Fighting in a shield wall: HEMA vs. Re-enactment

Viking Re-enactment Group

I’ve been a training officer in the Vikings re-enactment society for about eight years now and I’ve trained with a lot of different groups. Some are new and just finding their feet others have been around since before I was born and have fought in events all over Europe. It’s interesting to see the differences in attitude toward one-on-one fighting and fighting as a unit.

Some groups are solid as a shield wall, but fall apart in circles (open duels), while others are fantastic fighters when their by themselves, but can’t function as part of a unit. I find that HEMAists tend to fall into the category of the former. I was recently given the opportunity to participate in a rather large HEMA battle. We numbered around forty aside fighting predominantly with shields with one or two fighting with two handed swords or spears. Each side was formed of three ranks with a let a right flank.

When we first engaged, I found myself in the second rank and it quickly became apparent that this was uncharted territory for almost everyone around me. As they were so used to fighting a single opponent, when faced with many, there were a lot of fighters there who just stared swinging wild with no concern of what they hit. Suffice to say, I had a great time, bidding my time, soaking up the hits on my shield and then striking. It was great fun.

In the second clash, I found myself this time in the first rank. The guys behind me in the second rank got so excited for a fight that they ended up shoving me onto the enemy swords. I laughed about it afterwards…

In the third, I was told off for running around the back of the enemy flank, which I found a little grating as I that’s what I tend to do when I’m not actually leading the shield wall.

A number of battles later and people started getting into the swing of things. It was very similar to what we do in the Vikings society with the exception of having a wider variety of targets and so having to protect your head.

The biggest difference, I found, was more in that no one really knew what they were doing. Don’t misunderstand this as an attack on the people there. They were all very skilled fighters as individuals, but fighting as part of a unit is an entirely different animal. Their education with a sword had been focused solely on dealing with individual combatants and I find this is often the case with a lot of HEMA groups.

So what’s the solution? If you ask me, it’s easy enough. Simply including unit combat as part of the lesson on a regular basis would go a long way to teaching people how to fight in the line.

When you’re fighting a single opponent, your focus is entirely on them, their movements, their strikes and their openings. However, when you’re in a shield wall, your target is rarely the opponent in front of you: it’s the fighter t either side of opponent in front of you. You may not ever need to land a blow, but simply defend the comrades either side of you. You may even expose a weakness in your line by being over eager and reaching for a target.

This was very much the case with the HEMA shield wall. The lines fell apart almost instantly creating gaps in which I could thrust my sword finding ribs and arms.

One fantastic thing HEMA has going for it is that the inclusion of headshots and arms shots which made a massive difference to stance and awareness of how the weapons were being used. Due to the fact that re-enactment involves wearing authentic clothing, facial protection is virtually non-existent in periods before the 12th century. Only minimal modern protective equipment can be worn and it must be discreet.

As such, it means that we have to be very controlled in our strikes to the body avoiding the arms at the risk of breaking joints and the face for obvious reasons. It made for an incredibly different game as there are many people in re-enactment who exploit these rules to win a fight.

It’s always frustrating when you there’s someone strutting around with the notion of being an exceptional swordsman because they’ve developed the best means of blocking with their head.

In this HEMA is superior. When the focus is on becoming a better martial artist, it really makes a difference to the mentality which people adopt when duelling or engaging. A unit that has worked together for a number of years, who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and who have faced off against a variety of different opponents starts moving with a group ego and an each one understands when to hold an enemy, when to push and to keep the formation tight.

I think given time, this is something that could really be done well in HEMA. But not until it becomes a regular feature in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on fighting as a unit? Is it something you enjoy and feel like you should do more of in the classroom?

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