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Ancient martial arts are dead and beyond recovery. Anyone who wishes to learn a method for using ancient weapons effectively must study an art originating within the last thousand years before looking at the scraps of literature and painting and sculpture which give us some hint to how Assyrians or Romans fought. We are extraordinarily lucky to have a series of European fencing manuals running back to circa 1300, and over the past decades these sources have attracted researchers willing to face the formidable scholarly, epistemological, and physical challenges of interpreting them. In Italian Longsword Guards: Comparing Vadi’s Guards with Fiore and Marozzo Guy Windsor makes a first attempt at one of these problems: the relationship between guards for the sword in two hands in the oldest known Italian writers who describe that weapon, namely Fiore dei Liberi (wrote circa 1404-1410), Philippo Vadi (wrote circa 1482-1485), and Achille Marozzo (first edition printed 1536). Vadi’s verse manual contains many names and phrases which resemble Fiore’s words, but also significant differences.

In this booklet Guy goes through Vadi’s guards one by one, discussing Vadi’s comments on them then looking for parallels in other traditions. He mentions textual problems (such as the difficulty of interpreting the line Ciascun di vvii lato si dimostre) and compares both the pictures and the accompanying text in different manuals. Some guards are brushed over in a single double page, while others receive more space. The inclusion of the Italian is a welcome feature, since many translators of early fighting manuals leave the original language out. Many people have enough French or Latin to get something from Vadi’s words without being able to read his whole book.

My general impression is that Vadi is his own man, teaching a few guards which resemble Fiore’s or Marozzo’s but many more which do not. This is not surprising, given how few technical works on fencing from the 15th century survive, many insisting that they teach things which are different from what most fighters do. Vadi’s posta di vera finestra, for example, resembles a position which is commonly seen in 14th and 15th century depictions of battles, duels, and executions. In this guard the right shoulder and elbow are back, the right hand is at the level of the forehead, and the sword point is directed up and to the left ready to dip into an overhand thrust or turn into a forehand cut. While Vadi’s manuscript seems to be the only one which teaches this guard, and he with a two-handed weapon, it may have been taught by most teachers in the later middle ages. When only a few texts survive, it is dangerous to assume that they are ‘typical.’

Since Vadi’s style is idiosyncratic, and his verses brief and unclear, I would have liked to see more of Guy’s experiences playing with Vadi’s guards. Experiment might reveal how they can be best used, both in terms of body mechanics and in terms of tactics. Guy has written a new translation of Vadi’s manuscript and is working on an interpretation, but I have not seen either. I cannot make sense of Vadi’s writings, or see how a working fighting system could be reconstructed from his brief and cryptic words, but I admire those who try. Playing with old weapons is cracking good fun, and has inspired a marvelous range of people to great physical and mental efforts.

I should say that I know Guy personally, and have trained with him on several occasions, and that being an impecunious student, I am taking advantage of his offer to trade ebooks for reviews.