Review: Published Broadsword Interpretations

I possess a very complete library of books about various aspects of historical martial arts, but not everybody is as fortunate. I often field questions about “which books to buy”, and so I’ve decided to start reviewing portions of my library here on the Armoury. Some of these reviews are quite hard to write, because I know the people involved, but I shall attempt to be objective. I’m also trying to be a lot more informative than most short reviews, so apologies for the length.

The Scottish or English broadsword has a mystique for a lot of people, but there are very few interpretations out there. While it is possible to find the works of numerous historical authors on the internet, and publishers like Fallen Rook offer reprints of Angelo, Roworth and McBane, there are only a few modern sources available. Since not everybody wants to put things together for themselves, and because those of us who do work with the sources want to see what other people have done, I’ve decided to review two books off my shelf,  “Broadsword Academy” by Christopher Scott Thompson, and “Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick” by Keith Farrell.

Basic details

Broadsword Academy, self-published by Christopher Scott Thompson through Lulu, available here.

(Note that I have the first edition, not the second)

Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick, written by Keith Farrell through Fallen Rook Publishing, available here

Broadsword Academy

This is a massive tome, slightly bigger than A4, with more than 400 pages. It’s fairly idiosyncratically laid out- it has a cover with no title (just a pic of two gentlemen in modern clothes fighting), first page is the Table of Contents, and it has non-consistent page numbering because it is a compilation of different books. I’d really have liked a slightly more professional editing job, and the inconsistent page numbering is a pain.

However, appearances can be deceptive, and there is a lot of good info in the book. The first section (Volume I), on the history of Scottish warfare and swordplay, has a wealth of information. It is fully referenced and covers the evolution of the Scottish nation from the so-called “Dark Ages” until the 18th century. The writing is decent and I really enjoyed this portion of the book. The history section ends with a discussion on sources for Scottish swordplay (really British swordplay, as the section discusses), and does a very decent job. The entire history section is about 130 page of info, and ends with some slightly out of place photographs (not all of good quality) of modern practitioners from various localities.

The next couple of sections are dedicated to interpretations of the historical sources, of varying quality. Volume II is dedicated to a synthetic system (“The Cateran System”), and has a number of problems. Though this section uses numerous photographs, the text and the photographs don’t mesh fantastically well together. For instance, one page of photographs is accompanied by the text “Circular footwork can be used to get behind the opponent and safely cut him”. However, there are in fact no legs in the pictures, so there is no useful info! It doesn’t get much better- pair drills are shown out of distance, some images are stretched, and much of the text is less than useful. There is also a fair whack of wasted space on some of the pages. The section ends with a set of essays about fighting different opponents and sparring tactics, which is of mixed use- while some advice is good, a lot feeds into the author’s concept of a fair, not too forceful fight.

Volume III is a bit more useful, in that it is sourced in the late 18th century regimental sources for backsword. The text is more informative, and the images are useful. The interpretation covers Angelo’s “Highland Broadsword”, Mathewson’s “Fencing Familiarised”, and the older “Anti-pugilism”, as well as a set of drills from the Black Watch. This section is accompanied by a number of photographs, of varying utility. A series of guards are shown without any accompanying text, and then a number of pairs are shown. Most photographs are of only one stage in a multi-part drill, and the choice of images is sometimes questionable in their utility. Still, there is a decent whack of info here, and you get a good sense of the fighting style.

Volume IV is dedicated to Page’s 1745 broadsword text. This section is quite useful, with a lot of information both on the source and on the interpretation, including discussions on how the interpretation evolved. I quite enjoyed this section- the photos are more informative, and we see the mind of the modern interpreter at work.

Volume V and VI are a little more far out, covering the recreation rather than interpretation of fighting styles without historical sources. Sword and targe, sword, dirk and targe, and weapons such as the Lochaber axe are covered here. Though literary sources are used to justify some of the recreations, I remain far from convinced about many of the interpretations. In particular, the sword and targe work seems to use very strange footwork, and the use of the point in many situations is ignored. I’d also argue that the shield positioning shown (often turned horizontal) is not terribly efficient, and runs contrary to many other interpretations, such as I.33 or the Bolognese style, where we do have sources. Some of the later weapon interpretations, such as that for the Claymore and the Lochaber axe, are even more problematic. There are also mystical elements creeping in here I’m not that fond of.

The book rounds itself out with a couple of short essays on various aspects of historical swordplay and approaches, some of which are good and some of which are not. These issues deal with the need to spar, differences between Eastern and Western approaches, and so on, and nothing grabbed me as spectacular here.

Overall, it’s a mixed bag. For the history and the section on Page, it’s probably the best out there. However, the rest is less clear than I’d like. Though I don’t doubt the author’s fighting abilities, some the methods and fighting styles here are problematic or poorly explained.  Still, if the book was better edited and organised, it would definitely be on the “recommend list”. As it stands, it’s probably not worth the price, and thus I hope the second edition improved on the first (but I’m not running to buy it).

Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick

Keith Farrell’s book on Scottish systems is a very different kettle of fish to “Broadsword Academy”. Firstly, it’s a relatively small book, but still with a decent page count. No photographs here, just fairly concise writing with a much more defined purposed than “Academy”. The first section covers the 17th and 18th century Scottish scene and the possible sources for “Highland” and Scottish swordplay.  This part is full of information, with numerous direct quotations from literary sources to back up the claims. These sections are informative and fun to read, though there is some repetition here which should have been edited out.

The second section covers Roworth’s “Art of Defence on Foot”, and does a good job of introducing the sources and synthesising the source. The work here obviously links into the 4th section, which is a complete reprint of Roworth’s “Art of Defence on Foot”. I’m a little bemused at the decision to add this here; while it makes this book more complete, it does rend the facsimile of Roworth also offered by Fallen Rook (here) a bit superfluous. In terms of using the source, the work presented here is more than adequate, though images and/or photographs might have made some actions in the text more accessible to novices at the sword.

The third section focuses on the use of the single stick, based on a variety of 19th century sources. This section is a little confusing at first, in that there is such a wealth of information, often offering slightly different and sometimes conflicting views on actions. This is definitely the best single-stick source to come out in recent times, though some of the sources quoted are incredibly readable in and of themselves.

Section five covers training methodology, and complements both the singlestick and broadsword work presented in earlier sections. Line, measure, and footwork are covered here, as are Taylor’s 10 lessons, a simple set of drills for gaining basic proficiency with the sword. Though there is nothing new for the experienced sword swinger here, it is well-written and useful for the less experienced. My only quibble is that some of this information would be more useful earlier in the book, before the sources were examined.

Overall, this book has a lot of direct utility, but it does have some problems. I think the sections could have been resequenced to help the reader more- chapter 5 should have followed chapter 1, chapters 2 and 4 should have been conjoined, and so on. Some of the repetition can be annoying to speed readers such as myself.  However, my students and I have found this book to be an excellent resource, and easy to use, and I definitely recommend it.

Final comments

So, in the end, I’d recommend “Scottish Broadsword” to all those interested in baskethilt fighting techniques. Though it has is primarily focused on Roworth and later sources, it is an excellent example of what can be done with such sources. My only criticism is that it doesn’t add much beyond a historical overview for more experienced fighters. “Broadsword Academy”, on the other hand, is definitely not what I would recommend to a novice. Though there is plenty of information on Scottish history and a wide breadth of sources, the reader has to do too much to actually extract information on the actions of fighting. Add in the more dubious portions of the interpretations and the poor use of photographs and large amounts of wasted space, and I simply can’t recommend the first edition of this unless you have a specific interest in certain of the sources contained herein.

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