Hand stuff

When I first got started with HEMA, I was picking up weekly hand injuries — bruised fingers, finger bones, knuckles, black fingernails, that sort of thing. Now, part of this was down to poor hand protection, and lacrosse gloves went a long way towards preventing some of the worst injuries. But, at the end of the day, lacrosse gloves are meant for lacrosse and still don’t quite cut it when it comes to adequate HEMA hand protection. This is because lacrosse gloves have many joint areas where there is little or no padding, and the fingertips are also slightly exposed. You won’t realize this is a problem until you take a whack to the fingertips and the irrepressible nerve-damage tears start rolling.

And take a whack to the fingertips, you will. In HEMA (and, I assume, in lots of other martial arts), your hands are the things that offend your opponent. They may be attached to a sword, a dagger, or they may be all by their handsy lonesomes, just doing unarmed stuff (abrazare, to my fellow Fiore students). As such, they present the greatest threat (kicking happens, but is minimal, since it decreases stability and opens you up to throws), and they’re also an extremely valid target. In movies, a swordfight usually ends when someone gets cut straight in half from stem to stern, or run through to the hilt. In reality, sniping somebody’s hand with your blade before they have a chance to throw a cut could just as easily end a fight, or facilitate a quick end. After all, if you can’t hold a sword, and the other guy can, you’re almost definitely going to lose. Based on the bruises I’ve picked up from blunt swords in sparring, I’d hazard an educated guess that lopped off fingers and hands would have been a common injury when it comes to cut-oriented sword duels.

So, we’ve established that cutting your opponent’s hands is a great idea, and one often overlooked by novice fencers. But, let’s say you’re fighting someone who does know to attack the hands — what then?

Later period hilts, such as this basket hilt, offer comprehensive hand protection.
Later period hilts, such as this basket hilt, offer comprehensive hand protection.

If you’re using a later period sword (late Medieval/Renaissance) with a complex hilt, with all sorts of metal bars wrapping around your sword hand, or even the later cup-hilts (think: Three Musketeer swords), this isn’t as big a deal. The hilt will do most of the work protecting your hand, and you can therefore present your sword hand forward, relaxed in the knowledge that your hand will probably be safe, and now your sword is already closer to your opponent, threatening them.

... but this is about as much protection as you'll get from a longsword (but usually without the side rings)
… but this is about as much protection as you’ll get from a longsword (and usually without the side rings)

However, if you’re practicing earlier period fencing, say with a longsword, such hand protection is not available. You have a crossguard, maybe some side rings (but usually not), and the blade itself as protection. But, since they don’t surround your hand, you need to employ these things actively.

First and foremost, this has an immediate effect on hand position when it comes to the guards. As I mentioned, a complex hilted sword may be held out front, even with the arm forward. But with a simpler, cruciform hilt, this is very risky as the unprotected hands, if outstretched, are an easy target. Of course, the hands must be placed at risk at some point, in order to make a strike. The goal with these older swords, then, is to keep your hands close to your body (or behind you, depending on the guard) up until the very moment when you make a strike. This mitigates the danger to your hands by minimizing the amount of time they’re vulnerable. It also means that, though they have become vulnerable, you are also giving your opponent something else to deal with, since you’re making a strike. If the opponent wants to survive, he’ll have to prioritize making some sort of parry against your blade before he can worry about cutting your hands or arms (or head, or body, etc.). It’s a bit like a boxer — the hands are tight with the body, ready to defend, until the moment they’re being employed for an offensive movement.

The manner of the strike is also important. An important thing to keep in mind — and this is something that may feel unnatural at first — is to lead with the blade. It’s common knowledge among fencers that this has the benefit of providing the least amount of telegraphing to your opponent, thus presenting him with minimal time to react. But I think this also has the added value of aligning your hands in such a way that the crossguard always comes forward before your hands do. Basically, whenever your hands are in front, the blade and crossguard should be in-fronter. It’s extremely important to impede your opponent’s ability to easily reach your hands by putting as much metal in front of them as possible.

So, when making a strike, you begin with the blade (generating most of the power with your waist), then almost immediately after, following through with the legs to close the distance and set yourself up for the next action (entering another guard, sidestepping, etc.). Compared to swinging a baseball bat, this will feel unnatural at first, and you may wonder why it needs to be so different. The answer is because, in baseball, nobody is trying to cut your hands off (or bruise them, anyway).

You’ll also want to be aware of how you position your crossguard. Think about the guards/postas you’re using, and which ones provide a defense against particular strikes. When you’re able to guess where a strike from your opponent might come from and where it might try to land on you, you can start to think about twisting your grip a bit in order to line up the length of your crossguard with the potential path of your opponent’s blade. Not only will this protect your hands, it will present you with some cool blade trapping and disarm opportunities during that split second where the other guy’s blade is caught up in your hilt. It’s also a good idea — though this is by no means employed by everyone — to leave a bit of space between the crossguard and the top of your lead hand. This can make the difference between catching a blade on your crossguard and it still cutting your hand, and catching the blade without any contact with your lead hand at all.

More than buying lacrosse gloves and fingertip inserts, wrapping my head around how I present my hands defensively and offensively has greatly reduced the number of hand injuries I take from HEMA sparring. If you have a job that requires hands — like, using a computer, or digging ditches, or working at a massage parlor — it’s a good thing to keep them generally operational. Finger explosions are a real concern. On that note, if there are any engineer types out there, there is still a vacuum when it comes to effective, mass-produced, economical HEMA gloves, and many of us are constantly searching for something that provides a good amount of protection, but also allows for dexterous manipulation of the hilt.

Anyway, here’s a totally unrelated video from Axel Pettersson where he shows off some cool half-swording techniques:

“You know, martial arts are useless in the age of the gun!”

Last weekend, an Australian man with no inner monologue approached me and a couple members of my HEMA club with the following statement: “You know, martial arts are useless in the age of the gun!” Which, even without the accent, would have been a weird thing to say and a weird way to say it. My instructor gave him a thumbs up in acknowledgement and we got back to what we were doing.

But, like all personal attacks I receive about things I like, it got me thinking and self analyzing. Even though I fully acknowledge that swordfighting is a fringe, archaic hobby without a ton of real-world applications, I’m only human — and humans are naturally defensive. So, I got to thinking up a rhetorical rebuttal to this man, who walks around parks and talks at people:

“No shit.”

Kind of glib, but like I said, we were in the middle of something when he interrupted. But this also raises what I think is an important point about HEMA, or any hobby or activity that isn’t strictly speaking practical. Of course we know that guns > swords. But you can’t live your life only doing what’s practical or necessary. I mean, look at people who have a shitload of guns. Is that practical? No. Chances are that if you have a gun for self-defense, you’ll never use it for that purpose. Really, carrying any kind of weapon in modern day America is impractical, so learning how to shoot is probably less practical than learning how to punch somebody with your car keys.

Still, his statement had me asking myself: why do I think HEMA is important? Do I think it’s important? After all, just because you like something does not mean you think it’s worthwhile. Plenty of us spend our time doing things we consider a complete waste: Netflix binges, commenting on YouTube videos, buying your dog a birthday card, etc.

The sword is obviously no longer an important part of our day to day lives. But it also features heavily in our contemporary culture and, for that reason, I think it still has importance.

Though the sword stopped being widely used in a military context by the early/mid-20th century (they were still used in WWII, but were in the process of being outclassed by ballistic sidearms), they are still very much alive in contemporary media. From Game of Thrones to Vikings to Kill Bill, the sword remains an appealing symbol in historical, fantastical and even modern contexts. Although the sword is effectively obsolete (I mean, they still work, but people aren’t wearing them), modern culture still places some kind of value on them. No tour of a wildly successful rap artist’s home is complete without checking out his katana collection. Today, we even put the sword on a pedestal, deifying it beyond its historical proportions. It was not the best weapon of its time, simply a fashionable and convenient sidearm. It was more akin to the pistol than the rifle. But the mythology of the sword — particularly eastern swords — has raised it to a level beyond practical application. If we have decided that the sword is still a lofty symbol in our modern culture, to the point where it features in contemporary military recruitment advertisements, then it’s important enough to learn about, if only to make the pop culture representations better.

TL;DR: Did you think some of the fighting scenes in Game of Thrones season five were kind of shitty? Then you should at least support the concept of people studying this stuff. it might make shows better.

Also, this happened last year in India, so you never know:

(Errant final point: Sometimes you don’t have a gun with you. For many of us, that’s literally all of the time. This is when martial arts might come in handy.)

Do you guys talk in funny accents and wear silly, puffy pants?

Quick post: When someone who doesn’t know what “historical fencing” is asks me a question about it, it’s usually: “Do you guys talk in funny accents and wear silly, puffy pants?” (you might remember this line from the post title).

There are a lot of different groups of people who do reenactments, Renaissance fairs, stage combat, Society for Creative Anachronism, etc. These things aren’t mutually exclusive of HEMA — a lot of people do HEMA and one or more of the other things. A lot of people do HEMA and eastern martial arts, like Jiu Jitsu or Aikido.

See? Most of us don't look this good naked. And sometimes it's cold.
See? Most of us don’t look this good naked. Also, while this guy may not be too well endowed, he’s also getting stabbed in the face, so cut him some slack.

But I think the short answer is that HEMA is not about reenactment. If you want to wear period-accurate gambesons and steel gauntlets, you can do that. But, you can also wear polyester gambesons with PVC armor and lacrosse gloves. We also wear modern fencing masks, which are not period-appropriate. Most of the techniques we study are intended for unarmored fighting, which means that all of the safety gear we’re wearing is effectively just there for practical safety purposes. We’re not really trying to emulate the fashion shown in the manuals. This is especially important to note when it comes to Renaissance fencing plates, where the figures are drawn naked.

So, if you’re trying to wrap your head around what exactly HEMA is — is it a sport? Is it for reenactors? Roleplaying? — just think about how you view the more established Eastern Martial arts. The focus is on the martial art, the techniques, the forms, the guards, economy of body movement, how to swing and thrust a weapon, how to defend against an attack, etc. It’s also about treating even a blunt fencing sword as if it was sharp. We’re basically training as if we’re preparing for a swordfight that will never actually happen (barring your various post-apocalypse fantasies, or a trip to Saudi Arabia). And, if you think that’s kind of dumb, maybe you’re right. But then so is playing any sport unless you plan on going professional. It’s OK to do something just to do it. Any reason beyond that is gravy.

The primary difference from a modern martial art like, say, Krav Maga, (aside from the fact that we’re using weapons nobody uses anymore, except for knives) is that our source material is about 600 years old and people are still figuring out what these guys meant and how to fill in the various gaps in our understanding. For those who are interested in that period of time and place, working with these manuals isn’t just a good way to learn how to use a sword (or dagger, or grappling, etc.) — it’s a way to understand how people back then thought, how they approached pedagogy, and how and why they might go through the extraordinary effort of writing and publishing works during a time where doing so was very labor intensive. Plus, you get to see their margin doodles:

Jousting competition between a rabbit riding a snail man vs. a golden retriever riding a rabbit. Pretty typical shit.
Jousting competition between a rabbit riding a snail man vs. a golden retriever riding a rabbit. Pretty typical shit.

Anyway, back to my main point: cosplaying for HEMA is like cosplaying at the opening night for a fantasy movie. You can do it if you want, but most people aren’t and it’s definitely not mandatory.

Fencing vs. sport fencing

Some, not me, but some, might say that I really blew it in that last post by not explaining the difference between fencing and sport fencing.

When most people think “fencing,” they think of Olympic fencing. Or, this:

It’s easy to dump on sport fencing and make snide little remarks about how it looks more like the members of Daft Punk playing electric tag with straightened out coat hangers than it resembles a sword fight, but we don’t do that here. Here, we think it’s still pretty cool, but it’s a very different art than fencing in the classical sense, or “historical fencing.”

Don't feel too bad for this guy -- there's a solid chance he was a Nazi. (source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)
Don’t feel too bad for this guy — there’s a solid chance he was a Nazi.
(source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)

Sport fencing is the game of tag that evolved from fencing, which, historically, meant training in martial combat, especially for defensive purposes. As sword culture came into the modern age, laws changed and stabbing someone in the street for a minor offense became less socially acceptable. Rules were introduced into fencing culture to mitigate injury and keep things civilized. This is where you get strictly regulated fencing forms like Mensur, in which two German frat boys slash at each other’s faces with sharp swords while keeping their feet planted and maintaining a fixed distance with the opponent. I should note that Mensur is not actually a sport, but rather a German pastime in which there are no winners or losers, only questionable character building and rad facial scarring.

Here’s a breakdown of the basic differences between sport and historical fencing:

  1. Emphasis on defense – Historical fencing takes into account the concept of not dying. Not dying was a big deal during the Middle Ages, especially since they didn’t really have trauma surgery or antibiotics. Sport fencing, meanwhile, is about tagging the other guy first without worrying so much about what happens after. In historical fencing, landing a hit is great, but isn’t worth much if you take a hit immediately after. You have to assume that your opponent might not “die” from their wounds until after the duel is over, meaning that as long as they are upright, in range and armed, they are still a threat. This is also why we often play through hits — i.e., the fight isn’t necessarily over after a successful hit.
  2. Lateral movement – Sport fencing is linear, so it’s a bit like it happens in a two-dimensional plane. Historical fencing does not do this. Stepping offline to avoid an attack or to open up a new line of attack is extremely important. Can’t get through your opponent’s defenses head-on? Go around to the side.
  3. The gear – Sport fencing weapons — saber, foil and epée — have evolved over time to be very different from the swords that inspired them. Historical fencing aims to find the right balance between safety and historical accuracy with its wood, synthetic or blunt steel weapons. HEMA also incorporates real swords (sharps) for test cutting and even controlled sparring. Heavier protective equipment is usually worn, particularly in a tournament setting, or when sparring at higher speed and/or with steel. This could be anything from lacrosse and motocross armor to specialized modern HEMA gear to historically accurate clothing like gambesons, mail or even full plate.
  4. Rules – Sport fencing has rules, but I don’t really know what they are. Historical fencing has no rules. You can head butt, punch, go for the groin, throw your weapon, stab your opponent with their own sword or dagger — whatever. The limits are self-imposed; think of it like a BDSM sex dungeon where the participants set their own rules based on preference and safety. The safe word is usually a labored “YIELD.”
  5. Colors – Sport fencers wear white and HEMA fencers wear black, mostly. I have no idea why, but good luck finding a HEMA fencing jacket that isn’t black.
  6. The aim of the art – Sport fencing aims to play to the rules of sport fencing. HEMA/historical fencing aims to play to history. The goal is to understand the fighting systems of whichever period in history you’re focusing on.

This isn’t all to say there is no sport in HEMA. Tournaments like Longpoint, Swordfish, IGX and more feature a spectator-sport atmosphere, rulesets and scoring systems. The important distinction to make, however, is that these tournaments are not what HEMA is all about. They are extensions of the movement, rather than its focal point. The goal is the training; the tournaments provide an outlet for this training, but they are not the end in mind at weekly practice.

Blog opener and manifesto

Ciao, everybody. There are probably a good handful of blogs out there written by HEMA experts. This isn’t one of them. I’m just an enthusiast, but I know a few things. Most importantly, I’m excited about HEMA and I want other people to be excited about it, too. It’s a lot of fun, great exercise, and you get to ruin Game of Thrones for your friends and yourself by saying stuff like, “why is Arya Stark always holding her sword with the knuckle guard ass-backwards?”

By now, you probably have a couple of questions:

1. What the hell is HEMA?tumblr_lyvnd3Vitw1rofk3wo1_500_zps12b71b68
This one’s pretty easy: HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts. It’s not a specific fighting system, but rather a catch-all for fighting systems of European origin from classical antiquity through the 19th century. It covers everything from Ancient Greek systems to how to fight with a rifle-mounted bayonet. However, the focal point seems to be late medieval and Renaissance fencing. The reason for this is fairly simple — the late middle ages produced some of the earliest surviving examples of period fighting system treatises. Many of them were written by German and Italian masters from the 14th and 15th centuries. The longsword is particularly popular in HEMA because it was the primary subject of some the earliest treatises. Unlike some of the eastern martial arts, there are no surviving masters for, say, longsword fencing. It’s a revival of a dead art that requires interpretation from texts and cross-training with later systems to fill in the gaps.

2. Who the hell are you?
I’m a 30-year-old … man? I guess? … and I started HEMA about a year ago. I caught myself wondering what real sword fighting looked like. I knew that popular media probably hadn’t been doing the topic much justice, which seemed silly, given that sword fights are often a focal point for movies on the topic. Then I remembered that it’s the 21st century, so I don’t have to wonder anything for more than a couple seconds. I found some videos on YouTube showing how people actually did it (or at least modern people making an effort to do it the right way).

After watching some videos, I had two thoughts: one was that the real way of doing it is infinitely cooler in every way than the “hit other guy’s armor with your sword until one or both of those things breaks” method that fight choreographers seem to favor. The other was that it seemed like a lot of fun.

So, fast forward a year and I’m still no HEMA expert. I think that’s the important takeaway here: I’m a hobbyist; not an archaeologist, historian or even someone with much in the way of martial arts experience. If you want someone who can provide you with first-hand knowledge of martial weapons, history, advanced technique, etc., I recommend burning through Matt Easton’s Schola Gladiatoria channel on YouTube. He gives lots of mini-lectures on weapon dynamics, archaeology and HEMA technique, among other things. Even if you’re not into HEMA, the history is very cool and he takes a practical approach to understanding why medieval people did things the way they did. Other good YouTube sources are:

  • Skallagrim – more focused on reviewing weapons, test cutting and miscellany than on HEMA technique, but he is still a large voice in the YouTube HEMA community
  • Guy Windsor – good source for drills as well as full-length seminar recordings — useful for people who have no group nearby
  • Regia Turris – an Italian group that has some well-produced videos that show specific techniques as well as full-length seminar videos. They even put it in black and white and provide English subtitles — wow! One of the relative few channels that focuses on Italian style over the currently more popular German styles of longsword fencing.
  • Jan Chodkiewicz/Fechtschule Gdansk – Don’t speak Polish? Me neither. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, because most of these videos are sparring matches. Good ones, too, I think.

So you might ask, if I know relatively little about HEMA, why am I writing a blog about it? First, I think there’s a huge amount of poor information on medieval fighting and equipment, and you don’t have to do much study to know a great deal more than your average YouTube commenter when it comes to HEMA.

Second, I feel like a lot of folks in the HEMA community, especially online, can be kind of elitist and prohibitive. Before you jump down someone’s throat for believing you can cut through steel with a katana, or that medieval swords were all dull for some reason — ask yourself: why should most people know this stuff? If someone has the energy to even make an erroneous statement, it probably means they have a higher level of interest on the topic than most. Instead of viewing their relative ignorance as an opportunity to win Internet points that don’t matter, view it as an opportunity to spread information and foster interest. Fencing is not a solitary sport — you need at least one other person to really do it. Its niche status and expensive equipment are prohibitory enough to keep most away. The goal should be to expand the HEMA population. More fencers = more fencing. Less fencers = less fencing. Ipso facto, if you like fencing, you should want there to be more fencers. Which means not treating normal people like garbage. Never forget: we’re the weird ones.

OK, that’s enough for now. Here’s a cool Fechtschule Gdansk video. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you probably won’t be that into HEMA. (Hot tip for if you don’t like AC/DC, but still want to enjoy this video: put it on mute and play another song by a band you do like.)