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Ask An Instructor: How Important Is It To Read Source Material?

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by Keith Cotter-Reilly

Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng, renowned translator of several manuals, lectures on the I.33 fechtbuch.

In the long overdue second edition of Ask the Instructor/Researcher (really) we posed the question – How important is it for students of a HEMA school/club to read the source material?

We got some interesting answers from the bunch this time around.

From Alen Lovrič in Slovenia: “A very complex question, I think. A large part of the answer depends on the skill of the students. Beginners will not benefit from reading the manuscripts, as they usually don’t have the physical skills needed for the interpretation. The advanced students could benefit from it, but some are doers and not researchers, and might find it off-putting if there’s too much homework involved. In my experience, however, the advanced students usually look the sources up themselves, which leads to often invaluable debates. The most important I see, however, is that there be enough people who know their sources so that different interpretations can be examined, and to prevent instructors from falling in love with their own interpretations to the point where they can’t see its flaws. And while it is true that HEMA has advanced in strides in the past 5-10 years, and we do have some commonly accepted interpretations, there is still a lot that hasn’t been explored thoroughly.”


From Martin Fabian in Slovakia: “If by source material we mean original fencing books with regard to particular style practiced then in my opinion it’s not important at all. It depends what an individual is seeking or pursuing with his or her HEMA practice/career, but more and more people emerge nowadays seeking the athletic and the competitive part of HEMA. Considering this like in other sports, a good, hard and self-reflexive approach in combination with a skilled coach may lead to great results without knowing much of the theory behind. The source material is without any doubt a great base of knowledge and may significantly speed up one’s own martial progress (or help to understand fencing as such) but from experience without good practice it doesn’t give any particular advantage anyways. Fencing – like any other kind of fighting – is largely based on intuitive and strategic thinking and that is more important than any theory. In the end, it’s what the fencing books suggest.”


From Mishaël Lopes Cardozo in the Netherlands: “Concerning the question I believe that it entirely depends on the level of the swordfighter.

In the beginning of one’s training it is certainly not mandatory to know anything of the content of the historical manuals as I believe it is more a distraction then that it actually contributes anything at that point. Merely the knowledge that these manuals exist would suffice in my opinion.

More over I’m convinced that it only deviates a starting practitioner from the main goal and that is learning how to move your sword from location Alpha to location Bravo… This is something one can not learn from the historical sources. You just need to do it.

Once you have mastered how to strike and have a grasp of flow, kinetic energy and torsion that this weapon generates, it makes sense to open a historical source and plunge into the fencing theory.”


From Roberto Martinez-Loyo in Mexico: “In my opinion, because we are trying to teach the original terms, when students have a chance to go back to the source material, it becomes easier for them to really learn the proper names of the techniques, it also makes the students more ‘curious’ and stimulates them to ask more questions, forcing the instructors to stay current and at the top of their game.

I have a bit of a problem when students try to get ahead of themselves and try to read more than what they can properly comprehend making them cocky and giving them a sense of “know it all”, especially when they don’t want to take the instructors word for something. On the other hand, because we are interpreting from translated material, some things get lost in translation and unless we can go back and learn from the masters/authors themselves, we are limited to interpretations and if students can bring in their own interpretation and the instructor is humble enough to take it with a grain of salt or more if needed, we can help bring a better understanding of the masters.

Fortunately it has become easier to get these material sources online now, so they are more easily accessible to everyone, however I still believe it is important for people to approach someone who may have a little more experience with HEMA to help better understand the texts, though I know not one of us has the absolute truth and we may never will.”


From Devon Boorman in Canada: “I think everyone can get value out of reading the original source texts, however the benefit of investing time in them really depends on your individual goals as a HEMA practitioner and the environment in which you are learning.

If you are part of a small study group or a solo practitioner I recommend combining source material reading with more modern sources such as books and videos on HEMA by competent instructors. Modern materials tend to be more accessible and can help give someone a basis of language both written and physical from which to better access original sources. Original sources can then be a rich source of new learning.

If you have access to a school with a strong pedagogical approach and a solid foundation in the arts they teach the main benefits you gain from the source material are: 1. Deepening your connection with the historical milieu, 2. Gaining a broader perspective on the arts you are learning which leads to further insights, 3. Invigoration of your passion as a practitioner (very helpful to maintain ongoing training energy).

In this environment, none of these benefits are necessary for effective practice of HEMA but they are certainly essential to a rich practice of HEMA, and who doesn’t want that?”


From Piermarco Terminiello in England: “With a good and knowledgeable instructor you can live without it, while the contrary is less true. Colombani begins his short treatise by saying: I do not presume to speak except to those under the discipline of talented men.

But someone who reads the sources will progress faster than someone who doesn’t. Even if concepts, tactics and techniques don’t make sense off the page, it builds familiarity and suggests options.

Once you have achieved some basic competence, the sources then allow you to accelerate your studies independently. With a detailed text like the Anonimo Bolognese, you can literally open it at random, and find a move or sequence you might never have considered.

As a community, it’s vital that fresh blood tackles the sources. Only a minority of manuals are translated into English, and we shouldn’t be complacent about the better known works. No one has all the answers, so interpretations will evolve, and current orthodoxies will be challenged.”


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