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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

"The blade isn’t the only part of the sword."

Thus remarks Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) to his bastard son Belian (Orlando Bloom) as he teaches him the fundamentals of fechten in the following scene from the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven:

fechten, Ger., n., fencing, swordsmanship

Shortly thereafter, Bloom puts his training to the test in what is arguably the best fight scene of the movie (of particular interest here is the sequence from 1:30 to 1:38):

Although I found Kingdom of Heaven disappointing as a whole, these scenes were, to my knowledge, the first cinematic attempt to (somewhat) accurately convey the sophistication of medieval European artes martialis. And it did so in part by depicting (via Neeson, the quintessential Hollywood swordmaster) a unique method of fechten taught for at least three centuries by the German and Italian masters: halfswording.

artes martialis, Lat., pl. n., martial arts; literally arts of Mars (Roman god of war).

Halfswording refers to a system of thrusts, throws, disarms and joint breaks that are executed by gripping the longsword near the center of its blade with one hand (typically, but not always, the left) and at its hilt with the other.

The author, at right, demonstrating a halfsword throw:

Moviegoers unfamiliar with halfswording must have wondered how Neeson and Bloom were able to grip their blades barehanded without injury. After all, the conventional wisdom––due largely to the popularity of katana––is that every inch of a sword’s blade should be razor sharp.

But research has shown that, in medieval Europe, quite the opposite was true. Contrary to popular assumptions, longsword blades were often only sharpened from roughly the middle to the tip (the "weak"); the "strong" was left blunt to allow for safe gripping.

While this may at first seem counterintuitive, it actually makes perfect sense for several reasons.

First, unlike katana, longswords were designed primarily to strike and thrust, not to slice. This is evident not only from the fechtbucher, which emphasize strikes and thrusts, but also from the shape of the weapon itself; katana have a single, curved edge, while longswords have a straight, double-edged blade.

fechtbucher, Ger., pl. n., medieval and Renaissance fencing manuals

Second, fechten is an art of distance. A skilled fencer will always position himself so that he can effectively attack while remaining just outside the range of his opponent’s own sword. In the simplest of terms, that means striking or thrusting as he moves to his opponent’s opposite flank. With proper footwork, the attack should end with the attacker’s body several inches beyond his opponent’s maximum reach, and only the last few inches of his blade making contact. If the attacker is close enough to connect with the strong of his blade, then he is in danger of being struck himself.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, a blunt blade doesn't at all detract from the longsword's effectiveness. As this demonstration by ARMA director John Clements proves, a blunt longsword is capable of cutting bamboo just as well as a razor-sharp katana:

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