The development of historical technique in modern HEMA tournaments

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz
Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz fencing with the longsword at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 15th May 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

One of the criticisms that is often levelled at modern HEMA tournaments is that the fighting seen in the bouts does not look like what is described or illustrated in our source material, and that the style of fighting is more like “sport fencing” or “playing tag” than “proper fighting”.[1]

Many people bemoan the state of the current HEMA movement, especially with regard to the medieval weapons such as longsword, messer, and sword and buckler. However, I believe that we can see something more interesting, and much more hopeful in the general trends.

The Hs.3227a suggests that there were serious masters of fencing and also “masters of play fencing” [Leychmeistere] who would use several techniques to accomplish what a single good technique could achieve, and who make bad parries that are wide from the body instead of tight, controlled defences.[2] The Leychmeistere fight in such a fashion that they could be described as “stretched out”, “as if chasing a hare”, because they lack proper body structure and measure.[3]

The MS I.33 discusses the difference between the “priestly” way of fencing and the fencing methods of the “common fencer”. For example, the common fencer may strike straight to the head with the sword, without considering the value of applying the buckler in a schiltslac to control the opponent and his weapon.[4] The fencer who fights in a manner taught by “the priest” will of course perform more sensible and effective techniques in every situation.

The Zettel of Liechtenauer, and the glosses that describe it, discuss the concept of the “buffalo”, an individual who “takes his mastery from violent strength”, and how to beat such a fencer with the Schilhaw.[5] Clearly such a fencer was seen as inferior than a proper master, who can fight in a versatile fashion, although the danger they posed to the master was not trivialised.[6]

The fencing guilds of the 16th century sometimes mention the “Winkelfechter”, a group of people who were often depicted as poor fencers and poor teachers. Sometimes they taught more than fencing, but they do not seem to have been described in a particularly positive fashion.[7]

What we see in current competitions

When watching modern tournaments for weapons such as the longsword, messer, or sword and buckler, the fighting often looks messy. People do not quite hold their guard positions correctly, the situations do not quite look like how they are shown in the sources, and the footwork can often only be described as abysmal. People sometimes prioritise strength over technique, or cheap tricks over things that are stylistically correct but more difficult to do. People try to game the rules or win points rather than fencing “properly”. Just read what people post on Facebook after any big competition with a livestream, and you will see a spread of complaints about many different things.

Is such behaviour a problem for tournaments? To some extent, yes… But if some fencers do not behave like this, then their opponents will never learn to deal with such behaviour and overcome it. It is therefore a necessary step to have “play masters”, “common fencers”, “buffalos” or “Winkelfechter” before we can have fencers who fight in a technical and excellent fashion.

Over the last decade with longsword competitions, we have seen people win tournaments by using cheap tricks such as Talhoffer’s Gayszlen (a one-handed technique) or simple reliance upon speed, strength and general athleticism.

However, over the last couple of years, people have begun to apply actions such as Absetzen or the Zornhaw Ort in tournaments. We have seen techniques such as the Fünf Hewen, and the use of the Vier Versetzen to break guards. We have even seen examples of Abschneiden and Hende Drücken.

Of course, not all of these techniques come out in any one fight, and people may only be able to apply a couple of them in any given fight. But what we are seeing is a development in people’s ability to apply “correct technique” to win fights against less developed opponents.

Stage 1: the basic fencer

Initially, people are not very good at fencing. This is the natural first stage that we all experience until we get better. But no matter how good we become at performing drills in nice, sterile environments, we have to learn to deal with chaos.

Before people can demonstrate “correct technique” in competitions, people must first develop the skills necessary to handle the stress of competitive fighting. As people are in the process of developing this skill, they may show only messy fighting with poor technique, but they are still taking their first step to learn how to handle the stress, and how to handle their weapon under stress.

Stage 2: the basic fencer improves

Once people have learned to deal with the stress of fighting in a competition, they become able to apply cleaner technique and look better while fencing. Still, they might not be able to display textbook technique, straight from the sources, but their performance will improve. They will begin to learn how to fight more athletically, how to use distance and timing to better effect, and perhaps how to use techniques such as feints in a more competent fashion.

Stage 3: the competent fencer

The next step of the development is when people begin to apply some of the techniques from the sources. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to be able to apply good and “correct” technique under pressure without the basic fundamental skills and athleticism to make such techniques work.[8] Therefore, the athletic development must take place before this stage can occur. However, a fencer at this stage will begin to dominate those who can fight only with raw athleticism or who depend on their physical attributes.[9]

Stage 4: the technical fencer

Finally, once there are some quite competent fencers on the scene, technical fighters appear, who are able to triumph over those who can fight competently at the previous stage of development; they become able to win by applying picture-perfect, textbook counters to most situations, allowing less able fighters few opportunities to strike.

It is important to note that these technical fencers cannot showcase the techniques from the source material unless they receive the right kind of stimulus. This often requires a level of competency from their opponents. So technical fencers cannot appear until there are sufficient competent fencers, and competent fencers can only develop once basic fencers have learned to apply basic skills under pressure while dealing with the stress of competition. It is a natural development, and the community must go through each of these stages in order to produce fencers of the next stage of development.

This is exactly what we have been seeing with longsword competitions over the last ten or fifteen years. There may well be additional stages to come, but as a community we will need to have sufficient competent and technical fencers (at stages 3 and 4 of this model) for any new level to be reached.

Will this apply to sword and buckler tournaments?

Students of the MS I.33 often complain that they rarely see “proper” I.33 technique in sword and buckler competitions. This is true – there are very few competent I.33 practitioners who participate in tournaments.

Initially, sword and buckler competitors will look like they are swinging two separate weapons, without proper coordination between their arms. This is ungainly and not pretty, but they are still developing their basic skills under pressure, and as a result they look like buffalos. Let’s be honest, most sword and buckler competitions are not pretty, because most sword and buckler competitors are not particularly good at showcasing good fencing under pressure with a sword and buckler in hand.

Then, when people start to develop a more solid foundation of skills, we begin to see fencing that looks a bit like what is described by Andre Lignitzer,[10] perhaps even including some of the grapples and holds shown by Talhoffer.[11] Perhaps some of the Bolognese style begins to show through, if people are following that source.[12]

My prediction is that finally, once there are people who can fight competently with the sword and buckler under pressure and with due regard for their own safety in competition, we may see I.33 specialists begin to emerge (and possibly even dominate). Techniques cannot be successful if the situation is inappropriate; all techniques require a certain environment, scenario, and stimulus in which to be successful. Therefore, since the MS I.33 teaches a complicated system that requires certain more complicated situations to occur, there need to be skilled fighters who can produce these conditions before the I.33 specialists can begin to dominate.

If we watch the competitive sword and buckler scene grow, and help it along by providing good quality training materials, lessons and opportunities for sword and buckler enthusiasts to practise in a variety of environments, then I believe we will see the same development that is currently taking place in competitive longsword fencing. First, we will see flailing, then we will see buffalos, then we will see the Lignitzer and Bolognese specialists, and finally the very technical I.33 specialists will emerge in competition.

Conclusion

The moral of this article is that we should not be too hasty to dismiss tournaments or competitive fighters. Yes, we should condemn bad fencing – but we should also recognise when skills improve. Over the last few years of longsword competitions, there has been a distinct improvement in the fencers who advance, and we see more and more examples of textbook technique occurring in matches.

We should wait patiently for this development in other disciplines where the competitive fighting is currently messy, but we should be active in shaping the fencing that we want to see develop, rather than simply criticising or losing hope.

Footnotes

[1] Although I have written previously about the problems with trying to simulate a “real fight” in competition: https://www.keithfarrell.net/blog/2017/04/trying-simulate-real-fight/

[2] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1389. Translated by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 14r.

[3] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1389. Translated by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 40r.

[4] Anonymous. MS I.33. C.1290-1320s. Folio 2r.

[5] Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresden C.487. C.1504-19. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011. Folio 31r.

[6] I have written previously about the buffalo, and offer a more helpful way of thinking of this term: https://www.keithfarrell.net/blog/2017/06/reconsidering-the-buffalo/

[7] Kevin Maurer and Chris VanSlambrouck. “Who were the Winkelfechter?” Academia.edu, 14th August 2013. https://www.academia.edu/4387950/Who_were_the_Winkelfechter

[8] I gave a presentation in 2015 about identifying and training fundamental skills: https://www.keithfarrell.net/hema/videos/2015-training-fundamentals/

[9] I have written previously about the problems of attribute fencing: https://www.keithfarrell.net/blog/2018/08/the-problem-of-attribute-fencing/

[10] Andre Lignitzer. Codex 44.A.8. 1452. Folios 80r-80v.

[11] Hans Talhoffer. Codex icon.394a. 1467. Folios 117r-122r.

[12] Such as that described in: Achille Marozzo. Opera Nova. 1536. First Book.

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.