Who wrote The Art of Combat and The Art of Sword Combat? Were these books written by Joachim Meyer? Or were they written by someone else?
I feel compelled to pose this question and provide an answer, because it is a mistake that I read and hear quite regularly, and I would like to address it.
The book called The Art of Combat is a book originally published in 2006 (republished in 2010). Dr Jeffrey Forgeng translated one of Joachim Meyer’s original works, and it is this translation, along with Forgeng’s own notes and introductory explanations, that form the contents of The Art of Combat.
The book upon which this volume is based was written by Joachim Meyer in the 16th century, published in 1570, and it was called Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechten, which could be translated as A Thorough Description of the Art of Fencing, or alternatively as A Thorough Description of the Art of Fighting. If we want to quote Meyer, or if we want to refer to Meyer’s own work or words, then it is the Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechten to which we must turn.
In The Art of Combat, very few of Meyer’s own words are presented verbatim. There is no transcription to accompany the translation; the vast majority of the book is Dr Forgeng’s translation of the Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechten. Since translation is always very subjective, and is prone to interpretation even by the most skilled and least biased of translators, we must realise that The Art of Combat does not contain Meyer’s words exactly, but that it contains Dr Forgeng’s best rendition of Meyer’s words into English.
Similarly, the book called The Art of Sword Combat was published in 2016, and it is Dr Forgeng’s translation of the manuscript with the shelf number MS A.4º.2, held in the Lunds Universitets Bibliotek in Sweden. This manuscript was produced in the 1560s; the library dates it to “the 1560s, probably the latter part of this decade” (translation mine), while Dr Forgeng dates it to around 1568. The book known as The Art of Sword Combat is Dr Forgeng’s translation of Meyer’s work found in the MS A.4º.2. Again, if we want to quote Meyer, or refer to his own works or words, then it is to the MS A.4º.2 that we must go; if we want to see Dr Forgeng’s best rendering of these works and words into English, then we can refer to The Art of Sword Combat.
For an example of why this matters, we could consider Forgeng’s use of the term Thwart Cut. Meyer never writes anything about a “Thwart Cut”, he uses the terms Zwerchhauw and Uberzwerchhauw in his Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechten. The term Zwerchhauw could be translated as “thwart strike” or “dwarf strike” or “cross strike”, depending on the translator’s preference, knowledge, experience, and/or bias.
For someone reading The Art of Combat, it may seem reasonable to assume that the “thwart cut” is a cut that thwarts (or foils, or breaks) the opponent’s attack. That is an interpretation that makes sense, given the couplet in the Zettel and the canonical glosses for the technique, yet the sense of “thwart” is more nautical; the technique does not “thwart” the opponent’s plan, but instead the technique is performed “athwart” the opponent’s sword, or athwart the space between the fencers, so that it crosses the blade or space and angles its way into the target.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with the term “thwart strike” (although it’s not one I particularly like), but it is a mistake to say something like “Meyer says to do the thwart strike in this situation.” Meyer probably did not say that, he would have used the original term in the original language, and other translators might render it differently.
I fear that the above statements might seem incredibly picky, and perhaps unhelpfully so. However, in the last six months alone, I have lost count of the number of times that I have read or heard people confusing Meyer and Forgeng, confusing The Art of Combat and the Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechten, confusing The Art of Sword Combat and the MS A.4º.2, and confusing The Art of Combat and The Art of Sword Combat. If people are being confused by the difference between a 16th century fencing master and a 21st century translator, that is genuinely a problem that I feel needs to be addressed. Similarly, if people are confused about what book they are quoting from, that is also problematic.
I would not say that people should be blamed for making these mistakes. I realise that the difference can seem quite small, and perhaps the distinction is lost for many people. People need to learn why something is important before they will begin to perceive those details and treat the details as important themselves. And so, rather than grumble about “kids these days”, “get off my lawn”, and “back in my day we knew the difference between original and derivative works”, I feel it is more useful to provide an explanation of the differences, and to show why I think the differences are important.
If you have made any of these mistakes or confusions yourself, then you are in good company. I’m pretty sure I made similar mistakes and confusions when I began studying this subject! It would definitely be a lie to suggest that my grasp of all of this was perfect from day one. There is no shame in making mistakes like this, and then learning a little more about the matter.
What I hope to achieve with this article is to show that this is a subject that does seem to cause real confusion for people, and to provide an explanation of how to conceptualise it better. And, if it turns out that I’m wrong (again), then this article will act as a spark for discussion so that I can learn a more correct conceptualisation and then update my thinking accordingly. If you think I am wrong about all of this, and can back up your criticism with evidence, then please do let me know.
Otherwise, please share the good word, and be sure to be aware of whether the word is that of Meyer, Forgeng, or someone else entirely.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.