How to begin working with a HEMA source

Folio 29rfrom the Goliath manuscript. Image from the Wiktenauer.

HEMA is an activity that relies on sources; but what does working with a HEMA source involve? Although it may seem obvious to people who have involved in HEMA for a while, it is not the simplest process, and there are many things to consider at each stage.

Choose your source

Before you can begin working with a HEMA source, you have to choose your source! This doesn’t mean a YouTube channel, these are not HEMA sources. They might be a source of information about HEMA (although some of them are pretty dodgy even as far as that is concerned), but they are merely modern secondary (or tertiary) sources that are talking about the original historical sources.

A good place to find historical sources is the Wiktenauer, one of the most important resources available to the HEMA community today.

Which original author from the time period in question will you turn to for information about the system they wrote?

Generally, I would advise beginning with a source that is seen as broadly typical of the system you want to study. There is little point in beginning your studies with an unusual or atypical source, since that will cause you more difficulties as you try to work out what on earth it is talking about. For example, I might recommend choosing Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot for studying Napoleonic British sabre, or L’Ange’s Deutliche und gründliche Erklärung der adelichen und ritterlichen freyen Fecht-Kunst for transitional era rapier, or Ringeck’s gloss for 15th century longsword.

I would also advice choosing one source and working with that until you understand it well, without adding further sources that might give competing information or that actually discuss a completely different style of HEMA. Once you have a better understanding of your main source, working with complementary sources to fine-tune your understanding of the system can be quite a good idea; but in the beginning, you want to keep things simple for yourself.

Find out a little about it

Once you have chosen your source, try and find out a little about the book itself, about the author(s), about the weapon(s) it uses, and the context and audience for which it was intended.

For example, if you try to study a cavalry manual for the use of long, straight swords, but want to apply it to shorter, lighter, curvy sabres on foot, then you will struggle to make it work. Similarly, if you want to work with a 14th century style of longsword, then choosing a 16th century source discussing the use of long feders will give you instructions to follow that you will find difficult to achieve successfully.

Finding out about the author, the intended audience, and the context of the source can also help to inform your interpretations. However, you must be careful to avoid popular but out of date theories. For example, it is a common but demonstrably incorrect idea that “Joachim Meyer was just a sport fencer” and that his material is “only useful for tournaments” – if you try to apply an incorrect idea like this to your interpretations then your work will have major flaws. Just because a website espouses an idea (and just because some random person on Facebook says “it is commonly accepted that …” or “we know that …” doesn’t mean that it is verifiably true!

Gather translations

If your source is written in your own language, then fantastic! You can read it easily.

However, if your source is written in another language, and has to be translated, then try and find all the translations of this source that are available. Work with ALL the translations together until you understand enough about language (and enough of the original language) to make an educated choice of which translation you feel is best for your purposes.

Not all translations are equal. Some translations are trying to achieve something in particular, while others are trying to be more literal or more readable or more poetic. Some translations were created before the translator had a good idea of what the system was actually talking about, and so some of the choices of words and phrases might have been a good choice ten or twenty years ago but have dated considerably by now.

If you can work with two or three translations, instead of just one, then you will develop a much broader idea of what the original source may have been trying to say, and you will avoid the trap of relying too heavily on the specific wording of a single translation.

Read it for the gist

Once you have assembled your collection of translations, read them for the gist of what the source is saying. Don’t worry about picking up details, and don’t try to make interpretations at this stage. Just get a feel for what the source is talking about and how it describes the system.

You should be able to make some broad observations after this first reading. Ask yourself the following questions:

Question – what are the most important concepts?

If you had to characterise the feel, shape, or style of the system, then what concepts give this system its flavour?

For example, some broadsword and sabre sources place emphasis on keeping your weight on your back leg, and focus on performing a parry and riposte rather than taking the initiative.

Some of the 16th century Germanic sources use long sequences of techniques to create openings and opportunities, while some of the earlier Germanic sources are much more direct and to the point.

Some sources talk about making your movements as small as possible, while other sources talk about working with your whole body to perform motions.

Question – what are the fundamental techniques?

What are the fundamental techniques and positions that occur again and again? These are probably the building blocks of the system, and are probably worth paying more attention to than the more complicated techniques that are only discussed a handful of times.

Similarly, if the source recommends performing most actions from a particular kind of guard position, then there is probably a reason for that, and you would be well advised to pay attention and follow the instructions.

Consider the images

Give the images some consideration, if the source has any. Again, look at them in an attempt to get the gist of what they show, rather than looking for specific details. Ask yourself some questions.

Question – what do the stances look like?

Do the fencers typically have straight backs, or are they hunched?

Are their legs wide apart, or close together?

Are the lunges long or short?

Is the weight on the front or back leg while standing still, and on which leg when moving forward?

Read it again for details

Once you have an idea of the gist of the text, and idea of roughly what the fencers look like in the illustrations depicting the system, read through the source again and try to pick up some details to flesh out your broad ideas.

Each time you read and re-read the source, you will notice more details. I have been reading some sources for eight or so years now, and I’m still noticing new details whenever I re-read them!

Keep asking yourself questions in your search for details.

Question – what is the source not telling you?

The source may say “do this, in this fashion, hitting with this edge.” What it may not tell you is how to set up the action, or how to move from your guard position into the action. It may fail to tell you some key detail that you will need to figure out for yourself.

It may be missing some fundamental information, such as how to perform a cut so that it is functional, or what it means exactly by “make a step”.

It may not tell you that in some other common situations, modifying the action or position in some fashion might be more beneficial.

It may not tell you what the most important concepts of your system actually are! Or maybe it will, but clouded in such language that the meaning is not obvious.

Question – what can you do to fill in the blanks?

Once you have identified some important things that the source is not actually telling you, then you know what informational gaps need to be filled. You might decide to borrow some “frog DNA” from another sport or martial art, or you might make an assumption, or you might just ignore it until you develop a better understanding of the system in general and can propose a more intelligent suggestion.

Another good option might be to bring in another instructor who has a better understanding of the system. Put on a weekend event, and ask the instructor to cover the things that are missing from the source. This can be body structure, cutting mechanics, exercises to improve your sense of distance and timing, a more informed idea of which concepts are important or unimportant, etc. Often, seeking the advice of a more experienced instructor can save you a lot of time, effort, and pain!

Formulate a plan for practice

Now that you have an idea of the system, what can you do to practise it? With whom with you practise? What gear do you need to practise? Make a reasonable plan for physical testing and physical practice of what you have read, and give it a go!

Experiments and the scientific method

Before we understand any system, our attempts to understand it are largely experimental. If we want to have useful experiments, then we need to understand how to set up experiments properly.


Start with a hypothesis, a statement of what you think the experiment will show. For example: “I think that this interpretation matches the description in the source and is likely to work in sparring.”

Design the experiments

Design the experiment so that it creates the right environment for the hypothesis to be tested. Simply sparring is not necessarily the best way to do this; doing some sparring where one partner is deliberately providing the right stimulus for the other partner to try to perform the action is going to be much more useful!

So, what should that environment be? What is the stimulus required for the action? At what distance should you be trying to do it? At what stage or time of the fight does it make sense?

Perform the experiments and gather data

Do your experiments. In other words, do your lessons, exercises, and practices, and then try to draw it together in sparring!

Analyse the data and come to conclusions

If you managed to make the technique work, that is useful information. If it didn’t work, that is also useful information! Look at what happened during your experiment, analyse it, and draw your conclusions.

Simply sparring and then moving on without analysing what happened might be fun, but is of relatively little value to the experimental process.

Acknowledge if your hypothesis was wrong

If your hypothesis was wrong, then that’s not the end of the world. Did you manage to learn something that gives you an insight into how to improve your interpretation so that your next hypothesis has a better chance of success?

However, be aware that experiments can yield flawed data. Was your partner too tall or too strong for you to make the technique work? Was your partner not giving you the right stimulus? Were you simply too slow to be able to do it at the right time?

If it turns out that the interpretation was problematic, then go back to the drawing board and work out a better technique.

If the interpretation was fine, but instead it was the physical abilities of the fencer(s) that led to problems, then spend more time developing the physicality of yourself and your training partners. While a good martial art will let a smaller, weaker person triumph over a taller, stronger opponent, a good martial artist will work hard towards being able to do just that. It is more often the case that the individual fencers need more practice than the interpretations need tweaking.

Keep referring to the source

Reading the source once or twice and then doing a month of physical practice without going back to the book is probably not a very good way to study it. Keep going back to the book. You don’t need to read it cover to cover, but perhaps reading the relevant section in the book after each training session will help you understand what was going well and what was going wrong.

Keep reading the source for details, but also don’t be afraid just to skim it for the broad shape and gist of the system. Each time you read the source, you will pick up something new, and each new discovery will help you improve your interpretations and experiments.

And that’s it! Keep working with your source, keep plugging away at getting better at doing what the source suggests you should be doing, and keep looking for inspiration to help you understand it all better.