The terms modern fencing, classical fencing, and historical fencing can all be used to refer to different types of fencing or different approaches to the activity. However, there is no concrete definition for any of these terms, and most people will define them differently. I believe that having a working definition is helpful, and that a good definition of the differences can help us open our mind to new ideas while still keeping things in context.
In my mind, I think the key differences are as follows.
Historical fencing or HEMA is the recreation and practice of a particular historical martial art or system, as best we can manage. I would suggest that the better attempts at recreation and practice remain as true as possible to the source material, because otherwise the historicity becomes diluted, and I would go as far as to say that fencing without historicity is not really HEMA.
It doesn’t really matter if the system you study is not particularly well-suited to any given modern context, because it was originally designed for a different context at a different time in history. We should endeavour to understand the context in which the system was originally developed, and the original problems that it was intended to solve, and allow this to guide our interpretations and work.
For me, classical fencing may well involve historical weapons, traditions, and methods, but it is not trying to recreate or practise a particular system or method precisely as it was done back then. The system may have evolved (and may still evolve further) to some extent, and practitioners will probably still be quite aware of their roots, traditions, and lineage, but the training and performance is not necessarily what was done in the past.
I might define modern fencing as fencing for the present moment in time, designed to solve modern problems and contexts. Today, this would most often involve electric competition fencing, although it could still include some steam fencing for fun and recreation (although probably not for competition as we rarely see that anymore).
Might there be some cross-over?
There could certainly be some cross-over. I think the best definitions come from assessing the intention and goals of your practice. If historicity is more important than development, then it is more likely to be a historical activity; if performance in modern contexts is of paramount importance, with little to no regard for the historicity of the system, then it is more likely to be a modern activity. Classical fencing can sit comfortably between these, with some awareness of where the system came from, and perhaps still with some traditional elements, but with developments away from what it was originally.
Therefore, we could take disciplines that might normally be considered HEMA, and classify them as modern fencing if the individual in question is practising the discipline for a modern context (such as modern competitions) with little to no interest in recreating or preserving the historicity of the system. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are honest about what we are doing. If you are prioritising history, be honest about it. If you are using a historically-inspired sword for modern purposes, be honest about it.
We might even suggest a cross-over to other martial arts. For example, there are lots of karate clubs studying lots of different styles. Some clubs train for modern competition, some clubs train for personal development to equipment their students for life in the modern world. Some clubs might be aware of the historical karate treatises written by individuals such as Funakoshi, Motobu, or Mabuni, and others might base a significant portion of their teaching and training on these older texts. I wouldn’t say that any one approach is necessarily better than another approach, just that people have different interests and goals for their own training.
With these definitions, there is no attempt to put down any of these types or “branches” of fencing. As I see it, each “branch” has quite a different focus in terms of what they are trying to achieve, and will place a different importance upon the historicity of their method. By understanding that historical fencers have history as their most important objective, and modern fencers have effectiveness in modern contexts as their most important objective, it lends more nuance to any discussion involving these disciplines.
I am aware that other people have different definitions, and that some of these may well come from many years of involvement in that type of fencing. I wouldn’t dream of saying that other definitions are wrong! Instead, this is how I am currently conceptualising the branches of fencing, and I find it interesting to extend the framework to other martial arts as well.
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.