and personal style, and we should always keep this in mind. Of me for example, it has often been said (at least by myself), that the sources for my work are Marozzo, the Anonimo and Brad Pitt’s Achilles from the movie Troy.

Joking aside, we can think of this personal ideal as having two parallel lines. One is the actual idea we have, what we strive to do and the other is what we actually do. Then of course there is also how others perceive our work, but let’s leave that out of the equation this time.

The sources we use, being either the books we read or the knowledge passed to us by others who have read the books is supposed to first change the idea of combat we have. Then it is up to our practice to change what we do to match that idea. Is this possible? Can we really consider the primary sources as truly being the primary sources for our physical (swordfighting) abilities? As the saying goes: one can’t learn a martial art from a book. Unfortunately we don’t have much choice.

I think we can partly learn a martial art from a book, just like any other skill. And most definitely we can create a martial art based on a book, even if many questions we had were left unanswered. But learning, or even creating a martial art is still a step away from being able to use it to save one’s life (or take someone’s). These are naturally two separate things, it is possible to understand things on an abstract level while not being able to physically execute them. This is a natural part of our learning process and can be remedied by practice.

But this is where I find myself arriving at an interesting thought. The idea of personal combat we have is often quite fixed and difficult to shift. As every instructor probably knows, the physical attributes are even more so. Regardless of skill level, the idea is usually still quite “complete”. If you ask someone with no earlier weapons training, they are likely to have all kinds ideas on how to parry this and parry that attack, how to do feints and even tactics of combat. The rather encompassing nature of these ideas means that any source we use will be automatically reflected against them.

If the source in question is less comprehensive, it may not be able to shift our ideas. This is quite natural since the shift would in a sense be to a less complete understanding of combat. As an example, if we have a source that doesn’t discuss feints at all, does adhering (something a historical martial artist should at least now and then do) to this source mean that no feints should be used? The idea feels awkward, since feints are common knowledge even among those completely unaccustomed to the subject.

What often seems to ensue is an effort to try to justify one’s personal idea through the source being used. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times and it is odd. Single words can be taken from the source to mean that the source actually discusses a concept in depth, while it in reality doesn’t. Even if the mention was there, in a single word, it would not be surprising but still it would not really *add *anything. It wouldn’t help shift our idea to any (historically relevant) direction.

On the other hand there is the general “problem” of extensive source literature on a certain subject. Changing the idea is not difficult, as the idea is clearly represented in minute detail and in various contexts and circumstances. But managing it all becomes challenging. While reading through the material one tends to forget from the rear end while new information comes in from the front. Holding on to information is difficult. So is organizing and analysing it. Then again, we find ourselves being tempted to stick with our own idea and only using the sources to prove ourselves (with a lot of material it is easy to find references to back up virtually every thought).

The Bolognese tradition is a prime example of the latter case. There is a huge amount of material wherein answers to almost any question about the style are found. There also seems to be enough description to reproduce a distinct style of movement and dynamic to combat. There is a pedagogical system explained. There are forms and salle rituals. There are multiple weapons and even self-defense.

But at the same time there is a sort of “anything goes” nomenclature and basic theory, through which you can easily explain any action or strategy you may come up with in authentic, Bolognese terms. You could do Filipino stick fighting with Bolognese terminology and using a sword, with a few natural adjustments and be an effective fighter. Without knowing a single assalto or even a single example play from any of the books. If you only knew the basic alphabet of the style (and Filipino stick fighting of course).

In the end the main problem often is laziness. Being either too lazy to pick up sources that provide enough material to build a historically accurate combat style, or being too lazy to take the time to properly read the books and figure out how the style is supposed to be played.

Now some may resist and say that they are not lazy, but — for whatever reason — simply interested in a certain style and hence focus only on that. Then we need to ask whether they are trying to shift their personal idea to follow the source*?* If so, then in the case of a well-documented style they are on the right track, but if their personal idea refuses to shift, it is down to laziness. In case of more obscure sources, the situation unfortunately is worse. If they truly are not lazy, and are willing to follow the source I simply don’t see how they are going to fill in the blanks. Sorry, it just can’t be done. Maybe it is possible to create something new, loosely based on a source, but the problem is that the source itself is the ultimate limitation of how close to the “truth” we can get. On the other hand, with something more documented, reaching a point where the source would become a limiting factor is farther away. The limit is more likely to be found between our own ears.

So how much is enough? What would be the ideal amount of source material to relatively accurately re-create a style and to “own” it? There is no simple one answer. The further back in time we go the more difficult the sources often become to interpret, even if they are well documented.

The Bolognese? Sure, there is way too much, but of course I wouldn’t change it for less. Story of my life.

Kunst des Fechtens? Perhaps slightly easier since the teaching revolves around a smaller set of variables (guards, named cuts etc.), but on the other hand the authors a diverse and following the relationships between various works is tricky.

Some other singular Italian works from the 16th century, like Agrippa? No, I don’t think it is possible to base a combat style merely on that. Waiting to be proven wrong.

Other singular works from the 16th century? Joachim Meyer would work definitely. Complete and easier to work with than the Bolognese, since it is already digested and well-organized.

Later rapier texts in my opinion are also easy, like Francesco Antonio Marcelli. Even later, the small-sword work of Domenico Angelo is a perfect example with little if nothing left to be asked for. But the parameters are different as well, since it is only one type of weapon in a far more “constrained” environment with less variables.

I hope this gives you some food for thought. Consider your own relationship to the source(s) you use. What are the reasons behind your choices? Just how much work are you willing to do to find your style? How important are the sources to your personal style? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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