Category Archives: History

Shelf numbers for books in archives

Codex Gigas facsimile

Facsimile of the Codex Gigas; image from Wikipedia.

You may have observed that when discussing original source material, people will sometimes refer to a source by a series of letters and numbers, rather than using a more readable name. This much more common with medieval sources (particularly handwritten manuscripts) than with printed books, as printed books usually have their own title, whereas manuscripts often exist without a title.

What do these combinations of letters and numbers mean, and how can we understand them?

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Fashion throughout history: wearing clothes “incorrectly”

“Handmade White Chaperon” image from an article by Vicky Binns on the Modern Medievalist blog: http://modernmedievalist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/profile-in-excellence-vicky-binns.html

It can be all too easy to look at people who wear their clothes incorrectly, to make a disapproving face, and say something like: “kids these days… Back in my day, we wore our trousers properly.” While I don’t mind people wearing their baseball caps in whatever direction (the brim does help to keep the sun from burning skin), some other fashions do annoy me a little.

However, looking back in history, there are examples of people wearing clothes “incorrectly”, and apparently they must have done so often enough to create new fashions. This article will look briefly at a few of these examples.

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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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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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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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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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Curved Swords and “Polish Sabre”

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

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.

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HEMA myths and fact-checking

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.

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