How to Study Historical Swordplay

An Essay
Brian R. Price


To exercise one’s self in arms, it is necessary to learn of their use, studying, practicing, and testing individual techniques, and more importantly, the mental attributes that contribute more to a fight than do the techniques themselves.

The study of swordsmanship can take many forms. One can participate in modern fencing as a sport, starting out in a small regional fencing center or at a college, progressing to the pinnacle of the sport, the Olympic games.

A few of the fencing salons scattered around major cities offer historical fencing, generally based on the French or Italian schools of small sword, rapier, backsword, or in more rare cases, the long or bastard sword. Fencing Meistros in these arenas generally have a modern fencing background that has sparked their interest in historical swordplay, and they are led back in time to study the prolific fencing manuals that became popular after 1500.

For medieval swordplay, there are a couple of different paths. Combat societies–such as the SCA, the Adrian Empire, the Empire of Chivalry and Steel, and Regia Anglorum all revolve around combat activities and medieval arts. Fighting within these groups is a competitive activity; the groups are organized around a social structure that is built upon the combat arts. Generally speaking, the fighting in these groups is very intense; a good test of martial skills and conduct, although there are weaknesses in each based on specific rules and each has created a martial art based not upon the historical record created them anew in response to the selected rules. They do recreate the dynamic of group combats exceedingly well.

For historical swordmanship from the medieval period, there are a growing body of fighting manuals–fechtbuchs–that have been discovered. These books are forming the core of interest amongst medieval martial arts schools–such as HACA, AEMMA, the Chicago Swordplay Guild and the Schola Saint George. These schools can be thought of as training centers in which martial skills based on the fectbuchs can be learned, although they generally offer free-sparring as the most competitive combat form–for competition one must generally (except in the case of AEMMA) go to a reenactment group.

Reenactment groups are generally smaller groups focused on a narrow historical period that incoroprate some kind of combat as an auxiliary activity designed to support their representation of life in a particular time and place. Some of these groups have tournaments or reenact battles as well, and some study the fechtbuchs as a training mechanism.

As an individual student of the sword, each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, if the student is serious and time allows, multiple approaches would be used to shore up known shortcomings and to share companionship with like-minded people across the western martial arts spectrum. As a matter of practicality, however, most students find themselves with very limited time, and as a result can participate only in one or two of the above approaches.

Regardless of the approach taken, serious study of historical swordsmanship–note that the martial arts practiced in combat societies are very powerful, but seldom are they historical–should be built upon the following principles:

  1. Study the historical record. Medieval fechtbuchs are becoming more readily available–make use of them! Recently many of these works appear on the HACA or AEMMA websites. Survey works, such as John Clements Medieval Swordsmanship are also helpful.
  2. Study with a school if possible. Rather than recreating the wheel, try to find a group of individuals who share your passion. HACA and AEMMA both have chapters around the US, while smaller schools such as the Chicago Swordplay Guild and the Schola Saint George serve large metropolitan areas.
  3. Train in a regular fashion. Not only must you devote yourself to regular training to realize the benefits of the work–as in any martial art–but you should work on specific techniques using a combination of reconstruction, drills, slow work, focused and free sparring. Cutting practice is useful and often overlooked.
  4. Compete to test your skills and your character. Tournaments are the forge in which hard decisions must be made and where chivalric virtues are celebrated.
  5. Share what you have learned. As you learn, introduce others to the marvels of these Western martial arts and seek the company of others at the large Combat Society and Western Martial Arts events. The comaraderie is pleasant and there is much, much to be learned–enough for multiple lifetimes.
–Brian R. Price


Copyright the author, 2000 A.D.

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