Historical European Martial Art fights its way into Malaysia

Students of the Zwaardkring Martial Arts Academy engage in a spar with sticks. Photo credit: Zwaardkring Facebook page.

SUBANG JAYA: When you think of martial arts, you tend to think of the usual silat, kung fu, silambam, taekwondo and karate.

Europe, in general, is not thought of when Malaysians discuss the art of combat; being dismissed mostly as the progenitor of “less classical” boxing, fencing and wrestling.

Sacha Leander Dijkshoorn would like to show otherwise, and the longsword he can be seen wielding at times will be used to prove his point.

It certainly raises some eyebrows when the 34-year-old Dutchman declares himself a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA, given that locals are somewhat unaware of even the existence of this revived martial art.

Sacha Leander Dijkshoorn, seen here wielding a German longsword, established Zwaardkring Malaysia after learning there was no existing local HEMA academy.

HEMA refers to the martial arts that were once practised by European knights of the medieval and Renaissance period.

Speaking to FMT during a training session of the Zwaardkring Martial Arts Academy, Dijkshoorn pointed out that just like Asia, Europe has a long, bloody history with countless wars.

“And with war comes the development of techniques that allows you to fight effectively.”

While skills with weapons such as the sword, the spear, the poleaxe and the mace were requirements during medieval times, the introduction of firearms into the European battlefield meant the days of melee weapons were numbered.

As inaccurate muskets gave way to deadly rifles, the art of sword mastery began to fade into the background and for quite a time, was relegated to medieval manuscripts that were left untouched in universities and private collections.

Swords, bucklers and protective gear are part of a HEMA practitioner’s kit. (Photo credit: Zwaardkring Facebook page)

“Only a vague derivative survived in the form of fencing. But even that can’t reasonably be called a martial art,” said Dijkshoorn.

He also pointed out that while Asian martial arts survived because of the existence of masters who passed on their knowledge to their students, European swordmasters no longer exist and their skills nearly died with them.

The revival of European martial arts came in the 1980s as a result of Hollywood films set in medieval and or fantasy settings, such as Conan the Barbarian, Princess Bride and Highlander.

With a renewed interest in the medieval form of combat, university students found the manuscripts, translated them and made them available for members of the public to study; consequently triggering the revival of European martial arts.

Zwaardkring (circle of swords in Dutch) Malaysia was established by Dijkshoorn in 2015 and still maintains ties with its Dutch counterpart, holding international events from time to time and this year, a Dutch swordsmaster will be paying Malaysia a visit.

Dijkshoorn instructs students in 16th/17th century pike formation fighting. Photo credit: Zwaardkring Facebook page.

Asked what the difference between HEMA and fencing is, Dijkshoorn iterated that HEMA, being a martial art, used to be applied in actual real-life fights whereas fencing is a combat sport, exclusively practised as a tournament sport.

He however also stated that because no one carries around a sword in public, HEMA is not exactly a martial art for self-defence.

As to be expected, the 1.2-metre German longsword is the weapon likeliest to be seen being swung around by Zwaardkring’s members.

Dijkshoorn also sometimes trains them in the use of polearms, daggers, shields and unarmed combat.

He studies and practises the moves that are recorded in manuscripts, which were written by swordsmasters as an instruction manual of sorts for noblemen who were in the awkward position of having to fight in a duel.

Besides swordplay, it is also important for HEMA practitioners to be physically fit, and Dijkshoorn trains his students with cardiovascular exercises to improve their stamina.

Dijkshoorn demonstrates a duelling move with the help of one of his students.

His students consist of a variety of characters, with some drawn by their fascination with swords, others as history enthusiasts, and quite a few are fans of fantasy roleplaying games and of cosplaying.

While they are mostly youngsters, HEMA is not restricted to those who are in their later years.

According to Dijkshoorn, he watched an elderly German fighter with a knee injury repeatedly besting younger, stronger and faster opponents in a European sword and buckler tournament, with his well-executed combat techniques carrying the day.

“Because you know, in a fight, you need to be able to keep going. If you are winded after two minutes, then you’re going to die really fast. So, to fight, you need to be able to keep going.”

Like other martial arts, HEMA encourages practitioners not to initiate unnecessary fights, and if a fight does break out, avoid getting hurt.

It differs from its counterparts however, when it comes to self-defence. “We don’t take a defensive approach. When you are in a fight, you have to attack your opponent.

“Because if you’re busy attacking your opponents, he’s busy defending, and if he’s busy defending, he’s not busy attacking you.

“You need to get in there, you need to commit yourself to attacks… Every attack has its opening, but it’s the best and fastest way to eliminate your opponent.”

Training sessions are held biweekly on Mondays and Thursdays from 8.00pm to 10.00pm, with Monday’s session being held in the Bangsar Sports Centre and Thursday’s in the Subang Jaya area.

Fees range from RM20 to RM30 per class. Visit facebook.com/ZwaardkringMY to make further enquiries.