Does HEMA have a place in historical re-enactment?

Keith Farrell
Keith practising armoured combat in the snow. Photo by Reinis Rinka, 2012.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 12th August 2011. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

I used to be involved with a historical re-enactment group before I began to practise HEMA. More recently, I have taught workshops and seminars on the subject of swordfighting for an audience, sometimes with re-enactors in attendance, and sometimes exclusively for re-enactment groups.

In my opinion, both HEMA fencers and historical re-enactors are trying to do a similar thing, but with quite a different perspective: re-enactors are usually trying to recreate the look and outfits of the time, whereas HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting methods of the time. This leads to inevitable compromises: to recreate the look as authentically as possible, re-enactors cannot wear modern protective equipment such as fencing masks, and therefore must change how they fight for reasons of safety; HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting as authentically as possible, meaning that the look and clothing are often sacrificed in favour of modern protective gear such as fencing masks.

With these major differences, does HEMA have a place in historical battle re-enactment? This is a contentious issue with various different schools of thought. Opinions are often entrenched and debates can become passionate, and so my intention is to take a neutral point of view and discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of the different points of view.

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Making Mutieren work in sparring

The "Mutieren" technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.
The “Mutieren” technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 13th January 2017. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

Following on from my article about how to make techniques work in sparring, I would like to present a case study from my own training. Over a period of two or three months, I began to have more success at applying the Mutieren during sparring with the longsword.

If you are unfamiliar with this technique, it is somewhat similar to the croisé in classical and modern fencing; converting an attack to an upper opening downward to thrust into the lower openings, maintaining blade contact with the opponent’s sword for greater safety.[1] With the longsword, because it is so easy for the opponent to lever his sword around to make another strike, it can be quite daunting to try to attempt this technique, and it is often a technique that many longsword fencers struggle to perform.

This is the process through which I have learned to apply the technique more successfully in sparring.

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Learning to apply difficult techniques in sparring

The "Mutieren" technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.
The “Mutieren” technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th January 2017. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

One of the common problems faced by many practitioners of historical fencing is that while we know and have learned many cool techniques from our source materials, we may not be able to apply these difficult techniques in the heat of sparring. How can we work towards being able to apply all of our techniques at will, even when under pressure? It requires a little bit of thought and effort, and perhaps you need to change your typical sparring and training habits.

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Review of the Superior Fencing forearm & padded elbow guards

The Superior Fencing forearm guards and padded elbow protectors. Image from the Superior Fencing website.

I recently had the opportunity to test and review the Superior Fencing forearm and padded elbow guards. They are very protective, and are not as bulky as some other forearm guards, although the standard size is perhaps a little too large for smaller people.

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Good fencing, bad fencing, and incorrect fencing

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Roland and James performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 20th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

Can good fencing ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?

Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.

This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.

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Learning how to learn from play

Daria Izdebska and Keith Farrell fencing with the longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

In martial arts, broadly speaking, there are two types of training exercise: those where you have a specific goal to accomplish, and those where you do not.

It is my belief that exercises without a specific and achievable goal are only useful for experienced practitioners who have already learned how to learn from play. For beginners who have not yet learned this skill, all exercises must have a well-defined goal to strive towards.

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Some thoughts about the afterblow

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Alex and James performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 14th October 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

The afterblow is still sometimes a contentious issue in the HEMA community, depending on the person or people with whom you speak. I used to disapprove of the concept myself, but over the last several years, I have recognised it to be a valuable training method with genuinely important outcomes. I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the matter.

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Using lighter swords in training

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Ben and Marc performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 25th March 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

I often hear the advice that you should train with a heavier sword, in order to improve your strength, balance, coordination, stamina, whatever. In fact, this notion is recorded as early as Vegetius, who wrote about Roman training methods.

In this article, I will argue that lighter swords are in fact more beneficial for beginners, and that people should not rush into using a heavier sword before they are ready.

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Training for the future

Keith Farrell and Colin Farrell
Keith and his brother Colin fencing with longswords during a demonstration at Glasgow University. Photo by Rene Bauer, 2012.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th September 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

Although I enjoy my HEMA training as it happens, I make a point of training for the future. A few months ago, I turned 30 years old – in this time, I have been practising HEMA for around 8 years, and I also have 14 years of experience in karate.

Now that I enter my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I’m still a youngster compared to many other martial artists who have my great respect, but I would be a fool if I kept approach life as if I were still a teenager.

I have been lucky enough to have spent 20 years practising martial arts without taking any long-term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.

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