The importance of books 02: Martin Austwick

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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 Austwick, who is the chief instructor at the English Martial Arts Academy in England.

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

Yes, absolutely. When I first started training in Martial Arts, books were considered to be a bit redundant. A vanity project on the part of the author. It seemed to be widely accepted that it wasn’t really possible to learn martial arts from books and so the idea of having books on martial arts was a sign that you weren’t very good at it. Much like Mr Miyagi’s comments to Daniel San when he saw him trying to learn karate from a book. In HEMA we have thankfully proved that this is no longer a valid point of view.

The whole basis of what we do is based on the very concept that learning from a book is not only a practical option, but that it is a far better option if you actually want to learn the art as it was practiced historically.

But this of course leads to an apparent contradiction. If HEMA is all about learning from original texts then why would we need modern books?

To me at least this is a pretty simple question. There is way more knowledge on HEMA out there in the big wide world than I am able to contain within my head. One of the simplest and easiest ways of accessing this unique body of knowledge is through the published works of other people involved in the grander HEMA community. It is this that allows us to grow and develop the art. In much the same way that Einstein, however gifted and intelligent he was could not have described his special and general relativity had generations of physicists not gone before him and left their work as a platform for him to begin from, much of modern HEMA could not exist if it was not for those who have studied sources before us leaving us their thoughts and interpretations. (Not that I think any of us are on a par with Einstein, but I like the metaphor).

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

No, sadly not. At least not really a modern book. When I started trying to teach myself HEMA from original sources there were no recent published works. Not in the way we have today. When Terry Brown Published English Martial Arts that was very helpful, his historical research is top notch, but I’d already been trying to work it out for myself before I got that. I still have my 1st edition kicking around somewhere. If we include writers like Aylward and Matthey then perhaps, but I don’t think we can really consider books that are not only out of print, but also out of copyright to be “modern”.

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?

Banned from Boxing by Kirk Lawson has been a great influence on my practice. Kirk was one of the first people to see that early boxing was in fact a system all of it’s own and to start to show that different historical writers were in fact showing very similar things from a slightly different perspective. He not only coined the term classical pugilism, he also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was indeed a historical system of boxing that included grappling at its core.

Say Uncle by Jake Shannon is another book that has had a good amount of influence on me. It isn’t really a HEMA book, in that it is simple a transcription of a series of interviews with old time wrestlers who trained and fought in Catch as Catch Can. It’s not the easiest of reads, but there are some real gems in there, and having met and trained with some of the very people it features it has become very valuable to me in my quest to try to keep the lineage of this fantastic English Martial Art alive.

Medieval Combat by Mark Rector might seem like a bit of an unusual choice for someone who doesn’t train (and indeed never really has) in German swordsmanship. But bear with me. It was the first freely available transcription and translation of a complete manual anywhere in the world. (Please correct me if I’m wrong). There were scans, photocopies, transcriptions and even translations available if you knew where to look and who to ask, but for the first time ever I could walk into a book store in my local town and pick up a book on HEMA from the shelves and buy it. Mark paved the way for everyone, and in doing so has had a lot of influence on me putting what I do “out there”.

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

Yes, well kind of. The things I want to see are already available to some degree or another, but I want to see more of them. I love the small, cheap transcriptions you can chuck in your kit bag and just have with you whenever you train. My personal favourite is Bruce Eaton’s copy of George Silver’s Brief Instructions. It goes to the sports centre with me, to the gym, when I’m teaching seminars it comes with me, and it has suffered a lot of wear and tear. But it doesn’t matter as it only cost a few pounds and has more than earned it’s keep.

The other end of the scale is something I’d like to see developed a little more. There seem to be a lot of people publishing cheap and accessible paperbacks. These are fantastic, but I’d also like to see some more faithful replicas coming out. Not handwritten copies of medieval manuscripts, but solid quality hardback copies of books a few hundred years old. Like I said, there are some out there, but personally I’d like to see more.

But the one thing I’d really like to see is for publishing houses to make the jump from simply providing bound paper, to providing a complete service. A truly multimedia approach if you like. A book combined with online videos, transcriptions, translations, interpretations, and all the justification rolled into one package. I’m not entirely sure how we’d go about it, but while books are hugely valuable, they are also extremely limited. I’d love to see those limitations overcome without abandoning the books that are our very root in HEMA.