Eric Burkart 2016

Understanding Historical Records of Technique

Epistemological and Hermeneutic Problems in the Study of Lost Martial Arts


Eric Burkart, Trier University

This paper is organised around the notion of embodied technique as “the transmissible and repeatable knowledge of relatively reliable possibilities afforded by human embodiment” (Spatz 2015, 16). In his recent contribution, Ben Spatz distinguishes between the unique moments of concrete practice and the knowledge in form of technique that structures these moments. From a perspective of cultural history we are yet confronted with the problem that past practice and technique can only be analysed on the basis of surviving material traces or records.

My point of departure is the growing scene of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) practitioners who try to reconstruct medieval body techniques of combat based on their interpretation of surviving technical literature of the 14th and 15th century. This modern practice of swordplay is often performed by what can be called “scholarly practitioners” and there is currently a trend to formulate distinct methodologies of reconstruction to get to more reliable and thus “authentic” interpretations of the medieval techniques.

Relying on the works of Michael Polanyi, I will focus on the question of whether technique can be recorded as explicit knowledge. My aim is thus to mark certain pitfalls and limits of understanding in HEMA studies and to discard the claim of historical authenticity which is still explicitly or implicitly linked with the undertaken attempts of modern (re)construction.

I will try to argue for this position by first mapping the communication strategies within the medieval fight books as a genre of specialised technical literature. I will also focus on the epistemological framework and the hermeneutic problems underlying modern attempts to understand these documents as references to past body movements. And finally, I will address the problematic notion of authenticity by drawing parallels to the research conducted on musical compositions and notation systems of the Middle Ages which has many features in common with the study of HEMA.


Biographical note:

Eric Burkart (M.A.) is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in medieval history at the University of Trier. From 2013 to 2015 he was research assistant in a DFG-financed project on ritualized combat in the Middle Ages (“Der mittelalterliche Zweikampf als agonale Praktik zwischen Recht, Ritual und Leibesübung”) at Technische Universität Dresden. In July 2015 he defended his PhD thesis on crusading discourses in late medieval Burgundy („Kreuzzugsbereitschaft als Selbstbeschreibung. Die Verteidigung des Glaubens als Element burgundischer Statuspolitik in den Traktaten des Jean Germain († 1461)”) at Goethe-University Frankfurt. He specialises in cultural history, symbolic communication and propaganda in 15th century Burgundy and European martial arts traditions.