The Historical European Martial Arts of Time

The Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA means European martial arts. These are practices originating from Europe that were once taught and learned. Yet these soon died out or developed into different forms that we know of today.

There are over 2,400 year old military traditions in close-combat proficiency. And this is only within Western civilization. Yet some of these were unfortunately neglected by academics and historians.

Yet there was an increase in modern research about the historical ways of using weapons. The growing study involves a mix of fencing & military history. Aside from these, there was also art, language, literature, and archaeology.

Yet due to the changes in history and society, classic teachings of European defense fell out of use. With that, little to none of the methods survived in contemporary fencing sports of today. This is because the martial art has changed from its martial Renaissance origins.

So in the later centuries, Europe only saw a narrow and limited application of weapons. Only a couple survived for a certain time to become martial sports.

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What was the Early History of HEMA?

Today, there are only a few numbers of surviving data about the ancient martial arts. Common martial arts included Greek wrestling or Gladiator combat. These surviving documents date all the way back to the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period.

With this, the focus on HEMA is de facto on the time of half of the millennium of CA. In the years 1300 to 1800, an Italian and German school appeared in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These were schools followed by French Spanish, Scottish, and English schools of fencing. This was around the 17th and 18th centuries of the modern period.

The focus for this task is reconstructing the swordplay. Hence, is usually referred to as or called historical fencing. A lot of work has gone into the search for medieval weapons like the longsword. Other weapons include the cross-hilted sword, basket-hilted broadsword, rapier, and even the saber.

HEMA isn’t limited to the use of swords. Practitioners also make use of the quarter staff, pole weapons, and daggers. Unarmed skills were also included such bare-knuckle boxing and wrestling.

What is the Art of Fencing?

Fencing is a collection of 3-related combat sports. The 3 disciplines under the art are the foil, saber, and epee. Winning points happen via contact with the opponent. The 4th discipline, the single stick, was something used in the 1904 Olympics.

Despite its appearance in the event, the 4th discipline was soon dropped after that. It was also not included in modern-day fencing. One of the first sports played in the Olympics was fencing. It was a sport based off on the classic skills of swordsmanship.

This art first appeared in the 19th century. Here, the Italian school modified the art of classical fencing. After, the Italian system was later refined by the French school.  

Fencing was always vital for knights and nobles of the Renaissance & medieval period. It was important since it was one way to measure an individual’s martial skills. Yet it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the ways of fencing known today, started taking form.

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Baroque Style – What is it all About?

During the Baroque period, wrestling fell in popularity among the upper class individuals. The reason for this was that wrestling was an art thought of as rustic and unrefined. The practice of fencing also had to conform with fresh ideals linked to harmony and elegance.

This ideology soon reached great lengths. This was particularly in Spain where La Verdadera Destreza – the true art – was soon based from.  This speaks of the real art of swordsmanship that the Renaissance humanism influenced. It also included some notes on scientific that differed from medieval fencing.

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Rococo Style

During the 18th century of the Late Baroque or Rococo period, the fencing in the French style was popular. Here, practitioners held the small sword then later, the foil / fleuret. In origin, it was a weapon used for small sword fencing.

By 1715, the rapier was soon replaced by the small sword which was a lighter option. The weapon used became popular throughout Europe. Despite this, the previous blade was still included by authors like Donald McBane. Other authors who did the same were Domenico Angelo and PJF Girard.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What is Stick Fighting?

Stick fighting  is a type of martial arts where practitioners use a simple stick. The weapon they used were long, blunt, and slender.

Stick fighting comes in a variety of styles. One is walking stick fighting with the Irish Bata (Shillelagh), French La Canne, and English cane. Another style is Bartistu, a hybrid of schools of the East and the West, which became popular in the 20th century.

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Who are the Notable HEMA Practitioners?

There were many historians and practitioners who were highly interested in studying the lost martial arts. With that, they began having more influence around the world.

One of them was Johannes Liechtenauer, a famous combat master of the 14th century. His verses on combat remained focused on German martial arts for the next centuries. He was a master of German fencing and had a huge influence on the martial art.

Alfred Hutton, an Englishman of the 19th century. At 12, he started learning fencing from Henry Charles Angelo the Younger. Hutton became an experienced fencer and martial artist. He urged changes in military policies to improve soldiers’ training with classic fencing methods.

The British fencing master, Henry Charles Angelo the Younger, was from the Angelo dynasty of fencers. In his younger days, he took over his father’s fencing academy in 1817. Then, he moved the school from Bond Street to St. James’ Street. He was the supervisor of sword exercise to the Royal Navy and the British Army.

Camillo Agrippa was a 16th century master of Italian fencing. He was one of the masters to adjust his methods to the modern age. With that, he included modern changes and ideas on the details of body, combat, as well as its place in society.

The European Martial Arts in the 20th Century

By the 20th century, the European martial arts had died. Swords only remained as a symbol for officers due to the advancement of guns. With the creation of tanks, the cavalry ceased to exist in modern-day militaries. This caused the end of using the sword for martial arts.

At this point in history, the classic European martial arts are no longer in any military application. Instead, 20th century hobbyists from the upper and middle classes picked these arts up.

Despite the continuity of fencing, practitioners did not sustain this through the 18th until the 20th century. Fencing and wrestling evolved into new versions that we are familiar with today. Other practices involving more classic weapons like the poleaxe and longsword completely disappeared.  

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The Modern HEMA community

Since 1990, HEMA communities have emerged in English-speaking nations. Europe, Australia, and North America. These groups attempted to rebuild the arts with different training methods.

These communities’ main focus is the martial arts of the Medieval and Renaissance masters. Despite that, they also studied the teachers of the 19th and 20th centuries and recreate their systems.

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