Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: AHA German Longsword Study Guide

The Academy of Historical Arts recently published their study guide for Lichtenauer tradition longsword fencing. written by Keith Farrell & Alex Bourdas. At SwordFish I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of it, and here's my two(ish) word review of it:

It's sound.

In more depth, the book itself is A5 in size, in black and white. It contains illustrations hand-drawn by Alex Bourdas, after the surviving manuscript illustrations, but more on that later. The introduction nicely sets out the intent behind the work as a reference for new students of Lichtenauer's unarmoured longsword fencing to understand the system, a bit like my old primer (but less crap!). It doesn't go into depth about the context of the system, the technical details of specific techniques, psychology of fighting or anything like that. Rather it lays out Keith and Alex's understanding of the system in a coherent and accessible way. The vocabulary that they use to describe the hobby is similar to mine too - for example I don't remember getting pissed off with ahistoricisms like 'manual' being used to describe the sources!

After the introduction the second chapter explains the parts of the sword and the tradition's vocabulary for them. As an example of the style of much of the book, the section for the pommel looks like this:

"2.1.10 Klos - Pommel
The pommel is the solid counterweight at the bottom of the hilt that brings the balance point of the weapon closer to the grip. Without the effect of the pommel the weapon would be much less balanced and so more difficult to wield.
For the sword is like a scale: if the sword is large and heavy, then the pommel must likewise be large and heavy, so that it will balance like a scale.3
The pommel could also be used offensively, in pommel strikes. Furthermore, if it could be unscrewed, it could also be thrown at an opponent, as seen in the Gladiatoria.4"

As a side-note, the referencing is thorough and the work contains indices, appendices and bibliographies. I approve.

However this section lacks an illustration or diagram. Unfortunately I feel that this is a weakness in the book. Much of this information might be explained more clearly to a newcomer with an appropriate visual guide as well as a written one. While there are illustrations of a good quality (not direct images, I assume as copyright etc. etc.), they sometimes feel disconnected from the surrounding text and while aesthetically pleasing, not of direct relevance to the purpose of the book.

After the parts of the sword, there is a nice explanation of the history of the Lichtenauer tradition, and then an essay from Encased in Steel. Again I feel that these essays are one of the weaker parts of the book. Not because they are bad in themselves, but rather because they feel tangential from the main purpose of the work.

That's followed by a very nice overview of stances, grips and footwork in section three, which is something that the sources don't often clearly explain as they were assumed common knowledge.

The fourth chapter is on guards. It's a good overview of the positions, along with variations. Again, I feel that it could have used some illustrations (for example when discussing the non-core low guards), but I liked it's approach. The fifth chapter follows on, and contains this crucial section:

"5.9 Further strikes by Other Masters.
Other masters such as Joachim Meyer and Jobbst von Wurttemberg described other strikes in their treatises. Furthermore, some masters mention more than five secret strikes. The reason why these other strikes and additional secret strikes are not discussed is that the authors of this book are not familiar enough with the description and application of these techniques to be able to write about them in a comprehensive and responsible fashion. [...] A future revision of this book may contain such information as the knowledge of the Academy's instructors and researchers grows over time."

On the one hand, this approach somewhat limited the utility of the book to me, as I was already familiar with the subjects it covers. On the other hand their approach was honest and humble. Besides, including such peripheral aspects of the art in a beginner's text might have been confusing and counter-productive.

On a technical note, the vorschlag/nachtschlag sections at 5.1.3/4 might be better included in Chapter 6 (on timing etc.). For subsequent versions I think that a bit more cross-referencing of other sections might be useful (for example in the section on alternative ways of holding the sword in Vom Tag, a cross-reference to the Twerhau). But it's a minor point. Chapters 5 & 6 are really very good. I'm slightly saddened that the section on Durchlauffen is so brief, but then again I am a brute who enjoys a good grapple!

Chapter 8 contains examples of possible solo drills. I disagree with Keith about their utility, but they're presented clearly, concisely and with context.

In terms of price, the book comes to £15, or £20 including a .pdf copy, which I think is a fair price for this kind of training supplement. On the one hand it doesn't include the step-by-step illustrations of one of Tobler's works, but on the other hand I feel that it is better for that - the work is more honest, less prone to becoming quickly outdated, and less likely to seduce beginners into dead-ends.

In conclusion, I'd recommend the work to anyone interested in learning Lichtenauer tradition unarmored fencing. It would be of most use as a training supplement and reference for beginners, but it deserves a place on everyone's bookshelf.

Edit: Alen Lovric of the youtube HEMA Reviews channel has also reviewed it. He's also less wordy and more entertaining. Watch it here: