Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. The shoulders are set properly, the back muscles are engaged, the head is upright, and this position is well-structured. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.
I am currently 28 years old. I have been practising HEMA for around 6 years, although I also have 14 years of experience in karate. As I approach my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I have been lucky enough to have spent a total of 18 years practising martial arts without taking any long term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.
Goliath (MS Germ.Quart.2020), folio 22r
When we read a section of text from one of the historical fencing treatises, there is a wealth of information required to make the techniques work effectively. Unfortunately, much of this information is not communicated explicitly in the sources, especially in the medieval sources.
When developing an interpretation of a given passage and trying to understand how to apply the advice in practice, there are several things that must be considered. This article will try to provide some insight into the “hidden” information that we must acquire before we can make our interpretations work.
Is playing a game of parry/riposte an example of “correct fencing” or “incorrect fencing” for the system that you study? For sabre, it is often an example of “good” and “correct” fencing. What about for longsword?
Can “good fencing” ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?
Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.
This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.
“The advantage of shifting the leg.” Or: what happens when you attack the leg with a stupid strategy. From Angelo’s Hungarian and Highland Broadsword posters.
It is a common piece of advice for shorter fighters who face taller opponents that they should “go for the legs”. I wrote about this unhelpful piece of advice in a previous article, “Myths of the Short Person in Martial Arts“.
However, with the correct tactical set up, the legs can be a very interesting target to attack, and it can be quite safe to do so. The important thing is to ensure that the opportunity is set up properly, and to recognise when it is not safe to pursue the target.
Every so often, I come across a discussion (online and in person, in roughly equal quantities) where people debate the merits and problems of including hands as a valid target area when fencing. Usually this is with regard to longsword, but sometimes with other weapons as well.
It is my firm belief that the hands are important targets when learning how to fence, and this article will set out my thoughts on the matter.
Keith Farrell (left) fencing with Federico Malagutti (right). By slicing or pressing into the arms after an exchange, Keith can prevent Federico from making a further strike or afterblow, keeping himself safe in the Abzug. The action does require correct body structure to support the slicing or pressing, otherwise the opponent will be able to use strength to push through it and land a hit anyway.
The medieval and renaissance German martial arts (particularly those with the longsword) include the concept of the Abzug, or the “withdrawal” from an exchange. Not only must a practitioner be able to enter safely and effectively with a blow, you must hit cleanly, and you must also withdraw under cover so that you can remain safe even after landing a hit.
Regardless of your personal point of view on the “afterblow” and whether or not you think it is a good thing for practitioners to use in their fencing, it is nonetheless obvious that it is better to be able to protect yourself at all times and never to receive a hit that could have been parried easily if only you were paying attention.
To this end, I will suggest a few exercises and ideas to add into your regular training, to help promote the Abzug and to help defend against afterblows in sparring.
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, 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
Many people have written their about thoughts regarding participation in tournaments in the pursuit of historical fencing or even martial arts in general. One broad school of thought states that tournaments are a good thing, another broad school of thought states that tournaments serve only to pervert and debase the art.
It the purpose of this article to suggest a method whereby you might include participation in tournaments as part of a structured and well-considered strategy for improving your fencing skills and martial arts abilities.
Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell sparring at the AHA Loch Lomond 2012 training camp.
This article will attempt to define and explore the concept of “attribute fencing” and why relying on this style of fencing can develop problems both for your own long term development as a fencer and for the development of training partners. The points raised in this article will be equally applicable for practitioners of other martial arts.
Distance is a key topic in HEMA, and being able to manage distance is an essential skill for a fencer. However, there are a number of open questions regarding distance. What distance should we fight at? Should we fight from a long distance, or a short distance? If we advance towards the opponent, how do we judge when to attack them? Do we fight at the maximum distance we can, or do we try to get closer to the opponent?