“Ey fåår Fächtare Krantz förn ändas Manlige Strijden.
The Fighter shall not receive the wreath until the manly battle is ended (according to the rules).”
-2 Tim 2:5.
I sincerely consider tournament fighting to be vital to our efforts in recreating the historical European martial arts, but I also believe that tournaments can be quite damaging to the fencing and HEMA when done incorrectly, too early and for the wrong reasons.
This is a controversial topic, as the tournaments are very popular, but this is not an attack on individual fighters or tournament organizers. We are all to varying degrees guilty of the sins described below, including me, and not just with regards to tournaments but also when sparring, and I would like to ask you dear reader to take your time and seriously consider how our shared hopes of recreating the Historical European Martial Arts are affected in various ways by how we approach the tournaments.
Four years in training with the longsword I still don’t consider myself good enough for tournament fighting. To me it is simple: Would I feel ready to do it the “old way”, with almost no protection? Do I feel confident that I can fence well enough to keep my hands safe without gloves, even against a “friendly” opponent? Such questions I think should guide us, even if I also believe we can and should use the advantages we have today, with protective gear and so on.
Now, this essay is a massive read and I realise it might be tough for many to sift through, so if you are eager to get to the core of things, then you can skip directly to the postulates at the bottom. Those will explain things shortly and contain the actual suggestions. For the rest of you, here goes:
The fencing was truly considered an Art by our predecessors, and later a “science”, and was therefore also done in an artful manner. In training, as opposed to actual life-and-death fighting, it was not all about “killing” your opponent, but rather about defeating him by showing better skill using supreme control.
The fencers also appear to have felt a strong sense of pride of their understanding of the Art and this shines through in the fechtbuchen and the poems from the fechtschulen. This pride, I suggest, was a core component of all fighting that was further strengthened by the regulations of the fencing guilds and the fechtschulen. The main reason behind this pride of the art is that it simply was knowledge as a weapon. Knowledge that came from education and generations of gathered experience and which armed you against stronger opponents or outnumbered scenarios. In the words of the anonymous writer of Hs.3227a:
“That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?
– – –
Also know and note that when he [Liechtenauer] says that you should show art, then he intends that the artful fencer should place his left foot forward and strike with it from the right side straight at the man with true strikes…”-Anonymous, Hs.3227a, 1389AD
Or in Joachim Meyer’s words from 1570:
“Now combat with the sword is in essence a practice in which two opponents strive against each other with the sword with the intent that one will outmaneuver and overcome the other with intelligence and nimbleness, artfully, finely, and manfully, with cuts and other handwork; so that if it were necessary in earnest cases, through such practice one may be more quick and skillful, and more judicious for the protection of his body”-Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens, 2.50R
The “artful” fighting was still quite brutal and the techniques were very effective, only rarely being more “flowery” like e.g. the Drey Häuwe in Hs.3227. In fact the actual killing techniques were the Art. There is no distinction between the two.
The context in which these techniques were trained changed with time, mainly, and of course quite a bit simplified, from one-on-one training with a hired burgher fencing master teaching a noble, to regular “schools” with the fencing guilds which taught burghers and nobles alike. The training became more regular and formalised as it became more or less institutionalised in the cities.
How they were taught, however, likely changed very little. Even the early masters could not have their students thrust each other in the face, so the thrusts were likely used for threatening and provoking, just like Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer generally does in 1570. And in the fechtschulen of the late 1400s they were, as it seems, forbidden.
The spirit of these fencing guilds quite obviously included a strong sense of competetiveness and pride in their guild where taunting the opposing guild and their fencers, on verse no less, was part of the ritual of the fechtschulen. This competetiveness even caused the training to change, as the new fencing guild of the Freyfechtere sought to reintroduce the dangerous thrusting for the fechtschulen, which the older fencing guild of the Marxbrüdere did not allow and frowned greatly upon. In fact, even the German mercenaries, the Landsknechten, are said to not have thrusted with their swords on the battlefield in at least two separate sources.
There are many misconceptions about the fechtschule fencing and the martial arts. The biggest misconception being that the fencing changed dramatically and became soft and was done just for “sport”. This is quite ignorant as the longswords and the bidenhänder were used well into the middle of the 1600s. True, other weapons became more common as sidearms, which the longsword always was on the battlefield even in the Middle Ages , but the larger longswords also came to serve as a special function, protecting the banners, the dignitaries and the cannon positions. It was in a sense similar to being a machine gunner or a sniper. A specialized function which required great skill and training.
This is also why even the fechtschule fighting was deeply rooted in the Liechtenauer Zettel and had direct links to real combat and warfare. Furthermore, even for “sport” you fought until first blood, the blutigkusse (the bloody kiss) or rote plume (red flower), and won the fights by causing your opponent to bleed the highest. And still, fighting with proper skill and education appears to have been highly praised. It was something that was considered knightly and noble, something all men should aspire to.
Another closely related and common misconception is that in the early fencing traditions the fencing art is thought to have been practiced in a more martial manner, but even in the early masters’ time, with Talhoffer, Ringeck and Kal, the students wouldn’t have thrusted into each other’s faces or cut to the hands in Blossfechten… They would have practiced very similarly to how it was done later in the Renaissance, as touched upon earlier.
Quite the contrary to popular belief, I think it is quite possible that the development of the fechtschulen actually meant more risk of potential harm. They were strictly controlled, but also quite brutal affairs, as we all know, with a highly competetive spirit.
Just imagine the amount of skill and control needed to fight reasonably safely both for you and your opponent, when you were forbidden to strike to the hands or thrust into the face,while you still won by cutting to the opponent’s head with a butter-knife-sharp sword and you relied on using the Versetzen which tend to expose your hands as you counter-strike. Add to that the easy killing-power of the staves and the halberds and it is easy to see how well-controlled and trained these men had to be.
So, the sport, although it is a bad word for it, has always been there, right alongside of the martial art. It was how you trained and prepared for the actual combat. Consequently, arguing against the sport and complaining about limitations in what we are allowed to do in tournaments, ie “sportification”, is to argue against history. This misconception I think, about the early fencing being more “martial” than the later and particularly that of the guilds and the fechtschulen, also transfers into how some modern HEMA-fencers instinctively fear tournaments as the destroyer of the Art. As such I think it is the root of the fear of the dreaded “sportification”. However, talking against the sport is in fact bad for the modern Art too, as the Art has always relied on competing and it is no different for us today.
In my humble opinion, our modern tournaments much more reflect the fechtschulen than the judicial duelling or battlefield combat and we should seriously consider what consequences that should have to how we approach the tournaments. For example, in the Renaissance the fencing guilds had strict policies about behaving in an honourable manner at all times. And just as today there were defined rules for how you were supposed to behave and act both in the halls and when fighting. Quite importantly, this included letting go of your ego and not losing your temper or fight in anger or with true hostility or animosity. Such things belonged to the brawlers in the taverns.
To encourage good fighting the prizes in the Renaissance fechtschulen were of two types: either money or a symbolical olive wreath. The wreaths were a reference to the ancient Greeks and the olive wreaths, the kotinos, awarded to the olympic victors.
Such wreaths were awarded to men who fought honourably, thus referring back to a story from Ancient Greece, where Herodotus describes how Xerxes asks some Arcadians, after the Battle of Thermopyle, why there were so few men defending the city and and he is given the reply that they were “all participating in the Olympic Games“. When Xerxes asks about the prize they all compete for and he is told that it is an olive wreath then one of his generals, says:
“Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight – men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor!”- Herodotus, Histories , 8.26.3
This story would most certainly have been familiar to many of the educated burghers of the Renaissance and to the fencers, the olive wreath was considered a great honour. Those awarded with it would proudly display it on their front doors for all the burghers to see. Obviously, the wreath-awarded fencers were very highly regarded by the fencers and the fencing masters who generally praised traditions and adhering to the masters of old.
To this we also have the Renaissance faiblesse for the ancient Greeks and the Romans, and the common celebration of chivalric ideals. Joachim Meyer writes quite explicitly about how we should behave.
“Observe,if you will learn to fight artfully, you should attend to these verses with diligence. A combatant shall conduct himself properly, not be a boaster, garner, or toper, and also not swear or blaspheme, and shall not be ashamed to learn. Godfearing, modest, also calm, especially on the day when he shall fight; be temperate, show honor to the old, and also to womenfolk.
Attend furthermore: all virtue, honor, and manliness, you shall cultivate at all times, so that you can serve with honor emperor, king, prince, and lord, and also be useful to the fatherland, and not a disgrace to your native country.
– – –
Therefore I hope that even if my writing is little heeded by some, yet many honest fellows and young fighters will come forth and… seek to thoroughly understand this art, and to learn to apply a true honorable earnestness, to purge themselves of useless peasants’ brawling, and to be diligent in all manliness, discipline, and breeding, so that when they have truly and fully learnt this art, and lead an honorable life, then they may be thought able to direct others, and particularly the youth, and thereby to be of service.”-Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Adeligen und Ritterlichen Kunst des Fechtens, 1570 (transl. by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng).
Christoff Rösner tells us the following:
“And you should not mock anyone else at all, In exercise, it is forbidden. And you should not beat anyone bloody who is just beginning to fence.”-Rösner, Der Ritterlichen Freyen Kunst der Fechter, 1589AD.
Hanko Döbringer, finally tells us the following:
“Practice your art by necessity, honestly and never in foolish vanity. Then you will always remain a good and true man, a true swordsman. For thus is the art of the sword thought out, that you should practice truly in a spirit of chivalry.”- Hanko Döbringer, Hs.3227a, 1389AD
Now, I am not suggesting this is something we need to bring back in full. But, we do need to keep in mind the importance of how the members of the fencing guilds were expected to act with honour at all times and let that guide us. I would even claim that it is crucial for us to do so, if we hope to ever understand how we should learn to use the techniques properly, with all the nuances and subtleties involved.
Today, however, I fear some fighters let their egos drive them to strive for simple recognition through just winning fights, no matter how. Note though that I am not actually speaking against fighters who primarily fight, with great skill, for the purpose of winning tournaments, just those who seek to win fights by any means necessary.
This is important, because if we are not careful winning and scoring “hits” can very easily become more important than showing actual skill and good training. Winning tournaments in itself then becomes the actual definition of skill. This is why we already have some fencers, and even a rare few instructors intentionally “gaming” rules, even going so far as to advise students on how to do this. It is not an overly common problem, but it is an issue that I believe affects us all in a very negative way. This is a very different mindset to that of those fencers of old that we seek to learn from and a completely different sense of pride that is very dangerous to what we try to do, because it actually works in the artificial context of many of our current tournaments. And if we don’t raise an awareness about this and make such behaviour shameful, then it can potentially ruin the good things that come out of tournaments.
Furthermore, I believe that the fact that our predecessors used little to no protection changes things completely compared to what we do today and although we might come closer to the “sharp” version of the fencing as the protection allows for harder fighting, we might at the same time step away from the Art they strived for and were deeply proud of. This is a direct effect of us losing proper respect for the weapons, being equipped with better and better protective gear.
This lessens the art and as a result we rarely see fencers who use the proper historical “delicate” grippings of the hilts, good footwork or proper weight shifting. In a sense we are all “buffaloes” and would likely have been regarded as such if we had stepped into a Renaissance fencing hall as we fight with little finesse and subtlety, instead often relying on force and speed, taking risks we never would have taken had we fought with bare heads and hands.
The issue of double kills also likely relates to our lesser concern for our own safety. Lots of nuances are lost as we go at it hard with lots of protection (and often “quicker”, shorter and lighter swords) and that seems to increase in the tournaments right now, with some rare but good exceptions.
However, we also of course need to use our protective gear as it gives us distinct advantages too, in getting nearer the martial art, since it allows for a higher degree of force and risk-taking. It is, if you excuse the pun, a double-edged sword… We just need to learn to fence as if we had none, and stay away from relying on it.
At heart modern HEMA is anarchistic and anti-hierarchical coming from the underground as a reaction to the much more formal Asian martial arts and the very sportified sports fencing. This can sometimes lead to a dangerous playfulness and lack of respect for what we are actually doing. Due to this friendly anything-goes attitude we often feel that everyone must be welcome to fight, no matter how little trained they are or what they actually know about HEMA. So we let anyone fight with the dussacken or the longsword, because it is so damn fun.
This is quite different to how it was done traditionally in the fechtschulen, where there was a very strong sense of hierarchy and a certain degree of core skills were required and had to be displayed before being accepted into a fencing guild. Traditionally, the prospect guild fencers were given an intensive course for six weeks in the techniques, but keep in mind that these fencers were no beginners. They already knew quite well to handle the more common weapons. After this course, you were allowed to play for your “prize”, but only if the fencing master thought you were ready at the end of the training. Only then would you become a member of the guild.
Furthermore, the rules of the fencing guilds meant you were fined for handling weapons you hadn’t “sworn” for. You simply weren’t allowed to use what you weren’t trained for. If you have ever trained quarterstaff fencing you will realize just what degree of skill our predecessors possessed, simply due to how easily you can cause permanent injury or kill with such powerful weapons, and yet that was uncommon in the fechtschulen.
Such a degree of control was needed since they wore little or no protection, and not having the basics down so you could protect yourself and hit the opponent in a “safe” way would lead to people getting injured for life with severe consequences for the fighters and their families.
Unfortunately, when this current lack of training in the specific tournament weapons is combined with the very strong ambition to win and gain competition merits that some fighters appear to be driven by today, we end up with tournaments where a number of fighters really have no idea of what they are actually doing or just focus more on landing points than actually fencing well, with a few even exploiting a rule system which does not differentiate between light non-dangerous cuts and theoretically lethal cuts. This is problematic since it inevitably mutates the art, which we can see already.
And from a profile perspective all this creates an image that to the outsider conveys something which has little relation to what we actually claim to study, with longsword fencers standing more or less still in the guards of eisenport or langort “tactically” fishing for quick hits to the arms.
In a sense it is still a kid’s playground, where us kids fight it out thinking we look like grown-ups. It is high time we grow up and really take what we do seriously and show proper respect for what we claim to be doing.
So why at all engage in tournaments?
Well above all, they make the fighting arts come alive. Sparring is great and so is free fencing, but the tournaments add another layer of pressure on you as you are pitted against fencers you have never met. It is a reality check where we can potentially waterproof our skills and interpretations against different styles, schools and traditions.
Furthermore, the tournaments have pretty much always gone hand in hand with training for combat. It is a natural part of martial arts and the surrounding culture, where you put yourself to the test and see if the core of what you have learned works against an uncooperative opponent.
It is also great fun and helps HEMA grow as it is exciting and draws lots of attention from people who haven’t seen HEMA before.
AND, when done right, it is truly the best display of fighting we can see. No sparring, no free fencing or technique training comes close to it. At this stage it is still quite rare, but it does happen, like in this amazing fight between Axel Pettersson and Carl Ryrberg:
And this beautiful clip with the lightning-fast Anton Kohutovic:
How do we handle this?
It has been suggested that these issues will weed themselves out as the quality of the fencers improve with time and once the tournaments are more regulated with proper divisions this will be less of a problem. Another solution proposed is that we should let the trainers and club leaders chose which of their students that shall be allowed to enter the tournaments. Both are reasonable suggestions.
But, although I think these two suggestions will help the situation I am still skeptical as there will always be a number of individuals who will exploit any system no matter how well designed. So consequently, I believe that these things are simply very hard to regulate through rule systems. And while I do agree that we need them I would also suggest we need to shape a certain HEMA culture were we expect everyone to take pride in displaying artful fighting, meaning proper technical fighting as taught by the masters, as best they can, even in a sportive context.
For this I have defined a number of postulates that I think should guide us all, both practitioners and tournament organisers.
1. DON’T ENTER A TOURNAMENT WITHOUT AT LEAST BASIC TRAINING IN THE SPECIFIC WEAPON.
-This should be a matter of pride for the fighter and his/her school and the trainers and club leaders should discourage their students from entering tournaments with weapons or styles they are not trained enough in and should definitely set a good example by refraining from doing so themselves.
We see this now and again, with people who don’t really take the tournaments seriously enough, as it is just “for sport” and they can either relax as there is little expectations on them or since they can just show some general good “fighting skill” that they apply to anything without having studied it. The serious issues involved here are described more below.
2. STICK TO THE SOURCES!
- We are practicing HISTORICAL European Martial Arts here, so this should be a self-given. Making up your own techniques might work for you in this artificial context, especially as it will confuse those who are unfamiliar with your style, while you are used to fighting people who work from a specific system, but it is not realistic as historically people generally fought people with similar training or at least systems they to a degree were familliar with. Fair enough if you are trained in contemporary Turkish scimitar, but you get the idea…
Unfortunately, this is what we see a LOT of in the current dussack tournaments. Few actually study sources like Paurnfeindt, Mair, Meyer and Sutor.
3. DON’T MIX PERIODS!
- All techniques and styles come from a historical context. If we create too artificial contexts then we run a very real risk of missing our goals in recreating these Arts by instead creating modern swordfighting styles that have only vague ties to the roots from which they stem.
So, stepping into e.g. a sabre tournament without other experience than the dussack or messer should really be considered as wrong as stepping into a judo tournament coming from Greco-Roman wrestling or kung-fu. Sure, your style might work and quite well at that, especially if you are very skilled and experienced in what you do, but this is not about Viking vs Samurai. It is Historical European Fighting Arts.
Some leniency is of course required as it would be too complex and impractical to try to separate e.g. Wallerstein fencers from Meyer fencers. But again, you get the idea.
4. NO FANTASY FIGHTING!
- Fighting with weapons or weapon combos that are not found in the treatises should be absolutely banned for the same reasons as self-invented fighting styles. It is not based on actual sources and it can potentially give you an unfair advantage as your opponent is not used to fighting someone like you, but you are familiar with their correct “traditional” style. Exploiting their confusion is not honourable or realistic. So no dual wielding of arming swords etc… Otherwise we are no different to the SCA. We just wear more stylish outfits.
5. STICK TO THE SYSTEM!
- Using rapier techniques for the longsword might again work to your advantage, but it is anachronistic. HEMA is supposed to take pride in historical correctness and exploiting things in an anachronistic way belongs to the SCA or LARPing. So don’t grab a longsword and use your great skill in rapier fencing in a longsword tournament.
Of course you have to be allowed to develop your own style. Even Meyer states that “as everyone is different, everyone fights differently“. BUT, at the same time the fencers of old felt pride in having understood Liechtenauer’s or the other master’s teachings and only added to it. They didn’t completely change it.
Here is where we need to show pride and not just fight hard but also well, through a display of good understanding of historical fencing.
6. LET GO OF YOUR EGO!
- This is at the core of everything. Winning or placing yourself well in tournaments through gaming the rules or sniping light hits impresses no one and such winnings are hollow. It is fluff and of no real value and only damages our shared efforts in trying to recreate the fighting arts. Instead feel proud of being able to display your proper understanding of the Arts and work towards that goal.
Do not rush to fighting, but instead focus on fighting correctly first. This is not in conflict with training or fighting hard.
7. DON’T RELY ON YOUR PROTECTIVE GEAR TO KEEP YOU OR YOUR OPPONENT SAFE.
- Your skill, knowledge, training, control and your weapon is what should keep you safe in all exchanges. Likewise this is what should keep your opponent safe.
Learn to fight as if you didn’t wear any of your gear and maybe one day, if you train hard, you will be good enough to fight without it, just like the fencers of old did.
8. A WREATH FOR MOST HONOURABLE FIGHTING.
- This is basically for the event organisers but a quite important suggestion: Let special judges follow all matches and decide which fighter displays the best technical skill for their specific system and award it with a traditional Olive Wreath. Make this the top prize, the most celebrated and prestigious award, something which all fighters would die for.
Of course, if you won both this, and the actual tournament then you would be uber-cool…
However, as an organizer don’t mix that up with awarding people for generally good swordsmanship and taking part in all tournaments of an event. It is not about fighting spirit, but about taking our predecessors and their teachings seriously.
Remember, we are not just doing all this for the love of fighting, but also to try to recreate what is lost, the truly unique European martial arts traditions, with the same sense of honour and pride of the Art as our predecessors felt.
To be able to do so, we must adhere quite strictly to what they taught and preached which will likely take lots of time, decades even. But it is the only way we can make these arts truly come alive again.
The thoughts expressed in this article are my personal thoughts and do not necessarily represent those of other members of the Gothenburg Historical Fencing School, HEMAC or the opinions of all those who contribute to the HROARR site.