I don’t know why Achille Marozzo wrote his New Work on swordplay. I know the result of it, but I don’t know what made him sit down and put that first mark on the page. I know what it’s like to teach martial arts. I know what it’s like to write, and what it’s like to try and organize the things you think are important.
I’m old enough that I can imagine beyond the romance of writing. Marozzo didn’t write in a montage, he wrote while living a life. A life that we can never really know. We don’t know the quiet intimacies of his daily life. We don’t know what he fretted about, whether his breakfast was a peaceful moment of contemplation or a noisy mess at the start of a busy day. We don’t know his friends or his pleasures. Did he write locked in a dark room, intent and focused, pouring his soul out into each page? Or did he put down a little bit at a time, when the urge struck him, in the midst of a happy day full of smiles and laughter?
I have his writing at hand throughout my day. I have, for more than ten years now, to one degree or another, read parts of his book every day. I’ve used the weapons he talks about, both sharp and dull. I’ve tried to teach myself to think the way he did by reading the same books he might have, to educate myself the same way. I’ve worn the clothes, eaten the food.
My students tend to be a well educated lot. They’ve either got degrees or they spend free time learning whatever interests them. They may not be fit when they take their first class, but they are after the first year. They all love what they do in class. The more they experience, the greater the hunger for more. A year of getting fit, a year of learning the basics, and then we get into the real training. I know it’s a solid martial art, and as such it makes every student a more capable person.
Even with a sword in hand, though, they know little of Marozzo. They know the name, and they know some of what they learn comes from him. I show them images and bits of the manual from time to time, and it’s politely acknowledged. I’m sure most students are interested in knowing more, but it seems like a thing for the future. Something to follow up on when there is less in the moment to learn. It matters less where a technique comes from, and more that they can actually use it in sparring.
I know my Marozzo. Or more correctly, I know my art of the sword that I have derived from Marozzo and others. I am content with this, as my goal is not to recreate or even preserve Marozzo’s art. There are others far more capable than I putting in good work. I follow what they do and look for things that are different or new, and re-examine what I do in light. That work is in good hands and doesn’t need my poor attempts at help.
I’ve always thought it an odd conceit that we should judge the validity of our art on the fanciful concept of time travel. It’s valid for a researcher to think about how his theoretical model of a lost art would stand up to a practitioner of the time of that art, but it’s pointless for the rest of us. It doesn’t matter if we would last in a duel against a sixteenth century fighter, because we never will face one.
Aesthetics and sport are perfectly valid modern reasons for studying swordplay. Valid enough that they deserve to stand on their own merits, and be appreciated and explored for what they are.
My conceit is a little different. I believe my martial art must stand up to modern application. I teach the sword with this in mind, as a tool and metaphor to understand personal combat. Beyond this I look to the future. I don’t know what the future will bring, and the farther into the future I think, the less I know. I do not know what the reality of personal defense and combat will be, but I know there will still be violence of some kind. I want my art to be of use to those future fighters.
I feel that Marozzo passed down to us a seed of martial wisdom, an essential truth that must not be forgotten. It’s our right to water and grow this seed, and use the plant and it’s products any way we see fit…but it is our duty to see that the seed is nurtured, kept safe, and passed on to future generations. Aesthetics, sport and re-creation are all products of the seed, but not the seed itself. There is a truth that they don’t contain.
It’s a truth Marozzo may have felt over the sharp burn of a cut, the hollow belly of fear, and the odd distortion of moving and acting despite that fear. It’s a truth I’ve felt, and some of my students have felt. In some of us that ignites a hunger to overcome, to master that place and time. We never want to feel that way again, and we never want anyone else to feel that way in the first place. So we create a truth, an answer to the puzzle, and desperately pass it on. We teach with that dark place always in mind. It’s the shadow that never leaves your side.
Marozzo put a little light in his pages. It shines down all these centuries later, and chases away some of my shadows. I will do my best to pass that light along.