The importance of books 01: Martin Fabian

Martin Fabian. Image from the Bilbao Armata website.

This is a series of interviews with well-known HEMA practitioners from around the world. The subject is the importance of books in the HEMA community. Personally, I think books are immensely important to the community (and in general!), but I am interested to find out more about how other people see the issue.

This week’s interview is with Martin Fabian, who runs Bratislavský šermiarsky spolok in Slovakia, and who is a regular and well-decorated tournament competitor.

1) Do you feel that modern publications are valuable for the HEMA community? Whether yes or no, can you explain your answer briefly?

Firstly, if by modern publications we understand modern HEMA manuals, we could say they might be beneficial to a specific target group. One of the issues with original sources (mainly the older ones) is lack of a coherent didactic structure. In order to understand a book which in the end describes relatively easy mechanics a student of HEMA must read it multiple times and often cross-reference their sources to find answers to questions which may arise.

A modern author tries to convey sword fighting in a manner which is closer to our mentality. He does the filter for the student and present hopefully his or her best practices.

On the other hand, most of the publications I had the chance to read were either outdated or presented the material in a way which would contradict my own understanding. Therefore, I do not recommend my students to learn from such books as their primary source but rather to use it as a reference material if they look for other opinions.

Last but not the least I am not aware of any advanced modern fencing books which would deal with strategy and tactics – a matter which speaks more about the proficiency of master then just posing for pictures and copying the information available for free.

Secondly, if by modern publications we also understand various history books connected to HEMA (like accounts of duels, books about weapons etc.) they are a must read for every HEMAist that wants to go a bit beyond the sports aspect and understand the cultural context in which our ancestor lived, thought and fought.

2) Was there a book that inspired you to become involved in HEMA, or that inspired you to study HEMA more seriously than before?

I’ve been dealing with historical fencing for some years before I really got into HEMA. One of the reason I was not looking into primary sources was the belief my teachers back then already had the knowledge I would need. The first book that really got me interested into studying was Joachim Meyer’s Grundtliche beschreibung not because it became my first real source. To be honest I think the book (at least when you read it in the original language) is not very suitable for someone with zero experience with HEMA. But what Meyer wrote about made me search for other sources and that’s when I came across Codex 44.A.8 (the Danzig manuscript) which after a short period made the gears turning 🙂

3) Can you list between three and five books that you feel are invaluable to your study of HEMA, and say something briefly about why each book is so important to you?

There is a series of Czech books about duels throughout history (It’s called Fencers, brawlers and duellists) which describes dozens of accounts of real historical duels. I sincerely recommend this to everyone (who can read Czech of course 🙂 ). The reason is simple – study of manuscripts may lead to “selective blindness” when people just read instructions and idealistic point of view on fighting. It’s just when they read how duels and fights really happened, how much variations are in there when they start to see the complexity of martial arts as such.

Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings with his biography – though not exactly HEMA, reading about the life of Musashi and his deeds confronted with his ideas about fighting creates a wonderful picture of fighting mentality etc.

Sun-Tzu’s Art of War – it’s HS3227a summarized 🙂

HS3227a – alpha and omega of strategy, tactics and philosophy for medieval (and later) sword fighting.

Salvator Fabris – you may know nothing about swordfighting but the way Fabris‘ speaks to his reader is unique.

4) Are there any kinds of publications you would like to see become available to the community?

I think it is a matter of time when we will get serious publications – not just copycats of old fencing manuals, but original works dealing with tactics, strategy, philosophy, geometry and mathematics, presenting an original take on the issue which will be evidence based (e.g. there are certain approaches which are more successful than the others and it can be measured etc.)



Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.