[Luke:] I can’t believe it. [Yoda:] That is why you fail.


I am one of the “old men” (growl) of historical European martial arts and historical reenactment, having been passed the baton by Hank Reinhardt in the mid 1980s, while he was still living in a small apartment, before he made good money with Museum Replicas and became somewhat famous. Many of the observations I enthusiastically put forth back in 1985 as a young man have still not been over-ridden or surpassed today, and are in fact often “borrowed” and used by others without permission or reference.

Back then, we had an advantage that younger folks today do not have – there was no internet, and everything cost money. When I wanted pictures of something in a museum, I had to actually go out to said museum and take the photos myself. That, of course, required both time and cash on our part, hell, even the film and photos cost money vs. digital technology today. Having to spend energy and income to go about from place to place gave one a certain level of respect for both the project and its outcome. It also gave us the opportunity for close proximity with the actual weapons and artifacts, something less likely today in view of their increased popularity (which is why “noted authorities” routinely rip off my photos without credit, permission, or reference).

We were not imitators nor were we following a fashion; we were breaking new ground. We did not, for the most, base our results on popularly available translations, but sought out academics for same. The very small group of us that was involved with these studies back then was searching for answers, real answers to questions that bothered us some, not fame; Facebook and youtube did not exist, hits and like were not counted, and we were not engaged in a popularity contest.

To give you an idea of how the community viewed historical European martial arts, in 1986 when I published a photo of myself holding a German two-hander and a Turkish sword and shield in the most popular Greek martial arts magazine, I was openly mocked by its readers.

Today, HEMA are growing in popularity around the world, as well they should be. As for me, I got lucky with my efforts several times over the years. I offered some theories on Bronze Age Mycenaean hand-to-hand combat that turned out to be accurate (Bettany Hughes, Helen of Troy). I suggested that Pammachon was something separate from pankration long before most people had even heard the word, based on simple etymology; Sofie Remijsen of Leuven University later proved that theory correct by translating an ancient papyrus. I made it clear that pankration was a combat sport and not a martial art, and, together with Nektarios, offered perhaps the most comprehensive analysis available today of its techniques, based on the ancient records: this book has been accepted as a reference by the US Army War College. I stumbled onto 19th century Pammachon much to everyone’s shock, including my own, and was stunned to find that it had been practiced in my own village and by my own family members (It was like a scene from a movie: imagine two sweaty men tearing up a stone floor in a 400 year old family farmhouse and stumbling onto a pack of photos, old letters, contracts, official documents, etc.). And all that hoplological work served to enhance my perception as a martial artist: in the face of the popularity of BJJ and the Gracies, I was one of the few people worldwide who had the backbone to openly state that the 2003 US Army combatives system, based on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, had serious tactical flaws involving its stances and the presence of bladed weapons (Guess what? I was mocked.); seven years later, the US Army, after spending millions of dollars and after 900 cases of hand to hand combat, was forced to capitulate and admit that their system had the flaws I had identified from the very beginning. So, am I so great? No. Rickson and his kin can most likely beat me up in the ring. But in the course of my life I have come to understand and learn from the lessons of history, and that is something that is not very common after all. Whole governments and nations often fail bitterly in the attempt, as we have seen, and individuals far more often.

All the above grant me a pat on the back every so often, and, together with one euro, will buy me a cup of coffee these days, since I don’t teach professionally. But these little laurels also give me the right to make a few observations, and those observations are the purpose of the rant today.

See, I’m disappointed with the HEMA community.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m very happy to see the art grow, and happier that students and students of students and friends and students of friends have contributed towards making the community blossom, and hope for a great future. I am often stunned by the observations made by the (typically) young men involved in HEMA today and, believe me, there have been many times when I have sat back and said, duh, why didn’t I think of that? Or, damn, that kid is goooooood.

But I believe we are missing the point. I don’t think the “founders” of the school would be pleased.

Let me explain. I am disgruntled for reasons of both philosophy and technique. Let’s begin with the philosophy.

We must be able to separate fact from both fantasy, and fact from wishful interpretation. It is possible, if I bend the rules, to mathematically prove that 1 plus 1 equals 2. And if I want to present history in a specific light that will be useful for my own purposes, well, it’s the easiest thing in the world, right? But is it correct? Must we not, as martial artists, insist on integrity first and foremost from ourselves, before we ask it of others?

We must do better. We deserve better. We must be grounded in fact. We must operate with complete integrity at all times, and demand it of the world around us.

I have often commented on the work done by Bowdoin professor Thomas Conlan in clarifying the world of the samurai. The myth of the Samurai is just that. The folkloric vision of the Samurai — a loyal warrior, ready to die for his cause, riding into battle with his sword — never existed.

The ideal of the samurai with which we are so familiar was born in peace. The image was created by the Samurai themselves, during the 17th century, when they felt a need to justify their own existence.

By translating 1,302 military documents, Conlan was able to re-create entire battles and gain an understanding of the life a warrior in 14th-century Japan that scholars previously lacked. The documents are narratives of battle including mentions of wounds, fatalities, and who had witnessed them.

Unlike the Europeans, the Samurai rarely used swords in battle — swords were very expensive, and were passed on to heirs as a status symbol rather than actually being deployed. Instead the samurai most often used arrows and spears (swords account for 5% of all documented wounds).

The popular image of the Samurai was created by the warriors themselves in the 17th century. Unlike 14th-century Japan, 17th-century Japan was not ravaged by war. The country labored under a centuries-long dictatorship, and, like today, in order to keep peace people willingly gave up many of their rights in service to the law. Because so many disputes in the past had been rooted in land rights, the rulers systematically broke the Samurai’s ties to the land, so even though they remained an identifiable class, they lost their land rights. In order to survive, they had to prove their worth to their overlords. To do so, they created a mythos founded on loyalty and servitude. A whole hierarchy, an entire fictitious tradition was developed in the name of the survival of a particular caste, and became so popular it entered mainstream culture as reality.

You can see that in many traditional Japanese sword schools. Most of the techniques are clearly designed for duels in a civilized environment, combat on tatami mats as it were, not for the battlefield. For the most part, they would not work on the battlefield; I have tested this hypothesis time and again, and am often hated for it (actually, to be frank, I am hated for saying so to the face of the people involved, and they being unable to prove otherwise). Which is not to say that there are not extraordinary masters and swordsmen involved with the Japanese martial arts – I am speaking as a generalization.

And so here we HEMA students are. Are we also going to chase after the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones, or are we going to actually study western martial culture and draw meaningful lessons from it that can contribute to our own future? Are we also going to invent a sub-culture for the express reason of giving our lives purpose? Please. When I want to LARP, I play airsoft, it’s more fun.

Because, you see, HEMA are actually founded in the pursuit of integrity, independence, and human dignity; this spirit of the Renaissance infused their teaching before the Renaissance actually took hold on Western society. Historical European Martial Arts have a very Zen-like spiritual foundation. You don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look at their very foundation.

Johannes Liechtenauer was a 13th or 14th century German fencing master. No direct record of his life or teachings exists, and all that we know of him comes from the writings of other masters and scholars. The only account of his life was written by the authors of the Nuremberg manuscript MS 3227a, the oldest text in the tradition, who state that “Master Liechtenauer learnt and mastered [the] Art in a thorough and rightful way, but he did not invent and put together this Art. Instead, he traveled and searched many countries with the will of learning and mastering this rightful and true Art.” Liechtenauer seems to have been alive at the time of the creation of the MS 3227a in 1389.

What is interesting to point out here is that the MS 3227a pretty much admits that Liechtenauer engaged in a reconstruction of an art that was almost lost in his own time, something that Alfred Hutton did 500 years later, an art he was trying to save and codify. He was eminently successful.

Liechtenauer was described by later masters as the “grand master” of the art, and a long poem called the Zettel (“Record”) is generally attributed to him by these masters (and many more masters and manuscripts quote some version of this poem without attribution). In short, everyone pretty much admits that Liechtenauer put the method together as a compilation of existing material that was at risk of fading away. The masters of the Society of Liechtenauer were responsible for most of the most significant fencing manuals of the 15th century, and Liechtenauer and his teachings were also the focus of the German fencing guilds that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, such as the Marxbrüder and the Veiterfechter.

Hans Döbringer, the first master of the Liechtenauer tradition, is one of four authors of a section on the sword in the MS 3227a. The rest of the manuscript is a compilation consisting of treatises on a variety of mundane and mystical topics, including metallurgy, alchemy, chemistry, magical recipes, medicine, and the martial arts. Let’s take a look at the words with which Döbringer introduces Liechtenauer’s teachings. I am going to venture my own version of the translation here, which is a compilation of several translations combined with personal interventions. I would not hesitate to wager that I understand a bit about martial arts and martial ethos, and have studied history somewhat, and so my observations are based on that understanding. I make no pretense of being a scholar of Mittelhochdeutsch (In fact, though I understand German well, no one who has heard me speak it would feel comfortable calling me a scholar of modern German. Or even a competent student thereof.).

Jung Ritter lere / got lip haben / frawen io ere /
So wechst dein ere / Uebe ritterschaft und lere /
Kunst dy dich czyret / vnd in krigen sere hofiret /
Ringens gut fesser / glefney sper swert unde messer /
Menlich bederben / unde in andern henden vorterben /
Haw dreyn vnd hort dar / rawsche hin trif ader la varn /
Das in dy weisen / hassen dy man siet preisen /
Dor auf dich zosze / alle ding haben limpf lenge vnde mosze /
Und was du trei wilt treiben / by guter vornunft saltu bleiben /
Czu ernst ader czu schimpf / habe frölichen mut / mit limpf /
So magstu achten / und mit gutem mute betrachten /
Was du salt füren / und keyn im dich rüren /
Wen guter mut mit kraft / macht eyns wedersache czagehaft /

Young knight, have love for god and honor women;
so grows your honor. Practice knightly disciplines and learn
the Art which adorns you and will glorify you in battle.
Grappling is good, yet better? Lance, spear, sword, and knife.
Make use of Manliness, which in other hands remains useless.
Strike hard towards, rush towards, hit or let go;
In this the wise hate
the man seen seeking praise.
Understand this, that all things have correct manner, length, and measure.
Whatever action you intend, maintain your good judgment.
In earnest or in play, have a cheerful heart, with decency,
So you may perceive and consider with good heart,
How you should act and move against him,
As good heart and strength
will intimidate your opponent.

These words, which commence Liechtenauer’s lessons and are thus the most important points he wanted to pass on, are staggering. “Young knight, have love for god;” Note that he mentions love for God but not a word about the Church, unlike the Code of Chivalry compiled in the 19th century by wishful thinkers. “And honor women,” he says. Unbelievable! In an age when life was cheap and women had few rights, the Master counsels young knights to honor women. And the rest of the stanza is incredible – he is basically describing the internal formation of a warrior, asking for integrity, asking for decency, asking for a good heart and strength in the face of death and war and terror. He is talking about maintaining one’s center, about limiting excess, about maintaining good judgment. Metron Ariston, as Cleobulus said in the 6th century BC. Wow.

(For all scholars, I have translated “das in dy weisen / hassen dy man siet preisen” as shown because such a translation binds with the rest of the text, as opposed to having the knight trying to curry favor from fairground masters and contest overseers and other such theories.)

The text continues by stating:

He is a brave man who fights his own weaknesses.
der ist eyn ku[e]ner man der synem gleichen tar bestan

So, how many of us follow these directives in our hearts? How many of us apply these directives to our own lives, so that we can say without falsehood that we are employing what we have learned from HEMA in society on a daily basis?

Or, how many of you are simply LARPing? Because you cannot have HEMA without these foundations, and you cannot use Liechtenauer’s name without honoring his instructions. And, if you do NOT honor his instructions, then you have no business claiming you practice historical European martial arts. Period.

Oh, I get it! YOU’RE going to park philosophy by the curb, and just do the techniques outlined in the manuals because you’re cool! Well, I’ve got something for you too, right out of the same book:

their bad parries and wide fencing they
try to look dangerous with wide and long
strikes that are slow and with these they
perform strikes that miss and create openings
in themselves.

mit dem
ho[e]bschen paryrn und weiterumefechten
als sy sich veyntlich stellen / und weite und
lange hewe dar brengen lanksam und trege/
mit deme sy sich gar sere vorhawen und zeu[e]men /
und sich auch do mite vaste blos geben

It is interesting to note that Döbringer (most likely) is already complaining (circa 1389) about the dueling use of the sword as opposed to its use on the actual battlefield. What he is complaining about, and what is already problematic for him, is the fact that use of the sword in formation is rapidly being forgotten in his own era. The reason modern fencing is executed on a strip and not in a circle, for example, is that in battlefield formation there is no circle – a warrior has little room to move around in, and if you swing a sword around widely, you are most likely to cut off body parts from your own brothers in arms. You can only move forward, back, or up and down, or swivel around your own centerline. If you read Döbringer’s text and understand this particular limitation, then his words become crystal clear.

Argh, but, but, but, sputter! There is no but. I’ll give you another tweak: Döbringer never mentions the longsword. He refers to the sword in general. He refers to the Method of swordsmanship. The longsword is a unique weapon that only saw historic use for circa two centuries, plus or minus. It had deliberate tactical advantages and disadvantages and was found to be “cool” as a dueling weapon, which is why later masters concentrated so much on its use. But in the line, it was primarily a stabbing rather than cutting tool, and a shield and single-hander were much better: if this were not the case, you would have seen long swords developed and used before they surfaced historically (Although admittedly, the development of the blast furnace in Europe in the 13th century, allowing for better quality steel, probably had something to do with the longsword’s appearance).

(Outraged longsword dude gets up into my face frothing at the mouth, spittle dribbling from his lips and spattering everywhere) Oh yeah? Oh YEAH? Can you prove that, Dervenis?

Sure. Because the MS 3227a also refers to fencing with the long knife (messer, falchion, take your pick). And it says:

Because the sword was designed based on the knife, anyone who wants to learn fencing with the long knife should know that the foundation and principles that belong to the sword also belong to the knife.

Wer do mit dem langen messer wil fechten lernen / wen aus dem lãgen messer / ist / das swert genomen vnd funden / Der sal von ersten / merken vnd wisse~ das daz fundame~t vnd dy pñcipia / dy do gehoren czu~ sw°te / dy gehoren auch czum messer /

Ever try to use a knife like a two-handed longsword? Bit of an issue.

Let me clarify things more. When Döbringer says:

Movement [Motus], note that word well, it is to the fencing
a heart and a crown, it is the very matter
of fencing.

Motus das worte schone / ist des fechtens
eyn hort und krone / der gancze materiaz
des fechtens

he is not referring to hopping around like a bunny rabbit! We martial artists often judge each other by how well we move – the modern word for it is kinesiology. I often use kinesiology professionally to tell if someone is lying, for example. How efficiently, how fluently, how little effort one uses, this is the key to Motus, not moving back and forth and around like a boxer in a ring! Imagine being laden with armor, marching out into the dust in a hot sun, pissing and shitting in your britches, your brothers to your left and right and at your back, dust everywhere, the foe in front of you, intent on killing you, arrows flying, and then hopping around like a boxer in the ring with his trainer in the corner! What nonsense! Motus refers to the motion of the spine and torso, how well you move your hips, your efficiency of motion (allowing for reserves of energy), how well you align the blade, how well you discern and take advantage of openings, how you make use of the opponent’s weaknesses to effortlessly take him down.

So. You have your homework cut out for you, then. Forget about LARPing. Study the source, the original source, and try to track down what the fuss is about.

Then we can talk. Because the world needs martial discipline, since manipulation has been identified as violence per the World Health Organization, and there is a whole bunch of that going around. Determined individuals are required by society, if we are to survive.

The rest? It’s just LARPing. Lightning bolt anyone?