A question that occurs regularly on social media is how to begin studying HEMA, or how to start studying HEMA if there are no clubs nearby.
It seems that rarely a week goes by without someone posting a question like this on Facebook or Reddit, which is great – it means that people are always coming into the community and looking to begin studying HEMA in places where clubs are not currently running. This can only be a good thing for the community!
Attend a club if at all possible
If you possibly can, you should attend a club and learn from other people who are already practising. Don’t worry about buying equipment before going to the club, don’t worry about reading up and learning things first. Just go and take part in a few lessons! Get a feel for what sort of equipment is going to be useful (so that you don’t waste money on bad gear) and learn some of the fundamentals of how to move with a sword in hand.
One of the best things you can do when looking for advice is to ask the experienced people who train nearby, rather than asking the internet. There is a lot of very bad advice on the internet. Make the connection with people, and even if you still intend to set up your own club, having that personal connection with existing practitioners in your country or region will be valuable.
Of course, not everyone has an existing club nearby. This makes everything a little more difficult. However, is there a club you might be able to visit even just once a month? If there is a club even an hour or two away, it is still worth visiting once or twice to see how they do things and to make the connection with these people.
If you simply cannot attend an existing club, that is not the end of the world. Attending a club does make everything significantly easier. However, if there is no club nearby, you can still get started with the activity.
Read books, gather resources
HEMA is an activity that is based on historical documentation. Without the source material, we would just be making things up, and it would have no historical basis. Therefore, you need to choose what discipline you want to study, and find the documents that provide instructions.
The Wiktenauer is a great repository of original source materials. It is worth spending some time looking through the website to see what sources there are that might be relevant.
Find books that talk about your chosen subject. There might be reproductions or translations of the source material. There might be study guides or other modern explanatory works. There might be books discussing the history, culture, and context of the people and fencing arts that you want to study. For example, Fallen Rook Publishing has a growing catalogue of books relevant to the study of HEMA.
If you can gather some written and video resources then these will help you understand the source materials that you need to use to begin studying HEMA. My suggestion is to read the source materials as soon as possible when you are thinking of starting to study HEMA in a place without any existing clubs – you probably won’t understand much of it, but that is fine. It will begin to familiarise you with the original instructions, and will help to put the modern explanatory works into context.
Train the basic movements
Solo training is a wonderfully useful thing. Spend time with a sword in hand. Spend time with a stick in hand, if you don’t have a sword yet! Follow the instructions for your chosen system, and practise the basic positions and the basic actions described. You cannot go wrong by spending time working on the basics.
(The majority of my own training is solo practice, working on the basics. I still work slowly, by myself, going through the fundamental shapes and actions of the system I study. This is one of the most important things you can do at any stage of your training.)
Follow the instructions in your source material and don’t make it up. Ignoring the instructions can lead to injury, or at least to frustrations when things don’t seem to work properly. Do what your source says, exactly the way the actions are described. Even if it seems ridiculously simple, do that. Even if you think you might know better (due to experience with other martial arts), follow the instructions as written, because they are usually written that way for a very good reason.
Find some training partners
If you really want to learn HEMA, you need some partners. Solo training is wonderful but what you can achieve in your garden by yourself is limited.
Talk to your friends and see if anyone is interested in getting together to have a try at it. Send them some inspirational YouTube videos (promotional videos are good, sparring videos tend to be very dull for people who are not yet involved in HEMA) to help them become interested.
Decide if it is going to be a formal or informal activity. If it is just going to be having a bit of fun with swords now and again, then you might not need to set up a proper club. However, going through the process of setting up a club may allow better access to insurance or training locations (places with a roof to keep out the rain!), and will certainly result in having more training partners with whom to practise.
It may seem obvious, but I should probably say it explicitly. You have to train. You have to do the raw repetitions. You have to sweat and put in effort if you want to learn HEMA. You cannot just read some books, watch some videos online, and consider yourself knowledgeable about HEMA.
Even if there are just two or three of you involved, make a point of training. Make it a regular thing and don’t cancel it just because someone is unavailable. Train regularly and consistently.
Don’t be afraid to play with different ideas or interpretations. Read something interesting online? Train it, see how well it works. See something interesting on YouTube? Train it too. Just keep training. Even if you only practise once a week, spend those hours training. You can always talk at the pub or exchange emails discussing some of this stuff. During training time, make sure you are training and doing something physical.
Setting up a club can be a long and difficult process. However, sometimes it is a really quick and easy process, and you may find that there are several people in your area who might be interested in joining a HEMA club when you set it up. You won’t know until you give it a go.
You can of course study alone, but what you can achieve this way will be limited. It is better to be part of a club in almost every circumstance. But if setting up a club is not possible, you can still gather books and resources, read a lot, and practise by yourself. This is significantly better than doing nothing!
When getting started, the most important thing is that you get started. Don’t overthink it or try to make sure everything is perfect ready for you to begin. Just get started and have fun!
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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.