A question that arises on a fairly regular basis is about what “counts as” historical fencing: how old does something have to be to consider it HEMA?
Sometimes people give answers such as “before WW2”, or “at least a hundred years ago”, or even “up until yesterday or this morning”. Whatever criteria we apply to the question throws a different light on what we consider to be HEMA.
My suggestion is that if the system was practised in the past (at any time in the past) AND if there is technical literature to tell you how it was done AND you try to do it that way without modification for different/modern contexts, then you are doing HEMA.
That means something like Liechtenauer’s longsword is easily HEMA, because it was practised in the past and recorded in technical literature so that we have source material to tell us how it was done. However, we still need to approach it from the point of view of doing it the way it was done,with respect for the historicity of the system. I wrote about this previously in my article about the differences between modern fencing, classical fencing, and historical fencing. Without respect for the historicity of the method, fencing with a longsword would perhaps better be considered modern fencing with a historically-inspired sword.
Along these same lines, making up some method of using a weapon because people used that weapon in history isn’t really HEMA, because it is not a serious attempt to make an accurate reconstruction of a very particular system – it is just making stuff up. I would hesitate to consider most attempts at reconstruction of fighting with Viking sword and shield to be HEMA, because there’s just not the technical literature supporting most attempts. Some attempts are better than others and involve more historical sources, and perhaps these better attempts could be considered HEMA due to the greater inclusion of source material.
Another interesting line of thought is to consider practising classical foil from the 1950s exactly the way it was done in the 1950s, without any attempt to modernise it or incorporate techniques, concepts or rules that came after that time. One might use Fencing with the Foil by Roger Crosnier (published in 1951 by Faber & Faber) as the source material, for example. In my opinion, this would probably still beHEMA, because you are attempting to reconstruct a particular system as close to the way it was done at the time as you possibly can.
So, to answer the original question of how old does something have to be to consider it HEMA, I would say that the age or time period doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that you are trying to reconstruct a historical system according to the technical literature and instruction from that time, without modifying it, adding to it, or changing its context to be something different. That is what makes it HEMA.
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
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.