Daniel Jacquet is a medievalist who specializes in embodied research and martial arts studies in practice and writing. He is a founding member and chairman (2013-2016) of the International Federation for Historical European Martial Arts (IFHEMA) and has written extensively on Historical European Martial Arts. Currently, he is head of research and cultural mediation at the Castle of Morges and its Museums (Morges, CH) and postdoc researcher in a project on Material Culture in Medieval Towns at the University of Berne (CH).
Primary Materials: How did you become interested in practicing historical martial arts for conducting empirical research? And what is your experience of the relationship between academia and the broader community of re-enactment enthusiasts?
DJ: I have been sword-fighting ever since I was a kid, first with wooden sticks and later with steel swords. It was only at university that I discovered the literature on old fighting practices and decided to devote my career to studying the so-called fight books. As an academic and a martial arts practitioner myself, I can say that there is still a kind of “love-hate relationship” between practice and research. Scholars need practitioners and practitioners need scholars, yet each side has a different understanding of the purpose of re-enactments. Scholars use re-enactments to better understand the historical discourse or to analyze representations of martial arts in their historical context; martial arts practitioners want to re-do and re-live the “historical gesture”. So, re-enactments or reconstruction processes are not carried out with the same objective. Similar tensions exist in other fields, such as dance studies. I think this misunderstanding can be overcome by with more cooperation, while respecting the different needs and interests.
PM: You have recently written a book about fighting manuals (2017). How did your engagement with the historical re-enactment of martial arts in full armor change your understanding of the sources that you were studying?
DJ: Ever since Marcel Mauss’ “Les techniques du corps” (1934), and later with Michael Polanyi and his concept of 'tacit knowledge', we have been aware of the difficulties of documenting practices or bodily knowledge. Actually, books are not the best media for transmitting knowledge of that sort. When engaging with the study of practice and bodily knowledge, the analysis literally has to pass through the body. My endeavors and experiences while experimenting with the full body armor enables me to read the text differently. To give you an example: by quantifying and analyzing the impact of armor on my body, for instance by measuring energy expenditure and the restriction of movements, I have been able to better understand both the object (the armor) and its use (described in the fight books). Natural movement is, for instance, not impaired by the late Medieval armor. That observation flies in the face of widespread assumptions about the clumsiness of armored fighters.
When it comes to the scholarly use of embodied practice, I try to differentiate between 'experiencing' and 'experimenting'. Experiencing is trying things out with your own body, and then figuring out how your own interpretation of a particular movement of the fighting technique corresponds to the text. Experimenting is basically the same process; however, it is done following a methodological process and using extensive documentation that allows for the results to be published. Other researchers can then reproduce the results and add their data. This collaborative experimental research enables you to statistically evaluate the meaning of a particular gesture. The end result is not about re-staging old fighting techniques for modern martial artists, but about obtaining a better understanding of martial culture and the production of technical knowledge in its time. It also yields a different reading of objects in museums - studying embodied practice provides an understanding of the object in terms of its use and not in terms of more abstract visual notions.
PM: How do you see the relationship between scientific research and outreach; what is the importance of your work in the museum for your work as an academic and vice versa?
DJ: Scientific research and outreach are like two sides of the same coin. When you do serious research, your target audience consists of other scholars; it is just that the platforms for scholarly communication have a very restricted outreach. Showcasing scholarly research in a museum allows you to reach a different and larger audience, and of course social media helps to make your research more visible as well. For me, thinking about the public access to knowledge brought about a huge change. I believe I have benefitted from it both as a scholar and as a curator. So far, the YouTube video that I made for display in the 2011 museum exhibition about swords in Paris has had 3 million views, and it made my name as “the man with the armor”. But of course, the videos also had more credibility because of my academic background. Moreover, museum specialists in the field as well as university lecturers are using my videos and my research. I think they got to know of me not because of my academic publications but because of the videos for a broader audience. Once people had watched my videos, they wanted to read my scientific publications as well. So, it has been good in every way. Museums are excellent avenues for disseminating scientific research and I think more scholars should take this into consideration if they want to be read.
PM: To follow up on this, do you think that text is still an apt medium for the distribution of academic results? And would the communication of academic research in a different medium reach a broader audience?
DJ: A good colleague of mine, Benjamin Spatz, has recently launched a peer-reviewed Journal on embodied research. He argues that communicating research via the written word and by writing articles is not the best way to talk about embodied practice – I wholeheartedly support him and his project to develop scholarly video articles to overcome the limitations of traditional academic publication platforms. This is not about “showing-off” or producing easy-to-watch videos with sound and visual effects. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s about discussing research questions with raw video capture of body practice. Nor is it about building a digital archive (quite a trend these days …) of bodily practice. Several ongoing research projects are exploring this avenue, sadly often without proper critical thinking, and without thinking about digital data curation. I believe that advanced digital technologies allow both the researcher and the museum professional to communicate research and analyze data differently. But they also set dangerous traps, which include the standardization of complex cultural practices, the codification of gesture, and so on.
PM: For the most part, the display of arms and armor in museums is still very object-centered and doesn’t provide much information on the broader context in which the armor was used. Thinking of new trends in museology and your own work as a cultural mediator, what do you think needs to be changed so that armor galleries become more attractive to the wider public?
DJ: Arms and armor are tricky objects and struggle to find their place in today’s museums. We cannot compare them with a painting or a sculpture, nor should we display them as such. Most typologies are based on visual aspects, decoration styles, or production techniques. Yet I believe that typologies and research on armor should be based on "use". There are several issues here. First, the objects themselves have a “second life” that is often forgotten or put aside. Except for some princely collections, objects travelled and were modified over the course of the history of their conservation. What the visitor sees, what the curators shows, what the specialist studies, is often in a distorted state. Moreover, it is usually very difficult to connect an object with its original context of use. Many objects are often badly understood. I think that the future of exhibiting arms and armor in museums lies with the study of their martial use, with installations allowing the visitor to actually experiment with their use.
PM: Can you tell us more about the interaction of specialists and visitors as mediated by the enactment of arms and armor?
DJ: In fact, there’s nothing new here. Video materials were already being used in the early 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of New York - what I am doing now is not very different from what they have been doing for 100 years already! No matter what new trend pops up in museology, I think that the interaction between the specialists and the visitor is what really matters. It is through immersion, and possibly by experience, that you can then fight the misconceptions about arms and armor that are so deeply rooted in people's minds. I believe that my own addition to these endeavors is the research based on the fight books, allowing a deeper understanding of the use of the objects.
PM: Can you tell us a bit about your experience with the Digital Humanities as a method for studying embodied practice?
DJ: Let me try to answer this by putting the focus on how advanced technologies within computer science can help us to understand historical fighting and martial art practices. I am now working with motion capture technologies and volumetric video in order to document the interpretation of embodied practice and to measure and quantify movements. We are exploring these technologies both for research and for new ways of displaying martial arts in museums. New technologies for investigating objects, such as neutron tomography, can also help us to better understand the historical practices, both about the use and manufacture of weapons. For example, I have been using the tomography and other techniques of metallography to better understand the original mechanical behavior of weapons. We have studied the bending capacity of early 16th century swords designed for competitions. By understanding how a specific kind of sword was designed and manufactured, and by connecting this to a specific context of use documented in the fight book corpus, we come to a new understanding of objects.
PM: By any account, we are now decades into the “material turn”. What do you think the future holds? What kinds of research still needs to be done? Why do these questions matter now?
DJ: I believe that new technologies are allowing us to measure, quantify and document embodied practice and open up new possibilities of interpretation. These developments are crucial for the future of studying embodied knowledge, as well as for developing new experiences for the visitor to the museum. However, there are still a lot of theoretical issues to be resolved: for example, the difference between living tradition, let’s say of martial arts, and reconstructed practices. What are the differences and how does this fit in with this question of intangible cultural heritage defined by the 2003 UNESCO convention? The UNESCO convention is actually quite exciting, because since then, there has been a lot of interest in research about embodied practice connected to the museum. How should we display intangible cultural heritage? And how can we connect intangible heritage (performance, for instance) with tangible heritage in the form of objects?
PM: What are you reading at the moment?
DJ: Digital Echoes: Spaces for Intangible and Performance-based Cultural Heritage (Palgrave, 2018), edited by Sarah Whatley, Rosamaria K. Cisneros and Amalia Sabiescu. This collection of essays provides wide-ranging views on the questions posed in this interview, and goes deeper into the theoretical and methodological viewpoints. I highly recommend it!