Historical European martial arts

Historical European martial arts
The first page of the Codex Wallerstein shows the typical arms of 15th-century individual combat, including the longsword, roundel dagger, sword-and-buckler, halberd, spear, and staff.

Historical European martial arts (HEMA) is a neologism describing martial arts of European origin, used particularly to refer to arts formerly practised, but having since died out or evolved into very different forms. The term Western martial arts (WMA) is sometimes used synonymously with HEMA.

While there is limited surviving documentation of the martial arts of Classical Antiquity (such as Ancient Greek wrestling or Gladiatorial combat), surviving dedicated technical treatises or combat manuals date to the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. For this reason, the focus of HEMA is de facto on the period of the half-millennium of ca. 1300 to 1800, with a German and an Italian school flowering in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries), followed by Spanish, French, English and Scottish schools of fencing in the modern period (17th and 18th centuries). Arts of the 19th century such as classical fencing, and even early hybrid styles such as Bartitsu may also be included in the term HEMA in a wider sense, as may traditional or folkloristic styles attested in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including forms of folk wrestling and traditional stick fighting methods.

During the Late Middle Ages, the longsword had a position of honour among these disciplines, and sometimes Historical European Swordsmanship (HES) is used to refer to swordsmanship techniques specifically.

Modern reconstructions of some of these arts arose from the 1970s and have been practiced systematically since the 1990s.


Early history (before 1350)

There are no known manuals predating the Late Middle Ages (except for fragmentary instructions on Greek wrestling, see P.Oxy. III 466), although Ancient and Medieval literature (e.g. Icelandic sagas and Middle High German epics) record specific martial deeds and military knowledge; in addition, historical artwork depicts combat and weaponry (e.g. the Bayeux tapestry, the Morgan Bible). Some researchers have attempted to reconstruct older fighting methods such as Pankration and gladiatorial combat by reference to these sources and practical experimentation, though such recreations necessarily remain more speculative than those based on actual instructions.

Fol. 4v of the I.33

The so-called MS I.33 (also known as the Walpurgis or Tower Fechtbuch), dated to between ca. 1290 (by Alphonse Lhotsky) and the early-to-mid-14th century (by R. Leng, of the University of Würzburg), is the oldest surviving fechtbuch, teaching sword and buckler combat.

Late Middle Ages (1350 to 1500)

Longsword guards (1452 manuscript)

The central figure of late Medieval martial arts, at least in Germany, is Johannes Liechtenauer. Though no manuscript written by him is known to survive, his teachings were first recorded in the late 14th century MS 3227a. From the 15th century into the 17th, numerous Fechtbücher (German "fencing-books") were produced, of which some 55 are extant; a great many of these describe methods descended from Liechtenauer's.

Normally, several modes of combat were taught alongside one another, typically unarmed grappling (Kampfringen or abrazare), dagger (Degen or daga, often of the rondel variety), long knife (Messer) or Dussack, half- or quarterstaff, pole arms, longsword (langes Schwert, spada longa, spadone), and combat in plate armour (Harnischfechten or armazare), both on foot and on horseback. Some Fechtbücher have sections on dueling shields (Stechschild), special weapons used only in judicial duels.

Important 15th century German fencing masters include Sigmund Ringeck, Peter von Danzig, Hans Talhoffer and Paulus Kal, all of whom taught the teachings of Liechtenhauer. From the late 15th century, there were "brotherhoods" of fencers (Fechtbruderschaften), most notably the Marx brothers (attested 1474) and the Federfechter.

An early Burgundian French treatise is Le jeu de la hache ("The Play of the Axe") of ca. 1400.

The earliest master to write in the Italian was Fiore dei Liberi, commissioned by the Marquis di Ferrara. Between 1407 and 1410, he documented comprehensive fighting techniques in a treatise entitled Flos Duellatorum covering grappling, dagger, arming sword, longsword, pole-weapons, armoured combat and mounted combat. The Italian school is continued by Filippo Vadi (1482–1487) and Pietro Monte (1492, Latin with Italian and Spanish terms)

Three early (before Silver) natively English swordplay texts exist, all very obscure and of uncertain date; they are generally thought to belong to the latter half of the 15th century.


In the 16th century, compendia of older Fechtbücher techniques were produced, some of them printed, notably by Paulus Hector Mair (in the 1540s) and by Joachim Meyer (in the 1570s).

In the 16th century German fencing had developed sportive tendencies. The treatises of Paulus Hector Mair and Joachim Meyer derived from the teachings of the earlier centuries within the Liechtenauer tradition, but with new and distinctive characteristics. The printed fechtbuch of Jacob Sutor (1612) is one of the last in the German tradition.

In Italy, the 16th century is a period of big change. It opens with the two treatises of Bolognese masters Antonio Manciolino and Achille Marozzo, who describe a variation of the eclectic knightly arts of the previous century. From sword and buckler to sword and dagger, sword alone to two-handed sword, from polearms to wrestling (though absent in Manciolino), early 16th century Italian fencing reflects the versatility that a martial artist of the time was supposed to achieve.[1]

Towards the mid-century, however, polearms and companion weapons beside the dagger and the cape gradually begin to fade out of treatises. In 1553, Camillo Agrippa is the first to define the prima, seconda, terza and quarta guards (or hand-positions), which would remain the mainstay of Italian fencing into the next century and beyond.[2] From the late 16th century, Italian rapier fencing attained considerable popularity all over Europe, notably with the treatise by Salvator Fabris (1606).

Early Modern period (1600 to 1789)

Students fencing with rapier and dagger, ca. 1590

Baroque (1600-1720)

Academie de l-Espee (Girard Thibault, 1628)

During the Baroque period, wrestling fell from favour among the upper classes, being now seen as unrefined and rustic. The fencing styles practice also needed to conform with the new ideals of elegance and harmony.

This ideology was taken to great lengths in Spain in particular, where La Verdadera Destreza "the true art (of swordsmanship)" was now based on Renaissance humanism and scientific principles, contrasting with the traditional "vulgar" approach to fencing inherited from the medieval period. Significant masters of Destreza included Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza ("the father of Destreza", d. 1600) and Luis Pacheco de Narváez (1600, 1632). Girard Thibault (1630) was a Dutch master influenced by these ideals.

The French school of fencing also moves away from its Italian roots, developing its own terminology, rules and systems of teaching. French masters of the Baroque period include Le Perche du Coudray (1635, 1676, teacher of Cyrano de Bergerac), Besnard (1653, teacher of Descartes) and Philibert de la Touche (1670).

In Italy, 17th century swordsmanship is dominated by Salvator Fabris, whose De lo schermo overo scienza d’arme of 1606 exerted great influence not only in Italy but also in Germany, where it all but extinguished the native German traditions of fencing. Fabris was followed by Italian masters such as Nicoletto Giganti (1606), Ridolfo Capo Ferro (1610), Francesco Alfieri (1640), Francesco Antonio Marcelli (1686) and Bondi' di Mazo (1696).

The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras produce English fencing masters, such as George Silver (1599) and Joseph Swetnam (1617). The English verb to fence is first attested in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor (1597).

The French school of fencing originates in the 16th century, based on the Italian school, and develops into its classic form in the Baroque period.

Rococo (1720-1789)

Academic fencing (1725 etching)

In the 18th century Late Baroque / Rococo period, the French style of fencing with the smallsword and later with the foil (fleuret), in origin a training weapon for smallsword fencing.

By the year 1715, the rapier had been largely replaced by the lighter smallsword throughout most of Europe, although treatments of the former continued to be included by authors such as Donald McBane (1728), P. J. F. Girard (1736) and Domenico Angelo (1763).

In the course of the 18th century, the French school became the western European standard to the extent that Angelo, an Italian-born master teaching in England, published his L'Ecole des Armes in French in 1763. It was extremely successful and became a standard fencing manual over the following 50 years, throughout the Napoleonic period. Angelo's text was so influential that it was chosen to be included under the heading of "Éscrime" in the Encyclopédie of Diderot.

Development of modern sports (1789 to 1914)

Academic fencing (1831 painting)
Transition to modern sports fencing: sabre fencing around 1900.

In the course of the long 19th century, Western martial arts become divided into modern sports on one hand and applications that retain military significance on the other. In the latter category are the methods of close-quarter combat with the bayonet besides use of the sabre and the lance by cavalrists.

Apart from fencing with bladed weapons, European combat sports of the 19th century include boxing, numerous regional forms of folk wrestling, and numerous styles of stick fighting.


Fencing in the 19th century transforms into a pure sport. While duels remain common among members of the aristocratic and officer classes, they become increasingly frowned upon in society during the course of the century, and such duels as were fought to the death were increasingly fought with pistols, not bladed weapons.

Stick fighting

Styles of stick fighting include walking-stick fighting (including Irish bata or shillelagh, French la canne and English singlestick or cane) and Bartitsu (an early hybrid of Eastern and Western schools popularized at the turn of the 20th century).

Some existing forms of European stick fighting can be traced to direct teacher-student lineages from the 19th century. Notable examples include the methods of la canne and Bâton français, Portuguese Jogo do Pau, Italian Paranza or Bastone Siciliano and some styles of Canarian Juego del Palo.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, the greatstick (pau/bâton/bastone) was employed by some Portuguese, French and Italian military academies as a method of exercise, recreation and as preparation for bayonet training.


A third category might be traditional "folk styles", mostly folk wrestling. Greco-Roman wrestling was a discipline at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Inclusion of Freestyle wrestling followed in 1904.


Early attempts at reconstructing the discontinued traditions of European systems of combat date to the late 19th century. In Germany, Karl Wassmannsdorf conducted research on the German school that is still referred to today and Gustav Hergsell reprinted three of Hans Talhoffer's manuals. In France there was the work of the Academie D'Armes circa 1880-1914. In England, Egerton Castle and Alfred Hutton wrote pioneering books on the history of swordsmanship, and Cyril Matthey republished Silver's Paradoxes of Defence and Brief Instructions. All three took an interest in the practical side of interpretation, giving public demonstrations of reconstructed techniques. Italy had Jacopo Gelli and Francesco Novati, who published a facsimile of the "Flos Duellatorum" of Fiore dei Liberi, and Giuseppe Cerri, whose book on the Bastone drew inspiration from the two-handed sword of Achille Marozzo. Spain had Baron Leguina, whose bibliography of Spanish swordsmanship is still a standard reference today.

Throughout the 20th century a small number of researchers, principally academics with access to some of the sources, continued exploring the field of historical European martial arts from a largely academic perspective. Interest in physically interpreting the texts was largely dormant during the post-war period however due to a number of factors, including limited access to the historical texts, distance and a lack of effective communication. In 1972, James Jackson published a book called Three Elizabethan Manuals of Fence. This work reprinted the works of George Silver, Giacomo di Grassi, and Vincentio Saviolo. In 1975, Martin Wierschin published a transcription of Sigmund Ringeck's Fechtbuch, along with a glossary of terms and a bibliography of German fencing manuals. In turn, this led to the publication of Hans-Peter Hils' seminal work on Johannes Liechtenauer in 1985.

Beginning in the 1980s, small numbers of isolated aficionados in the United States and Europe independently began researching Historical European Martial Arts. In the 1980s and 1990s, Patri J. Pugliese began making photocopies of historical treatises available to interested parties, greatly spurring on research. 1994 saw the rise of the Hammerterz Forum, a publication devoted entirely to the history of swordsmanship. During the late 1990s, translations and interpretations of historical sources began appearing in print as well as online.

Since the early 2000s, there have been flourishing Historical European Martial Arts communities in Europe, North America and the wider Anglosphere. Since 1999 a number of these groups have held the Western Martial arts Workshop (WMAW) in the United States. In 2000 The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) held the Inaugural Swordplay Symposium International conference and since 2003 have has held the ARMA International Gathering every two to three years. The Fiore-oriented Schola Saint George has hosted a Medieval Swordsmanship Symposium annually in the United States since 2003. Internationally, the Schola Saint George also has branches in Western Australia, Russia, England, Sweden, and Latvia. The Higgins Armory Museum is a major center of research and teaching in HEMA.

In 2001 the Historical European Martial arts Coalition (HEMAC) was created to act as an umbrella organization for groups in Europe. Since 2002, HEMAC has organized the annual International Historical European Martial arts Gathering in Dijon, France. In 2003, the Australian Historical Swordplay Federation became the umbrella organization for groups in Australia, and an annual Australian Historical Swordplay Convention has been hosted and attended by diverse Australian groups since 1999. The HEMA Alliance is a martial arts federation containing dozens of HEMA schools and clubs from around the world, providing insurance and research accreditation to its members.


  1. ^ Tom Leoni, The Complete Renaissance Swordsman, Freelance Academy Press, 2011
  2. ^ Tom Leoni, Venetian Rapier, Freelance Academy Press, 2010


  • Anglo, Sydney. The Martial arts of Renaissance Europe. Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-300-08352-1
  • Terry Brown, English Martial arts (1997) Anglo-Saxon Books, ISBN 1-898281-29-7
  • John Clements, Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Methods and Techniques. Paladin Press, 1998). ISBN 1-58160-004-6
  • John Clements, Renaissance Swordsmanship : The Illustrated Book Of Rapiers And Cut And Thrust Swords And Their Use. Paladin Press, 1997. ISBN 0-87364-919-2
  • John Clements, et al. Masters of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts: Rediscovering The Western Combat Heritage. Paladin Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58160-668-3
  • Gaugler, William. The History of Fencing : Foundations of Modern European Fencing. Laureate Press, 1997. ISBN 1-884528-16-3
  • Hans Heim & Alex Kiermayer, The Longsword of Johannes Liechtenauer, Part I (DVD), ISBN 1-891448-20-X
  • Tommaso Leoni, The Art of Dueling (2005), ISBN 1-891448-23-4
  • Tom Leoni, Venetian Rapier (2010) ISBN 978-0-9825911-2-3
  • Tom Leoni, The Complete Renaissance Swordsman (2010) ISBN 978-0-9825911-3-0
  • David James Knight and Brian Hunt, Polearms of Paulus Hector Mair, Paladin Press (2008), ISBN 978-1-58160-644-7.
  • David Lindholm & Peter Svärd, Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Art of the Longsword, Paladin Press (2003), ISBN 1-58160-410-6
  • David Lindholm & Peter Svärd. Knightly Arts of Combat - Sigmund Ringeck's Sword and Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor. Paladin Press, 2006. ISBN 1-58160-499-8
  • David Lindholm, Fighting with the Quarterstaff, (2006), ISBN 1-891448-36-6
  • Brian R. Price, ed. Teaching & Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship (2005), ISBN 1-891448-46-3
  • Christopher Thompson, Lannaireachd: Gaelic Swordsmanship (2001), ISBN 1-59109-236-1
  • Christian Henry Tobler, Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship (2001), ISBN 1-891448-07-2
  • Christian Henry Tobler, Fighting with the German Longsword (2004), ISBN 1-891448-24-2
  • Jason Vail, Medieval and Renaissance Dagger Combat (2006) Paladin Press
  • Guy Windsor, The Swordsman's Companion: A Modern Training Manual for Medieval Longsword (2004), ISBN 1-891448-41-2
  • Grzegorz Zabinski and Bartlomiej Walczak. The Codex Wallerstein : A Medieval Fighting Book from the Fifteenth Century on the Longsword, Falchion, Dagger, and Wrestling. Paladin Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58160-339-8

See also

External links

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