Studying treatises is not the only way competitors prepare for HEMA tournaments. Some competitors prefer to focus on being more athletic than their opponents while others may enjoy discovering how to use a sword on their own. These competitors do not necessarily use the conventional techniques found in treatises. These type of competitors in tournaments highlight the drawbacks and limitations that can occur when studying treatises to learn swordsmanship.
Today we will be exploring the disadvantages of studying treatises to prepare for HEMA tournaments.
The Treatises (Or the Interpretation) Could Be Wrong
Sometimes studying treatises (and especially when studying modern interpretations of them), can teach a fencer bad techniques.
When studying history, it is a common practice to not discredit or disagree with statements made by a primary source. However, when interpreting the validity of a historical martial art, it can be useful to question the techniques presented in these sources. Not all treatises are created equal and some may exist without the author truly having a martial background.
For more on the discussion of errors in sources, see the following discussion by Matt Easton:
It is also important to remember that the treatises studied in HEMA were written by people, translated by other people, and interpreted by a different set of people. Techniques could be lost in translation that unfortunately can lead the general HEMA community to the wrong conclusions when attempting to recreate these systems.
For some sources, such as the Lichtenauer lineage of treatises, it is easier to cross-reference the source with other sources interpreting the same technique. This allows for a higher degree of confidence for the interpretation of the techniques. However, this is not a luxury for other popular treatises such as I.33. For sources like I.33, a number of secondary interpretations are used to cross-reference and discover the true intent of I.33. This can lead to a higher risk of misinterpretation based on false-assumptions.
The Treatises Can Be Limiting
The mindset of only doing the techniques a manuscript includes can lead to disadvantages in HEMA tournaments.
Sometimes students feel that if a technique is not included in the treatise they study, they cannot do it. One example of this is sabre fencers who do not use hanging guard because it is not taught in their system. However, there is a difference between not doing a technique because the fencer is not familiar with it and not doing a technique because it is not in the sources they study.
It is important to remember that no one can include everything in their writing, even the authors of fencing systems. For example, I.33 does not include a technique on striking someone in the face with a buckler nor does it include a technique on how to prevent this. However, Paulus Kal’s treatise on sword and buckler does include this technique. If a fencer rigidly applies I.33 against other sword and buckler fencers, they will be vulnerable to buckler strikes while also limiting themselves to not delivering buckler strikes to the opponent’s face.
Our Implementation of the Treatises Could be Wrong
A number of variables can dramatically impact the validity of certain techniques taught in treatises.
The sources studied in HEMA come with their own historical context for implementation. If a competitor in a HEMA tournament attempts to use the unarmored combat techniques of longsword when fighting in armor, they will not succeed. Without recognizing the potential variability in a fight, a fencer may improperly use a technique and end up on the losing side of a tournament.
In HEMA tournaments, fencers are required to wear a certain amount of safety equipment. This equipment such as heavy protective gloves and HEMA fencing jackets can change how effective a technique in a treatise can be by limiting the mobility the fencer. Another variable that can impact technique is different heights between fencers. Differentials in heights create new angles of attacks a fencer must deal with and also can change what technique is required to defend against a certain action.
The goal in HEMA tournaments is to hit your opponent without getting hit. This creates a fair amount of flexibility in what techniques will be used.
One of the best attributes a competitor in a HEMA tournament can have is adaptability. It is important to remember that there are many different types of fencers who will use the techniques they feel are best suited for themselves. Sometimes, those techniques are less effective than your own. Other times, your opponent will have the advantage and you will need to adapt to defeat them.
Studying fencing treatises does not necessarily encourage adaptability. Fencers may assume that the treatises are infallible, or that all scenarios are covered in the treatise, or that the techniques are not impacted by gear. These are just some of the ways treatises can limit fencers.
It is important to remember that the manuscripts are meant to be guides for the use of the weapons they teach. If left to just theory, these treatises can fall short in practice. It is the responsibility of the fencers to adapt the treatises to what suits them and to hit their opponent without getting hit themselves.
There are many ways to prepare for Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) tournaments. Competitors may study from manuscripts and other historical sources in order to learn swordsmanship. These types of competitors can range from people that dedicate themselves to a single system to others that pursue a general study of multiple systems to understand a weapon as a whole.
However, studying treatises is not the only way competitors prepare for HEMA tournaments. Others put more emphasis on the physical aspect of tournaments and swordsmanship. They may also take a trial and error approach to learning techniques and tricks that work to aid them in a tournament.
At one extreme, the competitors who study the manuscripts bite their thumb at those that ignore the sources. On the other extreme, the competitors who focus on the physical aspect believe that treatises are limiting and prevent fencers from adapting in a fight.
Today we will begin a two part series on the advantages, and disadvantages, of studying treatises to prepare for HEMA tournaments.
The first and most useful advantage swordsmanship treatises provide is structure. A treatise contains a series of actions, vocabulary, definitions, and other teachable objects that allows for everyone studying the treatise to speak the same language. In the case of British military sabre systems, this is demonstrated with numbered cuts and sequenced plays. (Roworth, 1824) In the case of I.33, it is the terminology and plays that help illustrate techniques to perform. (Manuscript I.33, Early 14th Century (2018)) In Meyer’s longsword system, the sword actions are named to help assist in understand ways the longsword can move. (Meyer, 1570 (2015)) Even loosely structured systems like George Silver’s system contain terms like variable, open, and guardant to define how a fencer is to conduct themselves in different scenarios. (Silver, 1599)
This allows for competitors preparing for a tournament to communicate specific techniques effectively and to connect with a larger audience of competitors who also use the treatises to learn swordsmanship. Being able to learn and practice with a larger audience who can reference specific terms and techniques helps grow competitors in their journey in learning swordsmanship.
Learning from the Past
Another advantage to studying treatises is the ability to learn from the past. In many cases, the treatises come from a history of learning from prior masters which continued to develop and refine what they believed to be the proper way to use their respective weapon. For the Bolognese sidesword and buckler system, Achille Marrozo and Antonio Manciolini learned from the Dardi School of Fencing. (Wiktenauer, 2021) For German longsword sources, there is an entire lineage of sources developed in the Liechtenauer Tradition. (Wiktenauer, 2022)
Specifically for the Liechtenauer tradition, the Fellowship of Liechtenauer listed in Paulus Kal’s manuscript contained seventeen individual names that were involved with the development of the system as a whole. Later, Joachim Meyer would continue the Liechtenauer tradition adding even more literature to study and learn from.
Even in the cases where there is not a clear lineage like I.33, competitors can learn from the lessons that are taught. These treatises serve as a way at least one person believed a sword should be used. By studying these treatises, modern competitors can learn what worked, and did not work, from previous fencing masters.
Studying treatises as described in this blog post is not just reading manuscripts. Drills, peer reviews of techniques, practice, sparring, and other tangible activities are all required to properly study a treatise. However, with practice and a scholarly approach to learning treatises, a fencer can learn to become a competent competitor in HEMA tournaments.
There is no doubt in my mind that given enough trial and error, HEMA tournament competitors could re-create the systems written in the treatises. However, by studying the treatises, HEMA tournament competitors can immediately learn practical techniques which can take a bit of the guess-work out of learning swordsmanship.
Manuscript I.33.(Early 14th Century (2018)). (D. J. Forgeng, Trans.)
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33
Meyer, J. (1570 (2015)).
The Art of Combat. (D. J. Forgeng, Trans.)
Roworth, C. (1824).
The Art of Defense on Foot with Broad Sword and Sabre.
Silver, G. (1599).
Paradoxes of Defence. Retrieved from http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html
Filippo Dardi. Retrieved from Wiktenauer: https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Filippo_Dardi
Johannes Liechtenauer. Retrieved from Wiktenauer: https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Johannes_Liechtenauer
While sparring, many people wear lighter gloves on their buckler hands because of the natural protection the buckler provides. For me, I prefer to wear rapier gloves while sparring because it adds hard protection over the knuckles while also providing padding over the fingers and forearms.
However, there are situations while sparring that can put your fingers at risk. Today we will be discussing my personal injury I suffered on my buckler hand. Hopefully through discussion, others can avoid injuries as we all work towards making historical fencing a safer activity.
Warning, this post will contain injury images and videos that may not be suitable for all viewers.
While sparring sword and buckler, my opponent delivered a high cut while I retreated. I extended my buckler up to defend while backing away. This is a technique that is common in sword and buckler sparring and is an advised technique in a number of systems such as Lignitzer and Kal. Furthermore, this is a technique that I have safely executed hundreds of times while sparring.
Unfortunately, my opponent’s sword struck the middle of the interior top portion of my thumb instead of my buckler.
At first, the injury did not seem too serious. I had full range of motion in my thumb and I could make a fist without any sharp pain. I iced my thumb at practice to try and reduce the swelling and expected to have a bad bruise the next day.
The following day when the swelling had reduced, I noticed more localized bruising. My thumb was cold to the touch and I could not move the top part of my thumb without discomfort.
Urgent care diagnosed me with a broken thumb. After a follow on appointment with an orthopedic, it was determined that I had suffered an avulsion fracture in the top bone of my thumb.
Minimum Weeks of Recovery: 6
Method of Treatment: Temporarily placed in a splint until a custom fitted brace is available to immobilize the thumb. No surgery required.
Given that the impact hit the interior top portion of my hand, adding finger caps to my gloves seems like a reasonable upgrade to add more safety. However, rapier gloves may be insufficient when sparring with broader bladed swords like medieval arming swords.
Medium level protective gloves like Lacrosse/Hockey gloves with hard plastic or Red Dragon Sparring Gloves with added finger caps would add more protection for my off hand. While the Red Dragon Sparring Gloves seem over-protective for synthetic sparring, and under-protective for steel sparring, they may be the right level of protection when paired with a buckler.
This level of protective gloves do not work with all bucklers when trying to perform I.33 techniques. The solution to this is to use bucklers with wider handles to allow for the gloves to fit while still having the dexterity to move the buckler from side to side to defend.
While gear is the primary way to spar safely, good technique is also critical in ensuring safety.
After further inspection of the video, this high buckler defense I performed was not the same as ones I had done before. My arm was not fully extended to provide the maximum cone of protection. My hand also appeared to open slightly which made the buckler angle more towards the left side creating a bigger gap on my right side.
It appears that my buckler not being at the right place at the right time was one of the major issues that resulted in this injury. When defending with the buckler, many images in manuscripts clearly show the buckler fully extended away from the body to maximize defense.
From a I.33 perspective, the protections may also be key. The protections allow the fencer to safely defend against attacks while keeping the sword and buckler hands together. This would have allowed for my heavier, more protective, glove on my sword hand to also cover the buckler hand. It also would allow for the sword to provide active defense as opposed to just relying on the buckler for protection.
Injuries happen in martial arts. We try to avoid them as much as possible. Unfortunately, it is not an “if they happen” but a “when they happen”.
Do not take safety for granted when participating in historical fencing. Even when using a round steel dish to protect a hand, one poorly executed technique can sideline you from activity for weeks.
Learn from yours and others injuries and let’s continue to promote safe sparring in the HEMA community.