It’s hard to improve something if you have no idea how to measure it. “Being a better fencer” is a worthy goal, but it is difficult to know if you’re achieving it.
We all want to be better fencers. If you don’t then you can stop reading here – but leave a comment at the bottom because I’m curious why you’re on this site. We train, drill, spar, compete, pore over old books and read modern fencing handbooks on the sly. All to be better fencers.
Now that I have your attention I wanted to talk to you about testing mask mesh quality for fencing and for the sport of HEMA. My name is Jacek Bujko. I have been helping Leon Paul develop a HEMA range of fencing equipment. I started fencing at a local sports club when I was twenty and then studied Historical European Martial Arts in Poland for a couple of years before eventually settling down with my own recreational fencing club. I am a huge fencing and HEMA fan I even got married in my fencing suit as it just felt right!
One of my first projects with Leon Paul was to develop a HEMA mask. I feel we have made some great updates and improvements to the HEMA mask. One of the things I have experienced and wanted to talk about was the D word…. DENTS!
“My mask just got dented!”
Then the inevitable:
“Was that blow really that strong?” “I didn’t even feel that!”
are very common in our heads when we come to realize, that the precious new mask that we’ve just recently got is not so pristine anymore.
HEMA, in it’s modern revival, is a new and blooming hobby. This article talks a bit about the strengths and weaknesses this creates, and then gives some guidance for the new instructor.
The blessing and the curse of HEMA is that it is “new”.
There is a rich history of attempts at resurrecting ancient swordplay, but the current revival dates back only to the 1990s. Many clubs are much younger than this, being founded in the last decade or less. Moreover, it’s small in the way that a niche hobby is, with comparatively few practitioners often geographically isolated from each other.
On the plus side, this means that HEMA is experimental, paradoxically innovating even as it looks to historical sources for guidance, and not tethered greatly by tradition or gerontocratic hierarchies. As a HEMA practitioner, I’m free to do what I want, to try new interpretations of a source’s technique, to compete where I want, and no-one has any right to stop me. Even those most experienced admit their interpretations are subject to change; be suspicious of the know-it-all!
The negative is that HEMA has little by way of accumulated knowledge, either about the arts themselves or how to train and teach them. Sure, in twenty odd years we’ve learned a thing or two. Compared to the hundreds of years, and much higher practitioner numbers, of combat sports like boxing, wrestling, or (Olympic) fencing, though, we’re infants. I was lucky when I began HEMA, because I got to train under an instructor who’d been trying this HEMA thing from the era of “fuzzy photocopies of Talhoffer passed between medieval re-enactors like Samizdat”. He had a lot of it worked out already, and some experience teaching and training it.
He’s also changed both what and how he teaches it repeatedly in the eight years since I began training with him. I could learn from him, but he was still learning himself. Obviously, any good coach should be a lifelong learner, but we’re talking about lacking a secure foundation of basic pedagogy as well as technical knowledge. This has affected the majority of established HEMA clubs that I’ve visited, never mind newly founded ones.
It’s common in HEMA for new clubs to be founded in “isolation”, inspired by the founder finding about HEMA on the internet or by a student from another club moving to a new area and missing their HEMA training. They want a club and they want HEMA. They’re not sure whether they’re ready to teach it. In fact, they’re sure that they’re not. I wasn’t…
Here’s my advice for those readers who’re in that Newbie New Coach situation.
You don’t have to be the best, but you should be sincere and positive.
It’s ok if you’re not a legendary HEMA competitor, researcher, or coach already. Really, it’s ok. You formed this club so folks who suck at HEMA can get together and work out how to suck less. It’s ok to have imposter syndrome, or not know answers. What’s less acceptable is hiding behind acting the dictator, or avoiding pressure-testing yourself or your interpretations because you can’t risk being found out. So admit where you’re shaky, explain why you think what you think, and most of all remember that a coach’s role is to facilitate people’s training.
I was lucky, when I started my club, to have a handful of experienced HEMA students. I was even more lucky that they were driven and inquisitive students. I joked that I could leave them alone for 2 hours and they’d still be making amazing progress. It wasn’t really a joke so much as a funny truth.
What’s almost more important than informing people is keeping them focused on fencing and wanting to learn more. Be ready to play cheerleader as much as coach.
Steal. Without remorse.
You don’t know how to teach? Or even how to train a martial art? Go find out. I’ve learned a lot about coaching and teaching from other martial arts I train, but I’ve know people with good coaching skills they can apply from teaching motorbike maintenance, American football, and basketball.
The best option would almost certainly be to go get a sport fencing instructor qualification, but do what you can.
Also, when you can do HEMA somewhere else, do! Make a monthly trip to the next city, even if they’re not doing the same tradition as you, or save up some pennies and go to an international HEMA event. I’ve taken to referring to those trips as “recharging the HEMA batteries” because I come back not just inspired but refreshed by seeing new approaches and new enthusiastic faces – and not having to run everything!
Now in terms of structuring curriculums. Curricula? Stuff to teach over the long term.
You’ve got that source, but many historical manuals aren’t laid out like useful manuals. Often they aren’t manuals but aide-memoirs for advanced trickery, or advertising copy to persuade you to buy the personal instruction, or essays on one aspect of fencing, or they’re meant to be manuals but the author’s skill at fencing was better than his technical writing. Look to modern work on the source, whether hard copy or forum discussions or video. Just take it all with a pinch of salt.
In terms of what to teach first, while I have an itchy dislike of “basics” and “advanced” there are definitely fundamentals to any system. Performing some techniques depends on knowledge and/or proficiency in others, both on the part of the performer and on their training partner. You can’t practice parrying without an attack incoming.
Before a student can throw a good zornhau, they need a good vom tag to chamber the cut.
As a *rough* guideline, I go stance -> movement-> preparatory guards-> attacks -> cover -> counters in double time -> feints and compound attacks -> counters in single time.
Exactly which you use isn’t as relevant, but if you wanted to teach a [WARNING: GERMANISH JARGON INCOMING] Zwerchau counter under a Zwerchau that came as a disengagement from a bind in Ochs vs Kron that was generated by a parried Zwerchhau… you’d pretty much have to follow the above chain of dependency.
Lesson Planning. What To Consider At The Scale Of One Training Session. That Stuff.
I like a breakdown of about 15 minutes warm up, 15 minutes solo/simple drilling (stuff we know how to do already AKA “waking up the sword brain”), half an hour of technique (AKA “new stuff”), half an hour of sparring (which doesn’t necessarily mean “go fight” – limited sparring is more common) and half an hour warm down and stretch out (and chat, and packing). That’s a 2 hour class. That might not suit you, but that’s about what I like. I wish I could pack faster though…
With combinations of techniques in drills, either structure as flows (a to b to c) or as options (a to b, or to c, or to d), or a mix. It depends on the material or your mood. Or sometimes I teach “parallel” – so a, b, and c are all different techniques in different places but with the same logic. For example: Durchwechseln from hard bind in Sprechfenster is a disengagement. So is a Zucken against a strong bind on your Ochs. So is collapsing to a Hangen and Schnappen etc.
Occasionally a student asks a question that makes me throw the whole plan away anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that. Be happy to give your students what they need, not what you want to give.
Check the rear view mirror often- and realistically.
Review how classes went, and how students are learning. Don’t fall into the common mistake of taking things personally if the result isn’t 100% perfect. Things take time, especially learning complex open-ended skills. If a student hasn’t mastered something on the first attempt, you’re not a failure any more than they are. Perhaps look for more approaches to explaining it, or just let them rep it out.
Final Points: Principles Before Technique; Application Before Forms.
It’s better to have students who understand what a Vorschlag is and what it needs to do but only attack with simple Oberhaus, than students who can throw textbook versions of all five hidden strikes but can’t use them to initiate exchanges safely from the Zufechten. With new students who’re paying attention to why techniques work, I usually find they’re inventing half the syllabus before I get around to teaching it.
Once you’ve learned about the “thumb grip” for Zwerchaus, using it to Schielhau is natural. Once you’ve done a Zorn-Ort cover and thrust, combining them to a single time Absetzen is natural.
If you want to build up fencers and fighters, not technique collectors and posers, you’ll need to both make sure they get a good amount of tactics and principles in their training diet, and give them lots of supported and structured time to work on using their techniques in an alive manner.
This name provides a nice definition of what is, and is not, HEMA – an art (systematic and complex) that’s martial (intended for fighting) from Europe that existed in the past and is now resurrected because it was recorded in sufficient detail (historical). Or to put it another way, it’s a Type II in Chidester’s Typology. The most popular form of HEMA at the moment seems to be medieval and renaissance longsword. That’s what I train and compete in, working specifically from a cluster of related texts that get collectively referred to as the “Liechtenauer tradition”. HEMA is often synonymous with swordfighting. Yet recently, at the Dublin event Feile na Gaiscigh, I found myself wrapping my fists and hitting some focus mitts at a boxing class. Was this still HEMA? The instructor was teaching the 18th century art of pugilism based on the book by British champion Daniel Mendoza. It was historical, European and a martial art. Boxes ticked!
This article will explore some of the less frequently practiced forms of HEMA, as well as borderline cases and martial arts which, while not HEMA, are worth looking to for comparison or inspiration.
Firstly, let’s consider less common examples that still fall within the conventional HEMA category – in other words, they meet the definition above. While unarmoured swordfighting is the most common practice in HEMA, even if we wear protective kit, the medieval knight was known for their shining armour. Predictably enough, they had developed complex systems for fighting in it and against equally armoured opponents. This is now being researched, trained and taught by some HEMA practitioners. Even if you can’t afford a full harness, I’m told you can start to simulate the conditions of harness fechten with a lead-weighted training vest over your regular HEMA sparring gear and duct taping over 90% of your mask mesh to simulate the vision and airflow of a closed helmet.
Also at Feile na Gaiscigh was fighting with seven foot staffs – less frequently seen than swords, perhaps because it’s tough to train with aliveness and safety! Along with staff, other less commonly researched weapon systems from the medieval and renaissance European arsenal include daggers, maces, flails, pikes, and scythes. Or why not go all out and learn how to fire a crossbow from horseback backwards at pursuing lancers?
Away from knights in shining armour, there’s a flourishing HEMA revival of nineteenth century and early twentieth century martial arts. These, however, are often connected to surviving, living lineage martial arts – Bartitsu was a hybrid martial art practiced in Edwardian London that combined Japanese judo/jiujitsu with French cane fighting and English wrestling and boxing, I already mentioned the earlier ancestors of modern boxing that are often called pugilism to distinguish them from current forms, while modern fencing is derived from more martial forms aimed at preparing a fencer for the duel in the Early modern era or even for fighting in war. The last of these military sword arts might be from General Patton himself, who designed a Model 1913 sabre and associated manual for the US cavalry albeit just in time to see it become completely obsolete. These surviving lineage arts can blur the lines of historic and modern martial arts – at which point are you just boxing, or wrestling, or fencing, rather than practicing HEMA?
Then there are also arts which I cannot quite call HEMA because while they can show old antecedents, the system itself wasn’t recorded in detail until recently and they’ve maintained an unbroken lineage of teachers and fighters. In other words, they’re Chidester Type Is just like boxing, but with more “fossilised” content preserving the old styles. Examples include the Portuguese stickfighting art of Jogo de Pau, and “glima”, Nordic wrestling with viking roots which boasts a continuous century of recorded championship competition in Iceland. Where these differ from other martial arts with ancient lineages is in their obscurity and their claims to represent a survival of historic arts. Many martial arts, of course, lay claim to ancient pedigree, often to the point of mythologising their origins. Yet at least in these cases there is evidence of similar practice in the past, even if the systems themselves were rarely if at all recorded.
Then there are the arts with some record, but neither a surviving lineage nor evidence with detailed technical information available. Richard Marsden was determined to reconstruct Polish sabre fencing of the 17th century. The sources were scarce, but I think he did a good job. Hurstwic have done something similar for various forms of Viking combat. Keith Farrell has called such reconstructions “interpretive systems”, and his AHA organisation has its own attempts to work out systems of broadsword and targe fighting. These are Chidester Type IIIs.
As well as arts that blur the line on historic, there are historical martial arts which we can’t call HEMA because they’re not from Europe. Whether we’re talking about China, New Zealand or Iran there is no shortage of extinct or endangered arts that people are working to preserve or resurrect.
There are also modern or non-European martial arts which provide valuable insights for the HEMA practitioner. The value of cross-training boxing or judo when examining Pugilism or Bartitsu should be obvious. So should the benefits of a grounding in modern fencing theory when examining historical fencing arts. Yet consider the benefits of kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) to learning longsword fencing, or of training kali (Philipine arts for the knife, stick and machete) if interested in dussack fighting.
If this list of an article was to have a conclusion, it would be: do what you want, just be honest about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do an undocumented historical fighting style, but once you’ve made your aspis, dory and panoply you should be honest about exactly what sources you do or don’t have for your “hoplite martial art”. Do what you want to, and if there’s a historical martial art that interests you, pursue it. Just don’t dilute the term HEMA by applying it to some invented and unevidenced system. That said, go have fun!
Competitive HEMA is a young sport, and we’re going to need to build skills and experience in officiating as well as competing and coaching. Here’s my totally unofficial and borderline uninformed guide to being a better judge.
All too often, my reaction when asked about about any particular tournament match I’ve just fought is something like “decent fencing but judges suck”. It is, I freely admit, sometimes a defense mechanism for my ego when I’ve fenced badly and lost. Yet even when I win, I usually find myself conceding points by pointing out mistakes in judges’ calls – or, in the case of those tournaments where you cannot concede points, perhaps pulling an Ingulf Kohlweiss and leaving my sword in the corner so the opponent can get a catch-up hit to make things fair. I’ve judged at events from local tournaments with a dozen fencers in a field up to SwordFish. I know I’m not the best judge, and I’ve had to self-train more than anything, but I’d like to think I’m far from the worst out there. So, here are my tips.Continue reading “Judging HEMA”
HEMA tournaments are now forming into leagues. What benefits and what risks might we expect to come with this development?
One of my students just grabbed silver in the Nordic Historical Fencing League Women’s Longsword. As well as bragging, I mention this because it’s the result of four tournaments’ worth of fighting which culminated this last weekend. Like a team in a football league, there was some certainty of how places will look after the league’s final event but there was still everything to fight for if she wanted to lift the cup. Still, silver is quite an achievement in the murderer’s row of Nordic Women’s HEMA.Continue reading “Leagues of HEMA”
Can I become a better fencer simply by reading? Not really. Read these anyway.
In lieu of an insightful, technical, enlightening and motivational article this week, here’s a list of books that can deliver all that instead. None of them are HEMA books, instead they’re from other martial arts (or none), but I believe each and every one of them can benefit your HEMA practice.
This week, we’ll look at a pair of insightful works, and a pair of more technical ones. Next week, it’ll be enlightenment and motivation!