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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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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Training for the future

 

Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.

Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. The shoulders are set properly, the back muscles are engaged, the head is upright, and this position is well-structured. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.

 

I am currently 28 years old. I have been practising HEMA for around 6 years, although I also have 14 years of experience in karate. As I approach my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I have been lucky enough to have spent a total of 18 years practising martial arts without taking any long term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.

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Come to an Understanding with your Fear

Keith Farrell fencing with Joshua Stocks at Edgebana 2016.

Keith Farrell fencing with Joshua Stocks at Edgebana 2016.

Fear is an interesting emotion. It can be a distinctly negative and problematic emotion, crippling you with anxiety when you need clarity of thought, rooting you to the floor when you really need to move, and preventing you from seizing the opportunities that you need to take.

However, it can also be a beneficial emotion, by warning you that an idea is likely to go wrong, or that a course of action will lead to negative outcomes. Fear can keep you in line and force you to pay attention to defending yourself, which is not necessarily a bad thing! Read more

Developing judging skills

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

One of the skills that is very important for a HEMA practitioner is judging. The overall quality of a tournament will be affected by poor quality judging, and fencers will enjoy an event far less if they feel the judging was inaccurate, especially if they feel that they, or another fencer, should have won a fight which they lost, and vice versa.

It should be said that judging is difficult, and very often under-appreciated. Judges are more likely to be criticised for poor judging calls than they are to be thanked or congratulated. Additionally judges are often sacrificing their own ability to take part in tournaments by judging.

I believe therefore that criticism of judges should always be moderate, and that any criticism given directly to them should be constructive. However, this is not to say that criticisms about judging don’t have merit, as there are often valid criticisms to make. This means that all judges should try to improve their judging skills.

Even a HEMA practitioner who has never been a judge, and may not be plan on being a judge, should work on their judging skills. Some events ask fencers to act as judges, such as FightCamp, where tournament pools are entirely self judging, or the upcoming AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament, where the fighters will rotate through as junior referees under a consistent senior referee. Additionally, fighters should practice judging as that will help them to understand the judging process, hopefully making them more understanding of judges when they might want to give harsh criticism.

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Can a modern person move like a medieval or renaissance fencer?

Codex icon.394a, 1467, folio 113r.

Codex icon.394a, 1467, folio 113r.

The immediate follow-up question to the title of this article would be: “Should a modern person move like a medieval or renaissance fencer?”

Since the origins of the current period of HEMA reconstruction, debates have raged about the correct way to perform footwork and whether or not we should wear historical footwear. Some people believe that using historical footwear holds the key to understanding footwork in HEMA systems, while other people believe that it is largely irrelevant. Other people hold a point of view somewhere in the middle, perhaps thinking that it is a good idea, but just not taking the plunge to begin using historical footwear themselves.

Regardless of one’s point of view on the matter, there is an interesting observation to be made about one of the difficulties inherent in using historical footwear to inform our studies of footwork in HEMA: can we actually make any sense of what historical footwear would tell us?

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