We opened Encased in Steel on the 17th of February 2011, meaning that the blog has been running and posting on a weekly basis for slightly more than six years. However, we are now going to draw the blog to its conclusion, and will no longer be posting on a regular weekly basis. There may still be some new updates from time to time, but it will not be a regular thing.
We will continue to host the blog, and the better quality articles will remain accessible and free of charge, although we may take down some of the older, less relevant and lower quality articles.
I fully intend to keep writing my own thoughts and articles on my own personal blog, over on my new www.keithfarrell.net website. Again, it may not see regular updates, at least not in the near future, but I will be continuing to write and to make my thoughts on martial arts available to the community.
It has been a pleasure writing for the community over the last six years, and thank you to everyone who has engaged in discussions resulting from our articles. It has helped us come to terms with our own understanding of HEMA and history, and we hope the blog has helped others in their own journey too.
A question that came to my mind recently, after watching a fairly cringeworthy piece on historical fencing by the BBC, was this: is it better to do HEMA badly, or not to do it at all? Phrased differently: is it better just not to do HEMA if you cannot do it well?
My current answer is that it is still worth doing HEMA even if it is not being done well, and we should be encouraging more people to start doing HEMA and to keep doing HEMA, even if the performance is not great in the beginning.
This guest article has been provided by Tea Kew, of the Cambridge HEMA club.
It’s very common for historical fencers to cross-train in other martial arts. Sport fencing and various other forms of swordsmanship are perhaps the most common, because of their obvious application for the use of swords. The value of training in wrestling is often overlooked. However, most of our early longsword manuals are clear about the importance of wrestling for fencing, and so dedicating some time to studying a form of wrestling can be extremely valuable (see an argument for wrestling on this blog). Judo is one of the most widely accessible forms of wrestling, and therefore is a particularly good candidate for cross-training.
The “Mutieren” technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.
One of the common problems faced by many practitioners of historical fencing is that while we know and have learned many cool techniques from our source materials, we may not be able to apply these techniques in the heat of sparring. How can we work towards being able to apply all of our techniques at will, even when under pressure? It requires a little bit of thought and effort, and perhaps needs a change in your typical sparring and training habits.
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.
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.
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?
Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia. Is it useful to take a similar position or technique from another martial art, adopt into our HEMA practice?
This is a question that does come up every so often when someone with non-HEMA experience discusses the idea of setting up a HEMA club. Of course it seems like quite a reasonable idea to continue teaching the non-HEMA material with which you are familiar, and there are probably techniques from your previous training that would be useful in various situations in HEMA sparring.
I worked through this process myself, several years ago, when I started looking at HEMA after spending around fourteen years studying karate. I had achieved my 3rd dan black belt in karate, and I thought that importing some karate techniques and concepts would help to shore up any of the many deficiencies I perceived in the HEMA systems I was trying to learn.
However, with more experience of HEMA now, I can see quite clearly that the biggest and most important deficiency was my own lack of skill at the systems I was trying to learn! Now I know that these systems can deal with almost any problem (within the appropriate context) if I apply the techniques and concepts properly – and if I need to solve a problem in a different context, I just use a different (and more appropriate) system.
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.
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.