The importance of books 15: Rob Runacres

Image by Thomas Kelley, from

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 Rob Runacres, who is an instructor at the Renaissance Sword Club in England. He has taught and competed at international events in Europe and the USA, and is also a publisher author.

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

Yes, though I would say there is a considerable variance in quality. Simply getting primary sources available in print is a massive asset; translations more so as they allow us to not only access the principles and methods of the pass, but to compare a variety of methodologies from different cultures. Naturally, the smaller treatises are those that are most available in print, which I feel can be dangerous, as practitioners may work from minor or incomplete works rather than fully developed systems. In addition, any translation is to some degree an interpretation, so we must resist the idea that the exercise is completed when done; review is vital.

Interpretations are often dangerous, but sometimes good science requires an explosion. Regrettably the energy is often used for petty combat across social media, rather than powering the engine. Nevertheless, having study guides allow us to progress without re-treading old ground, though critical reassessment and subsequent reinterpretation needs to be at the core.

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 would love to say ‘yes, it was Tom Leoni’s translation of Fabris…’ (the first HEMA book I bought), but, to be honest, it was my mother bringing me up on books by Ronald Welch, Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, R.L. Stevenson and who knows how many others. I was an avid historian of a romantic history that never happened and I suppose that carried through into my desire to study HEMA.

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?

i) Livre des Lecons, a treatise written around 1610. I suppose I would say this, as I’m the translator, but it holds a maddening fascination. It may have been written by a Spaniard, in French, who married into a Flemish family… and who compiled something from several sources, including late Bolognese; more general ‘Italian’ sword, and possibly vulgar destreza. It is at times brilliant and insightful, at others confused and contradictory; it is a valuable lesson in interpretation and research. Also, the gorgeous, full colour plates are a joy.

ii) Academie de l’Espée by Gérard Thibault D’Anvers. One of the great pieces of fencing literature and artwork, and a layered reflection of educated, renaissance sensibilities. I consider it to be a development of elegant noble destreza. If only people would read through and consider the principles of the whole system, rather than spending their lives stuck at chapters 6 – 9.

iii) Treatise or Instruction for Fencing by Girolamo Cavalcabo. This is a short manual, that was very famous at the time (the author went on to teach the future Louis XIII), but for many years was seen in modern HEMA as a minor rapier manual. Except that it has considerable elements of Bolognese forms in it. A transitional manual? Well, what is ‘transitional’? Modern HEMAists sometimes make assertions that Dall’Aggochie is the ‘last of the Bolognese’, which may have surprised the Bolognese fencers at the time. We are still in a rut where sword types are concerned, ever falling back into Victorian concepts of evolutionary typology; in the same way we risk summarising fencing in crass teleology. Cavalcabo was hugely influential at his time but did not leave a mark in terms of modern HEMA. For me, this is a useful warning.

iv) Dell’arte di scrimia by Giovanni dall’Aggochie. NOT the last of the Bolognese, but certainly one of the simpler major texts. Excellent, clear instructions on swordplay and quite happy to suggest the point of the sword is better as it reaches the innards better! Superficially, it is a simple text, but, upon working through, the reader will find an excellent system of footwork and mechanics.

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

We need more serious academic studies. This will be unpopular, but I feel there is a serious problem with HEMA dropping the ‘H’. While I recognise that most practitioners just want to get out and play with various forms of combat, they often do so without serious consideration to the history. The work on ‘rapier’ forms is a particular bugbear, with some practitioners cherry picking techniques from treatises spanning 200 years and forcing them into some form of homogenous ‘system’, with no regard to weapon weight and dimensions. Conversely worse, the continuing obsession with the treatise being somehow a literal truth, rather than (as with any source) a document subject to bias and agenda, or as a part of a wider social or indeed political context. Yes, the author may say this techniques work every time, but he’s trying to sell you a book, and that ‘from life’ artwork may have something to do with the patron’s artistic sensitivities.

The martial forms were a part of a wider society, and I feel we need to explore that more. Otherwise we’re playing at Middle Earth, not middle ages (or later, earlier, etc.). This is not to suggest re-enactment, just a deeper understanding of the martial forms.