Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

Normally I review RPG materials I find especially interesting or helpful. This is not an RPG book at all - but it was an incredible source of material for GURPS Martial Arts. It's one of the best books I had access to, it's a great introduction to the topic, and points out specific resources you can use to dig deeper into specific topics. It's a book well worth reading if you have any interest in the time period, or just want a better grasp of "I hit him with my sword" means when you're roleplaying faux-Middle Ages fighting. It's later than the Middle Ages, of course, but so much of fantasy fighting is influenced by the Renaissance, or freely mixes in weapons all the way from Roman swords to late Renaissance rapiers. For those reasons, it's an excellent and informative read.

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

When writing GURPS Martial Arts, Sydney Anglo's The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe was very possibly the single best resource we had for European martial arts. The only source that possibly edged it out for overall utility was Thomas Green's Encyclopedia of Martial Arts 2-book set (which, indirectly, led me to training Kachin Bando.)

Now, we did have access to a lot of the actual texts - Talhoffer, Silver, the Codex Wallerstein, Ringeck, and more. But having a book that pulled those sources together, along with many others we didn't have access to (or just flat-out couldn't afford access to), was excellent.

The book takes a look at the entire scope of the martial arts, from foot to mounted, from one end of the Renaissance to the other. It covers not just swords but also pole arms, spears, daggers, wrestling, unarmed striking, fighting in armor and unarmored, ritualized combat versus larger scale combat, and more. It does so in a very readable, well-referenced, and well-indexed way. You could pick this book up having little or no idea about the martial arts and learn a lot. If you already have some interest in the martial arts, it'll fill in a lot of gaps you might not realize existed in your knowledge. It certainly did that for me - I knew I didn't know everything, but it brought to my attention things I didn't even know existed. If what you know about swords and armor is that you hack people down with swords and never grapple in armor, this book will be a revelation and a treat. It can be a great source of inspiration for game and add verisimilitude to your descriptions of fighting.

One of the great strengths of the book is that it works to tie those sources together by time period and topic - you get Silver's look at the "short staffe" and discussions of other master's use of the staff, you get the influence of mathematics on swordsmanship tied together across stylists who espoused that, and so on. You get a look at personal violence vs. war, and how that differed. Styles and weapons ideal for stabbing another swordsman in the streets of London or Genoa varied from what you needed to push a rank of pikes through an enemy army. The book's look at, say, lance on foot vs. sword or jousting or even siege machines makes sense in that kind of context. It's tough when you a bring a dueling weapon to a battlefield and vice-versa. (That said, I do need to go back and give a full review to this more in-depth book on the subject of Renaissance war.)

As well, the book jumps into the controversies of the time and the biases of later historians and stylists (who occasionally saw everything before as leading up to their modern, "ultimate" style), too. It also addresses the nomenclature of the time - one section is titled "What was a rapier?" Modern readers might assume the answer is obvious, but what swords fit under what description (and what period authors felt were good terms) is a muddled and complex issue. Add in terminology of the actual styles being idiosyncratic, deliberately coded to confuse those who didn't learn from the master directly, translated and then re-translated, and you get an idea of the issue. Anglo does a great job making it as clear as it possibly can be.

Nicely, this book also addresses something often overlooked when discussing weaponry and martial arts - the social aspects. As much as you would think combat would be all about efficiency, style and social acceptibility and the law matter a lot. Sometimes it even makes that point indirectly - George Silver argued that the best self-defense weapon was a polearm called the forest bill, but socially and practically, you can see why it loses out to the vastly more portable and socially acceptable sword or a handy short staff even if it's superior to them in a fight.

The book is also lavishly illustrated - with both black and white reproductions of art and manual illustrations but also some color plates as well. Point of fact, one of the illustrations showing a swordsman losing both hands to a sword counter lead directly to Kromm and I realizing we needed a way to do that in the rule, and Extreme Dismemberment came directly from that.

The book came out way back in 2000, but I didn't discover it until 2004 when I was researching GURPS Martial Arts. I felt it was such a good resource that I bought a copy to send to my co-author so he'd be able to read and use it. Considering the budget for research materials on the book was $0 - everything came out of my profits - that's a true sign of its value to me.

It's a highly recommended read. I could go on about it all day. You can read part of it online at the HACA website. While without a doubt some parts of the book may have been overtaken by more recent looks at specific parts of the subject, consider this the best gateway to the subject that I can find.

For more reviews, please see my reviews page.

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