Historical Research using Archived Material

Today’s blog article is courtesy of Andy Lawrence, who studies HEMA with us in Glasgow, and who makes frequent research trips to museums, libraries and archives.

It is a common idea that “research” involves going to a dusty library and poring over old documents. However, so much information is available online, why might someone actually need to visit a library? What sort of research tasks can be accomplished by visiting a library, and how might one go about arranging this kind of research visit?

This short article relates to my experience of conducting research using various archives that have digitised documents to make them available on-line, and also how I have used reading rooms at archives and libraries where the information is currently only available offline, on paper.

Significant amounts of time may be saved by knowing before your visit what it is that you would like to find out, rather than searching randomly for information. Searches can then be filtered to try and find any documents or images that may be relevant. In my case, the purpose of the exercise was to try and find a date and location for a particular photograph. The photo in question is that of my great grandfather, Charles Lawrence, who was rumoured to have been photographed in Japan whilst he served in the Royal Navy in the late 19th century.

Charles Lawrence, who was rumoured to have been photographed in Japan whilst he served in the Royal Navy in the late 19th century.

Charles Lawrence, who was rumoured to have been photographed in Japan whilst he served in the Royal Navy in the late 19th century.

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Starting with HEMA: A Personal View

An artistic "still life" collection of HEMA gear!

An artistic “still life” collection of HEMA gear!

Today’s blog article is courtesy of Alex Davis, who is relatively new to the study of HEMA, and who wanted to share some of his thoughts on beginning in this activity. He attends lessons with Schola Gladiatoria, in the safe hands of Lucy and Matt Easton, and makes occasional visits to the English Martial Arts Academy with Martin “Oz” Austwick.

Are you new to HEMA, or to any martial art? Here are some of my experiences and my reactions to HEMA, touching on different aspects of the activity that a beginner may experience. I think of them Challenges, along with one Requirement, not necessarily to overcome them but to meet and react to them, and to show how rich and varied HEMA appears to be. I could think of them facets or principles, but the word Challenges seem fine, because they call for me to achieve something and change or improve myself. It seems that with each class, something develops that raises further questions for assessment and refinement. It is probable that I may want to change some of below in another six months time.

These experiences are my own. I do not suggest they are shared by everyone, though I am hoping they may create some thought or discussion. I expect some things may strike a chord and some things may not. We are all different.

I am very grateful to all the instructors and fellow students who guide and share as I learn and practice HEMA. Without them I would not feel able or willing to contribute.

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Systems vs self experience, invention and mixing & matching

Originally, I had wanted to write a reply to Shadiveristy’s video The Problem with HEMA, although excellent replies were made by Dave Rawlings, Martin Austwick and Matt Easton before I had the chance[1] [2] [3]. After giving it some time, I thought this was a good opportunity to address an idea that is present in Shadiversity’s video, and that I’ve heard from many other people as well.

HEMA treatises represent a deep well of useful and valid martial information, but there are often people who believe that their own experience with sword fighting is somehow more useful and valid than the information that can be found in those treatises, or the information that can be gained from HEMA instructors.

“You know what works best for you”

This is one of the most common reasons giving for mixing and matching techniques from different source materials, or techniques that are not from any source material. The rationale that every individual knows what techniques work best for them in a fight, and that therefore, they should use those techniques while not using any techniques that don’t work them, seems sound at first glance.

The practice of martial arts however; is at least in part the practicing of techniques that are new and that might seem uncomfortable or unusual at first. If a technique doesn’t work, the best option may be continuing to try to make it work rather than give up on it entirely.

If a technique doesn’t work for you, then this may be because you don’t have the right sort of build or height for it; or it may in fact mean that you simply don’t have the right structure or understanding of the technique. It may be that you are trying to carry out the technique at the wrong time, or the wrong distance, or that you haven’t set up the technique correctly.

With a certain level of experience, I think someone can say a technique doesn’t work for them, but without that experience, I think this excuse is a lazy answer.

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Washing a SPES jacket

The “Axel Pettersson” jacket by SPES Historical Fencing.

How do you wash your SPES jacket? There are some brief washing guidelines (PDF) on the SPES website, but I feel that more could be said on the subject.

First, why is is worth washing a jacket? There are several reasons: the most obvious, for you and the people around you, is probably the smell of sweat. Other reasons could be to preserve the colour of the jacket and to ensure it does not look too dirty, or to clean it of mould developing from sweat and poor storage conditions, or perhaps to rid the jacket of a stain.

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The limitations with experimental archaeology

Last week I wrote a post called The Importance of Written Sources, and in that article, I mentioned using experimental archaeology in the context of HEMA to help recreate fighting systems for which we do not have any written sources. Shortly after I wrote this, an article was published on ScienceNordic[1]. This article includes a video from a group called Combat Archaeology, as well as a summary and quotes about the experiment, and what they found.

The article is of course somewhat sensationally titled. It claims that an ‘Archaeologist discovers a new style of Viking combat’, when the scope was really much more limited than this. The description of the video states:

The experiment attempted to determine what body techniques Viking Age round shields are inclined to facilitate and which they restrict or otherwise discourage. More specifically, the aim was to critically assess body techniques in terms of deflection and to obtain empirical data outlining the effects associated with an aggressive as well as relatively passive use of the shield.

In essence, the experiment is designed to compare the effectiveness of passive vs. active uses of the shield, although this is of course not the same as discovering an entire style, as I’ll mention below.

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The importance of written sources

Some time ago I wrote an article called Questions on What Is, and What Is Not HEMA, and recently I’ve been thinking about that question a little more. Firstly, I think that a differentiation must be made between historical European martial arts, as in martial arts that were practiced historically in Europe, and HEMA, as in the modern sporting practice. Viking sword and shield, as in the styles of fighting done with a sword and shield by the Scandinavian cultures that we refer to as the Vikings today, was clearly a historical European martial art; it was a martial art used historically in Europe. However, I would also argue that it is not part of HEMA, the modern discipline.

The reason for this distinction is sources. A Norse warrior living in the 9thor 10th centuries had no need to examine written sources to see if the way he was fighting with a sword and shield was historically authentic, whereas a 21st century practitioner cannot just fight with a sword and shield and claim his method of fighting is historically authentic. They must, or at least should, use evidence to back up their claims and demonstrate that what they are doing is likely to be historically authentic.[1]

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Some thoughts about the “afterblow”

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz (Zander) sparring with longswords at Edgebana 2015.

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz (Zander) sparring with longswords at Edgebana 2015.

The “afterblow” can be one of the most contentious issues in the HEMA community, depending on the person or people with whom you speak. I used to disapprove of the concept myself, but over the last few years, I have recognised it to be a valuable training method with genuinely important outcomes. I would like to share a few of my recent thoughts on the matter.

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The perspective of a tournament organiser

Keith Farrell receiving a hit from Gordon Love at the AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament 2016.  Photo by Andy Lawrence.

Keith Farrell receiving a hit from Gordon Love at the AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament 2016. Photo by Andy Lawrence.

About a month ago, the Academy of Historical Arts ran a broadsword competition in Glasgow, with a new rule set that was quite a significant departure from other rules we have used in the past.

In this article, I would like to share my thoughts as the tournament organiser, to discuss what I was trying to achieve with the event, and what some of the results and learning points were at the end of the event.

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The problem with the broadsword and targe sources

Penicuik drawing 14. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik drawing 14. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

One of the weapon combinations that is used within the AHA is the Scottish broadsword and targe. This combination is of course quite iconic of the Scottish highlander, and so generates a lot of interest. There are few sword and targe sources however; so while we do not have to theorise an entire system from no evidence, we still run into all the problems identified by Keith in his “Interpretive” HEMA Systems article.

 

The three sources we have are the anonymous Penicuik sketches, Thomas Page’s The Use of the Broadsword, and Donald McBane’s The Expert Sword-man’s Companion. None of these sources are particularly detailed, and there isn’t as close a relationship in what they show as we might like.

 

Penicuik drawing 3. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik drawing 3. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

If we look at the Penicuik sketches, one of the notable features we can see is that the targe side is almost always held forward. The two exceptions are a depiction of a right leg forward fencer in a low, invitational guard, and a drawing of two Highlanders fencing, one of whom has his right leg forward. All other images show the Highlanders with the targe side forward (i.e. normally left leg forward, unless they are right handed, in which case they are right leg forward). This means that if we were basing a system off the Penicuik sketches, we would need to start in predominantly targe side forward guards. We could pass forward during a fight and be in a sword side forward position while we are actively fencing, but when in starting guard, we should rarely be sword side forward.

 

Penicuik Drawing 23 (4). 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik Drawing 23 (4). 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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