The importance of written sources

Some time ago I wrote an article called Questions on What Is, and What Is Not HEMA, and recently I’ve been thinking about that question a little more. Firstly, I think that a differentiation must be made between historical European martial arts, as in martial arts that were practiced historically in Europe, and HEMA, as in the modern sporting practice. Viking sword and shield, as in the styles of fighting done with a sword and shield by the Scandinavian cultures that we refer to as the Vikings today, was clearly a historical European martial art; it was a martial art used historically in Europe. However, I would also argue that it is not part of HEMA, the modern discipline.

The reason for this distinction is sources. A Norse warrior living in the 9thor 10th centuries had no need to examine written sources to see if the way he was fighting with a sword and shield was historically authentic, whereas a 21st century practitioner cannot just fight with a sword and shield and claim his method of fighting is historically authentic. They must, or at least should, use evidence to back up their claims and demonstrate that what they are doing is likely to be historically authentic.[1]

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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.

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Caution and fear with the longsword

“…if you fear easily, you should not learn the art of fencing, because a fragile discouraged heart, it does no good when it becomes struck by any art.”
Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresden C487. C.1504-1519. Translated by Christian Trosclair. Folio 16V.

 

As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, the context of modern HEMA sparring is very different to the sort of fighting (either real fighting or sparring) that might have taken place in the medieval period. One of the big differences is how we might feel during a fight, which will then determine how we act.

During the recent HEMAC Glasgow event, we were having a roundtable discussion on style and HEMA, and the problem of context came up, namely that we are fighting in a radically different context, and that therefore the stylistic elements that we are inclined to show in sparring may be different from the elements that we should be showing if we were remaining completely true to the methods seen in the manuscripts that we work from. One of the suggested solutions to this problem was fencing with no protective equipment. The idea is that because people would not be wearing protective equipment, they would fear the opponent’s sword a lot more, and so would act more cautiously and safely and therefore they would fence in a way that more closely match the manuscripts. Essentially, this argument would cultivate a fencer’s fear in order to keep them fighting in a more stylistically pure fashion.

This idea does sound reasonable, and it may apply to some styles; however it raises an interesting question about how to manage fear within the Liechtenauer tradition, and what exact mental state best matches the mental state that Liechtenauer might have wanted us to have. We could try to encourage a more cautious, fearful approach, but this does not necessarily meet the stylistic elements of early KDF.

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Mythologising medieval swordsmen

One sentiment sometimes expressed by HEMA practitioners is that we modern swordsmen have no chance of ever becoming as proficient as historic swordsmen, and that these swordsmen would have been trained so extensively and from such an early age that they would have had amazing mechanics and tactical awareness. For an example of this attitude, please see this quote from a recent Facebook post on the Dimicator page.

As an instructor of historical swordsmanship, this confirms my suspicion, that it is close to impossible for modern practitioners to even come close to the skill and expertise of our forebears, who, since early childhood, must have had a clear idea of what fighting practice or even true combat looked like and they certainly imitated it in their play, much like modern kids imitate their personal sports idols today. Later they were trained by veterans of the respective arts, be it in a fencing guild or a military unit. They exclusively used the correct weapons and tools and had participated in according sports contests. They had never made all the stupid mistakes we see at every single HEMA event, simply because they had always seen what expert distance management, sound tactics, correct body and weapon mechanics look like and how they are to be applied.”[1]

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On speed archery

Recently the archer Lars Andersen released a new video showcasing his archery style, and since then, the video has gone on to be widely shared and discussed. Others have already responded to the video, Mike Loades for example made an excellent response[1], but I thought it would be worth writing a response of my own as there are some points that I would like to make.

Lars Andersen: a new level of archery

To be clear, what he can do is very impressive, and his speed is amazing to watch. I also appreciate the fact that he’s trying to bring about more awareness of historic archery methods. However, many of the historical claims he makes in his video are un-sourced, over-reaching, misleading or frankly inaccurate. He may have a point, and loosing arrows quickly or while on the move may have been very important skills in some historical contexts, and it may well be that not enough attention has been paid to these skills in the modern day. It may well be that modern archery has overly influenced our understanding of historical archery; however, in an attempt to move away from this, we should not succumb to poor scholarship, or to being swayed by trick shots that look impressive but have no practical purpose.

Lars’ skill with a bow is obvious, and so I don’t feel I really need to talk about it further, and I’ll look at the claims he makes in his video from a more critical standpoint. Read more