Limits of Understanding in the Study of Lost Martial Arts

Open access


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.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Leeds Royal Armouries ms. I.33.

  • Nürnberg Germanisches Nationalmuseum. ms. 3227a.

  • Anglo Sydney The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven CT: Yale University Press 2000).

  • Bachmann-Medick Doris Cultural Turns: New Orientations in the Study of Culture De Gruyter Textbook (Berlin Boston: de Gruyter 2016).

  • Barber Richard and Juliet Barker Tournaments: Jousts Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell 1989).

  • Bennett Alexander Kendo: Culture of the Sword (Oakland California: University of California Press 2015).

  • Boffa Sergio Les manuels de combat (Fechtbücher et Ringbücher) Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental 87 (Turnhout: Brepols 2014).

  • Bowman Paul Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries Disruptions (London: Rowman & Littlefield International 2015).

  • Burkart Eric ‘Body Techniques of Combat: The Depiction of a Personal Fighting System in the Fight Books of Hans Talhofer (1443-1467 CE)’ in Killing and Being Killed. Perspectives on Bodies in Battle ed. by Jörg Rogge [forthcoming].

  • Burkart Eric ‘Den Kampf anhalten: Bildliche Bewegungsdidaktiken in moderner Ratgeberliteratur und in europäischen Handschriften des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts’ in »Die Welt anhalten«: Von Bildern Fotografie und Wissenschaft ed. by Günter Burkart and Nikolaus Meyer (Weinheim Basel: Beltz Juventa 2016) 174–201.

  • Burkart Eric ‘Die Aufzeichnung des Nicht-Sagbaren: Annäherung an die kommunikative Funktion der Bilder in den Fechtbüchern des Hans Talhofer’ in Zweikämpfer: Fechtmeister – Kämpen – Samurai ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser Das Mittelalter. Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung 19.2 (Berlin: De Gruyter 2014) 253–301.

  • Burkart Eric ‘The Autograph of an Erudite Martial Artist: A Close Reading of Nuremberg Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs. 3227a’ in Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries) ed. by Daniel Jaquet Karin Verelst and Timothy Dawson History of Warfare 112 (Leiden Boston: Brill 2016) 451–80.

  • Burkart Eric ‘Zweikampfpraktiken zwischen sozialer Normierung medialer Präsentation und wissenschaftlicher Einordnung’ in Agon und Distinktion: Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser Geschichte Forschung und Wissenschaft 47 (Berlin Münster: LIT 2016) 4–14.

  • Burke Peter What is Cultural History? (Cambridge U.K. Malden MA: Polity Press 2004).

  • Butt John Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance Musical Performance and Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004).

  • Daniel Ute Kompendium Kulturgeschichte: Theorien Praxis Schlüsselwörter 5th edn (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 2006).

  • Forgeng Jeffrey L. The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A Facsimile & Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise Royal Armouries MS I.33 (Union City: Chivalry Bookshelf 2003).

  • Frank Adam D. Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity Through Martial Arts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2006).

  • Grondin Jean ‘The Hermeneutical Circle’ in The Blackwell Companion to Hermeneutics ed. by Niall Keane and Chris Lawn Blackwell Companions to Philosophy 60 (Chichester West Sussex UK Malden MA: John Wiley & Sons 2016) 299–305.

  • Huck Oliver ‘Meistererzählungen und Meistergesänge: Geschichte und Aufführung der Musik des Mittelalters’ in Meistererzählungen vom Mittelalter: Epochenimaginationen und Verlaufsmuster in der Praxis mediävistischer Disziplinen ed. by Frank Rexroth Historische Zeitschrift – Beiheft N.F. 46 (München: Oldenbourg 2007) 69–85.

  • Irving David R. M. ‘Historicizing Performance Practice: Early Music through Time and Space’ Early Music 41.1 (2013) 83–85.

  • Israel Uwe and Christian Jaser eds Agon und Distinktion: Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit Geschichte Forschung und Wissenschaft 47 (Berlin Münster: LIT 2016).

  • Jaquet Daniel and Claus F. Sørensen ‘Historical European Martial Art – A Crossroad between Academic Research Martial Heritage Re-creation and Martial Sport Practices’ Acta Periodica Duellatorum 1 (2015) 5–35.

  • Jaquet Daniel and Nicolas Baptiste eds Expérimenter le maniement des armes à la fin du Moyen Age: Experimente zur Waffenhandhabung im Spätmittelalter Itinera 39 (Basel: Schwabe 2016).

  • Jaquet Daniel and others ‘Range of Motion and Energy Cost of Locomotion of the Late Medieval Armoured Fighter: A Proof of Concept of Confronting the Medieval Technical Literature with Modern Movement Analysis’ Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 49.3 (2016) 169–86.

  • Jaquet Daniel Combattre en armure à la fin du Moyen Âge et au début de la Renaissance d'après les livres du combat (Thèse de doctorat Université de Genève 2013).

  • Jaquet Daniel ‘Entre jeux de mains et jeux de mots: faire l'expérience ou expérimenter les gestes d'après les textes techniques. Reproduire ou répliquer les objets…’ in Expérimenter le maniement des armes à la fin du Moyen Age: Experimente zur Waffenhandhabung im Spätmittelalter ed. by Daniel Jaquet and Nicolas Baptiste Itinera 39 (Basel: Schwabe 2016) 11–18.

  • Jaquet Daniel ‘Experimenting Historical European Martial Arts a Scientific Method?’ in Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries) ed. by Daniel Jaquet Karin Verelst and Timothy Dawson History of Warfare 112 (Leiden Boston: Brill 2016) 216–43.

  • Jaquet Daniel Karin Verelst and Timothy Dawson eds Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries) History of Warfare 112 (Leiden Boston: Brill 2016).

  • Jaquet Daniel ed. L'art chevaleresque du combat: Le maniement des armes à travers les livres de combat (XIVe-XVIe siècles) (Neuchâtel: Éditions Alphil-Presses universitaires suisses 2013).

  • Jinnah Naila ‘Swimming United States’ in Sports around the World: History Culture and Practice ed. by Charles Parrish and John Nauright (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO 2012) vol. 3 400–05.

  • Judkins Benjamin N. ‘The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper-reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts’ Martial Arts Studies 2 (2016) 6–22.

  • Keen Maurice H. Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press 1984).

  • Kreutziger-Herr Annette Ein Traum vom Mittelalter: Die Wiederentdeckung mittelalterlicher Musik in der Neuzeit (Köln: Böhlau 2003).

  • Kreutziger-Herr Annette ‘Imagining Medieval Music: A Short History’ in Correspondences: Medievalism in Scholarship and the Arts ed. by Thomas A. Shippey Studies in Medievalism 14 (Cambridge: Brewer 2005) 81–109.

  • Landwehr Achim Kulturgeschichte (Stuttgart: Ulmer 2009).

  • Leech-Wilkinson Daniel The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship Ideology Performance Musical Performance and Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002).

  • Leng Rainer Fecht- und Ringbücher Katalog der deutschsprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters Bd. 4/2 Lfg. 1/2 Stoffgr. 38 (München: C.H. Beck 2008).

  • Lorge Peter A. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-first Century (New York: Cambridge University Press 2012).

  • Ludwig Ulrike Barbara Krug-Richter and Gerd Schwerhoff eds Das Duell: Ehrenkämpfe vom Mittelalter bis zur Moderne Konflikte und Kultur – Historische Perspektiven 23 (Konstanz: UVK 2012).

  • Ludwig Ulrike Das Duell im Alten Reich: Transformation und Variationen frühneuzeitlicher Ehrkonflikte Historische Forschungen 112 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot 2016).

  • Matthews Christopher R. and Alex Channon ‘Understanding Sports Violence: Revisiting Foundational Explorations’ Sport in Society (2016) 1–17.

  • Mauss Marcel ‘Body Techniques’ in Sociology and Psychology: Essays (London: Routledge and K. Paul 1979) 95–123.

  • Mauss Marcel ‘Les techniques du corps’ Journal de Psychologie 32.3-4 (1935) 271–93.

  • Polanyi Michael Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago 1958).

  • Price Brian R. ‘A Proposed Methodology for the Validation of Historical European Martial Arts’ Initial. A Review of Medieval Studies 3 (2015) 57–70.

  • Reckwitz Andreas Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien: Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms 3rd edn (Weilerswist: Velbrück 2012).

  • Riemer Nick Introducing Semantics Cambridge Introductions to Language and Linguistics (Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press 2010).

  • Spatz Ben What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge Practice as Research (Abingdon: Routledge 2015).

  • Taruskin Richard Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford New York: Oxford University Press 1995).

  • Tlusty Ann The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms Early Modern History: Society and Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

  • Wacquant Loïc J. D. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford New York: Oxford University Press 2004).

  • Wetzler Sixt ‘Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft: A Possible Theoretical Framework’ Martial Arts Studies 1 (2015) 20–33.

  • Wetzler Sixt ‘Vergleichende Kampfkunstwissenschaft als historisch-kulturwissenschaftliche Disziplin: Mögliche Gegenstände nötige Quellen anzuwendende Methoden’ in Menschen im Zweikampf - Kampfkunst und Kampfsport in Lehre und Forschung 2013: Jahrestagung der dvs-Kommission “Kampfkunst und Kampfsport” vom 7.-9. November 2013 in Erlangen ed. by Sebastian Liebl and Peter Kuhn Schriften der Deutschen Vereinigung für Sportwissenschaft 236 (Hamburg: Feldhaus 2014) 57–66.

  • Zarrilli Phillip B. When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu a South Indian Martial Art (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1998).

Journal information
Cited By
All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 913 511 14
PDF Downloads 363 185 12