Why using national labels for HEMA styles is not only artificial, but sometimes unhelpful.

It’s quite common to come across people in the historical combat community refering to masters or teachings by nationality. I do it myself sometimes, as it can be a convenient shorthand, such as when I refer to Fiore as our primary medieval ‘Italian’ source, or to the many ‘German’ masters who align themselves with the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer.

However, I also see these designations frequently used in ways that, in my view, are at best artificial, and at worst just plain inaccurate and unhelpful. Such cases are when I hear fellow practitioners refer to the techniques of a given master (or group of masters) as representing a ‘German’ or ‘English’ style of combat or, worse, proclaiming the superiority of one nationally-termed style over another.

I realise it’s sort of inevitable. We’re tribal apes at our core, and we love to cheer for our chosen team and engage in rivalries with others. But I’d like to take a bit of time now to discuss three main reasons why, tempting as the impulse might be, we would do well to set aside these national designations (or at least those uses that I’ve highlighted above).

1. The Masters didn’t recognise national styles

‘I learned these skills from many German and Italian masters and their senior students, in many provinces and many cities…’

Fiore dei Liberi, ‘Fior di Battaglia’. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 13 fol. 1r. Translation courtesy of Wiktenauer.

‘Not that [Liechtenauer] invented and conceived it himself…rather he had travelled through many lands. And through that sought the legitimate and truthful art for the sake that he would experience and know it.’

Anonymous, ‘Pol Hausbuch’. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, MS 3227a fol.13v.  Translation courtesy of Wiktenauer.

These passages suggest that two of the figures regarded today as luminaries of medieval European martial arts would have been perplexed by their teachings being regarded as quintessentially German or Italian. The styles of both appear to have been distilled from years of training with a variety of masters across Christendom. Neither would have likely counted themselves as members of even a particular lineage of martial arts practice, let alone one from a particular nation.

Furthermore, although we can separate treatises by the languages in which they are written, even then attributing a corresponding ‘nationality’ is artificial given the era we’re concerned with. Although there were certainly shared cultural traits beyond language alone, Germany and Italy did not exist as unified states at the time, and indeed would not for centuries. It can’t be overlooked that Fiore, while culturally and linguistically ’Italian’, hailed from a region under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire. So it’s all a bit muddy.

Better to settle for identifying the teachings in these and other treatises by the masters to which they are attributed. But, as we’ll see, even this can be taken so far.

2. The data doesn’t support it.

For my PhD thesis (which will eventually be coming out in book form, so stay tuned), I examined hundreds of surviving late medieval weapons and thousands of depictions of combat in late medieval art. These sources included specimens from across Europe (focusing on the Northern, Central, and Western regions).

When I divided up these arms and works of art by region of origin to see if doing so would indicate any difference in technique between different locations, the results were plain: there were no noticeable differences in patterns of damage on weapons nor in depictions of combat which would suggest any variation in style across these areas of Europe. The patterns of damage on arms were no different: the same sorts of notches and wear showed up in the same locations (yes, often on both sides of the blades) across those identified as having originated in varying regions throughout Europe. In the artwork, the same general positions and targets for attack were depicted across the full range of media examined, and across all of the regions of origin being examined.

But surely, you may argue, weapons could have been made in one place and used somewhere very different. Furthermore, medieval art should be taken with a rather large punch of salt, as we all know.

The first point I will grant. However, although I’m unable (much to my frustration) to give too much away at this point, my forthcoming book will show that the latter statement is a lot less true than we think (and you can see me discussing some of my findings in my earlier videos on battle damaged arms & armour and combat depictions in medieval art). There is considerable overlap between techniques depicted in artwork and in the fencing treatises, even for some of the more specialised moves. Medieval art is far better at depicting what appears to be accurate combat techniques than we often give it credit for.

When examining the treatises themselves, to be sure, some contain techniques or principles which are unique. Fiore does not include the notion of ‘Master Strokes’, and conversely none of the treatises in the ‘Liechtenauer Tradition’ feature elaborate sequences of Russian doll-style masters, counters, counters to counters etc.. Each have their own distinctive bits.

However, these differences are minor compared to the overall patterns of techniques described in the treatises when examined all together. Document all the techniques and apply some statistical analysis (Note: I performed this exceedingly long and boring exercise so that you, dear readers, will be spared having to do so, plus I was being paid to do it at the time) and we discover that there are more common features than those which set them apart. The fundamental core of their systems are essentially the same.

3. We have too little material to afford the luxury of being too choosy.

My final point for this argument is more philosophical than concrete and evidence-based. It is this: that limiting ourselves to studying a single style ultimately places us at a disadvantage both as scholars and as fighters.

If we are truly trying to practice a martial art drawn from the surviving fencing treatises, we don’t have nearly enough material to work with for us to have the luxury of excluding anything outright. There are around forty surviving sources dating before 1500 for us to work with. Furthermore, some of them are derivative works or copies, and others still are not clear enough to be of much use to us. So the pool of sources we have to paddle around in is pretty shallow.

Limit yourself to ‘German’ sources and you deprive yourself of the very clever insights and teaching structure of Fiore. Limit yourself to ‘Italian’ sources and your pool of texts is reduced from forty to four. Either way you’re missing out on something.

Suppose there were in fact differences between the martial practices in, say, culturally German and culturally Italian areas, even if they’re not apparent to us today from the surviving evidence. As modern scholar-practitioners, the only reasons for us wanting to restrict ourselves to one or another region’s style are either academic or for a living history impression (and even this last reason is perhaps stretching a bit since we have contrary testimony from two actual medieval masters).

As fighters, we should welcome exposure to any techniques which come our way. To artificially restrict ourselves to a single style can create blind spots in the shape of the styles we have chosen to ignore. The MMA phenomenon, where those fighters who diversified gained clear edges over single-style competitors, is a powerful lesson in this principle from our own time.

There is, of course, no problem with having a favourite master or treatise, or even with arguing that one is somehow superior to others. But if you prefer to focus on Fiore, for example, I hope you make a point of exploring and understanding, say, Talhoffer and I.33 even if they don’t factor heavily into your practice.

But most importantly, I think we can dispense with statements like ‘I only study Italian fencing’ and ‘the German style is better than the others out there’ and not be at a loss for anything. With a thriving global tournament circuit and countless modern schools and teachings, we have plenty of banners to flock to and cheer for without creating one’s that would not have been recognised by our forebears-in-arms.

The Four Cardinal Virtues: Guideposts for War and Peace

In an earlier article I touched upon the importance of martial artists committing themselves to some sort of ethical framework by which their potentially dangerous skills could be harmoniously integrated into society. 

History has given us a wide variety of warrior codes and martial ethics from a great many times and cultures. But although there are elements of these that are useful and insightful for us today, they are generally products of their time and place of origin of which much—the maintenance of rigid class divisions, the use of violence to preserve personal ‘honour’, or unquestioning loyalty to one’s ‘superiors’ even unto death, for example—is less relevant to us today. 

For myself, I have found that another set of guiding principles exists which is both of considerable age yet timeless enough to speak to us now. While not specifically martial, they have proven very useful in managing martial ability—the capacity for trained violence—both in times of peace and war. Furthermore, these qualities have shown themselves to possess both strategic and tactical applications, giving us not only a means of approaching daily life, but also a set of tools to effectively deploy our training in combat. 

I am referring to the four qualities known in the West as the Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice

Continue reading “The Four Cardinal Virtues: Guideposts for War and Peace”

How sword training can teach us mindfulness, mastery, and self realisation

It’s not uncommon for me to respond to the question ‘So what do you do?’ by saying that I’m a swordsman. While this is partly for a bit of fun, to a greater extent it’s reasonably accurate. Starting at 15 performing fight shows at Renaissance Festivals, then studying the techniques preserved in treatises written by early fencing masters while caring for Britain’s national collection of arms and armour at the Tower of London and later receiving a PhD in medieval European martial arts, for me the sword has gone well beyond a mere passion or an academic pursuit.

Yet my pursuit of swordsmanship has also become more than just learning a lot about swords and how to use them well. Over the years, it has become an all-encompassing guide, a ‘Way’ as the Chinese or Japanese would say. For if we study it closely, the sword has a lot to teach us about life and how to live it.

Continue reading “How sword training can teach us mindfulness, mastery, and self realisation”

The School of Mars is now on Patreon!

I will now be sharing my research and teaching on Patreon to help support my ability to continue to do this important work and share it with the community.

While most of my videos and articles will be publicly available, certain tiers of patronage will give you access to these earlier than general release. Other tiers will provide access to instructional videos covering the core teachings of the School of Mars curriculum, private discussion groups, and also one-on-one lessons via Skype.

You can visit my Patreon page here.

New lecture videos to be released, and a new musical alliance.

Several bits of exciting news!

First off, since I know that a lot of people are sitting at home looking for ways to keep entertained, I’ve decided to do my bit.

Over the coming weeks and months, I am dusting off about a decade’s worth of lectures and presentations I’ve done, recording them, and sharing them for all to see. There’s quite a lot of ground covered, ranging from basic introductions to some more in-depth scholarly stuff. So hopefully it’ll be useful to everyone. Stay tuned for releases!

Second, I have received the blessing of one of Britain’s renowned medieval ensembles, Misericordia, to use one of their songs for the opening and closing of my videos. Their arrangements of medieval music are mesmerising, and I can’t wait to make one of my favourite songs of theirs part of the forthcoming videos. You can learn more about them and hear some of their music by visiting https://misericordia1.bandcamp.com/releases

Hope all is well with you and yours. Speak again soon!