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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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