Although there is a long tradition of “living history” and reenactment groups putting on displays for the entertainment and potentially the education of the general public, the primary goal of those groups is the promotion of a good show, i.e. entertaining the crowd. There is nothing in itself wrong with that as a goal. However, the general public is ill served by the inaccuracies and fallacies perpetuated by some groups. In many cases, this is simply an unfortunate accident that is a result of a culture that has occurred in reenactment groups around entertaining the public. For example, if one were to view many of the groups whose focus is on the Wars of the Roses one might be led to believe that armies of the day were composed primarily of soldiers armed with pollaxes and swords and that archery was a minor component (For more on this disparity see the groups The Woodvilles, Buckingham’s Retinue, Ecorcheur, and The Clarence Houshold). Whereas in fact, in English armies especially, this ratio is inverted and the bulk of the force would have been archers. This historical fallacy is in part the result of the difficulty in using archery safely in a reenacted combat display, as well as a perception that the public would rather view combat between individuals rather than a hale of arrows. Yet in choosing to promote depictions of hand-to-hand combat to the public, they have created more misconceptions. Moreover, in order to safely allow large groups to meet and safely conduct this combat for the public, safety precautions had to be taken and guidelines for safe combat drawn up. As a former re-enactor I understand how difficult it can be logistically for all the various reenactment groups to train together and moreover without the training that would have allowed a more freeform style of mock combat a method of ‘stage fighting’ had to be adopted. Much of the combat witnessed at events is what is often referred to as “the fives”. The fives and other similar stage fighting conventions generally consist of limited target areas and a limited number of allowed angles of attack (for example a set of diagonal “cuts”, two up and two downward and a final vertical final “cut”) or an agreement to only target armoured portions of the opponent. While I might identify flaws this methodology for its depiction of actual combat, I do not seek to criticize it too harshly. It is after all simply a safe method of recreating historic combat for public consumption. However it does little to dispel the mistaken beliefs or give an accurate view of the past.
Presenting to the Public
For many years, it has been accepted practice to invite re-enactors and similar “living historians” to recreate historical battles and other events at historic locations of national interest, with the hope that this often exciting and engaging event can fulfill multiple duties for the museum or historic site. Firstly, it is hoped that an exciting event might draw larger members of the public to the site, which often relies on visitor traffic for its revenue. Secondly, there appears to be a desire to use re-enactors to make the past more approachable to members of the public. Many Re-enactors take great care in the details of the historical clothing they wear as well as the rest of their kit. However, due to balancing the needs of safety and historical accuracy, the re-enactment combat often seen at these events is often grossly inaccurate and doing the public a disservice. One of the aims of this public presentation is to avoid the pitfall of the re-enactor and avoid the historical clothing and armour issue and instead focus on correctly presenting the historic combat without worrying whether the safety equipment is correct to the period. We are not generally used to the concept of ongoing scholarly research into historical combat, especially when it involves experimental archaeology. However, it has been suggested that there are a myriad of new approaches to experimental archaeology yet to be considered and this is just one new area of study. It is of vital importance that nothing is presented to the public as fact if there is no evidence for it. In educating the public it is paramount that what is presented to them is done in such a way as to highlight what evidence there is to support an interpretation, how that evidence was obtained and how further study may change interpretations.
The main aim of this event is to put forward a more accurate image of Europe’s military history. Heretofore the depiction of historical combat has been greatly influenced for the worse by television, movies and other popular culture. The goal is to demonstrate to the public that Europe’s martial heritage was not a haphazard affair but rather an organized series of skills. The aim of this event is to highlight both careful academic research and martial practice. This event will involve the participation of various modern historical European martial arts schools in a public display of martial arts dating primarily to the 14th and 15th centuries. The decision not to present this to the public in historic costume is a very conscious choice. If historic costume were to be employed, we would very likely increase the confusion of the public, as what we will demonstrate will appear different to other displays on site. The use of modern clothing and equipment allows us to focus the attention in different ways. The clothing question allows us to sidestep the distraction of whether or not the minutia of our clothing is accurate or not and more over allows greater freedom in our ability to demonstrate fighting techniques with proper martial intent. Whereas a re-enactor would fight according to set stage fighting techniques, which are designed to keep them safe, the HEMA practitioner makes use of non-historical safety equipment, such as a fencing mask to maintain safety. Since many of the reproduced examples of medieval helms seen on the reenactment field fail to provide the wearer with adequate protection for the face most re-enactment groups do not allow the targeting of certain areas (such as the head) during combat displays. This is not an illogical line of reasoning if we consider that the re-enactor is unwilling to sacrifice the accuracy of appearance for safety. HEMA chooses to turn this reasoning on its head and has made the choice to forego the historical accuracy of their appearance in order to embrace the accuracy of the historical technique. Therefore the HEMA practitioner may fight with full martial intent in a public display, content in the knowledge that both they and their opponent are safe and there is no need to modify the technique for safety. The goal then is to see modern practitioners demonstrating something as close as possible to 'real fighting', using blunt steel and modern kit, as well as training techniques and test cutting along with anecdotes about the translation and interpretation process.