When one hears the term ‘Martial Arts’, a number of images leap into the mind. They can range from a headband-clad Carl Douglas on Top of the Pops (circa 1974), a blood-scratched Bruce Lee with some Nunchakus, right over to Jet Li laying down the law in Hollywood.
While that is a rich legacy – what would you say if I told you that Europe has its own Martial Arts? Would you be surprised? A little sceptical?
Western Martial Arts (WMA) or Historic European Martial Arts Alliance (HEMAA) are enjoying a resurgence. There are numerous clubs popping up all over the UK, and they offer a great insight into the realities of the medieval combat depicted in the films we grew up with. They are successfully dismissing the belief that that the medieval knights of old used lumbering, club-like swords to effectively smash an opponent to the ground – as opposed to the graceful dispatch afforded by the Oriental swordsman.
The fact is that we have documented proof of the intricate and technically demanding training given to swordsmen – and women – in Europe, stretching back centuries.
Leeds Royal Armouries MS 133, also known as the Tower Manuscript, is believed to have been drawn and written in AD1300. That places it as the oldest in Europe, and arguably the world. This beautiful 32 page document shows a variety of techniques using the one handed (‘Arming’) sword and a small, 8-10’’ shield called a ‘Buckler’. Like its latter day compatriots, this is a vicious and deadly ‘fight system’ that is designed to quickly and efficiently kill your opponent. It’s fascinating, and not a little scary.
Moving along smartly to the 14th and 15th centuries, we see the emergence of Defencing Masters – predominantly in Italy and Germany. These teaching and combat schools of thought offer different methods with a range of weapons but generally the same aim – to stick something long and pointy in a soft squishy part of your opponent while evading any response. Let’s not mistake these Defencers with modern day Olympic fencers, though. This is not a sport, and there are no points for second place!
I am a big fan of the Liechtenauer School – known as the German School. Originating from Franconia (South West Germany), Johannes Leichtenauer travelled widely and collected techniques like we would now collect postcards. He then taught these to his students. Luckily, he also gave his students cryptic poems as aide memoires. These Merkverse are still around!
It’s quite handy that some of his followers – Masters Talhoffer, Ringeck, Danzig, and Meyer, to name a few, managed to write their own hints on them (‘Vosa’) and proceeded to publish their own manuals, some of the earliest printed books. In a brilliant snub to their ultra-secretive authors, you can now pick up some of these from High Street bookstores like Waterstones. These manuals detail procedures beginning with swords, knives and axes but culminate in unarmed combat – the refreshing opposite of most Eastern arts.
By studying these manuals and interpreting the techniques described, modern day practitioners are successfully resuscitating these graceful and lethal skills. Supported by modern safety equipment, using reproduction metal or specially designed nylon weapons and with the passion of their forebears, you can now learn how to kill people in some rather interesting ways. In fact, the act of ‘getting medieval’ on someone is now not only possible, but actively encouraged.
If you are interested in learning, just Google HEMAA or WMA. There will be someone nearby! These are not re-enactors, nor role-players or theatrics – this is a real, genuine martial art. It’s not for everyone, but why not have a look?
I am happy to say it is something for me. I am an instructor in Norwich’s Der Alberen Fechtschule (the Fool’s Fight School) and take great pleasure in fighting some good friends on a weekly basis. The students range from 16 to mid-50’s in age, and include both men and women. Like most clubs, there is kit to borrow, introductory sessions are cheap, if not free. The whole thing is very informal and friendly. Annual memberships are usually very reasonable, too.
HEMAA or WMA are on their way back. They are interesting, they’re educational, and they’re fun. It’s social, healthy and really rewarding. Ok, so I’m biased. But you know what? Golf is ‘a good walk ruined’, football is ‘a game for gentleman played by thugs’ and Rugby the reverse. If you’re going to commit to a physical past-time, remember the golden rule.
Swords, whether we like it or not, are cool.