I want to preface this post with a disclaimer: I have never done HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). Despite having had a passive interest in it for some time, I have never actively pursued taking it up as a hobby. That being said, I find myself devoting hours upon hours to watching YouTube videos of people discussing HEMA classes and training. Why have I spent so much time watching people like KnightSquire, Scholagladiatoria, and Lindybeige talk about this art that I really have nothing to do with?
Of course there is a terribly simple answer to this question. Swords are really cool. Armed combat is incredibly fun to look at. My inner twelve year old grows wide-eyed at the thought of two people duking it out with sharp, pointy objects. I entered into college with ideas of becoming a historian specifically to study arms and armor. Eventually I set this goal aside, in the interest of pursuing more “respectable: scholarly topics, but there is a part of me that still lights up whenever I think about it. HEMA scratches this itch even if I only listen to people talk about it.
I believe that HEMA represents something fascinating. It is both a grass-roots historical movement and the opportunity to witness the birth, or rebirth, of a martial art. In the interest of transparency I will make my (lack of) credentials clear in both of these fields. I have a Bachelor’s degree in medieval and renaissance history. Furthermore, I studied Shotokan Karate for four years, have been studying Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu for a year and a half. So I am an expert in neither history nor martial arts and I am not qualified to discuss either seriously. Please take everything I am about to say with more than a few grains of salt. Like, Carthaginian amounts of salt.
I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that something like HEMA has never been attempted before. This is a community of individuals, largely using open-source resources, who are attempting to make innovative discoveries about the past. Guided only by the writings and images of historical experts and instructors, these people are striving to reconstruct the past and revive fighting systems that have been forgotten. It is an ambitious, even heroic, endeavor to discover aspects of the history that in some cases have been inscrutable for centuries.
Despite this, I cannot help but be concerned about when how this movement will change as it strives to be seen as “legitimate” in the eyes of professional historians. The community will eventually have to make the jump from passionate amateurs and impress the actual scholars. This is essential for the practice of HEMA to be accepted as a part of European history. Although this will add the respectability that comes from people in tweed jackets discussing your work, I worry that this has the potential to restrict HEMA as it is known today.
Academia, by its very nature, places a great degree of emphasis upon proper methodology. In order to be taken seriously, you must show your work. It is only by following rigorous and quantifiable methods that historians can accurately understand the past. This is how the peer-review process can function effectively. I do not doubt that there are experts in HEMA, such as Matt Easton of Scholagladiatoria, who could lay down an effective and comprehensive method for HEMA. But while a focus on introducing “proper” methodology could be important for legitimizing the art in the eyes of professional academics, it might take away some of the character that people love about HEMA.
As I mentioned previously, HEMA is a movement that has thrived on the input of amateur historians and by its inclusive atmosphere. It allows people to actively engage with history in a tangible, physical way and make their voices heard. This is unique and beautiful. Robbing the art of this might be disagreeable for some practitioners, even if it would ultimately be positive for HEMA’s “legitimacy.” In addition in a martial art that is focused upon exploring and analyzing the past, there is a danger to standardizing practices.
Take an example from the style I know best: Shotokan Karate. Kata, in traditional Japanese martial arts, are forms that contain techniques that have been passed down over time. However, in the process of handing these traditions on to students instructors have often hidden meaning or simply propagated incorrect interpretations. The result of this is often an explanation that involves somehow decimating a half dozen opponents with simple combinations of blocks and punches, as in the first kata Heian Shodan. Most good schools explain the difference, but there are too many students who have not received this kind of instruction and only know the flawed interpretation. This dilutes the truth and the effectiveness of the martial art.
Should HEMA, in the interest of pursuing scholarly respectability, standardize practices of study and interpretation there is a risk that incorrect understandings will be passed on to future students. I have no doubt that experts in the field such as Matt Easton (I cannot fully express how much I love Matt Easton’s work) have a nuanced understanding of these arts and could produce the best possible methodology. However, in the interest of pedagogy these instructions could be lost or diluted to teach students of different levels. It seems to me that the great test the legitimacy of HEMA is whether or not these techniques work in practice and there should be as few barriers to this as possible.
This brings me to one of the aspects of HEMA that excites me the most, the possibility of actually discovering how forgotten martial arts function. When the Ultimate Fighting Championship burst onto the scene in 1993, it did more than launch the new industry and sport of Mixed Martial Arts. It provided a laboratory of sorts for martial artists to test the efficacy of their styles and the value their techniques. There were limitations to the knowledge gained from this, but it ushered in a new era for martial arts. Even today techniques such as wheel kicks are revived from martial arts and reintroduced into the MMA world. HEMA presents a similar kind of testing ground for the study and research of historical martial arts.
HEMA provides a way for theories about historical combat to be explored, over and over again, until they can be sharpened and perfected. This potential to identify and perfect technique through experimentation is fascinating to me. I cannot wait to see how this continues to evolve and grow over time, as new interpretations and ideas are constantly explored and refined. In the past ten years alone Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has exploded with constant additions to techniques and competitor’s understanding of the game. That being said, one aspect of HEMA makes me wonder whether or not this will be possible.
All martial arts need to be evaluated based upon the conditions that they were created for, and what problems they were intended to solve. It is generally accepted that all, or most, martial arts are created to be effective in an actual fight. However, human nature being what it is, eventually students want a way to test their skills without actual hurting each other. Or at least… without hurting each other too badly. So sporting variations are created to allow for competition. Although these can result in tremendous displays of skill and athleticism, these sport forms fundamentally change the martial arts themselves.
By instituting rules into competitions and limitations on what can and cannot be done, sporting forms encourage changes in the art. Take Olympic Tae Kwon Do, which appears to most to be a kind of game of tag with one’s feet. This is a drastic over simplification, but the rules have prioritized a style that emphasizes kicking over punching and awards point values for strikes. The techniques that will be most effective in this scenario are not those that will be most effective in a fight. This principle appears in martial arts from all over the world, even in Mixed Martial Arts. The introduction of a rule set, and the pre-existing environment of the cage are all outside variables. In the interest of winning competitions and tournaments, athletes are encouraged to perfect techniques and strategies that are radically different from the original art form.
Now like most martial arts, there is a tournament “sport” version of HEMA . The system awards points for successful strikes and has its own method of scoring and evaluating each competitor’s effectiveness. For some arts within HEMA such as Ringstrasse wrestling, this is perfect. It provides the same kind of competition environment that would have been available culturally for the time period. However, it also introduces limitations on striking, and alters priorities from properly finishing the fight to winning points in the exchange.
I am by no means the first person to note this issue in HEMA, and it was featured prominently in the HEMA documentary Back to the Source. This is excellent, and available for free on YouTube, one more example of the open nature of HEMA. In the film, many of the featured speakers speak out about the dangers of tournament fighting and tournament culture. They assure the audience that most tournament winners prioritize self-development and defense. I believe their assertions, and applaud them for their efforts. However, if this sport continues to grow and expand I would not be surprised to see priorities shifting within the community and fundamentally changing the art. “Point fighting,” can be seen in every competitive martial art, and I do not think HEMA can completely escape it.
I think it is the vast potential of HEMA that captivates me. I do not know how HEMA will develop and what it will become in the next ten years, but I am anxious to find out. Eventually, perhaps when I am a bit more experienced in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and have time for something else, I would like to try HEMA and see how it has evolved. However for the moment I am content to remain fascinated by the material culture and admire the men and women who are currently pursuing this art.
On that note, I would like to end with a recommendation for the HEMA personality that really ignited my interest in the art. His handle is KnightSquire, and he makes HEMA YouTube videos. KnightSquire is a man in a part of England without any access to proper HEMA training. He decided that he would like to learn German Longsword, and dedicated himself to learning from online sources. KnightSquire posted videos of his form and updates on the progress of his training. He even went so far as to start his own club in his town and bring in other interested participants. I respect him for the passion and drive that he brings to his content and to his training, but more than anything else I admire his force of will. He decided that he wanted to learn to sword fight, and then he went out and found a way to do it. Personally, I think that’s beautiful.
Link to Scholagladiatoria: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCt14YOvYhd5FCGCwcjhrOdA
Link to Lindybeige: https://www.youtube.com/user/lindybeige
Link to KnightSquire: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-A6RFHgLFVAGBl6lQeozUw
Link to Metatron: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIjGKyrdT4Gja0VLO40RlOw
Link to Back to the Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DBmNVHTmNs&feature=youtu.be