A Peek Into the History of HEMA

Meg here again! A recent thread in a forum got me thinking about the history of HEMA–both the importance of documenting it for future generations (would we have the any fechtbuch otherwise?) and for explaining its origins to curious new students, to make sure nobody ever thinks we were given our amazing sword skills by an ancient immortal master flying out of the clouds on the back of a crane. (This was the story told to me by a martial arts teacher in an Eastern tradition I once studied, I kid you not).

Now, as HEMA still remains a rather obscure sport to the general public, we have the advantage of not having too many popular permutations of “The Beginning” to deal with. One interesting source of info is a post made by a gentleman named Matt Galas on SFI and reposted later by Axel Pettersson on GHFS’s forum about the history of reconstruction HEMA.

In part of it, Galas writes:

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.

Another good resource, which has the advantage of being quite entertaining, is the 2009 film Reclaiming the Blade.

After watching this film recently, I can only say that it was very good. I especially liked all of the interviews with the somewhat-famous Hank Reinhart, the man who created Museum Replicas, Ltd., helping spawn interest in European swords for decades.

However, there’s no comprehensive literary study of the modern HEMA tradition (that I know of) in existence at this very moment. Maybe we should write a book.

As a last note, we’ll be meeting for our Tuesday night practice tonight at Highland Recreation Complex in Largo, FL (located at 400 Highland Ave. Largo, FL 33770). We will be meeting at 7PM and fencing until 9 PM. Our focuses tonight with be the secondary guards of the dussack as described in Meyer’s 1570 treatise, drilling with the longsword, and some freeplay. We look forward to seeing you out there tonight.

2 thoughts on “A Peek Into the History of HEMA

  1. I think a book on modern tradition would be, necessarily, a thorough list of sources of period information and a list of the various organizations currently researching/test-driving the material.

    Otherwise, it risks becoming not so much a useful reference, but rather personality based report on self appointed masters!

    I think an introduction describing the efforts of modern students/schules/instructors followed by a beefy bibliography would be ideal!

    Put yourself in the shoes of an interested neophyte and then imagine what they need to get started on their journey; their own, self-directed journey!

    1. You make a very good point, Fritz. The main problem is simply how very diverse HEMA is. There are English masters, Italian masters, several schools of German masters–I would have no idea where to start in detailing each tradition. Then again, I could just stick with the German stuff since that’s what I’m interested in. (And I’m still pretty new to all of this, too.) That’s what’s exciting about HEMA–how vast and uncharted so much of it is, how young and developing the sport still is. I hope it remains vigorous and un-institutionalized for many years to come.

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