Learning from books, and HEMA

Discussion in 'Weapons' started by Southpaw535, May 21, 2017.

  1. Southpaw535

    Southpaw535 Well-Known Member Moderator Supporter

    I've got back into watching some HEMA things on youtube, and it made me think about the conversations we've had a lot on MAP about how you can't learn martial arts from books. HEMA's reliance on the treatises though makes me wonder if there's much difference between going to an established class, and getting together with some dedicated mates and trying to learn them? Someone established will have studied them longer, but no one's learning from the original practitioners.

    Obviously I'm being mean towards HEMA since the whole point is to try and recreate historic fencing, so naturally they'll use the treatises. But, using the previous conversations on book learning from MAP it makes me wonder if any alternatives to these conclusions can be reached?

    1. HEMA practitioners are doing the best they can, but without any direct connections to old trainers authentic historic fencing is lost forever

    2. The treatises leave enough history to make a good recreation of it with enough study and understanding, in which case why can't people learn martial arts of other styles from books, or even from video which presumably is miles better at getting across technique than still images?

    I'm well aware the second is a very leading option, but it is something that's causing me to think quite a lot. I used to be very firm against the ability to learn from anything other than an instructor, but that stance has softened in the last year or so. HEMA adds an interesting dynamic to it that there do seem to be people who are respected as HEMA instructors over others and are given some authority on the subject, but that flies against what I was used to seeing on MAP about other martial arts when I first started out.

    Any thoughts?
  2. Ben Gash CLF

    Ben Gash CLF Valued Member

    It's tricky. I think with HEMA specifically there's a lot of "Frog DNA" as it were. There are still some classical fencing lineages extant, which allows you to meaningfully interpret smallsword and sabre. Because English sabre is an evolution of backsword, and smallsword texts often also deal with backsword, you can then work that out. Because smallsword evolved from rapier you've then got a frame of reference for rapier and in turn sidesword (Mondschein explicitly refers to this in his greatsword book, he chooses to focus on Alfieri's Spadone because Alfieri's rapier makes sense if you fence epee).
    On top of this many of the HEMA names have a background in sport fencing.
  3. Hazzard

    Hazzard New Member

    Its much easier to say "You can't learn from books, you have to learn from a teacher," when your art has teachers that are alive. How many Asian schools can quote direct lineage from said Master of their art?

    Europe simply doesn't have the same culture of oral tradition as Asia does. We wrote books, invented guns, and tossed the books into libraries. HEMA doesn't have the option of a direct lineage.

    HEMA practicioners are fully aware that they are very simply doing the best they can, with the materials they have available. What true longsword fighting looked like is lost.
  4. Sandy

    Sandy Valued Member

    If European martial arts had similar traditions to TMA, then people would learn fencing by standing in horse stance before being allowed to learn forms :)
  5. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Molon Labe

    Of course it can be done, it's just really hard. Exceptions exist such as rapier, much of which was preserved in classical fencing. There's not much debate on rapier technique these days.

    German and Italian Longsword were harder, but there's also not a huge amount of debate on it either. Some of the more obscure techniques are debated, but not with any sort of gusto. The robust tournament scene has helped as well, since it's being constantly tested under pressure.

    Sources such as English longsword are very cryptic, and are still very much a work in progress, since a good many of the terms are undefined. German terms are usually explained quite clearly.

    Frog DNA usually comes in on the basics: how to step, how to articulate the fingers, how to unbalance an opponent, as opposed to how a specific technique works at all. I took up judo specifically to better understand the German wrestling texts, and it's been very helpful. Saved me from reinventing the wheel too often.

    That's where a good HEMA instructor comes in. An established club has done all of the wheel reinventing a while ago, making the training more efficient.

    I'm not particularly concerned about a technique being exactly the way any given master might have done it. If the interpretation matches the sources and works under pressure, chances are it was done that way in period by someone.
  6. Southpaw535

    Southpaw535 Well-Known Member Moderator Supporter

    Thanks guys its some really interesting points.
  7. Botta Dritta

    Botta Dritta Valued Member

    Most points have been covered above but I'll add my tuppence worth. You can to some extent reverse engineer HEMA as you can follow backwards from early modern treatises and manuals and fill in the blanks through trial and error. But even then its fraught with danger because technical terms can morph over time. See Guy Windsors article below for a more detailed example.


    The HEMA community is quite vigilant of er...for search of a better expression "intellectual slackness" setting in.

    If they are not sure about something historically like a technique or a approach they tend to admit they don't know, then they suit up pressure test it to destruction, and if they can't be sure what it is, then they can eliminate at least to some degree of certainty what its not or what doesn't' work. (though this too has some dangers to it)

    English longsword for example is particularly frustrating. It has whole methodology large corpus on interelated sources that share the similar terminology and even in one case a drill manual, but because the terminology has not been sufficiently explained you can only guess.

    Take the Harlean manuscript. For example see a mere snippet of a whole multi verse exercise:

    "A rake with a spring there thou him abide.
    Fall in with an hauke & stride not too wide
    Smite a running quarter out for his side
    Fall upon his harness if he would abide
    Come in with a rake in every aside"

    Unless you know exactly what a rake is, a hauke, or a running quarter it becomes a tricky endevour. Italian longsword for example has way less drills but because it has images and text explaining with some degree of precision what the techniques and stances are, you can begin to fill the blanks in.

    Its late...tired... but you get the gist
    Last edited: May 23, 2017
  8. Tom bayley

    Tom bayley Valued Member

    I once met a double Commonwealth gold judo champion. He said his first coach (whom he greatly admired) learnt judo by reading a book and testing it out on training partners until it worked.

    It might be better to say that one cannot learn any art from solely reading a book or watching a video.
    Last edited: May 23, 2017
  9. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Molon Labe

    It also depends on how close your original discipline is. A really good Gouren practitioner could very likely learn a lot of judo from a book, as they're both jacket wrestling traditions.
  10. pgsmith

    pgsmith Valued dismemberer

    I really like what a lot of the HEMA folks are doing, but it is a tough road that they're on.
    Here's a story that illustrates an example of the problems that can arise from just learning from manuals ... A number of years ago, my friends at Mugen Dachi (they sell tatami omote for Japanese sword arts target cutting) told me they were scheduled to show their targets and teach a cutting seminar at a HEMA gathering in my area. Would I like to go and help them with their seminar? Having never seen HEMA in action, I was excited to go and see what it was about. There were a number of high caliber instructors from around the world, and quite a few attendees. I got to watch a number of seminars and meet a bunch of good people. When we did the cutting seminar, almost all of the participants were instructors from around the US. All of them had a lot of difficulty cutting the targets, because the manuals don't specify how to actually create the speed necessary to make a good cut. We ended up changing the focus of the seminar from basic target making and cutting safety, to how to generate the proper speed and alignment for cutting. To their credit, they learned quickly and most went from not being able to cut through a target to achieving fairly consistent results in that single seminar. I remember one German long sword instructor that was convinced his sword just wasn't sharp enough to cut. I finally asked to borrow his sword to try it, and proceeded to cut easily both forward and backward. The Japanese arts that I had studied placed a lot of emphasis on proper blade alignment and tip speed which is what is needed for cutting properly, and apparently his manuals never touched on that point.
    It did point out the fact that there are a number of little things that can be easily shown by an instructor who knows them, but if you're unaware of their existence, it's difficult to figure out what they are in order to learn them on your own.
    Langenschwert likes this.
  11. Rataca100

    Rataca100 Banned Banned

    A good treatice is at least somewhat easy to understand. They were marketed to the people with money for the msot part so at least they will be very detailed, i would say the only benefit in goign toa HEMA club would be, they have learnt that from somone else and can help you ina reas they know and can be used to answer questions because if the youtube ones are anythign to go by a lot of them like reading the hsitorical texts and resources on how the things wer eused hisotricaly. So even if you cna leanr froma trestese, at least you ahve somoenw hich can assist you in learning it, work as a guide and provide alterning opinions/methods to doing things. Still has it sbenefits going to a place filled with peopel who liek swords and might by extention like hisotry to have a historical view point, at least it wont be as tainted as some modern tradtional things. :p

    No doubt this came out as gibberish.
  12. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Molon Labe

    Early HEMA certainly needed work on cutting. This was due to the backyard beginnings of many groups that didn't have the resources to devote getting tatami, which is expensive. At about 12 bucks Canadian a roll after shipping, for some people it's just not an option for regular practice. Heck, 15 years ago it was hard to get a good quality sword to cut with!

    Cutting properly is difficult if you have no one to show you how. I used up the last of my tatami last night, FWIW. The manuals don't tell you the mechanics of cutting. Many HEMA tournaments have cutting competitions now. My cutting could certainly be better, but I keep working on it.

    Time to order another bale.
    pgsmith likes this.
  13. Dead_pool

    Dead_pool the merc with the mouth MAP 2017 Moi Award

    If the class has people who've been doing it for longer then you, with more experience then you, who also train with others who are doing the same, you'd be a fool to attempt it without they're input.

    It's like training BJJ online, when you have a class down the road.
    pgsmith likes this.

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