The Book of Lessons: An Important Mystery

I am delighted that my translation of The Book of Lessons is now available through Fallen Rook Publications and I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a little background on it… and hopefully enthuse people to invest in a copy.

So, what is it?

The Book of Lessons (Livre Des Leçons) is a fencing manual, written in French, comprised of a hand-written text of 210 pages held in the RL Scott Library, Glasgow, along with a book of 54 hand drawn and coloured

Technique from Book of Lessons

A technique from The Book of Lessons

pictures. In the Swedish Royal Library, Stockholm, there is a further book containing 71 pictures, from which book we have reproduced the illustrations, with kind permission from the Swedish Royal Library; however, there is no book of text in the same location. Now, the title and authorship of the treatise poses some problems for the researcher. The title Book of Lessons is derived from the captions in the books of pictures; there is no title in the main text itself, other than a note dated to 1900 on the inside cover, which was probably made by a librarian in Brussels. This note refers to the text as Traite Des Armes. The captions in the two books of pictures refer to the main text as Book of Lessons, but, of course, the text makes no reference to any illustrations! This means we don’t know if the pictures were drawn in association with the text or at some time afterwards.

 

Actually dating the text is also problematic: the librarian’s note gives the date as 1600, but does not cite a source. However, the first section of the text liberally quotes Villamont’s 1597 translation of Girolamo Cavalcabo’s Treatise or Instruction for Fencing, including a passage from Patenostier’s Very beautiful speech to fence with the single sword, found at the end of Villamont’s work. As for an end date, evidence found in the books of pictures, the clothing depicted in the pictures seems to date to the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century onwards and possibly no later than 1630.

Who wrote it?

And now for our author. Well, there’s an argument to say that there was no author, but instead a collator. We have Cavalcabo at the beginning and it’s possible that the rest of the text is collated from other works. However, on the inside cover of the manuscript, there is a librarian’s note of 1900, stating the text was written by Pedro De Heredia, a Captain of Horse and Governor of Brabant. Unfortunately, beyond this, there is little evidence of authorship. It would be curious that such an association would be made without reason, but this is the only stated evidence we have in the books themselves.

So, who was Pedro De Heredia? He was the son of Don Antonio De Heredia and Dona Eufemia De Figueroa. In 1618, he married into a Flemish family through his wedding with Julienne-Henriette Taye, daughter of Gaspar Taye, Seigneur of Goyck (modern Gooik in Flemish Brabant, east of Brussels), and Marguerite Van Etten. He is documented in the 1620s as a captain of cavalry and (military) governor of Leau (modern Zoutleeuw) until 1648. De Heredia was an active soldier and may have served in Ireland in 1601 at the siege of Rinorran Castle, where a Pedro De Heredia of the rank of Sergeant escaped with half of the garrison, only to be captured later, eventually released and sent to France. In 1620 a De Herdray is listed among the captains of cavalry in the Memoires du Seigneur du Cornet, when 3,000 cavalry were recruited in Flanders. In the same year, a Pedro De Heredia is listed as an officer among the ‘libre compagnies de cavalerie’, as a ‘captaine d’arquebusiers’, while another reference has De Heredia responsible for recruitment of cavalry in 1620 in Tirlemont (Tienen, Flemish Brabant). Of course, we may be dealing with several Pedro De Heredias one (or perhaps none!) of whom may have collated or part-authored the text. Assuming the manuscript was written and remained close to Brussels before entering the collection of Brussels Library, Pedro De Heredia is well placed to have some connection.

What style does it use?

I’m always interested by the idea of a ‘style’ in fencing; there are of course many forms that have a distinctive ‘look’, such as Fabris and noble destreza, but I feel many people try to emulate that look rather than understand the principles. This can lead to an idiosyncratic form that seeks to be ‘plate perfect’, but ignores basic theories in movement and fencing. Further, this interpretative method runs into trouble when facing something like The Book of Lessons. How can there be a style is several treatises are collated and added to? I suppose the question comes down to what was the author’s purpose? Perhaps, even, who was this for.

Guard from Book of Lessons

A guard depicted in The Book of Lessons

Why is this a problem? Well, we have Cavalcabo, which can be considered early rapier / late Bolognese sidesword (I really hate these definitions, as to the practitioners at the time, it was all ‘sword’). We then have a series of techniques for single ‘rapier’, rapier and dagger and rapier and cloak, with a few anti-dagger techniques. These could be equivalent to techniques described in other treatises throughout the seventeenth century, including a form of lunge first mentioned by Francois Dancie in c. 1618, but is described more fully by authors such as Senese (1660), Villardita (1670) and Marcelli (1686), and is cited by the Spanish masters Ettenhard (1697) and Rada (1705). And then we have the pictures: fantastically detailed and very expensive to produce at the time, given the price of the inks used. These depict clothing from the mid seventeenth century and also very simple, light swords with grip positions that are arguably found in later rapier / smallsword.

We could generalise and say ‘well, we know it’s Italian’, but many of the techniques are described as vulgar by Spanish authors. Olivier Dupuis has noted the use of the two Gallicised Spanish terms ‘gannance’ and ‘garatouces’ in several titles, which are missing in the main paragraphs. This leads to the tantalising hint of annotations by a Spanish speaker who could read and write French: a possible link to De Heredia. Olivier also highlighted the use of the term ‘dague’ for ‘dagger’ throughout the text, as opposed to ‘poignard’, which was used by authors such as Cavalcabo and Dancie.

The text itself is written in a very elegant and tidy script, with a different script for titles. The titles may have been added later, as in many instances, they are cramped between paragraphs; additional subtitles may hint at a later qualification of the title. This all suggests that the manuscript was intentionally presentable; I’d argue that effort has been put in to ensure that this was made into something more than one person’s personal notes. In addition, there are those colourful (and, as I’ve suggested, expensive) pictures.

So, is this all just a mess or mish-mash? No, quite the contrary. The compilation / authorship of all this material over a period of time signifies that that someone or some people found this material important enough to preserve and expand. Time and money has gone into producing an extensive manual with additional expensive pictures. And to possibly state the obvious, the reader of the period(s) concerned was not interested in recreating a style of the time, but instead to record and maintain practical instructions for swordplay, be it part of a formal education or personal defence. They were arguably not looking to ‘do’ the style of The Book of Lessons, but the principles of how to fence. That this may well be a Spaniard compiling Italian and other techniques into French should, I hope, raise challenges to some of the preconceptions possibly held about who fenced and in what manner.

Conclusion

For me, The Book of Lessons is a fascinating book, packed with valuable lessons and beautiful pictures. It’s taken a lot of work to translate and publish with help and advice from many people inside and out of the HEMA community. I have endeavoured to thank those people, along with providing a fuller interpretation of the text in the book itself. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, please go to http://www.fallenrookpublishing.co.uk/books/book-of-lessons/

Comments 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *