Episode 104: Living the Nobler Dream, with Christian Tobler

Episode 104: Living the Nobler Dream, with Christian Tobler

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Christian Tobler is a chivalric combat instructor and author of many books, including Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, which launched the study of Liechtenauer in the Anglosphere. He also wrote Fighting with German Longsword, In St. George's Name: an Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts, In Service of the Duke, and many more. Not to mention his latest, which is Lance, Spear, Sword and Messer, a German Medieval Martial Arts Miscellany.

In 1979 Christian and Carl Johnson founded one of the earliest historical martial arts organisations, The Order of Selohaar, a mystic order of chivalry, to try to answer the philosopher and polymath John Ruskin’s famous question, “Might we not live a nobler dream than this?”. The order is “dedicated to the preservation of honor, nobility, arcane wisdom, and martial excellence in an age where such traditions and values have generally been forgotten.” In our conversation we talk about getting into historical martial arts back in the 80s and 90s.

The episode covers writing, researching, social media, and how to interpret the pictures in medieval manuscripts. We also talk about fighting each other, back in 2006.

You can find Christian’s books at Freelance Academy Press, as well as the other usual places.


GW: I am here today with Christian Tobler, chivalric combat instructor and author of many books, including Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, which launched the study of Liechtenauer in the Anglosphere; we'll talk about that in a bit. Fighting with German Longsword, In St. George's Name: an Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts, In Service of the Duke, and many more. Not to mention his latest, which is Lance, Spear, Sword and Messer, a German Medieval Martial Arts Miscellany. He founded the Order of Selohaar in 1979, when I was approximately five years old, to pursue the ideals and practises of chivalry, which includes a medieval martial art school, the Selohaar Fecht School with chapters and study groups across the USA. Alumni include no less than the first guest on this show. Jessica Finley. So without further ado, Christian, welcome to the show.


CT: Thank you, Guy. It's wonderful to be here. It’s been a long time since we've talked, so this is really great.


GW: Yeah, nice to catch up and just to orient everyone, whereabouts in the world are you?.


CT: We are in Oxford, Connecticut, which for those on diverse sides of the planet, is in the New England section of the United States. The town we're in is a semi-rural one, and I'm on top of a close to 800 foot tall hill. Or, as I suppose, some locals here would like to call that a mountain, but it hardly qualifies. But you have to go uphill to get to where I live.


GW: Excellent. So when the when the sea level rises, you'll be safe.


CT: Yes, we are very safe. Not much in the way of food supply here unless I take to deer hunting, which I imagine I should be very poor at.


GW: I don’t know, you’ve got the weaponry for it. It’s a proper chivalric pursuit.


CT: Yes, that's true. That's true.


GW: OK, now I think we should start sort of at the beginning. And you know, I very often meet people who've been training this for like ten years already, which means they started in like 2012. And you started back in the seventies, so your order is one of the oldest historical martial arts organisations out there. What made you decide to found it and what was it like back in the seventies? How did this all come about?


CT: Well, one thing I should clarify from the get go is my studies on historic martial arts really date to the mid 90s. Very few people in the United States knew there was such a thing as historic martial arts that were preserved in the late 70s. The order started out not even exactly with a medieval motif when it first began, we were really just organised and drawn to the idea of the ideals of courageous nobility. At the time were not sophisticated to know it, but we were trying to answer the philosopher and polymath John Ruskin’s famous question, “Might we not live a nobler dream than this?” And by fits and starts the order crystallised around a more medieval motif as it got into the early 80s, but our martial exploits back in the day were very much just evolving organically from playing with swords and letting them see how they spoke to our hands. The results of that, I will say, would not be particularly impressive by today’s standards, nor were my early forays into historic martial arts proper. As I mention in part of the new book, we first bumbled about in the mid 90s with looking at the Pisani Dossi Fiore and the results one gets of just having some bad translations of the verse there. Terrible photostat images to look at.


GW: Translations sort of pasted on top. That one, oh god, that was so bad.


CT: Yes, yes, dreadful. Dreadful.


GW: But we were so excited when we found it.


CT: Well, you know any scrap of food to a starving man, right? So to say the results of that were comical is to be insufficiently self-deprecating.


GW: So you started your group in the late 70s and you were “living the nobler dream”, what did that actually entail?


CT: I think it was a response to just a deep dissatisfaction with the state of the world and just a gravitation towards the idea of a chivalric code. Now, you know, there'll be a number of listeners who will be quick to say, well, this was honoured more in the breach than in fidelity to it. But this is true with lots of moral codes. And of course, looking historically, we do not find a single unified chivalric code, but we have this whole idea of the knight in his idealised form as a sacred warrior. He's not like a cop on the beat. So when we see even in the modern day where the idea of knighthood is used as a springboard into even something as far flung as Star Wars, what makes someone like Darth Vader a terrible, scary villain? It's because he's a corrupted knight. He's someone that's violated this sacred charge to defend people and to defend justice. So the idea of using knighthood, in its way it's come down to us through myths and legend as a template for behaviour was very appealing to us finding dissatisfaction with many of the injustices we saw around us.


GW: OK. So in effect, you weren’t trying to recreate the historical medieval knight you were recreating the Platonic ideal of the medieval knight.


CT: Yeah, exactly. I would argue even if it were desirable, it's not possible for us to recreate the medieval knight. We simply don't live in that context. And there are myriad things that we can't experience the way they would have then. So even if you wanted to do that, everything would be lensed through the present anyway. Kind of a little bit tangentially, Guy, there's always an interesting thing that happens in online discussions, which I try my best to avoid, as you can imagine, these days. But there will always be sort of this pushback of we can't really talk about chivalry in any meaningful way, because what it meant to them is not what it means to us. And I'm like, well, that's ridiculous. That's like saying, we can't talk about democracy because we don't live in classical Athens and we can't talk about Christianity because we're not in one of St Paul's soirees with aristocratic ladies. You know, all these things change with time and yet have threads of continuity to them. So if we can discuss any of those things that have existed over centuries, we certainly can discuss chivalry and what it might mean as it's been passed down and altered, and looked into the past as well through the lens of contemporaries


GW: Knowing you as I do and imagining that the thing that really matters most is how that ideal changes your actual behaviour in the world.


CT: Yes. And I'll go so far as to say, recreating historic martial arts with some fidelity, or as close as we can get to fidelity to them, is important to me as a researcher. But far more important is if someone can use this practise of martial arts and use it as a tool for their self-improvement, for wanting to tease out and amplify what's best in themself. That's infinitely more important to me. That's something that means something in the world.


GW: I could not agree with you more. That is literally the whole point of making these arts available to people. Otherwise, it would just be an amusing pastime. But the reason I've spent the last 20 odd years of my life doing it full time for a living is because I can't think of a better way to help people get to get out of this thing what I have got out of it, which is multiple opportunities to be better than I was, some of which I've taken.


CT: Well, that's part of the process too, right? Unfortunately.


GW: Okay. So you started with this Fiore very dodgy Fiore and photocopy that we all remember, and I sort of stuck with that and stayed in the Italian tradition, and you veered away into the German sources. So could you tell us how that happened. How did you come across this?


CT: Oh well, I will give you two words to answer that. Jörg Bellinghausen.


GW: Ah, it’s Jörg’s fault. I need to get Jörg on this show and scold him for it.


CT: So, so many, many of my early and to this day still colleagues met on the old hacker forum before John Clements turned it into ARMA. There's not a lot I can say about that, except we've met a lot of really cool people through that early interaction.


GW: It was the only place to hang out on the internet, where historical swordsmanship which was discussed.


CT: That's right. And on the old hacker website, Jörg had donated a partial translation of the unarmoured longsword section from the so-called Ringeck manuscript. And here was step by step instructions. Step your left foot here and then spring out with your right foot as you deliver the blow, et cetera, et cetera. So this was meat and potatoes to chew on. And so really, it was a completely pragmatic thing for me. This was material I could use immediately and actually teach from. And then, of course, Jörg had not completed that translation, so I was drawn to, well, I've heard other people have taken a crack at translating some of these things. Let me see what I can do with it. And I translated the rest of that manuscript.


GW: Do you have a German background?


CT: I do not. But you know, as you know, from doing translation work yourself. There's not huge vocabularies in these manuscripts. They're very, very technical. And just through a combination of pattern recognition and osmosis, you can get quite a bit done. Now there are a million things I would redo in the translation of Ringeck if I were to revisit it today, partially because I worked through an intermediate step. Christoph Keindel in Austria had done a full modern German transcription of that manuscript, and I used that as the basis for most of what I did with the rest of that book. The verse I tackled myself, which was extremely challenging. The verse is very cryptic, open to interpretation. And to this day, even my most recent translations of the verse, there's lots of stuff that is open to debate and that I debate with myself about. So but to answer your question more succinctly, basically, I stumbled into the German stuff. It's what happened.


GW: OK, and then you never left. You have been writing about the German in material for, what, the last quarter of a century?


CT: Oh, that does sound dreadfully old.


GW: No, it sounds like at this stage, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you're doing.


CT: I'm still reeling from you saying you were five years old when I co-founded the order.


GW: I'm sorry. I was born in 1973 and at the end of 1973 at that. I was sort of in the first wave of historical martial arts, as they were starting to be recreated in the early 90s. And that tends to be when people date the beginning of the sort of systematic study of historical sources for reproducing historical fencing systems. But there are people who published stuff earlier and who were doing work earlier. And so anytime I come across someone who started things significantly before the 90s, it's always interesting to me to find out not just how they got into it when there wasn't even the beginnings of historical martial arts community to draw on, but also how it survived. You went like over a decade before, there was much of a... we didn't even have a proper internet until the mid-nineties. So that’s 15 years after founding the order.


CT: Yeah, I'm very humbled when I when I look at what some of the real early researchers did, so one of the things you know in our series of Fiore books that we have and the Pisani Dossi is Volume two, which is actually coming out, out of order.


GW: By “we,” you mean Freelance Academy Press.


CT: Yes. We include Novati’s work in there, and it's astonishing the stuff that guy was able to get done without the internet and how close he came to finding a couple of the, at the time, unidentified location Fiore manuscripts. It's really astonishing.


GW: And he was writing in 1903, I think.


CT: I think that's right. Yeah, right around there.


GW: Yeah, that's long before the internet, people still somehow managed to get good work done. It's almost like they wrote letters to each other and actually visited archives and libraries and things and actually dug through books themselves.


CT: Yes, I know. The nerve of them.


GW: Although to be fair, it was probably easier to get into some of these archives back then, than it is now.


CT: Yeah, in some cases, I mean, it's so piecemeal, right? The one thing that's frustrating, we know, for instance, that there's certain manuscripts that used to be in public institutions but now have been dispersed into private collections. And we don't even know who that collector is. In a way there probably is no better access to some of this material than there was 100 hundred years ago.


GW: Although there is, I think if you add it all up, I think we have vastly better access than most. Just go to Wiktenauer and there are hundreds and hundreds of sources just there.


CT: It is digitised now as well.


GW: Oh my god, it makes life so much easier. The youth of today, they don’t know they’re born.


CT: Oh, I chide my young students about all these kind of things. Just look, you've got 200 books on HEMA you can buy today and you have you have armour that's half decent you can order off the rack.


GW: And swords. You can just buy a sword, a good shiny longsword, you can just buy one.


CT: You can buy really good swords. This is an embarrassment of riches, right?


GW: Yeah. OK, so your Secrets of Medieval German Swordsmanship came out in 2001. I think, it that right? It is like the first of the “here is a historical source, and we are trying to recreate the martial arts from it.” I think it's the first publication of its type. What gave you the idea to do that? How did you go about it?


CT: So, again, I had done the better part of the translation. And then I presented that material at a couple of the earlier multi instructors symposia. And it was very well-received. Oh, wow, here's another really complete looking system at the time. Bob Charron had been presenting Fiore to considerable enthusiasm. And now people saw, hey, here's another system that we think we know quite a bit about. And it became just pretty obvious to get the translation together into a book. And then as I looked at page count and I'm like, this needs it needs something more. What if we were really audacious and actually shot some photography to document what we think this looks like? So it really kind of happened from there. And I think the other thing too, that book really happened at a very critical time for authors being able to produce this kind of material. And by that, I mean, Secrets happens right around the time where prosumer grade digital cameras are available on the market. There's no way I could have done that book with conventional photography at the time. I wouldn't have had the money to do it and I wouldn’t have had the time because we were going out shooting in in my side yard here at the house. We would go out and shoot, 300, 400, 500 pictures come inside the house, put them up on the computer, go through and this looks good. This looks good. This looks like shit. We have to redo this. Go right back outside again the same day, redo those bad photos, come back in and then at the end of the day, have something like, 800 or 900 photos done from a shoot. You can't do that with conventional photography. It would not have been possible, and certainly not with a bunch of guys that had day jobs. So the very fact that I had a buddy that had a good digital camera was a game changer. That book could not have happened two years prior to that. It really couldn’t have.


GW: I actually think that the reason why most people who are doing longsword these days are doing German longsword is because of that book. If a Fiore translation and interpretation had come out first in English, I think most people would be doing Fiore now.


CT: Agreed.


GW: It was extraordinary. We went from people who don't have the language skills to work with original Italian sources or original German sources, they just had nothing to work on. They could copy the pictures and stuff, and that's about it. But then suddenly there's this translation available with an interpretation and then suddenly it just it lowers the barrier to entry so much that I think there was this small tidal wave being kept back by that barrier. And then when you dropped the barrier with that book, and suddenly everyone was doing bloody German stuff.


CT: Sorry.


GW: No, that's all right. I didn't really publish my sort of more academic interpretation of Fiore until two years ago. So honestly, it took me 20 years to get to that point. So it's no surprise that it worked out the way it did.


CT: So just as a little sidebar. I don’t know if you're a classical movie fan at all, but one of my favourite movies and a favourite of many who enjoy those kind of films is, of course, the very famous Casablanca. Casablanca when it was filmed, at the time when they were making it, it was just on the roster of movies they were going to make that year and nobody really thought much about it. But as they got close to completing the project, they realised, wow, we have gold here. Somehow, we struck gold and that kind of was how Secrets happened to me. It was just a little project like, you know what, I've got this translation. I should do something with it. We should do some photos, that would be really cool. And as we were getting to completion, I'm like, wow, this is going to be much bigger than I thought it was going to be. I just felt that click into place.


GW: And it's it was everywhere, I mean, I first saw it because my friend Martin Page bought a copy immediately it came out in Edinburgh before I went to Helsinki, it was. Or maybe when I came back for a visit in that first few months and it was like, holy crap. This it felt like a game changer when I picked it up. All right, this is the standard to which we must now all aspire. Can you think of any downsides to having written it?


CT: Yeah, so I created it as very much a “here is my presentation of what we think the system looks like”. Because there was nothing else on the market it ended up being used by a lot of folks as a training manual. And it is not optimised for that and it was not intended to be. So the fact that it was adopted for that, just because of the scarcity of material, there were some problems, I think, for how some people trained. It was one of the things that drove me to do the first edition of Fighting with the German Longsword. I'm like, well, OK, people really need an actual training manual.


GW: That’s why I wrote the training manual first. Because I figured, OK, we have a way to go on the whole academic stuff. But you know, we can at least get people up and moving around with swords in a sensible and safe way, now, with this. So yeah, because my Swordsman’s Companion came out in the same year as Fighting with the German Longsword, I think.


CT: 2004, I think came out with maybe three months before me or three or four months before. Yeah, I'm pretty sure Swordsman’s Companion was first.


GW: OK. Well, I mean, but that would be down to the publisher, I think we were writing and actually sent them off at pretty much the same time. Did you find that Fighting with the German Longsword had a more predictable effect on how people were actually training? Did it actually do its job?


CT: Yes. I think it gave some starting points, obviously, for people. You have to tell people about balance, explain how measure works, all those kinds of things to a modern audience before having them just get dumped into a vat of technique and hope they don't drown in it. So, yeah, I do think it was a positive thing there. Now, of course, there's a million things I changed in that when I did the revised version of that in 2015. But you know, hey, look, everything you hope moves towards refinement, revision and improvement with time.


GW: Yeah, I mean, I look at it like any other field of research, right? If a biology textbook is the same now as it was 15 years ago, then someone has not done any research. I think the pace of change is slowing down dramatically. I think we have a pretty stable idea as to what most of these manuals contain in terms of these are the techniques, these are the tactics. So I'm not seeing much change in that. There's all sorts of developments in terms of how you train it, what you train for, all that sort of thing. So I think maybe we're moving into the next phase of historical martial arts.


CT: Yeah. There were things that that change like. So a lot of times I'll get questions about, you know, Hey, what did you change in between doing Secrets and Fighting or between Fighting version one and Fighting version two? And people always want to hear, are you holding this guard differently? And yes, there are some refinements there, but there's a lot more refinement from me in the mindset of it. And actually, it's very appropriate I'm talking to you about this because you actually play a very important part in what I'm about to say. So one of the things I overstressed early on in really any my early works was this idea of controlling initiative in the fight with a lot of aggression. It was a very aggressive salesman's job I did on how I thought that worked. And what was a real watershed mark for me was, you may recall the first time we fenced, which I believe was in Texas.


GW: 2006. It's one of the bouts I have talked most about.


CT: Yeah. Well, it was a magnificent chess match. I can't help but smile whenever I think about it. But when I came back from that trip, I really thought that was some of my best fencing I've done. And yet it was much more of a chess match than an expression of aggression.


GW: Yeah.


CT: And I went back and I thought, OK, did I fight that bout too cagey, too cagily to reflect the art that I claim to be studying? And I went back and did another deep read of, one has to go back and read one's own translations because they're not necessarily committed to memory. And I said, no, there's plenty of reason to suspect that this much more nuanced fight is in fact reflective of what's in the text, and it changed my emphasis on how I present the material. It didn't change, here's how I stand, here's how I deliver this blow, but the tactical framework had a major shift, a sea change, if you will, in how I presented it as a direct result of that fight.


GW: I am honoured, sir.


CT: That was great.


GW: It was a good fight. And the detail that I remember from afterwards is when I told my students about it, I was just in raptures and one of them said, so, who won? And I was honestly baffled, it took me a moment to kind of understand the question. Then I said, “we did”. I think we both came away with a few bruises, but it actually felt like, to me, one of the first times that Fiore’s style and Liechtenauer’s style were meeting. Obviously, we were both beginners in those styles at that time. Relative beginners compared to the masters themselves, but it actually felt like an Italian and a German arguing with each other.


CT: Yes. Agreed.


GW: You definitely were not treating the idea of initiative as moving first, moving hard, and making sure the other person can't move. It was more like you have the initiative when the movements that are happening now are the ones you have decided will happen.


CT: Yeah, it's a good way to frame that.


GW: So if you have your sword in front of you stopping me coming forwards and you move out of the way and I take that invitation, but it's your invitation and so you have a response. You have the initiative. I may be the one coming forward that you have the initiative because you're the one who made me come forward.


CT: Yes, if you were the provocateur, you have the initiative, indeed.


GW: And OK, so is there anything else you've particularly changed their mind on that stands out?


CT: This is an evolving thing, of course, like anything else, and it's it really is what the new book, Lance, Spear, Sword and Messer is most focussed on is context is, what is the context of how the art was used? And the short answer is it was used for everything. It was used for fun. It was used for fitness, it was used for self-defence, it was used in war, it was used in duel. And the book works to examine all those different contexts and how we can see them, see hints of them in the texts. And how that that context is there right before our eyes, if we know where to look for it and are open to looking for it. And that was really provoked by a wildly swinging pendulum I've observed over the last couple of years in online discourse.


GW: Oh God. Any time you say online discourse, I go, “oh no”.


CT: Well, I know “discourse” is perhaps a little bit of a kind term there, but you know, it's early in the week and I'm feeling charitable. And so the pendulum has tended to swing from the extremes of, hey, they used this art just for fun, just like we do, all the way to the other side, which is this is a killing art. This is used for killing.


GW: And you have to have a serious voice for that.


CT: Yes, you have to have a very serious gravelly voice for that.


GW: And you also you have to have like military service that you can't talk about because it's too secret. You have to let us all know you did it, but you can't talk about it.


CT: The first rule of Fight Club. Don't talk about Fight Club, right? I try to keep a very polite demeanour on places like Facebook and all. But at one point I finally cracked and I said, these are equally stupid propositions.


GW: Which is true.


CT: First of all, we know they fenced for fun, so we can't dismiss that. And second of all, hundreds of thousands of sharp swords were made in the 15th century. Do you really believe no one killed each other with them?


GW: And we do have records of people being killed with big swords. We even have skeletons with sword wounds still on them.


CT: Yes, yes, we do. That really was a major spur that affected what the book looks like in its final form. Let's look and see all the hints at the context here. Now, one of the areas where that really became interesting to me was, my original conventional understanding was we've got the unarmoured material, German material, Liechtenauer material, and then we have the mounted combat and the mostly half sword with some spear stuff on foot. And my original working thinking was both the meltdown and the foot combat are purely for the duel. What became clear, particularly in the mounted combat, is there's lots of context for it being used in small scale warfare, skirmishing, in fact, and in some of the real early 16th century treatises, we see overt references to that. They talk about how Jörg Willhalm talks about how to basically deal with an encounter in in some sort of confined space like a gully or a forest ravine or something like that where you don't have a lot of room to work. So that's clearly, you're running into a hostile in the woods, essentially, and you don't have a lot of room to work. So here's what you do. Obviously, that's not a judicial duel in a not big open enclosure. This is some sort of skirmishing or warfare context. And so the more you dig for those kind of things, the more you find those. The wrestling in the Vom Bauman’s fight book has a whole section on holding captives. Why would you be holding captives? Well, because you captured them, obviously.


GW: And you are going to ransom them, hopefully.


CT: So one of two things is happening. Either you're some sort of law enforcement person and you're dealing with some malefactors or more likely you've captured other troops and have to hold on to them. So there's all kinds of little things like that, that where you look carefully, you find this much broader spectrum of where this art was used. And now we have to keep in mind, too, you wouldn't learn a different martial art for fun than you would for your everyday life. Life is busy.


GW: Yeah. You would use different aspects of it when fencing your friends, as when murdering your enemies.


CT: Absolutely. It was used for everything, and that's something I'm really stressing with students these days. As I said before, it's a major focus of the book and that really helps to frame it.


GW: Yeah. Just before we get into the details of the books, I have some questions about that. This whole social media thing. I think you're very brave even saying anything on social media, because quite a while ago I just stopped posting anything on social media, except I have an automated system that automatically posts stuff that I have produced, which shares it out onto social media so people can find my stuff that they want to. But I don't look at the comments. I don't answer anything. Perhaps I just lack the mental fortitude to go into that arena and come out with my sanity intact. So I just stay away from it completely.


CT: Yeah, my participation is limited. I maintain a presence for a couple of reasons. One, there are people that I don't engage with because you know, anybody that simply wants to, just take a piss at somebody, I don't have time to do that. Life's too short. And there are people that hold some very ridiculous ideas that I don't want to engage with, for obvious reasons there too. But there are folks that are very earnest, but maybe have not trained with great people so far, that I see are there climbing the hill. They're trying to get something, get to where they try to embody the art. And those are folks that I try to throw a few hints at here and there. You know, I won't get into like a big long debate or something, but I'll say, “Hey, here's what this passage says. Maybe you should give that a little thought.” That kind of thing. It can be a lot of work, but there's a few people on that engaging with them is very pleasant and you can see you make a difference and that's rewarding. But I have become very guarded about what things I get involved in. I don't get involved in political discussions on social media. In the echo chambers people live in these days, you're not going to change very many minds anyway. So really, it ends up just being venting. Which is not always very helpful. And there are people that are very entrenched in what they think about this art that I'm not going to reach either. So I don't expend the energy there. So I try to make my choices very carefully.


GW: Yeah. And I do the sort of helping beginners thing through people send me email questions regularly. And I answer those in a helpful and timely manner. I don't go looking for it because there's just so many of them. I also have for my own students and actually all podcast guests get an invitation to this as well. So I’ll be sending you an invitation shortly to my private discord server, which is just for the school and so you won't find any bad behaviour. There will be complete beginners and there will be people like Jessica Finley and Michael Chidester. But it basically it cuts out all of the monkeys in the gallery throwing peanuts. Or worse things.


CT: Yes. Good way to get away to keep the fascists out, right?


GW: Well, that too. Yeah, absolutely. Because that kind of discussion is helpful and useful, but I find that doing it on some something like Facebook, just reading the comments. I mean, I have family history of high blood pressure and just reading in the comments, I can just feel those genes kicking in. It’s not good for my longevity.


CT: know, I can sympathise. I understand.


GW: Yeah. Coming back to your book. Here's a question. Tell me, Christian, why is a word worth a thousand pictures?


CT: Well, of course, it's a very provocative chapter.


GW: And you know I just homed straight in on it when you sent me the book.


CT: Of course. Well, that's good. The chapter’s point is not to dismiss the utility of pictures in fight books or in toto. It is, however, to create a cautionary mindset. And really, this kind of calls right back to our earlier discussion of bumbling about with the Pisani Dossi with the pasted in translation there. If that's all you got to go on, the results are not good.


GW: But better than nothing.


CT: They are better than nothing. Well, in some cases. The problem with relying on medieval art without context and without having a trained eye to look at it, is their art is representational. There is no concept in the 15th century of depicting an instant in time. That is a product of the modern world. And so we might look at an illustration and I believe I direct people to it, maybe not in that chapter, but certainly in the one on the duelling shield combat from the Gladiatoria manuscript where if you look carefully at the illustrations, not only are we not looking at an instant of time, but there are reasons to believe that elements of the technique and the counter to it are both represented there. So we have something that symbolises what is going on in the technique and its counter, but it is not an instant. I think in part of that chapter, I say, it used to be a compliment, “Hey, you look just like the picture.” Maybe that's not the compliment we think it is because the picture is symbolic. It is representational. Now, when we look at the mammoth treatise on the Messer by Hans Lecküchner, I think we almost have to conclude that in many ways, the pictures are intended almost more for indexing and finding what you're looking for than helping you. There's this one really elaborate show technique where you just keep beating the guy up. You're like delivering blow after blow circling him around. It's obviously some showy kind of thing. And we have this one illustration there of, OK, here he is hitting. Obviously, you can't learn a technique that involves eight different steps by looking at a single image. So that can't have been the intent of that image of here, I'm going to teach you this this technique with this one image. It’s not possible. So I think in many ways, some of these are used as indexing or referential. It's not to say that you can't glean things from them, but you have to use medieval art with great care. It's interesting in the Paulus Kal manuscript. We see a representation of the krumphau, the crooked stroke, and this is a blow delivered with the hands crossed. The idea is basically to step away from your opponent, but still be able to hit them by striking across the line of engagement. Well, OK, Kal, the artwork is quite lavish. It's quite beautiful. But when we look at the depiction of this strike being done, the arms are shown in this contorted, crazy position. Now, was the artist capable of drawing it a little bit more real realistically? I think they were. I think what we're seeing symbolically is he's really trying to drive home the idea that, yes, you have to cross the arms to do this. So I'm going to over exemplify this to drive home that point. By the same token, there's a lot of useful kinesthetic things we can get out of that manuscript. One thing I learnt bumbling about with Kal’s wrestling was, hmm, you know, there's a lot of stuff that's not photo realistic here, but pay attention to where his foot placement is because it really is actually kind of critical. So, yes, there's data there, but it is gelatinous data.


GW: I think it varies, though, from manuscript to manuscript, because, for example, in the Getty manuscripts and Fiore it is much closer to being, “you should look exactly like this” because in every case that I can think of, I have found that when I look more like the picture, the technique works better. The whole style is different.


CT: Yeah. Like, we have cases where you should look like this. It's just going through and “I will replicate all the pictures” is not a starting point for a manuscript.


GW: Yeah. Helps to start with the text.


CT: And you know, we find things too, coming back to Lecküchner again. We find things where if we take the image at face value, it apparently contradicts the text. So we'll see a thing where it says you're going to spring out and attack the left side of the opponent. And the artwork shows what appears to be a cross step, which would preclude your being able to do that. So what should we glean from that? Maybe the art is not telling us this is the foot placement. Maybe it's saying, by the way, this guy here on the right, he's the one that's winning this encounter. Who knows, there may be meanings there that out modern eyes do not perceive or as I said, as speculated earlier, maybe it's even not that important. As long as it kind of looks like the technique. Hey, this gets you to the right page and they can read the text.


GW: I mean, when you look at top level practitioners of any art, say, a particular style of karate or a particular style of kung fu or kickboxing or whatever, they all look different. They are all doing very clearly the same art. And they have all these black belts, but they don't fight the same and they don't look the same. They move differently. They prioritise different tactics. So yeah, I think the notion that everybody doing historical martial arts is look exactly like the pictures is obviously not ideal. It doesn't work very well. Interesting, we were talking about Fiore earlier. In the fifth play of the abrazare, the wrestling, he shows a particular take down where a person's got you grabbed around the waist and you put one hand on their jaw, your other hand on their hip and you sort of twist them off their feet. And then the sixth play is the counter to that. And it's clearly impossible because it requires the person doing the original technique to change hands on your face, right? Which doesn't make any sense. But the text says that basically of the hand that offends your face, that's the elbow to push. So the picture shows what the technique would look like if they were using the other hand. Whereas the previous one shows what the technique looks like when they're using the right hand. So it is impossible to do that technique correctly and look exactly like the picture.


CT: Right. Yeah, there's one conclusion of a pollaxe play in Paulus Kal that we still have no idea how it's supposed to work because it has just very little text to it, just kind of a caption. And there's no way you can get from the previous image to that one. It's still a mystery we really don't know.


GW: Yeah, we have similar sort of mysteries in Fiore, and it's I think sometimes it may be just the artist drew the wrong thing. Sometimes it's like with the abrazare I talked about earlier, it could be just this is a version of it that you would do against a different version of the previous technique. Maybe coming from the other side or whatever, and sometimes we just have to dig the person up and ask them.


CT: Yeah, and there's shortcuts the artists did too, because I talk about one of the most notorious misinterpretations, which unfortunately made its way into a television special. Was this interpretation from a Talhoffer plate that this is an armoured guy fighting a guy in full gothic plate armour. And of course, right away, if you know how armoured combat works, you look at this and you go, “Why would the guy in armour be at the half sword allowing this guy to get close to him? Why wouldn't you just cut him down from a distance?”


GW: Yes.


CT: But what it really is, is the artist is signalling I'm going to transition to not drawing the armour anymore. I'm not getting paid enough to draw every goddamn rivet on this guy's harness. So the next plate after this is going to continue to show armoured techniques, which you can tell by the targeting that's used, but we're going to just draw them in doublets and hose. And you see a similar thing in the Gladiatoria series. Gauntlets are not drawn in most plates. As any cartoonist knows, drawing hands is very difficult, which is why Linus and Lucy of Peanuts fame only have four fingers. Like most cartoon characters. And so the gauntlets are not drawn so that we can see hand positioning relatively easily, except in the two techniques that involve thrusting into the cuff of the gauntlet. There, the artist has to show them because it's part and parcel of how the technique works. So you have to look at these things carefully.


GW: Yeah. Now this brings me on to a question that I've been thinking about for getting on for 20 years, and I'm not even close to an answer. Generally speaking, the sort of people who carried swords had armour, most medieval combat is armoured combat, at least at the point where it was being written down in a treatise. There are exceptions, but OK. So why do we have so much unarmoured longsword stuff in Fiore? And why do we have so much unarmoured longsword stuff in the German material? What's it doing there?


CT: I would give a combination of answers to that. One, on the march, certainly, light gear is often worn even by very wealthy people. Two, there's the self-defence context where again, you're not walking around in harness all the time and we have some evidence of unarmoured duels happening. One is certainly implied in the Vom Bauman, there's that panoply seen of two duellists armed with longswords and daggers. A presiding noble, attended by a fool. And we know it's a duel because there are two coffins there with candles on them. So somebody is going home and one of those. It's not the most desirable trip to be made, but yeah, you know, it's a carriage and we have some records of encounters between masters fighting some sort of unarmoured duel. Like they talk about a couple of those. He’s wearing some sort of a gambeson or something.


GW: A gambeson and a pair of leather gloves. That’s it.


CT: So that's some of your context there. But, you know, people carried swords, particularly in the countryside. A lot of towns had rules about, hey, you turn your sword in when you enter town. But yeah, people got into scraps and they weren't always armoured. You know, the idea of armies on the on the move in full plate is generally a misconception. Light gear would be worn on the march. You might be ambushed. So delivering against less protected targets. If we look at the Talhoffer images of the mounted combats that occur between lightly armoured troops there, they're wearing a breastplate and an open faced helmet and little else. So it's still a target rich environment there. So a lot of your blossfechten, your unarmoured combat techniques would work just fine. And I think also too, learning the longsword without armour, if you think about it is the most diverse grouping of mechanics you can learn with a weapon. Because the hands are close together, allowing very powerful strokes to be delivered, but allowing you to change direction by just how the hands are posited against each other. So there's a lot of complexity to be learnt out of using a relatively lightweight, two handed weapon, such as a longsword. So it's an admirable weapon to act as an exemplar for all sorts of combat. And it's clearly, at least in the German material, it is the foundational stuff. And we see this reflected even in in Maximilian’s beefed up autobiographical stuff that I talk about at the end of the book, where the progression of his training, he learns the unarmoured combat, then progresses into the armoured combat from there. So I think we're seeing that reflected even in the training of someone at the upper echelons of society.


GW: OK. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and it's a nice, nuanced reply. We like that on this show. You mentioned Maximilian, and there is a fabulous image, I can’t remember if it’s in your book because I have a memory like a goldfish, I know it’s in Mike Loades’ book about historical swords and it is a picture of Maximilian, basically with his training partner crossed with the longsword. With the fencing master watching the two of them. In the foreground there's a pair of Messers on the ground with gauntlets and in the in the background there's a pair of quarterstaffs. I am going to float a theory at you which I think we talked about before some, some while ago but I think might be interesting for listeners to hear anyway. OK. From what I can see of the German sources, most of the stuff that Italian styles would put in the beginners course seems to be missing from the Liechtenauer material. But it's all there in the Messer, particularly if you go to Lecküchner. So my feeling would be that you teach people Messer first and all the basics, then move up from the Messer to the longsword. And then you have Liechtenauer’s specific fancy stuff, winden and meisterhau and whatnot as like the advanced course. How does that theory fit with your experience?


CT: Well, so the problem with that and why I think the longsword is the principle weapon is it is in play in that portion of German culture before the Messer. The Messer really does not seem to be a big deal until the mid-15th century. And it's one of the things that brought me to really make a strong argument about manuscripts 3227a, which has often been touted as very early to not being that early because it says that the Messer is some sort of foundational thing. And we just don't see evidence of the Messer being a thing at all in the 14th century, and its appearance in fight books is sparse until we get into the 1450s, the late 1450s. The earliest appearance of the Messer is in two plates in one of the early Talhoffers. And where it's shown paired with bucklers. And so really, there's not substantial Messer material for quite a while until we get well into the 15th century. And the thing we all should be careful with too is Liechtenauer mentions Messer in his prologue. But the evidence suggests that when he means a Messer, he means a short Messer, a knife. The only place he talks about it is in the mounted combat, where it is clearly the back-up weapon, not the primary cutting weapon. It's something that's being worn on the right hip. Not in a sword position.


GW: So it's a knife.


CT: Yeah, so it's a knife


GW: Or a dagger, even.


CT: Yeah. So it's not the longest Messer, it's just a Messer. So I think that's why. And we see so much of it later on in Lecküchner's work. We see a lot of wrestling, of course, with the Messer. But of course, you have a free hand the whole time. It's inherently more grapply because the left hand is just waiting there to do something and the fight tends to be a little bit more close quarters, so you're much more likely to end up in a grapple earlier on rather than making a more committed entry with the longsword. So, yeah, we do see a lot more of that there. Now, why doesn't the Liechtenauer materials start off with, hey, you know what? Let me teach you how to how to wrestle and how to protect yourself with the dagger a la Fiore. That's a really excellent question. It may have something to do with what was expected at what age before you came to do this sort of formal training in the two different arenas north and south of the Alps? Hard to know. We do know, of course, that wrestling was something people did of all ages and across all social strata. So coming in with some wrestling knowledge, from your childhood would have certainly been expected. Why does Fiore stress that as the first thing he presents? It may just be because he's structured his guard system and his tactical framework around wrestling, so it's important for him to put not just wrestling there, but his take on wrestling, his curriculum for wrestling, because it foreshadows everything else he's going to show you, right? So the Liechtenauer approach may be just different from that. It is interesting how despite those differences in how the pedagogy is presented, how close the two arts end up looking to each other anyway.


GW: I think the biggest difference is in some of the longsword plays, the unarmoured longsword plays. That's where you have your zwerchhaus and krumphaus and what have you that are just not there in Fiore. And likewise, we have a lot more of the sort of wrestling at the sword with the longsword I think than you find in many of the German sources. But it is interesting to me that if I was creating a curriculum for teaching people how to fight with swords, I don't think I could do that using the contents of Zettel alone. I think I would have to add in a bunch of stuff that I would probably source from the Messer to teach beginners how to do a basic parry, weight on the left side and when they come and strike, beat it out the way and hit them. Where do you stand on that? Where would you go to find the fundamental, truly basic actions of the longsword?


CT: Well, I mean, I think I've done what I can to tease them out from hints, right? And obviously, you see what I think that is in my training book. So there's a lot of basic stuff on stance and what does cover mean and all that kind of stuff. And we have little hints here and there. Obviously, you know that intimations that the basic strikes are the oberhau and the unterhau, strikes from above and below on both sides, and that those in turn make up some basic parries as well. So they're in there, but they're not then not presented as plays the way we see in the Messer. And we should be careful what we say we see those basics in the Messer. We're really not talking Lecküchner. Lecküchner goes right into here's my Zettel and here's my thing, but we have these little mini Messer treatises like in the Glasgow and elsewhere, where there's like nine or 10 techniques and they're all very, very basic. Here's a cover and a follow on blow. Here's another cover. Here's three different parries. If you get into real trouble, here's how you brace your parry with the left hand, basically a half sword in parry. So yeah, that's a real “Messer for Dummies”. There is some longsword stuff out there like that, too. And it's interesting you asked about this today because just yesterday I realised I hadn't looked at all at the so-called Hans Folz manuscript. Folz was a Meistersinger, actually. But there's a manuscript attributed to him that also has a brief section on fighting. And it looks to me like it's really basic “Longsword for Dummies” kind of stuff. Don't hold me to that because I haven't translated it. I was literally looking at this last night.


GW: OK, while we're on a speculative bent, how about why is there no falchion, Messer, storta treatise in Italian. There damn well should be, because we have plenty of Italian Messer-like swords. They tend to call it stortas.


CT: Well, I would argue I would probably say you don't need it because Fiore has sword in one hand and we have more than one German author that says, look, the Messer curriculum is how you fight with single headed weapons. I would say you have the equivalence there. It's not a huge section of a Fiore, but I think when you look at that and juxtapose what you know from the dagger already, you got quite a bit to play with there.


GW: Sure. Yeah, plenty to play with. But I mean, that's like clearly illustrated as a longsword. He is using a longsword in one hand, it's not illustrated as a single handed sword. And you think that by 1500, at some point between 1400 and 1500, someone would have written a book telling people how to fight with a very common weapon that even people like Cosimo di Medici in the 16th century was carrying. I was literally in the Wallace Collection last weekend and I saw Cosimo di Medici’s falchion because every time I go to the Wallace Collection, I always have to have a look at the Medici Falchion because it's gorgeous. So why do we have no sources?


CT: You know, we could ask the same question why in either tradition do we have nothing about, you know, I don't know, a single handed battle axe or a mace? We really don't have much, other than fighting with the duelling shield, we have next to nothing about, shorter impact weapons. So, yeah, there's a lot, I think, that you have to infer. But I think it comes down to at some point when you get the first principles down enough, you should be able to fight with a pool cue, a lawn chair, a monkey wrench. Maybe a carrot or a banana, if push comes to shove. You should be able to take the principles and adapt to what you have. The banana is not my first go to, of course.


GW: Also very hard to find in medieval Europe.


CT: Well, yeah, there is that complication.


GW: Okay, now I have a couple of questions that I ask all of my guests, and the first of it is what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?


CT: The best idea I haven't acted on. I read your question before and that and I'm like, I'm going to have to really think about how I answer that one. The best idea I haven't acted on. Well, I mean, I can give a little preview, I suppose, right? So I mean, Fighting with the German Longsword has been has been pretty well received. And so I do have some things in the pipeline. Fighting with the German Dagger and Fighting with the German Messer are things that are percolating in my head.


GW: I’ll be buying those when they come out.


CT: I'm actually toying with doing something absolutely insane, which is maybe to try to do the two books at roughly the same time so that the structures are kind of reflective of each other, but that maybe a fever dream that passes and I may do something more sane and do them serially instead of in parallel. But those are both on the docket. The other thing, too, it's always tempting to do a book that takes just the Zettel and does my own gloss in photos.


GW: I would love to see that.


CT: There's some temptation to do something like that. I’m starting to run out of titles for it. I don't know what the hell I call it.


GW: Yeah, yeah, German medieval martial arts and you've got the alliteration all tied up there, so I don’t know, something. Yeah, it's a shame that none of your names begin with a G, because then they could be like, you know, if I was writing it, it would be “Guy’s Gloss”, obviously.


CT: It could be “Tobler’s Tome”.


GW: Yeah, yeah. We want something that means like almost whimsical exploration.


CT: The one area that I would love to see get better exploration and someone do presentation, but I'm not the one with the resources or skill set to do it, is the mounted combat just needs a lot more, a lot more interrogation.


GW: It really does.


CT: And you know, the frustrating thing about the mounted combat, Guy, is it's so amazing. It's so cool. It's so much cool stuff in there. And yet it's incredibly hard to present the material. You just need the skill set and the resources and the right horses and the right gear and blah blah blah. And then even if you did all that, you're still going to have a fraction of practitioners that are able to make use of it. It's just not a horse culture anymore. So preserving that part of the art is challenging, it is challenging.


GW: Yeah, I have sort of preliminary plans to assist people who do have the horses and the riding skills and the interests to recreate, for example, all of Fiore’s mounted combat plays, at least on video. So how I think they would go, obviously modified by the experience of the people who are actually really good riders, I mean, I ama good enough rider to know that I'm not really a good enough rider to do the mounted combat stuff. I guess like within five years from now, we're recording this in March 2022, I think we will have a pretty solid video recording of at least all of Fiore’s plays. I am no expert on the Liechtenauer stuff, so we need to get somebody else. Who can I think of who is good at the Liechtenauer stuff who might be able to advise my friends who are thinking about it? Hmm. Christian, can I volunteer your services to my friends if they want to do the Liechtenauer stuff?


CT: And you know, Jess Finley is doing some stuff with that too. So as far as the mechanical understanding of it goes she's certainly much farther along on that track than I am. But yeah, you know, it's stuff I looked at. I did an interesting class with my local guys right before pandemic hit where we I did an interpretation. What if you took some of these plays and did them on foot? What might they look like? And obviously they don't all translate to that. But you come up with some interesting stuff even going through that exercise.


GW: Sure. And with Fiore’s mounted combat plays they look an awful lot like the foot plays anyway. You just have a horse doing the footwork for you. I mean, there are also specific horse stuff like he reaches over, grabs the bridle and gets his horse to nudge the other horse so it falls on the ground, which is just judo on horseback it’s just so cool. Can't really do that on foot, but a lot of it is really basically just parry and strike. And as you're moving past them strike them again from behind. It’s not complicated.


CT: A lot of the lessons about focussing on the outside of your opponent really in the German material is best found in the mounted combat. I've paid a lot more attention to that in the last couple of years, certainly.


GW: Yeah. OK, so we need to basically ginger up the mounted combat enthusiasts out there to get cracking on some of this interpretive work. Excellent. Now my last question, if you had a million dollars to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide, how would you spend it?


CT: Well, I'm a big fan of the idea that it's very hard to change the world, but you can do a lot to change your own little corner of it. I guess I would want to use that to make myself more available. I have a day job, I have a mortgage. My time is limited. Space is limited. If I had the money to do it, I would not have a day job. I would either live in a different place or make amendments to where I do live to be able to have indoor training for as many people as I like year round. You know what Jess is doing these days, where she's able to host folks for intensives? That's very appealing to me, but I can't practically do it. So really, what I would do is I would maximise my being able to focus on doing this stuff and not have to maintain a career elsewhere.


GW: I have no idea how people manage to do this stuff to any level at all and have some other kind of career. How do you find the time?


CT: Well, honestly, it has changed, Guy. So when we first met, I was a consulting engineer. And so, being able to almost at the drop of a hat say, hey, I'm not going to come in Friday, I'm going to travel to Oklahoma and teach a seminar. That was something I could do back in the day. Since I've been working as a full time employee that is not a luxury I have in my schedule. So it has changed things. It has slowed down how books are produced. Time I have for writing. When you're staring at a computer all day for your day job, it's very hard sometimes to then do another three hours of that writing in the evening. That change in my daily life has affected a change in my efficiency, if you will, as a historic martial arts researcher and teacher. So that would be not only, your million dollars, which you know, you're very gracious to offer. Of course, I do appreciate it. Your million dollars would not only restore me back to what it was when I was first doing this, it would be a step above and beyond that, which is, of course, very appealing.


GW: OK, so you would build a salle and give up the day job so you could just spend all your time researching and teaching the art.


CT: Yeah, pretty much.


GW: OK, that's a pretty solid use of the money, I would say. I mean, there should be maybe money left over for like bursaries, for visiting students who can't necessarily afford to fly to Connecticut on their own dime.


CT: Oh, well, I can't boast of Nicole Allen's continual hospitality, but I do consider our humble abode here, also a place for wayward martial artists. As you personally know.


GW: Yes, absolutely. And one of the reasons why I rented a full time salle long before it was a financially prudent thing to do. And in fact, it was never a financially prudent thing to do was so that visiting students could quite illegally, I think, because we weren't set up for it, we didn’t have any kind of licence for people to stay the night, but people would sleep there and cook there and shower. And so if they could just get to the salle they had a place to say and weapons to train with and a space to train. And it made a huge difference to how practical it was for people to travel across the world and come and train. OK, so your million dollars, you're not the first person who suggested “I would give up the day job”.


CT: And it's not that I dislike my day job. It's interesting work, and I work with very excellent people. So I'm very blessed and especially being able to work from home as I do these days, remain very gainfully employed and have good folks to work with and work for. So my speculations on the million dollars is by no means a complaint against my very fortunate circumstances.


GW: Sure. But compared to engineering, I think swords are more fun.


CT: That goes without saying.


GW: Also perhaps closer to the nobler dream.


CT: Yes. Yes, indeed. Although my company does make a lot of stuff that's used in health care research. We actually made one of the most used COVID tests. I don't work in that specific division, so I'm not in those laboratories. But the company is heavily involved in that sort of stuff. So I'm glad I work for a company that does that kind of stuff rather than, manufacturing missiles and bombs, for instance.


GW: So not too far away from the nobler dream, then.


CT: Hopefully not too far.


GW: Excellent. Thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Christian, it has been great talking to you again.


CT: Oh, absolutely. And please, my comment about your earlier visit was a hint to come and see us again.


GW: I'd love to.


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