The Deficiency of Strength may be greatly supplied by Art; but the want of Art will have but heavy and unwieldy succor from Strength. -Captain John Godfrey - A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence (1747)
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) refers to the myriad martial arts traditions from across Europe, both armed and unarmed. There are a wealth of surviving technical treatises from the early 13th century onwards which describe these systems in detail, with more manuscripts coming to light each year. HEMA practitioners train using these manuscripts and manuals in order to revive the martial arts systems they describe, continually revaluating their own interpretation through pressure testing, cross training, sparring and competition.
Our core syllabus is drawn from the works of George Silver, gentleman – ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ (1599) and ‘Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence’ (Sloane MS 376). Silver was dismayed by the growing popularity of Continental rapier systems during the late 16th century, which he saw as redundant on the battlefield and flawed for civilian self-defence.
In his works he champions and records in detail a traditional English fighting system, explicitly setting out the theory and mechanics which underpin the ‘Nobel Science of Defence’, then proceeds to illustrate these principles through techniques for backsword, off-hand grappling, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, two hand sword, staff, forest bill, pike and dagger fighting, as well as providing advice on the use of battle axe, halberd, glaive, partisan and how to encounter against rapier and poniard.
New students (Schollers) are introduced to Silver’s system using backsword and quarterstaff. On becoming a Free Scholler they are encouraged to explore other weapon sets. Although Silver forms the basis for our practice we supplement his works with material drawn from other sources – most notably Joseph Swetnam (The Schoole of the Nobel and Worthy Science of Defence – 1617) and Zach Wylde (The English Master of Defence – 1711).
For unarmed combat we draw primarily upon Classical Pugilism, the bare fist boxing techniques of the 18th and 19th centuries. Classical pugilism includes blocks, throws, trips, grappling and a variety of strikes other than straight punching. These techniques are taught in the context of modern day self-defence. Students are encouraged to consider the legal ramifications of their actions and are offered advice on how to deescalate or avoid a potentially violent confrontation.
The ranking system and the progression through ‘Prizing’ are based on that of the 16th century Company of Maisters of Defence.
- Scholler - The basic rank on joining the club
- Free Scholler - 1+ year and successfully prizing with backsword and staff
- Provost - 7+ years and successfully prizing with 3 weapons
- Maister - 12+ years and successfully prizing with 4 weapons
For a Scholler to attain the rank of Free Scholler they will be expected to have absorbed Silver’s Principles and be able to demonstrate this understanding in successive bouts against all challengers present at their ‘Prizing’. It is not expected that those playing their prize should win all their bouts; many of the challengers will be much more experienced. Rather, they will be judged on their understanding and application of the Principles, their ability to remain calm under pressure and their bottom (courage)
All safety equipment and training weapons are provided for new students. That said, our sessions do get quite sweaty and the peculiar odour of the club kit reflects this. A Free Scholler would typically be expected to provide their own covered fencing mask, sparring gloves, fencing jacket, arm and leg protection, gum shield and grappling mitts as well as their own steel sword. The club also recognises that sometimes personal financial circumstances may prevent this ideal and under these circumstances would continue to support our members with loan equipment.