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Old 12th March 2005, 12:48 PM   #1
Chris Evans
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Australia
Posts: 566
Default Manual del Baratero - A Review

A Critical Review of the

`Manual del Baratero'

1. Loriega's translation of the MdB is very well done. I have read it in the original Spanish and this work gets it across in a most readable manner. The numerous annotations by the translator make the many obscure colloquialisms of the era understandable and the work as a whole gains an additional depth. But..... The book itself, despite the exalted status that many in the English speaking world awarded it, is a classic example of the naked emperor. The MdB is such a flawed work that to fully analyze its contents, would require writing another book. Here I will confine myself to just giving the collector who attempts to understand this weapon through this old work, an overview of the problems inherent in it.

2. The MdB is considered by most Spanish speaking academics a literary hoax. It purports to have been written by a master of arms but in fact its author was Mariano de Rementeria y Fica, a well known Basque academic and professor who lectured at the "Escuela Normal de Instruccion Primaria de Madrid" and not known as a fighting man. He may well have had a secret life wielding knives, but this is unlikely on account of his privileged social status and is borne out by the numerous absurdities and inconsistencies in the book, that no one with real expertise would have written. Many of these Loriega picked up and critically commented on, but there are many more that he glossed over, such as the author recommending a navaja with a blade at most (CE:why at most?) a hand in length and three or four fingers wide (pg2): This is the description of a bizarre 6"x3" hatchet blade and not that of a navaja! Most navajas of the period were considerably longer and had slim fish-shaped, pointed blades...And then this same blade is supposedly able to pierce through a 2" thick plank (CE:styrofoam?). Ha!

But wait, there is more: According to Loriega (pg41), the whole section on defending oneself unarmed was taken, word for word from a small sword fencing book, but with the sides reversed! And then there are a series of extremely dubious tricks and rouses such as throwing a navaja which is attached to the `diestro' with a string; Of a `Passata Sotto' with a knife, or tripping ones opponent with an item of clothing whilst leaving oneself wide open for a counterstrike - Was this guy for real?

On the fixed bladed cuchillo he had very little of substance to say and when it came to the scissors, even less, so the book has to be assessed on the strength of its applicability to the navaja.

3. The MdB is the only historical Spanish manual known of fighting with navajas. No surprises here: Right up to 1900, around 80% of the Spanish population was illiterate and this means nearly all of the working class, those who used navajas - There just wasn't anybody to write for!

But Mariano had other ideas. He obviously targeted the wealthy young `wannabes' of his day with the promise of an invincible knife system (nothing new here), and along the way make extra income, or did it for simple amusement. That this was his intention is revealed in the line in which he claims that any pampered youth, by following his instructions, will be able to defend himself against the violent `barateros' (pg11). I cannot say how well the book sold, but is is interesting that the publishing house sought to increase the book's appeal by hiding the author's true identity behind the initials of `MdR', although at least one edition bore his full name. Presumably he was sufficiently well known as a man of letters that the book would not sell with his name. Far better to suggest a mysterious fencing master as the author!

He also wrote a host of other manuals, ranging from cookery to parlor games, all bearing the title "Manual del...." He must have been a very gifted man if he was an expert on all those subjects as well. But then, he was a renowned translator of foreign works, so it would not have been too difficult for him to access numerous foreign sources, all inaccessible to his Spanish readers.

4. In summary, whatever literary value the MdB may have, when it comes to knife fighting, the book has a serious credibility problem!

In any event, the techniques advocated for the navaja, namely the passes from hand to hand and the gyrating footwork, by Mariano's own admission, were not typical in his day (he tried to improve on them!) and were probably imported from other countries, most probably France or Corsica. The preferred fight with navajas and cuchillos, in old Spain, was with cape or hat in the left hand and knife in the right, in the manner of renaissance sword play - We know this from numerous paintings and other reliable accounts of the period.

So, if one wants a good and readable translation, then this is the best so far. But as for knowledge of traditional Spanish knife fighting goes, we are no better off than we were until now - Egerton Castle in a couple of paragraphs said as much on the subject that is useful as Mariano did in the whole book!

Unfortunately, according to most authorities, fighting with navajas came to an end in Spain over a century ago and nobody bothered to record the techniques in detail, if there were any worth recording. The foremost living Spanish authority Forton considers that only those navajas that were made before 1900 were true to the name and so he defines the breed.

Loriega claims to be the heir of a hitherto unknown living Spanish navaja tradition; This is useful, but, regardless of this tradition's practical merits (it may well be excellent), it nevertheless cannot be accepted as authentic because there are no reliable period records available to validate its techniques against. It is simply not possible to say whether it has remained truly Spanish or else has absorbed foreign styles over the last hundred plus something years. This certainly is the case with Filipino Arnis, just to name one combative art, which since WWII re-configured itself along Japanese karate principles.

Chris Evans
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