There are many questions and misconceptions that people have surrounding European martial arts. This page seeks to address the most common of them. For more information, don't hesitate to hit our forums.

  1. Martial Art Validity
  2. Swords
  3. Equipment required
  4. Historical
  5. Various terminology used by the New Zealand Schools of European Martial Arts
  6. Sanity...
  7. The truly bizarre (asked when drunk?)


Martial Art Validity

Basically, are European Martial Arts even valid?

Are you not just doing kendo?

Short answer: no. Long answer: While we often use shinai in practice, we do so for safety concerns, and not from a martial perspective. We follow what the fencing manuscripts state, and not kendo.

I thought martial arts was just karate or judo?

You thought wrong! The word martial is ultimately derived from the name of the Roman God of War, Mars. Any words derived from Mars are all concerned with war—martial law for example. A martial art is no different. In fact, one could argue that those styles which are purely self defence oriented should not call themselves a martial art, since they are not a war art.

What is the difference between European martial arts and other martial arts?

European martial arts are from Europe. They are descended from European senses of history, culture, language and philosophy. Including European sensibilities when it came to dueling, self defence and general military focus.

Can you learn a martial art from a book?

Like many things, knowledge can be passed from generation to generation in written form. Ideally, one should learn from an instructor who is a master in the art; but this is unfortunately impossible in the case of these more ancient martial arts, which have no living tradition any more. However, with a strong foundation of biomechanics, and with the benefit of test cutting with sharp swords, communicating with scholars on the subject, and good ol' experimentation, we can reconstruct what the various authors intended to a high degree of accuracy and effectiveness. Research on the subject matter never ends.

Why do you call it fencing?

Fencing is derived from the words defence and offence. Both words have their root in the Latin word fendere, and its conjugations defendere (meaning to protect), and offendere (meaning to strike). In modern English we still use phrases like "to fend off an attack". Similarly, modern fences that surround paddocks derive from the same origins, except that in earlier times fences kept the unwanted outside, rather than keeping stock in. The expression "the enemy is fenced in" is from the earlier meaning of the word. In other words, what we do is fencing. We generally use the term historical fencing, so as to distinguish these more ancient martial arts from the modern sport.

What do you mean by "free play"?

Free or loose play is a friendly form of fighting. Some people call it sparring, but sparring technically only refers to friendly boxing or pugilism. Free play is also called "assault", but that English word has also changed in meaning (negatively, and especially in a legal context), and so we generally refer to it as free play so as to avoid confusion.



Questions related to the swords we use.

Are those real swords?

Yes. We use live (sharp) swords for test cutting, and we use foiled (blunted) swords for practice. We also use wooden wasters, shinai, and aluminium foils.

Can you grab or hold sharp blades?

Yes, so long as the blade is not moving when you physically grab the blade. Steel will only cut when it is moving (or you run your own hand along the sharp edge). Of course one should not be silly about such a venture at the same time either, but it is possible and it was well documented throughout the age of the sword.

What are wooden wasters?

Wooden swords. They are primarily designed to be throwaway, hence the name waster. For training purposes they are nowhere near so problematic, from a safety point of view, as steel, and so they form an important part of drilling.

Don't you need a license for a sword?

Fortunately, New Zealand still has some enlightenment left and hasn't banned swords (yet). So no, you don't need a license, and long may that continue.

Aren't Medieval swords incredibly heavy?

No. While it would be nice to think our brave Medieval European ancestors had arms and bodies that could swing "20 lb broadswords" all day long, they actually made their swords far lighter than that. An arming sword—a fairly common knightly sword—could weigh around the 2 lb mark (about 1 kg), and longer swords could be as heavy as 3lb (1.5 kg).

The strongest arm and sword won the day, didn't it?

This is a myth perpetuated from the 19th century, by Hollywood, and among certain modern fencing circles. The portrayal of a knight as some crude bashing machine is a disservice to the history of fencing. The fencing treatise from the high and late Middle Ages (the earliest we have) indicate rich concepts of tactical fencing. The only real way to know it is to join in on the fun, and is one of the main reasons we run courses.

Do you teach Florentine?

What this meant had us stumped for ages. It is a 20th century mythological term for fighting with (any) two swords. It did not mean a fighting method taught from Florence as originally assumed. From the fencing treatises the only two sword fighting taught was in the Renaissance with case of rapier.

Equipment required

Most of the following is assumed from a free play perspective—not for new students straight off the street!

What equipment do you need to bring as a beginner?

Nothing in particular. We will supply the basic equipment. For the weapon arts it would be good if you were to come along in long sleeved garments and full length trousers. You will need to remove any jewellery for training.

What equipment with shinai?

A shinai ;) You need to modify a shinai to have a cross of some description. (The cross is an integral part of early European fencing). You will also need a fencing mask, a box, gloves, chest protector for women, and preferably cloth covered everywhere. Shinai are the cheapest entry. They are not the be-all and end-all of fencing. Shinai do not behave like swords, so practice with a shinai should be viewed as only a minor teaching aid.

What equipment with wooden wasters?

Wooden wasters are a very good piece of equipment for those intending on the medieval arts. If you're making them yourself, you need to make them out of a flexible hardwood. Personally they're pretty cheap and should be within most people's budgets. You need a 1600Nm fencing mask with these. You also will need padded garments since wasters can do a fair amount of damage if swung hard.

What equipment with a pollaxe boffer?

A pollaxe boffer is made with foam on the head piece and cue. The haft is otherwise wood. For this you need a goalie hockey mask, decent gloves and padded jacket.

What equipment with a foiled steel sword?

In the end the only thing that behaves like a steel sword is a steel sword. To play with these you need decent equipment. A 1600Nm fencing mask, padded clothing everywhere along with some sort of deflection armour.

What equipment with a foiled rapier and small sword?

The same as for the steel sword above.

What equipment do I need for boxing?

This may seem strange, but when bare knuckle boxers sparred they used mufflers (padded gloves). We do the same. Please do not buy boxing gloves. Buy a decent pair of martial art gloves that allows your hand to move. You will also need a boxing mask and mouthguard. You will probably want a box as well.



Questions pertaining to history.

If a knight fell off his horse, was his armour so heavy that he couldn't get back up again?

This is another common misconception borne out of the 19th century and popularised by Hollywood. Firstly, no one thinks of the poor horse. If the armour was that heavy, the horse's back would have given out. Secondly, armour has to be functional to be useful. If it is that heavy, it becomes unusable. Thirdly, there are plenty of pictures from manuscripts indicating feats of gymnastics in armour being performed by knights, and this has been attested to by us moderns wearing replica armour.

What are the physical skills of a knight?

There are seven defined physical groupings of skills that a knight was expected to know. They were called Septem Probitates Roughly they equate to

  1. Be a brilliant horseman; be able to pick things off the ground, know and perform all the gaits and have full control over his mount...which would be a stallion.
  2. Be good at swimming and diving; swimming proficiently enough that he can manoeuvre in water
  3. Be good at archery (bows and crossbows) and later on firearms. A common myth is that knights disdained such things in warfare, but the Septem Probitates explicitly mentions that these may be used against Princes and Dukes.
  4. Be fast at climbing ladders, both wooden and rope.
  5. Be honourable in the tournament. This mostly refers to tilting or in modern parlance, jousting. A knight was expected both to good at this as well as very honest.
  6. The part that most people expect: good at wrestling and fighting, but also included in this virtue is to excel at the long jump (beat others) and with using either leg.
  7. The last virtue is mostly about social interaction.
    • He needs to know how to serve at the table. In particular this meant to carve and serve meat for the ladies and know all the other table etiquette which was pretty exhaustive; they had very strict rules which will probably come as a surprise to many, and
    • He needs to know how to dance. This doesn't mean the bump and grind of today's so-called dancing either, and
    • He needs to know how to play boardgames which is those days mainly meant chess, draughts and tables (backgammon), and
    • And the caveat of anything else that is proper.

What period armour should I get?

If you're historically minded, then you should decide what history of armour you are interested in, and go from there. As a school of martial arts, we are not too worried about historical looks. Apart from meeting equipment standards, period armours aren't too important for us.

What time period are you doing?

None. We are not a Living History group. We are only interested in reconstructing the martial arts from yesteryear—we do not try and reenact any period. We are, however, interested in the time periods surrounding the martial arts we are studying. Anything that helps us understand our martial arts, including their cultural context, can only improve matters. This includes understanding historical garments, and how they influence movement. This is especially true for shoes.

What about case of x weapon?

Historically the only weapons that were cased were rapiers or side-swords. The only real possible way to have two of these long weapons usable was to carry them around in a case. Trying to unsheath them in a realistic time frame is quite impossible. Using the term for other two weapon combinations is therefore incorrect. Much like the term florentine.

How correct are sword sheaths on the back?

While having a sword on the back has become very popular in the modern imagination, trying to draw a sword from such a sheath is a bio-mechanical nightmare. Try it for yourself sometime; see how far your arms will stretch upwards and compare that to a typical sword length. Apart from, perhaps, the occasional carrying a sword for a long journey, swords were sheathed just below the hip for a good reason - it is practical.

Various terminology used by the New Zealand Schools of European Martial Arts

WMA: Western Martial Arts. Martial arts from Europe and daughter colonies. Due to the popular imagination of cowboys and indians this acronym is getting used less.
HEMA: Historical European Martial Arts. European martial arts without a living tradition. A significant subset of WMA.
HES: Historical European Swordsmanship. In fairly common use in HEMA circles overseas to those that dedicate themselves solely to the historical European sword arts.
Fencing: The art of defence. The art of striking without being struck.
SEMA: School of European Martial Art. Denoted by geography, for example, Auckland SEMA.
Medieval martial art: Martial arts from the Middle Ages in Europe. A term often misappropriated by numerous clubs who think wearing clothes and swinging weapons approximating historical examples somehow magically transforms it into a medieval martial art.
Fencing treatises: Treatises on the art of defence. Sometimes written or published as manuals, but often not.
Side sword: Modern term for the prevalent single handed sword of the 16th century that could cut and thrust. Sometimes called a transitional rapier. It differs from the earlier swords by having bars to protect the hand.
Rapier: A long thin double edged single handed sword where the sword-hand is protected. The thrust is dominant over the cut. Despite popular imagination these swords are quite heavy.
Small sword: A popular Gentleman's sword of the Enlightenment period. The blade is stereotypically triangular shaped. Compared to the rapier it was small. This is a sword designed for the thrust. The foil and the epee were originally designed as training weapons for this weapon.
Backsword: A straight sword with a baskethilt where the back or false is 'thick' for most of its edge, though the top third of the back edge is usually sharp. It was a sword that was popular in both England and Scotland.
Broadsword: The popular imagination is that this is a two handed sword. It is not. It refers to the typical double edged Scottish sword dating from the 18th century. It was broad compared to most other swords of the period (at least in Europe). For those also pedantically minded the claymore is also this weapon and is not a two handed sword.



Living in this strange world it helps to have a strong grasp of common sense.

Is it dangerous?

Yes, and no. We keep safety in mind at all times. Besides which, if the techniques were so dangerous that they could never be practiced, then they are useless techniques. To pull off maneuovres you must be able to train them until they become habit. To put things in perspective, we have far fewer injuries in training than do sports like hockey and rugby, where it is not uncommon to have one person injured (sometimes seriously) in every game. If we, on the other hand, log one notable injury per semester, we would consider that serious enough to re-evaluate our safety regulations.

Why learn a martial art with arcane weapons?

Because it is fun ;-) Besides, not everything we do is with arcane weapons. Some like the romance of fighting like knights and gentlemen. Some like the academic and practical pursuit of making dead martial arts alive. Some like to know an uncompromised martial art—one that was never converted into a sport, and remains as deadly as it was when it was used every day. Others like knowing how to defend themselves against aggressors, whether they are armed or not. Those are some of the more common motivations. All in all, though, at the end of the day it is simply a most enjoyable activity.

Who would win, a knight or a samurai?

Biased answer number 1: The Knight!
Biased answer number 2: The Samuari!

No real answer can be given, since it didn't happen. While a knight's defenses and offenses are impressive, a samuari could cheat by using a bow. Since this is a site dedicated to European martial arts, which means we are totally unbiased, the real answer is 1 ;-)

Who would win, a modern boxer or a prize fighter?

What this really comes down to is which ruleset is being used. If modern boxing rules are used, the smart money would go on the modern boxer. Modern boxers have learned how best to take advantage of that ruleset and unless a prize fighter was truly exceptional he would lose.
Modern boxing demands gloves. Not only do they act as shields and allow stances disastrous with bare knuckles, but they also don't exploit weaknesses like a bare fist can. Therefore a prize fighter would be at a disadvantage with gloves on.
The knockout still exists in modern boxing, but a boxer today can also win by points. This is something unavailable to a prize fighter who either won by knockout or his opponent (was forced to) quit.
Alternatively if London Prize fighting rules were used, the smart money would go on the prize fighter.
Bare knuckles demand a precision unfamiliar to a modern boxer. Gloves allow far greater leniency about where one can strike. Bare knuckles on the other hand are small bones and do not take kindly to punching thick or strong bones.
Modern boxers relying on gloves leave favoured targets exposed to a prize fighter. Therefore a prize fighter would soon start exploiting weaknesses in stance and put the modern boxer on the back foot.
Grappling anyone? Prize fighting allowed grappling. Something no longer in the tool set of modern boxing.
There is also the reason why prize fighting got banned. Prize fighters would occasionally die from their vocation. A psychological aspect that does not exist in modern boxing which has done its best to eliminate this outcome.

Johannes Liechtenauer versus Fiore dei Liberi. Which system is better?

If you like Italians more than you like Germans the answer is Fiore dei Liberi. If, however, you like Germans more than Italians the answer is Johannes Liechtenauer.
This is another question we cannot answer at the moment. If you would truly like to find out we're taking donations for research: we need to find a pair of very young identical twins, separate them and train one up solely in the system of Fiore dei Liberi and the other solely in the system of Johannes Liechtenauer. After many (many) years of dedication we'll bring them back together for the sole purpose of making them fight it out. As you can see, we need oodles of time and cash. So don't delay in sending us all your money! (If you couldn't already tell, we are being facetious. Though if you'd like to depart with your cash in our direction we won't say no.)

How do I tell the charlatans from the genuine?

Sadly once something starts becoming successful snake oil salesmen and the like start coming out of the woodwork. Sometimes their motivation is profit, but usually in this case they are trying to get you along to their organisations from a marketing point of view. There are many groups in New Zealand that state they are doing 'medieval martial arts', 'European martial arts' or 'Western martial arts' when they are to the observant eye, not. They are just plain old fraudsters.
Determining the genuine from the fake has therefore become pertinent. Most of these groups drop names like 'Fiore' and 'Talhoffer', yet know little about anything by those two authors. Questions that you can ask yourself are:


The truly bizarre

Some people just live for pissing in other people's cheerios. Still, we must be on the road to success to get such hostility.

Aren't you guys just trying to suppress this information?

It is hard to fathom how such a question could even come about. We run numerous courses and workshops on material that we know. If we were trying to suppress this information, we would not run courses and workshops for those that request them...

Do you allow women to train?

Yes, why wouldn't we...?