H(E)MA: A Primer

Tibbie mentioned here that the Warfare seems to be on a bit of a historic-martial-art binge as of late, and asked to know a little more about HEMA groups, what they do, and how they operate. I’ve been working on some schemes to get HMA guys to come play SCA, but it never occurred to me that the opposite might be good too. We have a lot we could learn from each other.

In that spirit, a primer.

Terminology

Western Martial Arts (WMA), Historic Martial Arts (HMA), Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA), European Medieval Arts (EMA), these all mean pretty much the same thing. Some people make fine distinctions between each, but in general, these terms all refer to the modern study and practice of obsolete or forgotten combat systems of European origin.

The one exception occurs with the term “HEMA”, which is sometimes used to refer specifically to the HEMA Alliance, a large but loose confederation of several HMA clubs. HEMA Alliance members affiliate primarily for insurance reasons, and to connect with other clubs.

Edit: Apparently a number of folks have taken umbrage at my commentary on “HEMA”. Allow me to clarify: I am reporting only on the usage I’ve seen, with the goal of equipping the reader with enough knowledge to properly interpret whatever else he might read on the subject. I do not mean to imply that this usage is recommended, or that one must be a member of the HEMA Alliance (the HMA group) to do HEMA (historical swordfighting).

Recall that this article was intended as a superficial overview for an SCA audience. I certainly wouldn’t want our readers to get the idea that HMAists value semantic captiousness over, you know, swordfighting.

History

HMA, in its modern form, is relatively new. There were a couple dudes back around 1900 who did a little research, more out of curiosity than anything else, but modern HMA really got its start just after the turn of the century. Before the Internet, the occasional crowd of history nerds or sword enthusiasts might have attempted to work out of a manual or two, almost always in their native language, but boffers and misconceptions were the norm.

Once Google caught on, however, a great deal more information was made available and accessible. Whole manuals were scanned and put up on web pages, inviting translation and interpretation to anyone with an Internet connection, a working knowledge of German, and a sword obsession. But perhaps more importantly, these scattered groups of recreationists were better able to find new recruits and find each other, and they began to exchange ideas.

HMA has continued to evolve since in a variety of ways. HMA-specific books, gear, and events are all widespread. More appear every year. There are even video games and RPGs that attempt to incorporate faithful HMA.

Culture

Outside of the specifics mentioned above, HMA clubs exhibit almost infinite variation. Remember, this is an idea about 15 years old, and still developing. Clubs are decentralized and unregulated, and number in the hundreds, if not thousands. In the SCA, we often speak of “interkingdom anthropology”, how different kingdoms have different conventions and expectations; HMA groups are like that, but moreso.

It’s impossible to characterize HMA clubs in absolutes, but there are a number of general trends. Here are some relevant to the average SCAdian:

Goals

Naturally, everyone involved with swordplay (or any leisure activity) wants to have a good time, inspire others, learn more, celebrate the awesomeness of swords, etc. But broadly speaking, success in the SCA is about earning victory in its combat sports, by any means within the rules and bounds of sportsmanship. HMA is focused on recreating lost medieval martial arts, and clubs usually work from a specific manual or within a specific tradition.

HMA groups tend to be more studious and disciplined in their practice than SCA groups. Drills, conditioning, and lesson plans are the norm, modeled more-or-less after Eastern martial arts dojos. Students are often expected to train on their own time (i.e. outside of practice).

HMAists assert that faithful recreation cannot occur in an inauthentic environment. The SCA happily allows all manner of anachronisms in its combat sports, while HMAists tend to take the view of “if it never happened in period, it’s a silly diversion at best.”

Weapons and Equipment

Longsword is preeminent in HMA. Study of pretty much every medieval weapon exists, but if it’s not longsword (and usually from the German Kunst des Fechtens at that), it’s probably a niche group. This is slowly changing. On the periphery, we have buckler and sidesword in various forms (Bolognese, I.33, Silver, Viking, etc), rapier (Italian or Spanish), saber, messer, and Ringen (wrestling). Polearms, montante/spandone, harnessfecten (armored combat), archery, and others make occasional appearances.

While SCA rapier uses steel simulators exclusively, for financial reasons, a lot of HMA groups use wooden or plastic wasters for training, at least in the early stages. Some groups will have advanced study classes that use sharpened steel weapons. This is pretty cool, and I’ve yet to see a group use sharps unsafely.

The armor standard is generally heavier than SCA rapier, but rarely as high as SCA armored fighting. In the typical club, standard fencing masks are worn, reinforced with padding on the sides and back (because cuts). Gauntlets, a padded jacket, and joint protection are the usual additions. In my local rapier group, our armor requirements are actually lighter than SCA C&T.

Calibration and Blows:

For discussion here, I shall have to reference the Atlantian Rapier Calibration Chart:

  • 10 – “I am in legitimate fear of significant injury.”
  • 9 – “There is a serious problem here, and a marshal will be informed.”
  • 8 – “I’ll take lighter. Much lighter. Hint hint.”
  • 7 – “That one was a little stiff.”
  • 6 – “Good!”
  • 5 – “Good.”
  • 4 – “… Yeah.”
  • 3 – “That one was light, but I’ll take it.”
  • 2 – “You can do better than that.”
  • 1 – “Not even in Aethelmearc.”

Consider a 5 typical for Atlantia. This is also typical for my local HMA group.

While Atlantia has a hard-hitting reputation in the SCA, HMA groups are rarely lower. Most HMA groups clock in around a 6 or 7 and, of course, unusually hard hits in a bad situation can go a step or two above, just as they do in the SCA. As always, there’s a lot of variance, and there are a lot of contributing factors. A full explanation would demand another post entirely on the nature of violence and how we humans handle it.

A good chunk of the difference is simply the expectation of harder hits. Just like in the SCA, groups disagree on what we’re simulating; unlike the SCA, practically nobody says “a duel to first blood”. HMA runs the gamut from “significant wound” to “dismemberment” to the on-the-fringe full-armor full-contact battle royale that is Armored Combat League or Battle of Nations. Some groups assert that a modicum of earnest force is necessary to accurately simulate historical combat, and they’ve accepted the risk (with increased armor standards to compensate). In fairness, the notion has some truth to it.

Heavier weapons and more frequent cuts may explain part of the difference as well, but outright bad technique seems rarely to be the cause. This should come as no surprise. HMA groups generally train harder than the SCA, and put more emphasis on good technique. Perhaps this emphasis actually contributes to harder hits: good technique is good because it allows you to transfer force more efficiently. (There is a bizarre notion in some circles in the SCA that a sword will often or always inflict a disabling wound with very little force. Test cutting will reveal the truth more clearly than I can here.) Of course, good technique also means that the wielder has more control over the force delivered, so it comes back to attitude and simulation.

At any rate, there is a general understanding that we don’t want to hurt our friends, and the macho “suck it up”/”you should have parried” response to injury is rare or nonexistent. As might be expected, fencers with this attitude don’t last long (although, as with all bad apples, they tend to be the loudest on the Internet). Instead, the attitude is more like “injuries happen. They’re unfortunate and we try to avoid them, but we’re training hard and playing hard, and it’s inevitable”. Right or wrong, it’s worth noting that this is the normal attitude for competitive sports programs, where tolerance for injury is far higher than it is in the SCA.

Tournaments and events tend to be worse than normal practice. Again, every HMA event is analogous to an SCA interkingdom event, and similar calibration issues pop up. The prevalence of judged events doesn’t help, as calibration tends to increase when fencers need to convince a judge, rather than the recipient of the blow, that they struck true. All the same, injury rates are usually comparable to those for other hard-hitting contact sports like football or ice hockey.

For what it’s worth, rapier events tend to be among the safest, whether due to the influence of the SCA, the comparative lightness of the weapons, less frequent cutting, or different attitudes.

I teach my fencers that injury is absolutely unacceptable, and more and more HMA events and personalities are taking a similar stand. Improvements are happening, some predicated on really interesting ideas (“our ancestors safely trained without armor; we should be able to do the same”).

Tournaments and Sparring

Success in unscripted sparring is universally considered a part of faithful recreation in HMA – I can happily report that “kata masters” seem to be more frequent in the SCA than in HMA. However, groups vary in how much importance they ascribe competition. Some believe that competitive tournaments are to be avoided, since they legitimize inauthentic fighting and encourage fencers to game the rules rather than try to be true to our surviving sources. Others believe that competitions are absolutely necessary to test different interpretations against one another, and that if we can’t win with period techniques, it means we’re doing something wrong. But both these views are fairly extreme. Most understand that tournaments are just another tool towards recreation, neither to be avoided nor relied upon.

The big difference between SCA and HMA competition is that HMA competitions are almost always judged (whereas the SCA relies on the honor system). There are a lot of problems with this right now, one of which is the increased calibration mentioned above. But sometimes, judged competitions are good and appropriate. Competitive cutting with sharp weapons is featured at most large events, and “kata competitions” where cooperating fencers try to recreate specific plates in front of judges, as earnestly and accurately as possible, are on the rise. The tournament scene is vibrant and ever-changing, with a surprising amount of variance in rulesets. Grappling and C&T are, of course, more common.

In general, I would not say that the competitive fighting tends to be a whole lot better than the SCA’s. Although HMA tends to be more rigorous, its participants are, ultimately, amateurs and hobbyists as much as the SCA’s. Furthermore, HMAists tend to be used to fighting against people with a similar style, and so cannot always adapt as well as SCAdians, who see all manner of styles even at the local practice.

Events tend to be more expensive and less frequent than SCA events, and require more travel. This might look disappointing to the average SCAdian, but HMA doesn’t try to have a lot of events; in the SCA, events are what we DO, where we make the Dream; but in HMA, events and tournaments are just one small part of what we do, and consistent practice is given more weight. Events are run about equally well (the quality you can get out of volunteer staff seems to be the same everywhere), but the singular focus on fencing means you do tend to get more fighting over the course of the day. No court.

Melees are almost unheard-of, which is unfortunate.

Garb

In the early days of HMA, there was a strong sentiment that HMA needed to visually differentiate itself from Ren Faire, LARP, and SCA folk, because HMA saw itself as more studious and academic and martial than those groups (in Internet parlance, “srs bzns”). Now that HMA has found its own identity and (to some extent) legitimacy in the public eye, this attitude is in swift decline. It helps that geekery in general is no longer quite as stigmatized as it used to be, so there is less need to draw sharp lines, to say “we are athletes and researchers, not roleplayers, not scrawny nerds pretending at Conan and Aragorn”.

Nonetheless, it is still the rare club that fights in garb. There is an understanding that the focus is on combat, not on playing a role or looking the part. Pragmatics rule.

HMA fashion might constitute a post unto itself. Suffice it to say that it continues to evolve, and black is in vogue.

Organization and Teaching

Perhaps surprisingly, given its greater rigor, the principal difference between the SCA and HMA is HMA’s lack of hierarchy. Some clubs have ranking systems of varying levels of formality; some don’t. Regardless, no club is nearly as large or as standardized as the SCA.

This leads to (in my view) an atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom and exchange. Because nobody’s accorded legitimacy with lofty titles or “terminal” awards, nearly everyone’s ideas are given consideration. There is an understanding that we are collaboratively learning and sharing a passion, that nobody has all the answers, and that every participant is appreciated – something which can be regrettably rare in the SCA, where new ideas often must come from or be vetted by ranking members before they gain much traction, and where the questions and viewpoints of a certain inquisitive Free Scholar might earn paternalistic dismissal from every out-of-kingdom MoD or White Scarf he meets for his lack of recognizable insignia of merit.

There are, of course, a few HMA clubs that cleave to the “One True Interpretation (And It Happens To Be Ours)” idea, and they tend to be insular. But that’s okay. Because nobody has the authority to dictate policy, the best and most persuasive ideas tend to rise to the top and democratically shape the culture and understanding. (In other words, we see a lot of former ARMA guys.) This can, sometimes, be painful, because a good idea still needs to gain widespread acceptance before it is implemented. But it also means that HMA is willing to try new ideas, and constantly challenge and discard old ones.

On a personal level, I find that almost every week, I learn something new. Sometimes it’s about historical rapier specifically. Sometimes it’s about teaching, or body mechanics, or practice structure. It’s a little overwhelming, actually, trying to keep up with it all, trying to walk my own path while clearing the brush from others’, and seeing my training aids and cutting-edge ideas rendered obsolete a mere two or three months after I write them. But it’s also thrilling and dynamic and directed in a way the SCA has never been.

Conclusion

There are two messages I want the reader to take away from this:

1. The SCA is a HMA organization – despite the fact that I have contrasted them throughout this article. It may not line up on a number of trends, but at the core, both SCAdians and HMAists fight with swords and learn about history. The rest is just details.

2. Every HMA club MUST be judged on its own merits. The worst examples always garner the most publicity, and sour many SCAdians’ impression of HMA. There’s a lot to be gained from hooking up with a local HMA organization – different (and often more rigorous) training and teachers, access to other weapons forms, additional practice hours, and new friends – but only if you approach with an open mind.

In general, I’d say that HMA provides a rigor, historical focus, and organization to learning that the SCA often lacks, while the SCA provides a better platform for competition and testing with more variety in opponents and situations, and more accessible events. I’ve had a great deal of fun walking in both worlds and learning from each.

11 comments to H(E)MA: A Primer

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Thank you, Ruairc. I’ve been lurking on some HMA forums recently, which is why I was curious about HMA from an SCA standpoint. Also, one of the women at my practice goes to Maryland KDF as well as SCA, and has been encouraging me to go to the DC HEMA event in January up here in Maryland. (If I go, I’ll be a spectator.)

    One of the striking differences between HMA and the SCA to me is the phenomenon of women’s-only longsword tournaments, at the request of some women. I was told that this is because the longsword tournaments involve grappling, kicks, etc., and therefore differences in size and strength become more significant.

    • Gawin

      … yeah, weight classes matter when grappling, etc is involved.

    • Ruairc

      Feel free to ping me with any questions. Capitol Clash is a touch expensive, but it’s always good to experience new things.

      Women’s longsword struck me as a strange idea initially – was grappling really that big a deal in longsword? – but it’s largely met with approval by the women in my organization, so I figure it’s probably not a bad thing.

      (Incidentally, women in HMA organizations seem to be significantly more common than women in SCA combat sports – some clubs have as much as 40 or 50% female membership. I have no idea why this is the case.)

  • Linhart

    If you’re thinking about going to Longpoint, Tibbie, you should probably considering getting a ticket as soon as possible. I’ve heard they have only 80 slots left for the event and they are going fast.

  • Tibbie Crosier

    I hadn’t even thought about Longpoint. I’m not sure I’ll go to DC HEMA unless they have tickets for spectators/noncompetitors.

  • Dante di Pietro

    How do you see the signal-to-noise ration in HEMA? I can see some elements of the “intellectual freedom and exchange”, but I also see a lot of really inaccurate stuff and outright bad advice, and the assumption of merit on the part of the speakers enables them to perpetually muddy the waters.

    It’s bad to become closed off to new ideas, but it’s at least as bad, if not worse, to treat all ideas as equally valid. Both attitudes prevent progress, the former by stifling new ideas and the latter by reinventing the wheel and having to prove its efficacy each time– and then hearing a long discussion about how a square wheel is really the best choice.

    • Gawin

      I somewhat doubt that there’s a different SNR within publications coming from HEMAA groups than there is coming from the SCA. Their rulesets allow them to play around with different stuff, however, and they have less of a framework for between-group communication (Groups are local, not tied to other groups, events are less frequent) and so the Internet serves the same role as our University classes, meaning that they likely produce more publications, particularly on a per capita basis.

      • Dante di Pietro

        It’s totally a perception thing, I’m sure. I *feel* like I see a lot lot lot more posts in HEMA groups that make me wonder if the writer has ever actually fought, or fought more than a small insular handful of people. Infrequency and narrowness are such huge deficits to overcome that it strikes me as very easy to “solve” something in theory that isn’t feasible in practice.

        • Ruairc

          Insular clubs are a problem, but not a permanent one. Good clubs already encourage travel (my local club has a fairly prestigious “Journeyman” title granted to anyone who’s achieved competency with a single weapon and regularly meets with other clubs). Whatever the flaws of HMA tournaments, they’ve definitely encouraged this sort of exchange.

          But this is a significant part of why I’m trying to get HMA and SCA to play with each other more. It’s a little problematic at present, since HMA is mostly longsword. But if my long-term plans come to fruition, at a minimum, all my rapier fighters will make it out to local SCA events.

    • Ruairc

      There are a spectrum of attitudes, obviously, and a lot of overlap between the SCA and HMA in this regard. (This should be no surprise, since we’re doing almost exactly the same thing.)

      When I see “There is One True Way” in the SCA, it tends to come from a place of “because my crown/scarf/medallion says so” or “because I think that’s the way it should be” (and it’s usually about administration or culture rather than fencing per se). When I see “There is One True Way” in HMA, it’s usually more of a “because my interpretation says so” or “because the evidence says so” (and it’s more often about fencing per se). Dogma and zealots exist, but at least one can argue against interpretations and evidence; one cannot argue against rank and values.

      When I see “Every idea is equally valid” in the SCA, it often comes from a place of “everyone is different, and we should let everyone play however they want, and not make anyone feel excluded” (and is usually about fencing). When I see “Every idea is equally valid” in HMA, it’s usually coming from a place of “experimentation is good right now – we’re young and clueless and we can’t allow ourselves to get locked into particular ways of doing things, and we need to give all ideas a fair chance” (and it’s more often about administration or culture).

      Naturally, there’s also the middle range – “ideas are valid insofar as there is evidence and experiment to support them” – and I suppose I see this scientific mien more often in HMA. The SCA tends to be directed by feelings and values, which run to the extremes. I suspect this is at least partly because HMA has a singular goal (recreating sword combat arts, even if there’s disagreement on the specifics), while SCAdians have more vague and diverse goals (the Dream, socializing, etc).

      Both are human undertakings, colored by human virtues and flaws; these are tendencies, not always strongly expressed. HMA features cults of personality just like the SCA’s, and sometimes, it can be just as harsh on criticism, however tactful. But I’ve seen more HMA personalities more willing to admit the shortcomings and inaccuracies of their work, to accept others’ challenges in good spirit, and to let go of demonstrably poor ideas they’ve held onto for a long time. Hell, Windsor and Packer spend almost as much time writing about what they’ve done wrong as right, and openly acknowledge that everything’s an experiment.

      So when I see bad HMA, and cringe, I understand it more often to be “this is what we’ve done so far” or “here are some ideas” rather than an authoritative “this is how it worked 500 years ago” or a prescriptive “we must do things this way”. And even if it’s published with the latter attitude, I’m free to reject it, in whole or in part, or to be persuaded if they make a good case. It might take more work to find good material, but “more work” is pretty consistent with everything HMA.

      In theory, if everyone has this attitude, eventually the best ideas will be the most persuasive, and the bad ideas will filter out. In practice, this mostly works. Slowly.

      Democracy is messy.

  • Lisa

    For future reference, assuming they run it again – DC HEMA Open is a sideline to a large sport fencing tournament (Capitol Clash) in the same hall. There’s no charge for spectators. I spent a lot of time talking to sport fencers interested in historic fencing, and suggesting to some of our HEMA rapier fighters that their local SCA practices could be worthwhile.

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