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16.42) Historical European Martial Arts


This article is from the Martial Arts FAQ, by Matthew Weigel faq@idempot.net with numerous contributions by others.

16.42) Historical European Martial Arts

Kirk Lawson - lawson@dayton.net
Jason Couch - jason-couch@comcast.net
Paul Wagner - galloglaigh@hotmail.com
Stephen Hand - shand@ssg.com.au
Topi Mikkola - tmikkola@cc.hut.fi
Mark Rector - rmarkrector@yahoo.com
Eli Steenput - ulfberth@yahoo.com)


Historical European Martial Arts groups are dedicated to re-creating
the lost martial arts of Europe. Different groups embrace styles and
weapons of particular periods, which range from the Middle Ages to
the Industrial Revolution, although the majority focus on the
Renaissance era. These arts are re-created by intensely studying and
then practicing the techniques illustrated in various period
instructional manuals.

Origin: Medieval and Renaissance Europe


Masters of defense are known to have taught the martial arts in
Europe as early as the 12th Century. These masters wrote, and often
illustrated, training manuals to pass on their skills and techniques;
the oldest known existent copy dates to the 13th century.

Some writings are cryptic lines intended only for those students
already initiated into the particular fight system; some are more
accessible descriptions and illustrations intended to attract new
students; and yet others are the distillation of the essential fight
principles extracted from the teacher's years of experience.
Unfortunately, these writings are almost all that is left to the
practitioner, as intact martial systems have not survived the
passage of time.

Although certain sports such as fencing, archery, singlestick,
boxing, and folk wrestling have retained portions of these skills,
much martial knowledge was lost due to the changed focus of military
science, the ever-fickle philosophies and fashions of personal
self-defense, and the rules imposed by the evolution into sporting

In the late 19th Century a renewal of interest in these "lost" skills
emerged. This movement was led notably in Great Britain by a group of
fencers that included Egerton Castle ("Schools and Masters of
Defense"), Sir Alfred Hutton ("Old Swordplay", "Cold Steel"), and
Captain Matthey ("Paradoxes of Defense"). These Victorian gentlemen
not only collected antique arms and fencing texts, but also put their
research into practice in the fencing hall. Theirs was the last gasp
of swordsmanship practiced by men who still romantically viewed the
sword and the knowledge of its use as a necessity for the
well-dressed gentleman and of those men who believed the historical
texts offered very real and practical advice for contemporary
soldiers who were still expected to wield the lance, bayonet and
sword on the field of battle.

A burgeoning sporting safety equipment industry spurred the renewed
interest in combat sports. Some believe that exposure to classical
Asian martial arts through trade with Japan also influenced this
revival. This interest was often viewed with an eye toward sport, as
in the case of quarterstaff, or merely as a curiosity.

In the late 20th century interest in recovering the martial aspect of
these European martial arts again gained in popularity. Forces behind
the interest and research in this area included: medieval re-enactors
of various philosophies seeking to fight in a more authentic manner;
theatrical fight choreographers wishing to depict more authentic
combat on stage and screen; modern fencers exploring the more
combative roots of their sport; Western practitioners of Eastern
martial arts exploring their own cultural heritage, and to some
degree the public fascination with tales of European-style combat
such as those spun by J.R.R. Tolkien or the adventures fancifully
presented in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (tm) may
have helped pave the way for public interest and acceptance of the
combative value of these arts. Other possible motivations for the
resurgence of interest included: ethnic and nationalistic pride in
cultural heritage; the backlash against religious or spiritual
elements found in some non-Western martial arts; Self Defense; and
as a vehicle for establishing a connection to the past for some who
would otherwise be uninterested in Martial Arts.

There is no accepted "standard" naming convention for these clubs or
the martial arts that they practice. Some examples of school names
include "Fechtbuch Society," "School of Fence/Defence," "Historical
European Martial Arts (HEMA) schools/clubs/study
groups/associations," "Western Martial Arts," "Historical
Swordsmanship," "Academy of Arms," "Classical Fencing," etc. Most
will simply report that they practice "Western Martial Arts." The
trend is to select a name indicative of the focus of the organization
or to select a name that would have been appropriate for the school
during the period studied.


Historical fight manuals provide instruction in both armed and
unarmed combat: standing grappling, striking, ground grappling,
throwing, etc. Weapons instruction found in various manuals include
dagger, longsword, arming sword, spear, quarterstaff, polearm,
weapon and shield, club, cudgel, sabre (saber), smallsword, rapier,
two-weapon styles, and many more.

Illustrations for competing in judicial duels in particular show, in
addition to the expected sword illustrations, techniques for fighting
with hooked shields, polearms, and even techniques for the bizarre
domestic duel wherein a woman swings a rock in a veil at a man waist-
deep in a hole in the ground armed with a club.

Techniques and styles vary with time period and with location but
can cover unarmored, armored, mounted, afoot, differently armed, and
most other conceivable variations in combative circumstances.

While not addressed here in any detail, the civilian and sporting
elements of Western martial arts are also a valid area of study for
groups, including various pugilistic, wrestling, stickfighting, and
other martial styles that may have different origins than the
Medieval and Renaissance martial arts previously discussed.

There are a large number of Historical European Martial
Arts clubs, both small and large, including The British Federation,
Federazione Italiana Scherma Antica e Storica, the European
Historical Fencing Alliance, the Association for Historical Fencing
in the USA, the Australian Historical Swordplay Federation, The
Company of Maisters in Great Britain, The Academy of European
Medieval Martial Arts, The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts,
and the International Masters at Arms Federation. A web search on
the term "Fechtbuch," "Historical European Martial Arts", "Western
Martial Arts", "European Swordplay" and the like will net numerous
organizations and clubs.


Every society or club has its own curriculum, equipment, safety,
and training requirements. Some organizations offer simple guidance,
information exchange, and fellowship; others may offer a regulating
body to unite clubs in distant geographic locations. Since any
regular training is necessarily very local, most local groups set
their own standards regardless of affiliation.

Working from texts written by the masters of old, these groups may
study techniques from earlier or later martial traditions to isolate
the evolution of technical details. Perhaps most important, groups
network with other re-creationists via the Internet to discuss
details, make contacts, and arrange workshops and seminars to assist
in re-creating the particular art they study. In addition to the
input from others studying the same or related material, modern and
historical combat sports practitioners may also be consulted for
further technical comparisons.


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