Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Review of "In Saint George's Name" by Christian Henry Tobler

Review by Hugh T. Knight, Jr.

Overall, this is an excellent book. In Saint George’s Name is, as the subtitle proclaims, an anthology. Excluding the introduction, preface, etc., the book consists of nine sections or chapters, each dealing with an unrelated essay or translation or set of technique interpretations. It concludes with a glossary of German terms which includes a pronunciation guide. This review will address each chapter in turn.

The Book Itself
The book appears well produced and serviceable. It is perfect bound, is properly and cleanly executed, and the cover seems durable. The coloration and printing of the front and back covers is clear and vibrant, with no smudges or print misalignments. The cover is in full color and the interior is in black and white; the book is approximately 6.9 x 9.9 inches in size. The text, which consists of 207 pages, appears clean and properly printed; there are no crooked, folded, or otherwise misprinted pages. The photographs are clear and of a good size.

Chickens and Eggs: Which Master Came First?
The first chapter of the book is an essay which discusses the extent of our knowledge regarding the dating and authorship of several Fechtbücher. In it, Tobler points out that we can be sure of very few facts about either subject. Some few Fechtbücher contained precise information regarding dates and authorship, but most did not, and the common assumptions made by modern scholars about those that did not are based on very little hard data.

Tobler makes all of this clear and attempts to roughly date some of the sources (his argument about the MS attributed to Ringeck is especially interesting), however, his main point is that many Fechtbücher were compilations and that even when an author is associated with one section, it is a mistake to assume that author had anything to do with other parts of the MS or that the date of one section necessarily corresponds to any of the others.

Master Peter Falkner’s Dagger
In this section, Tobler gives us his interpretation of some (he states it is approximately half, p. 11) of the dagger plays from Peter Falkner’s Fechtbuch.

Tobler’s introduction begins with a very interesting insight into dagger combat: He breaks all dagger fighting into four different classifications, viz. left handed displacements, one-handed dagger displacements, two-handed upper and lower shields, and unarmed displacements.

Tobler then goes on to discuss dagger guards. Unfortunately, he chose to use the “guards” depicted in Hans Talhoffer’s 1449 Ambraser Codex as the exemplar for his guards. In that work, Talhoffer depicts four figures about to thrust with daggers. In one figure the text does mention a guard: “Here he stands in the lower guard with the third stab” (Knight 2008* p. 90), but the other captions make it clear they refer to attacks, not to guards. For example, the first says: “Here is the thrust from above which is also the first thrust” (Knight 2008 p. 88). It seems clear that these four figures, then, represent not guards, but four different attacks. This makes sense, since it would be foolish in the extreme to have a separate guard for each thrust; such a system would instantly alert one’s opponent to the attack about to be made. Guards need to be more neutral—places from which multiple attacks can be launched without telegraphing the nature of the attack in advance. We can infer from the third figure that there is at least one guard—a lower one—which suggests there might be an upper one as well, but if so we are not shown such a guard. Moreover, even the lower guard is not shown clearly; note that the text says he is performing the third stab from the lower guard, not the starting position of the guard itself.

Tobler next discusses the simple attacks of the dagger, basing these upon the four figures in the Ambraser Codex discussed above. These figures, he says, give us four thrusts: One from above with a reversed grip, a backhanded thrust with a reversed grip, a thrust from below with a natural grip, and a two-handed thrust from above intended for armored combat (which, while depicted in several sources, is never shown being actually used, as Tobler points out).

Tobler does not discuss the so-called “French Thrust” performed from above using a natural grip shown, for example, in Codex Wallerstein (see Codex Wallerstein fol. 28v), however, it may well be that that thrust is not mentioned in Falkner, and so was left out of this work. Tobler also fails to mention cuts with the dagger such as those seen in Paulus Kal’s Fechtbuch (see Kal ff. 75v-76r) and in Talhoffer’s 1467 Fechtbuch (see Talhoffer 1467 fol. 87v), but, again, it is to be presumed he left them out because none are mentioned in Falkner.

Next, Tobler gives his technique interpretations, giving examples of techniques from each of the four categories discussed above. Rather than including a series of photographs showing each step of the technique, he instead gives us a copy of the appropriate plate from Falkner’s Fechtbuch to illustrate the technique along with a detailed verbal description of his interpretation of how the technique should be performed. Unfortunately, Tobler does not give us Falkner’s actual text accompanying the techniques. As a result, we are unable to evaluate the accuracy of Tobler’s interpretations, which reduces the value of this section significantly. To be fair, however, Tobler indicates in his introduction that this section of his book represents what he calls “class notes,” and thus may not be as developed as he might have wished. He intends to publish a facsimile and translation of Falkner’s entire book at a later time, so we should be able to analyze this material more fully then.

“Lance, Spear, Sword, and Messer”
This section of the book was a significant disappointment. In it, Tobler attempts to argue that students of the Kunst des Fechtens should study more than just one form of combat (e.g., not just longsword or grappling) in order to see how they all fit together under the framework of a single set of basic principles which will, in turn, help to make those basic principles clear. This is perfectly valid, and needs to be understood by more people. He then gives a brief description of several weapon forms, with a very brief discussion of their similarities and differences.

Tobler then proceeds to argue that not only do the basic principles of Liechtenauer’s art apply to all forms, but that techniques can be extrapolated from one form to another. To illustrate his point, Tobler gives us examples of two extended (meaning several actions that develop from a starting technique) techniques with the longsword, and he then shows how to do the same (or almost the same) series of techniques with other weapons. Each example is accompanied by several photographs showing modern interpreters demonstrating the techniques. This is problematic, however, because it amounts to creating techniques that we have no evidence belonged to the Liechtenauer canon.

It might be argued that if a technique works with one form it can certainly be done with another, and, indeed, we see some of this in the extant material. Some of Lignitzer’s plays of the buckler, for example, closely resemble some of Liechtenauer’s longsword plays, suitably modified, of course, for use with an arming sword and buckler. Such an argument, however, must needs take into account the words “suitably modified” because most techniques do not transfer directly without some modification to allow for the differences in weapons. The problem with that lies in the fact that when we, as modern interpreters, convert techniques from one form to another we are necessarily doing so without knowing how the original masters would have done so. It is possible we might come up with a conversion with which Liechtenauer would have agreed, but we cannot know that for sure. If we had to make such conversions in order to survive fights today that might be reasonable, but we do not. We should be studying historical martial arts, without adding anything to them, not developing a new art by adding our own techniques, regardless of whether we believe those technique to be accurately extrapolated from primary sources.

An example of this problem can be seen when Tobler shows the play of the Zornhau Ort with the short spear (pp. 29-31). In that case, Tobler opens the engagement by having the attacker execute a strike (i.e., a blow, not a thrust) with the blade end of a spear, which the defender then displaces with an overhand blow from his own spear followed by a thrust, and the play continues as with the Zornhau Ort with the longsword. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any plays in any of the German sources that indicate a striking blow done with the head of a spear (or, if there are, Tobler did not document them here). One probable reason for this is that most medieval spears were tapered from the butt to the head in order to prevent them from being tip heavy once the steel spearhead was attached. This taper renders the front end of the spear relatively fragile and unsuitable for striking. Thus, it seems this extrapolation is invalid until and unless someone publishes documentation from a Fechtbuch showing a blow from the head of a short spear, and, even then, it would be necessary to document using the Zornhau Ort with that weapon.

One confusing (albeit minor) point of nomenclature: Tobler refers to the above mentioned thrust into Long Point after the initial bind as a Zornort, yet in Ringeck’s Fechtbuch it is called a Zornhau Ort: “Wer dir ober hawet, zorn haw ort im dröwet” (Ringeck fol. 19r). In the final commentaries on the sword, Ringeck uses the term Zornort specifically to refer to the winding up into the upper hanging (fol. 58r). Likewise, Talhoffer also uses Zornort to refer to the thrust from the Winden, not from Long Point: “Zorn ortt Im dröw” (Talhoffer 1467 fol. 3r), as does Jörg Wilhalm: “Das ist der Zornortt” (CGM 3711 fol. 4v). Thus, it seems the term Zornhau Ort was used in period to refer to the bind and thrust into Long Point, while the Zornort should refer to a thrust from a Winden (or, at least, from an upper hengen done am Schwert) after the bind. It is not clear why Tobler did not follow that nomenclature, however, this is a very minor point.

This chapter of Tobler’s book goes well beyond what we can reasonably accept as valid interpretation. We can examine similar techniques from different weapon forms that we discover in the various Fechtbücher with an appreciative eye, recognizing the brilliance of the concepts underlying our art, but in this reviewer’s opinion, we should not make up such techniques ourselves because doing so defeats the purpose of studying an historical martial art.

The Messerfechten of Master Paulus Kal
This chapter explores five plays of the Messer taken from Paulus Kal’s Fechtbuch. It is laid out in the same way as the chapter on Falkner’s dagger techniques above, with extensive interpretive text by Tobler accompanied by reproductions of the matching plates from the actual Fechtbuch but no modern photographs. While the actual text from Kal is left out, just as in the dagger techniques by Falkner, in this case the Kal Fechtbuch is readily available in translation (by Tobler), making this less problematic. These techniques are relatively clean and straightforward and appear to be very accurate interpretations of Kal’s teachings.

Hot, Wet, Cold, and Dry: The Four Guards
In this chapter, Tobler discusses the guards of the Liechtenauer longsword in terms of their possible relationship to astrological and alchemical superstitions held by medieval men. The scholarship is excellent.

A Late 15th Century German Poleaxe Treatise
In this chapter, Tobler translates and interprets several plays of the pollaxe taken from a version of Paulus Kal’s Fechtbuch held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. These techniques are very important because they have not been published prior to this. There are seven techniques listed, and they consist only of text, with no associated drawings.

Tobler presents each technique in turn, giving first a transcription of the original German text, then a translation into English, then a detailed explanation of his interpretation of the technique. In addition, he includes several photographs showing the technique being demonstrated by interpreters in full harness—a nice touch.

This chapter is very well done. The material is laid out both clearly and completely, and the photographs do a good job of demonstrating Tobler’s interpretations. This is, without doubt, one of the most important sections of the book, and it is pleasing to see that here Tobler has given us enough information to realistically analyze the accuracy of his interpretations.

Master Paulus Kal’s Four Hip Wrestlings
This chapter gives us Tobler’s interpretation of the four wrestlings at the hip from Paulus Kal’s Fechtbuch. It follows exactly the same format as the chapters on Falkner’s dagger and Kal’s Messer discussed above, with Tobler’s interpretations written out and supplemented by plates from Kal’s Fechtbuch. As with the other examples mentioned, the original text is not included, nor are there any photographs of modern interpreters.

The Von Danzig Fechtbuch
The last chapter of the book is also the largest, representing more than half the length of the book. It consists of a complete translation of the so-called von Danzig Fechtbuch (Cod. 44 A 8) preceded by a brief chapter of introduction. One gets the impression that the purpose of the book was really to present this translation, but that the author felt it was too short to justify being published on its own, and that the other material was included to round out the size of the book and to present other materials that were also too short to publish on their own (not that there is anything wrong with that). Regardless, this section of the book is worth the entire price of the book, and would have been had the book cost the same amount with nothing else included.

Whatever one may think of Tobler’s interpretations, it must be agreed that his skills at translation are superb, and this chapter proves that beyond any doubt. He manages to present a translation which is accurate and yet which, at the same time, flows well in English without the clumsiness some translators demonstrate. Moreover, in this present work he demonstrates that his skills in this area have, if anything, improved since his previous works were published.

For a student of Liechtenauer’s art, the von Danzig Fechtbuch is one of the most important sources available, both in terms of breadth and completeness. In spite of this, much of the book has never before been published in English, and it was well worth the wait. Tobler’s work here should serve to inspire a tremendous amount of discussion and, probably, re-evaluation among scholars of the art.

Christian Tobler has given us yet another excellent resource for the study of the Kunst des Fechtens. In Saint George’s Name is well produced, reasonably priced, and contains a treasure trove of important information. While some of the arguments expressed in certain chapters may be questioned, the majority of the work is superb. This book is a “must have” for any serious student of Liechtenauer’s art.

*Knight, H., The Ambraser Codex by Master Hans Talhoffer: A Fifteenth-Century Fight Book, Lulu.com, 2008 http://stores.lulu.com/hughknight

Review by Hugh T. Knight, Jr. Copyright © 2010, all rights reserved. It may not be copied or presented in any format whatsoever without the author’s express permission.