Integrity When Interpreting Sources

Inspired by Grauenwolf’s blog post here:

I’ve decided to post about my approach to interpreting the sources, and some basic principles I try to follow. I’ll break it down into some simple rules to follow

I have two fundamental rules when I study a historical fencing manual. They are starting points and starting assumptions to make that are necessary, in my opinion, to properly forming an interpretation of the given source.

RULE 1: Trust the Text

In most cases, the text of the given source is as close to the original author/fencing master as we can get. Sometimes it is the direct words of that master, usually it is written by a scribe, and then copied by more scribes, and yes, there can be errors. But we must give the benefit of the doubt to the source. Unless we can absolutely confirm beyond reasonable doubt that there is a problem in the text, it is intellectually honest to assume the text is correct. Regardless, the text is the closest thing we have to the original fencing master behind the source, and so the text supersedes everything else.

RULE 2: Trust the Illustrations

The illustrations in fencing manuals are pretty much always done by artists on commission by the author or fencing master. In older manuals, it’s typical for the illustrations to be done first, and then the text added later by a scribe. We can assume that these illustrations were also done under supervision of the author/fencing master. Now, the same as rule 1 applies; unless we can absolutely confirm beyond reasonable doubt that there’s an error in the illustration, we should take them at face value. The only exception to this is if there is a contradiction between the text and the illustration. In this case, I would go with the text. The only reason being that there are far more obvious errors in the artwork in manuals, with some manuals even going so far as to have the text mention mistakes that the artist made. Furthermore, artwork is often in different styles, following the different trends of the day, and can have much more abstract-ness and ambiguity, and so the artwork should not be given the final say in an interpretation (rather, the text should).

To add to these rules, it should be clear that there’s should be a hierarchy of importance in matching your interpretation. First, your interpretation should match the text of the given source. Second priority is that it matches the illustrations of the source. Third, that it fits with the broader context of the system, and with other sources. This third point is important. Often, you will come up with two interpretations that both fit the text, and both fit the illustrations. In such a case, you either need to refine the comparison to the text and illustrations to see if there are any fine differences, or you need to then compare to other sources with similar context and see which interpretation seems to make more sense. This can be combined with pressure-testing the interpretation to see which one works better. It’s important to remember that this step only comes after the interpretation is shown to be in accordance with the text AND illustrations. In my opinion, it is deeply wrong to have an interpretation that says “it kinda matches the text, doesn’t match the picture, but it works really well, and the illustrations have errors anyways” or something like that.

The problem with ignoring this order of priority is that it becomes too easy to warp your interpretation of the text to fit how you think the technique should be, and too easy to dismiss any differences in the illustrations as errors or problems with perspective. While sometimes that approach is necessary (like when there actually are errors, or ambiguities in the text), relying on that as the standard to interpret a source results in the serious possibility and likelihood of introducing biases (personal, from other sources, etc.) into the interpretation.

In conclusion, hopefully this short post gives people some insight into how I approach things, and will maybe explain my interpretations of some techniques and how I reach them.


P.S. An example of this would be in interpreting the Mutation in I.33. The text is extremely vague, and simply says “It is to be seen, that the priest is here mutating the sword, because he was below earlier, now he will be above.” or something similar in other places. The illustrations given always simply show one with the sword in a left underbind, and then the following illustration has the sword in a left overbind. There is never any explanation as to how you actually carry out that action. There are several interpretations of this, and I am still not 100% solid on how I think it should be, but my general rule is that I will take the text and illustrations at face value, and that the interpretation MUST match both in order to be valid.



About joeynitti

I study Historical European Martial Arts. I am a member of Ottawa Swordplay. I've been studying HEMA for around 5 years.
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