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Historical European Martial Arts:
Alive and Well

by David M. Cvet

David CvetAbout the author: David M. Cvet is the Founder and President of the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA)

There exists a ground swell, and it's called historical European martial arts or HEMA. In both Canada and the United States, an impressive revival of awareness, interest, research and development in HEMA is occurring. Numerous organizations and groups have been created in the last ten years that focus on western fighting techniques from the early medieval period to the late renaissance periods. Collectively, many of these groups and organizations that possess a martial-orientation are occasionally known as the "fechtbuch community". No longer considered the "fringe", many organizations present and deliver credible historical western martial arts systems based on historical fighting systems documented in the early fechtbuchs. These groups have as their mission to collectively resurrect the combat skills, philosophies, and principles of an accomplished historical European martial artist and to achieve a state of a recognizable and viable western martial arts tradition. A number of the most influential organizations are busilyworking Medieval knights in trainingthe terrain with open minds and callous hands to bring forth this tradition inthe form of projects of a global nature bringing together practitioners from every corner of the planet. It is noteworthy to say that the "sleeping giant" has indeed awakened.


Although the martial art has been in a state of suspended animation for the past 500 years, the European masters were diligent in recording the skills, techniques and their practice of swordsmanship. The earliest known manuscript or treatise was written by a German monk in Latin, dated 1280 AD. Some of the notable treatises studied include, but are not limited to:

  • Johannes Liechtenauer, c1389, "Kunst die fechten"
  • Fiore de' Liberi, 1410, "Flos Duellatorum"
  • Sigmund Ringeck, c1440, "Commentaries on Liechtenauer"
  • Hans Talhoffer, 1459, "Alte Armatur und Ringkunst"
  • Hans Talhoffer, 1467, "Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre 1467"
  • Unknown, c1470, "Das Solothurner Fechtbuch"
  • Camillo Agrippa, 1568, "His Treatise on the Science of Arms"
  • Giacomo di Grassi, 1594, "His True Arte of Defense"
  • Vincentio Saviolo, 1595, "His Practice" (in two books)
  • George Silver, 1599, "Paradoxes of Defense"
  • Jakob Sutor, 1612, "Künftliches Fechtbuch"

These manuscripts form the core of the research and development conducted by the HEMA organizations in order to develop a viable and challenging training program. The desire is to achieve the highly sophisticated level of swordsmanship dictated by these treatises to ensure that the lineage of skill and expertise is reaffirmed with the past, and to move it into the future. The treatises cover many other weapons types, including longsword, sword & shield, dagger, grappling, poleaxe and in some cases, mounted combat.

In conjunction with this research, a discipline known as "hoplology" has provided subtle insight into the behavioural aspect of combat. Hoplology is defined as "the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior". This discipline encompasses three categories of study: technology hoplology - the study of environmental factors, materials, and production processes, and their relationship to the development of weapons, armor, and combative accouterments; functional hoplology - the study of the structure and organization of combative systems; behavioral hoplology - the study of the psychological and physiological factors inherent in man's combativeness and his development of combative capabilities. Research conducted in these areas also contributes to the research and development of a viable training program.

Lastly, the research of the historical martial systems is augmented with basic "trial and error" and "reverse engineering". Techniques studied are put into practice, and the movement, footwork, sword handling, judgment, timing, placement and distance all come into play when the results of the particular research are applied. Much of this is based on an interpretation of the available material. The resulting interpretation of the material, tempered with input from the hoplological perspectives, and the "reverse engineering" efforts results in techniques that may be consistent with their historical counterparts. The validation is conducted through fight engagements that may include heavy armoured combat or civilian-oriented unarmoured engagements in a tournament structure.

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