Translated by Mark Rector
Lionel Leventhal/Greenhill Books
304 pages, hardcover $29.95
Reviewed by Ken Mondschein, FightingArts.com
arts books have been around for a long, long time,
as Mark Rector of the Chicago Swordplay Guild ably
demonstrates with his new work, "Medieval Combat."
Mr. Rector's book is the first English translation
of Hans Talhoffer's "fechtbuch", or "fight-book,"
a compendium of the knightly arts of mayhem as practiced
circa 1467. Arguably the most famous of medieval manuals
of arms, Talhoffer's manuscript is part of a long
Germanic martial tradition that began in the fourteenth
century and continued intact well into modern times.
These fascinating fighting arts are similar in some
respects to the feudal warrior arts of Japan, including
the handling of a variety of weapons both in and out
of armor, as well as techniques for unarmed self-defense.
Previously, editions of this medieval masterwork have
only been available in German. Mr. Rector therefore
deserves some well-earned kudos for making an important
piece of martial history available to a wider audience.
We can expect that "Medieval Combat" will
interest readers from a variety of backgrounds. Exponents
of kendo or kenjitsu, of course, will turn to the
section on longsword. Those who study jo, bo, or naginata
will be interested in Talhoffer's chapter on poleax,
and his wrestling techniques should fascinate those
with a background in judo or jujitsu. Chinese swordsmen
will no doubt appreciate the similarities and differences
between the "dao" and the machete-like "messer".
There are also forms of combat, such as judicial duels
using spiked shields, or held between a man and a
woman, with the man forced to stand hip-deep in a
hole in the ground, that have no parallels in the
East. Finally, there are the pages on mounted combat,
which give some insights into how the horse, the warrior's
trusted companion in any culture, was used in battle.
Using this work, however, is not a straightforward
task. Indeed, Talhoffer was very medieval in his thought,
and the systemization that characterizes modern Asian
and European martial arts books is not present in
his "fechtbuch." The manner or order in
which Talhoffer shows his techniques with the longsword
presupposes knowledge of his style of fencing, and,
in fact, the original manuscript, written and drawn
by hand, was intended for the use of one of his students.
Unfortunately, there are also very few remaining today
who can impart the knowledge that lies "between
the lines" in a direct tradition. Thankfully,
the Mr. Rector includes some brief notes explaining
the general rules of the school to instruct the would-be
practitioner. However, the main aid to the reader
is that Mr. Rector has chosen not to present a literal
translation, but rather holds with a looser, but still
accurate, interpretation that gives a more detailed
picture of what is happening in each illustration.
For those who wish to double-check his work, he has
thoughtfully appended the original text, written in
medieval Swabian, in an appendix.
Still, given the attention it deserves, Mark Rector's
translation of Talhoffer will reward any reader willing
to make the effort. The techniques contained therein
are as effective today as they were over half a millennium
ago, and the depth of knowledge and technique contained
therein will surprise anyone who is used to the idea
of medieval warriors being crude, muscle-bound ignorants
who bashed their way through battle with more trust
in muscle than in skill. Indeed, the ability to explore
the dangerous elegance of historical European fighting
skills from one's armchair is, alone, well worth the
purchase price. "Medieval Combat" is recommended
for any martial artist.
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