Posted October 10th, 2012 at 1:20 am
Historical novels and films are bedeviled by historical pedants (like me) whose enjoyment of the drama can be completely ruined by small errors of fact or interpretation. I am often asked to recommend a film with “good medieval swordfighting” in it, and frankly, there aren’t any (yet). I first came across Miles’s books when a swordmaker friend, and a historical pedant of the first water, handed me his copy of Tyrant saying:
“Here, read this. He actually gets the battle scenes right”
I was skeptical at first, but was blown away by the feeling that the writer had spent serious time in armour, and on horseback, and had swung a sword till his arm was about to drop off. I have been a fan of Mile’s work ever since.
I teach historical swordsmanship full time, my primary focus being an early 15th century Italian work called Il Fior di Battaglia (the Flower of Battle) by Fiore dei Liberi (whose name means “Flower of the Free”). My job is essentially to study the manual, figure out exactly what is going on, and create a training system so that modern lovers of the sword can practice an authentic historical European martial art. Every blow, guard, and technique can be traced to the source. Miles came across my first book on the subject, liked it and started a correspondence with me that lead to his coming to Helsinki to train in medieval Italian swordsmanship. We two historical pedants got on like a house on fire. What marks Miles’s work out is the physical practice he does to understand the period about which he is writing. He wears the clothes, eats the food, drinks the wine (such devotion!), and trains in the combat systems to the very best of our current knowledge.
Fiction only works when the people in it behave like real people, and fantasy only works well when grounded in some kind of authentic reality. Tolkein’s mastery of languages gave depth to the Lord of the Rings; Miles’s wearing of armour for hours on end gives that sense of authenticity to his descriptions of his characters sweating and suffering in theirs. This is not a historical novel, but it draws its depth from Miles’s immersion in medieval culture, and especially medieval swordsmanship.
It is frankly a relief to read a work where the historical record of combat styles and systems is given as much respect as the historical record of clothing or great events. Here, armour works. Of course it does. Why else spend a fortune on it, and suffer the discomfort of it, if the enemy’s blade just slices through? Here, warriors were trained, not just in the rudiments of swinging a weapon, but in the arts of their time: fighting was part of a greater educational whole, and memorised with the same techniques. The memory palaces that the main characters use are clearly drawn from the records of medieval memory training. This book is peppered with detail that will not distract the general reader but will delight the informed, such as sword guards from the Flower of Battle, or references to armour that could place these characters in a specific period. My favourite is the “greatest knight in world”, Jean de Vrailly, being a delusional psychopath. Chivalry was not one uniform code bu
t varied from place to place, practitioner to practitioner. The king embodies one sort; the Captal de Ruth another. Both would find a home, and renown, in fourteenth century Europe. One can even guess at historical models on which they may have been based.
Readers interested in the specifics of the martial arts as practised by these characters and their historical counterparts can find in-depth descriptions and guides to training in my Mastering the Art of Arms series, especially volumes one and two (“The Dagger”, and “Longsword Fundamentals”). To get an idea of how these arts are a part of their parent culture, consider the names of the guards as Miles uses them. Iron door. Woman. Window. They make no sense at all. What is womanish about having the sword on your shoulder hauled back to swipe someone’s head off? Until you realize that these are not descriptive of the function of the guards, but their position on the body, and that only in relation to the Christianity’s model of Heaven, Earth and Hell. (This theory was first put forward by Fiore researcher Bob Charron in a seminar in 2005.) Up above, we have the guards woman, window and crown. The woman in the window is Mary Magdalene, the woman in the crown is the Virgin Mary. The pilgrim walks one of two roads: the short road to hell, or the long road to heaven. The short guard is held low, the long guard is extended up and forwards. The devil waits on the road to heaven, to trick the pilgrim: the two-horned guard lies between the short guard and the long. Down below, we have the gates of hell (the middle and full iron gates guards). Behind these gates lurks a beast with great teeth (the guard of the wild boar’s tusk) and a tail (the long tail guard). For any traditional Christian, this is an excellent system for remembering the guards: for most of my students, it’s not very helpful at all!
Guy Windsor has a uniquely broad training in Western swordsmanship, and has conducted research into most of the recorded swordsmanship styles between 1300 and 1800. He is the founder of The School of European Swordsmanship which has branches all over Finland, as well as sister schools in Sweden and Singapore. A summary of the primary weapons and systems covered at the school can be found here, and the detailed syllabus here.