Our personal goals in studying HEMA are varied, complex and individually quite different. For myself, I try to understand how and why it is designed the way it is as a martial art. That means it is not enough mimicking the movements described in the manuals, since just doing that, in my opinion, is an empty gesture without real meaning. And not understanding the why means we can’t really understand the how either, given that the sources are always incomplete and inferior to receiving direct instruction such as the authors and fencers of old themselves had.
Issues that can come out of this are for example striking and hitting in a certain way at a certain target that in reality would have little or no effect in actual real combat. Like a cut to the cranium with the furthermost part of the blade of a longsword that has little mass at that part, which scores a point but would not stop the opponent in a real fight with a sharp sword. Likewise it could also cause us to fear acting in a way because we believe it would be damaging to ourselves, since our understanding of how swords were sharpened and how period textiles work is insufficient and wrong. Talhoffer seemingly pressing the opponent’s blade away with his forearms would be such an example. Similarly, other things may have been designed for contexts where the aim was to draw first blood and nothing more and that in itself has certain implications. Likewise striking with the flat showed a certain intent and was designed to have a specific effect, but without understanding that intent it will just seem foolish.
So, when we study the sources on historical European martial arts we need to carefully consider some very important questions that can all be summed up into one single question:
“Why is an action performed in a specific manner?”
To understand this question is vital for the study of the martial art, but not necessarily for the sports aspect of the same, even if it is generally considered good and important for the latter too in HEMA in particular. If not consciously preserving this core principle in our studies we risk suffering a big blow, a blow that can easily derail any martial arts practice into nothing more than empty form and gesture1 that has lost all connection to its roots in a harsh and lethal reality.
However, given the complexity of the sources and the world they are sprung out of, to really understand the question above, we have a whole range of specific questions that we need to ask and try to find answers to.
So what do we need to ask?
Who is the author and what is his background?
This question alone has many further subquestions: Was he a soldier or a civilian? Was he trained formally in civilian or military combat? Did he have personal experience of self-defense, dueling or war? Was he well-regarded or even famous?
The more we know about the author, the better we will understand the contemporary value of the teachings.
How are the teachings connected to earlier works?
If the source is unique then that carries various possible implications: It may have been a local, regional or even national martial art with few written sources describing it. It may also only have been applicable only to a very particular context, thus not gaining wide popularity. Or it may even have been an odd freak author with no experience of combat what-so-ever, just making things up, hoping to make a few bucks out of it.
On the other hand, if it shares a lot of material with other works, then we can perhaps interpret this as pointing to a more general and more spread teaching.
Why is he teaching this and how will the knowledge be used?
Is the author sharing his knowledge for financial or ideological gain? Is it his job, having been assigned to write it down? Was the intent to sell the book, to print it in many copies, to train large troops for war or single individuals for self-defense, duel and war?
Are the instructions teaching how to defend, attack, frighten, capture, maim or kill? Are there instructions for exercise or “show-off”?
Who is he teaching to and for what purpose?
Is the target group civilians and/or soldiers? Young boys or grown men? Burghers or nobles? Depending on the answer to this question we will easier understand the contexts in which it will be applied and how that context is defined and regulated.
What are the contexts, i.e. the situations and the environments in which it is applied?
Will it be used on the battlefields, in the streets performing city guard duty or for self-defense, for judicial / noble / military dueling, defending honour or right to property of land. The possible contexts are many and are all defined and regulated somewhat differently.
What are the social limitations for the topic, e.g. laws and customs?
Are there laws and customs of honour that limit the range of actions that can be applied in a specific context? Concepts like ‘first blood’, ‘unmanly thrusting’ and ‘fair game with flat strikes’ are important examples of this. Such laws of war and bar/street fight customs exist today too, with certain acts being regarded as extremely dishonourable, like attacking genitals or eyes, or attacking the weak, elders and children. In other cases they were and still are perfectly acceptable and logical.
What are the purpose, tactical motivations and goals of the action?
This connects to the earlier question of “how the knowledge will be used”, but also to tactical concerns. Some actions can be meant not to kill or maim, but to distract and annoy, or provoke an attack of a particular defense to enable another action on your behalf that is the final intent and goal. Other actions can be meant to scare and make the opponent apprehensive. Fighting is not just physical, but just as much a mental and psychological exercise.
How are the actual ‘sharp’ weapons commonly designed and how do they behave?
Weight, balance, sharpness, sharpening & edge profile and durability of components are all examples of aspects that very much affect actual combat with weapons like daggers, swords and polearms. Attacks will be more or less effective depending on what part of the weapon that is used. Likewise taking the opponent’s weapon with your hands, or moving in for close combat is more or less safe depending on what part of the opponent’s weapon you expose yourself to. Depending on how you use those characteristics certain actions are more effective. Slicing and drawing cuts are often more effective than just meat cleaving-type strikes (Just try cutting a piece of meat by pressing down on it with the knife, then try to draw the edge over it…). Thrusts penetrate things with little power while strikes just won’t penetrate some things.
Furthermore, a blunt training weapon and a sharp weapon behave differently, both when handling on their own, and on impact with the opponent’s weapon and body.
What are the effects on various garments and body parts of the weapon and technique in question?
Similarly to the previous question, the historical clothing affected the effectiveness of an attack. Buff leather, thick silk doublets and high silk collars protect well against many types of attacks, especially slicing. This makes some attacks less effective while making some counteractions less risky. Likewise, the body is more vulnerable in areas not protected by bone, where veins and arteries are near the surface, like the neck from the ear to the shoulder, which is likely why we are often told to strike down to the ear (meaning the top of the neck), the insides of the arms & legs and the gut. Of course thrusts pierces all this easier than cuts.
Always keep in mind the earlier question of what the desired effect of the action is.
How does the human body work and respond to the type of trauma that can be inflicted with the weapon and technique in question?
This is a very little researched topic in HEMA, although parts of it and especially the effects of a sword thrust has been discussed somewhat. This is simply a follow-up question to the previous one. Given the effects of the injuries caused by an attack, what is the actual effect? How does the body respond to such an injury? Does the opponent commonly die instantly? Does he or she commonly continue to fight and if so for how long?
How do these effects vary when one uses different levels of force and different parts of the weapon?
This is actually the final and most deciding question that defines how the martial art is performed in regards to speed and power: How much force, with a margin, is needed to create the desired effect considering all the above?
These last four questions combined add up to how you should manage distance in the various stages of a fight, where you should target your attacks and how much force to use.
How does combat affect the mind?
This is something the tournaments have tried to approach, putting strong stress on the participants, often causing them to go back to the very core of their fencing, relying on what feels safe. In that the tournaments have had a great value. Another approach has been to fence with little protection and a sometimes higher risk of injury, which also has an equally great value.
However, neither of these will be quite the same thing as standing in front of someone who actually tries to kill you with a sharp weapon. For that we will have to resort to testimonies from people who have actually experienced these things for real and there are a good number of such sources to study.
All of the above and more is what we need to find answers to in order to truly understand the martial art we study. It is a difficult job that will take decades still and there are many pitfalls on the way with complacency and hubris being the biggest two. No one else has ever tried to do anything similar, which makes it all the more difficult, but that also gives us a lot of freedom.
HEMA boomed with the birth and growth of the Internet. In fact it is inseparably linked to it and could never have succeeded without it. Going back just a decade or two, the Internet was quite anarchistic and root-driven in a very benevolent sense. Everyone joined an international and non-hierarchic community where free sharing and openness were powerful core components. In essence it was one of the biggest commune experiments ever made and I believe much of the same spirit coloured HEMA at the time, creating an unruly, positive and anarchistic & anti-hierarchistic martial arts community where helping each other was a given, across all borders. The HROARR site is sprung out of that ideal.
Right now, HEMA is running fast towards increased professionalism which in itself is very good, but which also carries certain dangers. Worst of all, we risk forgetting the spirit that permeated early HEMA, with sharing and helping with no concern for own gain, just for the love of it all. It doesn’t have to happen, but we need to nurture an awareness of the unique generous spirit of HEMA as we move onwards to greater things and stay humble in front of the sources and the tasks ahead.
Thank you for reading!
- ‘Empty’ should here not be read as ‘useless’ or ‘without value’, but rather as ‘having lost its original meaning’, which means it can also have been given a new and different meaning and value for another context [↩]