Hello! I was wondering, what are the differences between modern HEMA and how it was used in actual combat? Mainly in how it is/was taught, the way that techniques are/were used, small battles/skirmishes and fully fledged battles. I'm currently drawing from my own experiences with HEMA (longsword) and I know it's different but I'm not sure what all of those differences are, much less how to write them. Thank you!
Honestly, the best advice I have for that is slogging through the treatises from the masters on Wikitenaur or other sites/books that let you get it direct from the horse’s mouth (as it were). If you’re not a trained scholar or used to going through language from a century ago, much less several, I can see how parsing that might be a little difficult.
The second thing to do is study the historical period in which you want to write your fiction or, if writing fantasy, whatever is adjacent. When you want to write any kind of combat scenario, studying the culture is necessary. Whether that’s one you created yourself or history itself.
You’ve got better access to the HEMA community than Starke or I do and that springboard will make it easier to find what you’re looking for. It’s important to remember that what you’re practicing right now is what we conventionally term a “dead martial art”. Like aikido and several other martial arts now enjoying a popular resurgence, the current version did not really exist in the last century. Combat in Europe moved very quickly, rapid advancement lead to many old weapons being discarded that were no longer usable. German fencing was the only form of longsword fencing to survive, and it too is weighed down by rules unnecessary to the time when the longsword was a battlefield choice. Luckily for you, because HEMA itself is so new in its reconstruction, you’re actually far closer to the source material used to revive it than you might suspect.
If you haven’t broached this subject with your instructor, you should. They might know, or know somebody who knows something that can point you in a better direction. They work with the people who work with the people who are theorizing on the past and how to bring this piece of history back to life.
The other thing you need to do is study history. One of the things we do have a lot of surviving records of are historical battles. Lots, and lots, and lots of records.
Pick your medieval historical figure. Pick a period in history. And get to work.
Also, read Sun Tzu. If there is one great historical text for understanding warfare, it’s Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
Battles are really broken down by three groups:
I’d throw in strategy and tactics but those are under the culture header. To write battles, you need both an understanding of historical warfare and the ability to contextualize those decisions so you can have your characters make new ones. This means figuring out not just the thought processes of the people of history (theorized by gaining a better grasp of their circumstances), but also how your own characters think in relation to the world’s they live in.
Unless you’re writing historical fiction, you can’t just copy the battles from history wholesale. You have to learn how the decisions were made. This is why I recommend looking at the above groups.
Who they are as a people, their history, who they are descended from, how they see themselves, their commander’s experience with warfare, what kind of armies do they possess (if any at all), how does that work, how do they form supply lines, how do they pay for it, all that annoying bureaucratic minutia which will kill your brain but must be figured out. War is about troop movements. You’ve got to get them from Point A to Point B somehow, you’ve got ensure their fed, and if they’ve got mounts or armor all that has to come from somewhere. War is an expensive endeavor. Someone is paying for it. Where does the money come from, where does it go, and who is getting paid?
This is why strategy and tactics land under the cultural header, the more you dig into history the more you’ll find different cultures through different eras approached these problems differently. They also had different tools at their disposal which brings us to…
Technology encompasses your weapons, your armor, and, well, everything else that came to mind. Much as you need to know where your soldiers come from, you also need to know what tools they have at their disposal. If they haven’t mastered metalwork and smithing then they can’t have armor and the type of metal they work with defines what kind of armor they create. If they haven’t developed saddles then they don’t have mounted cavalry, if they haven’t figured out how to use horses to pull things then chances are they don’t have cavalry in the form of chariots either.
The same is true of the bow and every other kind of weapon available. Your tools define crucial parts of your tactics and strategy. They define what is available to use and what is available instructs us on how we fight. As the options narrow and you find your historical period, the tools will be easier to come by. Then, you’ll be able to envisage the battles better.
Warfare is complicated, but at its base is the element of rock, paper, scissors. You develop B, so I come up with X, to counter B, and then you develop Y to counter X. It is all about trying to develop new ways to counter the available options.
You brought foot soldiers to the battle, I guess this is what you’ll choose so I array my soldiers at your front and position cavalry behind to break your lines from the side or rear. You use pikes, position your soldiers in columns in order to break my cavalry’s charge or bring a cavalry of your own (or both). I position archers to bombard your lines with a barrage, and so on.
If you really have trouble with the concept then I recommend trying some good war games like Mount and Blade or the Total War series that help you see the battlefield visually and get some practice in arranging your troops.
However, in order to sell your tactics, you need…
What kind of environment are you fighting in? What is your target? What natural impediments are in the way? You can study Hannibal’s battle tactics against the Romans all you like, but if you ignore the fact that most of his elephants died on the march through the mountains then you’ll miss a crucial element to why he lost.
The conditions you fight in can make or break. Terrain defines how the troops are arranged. If you’re fighting on foreign soil then it can be the difference as to whether your tools will be of any use to you.
Some of it is flat out just luck.
The best way to learn to write battles is learning to think like a commander, and then follow that up with every other member of the army.
When it comes to historical fiction, I always recommend Sharon Kay Penman’s novels. They’re well regarded and well researched, providing some human context to what will inevitably be the dry reading of historical texts.