How People Actually Fought With Swords

How People Actually Fought With Swords

From Gladiator to Braveheart, most historical fiction about fighting with swords is kinda wrong, influenced more by performance art than how people actually fought each other with blades. Back to the Source, a documentary about Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), is looking to show people how it was actually done.

We told you about this project last year when it was a Kickstarter, but the documentary is now complete and ready for viewing on YouTube. Or here.

Put together by Cédric Hauteville, it's a fascinating exploration of the HEMA scene, which is right inside my wheelhouse, being as it is a combination of both sports and active historic research. Seriously, these guys are thirsty for knowledge, and are continuously going through old texts looking for any new insight into the way Europeans used to try and kill each other. But what's so cool about this is that any stuff they find isn't just being put into a new book, like so much other history: it's being put into practice.

How People Actually Fought With Swords

Watch the doc and you'll quickly notice the difference between cinematic swordfighting and the real thing: actual blade combat was messy and nasty, caring less about looking pretty and more about getting in some guy's face and sticking a sword into them using whatever means possible.


Comments

    actual blade combat was messy and nasty, caring less about looking pretty and more about getting in some guy’s face and sticking a sword into them using whatever means possible.I attended an introductory lesson on fencing once and one thing the instructor said to me has stuck with me:
    "When you're fencing, the idea isn't to attack the other person's sword. Their sword is just an obstacle to you attacking them."
    This was after a few minutes of me acting like I was trying to practice choreography for an Errol Flynn movie.

      Yep, this stands true for all martial arts and fighting systems as well. When I started karate, I was concerned more about looking like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee fighting than the practicality of it. 6 years later, I could'nt *care* how I look while doing it, as long as it works properly.

    I wonder if some of these martial arts weren't carried forwards because they were just kind of useless in real life. Additionally, being out of the spotlight for so long might have caused a lack of evolution and critique of techniques. For example, fighting unarmed against a knife-wielding opponent is unlikely to result in a successful execution of a fancy self-stabbing disarm and simultaneous kill like shown in a few of the drawings. Modern fighting techniques don't even recommend this because it'll get you stabbed repeatedly and probably killed, even if your opponent has no training.

      Gunpowder was the biggest change. When gunpowder occurred, the useage of swords and knives decreased and became more of a hobby than a necessity.

    Looks interesting.

    Last edited 26/10/15 7:31 pm

    That bit about fully armoured dudes wrestling is crazy; it seems so weird that knights in full plate flat-out straddled each other and tried to brain each other with their pommels!

    Seems like complete horseshit.
    You have no video of how they fought with swords in ye olden days, so you don't know.
    You aren't getting anything useful from script records, same as you wouldn't today, so that leaves you with nothing.

    Therefore this is just an exercise in some people trying to pretend harder/differently than amateur reenactment nuts and someone else buying that as plausible.

    That's not how anyone used to fight in the past, that's how Jeff and Barry fight today if you give them swords, no sword-based employment record, no mortal consequences to their fight, no sharp edges and a shitload of padding.
    I believe the Nerf corporation does something similar with firearms.

      Salty much?

        You mean because the word shit appears twice? There's filters for that if you're concerned about your kids.

        Last edited 26/10/15 11:32 pm

          There's only so many ways to hit someone with a sharp thing. There's even less ways to hit something with a blunt thing. It's going to be a pretty good indication of what the combat was like in the past, which was for pretty much all of Europe 'stick it in the other guy'. It wasn't a ritual, dude.

            All of that was true when they filmed Braveheart, a much larger exercise in people not in combat imagining how to imitate how people used to do that.

      You must be fun at parties.

        People not mistaking their fancy dress for a historical reenactment is actually the norm.

      Did you watch any of the film? It is clear that there is an element of filling in the blanks, but they are working from manuals written in the time whose target audience was people learning to fight.

      Sure they're not trying to kill each other, but neither would people back then while training (they had blunt training weapons back then too).

        Again, what's the difference if they have a document or don't?
        Think about me giving you a document from 300 years ago and another from 300 days ago that describe how to dance. Do you have an opinion about the suitability of that medium?
        Yeah, you're hoping for a book with enough sequential pictures that it's a poor substitute for a video, because that's the only thing that's gonna be useful.

        If Samurai left an audio recordings of instructions on how they used to paint pictures you've never seen, you're not reproducing them.

      There are ways they can tell. Training was written down in documentation by many different cultures. Not only was it written in words, it was also noted down with pictures, drawn to show stances, swing arcs etc. From the Romans who documented it on basic papyrus to the Byzantines through to the Italians later after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Ottomans who left clear, graphical instruction on fighting, all these people wrote down their training regimens, documenting them, the stances, the movements etc. Your assertion there 'is no way' is factually incorrect I'm sorry to say. Even the Chinese and Japanese documented the basic training for their soldiers, stances etc.

      Not to mention the fact these traditions are handed down generations through people who hand it down to people beyond them. These two coupled together ensure this sort of thing lives on.

      But how would I know... I'm just a history teacher.

      Last edited 27/10/15 12:04 pm

        Your assertion there 'is no way' is factually incorrect I'm sorry to say.
        How's that? Every example prior to this one - movies, instructors, etc - involved people trying to imitate what they thought this would look like. What makes this instance correct?
        What's incorrect about my assertion that none of you have any idea?

        But how would I know... I'm just a history teacher.
        That's amazing. I'm someone who has an internet connection. Want a link to a colour picture of a dinosaur, or do we not need to explain confirmation bias today?

          A completely different and futile argument about the dinosaur. Noone was ever trained to be a functioning dinosaur, there's no documentation about dinosaurs directly relating to how to be one. Your argument is moot and made of straw I'm sorry to say.

            A completely different and futile argument about the dinosaur
            You didn't recognise it as an example of people happily publishing and accepting assumptions for long periods without any relevant medium to support such claims, relate it to the topic at hand. Oh well.
            there's no documentation about dinosaurs directly relating to how to be one. Your argument is moot and made of straw I'm sorry to say.
            There's also no fossilized colours , genius. The point being everyone's happy to make a guess about this trait and all guesses are equally valid, including those in popular cinema.

              Your main problem here is you're resorting to insults and snarky comments to those trying to have a potentially civil conversation. You are wrong, factually wrong, undeniably wrong, the information comes from some primary and some secondary sources from history, it comes from those who are trained in the art of swordfighting. The Ottoman Empire for example, which adopted swordfighting techniques from both Islamic countries and European countries only died out in the beginning of the 1900's. People trained in these arts existed until then and actually fought *with* swords until this time period for instance. Not to mention in many European countries even up until WW1, useage of some sort of sword was not unheard of. This is undeniable as it's factual. Just because you don't know this does not make it untrue. This is also where people get the techniques from, recent history.

              Your example was not good, as our concept of what dinosaurs looked like in terms of color is almost certainly a matter of speculation based upon the colors of modern reptiles. However, in terms of sword fighting techniques and sword fighting itself, there is a wealth of information both primary and secondary to draw from. That's the difference.

              But we'll call it a day here, as I don't wish to converse with someone who resorts to being snarky in a conversation when essentially there's no need to.

                "You are wrong, factually wrong, undeniably wrong"
                You've claimed that already, been asked to state how, failed.
                the information comes from some primary and some secondary sources from history, it comes from those who are trained in the art of swordfighting.
                The Kindle edition of "Play Football Like a Pro" is under $6 from Amazon.
                I can't attest to how competant the writer is, however you don't die from massive blood loss if he was sub-par or a book isn't a great medium for learning this physical competency which typically requires training with professionals for long periods, those professionals existing.

                As the saying goes, never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig likes it.

                Last edited 28/10/15 12:21 am

                  This was the funniest thing I've read this morning ! Good laugh, cheers

      There are no video records for any of the traditional Japanese kenjutsu, taijutsu or judo. Does that mean that anyone practicing today are all wasting their time because they will never preform the exact techniques that were conceived by the founders?

      Since when has picking up a book or text reference been seen as such a poor instruction manual?

      I suppose text books as a whole should be banned for any teaching and we should start learning exclusively off video.

        I don't agree with R3mix, but to be fair that's a whole different beast. The Koryu survived through the ages by adapting and passing along through successors in the name of preservation, surviving more than three events that threatened to end their history. The European arts were not so lucky.

        I see what you are saying though.

        The title of the article is "this is how people actually used to fight with swords" immediately followed by 2 guys dressed like hockey goalies unconcerned with losing their hands/arms/life on contact #1 because they're in no way imitating that.

        Assessing this as a BS claim has no impact on the validity of any sport or the concept of writing as a whole.

          So you don't believe when sparring in the past they used protective equipment?

          Last edited 27/10/15 9:56 pm

          You speak as if an absolute authority on the subject. Can we please know your credentials?

            Guy with eyeballs would be my main claim of authority on this topic.
            Did the moderators delete a post of yours where you disagreed with me that people in elaborate padding who are utterly unconcerned with their permanent dismemberment / death aren't participating in the same competition being attributed?

            Outside of that I'd have to say that being in a lot of fist fights gives you a good sense for sizing up people and whether they're up to what they're pretending to be. Gives a rather thorough understanding of ,what's actually going to count if you're relying on theory to get you anywhere and what you're betting yourself if you're wrong.

            How about you ? Sent a lot of people to hospital prof? Been stomped when that didn't work out? If not, have you considered reading a book about that and then stepping into that? What about historical accounts without the benefit of hindsight that no in-person training would exist to accompany it. You're good to go now because you truthfully consider it a substitute?

            These are of course rhetorical questions, there aren't any humans alive who think reading a book on successful fighting isn't funny, let alone one on swordfighting. All of your teeth that are present attest to this.

              Do you even lift brah? I don't feel the need to flop it out and dick measure over what I have and haven't done in life in comparison to you, all I know is I just showed your posts to a few others, you definitely gave us a laugh for the morning.

              Last edited 28/10/15 9:41 am

      You have no video of how they fought with swords in ye olden days, so you don't know.
      That's not how anyone used to fight in the past

      How do you know that's not how anyone used to fight in the past if you haven't seen video of how they fought? Kinda scuttled your own argument there, classic fumble.

        Classic cut a statement in half and pretend it's now become confusing.
        "That's not how anyone used to fight in the past, that's how Jeff and Barry fight today if you give them swords, no sword-based employment record, no mortal consequences to their fight, no sharp edges and a shitload of padding."

        Are you pretending you find this hard to understand?

          The rest of the sentence doesn't change the meaning of the first part. If the author can't know because they didn't have video, you certainly can't know either and aren't qualified to make that statement.

          Address your claim directly: how do you know how they did or didn't used to fight in the past if you haven't seen video of it?

          Last edited 27/10/15 11:40 pm

            I do have video, it's as I described it as capturing current events, people in padding, not fighting to the death. The title of this post is "this is how people actually fought with swords".
            If anything is unclear about this, you're going to need to describe what that is.

              I'm not sure what about my question is difficult. How do you know how they did or didn't used to fight in the past if you haven't seen video of it?

              Last edited 28/10/15 8:44 am

      They had these things called manuals. Now these manuals contained instruction and many, many illustrations showing stances along with defensive and aggressive fighting styles. A lot of these books were lost over the centuries but just recently a manual of the German two Handed great sword style (Zweihänder) resurfaced. So this is how we know how some sword schools fought. Whilst it would not be 100% accurate, its better than saying " complete horseshit" as you put it.

        I'm familiar with the concept of writing. You're probably familiar with the internet where your access to reference manuals is unlimited. Can you list all the physical competencies you're competitive in based on access to written references and put an asterisk next to the ones you'd be happy risking your life on (marital arts, rock climbing, etc)

        My list is zero FYI. Have played several representative sports that currently exist because I was able to watch competent people and was trained by experts who didn't die out hundreds of years ago.

        Whilst it would not be 100% accurate, its better than saying " complete horseshit" as you put it.
        I'm saying that the claim this is accurate is BS. Nobody is disputing that these are additional people imitating their best guess.

    going through old texts looking for any new insight into the way Europeans used to try and kill each other
    Maybe that's the wrong approach.
    Read the designer notes on Amazon for the inspiration for Hissatsu Japanese styled CQB knife, marketed pistol+knife breaches in Iraq. He was seriously disappointed with how long it takes for people to be incapacitated by muscle damage and blood loss from slashing blows and believes if your knife isn't long enough to reach multiple crucial organs for lethality you're just using the wrong tool. So he improved on the old designs and the only technology involved was being a better psychopath.

    Now..... run that first GIF here on a loop, see if you can find that mindset on film.

      You seem to be completely missing the point r3mix. They are not trying to learn to kill people in the most effective way - if they were they would use a gun, which is why no-one uses swords anymore.
      The point is to learn to swordfight In the same manner as historical references say they did back in the day, as a hobby.
      Which is clearly explained in the video if you cared to watch it.

        You seem to be completely missing the point r3mix. They are not trying to learn to kill people in the most effective way - if they were they would use a gun,
        You're not understanding what I'm saying
        I'm just referencing a readily available quote from someone who has used blades to kill a few people in the profession being imitated. Then referring you to watch the first GIF here of 2 guys. The part where you don't connect the two was supposed to be implicit.

        You're telling me I'm confusing professional killers with people having a hobby. No, that's the point I am making. These aren't the same thing and it's really laughable to confuse them. Read the title of the article here.

        If you still don't understand, watch GIF #1, come continue this conversation on the new article just posted "how to fist fight a lawn mower with no physical consequences". Features the same 2 actors and the arms they still have.

          "He was seriously disappointed with how long it takes for people to be incapacitated by muscle damage and blood loss from slashing blows and believes if your knife isn't long enough to reach multiple crucial organs for lethality you're just using the wrong tool."

          I'd be interested to read the reasoning behind his remarks, so if you could provide a link, that would be greatly appreciated.
          From a personal perspective, if the person is surprised that someone is taking a long time to die from slashing attacks, then not only are they using the wrong tool, they are using the wrong method.
          Stabbing has always been the preferred method for quick incapacitation, which is why designs such as the Fairburn-Sykes dagger has been so effective, and why the military teaches predominantly stabbing techniques, rather than slashing.
          The quote above would make me pause for thought, as most professionals would not use slashing as their primary lethality, short of slashing an artery.

          You're also not comparing apples with apples, as modern CQB has as much in common with historical sword fighting as a Mini Cooper has with a minigun.
          The mindset of a foot soldier several hundred years ago, was to primarily incapacitate his opponent, who may also happen to be inconveniently encased in armour.
          Killing him was preferable, but as long as he stopped waving his sword at you, you could move onto the next contestant, as anyone left failing on the ground would be either captured or dispatched by the following ground troops.
          With that mindset, slashing is as good as any, especially given the majority armies were made up of uneducated civilians, or as you put it 'Jeff and Barry'.

          The point I think you were trying to make is that the two combatants in the first GIF do not appear to fighting in a manner akin to killing each other and surviving the encounter, and in that respect, you are correct.
          You are watching two hobby sportsmen playing a sport, which is far different from two people trying to energetically kill each other - though if you were to imagine the padding represented a more substantial armour, it would account for why they are unconcerned about losing a limb.

    Well, judo is the modern derivation of jujutsu.

    But in regards to jujutsu and kenjutsu, these martial arts have been in continual use/practice for the past 500 years. If a technique is used in them, it is a safe bet that it was effective at some point.

    HEMA is trying to recreate techniques from secondary sources, so you could get a rough idea of how a fight would go, but it is still a bit of a crap shoot in terms of getting it correct.

    Go and do kenjutsu (not kendo) and be aware of the very fine nuances of the blade, wrists, arms. They don't make sense until you actually start to duel. I don't know if any book could accurately describe this movement.

      Currently train in both kenjutsu and HEMA. Both instructors use written text at various points, the main difference being the kenjutsu instructor references his and his fellow student's notes from when they were learning from their master, where as the HEMA instructor will talk about each technique and discuss where in the text it's from, how it's phrased in the text, how this relates to form and stance and how it compares to other known styles and texts.

      You can hardly call the text HEMA uses a 'secondary source' compared to the Chinese whispers that is tradition and technique passed down via Eastern martial arts. Not to say there's anything wrong with that, but if we're qualifying sources, the original texts certainly win out here. A good example is George Silver's Paradoxes of Defence. This is 16th/17th century English back sword from the most prominent instructor of his time. His writing and instructions are the most direct source possible for this particular discipline.

      Lastly, I'm not sure about other schools, but it's rare that dueling happens in kenjutsu, certainly doesn't in the school I attend. It's not exactly safe to duel with bokken without protective gear, and kendo gear definitely won't cut it.

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