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What is HEMA?

So, you’ve had your first run in with HEMA. Maybe you saw a group practicing in the park; or you have that friend that won’t stop talking about swords; perhaps you were looking up a Bolognese recipe and stumbled across a historical interpretation of the Bolognese sidesword instead. Regardless of what finally grabbed you, there’s a chance you were already interested but didn’t know where to find the outlet for your love of medieval movies, weapons, European history or martial arts.

Enter HEMA. HEMA is an acronym for Historical European Martial Arts. Each portion of the acronym is as important individually, as it is in making up the whole. Although, some may find one aspect of HEMA more important to them, that is the beautiful part about this niche, you get to choose what relates to you most and focus your efforts to those portions.

Let’s break the HEMA acronym down to its components.

The ‘H’ represents the Historical aspect of the art. As we know, swords are not a modern invention and their practical use (for maiming and dismembering opponents) does not see very much action these days. Therefore, we must refer to the available historical texts and manuals left by practitioners of the art, in times at which the sword was in common use. These texts are blueprints to the efficient application, artistry and skill required to properly wield the weapon in combat. As there is no living lineage of the craft, we must sometimes take deep dives into the historical manuals and develop our own interpretations of what we believe the masters were attempting to convey. Without the use of the texts and those who are willing to tirelessly work through them, we are only guessing at the principles required to become a master of the sword.

The ‘E’ represents the European portion. The use of the sword was not limited to Europe alone, and as we know, there were many weapons and martial arts used by many cultures and countries over many eras in the past. Eastern martial arts (e.g., Karate, Kung Fu, Itto Ryu, Kendo, etc.) stand out today, as they have enjoyed a living lineage of schools and masters that have passed down the arts over the centuries. HEMA distinguishes itself from the rest of these martial arts and attempts to capture the arts that were developed, practiced and shared in what we now recognize to be Europe (including Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Hungary, etc.).

The ‘M’ stands for the Martial aspect of HEMA. Although some of the historical manuals provide instruction on an array of weapons in various martial contexts, we generally study the skills associated with the duel (one on one unarmored combat). In this sense, there are general rules to be followed when it comes to facing an individual opponent. These ‘rules’ tend to be universal truths that exist across many martial arts teachings and can include body mechanics, weapon mechanics, time (tempo), distance (measure), etc. One element of HEMA that stands out from other martial arts is the use of the weapon alongside an understanding of grappling and wrestling techniques that is fundamental to understanding the martial system in its entirety. In the end, the martial element of HEMA is linked to the battle, or duel and involves the physical aspect of defeating one’s opponent.

The ‘A’ represents the Art of combat. Many of the historical masters considered the skill in proficiency with a weapon to be an art form and incorporated this idea into their texts. For example, the great Italian master Fiore Dei Liberi wrote a manual entitled The Flower of Battle. This title evokes a sense of beauty in the face of the otherwise deadly use of a weapon. At the time that many of these texts were written, art was not necessarily defined in the same terms in which we understand it to be today. However, art can still be understood to require training and skill to employ. The ‘gentlemanly’ displays of combat were at times most fulfilling when applied with style and grace. When a practitioner with training and skill can perform such actions as required for competent displays of martial mastery, we can truly understand this to be a form of art.

HEMA as a whole, stands apart from reenactment, LARPING and stage combat. Where these practices can incorporate portions of the acronym, the intention in HEMA is to incorporate all aspects. The overall goal is to take the teachings chronicled by the European masters, interpret the historical manuals, and attempt to recreate the art and skill required to use the weapon in a martial arena. Proficiency in one aspect of the art can develop proficiency in another aspect, thereby further developing overall understanding. For example, through practiced use of the sword and an adept understanding of body mechanics surrounding the principles of its use, we can more readily gain insight into interpreting the historical manuals written by the masters of old. Conversely, by further studying the historical manuals, we can also gain insight into the proper use of body mechanics, thereby continuing to build on our overall understanding of the art.

In its simplest form, the study of HEMA involves using a weapon to kill without being killed in the most efficient and skillful way. Nothing can be more exciting than witnessing a play from a historical treatise come to life and be successfully executed with deadly accuracy in order to achieve a goal…even if you are on the receiving end!

As this is an opinion piece, for general information purposes, We encourage you to get out there and discover what the individual parts of the HEMA acronym mean to you. Find out which elements bring you joy and focus on those. We're sure you’ll eventually find that gaining proficiency in one aspect, will push you further in becoming a master of all.

For more information regarding the weapons we teach at Signum Corvus and to find reference material for these weapons, please see the Resources page. Also visit the News & Updates page for more reading material including a Beginner’s Q&A.

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