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Letters to the Community: James Clark

The HEMA community has exploded in the last four years, especially after the widely-publicized and well-received coverage of Longpoint by The New York Times. Since then, the number of HEMA students and clubs has exploded. This has come with its good and bad parts–the fruition of a dream that many people worked tirelessly for for years. However, it’s also led to a breakdown of communication between the community at large and the people who built it.

This article series is a chance for members within the community to hear from some of the people who built it–where HEMA comes from, what it’s intended for, and why some things are done the way they are, as well as ideas for tackling problems our community currently faces.

This is the first of those letters, from an instructor in the northeastern U.S. named James Clark. James has been studying HEMA for 16 years, and is currently affiliated with Capital KdF and MEMAG Luray. His current focus is montante.


Letter to the community, from James Clark: 

Throughout my competitive HEMA career, I have received many, many, injuries. I’ve had my ankle broken by being intentionally crushed by a friend at one event, each of my wrists has been broken twice (two triple-fractures on one, and one double and one triple on the other), my left shoulder’s been dislocated in ringen at another, three fingers broken (my left thumb twice), five concussions, and too many bruises and face-waffles to count. I know that I have also myself dealt out at least two concussions to others I care about.

One thing I’ve learned through this, is that face-to-face voicing of force concerns is something that’s always lacked in HEMA. When it does happen face to face, it’s enough of a shock that feels personal. A friend from Maryland bringing mine up to me face to face one Longpoint followed by a thinly-veiled passive aggressive post after [Longpoint South], is what caused me to take a serious, then more serious, look at my buffalo-ish fencing, as while I was fast, I didn’t think I was hitting terribly strong (I was wrong).

It also got me started paying attention to others complaining about similar things at my home club and other events. Complaints are very rarely directed at the offender, always complaining behind the back after the fact to others, or scowling off on the sideline or to another spar. This was when we in HEMA were still in the knowing-everyone category.

Cultures of excessive force, irreverence, and harm-to-win, form in the school when people choose to save face with someone by not complaining. The harmer learns either that their excess let them win, that taking a hit to give a hit is a good idea, or that someone beating them should be punished. Then that goes into an event, where these new competitive souls can turn off their “this is my school” inhibition button and “let loose” even more for the sake of competition. Someone who has not learned the boundaries of harm is not going to be able to feel when they cross it, and pose a danger to others.

Nowadays in HEMA, this same withdrawn attitude has gone online, with more people who have never met each other and have even less of a reason to care about each other than in years past. On top of that, the faces of HEMA as well as most event organizers and school leaders have a laissez faire attitude of “ignore it and it’ll take care of itself” or “well, others will take care of it, we don’t need to punish anything ourselves” when they see or hear about it in other schools or events.

The internet community of practitioners meanwhile does what it does best, which is get threateningly angry for a week or two, then completely forget about the problem and move on. Rather than the approach of willful, hopeful, ignorance or that of petulant anger, we need to learn to enforce ourselves against both willful and neglectful harm. We need to remove intentional irreverent harm as a possible, redeemable, action for winning a bout or tournament, which unfortunately does mean unintentional breaks of discipline need to be handled similarly to intentional violations.

At events, individuals that who perform actions intentionally harmful, or seemingly intentionally harmful, need punishment at that point of infraction. This operant conditioning is intended to give a visceral response to someone pumping with adrenaline, who can now no longer use it. People remember they didn’t get their reward, people remember when they did something bad in front of their peers. Whether that punishment is a penalty, or forfeiture from the tournament, or expulsion from the event would depend on the infraction.

People with empathy will strive for more discipline after receiving an eye-opener. Someone without empathy will continuously be kicked out, and schools will learn to teach which behaviors are unacceptable, or stop bringing undisciplined people for competition before they’re ready. Groups have very small attention spans, an individual person learns and remembers. When a person is punished, they will take that to their group, and that group will learn and remember from that person more easily. This allows the groups to more easily, readily, and quickly change their internal cultures to self-select people who are too forceful or spiteful and train that out of them.

People will speak out, people will pay more attention to themselves, and the culture of “harm-to-win” will diminish in that club. Without both event culture and school cultures cracking down together, this will probably just steadily worsen.


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Op/Ed: Who Is HEMA For?

by Meg Floyd

In the wake of the Presidential election and many of the conversations I’ve been seeing on social media lately, as well as disturbing news stories, it’s useful for the community to ponder the question–who is HEMA for?

Everyone. Full stop.


Trans people, atheists, Christians, Muslims, gay people, women, white people, brown people, pagans, cisgender people, Jews, men, polyamorous people, monogamous people.  Weak people, tall people, strong people, short people, fat people, skinny people. Democrats and Republicans. Even people who like to wear those silly pumpkin pants. People from more than a dozen nations who speak more than a dozen languages. All of them. I’ve fenced at least one person who fits every single descriptor I just listed, and guess what, it makes not a damn difference when they’re fencing. We’re here to fence, not engage in identity politics. Or at least we should be.

I can think of one group of people not welcome in our essentially anti-authoritarian, egalitarian community, however. Racists are not welcome here. People who believe that their subgroup of people (whatever that group may be) deserves more air time, more privilege, or has somehow a more legitimate claim to the historical legacy of European manuals than anyone else because they somehow have stronger or closer ties. First off, that’s a crock of shit. Second off, fuck off with the identity politics. If you want to engage in some kind of romantic destiny-fulfillment of your ancestors, do it on your own time, not inside of HEMA. By the same token, if you want to engage in name-calling witch hunts via social media, don’t do that here either. No one elected you the morality police because you disagree with someone else’s politics.

I believe this community is mostly made up of good people–foul-mouthed and anti-establishment as we may be. May we ever remain the wild west of fencing, where you can hit hard and wrestle, where authority does not outrank fighting ability, and where soap-boxing does not overcome a free and open dialogue in the scholarly pursuit of historical study of fencing manuals. (I appreciate the irony of me soap-boxing here when I say that, but indulge me. It is an op/ed.)

Be strong, HEMA. Our community shall endure.




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Op/Ed: Winning, And Losing, And Everything In Between: A Coming of Age

by Meg Floyd


Longpoint 2016 ended last weekend. Social media, expectedly, has exploded in the usual congratulations, navel-gazing, and general hurrahing of such a large event that’s center to many people’s fencing lives, at least here in the U.S. This Longpoint was unlike any other I’ve been to so far for many reasons–and I’ve been to all that were hosted so far, except for 2012. I went with the largest team my club’s ever fielded (six total), and most of my clubmates did really well. Four of the five were the pool winners and advanced to elims in open longsword. One person went on to elims in rapier. We brought home a couple of medals in cutting and one in paired techniques. It was a good year for the club. I won matches in all of my pools in both rapier and longsword, which is better overall than I think I’ve ever done at a tournament (unless you count events where I competed only in women’s longsword, because I’ve medaled in that a few times). I was really happy with how I fought, and for once felt like my competitive results are an accurate reflection of where I am right now in my training, particularly in rapier and dagger, which is what I’ve been focused on this past year.

And Longpoint this year was tough. Not just the usual old guard of instructors who seem to hog the medals, but their students who’ve been around for a few years are all getting much better. Eliminations this year in open longsword were brutal, many matches running down to the last exchange or sudden death. It’s a great place for the community to be, especially when I think back five years ago to the floppy Rawlings I owned and the football pads I wore under an XXXL sweatshirt to compete at Longpoint that year.

But that’s not what’s occupied my thoughts since I’ve gotten home. Late on Saturday night, after finals and the things that we don’t talk about happened, I sat drinking with a few people and listening to them talk about all the fencers they admire and all the great fighting they saw–what you might expect a swordfighter to be occupied with the night after the most prestigious tournament on the eastern seaboard when they’ve gotten into their cups. As I sat listening and trying to finish my wine, I reflected at how boring prodigies and prophets really are. They’re great exemplars, sure, but I have a suspicion they’re mostly the stuff of other people’s imaginations. I’ve never known a good fencer who called it easy or didn’t suffer or hurt for their knowledge. More importantly, the vast majority of fighters, especially in a sport like HEMA which is still grass roots and amateur, are not going to experience it as prophets or prodigies. It’s going to be hard work. It’s going to be a grind. And some fencers, some of the most interesting and best fencers I’ve ever met, are ones that have been shaped by the moments where they’ve lost or been unable to perform for one reason or another.

The prodigal son of historical fencing, Axel Pettersson, is perhaps the most well-known name in (and outside) of our community. When people look at Axel, they probably see and remember gold medals and victories or an intimidating opponent across the ring. When I look at Axel I remember the times over the years when I’ve seen him sidelined by injuries or illness, and whatever tenacity it took to get through that barrier and come back to retrain through the lost time and then become even better. I cannot make any elucidations as to Axel’s feelings or motivations during those moments where he faced the question of What are you willing to do to keep going at this?, but I have a suspicion they perhaps shaped his training more than awards have. Then again, perhaps not. I am not, after all, psychic.

I ran across a great article this afternoon from a UFC fighter musing about a fight he lost. He said:

I go to the shower, the one I’d envisioned coming back to after a win, and rinse the blood….I find myself telling a UFC employee I’m fine, although he hadn’t even asked if I was or not. Maybe it was his reaction when he saw me. The looks are always different after a loss. Perhaps it was me telling myself I was fine. I go back to the hotel, where everyone from the event is reliving the night. Hiding face has never sat well with me after a defeat. I feign my best act of indifference. It is disingenuous, and exhaustingly so. It’s a defense mechanism, but maintaining a “worse things have happened” response to failures can last only so long in the sports world. The sky may not be falling, but that doesn’t make me any less embarrassed…. The better fighter on a night is the one who was victorious. That’s the point of fighting, to figure out who’s better. The whole crux of sports is based on execution, and in no competitive event is it ever about what we could have done, or what we are capable of, but rather what it is we actually do. I wasn’t better that night, and that’s what matters; that night. That’s how I have to look at it because that’s how I grow. Consistency, night in and night out, that’s the only way this works. Mental errors are a tough thing to come to grips with, and it’s best for me to stay positive by refusing to have a fixed mindset when it comes to fight IQ. Instead, I keep one of growth. Physicality can be peaked, athleticism too, but what can never be capped is an ability to learn, if we make an effort to do so.

I’m not a pro UFC fighter, but the words hit home and brought me back to the moment of loss that has most defined my fencing career so far. Swordfish 2013, the only Swordfish I’d ever been to, was a devastating loss for me. I competed in women’s and open longsword and won not a single fight. I remember sitting in the gym lobby after the finals livestream, broken-fingered, covered in black and blue welts, dazed and still exhausted with jet lag, wondering how after an entire year of build up and training and working harder than I ever had in my life, that it had come to this. How could I have lost? I didn’t deserve to lose, after all the work I put in! I almost quit fencing that night, I was so angry and distressed. That moment of complete devastation would come to shape everything about how I make goals and the way I train for many years to come. It many ways, it still defines me internally.

It took a lot of soul-searching and hard thinking to finally come to accept that the beautiful thing about fencing is it’s not on a schedule. If I’m still fencing in ten years, a loss one year will be a learning moment among many moments instead of a soul-crushing defeat. This way a single event becomes both important and unimportant at the same time. I’m going to progress as fast and as far as I’m going to progress, and not any more than that. Some things–like injuries and illness–are out of my control. Some things, like my weight and the amount of effort and time I put in, are. How fast other people progress, how tall or fit or fast or sleek or talented they are, makes no difference to me. I’ll still be here fencing in the years to come, as long as my body lets me.

Three years and a lot of fencing later, I’m still here. I’m finally fencing the way I want to fence, things are finally clicking, and I’m finally figuring out how I need to train to make things work for me. I’m interested in different things now, like helping my students and clubmates, and watching them go through some of the same things I’ve experienced. I hope, at times, I’ve been able to make it easier for them by coaching or sharing my experiences. I’m not sure I have. Maybe writing this will help someone reading it. Things are often easier when you realize you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing.

My point, I suppose, is that the moment of loss will come. It might come sooner or later, and before or after you’ve won something, but it will come. It will force you to really ask yourself what you want from this, and what you’re really willing to give to get it. There’s no morality to the answer, truly. But it’s important to be honest with yourself. Harsh self-honesty has always been the seed to any of the real growth I’ve seen in fighters, myself included.


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Op/Ed: Choosing to Fight in the Open

by Meg Floyd


I’ve been thinking about whether I should write this post for a while, partially because I’m not sure whether I’m interested in other people’s opinions of my thoughts, nor am I sure I have anything uniquely insightful worth sharing. I also needed some time to process everything that went on last weekend, and what, if any, conclusions, I could draw from it in a meaningful fashion.

I was at the Purpleheart Armoury Open last weekend, which is one of the larger North American tournaments, and certainly one of the oldest. (It started as the Hammertertz Forum Gathering in 2010, then became Fechtschule America 2011-2013, and is currently Purpleheart Open.) It was the first big open I competed in in 2013. (I did LP 2011, but that was just 30-odd people, and the Meyer Open in 2012, but that was also pretty tiny.) At that time, women’s tournaments were just starting to be a thing. I didn’t like them. I refused to fight in the women’s tournament at Fechtschule America that year, and only fought in the open. I won one match and broke my thumb and index finger.

I’ve gone back and forth on women’s tournaments in general over the years. After the World Wide Open in 2012 and right up until Swordfish 2013, I refused to fight in them at all. Women’s tournaments in the beginning were tiny, the skill level was markedly lower, and I felt bad about any successes I had in them, like they weren’t “real.” Ask me which medal I feel most ambivalent about, and it’s the bronze I won in Germany in 2012, in a tournament of five people when I still fenced in jeans and hadn’t really trained at all.

However, the years have got along, and a few things became clearer to me with the passage of time. If we want more than one or two women at tournaments, other women have to participate and lead the way. Yeah, women’s tournaments suck in comparison to the open, but that’s because there’s so few and so many of the women fencing are new. The years have passed and it’s gotten markedly better. The first women’s tournament I’ve ever fought in that I would call a legit tournament with really good fencing and a lot of people was Longpoint’s women’s longsword last year, in 2015. Thirty or so fighters, and some of them really excellent. (Please, social media, hush your cries of “the women are more technical”; largely we haven’t been over the past few years at the not insignificant number of tournaments I’ve attended. We’re catching up, but we’re still behind.) But the fact that there were thirty women, not five, says something. The fact that some of them had been training longer than a year or two or three says something too.

Another thing that’s become clear to me is there is a bad part to the success of women’s tournaments: fewer women in the open, especially as events make it an exclusive choice to compete in women’s or the open. Making this is an exclusive choice is something which, as an organizer, I totally understand. But tge one thing that drives me nuts, above all else, is the supposition that women should be fighting in women’s and not the open because it isn’t “safe.” I know one club here in North America that won’t even let their female students compete in the open, ever. (Here I snort at a school telling their students whether or not they’re “allowed” to do anything, being dues-paying adults, but I digress.) It’s a bloody longsword tournament. It’s not supposed to be safe! Safe from likely catastrophic injury or death, yea. Safe from all injury, bumps, and bruises, no. I would not characterize myself as God’s gift to Lichtenauer fencing in any way, and I’ve been competing in opens since 2011 with nothing worse than bad bruises and a couple of broken fingers. Choose to compete where you may, but don’t tell our new female fencers they don’t have a place in the open.  And yet I’ve seen more male coaches, and worse, certain noted female fencers doing just that. And I blame you. Oh yes, I blame you. I blame you for limiting the future of female fencers who don’t even know they have a choice.

I realized another thing about women’s tournaments–that people need different things at different times in their training journeys. Last year, in 2015, after years of competing a lot and working hard and losing a lot, what I needed were goals to succeed at. I needed to win. I competed in four women’s longsword tournaments last year, went to finals in three, and brought home a silver from two. I still feel kind of ambivalent about these medals, considering my performance in the opens over the years. (Read: not well.) If the open was harder, surely that was the “true” test in my mind for how I was doing in my fencing. Winning a match in the open at LP this year was the most proud I’ve ever been of myself in my fencing career. However, the fact that I medaled at these events gave me some much-needed confidence at a time when I sorely needed it. So I take those medals for what they were, a note of progress.

As the years have marched on, more and more events are choosing to make competing in the open or the women’s longsword tournament exclusive options. PHO was one such tournament this year, and so I chose the open. I was the only woman. I think there were 8 or 10 women in the women’s tournament. I can think of at least one who would’ve done well in the open, who bluntly, I think, belonged there. I hope she signs up one day. She’s really good. I hope well-meaning but chauvinistic currents of HEMA culture don’t convince her she shouldn’t, but then again, she’s a grown ass woman who can make her own choices.

The next thing I learned is that while women’s, overall, have been a net good for the community, they are no longer what I need personally. The confidence gained from wins is too overshadowed by the ambivalence of constantly wondering if it’s on some level a hollow victory.

So this past weekend there I was, in the open. I had four matches. Three were narrow losses (within a couple of points.) My pool fights, over all, were fantastic. I fenced better than I’ve ever fenced in technical terms, in any women’s, in any open. The only thing I can credit that for is the 5-6 days a week I’ve been fencing since last winter, and really hitting the manuals to redesign our curriculum, and having a lot of very good people in my club to fight with. I had several people come up to me after the tournament and tell me how much they loved watching me fight, and that they wanted to fight me. This meant more to me than any medal I’ve ever gotten. In the end, I was fine with where I was, and how I did, and felt satisfied that it was as real a piece of feedback as I could get from something like a tournament.

So in a nutshell – set your own standards. Stand by them in your own training. Don’t confuse what’s right with you for automatically being what’s right for the community at large. They may not be the same thing. And always, train hard, keep pushing, keep fencing.


An open letter to the men in the HEMA community

by Meg Floyd

This is a subject I haven’t spoken on before on this blog, partially because of its inflammatory nature, and partially because I thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie. However, a series of incidents over the last several years, as well as shifts of politics in the community, makes me feel I can wait no longer.

There has been a growing narrative in this community that the women who fence must be on constant alert for sexism and oppression from our male counterparts. That the HEMA community is somehow hostile to the inclusion of women, or doesn’t take them seriously or view them as legitimate athletes. There could be any number of reasons that this narrative came to be—but I feel I must set the record straight. How do I put this gently?

The idea that HEMA is full of sexists and men seeking to hold female fencers down is complete, pure, and utter bullshit.

Not only is it bullshit, it perpetuates a narrative of women fencers as victims, and this troubling idea that you must be a woman first, and a fencer second. And the people perpetuating this troubling narrative are in the community are, by and large, fellow women.

I’ve seen a mounting sense of anxiety and fear among my fellow instructors, the men, that they must be wary of doing anything that can be perceived as “sexist” or “chauvinist.” Do they have a women’s class or not? Do they have a women’s tournament at their event or not? There’s a palpable fear of blowback from the online community, from certain people who seem to love nothing more than creating an uproar while appealing to their apparent superior moral authority.

I’ve seen this narrative drive a wedge between women and men in the community, and frankly, I don’t like it.

The most notorious incidence of “sexism” in the community is the somewhat infamous Wiktenauer ad, featuring a certain redhead who had the misfortune of showing cleavage. I’d like to set the record straight and say that I made that ad. A woman. At no direction from a man. Holding it up as a troubling sign of “sexism is the community” is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s basically calling one of your fellow women sexist toward you. And bluntly, I’m not even sure how that’s possible. If you have a problem with it, blame me. Not the men in the community.

I’ve been studying HEMA since 2007, attending events since 2009, and competing since 2011. I feel comfortable saying I’ve been around the online community long enough to have witnessed its general development, particularly since 2012. Before the beginning of a certain group, your gender did not matter. Literally no one cared that I was female. It was a non-issue. Competitions were opens, and I liked that.

However, there was a growing concern in the community. There were so few women. How to get more to participate? In late 2012 or early 2013, I was approached by a male instructor I’m friends with to speak with another woman about the starting of an all-women’s group, which I have since left. Why do I mention this? Because the group that’s widely been lauded as improving women’s participation and involvement in the HEMA community was facilitated, at least in part, by a man introducing women to each other. There were men pushing for the creation of this group from the start.

The community seems to forget that, so I’d like to remind you.

Who were the tournament organizers that started providing women’s tournaments so women could compete against each other? A significant proportion of them (my suspicion is the majority) were also men.

Who are the coaches, the instructors, and the fellow students that most female fencers learn from and fight with when they’re first coming up in their clubs as new students? Men.

All I have seen since the beginning is the men in HEMA bending over backwards to make women feel included, supported, and welcome in this community. This is why the persistence of a narrative of men as oppressive sexists and women as victims inside the community really bugs me. It demonizes men and strips women of their own agency. I’ve seen it create this division between the men and women in this community, a division I think on the whole is destructive. When I look at men in HEMA, I see my teachers, my peers, my heroes, and my students. I do not see people with a subtle or not-so-subtle agenda out to get me or hold me down or back because of my gender.

The pressing need to get women involved in the community is always near the top of issues simmering in the community, but you know what? Ladies, if we want to participate in HEMA, we need to show up and fence. I, for one, want to give some credit where it’s due to the men in the community who have been silently, and vocally, supporting us all along. Thank you.


Meg Floyd

Editor in Chief