10 Tips for Reading a HEMA Text

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Cover of Vadi’s original manuscript

There have been several moments since I started fencing when I’ve noticed a massive increase in my abilities. One of these is when I first picked up a historical text and started reading it instead of just training it and following my instructor’s take on things.

Despite the fact that the fencing treatises are literally essential to HEMA (as in they are part of its essence) most practitioners don’t read the texts directly, getting their dose of the H aspect indirectly, through their instructor. There are lots of problems with this, but I think the most fundamental issue is that 2 hour highly physical training session are a poor medium for transferring conceptual knowledge about the structures, body mechanics and tactics of good fencing.

When I think about how to teach Vadi, often a lesson plan for a two hour training session will be based upon maybe 9 lines from the book. I’ve mapped out what a “complete” curriculum might look like, and think it impossible to really cover the book in less than 20 sessions. To be honest, even that requires skipping over some of the specifics, and probably minimises time reinforcing previously learned concepts. By the time you’re done, you will have forgotten concepts form the start, and never build a complete framework in your head if this is all you do.

Compare that you can read the book in a few weeks, and re-read more quickly it to cement the concepts in your mind, and you’ll see that reading is really a much better way of getting the conceptual framework necessary for understanding fencing in full. This won’t magically turn you into a brilliant, perfect fencer. What it does is give you the understand required to be able to analyse your fencing, and your opponent’s actions, and identify what the correct response should have been (often: the exact opposite of what your untrained instincts actually did). Reading, therefore, is an essential component of becoming a skilled HEMA practitioner.

However, it’s not easy. Reading a historical martial arts text is tricky at the best of times, and sometimes utterly baffling due to wide separations in centuries, languages, geographies and a complete lack of a common cultural context with the author. Reading these books is very different from reading a modern how-to manual, and you need to come at it from a different angle if you want to be successful. I was discussing this very issue with my club in the pub after training the other day, which inspired me to write a list of top tips that have helped me in working through Vadi.

You should take this article with a pinch of salt. I am not an expert in medieval history, or medieval manuscripts. I have thoroughly worked through one text and flicked through several others. The texts have a wide range of styles, content and clarity of expression. Generally the closer you get to the modern time the easier the manuscripts are to read, but this is not a hard and fast rule. So some of the tips below may not help you with whatever manual you are working with, but if even a few of them help you break the barrier of actually getting stuck in with a text, I think this post was worthwhile

1. Read through multiple times

Above I distinguished between manuals I had “read” (one) and “flicked through” (eight). Now, I read a lot, probably in the order of ~70 books a year. With a modern book, I will pick it up, start at page 1, finish at the end and put it down then forget about it. Some tougher, non-fiction books I might read specific chapters or go back and forth a little bit. When I say I’ve “flicked through” eight manuals, this is what I’ve done with those manuals.

With Vadi, I have read the longsword section in the order of 50 times or more. Some of the confusing sections must be over 100 reads. It did not make much sense to me on the first read through.

My general advice would be to read through the book 3 or 4 times before you start to really try to tackle it. This will give you a general picture of the system that will help you not get lost, and you might have picked up a few things, but you will still have a ways to go. When you read it again more carefully, things will start to click and you’ll begin making connections to other bits you read.

2. Read Slowly

You will not read a historical fencing text nearly as quickly as you are used to reading a modern work. Putting a description of a martial art to paper is hard enough at the best of times, but when you factor in that these texts are hundreds of years old, translated and not necessarily written in prose, you should be aware that you will not be able to comprehend the text if you read at your normal speed. Slow down, and don’t be afraid to read paragraphs multiple times before moving on.

There are some sections in Vadi (indeed, whole chapters) that took months of re-reading before I really felt I understood was going on. If progress feels slow it’s probably because you’re comparing it to your “normal” reading, which this isn’t. Don’t feel disheartened. It’s going slowly because it’s hard, not because you are bad at it.

3. Read confusing bits out loud

This was a bit of a surprise one for me, and might be Vadi specific. However, especially in the early texts, you should remember that most of the words are written as verse, not prose. Even with the translation, the natural rhythm is closer to the spoken rather than written word. This also helps to force you to slow down in your reading.

4. Make links between different parts

In Vadi, whilst each section nominally is on a particular topic, there are numerous examples where he seemingly repeats or even contradicts himself, or describes an earlier concept in a new way, with more detail or perhaps just emphasising something else. Really getting to grips with the concept will require you to think about parts that are conceptually close but in disparate places within the book. This same is true with Fiore, where  (for example) aspects of the dagger and wrestling sections are fundamental to the longsword. Don’t assume that just because something has a chapter with a title that there is only one place you will read about it. I believe that despite having an almost worthless chapter on “mezzo-tempo” actions in Vadi, the actions are described (better) in 3 other locations in the text. When combined with the section itself, this gives you some general principles and three actual examples to work with to try and extrapolate the principles and apply them in novel contexts.

5. Write notes

You will need to write notes as you try to puzzle things out. One of the best places for thi
s is on the text itself. In the case of Vadi, I madeimg_20161014_220636-copy a word document version of the text on Wiktenauer. This is an image of my printed copy of this document. As you can see, it has all of
my comments plastered over it (including an alternative translation to one of the sections). I find these immensely helpful when making links between sections of the book and to build my understanding slowly with every read through of a section.

If you’re going to make a copy like this, check the copyright information in Wiktenauer. It’s fine with most of them but not all, but Wiktenauer is very clear about what the copyright situation is on every piece of text or image.

 

 

6. Read with sword in hand

Whilst you can pick up a lot just be reading, you will get to sections that you just can’t make work in your head. Usually, the only way I can get it to make sense is by picking up a sword. This will result in a process of going back and forth from the text to waving my sword around in the air as I try to put the words on the page into motion. Having a partner can help but it’s not necessary. You can get a lot out of just seeing how your body moves to see if it makes sense.

An example of this for me in Vadi was with the guards and – specifically – with the pommel grip. It took me three or four times going back and forth between trying the guards and some cuts in the air, then looking at the text again to see how closely I matched, before I realised that I needed to hold a pommel grip to make the guards work. These things rarely click right away.

7. Work Backwards

This advice works particularly well for cases where you have an image and a few lines of text to describe the action. The main problem with this situation is that the image is often at an unknown point of time in the action, and the authors are not necessarily that clear about what precedes or succeeds that point in time.

To solve this, you will need to stand in exactly the position as depicted in the manuscript, and work backwards through the actions mentioned until you arrive at a starting point. Working forwards I tend to find that I end up in a position that isn’t quite right and doesn’t seem to quite work. This guarantees the end is correct and attempts to reconstruct it.

8. Try multiple theories

I have some bad news for you: the texts are not always (ever?) crystal clear. Some sections are genuinely ambiguous, in either the translation or the original. When you find sections like this, write notes on all your possible interpretations. Sometimes this can be solved by reference to other sections, careful re-reading or alternative translations. In other cases, test them all out with a friend to see which feels right.

9. Read the Translator’s Notes

It is likely that the text you have chosen was not written in your native tongue. Even if it was, it may have stylised writing and random spelling that means you are reading a modernised version of the original. This means you are probably working from a translated copy.

The start of every translated text I have ever read (not just for HEMA) begins with an introduction from the translator. Usually it starts with them telling you how no translation is perfect and you should really go read it in the native tongue. Assuming you don’t want to learn (e.g.) medieval Italian regional dialects, or would rather get started whilst doing that alongside, the translated copy is probably what you’ll have to go with.

However, the notes often detail certain key things that are ambiguous or tricky to translate, OR connotations that are present in the original language that get lost in translation. The notes will allow you to get some idea of the subtleties without needing to become an expert in a long dead language, and they can be really helpful.

In Vadi, the word “rota” is used to describe an upward blow. It also means “to turn” or “to rotate”. There is a whole chapter that the meaning changes entirely depending on whether you interpret it as referring to rising blows, rotating blows or (potentially) rising rotating blows. Indeed translators are split on how they describe this chapter. You need to be aware of these complexities if you are to understand the text.

10. Find multiple Translations

Part of the translator’s usual spiel is to tell you how they cannot translate without also interpreting the text. This means that multiple translations can, at times, appear very different. Having multiple translations can really help on tricky sections that don’t seem to make sense. Whether the alternative is more accurate or just a clearer way of expressing the same point, it is a useful tool.

I have three translations of Vadi. I’m not qualified to judge which is the most accurate, but from a clarity perspective I don’t believe any of them are “better”. They are, however, surprisingly different in both style and content for a variety of reasons. I’ve found that for most sections the translations are pretty close in content, with minor differences in style. However, in general, the more complicated or confusing a section is, the bigger chance there is that the translations differ dramatically in substance. Therefore I highly recommend working with multiple translations.

Why does this happen? Well, for a start, even reading medieval text is not trivial. One word in Vadi has been transcribed to Italian in Windsor as “fe” (makes) and as “se” (knows) in Rubolli and Porzio/Mele. These letters are written nearly identically in a medieval text – make your own mind up about who is right from the image here.

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The original text can also be ambiguous. In one line, Vadi states either that the Volante (a mezzani/mittelhau/middle cut) banishes fendente and thrusts or that it is banished by them. Unsurprisingly, the translations have differed on which they chose (and thankfully Rubboli marks that this *is* ambiguous so the laymen can understand why).

For an excellent description of some of the issues translators face, I highly recommend this article on translating the Paris version of Fiore’s manuscript. Whilst specific to a manual, many of these issues are faced throughout, and it’s good to have an appreciation of the hard work and dedication that is freely given by those working hard to translate these texts to modern languages.

Conclusion

I hope these tips have been useful to you. As I mention above, I make no claims to be an expert in this: but all of the above are things that I do and have found helpful in understanding Vadi from the text. If you find these help, I’d love to hear about it – and if you’ve got other top tips, please pop them in the comments below so that I can use them as well!

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