Hi Ton, it is a pleasure to have a conversation with you again, although for a matter of time and geography we can’t chat in person. We met for the first time in December 2019 in Bielefeld, during the International Montante Symposium organized by Drei Wunder: was a great experience, I am happy to have been the first Italian attending it and I hoped to met you as well.
“Hi Niccolò, it is also a pleasure for me that we can chat with a little more time than there, since we had a very tight schedule in that wonderful event that was the International Montante Symposium.”
I decided to open this cicle of interviews with yours because, believe it or not, you could be considered a montante icon in HEMA; I am sure that you are given many attentions for other verdadera destreza and Esgrima Comun weapons as well, as you are part of the Academia Da Espada in Spain and I got, chatting with you, that you are always around the world, but really big swords are something we don’t see so often in HEMA circuits and fact is, being you Spanish, that it is kind of expected to ask you to talk and teach us about such a weapon as Iberian montante. It is like this weapon is inside your blood!
“Well, I think that’s too much to say about me, but it is true that half of the great written tradition of the weapon is in two of the languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish (Castilian) and Portuguese, so, being Galicians we are well positioned to read and understand this original sources. Of course the other half of the written tradition is in Italian, your own language, and that costs me a little more!”
Let’s be honest: montante is a ’pop’ sword, if we like to use the modern German word ‘Zweihänder’, and it is inside our imaginary on many levels – many so wrong! –, but inside HEMA it is still a sort of outsider, partly due to its fighting techniques, partly to the danger to get injured.
So, with this interviews (you have the honor to lead them, but there will be more), my intent is to shift attention and to switch on a light upon the people who are exploring this weapon; let’s discard for a moment the core historical context and notions (I am sure that The Spadone Project is providing a good amount of sources) and focus on you, your personal path and experience. Are you ready?
“Well, it’s a bit scary, but Audaces Fortuna Iuvat, so go ahead!”
Ahah, there is no worry, let’s begin! When did you start studying montante practice? Why did you start and how was the first approach with such a weapon?
“Well, this can be extensive if we talk about influences; childhood and inspiration, you know… A montante in an antique shop in front of my family home (a replica, of course, but I did not know), movies like ‘knights of the Round Table’ (it’s not a montante, but in any case it was a very big sword for the mind of a child), some comic character, like ‘El sueñero’…
But the first approaches were much later, when discovering the existence of the regras of Diogo Gomes de Figueiredo, the texts of Miguel Pérez de Mendoza and the illustrations of Alfieri. Interestingly I started with a flail, since the montantes were very expensive and Pérez de Mendoza said in his book that these two weapons ‘are handled in the same way’”
Was it a new challenge after a first previous Iberian fencing experience, or did it just come along with the rest of the weapons when you began study historical fencing? What did you like the most about montante and what you like now, if something has changed?
“Yes, it was a new challenge: I started with the study of the rapier and then the longsword, the rapier and the dagger, the sword and the buckler, etc., different weapons, different traditions. Over time, my feeling was that I was too scattered, so I started to focus more on the Verdadera Destreza I was already studying with rapier, and as I am also involved as assistant editor in AGEA editora, and we are specialized in the critical edition of treaties of the Iberian tradition, the arrival to the weapon was at least necessary, both from the perspective of the Verdadera Destreza tradition as well as the rest of the non-Verdadera Destreza sources that we conserve.
What do I like most about the montante? Which is big! Well, this is a joke in part and in part it is not: the size of the weapon forces you to use a different biomechanics, to make a more defined movement, so to speak. The only thing that has changed in this aspect is that as we work with it (and I think I speak for all the practitioners of the weapon), I think we can discover more subtle possibilities of movement and handling. With any weapon or movement system this can happen to us, of course, but with the characteristics of montante/spadone I think this is amplified.”
This is true, I agree, it can be seen as a dance and you can always link together different actions in a flow of non-stop movements. I had a taste of your teaching approach during IMS in Bielefeld and even there you pointed out the importance of body mechanics to develop a good understanding on how to ‘tame’ this ‘animal’ and to make it do what you want.
But now focusing on sources, what is your personal philosophy to their interpretation? Do you follow them strictly, do you link them together, do you discard them? We have many regras of different kinds and periods, they look many but there is a fil rouge and who works with them sometimes feels that the material is not enough to really catch its secrets. Tell us what you think.
“Yes, of course, as you say you always have the feeling that the information transmitted to us by the sources is not enough to capture their secrets, and that is true! Or at least with the sources we have so far, although I doubt that we will find new sources that provide us with much more abundant and detailed information (but we should never lose hope 😉 )
.I think the process should be to start by taking each source separately and try to reproduce what we think it tells us (haz un tajo, haz un revés ascendente, etc.). For this we must think about the type of weapon that we think the writer used, because according to the characteristics of the tool the technique can change. With this we create a scheme, a ‘skeleton’ that, of course, can have badly placed bones. The knowledge of the different rules helps us to recognize similarities between them, or directly a tradition of teaching that evolves with the passage of time, which can help us to ‘relocate’ those bones, in addition to endowing that body that we are creating with ‘flesh and muscles’. Finally, contextualization is the step that can give meaning, and therefore life, to that body: why and what was the weapon used for? When? How is it described through the time of its handling? This is the reason why a page like the one you have created is necessary and an indispensable help for researchers and practitioners, and even the simple lovers of ‘big swords’, because it is a large warehouse in which we can consult a huge amount of information about this peculiar weapon.
But this has not ended there: once this is done, we have to start over and rethink things. This rethinking can confirm or disprove conclusions that we had previously reached, but it certainly makes us refine and improve as well as observe and try to understand other interpretations. Parallel to everything we have said, there is always a work of handling the weapon outside the treaty, but I think that the way to know the most approximate handling to the reality of its moment is to begin with an interpretation of direct sources.”
And talking about sources, we can count on several Iberian treatises, I can remember at least six among books, manuscripts and such spanning from the first half of XVI century to the end of XVII century; do you have a personal favorite treatise or source? If yes, why that one, what do you find of particular interest?
“As important sources, we can speak of nine that mention the montante and one more, the first of all of them, although it speaks of a ‘espada de dos manos’ and are the famous texts of Barbarán, written between 1526 and 1528. If we have to talk about its importance, I think there is no doubt that we should highlight the works of Diogo Gomes de Figueiredo and Domingo Luiz Godinho, for the quality and detail of their descriptions but also the others are fascinating because they all provide data and or ways to focus the use of the weapon, from the ancient teaching traditions we now call ‘Destreza Vulgar’, based on sets of movement rules (choreography in reality), to the more general vision of Verdadera Destreza what to teach through a system, and not through pre-established exercises like the mentioned rules.
If I had to choose one (something I appreciate not having to do), I think I would stay with Godinho: this author is very funny and easier to understand than Figueiredo, of which there are still some rules that I do not quite get the sense of.”
I passed more than one year studying its work and I can’t help but agree, Figueyredo has wider content and cryptic passages. One thing is the source and what it tells, and another is what is not told but perhaps should be there, or added by the master if still alive: given that many times fencers and hemaists hear the sentence ‘the art of fencing is one and unique’, and given that you practice and teach other weapons too, how other historical fencing study helped you understanding the nature of this kind of weapon? What did you take to fill in the holes or to expand the source?
“Yes, and not only with Figueiredo; Sometimes you read a text and say: ‘Are you really telling me that in this situation I should do this?’ Of course we know that the regras are exercises to improve movements, but having such ‘suggestive’ titles we can not avoid looking for the meaning of the application… Damn cryptic authors!
As for the study of other weapons and other disciplines, in the biomechanical aspect it is difficult to relate montante in a very direct way, except with the long sword, for obvious reasons. It is true that everything you study brings you experience and knowledge to better assimilate new elements, and in this case my experience with Verdadera Destreza, especially with the writings of Francisco Lorenç de Rada, have given me some guidelines on which to interpret the movement, the inertia, the positions of the body, etc., although surely it is, above all, my own guidelines that transfer to everything I do.”
And speaking of what you do, many know your Youtube useful video expositions of Godinho’s and Figueyredo’s regras, I bet my spadone that many began training after watching them and I put myself in the team. Apart from what concerns clips of this kind, made as a final sharing of a patient study path, do you have a specific method to train montante? How does it work ‘behind the scene’, when you are not shooting, during the everyday training? Would you like to tell something about it?
“Nothing special, I would say: after a general warm-up we start with specific warm-up exercises (the shoulders suffer a lot, for example) and of inertias of the weapon and the body, of placement of the quillons (on which we have to speak a little more) during the movement, etc. After this we go to the study of some rule and the possibilities of variations, both from a historicist point of view to a free one. To explain it better, I would say that some interpretations that we discard because they do not end up respecting the text strictly, become new exercises to increase skills. And finally, handling the weapon freely, trying to implement all the positions and movements in a fluid and continuous sequence.”
This thing about variations is really interesting, it is a good point to build a rich didactic, while sometimes when one focuses on a specific action to improve it, it can become boring really fast; repetitiveness is something I face with my training mates, but we train to have fun too so a bit of changement is welcome. Right now how much time, on average, do you spend on montante studying and practice? Weekly, monthly? Did you use to practice more, or less in the past?
“Not a lot really, and it goes by seasons. Since montante is not our main occupation, it is reserved for a small study group during the mornings, since in the hall of the evenings (when our most numerous group trains) we do not have space for the montante, while in the morning we have more than enough. The normal thing is that we work with montante one or two days a week, but it depends a little on the season, if we are interpreting with new ideas, recording… The time of the sessions can be one or two hours depending on what we do.”
Ok, and who are your trusted fellows during the sessions? Many people, for necessity or choice, use different tools and not always something strictly related to the actual weight and size of a montante. Stick, longsword, Federschwert, nylon waster, blunt weapon and mangual (flail): tell us your 2 cents about some of these tools, if you use them or not, and personal opinion related to pros and cons while using them to train montante.
“Several people who come in the morning, and especially my closest collaborators in this, Eduardo Varela and Xosé Nieto, the same manufacturer of Hig Hill Pants. Xosé, in addition to making a great clothing line for HEMA is an enthusiast of the montante. Edu has emerged more sympathetic to the two-handed sword and the works of Marozzo (probably one day he will leave us to go living in Brescia with Roberto Gotti) and with him I am working more on the combination of sword and rotella of the late sixteenth century. Another one of the people I work closely with is David Pascal, but you know, do not give him too heavy weapons, do not separate him from the smallswords or modern rapiers… Although he has just bought a ‘Feder’… We are all afraid of what may happen next 🙂
With respect to the other tools that you mention, I believe that all of them are wonderful COMPLEMENTS to help understand the movement. The montante / spadone can be strenuous, so using a long sword or a ‘Feder’ can have characteristics similar to those of our weapon but without the problem of weight and dimensions. With the stick, we can work with the correct length, but we should not worry about the orientation of the edges or the dangers of the quillons; If you have a nylon simulator you will be a little closer to the real weapon, although everything is a little lighter, shorter and easier; the mangual is wonderful to help you know where the different parts of your body are at each moment, although you’d better start with one with the rubber balls (‘manzanillas’, little apples they called them at the time) so that the mistakes are not too harmful and or painful. All of them are very valuable and can help us better assimilate different parts of the techniques and movements, but in the end it is with a montante that we are going to really learn and to understand the difficulties, the possibilities and the strengths of the weapon.”
Very exhaustive; when possible, complementary training is a good thing, maybe even to work with students in a progressive way to stimulate a wider vision.
And talking about students, you teach to people, so you are expected to know more than the ‘normal’ HEMA guy and probably like my Italian fencing master you need to know quite well the treatises and the notions you are working with, not limiting yourself to a specific category but, for what concern an average hemaists who doesn’t have this kind of responsibility, in which way can montante enrich his hobby/passion experience? What does it give you that other weapons cannot?
“Well, basically the things we said at the beginning, the much-mentioned biomechanical aspect. What is the reason? Well, we always say that weapons must be an extension of our body, but of course, there are weapons and weapons!The lighter a weapon is, the more free it is of the movements of most of our body to handle it. It is clear that we must advance or retreat, or move to the sides for the attack or defense, but with a foil the handling depends first of all on the fingers, and then we add parts (hand, wrist, etc.). If we move on to something heavier, a rapier sword (to see a clear difference, think of a 1600 piece, large and heavy, think of the Giganti or Capoferro plates, for example), we get the optimization of its handling using the aforementioned parts, of course, but adding the push of the hips, the torso inclinations, the rotations on the balance axis, etc.; if we talk about a two-handed sword or a longsword, we need both hands (obviously), and consequently we work less profiled, so we can have more power. Well, the montante can work as an amplifier of what I mentioned. If we respect the dimensions and average weights (1.70m, 2.5-3kg, quillons-40-50cm) it leads us to optimize our movement. With regard to a longsword it is more demanding, since it is much more difficult to stop movements, so we must take advantage of its inertias; the practice of ‘ceñidos’/‘cinxidos’ movements (tight) can help us to work the rotations on our own axis of balance, the study of the rules leads us to create new forms of movement, to break the times of the steps / cuts and thrusts. In short, it gives us balance and strength, and can serve us for body-building, as you can guess what Alfieri tells us 😉 By the way, I do not think it will help us perfect our finger handling on the foil or the smallsword, but you can not have everything!”
We are concluding, I recall something said in the beginning and I ask you: do you think that montante is underrated among hemaists? If yes, why, in your opinion?
“I would not say that it is underestimated, but it is true that its practice is not as widespread as that of other weapons. It is logical on the one hand: it is very big and its transport is always more complicated, both to go to training places and to travel with it, besides that very spacious places to train are totally necessary. Another very important point against it is that the combat is impossible in the conditions that the weapon requires for a proper handling of the instructions given to us by the rules (and in HEMA we are very used to fighting). But I think that in recent years it has become one of the greatest defendants in our world, and has more and more enthusiastic practitioners.
At the same time, the participatory exercises that we saw in the International Montante Symposium of Bielefeld created by our host colleagues, Henrick Gyarmati and Martin Lümkeman, or those that were practiced in the classes of Emil Andersson and Sebastian Woxell or Jan Gosewinkel, and the funny and original tournament, offer us new options for more inclusive training, with which I see many possibilities in front of us.”
Ok, last one: what advice would you give to someone who wants to begin studying montante?
“The first thing is the choice of the tool. It is a good idea to start by combining a stick and a longsword, even better than with a montante to find the path of general and basic movement without hurting ourselves by the weight or the quillons, but when we go to acquire our montante, it is good that we worry that it has the suitable measures.
In the aspect of the measurements, what Alfieri and Pacheco say is the same: it must have the same height as their user (only Pacheco talks about the ‘ideal’ height of the human being in his time). Obviously, a little less is not a problem. The weight must be adequate, more than 3 kg is usually too heavy although as always, it depends on the balance. And less than 2,25 kg is too light and easy to move ; again it will depend on the balance and also on the capabilities of the montantero/a and the size of the weapon.
The quillons must be long. It is true that we find historical models that have them short, but the opposite is the most usual, and the descriptions of the weapon in texts and dictionaries of the time confirm it. In this last point we must remember that with the montante we can perfect our physical form and our abilities. With long quillons we must know where the different parts of our body are constantly because if not, we can hurt ourselves with them, but that for us, practitioners of the 21st century, is a part of the game. If they are short, it’s too easy! Go to a workshop or seminar, if it is within your means. There are people who have been studying the weapon for a long time and who have interpretations supported by experience. This does not mean that over time we can not have our own interpretations, but we will have gained that valuable experience that we did not have at the beginning. Try to make the movement harmonious and not overload a part of your body. We have to flee from injuries!
Remember that the information given by the sources is partial, so we must have an open mind for the search in other fields that are not necessarily those of the martial arts books of the time in the same way that the knowledge of history, language and society of the time are necessary if we want to interpret correctly. Obviously, I mean that it is necessary to have access to this knowledge, not that we should have a doctorate for it. But what the novices will want is to take the weapon and enjoy: forward and without thinking much!”
Thank you for your time Ton, it was a really interesting chat and so I guess it is for the readers, I hope to see you soon.
“Many thanks to you Nicco, and thanks also for the work you are doing with The Spadone Project. Let’s hope these talks encourage more people to practice this fascinating weapon. I’m sure we’ll see you soon, montante in hand!”
To all the readers: we will meet for the next interview, don’t loose it!