The State of the Art

H.E.M.A. or HEMA

Historical European Martial Arts (H.E.M.A. or HEMA) claims a very small percentage of the world, per capita, but in some ways the community has grown very large. The diversity of that community, in weapon systems, source material, styles, approach, practice, method, and to the community as a whole, gives us both the advantages and weaknesses that attend that level of diversity. For example those of us who try to recreate the Kunst des Fechtens of Johannes Liechtenauer, or an amalgum of his tradition, can benefit from those of us who specialize in single sources from within that tradition, and from those who learn other longsword traditions, such as Fiore dei Liberi’s or the British systems, and vice-versa. People trying to recreate Polish saber fighting methods can benefit from the more thoroughly documented traditions from western Europe.

On the other hand, this same diversity, and the propensity to cross-pollinate, often leads to creating fighting styles that don’t actually look like the styles that we, ostensibly, are trying to recreate. That is the question now isn’t it. Are we trying to recreate historical fighting styles, historical European, martial arts, or are we trying to create a modern style inspired by historical European martial arts?

I once went to a large event that brought this point home to me. One class in particular caught my attention, the instructor called it “The Seven Cuts of HEMA.” I found this puzzling. You see none of the historical longsword systems we have records from used all seven of the cuts he taught. Fiore’s Colpi de Mezzani are not Zwerchhaus, nor does a vertical cut straight down to the crown of the head exist in his system. Ringeck doesn’t use a long edge rising cut from the right side. The British longsword systems that we have record of give us just enough information to make some headway, but their language is too sparse to settle exactly how their strikes worked. In other words this instructor was not even attempting to teach a historical European fighting style, he was teaching a modern style that pulled pieces from multiple historical styles.

The cutting tournament that day used a semaphore system that called for long edge or short edge cuts from falling diagonal, horizontal, and rising diagonal angles on both sides. Inadvertently this requires the participants to use strikes that they normally would not use within their styles. There is no short edge horizontal cut from the left in Liechtenauer’s tradition, and there is no short edge falling diagonal cut on the left described in Fiore. Arguably, there are no short edge falling diagonal strikes in Liechtenauer or Fiore. The Schielhaus are, arguably, short edge falling vertical strikes, not diagonal ones, and while I have seen the argument made that such might have existed in Fiore’s style, the evidence is thinly based on a couple of isolated images and not supported by his text. The point is that while being able to perform well in that event proves consistency and versatility in cutting, it also required participants to practice techniques outside of their chosen style. This kind of event rewards someone who practices “The Seven Cuts of HEMA” and asks someone who is trying to learn a historical fighting style to incorporate training that may not make sense in that system.

In an effort to be inclusive our community is incentivizing diversification, and cross-pollination, and this can be a very good thing. In my book I had to look quite far afield for answers to some questions that naturally came up. It also, however, incentivizes creating styles that are modern amalgams of multiple ancient styles, rather than faithfully recreating historical styles. I have two chief criticisms of this. First, this disincentivizes faithfully recreating a historical European martial arts. Second, it requires training in redundant material. You see I find it simply impossible to believe that Fiore did not understand what a vertical cut is, or that Ringeck wouldn’t understand how to do a long edge horizontal cut from the right. The reason those techniques don’t exist in their systems is that they deliberately chose to leave them out, and achieve the goals that they might have used those for with a smaller technique set.

I once had a student ask me: “What if one of these masters created the ultimate sword style? Wouldn’t it be great to learn that?” While some masters probably had a achieving a ‘minimum standard’ for their students or soldiers as their primary goal, I expect that the vast majority of them set out to create a style that was as close to perfection as possible. While the question of a style’s merit can be argued, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of these systems were created with the highest possible standards in mind. They taught what they taught with life and death on the line, not to mention livelihoods and reputations. When we find something conspicuously “missing” we should be unironically asking ourselves “Why didn’t they include this?” and “How did they deal with situation X?”

In my experience those answers are very enlightening. You see their goal seems to have been to create the smallest possible style. Traditions like Fiore dei Liberi’s or Sigmund Ringeck’s are quite extensive, it takes years to master them. Every additional technique you add requires more time to teach. When you have to spend years mastering a system in the first place you simply cannot afford redundant material. The smaller the technique set the faster your students can master it, the more creative they can become with those tools, and the better they will fight. I once heard an Asian martial arts instructor say that it was better to know one technique really really well, than it was to have only mediocre knowledge of a thousand. I believe he was right.

I feel it’s important to recreate these styles faithfully, not only to be historically accurate, but because it gets better quality fighters. I want to be able to tell someone I practice the art of one of the great masters of the Late Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, depending on how you delineate. I want to be able to tell them that I train within this system because I want my style to be as authentic as I can make it. I also believe, however, that it makes us better fighters, because it lets us dive deeper into the subjects we know, rather than wasting time wading in the shallows of places we don’t need to explore.

I hope that in the future our events, competitions, and classes will place more value on historicity. I hope that we do this for the sake of accuracy and authenticity. I also hope that it will raise the level of quality of our practice as a community. To that end I practice a historical European martial art, and I hope you make that your goal as well.

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