Thursday, 19 December 2013

A (Personal) HEMA Year in Review

It's Christmas. As an Englishman, that means indifferently chill rain, bad jumpers, and the constant threat of Cliff Richards playing from shops' speakers. Minced pies with brandy butter make it all worthwhile though.

The end of the year is also the traditional time to take stock and review, hence the spiking suicide and divorce rates.

How was this year of my HEMA journey? Successes and injuries defined it.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

REVIEW: The 'Lost' Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti(1608): A Rapier Fencing Treatise

Giganti, Nicoletto; Pendragon, Joshua; Terminiello, Piermarco. The 'Lost' Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti(1608): A Rapier Fencing Treatise. Vulpes, 2013. ISBN 978-1909348318


Before the review, it's worth clarifying that I'm not a rapier fencer. I've focused on the longsword. Perhaps this brings an outsider's perspective to the book. Secondly, one of the authors is a friend. While I don't think that affects my views on the book, it does mean that I was bribed with a review copy! This review is also a somewhat Janus-faced, as it's impossible to discuss The 'Lost' Second Book without also reviewing the work of Giganti in its own right.

The 'Lost' Second Book is a translation of an original that resides in the Lord Howard de Walden Library (Acc. 9.07), which is itself on a long term loan to the Wallace Collection in London. The de Walden Library was, I believe, collected on behalf of  the 8th Baron Howard de Walden, and contains all kinds of interesting fencing texts. The Wallace Collection has been very cooperative with the Historical Fencing community (what other museum would understand tourists showing up with large ski-bags of swords?), and T. Capwell has a brief foreword on the relationship between institutions like the Wallace, those with a practical interest, and academia.

The 'Lost' Second Book is a translation from the original Italian, complete with digitally cleaned plates. The authors note that the original images aren't very clear due to the condition of the text, but that they had to work with the only known surviving copy. The language is said to be relatively easy to comprehend for early modern writing, but the translation occasionally simplifies long, complex sentences to clarify them for a modern audience. As such the work isn't a facsimile (there's no transcription, for example), but the translator has an excellent grasp of Italian, and I consider The 'Lost' Second Book to be a presentation of the original source, rather than interpretation of its contents. On the subject of the illustrations, there are two different artists, one of whom isn't that great. None the less, as someone who normally ponders over much earlier illustrations, those in The 'Lost' Second Book are pretty easy to follow, and without a doubt clearer to interpret. I'd take them over I.33 any day.

For more information about the author, I'd direct you to his Wiktenauer article. The fencer's first work was published in 1606, and concerns the sword alone and in combination with the dagger. (Sword in this case referring to what we'd now call a rapier). In it Giganti promised further books, but as soon as 1673 a Sicilian author mentions their absence. The only surviving reference to the book is from 1847, but that accurately described the Second Book and its contents. All of this is further compounded by early modern approaches to authorship and copyright, which meant that at one point later fencers accused Giganti of plagiarism due to an edition of his being bundled with a translation of another master.

Giganti's first book is apparently more of a traditional Italian fencing text, focusing on the sword alone and in combination with the rapier. It spends time on the principles of tempo and measure, and the basics of fencing. In contrast this second book is more of a collection of examples. The largest sections are concerned with a passable step (that is, from a right-foot-forwards stance to a left-foot-forwards stance), as well as the role of cuts in rapier fencing. I especially appreciate the example on p. 33, when Giganti discussing fencing rapier and dagger against an armoured opponent fighting with a heavier cutting sword. The techniques were familiar from observing Pim Terminiello fencing against an opponent armed with the longsword. The second book also covers other combinations such as Rapier and Buckler, Cloak, Rotella, Targa etc. It also includes some examples of dagger fencing, some closes to grapple (primarily hilt grabs and arm-shoves) and asymmetrical fights such as dagger against sword and buckler. Interestingly the dagger-work is all point-up fencing, as opposed to the point-down 'icepick' grip more common in earlier texts.

Some interesting references as a non-rapier fencer include an aside on covering yourself to prevent a double-hit when fencing an inexperienced opponent, the instinctive nature of cuts and an aside on the importance of psychology in asymmetrical fights.

The 'Lost' Second Book is well footnoted throughout, with a pretty thorough bibliography of Italian fencing texts. The text is reasonably easy to follow, and though some technical terms are used they are well glossed. The 'Lost' Second Book is a clear presentation of Giganti's work and I'd recommend it to anyone who collects works on historical fencing. When it comes to practicals, to learning from texts, I think that Giganti's second book is less-useful than his first for an inexperienced fencer. That said, it gives fencers today a better picture of early-modern Italian fencing. Giganti's second book is indicative of a better rounded form of fencing than we usually imagine classical rapier, and I'd unreservedly praise any fencer able to execute the techniques in it under pressure.