6 books to help learn the context of medieval HEMA

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th December 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

There are now many publications dealing with the nuts and bolts of different medieval HEMA systems, which is a wonderful step forward from where the community was a decade ago. However, while many practitioners can reel off a list of HEMA authors, translators and researchers who produce HEMA-related works, perhaps fewer individuals are well read on the subject of the context that surrounds the medieval HEMA systems.

This is a brief list of six excellent books that would be worth acquiring to support your library of HEMA books, to help you learn more about the context of your medieval discipline of choice.

The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany (B. Ann Tlusty)

For German townsmen, life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was characterized by a culture of arms. Because the urban citizenry, made up of armed households, represented the armed power of the state, men were socialized to the martial ethic from all sides. This book shows how civic institutions, peer pressure, and the courts all combined to create and repeatedly confirm masculine identity with blades and guns. Who had the right to bear arms, who was required to do so, who was forbidden or discouraged from using weapons: all these questions were central both to questions of political participation and to social and gender identity. As a result, there were few German households that were not stocked with weapons and few men who walked town streets without a side arm within easy reach. Laws aimed at preventing or containing violence could only be effective if they functioned in accordance with this framework.

This is a phenomenal book, packed from cover to cover with anecdotes and explanations. This research has been groundbreaking for large parts of the HEMA community, and if you are at all interested in the context of the fighting arts of Johannes Liechtenauer, his contemporaries and glossators, or the fencing guilds and masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, then this is an important book to have on your shelf.

Atlas of Medieval Europe (Angus Mackay and David Ditchburn (eds.))

The Atlas of Medieval Europe covers the period from the fall of the Roman Empire through to the beginnings of the Renaissance. It comprehensively covers the areas within the broadest definition of Europe from the Atlantic coast to the Russian steppes. Each map approaches a separate issue or series of events in medieval history, while a commentary locates it in its broader context.

As a body, the maps provide a vivid representation of the development of nations, peoples and social structures. As well as charting the political and military events, they illustrate the fluctuation of frontiers and patterns of settlement. They show the lands at the fringes of Christendom, the expansion of monasticism, the dynamics of devotion and the spread of relics. Individual maps take a detailed look at a variety of key areas including language, literacy, and the beginnings of printing; the crusades, pogroms and persecutions of Muslims, Jews and heretics. Others take a closer look at trade, art and architecture, the great cities and the lives of historical figures such as Margery Kempe and Villard de Honnecourt.

The Atlas of Medieval Europe is an indispensable volume which brings the complex and colourful history of the Middle Ages to life in a single unique volume. With over 140 maps, expert commentaries and an extensive bibliography, this is the essential reference guide for those who are striving to understand the fundamental issues of this period.

Not quite as groundbreaking as Tlusty’s book, it is nonetheless valuable to be able to visualise the borders as they shifted due to the results of campaigns, conflicts and politics. It shows the events and geography leading up to the medieval period, setting the scene to help the reader understand how the medieval martial arts spread and how they could be related to each other.

Chivalry (Maurice Keen)

Chivalry – with its pageants, heraldry, and knights in shining armour – was a social ideal that had a profound influence on the history of early modern Europe. In this eloquent and richly detailed book a leading medieval historian discusses the complex reality of chivalry: its secular foundations, the effects of the Crusades, the literature of knighthood, and its ethos of the social and moral obligations of nobility.

To make a modern study of the martial arts that were studied and practised by the knights and nobility of centuries past, it can be helpful to understand more about these individuals. How did they conceptualise and approach war? What was the role of religion in their activities? How did all the elements tie together to make this warrior class? This is one of the best books on the subject of chivalry, and is well worth reading.

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe (Peter Spufford)

The earliest surviving cheque was drawn in 1368 by two Florentines to pay a draper for black cloth for a family funeral . . . In 1360 a banker in Barcelona was beheaded in front of his bank for failing to honour his clients’ accounts . . . In 1477 a confidence-trickster persuaded a citizen of Cologne to buy shares in a non-existent silver mine . . . From a thousand tiny facts like these, the fruit of nearly thirty years’ research, Peter Spufford creates a revealing picture of the medieval business world.

He begins by describing the emergence of a European entrepreneurial class, those intrepid merchants who broke away from the structures, practices and mores of a traditional society to create a radically new economic order that we identify as capitalism. Next he explores Europe’s emergency ‘capital cities’ – Paris, London, Venice, Florence, Naples – with their large concentration of wealth and power, as a key element in building the demand for the products which this mercantile elite provided. The focus then turns to the trade routes by which these products and their purveyors travelled, in a vast international market that extended from the British Isles and Scandinavia to the Slavic hinterland, and to the Mediterranean basin and the Near and Middle East. The demand for previous metals to pay for Asiatic products stimulated the mining industry in central Europe, described here in rich detail. In sum, virtually every aspect of medieval society is illuminated by a wide-ranging and immensely detailed study.

To understand the life of the times, we need to understand the politics and the economy. Both of these relied heavily on trade, and this book gives an excellent introduction to the life of the medieval merchant. By learning more about this facet of medieval life, the reader will be better able to understand how ideas and goods such as weapons and armour moved from place to place during the medieval period.

Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight (David Edge and John Miles Paddock)

The knight in armor jousting for his lady’s favor is one of the best known figures in literature and romance. Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight is a brilliant, highly illustrated survey of the real story of knights and their weapons and the often far from chivalrous wars and battle they fought.

For generations the devastating charging power of mounted knights dominated the military affairs of Europe but throughout the medieval period weapons and armor were evolving constantly, and a variety of styles developed. The story is traced from the early days of chain mail and crude helmets to the vastly expensive and beautifully elaborate suits of full plate armor of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight follows all these themes and also looks at the history of knights in action, in war and in the hazardous melees which tournaments often were in life if not in literature. A comprehensive glossary of terms is provided, and an appendix gives details of the construction of armor. The development of arms and armor is stunningly illustrated, with many previously unpublished photographs and specially commissioned artwork included.

This is the best and most comprehensive work on the subject of arms and armour for the medieval warrior that I have found so far. It describes the development of weapons and armour through the ages, describing the tools in use during the period of medieval HEMA systems, but also describing what came before and how these developed into the tools in question. It is an invaluable book to possess, to demonstrate the material culture of the men who fought in a time period of great interest to our HEMA community.

Encased in Steel Anthology I

Encased in Steel Anthology I (Keith Farrell (ed.))

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to mention a book that I edited and to which I contributed!

The writing team behind the Encased in Steel blog (Keith Farrell, Alex Bourdas and Ben Kerr, with guest author Benjamin Hawkins) have compiled some of the best articles from 2011-2014 into the first Encased in Steel anthology. The articles have been edited heavily and updated significantly, to ensure a high quality of both scholarship and written language. Some new and unique articles have been written specifically for this volume, that are not available on the blog.

The book is divided into five thematic parts, each dealing with a different element of the study of historical European martial arts. Topics include chivalry, history and research, studies of weapons, test cutting, and practical concerns.

Published by Fallen Rook Publishing, it is available from the Fallen Rook Publishing website, the Academy of Historical Arts online shop, and also here on my own website.


Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.