By Meg Floyd
Ask any fencer what HEMA means, and they’ll commonly answer you “historical European martial arts”—or if they’re Dutch, they might think you’re talking about a clothing store. But HEMA is more than that. We all know what HEMA is, and yet HEMA yesterday is not the same as what it is today—nor, I doubt, will HEMA remain the same in five or ten years’ time. It is constantly evolving, changing, and redefining itself, hopefully for the better. However, I venture to offer an alternate breakdown of the acronym HEMA—at least as it stands today.
Attend any tournament two years in a row or spend any time socializing on a HEMA forum, and chances are you know why I say this. Oftentimes the love of the sword is all that is required to be welcomed with open arms into cities near and far, whether for an event, a tournament, or simply to visit and train. From the HEMA Journeyman program—which celebrates the historical tradition of a HEMA club hosting a traveling journeyman specifically visiting just to better their martial skills—to Marcus Hampel’s pioneering project, Swordsurfing.com, which will eventually house a database of people willing to host traveling swordsmen in their home, hospitality is a defining quality of the HEMA brotherhood.
There’s a strong culture of egalitarianism in HEMA—brotherhood that crosses barriers of gender, age, and nationality. When I attended Arts of Mars’ World Wide Open Championship in Germany last August, I spent a week fencing with people from three different continents, listening to (at least) eight different languages. Moreover, there is a valuable practice of sharing and dispersing knowledge for the betterment of all—examples that come to mind are the instructional videos put out by GHFS over the years, or the Polish saber curriculum currently being developed by Richard Marsden of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship. For the most part, instructors, vendors, and practitioners of the sport remain humble and approachable. After attending Fechtschule America in Houston, TX this past March, RJ McKeehan of Kron Martial Arts said,
“No matter who I walked up to, I felt like I was immediately accepted as a peer, and more importantly as a friend. I was comfortable talking to people I’ve never had any contact with before, and the conversations were just like two friends picking up a conversation again. It was amazing.”
M: Martial prowess
The fact that we are resurrecting and breathing new life into Europe’s martial legacy by the study of HEMA is never far from my mind. Knowledge forgotten or set aside for centuries is routinely resurrected and actively researched by projects like the fighting manual wiki Wiktenauer, and scholarly sites like HROARR. Meanwhile, companies like Purpleheart Armoury, SPES, Albion, and Comfort Fencing are producing better and better quality gear for the applications of techniques, gear that’s ever more available to the average fencing club because of programs like the HEMA Alliance’s equipment rental program.
A: Athleticism and the “Art”
Athleticism and the “Art” are two edges on the same blade—both just as vital to make the weapon lethal. It is clear from watching tournament results to fighting the growing obesity epidemic that athleticism is a vital part of HEMA. Cross-training and fitness are being pursued as an important element of the sport as HEMA matures. However, pursuit of the “Art”—the technical skills and martial art in the study of the blade—remains king. The best example of this I can think of is the Franco-Belgian tournament final between Sam Street and Dustin Reagan at Fechtschule America 2013—ten minutes of some of the most skillful, beautiful swordsmanship I’ve ever personally witnessed.
What will HEMA be in ten years? No one can say for sure, except that certainly HEMA is breaking into the dawn of its golden age, and from where I am sitting, the future only looks brighter from here.