This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th December 2015. It has been modified a little for reposting 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.
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.
An interesting discussion that arises from time to time in the HEMA community is how much we can trust what the authors of our source material wrote, when we may in fact have better ideas and can improve upon these methods, and generally: when can we question the masters?
For some people, it seems only reasonable that we should use the source material as inspiration and then create our own systems, without being beholden to some long-dead author. For others, it seems ridiculous that anyone would claim to be in a better position to talk about the realities of swordfighting than the masters who taught it for a living at a time when swords were still in use.
So when can we question the masters? When can we decide that we “know better” and can therefore make a system that will be the equal of one of these HEMA traditions?
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 10th June 2016. It has been modified a little for reposting here.
We all have different motivations behind our practice of HEMA, and we also tend to have slightly different understandings of what HEMA is exactly, what all it covers and describes, and what it excludes. Rather than try to answer the question of “what is HEMA?”, this article will look at what I personally understand to be HEMA, and where I draw my lines.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 24th February 2017. It has been modified a little for reposting here.
You may have observed that when discussing original source material, people will sometimes refer to sources by their shelf numbers: a series of letters and numbers, rather than using a more readable name. This much more common with medieval sources (particularly handwritten manuscripts) than with printed books, as printed books usually have their own title, whereas manuscripts often exist without a title.
What do these combinations of letters and numbers mean, and how can we understand them?
Generally speaking, it is because each archive (be it a museum, a library, a university, a private collection, whatever) needs to have some way to identify and catalogue everything in their collection. This identifying code needs to be unique.
Why is uniqueness important? Well, every item needs to be stored in a specific place, so that it can be found again when it is required for study or maintenance. People need to be able to refer to one particular item in the collection when they use it in their own research. If several items share the same identifier, then each item cannot be identified uniquely, and this can cause all manner of problems and confusions. Therefore, each item must have its very own unique identifier.
Different archives, museums and libraries all have different methods for constructing their identifier codes; some are simple listings, others perhaps record some useful data about the item’s place in the collection or about the item itself.
A simple example
A simple example is that of the so-called “Codex Döbringer”, the HS 3227a. In this case, the HS is an abbreviation for “Handschrift”, the German word for “handwritten”. This book is held in the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg, in the HS collection of handwritten manuscripts, and it is item number 3227a within that collection.
The so called “Codex Ringeck” has the identifier Mscr.Dresd.C.487 and is a manuscript (as opposed to a printed book), held in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden, in collection C, and is item number 487 within this collection.
In this collection are several sources that are of interest to us in historical fencing, including:
– Mscr.Dresd.C.13 (Johann Georg Pasch)
– Mscr.Dresd.C.15 (by Heinrich von Günterode)
– Mscr.Dresd.C.93 (first volume of Paulus Mair)
– Mscr.Dresd.C.94 (second volume of Paulus Mair)
– Mscr.Dresd.C.487 (which includes Ringeck’s longsword gloss)
Not all manuscripts have a title, nor do that all have a single author. Many manuscripts are collections of different treatises, bound together for whatever reason. For example, the Mscr.Dresd.C.487 contains the following treatises and elements:
– 1r-2v front matter
– 3r-9v a copy of Liechtenauer’s Zettel
– 10v-48v Ringeck’s gloss of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for Bloßfechten
– 49r-54r Ringeck’s additional longsword material
– 54r-55v Lignitzer’s treatise on sword and buckler
– 55v-57r a fragment of Liechtenauer’s Zettel
– 57r-59v anonymous gloss of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for Bloßfechten
– 66r-77v anonymous treatise on wrestling
– 78r-84r Ott’s treatise on wrestling
– 84r-86v an anonymous treatise on wrestling
– 88r-108r Ringeck’s gloss of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for Kampffechten
– 109r-121v Ringeck’s gloss of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for Rossfechten
It can be seen that this manuscript includes work by Liechtenauer, Ringeck, Lignitzer, and Ott, as well as some anonymous work. There is no information about who compiled the manuscript, what the overall title of the work should be, or even a date when the manuscript was bound together. With such bibliographic information lacking, it can be very difficult to refer to this work so that other people would know immediately which manuscript you mean; but by referring to the Mscr.Dresd.C.487, it is instantly clear which source you are citing.
Collections within collections
Some archives have very extensive collections, and therefore they need an identifier system that can track items within collections within collections within collections. The “Kölner Fechtbuch” and the “Glasgow Fechtbuch” are two good examples to show this nesting effect:
In the Historisches Archiv Köln, the “Kölner Fechtbuch” has the identifier MS Best.7020 (W*)150, which stands for a manuscript in the Bestand collection, within collection 7020, then within the Wallraf collection, item number 150.
In the Glasgow Museums, the “Glasgow Fechtbuch” has the shelf number MS E.1939.65.341, so it is item 341 within collection 65 within collection 1939 within collection E.
Collection E.1939.65 is the RL Scott Library, which contains many fechtbücher and treatises relevant to historical fencing, including Donald McBane’s book The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion (MS E.1939.65.498). Even though McBane’s book has an author and a title, it still has a unique identifier to help the Glasgow Museums to track it and to differentiate it from any other copies of this work that may be held elsewhere or that come into possession of the Glasgow Museums.
This may seem quite overwhelming, as there is a lot to learn, and every archive employs a different system of identifier. It may also seem strange to a modern person that a book doesn’t actually have a title, an author, or a date of publication. The medieval world of books and transmission of knowledge was quite a different world from that in which we live today, and trying to impose modern conceptions of what a book “should be” and how to refer to it can be problematic in many instances.
How could someone go about learning all of this? To be honest, I don’t really have a good answer for that, since I have picked it up over the last six years or so of doing HEMA and becoming more involved in the research side of things. I have not received any formal training in any of this, so there are undoubtedly gaps in my knowledge, and I may have missed some important points in the explanation above.
If anyone knows of a good basic resource to help beginners understand this sort of material, I would be delighted to hear about it, so that I can go and learn more about the matter. If anyone has corrections for any of the statements in this article, I would welcome those corrections.
In the meantime, I hope this article gives a basic grounding to help people understand a little more about the issue!
What is “survivor bias”, and why is it important in the study of historical artefacts?
When historical items of any sort are preserved in a collection of any kind, they can give us information about the time period from which they originated. They can tell us more about that kind of item, or the kind of people who would make it or who would use it. Such artefacts are an important element in the study of history.
However, items often end up in a collection for a particular reasons; collectors rarely buy just anything and everything. Therefore, sometimes the items in collections only tell part of the story, or may even give us details that are not representative of the typical example from history.
When people design rules for a HEMA tournament, a common idea is that the competition should simulate a real fight as closely as possible. This always involves a series of assumptions about what a “real fight” is, exactly, and also about how a person will react after receiving a hit.
I believe that this is too problematic a goal to be useful to the current HEMA movement, and in this article I will explain my reasons.