To borrow a famous line, the problem with most people trying to understanding the true nature of historical sword combat is not that they're ignorant — it's just that they know so much that isn't so.
It's amazing, really, how a subject that so permeates our modern pop culture, and is so ubiquitous, is one which virtually no one any longer has any real world experience in, nor pursues for its original function. As a result, most all our conceptions of sword-fighting get it wrong. The reality of it is not what you think it is.
Some readers will really get offended if you dare to suggest that they don't have an accurate conception of sword-fighting. It's pretty silly, since no one of them relies on this skill for self-preservation, nor makes it their profession. Plus, nearly everyone gets their information and opinions on it from the same essential sources: TV, movies, fantasy literature, video games, cartoons, comic books, dinner-theaters and renn-fairs fight shows. But where do those sources get their notions?
Almost entirely from experience with sport fencing, Asian martial art styles, and pretentious historical role-playing societies. Yet, all these sources derive their conceptions of it from still earlier ones. And so on and so on. Where then did most of today's ideas on historical sword-fighting originate? When we trace it all back, we find that romantic beliefs about the nature of swordsmanship among knights and cavaliers almost all started with ignorant Victorian-age prejudices.
Fortunately, during the Medieval and Renaissance eras, hundreds of detailed instructional manuals were produced by expert Masters of Defense. These knights and professional instructors in arms wrote and illustrated immense technical treatises and books on their "science of self-defense." Intended to preserve their secrets or instruct their students and patrons, these little-known works, some in excess of six hundred pages, represent time-capsules of the actual fighting systems and proven combative disciplines used at the time. Focused mostly on swordsmanship, these handbooks and study guides reveal highly sophisticated combat teachings. Further, their content and presentation is unmatched by any martial-arts literature from anywhere in the world. And we have dozens of them.
Only recently in the last decade or so has this extraordinary and all but forgotten material finally come to be properly examined and studied. Reconstruction of these remarkable teachings offers an unparalleled view into how fighting men prepared and trained themselves for duels, street-fights, and battlefield encounters. Their manner of fighting with swords is not the classical Western style we see today, which is largely a contrived 19th-century gentleman's version of a narrow, aristocratic Baroque style. What the surviving sources show us is wholly different from the familiar pop-culture version, as well as being dramatically distinct from what has gone on for years in assorted reenactments and contrived living-history efforts. Rather, Medieval and Renaissance sword fighting was a hell of a lot more violent, brutal, ferocious, and astonishingly effective. The way in which these swords were held, the way they can be maneuvered, and the postures and motions involved, differ substantially from common presumptions and modern-era fencing styles.
So, you're sword fighting with Medieval and Renaissance blades... How to do so effectively? How do you so authentically? Well, it's is as much a matter of what you don't do, as what you must do. And in both cases, virtually everything you think you know is wrong.
What we know now about sword-fighting from the documented historical teachings and methods is that in earnest combat: You don't stand still. The sources specifically tell us to be in constant motion. You don't just dance around. The sources specifically tell us to cover and close in. You don't just parry and riposte. The sources specifically tell us not to try to block. You don't attempt to be passive or stay defensive. The sources tell us in particular to be aggressive, audacious, and take the initiative. You don't try to just win the range and timing by sneaking out blows and feints. You seek to displace the adversary's blows with counter-strikes timed in the middle of their action. You don't just hit out wildly, or bash on their weapon. The sources tell us specifically to intercept and stifle their attacks, by binding on their weapon and using body leverage. And you don't try to receive blows of their edge on your own edge in a static fashion — but set them aside with your flat, or better still, counter-hit them with your edge against their flat. And lastly, both thrusting and cutting as well as grappling were always recognized as integral components for wielding all swords and weapons — armored or unarmored, on foot or horseback.
The secret to all this we're told is not difficult and it is not a matter of having a repertoire of techniques nor just good reflexes and coordination with decent conditioning. It's about knowing and applying a handful of key principles. It's about adversarial perception, timing, distance, leverage, and technique, all used in good martial spirit. Thus, European longswords, arming-swords, falchions, and rapiers are gripped and manipulated in vicious ways I guarantee you have never seen the likes of in any cinematic or video game fight scene.
How do I know all this? Because it's my job to know.
I've been studying historical sword combat for over three decades and teaching it professionally for more than ten years. I make my living writing and researching on the subject and operate the world's only private facility dedicated exclusively to the craft. I've taught and presented on it in 15 countries on four continents, written several books, lectured and presented at arms museums and universities around the world, appeared in numerous documentaries, and have published dozens of articles on the topic. I've consulted for the gaming and entertainment industry, demonstrated at academic conferences, and my training program in this field is the most developed and authoritative modern curriculum on the subject available. I've trained with, cut with, sparred with, and handled more kinds of historical European swords than probably anyone else alive today. As a fencing historian and recognized weapons expert, I am the world's leading proponent and foremost authority on the use of historical European arms and armor. I've made study of swords in the Renaissance —their forms, techniques, and wounds —my special focus. It's my life's work, my career, and my passion. I am an accomplished martial artist teaching authentic art of Renaissance fencing following the genuine source teachings. I am no stunt-fighter, costumed performer, nor showman entertainer. I am a swordsman.
So, when I say we know a great deal now about how historical sword fighters actually trained, what equipment they used, what exercises they undertook, what the outcomes were of their efforts at self-protection in single-combats or war, I can speak with conviction and write with confidence. From my vantage point my core assumptions on the topic carry a certain gravitas. There is little speculation or conjecture, no imagined theories or concocted assumptions at work, only sound interpretation and application of real world skills with accurate blades. And the questions I seek answers to are not ones most people would even know to ask.
Despite the many people now claiming to be studying the historical teachings on Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship, in their practices the majority invariably don't employ the correct postures, don't use the proper movements, don't apply the central tenets, and instead typically reduce it all down to adolescent sword-tagging games. In my own efforts, my senior students and I have achieved near textbook application of what is described in the sources. Tellingly, our form in sparring is identical to our form in drill and exercise while matching that in the sources. By contrast, we regularly witness countless others struggling with basic execution of essential moves, performing techniques too softly and slowly, oblivious to the requisite force and speed intrinsic to the craft, or else excluding crucial moves altogether from their play-fighting contests.
It goes without saying that popular culture today, including the closet-industry of self-certifying professional stunt fencers whose job it is to fake fights for movies and television, have no real clue as to what actual bladed combat was really like. Why? For the simple reason that to fake it, you first have to know it. You can't effectively pretend to do what you haven't legitimately reconstructed and revived as an authentic fencing method to begin with. When your job is not to accurately restore genuine sword combat teachings as real martial arts, but to instead safely create merely the illusion of fighting, to exaggerate its motions for entertainment with dramatic license, well then, self-defense reality is the least of your concerns. Stage-combatants and theatrical fencers are under no obligation (nor much expectation) to present things realistically, accurately, or martially — and indeed, they haven't now for generations. Besides, what authority is going to argue with them anyway? Certainly not producers, directors, writers, or viewers, who know even less than they do about things. Thus, long bombarded with artificial and convoluted depictions, the public is continually misinformed, the truth of how humans react in close combat is habitually distorted, and the historical reality of sword fighting perpetually misrepresented.
It's not as if the multitude of disparate opinions and diverse (often mutually exclusive) views about sword fighting out there are all somehow a small part of a larger truth or even anywhere near an emerging consensus. It's more like they represent a near infinite collection of ignorance, faulty cliches, erroneous assumptions, and sheer fantasy mixed with a little actual wisdom.
When you think about it, men-at-arms and members of fighting guilds or schools of defence in the Medieval and Renaissance eras were people who for most of their adult lives trained with weapons in close combat skills for hours a day and had done so since youth. It's somewhat preposterous then for modern people dabbling in it once a week or so to imagine that after a few years playing with scraps of information they have reached a reasonable facsimile of forgotten arts, rather than some mild-mannered version for recreation. But, this is in fact what is mostly done today — whether those doing so can admit it or not. In many ways, this truth is reflected, tacitly at least, or unconsciously perhaps, in the way people recreationalize it, fantasize it, sportify it, and trivialize it, as opposed to pursuing it out of genuine love for history, heritage, and martial spirit — with all the consummate character, virtue, and athleticism that such a discipline demands.
Edged weapons are not pretend lightsabers. They're not springy toys or padded sticks. They were lethal tools for dealing death and violence. For such skills, very often the truth is not "somewhere in between" differing views but is a matter of either being right or wrong on the essentials. For in life or death combat, doing something wrong will get you killed. History is often about the big picture, but ultimately insight into it comes down to knowing what individuals actually did. And the reality of sword fighting is far richer and far more fascinating than our much beloved modern fantasy imagines. That's why sword fighting is not what you believe it is.
About the author: A recognized international expert, John Clements is the world's foremost instructor of Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts. Having pursued the craft since 1980, he has been a pioneer in reviving these forgotten martial disciplines and is a major force in the field of historical fencing studies. His writings have been featured in more than a dozen periodicals world-wide and he has appeared in numerous television and film documentaries. As director of ARMA, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (www.theARMA.org) he teaches and writes on the subject full-time from his facility outside Atlanta, Georgia. This article originally appeared on ARMA's website.