What is the value of HEMA in the modern world? Why is it worth spending so much time (and so much money) in the pursuit of this activity? Why do we undertake such physical and mental exertion to do what we do? Why not just go to the pub directly and cut out the middle-man of training?
I believe that the answer to all of these questions is that the practice of HEMA is incredibly valuable to everyone who participates, and it helps us all become better people. That is why I spend so much time, effort, and money in the practice and teaching of HEMA, because I believe it enriches my life and the lives of those around me.
The obvious answer: health and fitness
The first and perhaps most obvious example of the value of HEMA is that it is a physical activity and therefore people can become fitter and healthier by its practice. Most of us lead sedentary lives with too much sitting and too little physicality. Going to the local HEMA club once a week (or more, if you can!) is a great way to move more while having fun with swords, and this can have immense physical benefits.
Through the practice of HEMA, I have become stronger than I was before. I have improved my stamina and my ability to work with heavy implements for a longer period of time. I get up and move more often, reducing the damage to my body of sitting at the computer for too long. I have lost fat and gained muscle, and have become a better specimen of physicality.
I have made so many friends and contacts through the practice of HEMA, worldwide. I feel much richer as a person for this, and I know that if I want to visit most countries in the world, I’m probably not going to be too far from someone who is already my friend or who will probably become my friend quite quickly after a couple of hours in the training and a couple of hours in the pub! In my experience, the HEMA community is kind and welcoming (as long as I avoid too many internet arguments), and I feel happier in life with the friendships I have made through HEMA.
There are so many stresses in the world.
Work is stressful. Commuting is stressful. Meeting your obligations is stressful. Dealing with difficult people is stressful. Dealing with problems is stressful. Dealing with banks is stressful. Dealing with pain is stressful. Thinking about the future can be stressful. Running your own business is so stressful that there are no good words to explain how stressful it can be. Keeping up with (and spending time with) friends and family can be stressful. Travelling can be stressful. Watching the number of emails in your inbox mount up is stressful. Even taking a holiday can be stressful.
How do we deal with stress? We must deal with it, otherwise it will have a major negative effect on our lives. Some people turn to comfort eating, some people turn to drink; I turn to martial arts.
The act of moving, putting my body through its paces, exulting in the joy of motion – this keeps me happy and reduces stress. Matching my wits and physicality against a similarly skilled practitioner? Wonderful! It sharpens my mind, clears the debris, and leaves no space for stress. The excitement of learning a new skill or having a new idea, or making something difficult work successfully in sparring, these fill me with excitement and make me look forward to my next fencing session. HEMA can give me all the energy and positive thinking I need to tackle the rest of life.
Opening the mind to the world
Swords are big and heavy, right? Everyone knows that medieval knights just flailed around without skill, just trying to bludgeon each other, right? Movies and the internet have told me so.
What a load of nonsense!
HEMA includes more than just playing with swords. We can use it as a way to learn about history, to learn about physical artefacts in museums, about the reasons that things exist or occur in the world today in the way that they do.
Visiting HEMA events in different countries gives us the opportunity to learn more about other people and other cultures. It gives us an opportunity to see our own people and culture from an outsider’s point of view. It gives us more ways to view the world, more ways to consider any given problem and potential solutions. We learn to make better decisions without the burden or baggage of misconceptions, and we learn to be more compassionate as human beings.
So many problems in the world right now are caused by closed-mindedness, by needless adherence to incorrect or out-of-touch points of view. The practice of HEMA gives us a chance to learn more about the world and to learn how to be a better person.
Improving your character
Becoming a better person is a great goal for life. It is, of course, rather subject: what does “better person” mean? Well, whatever it means to you, striving towards achieving that is a worthwhile thing to do.
Thomas Mathewson, writing in 1805, gives us this wonderful summary of what fencing can do for personal improvement:
It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the body, strengthens it and makes it upright; it is it that gives a becoming deportment and an easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity; it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness, and animates proper confidence; it is it which in teaching us to conquer ourselves, that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect, and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society.
Having a physical effect on the world
So much of what we do on a daily basis is electronic, theoretical, in the cloud. When we are watching television in the evening, we are not having a physical effect on the world where something physically happens because of our choice and action. When we answer emails, we are not having a physical effect on the world, we are just exchanging electric signals. When we prepare a spreadsheet at work, or move money around, or write another document or blog article or web page, we are not having a physical effect on the world.
However, when we pick up a sword, and stand in a room with other people who are physically present in that same room, we can have a physical effect on the world. We can physically make a hit, we can be hit quite physically, we can physically prevent another person from doing physical damage to our person. Actions in the fencing hall are real, physical actions with real, physical consequences.
This keeps us grounded in the real world and reminds us that every action can have consequences, and that ultimately we are responsible for the choices we make and the actions we perform. HEMA keeps us grounded in the real world.
What is the value of HEMA in the modern world? Why do I do HEMA? Because of all of these reasons, and yet more. Why should other people take up the study of HEMA, considering all the investment of time, effort and, money? For exactly all of these reasons, and more!
I believe that it is important to be passionate not only about the activity that I do, but about why I think it is good for me and for other people. By being passionate about the value of HEMA, by thinking about this and being able to explain it to other people in an enthusiastic and perfectly honest fashion, I believe I can help other people experience the same wonderful things that have improved my own life so much.
My challenge to you, today: think about why you believe HEMA is valuable to a person, then tell someone. Don’t talk about the history of Liechtenauer, or why this kind of sword is more cool than that kind of sword, or about what medal you won where; talk to someone about something valuable you have gained from the practice of HEMA, that has improved you as a person. If, by doing this, you can encourage your club members to even greater heights of achievement and personal development, then great. If this is the key that unlocks HEMA for someone completely new to the activity, then splendid. If this is what helps you to take HEMA more seriously, then I will feel that I may have achieved something worthwhile today.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.