Here is a write-up on the history of HEMA that I did back around 2005, to give a bit of perspective on where we are and where we came from.
Please note that this is a copy & paste of the article that I wrote at that time, which was long before the Wiktenauer or any of the subsequent developments. After I reposted it on Facebook recently, Keith offered to host it on his website, so that it could be more easily found again by anyone looking for this sort of information.
Western swordsmen have been examining and reconstructing HEMA for far longer than most of us realize. In Germany, Heinrich von Gunterrodt authored a manuscript in 1579 that mentioned what we now know as I.33, and attempted to apply its terminology and principles to the weapons of his time. (It was his friend, Johannes Herwart, who “rescued” I.33 from a Franconian monastery.) This is the first instance we can document where someone looked at an old manual and tried to make sense of it.
Somewhat later, a German scholarly publication (mid-1700s) published a list of old fencing manuals under the title, Bibliotheca Dimicatoria (Library of Fencing). A few other works from roughly the same time period (such as Schlichtegroll) examined old fencing manuals such as Talhoffer’s work from 1467.
However, the real groundbreaking work occurred in the late 19th century. All across Europe, there was an explosion of interest in old fighting arts. In Germany, Karl Wassmannsdorf did excellent research on the German school that is still valuable today. Gustav Hergsell reprinted three of Hans Talhoffer’s manuals. Some groups, such as one in Vienna, attempted to reconstruct the German arts. In England, Egerton Castle and Alfred Hutton wrote pioneering books on the history of swordsmanship, and Cyril Matthey republished Silver’s Paradoxes of Defense and Brief Instructions. All three of them took an interest in the practical side of this as well, giving public demonstrations of reconstructed techniques. Italy had Jacopo Gelli, Francesco Novati, who published a facsimile of the Flos Duellatorum, and Giuseppe Cerri, whose book on the Bastone drew inspiration from Marozzo. Spain had Baron Leguina, whose bibliography of Spanish swordsmanship is still a standard reference today. This is just a small sampling of the luminaries of the time.
These men all tended to suffer from a Victorian bias, which saw modern foil fencing as the height of perfection, having evolved from its more brutish predecessors. Despite this flaw, their work laid the foundations for everything we do today. They are the first generation. Unfortunately, their work was cut short by the two World Wars. The immense bloodshed of that time had an understandable dampening effect on research into European martial traditions, especially among academics. Interest was largely dormant during the post-war period.
In the 1970s, three important things happened:
First: The spread of Asian martial arts to the West, largely as a result of martial arts movies and TV shows, changed the cultural mindset in the West. This paved the way for the current Renaissance we are experiencing today. The Victorian era looked at the works of medieval masters like Hans Talhoffer and Fiore dei Liberi and saw only “rough, untutored fighting”. Thanks to Bruce Lee and David Carradine, the modern world was able to look at these manuals and recognize them as martial arts.
Second: The spread of medievalist groups (the SCA in the US, re-enactor groups in Europe) spurred an interest in researching and recreating medieval fighting methods. These groups created a social context where these arts actually had some kind of relevance, as well as providing a kind of support-group for those pursuing this kind of research. There was a competitive side to this as well, as SCA and re-enactor combat were compared — not always favorably — to the flourishing Asian martial arts scene that was taking off at the same time.
Third: A number of primary sources were reprinted around the same time. In 1972, James Jackson published a book called “Three Elizabethan Manuals of Fence.” This work reprinted the works of George Silver, Giacomo di Grassi, and Vincentio Saviolo. Having these three works published in one volume was of phenomenal importance. The first two, in particular, are theoretical works of the first order. Read together with Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fence (available in university libraries), these works opened new vistas for those willing to look. In 1965, Martin Wierschin published a transcription of Sigmund Ringeck’s Fechtbuch, along with a glossary of terms and a bibliography of German fencing manuals. In turn, this led to the publication of Hans-Peter Hils’ seminal work on Liechtenauer in 1985. The importance of these two works cannot be overstated for the reconstruction of the German fighting arts.
(A possible fourth factor, which I’ll only mention, is the possible influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the cultural mindset of the time.)
The factors above created an environment that encouraged research into the European fighting arts. Across the United States and Europe, small numbers of isolated researchers independently began researching HEMA in earnest. In 1981-82, I began research on the German school and on the English Backsword tradition, based on the works listed above. Steve Hick and Patri Pugliese began work at around the same time, using most of the same sources. All told, there were probably 10-15 people (seriously) working on this in isolation. Our work went mostly unappreciated: Medieval combat techniques didn’t fit in well with SCA fighting rules; kendo senseis and sport fencing instructors were equally unreceptive. This state of affairs continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
1994 was a watershed year.
First, Christoph Amberger began publishing Hammerterz Forum, a home-grown publication devoted entirely to the history of swordsmanship. For the first time, there was a place to publish articles for an audience that truly cared. Hammerterz Forum laid the foundations for a community of interest, and was the means by which a lot of us first came to know of one another’s existence.
Second, the Internet suddenly took off. Paradoxically, the most modern technology served as the means for bringing new life to long dead arts. In a very short period of time, an online community began to form. Somehow, the formerly isolated researchers managed to find each other. That was the year I met Steve Hick, and through him, a whole host of other people. E-mail lists began to pop up on the web.
Shortly after this (1995?) the HACA (now ARMA) put up its website. John Clements’ efforts in this regard probably did more than anything else to generate interest online at this time. The HACA website constantly pumped information out to a hungry public, fueling rapid growth in public awareness of WMA and HEMA. From there, it was only a matter of time until translations of primary source material (fencing manuals) began appearing online, and eventually in print. Finally, the appearance of various forums (this one included) have obviously played a key role in creating a sense of community.
In all this, the single factor of paramount importance has been the Internet. Without it, our movement would have withered and died a slow death. The Internet transformed a handful of lonely researchers toiling in isolation into a flourishing and vibrant community that is growing daily by leaps and bounds.
The current generation of swordsmen may well be the best-read in history, with easy access to sources as diverse as I.33, Girard Thibaut, Dom Duarte, Salvator Fabris, Sigmund Ringeck, and George Silver. Not only are they well-read, but they have the ability to discuss and debate matters in detail with a host of like-minded colleagues from around the globe.
In terms of theory, our community has made huge progress. As far as practical application and physical skill at swordsmanship, we obviously have a long way to go. However, if we continue on the current trajectory, the next generation of swordsman will be something that we can all be truly proud of.
About the author: Matt Galas is a HEMA researcher and instructor specializing in the traditional martial arts of medieval and renaissance Europe. He has studied the history of swordsmanship since 1982, with a primary emphasis on the German martial tradition. In recent years, he has broadened his inquiries to include the Iberian, French and Belgian martial traditions as well. Matt Galas has taught and lectured in 15 countries, focusing on the German and Iberian longsword traditions. Matt Galas also has a background in sport fencing (foil, epee, sabre) and the Japanese sword arts (kendo, iaido).
Matt Galas is a HEMA researcher and instructor specializing in the traditional martial arts of medieval and renaissance Europe. He has studied the history of swordsmanship since 1982, with a primary emphasis on the German martial tradition. In recent years, he has broadened his inquiries to include the Iberian, French and Belgian martial traditions as well. Matt Galas has taught and lectured in 15 countries, focusing on the German and Iberian longsword traditions. Matt Galas also has a background in sport fencing (foil, epee, sabre) and the Japanese sword arts (kendo, iaido).