Historical Visuals and Reconstruction of Motion: A Gestalt Perspective on Medieval Fencing Iconography

Maciej Talaga 1  and Harrison Ridgeway 2
  • 1 , Jaworowa 8, 05-807, Żółwin, Poland
  • 2 , 99a koornang road, Carnegie Victoria 3163, Australia


Several subdisciplines within historiography, most notably the arms and armour or martial arts studies, are interested in inferring physical qualities of historical material objects from historical sources. Scholars from these fields face serious deficiency of written accounts when it comes to various crucial information regarding their subject matter. Therefore, researchers’ attention is often drawn to iconographical sources, sometimes resulting in certain fascination with the material culture depicted in primary technical literature (Fachliteratur). This tendency seems particularly strong in studies on HEMA which rely heavily on pre-modern combat treatises known as ‘fight books’ (Fechtbücher) and are tempted either to treat the available iconography as a faithful representation of its corresponding material reality or to interpret apparent mismatch between icono-graphical representations and their material source domain as evidence for the inferior skills of the illustrator.

We would like to put forward that there is a fundamental oversight in such approach to Fachliteratur in general and fight books in particular, namely the lack of consideration for the artwork as a diagrammatic representation of the functional aspects of depicted embodied technique, where proportional ‘realism’ is of lesser priority. It may be fruitful to develop a more nuanced method of ‘reading’ such images. Our survey of select late-medieval fight books shows that equipment, and even body parts, are regularly distorted in their depictions in the fight books to better communicate the subject matter, especially where textual descriptions would be complicated. Interpreted in Gestalt terms, this phenomenon may serve as an example of historical pragmatic application of the cognitive principle of holism – that the whole is something different than the sum of its parts.

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