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The Flower of Battle:
An Interview with Bob Charron - Part 2

By Deborah Klens-Bigman

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of an interview by Deborah-Klens Bigman of Bob Charron. Charron is an authority of Western Martial Arts, who teaches classes and seminars using techniques deciphered from his translation and study of a 15th Century Italian fighting manual “Fior di Battaglia”(The Flower of Battle) written by Fiore dei Liberi. Itincludes empty hand techniques, followed by dagger and sword techniques.

Deborah-Klens Bigman: If the Pissani-Dossi version (abridged text) is any guide, the Fior di Battaglia presents its techniques very much in an outline form. How did you “flesh out” the techniques to make them workable (and teachable)? Did the Getty version (non-abridged version. See: Part 1) offer more material, or did you have to do a lot of experimentation?

Bob Charron: Your observation is apt, yet if the Fior di Battaglia is an outline, it’s a very complete one. In other words I believe it has everything the scholar needs. One major challenge to interpretation is that these student copies were made by people who had learned first-hand from a master, and the book was created as a memory device, rather than a work meant to teach you from scratch.

In my opinion there is an absolute need for the modern scholar to approach the work as a scholar of the 15th century approached such a book. You need to have a solid grounding in the appropriate arts and sciences of the period. You have to study carefully and over an extended period, and go over and over the words and images. You need to have fellow scholars who share your passion so that you can discuss the techniques and concepts and practice them bodily together.

Let me give you a brief idea of how the organization of the treatise works. The prologue first presents Fiore’s experience and credentials, including the years he spent learning, his famous students and his five duels with other masters. He then gives his advice to the combatant, including priorities and cautions, and follows this with the eight requirements of hand to hand combat. The prologue ends with an explanation of how the book is laid out and coded visually for the scholar’s use, and a dedication of the work to his patron, Nicolo d’Este.

Armed with this knowledge of the eight requirements, the cautions and priorities, he begins with abrazare, or hand to hand combat. The four fighting positions are explained, a single master is shown using multiple ways to break down the opponent’s balance, and then plays follow using principles which the student will not only use for abrazare, but throughout the entire art. The section finishes with the use of the first tool, a bastoncello or baton that was commonly carried as a symbol of office by military commanders. The scholar is told that the defenses which can be accomplished with the bastoncello can also be done with a cap, a hood, a pair of gloves, a cord, or anything that bridges the two hands.

Charron demonstrates a grappling defense and counter stab against a dagger attack.

Then the dagger section is begun by instructing the scholar that you must do five things at all times: strike, disarm, break, lock and throw. Specifics on how to strike with a dagger are shown, then the four other technique categories are reinforced in the mind by illustrations of masters who are experts in each of these concepts. Then follow nine different “remedy masters” (identified by the crowns they are wearing) who demonstrate how to cover against a particular strike. After the cover of the master is made, his scholars (denoted by a gold garter at their knee) use one of the five principles to end the fight. Counter masters (with a crown and a garter) are shown who act against this remedy master and his scholars, and in some places counters to counters are shown. The first five masters are unarmed against the knife, the next three are knife on knife, and the last, again, is unarmed.

This is followed by a section on dagger against sword and sheathed sword against dagger, which bridges nicely to the section on the sword in one hand, where the use of the left hand for grappling is emphasized. Then comes the section on the sword in two hands (including the seven blows of the sword and advice on footwork and turning mechanics) which is divided into sections on play at long distance and close play.

Next is the armoured sword section which is followed by armoured pollaxe and armoured spear. The final section is horseback combat, which includes all the principles shown previously for the use of the lance, the sword, and wrestling from horseback.

Now even with the brief summary of the later sections here in the interests of time, each one is as fully organized as the previous sections, and certainly there is a great deal of material here.

An amored knight (right) counters his opponent. Flos Duellatorum Pissani-Dosi MS Carta 26 B.

The advantage of the Getty-Ludwig and Morgan-Pierpoint texts is that they have full paragraphs of explanation, rather than the couplets of the Pissani-Dossi. Exact instructions on footwork, hand position, finishing options and some counters are all included in this text.

So by the time you’re finished you have hundreds of techniques presented in a logical order. The treatise even begins to move you toward integrating them as a whole by referring back to particular techniques from previous sections used in later plays, and to flowing from one to the other (several pairs of plays are shown with the second play indicated as following after the first).

The key is to realize how the opportunities to use these plays are constantly available based on what the opponent does. If done correctly you don’t have to overpower them, but simply take advantage of their movement to lead them to a lock, break, throw, or the space and time in which to safely deliver a blow with the weapon. This is where the “fleshing out” really occurs. You have to put the techniques in their appropriate context and timing, and be able to flow from one to the other to create from an encyclopedia of techniques a flexible and vital art. As with any martial art, it’s much easier to teach the techniques than to teach the flow of them in conflict. That takes longer and requires a great deal of determined work over an extended time.

So to answer the last part of your question more directly, the text and illustrations are sufficient (with proper study, diligence and practice in physical application) to teach the techniques from. The application of the art as a whole is much more difficult, and is for the long-term and dedicated student. I consider myself to be on the ten year plan for competence, and twenty years or more would be necessary for anything approaching expertise. The Fior di Battaglia’s prologue speaks of Fiore studying forty years or more, so we have to think in the long term as we approach this art, especially in light of the fact that we are challenged by starting from scratch with no living teachers in this art to take instruction from.

Charron demonstrates a sword against sword block and counter technique.

DKB: As a scholar in a traditional field (kabuki theatre) in a foreign language (and often an old dialect), I can really appreciate the need to avoid "blind alleys" and the fact that the scholar is constantly humbled by detecting and correcting mistakes. Were there any initial assumptions that you had, and needed to discard later as you began to understand the work better?

BC: Oh yes! And there have been what appeared to be hard-earned conclusions that have melted away even in the last couple of weeks.

For instance, an early argument in the field of Western Martial Arts and specifically the Italian systems was the nature of the poste or fighting positions. Some claimed they were static positions, others claimed you never stood in them but rather they were positions you passed through dynamically during the fight. If you came down on either side of that argument you were both right and wrong, because the answer is “yes," meaning the poste are all those things and more. They are starting positions or guards, they are positions you pass through during the fight, they are the beginning and finishing positions of cuts and thrusts, etc. The text bore this out after careful study.

Some were even more difficult, such as one particular throw in the hand to hand combat (abrazare) section that shows the scholar putting his head under the arm of his opponent. The text explains that he will lift him from the ground with his strength to make the opponent fall first on his head and then on his shoulders. At first glance it appears to be the standard “fireman’s carry” type of throw, but on closer inspection it is nothing like it, and appears to contain a circular action which diminishes the possibility of a headlock counter while pulling the opponent off his center. It isn’t as low as the fireman’s carry, nor does it use the same mechanic. We’ve been through several manifestations of it and we continue to polish it. It certainly wasn’t what myself or others thought it was at first.

These are just two of many examples illustrating how the process proceeds, and how one must remain flexible and hold to the text and illustrations exactly.

DKB: What was the process you undertook? To begin with, how did you determine to translate the Getty version, as opposed to the Morgan-Pierpoint?

The "scholar" (left) faces an opponent with lances on horseback. Flos Duellatorum Pissani-Dosi MS Carta 34 B.

BC: The Getty-Ludwig manuscript was chosen for three reasons. The first is that it contains full paragraphs of explanatory text for each technique. This is critical to complete understanding of the techniques, and therefore it is as useful as the Pierpoint-Morgan manuscript, and significantly more useful than the rhyming couplets of the Pissani-Dossi manuscript. The second reason is its comprehensive contents. While the Pissani-Dossi is as comprehensive as the Getty-Ludwig, the text in the Getty-Ludwig is superior. The Pierpoint-Morgan manuscript has equivalent text, but does not include hand to hand combat and dagger, and certain of the other sections are abbreviated. The third was the quality of the illustrations, which are superior to the other two manuscripts for discerning the physical action of the plays.

So considering an overview of all three texts, and with a need to select one for publication, the Getty-Ludwig manuscript is the most logical single choice. Yet it must be said that there are critical parts of the system held individually within the three manuscripts, and all three are crucial to the level of understanding necessary for competence.

DKB: The "poste," I guess, are sort of like "kamae" in our style of Japanese sword. I tell people that they are not static positions but that you have to be able to move to and through them. If your kamae are no good, then your technique won't be any better. That said, can you describe a little bit more the process of fleshing out a particular technique?

BC: Your statement here touches on that somewhat. A proper technique within a fighting system must accomplish several things. Some we discussed before, such as ease of execution and matching exactly the text and the illustration. Another requirement would be that it moves from a posta to a posta, as that is what defines the system’s beginnings and limits of movement.

I’ll give you a verbal flow chart of how a technique gets fleshed out. First I study the illustration carefully, noting the position of the hands and feet, the distribution of weight in the position, the indicated motion of the scholar, and the motion imparted to the opponent. You must at this point realize that the illustration is a “snapshot” of some point in time within the execution of the technique. It may be the beginning, the middle or the end. Then you carefully read the text and note all the footwork and motion it indicates, past techniques it may reference, and multiple outcomes and counters that may also be described. It is important at this stage to review the basic concepts and geometry of the art and ensure that your ideas are in harmony with them. You then get with your partner and see if the technique works easily under slow and controlled conditions. If you are convinced at this level you go back and double-check your work to ensure you are in line with the original instructions and illustration, and that from the play you can accomplish the various outcomes and counters suggested. If you’re still doing well then you gradually add speed, using great care as many of these techniques are quite dangerous. Following this you try to put it into a flow of action and see where the opportunities to execute the technique present themselves, and if the technique fails what others you may be able to easily flow into. So in the end the technique stands alone as one that does not endanger the user by compromising his position or balance and can be easily executed against people of various body types. It must also stand firmly within the precepts of the system, and not violate any of its rules for power generation, footwork or working within the poste.

Now you can be reasonably sure you have an interpretation that has some validity, and you remain ready to revise it when you are presented with new or more convincing data.

DKB: How did you get permission to do the translation? Did you have
to spend a lot of time at the Getty, or was a reproduction made available?

BC: One can obtain a photocopy of the manuscript by writing the museum and paying a nominal fee. I did all of my work from such a photocopy. Permission from the museum is required to reproduce the images from the manuscript in print or on the internet, but you can translate away to your heart’s content.

DKB: How did you learn to read the manuscript?

BC: It was truly the bootstrap method. A good friend of mine commented, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could read it?” And I realized at that very moment that I had to. So I spent about three years making use of knowledgeable people I knew, buying dictionaries, and working over and over the text. The language is a dialect of Northern Italian, contains frequent remnant words from Latin, and has no problem running several words together into one combinant form to keep the poetics going. Did I mention that the paragraphs are all poetic as well? You can begin to see the challenges.

In addition, it can be made even more difficult by the need to learn the hand it was written in and its accompanying ligatures. Ligatures are abbreviations that condense words down using lines, curves or apostrophes over or under the word. It took me some time to become familiar with these.

A real window of opportunity opened when I was able to obtain a copy of “Florio’s Treasury of Words,” an Elizabethan English version of an Italian to English dictionary. This provided me with definitions and phrases that were only 200 years removed from Fiore. It was such a great help because modern Italian dictionaries didn’t include some of these words and phrases, and as you know definitions shift over time. I can currently sight read the text, and when I stumble onto particularly difficult turns of phrase or poetic alterations of words, I call my linguist friends.

DKB: Tell me about your upcoming published translation of the Fior di
Battaglia. What does the two-volume set include?

The first volume will include color prints of the plates from the manuscript (so everyone can appreciate the beauty of its gold leaf and red ink) along with a facing page translation and good deal of historical material concerning Fiore, his students, and the court at Ferrara.

The second book will be a how-to book, with hundreds of photographs illustrating the methods of executing the plays and a substantial section on fundamentals of the physical system using references from all three copies of the manuscript.

DKB: Finally, the toughest question. I know why this stuff interests me, but why do you do it?

CB: For me, it started with an interest in history as a younger person that matured over time from a romantic fascination to a rational appreciation for how Medieval people viewed the world, and what they were able to fashion and accomplish (some of which still fills us with awe today). That appreciation coupled with a love for physical expression, naturally led me in this direction. Fiore in particular speaks to me because his system is not specific to particular weapons, but general to the human body and the laws of nature as he knew them. I am also drawn to it because the study of this single master’s work is clearly a lifetime endeavor.

It appeals to me in its requirement for eclecticism. I don’t tend toward being one-dimensional, and this pursuit requires academics, athletics, teaching abilities, presentation skills, and cross-referencing with other martial arts. It is also critical to study all the other aspects of the culture that created the art: geometry, physics, religion, morals and ethics, law, court culture, etc.

As I have pursued this passion I have been blessed to meet many others who share a similar passion, and who study the arts of other European masters with a singularity of purpose and a humble purity of desire to know the truth that I find truly admirable. Therefore I would add that the collegial relationships I’ve been able to cultivate have also been a big draw for me.

I’d be intrigued to hear why you like it.

DKB: I would probably cite similar reasons to yours. As a kid, beginning when I was about 10 or so, I would lug big books on Medieval European arms and armor home from the library. I would read them and also draw pictures based on the illustrations.

When I got older I was drawn to the theatre, where some aspects of these past practices still "lived," in a way, like in Shakespeare and Marlowe. At the same time I became a Greco-Roman wrestling fan and went to high school and college matches (by myself, I might add). I was interested in people testing their mettle individually, and seeing how the audience related to such contests of strength and skill.

Later still, I became a fencer and then a Japanese-style martial artist. I have been very intrigued with not only history but performance, as human activity, martial arts, in Japan at least, is one place where there is an emphasis on learning and preserving old techniques, therefore feeding my interest in performance, history, aesthetics and single combat all in one.

Well, that's about all the questions (and answers) I have. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

BC: You're welcome.

Afterword:

The two volume set of the Fior de Battaglia will be available in early 2004 from The Chivalry Bookshelf.

References:

Dei Liberi, Fiore
n.d Fior di Battaglia
Knights of the Wild Rose (www.varmouries.com/wildrose/fiore).


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About the Interviewer

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo), and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For FightingArts.com she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Western martial arts, Western jujutsu, Itialian empty hand fighting techniques, Fior di Battaglia, The Flower of Battle, Fiore dei Liberi, Novati version of the Fior di Battaglia, Pissani-Dosi version of the Fior di Battaglia


Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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