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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Stephen Hand (ed.)

Spada: An Anthology of Swordsmanship in Memory of Ewart Oakeshott

(Union City, CA: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002). 177pp. $24.95. ISBN 189 144 8374.

The study of swords in military history is still in its infancy, though with the help of the publications of Chivalry Bookshelf, and other publishers, it should grow quickly. This particular work, Spada, is an anthology of some of the most respected names in the field. Of special note, this volume contains the last article authored by Ewart Oakeshott, to whom the anthology is dedicated.

Spada offers a total of eleven articles spanning a considerable range of time from the early Middle Ages to Eighteenth century broadsword techniques. The articles range in style from those that are most useful to a historian to those that are intended to help those also researching and reconstructing sword techniques. Also included in this collection is a listing and synopsis of events in sword scholarship from 2000 to 2002. These listings include descriptions of the papers and presentations made at various workshops, conventions, and symposia. The descriptions show the rising study and attention devoted to the increasing field of western martial arts.

The first article in the anthology is the last work written by the late Ewart Oakeshott. This article is rather light in tone, and rather than being a look into the use of swords it is a piece about the importance of swords and their study. Oakeshott discusses the preeminent place the sword plays in western literature and culture. His examples of the various terms and citations of vernacular expressions of weapons illustrate his point masterfully. The case he makes is clear and to the point: one cannot understand western culture fully without an understanding of swords and other weapons.

The second article, by Gregory Mele, examines the evidence regarding the nature of parries. The debate over whether an attack was parried with the blade flat or on the edge shows just how much information is still open to interpretation. Mele refers to many different fencing manuals known as fechtbucher. These primary sources show that often a parry was avoided altogether though when it was necessary the masters of the late middle ages and early renaissance advised the use of the flat for parrying. It is important to note that the parry was not the same type of parry commonly thought of, that is a move to stop the incoming attack directly, but rather to move the attackers blade off line to counterattack.

Stephen Hand is the third author for the work. His article details the process of counterattacks against opposition. Again the fechtbucher are examined for the information they present. The use of these sources shows that a counter-thrust is possible only with longer weapons, thus not all techniques or schools of fence would show a series of counterthrusts.
The next article is by Steve Hick, concerning the advice written by the Portugese King, Dom Duarte. This work describes the provenance of his treatise “Regimento para aprender alguas cousas d’armas” (Regimen to learn some things about arms). In addition to the provenance Hick covers the information actually contained therein. This work provides insight into the training methods advised by Dom Duarte.

The following two articles, by Stephen Hand with Paul Wagner and Russell Mitchell, both attempt to reconstruct techniques that have been lost. These articles show that though there are many gaps in the existing evidence the martial arts of Western Europe can be still be recovered. Hand and Wagner attempts to determine what role shields played in early medieval combat. This is done through the examination of later shield techniques. Mitchell deals with Hungarian saber techniques. Here Mitchell examines use of what he refers to as a “cultural weapon” of Hungary. (87) These articles begin to hint at how else the surviving fechtbucher can be used by historians.

The following article, by Paul Wagner, discusses the issue of handedness with staff weapons. This article addresses the issue of how the hands and feet are positioned when using a staff mounted weapon. The manuals are not always clear on this issue and those that are often disagree with the illustrations shown. This also shows that, as with other works of the period, mistakes were made in these manuals.

The next three articles deal with some aspect of rapier fighting. These three are authored by John Clements, William E. Wilson, and Stephen Hand with Ramon Martinez respectively. Clements article deals with the issue of grappling and wrestling in rapier fighting. He shows that rapier fighting often focused more on winning and surviving the fight than maintaining proper technique. The next two articles focus on the development of rapier forms. Wilson’s article discusses the foundations of Italian rapier combat. He does this by examining a series of positions and moves looking for similarities to determine their origins. The third article looks for evidence of Spanish influence on Italian rapier techniques. Hand and Martinez examine the possibility of Italian master Vincento Saviolo being influenced by Spanish masters. These last two articles focus primarily on using illustrations and descriptions from fechtbucher to determine influence and history.

The final article is by Paul Wagner, defending and explaining Highlander broadsword techniques through the eighteenth century. Wagner shows that much of the information describing Highlander techniques are influenced by later and English fencers. Wagner uses many descriptions and illustrations to show that the Scottish techniques were more advanced than traditionally described.

Overall Spada offers up a collection of well written and researched articles. What Spada does illustrate the best is how far the field has come as well as how far they still have to go. Some of the articles are so focused on helping answer questions about technique that their value to more general historians is limited. As more manuals are translated and reprinted, many by Chivalry Bookshelf, the study of swordsmanship and western martial arts will advance considerably. This work is just one of the first in the wave of secondary material about western martial arts.

Michael J. Basista

Western Michigan University <michael.basista@wmich.edu>

Page Added: September 2004