Historical European Martial Arts

Also termed Western Martial Arts, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) were the fighting arts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. These were violent times, and fighting men (and perhaps occasionally women) trained from an early age on how to handle weapons and themselves in combat. It stands to reason, and to historical evidence, that they had highly developed systems of martial arts just as did Asian nations. Combat systems existed throughout Europe, most notably in Germany and Italy.

In the Medieval and Renaissance Germanic lands (Holy Roman Empire) the system of fighting was called the Kunst des Fechtens (KdF), the “Art of Fighting/Fencing.” While systems of fighting with weapons and without in Europe likely date back a thousand years or more, the system of KdF was developed by Johannes Liechtenauer in the 14th century. He traveled throughout Europe studying under different fight masters before distilling his knowledge into a cohesive, teachable system. He fathered a rich tradition of martial arts which bore his name for nearly three centuries.

The quintessential weapon of KdF is the longsword, a roughly 48 inch, double-edged, well-balance sword. Despite myths of being a clumsy weapon useful only for bashing, a longsword averaged about three pounds, and was capable of lightning-quick cuts, thrusts, and slices. But the techniques learned with the longsword are not useless elsewhere. The principles of KdF apply equally well with the longsword, unarmed grappling, or any of a variety of weapons used at the time. These include dagger, messer (falchion), spear, poleaxe, buckler, dueling shield, mace, flail, and the list goes on.

Although Historical European Martial Arts died out or evolved into gentlemanly sports with the advent of effective firearms, modern historians and practitioners are reviving these traditions. Thankfully many masters left written records of their teachings in text, pictures, or both. Dozens of these works survive, allowing modern students to resurrect these dead arts. The best source to view these teachings online, particularly pertaining to KdF, is wiktenauer.com