historical European martial arts
What is a Martial Art?
Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.
Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.
We shall divide this sermon into six parts.
Is That a Dagger I See Before Me?
What Reproductions Can and Can’t Teach You
In the past year I succumbed to the allure of two of Leo “Tod” Todeschini’s products: a table knife and a baselard. In the late middle ages baselards were big knives with H-shaped hilt hung from the belt between the legs (in barbarous northern countries) or at the right hip (by polite and civilized Italians who had other ways to show they had something long and hard between their legs). He offers two standard models, one which was popular in the Alps and another which was more common in northern Italy and England.
Tod is a brilliant cutler. He captures the essence of knives as objects of lust which you buy and carry against your better judgement. (People in the fourteenth and fifteenth century were not idiots, their coroner’s reports and city statutes show that they knew that when young men start carrying big knives some of them will stab each other with them- and Chaucer always tells you what kinds of knives people are wearing, and whether they are mounted with silver or brass). Tod includes scabbards and suspensions which let you understand knives as accessories not just as something to hang on your wall or leave in your kitchen or your travel chest. The scabbards are painted in a single colour like many originals and lightly tooled like finds from the Thames and the Low Countries. The brass chape is brazed so well that it is hard to see the join (whereas most of the originals Mark Shier has handled are just overlapped or stapled closed). The baselard is beautifully finished, with the nails evenly peened and the wood smoothly set onto the iron core, and has a pleasant substance in the hand thanks to the thick, heavy forte of the blade. The 44 cm length of this baselard is pretty typical (there were a few smaller examples, and many the size of a sword). (Parenthically, his working, table, and kitchen knives would make excellent gifts for a chef or camper in your life). But there is one thing about this knife which is not ideal for me.
Cross-Post: Thott Talhoffer MS Facsimile
Michael Chidester of Wiktenauer is crowdfunding to make a high-quality facsimile of a famous fencing manual from the second half of the 15th century, Hans Talhoffer’s MS. Thott 290 2º. Like many of the German manuscripts, it contains other secret lore including a copy of Konrad Keyser’s engineering manual Bellifortis and a treatise on astral... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Thott Talhoffer MS Facsimile
A Weekend at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow
In July 2019 I attended a living history weekend at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow in Bavaria on the old Goldene Straße from Prague to Nürnberg. It was organized by Roland ‘Dimicator’ Warzecha and his group in northern Germany.
Oh, The Scholar and the Swordsman Should Be Friends
The historical fencing world had 20 glorious years. Between 1992 and 2012, people around the world came together, pooled their different skills and interests, and turned a jungle of confusing manuals and manuscripts into working martial arts. At first, everyone was so excited to find someone else interested in swords that they were willing to overlook some other differences and tolerate each other’s flamboyant eccentricity. In the twilight of this period, Tom Leoni wrote that “I look forward to the fruits of the next generation of researchers- of both the swordsman-historian and historian-swordsman types.” But as it got harder and harder to fit everyone in a single gymnasium, and as it became less necessary to learn things from books by academics rather than buddies in the salle, cracks emerged. The jocks stopped being polite to the nerds, the people whose passion was for medieval dagger fighting stopped attending workshops on 18th century smallsword play, and the people who thought a background in say Japanese sword arts was essential stopped having any time for the people who thought it was corrupting. This week, I would like to talk about three projects which show the state of the movement in 2019, as best as I can see it from the outside.*
Folk Wrestling in Poland
Over on Patreon, Maciej Talaga talks about the folk sports which Polish peasants used to play in the slack times of the agricultural year. As he says, outside of the harvest season peasant societies tend to have more workers than useful things for them to do, so people on the land have to find ways to amuse themselves.
Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants would establish a specific hold – you can see it demonstrated on the video – and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.
The latter was also the very reason why documenting “biady” required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn’t discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.
Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents’ house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better – instead of asking questions, we started “biadying” in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about “biady” from a scratch on his own. And it worked!
Some Things That the HEMA Movement Gets Right
Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.