Hello! My name is Lisa, and I have been practicing HEMA (mostly Italian longsword) for about 2 years.
This post is a personal collection of books I have read about martial arts, swordsmanship, and the dynamics of real-world violence. Although a good portion of them deal with HEMA (in one capacity or the other), HEMA is often not the primary focus. If I had to pick a purpose for this collection, it would be to present an expanded, global and heterogeneous view of the Art the way the ancient masters would have intended: the Art of a fighter, from the soldier who wields a sword on the battlefield, to the countless of people who have fought on the street for their own survival since the dawn of time.
Each one of the books I present here contributed to make me feel a bit more like a student of that Art. I hope I will be able to transmit this feeling to you as well.
We can let my ancient master, Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale, speak his mind on this topic:
Anchora digo che nessuno di miei scolari in speciale li sopradetti non ave may libro in l’arte de combattere altro che Misser Galeazo da Mantva. Ben ch’ello diseva che sença libri non sarà çamay nissuno bon magistro nè scolaro in questa’arte. E io fior lo confermo però che quest’arte è sì longa che lo non è al mondo homo de sì granda memoria che podesse tenere a mente sença libri la quarta parte di quest’arte.
“Also I say that none of my students, especially the aforementioned ones, ever had any book on the art of fighting, except for Messer Galeazo of Mantova. Well did he say that without books nobody could ever be a good master or good student of this art. I, Fiore, I confirm this: this art is so long that no man in the world can have such a large memory to even remember a quarter of this art without books.”
 Getty manuscript
Guy Windsor’s “The Swordsman’s Companion”
Guy Windsor himself needs no introduction of course! This book is meant to be your “companion” in the journey to learn Italian longsword fencing. Most of the space is taken up by descriptions and pictures of several drills, inspired by Fiore’s plays and Guy’s personal experience. At the end you can find some suggestions on how to combine them together into a training programme.
As with all of Guy’s material, prepare to learn a lot about the historical context of Fiore’s work (did you know that in the Middle Ages people believed the lynx to be a species of wolf?)
However my favourite part was the introduction, where he gives some general guidance on what types of students he has seen out there, and what self-defeating attitudes he has encountered more often: fear of failure, desire to win, frustration at plateaus. I was very lucky to have read this book at a time when I felt all of those things with particular force: my frustration had reached such peak levels, it was getting in the way of me having fun in this sport. Simply put, that book said all the things I needed to hear, and catapulted me out of the self-defeating mindset. I am definitely a better fencer because of it. I hope it will have the same positive effect for you, if you are finding yourself in the same spot.
Thomas Hoyer Monstery and Ben Miller’s “Self Defence for Gentlemen and Ladies: A Nineteenth-Century Treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff”
All right, have you seen the cover of this book? How could you not read what a guy who manages such an impressive mustache and swagger has to say?
What intrigued me was the reconstruction of Monstery’s life story by Ben Miller. Travel back to the last decades of the 19th century. From an early start in the army, to years as a mercenary soldier in Central and South America, to his “retirement” in Washington DC as a popular fencing master and self-defence instructor, I am sure Mr. Monstery has never been bored a single day in his life. After becoming an instructor, he was asked to write a series of articles for the Washington Post. These articles, reproduced in his book (including pictures), cover a basic introduction to his style; they cover unarmed pugilism, self-defence with everyday objects (walking cane or lady’s umbrellas), and fighting with quarterstaffs.
At some point, he recommends what he believes to be the best workout to improve your fitness alongside fencing: swimming! I am a swimmer and the very opposite of a gym person, so I don’t know if he is right or not, he is an alright dude in my book already. (His actual reasoning is that he’s seen a lot of athletes become very good at gymnastics, and then get easily injured, especially in old age. Not surprising for the times).
Another cool aspect of this whole story is that Monstery had no problem teaching fencing and self-defence to ladies, and he praises women’s fencing abilities in one of his articles. Why does it matter, you might ask? There is not a specific reason, but you know, it’s nice to find out that “women fencers” are not such a recent phenomenon as one might think when starting in this sport. We come from an old tradition!
Anyway, one of his students was Ella Hattan, who acquired fame on her own as a swordswoman and travelled all around America and Europe challenging local champions to duels.
Rory Miller’s “Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence”.
Ah, we come to the must-have of any martial art library.
Rory Miller has practiced a few martial arts, but more notably, has worked in police enforcement for many years. This led him to write this book on the differences between the type of violence you normally train for in a martial arts club and what he has encountered in the real world.
The crux of the comparison is that most martial arts that are meant primarily as sports (karate, judo, etc…) do not prepare students for the sudden escalation and unpredictability of a real fight. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do them, since they are fun, good for body and mind, and are usually not completely useless. However, additional preparation - both physical and mental - is required if we ever want to be able to apply them in real life.
He goes on to describe real fights in great details: the preparation (his “monkey dance” is probably a famous expression by now), adrenaline releases, gender differences, aftermath. Everything you can think of.
I don’t think that listing the topics is going to do justice to the book, so I’ll stop doing that. It had a rather profound impact on me at the time; mostly, it gives you a deep insight into a world that we all hear about, but that many of us don’t come in contact with (thankfully). It puts you right in front of those uncomfortable thoughts and ethical choices we’d rather not think about. But thinking about them is a necessary step, sooner or later. And as he says, better to do it in a relaxed moment, with all the time in the world, than in the street while sketchy characters are approaching you.
Tody Beck’s “The armored rose”
I discovered this book thanks to Rory Miller’s, which references it.
Tody Beck is an American woman who has fought armoured combat in the SCA for many years. On the side, she has also been in the army. This relatively short book deals specifically with the physiological and psychological difficulties of women fighting predominantly male opponents, and in my opinion, provides some interesting insights both for women looking to fight in the SCA or in HEMA open tournaments, and for male instructors of martial arts teaching women.
The physical part is rather SCA specific: it talks about the difficulties of adapting standard armor pieces to the typical female form, and with how the different female anatomy gets in the way of learning basic techniques employed with SCA rattan one-handed swords. However, if you gloss over the technicalities, there are a few concepts that can be translated to other styles.
The psychological part easily applies to any martial art. She talks about how she started in the SCA decades ago, when the men-to-women ratio was even more skewed than nowadays, and the pressure of proving herself a worthy fighter. The disappointment she would feel at other women for not living up to her higher bar and therefore getting in the way of her struggle…let me tell you, that brought back some uncomfortable memories for me. Thankfully for everybody, I had shut off that voice by the time I started doing HEMA myself.
But of course some of those voices, she argues, are persistent: the “lizard brain”, taking over and messing with your mind at the worst possible moment. And (this is me talking) if you can’t convince yourself that you can ever win a fight/a tournament/whatever, how can that ever become reality?
Kaja Sadowski’s Fear is the Mind Killer: How to Build a Training Culture that Fosters Strength and Resilience
First of all, you can’t not love the title. I will admit I have repeated that in my mind many times just before tournament fights, and those are definitely less scary than some of the situations Kaja’s students role-play on a daily basis.
The central question of the book is this: how do you build a martial art’s club that is welcoming to all types of students and really enables them to succeed?
First, embrace failure as an essential part of learning. Failure is not something to eliminate entirely: everybody fails, even experienced instructors. If failure is normalized - rather than feared - and incorporated as an integral part of any good drill, then students will feel comfortable pushing their own limits, which is essential to improve. Only by failing you see your mistakes in “broad daylight” and can take measures to correct them.
Then, always train for creativity: the goal of a drill is not to teach you a fixed series of moves, but to show you how to adapt those moves to a variety of situations. This is crucial because what you learn in a slow, controlled drill will need to be applied in a more chaotic and fast-paced context (e.g. a tournament fight). This concept is by itself obvious, however Kaja’s book is the first (at least in my collection) to tackle the problem head on and show you how to structure each drill around this purpose.
And finally, I believe the whole book confirms what I have always been saying (to patient listeners, you know who you are, and now to the readers here): your skills starts from your mind. Without the right mindset, which includes the culture of the club you attend, physical training is wasted. The strength and resilience of the title are fostered in your mind before they can be in your body.
There’s much more than this of course! But you will have to read the book to find out.
Maija Soderholm’s “The Liar The Cheat and The Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play”
This is a little gem of a book. Sadly it is a bit hard to follow unless you complement it with videos and recordings from Maija’s website. I am a bad reviewer and I haven’t really done that, but here we go anyway.
Maija has trained with Sonny Umpad, and after his death has become the official heir of his martial style. Sonny Umpad was born in the Philippines but lived in the US for most of his life; he took inspiration from fencing styles common in the Philippines to develop his own, which he then taught to many students in the US until his death.
A crucial component of Umpad’s style is deception, and that’s what the book focuses about (in case you had not realized from the title already…). Deception as described by Maija is not just feints; she describes occasions where Sonny was able to play with body mechanics and range to make you believe he was further away than he actually was, and therefore hit you when you believed him to be too overextended to do that.
So the objective of her drills is to teach you how to convince people to see something that is not real: a tell, a movement, an inclination of your body. Once you’ve sold this lie, then you can follow through with the real action. This requires a lot of study on how you move and how other people interpret those movements.
The whole thing is occasionally interrupted to relay interesting stories and anecdotes from her time spent with Sonny. I would have loved to be there at least once…a bit like having a secret second life!
Miyamoto Musashi and Victor Harris: A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy
Who said that swordsmanship can only be European? Hailing from Japan, we have this incredible (and visually stunning) book about the life and teachings of Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi is a very popular warrior from the 16th century, whose somewhat uncertain life story has been the subject of countless movies and cartoons ever since. Veteran of many duels (some say about 60 in his entire lifetime) and military campaigns, his work is a series of teachings on anything ranging from one-to-one swordsmanship to battlefield strategy. He wrote these teachings in the form of small paragraphs, each a few sentences long, while meditating in an isolated temple. He then collected them in four “books” which he called Fire, Water, Earth and Wind. Each book deals with a specific aspect of swordsmanship.
This book contains the translation of Musashi’s books as well as a lengthy introduction to Musashi’s life, philosophy, and the efforts to recover and translate his work. Of particular interest is the fact that the author is proficient in Japanese and in the swordfighting art derived from Musashi’s teachings (Niten-Ichi-Ryū), making him the perfect person to write about this and to come up with a valid translation for the most obscure parts.
This book operates at a higher level than a traditional fencing manual: Musashi does describe a few techniques for handling the sword, but most of the time is spent on general principles on things like timing, initiative, and how to read your opponent. I am sure that you, like me, will be able to draw many similarities with Western teachings on the same subjects. As for the sword style itself, you would need to practice on the same type of swords he would have used to fully understand what he is talking about.
Well that was a ride! I started with the idea of writing a series of book reviews - something that, despite being an avid reader since the age of 6, was new to me. So I tried it to take one step further: after all, the reason I love reading (fiction and otherwise) is because of what a book leaves behind in me. A good book makes me feel complex emotions, makes me feel a bit closer to other people and perspectives, makes me think in a different way; all this follows me through my life, and has made me into the person I am today. I hope I was able to communicate exactly this: what each of this book has meant for me as a person and as a HEMA student.