They Walk Among Us: Agents of H.E.M.A.

/ by Roman Vučajnk

Flakes of predawn mist had only begun their retreat over wet pavements towards the Geneva Lake, when Daniel Jaquet pushed himself onto the back seat of a taxi. He said his good mornings to the driver and suppressed a yawn. This was yet another lecture trip and Daniel had been up to the very latest, brushing up on his lecture notes. He might have done it earlier in the evening, but then he would miss the time with his wife and two kids, time so precious and sometimes far between, in a crammed schedule of the head of research of a military museum, a senior university lecturer and a visiting scholar. 36-year-old Daniel is an academic, a medievalist who specializes in Cultural and Social History, Manuscripts and Print Studies, and Embodied Knowledge and its Circulation.

 

None of that could prepare the security check staff at Geneva Airport for the bolt of shock, when Daniel clanked towards them in his suit of armor with a boarding pass for the morning flight to New York in his hand.

 

For Daniel Jaquet is also a senior researcher in Historical European Martial Arts studies, and he thinks that extra check-in baggage fees are overpriced. Yet he needed his armor for the lectures and workshops he would give to expecting audiences. In addition, he was looking forward to an opportunity for a bout with his American colleagues.

 

A bout with an English-speaking colleague was also on Johan's mind, as they descended through a neon-lit corridor to a small room under the main gym, each carrying a rapier under his arm. A doctor, a judge, and two witnesses were waiting next to a table with a couple of fencing masks and gloves. Another person remained in the corridor and closed the door behind Johan and his friend, as the witnesses examined both blades and checked the tips. The blades were from a renowned manufacturer and in suitable condition, while each tip was equipped with a point d'arrêt, an instrument that looked like a small button with small protruding metal teeth (the whole thing reminds of the head of Shai-hulud from David Lynch's Dune).

 

Tips of historical rapiers, one-handed swords with elaborate hilts and guards, are much too dangerous for training purposes. They are downright lethal in quick thrusts. For practice and sparring purposes, training blades are completed with safety tips in form of small corks, which prevent thrusts from piercing through the body. In addition to protection gear that rapierists wear in bouts, safety is improved to top levels.

 

In real historical combat with battle-ready rapiers, the tip would penetrate the body and the blade could not slide off. Safety tips do make a contact with their targets, however, they immediately glance off, as their surface is too smooth to catch onto anything, and a degree of combat realism evades the combatants. On the other hand, the point d'arrêt (literally, stop-point), catches the surface of its target with its small teeth, while its base prevents it from passing deeper, thus it provided a level of safety in "duels to the first blood" in the golden age of classical fencing. The cost of replacing torn protection gear has also probably something to do with the fact that, these days, bouts with the point d'arrêt are rather rare. The teeth of the tip can cause significant damage to the equipment in repetitive encounters.

 

Johan and his friend were determined to seek out that lost degree of realism and were willing to take the risk of being injured in the process. To understand the mechanics behind an encounter, the psychology of combatants and consequently their choices of tactics, they decided to reduce the safety net. Such an approach to learning about historical armed encounters is not a part of mainstream HEMA. Many in the community would deem this level of risk unnecessary and harmful to global efforts to keep the study and practice within the modern frame of combat sports.

 

Johan and the small group of researchers were aware of it, but the quest for knowledge took them a decisive step further, and the experiment went out of the public sight. Both combatants agreed to protect their heads and faces, the hands and the inner side of their under arms. Johan stripped his shirt off, while the assistants disinfected the tips of the swords with medical alcohol. They had to be careful not to let the tips touch anything, like the ground, for example. Hits below the belt and in the head were forbidden in an agreement between the two gentlemen, and the valid targets included the torso and upper arms. Just in case, Johan protected his nipples with tape.

 

Preparations were thorough, with no detail left to chance. Johan has a PhD in natural sciences, and he applies methods of meticulous preparation on daily basis. He has to, as his decisions lead his employer to considerable financial consequences, one way or the other. Both combatants had also prepared a written agreement beforehand that set all conditions of the encounter, and signed it earlier that morning.

 

Johan put on the fencing mask, gripped the rapier, and assumed his guard. His eyes, shaded by the mesh of the mask, met with the unease in the otherwise steady eyes of the judge, then fixed onto his opponent.

 

The judge called for complete silence.

 

Silence is something that Lea Zavodnik sometimes misses, when she tries to explain a medieval dagger technique to a group of eager students of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). Her class shares a large gym with a group that practices fighting with longsword, and the noise of clashing steel blades has been known to reach the upper levels of tolerable. The level of Lea's voice remains unaffected, yet her gaze from under her lifted eyebrow stabs through the longsword instructor, who immediately brings his group down to an acceptable volume of loud.

 

As a doctor of dental medicine, she mastered the tools of authority and support. Her patients may not be as motivated for blade work as her students, but she gets everyone to cooperate and they find themselves better for it.

 

Lea is a seasoned instructor of medieval dagger combat and proper body exercise. She joined a HEMA club when she was a grammar school student, and has not looked back since. Experience in longsword combat, dagger fighting, medieval wrestling and one-handed blades provided a valuable insight into how human body should move, what is a safe warm-up, where does the path of proper stretching lead and how should we train properly. So far, her classes have helped numerous people in Europe to assume healthy and efficient training habits, which is a solid foundation for practice of historical martial heritage. Furthermore, Lea is an active and successful president of the largest HEMA club in Slovenia. Classes grow in size and numbers (which translates to more administrative work for her), but she still finds the time to attend events, where she meets, fights and hangs out with HEMA crowds.

 

To find the time for HEMA events is a serious business. Even more so, when one is a full-time professional counsellor and a mother to a gorgeous little toddler. Jerca Primc leads a club in Kamnik, a town at the foot of Slovenian mountains, where they specialize in canne de combat, a French combat sport that evolved from a tradition of fighting with sticks (cane or staff). The club is also well-acquainted with military sabre styles and ranks high on the national competition list. Jerca knows everything about competitions in combat sports. As the vice-champion of Canne de Combat World Championship 2012, she experienced sweat, blood, gnashing of teeth, long drives to other countries, the tide of victory, as well as that quiet bit of void when things do not go as desired. Episodes like the one when a set of rules was changed minutes prior to the start of a competition made her develop a successful system to keep the stress and frustration under control. That skill must be one of the reasons why the event she organizes every summer remains one of the highlights for her group and their friends. All frustration succumbs to cheerful atmosphere of camaraderie.

This year, the first couple of days were filled with HEMA and canne workshops, where they met and worked with colleagues from other groups. The first day included a midday rest at a cool spring of a crystal-clear alpine river, followed by an excellent meal in a local inn. The rest of the week took place higher up in the mountains with plenty of hiking, good company and astonishing surroundings, where the stress met its bitter end.

 

Daniel Jaquet made it through the Swiss and the US customs and back. His lectures in New York and Chicago were a success, and he met with a number of Hemaists for plenty of friendly armored sparring.

 

Johan (that is not his real name, for obvious reasons) has just finished yet another translation of a historical fencing manual, to a great delight of rapier students worldwide.

Lea Zavodnik is looking forward to the beginning of HEMA autumn trainings in a newly-renovated gym. During the summer break, she worked on her class curriculum, and is eager to share the improved exercises with her students.

Jerca Primc is ready to launch another series of competitions between Slovenian HEMA clubs. Better rules, better judges, and a better game.

All of them have taught in Slovenia, and helped us to a better understanding and appreciation of Historical European Martial Arts, most of the time through immense personal input, as well as sacrifice.

 

We Hemaists are happy that they walk among us.

....
Roman Vučajnk

(1977) is a translator. His first job was at an archaeological site and he was later threatened with adulthood as an Office IT Guy for an international employer. Roman also teaches 16th century European urban combat across the continent and enjoys rapier sparring with friends. In a fit of affection, he nicknamed his three kids as 'the Huns'.


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