An Updated Visual Definition of HEMA

This is an updated version of an article I posted in March 2011. Since then, excellent new video material has become available, and unfortunately some of the material listed in the original article has become unavailable online.

How can we define “HEMA”, “WMA” and “historical fencing”?

It can often be very difficult to describe the concept of the historical European martial arts (HEMA) to someone who has never come across them before. To most people, “martial arts” are fighting styles from the east that use punches and kicks, perhaps grappling depending on the style, and are predominantly unarmed. The idea that well developed and comprehensive systems of fighting arts developed in medieval Europe seems to be a difficult concept to absorb for many people. This is mainly due to influences like early Hollywood films depicting medieval fighting as unskilled and brutish; to be fair to Hollywood, fencing masters such as Egerton Castle in the 19th century believed that medieval fighting from only a couple of centuries beforehand was a brutish and unskilled affair: he stated quite clearly in his “Schools and Masters of Fence” (published 1884) that the “rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages” was greatly inferior to the contemporary art of fencing. Indeed, even Thomas Page wrote in 1746 about earlier weapons: “yet of these the Form was Rude, and their Use without Method. They were the Instruments of Strength, not the Weapons of Art.”

The truth is quite the opposite, and rather than re-inventing the wheel by writing an essay on the subject when a much more talented and experienced researcher than myself has written about the exact same subject (http://www.thearma.org/essays/straight.htm by Matt Galas), I would like to show a selection of video clips produced from some of the most skilful and eminent groups, practitioners and scholars of the European martial arts today. Please feel free to browse this collection of video links, and enjoy this visual introduction to the martial arts of medieval Europe.


Gladiatores – German longsword

This clip is one of the best introductory videos to the art of Liechtenauer’s longsword. The Gladiatores are a German group and one of the first to upload such videos to YouTube; despite the age of this clip, it is still one of the best clips available!


Gesellschaft Lichtenawers – German longsword

These two clips show why Liechtenauer’s longsword is a real martial art and not just playing with swords or swinging in a brutal and untrained fashion. The technical skill of these combatants is awesome, and it is clear that any of these sequences would leave the lesser combatant dead in a real fight.


Žehart – mixed weapons

On a lighter note again, this group shows a selection of weapons and a good grasp of the martial applications, and does so with great humour!


Salle Saint-George – musket with bayonet

This is a very clean and technical demonstration of early modern fencing with muskets with attached bayonets. There are very few such clear and technical examples of this kind of fencing available online.


GHFS – mixed weapons, training and tournaments

This is one of the best videos to show the intensity and community of modern HEMA at the international events and at local training practices.


Blossfechter – knife fighting

Some of the information in this video clip is a little suspect, but the video itself is very enjoyable and compares the European dagger styles to the Japanese dagger styles. The multiple attackers section near the end is incredibly impressive, and shows how lethal and effective the European martial arts were as a method of self defence.

This clip illustrates the advice given by medieval master Hans Talhoffer about how a man should prepare for a judicial duel. Training the fighting skills and techniques was not the only that that must be done; preparing the body and the mind for battle was also important!


Cateran Society – Highland broadsword

As introductory videos to the art of the Highland broadsword from 17th and 18th century Scotland, these video clips are superb. The fluency of the motions makes the combatants look like they are dancing, but the techniques they are using with their swords are certainly lethal and effective!


GHFS – German Longsword

The Göteborg Historiska Fäktskola (Gothenburg Historical Fighting School) is one of the leading groups in the field of historical European martial arts. Their members have uploaded hundreds of videos to YouTube, but here are some gems that show that they can perform displays and demonstrations of their martial art while training in a professional and modern fashion.

This second clip shows that good quality HEMA groups take their training seriously and are happy to use modern training methods to supplement their practices!

The third clip shows what it is like to be involved in a longsword sparring bout from the point of view of one of the combatants.


Sienawski Fencing – Polish sabre

This is a video from a seminar about Polish sabre. The motions are captivating and enrapturing in their smoothness and fluency. This is a superb video to show what HEMA can involve!


ARMA – longsword

The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts has been a driving force in the study of European martial arts for many years. The first video shows some superb drilling practice against a wooden pell.

The second clip shows some of very skilful ways to counter incoming attacks, and the third video is a fun slow-motion clip showing some of the longsword techniques cutting through milk bottles filled with water!


Goliath Fencing Guild – medieval dagger

This is a good video clip showing the explosiveness and dynamism of some of the medieval dagger styles.


Bratislavský šermiarsky spolok – German longsword

This group from Slovakia show some excellent skills (and humour!) with the sword, and also provide a wonderful insight into the mentality and community of people who practice historical fencing.


Schola Gladiatoria – cutting

Continuing with the theme of cutting through milk bottles, Schola Gladiatora has uploaded these videos showing some of their test cutting practices. The level of skill is very impressive, an unskilled swordsman would knock over the milk bottle on the first swing and would not be able to manage a single clean cut, let alone four or five!


MikeGrumbler – Smallsword

Unfortunately I don’t know what school produced this video. It is by a Russian group, and this smallsword sparring looks very technical and extremely skilled! HEMA includes more than just the medieval weapons, and more than just cutting weapons; this clip really demonstrates a high level of skill than can be achieved with much more recent and “early modern” swords.


NYHFA – cutting

The New York Historical Fencing Association is yet another group who test their sword techniques against a cutting medium, but this group uses rolled tatami mats in a similar fashion to the Japanese sword arts. Note the clean and controlled strikes, and note the precision required for the multiple cuts to be successful.


Bartitsu Club of Chicago – Bartitsu and Antagonistics

This video was filmed during a club graduation event at the end of their beginners course. HEMA can involve skilful fighting, wit and fun, and snappy dressing all at the same time!


GHFS – sword camera

As well as being incredibly talented, the GHFS are also slightly mad. They thought it would be a good idea to strap a camera onto their sword to see what the world looks like the wrong way around, and these are the results.


Macdonald Academy of Arts – mixed weapons

This tribute video clip is clearly tongue in cheek, and is full of good Scottish humour.


Sword Buyer’s Guide – cutting

Finally, this video from the Sword Buyer’s Guide shows how one can practice cavalry sword techniques if one does not have a horse. Perhaps this video clip is not as skillfully made as some of the others, but it looks like amazing fun!


I hope that watching some (or all) of these video clips will have been enlightening, and I hope that my visual definition of the historical European martial arts will help people to understand that there is actually real skill and martial application in the study of the medieval manuscripts.

For discussion: are there any video clips that I missed that you think should be in the above list? Please leave a comment with the link to any such clip, so that readers can have a look at the videos that you recommend.

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