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The use of the saber in the army of Napoleon

Abstract

Though Napoleonic warfare is usually associated with guns and cannons, edged weapons still played an important role on the battlefield. Swords and sabers could dominate battles and this was certainly the case in the hands of experienced cavalrymen. In contrast to gunshot wounds, wounds caused by the saber could be treated quite easily and caused fewer casualties. In 18th and 19th century France, not only manuals about the use of foil and epee were published, but also some important works on the military saber: de Saint Martin, Alexandre Muller… The saber was not only used in individual fights against the enemy, but also as a duelling weapon in the French army.

Open access
Income and working time of a Fencing Master in Bologna in the 15th and early 16th century

Abstract

Since ancient times, the master-at-arms profession has always been considered essential for the education of the nobility and the common citizenship, especially in the Middle Ages. Yet, we know nothing about the real standard of living of these characters. The recent discovery of documents, which report the sums earned by fencing masters to teach combat disciplines, has brought us the possibility to estimate how highly this profession was regarded, and what its actual economic value was in the Italian late Middle Ages. They also give us also a material view into the modes of operation of a sala d’arme in those times.

Using different comparative methods based on the quoted currencies, primary goods and the cost of living, it was possible to analyze prices and duration of various military teachings offered by the fencing Masters in the late Middle Ages and equivalent viable activities of the time. We use three ways to calculate equivalent income levels in euros: from the silver content of the coins (bolognini, equivalent to the soldo); from purchasing power in relation to bread prices; and from equivalent wages. As a result we were able to define more accurately both the accessibility of these services for citizens and the relative value to other professions.

This cursory research study also aims to estimate approximately the current equivalent wages of a fencing master operating in the Italian peninsula in the 15th and early 16th century, confirming that this job was comparable to a modern, highly specialized, profession.

Open access
A Look Behind the Scenes: Danish Renaissance Martial Arts during the Reign of Christian IV

Abstract

From the 4th – 7th of July 2016, the annual International Medieval Congress was held in Leeds, England. Among the many different sessions two specifically addressed historical European martial arts. The first session discussed and commented upon modern practices and interpretations of historical European martial arts, each paper being based on good practice and the proper criteria for academic research. The second session, in which this paper was presented, went more “behind the scenes”, discussing the importance of thorough analysis of the historical context which remains essential to forming a foundation for solid hypotheses and interpretations.

This article discusses and sheds light upon Danish historical martial art during the reign of the Danish King Christian IV (r.1588 to 1648). At this point in time Europe consisted of many small principalities in addition to a few larger states and kingdoms. Thoughts and ideas could spread as quickly as ripples in water but also be bound by political and religious alliances or enmities, plague, famine and not to mention the role also played by topographical and cultural differences. Thus, at times, vast cultural differences could be seen from region to region.

To this should be added a wide range of social factors, such as the role of relationships and mentalities, and the obeying of unspoken norms and codes which can also affect modern researchers’ interpretations of what is shown or described. Therefore, the aim of this article is to provide a series of “behind the scenes” examples which all have the potential to affect hypotheses, interpretations, and overall understandings of the context of historical European martial arts.

Open access
Limits of Understanding in the Study of Lost Martial Arts
Epistemological Reflections on the Mediality of Historical Records of Technique and the Status of Modern (Re-)Constructions

Abstract

The paper is organised around the notion of embodied technique. The recent attempts to formulate scientific methodologies for the reconstruction of medieval fighting techniques based on a study of premodern fight books raise questions about the epistemological status of these (re)constructed techniques developed by modern practitioners of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA).

Approaching the subject from a perspective of cultural history and martial arts studies, the following questions are discussed: What is technique and how is it related to practice? How is technique acquired and transmitted? How can technique be recorded? And finally, how can historical records of technique be understood, interpreted and converted into practice?

Following Ben Spatz, technique is defined as the knowledge content of specific practices and the semiotic references between practice, technique, and symbols referring to embodied technique are discussed. By looking at the intersubjective communication of subjective fighting skills and relying on the work of Michael Polanyi, the possibility to record the “tacit knowing” of these skills as explicit knowledge is questioned. Given the low knowledge content of the fight books in regard to the execution of the referenced techniques, modern HEMA techniques therefore are to be addressed as purely modern constructions based on modern fighting practices instead of as reconstructions of medieval technique. The discourses in HEMA are also compared to a similar debate in musicology, where the status and the “authenticity” of attempts to recreate the sound of medieval music based on interpretations of early musical notation systems was vividly discussed until the early 2000s.

Fighting techniques are furthermore addressed as elements of complex fighting systems that only exist within a given historical culture of fighting and are transformed when transferred to another societal context.

Open access
Historical European Martial Art a crossroad between academic research, martial heritage re-creation and martial sport practices

Abstract

Historical European martial arts (HEMA) have to be considered an important part of our common European cultural heritage. Studies within this field of research have the potential to enlighten the puzzle posed by past societies, for example in the field of history, history of science and technology, or fields related to material culture.

The military aspects of history are still to be considered among the most popular themes of modern times, generating huge public interest. In the last few decades, serious HEMA study groups have started appearing all over the world – focusing on re-creating a lost martial art. The terminology “Historical European Martial Arts” therefore also refers to modem-day practices of ancient martial arts. Many of these groups focus on a “hands-on” approach, thus bringing practical experience and observation to enlighten their interpretation of the source material. However, most of the time, they do not establish inquiries based on scientific research, nor do they follow methodologies that allow for a critical analysis of the findings or observations.

This paper will therefore propose and discuss, ideas on how to bridge the gap between enthusiasts and scholars; since their embodied knowledge, acquired by practice, is of tremendous value for scientific inquiries and scientific experimentation. It will also address HEMA practices in the context of modern day acceptance of experimental (or experiential) processes and their value for research purposes and restoration of an historical praxis. The goal is therefore to sketch relevant methodological and theoretical elements, suitable for a multidisciplinary approach, to HEMA, where the “H” for “historical” matters.

Open access