Soon it’s going to be 20 years since I first heard about the existence of Medieval fencing treatises. I find it inexplicably funny that I was neither the first one here in Poland to see them, I didn’t have the required humanistic education to examine them, nor was I especially fit to practice what they taught, and yet it fell to me to propagate the knowledge about their existence and content. Surprisingly, I wasn’t into “swinging the swords”, I hadn’t practiced any martial art before, and perhaps even more importantly, I had no pressure to compete and win in tournaments. The only thing I had to offer has been the vision of treatises as sources that allow us to briefly bring to life a moment of history frozen in time.
Everything that I was “lacking” allowed for practitioners to label me as a theorist (despite several tournament successes) and for scholars as a practitioner (despite several published books and articles). Identifying me as an outsider was a convenient way for some to successfully ignore the message. Thankfully to several lucky coincidences, I have been able to spread the vision to other, more receptive, people here in Poland and they carried the banners of Historical European Martial Arts further and wider than I could ever imagine.
Today, again standing a bit to the side, I am looking at the fruit of our work and wonder, if during this crazy chase we haven’t actually lost something. Is the underlying vision still valid? Are theory and practice – the two bases which were supposed to support reconstruction – still fulfilling their role?
Handling weapons and training the body to execute Medieval and Renaissance techniques with confidence and skill is bread and butter to anyone in HEMA community. Or so it would seem at first glance.
However, the original vision that included using simulators and blunts for safe combat and sharps for cutting, has been reduced to a “tournament minimum”. The feder has become a simulator which is adjusted to fit the needs of the competitors. It has less and less common with the original weapon. It’s optimized to win specific confrontations in a safe manner. It only gives us an impression that we know how a sword works. Having debunked the myth of heavy swords, we unconsciously create and propagate new ones that are more insidious, and harder to recognize and correct. Yes, we are incrementally closer, but unfortunately still too far.
Attempts to stress-test historical techniques evolved into tournaments, bringing along their own share of formalism and the pressure of winning at all costs. At some point – as a useful shortcut – a methodology of training, tactics and footwork was not even adapted, but actually copied verbatim from sport fencing. This is in part because sport fencing with its advanced concepts and training regime serves well as an effective training tool, even if the outcome seems anachronistic. If the goal is only winning the combat, anachronisms are not as important and can be often rationalized, justified, or glazed over. In this way with greater or lesser steps we walk away from the original idea of verifying a given reconstruction toward what is perhaps for many a more appealing form of martial sport.
Looking at the growing number of high quality publications and true academic scholars tackling the subject of researching and describing the treatises one would think, that at least here everything proceeds as foreseen, and that this base is a safe haven for reconstruction.
Unfortunately, closer examination reveals, that there are very few scientific articles dealing with the topic of reconstruction as such. We know ever more about the manuscripts, ever more sources receive their critical editions, but unfortunately the scholars are mostly convinced that any attempt at reconstruction is unscientific because of our inability to verify the outcome fidelity. This feels like a stab in the back. Depending on who you ask, reconstruction will be considered as a play, waste of time or – in the best case – a foregone initiative. Sometimes I get an impression that the whole reconstruction movement is something that is unwanted, shameful, and should be locked in the closet with its key thrown into an ocean. Ignore until you can’t, and then lessen the value.
Considering some results of reconstruction not all of these charges are without merit. But the baby is thrown out with bathwater and it is really tough to find any support to our endeavors. The academic world stops at critical editions, conference proceedings or criticism that offers no viable alternatives. These we have to work our on our own.
The above opinions are out of necessity simplistic. I am sure many of you can provide counter-examples. People who deal with reconstruction come from various backgrounds. My goal is not to deprecate their work and efforts. However, I wanted to show that reconstruction as such is an interdisciplinary activity having its own goals and assumptions that is unlikely to find home in either place. We need to take care about our pursuit ourselves.
What to do then? Shall we leave the field to a living martial sport that HEMA has become and look at various anachronisms driving it further and further away from how these arts most likely looked back in the Middle Ages? Or take comfort in dry descriptions of manuscripts, dig ourselves into the archives, fascinated by illuminations, typography, and a language that attempts to describe the indescribable? None of these is actually an option. The situation we are faced with resembles the conflict between a conservation officer, having incomplete blueprints of a historical castle, and a wealthy investor who wishes to rebuild the castle to look “beautiful and stylish”, and in fact end up with a 21st century impression of a 19th century imagination of the 14th century stronghold. The first one will leave the building in the state of permanent ruin, not even attempting to reconstruct the things that could be reconstructed, and the second one will create an anachronistic hybrid. Neither of these two is what appeals to us. Can we find another way, perhaps inspired by the builders of castle Guédelon?
A reconstructor is neither “just a theorist” nor “only a practitioner”. Out of necessity he or she has to be both, often in different proportions. Both analysis of the original sources and physical fitness are extremely important and serve the same goal: an attempt to reconstruct with the highest fidelity various forms of confrontations and re-embody the ephemeral “embodied knowledge” that the authors of fencing treatises had.
I believe it is possible to approach the subject with enough rigor and systematicity to know when we are getting closer to the historical record, and when we venture further away. In fact, I did write a couple of articles on the subject. It is possible to conduct practical verification and optimisation of techniques more effectively than just preparing or taking part in the tournaments. It is possible to use the knowledge of living history movements to exclude obvious anachronisms. It is possible to confront the interpretations with how the weapons behave when used not just to score points. Yes, some dilemmas will not be solved in a day, some perhaps never, but it doesn’t mean that our whole endeavor is doomed and that we should not even try. On the contrary – every sensible, documented attempt, even with negative results, brings us closer to recreating something that some deem “impossible to reconstruct” or deride as “ineffective in the real combat”.
The goal of reconstruction is not the general effectiveness of a given technique. This effectiveness has always been guided by the context of the fight – both material, which is easier to reproduce, and the more fleeting one: one’s own physical preparedness, the opponent’s skill, against whom a given technique was once invented, and sometimes even situational (when and how the fight began and ended, what were the consequences of winning or losing). This convolution creates a hard problem for reconstruction, but we must tackle it directly. History and paleography choose to avoid it by eschewing practice altogether. Sports, on the other hand, prioritize effectiveness in a specific confrontation with everything else being an obstacle one has to circumvent or ignore. This problem is specific to reconstruction only, and is, in fact, reconstruction’s cornerstone.
Undoubtedly we can learn from tournaments and merciless competition to train hard and regularly in order to prepare our bodies for extreme feats of skill. But to reconstruction tournaments are only one of numerous experiments that we should be carrying out. When we notice that the context of such confrontation drifts away from history, its value is inherently diminished. We must bring back the diversity of approaches and varied experiments. Otherwise the ongoing slant towards historical inaccuracy will continue and no new rules or simulators will help.
Reconstruction profits handsomely from the scholarly research and we should embrace it both for knowledge and for methods. We may not turn our back on it, because it gives us overall context and serves as a base for our interpretations. Our methods must take into account historical reality (or its current interpretation) and be strict enough for us to clearly document what is source-based and what is our extrapolation, a foreign element introduced to patch holes that are and always will be present.
Our experiments and their results should be recorded. If we want reconstruction to progress new reconstructors need access to prior failed experiments, so as to prevent us from repeating errors already made, and to continue this journey. At the same time, because we are a separate field, we should create the publication standards that suit our process – reliable, but also fast and easily assimilated. We can be inspired, but let us not just blindly copy. We must always remember the base assumptions that divide our field from others.
There is still much work ahead if we want the reconstruction of historical combat to progress. We were briefly distracted by creating better rules, simulators and training regimes or limiting ourselves to publications of transcriptions, translations or sometimes articles of little consequence. We need a consolidation of efforts that will bring back the spirit of early 2000s where some of us met together to exchange the results of our work and, instead of teaching workshops and passing already validated recipes to newcomers, had discussions about our process and our results.
We need to experiment more widely and embrace the process that finally results in the fruits which can later be consumed by trainers, competitors and scholars during tournaments, gatherings or conferences. Reconstruction itself is a separate process, a discourse that demands active participation of all involved and relies on everyone expanding their knowledge, and their skills towards a specific goal. If we don’t cultivate it, the connection to our roots will soon disappear.
Does it mean that reconstruction will remain a niche that only few people in the world are interested in? Will it even survive these stormy days? These questions remain unanswered. The challenge is that in exchange for years of hard work we receive little else but satisfaction from partially solving a puzzle. There are no tournaments here, no glory to be gained, no academic titles or financial gains. There isn’t even the feeling of defeating an opponent. There’s only this fleeting awareness that maybe for a brief moment we managed to resurrect the ghosts of the masters of Historical European Martial Arts.