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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review on Australian Swordplay Forums

This morning I found this positive review by one Hugh Knight of a heretofore unknown (to me, at least), presumably Australian group, Dieslachtschule, and would like to respond to a few points it raises:

The book is 8 1/2 X 11 soft cover in a perfect binding (a little problematic; that kind of binding can be short lived) and is 275 pages in length. The cover art is actually really nice--very minimalist but with nice medieval touches, especially a facsimile of Mair's actual signature.

I had a large hand in the design and layout of the book, including the cover, and I'm delighted it has been so well received. I will certainly continue with this approach in my future projects.

There is a brief forward and introduction (they seem pretty vanilla, but I confess I started with the real material and have put them off for later other than a skim over).

I cannot emphasize enough that the introductory essays should not be passed over, as they answer most of the questions people have about the material and certain authorial decisions we made. I will point out several examples of this shortly.

The book then goes straight into the text. The verso page shows the German from the Dresden Codex and the Latin from the Vienna Codex of the plate and the facing recto page shows the picture from Mair (more on this below) with a very understandable and highly modernized translation into modern English. It's a very clear and clean way of presenting the material.

Our goal was to translate Mair's material the way he wrote it, that is, not only for academics as a piece of scholarship, but also for a general audience to use as a practical manual. It made no sense to limit our work to a literal scholarly translation knowing the audience would consist mostly of martial artists.

As both an academic and a Renaissance martial artist, I've observed that too many authors today (in both academia and HEMA) are uncomfortable modernizing their translations, due either to their simple inability to speak plainly, or to a misguided desire for the translations to sound "authentic." The end result is often a lurching orgy of grammatical ambiguities. Authentic-sounding prose may please a certain segment of the HEMA community, but it is neither practical nor necessary. I am very glad that readers such as this from across the globe are realizing the value of plain language and I hope that other authors follow suit.

The pictures are from a very poor scan which one of the authors has cleaned up a bit. Why they did this when the Dresden edition, at least, is available on the internet, I don't know, but they did clean the pictures up enough to make them understandable. I suppose it has to do with copyright laws, but if you can use one internet source, why not another? This is of great interest to me since I'm about to do my Gladiatoria translation and will be doing precisely the same thing since I can't afford the $500.00 I need for publishing rights to the original.

Although I am a lawyer by training, I will resist the urge to turn this into a discussion of international copyright law. Suffice to say that just because a manual can be viewed online does not mean that you can use those images in your book. But if you do, feel free to send me a private message so we can discuss a defense strategy for your forthcoming lawsuit.

First and foremost, the reviewer has his manuscripts confused. The illustrations in our manual are from the Dresden edition. The Vienna and Munich editions are available on the Internet in black & white and full color, respectively.

I discuss the illustrations at length in the "pretty vanilla" introduction, so the reviewer would have saved himself some time and confusion had he read it. As our book very clearly states on more than one occasion, there are many factors behind why we used the black & white Dresden images. In terms of aesthetics, the Dresden edition is far superior to the Vienna. I have been to the Austrian National Library's Special Collections and personally held the Vienna edition in my hands. It is simply not as well illustrated as the Dresden. Moreover, there are no full-color scans of the Vienna, and the contrast of the black & white scans available online is so dark that the images are simply unusable for print. Worse, the prices just for permission to use those images (which can be viewed for free on the ARMA website) were as follows (per image):

up to 3.000 copies, 1/4-page illustration: Euro 35,- + 200% cover-surcharge
up to 3.000 copies, 1/2-page illustration: Euro 40,- + 200% cover-surcharge

After the exchange rate, we were looking at upwards of US$4,000 just for a 3,000-copy run. It simply wasn't an option.

The Munich edition is by far the best illustrated of the three, but the Bavarian State Library (which holds this MS) is very aware of its value and wanted even more than the Austrians did for permission to reproduce its images (and that was just for black & white reproductions).

By contrast, Saxon State Library was extremely generous in granting us permission to use its digital images. Moreover, those scans were available in a print-worthy 300dpi resolution with reasonably well-balanced contrast. They may not be suitable for a coffee-table art book, but that isn't what we wrote. Ours is a practical martial arts manual, and these images are more than adequate for that purpose. It really wasn't a difficult decision.

And to say that I cleaned the images up "a bit" is a colossal understatement. I'll leave it to the reader to go back to the introduction and find out why.

After the main body of the book there's a brief Latin and a brief German glossary, followed by a precisly literal translation of all the plates they'd already done--very professional and scholarly while still making the material accessible.

The material breaks down into various weapons: Spear and shortstaff, lance and longstaff, halberd, pollaxe (sort of), and then a hodgepodge of things like sword vs. spear and dussack vs. pollaxe, etc. These divisions were neatly and clearly laid out.

Again, I thank the reviewer for his praise and am glad that our formatting decisions were so well received.

I'm still collating the material--after all, this is my first real
exposure to Mair in a finished form, and his material is quite
different from earlier sources (even though his Munich Codex is a re-
hashing of earlier sources); the techniques remind me very much of
Meyer, actually. One disappointment is that I've been right all
along about his "pollaxe" material; it's not really pollaxe in the
sense of a 15th-century knightly armored combat form. This is
clearly just a kind of short halberd to Mair and is used as an
unarmored form exclusively.

Mair precedes Meyer and does not shy away from thrusts; as the blood-soaked illustrations in the Mixed Weapons chapter show, Mair still focused on the lethality of the art. But insofar as Mair's work is geared towards more or less the same audience as Meyer's, I agree that they are similar.

However, I do not at all agree that Mair's poleax is simply a short halberd. First, his poleax chapter is in a part of the manual completely separate from his polearms chapters. Mair's manual follows a very logical progression from weapon to weapon; he tends to group weapons by family, so the fact that poleax was separate suggests that he did not consider it just another polearm. For this reason, Brian and I had some serious debates about whether to include them.

Second, his poleax techniques require longsword-esque footwork and strikes that we don't see in the halberd chapter. And both weapons are anatomically very different in ways other than haft length. On the other hand, I'd also like to point out that oftentimes the line between halberd and poleax is blurry; I have seen many historical examples that straddle the line. Some similarities in technique should be expected.

As with Meyer, Mair leaves out more than he puts in. Each picture is
a snapshot of a brief moment in a single play, whereas each section
of accompanying text contains three or even four related techniques
(if he's like this then you do X; if he does X to you then you
respond with Y; if you do X and he responds with Y then you do Z),
and it's sort of the worst of both worlds: Not enough picture for
all the text and the text is more vague than most in some ways.

While we made every effort to be as precise as possible in the modernized translation, sure, there is room for interpretation. When is there not in this field? I would argue that ours is among the most technically precise translations on the market and would truly appreciate concrete examples of how Mair is "more vague than most" (in terms of the text, not the lack of multiple images per technique) so that we can address those issues in future projects.

I have yet to encounter a martial arts manual from any period of history (to include modern books) that records every single nuance of every single technique. Sometimes there is no substitute for training live under a skilled instructor. This is why I emphasize in the introduction and the preface to several chapters that this is an advanced manual best suited for those well-versed enough in a foundational WMA curriculum to fill in the blanks. Once you have developed a basic competency in ringen and longsword, the polearms material should be very intuitive.

Still, this is an incredibly important resource and I, for one, am
damned glad to see it even if I won't be trying to build it into my
curriculum (this is *clearly* a product of the 16th century).

Yes. Again, as I say in the introduction, this manual was deliberately written for upper middle class 16th c. Augsburgers, not armored knights from a century prior. While the second volume of each edition contains a large section on armored combat, those techniques appear to be geared towards tournaments, not the battlefield.

The price is, perhaps, a bit high. You can get the hardbound Codex
Wallerstein for $45.00 and Wagner's Silver book (_Master of Defense_) for a mere $39.00, while the medeival dagger combat book they have virtually identical in terms of production value, etc., is only
$30.00 for almost the same number of pages, all from Paladin. Don't
get me wrong, I happily paid $150.00 for the Paulus Kal book and,
frankly, considered it a steal at that price. This just seems a bit
much for the pure printing process involved, if we discount the
knowledge therein. Still, $40.00 for a book is *nothing* and this is
a mere quibble.
I cannot speak for Paladin's releases from several years ago, or those from other publishers, but I do know that Paladin changed to a different printing company than the one they used when Codex Wallerstein was released. With their newer releases, the price is more or less directly proportionate to the number of pages. Jay Vail's dagger book is $30 for 215 pages. Ours is $40 for 275 pages. If you do the math per page, ours is actually a better value than Jay's (sorry Jay; I'm talking pure numbers here).

This is a great book, much better than I expected. I need to test the translations to see what I really think of the nuts and bolts, but anyone with the slightest interest in 16th-century unarmored pole-weapon and staff combat needs this book. And the best part is there's no factually erroneus and unendurably self-serving "introduction" by John Clements, even though these guys are both ARMA members.
[Author's note: After seven years as an ARMA member, I resigned from the organization in February 2009 in protest of certain administrative policies]. I greatly appreciate the reviewer's comments and criticisms. In fact, we don't hear enough of the latter. I encourage all of you to test the translations so that others can then test your interpretations. I might not agree with you on some things, but that's the beauty of what we do in the HEMA world. With a lot of pressure testing against resisting opponents and a healthy dose of inter-group rivalry, any errors in interpretation will eventually sort themselves out.

In closing, I must say to our reviewer with great amusement that there is in fact a prologue by JC in the "pretty vanilla" introduction that he didn't read.

1 comment:

Magnus said...


Hugh Knight and his group are American. You can find his blog here-