Medieval Combat

Translated by Mark Rector
Lionel Leventhal/Greenhill Books
304 pages, hardcover $29.95
ISBN: 1853674184

Reviewed by Ken Mondschein, Staff

Martial 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.