Book Review: Academy of the Sword

Academy of the Sword: The Mystery of the Spanish Circle in Swordsmanship and Esoteric Arts
by John Michael Greer (Trans) Gerard Thibault
Chivalry Bookshelf (October 18, 2006) $59.95
ISBN 978-1891448409
328 pages
Reviewer: Jeff Richardson
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First published in 1630 in French, Gerard Thibault’s Academy of the Sword stands as one of the most lavish treatises ever written on the art of civilian swordplay. This translation was nearly ten years in the works and was eagerly anticipated by the historical fencing community. John Michael Greer’s understanding of the time period, historical philosophy, and language make this text an excellent resource. The plates from the original text are recreated in excellent high quality and make this work worth having all by themselves. These engraved plates were done by a small army of some the best and most famous engravers in Europe. Sadly, many of the original historical copies of this text have had the lavishly illustrated plates removed and sold individually at art auctions for extremely high prices.

This text has in the past been largely, and unfairly dismissed by fencing scholars and historians as “overcomplicated” and “unimportant.” At first daunting, a study of Thibault’s detailed description of his fencing system reveals an elegant and systematic system of swordplay, a system which was studied widely by the social elite of Europe and taught at the University of Leiden by Thibault himself. Described in intimate detail is the use of the rapier alone to fence against an opponent with single rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and shield, or longsword. In addition, written down possibly for the first time in history, the book describes how to use zigzag running to come up on a man using a musket to fire at the swordsman. Thibault’s attention to detail is refreshing in the efforts to re-learn a dead art, as these details are so often lacking to the Historical European Martial Arts enthusiast. Adding value to this work is that historical fencers are actively studying this system of rapier and the translator travels with them to lecture at fencing seminars.

As a scholarly translation of a historical renaissance text this book is brilliant. As a book of reproductions of renaissance illustrations it is also brilliant. The illustrations are beautifully reproduced, and they are incredible in themselves, engaging the reader as much as the text. The line etchings are a testament to the art by some of the best etchers in history and so packed with ornamentation and fine detail as to inspire staring at them for hours. In addition to fencing, the book is a unique look into the historical, social, philosophical and esoteric culture of Europe in the late 16th century. Thibault was a mathematician, philosopher, architect and physician. He brought to his writings a wealth of mathematical and scientific knowledge, along with a philosophy replete with mystical thought.

As a study for historical hermetic thought and the art of memory, this book is enlightening. The illustrations reveal possibly our best look inside the mind of a 16th century practitioner of the art of memory.

The first chapter of the book quotes extensively from the writings of German occultist, astrologer and alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. Indeed, illustrations on the highly detailed emblem plates show Agrippa’s four elemental postures of man. Thibault discusses philosophy and sacred geometry (the proportions of man as they relate to the circle) and states, “learn first of all that the philosophers attribute to the Microcosm, the human body, diverse figures, of which the triangle, square and pentagon will be discussed elsewhere.” Thibault makes a clear reference to the Pythagorean philosophical school and teachings with this reference. He then goes on to show how proportion is the basis for the study of the sword.

The numbers 3, 5, 9, 10 and 12 are prominent in the text. From purely the mechanical aspects, there are 3 distances, 9 degrees of blade pressure or “sentiment,” and the diagram of the circle and square is devised on a numerical system of 8 and 10. The numbers 5 and 10 of course are, according to the Pythagoreans, symbolic of the microcosm and macrocosm, and Thibault’s diagram proportioned to the individual conceals a squared circle. Thibault divides the sword into twelve sections, the strongest section being near the hilt and gripped by the hand. He provides imagery of the zodiacal repeatedly, hinting at its influence on the work, accompanied with little clocks showing the hour. In addition, his discussion of the sword itself uses these numbers and, together with his discussion of influences upon it, reveal a striking correlation to Robert Fludd’s monochord and the Great Chain of Being. Is there an alchemical process for the individual swordsman to pursue, a seeking of purity of self? Thibault does indeed make reference to alchemical purification. Is the discussion of influences on the sword and depiction of a hand holding the sword with its descending numbers akin to Fludd’s monochord, tuned by the hand of God with its descending influence through the cosmic divine harmony to the earth? Thibault states that all movements take place in a circle, “extending from the center of its strength out to the extreme circumference of its weakness.” Do we see the reverse of Fludd’s monochord, or an acknowledgement of the influence running in both directions? There are twelve divisions in the popular view of the cosmic model of the day, the first 4 being the common elements, followed by the 7 planets, and the last being the outer sphere of the primum mobile. We may never know the true answers to these and other questions raised by this treatise… but the path to discovery is a fascinating one.

Many years in the making, the book was published after Thibault died and before he could write the section on combat from horseback.

Thibault’s text was lauded as the most elaborately and lavishly illustrated book on fencing ever created. The pictures from the original are highly sought after by collectors. This text is a must have for art collectors, historical martial artists, or those interested in the history of hermetic studies.

Review content ©2009 Jeff Richardson
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Academy of the Sword”

  1. Cat Vincent says:

    Very tempting book – and almost as tempting to pepper my comments with ‘Princess Bride’ quotes!

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