Is it acceptable to teach non-HEMA techniques in a HEMA lesson?

Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Is it useful to take a similar position or technique from another martial art, adopt into our HEMA practice?

This is a question that does come up every so often when someone with non-HEMA experience discusses the idea of setting up a HEMA club. Of course it seems like quite a reasonable idea to continue teaching the non-HEMA material with which you are familiar, and there are probably techniques from your previous training that would be useful in various situations in HEMA sparring.

I worked through this process myself, several years ago, when I started looking at HEMA after spending around fourteen years studying karate. I had achieved my 3rd dan black belt in karate, and I thought that importing some karate techniques and concepts would help to shore up any of the many deficiencies I perceived in the HEMA systems I was trying to learn.

However, with more experience of HEMA now, I can see quite clearly that the biggest and most important deficiency was my own lack of skill at the systems I was trying to learn! Now I know that these systems can deal with almost any problem (within the appropriate context) if I apply the techniques and concepts properly – and if I need to solve a problem in a different context, I just use a different (and more appropriate) system.

Personally, I try to ignore as much non-HEMA material as possible when trying to reconstruct a historical European martial art. My main reason is that masters included some techniques for certain reasons, and deliberately excluded some techniques for certain reasons. If you decide to pull in techniques from other arts to plug what you perceive to be a gap, you might be setting yourself back by confusing the issue and hiding the gist of the system that the European master wanted to teach. Without understanding the system properly, it just becomes a bag of random tricks, which can never be as successful as a cohesive, self-contained martial art.

For example: one of the big differences between longsword in the style of Fiore and Liechtenauer is that Liechtenauer used certain techniques with the wrists crossed (such as the Krumphaw, the long edge Zwerhaw, and the Flugelhaw (the name later given to the rising long edge cut from the left)), because they allow you to strike from certain angles or distances from which otherwise it would be impossible to hit. However, Fiore’s system seems to advise against crossed wrists, because then someone can disarm you easily; and his system involves many more disarming techniques than Liechtenauer’s system.[1]

So by studying Fiore and choosing to add crossed-wrist techniques because they work well for Liechtenauer would actually set you up for failure, since then your sparring partners would be training the disarms that work well against crossed-wrist techniques, and you would choose to feed them crossed-wrist techniques by importing them from the German method!

Another example is the hanging parry to the outside when fencing the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. When you lift your hand up high, and let the point angle down to your inside, so that the blade hangs in front of you and covers your head, this is the normal hanging guard (sometimes called the prime hanging guard). When you let the point hang down to your right, so that the blade hangs outside your arm, this is a guard position that doesn’t exist in quite a lot of the written broadsword material, and certainly not in the fashion that it is commonly performed by people who import it from other systems without due attention to context or body mechanics.

It does exist in other systems, for other weapons and different contexts, such as Angelo’s “sword arm protect” for cavalrymen, and Hutton’s “parry of high octave”. In Angelo’s poster, the outside hanging guard is projected far from the body, because it’s purpose is not to create a static block against a powerful attack to the torso – it’s purpose is to provide a dynamic parry against a cut to the sword arm while two cavalrymen are riding past each other.[2]

In Hutton’s system, the “high octave” parry is held in the way that most people would use the parry in broadsword fencing (and Hutton’s illustration is probably one of the main sources that people use to justify this sort of position).[3] However, he does admit that “on the outer line I prefer the octave, though I grant its comparative weakness, to the seconde,” as the seconde parry is more deceivable by feinting.[4] Furthermore, to give proper context to the validity of this parry in this system, he writes that; “The arm I recommend for school-practice is a light-sabre similar to those used on the Continent, which, from its slight weight, is capable of more varied treatment than the cumbersome weapons in vogue in our English schools.”[5] So Hutton admits it is relatively weak as a parry, even against other extremely light civilian sabres.

Sometimes people decide that the “sword arm protect” or the “high octave” looks like a useful way to cover your right side when fencing with broadsword, so why not use it? In my opinion, the broadsword masters excluded it deliberately because it places a significant strain on your wrist and elbow, and you can end up damaging yourself with a severe long-term injury if you use this guard with a relatively heavy broadsword. Furthermore, it is a relatively weak guard position, because the structure is naturally somewhat more compromised than the outside guard or position of tierce, so a powerful strike will blow through your high octave. Therefore, because it is a poor defensive position for fencing against heavier swords, and it runs the risk of giving you long-term injury if you use it with a heavier sword, the broadsword masters chose to exclude it from their system. Choosing to start using it in your broadsword sparring because you have seen it in another system means you are going against the masters’ intentions to keep you safe both in terms of well-structured parries and in terms of the longevity of your joints.

So, I try to work only on the techniques described in a system, without pulling in other techniques from elsewhere. Sure, you might achieve some early successes in sparring by using a technique from somewhere else, but in the long run, relying too much on “frog DNA” can inhibit your learning and can actually set you back in terms of your development.[6] And, as mentioned with the outside hanging guard example for broadsword, importing a technique to a different context might result in physical injury to yourself by trying to shoehorn the wrong thing into your training.

I think eastern martial arts work very well (I have my black belt in karate, and I enjoy the karate way of doing things), in their context. In different contexts, different martial arts work better. I wouldn’t try to use judo in a boxing ring, nor would I try to use boxing in a sword fight. Every martial art was designed to solve a particular problem, in a specific context, and so they should be understood in isolation. Sometimes a given context requires a variety of solutions: for example, the modern MMA cage fight for sport works extremely well with a combination of boxing, muay thai and Brazilian jujitsu. However, for a street fight against two or three opponents at once, perhaps krav maga would give the better solution to the problem.

These are my thoughts on the issue. The most important thing is that you run the club to get the best experience and training to fit your needs and the needs of your students. If that means training stuff you know well, like judo or karate, while gradually introducing more and more HEMA stuff as you become familiar with it, then that’s fine. No one expects an instructor to run before he can walk! But if you want to study HEMA for the purpose of learning a European martial art, then I believe you would do best by trying to focus on that without looking for frog DNA from other martial arts or HEMA systems.

 

Footnotes

[1] “Fendente cutting angles, what do you think?” Schola Forum, 2011. This statement is drawn mainly from the input from “admin” (Matt Easton) and “Batfink” (Johann Matzke), on pages 2 and 3. http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=17192&hilit=crossed+wrists

[2] Henry Angelo. Hungarian and Highland Broadsword, twenty-four plates designed by Thomas Rowlandson. London: Henry Angelo, 1798. “Sword Arm Protect.”

[3] Alfred Hutton. Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1889. Plate XIII.

[4] Alfred Hutton. Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1889. Pages 131-132.

[5] Alfred Hutton. Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1889. Pages 1-2.

[6] Keith Farrell. “‘Frog DNA’ in HEMA: Benefit or Hazard?” The Blade’s Edge. Volume 2, June 2014. Pages 14-17. Available online at the Darksword Armory website: https://darksword-armory.com/blades-edge-magazine-june-2014-vol-2/

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