The Wreath or the Cash? On Tournament fighting

The Wreath or the Cash? On Tournament fighting

“Ey fåår Fächtare Krantz förn ändas Manlige Strijden.

The Fighter shall not receive the wreath until the manly battle is ended (according to the rules).”

-2 Tim 2:5.

I sincerely consider tournament fighting to be vital to our efforts in recreating the historical European martial arts, but I also believe that tournaments can be quite damaging to the fencing and HEMA when done incorrectly, too early and for the wrong reasons.

This is a controversial topic, as the tournaments are very popular, but this is not an attack on individual fighters or tournament organizers. We are all to varying degrees guilty of the sins described below, including me, and not just with regards to tournaments but also when sparring, and I would like to ask you dear reader to take your time and seriously consider how our shared hopes of recreating the Historical European Martial Arts are affected in various ways by how we approach the tournaments.

Four years in training with the longsword I still don’t consider myself good enough for tournament fighting. To me it is simple: Would I feel ready to do it the “old way”, with almost no protection? Do I feel confident that I can fence well enough to keep my hands safe without gloves, even against a “friendly” opponent? Such questions I think should guide us, even if I also believe we can and should use the advantages we have today, with protective gear and so on.

Now, this essay is a massive read and I realise it might be tough for many to sift through, so if you are eager to get to the core of things, then you can skip directly to the postulates at the bottom. Those will explain things shortly and contain the actual suggestions. For the rest of you, here goes:

Fechtschule by Virgil Solis. Notice the bird with the olive wreath. 1541AD.

The fencing was truly considered an Art by our predecessors, and later a “science”, and was therefore also done in an artful manner. In training, as opposed to actual life-and-death fighting, it was not all about “killing” your opponent, but rather about defeating him by showing better skill using supreme control.

The fencers also appear to have felt a strong sense of pride of their understanding of the Art and this shines through in the fechtbuchen and the poems from the fechtschulen. This pride, I suggest, was a core component of all fighting that was further strengthened by the regulations of the fencing guilds and the fechtschulen. The main reason behind this pride of the art is that it simply was knowledge as a weapon. Knowledge that came from education and generations of gathered experience and which armed you against stronger opponents or outnumbered scenarios. In the words of the anonymous writer of Hs.3227a:

“That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?

– – –

Also know and note that when he [Liechtenauer] says that you should show art, then he intends that the artful fencer should place his left foot forward and strike with it from the right side straight at the man with true strikes…”

Anonymous, Hs.3227a, 1389AD

Fechtschule im Schlosshof, Düsseldorf, 19 June, 1585AD.

Or in Joachim Meyer’s words from 1570:

“Now combat with the sword is in essence a practice in which two opponents strive against each other with the sword with the intent that one will outmaneuver and overcome the other with intelligence and nimbleness, artfully, finely, and manfully, with cuts and other handwork; so that if it were necessary in earnest cases, through such practice one may be more quick and skillful, and more judicious for the protection of his body”

Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens, 2.50R

The “artful” fighting was still quite brutal and the techniques were very effective, only rarely being more “flowery” like e.g. the Drey Häuwe in Hs.3227. In fact the actual killing techniques were the Art. There is no distinction between the two.
The context in which these techniques were trained changed with time, mainly, and of course quite a bit simplified, from one-on-one training with a hired burgher fencing master teaching a noble, to regular “schools” with the fencing guilds which taught burghers and nobles alike. The training became more regular and formalised as it became more or less institutionalised in the cities.
How they were taught, however, likely changed very little. Even the early masters could not have their students thrust each other in the face, so the thrusts were likely used for threatening and provoking, just like Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer generally does in 1570. And in the fechtschulen of the late 1400s they were, as it seems, forbidden.

The spirit of these fencing guilds quite obviously included a strong sense of competetiveness and pride in their guild where taunting the opposing guild and their fencers, on verse no less, was part of the ritual of the fechtschulen. This competetiveness even caused the training to change, as the new fencing guild of the Freyfechtere sought to reintroduce the dangerous thrusting for the fechtschulen, which the older fencing guild of the Marxbrüdere did not allow and frowned greatly upon. In fact, even the German mercenaries, the Landsknechten, are said to not have thrusted with their swords on the battlefield in at least two separate sources.

Offentliche Fechtschule im Halsprunner Hof zu Nürnberg, 1623.

There are many misconceptions about the fechtschule fencing and the martial arts. The biggest misconception being that the fencing changed dramatically and became soft and was done just for “sport”. This is quite ignorant as the longswords and the bidenhänder were used well into the middle of the 1600s. True, other weapons became more common as sidearms, which the longsword always was on the battlefield even in the Middle Ages , but the larger longswords also came to serve as a special function, protecting the banners, the dignitaries and the cannon positions. It was in a sense similar to being a machine gunner or a sniper. A specialized function which required great skill and training.

This is also why even the fechtschule fighting was deeply rooted in the Liechtenauer Zettel and had direct links to real combat and warfare. Furthermore, even for “sport” you fought until first blood,  the blutigkusse (the bloody kiss) or rote plume (red flower), and won the fights by causing your opponent to bleed the highest. And still, fighting with proper skill and education appears to have been highly praised. It was something that was considered knightly and noble, something all men should aspire to.

Another closely related and common misconception is that in the early fencing traditions the fencing art is thought to have been practiced in a more martial manner, but even in the early masters’ time, with Talhoffer, Ringeck and Kal, the students wouldn’t have thrusted into each other’s faces or cut to the hands in Blossfechten… They would have practiced very similarly to how it was done later in the Renaissance, as touched upon earlier.
Quite the contrary to popular belief, I think it is quite possible that the development of the fechtschulen actually meant more risk of potential harm. They were strictly controlled, but also quite brutal affairs, as we all know, with a highly competetive spirit.
Just imagine the amount of skill and control needed to fight reasonably safely both for you and your opponent, when you were forbidden to strike to the hands or thrust into the face,while you still won by cutting to the opponent’s head with a butter-knife-sharp sword and you relied on using the Versetzen which tend to expose your hands as you counter-strike. Add to that the easy killing-power of the staves and the halberds and it is easy to see how well-controlled and trained these men had to be.

So, the sport, although it is a bad word for it, has always been there, right alongside of the martial art. It was how you trained and prepared for the actual combat. Consequently, arguing against the sport and complaining about limitations in what we are allowed to do in tournaments, ie “sportification”, is to argue against history. This misconception I think, about the early fencing being more “martial” than the later and particularly that of the guilds and the fechtschulen, also transfers into how some modern HEMA-fencers instinctively fear tournaments as the destroyer of the Art. As such I think it is the root of the fear of the dreaded “sportification”. However, talking against the sport is in fact bad for the modern Art too, as the Art has always relied on competing and it is no different for us today.

Exercises at the University of Tübingen, Wirtemberg, 1589AD.

In my humble opinion, our modern tournaments much more reflect the fechtschulen than the judicial duelling or battlefield combat and we should seriously consider what consequences that should have to how we approach the tournaments. For example, in the Renaissance the fencing guilds had strict policies about behaving in an honourable manner at all times. And just as today there were defined rules for how you were supposed to behave and act both in the halls and when fighting. Quite importantly, this included letting go of your ego and not losing your temper or fight in anger or with true hostility or animosity. Such things belonged to the brawlers in the taverns.

Fechtschwerte, dussacke and the wreath of olive leaves, 1614AD.

To encourage good fighting the prizes in the Renaissance fechtschulen were of two types: either money or a symbolical olive wreath. The wreaths were a reference to the ancient Greeks and the olive wreaths, the kotinos, awarded to the olympic victors.
Such wreaths were awarded to men who fought honourably, thus referring back to a story from Ancient Greece, where Herodotus describes how Xerxes asks some Arcadians, after the Battle of Thermopyle, why there were so few men defending the city and and he is given the reply that they were “all participating in the Olympic Games“. When Xerxes asks about the prize they all compete for and he is told that it is an olive wreath then one of his generals, says:

“Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight – men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor!”

Herodotus, Histories , 8.26.3

The symbols of the Freyfechtere and the Marxbrüdere with an olive wreath in the centre.

This story would most certainly have been familiar to many of the educated burghers of the Renaissance and to the fencers, the olive wreath was considered a great honour. Those awarded with it would proudly display it on their front doors for all the burghers to see. Obviously, the wreath-awarded fencers were very highly regarded by the fencers and the fencing masters who generally praised traditions and adhering to the masters of old.

To this we also have the Renaissance faiblesse for the ancient Greeks and the Romans, and the common celebration of chivalric ideals. Joachim Meyer writes quite explicitly about how we should behave.

“Observe,if you will learn to fight artfully, you should attend to these verses with diligence. A combatant shall conduct himself properly, not be a boaster, garner, or toper, and also not swear or blaspheme, and shall not be ashamed to learn. Godfearing, modest, also calm, especially on the day when he shall fight; be temperate, show honor to the old, and also to womenfolk.
Attend furthermore: all virtue, honor, and manliness, you shall cultivate at all times, so that you can serve with honor emperor, king, prince, and lord, and also be useful to the fatherland, and not a disgrace to your native country.

– – –

Therefore I hope that even if my writing is little heeded by some, yet many honest fellows and young fighters will come forth and… seek to thoroughly understand this art, and to learn to apply a true honorable earnestness, to purge themselves of useless peasants’ brawling, and to be diligent in all manliness, discipline, and breeding, so that when they have truly and fully learnt this art, and lead an honorable life, then they may be thought able to direct others, and particularly the youth, and thereby to be of service.”

Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Adeligen und Ritterlichen Kunst des Fechtens, 1570 (transl. by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng).

Christoff Rösner tells us the following:

“And you should not mock anyone else at all, In exercise, it is forbidden. And you should not beat anyone bloody who is just beginning to fence.”

Rösner, Der Ritterlichen Freyen Kunst der Fechter, 1589AD.

Hanko Döbringer, finally tells us the following:

“Practice your art by necessity, honestly and never in foolish vanity. Then you will always remain a good and true man, a true swordsman. For thus is the art of the sword thought out, that you should practice truly in a spirit of chivalry.”

Hanko Döbringer, Hs.3227a, 1389AD

Detail from Die Fechtschul by Hans Senger, ca 1550AD. Notice the olive wreath.

Now, I am not suggesting this is something we need to bring back in full. But, we do need to keep in mind the importance of how the members of the fencing guilds were expected to act with honour at all times and let that guide us. I would even claim that it is crucial for us to do so, if we hope to ever understand how we should learn to use the techniques properly, with all the nuances and subtleties involved.

Fechtende Adeligen Studenten, 1590.

Today, however, I fear some fighters let their egos drive them to strive for simple recognition through just winning fights, no matter how. Note though that I am not actually speaking against fighters who primarily fight, with great skill, for the purpose of winning tournaments, just those who seek to win fights by any means necessary.

This is important, because if we are not careful winning and scoring “hits” can very easily become more important than showing actual skill and good training. Winning tournaments in itself then becomes the actual definition of skill. This is why we already have some fencers, and even a rare few instructors intentionally “gaming” rules, even going so far as to advise students on how to do this. It is not an overly common problem, but it is an issue that I believe affects us all in a very negative way. This is a very different mindset to that of those fencers of old that we seek to learn from and a completely different sense of pride that is very dangerous to what we try to do, because it actually works in the artificial context of many of our current tournaments. And if we don’t raise an awareness about this and make such behaviour shameful, then it can potentially ruin the good things that come out of tournaments.

From the Egonolph treatise of 1531.

Furthermore, I believe that the fact that our predecessors used little to no protection changes things completely compared to what we do today and although we might come closer to the “sharp” version of the fencing as the protection allows for harder fighting, we might at the same time step away from the Art they strived for and were deeply proud of. This is a direct effect of us losing proper respect for the weapons, being equipped with better and better protective gear.

From Codex 10779 of 1623.

This lessens the art and as a result we rarely see fencers who use the proper historical “delicate” grippings of the hilts, good footwork or proper weight shifting. In a sense we are all “buffaloes” and would likely have been regarded as such if we had stepped into a Renaissance fencing hall as we fight with little finesse and subtlety, instead often relying on force and speed, taking risks we never would have taken had we fought with bare heads and hands.
The issue of double kills also likely relates to our lesser concern for our own safety. Lots of nuances are lost as we go at it hard with lots of protection (and often “quicker”, shorter and lighter swords) and that seems to increase in the tournaments right now, with some rare but good exceptions.
However, we also of course need to use our protective gear as it gives us distinct advantages too, in getting nearer the martial art, since it allows for a higher degree of force and risk-taking. It is, if you excuse the pun, a double-edged sword… We just need to learn to fence as if we had none, and stay away from relying on it.

Drummer, piper, a boy with a Paratschwert and an olive wreath twisted over the blade. By Martin Pleginck, after Amman, 1594AD.

At heart modern HEMA is anarchistic and anti-hierarchical coming from the underground as a reaction to the much more formal Asian martial arts and the very sportified sports fencing. This can sometimes lead to a dangerous playfulness and lack of respect for what we are actually doing. Due to this friendly anything-goes attitude we often feel that everyone must be welcome to fight, no matter how little trained they are or what they actually know about HEMA. So we let anyone fight with the dussacken or the longsword, because it is so damn fun.

Federfechter und Marxbrüder im Nürnberger Fechthaus, 1689AD.

This is quite different to how it was done traditionally in the fechtschulen, where there was a very strong sense of hierarchy and a certain degree of core skills were required and had to be displayed before being accepted into a fencing guild. Traditionally, the prospect guild fencers were given an intensive course for six weeks in the techniques, but keep in mind that these fencers were no beginners. They already knew quite well to handle the more common weapons. After this course, you were allowed to play for your “prize”, but only if the fencing master thought you were ready at the end of the training. Only then would you become a member of the guild.

Furthermore, the rules of the fencing guilds meant you were fined for handling weapons you hadn’t “sworn” for. You simply weren’t allowed  to use what you weren’t trained for. If you have ever trained quarterstaff fencing you will realize just what degree of skill our predecessors possessed, simply due to how easily you can cause permanent injury or kill with such powerful weapons, and yet that was uncommon in the fechtschulen.
Such a degree of control was needed since they wore little or no protection, and not having the basics down so you could protect yourself and hit the opponent in a “safe” way would lead to people getting injured for life with severe consequences for the fighters and their families.

Unknown artist from the mid to late 1500s.

Unfortunately, when this current lack of training in the specific tournament weapons is combined with the very strong ambition to win and gain competition merits that some fighters appear to be driven by today, we end up with tournaments where a number of fighters really have no idea of what they are actually doing or just focus more on landing points than actually fencing well, with a few even exploiting a rule system which does not differentiate between light non-dangerous cuts and theoretically lethal cuts. This is problematic since it inevitably mutates the art, which we can see already.
And from a profile perspective all this creates an image that to the outsider conveys something which has little relation to what we actually claim to study, with longsword fencers standing more or less still in the guards of eisenport or langort “tactically” fishing for quick hits to the arms.
In a sense it is still a kid’s playground, where us kids fight it out thinking we look like grown-ups. It is high time we grow up and really take what we do seriously and show proper respect for what we claim to be doing.


So why at all engage in tournaments?
Well above all, they make the fighting arts come alive. Sparring is great and so is free fencing, but the tournaments add another layer of pressure on you as you are pitted against fencers you have never met. It is a reality check where we can potentially waterproof our skills and interpretations against different styles, schools and traditions.

Furthermore, the tournaments have pretty much always gone hand in hand with training for combat. It is a natural part of martial arts and the surrounding culture, where you put yourself to the test and see if the core of what you have learned works against an uncooperative opponent.

It is also great fun and helps HEMA grow as it is exciting and draws lots of attention from people who haven’t seen HEMA before.

AND, when done right, it is truly the best display of fighting we can see. No sparring, no free fencing or technique training comes close to it. At this stage it is still quite rare, but it does happen, like in this amazing fight between Axel Pettersson and Carl Ryrberg:

And this beautiful clip with the lightning-fast Anton Kohutovic:

How do we handle this?
It has been suggested that these issues will weed themselves out as the quality of the fencers improve with time and once the tournaments are more regulated with proper divisions this will be less of a problem. Another solution proposed is that we should let the trainers and club leaders chose which of their students that shall be allowed to enter the tournaments. Both are reasonable suggestions.

But, although I think these two suggestions will help the situation I am still skeptical as there will always be a number of individuals who will exploit any system no matter how well designed. So consequently, I believe that these things are simply very hard to regulate through rule systems. And while I do agree that we need them I would also suggest we need to shape a certain HEMA culture were we expect everyone to take pride in displaying artful fighting, meaning proper technical fighting as taught by the masters, as best they can, even in a sportive context.

For this I have defined a number of postulates that I think should guide us all, both practitioners and tournament organisers.


-This should be a matter of pride for the fighter and his/her school and the trainers and club leaders should discourage their students from entering tournaments with weapons or styles they are not trained enough in and should definitely set a good example by refraining from doing so themselves.

We see this now and again, with people who don’t really take the tournaments seriously enough, as it is just “for sport” and they can either relax as there is little expectations on them or since they can just show some general good “fighting skill” that they apply to anything without having studied it. The serious issues involved here are described more below.


– We are practicing HISTORICAL European Martial Arts here, so this should be a self-given. Making up your own techniques might work for you in this artificial context, especially as it will confuse those who are unfamiliar with your style, while you are used to fighting people who work from a specific system, but it is not realistic as historically people generally fought people with similar training or at least systems they to a degree were familliar with. Fair enough if you are trained in contemporary Turkish scimitar, but you get the idea…

Unfortunately, this is what we see a LOT of in the current dussack tournaments. Few actually study sources like Paurnfeindt, Mair, Meyer and Sutor.


– All techniques and styles come from a historical context. If we create too artificial contexts then we run a very real risk of missing our goals in recreating these Arts by instead creating modern swordfighting styles that have only vague ties to the roots from which they stem.

So, stepping into e.g. a sabre tournament without other experience than the dussack or messer should really be considered as wrong as stepping into a judo tournament coming from Greco-Roman wrestling or kung-fu. Sure, your style might work and quite well at that, especially if you are very skilled and experienced in what you do, but this is not about Viking vs Samurai. It is Historical European Fighting Arts.

Some leniency is of course required as it would be too complex and impractical to try to separate e.g. Wallerstein fencers from Meyer fencers. But again, you get the idea.


– Fighting with weapons or weapon combos that are not found in the treatises should be absolutely banned for the same reasons as self-invented fighting styles. It is not based on actual sources and it can potentially give you an unfair advantage as your opponent is not used to fighting someone like you, but you are familiar with their correct “traditional” style. Exploiting their confusion is not honourable or realistic. So no dual wielding of arming swords etc… Otherwise we are no different to the SCA. We just wear more stylish outfits.


– Using rapier techniques for the longsword might again work to your advantage, but it is anachronistic. HEMA is supposed to take pride in historical correctness and exploiting things in an anachronistic way belongs to the SCA or LARPing. So don’t grab a longsword and use your great skill in rapier fencing in a longsword tournament.

Of course you have to be allowed to develop your own style. Even Meyer states that “as everyone is different, everyone fights differently“. BUT, at the same time the fencers of old felt pride in having understood Liechtenauer’s or the other master’s teachings and only added to it. They didn’t completely change it.

Here is where we need to show pride and not just fight hard but also well, through a display of good understanding of historical fencing.


– This is at the core of everything. Winning or placing yourself well in tournaments through gaming the rules or sniping light hits impresses no one and such winnings are hollow. It is fluff and of no real value and only damages our shared efforts in trying to recreate the fighting arts. Instead feel proud of being able to display your proper understanding of the Arts and work towards that goal.

Do not rush to fighting, but instead focus on fighting correctly first. This is not in conflict with training or fighting hard.


– Your skill, knowledge, training, control and your weapon is what should keep you safe in all exchanges. Likewise this is what should keep your opponent safe.

Learn to fight as if you didn’t wear any of your gear and maybe one day, if you train hard, you will be good enough to fight without it, just like the fencers of old did.


– This is basically for the event organisers but a quite important suggestion: Let special judges follow all matches and decide which fighter displays the best technical skill for their specific system and award it with a traditional Olive Wreath. Make this the top prize, the most celebrated and prestigious award, something which all fighters would die for.

Of course, if you won both this, and the actual tournament then you would be uber-cool…

However, as an organizer don’t mix that up with awarding people for generally good swordsmanship and taking part in all tournaments of an event. It is not about fighting spirit, but about taking our predecessors and their teachings seriously.

Remember, we are not just doing all this for the love of fighting, but also to try to recreate what is lost, the truly unique European martial arts traditions, with the same sense of honour and pride of the Art as our predecessors felt.
To be able to do so, we must adhere quite strictly to what they taught and preached which will likely take lots of time, decades even. But it is the only way we can make these arts truly come alive again.


The thoughts expressed in this article are my personal thoughts and do not necessarily represent those of other members of the Gothenburg Historical Fencing School, HEMAC or the opinions of all those who contribute to the HROARR site.

Related articles

Roger Norling
Roger Norling is an instructor on Joachim Meÿer's Halben Stangen (Quarterstaff) with Gothenburg Historical Fencing School.

His main focus in his research is the "Kunst des Fechtens" and primarily the longsword, dussack and polearms. He has been focusing on the works of Joachim Meÿer since 2009. In this he has enjoyed collaborating with the Meyer Frei Fechter Guild and in May 2013 he became a Fechter of the MFFG. Recently, he has begun researching Meyer's dagger quite systematically using the same method he applied to his staff teachings.

Currently, he is writing on a series of books which will explore the teachings of Joachim Meyer, in collaboration with researcher friends in the HEMA community.

The upcoming two years he will be teaching Meÿer quarterstaff, dusack and longsword at various HEMA events in Europe and the USA. For more about this, read his instructor's profile.


    • Thank you Eugenio! I am very glad you liked it! I have been thinking quite a bit about our chat last time we met! Hope to meet you again, at Swordfish!

  1. Great article Roger.

    Maybe you could make it into some kind of EULA for the competitors entering tournaments. :-)

  2. Roger, this article gives food for thought!
    Many times when reading I thought: we should tell that in our guild!

    • Thank you Bert! I am just hoping to spur some debate as I think we really need to discuss these matters and their long-term effects, both negative and positive. I think it is quite clear that in many instances the tournament fighting does not really reflect what we study or even how people train and spar, for that matter. And with tournaments becoming more and more popular and people beginning to think “tactically” about how to win, and even conciously exploiting the rule sets, then it is getting quite urgent too, I think.

  3. Great article Roger. I think the only issue I might have is about mixing styles. It probably isn’t what you meant but do you think it would be wrong to use some of Meyers rappier techniques when practicing his longsword? Would this be mixing or is it fine since its from the same master and his works are designed to build off each other? I think you probably meant that we shouldn’t use a later period rapier style with early era longsword. Just wanted to clarify the point.

    • Thank you Ted!
      Well remember that you were fined for even picking up a weapon you hadn’t sworn for in the fencing guilds. It is not just a matter of having some vague ideas about techniques you can apply to a weapon. You need to know the basic guards, attacks and defences for the specific weapon alongside of the underlying principles and the core techniques. For instance, for a longsword it would be the guards, cuts and thrusts together with an understanding of Vor&Nach, Swech and Sterck, Weich and Hart, Indes&Fuhlen.

      So with Meyer, I don’t think knowing his Rappier is enough to compete with a longsword. Sure your understanding of the longsword will be strengthened by your understanding of the Rappier and vice versa. But you still need to train that specific weapon.

      However, Meyer also says that everyone is different and needs to fight differently, so adding things to the core of techniques I think is perfectly fine, at least to a degree. So using some of his Rappier techniques with the longsword is good provided that the core of your application of his Art is formed from the longsword. Remember that our precedessors showed pride in having studied under certain masters, and even more pride, I think, if they could show that they could expand in an effective way on what they had learned.

      Looking at this strictly, very few are good enough at this for tournaments as almost no one works properly with the bind, using winden and very few even thrusts, although it is one of the Drey Wunder. We can’t be that strict of course, as we are still learning and working to recreate this. But we need goals and we need to promote the right things for this Art to come alive and flourish again.

  4. One of the best things I’ve read in some time. Truly a great post. Before I say anything else let me say that I basically agree with you 100% and have had similar concerns and thoughts.

    I just said a few days ago to Matias, co-instructor in our club, I would completely understand if I was not allowed to compete in Swordfish sabre tournament since I have no training in the style whatsoever. I only participate because it is the closest to what I practice. But this said we run into the problem of who is qualified to say what kind of skill level is enough? What kind of an interpretation of a given style is worth the wreath? Still at this point there are a lot of different opinions about how things should be done and what kind of fencing should be exhibited by the fencers.

    Today we face two aspects that make it difficult for us to strive for the example of the fechtschule: one is the necessity of safety equipment since the society will not accept the risks involved, and the other is that people require everything to be measurable in today’s competitions. Who actually scores the touch matters more in the end than who did it with the most style, or most honor. This is unfortunate in my opinion, but very difficult to change.

    Really the only way I can see that this could be changed is that the most high-profile tournamnet organizers would get together and decide to become more fechtchule-like, and then set the rules and have all the fighters screened before they are allowed to participate. Then there could be open-for-all tournaments fought with plastic swords for points, but the most important tournaments would be carefully constructed to be about something else as well. Some people will certainly shoot this idea down as complete nonsense, but I would like to see it happen that way.

    I think there is room for practice where chance plays a bigger role and participants do not have to have – or even simulate – any danger to their person or honor, since this environment would be one kind of an extreme test your skills. But the more role chance is given the less visible skill becomes. I think this is important to remember when considering the future of tournaments.

    Finally, to bring something Italian to this arena, Manciolino tells us how a fencer who always stays true to the art will never lose, even when receiving a hit. This quote tells the same story, I think.

    Thank you for writing this, you are brave to have expressed your opinions openly. I look forward to more discussion on this important topic.

    • Thank you so much for the kind compliments Ilkka! I really appreciate it!

      Well the thing is that since everyone is allowed to enter whatever tournament they choose, then the tournaments get over-crowded with competitors which not seldom really don’t know much about what they are doing there, just looking for fun and excitement. Fully understandable and not something to criticise people for, since it is the way we have done things.

      But, if we would be stricter about this, then there would actually be room for MORE tournaments, like specific Bolognese tournaments etc. This way, you wouldn’t have to go for the most similar weapon.

      Screening people would be very difficult at first, but once it is in place it would be much simpler, since most would already have been screened. However, I personally, am much more for creating a culture where you only enter a tournament when you and your coach think you are properly ready for it. This combined with us together setting high standards for what is required of you, I think would be best.

      BUT, this does not exclude competitions for beginners. It is needed, since you need to gain some experience before standing up against the top fighters, especially in the future. We just need some form of separation between beginners and more advanced fencers. This too, of course, is very controversial and difficult.

      As for who is skilled and knowledgeable enough to judge about awarding honour wreaths, that is tricky, especially if we add more tournaments. Generally though, at least for the more common weapons and styles, we do know a good amount of people who have enough experience to judge here, I think.

      Yes, there should be room for practice, and tournaments where you can act with more risk and less care for your honour. With the wreaths that wouldn’t change. You can still win a tournament that way. But winning BOTH the tournament and the Wreath would be the greatest honour thinkable. And fighting well should always be considered more important than doing some good things and then just scoring a win by making light, quick cuts that would have no effect in reality.

      I realize I am expressing myself in a sometimes controversial manner, pushing the arguments too hard sometimes, but I think basically you all get the picture and understand what I speak of.

      I love the Manciolo quote! Thanks! I really need to read more of the Italians. :)

  5. exceptional article Roger. I really enjoyed it, well done. I pray it affects change in HEMA.

  6. Well written!

    I have only one quibble:

    You write:
    “At heart HEMA is anarchistic and anti-hierarchical coming from the underground as a reaction to the much more formal Asian martial arts and the very sportified sports fencing.”

    HEMA never was an ‘underground art’ . It was extinct or close to becoming extinct, but it was never an underground movement that became suddenly more popular like e.g. the Dog Brothers.

    In my opinion, it is not the Art that is anarchistic and anti-hirerarchical (quite the contrary), it’s quite a number of it’s modern practitioners who are.

    • Thank you Jörg!

      Actually I agree with you. I was talking about the modern HEMA culture as a sort of underground reaction to the much more hierarchical Asian martial arts. It is not quite like Dog Brothers of course, but neither is it a culture of strict ranking with instructors on piedestals that you are not even allowed to approach, etc. It exists in some rare cases, with more sect-like organizations, but generally it is a very down-to-earth “movement”, I think. This is basically a good thing, but at the same time it can have certain negative side-effects.

      The Art in itself is not anarchistic at all, and traditionally, the guilds were highly hierarchical and regulated, even if the fechtschulen could get out of hand and turn quite nasty sometimes.

  7. set the rules and have all the fighters screened before they are allowed to participate.
    I like that idea as well Ilkka, that in conjunction with the individual being approved by their respective school / Guild / organization sounds ideal to set high standards and build a robust HEMA culture of excellence around the tournaments; practitioners of high “fight” ethics, skill base, displayable control, etc.
    any ideas on how such an evaluation or screening would work?

    • Hi Chris!

      I would suggest that the individual event organizers (such as Swordfish, should they choose to do something like this) simply decide who they hold as authoritative persons who understand the goals of the tournament. Choosing someone like Roger here would be a good start, for example.

      The screening itself could be something like first you send in a letter describing who you are, what you have trained (and with whom, or if you are self-taught) and if possible some video’s of you fighting (this is modern but what the hell) and performing solo/pair drills. Then the “board” chosen to run the tournament would decide whether you can participate or not (this shouldn’t be too hard, though it will be completely subjective and some will complain and consider it unfair).

      If they wanted to (though this would be hard to do in practice due to time constraints) the people could be screened live before the fights by having them demonstrate some techniques and their control in some set drills.

      This would mean that if we have someone who is simply a skilled fighter and has won competitions in the past, but has no real background in HEMA, they could not participate unless they go through the trouble of actually learning the techniques and the control etc. required by the tournament organizers. To be honest, I don’t think this will be overwhelmingly difficult for anyone who has skills with the weapon, even if the skills were from a different style initially.

      Just some thoughts from the top of my head. :)

      • This is an interesting idea. I like the idea of a statement being sent in, especially if the person is not a student or instructor from a “recognized” school that is well-known within the community. My only problem with this is it would eliminate the whole idea of an “open” tournament, and would also require a level of standardization I think at least 50% of HEMA probably isn’t ready for.

        There is also the problem of institutional corruption, a thing we’re all wary of, I’m sure. Just because we have excellent people with integrity in charge of the sport now doesn’t mean that we always will in ten or twenty or thirty years. Also, we all have to agree on a standard definition of what HEMA is and what it isn’t. Have we, as a sport, done that? I am not sure.

      • Well I am not sure I am for screening as I think it would be very complicated to arrange given the current organisatorial state of HEMA. There are so many pits to fall in with such a screening, which is why I mainly promote focusing on our shared culture.

        Such screenings I think should be left to the trainers and club leaders. It should be a matter of pride to the club to sent good, technical fighters into tournaments that suit them. Hopefully that, and the “culture” would prevent them from misusing the tournaments to gain “simple” merits.

      • I like these ideas, these thoughts from the top of your head :) sorry if this response is rushed, but well I am rushed.

        So it would be an entrance packet;
        a brief biography in the form of a letter, video displaying solo training, paired drilling, and preferable a letter from your school/ Guild / Study Group (unless you are self taught) that vests you, saying they support you and your skill level is a good representation of the organization as a whole.

        Doing that may allow the planners over time to see trends of, if any are indeed present of who the unsafe and/or rule gamers are and what organizations they are from.
        Then maybe on site before the event

      • , or better on video, because no one wants to travel to a tournament and then be told they can not attend – several displays of some control drills.

        I prefer to chat about the things we can DO, opposed to the culture or lack there if in HEMA.
        Or complaining about the general confusion folks have about the difference between Martial Arts Training and Combat Sport events and the interplay between them.
        One of the problems we must be aware of and actively struggle against is the misinterpretation of what Martial Arts are and what Combat Sports are, and how they interact with one another. Martial Art techniques can not by virtue be safely applied against someone; these actions are for killing, maiming, and violently disabling used in dire situations where life and limb are in jeopardy.
        The need arose for cultures to practice their martial ways during times of peace to keep their warriors sharp. Quickly it was evident that killing off or seriously injuring their young warriors at festivals, events and in training halls was not worth the cost in man power. Such is the birth of Combat Sports.
        Combat Sport’s aggressive applications of martial Art’s techniques with in some rule sets was built to protect the lives of the participants’.
        The problem in some circles of HEMA is the Combat Sport / Tournament training, has become the Martial Art.
        I do believe things will get sorted over time. Likely it will come to having several types of tournaments; Open and a variety of ruleset specific events.

        unvested, all comers from all periods and styles and skill levels – fun of course, and useful as well. But this is dependant of your goals. If it is to see where you stand as a fencer, in general within the scheme of the greater community – great. But if you want to see if your interpretation of particular techniques are valid against and unknown, unwilling opponent, not as good; if say your opponent is so far outside your Master(s)’s training.
        That is, if you train not to strike to the feet, or legs even, or that you do not use “unmanly” techniques – kicking, ect. Or a better example – you train halfswording and no one you fight that day has ever trained that, or it is not allowed – or grappling . You are an excellent grappler but only face people who are not proficient, not a very good indicator of where your training stands.

        And a variety of events with given constraints:
        upper body targets for points only, full body targeting, head only, grappling / no grappling, kicking / no kicking, highest landed strike, after strike used, and on and on.

  8. A well-written article. I would drill down on one tension at the core of the debate, the potential compromise between style and martial effectiveness. In theory they are not mutually exclusive (and IMO will be even less so as we get better), but in practice sometimes one or the other suffers .

    This is addressed to an extent by the period masters. The Anonimo Bolognese (circa 1510) notes that often a fencer fights cleanly, having concentrated on style, but to the surprise of others is beaten by an “ugly” fencer, who has concentrated on effectiveness.

    Capodivacca (1704) gives advice on fencing with with buttoned swords in front of grand personages. He says that you should fence with courtesy, respect and without any trace of anger, unless your opponent goes beyond the usual limits, in which case you should match him so as not to be overwhelmed. Of course in a modern tournaments many people start out with the amp already turned to 11.

    Again in the late 19th century Victor Maurel (quoted by William Gaugler), comparing French and Italian fencing said:

    “Above all, the purpose of fencing to the Italian fencers is combat; their aim is to hit and not be hit. We, instead, admire, above all, aesthetic bouts. Here is the habitual expression, and we hear this heresy daily: ‘One beautiful hit equals ten bad ones.’ With this attitude, one can obtain only a conventional art that is no longer combat, and that places one in a position of inferiority when faced with men who fence seriously.”

    So focusing primarily on style can have its pitfalls. I don’t think anyone is advocating abbandoning martial effectiveness, but it would be sad if we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The laurel would also be extremely subjective (although some tournaments already do something similar). Within one style there are different interpretations, and there are massive variations within the same weapon, no judge can hope to know every style. If I gripped my rapier with both hands and threw a strong cut into my opponent’s sword, before rushing in to stab and grapple them, most people would say that it was something other than proper rapier, but I can point to the passage in the manual that recommends it.

    I can however see merit in tournament organisers only admitting entry to people who have studied the weapons for say a year, trained with a recognised HEMA group, and can list the sources they study from. There is nothing to stop tournament organisers doing this now, but the preference seems to be for fully open tournaments. To be fair, I can see the merit in these too, being able to show that your skills can hold up to all comers. So perhaps we end up with two types of tournament, fully open tournaments and those (possibly restricted entry/invitational) that are more rigorously grounded in historical technique?

    • Thank you Piermarco!
      I think you are correct in stating that there is no inherent conflict between the Art and martial effectiveness. It is why I said that there is no distinction between the two. They are one and the same. But you are also correct when saying that in practice often one or the other suffers. And even the Hs.3227a from 1389 mentions how a peasant can defeat a master by aggressiveness, pushing forwards in the “Vor”, just like described in the anonymous Bolognese.

      So I am not questioning that. But at the same time, the same authors also celebrated the Art and the examples with peasants defeating masters are oddities meant to put light on certain principles. Basically you can’t get too technical and stiff either. Like the Hs.3227a says:

      “Therefore open your mind and ponder well and the more you train yourself in play the more you will think of it in earnest. For practice is better than art, your exercise does well without the art, but the art is not much good without the exercise.”

      The examples you give describe a similar situation and I think the Art always was followed by this; it is what the Gauklers, the Spielleute and the Leychmester stood for. This is not the “true” Art though. It is formalised sport, a game. It can have its uses, but it needs to be counterbalanced.

      This is also what we at least in part come from, with technical training and tournaments that used to show quite a lot of stiff and undynamic fencing.

      The Polish and tournaments like Swordfish have been pushing away from that, which is generally a good thing.

      I agree with what you are saying and I hope this was clear in the article. The Art is not static, formalised fighting. It is the killing, maiming and disabling techniques. Again, there is no distinction between the Art and the martial effectiveness. There is just a difference in how you practice it.

      Yes, awarding good display of technique would be difficult and put high requirements on the “judges”, but we have a good amount of very knowledgeable people. Also keep in mind that we are not talking about individual techniques, but an overall display of understanding of the underlying principles displayed through techniques.

      Lots more to say, but too little time. :)

  9. I have not had time to read the whole article yet, but I want to say to Ilkka that the Swordfish sabre tournament is indeed intended for anyone who practices single hand weapons, and we use sabres as we have those readily available, because many people study it and because it adds some depth to an otherwise medieval and rennaissance focused event.

    If we could run tournaments for every single weapon and style we maybe would, but that is logistically impossible.

    • Understood! 😀 Maybe one day there will be sabre, dussack, 16th century Italian/German, rapier and medieval sword and buckler separately. 😀

  10. Yes Roger, one thousand thanks, you have said things that have needed saying. Brilliant. Now if only the “senior” tournament organizers would read this too. The good thing is; those who truly study the art and want to reconstruct it, will come to some of these realizations also. The Art has a way of guiding us from our modern Competitive desires, and it shows us the true path.
    Ilkka, your words are excellent. thank you as well. The Manciolino quote is pure wisdom.

    This is a touchy subject and dangerous ground for sure. The lure of winning is great today.
    But at the expense of the Art? How can we hope to show more art in a modern tournament, when the rules denigrate those attempts? Change the rules, obviously. Simplify them. But then the challenge becomes voiding ourselves of ego and our desire for victory. I am pessimistic though, having seen the egos at tournaments and knowing that the Majority today, favors the opportunities to win at any cost. It is symptomatic of our modern sensibilities.

    I have been ranting for years about the mish-mash of time periods that all get lopped in together, Battlefield vs Fechtschulen vs quasi HEMA. Many will answer that your art should preserve you no matter what time period or evolutionary state of Sword fighting one studies, and I agree. But what then becomes of our attempts at true reconstruction. In the words of a “senior” tournament organizer and awesome fencer, “If it is popular, the fencers will participate”
    So I hope your article raises awareness to the alternatives. And maybe, just maybe, someday there will be more simplified tournaments, that get us closer to the true path.

  11. What we can not replicate is the community that the fencing guilds represented. They weren’t just sport clubs—they were confraternities and served political, social, and mutual-aid roles. There was clearly an unwritten culture, and I’d be very surprised if their fencing, while competitive, was also not conventional and perhaps somewhat stylized in in nature—if not quite like classical foil, at least in the same sort of spirit where certain things, while within the rules, are not quite cricket. I can’t think of any other way of doing freeplay with minimal safety equipment.

    We see “competitive” fencing through the lens of modern sport, but for them, it was about reinforcing hierarchies and social structure.

    • Well to a degree I agree. But the members of the fencing guilds also belonged to a proper trade’s guild, with the furriers, shoemakers, wood carvers, knifesmiths and body guards being common professions for the fencers. So their social status and protection was likely more tied to their trade guild, I think.
      For the fencing guilds, the hierarchy of course reflected society and the other guilds, but hierarchy is also about making sure that knowledge and experience is preserved and transmitted. It is not just a power thing.

      The fencing training was certainly formalized in some ways, but not necessarily simpler. Fencing without protection while still striving for causing the opponent to bleed requires huge amounts of control.
      Meyer who is thought of as a sports fencers, something which I disagree with, does not use thrusts as much, but he does use them still, which the Marxbrüdere didn’t. In fact, I don’t think proper thrusts were *ever* used in fencing training, or more specifically Blossfechten, even by masters like Talhoffer, as it simply would be too dangerous.

      We need to separate, theoretically, the martial arts from the training in the martial arts. They, and we, trained how to kill, maim and incapacitate, but many would never use it for real though, and we won’t either. However, the actual training might not be so very different if we compare then to now.

      However, today we have certain advantages in our equipment. Our protective gear keeps us safe. Unfortunately that may also trick us into taking risks we would never dare do, for instance without gloves. Historically the hands were off limits, and you struck with the flat in training. That requires a good amount of control, especially with the Meisterhäuwe, where quite a few of us make accidental bad strike and get struck on our hands when attempting to the Versetzen.

  12. I must say that I’m very surprised that there hasn’t been anyone who disagree with you. Looking at your eight points I can’t say that I agree on more then two points. Letting go of your ego, and your last point, but toned down a bit.

    I see HEMA as a sport more then anything else, and I’m sure there are others out there thinking the same think. You probably wouldn’t forbid a novice hockey player from playing in a match even though it might be just as dangerous. It might be an issue Historical activity vs. Sport.

    One thing I can’t complain about is the historical research. Good work there.

    • Well I think Hockey and HEMA are two very different things. Using another example. Would you throw a beginner in MMA into a top league fight?

      And I am not talking about danger at all here. Basically I see no danger in our tournaments, even the toughest ones, apart possibly from how there is too much range in experience in the grappling skills in the sword tournaments, which can lead to neck injuries for those less experienced. But none of this is related to what I argue, so I am not sure quite why you make the comparison.

      Also, Hockey is already set in its form and can certainly develop, albeit to a limited degree due to its rule sets and regulations. HEMA is still being recreated from its sources and we are trying to understand how to do it correctly while we also try to create rule sets that promote proper use of techniques. As such it is therefore quite different to most other sports and especially other martial arts and martial sports. And I don’t think we are anywhere near our goals yet. That is still decades away, I think.

      This is why all the postulates I posted are so important. We are not seeking to create a new, modern fencing art here. We are seeking to revive the old ones in a modern context.

  13. Roger, great article, I enjoyed it very much. A few comments.

    First off, this is something I think has desperately needed saying, which I think you said very well:

    “So, the sport, although it is a bad word for it, has always been there, right alongside of the martial art. It was how you trained and prepared for the actual combat. Consequently, arguing against the sport and complaining about limitations in what we are allowed to do in tournaments, ie “sportification”, is to argue against history. This misconception I think, about the early fencing being more “martial” than the later and particularly that of the guilds and the fechtschulen, also transfers into how some modern HEMA-fencers instinctively fear tournaments as the destroyer of the Art. As such I think it is the root of the fear of the dreaded “sportification”. However, talking against the sport is in fact bad for the modern Art too, as the Art has always relied on competing and it is no different for us today.”

    Second, this article was very well-written in the sense that it accurately and fairly unbiasedly observes things we’ve all seen when attending tournaments. While I’m no expert yet, I have attended and competed in my fair share of tournaments over the last three years, and from where I’m sitting the picture you paint is fairly accurate.

    I think one way for us to go about restoring “fechtschule” style fighting is implementing rules used like the the judging system pioneered at Longpoint 2011, where points are awarded based on how deep the target is, how much control was used, how artful the move was, etc. Refusing to award points for heads or hands would also cure this very well, and possibly reduce injuries. How many people strike for heads or hands because they are easy targets? Many, especially beginners, and lord knows I am also not innocent of this in my past. I also think people strike hard for heads because they are one of the best-protected parts of our bodies.

    That being said, I disagree slightly that we’ve lost all respect for the weapon. Granted, chances of being significantly maimed are much less, but I’ve seen some pretty brutal injuries occur just in routine tournament fighting at many tourneys — broken fingers, broken hands, broken ribs, caved helmets, etc. — done by nylon swords, and not just steel. I think anyone who knows what they’re doing has a healthy respect for what even a “blunt” sword can do.

    That said, maybe we both agree with each other in a roundabout way, because not everyone respects the weapon (or wants to fight with Art), and going into a match “amped up to 11″, as you put it, certainly contributes to injuries like that.

    • Please excuse my error–that scoring system was first implemented at Longpoint 2012, not 2011.

    • Thank you Alex!
      I have strived to make it as unbiased as I can while still being critical to certain things. I am glad to hear that you too see the same things, especially since you have taken part in quite a few tournaments, which I have intentionally chosen not to do, for various reasons.

      I heard about the judging system at Longpoint and I find it interesting. It is a combination of things that might seem complicated at first, but which probably comes quite natural with time.

      I don’t think hands and heads shouldn’t be valid targets, especially not the head. Those are part of the Art, and while the Fechtschulen forbade the striking to the hands, they certainly hit well enough to the head. Most hand injuries also don’t seem to come from striking to the hands, but from bad Versetzen, where the defendant puts his hands in “harm’s way” him- or herself.

      True, we may not have lost all respect for the weapons, but I myself certainly don’t think much about risk of injury when sparring, even when going against quite hard hitting fencers. I do very much so, when I remove my mask and gloves though, not least when we do free fencing with oak staves Meyer style…

  14. I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the earlier comments yet, but I’d like to point some attention towards a different approach to modern HEMA. It is not entirely within the article’s scope but I think it offers another point of view of the historical side of our passion.

    I’m only speaking for myself, but I view HEMA as my way to learn and experience fighting with swords against others in a much more free fashion than other sword-based martial arts allow. It just so happens to be that the material I use to learn this way of fencing comes from historical manuscripts. For me, my longsword fencing is based on historical teachings by coincidence of the material being written during those times. I, personally, could just as well be reading science fiction manuals on fighting if they had any root in reality to fighting with swords.

    What I’m trying to say is that I view the historical portion of HEMA as stepping stones for the modern fencer to base himself on, to mold and then continue to develop his own style from. This is at odds with the endeavour to truly recreate the works of the separate masters, but I feel that as their now-living counterparts we’ve got the privilege to learn from all of the gathered material instead of only following contemporary teachers. I don’t think it’s any less a historical way of fencing when you’re mixing and matching techniques and pieces from different masters and combining them into your own trademark moves that works for you. It still shares the same origin.

    I’m of course all in favour of good shows at competitions instead of mindlessly aiming to win at the expense of everything else, but my point here is more about the historically-based limitations you’re speaking of in points 1-5. In my opinion, a conscious blend of the historical base with modern application is the optimal way.

    I hope I got my point across. The message turned out longer than I had planned. Your article is very well-written, by the way. It was a good read. :)

    • Actually I think this is a good argument, but I still don’t agree with it. :)

      I think we have so much to learn yet and so many things to figure out before we attempt to create our own modified version of the fencing arts. There are no masters anymore and we are simply not at the level where we can begin to do what you suggest.

      It is also, to me, a matter of staying true to the European martial arts traditions and be proud of a part of our culture that has been almost completely forgotten and misunderstood. I don’t think we are even close to be ready to try to create some form of combined, modern form of these Arts. And if we would, then we would again paint a false picture of our cultural heritage.

      Basically, I think we are still children playing with swords and we would most likely have had our asses handed to us if we stepped into a fencing hall in the Renaissance.

      That said, I think one day we will be ready to do what you suggest. That is part of making the Art truly come alive. Making it our own, and expanding on it.

      • I think we’re more ready to develop our own modern take on the historical material than you say, to be honest. A dead art will remain dead until we blow our own life into it, which I think we already do with our subconscious understanding and handling of the material we’re given. If we were to step into a historical fencing school and display what we’ve learned so far, I’m sure that there’d be no end to the nitpicking about how we’re doing ‘this’ and ‘that’ wrong, from their point of view. We’re from a period hundreds of years after them, after all.

        The historical material is like a pussle for us to piece together in a way we think fitting, but it’ll still be the product of our own perception. When we’re there we will surely have strayed from any purist teaching whether we tried to or not.

        I agree with you on the importance of keeping the cultural aspects alive as well, although I don’t think it’d be diminished if HEMA fencing would eventually morph into our own contemporary form. Today’s olympic sport fencing can be traced back to its past heritage, and so will HEMA as well.

        I feel that there is definitely a potential schism in the global HEMA community between those who put more weight on the historical part and those who favour the modern take on it. Hopefully the two sides can work together to produce a blend that promotes fencing that is both historical and ‘our own’.

        I think it’ll be an interesting future to observe, either way. :)

        • Oh and, for what it’s worth, I fully intend to write my very own fencing manual when I’ve progressed far enough into my HEMA adventure. Who knows, a few hundred years down the road it too might be considered historical. :)

        • You of course are entitled to your opinion, but I strongly feel that we are still too unsure of too many things. The more I study the sources, the more convinced of this I become, and I have dedicated quite a bit of time to my studies… Our interpretations need more work and even basic stuff is still hotly debated. Not to mention that we have really only scratched the surface of a small part of the treatises. Many don’t even realize that there are several distinct lines beyond Liechtenauer, existing simultaneously and just assume that it is all one single tradition.

          However, assuming that working properly with the sources equals to it staying a dead Art is wrong. We are doing our best at reviving it, and I would actually claim that the clip of Axel and Carl above is a great example of exactly that.

          Yes, we always interpret things, but we aim to do so in a methodical way, which is what organisations like HEMAC is all about. Corroborating conclusions by cross-referencing between treatises and other martial arts, testing things in a “tough” situation etc. It is combat archaeology and it requires proper methods if we are ever to achieve our set goals. This can’t be done based on hunches and feelings, but we do need to work with a hermeneutical approach, so it is not just numbers and statistics either.

          For this there are many tools we can use. Here are some examples:

          And here are some basic questions you should ask yourself when you study the sources:

          Comparing to sports fencing is really not so good I think, as that is something most people in HEMA wishes to stay well away from, as it has lost all its connections to its roots, and instead has become a pure sport.
          The same with creating new, “mixed” personal systems with bits and pieces picked from numerous systems. There are already arenas for that; the SCA, LARPing and McDojos. I am sorry to be blunt, but saying that we today can create a new fencing art equivalent to that of the old, means that we would equate ourselves to the old masters and claim that we know as much or even more than they did. I don’t believe in that. Instead we need to study HARD, use proper research methods and validate our interpretations through the various tools that are available to us.

          I honestly don’t think the schism is as deep as some would think though. But there should be no holy cows beyond staying true to our set goals. We always need to be critical about what we do, be it research, training or competing.

          • I’m sure you’ve heard this before from people that are skeptical towards HEMA, but I feel that we already are creating our own form of fencing by trying to reconstruct the old ways. The manuscripts weren’t left behind for us to find, they were written to be used by the people contemporary to the authors. They didn’t leave anything to us, Europe let that part of its culture die long ago. What I feel we’re doing now is recreating the old teachings in our own image of it. I believe it’s impossible for us to ever accurately portray what the old masters stood for since we can’t see the full picture, no matter how much we try to put ourselves in the same state of mind and context as our predecessors. They’re gone and we’re not them.

            I’m not really a skeptic myself, I’ll add, but I do understand where they’re coming from.

            I want to say that I definitely don’t want to discredit the work of all the historical researchers and scholars, such as yourself. You’ve brought and continue to bring plenty of new material and thoughts to light, which you freely share with the community at large. That’s a great service which the rest of us can then put to use how we see fit, whether it be in constructing what we believe to be accurate historical portrayals or in our own senses of what it means to possess the skills of a swordsman.

            • Indeed I have and absolutely we are not doing things correctly now. But we strive to do so. It is our goal and what drives us. I think it is perfectly possible, but we need to do a LOT of hard work if we are to succeed. The material we have is quite extensive and some of it was clearly meant to be used on its own, without a fencing master to teach you. Of course people lived in a very different society back then and carrying arms were more or less the norm.

              However, that culture wasn’t dead for as long as you might think. In fact, the longsword was practiced all the way up until 1789, and with people starting to recreate this Art already in the middle of the 1800s it is even possible there were some odd living links that we simply haven’t discovered quite yet. For instance we have the Georgian Khevsureti which still are quite mysterious, and currently mutating quite quickly. We also have an unbroken lineage of Jogo do Pau, and Juego del Canaria which might have their roots in sword fencing and things like balance shifts and basic tacticts alongside of footwork are very interesting to study there, not least when comparing to the works of Joachim Meyer.

              Asian Martial Arts is generally not that very different to what we do. Most schools seized to exist when Japan decided to become a modern, western nation in 1852. They only really began to revive their Arts about 60 years later, and then only three original Ryus remained. This is when all the Do-schools were created; Judo, Kendo, Naginata etc.

              Finally, like I have quoted Meyer several times already: “As everyone is different, we also need to fight differently”. Clearly we need to make things work according to our own abilities, but I think we need to do so within the framework given to us by the masters.

              • You’re right, I’m only speaking from the light of our situation as it is today. There are certainly still many more discoveries to make, with plenty of new drafts for ideas and thoughts to wonder over.

                In an effort to summarise my train of thought into a few short phrases, I believe that the goals of historical recreation lies beyond the historical teachings themselves. We’re working with historical material and we apply it as modern individuals. The end result *will* be a blend of the old and the new. For better or worse, who can tell?

                Thank you. :)

                • Well I don’t disagree with you about that being our ultimate goal. To become really F-ing good swordsmen that can stand on our own legs and continue to let the Art grow and flourish. We just need to stick to the roots and like to earlier masters not completely rewrite history and change the Art. It will eventually be perfectly fine to add a trick or two, once we really understand what we are doing. That is quite a bit in the future though, I believe and it is much too early to attempt this now, as it will only lead us astray from ever understanding what we study.

                  Good talking to you, and it really is an interesting question that you put forward. Thanks for debating it!

  15. Roger : Thanks for this your new and thoughtful article. Long live Ritterlich Kunst! :-)

  16. You’ve got to wonder if the “fault” should lie with tournament organisers or with the attendees. For example:


    I would turn this on it’s head: if your basic training isn’t good enough to beat someone without any training in that weapon, why are you doing wrong?

    If someone cannot beat someone else without training it probably means that are:

    a. going down the wrong track with your interpretation and have therefore been given a valuable lesson
    b. so unfit that they cannot apply the skills correctly and have, again, been given a valuable wake up call.

    If someone without basic training enters a competition they should expected to get knocked out in the first round. That they are not says a great deal about the current state of our fitness/interpretations.

    • Well you are missing one important aspect here. If we allow people with no training in the actual weapon you might still pit e.g. a less experienced 15th cent longsworder against a very experienced 17th cent rapier fencer. The latter will have superior distance handling, be well familiar with concepts like baiting, attacking when the opponent exposes himself when cutting etc. So with no training in the actual weapon, he might still win using techniques deviced for another weapon several hundred years later. It is completely anachronistic and belongs in the SCA and LARPing.

      This is already happening with tournaments where people choose to enter tournaments in 3-4 categories, which both puts an immense strain on the tournament organizers at the same times as it leads to displays of lower quality of fighting. And in some instances we even get people who do quite well in tournaments in which they have no training, due to their athleticism and experience in other weapons.

      Now, one could argue that your techniques ought to work against whatever is put in front of you, but I would argue that history and combat doesn’t work like that. You simply can’t compare a Viking to a Samurai. They existed in different contexts and we need to recognize that and stick to that in our tournaments. Again, leave such things for the SCA. Otherwise our tournaments will have no real value as pressure testing of our understanding of the treatises.

      • Interesting. So what you are really saying is that for you personally recreating a specific style with a specific weapon is your objective rather than, in this example, understanding and skilled at swordsmanship itself and therefore being skilled across a variety of weapons?

        I think there are a huge variety of motivations within HEMA (historical accuracy, martial effectiveness, fitness, ego boosting, socialising etc etc) and that most people have all of these and more in different orders of priority. So while for you the number one priority is recreating the style of a specific treatise. For others this is not the case and there is nothing wrong with this.

        You just need to design a tournament around your specific objectives. So, for you, I would suggest you design a tournament where matches are subjectively judged based on good style, with points being awarded for recognisable technique rather than hits. I have found two reasonable systems for this, either the judges award points based on their own opinions or the audience is encouraged to applaud good actions and the judges score on this basis.

        • Not quite. Swordsmanship is fine and all, but we are working with HISTORICAL European Martial Arts, and the goal of trying to recreate the “dead” arts is at the core of what HEMA is about, not just for me. It is in the actual name of what we do. If you remove the historical accuracy, then you might as well do SCA or LARPing. We are not just doing sword fencing here. It is called HEMA for a reason. So I actually DO think some things are wrong. In fact I am sure you do to. You just draw the line elsewhere.

          I too study different masters and different weapons. But I try not to mix them. Cross-referencing can help me understand them all, and to some degree you of course have to be able to individualise your “style”, as I have said many times here. However, mixing things completely anachronistically, or adding in stuff like Gatka, Escrima, Krav Maga, Kenjutsu, MMA or whatever someone think works for them means they simply aren’t doing HEMA anymore. They are just doing some mish-mash fighting. Not that that means it is bad in any way. In fact it might work very well. But it simply is their own modern invention only vaguely based on HEMA.

          And of course you have good use of learning one weapon when studying another. Meyer is the perfect example of that, where he uses identical concepts, weight shifting, hip and sholder rotations and so on, between all weapons. I have no issues with that.

          However, we really can’t tell for sure how well certain time-separated systems work against each other. We don’t know how, for example I.33 sword and buckler, late 17th century rapier or 19th century sabre, would mesh up with regards to advantages and disadvantages. It is a completely anachronistic construct and it tells us nothing about neither the actual systems used, nor about the actual fencer’s skill. Like another instructor said, one who is very much for open tournaments; then he could just bring a paintball gun and see how that works out. It is certainly not more anachronistic.

          I think there is a certain tendency to put too much faith in tournaments as good pressure testing of skill. It can be, absolutely. But mixing things up like in the above may just as well give unfair advantages to the odd party entering a tournament in which he doesn’t belong, just like an MMA fighter wouldn’t mix well with a boxer. The “odd” party might do very well in the tournament and set an example for others to follow, and suddenly we have a completely new, modern hybridsystem. Cool perhaps, but again that is just HEMA-based. Not really HEMA. There are other arenas for that.

          Sorry, I think I might come off as a bit more blunt, grumpy and anal about all of this than I intended. I have written quite a bit on this topic now, and it sometimes gets a bit repetetive. My sincere appologies.

          We all strive for good swordsmanship (at least those of us who use swords…). But I strongly believe we need to maintain the core of the system we study. We also always need to adapt it so it works well with our specific abilities. But the systems we study were basically designed for facing the same weapons and were mostly used against similar systems also. Mixing things up at this stage, when we really need to focus on figuring out what the hell the sources are actually teaching us, I fear will lead us astray and we could very well end up with something very similar to sports fencing all over again, with little connection to what we study.

          What I think could be interesting as an experiment is to also have a completely open tournament. Let the Dog Brothers, the Escrima Fighters, the Kendoka and so on, meet our fighters. That would put real pressure on our skills. However, that should not be the norm; that everyone is allowed to join in, because if we do, we invalidate the tournaments as a useful tool for understanding the systems we study.

          Beyond that I agree we can also focus on martial effectiveness, fitness, ego boosting etc. But those are just aspects of the modern application of what we learn. It isn’t called Historical European Ego Fitness, you know (Although I know of a club which does “Sword-Fitness” for Ladies… 😉 People are always motivated by different things, but the core of modern HEMA stays the same. Also none of the aspects you mention need to conflict with sticking to what the sources teach us. There is no opposition between martial effectiveness, fencing artfully, displaying good fitness and gaining more confidence from it, in a great social context. :)

          I appreciate your comments, and look forward to debating this more! There are no easy answers here, so we need to talk things through.

          Probably should reread this and edit it a bit, but it is late night and I am too tired. Take it for what it is. I’ll try to explain myself better after some sleep. :)

          • Good reply and lots of kudos for taking the time to reply to everyone in full.

            I would argue all we are doing is fencing with swords. So what distinguishes HEMA from other MA, in my opinion, is using the treatises to bootstrap our abilities beyond that possible by learning unaided. I think this is completely historical, perhaps even more historical than trying to recreate a dead martial art. The original practitioners did not pick up Meyer to learn “ye olde martial art of yester year that is not really martially effective anymore” they did so to learn “complete badass sword skills” (which incidentally would be the title of a treatise if I ever write one).

            The idea that allowing the H of HEMA to predominate will lead to a recreation of the arts is, in my opinion, a fallacy. All that any of us, whether we admit it or not, are doing is projecting our modern perspective onto the historical data to create what are effectively new combat systems. No one is actually recreating the original martial arts because we can never recreate the original context. We are simply adapting the old to our modern context.

            I think this might be coming close to what someone has argued above so I won’t go further in details. The idea that we can improve modern martial effectiveness by taking up key contexts from the past, like minimal armor, is a valid argument. The idea that we can recreate a dead martial art is not.

            • Thank you Ben! I am also glad that you are contributing with your perspective here!

              Again I think you are missing a key aspect of HEMA here. It is not about allowing one of the components to predominate over the other. They are all key components that are required, and rely on each other. They set borders for study and application. Using your argument you could just as well say that we shouldn’t be limited by letting “European” predominate over the others neither, and that we need to learn Asian martial arts too, if we want our Art to come alive again.

              The notion that it is impossible to make this Art come alive again through sticking to the sources is your subjective idea and I really don’t see what you base that on, as there is really nothing that tells us that it is likely to come more alive from NOT sticking to these systems. In fact, I would even suggest the opposite. Not trying to understand them will lead to oddities and peculiarities that stem from being devised under certain, modern conditions in a context which is very much different to when these originial Arts were deviced. This would indeed make it into sports fencing in other clothes, and I can well see a development where we get lighter and quicker swords etc. It is basically your argument, but used against what you suggest.
              I do acknowledge that we might change things to one degree or the other, but we need to have goals and not let such things allow to affect our ultimate goals.

              “Sticking to the sources”, doesn’t mean that you are only allowed to strike the Meisterhäuwe, and move in rigid, undynamic ways. If you think so, then you haven’t studied the sources enough. Again, take a look at the clip of Carl and Axel above. They follow the advice of the sources quite well, even if they still have room for improvement and learning, which I think they both fully agree with. And yet, I doubt anyone would describe what they do as “dead”.

              Yes, we need to make things work in our modern context as we work towards our goal, but that doesn’t mean we have to let go of the core of what we study. The fechtschule rules, for instance, are not so far away from what we are already doing. And the protection we use actually allows us to approach the martial arts aspect of what we study closer, as we can fight harder and with somewhat less care for our partner’s safety with it. However, the latter also has distinct negative side effects, as described above.

              Finally, yes the fencers of old sought to become supreme fighters, but they also felt a very strong sense of pride of having been taught in a specific system, under a specific masters. This is why we don’t have very different systems in Europe. Most masters in the KdF tradition refer to the same grand master; Johannes Liechtenauer, and they only add to his core teachings, and only to a very small degree. Not much changes in 200 years, and when it does it is due to practical circumstances like changed battlefield tactics, social changes and advancements in technology. Sticking to a system gave you credibility partly because it meant you knew things that had been proven to work over many generations but also due to nationalistic pride, and due to the honour involved in being allowed to enter a fencing guild or being tutored by known masters. Again, remember that you were actually fined for picking up a weapon you hadn’t sworn for. You simply weren’t allowed to do whatever you felt like.
              Still, many masters of course travelled and learned from each other. Meyer is a perfect example of that, having travelled to Italy and learned from masters there. It is also quite likely that he travelled north, to Sweden, working as a soldier. Even Liechtenauer and Fiore are examples of this, both having studied under other masters. So learning and understanding the systems is at the core. Once you have done that, then you can add and modify a bit I think. However, we simply aren’t at that point yet.

              Later I can post a definition of HEMA and what the Swedish HEMA Federation has used to define its purposes with. It actually defines HEMA quite well I think.

              Good talking to you. Now I am off for practice. Will be back later today.

              • I’ll preface this by saying that I come from a grappling perspective.

                I’m amused when I see you remark that someone using style A would be defeated by someone using style B, then use that situation as an argument that the second fighter should have been forced to use style A.

                A couple of decades ago in the UFC, Dave Beneteau obliterated a wing chun fighter in 21 seconds. The message we take away from that fight shouldn’t be that Dave needed to spend years of his life learning a worthless style just so he and Asbel Cancio could have a “pure” kung fu match.

                Honestly, a vale tudo-style weapons tournament series open to all styles sounds like the fastest and best way to develop an effective and complete weapons fighting system. Let competition weed out what doesn’t work and what’s left will coalesce into something more than the sum of its parts.

                • … which would have been a perfectly fine approach had we been doing something like Vale Tudo or MMA or some mixed fighting unrelated to any discipline or styles, or if we were trying to create a completely modern form of swordsmanship. But we are not. We are trying to understand, recreate and preserve the historical martial arts traditions of Europe.

                  FonkayGarry, given what you say above I really think you have completely missed what we aim to do here. But perhaps you are just trolling? This is better suited for fantasy RPG’s and not HEMA.

                  Again, we are doing Historical European Martial Arts and each of those letters stand for something important. All of them are absolutely required and you simply can’t pick and choose and still claim to be doing HEMA. Then I would suggest SCA or the Dog Brothers to be more suitable, as they use that exact approach. There are even some “HEMA” fighters in the Dog Brothers now.

                  The tournaments are vital to our ultimate goals, for reasons explained above, and one of the most important purposes, in my opinion, is that they allow us to test our interpretations in a tough context. But anachronistically mixing e.g. “Style B” from the 1800s with “Style A” from the 1400s completely invalidates that value as those styles never “met” historically.

                  • I’m always trolling.

                    I think I get your point: You want HEMA to be a form of living history, not a combat sport. You’d like the people who prefer the combat sport side of things to pick another name for what they do and stay out of your tournaments.

                    Got a link to those Dog Brothers guys who use longswords? That sounds pretty funny.

                    • Nope. Not living history either. That involves wearing historical outfits, cooking historical food etc.

                      The combat sport is already an integral part of HEMA and I think it should remain so. It is what I talk about in the article and perhaps you need to read it again? And do look at the clips in the article. They show excellent technique founded on what we have learnt from the treatises. They are not anachronistical but great examples of what we need to stick to, without adding in MMA, Krav Maga, Gatka, Kendo or whatever.

                      BUT, we need to set the tournaments up in a good way so they are useful for our ultimate purposes or regreating and preserving the Arts. Yes the tournaments should be hard, and Lord knows there were enough broken ribs and fingers at last year’s Swordfish tournament to prove that they already are, but they also need to maintain certain standards or the fighting will risk mutating, leading to something which has less and less to do with the original martial arts and in the end becomes another variant of sports fencing, a game, which is fun and all, and certainly respectable, but still just a sport.

                      The last few minutes of this clip shows a bit of Dog Brothers using HEMA weapons, although I don’t think they have really studied the weapons much.


                      Think we need to stop commenting in this thread now or we will only be left with one word per line. A new thread perhaps?

  17. Roger,
    yesterday we had training with our guild and we (Krist, Piet and I) talked a lot about your article. Inspired by your writings about Fechtschule, my friend Krist and I even did a sparring without full protection! We only took our gloves and masks and then we started to fight with our long ensifers. In the beginning we both felt our hearts pounding and that was quite stressy. We also agreed only to hit the head with a clean hit but that ‘touching’ the hands was not a problem. Our way of fighting really changed, we were much more cautious and we didn’t have any double kill, only a ‘gleich’ but that’s in our opinion not such a big problem. Anyway, we think to do that more often, because it’s really a different way of fighting when you can’t rely on your protection.
    We also believe that you can encourage people to fight more technically if you give more points for a clean hit to the head of torso, because otherwise people keep on hitting the hands, what we also do in our sparrings. So what about this suggestion for swordfish: hands and legs 1 point, torso 2 and head 3? Just an idea to think about
    Other remark about fighting in Fechtschule style: sometimes our blades contact our bodies but don’t really hit but merely touch (or should I say caress) the body with the flat or with a tiny little top of the sword. At tournaments this is a hit, but sometimes I really doubt about the value of such a hit… Krist and I disagreed on this, but I think it’s an interesting point of discussion.

    Well… these are just some ideas which are the result of your text! I’m looking forward to meet at Swordfish so we can discuss about this in depth and personally! That’s also one of the great things of tournaments: meeting people with the same passion, that makes a sort of international brotherhood that many fencers in the old days must have had!

    Thanks again!

  18. Dear All,

    There is a nice essay and very nice comments.

    The system what Roger wrote is still working in nowadays. Kendo use similar system.

    “Fighting Spirit” award:
    The judges give this reward to the fighter, who fights during the tournament with uncompromising strong spirit. It has very high level of honor.

    In kendo, the scoring hit must have the following details:
    Ki-Ken-tai-Ichi and zanshin

    This is also not a measurable things, but it works since centuries.

    This is just example, but we can study a lot from this.
    This can show us, not impossible to preserve the arts and make good competitions.

    • Thank you Laszlo! I appreciate you taking the time to read the essay and comment on it!

      About Kendo: Although I like the “Fighting Spirit” award Kendo in itself is also a modern construct dating to the early 1900s. So when we compare to Kendo there are certain things we need to keep in mind. Like I mentioned elsewhere, even sports fencing uses a similar concept in Youth Tournaments where a special price is awarded to the fencer who has displayed best technical skill. This prize is the most honourable and desirable. Perhaps it actually can trace its roots back to the old fechtschulen, similarly to the Mensur fencing, where honour and standing your ground well is more important than actually winning.

  19. Thank you for this article, it was very thorough and thought out. It brings an interesting perspective to the question of tournaments and ultimate goals of HEMA as well. That said, I find that I agree with Emil Andersson on quite a few points.

    While the manuals themselves and ongoing research are critical to the development of and understanding of the arts, ultimately I think it is a fool’s errand to believe we can succesfully recreate the arts in full and in a manner which is completely true to the original intent. Cultures evolve, and our martial culture will be no different. The simple fact that we view these arts through the lens of our modern mindset, methodology and environment already means we are altering and adjusting them; unavoidably so.

    We can’t maintain a cultural heritage by having a static and slavish devotion; the old masters themselves developed new techniques and skills to keep their arts alive and relevant in a changing world, and I think the best honour we can pay to the spirit of their work is to build on that heritage with all the knowledge and skill we can muster, even if that does mean some things change.

    Please don’t misunderstand me; developing and enhancing our understanding of the various systems and texts is critical, and I applaud every effort to move forward with the diligent and hard scholarship that needs to be done and will only improve our arts. We should understand the old styles as best as we possibly can,.

    • Well I don’t disagree much with your core assumptions Chris, but I do disagree with yours and Emil’s conclusions. :)

      I agree that it is extremely hard, if at all possible to fully understand and recreate the original Arts, given the fact that we live in a very different society. However, exactly how close we can get is also impossible to tell and we need to push it as far as we can, not giving up before we have started.

      The tournaments are actually an important part of exactly that: Pushing things in a very tough context. During last year’s Swordfish, one in five (if I remember correctly) actually went to the Emergency for assistance, most commonly due to hand injuries, and nothing more serious than broken or fractured fingers or ribs. This tells us two things: First of all, this is an extremely tough event where you face very real pain and to a degree injury. Second, that many of us do our parries in a unsound way and thus get injured due to this. (I won’t elaborate on this more here and now).

      But again, and I strongly emphasize this, we still need to strive to recreate these Arts the best way possible. This means sticking to the systems that have been painstakingly described and designed from actual experience. None of us is even near qualified to intentionally modify or redesign these Arts if we still want to be able to call it HEMA. If we do, it will be just a sport with no real foundation in the original Arts, similar to sports fencing, Kendo or the SCA.

      This does not mean that the fighting have to be undynamic and stiff. Just take a look at the clips above. If anything, I think it tells us that the fighting would be extremely dynamic once you learn the full range of techniques at our disposal. However, I know no fighter that is quite “there” yet, even if some are very good at what they do. There are still several aspects that are too little explored, I think.

      Finally, your claim that the old masters “developed new techniques and skills to keep their arts alive and relevant in a changing world” is half-correct. They did, but they also sought credibility through not changing things too much, taking pride in having learned from earlier masters and proudly validating what they taught by sticking to the core of their own master’s teachings. It was partly also a matter of sticking to what had already been proven to work. Much more can be said about this topic, but I am off for practice in a minute…

      Using the same argument you do, I could actually use it against you: The fact that we can’t 100% reach our goal also means none of us can ever hope to fully reach the levels of the old fencing masters and that is also why we can’t intentionally mutate the Arts into something new. We certainly risk mutating it while we try to recreate it, but it is something we strive to avoid instead of embracing it.
      Still our research and our understanding of HEMA evolves very quickly. Just compare the Swordfish tournaments from 3-4 years ago to today. The skill levels in application of the techniques described in the treatises is exploding and there are lots of very good fighters.

      Still, the fencing did change alongside if society, which it depended on, and eventually it became just a sport. If we are not careful, this is also what HEMA will become: Regular sports fencing with all those aspects that we love about it taken away; a neutered, watered-down and highly competetive form of HEMA. This is why it is so important to keep in mind the things I put forward in the article; taking pride in our understanding of the Arts. It is not just a matter of winning in the tournaments, or when sparring. It is about learning and developing.

  20. Simple great article… simply just agree with the matter.

    I like so much all reactions to the article as well; Gives me enough matter of thought for the coming weeks.

  21. I wonder if anyone has considered the possibility that the “open” aspect in a tournament could be implemented in a non-competitive aspect, so the competitive rankings/playoff could be restricted to fencers of proven skill (judged beforehand through video or live demonstrations) but afterwards there’d be an open session where the individual participants can test their skills against each other in single matches under the same rules at the tournament except that the results of their individual bouts are not entered in any sort of ranking or elimination system, being relevant only to the two fencers involved as a relative measurement of their prowess. This could be particularly useful if the two people are strongly encouraged to fraternise afterwards and exchange suggestions and constructive criticism to improve each other’s skills and understanding of the historical sources. One thing I certainly lament about most sparring matches in most organisations I’ve observed/joined in the past (especially non-HEMA sword clubs) is that I’ve seldom had the chance to discuss the recently-finished bout with my erstwhile opponent, whereas this interaction was specifically mandated in the informal HEMA club I used to attend before it petered out a while ago.

  22. Reading this comments section was hard for me. Really hard. A friend linked the article to me because he thought it was interesting, and it did have a lot of interesting things to say about the fencing schools of old, of things that might be done to give a different context to practice. This is good. The point about letting go of the ego – excellent. It is one of the most important things a competitor and a student has to do if he is to improve himself.
    Thought that the comments section might have more interesting things to say, but the main thing it succeeded at is raising my blood pressure.

    Mr. Norling, your behavior and attitude in the comments section is atrocious.

    “The same with creating new, “mixed” personal systems with bits and pieces picked from numerous systems. There are already arenas for that; the SCA, LARPing and McDojos.”

    You say this to people who aspire to be good swordsmen. People who thrive on competition and self-improvement, who seek to advance the art of armed combat and their understanding thereof. People who, no doubt, respect the work of the old masters. Even a person who didn’t give a damn about historical accuracy would be a fool to dismiss the masters’ observations about the workings of combat.

    And you dismiss them in a ridiculous way, full of arrogance. “Go LARP”, you say. Have you any idea of how disrespectful that is?
    Imagine, if you will, someone studying the game of Go (or Weiqi or Baduk as it is known in China and Korea respectively).
    The culture around that game is very formalized in some ways, with western players especially quite obsessed with playing in a “correct” way. There is merit to it, the “correct” way is strong. Then we meet some random schmuck who opens in the middle of the board and plays all around a pretty crazy and vulgar style. Most students of the game in the west would probably quit the game in sheer disgust. “How *dare* he? His moves are wrong anyway, why would he do that”. Yet this player was amazingly strong. He made 7dan on the strongest online server in the world, a place where really strong amateurs and a good number of pros play. Most people would be too angry to even play against him properly, and they’d just explain away their loss. When a professional did indeed play a long series against him and showed him the weaknesses in the style. But most wouldn’t have the grace.
    They’d just turn into angry buffoons as surely as if they were grievously insulted. And so they failed to see that this madman was an excellent test of where they stood as a player. “Am I strong enough to beat this (because I know it can be done with the style I practice)”, asked very few. They had a most excellent benchmark provided for them, yet they were not thankful. Even moreso, that this player could largely be only defeated by professionals should be a good indication that there’s even more for us to learn about this particular art.

    Telling people to go LARP is pretty much equivalent to telling this person who was really smart and had to have expended a lot of effort to learn to play so well to go play Tic-Tac-Toe. It’s a slap in the face, and disrespectful in the extreme. You respect such dedicated people instead of belittling them all thread long because they don’t do things Your Proper Way. If Your Proper Way is The Proper Way, study it more and prove them wrong, as the professional did to this maverick.

    With that bit of ranting done, some thoughts on the article and the discussion that has been had.

    Personally, I think there’s a time and a place for everything. A time for research, a time for simply displaying whatever skill you have with the weapon at hand, and for seeing where you stand. A time for showing your knowledge of an old master’s system for this weapon or that.

    As for the conflict of the accuracy of historical recreation/interpretation and the more anachronistic simply a good swordsman type mindset, the solution seems to be a mix of events. In other competitive activities people hold open tournaments where anyone and everyone can take part. But in addition to these things available for the common man, a lot of invitational tournaments are held. They’re typically prestigious affairs for a reason: You get the best of the best going at it, or people with interesting personalities and styles.
    Some are larger and structured like the Swiss or double elimination formats the opens usually use, but the more interesting invitationals are the usual title tournaments that take place in the Go world, where the finals especially tend to be really long (even though the game doesn’t need it the way draw-happy sibling Chess does), and the style that’s traction in fighting games: The organizer picks a handful of who they consider the best of the best, or winners of multiple open tournaments, and these play long sets against each other in a round-robin format where everyone plays each other once.
    Imagine, now, holding something like the Lichtenauer Summit or the like where multiple really good people whose style is grounded largely in Lichtenauer’s teachings see whose longsword is the best? The “just a good swordsman overall” character of the opens doesn’t need to suffer, yet there is real prestige and recognition to having won a title like that, and even in being invited. It would be a really good showcase of the state of research and interpretation as well as just an amazing event in it’s own right.

    “However, we really can’t tell for sure how well certain time-separated systems work against each other. We don’t know how, for example I.33 sword and buckler, late 17th century rapier or 19th century sabre, would mesh up with regards to advantages and disadvantages. It is a completely anachronistic construct and it tells us nothing about neither the actual systems used, nor about the actual fencer’s skill.”

    With this, I would agree and disagree. Yes, we cannot really know a priori how those systems and weapons would stack up, which is the whole point of holding mixed-arms competition in the first place. It’s not something that deeply explored in historical treatises and as such should be a very interesting thing to explore. In many games, asymmetry of options creates a world of interesting things to explore, and I don’t see why fencing would be any different.

    The part where I disagree is where it doesn’t say anything about the fencer’s skill or the actual systems used, because a sabre vs. longsword bout absolutely would do that. I lose to the sabre-wielder, it very concretely tells us I do not understand how to confront the sabre with a longsword (At least initially. It could turn out that proper sabre use pretty much always beats using the longsword, but we might not know that yet). Likewise for the styles. It tells us a lot.

    Now, my losing to the sabre-wielder doesn’t say a thing about how good I am at beating someone else using a longsword, or of my mastery of Lichenauer’s system for longsword-on-longsword combat. That is very true. But in that case, we should say that it doesn’t say much about my knowledge and skill with Lichtenauer’s system instead of my ability with the weapon in general. There’s a whole world of skill, strategy, tactics and research outside of same-weapon fights and to hold that they are the only possible or real gauge of skill seems ridiculous.

    *steps off the soapbox*

    • If you wish for a serious reply, then please at least sign with your name, especially since you come on strong with a quite aggressive and insulting post without having properly considered this more than a year old article and the attached debate. There are perfectly fine arguments for what is said and they have been explained numerous times already, although you completely misread them, so badly that I at first thought it was posted by a spambot.

      This article was prepared over several months and written over several weeks, and as you can see from the comments, a lot of people share these “arrogant” views and believe the same. Perhaps you should spend a bit more than some 20 minutes to actually THINK about the arguments posed here, because they are quite a few, quite intricate and all revolve around a very complex issue that is tightly connected to larger issues of how to succeed in recreating these arts on a higher level, not just for personal development or fighting skills.

      So, I would advise you to read things through a few times more and really think about the larger picture here.

      Oh, and I never told people to go LARPing. If you think so then you completely missed the point, just like you obviously did with regards to what anachronism means to HEMA.


  1. German perspective on historical fencing competitions | - [...] Roger Norling of HROARR wrote a beautiful post on the German Fechtschule tradition, and how that should be taken …

Submit a Comment