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The Western Martial Arts Revival 



Martial Arts: the Arts of Mars, the Roman god of war.
 

Throughout the history of civilization, martial arts have been both vocation and avocation; a pragmatic system of personal combat and internal method of personal growth; a way to hone, refine and test one’s prowess, self-discipline and self-control.
  Although expressed by different adherents in different ways throughout the centuries, the paradoxical nature of martial arts – refinement of self through the study of the killing arts -  are the embodiment of the old Roman maxim si vis pacem, para bellum
– “If you love peace, prepare for war”, which itself comes from Vegetius’ De Re Militari, one of the cornerstones of military thought in late Classical and Medieval Europe.


Thus, it is ironic that for the last century, most people have associated the Arts of Mars solely with the peoples of Asia. In a paradox worthy of the twin nature of the martial arts themselves, as the swords and guns of Western armies colonized most of the world, the engines of the Western Industrial Age made many of its most ancient fighting traditions obsolete. The triumph of the Western military machine – seen in sleek aircraft, rapid fire rifles, heavily armoured tanks, and vast naval fleets of steel-hulled ships – made its most ancient symbol, the sword, irrelevant.

What are Western Martial Arts?

But the sword has always had a symbolic and romantic power that is not easily forgotten, and over the last twenty years there has been a growing interest in the rediscovery and preservation of Western Martial Arts (WMA). This term refers to the study, recreation and preservation of combat skills developed in Europe or European colonies during the 14th through the turn of the 20th centuries. WMA include both historical martial arts that were lost through time (generally called “Historical European Martial Arts” or HEMA), and surviving, traditional European martial arts and combat sports such as boxing, fencing, savate, and many different traditions of stick fighting, grappling and wrestling.

What’s Old is New: the HEMA Renaissance

Traditional WMAs are taught much like their Asian counterparts – through a living lineage of master-teachers, passing on what was taught to them by the previous generation, maintaining a technical, pedagogical and philosophical “core”, while adapting to the needs of the current generation. In Western combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling, the “master” has become the “coach”, and training often combines the qualities of the martial arts hall with the athletic playing field, as the arts were adapted in the last two centuries to focus on full-contact competitions, while maintaining varying degrees of effectiveness in self-defense.

 

Both of these paths are familiar to students of Asian fighting arts. But where the Western Martial Arts “family” is virtually unique is the interest in the historical traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as its centerpiece. HEMA have no living masters from unbroken lineages. But whereas most martial arts exist primarily in oral tradition, European masters of sword, lance, axe and horse have left their descendants a rich corpus of beautifully illustrated manuscripts, detailed instructional manuals and treatises on the “art of arms”. Moreover, much like fossils, these “fight books” are not the ancient art of the sword as altered by succeeding generations, but are descriptions of original art as practiced by the weapon who bled and died on the battlefield and in the champ clos of the dueling ground to perfect its mysteries. When they speak to us of how the sword or spear is best to be used it is with not only the authority of tradition, but the pragmatic experience of a battle-hardened drill sergeant.

  “Fightbooks” written by medieval and Renaissance masters-at-arms form the centerpiece of HEMA reconstruction


To recreate the art a growing, international community of swordsmen, scholars and weaponsmiths have been engaged in a unique form of experimental archaeology primarily using historical documents, supplemented by experience in existing living traditions of both the West and East, and practical experimentation.



The HEMA revival began in the late 1800s, but did not survive much beyond WWI
Although the first attempts at HEMA reconstruction date to the late 19th century, the cultural upheaval of World War I and the Great Depression brought most practical work to an abrupt and untimely end, leaving exploration of historical European martial arts to a small field of scholars working from a largely academic or theatrical perspective. The only significant practical study of European swordplay were the experiments of the SCA and the European reenactment community, who were experimenting with making and using medieval weapons and armour, but were largely ignorant of the works of the long-forgotten masters.


Then, in the 1980s, isolated aficionados in the United States and Europe independently began researching Historical European Martial Arts. In the 1980s and 1990s, Patri J. Pugliese became a one man engine for uniting many of these researchers, by making photocopies of historical treatises available, spurring on research, particularly in reenactment circles.



Then came the Internet. Patri’s work had inspired William Wilson (Barwn Meistr Gwylym ab Owain, OL OP DW) to create Rapier-L, a discussion list for historical swordsmanship, and the first of its kind.  With the power of online communication, isolated researchers around the world were suddenly in immediate, daily contact, and were able to share resources in a way previously unimaginable. During the late 1990s, translations and interpretations of historical sources began appearing in print as well as online, particularly through the early efforts of Hammerterz Forum, the Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA) and Academy of European Martial Arts (AEMMA), giving birth to what are now flourishing HEMA communities in Europe, North America and Australasia. Since 1999 a number of these groups have held the Western Martial arts Workshop (WMAW) in the United States. In 2001 the Historical European Martial arts Coalition (HEMAC) was created to act as an umbrella organization for groups in Europe. Since 2002, HEMAC has organized the annual International Historical European Martial arts Gathering in Dijon, France. In 2003, the Australian Historical Swordplay Federation became the umbrella organization for groups in Australia, and an annual Australian Historical Swordplay Convention has been hosted and attended by diverse Australian groups since 1999. The HEMA Alliance is a martial arts federation containing dozens of HEMA schools and clubs from around the world, providing insurance and research accreditation to its members.


Today, HEMA-specific schools and groups can be found throughout the world

Building a Better Dinosaur: the HEMA Approach

If historical European martial arts are at the center of the revival of interest in WMAs, they are also the ones that present the most challenges to adherents. How do you resurrect the dead? The world of the knight and the courtier is long gone, and often seen through a glass darkly. While the fight books, weapons, armour and arming clothes of this era are fossils for the modern student to study, a fossil is not a dinosaur, and necromancy does not raise the dead, only calls forth their ghosts. Historical European martial artists are one part paleontologist, one part necromancer, and one part devoted student laboring under the unseeing eyes of a long dead master.


In the absence of a living tradition, different HEMA groups take different approaches toward the best way to reconstruct and revive their lost traditions. For example as in the Asian martial arts community, they place different emphasis on the virtues and flaws of forms work, sparring and competitions. But where they all agree is that, to “get it right”, you need the right tools. HEMA and living history come together in the quest for better weapons and armour to replicate techniques and experiment with the cutting power of swords. While HEMA practitioners may also be living historians, as martial artists, many are also interested in using modern equipment, such as synthetic sparring weapons, fencing masks and lightweight protective gear to be able to recreate or simulate various forms of full-contact fighting. The changes and innovations are constant and on-going.

The Revival Clothing Western Martial Arts Line

Revival Clothing has been honored to be a part of, and trusted supplier to, the HEMA community since we first opened our doors. The proprietress, Nicole, does not just “sew for western martial artists”, she is one. As a founding member of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, she has had the chance to spend over a decade learning what old masters taught about wielding everything from the elegant rapier, to the fearsome poleaxe, and has long since been swept away in the siren song of the sword. Indeed, our name “Revival” is a homage to the path that all practical archaeologists and living historians walk: giving new life to the legacy of our ancestors.

 

This is precisely why our very first product, the Model-T gambeson was designed specifically to answer the needs of both her SCA and WMA friends, who wanted a way to practice unarmored combat, but have a foundation for building a historically correct harness. Since that time, we have steadily expanded our line to meet the needs of HEMA practitioners.

 

The larger HEMA community has generally organized around two approaches toward training clothing and equipment. The first, pioneered by Hammaborg in Germany is built around a modernized version of 19th century fencing equipment for sparring and modern athletic gear for training. The other is based on a similar aesthetic as is found in many Asian arts such as kendo and aikido: a modern, rugged “uniform” that has the silhouette of historical clothing, while not being costume.




In developing our Western Martial Arts line we have begun with the second approach, since the design elements that make medieval clothing so well-suited to wielding medieval weapons is what we know best. The first dedicated products in the WMA line are our Wrestling Jacket and Fencing Doublet.


Medieval wrestling was what is termed “jacket wrestling” in the martial arts community, meaning that the opponent's doublet or gambeson could be used to facilitate a number of holds, chokes or throws. Jacket wrestling is extremely taxing on the combatant's clothing, which is why modern martial arts often used specialized clothing such as a judo gi or sambo kurtka. For several years our friends and customers in the WMA community have asked us if could design something a similar garment for medieval martial artists that would have basic shape and fit of a late medieval garment, while having the strength required for grappling. Made from either 18oz, 100%  cotton duck, or in the very sturdy but softer and more flexible cotton Monk’s Cloth, our Wrestling Jacket will take a beating in drill or free-play.

 

The Revival Fencing Doublet combines the principle design elements of a simple doublet with the best elements of a modern fencing jacket. The fitted body, padded shoulder roll, V-shaped hem and a high collar gives the doublet an historical line and feel, but it is made out of heavy weight 18oz 100% cotton duck, providing great durability while remaining light-weight. The double layers in the front and neck reinforced armhole seams provide superior resistance to tearing under strain. Blade penetration is made all but impossible with an offset, left side closure that zips shut with a hidden zipper, closing with velcro at the neck. 


Adapted from period designs, these garments maintains the silhouette and principle design elements of a simple, period garment, combined with the best elements of a modern martial arts and fencing jackets with a specific eye towards durability, affordability and safety. They maintain historical line and feel, but are made out of heavy weight 18oz 100% cotton duck, providing great durability while remaining light-weight and breathing well - crucial for a long day of training.


Currently, these two inaugural products are supported by line of accessories, including fencing hoods, padded leather gloves and footwear. They will soon be joined by designs for those with a “modernist” aesthetic, and accessories, such as durable sword bags, that will be useful to all.  

 

The revival of Historical European martial arts is near and dear to our hearts, and we are pleased to be able to continue to play our own, small role in helping that community grow.
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