HEMA is the acronym for Historical European Martial Arts, also known as Western Martial Arts (WMA), or, less accurately, as Historical Fencing, which doesn’t cover the breadth of disciplines. …
Posts about Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)
by Robin Catling:
Duelling became the preoccupation of many swordsmen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Fencing masters of the many academies published complex manuals of fencing technique, most hinting vaguely at the master’s knowledge of a “botte secrète”, or secret thrust a special attack which could not be parried, guaranteed of absolute success every time.
In the 1997 movie Le Bossu (“the Hunchback”), the secret thrust becomes a central plot device. In the movie, Danielle Auteuil plays an ambitious chancer and man servant to an arrogant nobleman – the Duke of Nevers. The Duke’s skill with a sword saves him from ongoing assassination attempts by his villainous half-brother. After one such attempt, the Duke teaches Auteuil the secret thrust. It is a complex disarming move which relies on the element of surprise and on the opponent being completely predictable.
When the Duke is killed, Auteuil rescues his baby daughter and goes into hiding for sixteen years.
Attacked by brigands, Auteuil teaches the girl the Nevers secret thrust, which exposes her identity when she kills a corrupt nobleman. The hunt resumes, Auteuil strikes back, disguised as the hunchback of the title, despatching each of the assassins using the Nevers secret thrust.
As a signature move it is bold, complex and outrageous. Against a straight thrust:
- parry in seventh (expect a riposte from seventh)
- envelope in quarte
- beat to forearm (which forces the opponent to withdraw their bent arm)
- take the blade as you change guard
- close in with a passing step
- disarm the opponent
- thrust to the forehead
In real life, however, things are rarely so predictable. The physical style of fencing, the technique of a particular school and the conditions of the fight – each can dramatically alter the reactions of the opponent so as to render the secret thrust a dangerous liability.
Michael York almost gets himself killed using the D’Artangnan family’s secret thrust in the 1974 Three Musketeers. This is why a keen beginner can score hits against an international ranking fencer and why actual duels could quickly degenerate into brawls when each fencer’s carefully drilled tactical plan fell apart at the first exchange.
Of course, no secret thrust ever stayed secret for long as fencing masters devised countermeasures.
As always, there is no substitute for hard work, sound technique and practice!
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is a serious extension of historical research outside of the regular re-enactment scene, covering all manner of weapons and combat systems from the early Medieval to late Victorian eras (see our post What is HEMA?). …
Different people mean different things by “real” fencing.
For some, “real” fencing is a duel with sharp swords and lives on the line. Other than the fear/courage factor, the primary technical difference here is that with live blades you only need to hit your opponent once, and therefore only require one good move (which explains the prevalence of “secret thrusts” in the bad old days). The sport fencer, by comparison, has to hit his opponent as many as 15 times (even more if the officiating is poor!), and so requires considerably more depth than the duellist. On the other hand, the sport fencer takes many more defensive risks, since he has up to 15 lives to work with.
Some purists will equate “real” fencing with classical fencing, i.e. the prevalent styles of the traditional French and Italian schools of fencing that predominated before electric fencing was popularized. By comparison, modern fencing is more mobile and athletic, while classical fencers were known for their more sophisticated phrasing and bladework.
A few fans of heavy metal think real fencing is only done with big, strong swords, and that light duelling-style weapons are toys. Historically, however, lighter thrusting swords evolved because they were considerably more deadly than heavy cutting weapons. Many masters of the 17th century disliked the new schools of fencing precisely because they were too murderous. However, the light duelling sabres that arose near the end of the 19th Century did lack offensive punch on the cut compared with their more military antecedents. Military sabre fencing required more arm strength, and the use of moulinets.
Lastly, it just seems apparent to some that sport fencing has evolved away from its bloody origins. Technically, this is untrue, at least for the thrusting weapons; the theory, methods, and techniques of fencing have not seen significant innovation since at least the last century. The modern fencer remains well-equipped, skill-wise, to fight a duel. Tactically and psychologically, however, the sport is a vastly different world from the duel. Obviously there is no real danger to getting hit, and with up to 15 hits needed to secure victory, there often isn’t even much figurative danger. In addition, since the quality of a hit (eg. fatal vs. serious wound vs. minor scratch) is immaterial, fencers will naturally prefer an easy “wounding” hit over a difficult “fatal” one, and glancing hits will often win out over strong thrusts.
Such a question is an open invitation to religious warfare. Everybody loves to participate, but nothing is ever settled.
If the question means “what kind of fencing is the most fun?” then the answer is: it depends what aspects of fencing you enjoy the most.
All fencing involves skilled timing, tactics and technique. Most épée fencers consider themselves practical, no-nonsense swordfighters who rely on as few artificial rules as possible. More visceral fencers who want to experience the adrenaline rush of a fast, aggressive swordfight will want to try some sabre. Enthusiasts of more medieval combat styles can try weapons such as the longsword at one of our half-day short courses or apply to us for individual lessons.
On the other hand, if the question means “which weapon is the most deadly?” the answer will depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which are the skill of the combatants, the presence of armour, the military and cultural context, and the rules of the fight (i.e. is this a street fight, a gentlemen’s duel, or open field warfare?). Most swords are highly optimized for performance in a specific environment, and will not perform well outside it. Comparing two swords from completely different historical contexts is therefore extremely difficult, if not downright silly.
Then again, perhaps the question means “which style of fencing is the most realistic?” It must be said that questions of realism have little relevance to an activity that has almost no practical application in the modern world other than sport and fitness. Historically, however, epees have the closest resemblance (among FIE weapons) to real duelling swords, and the rules closely relate to those of actual duels (sometimes being fought to only a single point). Other martial arts with a high realism factor include kenjutsu and some aspects of SCA fighting.