“I’m a jack of all trades but a master of two,” jokes Franco Davies, author of ‘Swords of the Religion’, Heritage Malta’s latest instalment in a series of elegant monographs. Physiotherapist, historical fencer and historian, Franco, wears many hats, but his jocular remark carries weight. Davies does in fact, hold an MSc in Musculoskeletal Medicine and an MA in Hospitaller Studies.
Having from an early age expressed a passion for martial arts and history – as a teenager he devoured every book on the Great Siege he could lay his hands on, and is a self-avowed ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan – it was natural for Franco to transition from jiu-jitsu to historical fencing. When he came across an advert for the Hospitaller degree, he pounced on the opportunity to “consolidate my two worldviews, that of practitioner and scientist.”
‘Swords of the Religion’ focuses on the practical and symbolic uses of swords during the Order of St John’s tenure in Malta. The extensively researched monograph is an extension and elaboration of his Masters’ thesis, one his tutor Dr Emanuel Buttigieg and external examiners urged him to publish.
A courteous Franco welcomes me into his Floriana bespoke study. Its graceful carpentry reflects the author’s gentlemanly demeanour. A copy of De Valette’s sword is given pride of place, along with other faithful reproductions of edged weapons in a glass cabinet on the wall. The sword is surprisingly heavy. I try to imagine what it must have been like wielding this hefty sword, wearing cumbersome armour under a scorching Maltese summer sun. De Valette must have been a very strong man. Davies’ medical background corroborates this. “Nobles had access to better protein-rich food. They trained three times a week and rested rather than toiled all day in the fields. This made them superior in endurance to a malnourished Maltese peasant.” Being a specialist in the study of human movement and the way muscles work enables Franco to assert professionally that “a 19-year old Knight just out of the novitiate would have been no match for a De Valette or Fra Romegas, men in their prime with years of skill and experience behind them.” As a seasoned fencer himself, Franco has equally learned to pace himself. “I know how to use my energy. I don’t tire myself out quickly nowadays, the way I did as an eager young fencer.”
Forged by an Italian swordsmith, the De Valette battle sword in Franco’s possession is a faithful replica of the one in St Joseph’s Oratory in Birgu. It differs from another copy of a 1400s long sword by the addition of finger guards below the crossbar and hilt and by the narrower and lighter blade. “The elaborate hilt allows for more precision in the aim, besides protecting your digits from being sliced off by an opponent’s sword sliding down the blade,” Franco instructs me as I handle the Grand Master’s sword. “Hollywood is inclined to romanticize swordplay. We tend to forget about the horror, that these were weapons of destruction, something which we were reminded of in recent times by the ISIS beheadings,” he adds as a possible precaution in case I get carried away. The knuckle guard on Franco’s replica De Valette sword is as bent as the original. This wasn’t a request in the commission, but along with the notches on the copy is a result of wear and tear on Franco’s part.
“Swords are objects which need to be used in order to be understood; the feeling you get from handling them makes you grasp so much more about the person who used them.” This hands-on approach to history is the main inspiration behind Franco’s book. In the same way, Viking long-boats have been reconstructed to navigate the North Sea, Davies’ action-research approach, grounded in his fencing practice, helps breath new tangible insight into the form and function of edged weaponry.
In Fra Sabba di Castiglione’s 16th century book ‘Ricordi’, contemporary fencing manuals found in the national library by Di Grassi and Agrippa, and unpublished manuscripts, historiographical evidence proved invaluable in recreating modern-day shots of various sword fighting moves. Differently coloured sections in ‘Swords of the Religion’ depict these practical sequences with Andrei Xuereb, Franco’s fencing master, who provided his interpretation of techniques mentioned in Castiglione’s book. By physically re-enacting and recording these swordfights, Andrei and Franco were able to fully comprehend the agility and discipline required by the Knights of St John in manoeuvring these swords and thus fill in a lacuna in local publishing. Other sections in this beautifully illustrated tome, designed and photographed by Daniel Cilia, are dedicated to the iconography and symbolism of swords, with a blend of full-colour images taken from period drawings, books, manuscripts and artefacts.
The 16th Century was a time of military revolution, and the Great Siege happened right bang in the middle of it. Cannons and muskets were being used in conjunction with edged weapons. Sharpshooters were able to be more accurate. The technology of warfare was evolving. “Edged weapons including spears and daggers as well as swords, were at their peak and firearms in their youth.” Initially, Davies set out to discover if the Knights had developed a military or martial style exclusive to the Hospitallers. However, he found that as each langue had its own national or regional fencing style, these were employed to the Order’s advantage rather than inventing a new one.
Franco describes the writing of the book as a reaffirmation of the fundamental good nature of human beings. “Everyone whom I had thought would be unapproachable opened their doors to me and shared their knowledge generously. My own journey of self-discovery was the ability to tap into multiple resources in different mediums to find answers.” One fascinating nugget of information gleaned was that at some point, the sword of the crusader King St Louis was given to the Order as a gift and was allegedly on Maltese soil for a few years before it mysteriously disappears into the annals of history.
The hardback coffee-table book makes for a thoughtful gift for lovers of military or Hospitaller history, as well as anybody interested in historical fencing. ‘Swords of the Religion’ will be available for delivery in January. Book it in advance at a discounted pre-publication offer of €36.00 by logging onto https://heritagemalta.org/shop/swords-of-the-religion/
by Warren Bugeja, Executive Communications, Heritage Malta
Featured image is ‘de Redin sword’ courtesy of Mdina Cathedral Museum
Fencers photographed by Daniel Cilia
Dignitaries meeting Knights of Malta by Antoine de Favray. Museum of the Order of St John; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
As published by Times of Malta 09.12.21