Questions on what is, and what is not, HEMA

Last week I posted an article called On Armoured Combat and Battle of the Nations. This article generated some discussion, particularly on the HEMA Alliance Facebook page, and something that several people said was that the article shouldn’t have been shared there, given that it was not about HEMA.

So I thought it might be worth writing a follow up article to ask: exactly what is HEMA? Before I start, I am less interested in giving a definite answer to that question, and more interested in problematising how the term HEMA is used and raising questions about what is HEMA, so that everyone can come to their own conclusions.

It is worth looking at definitions of HEMA that have already been written.

“Historical European martial arts is a neologism describing martial arts of European origin, used particularly to refer to arts formerly practiced, but having since died out or evolved into very different forms. Modern reconstructions of some of these arts exist and are practiced today.”
Wiktenauer, Historical European Martial Arts

“Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) refers to documentable methods of armed and unarmed personal and group combat of European origin. The term HEMA is most often used for the reconstruction of medieval martial arts, because no systematic manuals for combat have been discovered earlier than the late middle ages. However, the scope of the HEMA alliance extends to all martial studies that come from historical Europe, from the Roman gladius to the Fairbairn-Sykes knife of World War II.”
HEMA Alliance, About HEMA

“Europe produced a remarkable literature of combat, from many countries, over the course of several centuries…Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is founded on the premise that although these systems fell out of use, or mutated into something different, it is possible to reassemble them. This is approached through scrupulous attention to the texts, physical experimentation, and study of their cultural context; without dismissing insights from elsewhere, such as modern training methods, pedagogy, biomechanics, or other martial arts. There is no dressing up – the central aim is to understand the historical systems. Therefore fighting with historical weapons by itself is not HEMA. By definition HEMA is practice based upon historical sources, hence the fundamental importance of the texts.”
London HEMA Open, What is HEMA?

Some definitions can be short, others can be longer. The idea of HEMA being based on historical sources often appears. If I were to pick up a sword and simply start fighting with it, then I would have no guarantee that what I was doing represented anything that was done historically. If I found a source that described sword fighting, or even better, gave techniques and principles and told me how to use them in a sword fight, then I could be far more confident that what I am doing does actually resemble something that was done historically.

The modern practice of HEMA tends to focus on fighting with swords, and sometimes other hand to hand weapons or unarmed combat, according to advice given by fencing treatises. However it worth bearing in mind that this focus of the modern practice of HEMA does not encapsulate all historical European martial arts, by which I mean any martial art that was practiced in a historical, European context.

For example, archery was a martial art that was practiced historically in Europe, and yet we do not see archery being practiced at modern HEMA events. If I were to attempt to recreate archery from historic treatises and other sources, would this be HEMA? If it is not HEMA, why not? None of the above definitions say that the practice of HEMA must involve hand to hand weapons, even if combat with hand to hand weapons is what most HEMA practitioners will think of when they think of HEMA. Through archery, I can reference original sources, either images or text, study the historical context in which archery took place, experiment with physical replicas of bows and arrows, perform drills, and compete against other archers. In short an archer can do all the things that define HEMA, more or less, so is archery HEMA?

Similarly jousting was another common martial art in the medieval ages, however it is not associated with modern HEMA. Jousting is not seen in any Fechtbuch, however it is seen in the related genre of the Turnierbuch, examples of which include the Turnierbuch Ritterspiele or Eyb Turnierbuch. Again, a jouster can study original sources that describe jousting, study the context surrounding jousting, and so on. So is this HEMA?

As I argued last week, knights might strike each other while in full plate in a pas d’armes. We do have historical accounts stating that this was done. If I compete in a pas d’armes, and the rules, arms and armour are all carefully researched, am I doing HEMA? I would be striking with the edge of my sword against armour, which is advised against by some treatises, such as those by Fiore, however I would be recreating another method of armoured combat described in historic sources. So why would this not be HEMA? Alternatively, imagine that I do not do any research, and simply start hitting other people in armour because it’s fun. I would not be deliberately basing what I was doing on a historical source, however the manner in which I fought might be very similar or even the same as the fighter who put far more research in. If there is no practical difference in the resulting fighting styles in these two examples, does that affect whether either of these examples would be HEMA or not?

Some HEMA practitioners practice weapon forms for which there either fewer or no primary sources, such as Viking era sword and shield or Polish sabre. There are no contemporary treatises on these weapons as there are for 15th century German longsword, so a greater deal of speculation is required to recreate a system for these weapons. Is this still HEMA? If it is not, where is the cut off point between HEMA and not-HEMA? At what point do I not have enough information on my chosen system to say that I am still doing HEMA? If I am working from an unfinished treatise, trying to recreate a technique that is pictured but not described in writing, am I still doing HEMA? Without a written description of the technique, while I can have some idea about what was intended, I cannot know for sure, and so I might end up practicing something that is not historically correct. What if I do have a written description, but it is very vague, and not that useful for reconstructing the technique in question, so I really cannot be sure if my reconstruction is at all accurate? Is the reconstruction of the technique in that case still HEMA?

MS Ludwig XV 13, folio 8v

In folio 8v of the MS Ludwig XV 13, Fiore dei Liberi describes a certain defence done with a baton against a knife, and says this defence can also be done with a hood. If I decide to extrapolate from this, and practice other defences from his baton or dagger sections with a hood, is this still HEMA? Is this reasonable extrapolation, or will it result in me doing something a-historical? What if I extrapolate from the sword and buckler system of the MS.I33 to create a system that uses a large shield, rather than a buckler? Or taken further, what I extrapolate a system from the I.33 using two swords rather than one sword and a buckler? Many of the techniques would still work with a sword in the off-hand rather than a buckler, and this system would be based on a historical source, however that source does not directly support the extrapolation. Would practicing that extrapolated system still be HEMA? If not, at what point does the level of extrapolation mean that you are no longer doing HEMA?

What if a competitor trains at a HEMA club, but does not particularly pay attention to the historic techniques taught? Are they still doing HEMA? It is easy to say that someone is doing HEMA if they are making a deliberate effort to use techniques from original sources, but what if they don’t make this effort? If they were deliberately going out of their way not to use historic techniques, or outright ignoring historic techniques in favour or something else entirely, then I would say they were not doing HEMA, but again where does the cut off point lie? If they use historic techniques only occasionally, is it still HEMA? What if their fighting represents an even mix of historic and a-historic techniques? Does the amount to which they intend to use historic techniques matter, or is the only important thing how often they perform historic techniques, regardless of intent?

If I am training a system for which several treatises exist, such as 15th German longsword, and I am studying and following these treatises carefully, then it is easy to say that I do HEMA. If I start extrapolating or forgetting about the sources, then we reach a more grey area, and it becomes more debatable about whether or not I’m doing HEMA. Alternatively, I can participate in other activities, such as archery, jousting, or a pas d’armes, that might represent other martial arts practiced in a historical European context, even if they are not normally part of modern HEMA. Why might we call some activities HEMA, but say that other activities are not HEMA? Where do we consider the boundaries of HEMA to be?

Everyone will I suspect have different answers to these questions, and they may not be easy questions to answer, but I think it is worthwhile for HEMA practitioners to stop and think about exactly what they think is and isn’t HEMA, and why.