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Book Review

Medieval Swordsmanship

By John Clements
Paladin Press
Softcover, 324 pages

FightingArts.com review by Ken Mondschein

Much as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. John Clements’ “Medieval Swordsmanship” is neither about things medieval, nor is it about swordsmanship—and this commonality, in fact, is where the book’s resemblance to anything historical ends. Though this tome is much-vaunted in circles interested in historical European martial arts, a more accurate title would have been, “How John Clements Thinks Medieval Swords Should be Used.” Any useful information scattered through the book can already by found in works by such scholars as S. Matthew Galas and J. Christoph Amberger. Mr. Clements adds little original research of his own—if it was research, indeed, since footnotes and documentation are few and far between.

This is not to put down Mr. Clements personally, for he has, more than any other individual, done a marvelous job in spreading awareness of and interest in the historical Western sword arts. It is a shame, therefore, that his book reads like a cross between Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and the liner notes of an album by the heavy-metal band Manowar. Since most medieval martial arts only come down to us today in the form of elaborate, detailed written treatises, obviously, proper research methodology is critical, requiring not only a knowledge of all aspects of fencing, but also training in the historian’s craft and at least a passing familiarity with the original languages. “Medieval Swordsmanship” has none of this, rather, it is 324 pages of a 21st-century man’s opinion of how swords should be used, based on his own backyard experimentation, riddled with factual errors, and infused with a liberal amount of screeds against modern sport fencers, theatrical fight choreographers, and anyone else the author deems lacking in proper martial spirit and intent.

At the heart of Mr. Clements’ philosophy is the notion that a modern individual, equipped with a reasonable reproduction of a medieval sword, can, through a cursory examination of these historical treatises, and experimentation with “sparring” and “test cutting,” approach the knowledge and skill of a professional medieval man-at-arms. This is, of course, a fallacy, akin to supposing that, equipped with a katana (Japanese sword) and a translation of “The Book of Five Rings,” one can recreate Musashi’s (a famous Japanese swordsman) skill with the sword, or that given a copy of “Kodokan Judo” and some willing partners, one can be as good as a judo-ka trained by Jigoro Kano (founder of judo). The real tragedy of this do-it-yourself approach to martial arts is that, in obscure corners of Europe and America, there are even teachers still passing on centuries-old traditions of Western martial arts. However, to seek them out and begin the long process of apprenticeship, and only then undertake the reconstruction of medieval arts, would require humility and a willingness to forgo quick results.

And so, “Medieval Swordsmanship” has very little to do with medieval combat. It may be a good system for backyard fencing with replica swords, and Mr. Clements may be very good at what he does. However, we cannot say that it is an accurate picture of historical Western martial arts, nor recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

John Clements obviously has the potential for great things. It is a shame that he wastes his time in producing volumes such as “Medieval Combat.”

Disclaimer: All book reviews posted on FightingArts.com reflect the individual judgment and views of the reviewer and do not in any way represent the views, opinions or judgments of FightingArts.com, eCommunities LLC, or their staff, volunteers, or other contributors. Furthermore, although reviewers might also be associated with FightingArts.com, eCommunities LLC, or other associated sites, their reviews do not represent those legal entities or their viewpoints or judgments.


About the Reviewer:

Ken Mondschein, is a New York City writer and amateur historian. After achieving a masters degree in European History he became a student of classical fencing and historical swordsmanship under Maestro Ramon Martinez. He is also knowledgeable about European classical dressage, the art of horsemanship, and its history and application in mounted combat. Other martial arts studies include karate where he is now a student at the World Seido Karate Organization's New York City headquarters. Mondschein currently works in textbook publishing.


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European swordsmanship, medieval martial arts, fencing, swords, sword technique


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