If you’re looking for a new hobby or passion, I have just the thing: medieval European martial arts and weaponry. But hold your horses – this is serious stuff.
It’s not about theatrically brandishing and swinging a sword, and wearing heavy, clunky armour, like what you read in books or see in the movies. (Though there will be swords and some form of armour, and maybe a bit of theatre.) It’s about sticking as close to historical accounts as much as possible. It’s about dedication, focus and discipline. It’s also about preserving and respecting the knowledge that goes along with it.
But don’t worry – it can be fun too. Just ask Rigel Ng, the president of PHEMAS in Singapore, which stands for Pan Historical European Martial Arts Society. “We mainly focus on late 14th century Italian and German text on the Longsword,” he explains.
“In the past, PHEMAS studied armoured combat and techniques, and even had historical armour to put on. But nowadays we focus on unarmoured combat – that’s combat with an arming jacket or gambeson and sword (as they would have done historically). The difference is we add safety gear like gloves and fencing masks for protection.
“Everything, from the movement to the handling to the proper technique, is a mere component in the training of a swordsman. They seem to be quite (far) removed from each other; but done together, they (become) an intricate and extremely beautiful system of combat that can be described as art.”
A short history lesson
Rigel gives us a quick background. “Broadly speaking, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) is the umbrella term for the study of any and all martial arts that were practised in Europe historically. However, most of the time and the majority of its practitioners practise armed martial arts,” he relates.
“Of those people, majority of them practise the sword, and of those, the majority of them practise mainly the Longsword.
“Not many people know that the medieval period is a very big time period too. It covers about a thousand years of history,” he adds. If you need an example, Rigel also mentions Johannes Liechtenauer, the German fencing master from the 14th century whose teachings still influence swordsmen and practitioners to this day. So you can just imagine the scope of their study. :)
It’s full of action (and suspense)
Its history is part of the reason why the art is so intriguing. It enriches your experience, and you get a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction too. We have an idea, because Rigel reveals what he has learnt and loves the most about medieval European martial arts, and being a part of PHEMAS, here. They might just be the elements that’ll convince you to join in and keep coming back for more. :)
#1 It’s here, and it’s growing
“The best thing about PHEMAS really is the fact that it can exist, especially in a city like Singapore where not just unarmed martial arts, but weapons martial arts that are extremely irrelevant (and dangerous in the wrong hands), can be practised freely to a certain extent. This is the chief factor that lets all the other things I love about it significant.”
#2 They maintain healthy lines of communication
“The mindset of HEMA is a very open one. Yes, there are sources, and yes, there are traditions within that source. But the line of tradition was broken hundreds of years ago, so there’s no absolute authority to tell us the narrow and straight path. This may seem to be to our detriment and discredit, but on the contrary, it brings all practitioners together in a cultural, critical and radical exchange of ideas to forge out what was mostly likely done by the actual masters.
“Our only guiding lights are the sources. We also take and borrow from other martial principles as much as we can, so if there’s no textual and living evidence of the surety of the art, we’ll always find mechanical evidence. The human body, coupled with tools and implements, can only be used in so many ways.”
#3 It’s not static
“The love of the art itself is only just below the love of the learning and expounding of that art. To me and to the instructors, it’s really a pure joy to teach – it’s almost akin to a journey of discovery and rediscovery.
“In HEMA especially, there are no ‘masters’ in the traditional sense. We’re all recreating and reviving a lost art. The process is almost scientific, in the sense that one forms an interpretation and hypothesises it; and if said hypothesis can be elevated to theory, one must test it.
“Obviously we don’t condone any duels with actual sharp swords. What we do in the modern world is that we take components of the fight and we test it, (like the) live cutting of objects, sparring and technique training.
“These are only a few facets of the jewel that lies in the core of the use and practice of swordsmanship, and every bit is as intricate as the other. Every little thing discovered is like a kick of endorphins, and every question is deeper than its answer, in that it always breeds more questions.”
#4 It can get real – can you handle it?
“There’s the sincerity and realism of the art itself. The sources we study make no embellishments (aside from the poetry of their words) about the use and study of the art. The ancient masters make it very clear that fighting is not a game, and that when blood must be shed, it must be done quickly, surgically, and with solemn reverence and grief, and never by unjust use of the art itself.
“But let’s not perpetuate the myth that these ancient warriors and fighters were the Jedi of their time. They were human, and most times in history there are no heroes or villains, only victims of circumstance. They tell us that to be great in this art, it’s not enough to merely wound, it’s not enough to be calm and surgical and grieving.
“To be great, the swordsman must not only wound, but wound effortlessly, carelessly, laughingly, joyfully – without hate, yet with a terrible focus to make the opponent hesitate to face him, for he’s no longer obligated to carry any respect for the conservation of the life of his opponent when he crosses the boundaries of defence, and enters to those of offence.”
#5 You have a responsibility
“Those of us who practise it must be clear on the objective of our practice. There are too many people who think that just because something is moral, it’s in black and white – a line that’s never to be crossed. But what happens when you’re put into that circumstance? Can one honestly tell oneself that they won’t cross it, if the other is willing to do whatever it takes to take your life?
“Of course, the potential reality of being in those circumstances is nigh zero, but as a martial artist, that’s why you practise the art – so that if you’re ever in that position, you know your intent. The moral aspect comes into it when we have to teach what’s good and what’s bad intent. Of course, this is the broadest of the broad in which to speak of morality.”
That’s pretty inspiring, but at the end of the day…
You might only be interested in this because of the sword. Because let’s face it, the sword does look quite impressive. It kind of makes our fantasy of swordfights and achieving heroic deeds come to life. :)
Rigel acknowledges this. “I can’t deny that even though the deeper meaning of being a practitioner of the art of arms is what may bring people of esoteric practice into HEMA, most people learn swordsmanship because of the sword itself,” he admits.
“It has been such a symbol of chivalry and honour in our histories that even now, and forever more, there will never be a shortage of popular-culture adaptations of their tales. From romances to space operas, we can’t get enough of it.
“Yet our knowledge of the sword is also skewed towards pop culture that most people are so (far) removed from the definite article,” he observes. “Learning swordsmanship gives you a historical perspective on the sword, and a deeper love and understanding of such a symbolic tool.”
So having a genuine appreciation of the art, and “to show truth instead of the illusion of truth”, as Rigel puts it, will take you far. Are you up for it? :)
PHEMAS also holds sword demonstrations at events, and for charitable causes and organisations too. For updates and more information, visit their Facebook page.