Some Things That the HEMA Movement Gets Right
Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.
Once I found myself under the shade of some trees and saw a forlorn man at a picnic table arming himself. I asked him if he needed help, and he told me that one of his straps had broken and he did not have a spare and was trying to find a solution. Now, Christian Cameron learned this lesson in his time in the military. But I learned it from Xenophon (Cyropaedia 6.2.32):
We must also have plenty of straps; for nearly everything that men and horses have is fastened on with straps, and when these wear out or break, everything must come to a standstill, unless one has some extra ones.
Like when those crowds in Venice parted, and I saw the porphyry tetrarchs on their corner, my books are coming to life!
The historical fencing world has also helped people find other people interested in preserving dying traditions. Quite a few traditional martial arts are reduced to a handful of practitioners, and for lack of people to play with their practice often develops in strange directions (even in East Asia: the most popular Asian martial arts are all creations of the 20th century). When a martial art is built on the premise that all the students wade around rice paddies or fell timber with an axe for a living, and now they write code or stock shelves in the local supermarket, all kinds of things which used to be taken for granted have to be added to the curriculum. When I was involved in the community I heard about people working on Irish stick-fighting and Italian knife-fighting, but a fellow called Da’Mon Stith is working on reviving North African swordplay from the stickfighting traditions which survived the period of European rule. I like his playful approach and integration of music and dance into his teaching. (And, he has the good taste to be working with the khopesh: proof that any topic is connected to the ancient Near East if you start looking!)
Third, the community has taught itself to think and talk about a late-medieval or early-modern problem in a late-medieval or early-modern way. There are at least 10,000 people who can solve fencing problems with concepts like tempo and movement as a transition between points of stillness. Someone who wanted to be fussy could point out that this way usually combines different sources (or even traditions) and is influenced by modern ideas like Newtonian physics or the observe/orient/decide/act loop. But we are modern people in the modern world, and I don’t know any martial-arts book before the 18th century which claims to provide everything that a beginner needs to know. So in practice, people working on sources from the 14th and 15th centuries CE usually borrow ideas from sources from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries which provide more explicit theory and are aimed at less experienced students, and add whatever ideas and metaphors and images seem to help their students move right. While we could debate how far this is historically legitimate (I tend to go back and forth myself), I don’t know of any other large, secular community which can use even a simplified version of medieval ideas to solve medieval problems.
Everyone who is involved in that world will have a different list of things that they enjoy about it, and I encourage curious outsiders to ask some of them. The historical fencing movement called people with all kinds of dreams, and some of them were so desperate at a chance to bring them to life that they murdered other dreams and tread them underfoot as they scrambled upwards towards the bright visions just out of reach. I don’t know of any of the murderers who has admitted what they did, but I forgive them, as some people who knew me back then have forgiven my own follies. But the historical fencing movement does many good and worthwhile things, and I would certainly recommend that anyone interested in combat mechanics obtain some good replicas and spend some time training with them in a rigorous way, or at least talk to people who do that. If nothing else, its an excuse to get away from our keyboards and out in the fresh air doing something with our whole bodies!
Further Reading: Da’Mon Stith has a YouTube channel and a Patreon account. European fencing theory goes back to Aristotle’s physics: Newtonian ideas only start to creep in in the 20th century after mandatory public education started to include physics classes.
Edit 2020-11-10: On dreams and their murdering, see Anders Linard’s essay “The Dream of Historical Fencing.” It reminds me of SCA folks after a few drinks, and the thinkers who Pankaj Mishra lists in her 2018 New York Review essay on that famous University of Toronto psychology professor.
Edit 2022-12-31: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor
Excellent blog, Sean and it was a pleasure seeing you there. And when Ibfirst read Cyropaedia… that thrill of recognition across the span of time… Huserl would be proud!
Yes … in fact, next time I write about Xenophon, maybe I should spend a few lines on “he was really interested in leadership and how to be a good aristocrat, and he did that well, and its not really fair that academics are usually more interested in Persian customs or details of the King’s Peace.”
I’ll throw in a link to your essay on the philosophy of reenacting for people who want to follow up that reference to Edmund Huserl.
In reading about Philopoeman, I just tripped over a reference that Cyropaedia was Scipio’s favorite book.
Thanks, I will try to track that one down. I was intrigued by the Cyrus’ Paradise project which I participated in a few years ago: after they built the website, the plan was to combine reading the Cyropaedia in Greek with a study of leadership. I am a little uncomfortable with the American concept of leadership, and would be even more uncomfortable to be asked to teach it, but that is closer to how Xenophon probably expected it to be read.