Historical European Swordsmanship as a Western Martial Art

Historical Background
Longsword Combat
The Rise of the Rapier
WMA Practice
What HES Is Not
Historical European swordsmanship is one branch of the Western martial arts (usually abbreviated WMA). The notion that there are Western martial arts requires some explanation, as it sometimes raises eyebrows.
To most people, the term "martial arts" is synonymous with fighting styles developed in Asia, such as Kung Fu, Aikido, and Tae Kwon Do. But martial art simply means "art of war." Every society has its distinctive fighting systems, adapted to its needs and to the technology available. Asian martial arts became enormously popular in America and Europe during the sixties and seventies, partly because of the New Age embrace of Eastern culture and partly because of the popularity of martial arts films and charismatic practitioners like Bruce Lee. (Now, it seems like Tae Kwon Do – a Korean fighting system synthesized in the 1950s from older Korean and Japanese forms – is as American as Apple Pie and pizza.)
But in the past, Europeans developed and practiced martial arts of the sword, staff, dagger, and bare-hand that were just as deadly, precise, and elegant as the fighting systems of the East.
Why don't most people know about them? Being a fairly pragmatic, forward-looking civilization, Europe let its martial arts die out when they became obsolete. As technology (most importantly, gunpowder) altered the face of warfare, and as changing fashions altered the way people defended their honor in personal combat, European swordfighting styles either were abandoned as impractical or evolved into newer forms. In Europe and America today, the most familiar – and, arguably, most relevant or practical – martial arts are those involving firearms. (Yes, knowing how to shoot a gun is to know a martial art.) European swords have been largely demoted to the status of heirlooms and ceremonial objects, and the only widely practiced European form of swordplay is the sport of fencing (see "What HES Is Not").
In contrast, the much more conservative cultures of Asia kept their unarmed and bladed-weapon systems relatively alive even when their relevance in war diminished; thus their martial arts represent living traditions. In Japan, for instance, warriors continued to be trained in the use of the katana or samurai sword up until WWII. And the class of fighting man for whom this weapon originally arose in the middle ages, the samurai – the direct equivalent of the European knight – remained a living tradition and social class in Japan until the late 19th century.
But largely because of the Internet, reviving, practicing and teaching the lost martial arts of Europe has lately become possible. Sharing of old fighting manuscripts among scholars and enthusiasts has made it possible to reconstruct period fighting styles with a high degree of accuracy; and the small (but rapidly growing) number of people interested in interpreting these texts has been united in electronic forums devoted to the subject. Many of the most important texts are rapidly coming out in facsimile editions, with modern translation, interpretation and commentary. Across North America, Europe and Australia – and even in Asia – fencers, martial-artists, historians, and other enthusiasts have embraced historical European swordsmanship (abbreviated HES) as an exciting alternative to the widely-practiced Asian arts – an alternative that speaks more directly to our Western cultural heritage.
Next page: Historical Background

All material copyright 2005
Eric Wargo