We often talk about the importance of scholarship in HEMA, about the academic side of historical swordfighting. We acknowledge that there are many facets of HEMA and that they all play an important part in reconstructing our martial heritage: getting better at fencing is just one element, but we also need people who teach well, we need community builders, we need people who understand local legislation, and we need people who can connect us with source material and who can help us learn more about our chosen activity. Sometimes the same person can perform many of these roles.
But not everyone is cut out to be a researcher or academic. Not everyone has language skills for translation. Not everyone has writing skills to publish articles. Not everyone has access to resources and libraries to be able to pore over books in search of elusive details.
How can we encourage more people to become involved in scholarship within the HEMA community, while respecting the fact that not everyone can become a professional academic researcher?
There is a difference between “research” and “study”. I think this is at the heart of the matter and gives us our solution.
We all study for years at school, and then perhaps some of us study for a few more years at university. Maybe some of us continue to study for a further few years and do a masters degree or a PhD – but most of us do not study that much (at least not formally) and do not gain these qualifications.
When you think of what you do when you are studying at school, the answer probably involves spending a lot of time learning information by reading or by listening to your teachers, perhaps by discussing it with people or by examining your thoughts by writing essays or suchlike. It probably does not involve producing world-class research papers that break exciting new ground and introduce important new ideas to the world. At least, I didn’t manage that when I was at school!
Anyone can engage in study. Anyone can read a book and learn something new, and can (hopefully!) find it interesting. Anyone can read some blog articles and then reflect upon the ideas and questions they pose.
In our clubs, we can encourage our students to read more, and to engage in the study of HEMA. There are translations of HEMA sources easily available for most disciplines. There are history books that help to give context to dates, names, and places. There are books about arms and armour that help us to learn more about the original tools of the trade. There are books about book culture throughout history – how did people in past centuries learn and use books for their own studies?
Videos on YouTube can be a great way to disseminate information relatively quickly and they can also be an easy way for people to find some interesting new information. However, watching a video where someone simply chats about their thoughts is not really “study” and is not really the best way to find high quality information that has been peer reviewed, edited, and found to be valid and verifiable.
Books are probably still the best source of high quality information with references to where that information comes from, and they are probably still the best way to support your own arguments and points of view.
Not everyone needs to possess a vast personal library, and not everyone can afford or provide space for a large personal library, but most of us should have access to a public library or to friends or clubmates who may have a relevant book.
As club leaders, how can we encourage more of our club members to find relevant books and information, and how can we facilitate such study so that our members can become better informed and more knowledgeable?
If we might define study as the act of studying and learning what other people have written, then what is research?
We might talk about “researching” train times, or “researching” the best prices for a new laptop, or “researching” the best and most reliable training swords produced for the practice of HEMA. However, these activities are probably not research in the academic sense, but are probably more like study! If we pose a question, and find out more about it, then study is the act of learning what we need to know about the issue. So what is research?
Formally, research is a process where you pose a question, find out everything you can about the matter, and then create a piece of scholarship that can help other people to learn about the issue. Research in academia has to involve some kind of publication, it has to add to the world’s store of knowledge that can be studied by other people, otherwise it doesn’t count.
Of course, we are not all academics who work at universities. We do not all need to hold ourselves to the same standards of output and academic rigour (although we might do well to aspire towards it). Nonetheless, THIS is the part of scholarship in HEMA that often puts people off and that seems most daunting.
Maybe you would like to learn more about the history of the time and place related to the art that you study. Do you need to write articles about it, or produce videos about it, or publish a book about it? Certainly not! I do not believe that we should expect scholarship to result in publications; we should not expect research and the publication of results to be the default for scholarship in our community. Of course, it would be nice if people would be able and willing to share their knowledge, but not everyone needs to become a published researcher. Not everyone has the skills or the opportunity, and it is perfectly alright just to want to learn a bit more about something for your own interests.
I believe that we should see personal study as the default for scholarship, and we should help encourage more people to read relevant books and articles to help increase their knowledge about their art and about its history and context. If someone wants to go above and beyond, then research would be the process of adding knowledge to the community so that other people can study this new information and perspective.
Transcriptions & translations
So we come to a somewhat tricky question. According to the definitions above, do translations and transcriptions count as study or research? They are clearly much more than simple personal reading for personal interest. And yet, do they answer a research question?
In formal academia, transcriptions and translations may be considered an important part of research, but they are not necessarily research by themselves. For example, a lecturer in Middle English would typically not just produce a translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but would publish some kind of critical edition through which students might learn more about the language, more about the history and culture of the medieval England, and more about the different surviving copies of the poem. The translation would be an important part of the research output, but it would just be a part of the research.
In our community where most of the transcriptions and translations (and, to be honest, most of the publications in general) are made by non-professionals who find it interesting and would like to share their work with other people, it might be nice to aspire towards a formal academic level of research, but it is not always possible or practical. Personally, I would rather see an amateur enthusiast make a translation and distribute it in the community than to “allow” translations only by people with a relevant PhD. We would all be much poorer for such gatekeeping.
When I speak with people online or at events, I often hear people say something like “oh, I would love to be more involved in the scholarly side of HEMA, but I don’t have language skills and I can’t translate anything”. This point of view carries the assumption that making transcriptions or translations is the ultimate aim of engaging in scholarship and that this should be the default behaviour.
As I state above, I think study should be the default. We should encourage everyone to read and to learn more about their chosen art and its context. If people do possess language skills, or if they want to become more involved with studying manuscripts a bit more directly, then translation and transcription might be a valid follow-up activity, going above and beyond the personal study. If people want to pose a research question and perform all the necessary learning and research to be able to publish a well-respected monograph (i.e. a book) through an academic publishing house, fantastic! But that should certainly not be the default, just like we should not assume that translation and transcription is the default for people who are interested in the sources as well as the swords.
Is scholarship important for the HEMA community? Yes, definitely! Without learning more about our subject, we hit a hard plateau, and the community stagnates and fails to develop any further.
Should everyone become a scholar? No, of course not. Equally silly questions would be: should everyone become a gold medallist competitor? Should everyone who likes swords become a blacksmith? Should everyone who likes books learn calligraphy and prepare their own vellum? Clearly, not everyone needs to do everything to a professional standard. But we do need scholars in the community, just as we need teachers and competitors and enthusiasts and blacksmiths and artists (and even insurance brokers).
Is it a case that either you perform research and publish translations, or you are an idiot and should leave such matters to the academics? No, far from it. That would be a false dichotomy. Everyone can find an interesting book and learn something useful and relevant. Everyone can study and become more knowledgeable about their chosen art. Not everyone needs to write articles, not everyone needs to make translations, not everyone needs to engage in academic research.
Is it a case that you have to be either a high flying fencer or some kind of crazy old professor? No. That’s also a false dichotomy. There are many people in the community who quite happily play with swords, who spar and maybe even enter competitions, and who will happily chat about sources and points of history over food and a pint (or several). Again, everyone can read a book and learn something interesting and relevant, and can chat about what we have read.
Hopefully, this article will help people realise that scholarship doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t need to consume your life! You don’t need to commit to publishing books or translating a whole 15th century manuscript, unless you want to, in which case go for it. If you would just like to find out a bit more about your art and its time and place in history, then do so, and don’t be afraid.
Ask for reading suggestions. Ask about YouTube channels or videos where people provide good quality information and don’t just waffle for ten or twenty minutes. Ask your event organisers to include lectures as well as workshops and tournaments. Ask your local equipment vendors what books they would recommend you buy along with your next sword or other gear purchase. Ask people at the club or at events if they have read anything interesting recently that helped them understand their HEMA better.
Let’s work together, as a community, to demystify scholarship in HEMA and make it seem more accessible than people often perceive it to be.
What one book could you recommend to your clubmates right now that would help them understand their HEMA better?
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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.