There has always been a small pocket of fencers that feel the modern art of sports fencing is simply too controlled, and too far away from a swords’ intended purpose, but for a long time had nowhere else to go. Amazingly, in the last 100 years or so, original fencing treatise have been found in private collections, in WW2 soldier’s bags, and in old monasteries that detail the real, historical way to wield swords and other weapons of European heritage. These incredible discoveries have opened up an entirely new form of fencing styles known as Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). There are many different disciplines forming now, and each one of them has their own strengths and weaknesses. But as a whole, any form of HEMA is beneficial for those who do it in a variety of ways: it improves physical well-being, it provides an opportunity to learn about European Ancestry and Culture from first-hand sources, and it is incredible for practitioner’s mental health and self-discipline.
The physical benefit of any martial art is very well documented; simply doing something that requires repetitive intensive training will improve muscle definition, if not increase muscle bulk. The incredibly intense training that most HEMA practitioners use is intended also to put the body under short duration, extreme lactic acid stress, thereby improving the lactic threshold a muscle can withstand to allow for longer sessions of intense training until the individual is “combat ready” and able to withstand the long stresses incorporated in tournament dueling. This need for exercise and physical improvement is so bound up in European Martial Arts that the father of the German Longsword technique has listed in his principles for the art: “exercise is better than art because exercise without art is useful, but art without exercise is useless” (Liechtenauer, 1389). This emphasis on exercise permeates all HEMA, and whether the individual practicing is doing it intentionally or not, simply practicing the techniques is incredibly physically taxing and will inevitably improve one’s physical form.
As the date of the quote in the last paragraph shows, the source texts for historical martial arts date far back into the medieval period, as old as almost the 13th century in some cases (Dawson, 2009). Written in Latin, German, Old English, and early Italian, these texts require translation, interpretation, and investigation for us to truly understand what they are describing and instructing us to do to master the arts provided within them. These requirements provide an opportunity for the truly dedicated practitioner to delve into the scholarly part of themselves, attempting to line up texts with events in history to place them in their true context and be able to draw more meaning from them. The further one continues to question and investigate the more a true understanding is built on how disciplined and how important these techniques were to European civilization. Throughout most of the 20th century, the general populace has assumed that the medieval era was truly the “dark ages”, complete loss of culture and sophistication, as we devolved into brutal, uncontrolled masses. The more we investigate these texts and use them as a first-hand lens to view these times with, the more we learn that this is, in fact, not true. These European ancestors were very disciplined, very proud, very controlled people, who were attempting to help civilization and sophistication survive a very trying time in this culture’s history. (Hand, 2003)
A major part of almost every one of these historical texts is the importance of the mental state of any who wish to practice, and each outlays their own way of achieving an appropriate mental state. The disciplined knight was never supposed to raise his weapon in anger, and he was to be as learned in healing arts as the ones used to kill. Meditation, European styles of yoga, herbal arts, and dance were all incorporated into these Martial Art disciplines and were used to promote a healthy, wholesome mental state and life for those who were involved. The modern-day HEMA community still espouses these beliefs in great numbers, and many instructors require their students to learn how to do modern first aid techniques, massage styles, and meditative practices to promote their mental health. Instructors will also ask their students to keep to the tenants of chivalry and honor and never use these techniques to hurt others or cause distress. Every student of a major school is also heavily trained on massive control of their weapon; one should be able to swing at a Pell – a pole used for practice cutting – 100 times with each cut and never once actually hit it: each swing should come within an inch of the Pell without touching, while still swinging full force. This incredible demand for safety and control has no choice but to spill over into a practitioner’s personal life, self-discipline becomes part of their everyday experience and drastically raises in importance.
These are all the ways in which HEMA can help improve physical well-being, create a fantastic contextual lens to look further into European culture in the medieval times, and provide a sound practice in mental health and self-discipline techniques. The more people who participate in this new form of cultural exploration the more in-depth and peer-reviewed this community will become. HEMA practice creates an ever-increasing body of insight into the histories and lives of people who lived in Renaissance Europe. And more modern-day people will be able to enjoy the physical and mental fruits of these European fencing master’s insight and life experiences.
By Ian Terry
Dawson, Timothy (2009) The Walpurgis Fechtbuch: An Inheritance of Constantinople? Arms & Armour, 6:1, 79-92
Hand, Stephen (2003). Spada. San Francisco: Chivalry Bookshelf.
Liechtenauer, Johannes (1389). Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a)