Secret History of the Sword
by J. Christoph Amberger
Unique Publications, $19.95
Review by Ken Mondschein, FightingArts.com staff
a layman for an example of a martial art, and he's
likely to point you towards the nearest karate dojo.
After all, the martial arts, as we all know from the
movies and TV, are traditional fighting systems from
Asia. Against colorful and fanciful tales of men who
can kill with a single punch and swords that can cut
through machine gun barrels, systems of personal combat
indigenous to Western culture tend to be downplayed
as mere competitive sports and children's games–-neglecting,
of course, that competition also weighs heavily in
the minds of practitioners of many Asian-derived arts.
Don't fencing, boxing, and wrestling have as much
history, color, and even spiritual depth as kendo,
karate, and judo? And, if so, why doesn't anybody
remember this "lost history"?
Enter German-born Christoph Amberger, descending upon
the scene with pen in hand and a Wagnerian score in
the background. Amberger's The Secret History of the Sword
("SHOTS") aims to set the record straight on the matter
of Western martial history and traditions. Though
his qualifications are those of a historian, not an
instructor, Amberger is still eminently qualified
to write such a book. Besides being broadly educated
and possessed of top-notch research skills, he also
bears on his face the marks of several "mensur", or
ritual duels fought with live blades between members
of certain German student fraternities. Thus, whereas
he may be a bit lacking as far as championship trophies
go, Amberger has almost unimpeachable credibility
so far as the combative mindset goes. After all, he
paid for the knowledge with his own blood.
This lack of teaching credential in no way mars his
work, though, for "SHOTS" can not properly be called
a technical manual detailing a complete fighting system.
Rather, it is an omnibus, a martial history as erudite
as it is varied, and which serves to introduce the
reader to the rich history of Western martial arts.
In many ways, though, this is the bookís biggest drawback,
as well as its greatest strength. "SHOTS" originally
began as a series of essays in Ambergerís homegrown
journal of sword history, "Hammerterz Forum," and
it remains unfortunately true to its origins. Amberger
more than interests his readers in his subject, yet
his haphazard meandering from topic to topic can frustrate
those of us who would have preferred more overall
focus in the book.
The lack of focus, however, is more than made up for
by the sheer variety and scope of the work. Within
the pages of "SHOTS" one finds unexpected treasures
as varied as Ambergerís comparison of ancient Greek
pugilism (as found in Homer's Odyssey ) to modern
Asian martial systems and his firsthand account of
his own "mensur". Likewise, a 17th century English
gentleman relates his duel with rapiers, and ancient
Romans reappear on the stage as Amberger attempts
to reconstruct their fighting system. We may not agree
with all his conclusions, but the author never fails,
even for a moment, to entertain and enlighten.
"SHOTS" greatest value to martial artists of all stripes,
however, is Ambergerís study in hopology, that is,
combat in its psychological and sociocultural context.
Again, Amberger's own life experience serves him in
good stead. After reading though Part 2 of "SHOTS"
one may indeed question the terminology used by Anglophone
martial artists on a daily basis. We may refer to
point-sparring as "fighting," but is it indeed proper
to refer this activity with the same word we would
use to describe two bikers defending their reputations
in the parking lot of the local roadhouse, or the
countermeasures we might take in self-defense against
a knife-armed mugger? How exactly do these situations
differ, and how does this affect our performance?
As for the rest, "SHOTS" is best described as an appetizer.
Reading Amberger's introduction to Western martial
history will most likely leave the reader hungry for
more technical works by historians such as Egerton
Castle and Arthur Wise, and fencing masters such as
Luigi Barbasetti, William Gaugler, and Nick Evangelista.
Despite its aforementioned drawbacks, "The Secret
History of the Sword" comes highly recommended.
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