Fighting by the Book:
Accuracy in Historical Combat Re-creation
by Ser Maelgrim Crouthur
Most of us are familiar with the image of
Conan wheeling his mighty blade over his head, or of King Arthur
cleaving through hordes of Orkney soldiers with Excalibur.
There are those who think of Drizzt Do’Urden’s swirling scimitars or
Roland’s Saracen-slaying Durendal when we imagine swordplay. A
very few of us even think of William Marshall at the tournament or
Sigmund Ringeck teaching his master’s techniques.
Whether in historical fact or fantastical
fiction, sword-fighting is an intriguing element. But how was
it done? And how can we, today, learn to do it?
Over the past several decades, numerous
medieval and Renaissance reenactment societies have sprung up across
the globe. They vary in size, focus and location. From
local foam-fighting and costume groups to international re-creation
organizations, these societies display a bewildering array of
attitudes in their approach to authenticity, research and method of
re-creation. One thing that a great many have in common,
however, is that the re-creation of combat plays an important role
in their program.
Approaches to the study of historical
combat vary as greatly as the myriad of groups that study it.
Some focus on reenacting particular battles - much like American
Civil War enthusiasts. Others take a much more free-form melee
approach. Some use rebated steel blades, while others use
wooden batons, and still others use shaped foam simulators.
However, whatever their choice of weapon simulation or their
attitude towards historical authenticity, most of these groups tend
to share a fundamental approach towards recreating medieval and
Renaissance combat: their system of fighting is dictated by rules
devised by the group itself. This means that, whether out of a
concern for safety, lack of knowledge, or even through a
sophisticated a training program based around the tenets of the
organization’s rules, many re-creation societies study or teach
sword-fighting that would likely be utterly unfamiliar to medieval or
Renaissance soldiers and swordsmen.
This is curious, as many organizations are quite well-informed
as to the dress, diet, language and social hierarchy of their chosen
time period. It seems dichotomous that a re-enactor should have
a firm grasp of Middle High German, know how to recognize a landed
baron by the number of trefoils upon his coronet, and be able to tell
you the difference between a capon and cap-a-pied, but not be
able to recognize fundamental differences between rudiments of
English and Italian sword-play.
A central reason for this is the fact that until recently, many
of the fighting texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance have been
languishing in relative obscurity in their respective libraries and
museums. These fechtbücher (fight books) were written by
professional masters-at-arms during the Middle Ages and Renaissance,
but have been inaccessible for years due to either their archaic and
esoteric terminology, or their location (many are kept - not
surprisingly - in Europe).
Indeed, their recent “discovery” and interpretation has led to
the foundation of several schools of Western Martial Arts across the
world. These schools study the techniques as recorded by the
ancient masters, and strive to interpret the texts in a sensible and
combatively sound manner. Great leaps in understanding our
western martial heritage have been made by these schools.
Because they focus on the technique and application of these fechtbücher,
the schools cannot be considered re-creation societies so much as
martial arts leagues. Therefore, it is not likely that the
curriculum of these schools includes traipsing around in the mud and
rain in armor while fighting, standing for hours in the hot sun
behind a line of archers, or chasing bandits through the woods.
While the medieval soldier would have certainly had at least a
passing familiarity with the classroom side of combat, he would also
have needed to apply those lessons in a practical environment.
For the medieval re-enactor, these schools
and their texts are a godsend. They provide much-needed
instruction that would have been a staple of many medieval soldiers’
daily routine. In this way, re-enactors can feel at least
somewhat confident that they are actually sword-fighting in a
medieval fashion as opposed to fighting in a way that “seems right.”
The problem for both the scholar of
Western Martial Arts and the historical re-enactor arises when
considering the following question. How much of the written
record is reliable? Do the texts that survive accurately
reflect the fighting arts that were used in medieval warfare?
Are they meant to teach specifically for trial by combat, in a
one-on-one confrontation? Are they the work of creditable
martial artists, or merely convincing con-men? Would we know
the difference at this far-removed date?
Clearly, it is next to impossible to
re-create exactly the situations in which a medieval soldier worked
and fought. Even if a large enough army of
authentically-equipped well-trained Western martial artists could be
pulled together, it is highly unlikely that they would be willing to
be brutally killed by real, sharpened swords for the sake of
furthering our knowledge of good technique.
The best that we can hope for is to study the technique in both
a “classroom” setting and then to apply it as realistically as
possible in a “practical” setting. This need not be restricted
to merely swordplay; fighting texts exist for use of the sword,
staff, axe, pole-arm, dagger spear and even unarmed combat.
To ensure that true historical combat skills are developed, the
rules for recreating combat must be open enough to allow for use of
most techniques in ant situation. While this does not mean that
armored arm-breaks should be applied in a woods battle, it does mean
that at least simple disarms, grapples and shield-knocks should be
considered during most melees.
If the rules are tools by which the combatants can safely
recreate medieval fighting arts, and not a strait-jacket which bars
the use of techniques that would work in a real-life situation, then
perhaps the melees which occur in woods and fields across the world
every weekend would begin to look more familiar to a historical
master at arms.
Most of us who are involved in historical re-creation
appreciate it more when the illusion is complete: when we can believe
- for a moment - that we are fighting in a desperate 13th
Century battle, then the experience is much more rewarding.
After all, just knowing that the technique you just used was
taught by Fiore dei Liberi in 1409 is a satisfying feeling.
And it’s nice to think that maybe Aragorn used the Zornhau
when fighting Orcs with his sword Anduril, too.