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“Lost” 17th century fencing manual – now in print!

On Saturday 22nd March I attended the launch of a very exciting non-fiction book – an English translation of Nicoletto Giganti‘s second fencing manual, which until very recently had been lost to history.

The story of its discovery is up there with that of Tutankhamen’s tomb: a missing piece of the historical jigsaw that had faded almost into legend, suddenly found by a couple of bold adventurers. Admittedly the journey of discovery required only a visit to the Wallace Collection in central London, not to Egypt, but for those of us who love Renaissance history, it was just as exciting.

To give some context, there were many famous Italian masters writing fencing manuals in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, of which Nicoletto Giganti was one of the more highly regarded. His first manual was published in 1606 and covered the basic techniques of rapier fighting, but in it he promised to write further books that would expand upon this foundation. A sequel was duly published in 1608, but no copies were known to have survived, and even as early as 1673 some experts expressed doubts that it had been written at all. To complicate the issue, Giganti’s first book was reprinted several times in the 17th century, at least once in Italian and then in German translation, so there are numerous editions of it in the various collections around the world.

Renaissance fencing enthusiasts Piermarco Terminiello and Joshua Pendragon had heard there was a 1608 book by Giganti in the Wallace Collection, and were hoping very much that it was the second book and not a reprint of the first. The book itself had been overlooked because its illustrations were inferior to the first manual, giving rise to the assumption that it was a cheap rip-off! But when Pim and Josh started flipping through it, they realised that the illustrations didn’t match the first book’s text at all: here were pictures of the fighting techniques Giganti had promised to cover in his sequel, such as rapier and dagger, rapier and shield, and grapples. Returning to the frontispiece, the title was unequivocal: LIBRO SECONDO, in huge capitals!

The precious sole copy of Giganti’s second book – this “dagger vs spear” illustration is one of the more advanced techniques covered
The precious sole copy of Giganti’s second book – this “dagger vs spear” illustration is one of the more advanced techniques covered

After months of work, first on an academic paper and then on the translation itself, the paperback edition was launched at the Wallace Collection. The Curator of Arms and Armour, Tobias Capwell, introduced the authors, then after a brief introduction to the topic by Joshua Pendragon the audience was treated to a more in-depth presentation by Piermarco Terminiello. Not only was the talk very entertaining in itself, but it was accompanied by live demonstrations of some of the moves by member of The School of the Sword.

Fran Terminiello (right) takes on a mysterious hooded assailant!
Fran Terminiello (right) takes on a mysterious hooded assailant!

Of course I bought a copy after the talk. For a writer of historical fantasy like myself, primary sources are so valuable in helping to envisage what real Renaissance swordplay looked like. In addition, Giganti’s second book covers just the kind of fighting one is likely to come across in a novel; not the stylised duelling of the salle, but the grapples and improvised tactics that – as Giganti says – will serve a man well on the dangerous city streets!

I am of the opinion, that the dagger is as important for a gentleman to know as any other weapon. This is because the majority of great men and captains who are killed, are slain by daggers or similar arms.

Nicoletto Giganti, 1608

I’m only sorry that this book wasn’t around when I was writing my Elizabethan novels –  the cudgel- and knife-fighting techniques that Mal teaches to Coby in The Alchemist of Souls are based on other similar manuals of the period. However Giganti certainly bears out the approach I took, and I hope that his instructions will come in handy in future novels 🙂

Should you want to find out more:

  • A paperback edition of the translated manual, published by Fox Spirit Books, can be obtained from Amazon.
  • Fran Terminiello (Pim’s wife) is doing a swordplay demonstration at this year’s Edge-Lit SFF convention in Derby
  • The Wallace Collection is home to a fine collection of medieval and Renaissance arms and armour (as well as many famous paintings) and best of all, entrance is free!


Darren Turpin

Have you got a copy of ‘English Martial Arts’ by T. Brown? Published by Anglo-Saxon Books in 1997. Lots of background detail on historical combat methods and photography of the author (plus stooges) demonstrating the techniques. Good stuff.