HEMA myths and fact-checking

Today I want to talk very briefly about the importance of fact checking things you say. It is not uncommon to hear people repeat “facts” that they have heard. They may go on to repeat these anecdotes or pieces of information in a conversation, or in a class. The people that hear these “facts” can then go to repeat them at a later time, and so these statements are continually brought up and told to new people without anyone actually checking if these “facts” actually have any basis in fact.

Three examples of this that spring to mind in particular are that:

– Italian longsword is flashy compared to the straight-forward German longsword system,
– that the messer was a weapon designed to get by through legal loopholes
– and that it was the advent of the gun in Europe that made swordsmanship skills die off.

These “facts” are all old; however I hear them repeated every now and again. It is therefore worth quickly debunking these stories.

That Italian longsword is flashy, German longsword is not

Any attempt to accurately compare the German and Italian longsword styles is going to fraught with difficulty. For starters, this comparison assumes there was only one Italian longsword style, and one German longsword style, which is simply not true. Most German longsword treatises belong to the Liechtenauer tradition, but not all do, and even within the Liechtenauer tradition, there can be great variation of terms of the style presented. Within the Italian longsword traditions, the longsword of Fiore is very different to that of the Bolognese masters, which is very different to a later style such as that of Alfieri.

When people compare Italian and German longsword styles, we can assume they are probably actually comparing the style of Fiore to the early Liechtenauer tradition. If we assume this though, the idea that Italian longsword is flashier than German longsword makes even less sense. Bearing in mind that I study Liechtenauer tradition longsword, or KDF, and not Fiore, a comparison if anything suggests that German longsword is the flashier of the two.

It is true that German longsword texts praise the idea of being direct.

“And this very art is honestly real and true and it is about moving straight and simple, to the nearest target, taking the most direct way. For example, if someone intends to strike or thrust, it goes just like if a string would be attached to the sword and the tip or edge would be pulled to an opening of the adversary – who should be the target for the strike or thrust – resulting in taking the shortest way to the nearest target as possibly. That is why the same true fencing will never employ beautiful and wide parries nor large round moves which are just useful to entertain spectators.”[1]

On the other hand, Fiore’s longsword style does not appear to involve any winding or short edge actions. Actions like the Zwerhaw, Duplieren and Mutieren can all look flashy, and these are stereotypical Liechtenauer tradition actions, not elements from Fiore’s system.

This apparent difference between the two styles is sometimes explained away by saying that Germans are efficient, and that Italians are concerned with sprezzatura (a concept that isn’t mentioned anywhere in Fiore’s works). This explanation has more to do with modern cultural stereotypes and a surface level understanding of Italian renaissance values than it does with the reality of combat treatises.

That the messer was designed to make use of a legal loophole

According to this “fact”, people were banned from carrying swords in the medieval era, and so chose to carry a messer instead; the messer theoretically being a knife, not a sword. This apparently meant the authorities would be unable to punish them, as they theoretically hadn’t broken the law. While it can be amusing to let your beginners think that a bunch of peasants managed to fool the authorities with an over-sized knife, this anecdote doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality either.

It assumes that medieval taxonomies were as strict as they are now, and that there were laws that stopped people carrying swords specifically, but not other weapons, and that once a clear loophole been found, this loophole could not be closed by extending the ban to the messer.

To deal with the first point, in the Cod.icon. 394a[2], Hans Talhoffer uses the words Swert and Messer interchangeably for something that we would call a sword today. It certainly seems that medieval taxonomies were not particularly strict, so the idea that a peasant could pull out his messer and make a valid legal defence by saying “it’s technically not a sword, it’s a knife instead” does not seem likely.

Sword laws varied a lot by time and location, but it is worth bearing in mind that in German towns of the 1500s and later, citizens were legally obligated to own weapons, and were encouraged to wear them. Regulations on swords in this context were generally ineffective and short-lived.[3] In a context like that, it is less likely that anyone would need to wear a messer as a surrogate for a sword if they didn’t want to.

In a slightly different context, laws in Burgundy in the 1400s specifically ban “big knives with crosses and nails[4]. In this context, the messer would have banned regardless of it not being a sword. In 15th century London it was law that “no alien shall go in armour, or shall carry sword, knife with point, or other arms, in the City, or in the suburb thereof; on pain of imprisonment, and of losing such arms and armour”.[5]

A ban might cover all weapons, or it might mention the messer specifically. Although they might have existed, I’m not aware of any laws that would have banned swords specifically while not also banning the messer.

That swordsmanship stopped being practiced because of the advent of the gun

This anecdote also makes little sense. It does have support from Joachim Meyer, who laments that swordsmanship is not being practiced because of the popularity of firearms.[6] To take this at face value though and to accept that swordsmanship stopped being practiced because of the popularity of firearms is to ignore two things: that crossbows and other missile weapons were popular before firearms, and that a large number of fencing treatises were written after the advent of firearms. To demonstrate this, please see any treatise on the rapier, smallsword, or sabre.

Certain weapons or styles may have stopped being used due to a combination of technical and cultural factors, but the idea that firearms stopped the development of swordsmanship is ridiculous.

Conclusions

Everyone likes telling interesting and amusing anecdotes. If you’re teaching a class and want to keep the students entertained, then you may feel that telling them a quick anecdote they’ll find amusing is a good way to do that. You should take care though that what you say is actually correct (or at least that it is likely correct based on a somewhat informed opinion). It is easy to mindlessly repeat interesting stories and anecdotes, but it is important that you stop and think before you speak. Many of these inaccurate “facts” could be disproven simply with a small amount of fact checking and common sense.

If we consider ourselves to be students of history, even if we only consider ourselves students of one small aspect of history, we should be cautious with what we say and what conclusions we give to people, and that wherever possible we should fact-check something before saying it.

 


 

[1] Anonymous. MS 3227a. C.1389. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler. Folio 13v.

[2] Hans Talhoffer. Cod.icon. 394a. 1467. Folios 117r-120r.

[3] B. Ann Tlusty. The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[4] “Medieval laws concerning weapons”. myArmoury, 27th March 2011, accessed 17th June 2016.
http://myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.22719.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeffrey Forgeng. The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570. Frontline Books, 2015. Page 37.

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