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Op/Ed: What does it mean to be a historical fencer–really?

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by Meg Floyd

Tonight I want to discuss a question that seems to be at the heart of a lot of conversations in HEMA lately. It is a question both beguilingly complex but at its root very simple: what does it mean to be a historical fencer? What is the deep answer behind the thousands of dollars spent, the hours of research and translation, the broken fingers, the workouts, the traveling? Ask five fencers, and you’ll get six and a half different answers. However, I believe I’ve arrived at the only rationally defensible and objective answer to this question. It is somewhat radical, so you might want to sit down for this.

It means whatever the hell you want it to. 

And that is the gods’ honest truth right there, folks. Can it mean you fight in lots of tournaments and win lots of medals? Sure, if that’s what you want. Can it mean that you translate your own source material and study historical material deeply and never compete? Why not? Is HEMA a combat sport or an Art (with a capital A)? No one has collectively been elected king and given the authority to define what HEMA or what it means to be a historical fencer. Those who have attempted to do so have historically failed, mainly due to collective ridicule or derision at their attempt to codify everything into something that is neat and uniform. HEMA manages to be, orthopraxically at least, quite pluralistic in nature.

However, that does not mean this open-ended definition does not bring with it its own complications. For HEMA to exist as a community, it has to have some kind of internal coherence about its identity. This requires HEMA to make collective decisions, somehow, about what it is–and what it isn’t–and creates a good deal of tension as a result. These sorts of decisions aren’t easy, and they are often very personal. If there is a thing someone is very passionate about, the person usually has a very clear and specific vision of what they want their thing to be–in this case, HEMA. What is HEMA–and what isn’t it? What counts as a valid interpretation, or valid source material? What is “historical”? Is this a valid way of training, or not? And the list goes on and on. This is why I think identity politics are at the heart of the most bitter disputes in HEMA. And while there is no divine ruler upon which you can measure one vision as more valid or ‘better’ than another, I would argue some visions are more constructive than others.

The most destructive forces within the community, I would argue, are those who are unable to step outside of their own vision of HEMA and admit that someone else’s different vision is just as valid, those that make the mistake of thinking that someone’s differing opinion of HEMA is a threat to the existence of their own vision, rather than just what it is–something different. The ability to admit that someone else’s methodology or ambitions have no inherent inferiority to your own, to let go of the subconscious gut reaction of Your HEMA doesn’t match my HEMA, so therefore it’s not “real” HEMA, would go a long way towards strengthening the community. At the same time the community is going to have to, at some point, agree on at least some common answers about what HEMA is, and what it is not.

This is, of course, a very difficult task, and we can see it being grappled with very visibly during this period of the formation of national and international HEMA federations who have to outline what their purpose is in order to be drawn into existence. This, to be frank, an exciting time to be a historical fencer, during the great genesis and evolution of HEMA, before convention has been accepted and a more rigid definition of HEMA reached. The more important question to hold in mind is perhaps not what HEMA is, but rather, what will HEMA become?

So the question stands, HEMA. What does being a fencer mean to you? And what, in five or ten or twenty years, would you like HEMA to become? What kind of fencer are you, and in five or ten or twenty years, who would you like to become?

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