Historical Fencing and Re-Enacting
By Joel Thompson
As a sword enthusiast, I live in two worlds. First, there is the Western Martial Arts community, where I try to learn and study the art of swordsmanship as close as possible to how it was originally taught by the masters of the Medieval and Renaissance time periods in Western Europe. Second there is the historic re-enactment community where the emphasis is on re-creating different facets of life from previous time periods and presenting them to the public. One of these facets is, of course, swordsmanship. In one world, I am a member of ARMA and belong to a local Study Group, and in the other, I am the president of a local living-history or re-enactment group. In both, study and practice culminate by picking up a sword and facing an armed opponent in mock battle.
In the various on-line forums, there has been negativism between the two factions of martial arts study and re-enactment/living history. This is unfortunate and, I believe, unnecessary. The SCA is one of the foremost players in the re-enacting world, so let's discuss them first. We're speaking of a very large group, a very public group. The SCA sponsors large public demonstrations and events, some of which draw thousands of spectators and participants. They have been around for thirty years or so, and they're pretty much everywhere. During this time, the SCA has probably been most responsible for keeping alive the romance and fascination that is engendered by the Medieval and Renaissance time periods in Western Europe.
Many smaller groups have spun off from the SCA over the years, many patterning themselves after the larger group, and others attempting to be more improvisational and innovative. Many others appeared independently. Of course, some of these programs are very loosely put together and some are more structured. You have everything from a bunch of guys swinging wildly at each other with foam swords, to the more complicated and structured programs using blunt steel, and everything in between. However, there is a major distinction between these types of programs, and the pursuit of a martial art.
Most of the re-enactment groups I have seen over the years, SCA included, have a similar thread running through their programs. Going with the idea of "safety first" (an excellent notion) they have attempted in different ways to make their fighting safe. So there are many rules of engagement and, in some cases, safety weapons such as "boffers" that allow pretty serious contact with maximum safety if the combatants are properly armored and padded.
Let's talk about the "rules of engagement" idea. I will
share with you my introduction to sword-fighting some fifteen years
ago with a large local group that I joined. This is where I first
learned about "pulling your shot". This involves swinging
your sword and then pulling up short at the last moment. We used
to practice this on a special pell. Imagine a vertical pole with
ropes stretched from top to ground and suspended about six inches
away from the shaft. Sort of like a May Pole with the ropes tied
to the ground. The idea was to swing your sword and make contact
with the ropes, but not to allow the momentum of your swing to bring
your blade into contact with the pole itself. This
This is the sort of program I have seen, to some extent, in every Medieval and Renaissance re-enactment group I have encountered over the years. I've seen the famous "wrap around" kill, fighters falling to the ground at the slightest contact, and of course the "full contact" or boffer-type foam weapons. But all these re-enactments of fighting can be grouped together as "something other" than a martial art. The European martial art of fencing or Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship is a completely different entity. The martial art may have had a mock combat or sparring component, but its purpose and method of practice was very different. The two methods can be mixed together for authenticity, but when done the practice of the martial art should come first.
As we study the original masters of swordsmanship and try to put their ideas into play in today's arena, the subject of safety is still present. The problem is of course that real sword-fighting is primarily aimed at killing people. This makes it difficult to re-create the art as it once was because the arena that our ancestors fought in no longer exists. We will not soon go to battle with sword and shield in hand. We will not fight a judicial duel to the death or to the first cut with someone who has wronged us, and we will not be confronted on the streets by anyone with a sword. And so, we cannot judge the effectiveness of our learning as students of the sword as men once did. So, we do our best, while remaining safe.
As with the ARMA method, we use wooden wasters for learning techniques, performing various drills, and fighting light contact (sometimes wearing modern padding for safety). We fight light contact and perform flourishes with blunt steel to get the feel of a real sword. While sparring in this mode, we wear modern padding and/or authentic armor. We also fight contact with intent (to cut or thrust) with padded weapons (for safety). And last, we perform test cuts on inanimate objects with sharp weapons to see if our techniques actually work with a sharp sword. Added together, these methods equate, as well as is possible, the Medieval and Renaissance martial art that is swordsmanship.
As I mentioned, if one wishes to use the knowledge of the martial
art to enhance the authenticity of the re-enactment, the martial
art must come first. We must understand the martial art before we
apply it to the re-enactment arena. Unfortunately, for many, perhaps
most, of us in the re-enactment community, we learned how to re-enact
as our first or only source of sword knowledge. I say "unfortunate"
It must be realized that the re-enactment display fight is not the martial art. It is something different. It is intended to entertain the public and commemorate historical events, not to gain knowledge and experience in historical fencing. The largest problem facing the re-enactor is that most one-on-one sword fights and indeed many larger battles were over very quickly. Let's face it, many sword fights, in reality, would be over with the first cut. They might last a little longer in armored combat, but still too short to impress an audience. The difference is, in re-enactment, we try to showpiece our skills in a way that excites and pleases our audience. In the martial art, we showpiece how quickly or effectively we can dispatch our opponent in order to stay alive.
A problem then arises when we try to apply the "knowledge" that we learned as re-enactors to the martial art study. This will never work. It's like trying to choreograph show stunts on a bicycle before learning to ride one. If you're going to study historical fencing, you must, at least temporarily, set aside whatever you have learned prior, and in a sense, assume you know nothing as you start from scratch learning from the original masters of swordsmanship. Once you have acquired some knowledge and, more importantly, an understanding of martial sword-fighting, then you may begin applying what you have learned to the re-enactment arena.
I think many people in the sword community have "knowledge" which has roots buried deeply in the re-enactment methodology. This "knowledge" is held to be the truth by many and is responsible for much animosity toward those in the strictly martial arts practice. People become very defensive when told that their ways are not authentic or valid. This is why re-enactment fighting knowledge must be set aside as "something else" when entering the scholastic world of Medieval and Renaissance sword-fighting.
My re-enactment group has rectified the problem as follows. When
we first became acquainted with the methodology of ARMA, we immediately
tried to change our re-enactment to fighting as a martial art. This
didn't work too well, since it was a little too structured for what
we were attempting. We weren't show piecing our
We are, of course, dressed in authentic armor with perhaps some modern padding hidden underneath. And we are using blunt steel weapons. We have developed a loose choreography where we basically tip off each other as to our next move -a form of "telegraphed' fighting. For example, if I assume a right side tail guard, my opponent knows that I am about to strike at his left shoulder. If I assume a left side Ochs, my opponent knows to strike at my right side with the assurance that I will defend with a hanging guard and a particular counter. This type of thing can be done with all of the various guards and techniques. I can also entice my opponent into making a particular move by feinting it myself first. For example, I may feint an overhead so that my opponent knows to follow me with an actual overhead which allows me to make a pre-arranged counter. As of this writing, we are working on adding half-swording techniques to our repertoire. We haven't yet begun to add grappling techniques, but we intend to. We think this idea makes the fighting look very spontaneous and un-choreographed. The only other thing we do is to extend the time of the fight a little for the audience and we "ham it up" a little as we react to being struck and as we "lose" a fight. And when the "loose choreography" breaks down and doesn't work, we simply start sparring as we would at any training session. In this way, the genuine techniques of martial swordsmanship can be highlighted in an exciting way without being diluted with fantasy sword-fighting as we see on TV and in the movies. So far, reactions have been excellent. We get comments such as, "boy you guys really go at it" and "you guys must get hurt a lot". It works.
The bottom line is that historical fencing and re-enactment fighting can co-exist as long as one understands the differences and doesn't try to rationalize one by using the other as a source. They are two separate things and must remain so. The awareness and form we learn can be used in each. But even by using the martial techniques with re-enacting as I mentioned above, it is not the same as the martial art. I realize this and it is my hope that others will read this editorial and perhaps gain some insight.