In this Introduction to HEMA Fencing article, we will talk about the crucial parts of Historical European Martial Arts, to help you fully understand all aspects of it.
Table of Contents
- What is HEMA fencing?
- Historical schools of fencing
- Most influential HEMA fencing books
- What equipment is required for HEMA fencing?
- Most popular HEMA fencing clubs
- How to start your own HEMA fencing club?
- Most recognized HEMA fencing tournaments
What is HEMA fencing?
Historical European martial arts (HEMA) refers to martial arts of European origin. “Historical” means that arts that were formerly practiced died since or are being evolved into very different forms. The term WMA (Western Martial Arts) is also sometimes used besides HEMA.
It all started at the beginning of the 14th century when German and Italian schools began writing instructional texts (treaties), which explained the art of the fencing they taught. Nearly every European culture wrote these treaties, but the most famous and used ones were German, French, and Italian. The golden age for the original HEMA lasted until around the 18th century.
The most famous masters of this time were Sigmund Ringeck, Peter von Danzig, Johannes Liechtenauer, and Fiore dei Liberi, who also wrote many fencing manuals.
You can read more about HEMA fencing books here, or you can see our favorite books below.
Nowadays, the HEMAC (Historical European Martial Arts Coalition) was created to act as an umbrella organization for clubs in EU, who continue to develop and promote HEMA. In the US, clubs are under the HEMAA (HEMA Alliance) federation.
Historical schools of fencing
When a HEMA student decides to pick 1 (or more) specific school of fencing, it is essential that he/she considers the resources and his/her preferences. What schools are available in your city or area? Have you tried to fence with more than one sword? What are the fencing teachers like? What kinds of weapons do you like the most? Each school of fencing has its own fencing manuals, which need to be studied by your fencing instructor and by you.
French school of fencing
In the 16th-century, Charles IX of France laid the foundation of the classical French school of fencing or Académie des Maistres en faits d’armes de l’Académie du Roy (also known as the Ecole Française d’Escrime).
Fencing in France quickly developed into a sport during the 17th-century, by masters such as Le Perche du Coudray (1635, 1676, teacher of Cyrano de Bergerac), Philibert de la Touche (1670), Besnard (1653, teacher of Descartes), and L’Abbat of Toulouse (1690, 1696).
The new foil was developed in France in the middle of the 18th-century. It was designed because the dueling sword wasn’t fast, safe, and elegant enough. Fencers foiled its point when fencing, and Germans copied that safety feature soon after they develop their small thrusting sword also known as Parisier.
By the end of the 18th-century, the French school of fencing had become the western European standard. Interestingly an Italian-born master Domenico Angelo published his L’Ecole des Armes in French in 1763 so you can imagine how big French school of fencing was. This text was extremely successful and famous, and it became a standard fencing manual over the following 50 years. This text was so influential that it was chosen to be included under the heading of “Éscrime” in the Encyclopédie of Diderot.
German school of fencing
As it was written in Fechtbücher (“combat manuals”), the German school of fencing (translated: Deutsche Schule; Kunst des Fechtens) is a system taught in the Holy Roman Empire during the Late Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods. During that period, it was known as Kunst des Fechtens, translated “Art of Fencing”.
The main weapon in Kunst des Fechtens is a two-handed longsword, but in Fechtbücher there were also many other weapons, such as polearms, messers, daggers, and the staff. There were also mentions of mounted combat and unarmed grappling techniques. The central figure of the German school of fencing was a 14th-century grandmaster, and a teacher Johannes Liechtenauer.
The earliest surviving treatise on Liechtenauer’s system is a manuscript dated to 1389, known as Ms. 3227a. More manuscripts survived from the 15th century, and during the 16th century, the system was also presented in print, most notably by Joachim Meyer in 1570.
In 17th-century, German school was largely overshadowed by the Italian school of fencing, but nevertheless, it persisted. In the 19th-century, Alfred Hutton awoke this art with reconstructions of the fencing system of several historical masters. He delivered many lectures and practical demonstrations to stop the falling popularity of fencing as an art.
After the war, Germans lost interest in the German style of fencing. Modern American stage fencing gained popularity, probably because of Hollywood movies.
Today, part of the medieval German school of fencing can also be found in modern German Academic fencing. Thanks to HEMA and other fencing enthusiasts, the German school of fencing isn’t left behind.
Italian school of swordsmanship
Italian school of swordsmanship is used to describe the Italian style of fencing and edged-weapon combat from the time of the first Italian swordsmanship fencing book to the days of Classical Fencing (early 20th-century). This first known treatise is called Flos Duellatorum (Fior Di Battaglia) or better known as The Flower of Battle, which was written by Fiore dei Liberi.
You can read more about this book here.
Although Italian type of fencing techniques developed dramatically throughout the five centuries, a few fundamental characteristics have remained constant in the Italian school. We’re talking mostly about certain guards, the preoccupation with tempo in fencing as well, and many of the defensive actions.
16th to early 17th-century, the Dardi school of fencing with the spada da lato profoundly influenced the original Italian school of fencing, which gave rise to the classical early modern of fencing with the rapier. This also affected the Elizabethan and French school of Fencing in the 18th century, which in turn developed into modern sports fencing.
Nowadays, the Italian school of swordsmanship is carefully preserved globally. In Italy, National Academy (Accademia Nazionale – official fencing school) certifies fencers in both historical and modern fencing based on careful adherence to the concepts of Italian swordsmanship.
Spanish school of swordsmanship
The Spanish school of swordsmanship or La Verdadera Destreza. The word Destreza translates to “dexterity” or “skill, the ability”, and thus la verdadera destreza translates as “the true skill” or “the true art”.
Destreza is intended to be a universal method of fighting. Mainly focusing on the rapiers, or the rapier combined with a defensive weapon such as a dagger, cloak, or a buckler. Destreza also covers other late-renaissance weapons such as two-handed montante, the flail, and polearms (halberd, pike).
There are 2 significant distinctions between Destreza and other schools of fencing:
1. Footwork – generally, fencing in Europe is all about linear footwork (similar to modern fencing), while Destreza is giving more value to side-steps. The reason for this is a need to gain more favorable angles for thrusts or cuts.
2. Approach to cuts and thrusts – fencing schools that mainly used rapiers prefer thrust techniques over cuts. On the other hand, Destreza didn’t agree with that, teaching that cuts could be as useful and deadly as thrusts.
The Spanish school of swordsmanship tradition is documented in scores of fencing manuals, which were mainly written by two masters, Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza (Hieronimo de Carança, d. c. 1608) and his student Luis Pacheco de Narváez (1570–1640).
Most influential HEMA fencing books
A considerable portion of HEMA fencing has to do with the theory. It is just as crucial to develop the mind and the soul as it is to develop the body. A lot of the greatest fencers in history are not only superb physical specimens but also intelligent, and curious.
Fiore dei Liberi, Johannes Liechtenauer, Sigmund Ringeck, Nicoletto Giganti, Le Perche du Coudray – these are just some of the names that come up when discussing the greatest fencers of all time.
Do you know what do these masters have in common? They all mastered their own craft, not only with duels but with studying and expanding their knowledge. You’re wrong if you think they were born great. These fencers had to face years of training and study in order to master their skills truly. The effort of these true masters has all helped to shape what we know and love as HEMA today.
Discover the rich history of fencing with our article about best sword lessons books for HEMA.
Let us know in the comments which one is your favorite!
What equipment is required for HEMA fencing?
HEMA fencing gear is a without a doubt a critical factor you’ll need to research and invest your time in. What you decide to wear on your head and your body should always be appropriate for the category in which you’re fencing. Whether you’re fencing with a rapier or a heavy feder, accidents can be serious and painful, so keeping yourself safe and comfortable is every bit as important as the awesome sword you hold.
Even the toughest HEMA fencers prefer to keep their skull, facial bones, and teeth untouched. HEMA fencing masks are meant to protect your head without obstructing you while fencing. Understanding the differences between types of facemasks is not many people’s expertise and finding one for yourself isn’t easy either.
That’s why we prepared an article Best HEMA Mask for Fencing which will teach you everything you need to know about HEMA masks here.
There are different types of jackets, ones for heavier weapons which prefer cutting techniques, while others were made for lighter weapons (rapier for example) which prefer thrusting techniques. They were made to protect your arms, ribs, and other parts of your body, which could suffer if you fence without proper protection. We prepared an article about Best HEMA Jacket for Fencing which will help you find the jacket which will be the best pick for your budget and needs. You can read it here.
Hands are without any doubt, the most exposed area in fencing. You can receive a hit if you defend or attack, especially when fencing with long swords or sabers. They should protect your fingers and provide you with enough grip and movement ability to perform a particular technique. There are many different gauntlets available on the market right now, so we decided to prepare an article about the best ones. You can read it here.
Protective breeches are usually forgotten when we talk about HEMA fencing equipment. Tournament’s rules demand from fencers to wear fitting HEMA pants, and we support that decision 100%. Their main task is to protect your hips, thighs, and knees, and not interfere with stances. As for other parts of HEMA equipment, we also prepared an article about Best Pants for HEMA in 2020. Don’t forget on proper footwear for fencing.
Swords for HEMA
HEMA fencing is a martial art in which opponents battle each other with different kinds of swords. There are usually four main categories on official tournaments, each differentiated by the type of weapon being used.
These weapons are the longsword/feder, the sword & buckler, the rapier, and the saber. Not only the sword, but fencing also requires skill, knowledge, confidence and daring for a fencer to compete.
This is the most popular category amongst HEMA fencers. The German school of fencing prioritized these kinds of weapons, and the most famous fencing master was Johannes Liechtenauer. Longswords/Feders are suitable for cutting and thrusting techniques as well, so they need to be flexible enough not seriously to injure a fencer with a thrust, and durable enough to sustain heavy cuts. There are many different swords available, so it’s hard to find the best one for yourself. That’s why we prepared an article about Best Longswords for Fencing in 2020 article, which you can find here.
Rapier is the main weapon in the Italian and Spanish school of fencing. It is designed to allow the fencer to perform quick and precise thrusts. Probably the most popular fencing manual which prioritizes rapiers is The Flower of Battle by Fiore dei Liberi. The main problem with rapiers nowadays is that other types of swords, such as sideswords are being sold as rapiers, which isn’t right. That’s why we prepared the Best HEMA Rapiers for Fencing in 2020 article, which you can read here.
Saber category isn’t so popular as 2 mentioned above, but it’s still an exciting category. There are 2 versions of sabers, mostly used in HEMA fencing – dueling and military. With sabers, fencers can perform cutting and thrusting techniques, and the best sabers for beginners are made by the company called BlackFencer. For beginners, we also suggest an “A New System of Sword Exercise” (1872 ) by O’Rourke to use it as a fencing manual.
Sword & Buckler
Generally, swords used in this category can perform cuts and thrusts, and with a proper buckler movement, you can create openings for you sword to perform the attack. The buckler (between 9″ and 14″ diameter (23 – 35 cm)) is usually made of wood with a metal boss and rim. It usually weighs the same as the sword, which has to be around 33″-37″ (90cm) long.
Arms & Armor, Castille Armory, Regenyei, VB Swords Shop, and a few others can create an awesome one-handed sword, and then you just need to add a buckler, which can be bought on many popular websites, such as The Hema Shop.
Let us know which one is your favorite piece of equipment or brand in the comments down below.
Most popular HEMA fencing clubs
As we all know, HEMA is far from being a top 10 among the most popular martial arts. Nevertheless, the people that are part of each HEMA fencing club are very driven and are doing everything they can to make this wonderful art more and more popular.
- Gothenburg Historical Fencing School (SE) – visit the site.
- EHMS (FI) – visit the site.
- Fechtschule Gdańsk (PL) – visit the site.
- ARMA Poland (PL)
- FFC Paladin (RU)
- La Sala delle Armi (IT) – visit the site.
- New York Historical Fencing Association (US) – visit the site.
- Stoccata School of Defence (NZ) – visit the site.
- Blood and Iron Martial Arts (CA) – visit the site.
- Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship (US) – visit the site.
- Accademia Romana d’Armi (IT) – visit the site.
- Kron Martial Arts (US) – visit the site.
- Capital Kunst des Fechtens (US) – visit the site.
- Fekteklubben Frie Duellister (NO) – visit the site.
- Zwaard & Steen (NL) – visit the site.
You can get the list of all clubs here.
How to start your own HEMA fencing club?
Before you decide to open up your own HEMA fencing club, we suggest that you check this website. Hema Alliance prepared a useful tool, which can help you find a HEMA fencing club near you.
If you still haven’t found a club that fits your needs, then we’ve prepared a short to-do list that will help you start your own organization.
1. Pick a name, create a website, and prepare a logo.
If you want to be seen and found by new potential members, you need a website and some social channels (FB, IG, Twitter, etc.). You should also consider opening a non-profit organization for possible benefits you can get from the HEMA Alliance and other sources.
2. Gather your friends
The easiest way to find other members is to ask your friends if they want to join. It’s always easier to develop your skills if there are more people involved in the process.
3. Choose your sword and other equipment
When you start researching which gear would be the best for you, you can get a little bit confused. We prepared articles for each part of your equipment – mask, jacket, gloves, pants, longswords/feder, or rapiers.
4. Find a place to train
It can be outside, or inside. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s safe and not too expensive. A non-profit organization could come in handy here.
5. Pick a book, find a coach, learn, and train
We couldn’t believe how much useful information can be found in fencing manuals. We prepared an article about the best sword lessons books for HEMA, so feel free to read it. The next step would be to find a coach. It can be an online coach, but it’s better to have live sessions with him/her. Of course, you can also coach others, but make sure that you practice on a regular basis. HEMA isn’t a joke, it’s an actual sport.
7. Attend or host events
It’s always an incredible feeling and experience to connect with other like-minded people. If you attend events, make sure that you read tournaments rules, so you’ll be able to compete and not be a part of the crowd because you didn’t have the proper equipment.
Hosting events is an entirely different story. You need to be aware of most recent rules, or you can always copy rules of most popular HEMA tournaments, like a swordfish tournament.
8. Enjoy the journey
Organizing a club is hard work, but the journey and the people which you’ll meet are all that matter.
Most recognized HEMA fencing tournaments
There’s just something special about these HEMA fencing tournaments that brings out some of the most passionate enthusiasts anywhere.
The atmosphere is always incredible, the fencing is top-notch, and the experience is simply fascinating. If you love HEMA, here are the most recognized HEMA tournaments you just need to visit:
One of the biggest HEMA fencing tournaments in the world. It’s being hosted in Gothenburg (Sweeden) by Gothenburg Historical Fencing School.
It’s known for hosting only the best fencers, fighters, boxers, and wrestlers in the world. Swordfish is also known for its
amazing social events and friendly community.
Every year, you have an excellent opportunity to meet friends, watch amazing competitors, and learn new things.
CombatCon is more than just a HEMA fencing tournament. It’s a convention for fighters, writers, cosplayers, and other HEMA enthusiasts.
It’s a great place to hang out, learn something new, and watch demonstrations and fights.
CombatCon 2018 hosted more than 20 different instructors, and 4 special guests, so we can’t wait to see 2020’s guests of honor.
Capitol Clash HEMA open
Part of the Olympic Sports Fencing youth tournament, DC HEMA Open provide a fantastic experience for all HEMA fencing enthusiasts. It features everything, from longsword competitions to medieval wrestling. This tournament also features categories for Teen and Youth, not just for adults.
Arnold Fencing Classic
Arnold Sports Festival is the largest multi-sport festival. When you visit it, you can watch other sports as well, not just HEMA. Specifically, Arnold Fencing Classic HEMA fencing Tournament is hosted by Royal Arts Fencing Academy, and it’s been a part of the festival since 2004. It only has a rapier and longsword events.
Located in Slovakia, it is organized by Bratislavský šermiarsky spolok (Bratislava Fencing Society) under the sponsorship of the FEBUS (Slovak Federation of Historical European Martial Arts). The tournament hosts longsword, rapier, dagger, and sword and buckler fencers categories.
Iron Gate Exhibition
The largest HEMA fencing event in New England, IGX hosts workshops, tournaments, and exhibitions. They also invite instructors, which lecture IGX visitors. This big exhibition stretches over 3 days, and it’s packed with exciting events.
Dutch Lions Cup
International Longsword tournament organized by Zwaard & Steen. Around 100 fencers compete in this tournament each year, which makes this HEMA fencing tournament one of the biggest in Europe.
Each event would not exist without the blood, sweat, and tears of the clubs whose members are working hard each year, and we think that all HEMA enthusiasts should honor that, and help with promoting this fantastic art.
“Historical” part in the name can be deceiving because HEMA is far from dead. It’s actually a growing sport, which is gaining more and more popularity every day.
This article will be regularly updated and please, let us know if you liked it in the comments below.