Historical European Martial Arts: Separating the ‘bull’ from the facts

The following is a guest post by the HEMAR team that we wanted to share with our readers, especially because it clears up a lot of misconceptions, which is kind of our thing around here. Enjoy. -Phrost

Among all weapons known to man it is the sword that has best captured the imagination. There are many reasons for this, but ultimately it is because swords are cool. A sword is an instrument of war and a symbol of power, and among many people simply holding a symbol like a sword can make them feel powerful. This is often appealing to those who may feel disenfranchised, which is likely why swords are so ubiquitous to fantasy media such as video games and movies.

As a consequence of the latter swords are often considered to be a very geeky thing, and they are. There is no practical reason why anyone should learn swordsmanship in this day and age for self-defense, as you are probably not going to ever be attacked by a sword-wielding robber nor are you likely to have a sword upon yourself to defend against someone else’s attack as the open-carry of large bladed objects is often illegal in many jurisdictions. Honor dueling is also generally frowned upon as well. Regardless of this impracticality in modern society, swords remain popular as they represent something special to many people and much of this is based on their depiction as a hero’s weapon in stories.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian

However the depiction of European swordplay in popular media is almost never based on real martial practices, as stunt work and stage choreography tends to follow the ‘rule of cool’ more than it relies upon historical sources as a reference point. For example we see films such as Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Lord of the Rings trilogies (2001-03) depict characters making wild and powerful swings with a longsword, often against opponents wearing plate armor, yet their blades cut through opponents’ metal armor as if it were paper. The grappling oriented aspects of sword-based martial arts are never depicted, either, nor is half-swording — both of which utilize techniques that are more realistically effective against plate armored opponents than trying to hack them to death is. Even with rapier work in films such as The Princess Bride (1987) and The Three Musketeers (2011) we see wild flashy swings delivered by the heroes, when in fact a rapier is a predominantly thrusting oriented weapon.

Out of a desire to learn how swords truly were used during their periods of relevance as a weapon, there has arisen a movement called Historical European martial arts (HEMA) and it has developed over the past thirty years beginning with the rediscovery of surviving martial art treatises manuals written hundreds of years ago. These fighting books were then translated into contemporary languages and made widely available to others who studied and deciphered their meanings using a combination of historical research and experimental archeology. Today entire martial traditions which had not been practiced for hundreds of years have been completely revived and are studied by people all across the globe in clubs devoted to historical fencing with real swords.

HEMA and Burhurt are not the same

Battle of the Nations

HEMA is sometimes confused by the general public as being identical to the sport of Historical Medieval Battles (HMB) as used in events such as Battle of Nations, or Burhurt. This kind of medieval-like fighting tournament is the same kind of sport as depicted on the History Channel series Knight Fight. While there can be some cross-over between HEMA and HMB, generally speaking HMB practitioners do not rely on surviving historical treatises on the usage of medieval weaponry, and are more likely to employ a fighting style that developed out of the Society for Creative Anachronism’ ruleset for armored combat events. While many of the first generation of Historical European martial artists were members of SCA, they broke away from its rulesets out of a desire to reconstruct the arts described in these sources.

Additionally, whereas Burhurt utilizes period reproduction armor, HEMA utilizes sporting gear made from modern day materials such as puncture resistance fabrics that are more similar to contemporary sport (Olympic) fencing.

Unlike contemporary sport fencing, specialty sword trainers are used in HEMA that better simulate the characteristics of the original weapon with safety considerations; as example federschwert are used to simulate long swords. Furthermore the grappling and disarming techniques of the original martial traditions are practiced in HEMA, whereas they have been removed from contemporary sport fencing.

HEMA is also not a kind of re-enactment or roleplay. In the same way that a Kendo martial artist is not a samurai roleplayer a HEMA practitioner is not roleplaying as a knight or fantasy adventurer, but instead is engaging in the serious study of a historical martial art once used for real combat. Although swords have been made obsolete by firearms and today serve little value for even self-defense, the practice of swordsmanship is still valuable for fitness purposes. HEMA is essentially a sport with a touch of experimental archeology in it by necessity of what it does — reconstruct lost martial art traditions.
HEMA is not just long swords

While longswords receive the most focus amongst clubs engaging in Historical European martial arts they are by no means the only kind of sword studied in the community. Everything from rapiers to military sabres, and even great swords (montante or spadone; sometimes erroneously called a ‘claymore’ in popular media) are studied by numerous clubs throughout the world based on surviving documentation. HEMA is also not exclusively about swordsmanship; daggers, polearms, axes and even historical grappling traditions are studied, too. Strictly speaking there are even surviving manuals that describe how to load and fire muskets that can be considered within the purview of what is HEMA.

As these arts become revived we gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of these periods of history and the culture of the people who used them. Perhaps in studying these knightly arts we also develop the same kind of knightly warrior spirit as depicted by the heroes in the popular media we love. We’d like to think so.

We hope more people will discover HEMA through this article and come to appreciate the value in supporting this emerging sport. For more information about HEMA we invite you to check out our website, Historical European Martial Arts Resources. You can find many resources on our site, as well as a club locator directory to locate a historical fencing school near you.

The HEMAR Team

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