“Interpretive” Systems of HEMA (part 1)

An interpretation of some broadsword and targe tactics, where the targe allows the user to perform actions that would otherwise be inadvisable without a shield...

The purpose of this article is to discuss “interpretive” systems of HEMA, and to look at what advantages and disadvantages are associated with such study. For the purposes of this article, the working definition will be as follows:

“interpretive” systems of HEMA

- styles and disciplines of any of the many historical European martial arts where we know that a particular weapon or fighting system was used in history, but where there are no (or very few) sources to describe HOW to do the martial art. Due to the lack of sources for a particular system, HEMAists or enthusiasts who try to reconstruct the system need to be much more interpretive and open to ideas, experimentation or alternative sources of information.

Some examples of interpretive systems would be styles such as Highland broadsword and targe (very few sources), warhammer or mace (virtually no sources), pankration (no comprehensive written source to say HOW it was done), and Viking sword and round shield.

Some examples of styles that involve interpretation work but do not meet the definition above for an interpretive style include Liechtenauer’s longsword (difficult to interpret, but lots of material and sources available), sword and buckler (again, difficult to interpret, but there are sources to describe how to do it), Italian or Spanish rapier styles (maybe confusing and difficult to understand, but lots of sources), and 18th/19th century sabre styles (lots of sources, not very difficult to interpret). If a discipline is supported with a lot of source material to explain how to fight in that fashion, then it tends to be accepted as “normal” or “mostly normal” within the HEMA community, and so this article will not discuss these systems further.

The purpose of this article is not to say that interpretive systems cannot be reconstructed, nor is the purpose to say that such systems should not be reconstructed. This article is not an attempt to pass judgement on what counts as “good” HEMA or “correct” HEMA, since these concepts are very personal and subjective. If this article can help people to think about what disciplines they study, and the advantages and disadvantages inherent in such study, then this article will have achieved its purpose.

Good reasons for studying interpretive systems

There are all kinds of benefits and advantages that develop from approaching the study of an interpretive system in the correct fashion. If the approach is sensible, mature and honest, then the people studying the system will develop themselves in valuable ways.

Development of fencing/combat skills

If one studies a martial art, then there must be a goal that involves improvement of one’s skill and ability at martial arts. If such a goal is not present then the class becomes little more than a creche or child-minding service for people who have an interest in historical fighting styles.

If the study of the interpretive system is approached sensibly and in a structured fashion, over time, a certain set of skills and principles will emerge as important to an interpretation of the system. Such principles and skills might be different to what is normally focused upon in more mainstream disciplines, so this is an excellent opportunity to develop these skills in a new and exciting fashion.

For example, when studying an interpretive system such as the longsword style from the Kölner fechtbüch (MS Best.7020), it could be interpreted that many of the sequences involve the establishment or recognition of patterns during an exchange or a series of exchanges, and then taking the necessary steps to break or interrupt the pattern and to take advantage of the resultant openings in the opponent’s defence. This is a very valuable skill for martial artists, but it is not a skill that is prioritised in the study of Liechtenauer’s longsword system. Yes, the skill and concept is present in that system, but it is not a huge and major component, so most practitioners will spend relatively little time working to improve that specific skill. By studying the interpretive system where this is a prioritised skill and concept, students will develop a skill that can then support further martial arts study.

Learning to piece together many different types of sources with proper context

If there are no sources available that describe precisely how to fight in that system, or very few sources that do not present a comprehensive and cohesive system, then it becomes necessary to look outwith the “normal” HEMA sources. What other information is available? Are there primary accounts written by witnesses of battles or duels? Is there any artwork that depicts the use of the weapons in a reliable fashion? Are there any diaries or memoirs where an individual talks about the concepts and contexts of the use of the system?

For example, in the study of Highland broadsword and targe, there are only two written sources that discuss the “how to” aspect to any reasonable lengths (Thomas Page and Donald McBane). There is an additional source that shows several illustrations of Highlanders in fighting positions with broadsword and targe (the Pennicuik Sketches). By themselves, these sources do not make a full and comprehensive system, but when supported by other first hand accounts of the Highlanders in action and the archaeological studies of bodies from mass graves at various battles in which the weapons were used, it is possible to piece together a lot of valuable information that can sketch a rough outline of a system and fill in some of the gaps left by missing “how to” sources.

Another example is that of 17th century Polish sabre. There are no Polish manuals from the 17th century that describe how to fight with the sabre, but there is a 19th century manual that writes about how to fight with a sabre in the 17th century style (Starzewski). There are diaries and memoirs (Pasek, Kitowicz) that describe the social context and provide lots of helpful anecdotes. There are random quotes and sayings that can shed light on issues, such as describing what people used which kinds of cuts (Jezierski). There is the study of the antique sabres themselves, to see what the norms for the weapon would be in different eras. Sources can be analysed for reliability and usefulness, and compared with sources from other countries and/or time periods. The process of investigating all of these different sources of information teaches about different ways that historical information has been preserved, and helps people to realise that information can be found in all kinds of surprising places.

Developing a better knowledge of history

Teaching an interpretive system is the perfect time to introduce a class to a wealth of historical information and context. History and context should appear in any well developed HEMA curriculum, but it tends not to be the principal focus of the study of more mainstream HEMA systems. Rather, the martial art itself of such systems tend to receive the most attention, and rightly so. Not everyone comes to a martial arts class to learn about history.

However, in an interpretive system, it will often rely heavily on contextual information and other historical sources. The inclusion of such “external” information gives the teacher a great opportunity to include some of the interesting stories and facts, and also gives the teacher the opportunity to correct misinformation and incorrect beliefs.

For example, in the study of Highland broadsword and targe, it is an excellent opportunity to address the misconceptions surrounding the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46.

Many people believe that this conflict was a case of “the Scots against the English”, where the Scots were fighting for their freedom and the “evil English” were oppressing the Scots. This belief is complete nonsense: the conflict was a rebellion against the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The rebel army involved Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders, as well as French troops and mercenaries from other countries. The government forces involved Scottish troops in the form of both Highland and Lowland regiments, as well as English regiments and other troops. It was a conflict that pitted Scot against Scot, and was fought between people loyal to the Stuart dynasty and people loyal to the current government of the country.

Since the Highland broadsword and targe was in use in the Jacobite rebellion, since Thomas Page wrote his manual on the subject in the same year as the Battle of Culloden, and since the Pennicuik Sketches illustrate Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden, it is important to address the correct historical information during the study of the system. To attempt a study of Highland broadsword and targe while maintaining that the Jacobite rebellion was a case of the Scots rising up against the oppression of the evil English is blatantly wrong and reeks of romanticism, idealism, and a lack of integrity in the study. But by addressing such historical context and by correcting misconceptions and false beliefs, the study of an interpretive system can result in tremendous benefits to everyone who participates in the course of study.

Creating new links and ideas to take back to the study of a more “normal” HEMA style

Simply practicing something differently for a while can help to spark new ideas that can be fed back into the practice of a more mainstream system. When practicing the same thing time and time again, it is very easy to become stuck in a pattern. By practicing something new, it becomes much easier to break the patterns and make new mental connections, that hasten the learning process when returning to the mainstream system.

For example, the footwork in the Ledall manuscript for English longsword. The terms are named but not defined. Steve Thurston has prepared an excellent article to explain what he believes the different terms mean and how we should understand the footwork in that system. By studying this manuscript and reading Steve’s document, it can spark new ideas about how to approach and understand the issue of footwork in the more mainstream German longsword sources.

Exercising reason and logic, and well as personal skill, discipline and control

People can play games with their knowledge of sources, especially when they know different styles of fighting. For example, applying the principles and stylistic elements of a particular master when fighting with a weapon that that master would never have taught, or perhaps never even touched! This forces a practitioner to study the source in depth and to summarise the principles and concepts of the system – not a bad exercise in any case.

For example, Keith Myers ran an experiment to see if he could apply the principles of Sir William Hope’s smallsword method when fighting in pugilism bouts. Some of the principles transferred cross very easily, other concepts had more issues. In any case, it was an interesting exercise, and Keith learned a lot about Hope by attempting the exercise. Later, he tried a similar experiment: fighting with a longsword using the principles and stylistic elements of Henry Angelo’s broadsword and sabre method. Again, some things transferred well, other things less well, but he learned a lot about Angelo’s system and priorities as a result of the exercise.

This article will be continued tomorrow, with part 2 of the  three part series!

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