Author interview with Rob Runacres

By | 25th June 2019

1) You wrote the Book of Lessons that we published in 2017. Can you tell us a little about this book, and what you know about the original author?

It’s a compilation of various lessons and principles, spanning the late sixteenth to early / mid seventeenth. It includes a large section from Girolamo Cavalcabo’s work and a small paragraph from Paternostrier, which would put the earliest date of the text as after 1595, though one would imagine it’s later than that. The remaining text continues in a lesson format, covering single sword, sword and dagger, sword and cape and some dagger defences. With it are two sets of pictures: 71 found in the Swedish Royal Library and 54 in the Scott Collection, Glasgow. The latter appear to be refinements of the former. It is overall a huge volume with a vast amount of material.

Authorship is a problem. No author is stated, though a librarian’s note of 1900 attributes the text to a Pedro De Heredia, a governor of Brabant in the early seventeenth century. There are various different hands writing the text; the main is very neat with minimal crossings out, which would suggest a write up from notes. The titles are in a different hand and may have been added later. The captions for the pictures are in various hands. Also, the text is written in French, but uses Spanish, French and Italian terms.

2) There are lots of different rapier systems available for people to study. What makes this book and system interesting and unique?

I would counter the idea that there are many various systems. I would say there are many treatises, with each ‘master’ attempting to give their own brand in order to market themselves. While one can see Fabris and Thibault as very different, this does not mean that all forms are distinct. I also dislike the modern use of rapier, given the term is common from the beginning of the sixteenth century, but applied in modern terms as a superficial gloss so some swordplay from the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries.

The Book of Lessons is a compilation of principles spanning almost half a century. It begins with Cavalcabo (often pigeon-holed as ‘sidesword’ or – worse – ‘transitional rapier’ (yuk), but continues with defences against the mathematical form (verdadera destreza) and uses ‘Franco-Italian’ terminology and a variety of ‘vulgar destreza’ techniques. I would consider this treatise to be a ‘work in progress’. The author / s were compiling techniques and principles that they felt were of value to them. This demonstrates that fencing is not stationary marker in time, but that evolves and develops and is individual, within the parameters of the principles.

3) What sort of swords would people have been using when training this system?

I would take a stab at complex hilted sideswords of the last quarter of the sixteenth century, through to pre cuphilts (ring and cup etc) of the seventeenth. The pictures seem to have ‘removed’ the guards to better illustrate the finger positioning.

Arguably, given there is no recommendation of sword type, most single-handed swords of the period could be applied, with allowances for the mechanics of the weapon used and adjustment to the posture etc. However, that is open to debate.

4) You have been teaching a variety of lessons at national and international events, showcasing your understanding and interpretation of this system. What do you think are the key, stylistic features of the system? Is there something that really catches your interest and as kept you working with this source for so long?

It’s more the sheer volume and wealth of the material. I have been studying Cavalcabo for some time in tandem with an interest in destreza forms and some French material. The Book of Lessons complements my understanding of these. And it is a teacher’s dream. One can lift lessons from the text.

I have also started to analyse the difference in the two sets of pictures. Refinements have shown that the pictures themselves have undergone technical changes to fine tune the depictions. We can see these refinements through our understanding of mechanics, which confirms the pictures are not just there to pretty things up.

5) Has your understanding or interpretation of this system changed at all since you wrote the book and published it with us? If there have been any changes, can you say what they were and how they came about?

Yes, and it continues to evolve. Indeed, I hope anyone working on a system continues to evolve their understanding.

Firstly the pictures, as said, have more depth than I first understood. I think there are refinements in hilt angles and body position that show an appreciation of body mechanics.

Second, the pictures change in their depiction of bloodshed. In the original ones we published, several show wounding. In the second, unpublished set, only a would-be assassin is shown with blood. I think there is a lesson on the fate of assassins there, but bloodshed between noble combatants is not seemly.

Finally, for now, I feel that there is more archival research to be undertaken, which I’m doing in part for my thesis.

Book of Lessons is now available with a 10% discount for the rest of this week: