European Medieval Martial Arts

A Detailed Outline of the European Medieval Martial Arts History and Development


Early History
1350 and Earlier
With regards to surviving original manuals or documentation of martial arts during the Late Middle Ages, the only ones that exist are a few incomplete Greek wrestling instructions known as the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 466 or the P.Oxy. III,466). It contains fragments of 2nd century Greek Wrestling instructions including grips and holds. It is distinguishably written on papyrus and has text in three columns respectively having 13, 15 and 10 lines. At the end of each instruction, it is always followed by the word plexon. This word has been variously translated and may mean "tangle", "mix it up!"/"execute!" (Miller, 2004) or "you fight it out" (Poliakoff, 1987). This is considered as the European martial arts manual, which is in the possession of Columbia University after it was given by Egypt Exploration Society in the year 1907.

Icelandic sagas, Middle High German epics and other Ancient and Medieval Literature also tell of certain kinds of martial arts styles, practices and concepts. There are also evidences in historical artwork such as the Bayeux Tapestry and the Morgan Bible, which depict scenes of combat and weaponry. Based on these references, researchers have attempted to recreate certain combat arts. A good example is gladiatorial combat.

Late Middle Ages
During this time, combat modes were used in combinations. One style would be taught along with another so that the techniques and concepts go hand-in-hand depending on the preference of the fighter. Combat modes may be on foot or on horseback depending on the event. On the occasion that the fighter would fall off the horse, there is still a set of styles he could use to defend himself against an opponent on horseback. Some techniques, if applied properly, could make the opponent fall off from his horse even if the one executing said method is on foot. Armors and shields were also in use at this time. Dueling shields (Stechschild) were the kind of shields that were only used in judicial duels (trial by combat). Techniques at the time involved but are not limited to a combination of one or more of the following:

  • Grappling (Kampfringen, Abrazare)
  • Dagger (Degen, Daga)
  • Long Knife (Messer)
  • Dussack
  • Half-staff
  • Quarterstaff
  • Pole Arm
  • Longsword (Langes Schwert, Spada Longa, Spadone)

There are several significant manuscripts of various European martial arts styles during this time. These were written by different noteworthy people who have made important contributions to the evoluton of HEMA. It was Fiore dei Liberi who is said to be the earliest master to have written the Flos Duellatorum. It was written in Italian and was commissioned to be organized and written by Marquis di Ferrara. The document was written sometime between 1407 and 1410 and was a comprehensive and informative documentation of different fighting techniques such as grappling, pole-weapons, longsword, sword and dagger techniques for both armoured, unmounted and mounted combat.

Considered to be the central figure this time, however, was Johannes Liechtenauer. He was said to be a German fencing master who travelled to different places and countries in a journey to thoroughly learn and eventually master the art of fencing. It was made clear that he did not invent fencing, as there were other fencers before him. It was the manner in which he acquired his skill and experience that made him a significant figure of this period. There is no existing manuscript that he had written although some others had taken on the task of documenting his teachings (14th Century MS 3227a). Aside from that, a good number of fencing books described methods that were based on those by Liechtenauer.

This period is known for the big changes in society, culture and art including European martial arts. At this time, two of the most notable teachings were those from Bolognese masters named Antonio Manciolino and Achille Marozzo. Their treatises taught of perhaps the best knightly arts based on the previous century. It involved techniques using sword-and-buckler, sword-and-dagger, single sword, two-handed sword and polearms to name a few. Wrestling was unique to Marozzo's manuscript and was non-existent in Manciolino's.

The element of flexibility or versatility played a big role in many techniques and styles developed in this time. This is in order to allow combatants to be able to deal with different kinds of possible situations.

The polearms and companion weapons with the exception of the cape and the dagger slowly began to be excluded from the treatises towards the mid-century. At this time, different guards or hand-positions (prima, seconda, terza, quarta) were introduced by Camillo Agrippa. These guards became a mainstay concept/technique in Italian fencing and were used centuries after.

Early Modern Period
This era was devided into two significant eras namely the Baroque (1600-1720) and the Rococo (1720-1789). Both eras were mainly focused on fencing though in different ways. Grappling was not as popular as it used to during the Baroque period and was favored less and less as time passed by. Fencing, on the other hand, developed and evolved in order to be "elegant and harmonious", as imposed by the new ideals of society.

The effect and importance of those ideals gave way to the creation of a significant Spanish book called "La Verdadera Destreza", meaning "The True Art (of Swordsmanship)". It was based on numerous scientific principles and Renaissance humanism ideals. This was a large turn away from the usual vulgar image that fencing used to have in the previous centuries. French fencing also made a significant turn from what used to be the norms of the previous centuries. French fencing schools developed their own terminology, principles, rules, system of teaching and other important elements.

After the Baroque period is the Rococo period also known as the Late Baroque period. It was at this period that the foil was introduced from being a training weapon to an actually main fencing weapon. The rapier was also replaced by the smallsword primarily because it was lighter.

The French fencing school system and concepts eventually became the Western European standard. It was so widely and generally accepted that in 1736, Domenico Angelo, an Italian fencing master who was teaching in England, wrote and published L'Ecole des Armes (The School of Fencing) in French. This became the standard fencing manual in England for half a century. Because of the success and influence of this book, it was included under the Escrime (Fencing) category/heading in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, often referred to as the "Encyclopédie". In English, its full title translates to the "Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts".

Modern Period
1789 - 1914
During this course of time, Western martial arts were slowly divided and evolved into two categories. Some became modern sports while other were used for military purposes. The military used the ideas, concepts, strategies and techniques of close-quarter combat for the bayonet, sabre and the lance. At this point, other martial arts aside from fencing and other bladed arts joined the group of HEMA. Such martial arts were boxing, folk wrestling, stick fighting, javelin and archery.

During around the 19th century, fencing became purely a sport. Officer classes, elites and aristocrats still practiced dueling, although it became less and less accepted by society in general. As time passed by, duels were no longer fought with bladed arsenals, but with pistols instead.

An Introduction to European Medieval Martial Arts


European Medieval Martial Arts is more popularly referred to as Historical European Martial arts or HEMA. It is an umbrella term used to refer to different kinds of European martial arts that were developed and practiced in certain periods of time in the past, but eventually died out or evolved into entirely different styles or forms. Because it is a collection of martial arts that dates even before ca 1350, some of it has little or limited original surviving and reliable documentation. Examples include martial arts that fall under the Classical Antiquity styles such as Ancient Greek Wrestling or Gladiator fighting/combat.

Because of the scarcity of information, HEMA mostly focuses on the half-millennium period (ca. 1300-1800). Within this period, during the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (14th-16th centuries) that a German and an Italian school was founded and flourished. Not long after, Spanish, French, English and Scottish schools were also developed. Most of these taught 17th-18th century modern fencing. Towards 19th century, classical fencing and early forms of Baritsu were introduced in schools. Although these came in much later as compared to other styles, in a wider perception, it may still be considered as part of HEMA, as these styles were part of the foundation for other evolved styles. Traditional stick fighting methods and folk wrestling may also be considered to be included as HEMA.

To cover a wider set of martial arts and a greater period to include certain modern and traditional discipline4s, the term Western Martial Arts (WMA) is sometimes used. In the same way, the term Historical European Swordsmanship (HES) is used to specifically refer two swordsmanship techniques from a certain time period.

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