My first contact with what I know now as HEMA took place in the spring of 2009. I was attending a military re-enactment event at Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Virginia. One of the re-enactors gave a demonstration on Fiore de Libre’s Armizare. I was intrigued by the combination of unarmed and armed fighting techniques as well as the fact that these methods had been preserved in medieval manuscripts.
There were a couple problems with trying to learn from these manuscripts. I was put off by the lack of good translations available and lack of clubs to practice these martial arts. Another problem was the expense of training equipment. Finally, it seemed like there was a lack of knowledge and teaching ability in these arts. I was frustrated by the lack of knowledge and professionalism surrounding medieval and Renaissance martial arts.
However, this did not prevent me from practicing aspects of Armizare or other European martial arts. I found quality instruction in the school system by joining the high schools’ wrestling team. What I learned in wrestling seemed to match what was in Fiore’s text. Folk style wrestling (and other grappling styles) has many of the same take downs and throws as seen in Flower of Battle.
While these two illustrations are not identical, they show similar concepts and techniques. It is important to remember the images in “Flower of Battle” are not photographs and can be open to interpretation. Each technique will also have variations that are not illustrated or described in the text. Wrestling is fluid and dynamic. One can’t expect our partners or opponents to behave like illustrations. It is also much easier to learn a technique from a coach with decades of experience than from a 600 year old manuscript. I found that looking at the illustrations and text of Flower of Battle gave me an outline that could be filled in with wrestling training.
I feel my experience can inform others interested in Hema that do not live near a club. A benefit of a focus on grappling over weapons is that it is cheaper and more available to students. This is especially true for those that live far from a competent instructor in swordsmanship but close to a wrestling club. It is my belief that new students should learn from a competent instructor rather than an improvised study group. This is because unlike many other historic martial arts , wrestling knowledge is not lost. It is alive and well in both scholastic and recreational clubs. This is because of the style’s connection to American history. Both George Washington and Abe Lincoln were noted wrestlers.
American Folk Style for Hema
Folk style wrestling has roots in the American frontier and the style overlaps with English Lancashire/ catch-as catch-can wresting. Both styles were popular at traveling circuses and fairs in the late 19th century. However, at some point in the 1920’s the two styles diverged and became different sports. In the United States it was decided that USA folks style also had close similarities to the international styles of Greco-Roman and Freestyle while being a separate rule set.
This array of influences means folk style has a lot to offer those with hema experience as well as total beginners. One trained in folk style wrestling can easily adapt it to another rule set. It can also be used to understand what is in much older texts. One’s folk wrestling can aide one in learning Renaissance grappling arts. This is especially true for the techniques presented in Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat. This book is exceptional for the depth of content on German renaissance weapon use as well as tactics. However the unarmed fighting section leaves much to be desired. This is because as Keith Cotter-Reilly states in “The Ringen of Joachim Meyer”: These techniques appear to be more of a haphazard collection of throws, holds, and general advice… It cannot be claimed that this is a complete method of wrestling,” This due to the limited amount of space given to ringen and the lack of counters presented in the text. Unlike Meyer’s longsword section, there is no in-depth discussion of tactics or types of opponents one might face when wrestling.
Besides a lack of depth, Meyer is not clear which techniques are considered sportsmanlike. This is a problem found even in the books by Ott Judd and Austerwald that Mr. Reilly recommends. Not much about Ringen training or competition is explained in these treatises. This makes hit hard for coaches and students to properly understand when and how to use these techniques. Another problem is that, as mentioned before, the illustrations and instructions are vague. These texts are not like contemporary how-to manuals. Much depends on the quality of translations and one’s own familiarity with technical terms found in them.
I think this need for clarity is why Mr. Reilly decides to use the contemporary terms “fireman’s carry” and “double leg takedown” to describe actions mentioned in these treatises. These terms have a recognizable meaning to most English speakers. They can also be searched for on Google or YouTube. The use of these contemporary words in place of 15th century terminology shows modern wrestling can inform medieval wrestling.
In contrast to the vagueness and uncertainty found in the treatises modern wrestling is easily understandable and accessible. The rule set is clear on what is and is not sportsmanlike. There is no need to decipher hundreds of year old illustrations. Coaches know which techniques are commonly used and which are rare. There is also a common curriculum and training methodology across the wrestling clubs in USA.
I believe many will find this approach to wrestling helpful. Teaching and learning submissions is tricky, and Folk Wrestling is a way to bridge the gap between banning holds completely and using them to break a limb. These techniques lead to pinning the opponent to the ground, another unique aspect of Folk Wrestling compared to Greco and Freestyle. In Folk simply throwing the opponent is not enough; one has to control him on the ground to demonstration superiority. This tends to promote grit, toughness and perseverance in wrestlers.
Training for Competition
I began this article noting a lack of proper instruction and knowledge in HEMA back in 2009. While the knowledge base has grown and more scholarship is available, much has to be done to advance wrestling technique. This is the main point I wish to make in this piece. I feel that grappling and unarmed fighting techniques have been grossly neglected. In comparison to other arts like long sword hema grappling ability is not very good. There are three reasons for this, Some instructors such as Matt Easton do not teach unarmed fighting , despite it being included in the main source they study. Those that do teach unarmed grappling tend not to emphasize it as the primary skill and do not encourage wrestling with a resisting partner. Finally, the ones that do specialize in unarmed grappling likely do not train as hard as high school wrestlers much less college wrestlers or Olympians. In contrast a high school team will hold two hour long practices five days a week. Olympic and NCAA college athletes train six days a week and hold longer practices. Weight training and running are also important and are done in addition to wrestling practice.
Furthermore these wrestlers are competing very often in the midst of this training routine. That can mean going to a tournament every week during wrestling season. Competition is not always a part of hema as Roger Norling wrote in another article on this web site. In “An open-hearted letter about why I rarely fight in tournaments” he explains why he does not compete often. This article explains why wrestling in hema is lacking. Other styles are much more competition focused than hema ringen. This shows that those that want to compete in some form of grappling will often have to look outside of the hema community for coaching. It is hard for a student to compete if one’s teacher is not familiar with competition.
Hema ringen tournaments are also not as prestigious or well regarded compared to the Olympics or the USA college tournaments run by the NCAA. Wrestling teams produce world champions. The same cannot easily be said of hema clubs. Even if one is not athletic or skilled enough to be a champion wrestler; one can train with them and receive similar coaching. This coaching is also cheaper than a lot of other martial arts lessons as it is found in schools. Yet despite being inexpensive this system produced athletes and martial artists like Ben Askren, Chris Wiedman and Daniel Cormier.
Finally here is an example of Folk Wrestling in action. This match is from a college wrestling tournament.
The wrestler in red, Ben Askren, would compete in the 2008 Biejeng Olympics and become Bellator MMA welterweight champion. The wrestler in blue, Johnny Hendricks, would become a UFC welterweight champion. Both men could not have accomplished so much without their background in Folk style wrestling. Folk style wrestling is an art that develops champions. It also can help develop other styles and sources. USA Folk style has a lot of different tools and options to help any grappler better understand the art as a whole. Not all was lost. There is much to learn.
Cotter- Reilly, Keith “The Ringen of Joachim Meyer” Jun 26, 2015 <https://hroarr.com/the-ringen-of-joachim-meyer> accessed Oct 5, 2015
Norling, Roger ” An open-hearted letter about why I rarely fight in tournaments” Nov 7, 2014 <https://hroarr.com/an-open-hearted-letter-about-why-i-rarely-fight-in-tournaments> accessed Oct 6, 2015