Interest in the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is growing. And one of its big questions, is whether it’s possible to rediscover a lost or disrupted art, by studying and copying the techniques depicted in the old fightbooks (training manuals)?
This is a question that academic Dr Daniel Jaquet has been seeking to answer. Here are some key points on the topic, taken from his lecture at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University; and a couple of his recent academic papers (references at the end) . . .
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What are the problems and limitations of this kind of research?
Daniel sees three main problems with trying to reconstruct the medieval martial arts.
a. Lack of knowledge about the historical context
People can see HEMA as a way to connect to the past – but what they are often connecting to is only their own idealised version of the past, removed from reality. (Albeit there is never one reality, but several – history is a subjective science). There is so much we can’t access about those days.
Realistically, most of us have little or no knowledge of the way people lived, dressed, moved and saw the world in those days. We also lack knowledge of the social relationships and hierarchies of that period – and yet this would be essential for understanding medieval martial arts.
b. Lack of experience of the physical objects they would have used / worn in those days
It can be difficult to obtain practical knowledge of the objects needed to understand fighting in those days – historical weapons, armour, clothes, shoes, etc. Even being allowed to see or hold the real items is not really enough:
In pure euphoria after having held a 600-year-old sword, it is easy to forget that there is a big difference between “holding a sword” and “handling a sword”. However, after such visits there is sadly no shortage of people who suddenly can comment on how stiff a sword is and how it behaves when it is swung through the air – HEMA; a Crossroad p14.
An example is the difference between a longsword from the 14th c., equipped with a conventional crossbar, opposite a longsword from the 16th c., which may have additional hand protection in the form of metal rings, etc. The latter can have an influence on the handling properties of the object, but also on the behaviour of the wielder – Ibid, p23.
Daniel also warns that because these high-quality replicas can be costly, there’s a temptation to treat them carefully and delicately. Whereas in fact,
From a research point of view, it’s not good enough! The weapon must be recognized as a tool with the one purpose of increasing our understanding of what we are really eager to know about: how the weapon functioned and what it could do. Otherwise there is no difference between the newly acquired sword and the 600 year old sword you were graciously allowed to hold at the museum – you are filled with awe, but far from handling it! – Ibid, p21.
c. Lack of academic rigour
Thirdly it’s frustrating in a way that many HEMA practitioners study hard and gain high levels of expertise – but don’t formally share or publish their knowledge. In any case, they often don’t follow systematic research methods, which means that their research will gain little academic recognition, or even attention. The challenge for academics is therefore to bridge this gap, and find ways to identify and make use of all the high quality, non-academic expertise out there.
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Are the fightbooks reliable sources?
We can’t necessarily trust the fightbooks as straightforward training manuals. Some of them are of poor quality. Some of them were written more as marketing materials than textbooks. And above all, they cover many schools / styles between them – and contradict each other all over the place.
Daniel also reminds us that most of our access to these books is often via translations – mostly amateur versions on the Internet. Many of these are good – but how can we know which ones these are? In any case, translation is a notoriously slippery and subjective art, especially given the age of these texts, and the archaic, unstandardised technical language they use.
In addition, Daniel explains that there was an esoteric side to many medieval martial arts, and that:
the arts of combat are transmitted through secret and hidden words, so that art is not commonly disclosed. Thus, the defense of an art just or correct, against rivals or to prevent it from being disclosed to the “rurals” is a [common theme] – Fighting in the Fightschools p49.
In other words, the manuals are only a fraction of the art. True understanding depends on physical transmission from a teacher – the books may deliberately omit important elements.
His overall advice is not to treat a fight book as a training manual. Treat it as just one piece of evidence among many, and always approach it critically.
What questions should we ask?
Before seeking to make sense of an old fightbook, there are some important questions to ask.
Firstly, what’s your purpose in wanting to recreate this art? Is it for reenactment – to experience a past event or way of life? Is it for entertainment purposes, such as choreographed stage fighting? Or is it to learn about the actual martial art techniques, and how they were used? Although these categories are not black and white, and often cross over, knowing your purpose is a helpful starting point.
Secondly, what do we know about the writer of this manual, and their purpose in writing it? Who was the intended audience – was it written for practising martial artists, or lay people with an interest in martial arts?
Clements (2008) has arguably identified several different purposes for the fightbooks:
1. To preserve the instructor’s teachings
2. As a private study guide for selected students
3. As a primer or reminder for students when not in class
4. To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage
5. At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art
6. To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students
7. To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters
8. As a means of acquiring a pension through recognition or appreciation of years of service and dedication.
Finally, what are the techniques in this book meant for? The battlefield? Duelling? Self defence? Law enforcement? Play? (tournaments or sports). Are these techniques designed to kill, or not?
Daniel also explained that it’s generally helpful if the researcher has some martial arts background, or at least a good awareness of their own body gained through some other practice.
What other sources do we have to supplement the fightbooks?
Daniel said in his lecture:
History is like something hidden behind a curtain full of tiny holes. The holes are the various bits of source material. No one can see the whole object, but we can look through the holes and try to piece it all together.
So what other sources are there to help us recreate the medieval martial arts? As it happens, there are plenty!
Written sources include:
- Narrative sources – e.g. chronicles; chivalrous biographies
- Administrative sources – e.g. statutes, minutes and other legal documents
- Teaching manuals or other technical resources
Non-written sources include:
- Objects – e.g. weapons and armour
- Artistic representations e.g. paintings and sculptures
Daniel has a special interest in medieval armour, and believes we can learn a huge amount about the old martial arts through the experience of wearing it. He owns a realistic, high-quality replica 15th century suit, and has used it to prove that the popular idea of the knight bring unable to move properly in armour is a myth:
Such armour, tailored to measure, actually allows the wearer almost full range of movement for natural motion (such as gait, sitting down or standing up) or for combat motion (based on our studies of the Fight Books). The relatively impressive added load is comparable to the one imposed on modern soldiers with bullet proof vest and full gear, or to the one imposed on the fireman with his oxygen bottles. Therefore, the trained body of the wearer adapts to such a heavy load and is able to achieve top physical performances, but limited by the added load – Can you Move in Armour?
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So these are some key points to consider. The rest of this article will present an example of academic research putting these to work, and genuinely trying to reconstruct a tiny piece of martial arts history . . .
Case study – What was the Flügelhau?
In his presentation, Daniel talked us through a specific piece of academic research to pin down a technique called the Flügelhau.
It’s referenced in several of the old fightbooks – here are a couple of examples. (Please note that these are translations into English):
1. Two Cuts from Above and from Below: When you come to the zufechten (closing) with the opponent stand with your right foot forward and strike him with the Wechsel (Changing strike). Then wind into the right Fligelhaw (?) such that your hilt stands in front of your head.
2. The Flugel is taken from the High Guard or High-Point: the first, strike from the Roof to his left ear, the second from under with a step to your left side, the third strike after to the head.
So how did Daniel and his team set about recreating this technique in a scientific way? Here’s the process they followed:
- He collected all the references he could find, from various medieval combat manuals, and compared / triangulated these references.
- This left him with a basic outline of the technique – but two crucial bits of information were missing. Firstly, what was the alignment of edges for the sequence of strikes? And secondly, was there a step on the third strike?
- He identified several different possibilities for the edge alignment and for the final step. Combining these gave him eighteen different permutations altogether.
- Daniel discarded some of these options straight away, because his own knowledge of martial arts told him that they made no sense.
- As for the remaining options, the team tested them carefully under different conditions, including slowly and carefully on a collaborative partner with no protective equipment – and at full speed / power on a resisting partner wearing protective equipment.
- They then evaluated the results carefully. In the end, the team narrowed the Flügelhau down to two possibilities:
Fighter L engages with a strike from above (long edge) to the right upper opening, Fighter R defends. Fighter L continue with a strike from below (long edge) from the bind to the left lower opening with a step to the left, Fighter R defends. Fighter L strikes around from the bind to the head (short edge) with a step to right.
Fighter L engages with a strike from above (long edge) to the right upper opening, Fighter R defends. Fighter L continue with a strike from below (short edge) from the bind to the left lower opening with a step to the left, Fighter R defends. Fighter L strikes around from the bind to the head (long edge) with a step to right.
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So is it possible to recreate a medieval martial art? Daniel’s answer is a cautious, partial yes – as long as we’re mindful of all the limitations and pitfalls of such research; and use robust research methods.
He believes there’s lot of value in amateur HEMA study as a hobby or sport. His only plea is that play should not be mistaken for serious academic research – and for researchers to maintain the highest standards of rigour for the latter.
At the same time, he has a special interest in finding ways to bridge the divide, so that high quality amateur research can be supported, acknowledged and used to build our common store of knowledge . . .
Daniel Jaquet. (2016). Lost Embodied Knowledge: Experimenting with Historical European Martial Arts out of books. Keynote speech at the 2016 Martial Arts Research Network 2016 Annual Conference
Daniel Jaquet, Alice Bonnefoy Mazure, Stéphane Armand, Caecilia Charbonnier, Jean-Luc Ziltener & Bengt Kayser. (2016). Range of motion and energy cost of locomotion of the late medieval armoured fighter: A proof of concept of confronting the medieval technical literature with modern movement analysis. Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History, 49:3, 169-186
Daniel Jaquet. (2016). Can you move in armour? An Experiment in Mythbusting. Article on www.medievalists.net
Daniel Jaquet, Claus Frederik Sorenson and Fabrice Cognot. (2015). Historical European Martial Art. A crossroad between academic research, martial heritage re-creation and martial sport practices. Acta Periodica Duellatorum. 2015:3, 5-35
Daniel Jaquet. (2013). Fighting in the Fightschools late XVth, early XVIth century. Acta Periodica Duellatorum. 2013:1, 47-67.
Daniel Jaquet is a medievalist, with a background in literary studies and interests in history of science and material culture in the early modern period. He received his PhD in history at the University of Geneva in 2013. He taught at the University of Geneva and Lausanne (2008-2015) and was a visiting scholar at the Centre pour l’Histoire des sciences et des techniques (University of Paris, Pantheon Sorbonne 1, 2011). He is the co-editor of Acta Periodica Duellatorum (open access, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to Historical European Martial Arts studies). His dissertation investigates the praxes of armoured combat at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, in the light of the Fight Books. His teaching and research specialisations are history of warfare, dueling, ludic practices and knowledge transmission in pragmatic literature at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. His current research focuses on Historical European Martial Arts studies, with specific interest in bodily knowledge transmission and experimentation.