Friday, September 13, 2019

Studying the Sources


The following article is the result of a discussion that I had with Lois Spangler about studying the sources. There are various questions that we all have to ask ourselves when we are studying the sources so that we can understand what we are actually doing. Many of them are just a really good read, and this is great, but there is often a further motive behind the study and this what will be discussed here.

Single or Multiple?

In some cases a source will be found which appeals to us on a very basic level. Maybe it is one which is different from what everyone else is studying, maybe it just suits the way that we move, or maybe due to a talent for a particular language we have an advantage because no one else can read it completely. This results in the focused study of a single source. In my case, I picked up Saviolo's (1595) His Practice in Two Books some 20-odd years ago and have been studying it on and off ever since, because it appeals to me. Why on and off? Is a focused study not the best way to do things? Yes, and no.

There are also new manuals which are being scanned, translated and being made available all of the time. This is a great boon to the swordsmanship community at large. A person may be studying a single manual but another may come out which draws their attention, what should they do? This would depend on the individual. I have read various manuals in various forms, in many instances it is to keep up with what students are studying, and also to keep up with what others are also studying. This does not detract from the primary manual that a person studies, in fact it enhances it. A greater appreciation of swordsmanship can be gained from examining multiple manuals than from just focusing on a single one.

Reasons and Justice

What this all comes down to is the reason for studying a treatise. There are many different reasons for studying a treatise. The prime reason is to recreate what is written in the treatise, but this is not the only reason. Another reason is to find the foundation elements so that they can be examined to compare to another treatise for similarities and differences, this way elements can be traced through lineages and also across continents. In some instances a manual may be picked up just for "tips and tricks" i.e. just to add an extra couple of techniques to a person's repertoire. A teacher may also examine a manual to understand what their student is studying. Each one is a different reason.

How do we do a source justice? What doe this even mean? For some, the only way to do a source justice is to go through the entire manual and use every element. For others, this is not even a concern. This all goes back to the reason for studying the manual in the first place. If a person is studying a treatise to examine social elements within it, the technical elements to not even play a part in the examination, therefore there is no need to consider recreating these technical elements. If the study is for comparison of a single technical element, then the other elements are not really required. For example, a cross-manual examination of rapier and dagger, then only the rapier and dagger parts are really pertinent. The reason for examining the manual must be taken into account in all instances.

De-focusing and Re-focusing

There are reasons why in the study of a single treatise a person should be looking elsewhere to get a better perspective of what they are studying, sometimes it is even a necessity. This allows a better perspective of the work which is being studied and often a greater understanding of what is being studied. I will take as an example Saviolo's (1595) His Practice in Two Books because it is the one which I have been studying.

To begin with this is not simply a fencing treatise, it also includes a discussion of duelling, which the author actually spends more pages on. From this part of the treatise alone it can lead to the reading of other treatises in discussions of duelling, honour and other similar concepts to gain a greater understanding of what the author was discussing. Focusing more on his more practical elements, Saviolo's treatise is not of a "pure" school. It is a combination of Italian and Spanish for sure, with suggestions of German as well.

To understand this treatise in all of its detail the reader really should have a grasp of the foundation elements of the Italian and Spanish schools for sure, with some of the German as well. This grasp can only be gained by looking elsewhere, not at the treatise itself. This means following a tangent to examine something which is not the primary source which is being examined. This investigation will further enhance the reading of the primary source as a greater understanding will be had. In the case of Saviolo, I can assure you that following the tangent to gain an understanding of the foundations of these schools will grant a better understanding of his treatise.

The same "de-focusing" or following a tangent can be useful to the study of other treatises. A study of Renaissance mathematics of philosophy, for example can give the individual a greater understanding of the mind of the writer. An examination of treatises of a similar period, or tradition can establish trends and elements which are common, or changes, all of which lead to a greater understanding of the original text that was being studied. In this case the broader understanding does have great advantages, when this understanding is re-applied to the original text.

Re-focusing is the other side of the same coin. This is focusing on a single treatise to the exclusion of all others. There are times that this is what is required to get a clear and consistent reading of a treatise without the words being muddied by external sources. In this particular case it is where external sources can be an issue because they do influence how we interpret what is being read. Our history influences how we interpret what we read, what we have learnt influences it also, as does our cultural background and many other different factors.

If the treatise is read in accompaniment with another's interpretation of it, then our own interpretation can be swayed by that interpretation. Likewise if the treatise is read in accompaniment with other secondary sources about a similar subject, this will also colour the interpretation. This can be an issue as these influences are not always positive. Often it is best to focus on what the author of the treatise is talking about and what they are saying, without any interpretation. This is difficult when the treatise is translated from a different language as there is inherently an element of interpretation present.

How can this fit with "de-focusing" then? In this other process, resources are selected which are designed to enhance the understanding of the treatise. An enhanced overall understanding is what the aim is. Thus, in reading another treatise it is the foundation elements which are important rather than particular techniques. In reading philosophy it is to understand the mind-set of the author, rather than the philosophy in detail. The broader topics are read so re-focusing is easier later on, so greater understanding is possible.

What Now?

When a primary source is taken to study there are certain elements which must be in play for the person studying it to achieve their end. There must be some sort of connection between the person studying the treatise and the treatise, this has to be something which is going to keep them going through the hard parts of its examination. Studying treatises is not an easy task if it is going to be done properly. There also has to be a real reason for the individual to want to take the time to read and study the treatise. It will take a lot of time, and often a lot of re-reading. This form of reading and interpretation is not a direct nor simple process.

The elements which have been raised here are for information but also for discussion. My position is only one, others may have a different point of view, and they should share it. The more people we have talking about period sources the better. The more people we can encourage to study period sources and come up with their own interpretations the better. Some will be the same, and some will be different. Just because they are different, doesn't mean it is wrong. They might have a different point of view which is worth investigating.

Let your investigations take you different places. Follow the tangents in your investigations, it can only lead to a greater understanding of what you are studying. Found something which you do not understand? Go research it. Found something different or interesting? Go research it. Examine the different pathways and backgrounds to the people who wrote the treatises, figure out some of what they would have read, and go and read some of it, you will gain a greater understanding of them and their treatises. Sticking assiduously to the treatise without looking side to side is not necessarily the best approach, you have to occasionally lift your head up and look around as well.



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