What is Historical European Martial Arts?
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) refers to both the academic research and physical training associated with the combat arts of medieval Europe. This includes a variety of cultures and martial styles, from German and Italian Longsword styles, to Dutch dagger, Scottish broadsword, and Portuguese staff fighting (Jogo Do Pau). HEMA is also sometimes referred to as Western martial Arts (WMA), however this term expands on historical European martial art by including studies in Military Sabre, Native American fighting systems and WWII knife or trench fighting.
Before the proliferation of digital scans of medieval fighting manuals on the internet, the study of HEMA was limited to small groups with local access to libraries containing original medieval manuscripts. Today, study groups throughout the world trade videos and research papers on HEMA, testing each others interpretations and encouraging new research questions.
“Europe produced a remarkable amount of literature of combat, from many countries, over the course of several centuries. The earliest known fight-book dates from around 1300, depicting monks, as well as a woman, fencing with sword and buckler (a small round shield). Later treatises cover all manner of swords, polearms, unarmed combat, sickles, daggers and other weapons.
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is founded on the premise that although these systems fell out of use, or mutated into something different, it is possible to reassemble them.
This is approached through scrupulous attention to the texts, physical experimentation, and study of their cultural context; without dismissing insights from elsewhere, such as modern training methods, pedagogy, biomechanics, or other martial arts. There is no dressing up – the central aim is to understand the historical systems. Therefore fighting with historical weapons by itself is not HEMA. By definition HEMA is practice based upon historical sources, hence the fundamental importance of the texts.
In this context tournaments and competitions provide an important space for practitioners to gather together and test their training and interpretations with the pressure of uncooperative opponents.”
~ Piermarco Terminielo
What HEMA is NOT
We remain engaged in the modern world, and practice HEMA in a modern context. We recognize that though we are studying forms of martial combat that are no longer part of modern warfare we still see its value in a modern art of self-defense. We recognize that that affecting historical personas and wearing historical clothing is important in pursuits similar to HEMA, however our focus is towards the study and application of historical sources in the reconstruction of a martial art and, as such, personas are irrelevant to its pursuit.
Though we do study history relevant to the setting and situation in which this martial art was developed – to better interpret and apply the methods and techniques from the historical sources – we recognize that history remains where it comes form; in the past. As an example, it makes sense that if modern inventions like rubber, plastic, Velcro, and zippers were known to the pre-gunpowder middle age combatants, they would have used them. It is not only unlikely that those inventions would in any way change how they fought, it is therefore not necessary to dress in historical garb in order for the martial art to be effective today.
Historical European Martial Arts are studied and practiced according to their original function, and it is therefore important to distinguish HEMA from three pursuits that may make similar impressions to newcomers:
- Stage fighting, as in films, which may evoke historical combat while being primarily concerned with dramatic and aesthetic effect.
- Combat sports, such as Olympic fencing, which may have origins in Historical European Martial Arts, but are governed by their own restrictive rules of competition and not the demands of practical survival with historical weapons.
- Role-playing entertainment may draw inspiration from historical material, but are primarily guided by creativity.
For more about HEMA, this Wikipedia article provides more detail:
General Wikipedia article.
Wiktenauer – A free source for scanned and translated historical manuals on the internet.
NY Times Article on the largest tournament event held in the United States, “Longpoint”. (runtime 4:17)
A well done Documentary about HEMA, “Back to the Source”. (runtime 1:30:00)