I still occasionally like to chat about the middle ages, and I’ve also read a couple of those writing self-help books in my time. You know, the ones that tell you that only their way of doing things is going to let you consistently sell work, and that persuade you that whatever you were doing before is therefore automatically wrong. How do these fit together? Well, I found myself thinking of medieval fight-books.
Fight-books (Talhoffer’s is described as a Fetchbucher, which is presumably where the term comes from) are big books that show up at various points through the (mostly later, but occasionally central) middle ages. Two of the most famous outline the systems of Fiore Di Liberi and Hans Talhoffer, and are big in Historical European Martial Arts Systems today, largely because they take a lot of the guesswork out of how people might have used the weapons available to them.
The thing is, while they’re instructional manuals in the broad sense, and people do learn moves straight out of them (such as some longsword moves, throws and dagger moves I picked up one sunny day a few years back), that isn’t the only way they function. Or perhaps even the primary way they function.
For one thing, they don’t always show all the detail. I’m told that with some techniques, practitioners are working from experience to piece together the gaps between hand drawn illustrations. Certainly, one of Fiore’s dagger ‘plays’ only made sense to me and the class I was in because I happened to know aikido’s ‘gokyo’ or fifth technique, a kind of straight armlock press down from the front. It showed the finishing point, but not the whole way into it. There are whole categories of technique where the teacher would be needed for additional detail.
That’s probably deliberate. Like the self-help types mentioned above, these medieval fight masters often weren’t primarily interested in their book. In the middle ages, when making individual books was a labour intensive and time consuming process, who made money from books? Instead, the book was about establishing them as an expert in their field.
Why do that? For the same reason that Chippendale produced beautifully hand illustrated catalogues of furniture centuries later. Present the right person with it, and suddenly, you’re hired. These fightbooks contained huge swathes of techniques and weapon types, covering everything from personal combat with the longsword, to wrestling, judicial duels, even designs for war machines. They were designed not so much to teach as to show off the breadth of knowledge that someone could bring into a lord’s service, if he was willing to pay the fees of the fight master behind it. Another parallel perhaps with some of the self help crowd (except for the war machines. Why do they never do that?)
Looking at these books can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to understand some of what they were for when looking at them. It’s all too easy to assume that the writer’s claims are true, and that what they show represents all of what was done combatively at the time. In fact, there are differences between each book, and individuals would often have had their own methods. Maybe that’s a lesson worth bearing in mind today.