Historical Fencing–Definitions & Disparagement

In a recent conversation with an old friend and fellow fencer, one on the Olympic side of things, I realized just how poorly understood “historical” fencing is. To be fair, what most people consider to be historical is horribly inaccurate—it takes a part for the whole. This is not completely their fault; it’s mostly a result of what they’ve seen. The most publicized and well-known aspect of it is the black-clad longsword tournament sect, and balk at it though the SPES-donned might, they’re not representative. Much of what falls under the umbrella term of “HEMA” is much older than that; as much rests on better premises as well. [1]

Trying to explain to this friend what historical fencing is (or ought to be) was difficult. It was not only that historical fencing encompasses so much, over so long a time, but also that his preconceived notions were hard to refute given the one example he knows. Reflecting on that conversation I’ve been devising a short list of features to help round out the limited picture my friend and others have of historical fencing.

If you are easily offended it may be best if you stop reading here, for what I am about to say, however true, might upset some people. Happily, my readership is small, more inclined to agree than whine, and realistically what one obscure fencer thinks about HEMA makes no never-mind to those most likely to take umbrage.

HEMA to Your Standard Olympic Fencer

Silly meme made for some others in no-man’s land

Much of competitive longsword is bad. To a trained fencer it looks like apes with sticks whacking away at one another with little regard for art or safety. There are several reasons for this. Too many people begin competing too soon. Coaching is inconsistent and sometimes outright horrible. Rulesets, though they continue to evolve, tend to reveal the state of current opinion in re some pet concern (e.g. the “after-blow”) more than they do the logic of not being hit. Directing and judging, so often staffed by the same new folk, is dicey. Put together, to anyone who has fought within the Olympic world competitive longsword is one codpiece away from LARP and more closely resembles bohurt save that for some reason longsworders detest metal armor.

This is not to say that there are not skilled fencers among competitive longsworders. There definitely are. I know a few and know others by repute from credible witnesses and mutual friends. Likewise, this is not to say that competitive “sport” fencing is devoid of problems—nothing could be farther from the truth. HEMA, as such, would not have grown as it has from the late 1990s on had the Olympic world had its act together. Among the many similarities between competitive “sport” and “historical” fencers is that too many of them either fail or refuse to see the problems within their own camp. It’s a lot easier to point at the flaws in the other and count oneself and one’s view as the correct one.

So, what is “Historical Fencing” then?

Setting aside, for now, the mutual dislike and focusing instead on the easily demonstrable, here is what my Olympic friends tend to miss about historical fencing:

  • it is not just competitive longsword (skilled or apish)
  • it is source-based
  • it attempts to approach the Art as a martial art more than a sport
  • it encompasses sources from the High Middle Ages to the early 20th cen. [2]
  • it increasingly incorporates more than European systems [3]
  • modern fencing would not exist without some of these sources/systems
  • like anything some of it is really good; some of it really bad

This is a short list, but it’s important and contains most of the key details my Olympic friends miss.

HEMA ≠ longsword

This view again mistakes a tree for the forest. While arguably the most popular weapon among those interested in competition, longsword is merely one weapon and maybe the most visible of those systems people tend to see. Many if not most of the surviving sources which cover longsword also cover other weapons, such as spear, pole-axe, sword in one-hand (or single-sword), dagger, wrestling, dussack, Messer (a large, usually single-edged knife), agricultural tools turned weapons (e.g. sickles and scythes), and sword and buckler; some include material for fighting in armor as well as out of it. Many if not most of these have their competitive side too, though with allowances necessary for safety—fighting in armor, for example, and with weapons like poleaxes which greatly multiply force, requires excising those maneuvers intended to end fights. [4]

There is no “HEMA” without Sources

Unlike traditional and competitive fencing, historical fencing—by and large—focuses on extant sources. These can, however, take many forms. Not all are crusty old manuscripts or obscure books. The techniques one sees within any weapon class are—or should be—interpretations of techniques, ideas, and plays found in these sources. Due to the difficulties and vagaries inherent in interpretation there are often differences of opinion about even seemingly simple things. A researcher’s background and training have a significant effect on what they see, and thus in how they interpret what they find. The disdain many Olympic fencers have toward sources is, oddly enough, not uncommon among people in HEMA either, at least as expressed in the wide-spread dislike and distrust of formal academics. [5]

Not everyone in historical fencing reads the source material. Ideally, they would, but to be fair some of it is challenging to read, some poorly written, and much of it dull to modern eyes and ears. To name one example, long expositions on geometry couched as a discussion between a learned master and an eager student tend to be tedious to modern readers. Moreover, not all translations are equal, and there is little formal training or attention paid to teaching students how to separate wheat and chaff. [6] As in most things, politics and cliques often attend one’s choice of translation—it’s ridiculous, but remember while based on sources historical fencing is not populated by scores of trained historians or paleographers. Most people, probably 99%, “do HEMA” as a hobby, for fun; doing homework for a hobby after a long day at school or work doesn’t appeal to most of them. These students look instead to an instructor for guidance, drills, and a chance to try out what they’ve learned with others. This is a major difference from Olympic fencing where an instructor, most often certified, hands down a tradition passed on to them the same way. [7]

Combat Art vs. Combat Sport

Historical fencing is, depending with whom you speak, one or the other, or, both. There is a competitive wing, but being competitive is by definition less combat oriented. This is true however much one desires for it to be “martial.” It’s the nature of the beast. One cannot use, for example, all of Fiore’s Armizare or people would be maimed or killed (Master Fiore really liked breaking joints and thrusting the pommel and cross into people’s faces). This said, for the most part historical fencers try to approach these old fight systems as a martial art. Some attempts are more successful than others. Not everyone competes either, and this is an important point—”HEMA” is far more recreational than it is competitive.

MS Ludwig XV 13 28v-a

In Olympic fencing, just to illustrate the difference a little more clearly, the rules and training reflect a sport based on a former martial art. Off-target touches, some uses and interpretations of ROW (“right of way”), and the weapons themselves all demonstrate this well. There is no off-target in historical fencing—if one is hit, one is hit. [8] Hitting first or with priority—depending on rule-set—tends to take second place to being hit at all. Lastly, the weapons, while blunt, are meant to approximate more closely their historical predecessor. So, rather than foils we use smallswords or spada, which are still light and quick; in sabre we use 16mm wide blades or larger that weigh anywhere from 650g to 1000g. [9] Then there are the weapons that didn’t survive into the modern world, such as rapier, longsword, the knightly sword, the so-called “side-sword” and buckler, and pole-arms.

Historical Fencing & Non-European Systems

Strictly speaking HEMA, as named, refers to “historical European martial arts,” thus the acronym. This is one reason I do not favor this term, but instead use “historical fencing” or “historical martial arts.” As someone who values and incorporates the research that colleagues are producing in the study of various African, Persian, or Asian systems, I prefer a more inclusive term. In addition, as in so many fields, “European” can be and is defined a variety of ways. Most of our extant medieval works are in Latin, early German, French, Italian, or Spanish, so what about those in other languages that are less well-known? What about those from regions that are partly European, but heavily influenced by non-European peoples, such as the Republic of Georgia? [10] Happily, aside from the fools within the community who embrace ultra-nationalist notions, most people are pretty open, even excited to see what students of other regions are discovering.

Even within “HEMA,” however, there is a wide variety of difference in source type and purpose. Some works were hand-made and illustrated where later period ones were printed; some were meant for the aristocratic warrior caste, others for civilians; some were personal gifts to a patron, some mass-produced manuals from a government print house; some cover one weapon and context, some a multitude of weapons for a variety of contexts. We have some complete works, and some that are fragmentary. We have groups that identify a master or school, such as the Mss. that cover aspects of Fiore’s Armizare or the various masters associated with the later Dardi School. There are works written in simple language such as most 18th and 19th century sabre manuals, and then there are those written in purposefully obscure language to protect a master’s ideas from non-students, like “The Zettel.” To these we can add some rather poorly written works as well.

Modern and Ancient

Guard positions, Del Frate 1876; photo by Sarahorsomeone, Deviant Art, from the 2012 Olympics

Like it or not Olympic fencers learn and use a system that was the product of those that came before, especially those from 18th and 19th century Italy and France. Today’s foil and epee look back, each in its own way, to smallsword; sabre to 19th century works. It’s obvious to anyone watching modern fencing that a lot has changed, and not always for the best.

An explanation for how these changes occurred is lengthy and not one we need to dwell on here. In short, the requirements of sport are different than those for the dueling ground or battle field, and that meant changes in the rules, in the very weapons, that allowed for and in some ways created fencing today, good and bad. Competition, especially between nations, meant not only cheating but mutations in technique to exploit vulnerabilities and loopholes in the ruleset. Ridiculous attacks like the “flick” in foil a while back and the still undeniably stupid ability to score with the flat of the sabre blade are two such examples.

I urge anyone I know interested in fencing, really interested, to start with foil. It’s one reason I normally start my own students with foil. A good sport coach will provide any fencer with the fundamentals they need to pursue any other branch of fencing. Foil imparts the universals of swordplay and develops the core principles upon which all hand-to-hand fighting rests, distance/measure, timing, and judgment.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and People

Olympic fencers may look down their noses at some interpretations within historical fencing (historical fencers certainly do), but they should understand that more often than not that smallsword or sabre fencer is working from texts either directly or indirectly related to what they themselves have learned and fence. Not all interpretations are equally good. Some are flat-out bad. This is to say that if some meathead is doing something that seems odd, it may be that meathead and not the system which is at fault. Don’t make the mistake of assuming all historical fencing is bad based on one practitioner or one clip of longsword tourney footage. There are many people who’ve made names for themselves and inspired a following who have some things demonstrably incorrect.

My caution to any fencer, especially my Olympic friends, is to ask questions before passing judgment. This list should help a little—if nothing else one can ask what sources that historical fencer is using and look into their instructor’s background. Unlike “sport” historical fencing is largely an amateur pursuit, in the best sense, which is to say that most instructors are not certified maestri. HEMA has no such program, and the attempts to create them have come to little in part due to the variety of sources and interpretation that make up HEMA and in part because of a lack of leadership. [11] The historical fencing community, as such, is decentralized, fragmented, and outside of a few major events most clubs work in isolation from others.

Just as in the Olympic world the historical community can claim some gifted fencers and some clowns. As someone who has lived in both populations, and currently occupies some strange no-man’s land in between them, I work hard to explain both sides to both branches. To be honest I don’t believe this has been particularly successful either way—the historical fencers who agree with me either have similar backgrounds to my own or some analogous path; those who disagree most likely don’t really care what the other camp does or thinks; they’re content with their own view. It’s the same for Olympic fencers.

Multae Viae, Una Ars
The Art is one, but there are many roads that lead to it. None of this may matter to you. That’s okay. I believe, however, that any true student of the Art will look for wisdom and help wherever it may be found. We have, potentially, a lot we might learn from one another, but it requires humility, curiosity, and a willingness to retain a beginner’s mind.

It means setting aside the concerns of affiliation or what one’s peers think. I hate to say it, but fencers, wherever they are, could give most middle schools a run for the money when it comes to cliques, cattiness, and drama. All that rot just gets in our way. The Art is hard enough to chase without those added pressures. They add little, detract a lot.

I’m due to have another Zoom call with my old comrade from our college fencing team. He may likely fire another shot at me for my “LARPing,” but that’s okay—this time I’m a little better prepared to set him right 😉

NOTES:

[1] Ignoring earlier efforts at recreating historical arts, such as those that took place in the Victorian Age with people like Hutton, much of todays’ “HEMA” derives from two things, the exodus of Olympic fencers in the 90s unhappy with changes in competition and the creation of the internet. HACA, ARMA, etc. all came about in the late 90s and started sharing texts. Those of us already doing that research were thrilled—in what felt like a change overnight many of the works we had read about in Thimm’s bibliography were suddenly available in pdf.

[2] The sources for HEMA are legion. Some are medieval, many renaissance and early modern, and still more produced in the last two or three centuries. Though it must be used with caution, one can gain some sense of this from a visit to Wiktenauer, a wiki attempting to collate and share many past works on martial arts. Some translations shared there are good, others less so. It is popular because it is free, which is great, but the lack of academic rigor means that it’s best used like most wikis, as a place to start.

[3] Two standout, non-European projects include the excellent work of Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, researcher, author, instructor, and the force behind Razmafzar, a world-wide group of practitioners who rely on his work (see for example https://www.moshtaghkhorasani.com/books/persian-archery-and-swordsmanship/). There are also the various projects under HAMAA, the “Historical African Martial Arts Association.” One of the best places to go for current research within HAMAA is its fb page, but Da’Mon Stith’s school site, http://www.silentsword.org/, is also a great resource.

[4] Polearms, because of the physics involved, are dangerous, and any researcher working on them should be quick to say this. Even in harness, never mind within a class where people are in workout clothing, there are risks. Be wary of anyone or any school that doesn’t take these dangers seriously.

[5] Yes, I know, there are many people in “HEMA” who do value the work and contributions from academics. However, this said, if social media is any guide, there is a sizable voice within the community that not only thinks little of academic training, but also dismisses any criticism they don’t agree with, however correct. I’ve encountered this hostility myself from people popular within HEMA’s ranks. To borrow an analogy from “Firefly,” it’s like Patience running her little moon: they’re rather impressed with themselves and do not want anyone from “off-world” meddling in the fantasy. The difference is that unlike a tv show, assuming that they have the same skill as someone who spent a decade learning how to handle and interpret historical sources is as prone to error as it is presumptuous. I’ve watched shows about doctors, read books by them, and have had to use first aid, but I don’t think that qualifies me as a cardiologist. Training matters.

[6] Most students of historical fencing rely on translations or someone else reading translations. Any translator will tell you that the work is as much art as science, and the uncritical too often assume that a translation is good merely because it exists. This isn’t so. To name one example, there are two major translations of Giganti’s rapier text. One is really bad, and the other is Tom Leoni’s. Those who favor the former do so out of misplaced loyalty, not based on rigor or skill. Locally, I’ve worked with Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, who shares this concern about translations, to help people in selecting and using translations. I have transcripts of these lectures, with slides, on my academia.edu site, but will happily share them with anyone if they want them and don’t have access to that one.

[7] HEMA is mostly amateur led, that is to say that most people instructing are people who have spent more time with the material than others rather than certified fencing masters or experts in that time period or source tradition. One reason that HEMA has retained its appeal is because this diversity of expertise is more inclusive than exclusive. Had only a bunch of academics been in charge, fewer people would be working on this stuff and we’d make less progress. We need both, experts and amateurs, and we need them to work together better. In contrast, within the Olympic world there are very few people teaching fencing, at least teaching it well, who have not been to coaching school or who haven’t spent decades learning and teaching.

[8] I’m giving this complex issue short shrift for the sake of brevity, but for those interested there is a sizable collection of articles, books, and diatribes bemoaning or celebrating ROW and the use and abuse of the FIE/USFA rule book. Ping me if you’re interested.

[9] Despite a plethora of historical examples, there is a dedicated section within historical sabre that idolizes ridiculously heavy sabres. Most—not all, just most—meant for use on foot fall into the 650-900g range. Those at the top-end, however, more often than not are weighted for horsemen or systems of combat that were as simple. While one “can” make more sophisticated actions with a 1000g sabre, one cannot do so for long, and so the use of such a weapon for much beyond a sharp club is limited. There is an ever-growing list of extant sabres with specs that Chris Holzman, Kevin Murakoshi, and others maintain that I can share with you if you’re interested. There is also an excellent, but difficult to find article by Christoph Amberger on sabre weights.

[10] This is a shameless plug for my friend Mike’s hard work on a Georgian system that survived, no kidding, into the 1990s. Mike shares his research freely—you can find some of it here:

Site blog: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba/
Article on Elashvili’s text: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba/index.php?controller=post&action=view&id_post=6
Translation of Elashvili’s Parikaoba: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba-translation-direct.pdf

[11] There are a number of organizations that attempt to organize the community, such as the HEMA Alliance (https://www.hemaalliance.com/), but not everyone follows their lead or accepts their decisions. Fb is one of the best places to look for these groups, but many have webpages too. Some are specific to one area, like IAS, the “International Armizare Society” (www.armizare.org, though as of today the site seems to be down), and for most anyone not interested primarily in competitive longsword it is to these smaller groups that they should probably look to.

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