HEMA – A Systematic Approach

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Marc and Jodie performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

This is a guest article by Nial Prince. The subject is one about which Nial has been writing quite often recently, in answer to people’s questions on Facebook. So that the ideas and points of view would be easier to find again in the future, with a permanance that Facebook just cannot provide, I asked if he would be willing to write a guest article. He kindly agreed, wrote this article, and sent it over to me for hosting on the site.

When you are thinking about starting to study HEMA, what is the first thing you do? Usually, people out and buy a sword (or a sword-like object) of some description. Then what? Well, maybe you haven’t thought this far. You might find yourself standing in the garden, sword in one hand and mobile phone in the other, following the first couple of YouTube videos you managed to find when searching for “Longsword cut how to”. After doing this for a little while, you might become pretty good at moving a sword around, but you will begin to notice things in the videos you are watching – one fencer might start their cut from the shoulder, while another may hang the sword down behind them before a strike. Why?

Because they have all done something which you have not: they have chosen a specific system to work from! This means that while everyone in these videos are all showing how to do the same thing (“longsword cut how to”), each has their own individual interpretation of different texts, which all have unique approaches to performing the same technique. The worst thing you can do at this stage of your development is to try to learn a dozen different methods of cutting. You need to choose a system!

What do we mean when we say “system”? Basically, we are talking about historical texts and authors/masters. One of the most interesting parts of HEMA is just how many of these sources we have to work on. For longsword, we have Liechtenauer, Ringeck, Pseudo-Danzig, Kal, Mair, Meyer, Fiore and Talhoffer (and others). Every single one of these masters is going to have a slightly different way of performing basic actions, and they will also have their own set of unique techniques which further distinguishes one from the other.

So, why is it important to choose a system? Like any type of learning, HEMA is best studied when you have a systematic method and defined structure to follow. Following this structure will lead to a number of benefits:

  1. Following just one system provides a firm focus point. The text you choose to work from should be treated as its own self-contained entity. By ignoring other systems, you can devote yourself to achieving a solid interpretation of the techniques found in your style. This gives you one solid objective to work towards, meaning you are not constantly trying to shift and adapt your fencing style according to what different people suggest.
  2. You will gain an understanding of the mindset which underlies the system you are studying, which then leads to a deeper comprehension of what lessons the master is trying to impart upon you. At the beginning, you might read a passage and think “Why do this, rather than X?”. Keep reading. The masters were often verbose, meaning that it may take them a while to get to the point; but, once you reach that point, you will realise why they advise doing things a certain way.
  3. You get the context for the actions you are performing. Realise that you might be learning more about how to stab a person than how to hack them in half – maybe armour was still worn at the time. Do you seem to be spending more time with deceptive actions? Perhaps your master focused on a 1-on-1 duelling situation.
  4. (One for people running clubs) A treatise is the basis for a curriculum. If you’re in the situation where you are the person responsible for delivering club sessions, just lift things out of the book! Most are written with teaching in mind, so the transition from page to fencing hall is straightforward. Stay one page ahead and you can just keep rolling.
  5. It gives you a sense of identity with your fencing. The diverse nature of HEMA is a wonderful, argument-riddled melting pot. Finding a focus gives you a voice with which you can shout into the endless abyss of points / counterpoints / structured arguments / ad-hominem riddled quasi-debates.

So, with all that said, there’s one question I should address: “Is it wrong to crosstrain or to study multiple masters?”

Short answer: no.

The long answer: no, but be sure that you are studying techniques covered in texts and you retain awareness of the different contexts surrounding them. The point where it gets dubious is where you end up studying a system that someone has put together by mangling the different techniques and philosophies from multiple sources. This takes you out of the realm of HEMA, as you are no longer studying a purely historical source, but instead you are looking at a modern persons list of cherry picked techniques.

Now go pick a system and do your Master proud!