Talhoffer's Medieval Fight Book Blog

A journal of working in Denmark for the National Geographic Channel program, Medieval Fight Book, produced by Wild Dream Films 

By John Clements

In October 2010, I was asked by the production company Wild Dream Films to write a "short" blog about some of my experiences as fight master and historical consultant for their program on the 1459 edition of Hans Talhoffer's Fightbook. As an expert in the subject of Medieval and Renaissance close combat, I was contracted to provide analysis and commentary plus arrange some select fight sequences and demonstrations of fighting techniques from Master Talhoffer's compendium. 

In August 2010, my apprentice, Aaron Pynenberg, and I traveled to the Denmark Medieval Centre in Nykobing Falster. We arranged some judicial fights and foot combat demonstrations, filming scenes with longswords, messers, spiked duelling shields, armored versus unarmored encounters, and, yes, the famous man-woman "hole in the ground" judicial duel.  As of this writing I have no clue as to how much or what of our efforts will make it in the final program nor what aspects of the many hours of material we performed will be shown in what context.

The Wild Dream crew was supportive and great to work with, the director challenging, the location inspiring, the material demanding, and the experience invaluable. Everything went really well, considering. It was a grueling, exhausting, fascinating, educational, and wild time. We had 12-hour days on set, did hundreds of takes, and learned a huge amount. 

Aaron and I did several fight scenes and technique displays while I gave numerous observations on Talhoffer and Late-Medieval Germanic sources of historical European close-combat.  In the process we did some interesting and original things by displaying our new form of spontaneous fight execution beyond any stage combat / stunt fencing of this type ever done before on camera. Relying on an unrivaled mastery of authentic historical combat techniques for creating never-before seen action we employed my unique Spontaneous Arranged-Fighting Execution system - the "SAFE" method (TM). Featuring an authoritative and pioneering program with a physically intense and highly original alternative outside the box of current standards, it offers a new alternative to the dry, over-used clichés of entertainment industry fight director certification. The approach relies on martially sound, historically accurate, and visually dynamic material.

Some Background: Talhoffer's Significance

- While talking with the producers on phone and discussing Talhoffer on camera for them, I tried to stress my opinion that the real significance of Talhoffer's Fechtbuch is that it's the very first historical source we have which illustrates the fighting techniques of the late 14th and early 15th century German masters of defence. While Talhoffer is somewhat underrated and less appreciated by historical fencing students than important works by other masters such as Johannes Liechtenauer, Sigmund Ringeck, and Hans Leckuechner, it nonetheless represents some of the most elegant combat artwork of the genre. 

- I first encountered the 1459 edition of Hans Talhoffer's Fechtbuch about 20 years ago when I obtained a crude photocopy of the foot-combat section. I recall being fascinated at seeing for the first time a treatise on knightly fighting techniques that made it look wildly brutal yet obviously skillful.  It was a work that wasn't included in Egerton Castle's famed 1885 book on Medieval and Renaissance schools of fence.  Nor was it described in any significant later histories on the subject, such as Terrence Wise's underrated 1971 history of the art and science of personal combat.  Only one 19th century German academic work examined Talhoffer's material and even then failed utterly to appreciate his importance.

- Even from what little I knew about the subject in the 1980s, I quickly discovered that 19th and 20th century writers on the topic of 15th century close combat had gotten it all wrong. They failed to grasp how the material represents martial arts and not just "fencing." Talhoffer's content was so outside of the depictions and misconceptions of pop culture's notorious misrepresentations of Medieval swordsmanship and was certainly nothing like the familiar parry-riposte style of baroque fencing that makes up the modern sport form.  The nature of the fighting presented in Talhoffer's illustrations was also so radically different than what I had seen in various reenactment and living history concoctions with their mock battle displays and pretend knightly tournament games.  Because of all this, Talhoffer's little known work was instrumental in encouraging my own personal quest to learn what actual fighting methods of this era were really about.

- Fast forward another ten years and several editions of Talhoffer's treatise sat on my desk along side a dozen other similar fight books from the 14th to 16th centuries. The power of the emerging Web allowed enthusiasts the world over to share ever-improving digital copies as well as thoughts and opinions on practicing the martial arts teachings they contained. By the year 2000, I had already been incorporating much of Talhoffer's techniques into my own training and instruction.  That same year I wrote an introduction to the first published English-language translation of one edition, and soon after obtained fine replicas of the very swords and weapons used in the work. 

- Here I am now in the present, one of the very few professional instructor-researchers of Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts and the world's foremost proponent of the subject.  So, when I was invited to be involved in a special television program (the first ever on a European master of Defense) on this unique and under-appreciated work, I was more than eager. Asked to present realistic fighting action in the style of his time, and coordinate and arrange historically accurate combat sequences based on his treatise, I said absolutely! I knew my knowledge in this field would be of great valuable in helping present Talhoffer's fight book in a way that would showcase its artistic, cultural, and martial significance.

Pre-Production Video Animation Work

- Before we learned when production was to actually begin, I was first called on in July to create some 16-minutes worth of core-motion footage for Wild Dreams' animators to work from in creating some CGI sequences from Talhoffer's plates. The idea was to show how select techniques with longswords and messers would have been performed and my task was to convey how the movements would have likely started and ended, allowing them to reconstruct them via animation. I first covered the ways for properly gripping the swords, then displayed the basic form of the actions and the correct bio-mechanics of the stances, footwork, and essential strikes.  This way I was able to give them via the Internet some key examples of how weapons and limbs really flow and move in cutting violently from different positions. I contrasted this from the over-used familiar movements so typical of stunt-fencing and stage-combat. I also discussed with them the five mastercut strikes, the intensity of sword blows, and my interpretations of the core motions behind some of the more famous Talhoffer plates ---such as the hat and dagger throwing image and the warhammer dismemberment as well as the longsword beheading the bill-fighter.

- My
sampleclips were used by Antonis Kotzias, the lead CGI animator, to create some fight sequences in the program. This was the first time an expert practitioner of fight-book material was used to produce animations of historically accurate 15th century combat techniques for film or broadcast. He later emailed me that the fight motion sequences I provided were a style he had never seen in any movie, documentary, or video game. It was very gratifying. But, man, it was a lot of work.  I'm eager to see what they end up doing with it.

Air Travel Misadventures

- With only a few weeks to prepare for the trip my training partner, Aaron, and I managed to ready ourselves on short notice.  Aboard our Delta/Air France flight from Atlanta to Denmark an unfortunate passenger died of natural causes only a few rows in front of us. We had to be diverted to Ireland for them to remove the body.  A two-hour layover there caused us to miss our connecting flight from Paris to Copenhagen, resulting in the airline then losing our baggage for two and a half days (!).

- When we landed at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris they have a bus to pick you up at the tarmac and take you to the terminal to get your connecting flight. They had us all so packed in tightly right off the plane -- hot, crowded, stuffy, reeking -- that someone at one end throws up on the bus while at the other end a woman passes out and collapses.  People were trying to hold her up and screaming to the driver to open the doors let us out or at least open the automatic windows. But for several minutes he refused to respond and ignored everyone as we just sat there waiting for our turn to disembark.  It was bizarre.

- These hassles cost us a number of schedule problems. We had Aaron's hundred pound box of armor with us, but that was mostly it. And without his gambeson (padded under garment) that was packed in another bag he couldn't wear his armor!  All the clothing we had with us for the first two days of the shoot was what was in our carry-ons — which, because of past experiences, I wisely included assorted items just in case they lost our luggage.  Anyway, it all caused a great inconvenience for us the first two days of shooting. During the judicial shield duel scene, for instance, I couldn't go barefoot as I should have because all I had to wear underneath the flimsy felt costume (which was the wrong color and fit terribly) was one pair of thin stocking tights. And my borrowed leggings didn't fit properly either. Then, because of other issues, Aaron didn't have historical pants for his armor nor did he have the proper maile gussets or maile girder under his harness.  I'm sure that will be an issue for him with the "history police" when they the program airs (and rightly so, I say).

Talhoffer's "Cookbook"

- It might be best to describe Talhoffer's 1459 Fechtbuch ("fight book") as being just a portion of his Kriegsbuch, or war book, which contains a fascinating collection of devices, machinery, and presentation material on various military arts and sciences. The material on fighting skills (which was almost exclusively my area of professional interest and certainly my personal fascination) is the work's largest portion. Within that, it features sections on primarily foot combat, itself dominated by examples of unarmed and dagger-fighting techniques. This is followed by substantial material on fighting with the sword and buckler, the longsword, pole-axe in armor, and then a large segment on various kinds of fighting for trial by combat with special duelling shields.

- My view toward the program's content was that this bound manuscript represents something like a cookbook, in that there are recipes on various appetizers, main courses, side dishes, and desserts. The producers, for whatever reasons, wanted to forgo focusing on the dishes that make up the delicious entrées and tasty sides in favor of emphasizing appetizers and desserts. Since the main interest of the director was the man-woman judicial combat and the fight with duelling shields, this meant us presenting mostly generalities about the kind of fighting Talhoffer's work portrays and then featuring a handful of specific actions from selected plates.

- My only real complaint with the vision of the production was that, if you look at this edition of Talhoffer half of it has to do with combat arts. So, half the program should reasonably be about that. But instead, these elements got downplayed from what we could tell on set. Additionally, a tiny, tiny fraction of the work depicts mounted combat and only a few pages show armored combat (with the rest being unarmored longsword, buckler and messer, and then the judicial material). But there was all this seeming emphasis being placed on mounted activities. Made no sense to me. In my opinion that stuff has been done to death in TV documentaries already. But, it wasn't my place to comment on this.  

- As with the nature of much documentary filmmaking, there is often no real script to go on just the director's general idea of what's to be captured on camera. The larger vision doesn't come together really until editing. So, we were not sure at all what angle the production was going to take. All we knew for sure was that Talhoffer's martial arts material was not center stage. As far as we could figure during our time working on it was the program would emphasize how "mysterious" the manuscript's "enigmatic" content was.  

Judicial Duels and Trial by Combat

- Judicial duelling makes up a good portion of the fighting material in Talhoffer's fight book. Such contests were essentially trial by combat, a religious and legal ordeal that let certain disputed matters or criminal cases be settled by fighting it out when neither side could be judged according to anything but their own word. In a world often ruled by force it was a right afforded to the warrior class, or noble knights, but sometimes commoners were permitted to engage in a form of it.  As opposed to single combat challenges such as chivalric duels or later private duels of honor, a man (and in rare instances, a woman) would be obliged by authority to enter into a judicial combat. He might be typically given a month or two to prepare himself. Certain formalities and ritual dictated the setting and conditions. Much of the surviving fight-book literature deals with how to survive such combat. Such occasions could be huge spectacles for the community, sort of akin to a combination celebrity court case, political scandal, MMA championship, and public execution all rolled into one.  In German regions at this time commoners as well as woman sometimes engaged in such combats. Unlike knights, they would often required to wear a strange tight-fitting body suit (perhaps a ritual or burial outfit).

- Judicial combat has never been an interest of mine nor anything I really get excited over, but that was a major portion of what we ended up doing, such that we didn't get to indulge the director in our expertise with the longsword nor on armored combat they way we had hoped. Instead, we had to present other things that were less interesting and less reflective of our skills in the knightly art of 15th century Germanic fighting.  Still, it was all great experience and there's some things on camera that's never been done before and they told us several times they were really, really pleased with the action and dynamism of what we displayed.  In fact, the production crew and animators sent me more than one note reading: "We have been studying your moves a lot from the previous videos you have sent, I'm not an expert on martial arts but I have never seen this style of fighting in any movie documentary or game. I hope we do it justice in representing it properly."

The Challenge of Matching Martiality with Theatricality

- Our challenge in this project was essentially: how do we arrange these fight scenes to meet the needs of the director but at the same time display the inherent violence in brutality of this type of combat (meaning late-14th / early-15th century Germany) in a way that would reflect the techniques and methods from Talhoffer's fight book?  And how to do this in the way we know —that is, in a manner that hasn't been seen before with the standard cliché theatrical/stage-fighting arrangement?  This has nothing to do with the usual laments by choreographers about time and space constraints or creative freedom, but rather offering up a different method to the standard theatrical theories of Medieval and Renaissance close-combat and the distorted physicality by which they're typically misrepresented. 

- For people like myself, as an experimental historian, a specialist, a martial artist, we can have a deep and personal relationship with the source materials.  We're often intricately familiar with and involved in practicing the principles and techniques their teachings contain. Thus, we couldn't help but bring a very different approach and perspective to this kind of project – even though we felt the producers weren't capitalizing on what we can do and allowing us to fully display our unique expertise and skill set – which, I maintain, is a decidedly different conception (and indeed, superior) vision of historical close-combat to that of what film and TV producers have for so long given the public via the usual stunt fighting industry. (This made all the more clear when you actually catch in the program a few seconds of the shadowy silhouettes of two fighters bashing longswords edge on edge in slow motion ---yet more of the same old historically inaccurate and martially unsound stunt-fighting re-enactment silliness that we abhor.)  Being known myself as a long-time critic of the historical and martial misrepresentation so endemic to much of stage-combat in film and television, I am fully confident my work cannot but have a distinct look. Many of the seemingly realistically vicious moves we do we achieve by use of a natural broken tempo and broken rhythm delivered just off target or just out of range than we would normally do if we were sparring. Fighting for entertainment/dramatic impression is always about creating illusion but the best illusions are those that seem to be real. Accomplishing this is easiest when you can do it for real to begin with.

fighting with Talhoffer dueling shields- Because of the necessity in film or TV to do multiple takes of an exchange or to repeat a fight sequence over and over until the director's satisfied he has what he needs, Aaron and I became instantly aware that (obviously) after doing something twenty, thirty, or forty times with the force and intensity that we practice our moves it was losing that sense of urgency and spontaneity that we prize.  We know what is reflective of authentic martial intent, and what looks better than the usual pretend combat, so what we had to do was stop and say something like: Okay, you know what we're doing at the moment is losing that sense of real physical and emotional energy as we're getting overly familiar with it here and it's losing the naturalness we like and the subtle but all-important element of immediacy you find in real fighting. So, we would stop; break the action, break the rhythm, break the tempo, do a few other moves to reset and re-energize ourselves then resume what we had been doing.  This way in our fight scenes we captured that urgency and excitement we try to convey with real techniques but is lost in virtually all fight choreography of this kind.  

fight with Talhoffer dueling shields- What we did half the time for the fighting portions was a vigorous energetic free-play within an exchange of certain prepared moves and set outcome. It was a mixture of motion sequences and fighting techniques that we're not quite reenactment but we're certainly not your traditional Hollywood choreographed nonsense.  The rest of the time our fights were just performance of a specific strike and counter-strike routine, but delivered with an increased emotionality for dramatic impact. If the final edit retains this I think it will prove a refreshing experience to viewers.

- Given the quality of the cinematography and camera, the superb location/setting, the quality of the blades used, and the quality of my partner, as well as the free-hand we were given to specifically present historically accurate fighting techniques, I expect the final result (...fingers crossed) to be among the best work I have ever done for commercial broadcast or film.

On and Off the Set

- Throughout the production there were a number of location issues with tourists, animals, background noises, people in frame, etc. As would be expected, several seemingly great takes had to be redone. While I mostly occupied myself with mentally running through our sequences and portrayal of the physicality of this kind of combat, it was harder on Aaron who spent several hours in authentic plate armor just waiting around only to then be called on to perform some feat of running, jumping, climbing, floryshing, etc., seven, eight, or nine times in a row. Glad I wasn't him. Lol. 

- At one point during a take I had to refer to "chain maile," instead of using the proper term, maile, because the director preferred it (I should have said, "the chain-link armor called maile, often mislabeled chain mail." But I didn't).  It was rough doing exactly what was requested and not offering or interjecting too much so that it interfered, yet at the same time present the expertise and advice that we were brought in for.  We were definitely not used to working that way and there was some frustration in dealing with the challenge. But, hey, they were the employers. I was just there to do the best job for them I could.  As an authority on historical arms and fighting methods the bottom line that was important to me: We were exclusively in control of the fight sequences. For the first time a real expert in the subject was coordinating realistic combat action and directing authentic historical encounters for television. Can't complain about that.

- We also got to work some with the esteemed action arranger, Mike Loades, who was on set at the Medieval Center to discuss trebuchets and mounted combat for the program. Mike also ended up helping out with Aaron's armor a few times and offering some comments on Talhoffer.  Mike's a fascinating guy with a long career in stage combat and theatrical fencing as well as exploring historical weapons and military technology. He is a pioneer in presenting historically accurate combat for film and television as well as a life-long explorer of arms and armor in his own right. I've been viewing him on TV shows since I was a teen and had the pleasure of meeting him a decade earlier.  So it was a bit surreal for me to actually have him around for so much of the week. Though the foot combat fighting skills of MARE (that is, the "martial arts of Renaissance Europe") are not his area of special expertise, I have a great admiration and respect for Mike's extensive body of work and unmatched experience in the industry.  He was a delightful curmudgeon as well as a kindred spirit. Aaron and I were not quite sure at times if he fully appreciated the perspective we were bringing to the project, though it wasn't as if we really had opportunity to go over it with him the way we would have if we weren't all so busy working.

 - For both Aaron and I, the whole hurry up and wait pattern of being on set was no problem. Aaron deals with that professionally as a veteran police officer, and I, being former military myself as well as a long-time martial arts instructor had no self-discipline concerns.  Besides, how could we ever really be bored on the location of Denmark's gorgeous Medieval Center.  The 15th century scenery, the buildings, the ambiance, the extraordinary attention to detail, all gave a real sense of milieu that encouraged the right mindset. For myself, being in historical garb with replica weapons at that location kept me fixed on the subject in a way I have never felt before.  It was very cool. Besides, we also knew what our call times were and when we were nearing the end of the shoot each day and this helped us stay pumped.

Tools of Choice

Albion's Regent Longsword

- The historically accurate replica swords loaned for this shoot from Albion Swords were invaluable.  All the weapons we had on hand from them performed flawlessly and everyone who handled them was very impressed (oddly, most had never even heard of Albion!). As a professional swordsman and consumer advocate for historical fencing — with no business relationship with Albion — I can say I honestly consider them the finest reproduction swords available.  Several of their models are among my favorite off-the-shelf pieces that are without question the best I have ever used.  Their "Regent" longsword astonished everyone with what it permitted me to perform and their "Talhoffer" longsword was the perfect match to the whole project.  Both the "Regent" and "Talhoffer" models got a lot of use on camera.  I hope a good portion of this appears in the final edit. Both those swords are tremendous. I have said before, they are two of the most beautiful and perfect replicas I have ever had the pleasure to train with. The "Regent" in particular is currently the most favored reproduction sword that I own.

- Albion's new training Messers (short single-edged blunt practice blades) that we also had the pleasure of borrowing for this shoot were beautiful. We barley got to use either their "Liechtenauer" or "I.33" model practice-swords, but the Messers got a world-class work out on and off camera. They handled superbly and held up fantastically to sparring and practice fighting!  Using one is like driving a Porsche.  Indeed, they are really unbelievable to play with. These things are one of the most exciting tools I have ever used for practice. I am in love with them. They are so robust and sturdy they are a complete and total joy to fight with. They were an absolute blast and allowed us to perform all manner of full-speed close-in contact strikes and high-impact wardings. I am anxious to see what makes the final cut from our many hours of fighting with them on camera.

- At one point the "Talhoffer" sword was filmed being used to strike repeated high-speed blows against Aaron in his Gothic plate armor. Though it looked pretty fierce, I hit him with only about 80% force, and though his helm and armor were scratched and dented, the blade's edge wasn't affected in the least that I could tell. It was a remarkable demonstration of their quality. I am really looking forward to seeing how this looks in HD. I can't recall something like this ever being done for television before. (Amusingly, right after making these cutting blows the director, Stew, asked me to then continue on to next demonstrate how thrusts would work on armor instead and I replied, "Uhhh...no. Not with a sharp weapon."  Aaron and I exchanged bemused looks and I could see him grinning with relief under his helm. Lol.) Later, we could see the cut-like scratches the helm suffered.
- The producers also had a custom-made sword created specifically for this program of a style of spiked warsword that appears in Talhoffer's work.  The hilt simply has sharp points on its cross and pommel but otherwise the weapon is unremarkable.  Unfortunately, the design of the replica sword they obtained had an incorrect center of gravity with an inappropriate cross-sectional geometry (a common mistake in my opinion when swordmakers don't properly consult expert fighters or copy the exact blade profiles of existing specimens very closely). So, we declined to use it for any demonstrations. And because it was sharp rather than blunt we couldn't have done any fight scene action with it anyway. There were also several other issues with it that prevented presenting a sword like this the way we would have liked or employing it in a more inclusive manner. I had told them earlier that all they really needed was to have a new hilt of this style made for any number of dependable blades but they chose to go in another direction. Oh well. Too bad. No real loss.

Combat Techniques and Talhoffer's DuelsAlbion's Talhoffer sword

"Act like you're fighting, not fight like you're acting."

- Normally, fight arrangers, choreographers, or stuntmen would get to examine and prepare their gear and props well in advance. In this case we didn't.  The wooden duelling club the production company had made for the judicial combat was insane for doing any mock fight with. It was real and quite lethal, essentially being a heavy, solid, reproduction with a sharp point and edged corners. We had to work around it. Meanwhile the woman's flail was ridiculously unrealistic, being nothing more than a tennis ball wrapped in some layers of duct-tape.  It had neither the mass nor balance of the real thing and gave no impression of having to be wielded as if it were a large stone inside of a cloth wrapping.  It bounced and rapidly whipped all around. …Ugggh.

- Aaron took a few hours to work with a volunteer from the Medieval Center (a former nurse named Pia) who proved an apt actress and fight student. She was wonderful for the role of the woman in the judicial duel.  I think the results are again testament to our method.  As before, in keeping with our philosophy of arranging fight exchanges rather than trying to "choreograph" an artificial armed "dance routine" of sequential movements, we instead focused on her conveying appropriate "martial intent." The goal was presentation of the genuine physicality associated with fighting in earnest to defend one's life in a violent encounter like this. She was given just a few actions to perform repeatedly within the context of appearing to naturally seek range and timing. This holistic approach worked wonders, as we knew it would.  She looked good and the director was pleased with how realistic the effect was on camera. There wasn't any time wasted in trying to make some memorized fake techniques look passable or go through a programmed series of back and forth movement lessons with a novice. Following our method, instructed: "Instead of fighting like an actor, act like a fighter." Big difference.

- I also took a few moments out with Pia beforehand to show her some very simple intuitive lessons that powerfully convey certain crucial aspects of the nature of fighting so that she was able to holistically grasped just what we meant by the importance of having the right martial mindset. Of course, because her fake stone flail weapon was harmless, Aaron was able to tell her to go ahead and try to really make contact and actually hit him.  The director was able to then call out when he wanted her to strike him on the arm or head so that Aaron responded accordingly to the blows when they actually landed. The main concern for us was how to teach a non-fighter to act as if it was a life and death situation and handle their harmless mock weapon as if it were lethal. Meanwhile Aaron had to refrain from possibly injuring her with the authentic wooden club while still making it look like a legitimate contest fought with real emotion. And all this had to be done while wearing confining clothing that we had to make sure we didn't tear or rip. Whew…

Talhoffer dueling shields- The two spiked dueling shields were pretty horrible to use, unfortunately. Although the craftsmanship was pretty decent, not only were they much too heavy and dangerously sharp (requiring rounding off the spikes before we could use them), but they had unsuitable handles that were far too thick in the center to properly grip. We couldn't possibly move them correctly nor simultaneously hold another weapon while holding the shaft as Talhoffer's images show.  (I suspect these shields were produced by prop makers or, more likely, by reenactors who typically need extra thick versions to withstand repeated intentional bashing by the limited strikes of their mock combat method, as opposed to training with a functionally maneuverable shield like the kind you would want to defend your life with. 

Historically, a shield had to be easy to manage and was considered a disposable item, not something to preserve. But since no surviving version of Germanic dueling shields survive, modern makers have to guess at their design and that leads to major problems if historical martial arts practice is not the motive.  So, with these clumsy things, we quickly worked out a handful of safe but brutal looking exchanges that we forcibly executed with feigned violence. We just repeated them with rapid use of some basic footwork, fighting wards, and core motions.  

- Aaron and I had only brief time to play with the spiked shields in order to get a feel for what we could and couldn't safely do or realistically perform, just as for the problematic wooden club and "rock flail." One again, I will say that being able to call on an immense repertoire of historical fighting techniques and deep knowledge of how the real weapons perform and handle got us through. Our expertise with the authentic fighting skills of the era combined with our appreciation for the reality of this kind of personal violence gave us the tools to pull it off.  While we continually felt we did poorly compared to what we knew we could do, the director kept showing us the footage right after in the monitor and damn did they make us look good. It's amazing what you can do when you know how to handle real weapons in the real manner. 

- Interestingly, Aaron also commented that though he had never trained with such a weapon he felt very comfortable with it nonetheless because in his profession work as a SWAT officer the tactical shield is his specialty. He said he felt an immediate affinity for the weapon and I can attest to how adroit he immediately was with it.

- We also engaged in an impromptu session of arming swords with dueling shields just as depicted in Talhoffer's work. This proved quite difficult, as the shields were so unwieldy due to their heavy weight and overly thick handles.  We saw that we could have stabbed each other in the foot with either the sword or the shield spikes pretty easily (and in fact, had to be careful of accidentally doing so). When planted in the ground the shields acted like a wall you could fight around, but it still left you relatively blinded to your opponent. Several times I managed to hook my spikes on Aaron's spikes and force his shield to turn. I also achieved this with a good kick. He was very aggressive though and his greater strength proved a big advantage with these things.  We ended up blindly trading sword thrusts all around and over the shields until we decided such moves were just too hazardous and unpredictable to employ for the sequence.  The director liked it though and asked us to repeat the exchange several times.  All we really did was bash weapons back and forth on each other shields while feinting and dodging. Employed with a broken rhythm, aggressive motions, and a lot of feigned apprehension it actually looked pretty darn good from what we saw on the monitor.

- At one point on the grounds of a reconstructed 14th century farmhouse we were reproducing the sole plate of from Talhoffer showing an unarmored man going up against a fully armored opponent. This was the infamous Mortschlag or "death blow" where the blade is gripped in both hands to throw a bashing hit with the hilt. It's a fairly common technique with the longsword.  But in this instance we were restricted by lighting and directing to executing it within a small, one-meter by three-meter area of wet straw during drizzling rain (!).  For safety, I also had to be really careful to not hit with the cross-bar for that would have definitely caused real damaged. To deliver the action for the camera we had to constrict our movements down to a bare minimum of motion to still get the proper martial context and range. And then we had to give it 5 or 6 takes until the director was satisfied.  Several times Aaron and I had to stop to catch our breath and we agreed that the conditions were far from optimal to do our best work or act with good historical form and proper intent. We had to tell the crew at times that we just couldn't do a few of the things they were asking.  

- At this point, late in the second day of shooting, Aaron was physically and mentally exhausted.  His stamina is impressive, but hours of running around in his armor, doing take after take, still suffering some horrendous jet lag and loss of sleep, as well as being off of a regular eating schedule took its toll on him. When I conked his helm with this ferocious pommel strike he dropped like a rock from the ringing blow. It momentarily stunned him and put a small nickel-sized dent on his sallet helm. He collapsed to his knees then went down on all fours for several seconds. I knew he had reached his limit. I quietly asked, "Dude, you alright?" But he was so nauseous from overexertion he just groaned the way he does when he's totally wasted from training or a late night out.  The crew naturally was nervously concerned, but not being fighters or martial artists they're simply not use to the knocks and blows we take for granted as part of serious training and sparring. The tremor went right through him to his legs he told me.  It took him several minutes to catch his breath.  

- About twenty minutes later he was recuperated but by then the day was over for our scenes anyway. The real issue to me was that he wasn't wearing a proper arming cap under his helm (for which I later chewed him out!) and a recent concussion from a gunshot that went off near his ear triggered a total loss of balance from the ringing blow, and so down he went. He later told me that his equilibrium was so off from an inner ear issue that for a few seconds he really thought he was going to puke in his helmet. (The photo here shows the two dents made by the wicked pommel blows.)

- I have to say, when it comes to facing armor I thought if I had to I could take on an armored opponent while unarmored and use greater agility and speed to get at his weak spots with thrusts. No chance. Aaron knows how to fight in armor and facing him was quite intimidating, even without the wet ground and drizzling rain and restrictions on how much we could step and move in that confined space, I know I could not have gotten a thing in on him. We were using the Albion feder-sword blunts for this and had warmed up with some free play in between takes.  I could sense the mass and power of the armor bearing down on me. I couldn't see a single opening or figure out how I could have gotten a single thrust in the right place. Meanwhile, I could see Aaron detecting this and becoming more aggressive with his own thrusts and half-swording strikes.  

- It took us several ad hoc exchanges to make it look properly spontaneous and realistically intense before delivering the pre-planned Mortschlag after an agreed upon combination of rehearsed familiar actions. Even then, we still had to give it three or four takes for the best results. I've performed this technique on test targets like pumpkins and watermelons in the past, and I suspect that the practice blunt has a flex that in this instance caused the blow to whip somewhat more than a rigid sharp weapon would have. But using it in this instance with good force on a moving target presented some interesting insight. Aaron noted that he felt the wave of the impact wash down over him and that it made him really appreciate the technique far more. Now we know full well how powerful it can be against an armored adversary and just why Talhoffer included such a blow in the one plate of an armored against an unarmored man.

- Most people don’t grasp that plate-armor was nearly indestructible to the edge blows of bladed weapons. You could try to stab at the joints and gaps with a stiff pointed weapon, but slashing and hacking at it simply weren’t going to have a serious affect. No cut by any kind of sword in the world would kill a fighting man wearing a good harness. It was for this very reason that to bring a knight down specialized anti-armor weapons like warhammers and pol-axes were developed, crossbows and longbows were used, and eventually gunpowder preferred. The half-swording techniques of the longsword are right in keeping with this. Though facing an armored opponent while unarmored would surely have been a rarity, it evidently was something you had to be prepared for otherwise Talhoffer would not have included an example.

Seeing the Real Thing

- Seeing and handling (barehanded no less) the original Talhoffer 1459 bound manuscript was exciting. I've previously had the pleasure of examining several original 15th and 16th century fencing manuscripts and books. So I considered myself experienced and prepared when the time came to finally get my hands on the work. I have to admit, I wasn't really expecting to react the way I did. Rather than the cool academic and disciplined veteran martial artist, I actually felt like a kid at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.  My breath was short, my hands were sweaty, and my stomach was going all butterflies with excitement and anticipation.  Setting up the shot took a good deal of time and then to a certain degree the action itself had to be arranged beforehand. The whole while I was just standing by but inside I was jumping up and down.

- None of my prior encounters with original fight-books prepared me for Talhoffer's original.  I was thrilled at its detail, its color and vibrancy. I was shocked to learn it was made on paper (!)The condition of the work was excellent for being well over 500 years old.   The pages looked literally like they might have been made yesterday. I fought to contain how excited I was as I finally sat down to look at it closely. My fingers trembled as I ever so carefully turned the pages on camera. Even in the coolness of the library I could feel the sweat forming on my palms. I had to concentrate to keep my breathing even and my fingers from shaking as I examined the sections, turning pages at the director's cue.  It actually started to become a bit stressful as each page was slightly stuck together and required exquisite sensitivity to touch and then turn yet maintain complete decorum for the camera – Lol!  There was the director telling me, "turn… turn… turn…" and there I was thinking, "There's no freaking way I am going to turn this incredible historical work any faster than I am now just to get a shot for TV! The pages are sticking!"  But I was determined to be careful and mindful of the item – of which I was informed less than 50 people have been documented as having handled it in the last 200 years!  I looked up ever so briefly more than once to catch sight of the two curators nervously staring at me with baited breath.  Fortunately, they soon gave a visible sigh of relief as they saw how cautious and delicate I was being with it. Later they actually thanked me for being so overtly considerate.

- What was frustrating for me was how briefly the whole thing passed. Although it took some 90 minutes or so to film, it felt like 15 minutes.  I hardly got to look at the extraordinary detail of each illustration and my mind was racing to memorize all the little subtleties that were evident because of the texture of the illustrator's brush or the way the light caught the grain of the page or the manner in which the contrasting colors gave off some hitherto unnoticeable element. Still, I gained some insight into some of the key images that have long intrigued or puzzled me. I did manage to flip through every page of the foot combat section twice — but not at the pace I would have enjoyed and not with Aaron beside me to analysis and discuss finer points the way we would have preferred. Unfortunately, viewing the rest of the work was more of the hurry up and "act" for the camera.  In that regard it was disappointing. But overall the experience was nothing short of thrilling.  Shortly afterward we were looking at a copy of Talhoffer on my iphone and just shaking our heads at how much of the beauty of the work was lost in flat photos. Even the most high-resolution digital edition pales in comparison to how gorgeous the original was and how much detail could be seen on every figure.

Fighting by Faking vs. Fake Fighting

"You can't fake 'it' unless you actually know 'it.'"

- The majority of the scenes were done with a Hasty cam but several of our fight sequences Wild Dream used a special state-of-the-art $90k RED Epic 5k digital cinema camera (!) for super high-speed slo-mo results that were nothing short of astonishing. Ted RED cam is so sensitive it literally captures on frame the dust in the air that the human eye can't normally see. At the end of the final day our director said he was totally pleased, saying he was confident he had gotten something never captured before. Pretty cool. I especially hope the intense messer fight Aaron and I conducted in the forest appears in the final edit at enough length to justify the energy we put into it.  We really went all out on that. 

- What we feel we brought to the Medieval Fight Book combat scenes was something unique. The typical film fight is the art of faking it. But none of the directors or performers really know what the "it" is that they're faking. They haven't reconstructed "it" well enough to be able to fake "it" well enough. Their craft is a performance art not a martial art. It's about prolonging the fight not shortening it. It invariably relies on exaggerating and telegraphing moves for safety and theatricality. For us, however, as martial artists of Medieval and Renaissance European methods, our craft is completely the opposite. We conceal our true intentions while reading the opponent's.  Though each discipline uses the same tools and even the same sources of inspiration and neither intends real harm when practicing, they are still entirely opposite in motive, mentality, and goal.  So, in order to avoid danger at all costs the standard approach to stunt-fight arrangement is to take the violence out of any depiction of violence because they know no other way.  It then becomes operatic, an armed ballet routine.  For us, since constantly training safely in real fighting arts with real weapons using a wealth of real techniques is what we do, we are able to draw on a far greater sense of action using a more dynamic sense of timing and range.  We can then provide a very different experience for the director's vision of offering something new to viewers. The simple fact of the matter is: "It's far easier for a real fighter to pretend to fight than it is for a pretend fighter to appear to fight for real."

- Thus, what we don't do is train to mimic some movement sequences. Rather, we derive spontaneous actions from the key principles of fighting and the environment (both physical and dramatic). We apply leverage and utilize space realistically to achieve a very different appearance than achieved with standard Hollywood fight-choreography theory.  This is not to be critical of stage combat / theatrical fencing in and of itself, but rather to contrast it with a love of the authentic art of genuine historical combat. Performance fighting for entertainment is always a compromise of violent reality with need for safety and dramatic necessity. But the sophistication of the historical craft, the physicality and emotionality of real personal violence (how human beings and weapons actually perform and react), is a matter of real physics, real leverage, real speed, real range, real timing, and real techniques. It is about simplicity of brutal actions not the silly, insipid, distortions and misrepresentations that so plague the stunt fencing guilds that dominate the entertainment industry.

- This is the very reason why in the 1970s, Bruce Lee, as a real fighter and expert martial artist, was able to literally transform fight choreography into something never seen before. I have been saying for years that the same has yet to happen for historical Western European fighting styles---which remain trapped in the absurd clichés of 1930s sport fencers mixed with the operatic nonsense of kung fu theater. Bruce revolutionized fight choreography because he was a master at real movements virtually nobody had seen before. And he could can execute them with precision. So his fight scenes had a spontaneity and creative energy --- that we don't see today even with all the jerky camera-tricks and digital effects. Instead, we see the theatrical preparation and choreography, which to the untrained eye might be entertaining for awhile but don't reflect much at all of the breath and depth and richness of the physicality it pretends to portray. It ends up derivative and lacking the dynamism found in actual violence.   This is a reason why we are now doing something different.  ...Whether or not the editor/directors/powers-that-be recognize enough to show things at full speed and not turn it into the usual slo-mo, remains to be seen.

- Proud as we are of what we accomplished on this project, the one thing that we really feel simply did not get across, that we were just not allowed to express or go into, was how the basic movements and techniques shown in Talhoffer's fechtbuch — especially as evidenced in the substantial Ringen and dagger images — display a sophisticated understanding of a highly effective close-combat method. That to me is unequivocally the central message of the material for us today.  They Medieval world was a violent, brutal, nasty place that demanded you have such practical skills.  Oh well, that's entertainment. You never really know until you see what makes the final cut for broadcast.

Misadventure, Inconvenience, and Airline Frustrations

- I have no intention of ever flying Delta airlines again. While the flight crews were great and the airport staff in Denmark very nice, the incompetence of the airline in general is really unforgivable.  We know they can't do a thing about the inconvenience of the incident that occurred on our incoming flight. But our bags shouldn't have then missed both our connection and the same day follow up flights and certainly shouldn't have taken three days to be delivered to us. 

- It only got worse on our return flight. Despite arriving at the Copenhagen airport five hours before our flight's departure, and being the very first two people in line when the counter opened, they displayed an astonishing ineptitude.  They told us that not only had our flight already taken off but that we were already on it! We had to go back and forth between three different counters because no one console screen had all the info they needed to correct their screw up.  They took over an hour to clear up their mistake. But meanwhile we couldn't check our bags in. Then they next told Aaron that his armor case was now too heavy to be allowed into the USA – even though it had arrived from the USA on their airline! Idiots. To make it worse, the case was actually lighter than it had been because we had already transferred some items to our other bags.  So, it took us another hour of labor in front of their counter to lighten the case enough for them to finally permit it to be checked.  By then it was so late that we had to run to a whole different area to check in our bags then run through the airport to make our flight as the last two passengers to board!  All that after arriving 5 hours early. Then at security we were delayed again when I got pulled out of line because I had two of those tiny 10-ounce containers of hand cleanser in my bag -- containers which I had brought with me on the arriving flight without any incident. They kept us ten minutes while the woman had to search and search and search to find them instead of simply asking me where they were. Ugggh. 

- If we had gotten to the airport with the standard two-hours of time we would have certainly missed our flight.  I was pretty pissed because I lost out on some special shopping for my family that I had planned all week to take care of at the airport.  Plus, as we were waiting in line to move up to our gate along with passengers for other flights, I asked the ticket collector if I could bring a glass bottle drink aboard. He said yes. So I stepped out of line and a dozen or so feet away purchased two delicious pear ciders (unavailable in the USA) for Aaron and I.  Again, I asked the vendor if we were allowed to bring bottles aboard. Now mind you, at this point we were at our gate, well behind the security area and only waiting to walk down the boarding corridor to our plane. But once on board the flight attendants confiscate my bottles telling me they're forbidden onboard!  What total nonsense. I was pretty damn pissed.  Then to add insult to injury, Delta loses Aaron's armor case on his connecting flight back to Wisconsin!  When it at last turned up days later all his armor was so trashed, being scratched and bent and deformed, he is convinced some baggage handlers must have removed it and played around with it somehow. Delta was simply horrible. They showed absolutely no professional responsibility or concern for how they repeatedly victimized us and never offered a single apology or consolation for all their  screw-ups.

- John Clements, Dec 2010

*Update After Airing:

After watching the program on its first air date, I have to say it was very, very well done. The graphics were beautiful and the content was well executed. The amount of material concisely covered made for good television. Still, as a student of fighting arts it was somewhat disappointing. It's hard to cover everything in a single 60-minute program. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that the programmed failed to bother informing the viewer of the importance of Talhoffer's manuscript as the first illustrated book on 15th century Germanic fighting skills, or mention at all that numerous other versions of the work were produced as specifically martial art study guides.  They focused some 70% of the program on the war-machines and then most of the rest on the woman's judicial duel with far less on the martial arts content, even though these fighting skills make up more than half the book's actual material--which you wouldn't know from watching the program.  This is not unsurprising given that it is National Geographic.  But, the fact that National Geographic is doing a program on a 15th century Fechtbuch at all is in itself exciting.  It was a downer though that our forest messer fight that we spent half the day doing for them was entirely omitted. The action we arranged was unprecedented. It was also disappointing that they left out virtually all the judicial shield fight as well (even though we were very unsatisfied with how the shields performed). It was especially disappointing that they didn't show us fighting at proper speed but instead went yet again with the slow-motion despite us giving them tons of beautiful techniques at full energy and also doing full speed strikes with a sharp blade on armor.  It's baffling why they make the choices they do sometimes. But, on the bright side, we were both extremely pleased with how we presented ourselves and how we represented the subject.  Our choreography and demos did look pretty good too.  This is a good start. In the end though, the definitive program on this material has yet to be done ---and we have yet to get to showcase what we're capable of doing. - JC

Behind the Scenes Video Clips:

Man-Woman Duel

Working Out the Man-Woman Duel Scene

Performing Action for High Speed Slo-Mo

Duelling Shield Scene

On a raised log Aaron demonstrates the agility of a man in plate armor to potential jump-mount a saddle.

Aaron's impression of the duelling shield

Excerpts from ARMA video blog chat of 1st day
John encounters communication difficulties in the 14th century
"Dueling Goober" - Aaron's true nature exposed

Tahoffer's Medieval Fightbook

Return to Iron Door Studio

Day 1 - Monday, August 9, 2010

Preparing for the dive suit experiment: a functional reproduction of the hand-pump for the underwater breathing apparatus that appears in Talhoffer's Fechtbuch.
The Master Diver. We had to pump a replica air compressor to give him air to breath for part of the scene where Mike Loades describes the experiment with the apparatus. It was exhausting.
Aaron in Armor preparing to receive cuts against  his harness froma sharp blade.
Aaron waiting for some scenes.
Merely running at top speed about six times on soft wet ground for some 50 meters or so caused Aaron's sabatons to warp significantly.
Helping out the crew with the gear.
Director Stuart Clarke, soundman Alam Jones, and cinematographer Stephen Hart.
Late in the day the near deserted Medieval Center takes on an almost indescribable illusion of time-travel.
Chilling in the hours before the judicial ring is prepped.
Aaron begins the first day's shooting with two exhausting hours of longsword floryshes on the replica dock.
Aaron begins the first day's shooting with two exhausting hours of longsword floryshes on the replica dock.
Aaron begins the first day's shooting with two exhausting hours of longsword floryshes on the replica dock.
Aaron begins the first day's shooting with two exhausting hours of longsword floryshes on the replica dock.
Much of this was for the director to get a feel for what we could do and how to use it and for us to get a feel of working with the crew.
With Soren of Albion Swords Europe.
Warming up on the dock with the practice Messers.

Day 2 - Monday, August 10, 2010

Aaron working out with the dueling shield.
Aaron working out with the dueling shield.
Working through the SAFE method before our Messer fight in the forest sequence.
Freeze frame of our messer combat.
John on the farm grounds getting in some practice and test cutting with the Albion Regent longsword.
Prepping the judicial dueling pen.

Filming the hole being dug for the man-woman duel. It was actually dug well before by tools and a lot of labor. Then a reenactor on hand was used with a historical shovel for the shot. It actually wasn't deep enough and Aaron had to crouch himself down very uncomfortably.
The man-woman judicial duel in action. The man is forced to stand in a hole. Sometimes his free hand was tied to his waist. Here we unfortunately didn't have a proper kampfring (or combat fence) built, just a rope on posts.
Aaron found out quickly that not being able to move was a real hindrance, but striking at his opponent's feet and shin was a real possibility that kept her away from him - just as Talhoffer depicts.

Day 3 - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Aaron armed with an Albion Talhoffer longsword preparing to demonstrate a full-speed running charge in armor.

Several times Aaron's armor started to get twisted and not fit properly but there was no time or opportunity given to stop and fix it. We had to continue on knowing in frustration that it was screwed up and hoping the camera wouldn't catch it. 

John late in the day exploring how fighting might have occurred in the confines of a 14th century village street.
John in the afternoon practicing fight sequences on the open encampment. The Medieval Center's natural beauty and accurate historical ambiance make for an almost magical environment to practice in.
We discovered quite by accident a set of historical "mud shoes" at the center nearly identical to those depicted in Talhoffer that were something of a mystery. The logic of these became quite clear when after the second day my historical shoes were filthy and soaked from all the walking and fighting on the village's natural ground.
Feeling a little goofy… but hey, we're being paid to fight for TV. Hard to complain.
With Mike Loades on our way back to the center for afternoon pick up shots.
Mike Loades John Clements
One of the Medieval center's immense reproduction trebuchets. Such weapons are featured in Talhoffer's Fechtbuch. Seeing this thing hurl a 40-pound concrete ball thousands of feet is quite a sight. The sound alone is intimidating and the impact on water is astonishing.
One of the Medieval center's immense reproduction trebuchets. Such weapons are featured in Talhoffer's Fechtbuch. Seeing this thing hurl a 40-pound concrete ball thousands of feet is quite a sight. The sound alone is intimidating and the impact on water is astonishing.
Several different kinds of medieval siege weapons at the center.
Mike Loades atop the main trebuchet which was preparing to be fired on camera.
In the cool rainy weather, wearing sword and garb, with no one around but a handful of reenactors, the sense of verisimilitude among the buildings and grounds of the village was unparalleled.

Day 4 - Thursday, August 12, 2010

Scenic Copenhagen from our hotel's 14th floor. The library now containing Talhoffer's work is visible in the dark tower building mid-left.
How John enjoyed his free time in Copenhagen. ("Mmm…")
How Aaron enjoyed his free time in Copenhagen. ("Mmm…")
At the back doors of the old portion of the library.
The scenic grounds of the old library.
The store room where Talhoffer's work is kept.
The head curator retrieving the actual item. Over 500 years old and he casually carries it down the stairs.
The crew at work.
The original in all its glory.
There is no comparing seeing the original.
Aaron and John between takes with the 1459 Talhoffer.
The beauty of this handmade work is stunning. Just thinking about how Master Talhoffer himself had at one time handled this was awe producing.
Getting ready to film my examination of the Talhoffer.
Going over how to handle the delicate pages.
Pointing out subtle elements of the illustrations to the curator.
The director Stuart prepping John on how he wants the viewing to go.
Just outside the library in scenic Copenhagen.
Our director, Stuart. with Aaron and John