Honesty in martial arts

Keith teaching at an event.
Keith Farrell demonstrating some concepts during private tuition at an event. Photo by Valeria Viola, 2018.

I believe that honesty is incredibly important in the pursuit of martial arts. Of course, honesty is an important characteristic in real life as well – dealing with people fairly is better than being underhanded and devious. Dishonest people quickly gain a reputation for their misbehaviour.

However, there may be other ways that honesty improves your martial arts, that might be less comfortable to address and integrate into your practice. Some types of honesty do require work and effort before they become second nature.

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Modern fencing, classical fencing, and historical fencing

Foil Fencing 2013
Maksim and Ben fencing with foils in the cloisters at the University of Glasgow. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2013.

The terms modern fencing, classical fencing, and historical fencing can all be used to refer to different types of fencing or different approaches to the activity. However, there is no concrete definition for any of these terms, and most people will define them differently. I believe that having a working definition is helpful, and that a good definition of the differences can help us open our mind to new ideas while still keeping things in context.

In my mind, I think the key differences are as follows.

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More thoughts about tricks and systems (in real life too!)

dussack sparring
Keith Farrell and Daniel Montoro sparring with dussacks. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2018.

The discussion about tricks and systems in HEMA seems to be recurring quite regularly at the moment. I recently saw something while reading an article about business productivity that gave me a new avenue of ideas to pursue, so I’d like to share these new thoughts.

I have written previously about tricks and systems, and why I think it is important to pursue a system rather than just building a collection of tricks. Furthermore, Nial Prince has written a guest article for the site about the importance of having a systematic approach to HEMA.

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Warming up at Liverpool HEMA

training with the dussack
Keith Farrell teaching dussack at a seminar. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2018.

Warming up before training is something we should all do, to prepare for the lesson and to avoid injuries. Although this is usually common knowledge, information about HOW to warm up before martial arts practice is perhaps less common, and there is (unfortunately) a lot of bad advice and out of date ideas floating around.

At Liverpool HEMA, we approach warming up in a relatively simple and straight-forward way. In this article, I would like to share some of our common exercises and strategies, after first setting out some fundamentals.

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Starting a HEMA club on a tight budget

sparring with singlesticks
Stuart Beattie and Keith Farrell sparring with singlesticks at FightCamp 2018. Photo by Jonathan Spouge, 2018 (edited by Keith Farrell).

Many HEMA clubs have a very tight budget when starting out. This can make it quite difficult to get a club off the ground if you don’t have the spare money to invest in equipment, or if you aren’t sure that enough people will join for it to make sense financially.

However, there are some things that you can do to start a HEMA club on a tight budget! Of course, having a higher budget means you can perhaps skip straight to doing exactly what system you want, with exactly the equipment you want, in exactly the way you want; but even without having lots of spare cash, you can still get started quite easily.

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My goals for 2019

sparring with singlesticks
Keith Farrell and Thomas Sylvester sparring with singlesticks. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2018.

Since the new year is upon us, I’d like to set myself some goals for 2019. I could do that quietly and privately, but I want to try and give myself a little public accountability, to make sure I actually get these things done!

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The experience of running a full-time HEMA school in Glasgow

sparring with singlesticks
Keith and Jamie sparring with singlesticks at the Vanguard Centre. Photo by Jonathan Spouge, 2018 (edited by Keith Farrell).

Although I’m currently based in Liverpool, I am responsible for all the paperwork and business admin for a full-time training centre that teaches HEMA in Glasgow, as well as offering archery and blacksmithing activities. The Vanguard Centre is located just south of the city centre in a railway arch beneath the train lines leading into Central Station, and it is a very cool place to spend some time!

Running a full-time venue like this is a lot of hard work, but it has some very rewarding moments too. Since many people toy with the notion of becoming a professional HEMA instructor at some point in their future, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experience.

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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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Is your art really “a killing art”?

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

Back in September, Kaja Sadowski posted quite an interesting question to Facebook for discussion by her friends and colleagues:

Honest question for my HEMA friends: if you consider the totality of the sources you work from, to what extent is the art you practice really “a killing art”? 100%? 75%? 50%? Less?

Follow-up: what do we gain/lose by framing it exclusively (or primarily) as such?

This is an excellent question, and I’m grateful to Kaja for posing it and giving me the opportunity to consider my thoughts. I think it is a rather important question for practitioners of any martial art (especially those with swords) to ask themselves, so that our practice is framed properly and is placed firmly within its proper context, as best we can understand it.

What follows is an edited and improved version of my original response to her question on Facebook.

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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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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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Review of the Superior Fencing padded shin guards

The Superior Fencing shin guards. Image from the Superior Fencing website.

I recently had the opportunity to test and review the Superior Fencing padded shin guards. They are very protective, although the standard size were a bit too large for me.

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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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