A thought on «national» fencing styles

Oplosophia e Verdadeira Destreza das Armas
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I would like to put forth an idea to the HEMA community: let’s call things by their proper names.

The whole idea of «nation» is an XIX century construction, and I am trying to argue against applying modern tags («german», «italian», «spanish», etc) to historic entities such as fencing.

Examples that I know well:

  • The Liechtenauer tradition (let’s call it Kunst des Fechtens, because it sounds cool and marketable) is not «german» (many of its masters belong properly to modern Poland, among other places), nor Fiore was «italian». Both of them were, however, clearly products of the prosperous Holy Roman Empire, so I always try to explain that: different schools developed within a context of economic wealth and constant conflict.
  • La Verdadera Destreza might have flowered by the efforts of Pacheco as master of arms in the court of Philip IV. But that court, despite what XIX-century historiography might have taught, was not «spanish». Neither did modern Spain exist back then –it was but a cluster of kingdoms owned by sucessive crowns– nor did the house of Habsburg have a particularly spanish leaning, for it managed an empire that covered most of Europe. Furthermore, both Destreza has undoubtedly some italian inspirations and was developed outside of the modern spanish territory (there is a whole bunch of Portuguese Destreza –see www.ageaeditora.com for some samples– and Thibault might as well be called «Dutch Destreza»).

Truth is: the development of fencing theories into fencing treatises is a by-product of wealth and prosperity. In times when gold and power were massed in different parts of what we call Europe, people found resources to put down their fencing knowledge and rejoice in them. Those territories had mutable names that began to crystalise from the XVI century onwards, generally speaking, through a slow process that would have its heydays at the late XVIII (with the French Revolution and the idea of nation=state) and the XIX centuries (with romanticism, the development of modern nationalism and the idea of nation=people+land+language and culture).

These two ideas competed and still do –examples: as late as 1830 modern Spain did not exist, but was instead still a cluster of different kingdoms whose respective pre-national identities echo loudly in modern nationalist movements; the United Kingdom is still nowadays and very clearly a cluster of different nations.

Furthermore, martial arts are a profoundly individual experience, in that everyone that practices (and teaches them) is performing an interpretation on what they were taught. Masters who developed a particular style might have worked within a specific martial culture or within a group (there is the Liechtenauer Society), but these still had to compete with other traditions that coexisted in the same space and time (famed in the popular imagination, and probably false but still worthwhile for this example, is the clash between Quevedo, proponent of the Esgrima Común, and Pacheco).

HEMA in general would benefit from calling the different fencing styles or schools by their specific names («Verdadeira Destreza», «Kunst des Fechtens», «i.33 system») and where not, by their main authors («Saviolo», «Fiore», etc). It is a service to our community in historic rigour and terminological precission.