What HES Is Not

Historical Background
Longsword Combat
The Rise of the Rapier
WMA Practice
What HES Is Not
HES is not reenactment or role-play. Modern medieval reenactment groups, most notably the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) practice and promote swordfighting, and the shared interest means that there is a certain amount of overlap between the historical swordsmanship and reenactment communities; but reenactment groups by and large do not study or follow historical styles. Also, safety requirements impose limitations on fighting in reenactment groups (no leg shots allowed when using sword and shield in SCA, for example) that make their styles unrealistic from a martial-arts standpoint. And because HES (or Western martial arts in general) is not reenactment, there is no need to dress in period clothing; most historical swordfighters dress in modern fencing or athletic gear.
HES is not a sport. Sports also are governed by conventions – rules – that dictate how the game is scored and what constitutes winning the game. In most sports, death and injury are specifically not the objective, and the rules provide proper parameters to prevent or minimize harm to players. (Modern sport fencing, for example, has strict rules governing what constitutes a hit, or "touch," and how touches are scored; and fencers are limited to fighting on a strip or piste, like the playing fields of other sports.)
Martial arts, in contrast, are designed to defend the fighter and kill or debilitate one or many opponents. As such, there are no "rules" per se, only techniques proven to work. And because of the historical component, the practitioner of a historical martial art also submits him- or herself to an added restriction: attempting to follow, as much as possible, the style and techniques taught by the period master being studied. The reason for this adherence to the teachings of the masters is not simply a striving for period authenticity (WMA is not reenactment, remember). The reason is that the systems worked.
Every martial arts system is a coherent whole, internally logical, and effective, so long as it is adhered to faithfully. Martial arts are like languages in this way: Communication is achieved by adhering to a certain language, not picking and choosing words from different languages. Despite the inevitable supplementation by cross-training mentioned earlier, the basic assumption made by the serious WMA practitioner, and an assumption borne out by application in sparring, is that the masters knew what they were writing about.
Because it is not a sport, HES is not competitive in the same sense that sport fencing or other sports are. There are no national or international authorities that govern HES, and there are no regional, national or international competitions. There are also no universally recognized grading systems, such as the colored belts in Asian systems.
HES is not stage combat. This is a significant point: The swordfighting depicted in movies, from Errol Flynn's swashbuckling to the rapier duels in The Princess Bride to the longsword-wielding of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, all follow a tradition of theatrical swordplay that is long and hallowed – going back to the theaters of Elizabethan England. But this tradition is fundamentally unlike the martial arts of the sword (see "Misconceptions").
The reason is simple: The aim in stage fighting is to not hit your opponent. From the earliest days of stage combat, for instance in Shakespeare's Globe Theater, the aim of actors depicting swordfights was to cross blades in a visually exciting way while not endangering their fellow actors. The formula of repeated clashing – or crossing – of blades works well for this: Stage combatants never aim at their opponent, but only at their opponent's sword. Crossing of blades in this relatively harmless manner is more or less what any filmed swordfight (or light-saber fight) consists of.
In a real swordfight, on the other hand, when (at least theoretically) life and limb – or honor – is on the line, it is pointless to aim at your opponent's blade. In fact, one of the common instincts that beginning HES students are immediately broken of in their training is the instinct to aim at their opponent's blade instead of their opponent – an instinct nurtured by a lifetime of seeing swordfights in movies.
(Which is not to disparage – at all – the great swordfighting films. The Princess Bride, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings all are well worth seeing for countless other reasons besides their swordplay.)
Eric Wargo 11/2005

All material copyright 2005
Eric Wargo