HEMA Research: false truths and wishful thinking

The following is a transcript of my lecture on research, presented at WMAW 2017

Ostensibly, this lecture looks at the research aims of my PhD thesis, namely ‘Fencing Instruction and Practice in the Entourage of the Dauphin and Beyond; the Influence of the Bolognese Fencer, Girolamo Cavalcabo’. Indeed, I hope to engage you with what I, at least, find to be a fascinating topic. However, I want to talk about the journey that got me to this point of study and add some commentary on where I feel HEMA research is at today. Fear not, this will not be an exposition clad in sackcloth and ashes, but I do feel that my experience does reflect some of the current situation in HEMA.

Cavalcabo was, for me an afterthought. I had originally encountered the work when translating Francois Dancie’s treatises. My colleague and co-translator, Thibault Ghesquiere, recommended it to me as useful translation practise, as the French was quite straight-forward. I glanced through and asked around and learned it was a brief rapier treatise by someone who’d taught a French king. Disinterested, I returned to concentrating on Dancie.

I returned to Cavalcabo when I began to wonder why there were so few treatises from France for the beginning of the seventeenth century (taking into account the ravages of time, revolution and mice on documentary evidence). I knew that Dancie mentioned Cavalcabo and his son, and I had started to form questions about why this fencer was so famous in his time and yet seemingly held so little interest for modern practitioners. I sat down and read the treatise.

It is important to note that, while I am known for work with ‘rapier’ and offhand weapons, I had started my HEMA career studying Bolognese forms. Mainly Manciolino sprinkled with some Marozzo to begin with, but, as I progressed, I became very interested by Dall’Aggochie’s work of 1572. Working through Cavalcabo – and aware he was of the Bolognese ‘school’ – I became increasingly excited that this treatise of 1595 (c.1597 in French) shared much of the principles of Dall’Aggochie’s work. Was this therefore a sidesword treatise? Was this transitional? Was Dall’Aggochie therefore not the ‘last of the Bolognese’, as some in HEMA termed him? I’ll touch on these questions at the end of this lecture, but I’ll say some points now: beware of modern usage of terms like ‘sidesword’ and ‘rapier’, especially when the treatises use a different term (‘sword’). Beware of looking for endings… and beginnings.

Questions began to burgeon. Why was this man chosen to teach the future Louis XIII

Louis XIII in c.1620

and his brother Gaston D’Orleans, the children of the infamous Henri of Navarre? Did the tutor influence more than his student: was the style (if a style could be really identified through comparison) influential outside the court? What were the lessons like? What was the context? I was, albeit inadvertently, deepening my appreciation of fencing within the society.

Let’s have a quick look at some of the personalities. Firstly, Cavalcabo. We know he taught in Rome in the Salle of Paternostrier, a famed fencer who was mentioned by Brantome. At some point Sieur Villamont translated his treatise into French, as well as some short lessons from Paternostrier: this was first done (we believe) in 1597, and later reprinted several times in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, indicating popularity. It was translated in German in 1611 (Germans often went to Paris to learn to fence; the French travelled to Milan and Rome and other Italian cities. I am unaware whether Italians travelled to Germany – make of this what you will!). How Cavalcabo came to teach the Dauphin is unclear: Einsidell says Villamont was Cavalcabo’s student, but beyond that I have found nothing to say how he came to the attention of the French Court.

Interesting to note, there are two examples of the Italian manuscript: one at the BNF, the other held at the Vatican (though I do not have provenance for the latter). There are minor differences between them and indeed with the French translation. Further the Italian ‘originals’ lack any obvious content from Paternostrier.

Cavalcabo’s method appears to have been influenced by the Roman or ‘Agrippan’ style of swordplay, with its

Cavalcabo, as depicted in the 1611 German translation

reduction of guards to four based around the plane of the sword blade rather than the stance as a whole; the Bolognese system in its earlier forms would name a different guard for the position of the arm and / or legs, though later authors attempted to simplify terminology. It may be surmised that the stances described in Patenostier were used by Cavalcabo, but the text itself gives no indication. However, the description of the guards, especially third and fourth, point to Bolognese origins. Nevertheless, without wider context, it is difficult and perhaps superfluous to read too much of ‘origins’ into the text. The lack of detailed description of the postures (nothing for the feet for example) may indicate either sidesword or rapier styles in the techniques. Indeed, care should be taken in assuming there is any discernible split in weapon form during this period, or conversely that only a single type of sword may be used with this treatise.

While a traditional style may not be apparent, Cavalcabo does make plain which areas of fencing concern him more than others. The guards, measure and tempi are all defined succinctly; emphasis is instead made on how to fence against certain types of opponents, including left handers. Cavalcabo prefers to wait for an opponent or to draw them into attack, believing that the fencer ‘inconveniences’ or disorders the body in attack, while not at all in defence.

Returning to the wider history, at some point, Cavalcabo travels to Paris to teach the young Louis. (slides 5 and 6) Lessons are mentioned by the Dauphin’s physician, Heroard, in his extensive diary of Louis’ childhood.

Jean Heroard, Louis’ physician and biographer

Unfortunately, most of the available versions of this diary are abridged and Cavalcabo’s lessons disappear after 1611. Whether this is because the lessons cease or that Heroard’s nineteenth century editors prefer to concentrate on other things is unknown. These editors reduced the diaries from six volumes to two and I will have to spend time in Paris pouring through the originals. If you’ll forgive the digression, we should realise that we are still under the shadow of ‘Victorian’ historians (though we should not be dismissive; after all, they laid the groundwork in many ways). Though within HEMA we are broadly aware of their shortcomings as well as generalised assessments made by non fencers. However, within other historical disciplines the limitations are not so fully understood and inaccurate perceptions continue. Jennifer Low’s book ‘Manhood and the Duel’ (2003) provides an interesting perspective on views of physical space and masculinity as defined in plays, using comparisons with fencing manuals. However, her thesis is fundamentally flawed as her assumption is that fencing of the sixteenth century onwards is a form distinct from the sword fighting of previous years. For example, she writes:

‘In Chapter Two, I examine the spatial assumptions inherent in the art of fence and consider how that discipline enabled young men to develop a sense of bodily control denied to the swordfighters of the past. Fencers were distinguished from other swordfighters by their use of the rapier, or epée, a weapon developed in Spain or Italy in the late fifteenth century as the result of improved techniques of steel-forging (Turner and Soper 5-8). The rapier blade is much thinner than that of the sword, “a weapon intended for cutting or slashing, and heavy enough to cut off an arm or a leg” (Turner and Soper xvi, xxii). With the advent of the rapier… the combat became an entirely different undertaking. Although, as the Elizabethan swordsman George Silver points out, the rapier is useless against heavier weapons (30-3), in a fight between two rapier-fencers the victory is no longer decided by physical strength or stamina. Footwork and warding protect the fencer than a buckler or shield… Thus, skill and nimbleness can override brute force. This new kind of fighting increased in fashion until the older weapons passed out of fashion…’ [I have highlighted the main areas for contention in bold, though readers will note others]

Now, we can observe many flaws in just this one passage, but it should be noted that Low has done her reading and cites widely. The problem is that the analyses on which she is working are themselves flawed and, without detailed study outside of her discipline, she and other academics are unlikely to realise this. This is a hard warning for those of us who wish to research that assumptions are pervasive and insidious.

Back to Louis, we find the prince was keen on his martial lessons, and eager to emulate his father. He is even noted as stabbing Cavalcabo in his eye while having his foot corrected. An interesting aside on this is Dancie’s warning in 1623 to ‘guard the eyes’ ; this is mentioned by Etienne Binet, the King’s preacher, who wrote a book in etiquette in 1621 under the pseudonym René François. In it he says:

When we present ourselves in the hall, we ask, “Monsieur, do you want to do?” or “ do you want to do assault”, which mean do you want to draw weapons. Then picking up and uncrossing the weapons, we say “Messieurs keep the eyes” which means we mutually defend to hit to the face. If by misfortune the hit goes wide and we lend it to the face, right away we put the weapons down, and come to embrace the one who received the hit, and ask him to forgive the hazard.

So, was Louis expected to fence as Binet describes? Indeed, was Binet influenced by or an influencer of Louis’ education? Was Louis ever taught to strike the face or was he taught when the time was appropriate?

Fencing certainly sunk into Louis’ psyche as he grew into manhood. While he is better known from his description from Dumas, his character was one of a soldier and he led his armies bravely and often from the front. He was a time passionate and would drive himself into exhaustion when hunting, one of the few ways in which he could vent his frustration. His fame for subjugation by Richilieu has been seen as overstated by modern historians, some going as far as to suggest this is a gross misrepresentation. Louis was a man caught by his sense of royal duty, as seen by his attempts to supress the duel. However, this suppression should be seen in context. Duelling in France was not simply a craze: it was part of a wider plague of feuding based around social mobility and honour, of which ritualised violence was one facet (and ritualization of violence should possibly be seen as an attempt to regain control). Louis was born in a time of continuing religious and factional warfare and was attempting to reassert authority. His persecution of duellists was arguably against those who flaunted duelling in the face of royal authority. However, this did not denote a rejection of the duelling principle or indeed swordplay; in personal messages of support to Richilieu he states he will be his second. Indeed, I wonder whether he wished he could duel, though he was probably prohibited by being a Prince of the Blood and that, in generally accepted duelling etiquette, he could never fence someone his social inferior, which, as the king, meant everyone. How frustrating was it to be taught to fence and yet never able to pursue this means of venting his anger?

Gaston D’Orleans

As for Girolamo Cavalcabo, research to date sees him disappear after 1611, though investigation of the six full volumes of Heroard’s diary as well as court records may bear more fruit. However, this is not the end of the Cavalcabos: Girolamo’s son, César, is mentioned as holding a position at Court until 1642. César is also recorded as present at a wedding in 1617; the reference confirms him as a master of arms and as ‘maintained by the King to teach him fencing’. This, then raises the possibility of a teaching dynasty. However, the Cavalcabos are not maintained as masters after 1642, the year before Louis’s death. But, Cesar is mentioned in a note on the effects of Gaston D’Orleans, the King’s brother (Slide8). This records Cesar as being in Gaston’s employ in the 1630s. This raises all sorts of questions, especially as Gaston repeatedly fell out with his brother and would flee France, often to Brussels to seek sanctuary with his exiled mother, Marie De Madici. Did Gaston take his entourage with him and was César a member?

It is around this time that the treatise ‘Livre Des Leçons’ was compiled; certainly the fashion displayed in the pictures is datable to this period. The authorship is attributed to Pedro De Heredia,  a captain of horse and governor of Brussels.  However,  to my knowledge,  there is no concrete evidence of authorship, simply a note made by a librarian in 1900. The ‘introduction’ contains repetition of part of  Gerolamo  cavalcabo’s work, but with some adaptation, yet the main of the text does not appear to follow Cavalcabo’s definitions. So why include it? Did something influence the inclusion? And the pictures: carefully  and expensively  produced by a wealthy patron and for whom? As you’re probably realising, I wonder if the appearance of this text is connected  the possibility of César Cavalcabo being in Brussels.

De Heredia Translations

Four images from Livre Des Leçons

Which is appalling speculation, with no evidence whatsoever. It’s very easy to jump to conclusions when faced with possibilities.  Unfortunately,  this would not be out of keeping with some research that still pervades HEMA and indeed other disciplines. We are still obsessed with seeing traditions (and their end) as well as typologies; we are eager to see a teleology. We can also miss small gems in search of our big ideas. For example, Thibault and I were discussing Marc De la Beraudiere’s book on duelling from 1608. I was considering how influential this piece was in terms of the wider society. Thib pointed out that Beraudiere mentions the French used shell guards on their daggers. While I was floundering for a wider meaning, Thib had very neatly identified a form of dagger was in use in France early than I had previously realised.

What I’m finding in HEMA research is that we often lack context, but perhaps of more concern, that we demand answers without enjoying exploration of the questions. It’s good to look deep, but we can also be broad. Certainly,  in my limited research to date, the unanswered questions have broadened my approach and understanding  in so doing this has changed the questions or deepened them. Let’s review some of the questions I have for my research:

These were the original, core historical questions

  1. How was Louis taught to fence?
  2. How did this compare with other forms of tuition (e.g. dance, riding, etc?)
  3. To what extent did this influence the nobility and wider society?
  4. What interaction occurred with other fencing masters?

and, of course, the HEMA question:

  1. Did Cavalcabo produce a distinct style; is there a tradition?

These form the ‘grand questions’ of the thesis, though the HEMA question may be a trap if I seek to read in too much.

Added to these are the more ‘personal’ questions:

  1. How was Cavalcabo introduced to the French Court?
  2. Was there any relationship with Marie de Medici?
  3. What was César’s role?
  4. How did Louis feel about never fighting a duel?

And no doubt more questions will arrive.

Are all these research questions necessary to understand fencing? I would argue that depends on what one wants in order to fence. To be proficient in sparring, perhaps not. However, to be proficient in HEMA sparring, I would argue yes. The study of a martial form, correct to its intended application, requires context. Further, the intent of the engagement varies according to the context in which it occurs. Given that as a subculture we define ourselves more generally as studying ‘HEMA’ (as opposed to the less common ‘WMA’), one would hope we have some interest in linking to the history. If we do not, we are likely to fall victim to assumption.

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