If you’re starting out with historical fencing you will need HEMA beginner sources to work with. This guide provides you with modern beginner friendly books on the most popular HEMA weapon systems: Longsword, Rapier and Sword and Shield!
Some of these books are translations of the original source material while others are modern interpretations of the sources. If you’re an instructor or coach you might want do check out my recommended books for HEMA-Instructors.
Many historical sources are available for free on Wiktenauer.com with english translations of varying quality. Eventually it’s always a good idea to work directly with original source material. Due to language and knowledge barriers this might be hard in the beginning. So feel free to start with a modern book that provides additional guidance and context.
Note: As I don’t train in every HEMA weapon system myself, I polled data from The HEMA Alliance Facebook group.
Longsword HEMA beginner sources
Longsword is by far the most popular weapon trained in HEMA today. In Germany over 92% of all clubs offer Longsword! The two most widespread traditions are the German school of Johannes Liechtenauer and the Italian school of Fiore dei Liberi.
The German school is the more popular choice amongst practitioners and has more modern books to offer. So naturally of the five books listed here only The Flower of Battle deals with Fiores system.
What is great about Fiore books is that they’re fully illustrated whereas many german sources only offer text descriptions. As many german longsword sources lack images and step by step instructions, it can be hard to figure things out. Having images for every technique makes this process much easier.
When it comes to availability longsword is the weapon with the most HEMA sources and books on the market.
German Longsword Study Guide
This Study Guide is neither a translation of a specific source, nor is it a book with modern interpretations. This is a compendium of german sources and where they agree or differ on how to do the various techniques. So if you’re wondering what a Zornhau is and how multiple sources describe it, this book will have the answers.
Written by Keith Farrel and Alex Bourdas, you’re in good hands as both are able HEMA instructors.
The Longsword study guide is also available as an e-book trough the Academy of Historical Arts online shop.
The Recital Johannes Liechtenauer
Good news this entry is a free PDF! The Recital contains transcriptions of multiple Liechtenauer Longsword sources. Of course you also get english translations and all source paintings if available. So if you open the Zornhau page, you’re able to directly compare three text sources and three images with each other.
As various sources often have slightly different technique variations, sometimes even disagreeing outright, its very helpful to be able to compare them.
The PDF is available under a creative commons license and is a result of the Wiktenauer project. Wiktenauer is a free Wiki for original source texts, images and translations.
Fighting with the German Longsword
Fighting with the German Longsword by Christian Tobler offers modern interpretations and step by step advice. It covers topics hardly discussed in the original sources, like footwork or how to grip the sword. It even provides training drills.
The book isn’t based on any specific source, but on Christians experience studying and teaching german sources.
The Flower of Battle by Fiore dei Liberi
To add a non-Liechtenauer source here is a book on the Italian school of Longsword. The Flower of Battle is an english translation of Fiore dei Liberi’s manuscript Fior di Battaglia by Colin Hatcher and Tracy Mellow.
The manuscript also includes unarmed combat, dagger, spear, axe fighting, fighting in armor and on horseback.
It doesn’t include the original italian texts though which is always a shame.
Peter von Danzig
The favorite german longsword source in Germany itself is the Peter von Danzig manuscript. There’s a rightfully beloved translation to modern german by Dierk Hagedorn, which was one of the first available high quality translations.
The english world lacked a good translation until 2019 when this gem arrived. At 9.99$ this translation of Peter von Danzig to modern english should be an easy buy. If you’re looking for a great longsword manual to begin with, this is it.
Be aware that this book doesn’t contain modern instructions on how to execute the techniques. But, this brings you much closer to the original texts and removes biases from the modern middle man.
Jude Lew is verysimilar in content and structure to the Peter von Danzig manuscript. Why is it on the list then when there is already the Danzig manuscript?
This book was transcribed and translated by Dierk Hagedorn himself. The same one that produced the most highly regarded HEMA source in Germany.
This is an excellent translation to modern english that you can start out with.
Rapier HEMA beginner sources
Rapier is one of the most popular and fun weapon systems in HEMA. One reason is that it can entail everything from using just a Rapier to using a dagger, a shield or a cloak in the left hand.
There are also many different Rapier traditions and fencing masters from countries such as France, England and Italy. So there are many masters and sources to choose from.
As Rapier is a younger weapon than longsword, the art style of the drawings had more time to evolve and is much more detailled. Most Rapier manuscripts also present both images and textual instructions to the reader.
Coincidentally, three of these books are translations of original Rapier manuscripts by Italian masters translated by Tom Leoni. Tom Leoni is widely regarded for the high accuracy of his translations in the international community.
Nicoletto Gigantis first book
This is a translation of Nicoletto Gigantis first Rapier manuscript. Giganti was an italian fencing master and his 1606 book contains single Rapier and Rapier and Dagger.
The book comes with a very interesting intro by Tom Leoni on the historical context of Gigantis time.
Giganti is a more beginner friendly source as his texts are on the more concise end of Rapier manuscripts.
Nicoletto Gigantis second book
This is a translation of the second (and last) Rapier manuscript by Giganti. The translation is by Piermarco Terminiello and Joshua Pendragon.
Giganti follows the same style from his first book, while expanding on his teachings. Single Rapier is taught as well as Rapier and shields and Rapier and Dagger.
The reason it has “lost” in its title is that so few copies were produced that most people were unsure it ever existed. This began even shortly after Gigantis death and continued until a few years ago when this manuscript was found.
On a side note, in both books Giganti promises many times to write evven more books, but so far nothing more came up.
Salvator Fabris Scienza d’Arme deals with Rapier, Rapier and Dagger and Rapier and Cloak.
Scienza is longer and more detailled than both Giganti and Capo Ferros manuscripts. Due it going into more details it can be harder to understand, but offers more in depth explanations.
Fabris approach to Rapier fencing revolves around ways of moving and standing that are pretty taxing for beginners. You can learn his teachings, but some of his techniques require a developer Rapier musculature. Getting your body to that point might take many month, so bring a bit of frustration tolerance.
The high price listed on Amazon stems from it being officially out of print. Luckily it is also available as a print on demand over at Lulu.com.
The Art and Practice of Fencing by Ridolfo Capoferro contains Single Rapier, Rapier and Dagger, Rapier and Cloak and Rapier and shield.
The text was again translated by Tom Leoni, who added a useful glossary of techniques and general information on Rapier fencing.
Capoferro’s way of Rapier fencing is less taxing than Fabris, but covers a lot of weapon combinations.
Sword & Shield HEMA beginner sources
Sword & Shield is one of the most popular movie weapon combination. Only think of shield walls and knights in armor with a shield.
HEMA sword and shield looks a bit different though. Instead of the big viking or kite shields, HEMA sources usually deal with Sword and Buckler.
The most popular system is probably the I.33, also called the Walpurgis or Tower Fechtbuch, that deals with Sword and Buckler. A Buckler is a small hand held cented gripped shield. It is not strapped to the arm and can be moved freely from side to side.
Viking round shields don’t have surviving sources. Sorry about that.
To do I.33 or not to do I.33
Interesting about the I.33 is that its the oldest surviving fencing manuscript and was made around 1320. While its origin lies in what is now Germany, the text is in medieval latin. So you definitely need a translation for that.
A big caveat is the strong tendency for fencing manuscripts to become clearer the younger they are, as both language and art style evolve over time. The closer it is to our time, the easier it is to understand typically.
Due to this, the I.33 manuscript is among the harder sources to interpret. The Bolognese tradition on the other hand is much more accessible for sword and shield combat. So I would suggest to take a look at the Bolognese sources for sword and shield HEMA beginner sources.
The Complete Renaissance Swordsman
The Complete Renaissance Swordsman is a translation by Tom Leoni of a source that stands in the Bolognese tradition.
This is based on the italian manuscript Opera Nova written by Achille Marozzo in 1536.
It deals with single sword, sword and shields of various sizes, sword and dagger and even two swords and polearms.
As Opera Nova was written 200 years later than the I.33, the instructions are easier to follow.
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship
This Facsimile of MS I.33 deals with the use of Sword and Buckler and tries to reproduce the original manuscript as faithfull as possible, while adding modern english translations of the latin text.
As this book does not contain any interpretation and the style of the images and text descriptions can be hard to follow for beginners, so it is advised to also get one of the I.33 interpretation books listed here.
Sword Fighting by Herbert Schmidt, is a modern Sword and Buckler how-to book based on the I.33 manuscript.
Schmidt has been working with the I.33 Sword and Buckler system for many years and it shows. He shows his approach with step by step photos and explanation for ease of following.
I might need to add that I know him personally and like his Sword and Buckler teachings.
I33 Fencing by Andrew Kenner is another Sword and Buckler how-to book based on the I.33 manuscript.
It contains step by step instructions and exercises to get you started with sword and buckler.
There are two very nice things about this book. First, it has a strongly revised second edition, so all the little kinks are removed and the interpretations updated. Second, like Schmidts book its employs a step by step approach with many photos for ease of following.
Sabre HEMA beginner sources
As sabre is the youngest weapon system on this list, there are countless surviving sabre sources. They range from military to civilian contexts for all kind of usages and from all kinds of regions.
As there is such a wealth of material available it’s not possible for me to provide good HEMA beginner sources.
Depending on what exactly you want to learn you would end up with vastly different sabre sources. Polish sabre? British Military Sabre? Swedish Cavalry Sabre? Take your pick.
If you want to start sabre, try to find out what kind of sabre you’d like to use and from which region. Then ask the community which sources they would recommend for that specific combination.