by Peter Smallridge
Richard Marsden, former
President Tyrant of the HEMA Alliance, founder of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, etc., has a problem. Historical European Martial Arts is a hobby where we work to resurrect dead martial arts from the recorded systems. Many such systems have substantial details recorded, from the interrelated works of the Liechtenauer tradition over several centuries to the detailed textbooks of Italian rapier. Many HEMA-ists prefer to work from the most substantial sources, with the most information, but others prefer to work from more limited sources, preferring the harder challenge of interpreting unique systems with fewer details in the explanation. I.33, I’m looking at you here. Marsden has gone a step beyond merely working on a highly obscure manuscript, and tackled a historical martial art for which there is no treatise, namely Polish saber fencing during the 17th Century.
It’s understandable why he’d want to. Without regurgitating the whole history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th Century, they were Interesting Times. Invasions, civil wars, and a near-constant background level of lesser violence. The szabla came to full popularity, and the Polish style of saber-fencing was recognized as distinct. The szabla was the weapon of the Szlachta nobles, whose Sarmatism fashion not only acknowledged mythologized origins, but reflected the East-meets-West nature of Poland at the time.
I’ve always considered the Historical in HEMA to be defined as something similar to “this martial art not only existed in history, but is well enough documented that we have sufficient detail of the system to reconstruct it.” Others have previously attempted similar feats to Marsden, creating their own arts to fit historical but scantly-recorded martial arts such as Viking Combat. I’m not sure I could call it strictly HEMA. By Chidester’s typology, it’s a Type III – evidenced but not really detailed. On the other hand, the line between reconstruction and speculation is blurry. I’ve worked with the Basingstoke Bartitsu Irregulars (re)constructing boxing, ju-jitsu, cane etc. sub-systems for Bartitsu – where we don’t have substantial information on the full details of what the Bartitsu Club trained c.1900, but we have detailed manuals from similar times, and often with direct linkage to the club. Obviously, we feel these can justifiably be used to go beyond Barton-Wright’s own recorded techniques to flesh out a fuller system.
How much speculation is too much to be HEMA? Marsden has certainly had to speculate, in the absence of any surviving manual. His sources, though, seem fairly comprehensive, to my inexpert eye; there may well be sources out there that have yet to be touched by historians though (or at least English-language history) – perhaps in half a dozen years, some Polish equivalent of the Lost Second Book of Giganti will surface from an archive. Marsden first lays out the background of Polish 17th century saber and its historical and cultural context. Then he systematically lays out his evidence – here his academic background is clear. I’d read many of them before, both contemporary accounts like Jan Chryzostom Pasek’s memoirs and indirect but suggestive sources such as Starzewski’s 19th century writings on 17th century saber, and Meyer’s 16th century dussack chapter. The “closest” source may be from Henning’s 1658 work on “Cut-Fencing”, which is not only temporally correct but addresses the Polish style of saber fighting from the point of view of a German prospective opponent, albeit briefly. It’s good to see the relevant sections reproduced in full for convenient reference.
With the foundations justifying his interpretation laid out, approximately 120 of the book’s 240-odd pages are then devoted to interpretation. I’m not really fluent in saber, but it all seems sound enough. Certainly Marsden’s vision is interestingly distinct from the 19th century military styles I’ve seen elsewhere. The explanations are excellent; they’re clear and well-structured, with superb full-colour photography illustrating them. There’s also a refreshing honesty as Marsden confesses the speculative interpretation of many of the techniques and their support. He also gives a separate section for dussack techniques which may be applicable. The interpretation section is comprehensive enough to equip the reader to become a well-rounded szabla fencer, without wasting space giving repetitive exercises or variations of combination cuts.
Finally, the book is completed by appendices on equipment for practice, glossaries, acknowledgements, a bibliography and guide to further resources, and, helpfully for monolingual readers, a guide to pronouncing Polish terms.
This is HEMA with a slightly different sense of Historical to that which I’m used to insisting on. It’s moved beyond the recreation of one source system to establishing a system implied or at least supported by many sources. Marsden has gone from coloring inside the lines to drawing new line-work to fill gaps of a sketch. As mentioned, I’m generally hostile to too much guesswork in my HEMA. I accuse it of leading to half-arsed theories about how cross-guards protect the hand against punching shields rather than the opponent’s blade, the specialized role of claymores for breaking pike shafts or any number of glorious reenactor-isms, which don’t really hold up to common sense let alone have evidence to support them. This is different. Marsden supports his suppositions with sources and cites his conjectures with comparison. He has produced something which certainly goes beyond HEMA in the strictest sense, but perhaps it’s a transcendence rather than a transgression. In trying to provide a martial art that can be practiced, Marsden has produced a work of scholarship.
The survival or otherwise of historical source-material is undeniably a matter of history itself. The record left us by the past is fragmentary, and the process of selection has not always been arbitrary. But historians have always known this, and have always thought it important to situate the surviving fragments in a broader context created by other remaining fragments, thus gaining some sense of the whole even where significant parts of it are missing. […] The fragmentary nature of the traces left to us by the past is thus no reason for supposing that historians’ imagination is entirely unfettered when it comes to reconstructing it.
Richard J Evans, In Defence of History (1997) pp.88-9.