Capwell — The Noble Art of the Sword (Mondschein)

Tobias Capwell

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe

London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2012. 264 pp., 150 illustrations. GB£30/US$60. ISBN 978 0 900785 43 6

Wallace Collection curator Tobias Capwell’s gorgeous and well-conceived The Noble Art of the Sword simultaneously fills two needs: first, it is an exhibition catalog for the Wallace’s 2012 exhibition of the same title, which coincided with the London Olympic Games; second, it serves as a collection of scholarly essays on the history and place of the early modern fighting-book in the canon of sources. The previous major English-language work on the subject was Sydney Anglo’s Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press, 2000), but of course one monograph does not a literature make, and specialist works such as the very useful and physically beautiful books produced by Freelance Academy Press tend to focus more on translations and physical interpretation and less on context. Here, however, essays by Peter Johnsson, Sydney Anglo, Jeffrey Forgeng, Silvio Leydi, Jutta Charlotte von Bloh, Noel Fallows, and Joshua Pendragon firmly place the physical objects in their social, cultural, intellectual, and literary milieu. In this, it follows the lead set by such works as Kate Van Orden’s Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Fallows’ own Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia (Boydell & Brewer, 2011).

This is not only a critical step in understanding these artifacts, but a valuable lesson to historians and curators alike: While most examples of arms and armor preserved and displayed in art museums are displayed as objets d’art, they are but exemplars of an entire class of objects meant to be used.  To write about them without understanding this use is similar to writing a discourse on the decoration of early eighteenth-century German organs without ever mentioning, having any knowledge of, not only of say, Bach’s organ works, but indeed of how a keyboard instrument is played.

In the first part of the book, Capwell details the exhibition itself, giving equal weight to weapons, depictive art such as prints, and fencing books. Beginning with the medieval tradition, he then turns to the origins of the rapier and its spread through Europe,[1] with special weight, quite cognate with his interest in native armor styles, given to the rapier in England. Capwell also talks about the practice of fencing and how it is intimately tied up with class and status. The whole is balanced, accurate, and, as to be expected, enlivened by numerous illustrations.

The second part of the book contains essays by the other authors. The first of these, by sword-maker Peter Johnsson, is also perhaps the most unique. Johnsson examines the design of medieval swords, making a powerful argument that they were constructed along a geometrical and proportional plan, much as cathedrals were. Johnsson is careful to link this to contemporary ideas of architecture and design, and his arguments are powerful, if not all-convincing. Obviously, a much larger study would be needed than the three weapons he examines in his essay, and one can, of course create geometrical associations from many seemingly random proportions. A large sample of repeating patterns across many weapons would be a good follow-up to this intriguing essay.

Sydney Anglo’s essay on collaboration between authors of fencing books and their illustrators, and the centrality of geometrical illustration to such works, comes after Johnsson’s discussion of the physical objects themselves. Here, Anglo seems to have moved away from his dismissal in Martial Arts of Europe when he said, speaking of the same subject:

There can be no doubt that the application of mathematics and engineering knowledge could facilitate the abstract analysis of movement: but, when applied to fencing practice, such analysis degenerated into reduction ad absurdum. All these mathematical approaches to fencing were based upon three serious fallacies. In the first place, they assumed that analysis of movement is identical with its notation, whereas analysis follows rather than precedes an activity. Second, they assumed that, in order to perform any movement effectively, it is necessary to understand the scientific principles underlying it…. Third, they fundamentally misunderstood the real nature of the movements they sought to notate. They regarded fencing as a kind of dance…[2]

In this more recent essay, Anglo has deepened and complicated his understanding:

[Figures in combat manuals] were not an attempt to notate complete combats—not even of the past, let alone of the wholly unpredictable future—for, unlike a ballet, serious personal combat is not susceptible to choreography and there can never be a method whereby it might be made so. But illustrations could—and indeed still do—convey essential moments, or even several sequential moments, so that the reader’s mind, informed by an intelligent text and practical demonstration, is able to supply crucial links between ideas an action. (p.153)

This harmonizes well with what Forgeng says, speaking of the German sources, in the following essay:

Ultimately, it would be more plausible to see the Fechtbücher as vehicles for thinking about the art than as instruments for learning it. The texts offer a variety of cognitive structures that might help a practitioner to conceptualize and reflect on their practice…. We must not, however, mistake theoretical knowledge for practical skill…. knowing the ‘theory’ of combat… has little to do with the actual outcome of a fight. (p. 171)[3]

Rather than seeing the Fechtbuch as a “fencing manual,” Forgeng rather says that one can not understand these works without first understanding fencing, and instead deals with the fencing book as an object of consumption and desire vis-à-vis fencing itself being an object of consumption and desire. This complicates B. Ann Tlusty’s observations in her Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany that fencing in general took a back seat to shooting sports, and points to the claiming of the “martial ethic” as a major concern in the Reformation-era Empire.[4]

In the next essay, Silvio Leydi looks at swordsmiths in Milan and argues that in order to understand the fabulous work of these craftsmen, we need to understand their social and family networks, which he then predominantly reconstructs from legal documents. The result is a very interesting study that places these objects and their creators in their proper context. Leydi thus gives us additional insight into the place of the craftsman in Renaissance Italy. Similarly, Jutta Charlotte von Bloh traces changes in fashion and society with the rise of the rapier in the armory of the Prince-Electors of Saxony. Such weapons were often associated with specific events, either given as gifts or created as accessories for particular costumes. The presence of these objects shows another way the rapier was “used”: to denote class, taste, fashion, and status. Similarly, the idea of scientific self-defense and its associated mentalities as epitomized by Camillo Agrippa made inroads north of the Alps.

Speaking of the reduction of fencing to points, lines, and tempi, Noel Fallows, whose previously-mentioned Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia has sent the benchmark for studies integrating the martial–performative and the social, handles the Spanish masters, whose intricate geometrical and Aristotelian conception of fencing has been the subject of as much myth as accurate analysis. Fallows’ examination of these complex texts, beginning with Jeronimo de Carranza’s treatise of 1569 (published in 1582), doesn’t add very much new to the discussion, but he shows an excellent mastery of a very difficult and little-understood subject. Fallows also adds valuable context on the increasingly legalistic nature of Spanish society with his discussion of Sancho de Londoño. In all, Fallows’ essay is an excellent overview, but we will have to await the publication of Mary Curtis’ dissertation on Carranza and his heirs for a really in-depth look into the very literary and intertextual nature of the Spanish school of fencing.

Lastly, the first modern revivalists of historical European martial arts, and their relationship to collectors of arms and armor, form the subject of Joshua Pendragon’s extremely fun essay that ends the collection. Pendragon looks at the fate of the famed library of the French fencing master Arsène Vigeant, which was acquired after the former’s death by the 8th Lord Howard de Walden and rediscovered by the British collector Malcolm Fare.[5] It is the academic equivalent of a mystery story, showing the surprising turns by which precious objects and texts from the past are preserved to be examined by modern scholars.

In all, The Noble Art of the Sword is an extraordinarily satisfying work that not only merely contextualizes museum pieces, but significantly advances the discourse on early modern fencing books and their place in the literary canon. It is a model that should be followed amongst curators, and marks the moment when historical fencing, as an academic field of study, has fully arrived as a discipline with the power to explain the world to audiences both scholarly and lay.


[1] Dr. Capwell here cites my translation of Camillo Agrippa extensively, which spares me the trouble of having to cram a 15.2-hand Andalusian warhorse into an overhead luggage compartment as threatened in my previous review (see n.1)

[2] Anglo, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven, 2001), pp. 89–90.

[3] In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that Jeffrey Forgeng had been my fencing student at the Higgins for the past four years, and so it is inevitable that there would be a convergence in our thinking.

[4] B. Ann Tlulsty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Chapter 7 passim.

[5] Who, in a case of things coming full circle, supplied the images for my translation of Agrippa.

Ken Mondschein, PhD, Prevot d’Escrime

Higgins Armory Museum / American International College / Westfield State University — <>

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