Does HEMA have a place in historical re-enactment?

Keith Farrell
Keith practising armoured combat in the snow. Photo by Reinis Rinka, 2012.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 12th August 2011. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

I used to be involved with a historical re-enactment group before I began to practise HEMA. More recently, I have taught workshops and seminars on the subject of swordfighting for an audience, sometimes with re-enactors in attendance, and sometimes exclusively for re-enactment groups.

In my opinion, both HEMA fencers and historical re-enactors are trying to do a similar thing, but with quite a different perspective: re-enactors are usually trying to recreate the look and outfits of the time, whereas HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting methods of the time. This leads to inevitable compromises: to recreate the look as authentically as possible, re-enactors cannot wear modern protective equipment such as fencing masks, and therefore must change how they fight for reasons of safety; HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting as authentically as possible, meaning that the look and clothing are often sacrificed in favour of modern protective gear such as fencing masks.

With these major differences, does HEMA have a place in historical battle re-enactment? This is a contentious issue with various different schools of thought. Opinions are often entrenched and debates can become passionate, and so my intention is to take a neutral point of view and discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of the different points of view.

Historical re-enactment should be as authentic and correct as possible! HEMA should be in every single movement!

While this is a laudable goal, HEMA enthusiasts must bear in mind that re-enactors have other obligations as well. Not everyone can devote the time to training a complete martial art as well as learning about all of the living history skills and making their costumes and suchlike.

There are also health and safety implications that re-enactors must worry about that do not apply to HEMA practitioners: for example, while HEMAists wear fencing masks for head and face protection, authentic portrayal of medieval warriors will not involve fencing masks, and in fact for many re-enactors will not involve any face protection at all.

Perhaps a more reasonable approach would be to try a gradual introduction of HEMA techniques and skills into re-enactment style fighting, rather than to try and impose the whole of HEMA on a re-enactment group all at once.

I just do re-enactment for the fun of swinging around a sword and beating my mates, I don’t want to do HEMA.

Why not learn to beat your mates more effectively? Or at least, look cooler while you are doing it.

If a re-enactment group makes claims about their authenticity, then they need to make the attempt to bring authenticity into every part of their performance. This is something that I argued about in my own historical re-enactment group several times, about more than just fighting, since our group claimed a high level of authenticity, yet made some fairly basic errors in this department.

If group members are genuinely not so fussed about authenticity, and just want to play with swords, then that is entirely fair. However, there might be other ways of indulging your sword habit without giving audiences the impression that what you are doing is exactly how it was done in history.

Historical re-enactment is about entertaining a crowd, and HEMA just isn’t showy enough.

This is a good point of view. If the group’s purpose is more to do with entertaining the crowd than educating them about history in as authentic a manner as possible, then perhaps show-fighting or stage-fighting might be a better choice than the more accurate HEMA fighting styles.

That being said, there are plenty of very showy HEMA moves and techniques, and with just a little practice, combatants should be able to perform quite amazing sequences using historically accurate techniques. For some examples of showy HEMA fighting, have a look at these video clips:

I would like to see more HEMA in historical re-enactment, but authenticity rules prevent us from wearing appropriate face, head and hand protection and so HEMA is probably too dangerous for us.

This is a very good argument, and in fact is one of the best arguments for why HEMA has less place in authentic historical re-enactment. Groups who try to portray history as accurately as possible will of course have combatants who are not fully decked out in armour, who perhaps have exposed faces or who lack other important pieces of protection. By its very nature, HEMA is about landing the most effective strikes, and thus it involves a lot of striking to the head and to the face. With authentic steel weapons and authentic lack of protection, this sort of striking is problematic and dangerous.

Skilled combatants should be able to “pull” their blows so that they land controlled and accurate strikes without hurting each other. With this skill the combatants should be able to fight with HEMA techniques without any real danger, albeit with quite a bit of training and with some modification to the HEMA system. For example, changing the target of a strike to the head so it becomes a strike to the shoulder; this is safer, and rules about authenticity would allow this sort of thing in a demonstration without requiring large amounts of protection. Of course, the final call belongs to the group’s safety officer, and if he does not believe that the combatants in the group can fight safely in a HEMA style while also obeying the group’s authenticity rules, then health and safety must take precedence.

I would encourage such groups to look at the authenticity rules so that fighting can become more realistic, however. If the armour and protective gear is strictly authentic then the fighting has to become less authentic due to safety issues. If the fighting becomes more authentic then perhaps the armour and protective gear worn by combatants may become less authentic. Either way, authenticity will be present in one part of the display but not in the other, and it is up to the group to develop the best balance between the two areas. Many groups compromise authenticity for the sake of health and safety already; for example, a large number of early medieval re-enactment groups in the UK require all combatants to be wearing a helmet, which would not have been the case in the Viking age, but is a compromise made for increased health and safety on the demonstration field. Small compromises like this can be quite reasonable, and might allow for more authentic fighting demonstrations as a result.

HEMA is all about one-on-one duelling, it has no place in a melee on a battlefield.

This is quite a good point. The vast majority of the HEMA texts are about one combatant fighting one other combatant, and this is rarely the case on the re-enactment battlefield. However, it is incorrect to assume that just because HEMA is normally practised one-against-one, it cannot be adapted and the principles used in a multiple combat situation. It certainly can! That being said, it is also incorrect to assume that just because a person has practised HEMA, he will be able to apply that immediately in a melee situation.

While the statement above is a reasonable point of view, I do believe that a little training would help re-enactors fight in a more authentic and realistic manner and would also help HEMA enthusiasts learn how to apply their skills in a new and important environment.

It would be nice to do more HEMA in our re-enactment fighting, but we don’t know where or how to start.

Fair point, this is a common problem. It is very difficult to know where or how to start learning HEMA, and when I started looking at HEMA myself I was very critical of it, since no one was able to show me a good place to start learning and no one was able to teach me any effective uses for the weapons that I hadn’t already tried before. However, there are a number of very good resources for people who are beginning to look at HEMA, and I really wish that these had been around when I had started learning!

The Wiktenauer is like Wikipedia for HEMA. It has information about many of the medieval masters, the manuscripts, and the different styles of fighting. There are transcriptions and translations into assorted different languages (including English) for most of the manuscripts, and this is one of the most important resources available to anyone with an interest in HEMA today.

There are some good books available that can help give an introduction to different HEMA systems. Fallen Rook Publishing has a growing catalogue of books on a variety of different HEMA systems, available to suit a variety of different budgets.

It would be interesting to see how we can introduce elements of HEMA into our re-enactment practice, to give a little more authenticity in our fighting techniques on the battlefield.

This is a progressive and positive point of view, and I do hope that more people come to hold this opinion over time. My suggestion is to look at the Wiktenauer and find some sources for the kind of re-enactment fighting you do, and then see what you can learn from those sources. There might be something that grabs your attention, looks cool, and can be introduced quite easily into what you already do!

It would be nice to do more HEMA in our re-enactment fighting, but there are no sources that describe fighting in our period of interest.

You might be surprised. Have a look at the treatise database mentioned above, you might find something of interest to you!

Perhaps there are no manuscripts that deal directly with your re-enactment period, but there are other sources from which a reasonable and sensible fighting style may be extrapolated. If nothing else, the process of looking at the other manuscripts and working out how the techniques and concepts shown therein can be applied to your form of re-enactment will be an interesting and fun process!

Conclusion

There are different points of view on this issue, and people often hold their opinions quite strongly. This is a debate that is likely to remain for a long time, fuelled by two main camps: those who want everything to be as accurate as possible, including the fighting demonstrations, and those who just want to dress up and do it as a hobby without learning any special martial arts.

Personally, I believe that there is a place for HEMA in historical battle re-enactment. I think that re-enactors who strive to be perfectly authentic in every part of their clothing and knowledge and weapons and armour should also strive to be authentic in their manner of fighting. Spending all the time, money and effort on achieving authenticity in clothing and look is then wasted if little is done to improve the authenticity of the fighting displays as well.

If you run a re-enactment group, and would like a seminar or workshop to help introduce some HEMA into the re-enactment fighting that your group does, please get in touch and hire me to teach at your group. I will be more than happy to discuss your needs and teach a session based on your requirements.

Keith Farrell

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 have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.