Historical Movement Archive: Proof of Concept

Historical Movement Archive

Proof of Concept

I began my journey of exploration into 15th and 16th century fighting systems in 1984. I started with working from a microfiche of Achilles Marozzo’s treatise entitled Opera Nova from 1536. What I have found over the last 37 years of exploring these fencing books, treatises, and manuscripts is that the art form that is historical swordplay, these systems of movement, are the most sophisticated kinetic systems of human movement that I have ever encountered.

Shakespeare’s original company members like William Kempe and Robert Armin had a mastery of skills in the art of swordplay. When we look at Richard Tarlton we find that he was made a Master of Fence in 1587. The Globe, the Rose, the Hope, the Swan, the Theatre, the Red Bull, the Curtain, the Fortune, and the Cockpit held not only “word plays,” but “sword plays” as well. The Blackfriars was the fencing salle of Rocco Benetti. Bouts of swordplay were a major part of the theatrical traditions of the period.

Time Magazine in 1999 named Johann Gutenberg the most influential man in the last 1,000 years. Shakespeare was number five. So many of the geniuses of the written word have been lost over time, yet the prolific nature of the printing press changed all that. I wonder: if the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays had not been printed, would we now enjoy those beautiful words? How wonderful that John Heminge and Henrie Condell had the technology of the printing press.

Whole artistic institutions have grown up around Shakespeare’s words. We study how Shakespeare wrote, where he was born, where he lived, where he died, where he was buried, his grave, we have tried to study his bones. We study the clothes they wore, how they made the clothes, what kind of buttons they used, how they made the buttons. We study what they ate, how they worked, their political systems, and how they engaged with one another. The social aspects of the period. The religious aspects of their lives. Their customs, their tools, the instruments of war. Their hygiene. Yet, we know so very little of how they moved, and very little about how they fought, how they actually used the instruments and weapons of war. There are libraries full of books that someone, somewhere, wrote at some point about Shakespeare and his world. There are studies that examine the differences in the individual typesetters used to print Shakespeare’s Folios and Quartos. What greater honor can one have, than to have so many, want to know so much, about what one man wrote? Amazing.

The wonderful thing about studying anything for a number of years is the ability one develops to perceive a quality of intelligence that the artist has invested in the artwork itself. Walk into any museum and watch children be moved by the artistry of a painter or a sculptor. I remember as a child, how my grandmother who was a school teacher would pick up on occasion a classical work instead of a children’s book, and read to my brother and me, in her attempts to get us to sleep. I would hear the words and not know their meaning or who wrote them. But, I remember even as a child, the beauty in the sounds and cadence of the words, and recognized instinctively, as all children do, an intelligence at work.

We are living in an incredible moment in time as far as technology is concerned. Yet, with all this technology, we cannot hold a candle to what they knew about the art and science of movement that flourished in their time. It is commonly thought that, because we have advanced in technology since the Renaissance, all the arts and sciences have advanced and flourished. But this is not the case in regard to movement. We have come to realize that these ancient systems of movement and training were more complex and sophisticated than they are today. Indeed, technology made the need for complex training in the historical martial traditions obsolete, and these movement art forms have atrophied over the last five hundred years. The fencing masters of the Renaissance would complain of this very thing. George Silver, an English Master of Defence, wrote in 1599:

"…truth is ancient though it seem an upstart:
our forefathers were wise, though our age account them foolish…
they found out the true defense for their bodies…
while we like degenerate sonnes, have forsaken our forefather’s virtues with their weapons… "

What we have today is a remnant of what was the noble art and science of movement. What has been left to us are those words and images.

Shakespeare in his day had the printing press that gave a lasting legacy to his words long after he was dead. So many of the geniuses in the 15th and 16th centuries had ways to preserve their work. Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel to preserve his work; Da Vinci, Durer, Rembrandt had a brush, a wall, the canvas. How do you preserve the art of movement?

What is so difficult about preserving “movement” is that the technology did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. Movement had to be preserved within another art form, like the written word or artwork within a book. It is a very difficult thing to do, to try to preserve movement in the form of words or images. It is even more difficult to reverse engineer those words and images into movement once again in our day and time, into these bodies.

The art of the sword of the 15th and 16th century was no less advanced than the hand that guided Michelangelo’s brush or the mind that guided the quill pen that wrote Shakespeare’s words. Heminge and Condell wrote of Shakespeare that:

“His mind and hand went together: and what he thought,
he uttered with that easinesse,
that wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.
But it is not our province, who onely gather his works,
and give them you, to praise him.
It is yours that reade him, and there we hope,
to your divers capacities,
you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you:
for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost.”

The same can be said of movement artists like Marozzo, Meyer, Silver, DeGrassi, Agrippa, Saviolo, Talhoffer, Fiore, Vadi, Durer, Liechtenauer, Carranza, Viggiani, Narvaes, Fabris, Giganti, CapoFerro, Sweatnam, Thibault, Alfieri, Hope, Angelo, Tuccaro, and many others. These gifted geniuses of movement, whose work we find within these books and manuscripts, are simply waiting to have us breathe life into their techniques and processes.

I have dedicated 37 years of researching these words and images, by the means of trying to put them back into living human movement. We do this by exploring the historical techniques of these master artists through the physical exploration in a studio, by actually throwing people around, by picking up a sword and engaging in the painstaking physical studio work of exploring 15th century longsword, 19th century bare-knuckles boxing, Egyptian and Roman wrestling, 16th century rapier and dagger, grappling, medieval sword and shield, English quarterstaff, all the while being thrown, bounced, stabbed, poked, pushed, and punched.

In working through these treatises, in all those years of studio research, through all the historical kinesthetic exploration, I began to realize that there is a quiet intelligence at work here, and it was not easy to recognize at first. But the more you understand these ancient movement art forms in your body, the more you understand the genius behind those words and images. By doing, I have learned how to listen – with the body, and it is there, within that easiness where the mind and the hand come together, it is there, where these words and images, these dead voices begin to tell their stories. I am a poor messenger, and I feel that I have after all these years just scratched the surface of this incredible and beautiful art form.

For the first time in history, modern technology is offering us the ability to preserve the movement depicted in antiquarian books and manuscripts. Motion capture technologies allow us to take movement and preserve it in a three dimensional digital form. We can recreate and interpret the historical movement in digital form, so that it can be preserved, studied, archived, and shared all over the world.

It is a “Gutenberg moment” for historical movement and movement research. This is a new field of research in Renaissance studies.