An Interview with Chris Amberger

On the Making of Codex Amberger, Life Changes, and COVID.

[We wouldn’t have thought there’d be any interest, but we received several — okay, two! — requests for an English translation of the German-language interview we posted yesterday. So here you go…]

Q: It’s been a while since we last saw each other last. What’s it been, ten, twelve years?

A: Sounds about right.

Q: Back then you were still in publishing. But I hear there have been major changes.

A: Correct. I’m an Assistant State’s Attorney in Baltimore now. Not THE State’s Attorney, that’s an elected office here, there’s only one per jurisdiction. Just one of many ASA’s.

Q: And that worked out without any kind of hitch?

A: To the contrary, it was a tectonic shift in my life. Had to go back to school in my old age, study law, pass the bar, the whole shebang as they say.

Q: And that with, what, 50?

A: I was 48 when I started law school and 51 when I was sworn in.

Q: That’s pretty good for an old man.

A: Well, failure was not an option.

Q: And why, if I may ask?

A: There comes a point in life when you got to poke your head out the window, look where the trip is headed and ask yourself if this is really the destination you want, if you can be okay with the reasonably foreseeable. After 20 years in the same industry, I was increasingly discontent, not necessarily with what I was doing, but with the way things were headed, what terminally would be expected of me. Luckily I was pretty well situated, had the luxury to go back to the drawing board professionally. And luckily my wife was not opposed to it.

Q: Why law?

A: Rational Analysis. In 2010 I was in Texas for summer nationals with my oldest son. I only fenced in one event and found myself banished to my hotel room due to the heat. So I made a flow chart, what I’m good at, what I suck at, what I never wanted to do again in my lifetime. Then I applied a filter, what kind of job is likely to go to China in the next 20 years, which one can be outsourced to Pakistan, which one will be replaced by a computer program. Then I shook the whole thing and out came “attorney”.

Q: Sounds spannend [Note: spannend means “suspenseful” in German but is currently used synonymously with “interesting”.]

A: Spannend is an over-used adjective these days, “perhaps not entirely uninteresting” would be more appropriate.

Q: You haven’t changed, I see.

A: I do what I can.  

Q: Have you regretted the change?

A: Not yet. And in view of my former career, the FTC this past February totally validated my position. That made the whole thing worth it.

Q: You also have a new book. Tell me about it.

A: Yeah, the Codex Amberger. But I’m really only the namesake and a contributor. My colleague Dierk Hagedorn is the main suspect.

Q: Tell us about it.

A: Well, it all goes back a while. About 15 years ago, around 2005, I located a bound fragment of a German Fechtbuch at an antiquarian bookstore in New York. It cost a pretty penny, but I bought it and spent the next couple of years researching its context and possible authorship. It’s only a dozen or so hand-drawn illustrations, mainly without text, and only one hand-written page on Wrestling.

There were obvious correlations with the illustrations in Egenolph and in the ornate manuscripts of Paulus Hektor Mair, here and there’s a parallel to Paurnfeindt and the mss. ascribed to Dürer. Perhaps from the artistic-combative Golden Triangle Strasbourg-Augsburg-Nürnberg, definitively from the 16th century.

After I quit my old job but before I started law school, I had some time to look into the matter more seriously, collected analogous illustrations, and dicked around with the design. Nothing much came of it because I recognized some conceptual problems.

Q: How do you mean?

A: Well, it’s just those few pages. Beautifully illustrated pages, certainly, but just enough for a wall calendar, not a whole book. In view of the parallels in the other sources, I pictured a concordance, a piece-by-piece comparison of all illustrations, accompanied with the related texts. And there I thought I was coming up short.

Q: How?

A: Well, it’s obvious. I am a generalist, which is shorthand for “lazy dog”. I consider the fighting arts of the Renaissance interesting. Or spannend as you’d put it in Neo-German. But my main interest over the past years has been the German and French thrust fencing, particularly the originally antagonistic variety, the German student duel and the French duel. I have a basic grasp on the terms of art and methods of Renaissance fencing, but that simply wasn’t enough to fill a book. I needed a specialist.

Q: And that was?

A: Dierk Hagedorn, of course.

Q: I don’t know him.

A; You don’t have t know him, but you ought to. Dierk is THE expert when it comes to the German Fechtbücher. I’ve lost track how many he’s transcribed and translated by now. And not just as an academic but as a practitioner. Plus, there’s his design talents and acribic attention to detail.

Q: The result speaks for itself, I’d say.

A: It exceeded all my intentions by far. In its approach it is absolutely unique in view of the representation of all analogous illustrations and of course texts — and there are considerable differences in the details. Of course only the fencing fanatic would appreciate those.

Q: And it’s in German and English.

A: Right, that had to be so. The American HEMA market dominates when compared to the European. And nobody speaks German anymore.

Q: You exaggerate.

A: Honestly, that’s the thing. Modern HEMA is an American invention. Without the American efforts in the 1990’s, Europeans would still be banging together 2×4’s and call it “knightly games”. The engine of the movement was and mostly still is America, or at least Americans. It would not have been possible in Germany, for example.

Q: Will there be other books of this kind?

A: We’ll see. Mair’s codices are so incredibly voluminous, I see considerable problems, just in handling the material. Just from a practical point of view, how can you present 500 illustrations in their context with another 500 just from the Mair cyclus, not to mention the entire context. Perhaps that’s possible visually and digitally as a video but hardly on paper.

Q: And how’s Amberger’s codex selling?

A: Frankly, no idea. I have no financial incentives tied to this book, so I have no clue what quantities have moved.

Q: That doesn’t sound like you.

A: What can I say, I’m a giver. Also, I absolutely hate peddling my last book for months to sell a copy or two here and there. Nobody tells you that, but that’s what’s required. When I’m done with a book, I’m done, having to run around trying to hawk it like stale beer is always undignified, I think.

Q: Interesting.

A: “Spannend,” you mean.

Q: Oh, shut up with that. How did you handle COVID?

A: I really can’t complain. All 3 adult kids came back home, we had enough doors to close behind each other, we had food, drink, something to read, and Taskmaster on TV. I walked my dog a few miles each day, went fencing 3 times a week, first outdoors, then in an improvised salle. Worked via VPN from my dining room table, which is not particularly stimulating, but many didn’t even have that. 

Q: Well, I think that’s about it. When will you come to Germany again?

A: No plans as of yet. But maybe when this whole circus is over.

Q: Well, then all the best, and say hi! to your dear wife.

A: Thanks, will do. Hi! back and see you soon.

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