Public outreach: HEMA demonstrations

training with the longsword
Jack and Alex performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

From time to time, clubs may have the opportunity to do some community outreach and give some HEMA demonstrations for the public. This is a great opportunity to raise the profile of your club in your local area while helping to entertain and educate people.

I have several years of experience giving demonstrations of various types and I would like to share some advice that may help you run a more effective demonstration.

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Is technique important?

Keith Farrell cutting with a sharp longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

Sometimes there is a question about technique and its importance, compared with other elements of fighting, martial arts, and/or sports. Often some people will suggest that historically accurate technique is what verifies our practice of HEMA; other people will suggest that technique is of relatively little importance and that it is principles that are more important.

I have been thinking about how best to answer this. In the past, due to my karate training, I was of the mindset that principles were more important and that techniques were simply the embodiment of those principles. At the moment, however, I am flirting a little with what might be heresy: my current thinking is that technique is incredibly important in our study of HEMA with swords (especially cutting swords with edges) and that hiding technical deficiencies behind “principles” is a very easy crutch to avoid addressing the real problem.

I may well swing back in the other direction again at some point in time, but I would like to examine this approach while it is fresh in my mind. Maybe it will help me learn something, maybe it won’t; maybe it will help other people come to terms with their own thoughts on the matter, or spark some new thoughts.

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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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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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Feinting with the longsword, according to Ringeck

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

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

A common action in modern Olympic fencing is that of feinting: making it look like you intend to do one thing, when in fact this is a trick, because you actually want to do something else. If the opponent falls for your trick, then he creates an opening that you can exploit. A very common example of feinting is to perform an attack toward one opening, then when the opponent makes to parry your attack, to take your sword away and go to a different opening instead.

However, is feinting a big part of Liechtenauer’s system of unarmoured fencing with the longsword? It is common to see people utilising feints in sparring, but are these actually part of the system?

This article will examine the advice presented by Ringeck. Other sources within the tradition may well offer different advice, and I would encourage practitioners to examine the issue from these other points of view too. For the purpose of this article, and to stimulate discussion, I will argue the stance that feints should not be used as frequently as most people (myself included) tend to use them in the sparring.

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How to become a good HEMA instructor

Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell
Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell fencing on the banks of Loch Lomond. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2012.

A question I am asked quite regularly is how to become a good (or better) HEMA instructor? Of course, everyone’s situation is a bit different, but here is a simple set of guidelines for becoming a better instructor. I’m afraid this is quite blunt in places, but as an instructor you cannot hide behind delusions, and you need to be honest with yourself and your students.

Needless to say, to become an instructor (rather than aiming high to become a good instructor), the approach can be much more relaxed. The same general principles apply, though: meet people, practise as much as you can, read a lot, try to understand the material as deeply as you can, and learn how to present it to other people.

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A chronology of the books by D.A. Kinsley (version 3)

D.A. Kinsley is a researcher and author who has been of tremendous service to the HEMA community. His area of interest is that of first-hand accounts of British military engagements and civilian encounters during the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and his published works have compiled thousands of these first-hand accounts.

These compilations are immensely valuable for researchers and practitioners of historical fencing, as they provide primary sources to describe the use and effects of the swords that we study, along with significant amounts of context and supporting information to guide our study and understanding of our subject.

D.A. Kinsley has been extremely industrious in collecting and publishing these accounts, and this has led to a rather confusing chronology of his books as they come into print and then go out of print, becoming available or unavailable at the drop of a hat.

Personally, I am interested in how all of Kinsley’s books fit together in sequence, since the edition and version numbers appear to be somewhat arbitrary and are not straight-forward. Since in my own work I will doubtless be citing the book by Kinsley that is on my shelf (and probably others in the future!), I wanted to be able to provide a correct bibliographic information for it – but because it is the first book with that particular name, yet supposedly third in a series, that poses a problem that is not easy to solve!

At least if the chronology of his works could be set out in a blog article somewhere, then it would be possible to look at that article and timeline and work out exactly how best to cite any of his books in a bibliography. My intention is to do exactly this task in this blog article, and to suggest a possible bibliographic reference for each of the books mentioned.

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How to begin working with a HEMA source

Folio 29rfrom the Goliath manuscript. Image from the Wiktenauer.

HEMA is an activity that relies on sources; but what does working with a HEMA source involve? Although it may seem obvious to people who have involved in HEMA for a while, it is not the simplest process, and there are many things to consider at each stage.

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Making footwork lessons work for you

Folio 54r from the MS Dresden C.93 by Paulus Mair. Image from the Wiktenauer.

There are two broad kinds of footwork lessons: technical lessons and integration lessons. You need both of these types of lessons before your footwork will begin to work for you in sparring, and you also need to be training the right thing before it will begin to work for you!

This is just the same as for striking techniques, where there are technical lessons to teach the mechanics of the action, and then integration lessons to help integrate the technique into everything else that you are doing.

This article will give a brief introduction to my point of view on the matter.

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HEMA – A Systematic Approach

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

This is a guest article by Nial Prince. The subject is one about which Nial has been writing quite often recently, in answer to people’s questions on Facebook. So that the ideas and points of view would be easier to find again in the future, with a permanance that Facebook just cannot provide, I asked if he would be willing to write a guest article. He kindly agreed, wrote this article, and sent it over to me for hosting on the site.

When you are thinking about starting to study HEMA, what is the first thing you do? Usually, people out and buy a sword (or a sword-like object) of some description. Then what? Well, maybe you haven’t thought this far. You might find yourself standing in the garden, sword in one hand and mobile phone in the other, following the first couple of YouTube videos you managed to find when searching for “Longsword cut how to”. After doing this for a little while, you might become pretty good at moving a sword around, but you will begin to notice things in the videos you are watching – one fencer might start their cut from the shoulder, while another may hang the sword down behind them before a strike. Why?

Because they have all done something which you have not: they have chosen a specific system to work from! This means that while everyone in these videos are all showing how to do the same thing (“longsword cut how to”), each has their own individual interpretation of different texts, which all have unique approaches to performing the same technique. The worst thing you can do at this stage of your development is to try to learn a dozen different methods of cutting. You need to choose a system!

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Sparring and Fighting

Keith Farrell and Yvain Rit fencing with longswords at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

This is a guest article by Duncan McEvoy. Duncan and I have had several discussions over the last year or so, on the topic of sparring and fighting, and how we think these elements fit into the ways that we each conceptualise HEMA and martial arts. Since Duncan has some different points of view to my own, I asked if he would be willing to write some of his thoughts for a guest article, so that the website can show another way of looking at HEMA. He kindly agreed, wrote this article, and sent it over to me for hosting on the site.

Do you spar in your club? If you do why do you do it? My guess is there will be some common answers like “it’s fun”, and “it helps me to prepare for competitions”, and “it helps me to pressure test ideas and techniques”, etc. Of course there will be many none standard answers too, maybe almost as many answers as there are people sparring out there. I’m certain they are all good answers as they are your answer, and whatever works for you … works.

So we all know what sparring is, what we use it for etc, but do we have any mis-conceptions that could be doing us more harm than good? Maybe, so it could be worth looking into sparring a little deeper and its relationship to learning how to fight. This is worth thinking about and looking into as one of the most common answers I see is along the lines of “it helps me become a better fighter”, or “it’s how I can pressure test myself to fight better”, or variations on that theme. Basically what we are saying is it’s a way to train to become a better fighter. So… Here is the question. Is that correct?

For the purposes of this article we are mostly looking at one on one encounters.

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Book Review: Sport and Physical Education in the Middle Ages

Sport and Physical Education in the Middle Ages by Dr Earle F. Zeigler.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 4th March 2016. It has been modified for reposting here.

A while ago, I bought what promised to be a fascinating book with great relevance to the study of historical fencing: Sport and Physical Education in the Middle Ages, by Dr Earle F. Zeigler.[1] Unfortunately, I have very little positive to say about the book, as it was full of glaring problems and issues. This review is going to explain just how poorly the book has been put together, and will attempt to show why proper attention to editing and adherence to reasonably high standards are important, even in self-published works.

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Sparring is not always the best training method to become better at sparring

Keith Farrell and Ciaran O'Sullivan
Keith Farrell and Ciaran O’Sullivan fencing with longswords at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2016.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 11th October 2013. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

I have often come into contact with the idea that the best way to become good at sparring is to practise lots of sparring. This does have some kind of logic behind it: after all, the common saying is: “practice makes perfect.”

However, in my opinion, there are much better ways to become better at fighting than just sparring a lot. Certainly, plenty of sparring is important to the development of a martial artist, but training cleverly is better than training hard – as long as you work hard at training cleverly!

This article will seek to illustrate some of my thoughts about the issue.

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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.

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Short Biography: Johann Justus Runkel (1751-1808)

Signature of J.J. Runkel. Image from the Swords Collection blog.

I am interested in working with antique swords, since studying the original items can tell us much about the construction and use of swords in history. I have a small (but growing!) collection of antique swords, and some of them bear a signature on the spines of the blades, indicating that a “J.J. Runkel” had something to do with the manufacture or sale of the swords. This was an avenue for research, and so I endeavoured to find out more about this person, so that I could understand the antique swords in my collection a little better. This article presents my findings as a short biography of this interesting character from history.

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