Reconstruction of Historical Martial Arts

“Reconstruction is the process of creating or recreating something more or less non-existent or unknown,” as German Wikipedia defines it. In the reconstruction of an old text or image, we fill in gaps left intentionally or unintentionally by the author. In Historical Martial Arts these are movements that we recognize as necessary in order to perform the described movements we have in the sources. Depending on personal knowledge and the will to exchange with a critical community, the added movements are martial arts appropriate or unfortunately not.

Reconstruction is a necessary step that determines the concept of historical martial arts. Given the current state of research, it would not be absolutely necessary to undertake the laborious work of reconstruction itself. Unfortunately, however, almost all secondary sources are not in the state of a reconstruction with clear identification of the added material (as is usual in modern science), but they are much further in the process steps.

Reconstructions can be found to some extent in translations, more precise translations. There, in an attempt to find a suitable word, a gap is filled. For the modern word carries the meaning of a known movement with it. Therefore, translations into English are often easier to interpret than the original texts.

The how-to of the reconstruction

The reconstruction of a fencing piece seems to be not an easy undertaking. But in fact it is quite simple when having pictures. It gets trickier with texts, where first of all a transfer into a modern language must take place and this in several variants, if there are ambiguities of meaning.

Step 1: Definition of beginning and end

It is essential that at least one beginning and one end result are determined before the actual reconstruction. These do not have to be described in the source, but they determine decisively how the gaps are filled. If several beginnings and final results are conceivable, they must be played out. In the sense of martial arts, a deadly and a non-fatal outcome of the combat (e.g. wrestling, escape or tournament with stop after hit) should always be determined. Unless the end is explicitly described.

Step 2: Imitation

Methods of reconstruction begin with the exact imitation of the source:

  • Static imitation of images
  • Static display of key moments in contact with the opponent
  • Imitation of textual descriptions of movements without contact with the fencing partner
  • Movements that have the static image for the result
  • From the static and dynamic a sequence of movements is worked out in contact with the fencing partner (if the piece is not to be performed solo).

3. working out variants

The development of variants can be done in a playful way. The “emotionally” best and most suitable variants are recorded and are critically examined.

Step 4: Critical consideration

Each variant is checked, among other things,

  • whether it is consistent with the wording and illustration of the source,
  • appears meaningful in the sense of martial arts (for example, no excessive cooperation of the partner is required),
  • and does not pose an unreasonable risk to the dedicated winner of the fencing piece.


A good method of critical observation is the assessment by persons with professional training in a group. Each of these aspects, and others if required, can be held against a so-called scorecard. Each scorecard represents a goal to be achieved. A card for the goal “Faithful to the source”, for example, contains the question “Does the reconstruction correspond exactly with the source?” and can have the answers “Do I fully agree”, “Do I largely agree”, “Do I agree less”, “Do I not agree at all”. The results can be compared and discussed.

Video Reflection

Another helpful method is to record the piece with video. The performers are asked to describe their impressions during the performance. This is then compared with the impressions of others who only see the recordings and know the source. Then the performers can re-evaluate.

As a result of the reconstruction, there are few plausible variants. These can and should be recorded. It should be carefully considered which exactly corresponds to the source and which part was added in order to make the execution of the variant plausible.

Teaching reconstructions

Reconstructions can be useful as part of a joint work of interpretation in discourse as a workshop. They can also be explicitly taught as such in a seminar. A serious mistake, however, would be to teach the reconstruction without possible variants and without clarification of the self-added parts. Workshops and seminars of this kind can often be found at historical fencing events, although it is rarely clear what reconstruction or what interpretation is. Also the self-added is not illustrated. To blame the instructors of this would, however, be completely wrong. For the demand on the events, which are clearly recognizable as not scientific, should be correspondingly low.

It is not a rare mistake to teach reconstructions in regular lessons. They are completely unsuitable for this and lead to dancing of useless movements. Because without own thinking and adding, a deep understanding by the interpretation no fencing in the sense of the old master can develop. The students learn almost nothing or very slowly, because they have to take all further steps themselves. In sparring or free fighting all danced movements are no longer recognizable. If one compares it with learning mathematics, then only one or two tasks are practiced for each law and each formula, but neither the formula nor the law is learned. It is quite meaningless.

In short: if you teach a reconstruction slavishly on the wording of the old text, you don’t teach fencing, but a complex partner dance.

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