People frequently ask me “What martial arts do you practice?” Simple though it may be, I always stumble over this question. Whenever I mention European martial arts, I get blank stares, confusion, and misconceptions. Even on this blog, I usually elect to give examples in terms of better known Japanese and Chinese martial arts to keep from alienating readers. But rather than dance around the topic, I’d rather take a stab at educating people.
What to call them
By and large, European martial arts don’t have names. This makes them difficult to talk about. However, the martial arts community has adopted a few standards. As a whole, this group of martial arts is often known as historical European martial arts(HEMA) or Western martial arts(WMA). Some use the term “historical fencing,” which is technically accurate, but I prefer to avoid the association with modern fencing. However, these three terms are mostly interchangeable.
We refer to individual arts by the name of the master who recorded them. For example, “I practice Thibault” or more formally, “I practice Capoferro’s rapier system.” Additionally, there are several sets of masters who tend to be grouped together into schools or traditions. For example, there are five masters who make up the Bolognese School(Marozzo, Manciolino, Dall’Agocchie, Viggiani, and one anonymous author). Other major groups include the Spanish School and the Liechtenauer tradition. This is what it means when someone says “I practice Bolognese sword and buckler” or “I study Liechtenauer longsword.”
Of course, this is a little more complicated than saying “I practice Judo” or “I’m learning Yagyu Shinkage-ryu Kenjutsu.” But it comes with the territory.
What historical European martial arts are
Historical European martial arts tend to be weapon arts, especially swordsmanship. These weapons are wide-ranging, including rapiers, longswords, polearms, daggers, smallswords, and so on. Some weapon arts were intended for use on the battlefield, others by civilians. Of course, there are unarmed techniques as well, but they are often presented within the context of fighting with or against a weapon.
A sword and buckler play from MSI.33, ca. 1300.
Most of these arts are reconstructed from manuals written hundreds of years ago. To my knowledge, the earliest known manuscript is an untitled sword and buckler manual known today as MS.I33, which dates to about the turn of the 14th century.
The majority of European martial arts manuals came later, as advances in printing technology spread throughout Europe. Most of the best-known masters wrote during the late Renaissance, in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time when swordsmanship was making the transition from a military to civilian art. It was also a time of intellectual achievement, when Renaissance humanists were setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Reason and certainty were common themes of debate among intellectuals, many of whom were martial artists who found that the same ideas applied to combat.
These manuals vary in detail. Some are short, vague, and have no illustrations. Others are masterpieces, with beautiful, precise illustrations and detailed instructions. A good example of the latter is Girard Thibault’s Academie de l’Espée. Published in 1630, the book was illustrated by a team of sixteen master engravers. Thibault even designed a diagram based on proportions of the human body with labeled points in order to describe movement in as much detail as possible.
A plate from Girard Thibault's Academie de l'Espée, 1630. Note the diagram underneath each swordsman's feet for precise footwork instructions.
What historical European martial arts are not
Modern fencing – Modern fencing is a known quantity, so it tends to be the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions European swordsmanship. But historical European swordsmanship is the real thing, whereas modern fencing is an artificial, competitive sport which is only loosely related to formal smallsword dueling. Once you have used a real sword, there is no mistaking it for a modern foil, saber, or epee. Furthermore, modern fencing is restricted by rules of competition, whereas there are no such restrictions among historic European martial artists.
Classical fencing – Classical fencing is the direct predecessor to modern fencing. It takes a more realistic approach, but it is nonetheless a modern adaptation of formal dueling. Classical fencing exists in a gray zone between sport and martial art.
Reenactment – Historical European martial arts train you to fight, just like any other martial art. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the HEMA community and the reenactment community, but the two groups are not interchangeable.
Unique benefits and drawbacks
Most HEMA are dead traditions. This means that they have not been passed down continuously until the present. Instead, they have been preserved by books and treatises. This is the biggest difference between HEMA and most Eastern martial arts; HEMA are usually reconstructed from books.
There are drawbacks to this approach. To begin with, if there is no living tradition, that means that there are no teachers who have the legitimacy of lineage. That means that an art must be reconstructed without a teacher, unless someone else has done it already. Naturally, there have been plenty of faulty interpretations. Over time, the HEMA community has learned to collaborate enough that this is less of a problem than you’d think. But the reality is that there are no masters to arbitrate what is or isn’t correct.
There are also communication barriers in these books. Most are written in archaic versions of Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, French, etc. Most people read these books in translation, which means that all of the usual problems of translation apply. There is also the difficulty of describing precise physical motions in writing. In most cases, illustrations are critical. But not all manuals were illustrated. And as you can see above, not all illustrations were equally informative. The value of these illustrations is somewhat tied to the artistic techniques of the time. For example, it was uncommon to use perspective in Medieval art.
Naturally, a martial art which uses obsolete weapons won’t be the first place you turn for “self defense.” However, some may find that appealing. Personally, I’m glad that my classmates have no illusions about using their swordsmanship “on the street.”
There are some unique benefits to HEMA as well. Some martial arts degrade over time, whereas HEMA have been preserved in a time capsule. That means that martial artists can see the exact words of the master who founded the system. This is not a luxury that most martial artists have. There is no risk of entropy or excessive ritual, because Western martial artists know exactly what was and wasn’t included in the original system. And if a student ever doubts their teacher, they can always turn to the text. It keeps us honest.
It’s very difficult to translate and interpret these texts, but at the same time, this has forced the HEMA community to maintain its academic rigor. Many martial artists have become amateur scholars. This may be part of the reason that HEMA tend to be more intellectualized than their Eastern counterparts.
Know your weapons
Most misconceptions about HEMA stem from misconceptions about weapons. Misconceptions are rampant, because most of us never get a chance to see real weapons in motion outside of movies and video games. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus this section on swords, but these points generally apply to most premodern weapons.
Weapons are not neatly categorized. Most swords were just called “swords,” in whatever language was appropriate. Nowadays, many of the names that we use for weapons are anachronisms. Even the most common names, such as “rapier” and “longsword,” are vague and somewhat controversial. Others, like “broadsword,” are so anachronistic that the HEMA community tends to avoid using them at all. Part of the problem is that most swords have been named by the sword collector community, rather than the much smaller HEMA community. These names tend to reflect differences in appearance rather than differences in function. So far, the closest thing we have to a standardized classification of swords is the Oakeshott typology.
Swords aren’t neatly categorized by function, either. Some swords are a bit more optimized for thrusting, others for cutting. Some were optimized for the military or civilians, some for armored or unarmored opponents, etc. But the distinction is never black and white, and each of these choices represents a spectrum a possibilities. Nor is there a single obvious method of use for any given sword. For example, a student of Salvator Fabris and a student of Girard Thibault would use the same rapier in a completely different way, but both to good effect. A weapon’s characteristics are important, but they don’t predetermine a martial art.
It’s also worth noting that practice weapons are used at most HEMA schools, as well as in the pictures and videos you see online. In most cases these practice weapons are almost identical to the real thing. Practice swords are blunt, often a little more flexible, and usually have rubber tips. However, they are still dangerous, and it requires a lot of control and protective gear to use them at anywhere near full speed. These weapons are as close to “real” as can be accomplished safely, unlike modern fencing or Kendo.
HEMA in motion
Here are a few videos to give you an idea of what these arts look like in motion. The first video is an attack and a sequence of counters from MSI.33.
This next video is a fight with longswords between Guy Windsor and Bill Grandy, two well-known HEMA teachers. This is a great example of proper form under stress.
Finally, this video is an example of high-speed longsword work from the Liechtenauer tradition.
“Historic European Martial Arts” – A short article on Wiktenauer, a HEMA wiki, on the same subject.
“Video Clips that give the best visual definition of HEMA” – A list of good HEMA videos, similar to the two above.
“Top Myths of Renaissance Martial Arts” – An attempt to debunk some common misconceptions about HEMA.
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe – A good survey of HEMA by Sydney Anglo, and one of the few attempts to describe European martial arts from an academic perspective.