Whenever someone describes one of the Hidden Strikes using Tempo, the statue of Johannes Liechtenauer in the Vatican sheds a single tear.

Whenever someone describes one of the Hidden Strikes using Tempo, the statue of Johannes Liechtenauer in the Vatican sheds a single tear.

Warning: This post consists entirely of my opinion about the purpose of HEMA reconstruction. If you don't care about this subject or about my opinion on it, you can safely skip it.

I have skirmishes with other HEMA researchers and instructors from time to time about timing in Kunst des Fechtens. There are a number of prominent people in our community who earnestly believe that everyone, regardless of tradition or time period, should carefully study the concept of Tempo as given by 16th or 17th century Italian masters, the True and False Times of 16th century English author George Silver, or (more often) both. I've heard some even go so far as to say things like "No one should be able to call himself a HEMA instructor if he can't have an intelligent conversation about Tempo."

I disagree with this utterly, but my most recent dust-up over the issue set me to thinking about a few things in a new way. Then, when I went down to New Orleans a few weeks ago, a few conversations with Christian Trosclair, Jeanry Chandler, and Veronique McMillan about cross-training in HEMA sort of crystallized the idea for me.

There's a wealth of physical wisdom, for lack of a better term, that a living martial art possesses. What is your posture like when you stand, how do you shift your weight as you step, what muscles do you engage when you strike and in what order, and so on. Elements that are not what most people would mention when talking about their art or when trying to record its secrets, but which are vital to performing it correctly. These are things that a student would absorb from his master both indirectly (by watching) and directly (by being corrected when he screws them up). This physical wisdom is just as important as the more macro-level concepts of specific strikes, holds, and other techniques that compose the syllabus of a martial art—indeed, without it, the technical syllabus will often be worthless.

In Kunst des Fechtens, we have very little of this physical wisdom passed on in our manuals. The goal of the "HEMA Project", if we may speak of such a thing, is to determine whether there are enough clues packaged with the technical syllabus of a given art that we can recover this vital piece and thus fully revive a dead tradition.

Thus, possessing only certain context cues and vague references to the physical side of KdF, we try to restore it by looking broadly. We might take up a system of Italian rapier to improve our thrusting game, study a Japanese Kenjutsu to learn cutting with a two-handed sword, study Messer to learn how our right hands work and to get better at wrestling at the sword, work on staff plays to make our left hands smarter and generate more power in winding, and look at the Black Book of Meyer to learn how our thrusts might be converted into cuts when circumstances require. We might study theory from any source we can find to try to chase down a vital insight that unlocks the cryptic vocabulary of Liechtenauer: What is Indes? Is it a technique? Is it a moment? Is it a feeling? Is it an opening? Is it the technique that we execute in the moment when we feel the opening?

However, this is something that we do, this is how we of the first "HEMA generation" work to reconstruct the art. It is therefore important to keep always in mind that doing this is not art, but rather the method for finding it. We study other arts, whether living or in process of reconstruction themselves, to learn what we need to know to reconstruct our art. We may even have to teach our students this way, because the reconstruction of KdF is not yet complete. Thus, we may study Tempo and even teach our students about tempo because we don't yet properly understand Indes ourselves.

However, we must never become complacent or content with this arrangement. A vital part of the process is to frequently circle back and recheck the core Liechtenauer treatises to see how much more we understand, and how much foreign material can be scraped away from our understanding of the Art because we now understand it on its own terms. This is how, one day, we can reach the goal of completing the reconstruction and engaging in a living art again.

On the other hand, if the students of our students' students still train their students in rapier in order to understand Absetzen with the long sword, if they hand them a katana to teach them cutting, if they teach their students tempo in order to illuminate Indes, make no mistake: that means we've failed. It means either that we never succeeded in understanding KdF on the deep level necessary to teach it on its own terms, or that we gave up prematurely and decided instead to create a hybrid sword art by mashing together unrelated sources in whatever way seemed to make sense at the time.

Michael Chidester
Wiktenauer Director
HEMA Alliance, WMAC