The HEMA Heresy

Image: Catling and Zettle - cutlass, QuadrohemiaAlmost all our our study of historical European martial arts is based on original period manuscripts by fencing masters of the time. But practical issues in reconstructing the techniques often raises suspicions about some of the content…

I often express the HEMA heresy that the treatises were as much sales brochure as technical record; incomplete, artistically challenged, and not quite the Haynes manual of combat that we’d like them to be. I congratulate anyone that manages to write a book even today, and our historical ‘masters’ had severe limitations on skills, time and expensive materials to produce anything.

Add to that, most of the masters would turn up with a bit of flash to impress the patrons, while preserving a bit of mystery to keep the punters coming in, with a bit of Barnum and Bailey showmanship for good measure.

This is why I treat HEMA like archaeology; is there context, is this accurate, does it fit, does it work?

Whether or not a particular combat system ‘works’ often relies on the other guy behaving predictably within the rules and counters of that system, and not simply planting one on you when you expect him to parry; and if the other guy is drunk or just a little bit crazy, then throw the rulebook away.

Psychology is a huge added dimension that even the best of the treatises cannot put across; far better to intimidate your way out of a situation than set on into it; and military history is littered with stories of extremely skilled and well-trained people who freeze at the sound of the first shot or the unsheathing of a weapon.

We can train all we like, but what happens when you add full contact and sharps is another story that completely changes the approach to any encounter.

Any time you walk willingly into a fight, you become a gambler; unskilled, playing snap! or highly skilled, playing poker, you’re still playing the odds while the other guy may not even be playing the same game as you.

Which leaves HEMA where, exactly? HEMA is safely proscribed faux-violence, with blunt weapons and plenty of protective kit, where the primary objective of not killing or injuring your training partners takes precedence over the secondary objective of delivering historically accurate fighting techniques. The mindset of the Medieval, Renaissance or Napoleonic fighting man is something even professional historians struggle to reconstruct; the reliance on the masters’ techniques in actual life-or-death, hand-to-hand fighting on a daily basis would have had a major effect on how people actually trained and fought. It’s something we can only approximate through HEMA, however resolutely we stake our claims to ‘authenticity.’

Doesn’t stop us having fun, though. RC

Image credit: Robin Catling, Nate Zettle, Quadrohemia 2018 by Valerie Widdowson