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.