Have you met our Lord / Lady* HEMA?

* delete as appropriate

Even those of us martial artists who are hobbyists get evangelical about the one martial art that turns out to be the right fit, if only for the moment. As with any enthusiasm, we want to share. However, to those on the receiving end, it can end up like the conversation you have on your doorstep if you actually dare or care to open the door to, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We’re not quite as bad as the charity people as we don’t ask for money. (At least not straight away. Some martial arts are expensive hobbies.) So, this is the post to explain more about my current love affair and what I get out of it.

First off, HEMA stands for “Historical European Martial Arts”. You’ve previously seen me use the term “historical fencing” and it’s not uncommon to hear WMA or “Western Martial Arts”. These are overlapping terms and aren’t quite interchangeable. Sometimes the only thing they have in common is that they’re all plurals. Well, technically. One tends to sound a bit pompous when one starts saying things like “HEMA are…”

Anyway, HEMA represents martial arts as used to be practised across Europe. This covers a multitude of eras – from the viking age right up to the classical fencing that was only really chased out of the salle by the introduction of electronics to sports fencing. It also covers a multitude of weapons – from sticks to hammers to swords – and even unarmed combat. In its purest forms, its about interpreting manuals and treatises to recreate a lost art as studied at a particular time with a particular weapon. In its less pure form, its about taking multiple interpretations and working out what makes you a better martial artist from all of the techniques available. Obviously, parts of this overlap with re-enactment (attempt historical accuracy but the outcome of any combat is pre-determined) and with LARPing or “live action role playing” (outcome is not predetermined and its about what works in the situation, although technique isn’t always studied). Battle of the Nations and similar are… something we look at wide-eyed. In order to keep things safe, the organisers generally remove all the effective and fun bits but we generally spar and compete on a one-to-one basis and they fight in melees, so different rules apply. Despite the fact that certain HEMA schools will quite happily argue about who is right, there’s usually a gentleman’s agreement that there is no one right way. The art is all about interpretation, after all.

Historical fencing generally applies to martial arts that require a sword – and possibly something to go in the other hand. This usually covers the same temporal and geographical width as HEMA but misplaces that pesky unarmed combat and less “noble” weapons. (Swords, particularly double-edged ones, are a status symbol as much as a weapon.) People who talk about historical fencing have usually come into HEMA via sports fencing and they either haven’t widened their interests into other weapons or they’ve made a conscious decision to stick with swords only. This may not reflect any snobbery on the individual’s part. It’s more likely that they’ve seen some unarmed combat and aren’t comfortable with full contact, or with tumbling, or they decided they’re more comfortable with a bit of distance between them and their opponent, or found metal more comfortable than wood (quarterstaff), or swords less cumbersome than pole-arms (like spears or pike).

WMA represents, well, what it says on the tin. There’s a whole slew of martial arts that have survived into modern practice but rarely get talked about alongside arts that are more obviously HEMA. HEMA is basically a subset of WMA, many of which effectively died out as fashion and technology made certain practices unnecessary.

A smallsword hilt
A smallsword hilt

So, why do I say I study historical fencing? My preferred weapon is one of these: a smallsword. Two facts for you:

  1. The one pictured is my smallsword. (Although it has since had the grip re-wrapped).
  2. The toy that eventually became the modern sports foil (it has had a number of changes in technology and usage since its invention) was a training tool for this type of sword.

It’s basically the first weapon I got taught when I got into HEMA and so it’s the one I’ve spent longest doing – and it ties in with the sports fencing I’ve done before. It was the weapon of choice for 17th century fops and is somewhat… let’s go with refined. If you’re breaking a sweat using it, you’re moving it too much and your technique could definitely do with some improvement. My technique remains poor and I sweat quite a bit when I’m using it but my foppish poise and grace improve immeasurably when you put a smallsword in my hand. I’m not kidding. Head up, shoulders back, arms in balletic poses, everything. I’m working on my look of disdain and carrying a handkerchief to cover the smell of my sweaty opponents.

I have, alongside this, had some instruction in rapier (with some use of off-hand weapons), longsword, dussack (a type of long, single-edged knife), messer (another type of long, single-edged knife), staff and escrima sticks. My coordination is such that the anything that involves using both hands independently tends ot take a long time to crack but I’m lucky enough to have some patient instructors and club mates. And my coordination has improved in the six years I’ve been studying. However, I find I don’t really enjoy staff and sticks as much as I enjoy smallsword – or scrapping with a messer, although I use a waster rather than a metal one.

And what do I enjoy about messer? It’s one of those weapons that, despite the fact that there are several actual systems to go with it, allows me to mix and match the different styles that I’ve dabbled in. It even allows me to use some of the grapples I learnt many moons ago when I was studying jui-jitsu although my ability at falling is not what it should be so I rarely practice that. In other words, it’s a great weapon for panicking with once you’ve started to get the basics down.

I think I managed to tell you what I get from studying martial arts in general and historical fencing in particular. It’s helped with my coordination and balance. It will help with fitness levels but you will a) need to do some further physical training and b) train at your martial art more often than once a week if you want to see big gains. It can be a lot of fun (particularly when you’re in a group of like-minded individuals).

So far unmentioned is that fencing has taken me to places I wouldn’t otherwise go to, to meet people I never otherwise would have. As an example of actual fencing events, it’s taken me to evening dinners hosted in the Leeds Royal Armouries and events in Edinburgh and London. If and when I get myself more organised, I hope to make it to weekends in Paris, Dijon, Goteborg, Bergen, and Copenhagen amongst others. This is balanced against personal issues so I may not make it, but it’s an ambition to aim for. Talking about fencing has also got me into events in Derby and London – and, again, may get me further afield in the not so distant future.

In other words, like any martial art, it can get you doing something that stretches and improves your physical abilities. It can help you make friends. It can give you an enthusiasm that you’ll want to share with other people and may even get you travelling around the world to do so. What makes mine special? Well, I would say that it’s getting to play with swords but there are a number of martial arts that have swords so I guess what’s special about mine is that it’s the one that works for me.

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6 thoughts on “Have you met our Lord / Lady* HEMA?

    1. The book I tend to follow is Angelo’s School of Fencing but I also have Mark Rector’s Highland Swordsmanship book with copies of McBane and Hope’s New Method. Should take them out and read them more often… 🙂

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  1. I love history, I love fantasy and my first martial art was fencing, but somehow I’ve never got around to exploring HEMA. I really should. I don’t suppose there is anywhere in Bristol you can recommend, or a good site to find reputable schools?

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    1. Hi. If you’re on faceboook, there’s a group called UK HEMA (https://www.facebook.com/groups/363620243807721/) in which you can question particulars and work out what sort of HEMA you’re interested in. But, two I know of:

      • The 1595 club (http://www.the1595.com/) covers (oddly enough) fighting styles of the 1595-ish era. Chris Chatfield, the guy in charge, is a lovely person.
      • The Sussex Sword Academy (http://www.sussexswordacademy.org/) covers a bigger range of time periods but focusses on swords (also, oddly enough…) so that means longsword, broadsword, rapier and smallsword.

      Sorry, I got confuzzled and thought Brighton, not Bristol. For Bristol, you can try the Academy of Historical Fencing (http://historicalfencing.co.uk/c5/) for swords and Bartitsu Bristol (https://www.facebook.com/bartitsubristol) if you want to get your Victorian Gentleman on…

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      1. Cool, thanks. Unfortunately it looks like the first one only trains on Wednesdays, immediately after the jiu jitsu class I teach that day. I could almost squeeze it in if they were a little nearer the centre of town, but as they’re way up the top of Bristol, too far for me to make it in time on my bike. My fault for refusing to learn to drive, I guess. 😉

        Although it is intriguing from a historical perspective, not too interested in training Bartitsu: I want to pretend I’m a paladin, after all, not Sherlock Holmes. 😛 BUT they did have a link on their Facebook to somewhere else in Bath, which is perfect in terms of times (the two days I don’t teach, Tuesday and Thursday). So that’s one I can give a go. 😀

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