How to Interpret

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Richard Marsden
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How to Interpret

Postby Richard Marsden » Tue Feb 28, 2017 7:49 am

HEMA is not like most martial arts. We have sources, yet we are far removed from them. The sources are oft times incomplete or vague. What to do has been the challenge we have all have faced over the years. As more come into the field of HEMA I'd like to give the new folks a glimpse into how to interpret. Recently, Tracy Mellow went through this in connecting Fiore plays together. I will be looking at how to interpret a particular play.

(Tracy's Connecting the Dots - )

We'll be looking at one dagger play from Fiore, the First Dagger Master. Thanks to Wiktenauer, much of the legwork has been done for us.'i_Liberi

First = We have four separate sources that all depict the same technique. This is beneficial in that we can compare and contrast them. In the case of the First Dagger Master, we have 3 of the 4 sources depicting the master.


Second = We can see things that are similar, circled in red. The crown, the position of the left hand and the grip. Note the word similar is used and not identical. Because each is drawn by a different artist it can be easy to get lost in minor differences which may in fact be artistic choices.

Third = We can see things that are dissimilar, circled in blue. In this case I focused on the position of the foot. The Getty and Paris are similar, but the Pisani Dossi is clearly not.

It is up to you how many similarities and differences you want to point out.

Fourth = We look at various translations from the available sources.

I am the First Master of the Dagger, full of guile,
And with my left hand I will wind the dagger around your arm,
And truth to tell I can make many other plays,
And my students will do them cunningly. (Getty, trans. Collin Hatcher)

I am the first master and I am called Remedy, because I know how to remedy so well that you cannot harm me whereas I on the contrary can strike you and hurt you. And I cannot make a better play against you than to make your dagger go to the ground, by turning my hand to the left. (Pisani Dossi, trans. Collin Hatcher)

I myself am called the first protected master of the dagger, and I anticipate to raise the dagger with my left hand. (Paris, trans. Benjamin Winnick)

Looking at these sources, we can compare and contrast them. As with the images, similarities and differences are sought. Just like artists can be different, so too can translators. You can always seek out a different translator and see if their work alters how you interpret a play.

In the case of the above we'll just stick with the translators I provided and compare the texts.

And with my left hand I will wind the dagger around your arm

And I cannot make a better play against you than to make your dagger go to the ground, by turning my hand to the left.

I anticipate to raise the dagger with my left hand.

Taking just the action from the text we are left with brief instructions, but we can then combine them with the images for a basic interpretation. We can also look at the other text later to see what clues it offers to follow up actions.

I stop the dagger with my left hand.
I can wind my hand to move the dagger.
I can possibly disarm the opponent by turning my hand to the left.

I look at the pictures and see the grip. All the grips are with the left hand and the thumb pointed down. When the grab is made it is easy to turn the hand left so the thumb is then pointed up. The dagger (which is pointed and not an edged modern knife) is braced against the forearm. Hmmm...

Fifth = We are well on our way to figuring this play out. We have images, text and a narrative. How to do it? Experimentation is key! You can try it and film it.
Here, Russel Mackler of Vinas Arnis experiments with numerous ways to do this play- then picks his favorite. He was told that each interpretation has to fit the pictures and text, to the point he could make an argument for it. He gleefully did this. After you post your video, people will like it, hate it, and occasionally others will show their videos so you can see how they interpret a play.

Now we have

1 Numerous sources
2 Images from the sources to Compare
3 Images from the sources to Contrast
4 Text to Compare including translator choices
5 Experimentation

You can take all of this further. An example is drilling. Here I explain a way to do that. These drills can be mildly, or deeply competitive to better test your interpretations out.

Now, there is even more to do. Fiore re-uses plays throughout his manuscript. It is possible to then learn more about the play in question by looking at other techniques. In particular, The Sword in One hand section has a play to look at.


Once more we can go through the process of comparing images, texts and translations and once more try to test our theories out, this time using the sword in one hand. We can go through the whole process again and in this way have a deeper understanding of the technique.

Instructors and students alike generally go through the above process to come up with their interpretations. They can also layer on modern concepts, such as bio-mechanics, sport, or put an emphasis on sparring, or perhaps on mimicking a given source exactly. Reviving a dead martial art is rarely clean and tidy and you can expect challenges as others have their own interpretations and will defend them. Use your brain! Adopt what you find to work, ignore what does not, take advice or ignore it. The above is just a snapshot of the work ahead of you, and I didn't go too deep into the weeds, but I think you can get started! Welcome to HEMA where research and weapons collide.

Good luck on your understanding of the source material!

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Polish Saber Book ... 771654/ref

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