Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.
I have a curved sword. When I fence with it, am I practising Polish sabre?
The reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre has been gaining in popularity for a few years now, with various researchers and interpreters working to improve their own understanding of the issue, and teaching their ideas at events and gatherings. Several items of research have been produced and published, including translations, articles, books, and sword typologies.
However, along with the surge of interest among scholars and the publication of research, it is becoming more common to hear people state that they “do Polish sabre”, or to make assertions that this or that kind of guard or technique “can be found in Polish sabre”. In fact, it is quite possible to see some people “doing Polish sabre” and for the resulting fencing to look no different from how they “do British sabre” or indeed how they “do messer”. There are of course people who put incredible amounts of time and effort into training a fencing system that could well be an excellent reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre, but there are also people who dabble, and so “doing Polish sabre” has become a relatively common refrain.
Today I want to talk very briefly about the importance of fact checking things you say. It is not uncommon to hear people repeat “facts” that they have heard. They may go on to repeat these anecdotes or pieces of information in a conversation, or in a class. The people that hear these “facts” can then go to repeat them at a later time, and so these statements are continually brought up and told to new people without anyone actually checking if these “facts” actually have any basis in fact.
Three examples of this that spring to mind in particular are that:
– Italian longsword is flashy compared to the straight-forward German longsword system,
– that the messer was a weapon designed to get by through legal loopholes
– and that it was the advent of the gun in Europe that made swordsmanship skills die off.
These “facts” are all old; however I hear them repeated every now and again. It is therefore worth quickly debunking these stories.
We all have different motivations behind our practice of HEMA, and we also tend to have slightly different understandings of what HEMA is exactly, what all it covers and describes, and what it excludes. Rather than try to answer the question of “what is HEMA?”, this article will look at what I personally understand to be HEMA, and where I draw my lines.
Maybe opening the majority of exchanges with a predictable Oberhaw is not such a bad thing?
A while ago, Alex posted an article on the subject of unusual techniques, and he discussed why he felt that it was not a good idea to spend too much time trying to use these unusual techniques in your sparring. I agree very much with his thoughts, and would like to propose an extension to this idea, that it is beneficial to work mainly with the more common techniques in your system, even if they are predictable.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Getting Used to Protective Gear. One of the reasons that it is important to get used to protective gear is so that we can wear the appropriate protection and thereby reduce our risk of injury. It is important that we do what we can to reduce the risk of injury, whether that is through wearing high quality protective gear, restricting target areas, deliberately controlling the intensity of the fight or any combination of the above.
Sometimes HEMAists dismiss the risk of injury, but there are several reasons why we should take injuries seriously, and make attempts to prevent them if our practices are unsafe.
It is worth bearing in mind that HEMA is a contact sport, and so of course, injuries will happen, and that when they do, we should simply move on with life. If we couldn’t accept any risk of injury at all, then we would never leave the house. I have had several patellar dislocations, and every time after I recovered, I went straight back to HEMA, but I’ve also done everything I can to prevent that happening to me in future. Fundamentally I believe that all HEMAist must make concerted actions to prevent injuries, for yourself, your training partners, and your students.
Is playing a game of parry/riposte an example of “correct fencing” or “incorrect fencing” for the system that you study? For sabre, it is often an example of “good” and “correct” fencing. What about for longsword?
Can “good fencing” ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?
Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.
This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.
Protective gear is obviously of vital importance to HEMA practitioners, as it serves a key purpose: it makes practicing HEMA safer. The downsides of wearing protective gear sometimes get raised, and typically people identify three main problems that they believe protective gear causes: people acting recklessly from feeling over protected, a lack of mobility, and a build up of heat. All of these can present problems; however, these problems can be overcome, and unless you are practicing in a specific and controlled context, then wearing insufficient protective gear can be an even bigger problem.
To start with the issue of people acting rashly because of protection, it is often argued that people wearing too much protective gear will simply start acting foolishly, simply because they no longer feel threatened. The idea is that if someone is wearing someone so much protective equipment they don’t feel hits at all, then they won’t try to defend themselves. This makes sense in some contexts, and less sense in others, as the amount of safety protection that is required and is reasonable depends on the levels of force being used. Making a blanket statement like “wearing lots of protective gear means that people won’t feel hits” doesn’t make much sense. If someone is wearing a lot of protection, but they are in an international tournament, and are fencing against opponents who use a lot of force, then they will probably still feel some level of threat. If they were to wear that exact same amount of protection in a far slower environment with lower levels of power being used, then they might less threatened. The problem isn’t just if people are wearing too much protection, the question is: are they wearing the right amount of protection for the environment they are in? Some environments simply require more protective gear than others, and if someone is wearing a fair amount of protective gear, but that amount of protective gear is what their context calls for, then it is not useful to say that protective gear makes people act unsafely, or that it distorts the art.
Keith Farrell (left) fencing with Federico Malagutti (right). Not much protective gear, but suitable gear for the type of sparring and to achieve the purpose of the exercise.
In martial arts, broadly speaking, there are two types of training exercise: those where you have a specific goal to accomplish, and those where you do not.
It is my belief that exercises without a specific and achievable goal are only useful for experienced practitioners who have already learned how to learn during play. For beginners who have not yet learned this skill, all exercises must have a well-defined goal to strive towards.
The Titan X-Change HEMA Mask
One of the most important pieces of safety equipment that we can own is our fencing mask, and for this reason it is often worth spending more money on the fencing mask compared to other items of safety equipment. A head injury is simply more likely to present a serious problem than an injury than to many other parts of the body.
We are now seeing more masks being developed specifically for HEMA, such as the masks by Gajardoni, or the Titan X-Change HEMA mask by Leon Paul which I’ll be reviewing today. I would argue that there is no true, mass-produced mask built for purpose. In an ideal world, a mask built for HEMA would have integrated back of head protection and an overlay above the mesh, or using solid plates instead of just wire mesh around the top and sides of the head. This would prevent us needing separate masks and overlays; in the mean time however, this isn’t a huge problem and we can continue to use masks and overlays, as long as the masks themselves of sufficient quality.
The Titan X-Change HEMA mask is part of Leon Paul’s Titan Range, which is mostly based off of SPES’s range of HEMA equipment. The Titan mask is an upgraded version of Leon Paul’s prior X-Change masks, featuring several enhancements.
When looking to buy a fencing mask, there are a huge variety of makes and models, and they all come with some numbers to describe how protective they are.
If you have listened to club members talking about masks and their protectiveness (or, even worse, read some of the nonsense that people spout online when discussing fencing masks), you may have come across the terms “350N”, “800N”, “1600N”, or even “12kg” or “25kg”. Unfortunately, most people do not understand correctly what these numbers mean – and if you are going to buy a fencing mask, you should make your decision based on a proper understanding of what the ratings actually mean.