I Was Wrong about the HEMA Movement

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Categories: Medieval, Modern, Not an expert
Photo of a stunning church entrance with a multicoloured stone archway with double doors set inside it
I understand that its traditional in the German-speaking countries to nail these manifesti to a church door, but since this is the 21st century, and there do not seem to be any historical fencers in Innsbruck, a blog post with a photo of San Anastasia in Verona will have to do.

There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.

When I got involved in historical fencing, I thought that it was a community of amateur scholars with a broad interest in history like the serious re-enactment groups I knew. The end of the community which I became involved with was led by former members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who had drifted away from the organization as their interests drew them in a more historical, less creatively anachronistic direction. While my academic déformation professionnelle means that I often have small differences with people whose focus is on recreating past skills and experiences, I can usually find enough common ground to have a conversation with them, and sometimes I have a source to contribute which is much more useful to them than to the academics who originally discovered it. It was obvious to me that turning 15th century manuscripts into working martial arts required a broad familiarity with academic research in medieval studies, and the historical fencers whom I knew seemed to agree.

A library in a Neo-Gothic building with an athletic-looking man in shorts and a teeshirt talking in front of a portable whiteboard while an audience in chairs listens.
A speaker from Germany delivers a talk on Roman gladiators at WMAW 2011. At its best, the WMA movement gathers thoughtful people whose skills don’t always fit inside traditional academic boxes, and encourages them to record and spread their knowledge and talk to people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Photo by author.

As the years passed and I explored the movement, however, I had a number of unsettling experiences. Several prominent members of the community began to transform themselves into gurus or life coaches. I did not have anything in my experience to prepare me for that transformation, since to me a fencing instructor was someone who taught a simple, practical skill like carpentry which made them no wiser or more foolish than anyone else. When I asked questions about people’s interpretations of the fencing manuals with the same polite insistence which I apply to any other claim about the past, I did not always get the answers which I wanted, and attending events to ask questions in person and gathering books and articles did not help. In an email exchange, I was startled to learn that an American member of the community who is very active online, and very critical of the mainstream consensus about how to read the 15th century manuscripts I worked on, had not read the best book describing that consensus several years after it was published; no doubt he was equally surprised that I expected him to address the best arguments for the consensus as part of his defence of his own views. And I discovered that the movement was embroiled in bizarre personal politics, with many instructors outside the group which taught at WMAW feeling themselves excluded and talked-down-to and founding their own counter-events and anti-organizations in response. (I first understood in my gut why they feel that way as I read The Medieval Longsword by one of the instructors ‘in’ at WMAW).

Two fencers in black clothig, gym shoes, and black fencing masks fight with longswords. A group of fencers in black sits on benches and watches
A referee with his staff calls “halt!” at one of the events where the European tournament faction was born. “Swordfish 2013 HEMA Tournament” by Stefan Olsson via fightswordfish.tumblr.com

In the end, however, these personal politics were drowned by larger forces. Many of the founders of the HEMA movement were lukewarm about creating tournaments for their students to demonstrate their skill, whether because their own experience in combat sports had left a bad taste in their mouth, or because they felt that historical fencers were not yet skilled enough to fence safely under the stress of competition. (An early tournament in Vancouver circa 2009 kept the volunteers busy mopping up blood, and I saw a bad fall and many wardrobe malfunctions at a tournament in Bavaria in 2014). Some of the groups which were less lukewarm found that attendance at their lessons exploded if they offered competition and framed it in the right way, positioning themselves as more athletically serious and less nerdy than other kinds of historically-themed fun with swords.

This tournament-focused branch of the movement has rapidly developed its own culture and tribal markings: members can be recognized by their black nylon sportswear, painted fencing masks, and habit of reciting a long list of clauses “we are not LARPers … we are not re-enactors … we are not Battle of the Nations … we are not the SCA …” to anyone who does not run away fast enough.* This community gets very excited whenever someone finds a new fencing manual, or publishes a book on fencing schools or illegal violence with the right flavour, but is quieter when someone suggests that understanding a fifteenth-century text requires a variety of knowledge and skills taught by medievalists who are not interested in swords, or that if their favourite source has large sections on fighting in armour and on horseback, they might want to buy armour and try riding one day.

By today, when the second or maybe even the third generation of active fencers have appeared, there is no further need of new interpretations, most of the old books are completed and fully elaborated. But there was a need for the “newbies” to get combatative and lots of tournaments started to take place. Even a World Championship is staged every two years in Hannover. – Ing. Harold Winter of Dreynschlag, “Historical Fencing: The development of the HEMA-movement”, PBT Historical Fencing (2011) https://pbthistoricalfencing.com/historical-fencing/

In most parts of Europe and the US this branch has rapidly outgrown the wider movement that birthed it, although things seem different in some places (the Spanish, for example, still seem to prefer a more academic approach). Indeed, I predict that as the sport fencers aggressively seize the name “HEMA” and loudly define themselves against other branches of the movement, people in those other, smaller branches will find it easier to adopt new names than to keep pushing back.** I am certainly tired of explaining to them “no, actually some of us think historical clothing is nifty! I don’t want to talk about how to make a better tournament. And insulting other groups which play with swords is not cool, because if we are polite some of them may try what we do and decide it is fun too.”

An old parket-floored, stone-walled gymnasium with fencers in diverse styles of clothing from fourteenth-century aketons to 20th-century white fencing jackets
The gymnasium at WMAW 2011. Some fencers wear steel helmets, others fencing masks, depending on their budget, their taste, and the weapons they customarily use. People from the “jock faction” and “nerd faction” can have fun together, as long as they show tolerance of each other’s different goals, and never demand that everyone do anything which fencers outside their faction will refuse. Photo by author, September 2011.

While I have put historical fencing aside due to lack of local practice partners and the press of my studies, I hope to take it up again one day. I love the sources, and think that reconstructing martial arts from manuals has produced some research which could be written up in a formal academic way and which should be more widely known. Fencing is a good excuse to get some exercise, and historical fencing is safe enough as long as one stays away from tournaments. Historical fencing has introduced me to an assortment of curious characters more marvellous than those in any Feynmann story. But right now, when I want to talk to non-academics about history, I find a more stimulating, respectful environment amongst people who practice historical crafts using blacksmith’s hammer or tailor’s shears or song book. I thought that historical fencers were interested in history, and I was wrong. While there are scholarly and broad people in that community, they are very scarce, and it is easier to identify them by their membership in other hobbies than to look for them in the wider historical fencing community. Asking historical fencers in general why they interpret the sources the way that they do, or encouraging them to read broadly in the sources from the place and time which produced the fencing manuals they work on, does not feel like a good use of my time.

This essay was written sick and revised sober, in the manner of a Persian council.

* * * * * * *

* The best place to get a feel for the style of dress which the sport HEMA movement uses to identify itself is photos from tournaments such as Swordfish, although arguments about equipment are also educational (many members are humourlessly determined that their kit have no bare metal, even where strength and lightness are most important such as the hands, just as they insist that their kit is not armour and must not look like armour, even as they burden themselves with hard plastic shin-guards and thick synthetic coats). Most of the reciting of lists occurs face-to-face, but there is a beautiful example in the HEMAC Manifesto (complete with a promise that “some of our best friends are re-enactors!”) and another on video in the documentary Back to the Source which is available on YouTube. I understand that sites like Reddit and Tumblr contain all kinds of material where people deeply involved in the sport faction talk about what is important to them
(Edit 2016-04-13: and in fact, a fellow in the Netherlands on Tumblr does not like this post one bit).

(Edit 2016-04-25: Another crystal-clear example occurred on YouTube, where Paul Wagner, a very well established Australian member of the community, demonstrated that the padded jackets which are popular with fencers today do not protect very well against blows with blunt swords, and suggested borrowing ideas from historical armour such as stuffing the jackets with small plates; a viewer felt that he was missing the point, so explained “Thank god we have the AP Spes jacket so we dont have to look like larpers.” As far as I know, that jacket is no more protective than the style which Wagner had just demonstrated did not work).

(Edit 2017-05-31: And just to get the full trifecta, someone interested in 16th century fencing on Reddit warns someone curious about the movement that “People get shit for wearing puffy pants at tournaments, even though they are depicted in the manuals we study.” I have to say though, at the events I attended in the USA and Canada, you could wear what you liked as long as it was safe).

(Edit 2019-04-23: For a view from inside another end of the community, see the learned and revealing article by Jack Gassmann, Jürg Gassmann, and Dominique Le Coultre, “Fighting with the Longsword: Modern-Day HEMA Practices,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5.2 (2017) pp. 115-133 https://doi.org/10.1515/apd-2017-0011 which walks through every one of the ethnic markers I noticed but presents them as pure common sense … and compare Charles Lin “It frequently feels like the main goal of our efforts resides in a modern aesthetic and social context. Painted masks, memes, blossfechten kit discussion ad nauseum, tournament myopia, and cheap shots at other arts.” https://practiceandart.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/curiosity-for-the-past/)

(Edit 2020-10-04: From the mouths of teachers! “HEMA is … one of the most anti-intellectual, anti-academic movements of our time, because we decided to not just study the arts as an academic thing, we decided to study them as martial arts, to live them in a way …” – Anders Linnard, The Historical Fencer podcast episode 4 minute 8:50)

(Edit 2021-01-12: Sometime around 2020, Arms and Armour in Minnesota thought about the difference between what HEMA folks want and other customers want and did two things: they offered the tournament crowd longswords with their “grip extended to 9.5″ and wrapped with string. This enhances use with the oversized modern safety gauntlets … (and) helps with durability against the edges of the gauntlets rubbing on the grip” and they started writing blog posts about how if you want to learn to use a sharp sword, then your blunts should feel like a sharp not the other way around, and if you just want to win cutting competitions they can supply swords for that, but if they want something more representative of what was most often carried they can offer other products)

(Edit 2021-04-23: “20 years ago we had to figure out what was in the treatises. And rightfully, there was a much bigger focus on just what do these words mean. Being in shape, we can worry about that later. … I think it’s worlds apart now. I think most people go to a school, first of all, for better or worse, most people join the school not expecting to read a treatise at all. They do expect to get in shape. They do expect that, yes, they are going to be doing squats and push ups and run sprints and doing everything it takes to be more physically able. And some of those people end up having an interest in the treatises themselves. And for better or worse, I think that is the focus nowadays in most schools.” – Bill Grandy, “Swords and Historical Handcrafts, with Bill Grandy” The Sword Guy Podcast episode 45 (2021) cp. the wise words of Manciolino on why he does not teach duelling law in his book although that is important for a fencer to know)

One thing which made me realize that I was seeing ethnogenesis in action was when I heard an American state exactly the same excuse for banning metal masks and gloves which I had read a few years earlier from an Austrian:

Q: Out of curiosity, why do [many HEMA tournaments] ban metal gauntlets? A: You are not allowed to wear metal armour in HEMA because you are allowed to grapple your opponent. Imagine getting hit in the throat with a 16ga steel gauntlet during a tumble…

Q: Wenn ich fragen därf, warum ist Schutzausrüstung aus Metall verboten? A: Weil es kein Ritter Turnier ist sondern eine moderne, sportliche Veranstaltung: altes Fechten in neuem Gewand, vergleichbar mit dem heutigen Fechtsport. Darüber hinaus, aus Sicherheitsgründen: Ringen ist ein wichtiger Bestandteil dieses Fechtens. Harnischteile, besonders Stahlhelme, sind beim Ringen sehr gefährlich, da sie Hebel bilden (Nacken) oder einen Gegner, der selbst keine Harnischteile verwendet, durch ihre Kanten gefährden.

Personally, if I trust someone enough to let them pommel me in the face with a sword, I trust them enough to use an appropriate level of force in punches, locks, and throws, and I don’t see any scharfe Kanten (sharp edges) on the helmets by That Guy’s Products (horsebows, since December 2020) and Windrose Armoury which I have handled. But maybe I am just macho and heedless of the danger.

** For example, Ilkka Hartikainen, a very physically capable practitioner of 16th century fencing, publicly stepped away from the ‘HEMA’ label in July 2015 (http://marozzo.com/2015/07/16/what-is-hema). As he explained, he was tired of people assuming that he also did 15th or 17th century fencing, or wrestling, or all the other diverse activities in the wider HEMA movement. I know others who have continued to fence and teach but lost interest in being part of a wider movement.

0 thoughts on “I Was Wrong about the HEMA Movement

  1. c0r3 says:

    The sentiment of being wrong about HEMA resonates with me. Something about the community lost its way in the last 10 years.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I sure hope that the movement either stops splintering, or reaches the point that the different factions are comfortable enough to talk politely to each other. It might be good that people don’t talk about interpretations online any more, since that leads to so much squabbling (and it is so hard to explain these things with just words). The movement that I thought I was joining was about bringing people from all over the world, and all sorts of backgrounds, together around a love for reviving old martial arts. I would be an even worse fencer if I had not been given the chance to learn from people who were trained in a way of teaching martial arts, or were more athletic than me, or had experience in combat sports, or had other skills which I do not.

      1. Daniel 'Corbin' Hill says:

        I think groups splinter because that is the only way for a person to get on top. Competitive by nature, everyone wants to be the top dog. So they find little nuances to make themselves seem better (at least to themselves).

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Maybe you guys were right to go off and do your own thing. I sure found it helpful to get to practice with good teachers and see some different takes on things, and many people were more polite in person than online … I am just not willing to insult some of my friends to help others pump themselves up, do things which are too dangerous for me with equipment that does not feel safe, or listen to self-helpy lectures from people I barely know.

          1. Daniel 'Corbin' Hill says:

            Heh, I had forgotten about that. He wanted to be part of my school. As it turned out, he embezzled money and did his best to lie to others in an effort to push me out. It was too easy to step aside and watch him fail.

      2. bvkrustev says:

        But… people constantly discuss interpretations online. They never stopped. Your whole post is confusing to me….

        1. Sean Manning says:

          There might be … I stopped following when things moved to Facebook and sites like that. But I don’t see much evidence (either from talking to people in person, or online) that there are many fencers who want to become more scholarly like I tried to become more athletic. There is a difference between arguing and scholarly debate, just like there is a difference between roughhousing and the wrestling finals at the Olympics.

          And there is a difference between members of a faction talking amongst themselves or gossiping about the scary outsiders and their barbarous customs, and scientific discourse where if someone makes a good point, everyone else has to show that they understand it before they disagree. Two communities can talk loudly at each other without communication happening.

          I wish projects like the Society for Historical European Martial Arts Studies all the best, just like I hope that the people who like combat sports have fun.

  2. guy says:

    This seems like a generally negative article and I’m not sure that’s warranted. There does seem to be a few weird personality cults and quirks in some HEMA groups but I’m part of a small group in Australia and our instructor goes out of his way to make clear that its all just a set of simple skills which doesn’t need any pageantry or nonsense. I also cant blame a new organisation for being eager to express how they are different of from other older organisations. I can only applaud an academic approach to historical martial arts and I think viewing the fighting manuals through a broader lens of historical knowledge seems to me like common sense but you didn’t make clear to reader where you draw the line as being to not historical enough so I got the, probably false, impression that you would rather sit about reading peer reviewed papers on history rather than do any actual fighting. I think HEMA is great and more groups means that more people are doing it maybe in their own way but I think its a good thing nonetheless.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Guy,

      WordPress marked your comment as spam and I just noticed it. Thanks for taking the time!

      It certainly seems like some readers are getting an impression which I didn’t intend. But if I knew how to write in a way which nobody could misinterpret, I would probably be doing that for a living 😉

      Once I was at an event in Scotland, and in the pub afterwards I commented that travelling to tournaments and having a bash was just fine, but it was only one part of historical fencing. A friendly fellow answered something like “no, for some of us, that is all we want to do.” And that is OK, except that its hard to have a conversation after that: my academic skills don’t have much to offer him, and while I’d like to learn to be a better fencer, I’m not interested in the special kinds of training which you need to succeed at a modern sport. The same for groups who make participating in a particular style of tournament, or trash-talking kinds of fun with swords which many of my friends enjoy, a requirement of membership.

  3. Tim Gallagher says:

    Sir, I am humbled by the amount of sense in your article. And I say this as someone who used to participate vigorously in tournaments back in the day.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You are welcome Tim! I don’t feel so wise, it just seems like after people who were bored with competition (SCA heavy/sport fencing/mixed martial arts/…) and interested in history turned the sources into working martial arts, they were swamped with people who really wanted to play with swords but really really did not want to feel like nerds or learn from other martial artists and competitive athletes.

      And most of the new groups defined themselves as “not like the teachers in the 1990s and 2000s” just like some people in my generation defined themselves as not ARMA and not SCA. But my friends were bitter because they had been part of those other groups, and the new guys who are angriest don’t seem to have ever been in the same room as the people they depict as elderly ogres in wizard’s robes.

  4. Victor Raab says:

    Mr Manning;
    HEMA , in my opinion, is having the same growing pains as any other combative,competitive art has through the past 50 years or so, the difference being, in the Internet /information age which brings the world community to your living room daily, the change is shown at comparatively lightning speed, whereas the politics and the pushing of the ever present cult of personality “grand masters” revolving around the eastern/ Asian arts has done this with a slow, steady creep over decades, using the shrouded past and steeped in mysticism, unverifiable or at least”questionable” lineage, and backed by several decades of Hollywood definitions of expectations of martial arts.
    HEMA, even though its basis is a start in medieval Europe, is just coming out of its infancy. It doesn’t have the “12 dan grandmaster of the original system with the unbroken line going back 900 years claiming to have the only true knowledge of the long sword” or some such infomercial selling tactic.
    I’ve found the people leading the field in the research into the historical use of HEMA techniques somewhat easier to talk to in regards to usage of said techniques,especially when such is backed up with modern studies in body mechanics, physics,, etc.. I myself have over 20 years of kung fu training and frequently fall back to that for stance and body/structure alignment questions if something doesn’t appear right until I can go over the issue in depth with my instructor a certain move or set of moves that present the possibilities of damage or injury to joint, balance,movement or structure.
    I think , again, its just my opinion, in this day of YouTube and online video learning, the real, honest, quality people will eventually stand apart from the overnight, flash in the pan, McDojo wannabes and they will be drawn to one another for learning.
    The rest will find the next, greatest fad to follow and leave HEMA alone when new opportunities( and fleece-able prospects) show themselves

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Victor, I hope you are right. The problem with video is that like Guy Windsor says, the ideal in a fight is for the other guy to be dead/on the floor before he understands what is happening, but the goal in a video is for everyone to see what is happening. I know some great fighters whose videos get disrespect, and some who will only teach in person.

      Similarly, I don’t think that people who want to understand how they did it back in the day, as part of the context of renaissance Italy or high medieval Swabia, and people who want to rank as highly in tournaments as possible by learning a modern sport in modern spaces with help from modern science are ever going to agree on what has value. The goals of those two projects are just too different, even though they are both fun with swords.

  5. Meeps says:

    Johannes Liechtenauer already clarified this for you in the 1300s:

    “exercise is better than art, because exercise without art is useful, but art without exercise is useless” (15r)

    He also said you need to train, be fast and agile. The most skilled historical fencers I have seen in terms of interpreting historical texts are those who compete. If you just want to read books that’s fine, just don’t complain about people competing.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You mean the anonymous longsword treatise in the Nürnberg Hausbuch? That one always gave me bad vibes, but opinions differ. But every good fencer I know agrees that if you want to get good at fencing, the thing to do is to spend a lot of time in the salle and after a lot of sweat and a few bruises you will be able to handle yourself. But if you follow that logic it leads you somewhere heretical.

      If you are in the Oxford area you can hear this preaching from a pretty well known chap: “the best sword-in-one-hand manual is Alanson-Winn and Philips-Wolley’s ‘Broad-Sword and Single-Stick’ from 1911″ (one of the authors retired near where I grew up). If you just want to learn to fight, you don’t need to study all these foreign languages and manuscripts from alien cultures, just go a boxing gym or a Dog Brothers club or bone up on an Edwardian sabre manual. So the only reason to mess around with old books is if you want to learn a particular way of fighting, practiced in a particular place at a particular time, and that brings you back to all that nasty philology and historical context. Our anonymous German grump wants us to know that some people’s practice is no good however hard they train right?

      The culture which the men in black were trying to create obviously motivated some people to go out and hit the pell, but it had the reverse effect on me. I agree there is not much point talking about fencing on the Internet.

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