What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part I: Introduction and Sources

I’m far from the first person to pick up this subject, but I continue to hear so many mistakes made about medieval and Renaissance weapons, armor and combat that I feel that the subject merits continued treatment.

To begin, let me set out my bona fides: My undergraduate degree is a B.A. in History, focusing on Medieval and Renaissance History, my senior thesis was written on Henry VIII’s use of Arthurian Legend as propaganda and included research at the British Library and National Archives. My master’s degree is in English, focusing again on medieval and Renaissance literature; my master’s thesis was about the use of particular weapons and fighting styles in Shakespeare’s works, 16th century English fighting manuals and adventure pamphlets as a method of establishing identity, particularly national identity.

I was a sport fencer in high school (which hardly counts for anything in this field, unfortunately, except in the rudiments of all hand-to-hand combat: distance, timing and footwork) and spent my college years as a member (and later study-group leader) of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA), having broken a rib and an eardrum in separate sparring engagements during that time (no, I did not get stabbed in the ear). Though I did not continue my affiliation with them after I left my original study group, I have continued to practice and develop my skills as a swordsman, off and on. I have experience sparring at full contact with padded weapons carefully designed to emulate the weight and balance of actual swords, with wooden “wasters” and with blunted steel. I’ve studied and worked through Ringeck, Talhoffer, Fiori dei Liberi, Silver, Swetnam and others, including some sword-and-buckler work in the I.33 and some rapier work with Agrippa, Di Grassi and Saviolo. My primary experience (in practice) is in the two-handed longsword, single-handed swords of the “cut-and-thrust” variety (mostly with dagger or a free secondary hand), the rapier (again with dagger or free hand), and grappling/dagger work. I have used a shield sometimes, mostly a buckler, and all of my experience is in the realm of “blossfechten,” that is, fighting without (plate) armor. I’ve seen a number of demonstrations of fighting in plate (harnessfechten) and understand the theory, but have no direct experience there.

The subject of “medieval and Renaissance martial arts,” “historical European martial arts,” (HEMA) or “Western martial arts”  (WMA) has become an increasing interest in Western culture over the past thirty years, though I’d still venture to say that the subject, as both research field and martial art form, remains in the early stages of reconstruction.

If you want to see what swordplay looks like, I recommend you go to YouTube and look for clips under the search terms in the preceding paragraph, with particular attention to some of the European competition clips. Each year, it seems, there are more competitions, the “sport” becomes more like other sports (with organizations, sponsors, etc.), and the competitors seem to have greater skill. This will give you some perspective on the topics we’ll cover in this series.

How did we get to a point where, after such a far remove from the times when these weapons were actually employed, we can begin to understand and reconstruct their usage?

There are museum pieces and archeological records of course, which give us much of our information on actual weights and designs of swords, armor and other weapons. The Royal Armouries in Leeds, England has, as far as I’m aware, one of the very best collections of early modern armaments anywhere in the world. Bear in mind though, that we find far fewer pristine examples of items than we do pitted and degraded examples, this being more the case the farther in time we look back.

For the technical aspects of medieval arms and armor, I would refer the student to begin with the works of Ewart Oakeshott, with the caveat that his interpretations are not the final say in the matter, that even he was unsure about some of his classifications, and that there has been much debate and revision of his ideas since.

We also have art and literature but, as we’ll see, the interpretation of these alone can sometimes lead to misunderstandings (that continue to defy correction)!

For the actual reconstruction of the martial “arts” of the medieval and early modern periods, we have written instructions, what are generally referred to as the “fechtbuchs.” The earliest of which I’m aware is the Royal Armouries’ I.33 sword and buckler manuscript, probably written sometime around the turn of the 13th century to the 14th.

We continue to see handcrafted manuals, but the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439 led to the “mass-” production of printed manuals as well. These texts were put down by masters of arms, those teachers of the craft who had earned sufficient fame and demonstrated sufficient skill, both as instruction manual and as advertisement, probably. A list of Western martial arts manuals may be found (on Wikipedia) here.

In the modern age, groups like ARMA and many others–local schools like any Eastern martial arts dojo are popping up in U.S. cities all the time–take these manuals, translate them into English (or, more likely, purchase translated copies), and then work through the examples and instructions within to figure out what is intended and what actually works. Many of the fechtbuchs are illustrated, though there’s often some debate over whether the pictures accurately reflect what is referenced in the text. If modern artists’ renderings of concept firearms are any indication, some artists understood what they were depicting well enough to be accurate, but many, perhaps most, did not.

The amount of scholarly attention to this field grows a little year-by-year, but it is still (as far as I’m aware) the focus of only a small handful of professors and professional scholars. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe remains one of the best scholarly surveys of historical fighting manuals available; it is approaching its twentieth anniversary.

If you get on Amazon, you can now find instructional manuals like those for any martial art, the authors having purportedly gone through earlier texts to recreate the skills and portray them in modern language and pictures.

As a person writing or roleplaying in a setting with swords and armor, should you feel compelled to join some reenactment group or martial arts collective participating in the HEMA/WMA world? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have the experience. In this series, though, I’m going to try to cover the essentials of what you need to know so that you’re at least not making any glaring errors.

To continue to the next Part in this Series, click here.

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