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I’m starting to grow tired with the term “HEMA”. It has always had a kind of silly sound to it, and it never has accurately defined or described what I do.
This of course simply means that I don’t really see how the term fits in with my study/teaching/learning of martial arts. First and foremost, HEMA refers to certain kind of longsword fighting, and in growing quantities to the modern competitive longsword fencing we will eventually have in a more regulated form. I would be surprised if it would become known by any other term.
I kind of realized this while visiting some international events earlier this year. While I do enjoy all sorts of aspects of “HEMA” I don’t want to train with longsword. I don’t want to train with rapier. I don’t want to practice rondel dagger defenses or ringen. At least not more than I want to study traditional Italian knife fighting, Filipino stick fighting or some other forms of martial arts. I don’t have the time to do all of this anyway, but the weight that comes with the term “HEMA” is not really beneficial.
Talking to people I noticed that I was actively seeking people who would specifically have interest in sidesword. Not rapier, since it is vastly different and not really “compatible” for useful all-round sparring and comparing techniques and ideas. Exactly in the same way I don’t like it when people expect me to be willing to fence with them with longsword or rapier I do not wish to impose the same expectation to others. Sometimes it can be ok, trying out new and different things, but when it is not the thing you focus on the purpose of the exercise becomes different: instead of seeing how well your previous training holds up and whether you are heading in the right direction you have to focus on adapting it to another weapon — which can be annoying if it is not what you are looking for at the time.
These experiences led me to realize that to help me in my path right now the answers may not be simply within the “HEMA” community, but in looking out there with a wider view. There are plenty of other experienced fighters and martial artists from various single handed weapon styles, whose skills can augment my understanding of the sidesword. It is even possible that the average eskrimador is more interested in learning the sidesword than is the average longsword fighter.
So, in light of all this, what I do — Bolognese swordsmanship, or Italian sidesword or whatever one wishes to call it, is part of HEMA of course. But HEMA is not what I do. And while it is great to be a part of this ever growing community of loosely connected swordfighters, it is also becoming a reality that the smaller communities born within this big cloud are becoming big enough to sustain themselves without the need for us all to be claiming that we do “the same thing”.
And it is great to see this development in many new events that are targeted for more specific groups: there are now events specifically for rapier, mounted combat and other styles. This coming autumn also in Bolognese swordsmanship in Bologna.
So, what does someone do who practices HEMA? It’s probably going to need a bit of elaboration, as someone doing HEMA can be (for example) doing just research, be a tournament fighter with little knowledge of the sources or be just someone who started yesterday by swinging a plastic sword around at their backyard. For me, I just practice fencing with the sidesword (regardless of the not so graceful origins of the word), or if I need to be more specific, the martial arts of Renaissance Italy, as described by Bolognese fencing masters of the 16th century.
[Note: the cover photo is from the Dijon event this year, where I got to fence with some great sidesword fencers of the Bolognese style. In the photo I’m facing Catherine Loiseau with sword and dagger. Photo credit belongs to Aurélien Calonne.]
Two weeks ago we had the pleasure of hosting Luca Dazi and his assistants Devis Carli and Eleonora Manoni from Sala d’Armi Achille Marozzo for a weekend seminar on sword and dagger. First day focused on the systems of Giacomo di Grassi and Antonio Manciolino, while Sunday was dedicated to Achille Marozzo himself.
The weekend seminar marked a few first times for our historical fencing club. It was the first external instructor workshop held at our new training hall, and it was the first time during our five-year history that we have invited an instructor to teach us Bolognese swordplay. Given our strong focus on sidesword without accompanying weapons (which is largely due to my personal preferences) it was a natural choice to invite an instructor who is capable of delivering quality content other than just spada sola.
I have met Luca in many occasions during the last few years, and we have always had great discussions on all aspects of Bolognese swordplay and other things. He is one of the most diligent, humble and analytical scholars of the Renaissance sword arts that I know, and he has what I think of as the ideal attitude towards this work: he strives to improve himself, never turns down a chance to fence with anyone and is always willing to go back to the source to learn more from the words of the old masters. Truly a role model for the modern-day Bolognese swordsman.
We gave Luca free hands to structure the two days as he best saw fit. He chose to introduce sword and dagger to us through di Grassi’s (who was strictly speaking Modenese, still almost walking distance from Bologna) and Manciolino’s shorter but practical systems. I found these to be an excellent introduction, but — despite of Luca’s attempts to persuade me — I could not make myself like di Grassi’s overly simplified guard system. Complicated and fantastical as they may be, I like my Bolognese porte di ferri and code lunghe. However, di Grassi’s techniques themselves were practical and clever.
Manciolino’s system of four principal techniques and two guard positions was easy to learn and just as perfect as an introduction to the subject as was di Grassi. Probably for me and my students even easier, as the guards were already familiar to us.
We finished Saturday with two hours of free fencing, where Luca wanted to fence with everyone who took the workshop. And we were over twenty participants. I am not sure if he managed to do that but I know he at least got very close!
With the permission of Luca here is a video of Manciolino’s techniques practiced on Saturday. Though filmed quickly after two days of training, it is a good reference for anyone working with the source text and gives you a look into what sort of plays we did during the day.
After the workshop we went for dinner (of course), worth mentioning is that Achille Marozzo joined us and enjoyed a glass of red.
During Sunday we went through all fourteen of Marozzo’s plays for sword and dagger, which was a great way to build on what we did on the previous day. I loved Marozzo’s material, as every choice Marozzo makes in his techniques speak of an extreme understanding of the art. Practicing them gives me a sensation that I only really get while working with his text and the Anonimo Bolognese.
As I wrote in an earlier post, it is sometimes nice to be a student and externalize the responsibility of interpreting the sources. Bolognese sidearms are an area where I really benefit of this. Seeing how the Italians are so far ahead of us in this work it makes perfect sense to do so, and I would hope my work on the sidesword alone can serve a similar purpose to some others. While I don’t wish to criticize Marozzo’s writing, it is simply so much easier to see in person how to execute the actions than trying to build an internal model and picture to follow just from the text. For this reason I was really happy that we were able to go through all of Marozzo’s material on the subject.
This is of course only a scratch on the surface, and the real work has to be done during the years to come. But I think for me this seminar was a good kick-start, and to some others in our club who have done more work with this weapon combination it was a huge confidence boost. Since they had earlier worked mainly with Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s material, now they had working knowledge of four masters’ work in total instead of just one.
Here are Marozzo’s techniques as demonstrated by Luca and Devis:
We finished the day again with a few hours of free fencing and then headed off for dinner and drinks. Luckily our guests did not have to leave until Monday, so there was no rush after the workshop was over. We were able to enjoy more discussions, mental sparring and exchange of ideas on the Bolognese tradition and HEMA in general. Besides being a good helper with sword and dagger our discussions lead me to re-think some of the ways I have done things before. I think I got a lot of great new ideas on classification of the cuts, the invitations inherent in the guards, cutting mechanics, footwork and other subjects.
If you get a chance to attend a workshop by Luca you definitely should. His insights to the art and his practical experience enable him to deliver workshops that are useful to all participants regardless of previous knowledge.
I wish I could have kept them here for another weekend, going through some other weapons in the Bolognese repertoire. Luckily I believe I can to catch up with Luca again in Italy after the summer.
A big thank you to Luca, Eleonora and Devis for taking the time to come to Helsinki to share their martial heritage with us!
The second marozzo.com instructional bit is now available at the shop: the Segno Footwork Video teaching you how to step and practice cuts and actions over the star-shaped diagram presented to us by Achille Marozzo in his 1536 book Opera Nova.
Please support my work and purchase your access to the video. Until 10th of May the video is on sale for only 2 euros.
We have the masters’ words written down, we can read them and often they are clear enough that we can physically re-create them. We can re-create them in the sense that every word written effects our position, every cut mentioned is executed and each defense is purposefully made. Still, we are often left wondering and questioning ourselves: are we really doing it right?
The difference between narrow and wide play in Italian historical fencing traditions is one of the topics that comes up now and then. The Italian terms are gioco stretto and gioco largo for narrow and wide play. In my opinion the Bolognese sources manage to define (or rather, a describe) of the two but, as many things in fencing are, this is something best understood through experience.
A look back in history regarding one the most popular videos I have created. The video highlights not only changes in the art of swordsmanship, but on the purpose of this website and myself as an instructor as well. Read on to learn more.
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