The importance of books 04: Jack Gassmann

Jack Gassmann. Image from the Rossfechten Symposium 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 Jack Gassmann, who teaches at events around Europe, and who is a regular and well-decorated tournament competitor as well as a contributor to the Acta Periodica Duellatorum journal.

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

I feel this is a rather complex question, but for the most simple answer, in combination, yes and in varying degrees as to field and the experience of the individual. Modern scholarly works are invaluable to understanding the context of the fencing manuals but are often imperfect or agenda driven. Academic works are often footsoldiers in larger academic philosophical wars and are often plagued by being limited to what sources are translated to English. My advice is read everything so you see the period you study through as many lenses as possible. Same goes for modern works on sports training and psychology, works such as Luis Preto’s books are truly invaluable to modern practitioners, but I feel there is a danger of letting their philosophies transplant those of the source instead of doing the work to understand the core philosophy of the original manual. I would much prefer seeing people working with as many original sources as possible as soon as possible alongside modern sources. I think first hand historical accounts are woefully neglected in general by the community, it seems odd to me to study medieval swordfighting without putting effort to understanding medieval warfare and combat, somewhat like having an interest in WWII tanks without understanding their military context.

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

The Zettel honestly, I’ve never been one for agonizing over the counter counter of a Stück or a cool disarm, the Zettel always caught my eye though and made me sit down and study the possible meanings of every word or phrase, especially the study of the five words has always been a bit of an obsession. Keith will bear witness to it.

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?

Oh god only five? Can I give 5 different categories? Ok then I’ll list mostly the historical ones. I assume you already read your own damn manuals and I’ll leave the pedagogical books to someone else.

One of the modern sources I find absolutely invaluable for understanding the origins of the Liechtenauer and Fiore systems is Barbara Tuchmann’s A Distant Mirror. It shows the different angles of the medieval world and details the ups and downs of someone who fought against and alongside students of those traditions.

Swords of the British Empire deserves to go on every HEMA practitioners bookshelf, this book will open your eyes to a lot of realities of hand to hand combat you never would have thought of. Usamah Ibn Munquidh deserves an honourable mention in a similar vein as this, but somewhat earlier dating to the 12th century.

The Great Siege of Malta, this book is an absolutely captivating read, but more then that it’s an invaluable detailed documentation of a struggle in which later period German and Italian sources were put to use. It’s a gripping insight into the tactical context of the weapons and the psychology of the people who used them. Reading the Siege of Malta you truly get an appreciation for the military realities of the age.

The Acta Periodica Duellatorum journal, especially the works of Jean Chandler. Jean has been doing completely invaluable work deciphering the complex details of the Holy Roman empire during the 15th century. He has been absolutely phenomenal in bringing lots of normally hard to find sources together to paint a gripping picture of the free cities and their warfare, from the wars of the Hanse (including the city of Danzig) to the lake bound naval warfare in the Swiss confederacy and the free cities struggle with robber knights.

The Mask of Command by John Keegan, I have come to see a fencing tradition of a manifestation of psychology and often a learning aid for command military or civilian. Keegan’s analysis of the different approaches in command demanded by various stages of warfare awakened me to some interesting parallels to the relationship to violence in the sources of different periods and lead me to think more in depth about the different sources tactical approach to the fight. Liechtenauer’s approach to combat is a very different one to that of Waite. Keegan’s analysis of the Alexander’s Strategies was a breakthrough moment for my understanding of weak and strong on a psychological level in fencing.

4) Are there any kinds of publications you would like to see become available to the community? I would be very grateful if you would be inclined to participate, or even if you would be happy to share some of your thoughts with me privately.

I think we should be working to make more accessible mediums such as video and podcasts and be making an effort to consolidate them to one platform that people can easily find. I would be very much be interested in collaborating.



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.