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Cornelis Bosch, 1552

The end of a new year and the beginning of a new year is for many people the ultimate occasion to launch new resolutions: losing weight, stop smoking, not spending too much money on certain things etc., etc.  Some of us even have specific HEMA-resolutions: train more, daily swinging of the kettle bell, running once a week or why not… saving money for that beautiful sword you saw?  With this text, we want to propose a new resolution: get rid of your protection and let’s fight naked!

In December 2011 Mike Cartier of the Meyer Freifechter Guild wrote a splendid article in which he enthusiastically – and for some of us even controversially – proposed to lay down our protection and to start fighting as our ancestors did in the Fechtschule.[1]  This means we have to take away all our protection when we fight or better… only rely on our own skills and sword by means of protection. Mike Cartier’s text was for some members of the Hallebardiers (Brugge, Belgium) a revelation.

One of our main reasons to start with this way of fencing was our growing unhappiness about the present tournaments in the HEMA-world.  We don’t criticize the great talented fighters today and the enormous efforts certain clubs dedicate to organize world famous tournaments.  The problem is different, because we see several things which are in our opinion not the way it should be.  During several years of HEMA we have seen more and more companies investing in better HEMA-protection,  resulting in the fact that we have better protection and better swords than ever.  The present day protection even functions as a modern armour, so fencers don’t have to be afraid anymore to cross blades on tournaments.

When we talk about modern swordsmen, and looking at this high quality modern armour, we sometimes even speak about ‘Robocop fencing’.

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Exoskeleton, worn by certain people on tournaments, sometimes combined with plastic greaves. Many hemaists plunder hockey shops to find their protective equipment!

Again, we don’t criticize the people wearing this protection or want to ridicule this way of fencing, but – as Mike Cartier – explicitly says in his article:

They don’t seem to have used any padding or gloves until much later, and they certainly show no padding, masks, helmets or gloves in any of the Fechtschule depictions until the 18th century. This can be dismissed as an intentional deception, but I would have to wonder why they would not show gloves or masks/helmets if they were used. We do see certain Fechtbücher like that of Paulus Hector Mair showing finely-wrought metallic gauntlets in certain plates—as well as many, many more without. Meyer’s material certainly shows no gloves whatsoever. Given the price to be paid for lazy training, I am inclined to think the preparation was intentionally tough and exposed fencers to danger so that later, when they actually needed it they were properly prepared. If they had gloves and did not use them, that tells us something about how they viewed danger and risk when attempting to prepare for even more dangerous pursuits like war, dueling, and personal defense (p.3-4)

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Nicoletto Giganti, libro secondo, fig. 6

Paradoxically, and noted by Filip Bonte, a member of our guild:

  1. We do not fully understand the fencing manuscripts
  2. We've learned a number of attacking techniques but almost no defensive techniques
  3. Therefore we need to compensate our lack of knowledge about defense with hard gloves and armor
  4. So we can concentrate on attack without fear of getting hurt
  5. ... and thus we hit hard because we know the other guy is wearing his protection too
  6. People DO get hurt so we need even thicker gloves and armor
  7. Back to #4

We are convinced that the heavy protection kills the art… and causes the utter disgrace of each fight: the double kill!  Why should I protect myself and why shouldn’t I try to do this risky attack, I’m protected anyway?  This confidence in our modern armour causes inexperienced people to take the risk to engage in serious tournaments, which can result in (terrible and sometimes humiliating) injuries, as happened in first rounds of the saber tournaments in Swordfish 2012.  It is amazing that HEMA-tournaments don’t make any classifications between fighters and that people with years of training and tournaments behind them can face utterly newbies…  But hey, no problem for a newbie: he can put on his plastic armour, padded gloves and with these on he can risk to try to Blössfechten on a tournament, relying on his equipment fit for Harnischfechten.

In the Robocop-fights you hardly see any bindings and clean examples of windings, only some highly qualified people manage to achieve this… instead we see people using speed, power and reflexes.    Many fights are also won, only by using the technique of the Vorschlag.  We only occasionally see clean techniques, e.g. an application of the Meisterhauen, and we can’t even remember a single fight where the flat of the blade is used as a technique, though this is recommended several times by Joachim Meyer.

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Joachim Meyer’s Prellhauw from his “Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens - 1570“
a clear example where the dynamics of a cut with the flat is used to gain technical advantage. Note how the left fencer pressed his pommel against the radius-bone of his forearm to get that extra flex in the blade.

 

1. Our experiences

Because of our discontent with much of the present day fighting and tournaments and mainly because of our quest to approach the ancient Kunst des Fechtens, we one day decided to get rid of our protection.

A key concept for trying to fight in Fecthschüle-style is also RESPECT: for your weapon, for your opponent and also for your own defense.  Fencing is not about attacking someone, but about being able to defend yourself with your weapon:

The aim of fencing is the defense of self, from whence it derives its name; because “to fence” does not mean other than defending oneself, hence it is that “protection” and “defense” are words of the same meaning; whence one recognizes the value and the excellence of this discipline is such that everyone should give as much care thereunto, as they love their own life, and the security of their native land, being obligated to spend that lovingly and valorously in the service thereof.

- Capo Ferro, Gran Simalcro, The Art of Fencing, I, 3
(translation W. Wilson and J. Wherek Swanger)

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From : Reghel ende ordonnantie van den edelen souvereynen rudderlijcken Gilde van den arts-engel Ste. Michiel (1723). This clearly states that two fencers have to fence in good spirit and have to handle their weapon with respect and honour.

With timid harts we started experimenting with removing bit by bit our protection, so in March 2013 we started taking away our leg protection, body protection and finally also our gloves.  In the beginning only two people tried it, but gradually more and more people in our guild became enthusiastic about this way of fencing.

For our Blössfechten, we use these principles:

  • No protection of the hands
  • No protection of the torso
  • Only experienced fighters or people who have proven their skills: a true swordsman can control his blade, even against inexperienced people (but as said before, maybe it is better these people don’t fight in these kind of tournaments.
  • Huge psychological pressure: when you hurt me you can’t fence well; and it’s better to be hurt than to hurt another person.  In the ancient Fechtschüle you even received huge fines if you cut your opponent or if you wounded him terribly
  • Use of the flat as much as possible
  • Try to avoid hitting hard on the person, but hitting hard on the blade is not a problem
  • Only head as a valid target, so therefore we only need to protect the head
  • Emphasis on control of the blade, so we needed to do more exercises to encourage control, e.g. hitting as hard as you can on the blade of your opponent but then stopping your blade a few cm in front of it.   In sparring we also strive to give the ‘final blow or thrust’ as soft as possible, just to show that we are able to hit, not to hurt.
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From : Reghel ende ordonnantie van den edelen souvereynen rudderlijcken Gilde van den arts-engel Ste. Michiel (1723). An interesting article where we learn that fencers got fined for delivering (intentional) wounding cuts.

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From : Reghel ende ordonnantie van den edelen souvereynen rudderlijcken Gilde van den arts-engel Ste. Michiel (1723). Again an article concerning casualties. When a fencer killed the other fencer he had to pay a fine and in addition he had to pay of the death-guild of the other fencer.

We also say that when we remove the protection, we also try to remove our ego, because you need to put your ego away and try to defeat your opponent but in a honourable way (which can not physically hurt your opponent).  An ego can cause injuries and if your opponent makes a mistake and leaves a huge opening, you have to hit him like a gentlemen: firmly, steadily but never with the intention to hurt or hit hard.  We fight as brothers and want to learn from each other, we hit but avoid to hurt.

Some people can criticize the fact that we only aim for the head, but this is because we strive to imitate the fencing of the Fechtschüle.  Maybe it is not realistic that we do protect our heads with fencing masks and that we are not men enough that we want to cause a bleeding head wound, but behind the men of our guild are powerful women who would be furious to see their beloved men coming home with bleeding heads.  A bit more seriously: today we don’t have a culture and the mentality that we want to show scars of fights towards our society.

Our new way of fighting has so far proven several advantages and every new fight we discover new aspects:

  • Only experienced people fight like this, so you have high quality fights without people taking dangerous risks
  • The emphasis lies on defense, only by means of footwork, handwork and your blade.  This also stresses the notion of tempo: when is the right moment to attack and when not?
  • Our fights have evolved in a sort of chess play: when does the opponent leave a fake opening or when has he forgotten to protect himself?
  • Our Blössfechten has shown us the need of using more and more techniques and relying more on our art than on our protection.  It is amazing how many more binds we have in our fights and how more important handwork becomes.
  • Because we don’t feel any hindrance from our protection, our sparring gets better, so we start to interpret the techniques much better and techniques we don’t understand from the fencing manuals become more clear to us

In brief, more and more in this way of fighting the key concepts are judgement, distance, time and place (George Silver, paradoxes of Defence 1599 :through Judgment yo kepe yor dyftance, through Diftance yo take yor Tyme, through Tyme yo fafly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adurfarie ).  Out of the Zufechten we try to create an opening or a tempo, sometimes this is even more difficult than hitting the opponent.  This way of fighting takes much more time before someone is hit, the bindings are longer and the handwork becomes more important.  The result of this kind of fight is that we almost automatically ended up in using more and more techniques of Joachim Meyer.

In these kind of fights we rarely see the Vorschlag, because it usually is a very big risk to execute the Vorschlag without being hit yourself.

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Hans Sebald Beham : 1547 “peasants fighting” even with a longsword. Joachim Meyer’s quote comes to mind “"it is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against his strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants' brawl".

 

2. Artificial?

Some people might argue that fencing without protection or in the style of the Fechtschüle is not real or even artificial.  With our way of fencing you can’t kill a person, can you?

This is a huge discussion and it is not the intention of this article to answer this question, but let us state this:  what is real fencing?  Does it mean that we have to fence with sharp blades and pretend that we are on the battlefield, where a fair fight is out of the question?  Does it mean a juridical duel fought out under high psychological pressure?  We think there is an unbridgeable gap between our times and the so called real fighting from medieval and early modern Europe…  Maybe the closest we can get is the way of fencing as practised in the Fechtschüle.

3. Aftermath

Meanwhile we did about more than hundred fights with about 8 people involved.  We have no injuries, only some bleeding fingers because of burrs on the crossguard or strong of our blades, the latter caused by halfswording.

Sometimes fingers were hit, but with the flat of the blade and under control, so no serious injuries happened.  Only once someone’s finger was bruised, but this was caused by a foreign visitor of our club who proclaimed himself as an experienced fencer.  We still have a long way to go and we are still learning, techniques become clearer and we risk more in our sparrings: more halfswording, more grappling,… Sometimes we even aim for other parts than the head and try to give a controlled strike to the bare upper arms, torso and even the hands.

Does this mean that we have thrown or protection in the dustbin and that we stopped buying the great HEMA-protective equipment in a huge dustbin near our training place?  Absolutely not: we highly recommend this equipment for people who start historical fencing and who start their first sparrings.  We also use it when we train for regular tournaments, where still no real Fechtschüle rules are applied.

It would be great if we could organize a ‘real’ Fechtschüle like this: real unarmed fencing with a lot of neat and clean techniques.  Some people may think this is impossible to do with people whom you don’t know and also that the risk of injuries, caused by the stress of a tournament, is too high.  For this problem we have a solution, let each fencer, selected from his or her group and qualified as experienced, pay the sum of 100 or more euro before he fights.  If he causes an injury to his opponent, he’ll loose the money, if not, he receives his money back.

Maybe someone does get hurt, but if we want to take our art serious, we try to fence like our forefathers…

So who would pick up the gauntlet to paradoxically fight without gauntlets?

Bert Gevaert and Krist Martens

Hallebardiers, Brugge (Belgium)

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Nude fencers on a porcelain plate from 1820 (Paris)

 

More reading on related topics

The Art of Control - Fechtschule Manifesto 1 by Mike Cartier
The Art of Control – Fechtschule Manifesto 2 by Mike Cartier
A mentality of fear – and its importance to fighting by Roger Norling
The Wreath or the Cash? On Tournament fighting by Roger Norling

References

[1]https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxtZmZndXNhfGd4OjY5NjM3MzU0YjFlYWZkMTg

Krist Martens
Member, co-instructor of the Hallebardiers or the Sint-Michiels guild in Bruges, Belgium