What is HEMA to me?

Codex icon. 394a, folio 113v. Image from the Wiktenauer website.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 10th June 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

We all have different motivations behind our practice of HEMA, and we also tend to have slightly different understandings of what HEMA is exactly, what all it covers and describes, and what it excludes. Rather than try to answer the question of “what is HEMA?”, this article will look at what I personally understand to be HEMA, and where I draw my lines.

There are three elements that I believe are important for my own definition of HEMA: the ‘H’, the ‘E’, and the ‘MA’.

Firstly, the ‘H’. To me, this means that the art or system that I am studying must have historical provenance. Lightsabres cannot be HEMA, from this point of view. Furthermore, I believe that it is important to work with historical source material, preferably textual and well-explained with supporting illustrations, but for some disciplines, we have to take what is available! So practising longsword or Scottish broadsword according to surviving sources definitely counts as HEMA; but perhaps Viking sword and shield, for which there are no definitive sources, can be classified only as an interesting experiment, but not really HEMA.

Other people have a much looser definition of the ‘H’ in HEMA, and will be happy to accept a discipline that has provenance in history, but for which there are few or indeed no surviving sources. As stated in the introduction, that’s perfectly fine, as everyone has their own point of view on the matter. However, for me, a thought experiment or an interpretive system can only be verified so far, and at some point, the system is based more on the interpreter’s own ideas than on genuine historical pedagogical material.

Michael Chidester has developed a way of describing different fighting systems in HEMA in terms of their strictness of definition of the ‘H’, with types 1, 2 and 3. His classification can be found on the HEMA Alliance forum here.

Secondly, the ‘E’. For me, a HEMA must be European in nature. Japanese sword arts may have many similarities to fencing with the longsword, but they are not European in nature, and it would be a mistake to describe kendo or iaido as European. Similarly, karate and muay thai, silat or krav maga, cannot be described as European.

However, there is a little bit of a grey area that I would be willing to accept. Something such as a 19th century American sabre system could be counted as a HEMA, without too much argument. Although American or Canadian martial arts are not European, if they have a basis in European martial traditions and developed alongside similar European martial arts, then it seems quite reasonable (to me!) to count them as “European in nature”, if not necessarily European by geography.

Of course, this leads to more difficult discussions: what about Turkish or Ottoman fighting systems? Depending on your interpretation of geography, Turkey might or might not be part of the European continent, and therefore its fighting arts might be counted or discounted accordingly. Even if they were to be discounted as European, are they so far removed from Polish or Hungarian martial arts? With this line of thinking, how far might the definition of “European enough” be extended? Do we count the martial arts of Persia or Egypt? What about Indian fencing with the tulwar, since the British military spent more than a century in India, fighting alongside and against the natives.

Although I’m quite happy to recognise a grey area in terms of a martial art being “European in nature”, at some point a line has to be drawn. For me, often, the line depends on just how alien the martial art feels, taking into account the social and legal contexts, the mindset and approach behind the art, and the weapons and armour involved. If the greater context of the art seems reasonably “European in nature”, then I’m happy to count it as a HEMA; if the greater context seems somewhat alien to my European upbringing and mindset, then I would probably draw the line and discount it.

Finally, the ‘MA’. This is probably the easiest to define, at least with a basic definition. I would say that a martial art is a fighting system designed to solve a specific fighting-related problem. That could be a solution designed to win a judicial duel with matched weapons, or it could be a solution designed to keep someone safe on a medieval or renaissance battlefield, or it could be a solution designed to allow noblemen or gentlemen of high society to learn to use a sword in an athletic and aesthetically pleasing fashion.

If a martial art exists (or has existed), then there was undoubtedly some kind of fighting-related problem that required a solution, and therefore the martial art was born, and the system meets the ‘MA’ requirement. If the solution is European, or at least suitably “European in nature”, then I would accept it as satisfying the ‘E’ requirement. If the European martial art has historical provenance and surviving pedagogical material to allow us to recreate that specific art (i.e., that specific solution to a specific fighting-related problem), then it fulfils the ‘H’ requirement.

If a system does not meet any of these three requirements, then I would suggest that it is not a HEMA, at least not as far as I would recognise it. So, Liechtenauer’s longsword tradition is clearly a HEMA; Fiore’s armoured combat methods are clearly HEMA; British or German or Swedish military sabre methods are clearly HEMA; Spanish rapier methods are clearly HEMA; fighting with longsword in one hand and basket-hilted broadsword in the other is not HEMA, nor is iaido, nor is Viking sword and shield (since we cannot recreate an exact solution, we can only make up moves and try to link them together with principles that seem to make sense).

How do you define HEMA for your own purposes and interests?