Book review – Miriam Vogelaar, The Mokken Collection: Books and manuscripts on fencing before 1800

(MMIT Publishing, 2020) 208 pp. Price: € 75
ISBN: 978-94-93166-19-6

The book is a laborious and significant contribution to the history of fencing, martial arts and European martial culture. The focus of the book is the fight book collection of Wiebe Mokken, honorary member and former chairman of the Royal Dutch Fencing Association (KNAS). The collection, as presented in this publication, is undoubtedly one of the most important of its kind. Previous catalogues and bibliographical works on fencing, namely by Jacopo Gelli (1895) and Carl Thimm (1896) were published more than a century ago; therefore, Vogelaar’s contribution to this field of study is a welcomed modern scientific update. The author makes one of the largest collections of its kind accessible to the public in the form of a comprehensive lavish catalogue. The book allows a glimpse into a unique treasure that highlights the wealth and depth of material regarding martial culture. By exploring fight books, tangible records of intangible martial traditions, the reader is immersed in the information that these unique objects provide regarding martial cultures, particularly in social-civic environments and not from the usually discussed military perspective.

The structure of the book is straightforward. Wiebe Mokken has provided an emotional preface in English and French, which allows some insight to the psyche of a passionate collector and fencing aficionado. Remarks on the catalogue entries by the author act as a key, an explanation and a de facto clarification on the systematic cataloguing and presentation that follows. The entries, that construct the vast majority of the publication, are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the author. Each entry includes exhaustive technical details on the discussed publication, followed by analytical comments deriving from research on the author or the publication. Finally, bibliographical notes and references to the works used for the bulk of the text are displayed on the end of each entry. One of the most invaluable and unique characteristics of this publication are Vogelaar’s comments in each entry regarding technical observations on the discussed entry as an object such as restoration, watermarks, stains. These additions separate this publication from every else of its kind and highlights the importance of considering the insights of a book expert. After the entries, a supplementary timeline of the books discussed helps contextualize them by placing them in chronological order with a visual snippet of each entry. Besides the aforementioned contextualization, this assists in the instantaneous observation of the changing and fluctuating visual trends of the genre. The publication is completed with a bibliography and with an index of authors, editors and compilers. 

The book comes in a large format (27×21), which certainly benefits a publication that relies on the reader observing detailed images. The hardback format and the linen bound spine facilitate reading the book in full spread without the fear of damaging it. All images are presented in full colour and excellent quality. Two reading ribbons further add to the premium presentation. The technical characteristics of the book complement the content and overall make for an impressive publication.

Perhaps the most notable drawback of the book is its bibliography, which is primarily focused on publications regarding other catalogues and bibliographies. Some modern scholarship on the literary genre of fight books is also included. Whereas the first type of publication is exhaustively included in this part, research on fight books is only fragmentarily represented. This is largely due to the lack of the contextual discussion of the presented publications and because each entry focuses solely on a very strict discussion on each object. An expanded recommended bibliography for further research would benefit readers and would link this catalogue to the current scholarship on the subject of fight books. The publication would also benefit from supporting essays on fight books and their evolving social contexts that created the necessity for their production. Of course, each bibliographical entry is accompanied by the aforementioned dedicated description and discussion, but besides the beautiful and sentimental preface by Wiebe Mokken, there is not body of text that discusses the overall cultural or historical context of the genre. This context is also absent in the book timeline, which presents in chronological order only the material from the collection. However, this is more of a wish from a scholarly perspective rather than a criticism regarding quality, and the exclusion of such essays does not diminish the value of the work as a catalogue. Both of the aforementioned issues stem from the nature of the book as a specialized publication focusing on a single specific and incredibly rich trove of books and manuscripts.

These minor critiques aside, Vogelaar’s book on the Mokken Collection is arguably the best reference work on the subject of the history of fight books. It is a great tool for the book and martial arts scholar, providing quick access to precise bibliographical information and concentrated key details for each entry. Furthermore, it can be a remarkable stimulus for professionals from adjacent disciplines and subjects, as well as for fencing enthusiasts in order to understand better the history of European martial arts and the bibliographical context and wealth of source material available. Vogelaar’s book can ignite interest on the subject for students in an academic context as well as for those practicing in the fencing hall, and it will most certainly assist future librarians and professionals working in the art industry. It is a comprehensive and informative catalogue of the highest quality in both content and production, and it elucidates the cultural production of recorded European martial arts for over three centuries.

Cite this article as: Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, "Book review – Miriam Vogelaar, The Mokken Collection: Books and manuscripts on fencing before 1800," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 29/10/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1109.