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  • Writer's pictureIan

Going back to the Source

Hello HEMA Scholars!

This is Ian, longtime member of Signum Corvus and perpetual longsword novice. Have you ever finished a lesson or training session and found yourself wondering afterward, "What on Earth am I supposed to do in response to that technique my opponent was using?" I've spent more time than I'd like to admit playing out scenarios in my mind afterward to try and find a remedy to my opponent's successful plays.

When we are newcomers to HEMA, we often have a broad awareness that there are written manuals that guide our understanding of the martial art we practise; however depending on our entry point and objectives, we may not always seek out the original sources and instead favour modern tutorials.

I find that one of the joys of learning HEMA is deciphering the meaning buried between the lines of text in our reference sources to improve my interpretations of techniques and the context in which they should be applied. Unlike a number of other martial arts, most HEMA traditions do not have a continuous lineage of instructors and died out at one point or another in history. HEMA techniques have had to be reconstructed from studying surviving period writings and experimenting with interpretation. This can become a labour unto itself as the surviving copies of a given fencing manual may contain different phrasing and illustrations, sometimes omitting or including entire chapters between editions of manuscripts. It's not uncommon to see the consensus interpretation of a technique change after a few years when some new idea is proposed that remains consistent with the original text and is proven to be more effective than the previous interpretation.

We have benefited immensely from the work of HEMA scholars to rebuild the art of Fiore dei Liberi's martial tradition, which forms the bedrock of our longsword curriculum at Signum Corvus School of Arms. In our longsword classes we often have questions like "Does the book say anything about..." or "What would be a good response to...?", and we have some answers thanks to the trailblazers that first translated and studied Fiore's manuscripts. That foundational work has enabled us to learn, further explore, and teach Fiore's martial art at our school (with a sprinkling of complementary concepts that are more explicitly described in other longsword manuals). It's only appropriate then that as we come across good resources to expand our understanding of swordsmanship and its role in Fiore's broader martial art, we share them with our students and fellow scholars.

In 2016, a book was published that compiles the text and illustrations for the four known surviving versions of Fiore's Fior di Battaglia into a single volume and presents their contents side-by-side for easy comparison with accessible English translations of the text. Editing this compilation of translations, transcriptions, and folio scans was the colossal undertaking of Michael Chidester (whom eagle-eyed readers may recognize as the editor-in-chief for Wiktenauer), and that was actually the second such compilation that was produced thanks to the very successful 2015 Wiktenauer fundraising drive: A week prior to the release of the Flower of Battle compilation, The Recital of the Chivalric Art of Fencing of the Grand Master Johannes Liechtenauer was released into the wild in the same fashion. In the spirit of free access to information that is the lifeblood of Wiktenauer, both books are available for free in pdf format -- I've included links below to these extensive and valuable resources.

The modern HEMA student doesn't have to start from zero anymore. There is a plethora of contemporary resources available now in print and on the web that teach both the explicit instructions from the old masters' writings and the underlying assumptions that they neglected to write down (and we have classes!). Still, there is value in revisiting the original writings to supplement our understanding. Sometimes you may surprise yourself with an epiphany that changes how you interpret a technique, or you might just get an unexpected chuckle (I am fond of the extreme confidence of the Getty manuscript's description of the grappling Posta Frontale, myself).

What will you learn, with access to the original longsword sources?

MS Ludwig XV 13 26v-a

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