A few months ago, there was an interesting question on Reddit, which I attempted to answer. I would like to expand upon my answer a little and to preserve it here on my website, because it is a question I see every so often, and I do like to have a well-prepared response handy!
The original question was as follows:
Can you wear medieval armor to a longsword tournament?
Okay, this sounds like a crazy idea, but there’s a HEMA group in my area. One guy that trains there occasionally turns up to practice wearing a knight helmet. Another guy once wore a US civil war era uniform to Saber practice.
I think it is worth assuming that the question was asked in good faith, and therefore to provide a reasonable and properly-explained answer.
There are a lot of events running these days, and it is conceivable that some of them might allow this.
However, the vast majority of events would not. It could be for safety reasons (such as making sure there are no gaps through which a thrust could slip), for aesthetic reasons (at this tournament, we want everyone to look like modern sportspeople), for liability reasons (our insurers require that we mandate that every piece of equipment is CEN rated), or for whatever reason the organisers deem relevant.
In terms of protection, it’s easy to say that steel armour has to be more protective than HEMA gear. It’s maybe also easy to point to someone’s steel or titanium harness that cost a five-figure sum and to say that is probably better than a padded HEMA jacket, Sparring Gloves, and fencing mask, that together still cost less than £500.
But what if we compare like with like, and look at the cheap and cheerful steel “armour” that you can buy from eBay for bad reenactment or for LARP? It is not necessarily that great, and I know of people who had their hands broken in ill-fitting steel gauntlets.
Without knowing the provenance of any given piece of equipment, it is probably easier just to mandate that people wear HEMA gear from recognised HEMA manufacturers, so that there is the best chance that everyone’s equipment is going to be fit for purpose with no nasty surprises.
Making sure we are playing the same game
I am always hesitant to let people come to my club or events wearing things from other sword sports. I would like to have the peace of mind of knowing that my participants are wearing protective gear that is designed for what we do and that is suitably safe. Furthermore, I always wonder if people actually understand what we are trying to do and whether they are going to be willing to play our game if they turn up wearing things from other sword sports – if they are not willing to play our game and insist on behaving like it is a different sword game, then they might do things that are unsafe for our people and our activity.
To expand on this, I would not turn up to a tennis club with the expectation that I could continue to play badminton there. Nor would I turn up to a table-tennis club with a squash ball and racquet. Although these are all racquet sports, they are all quite different, and that’s part of the reason that they use different equipment. It probably would not be much fun or very safe if people gave full blown tennis serves at a table-tennis club, so it is important that everyone is playing the same game, with the same kind of rules and conventions, and with the same kind of equipment.
Aesthetics and what these might mean
Finally, when people make an aesthetic choice, such as wearing steel armour instead of HEMA gear, it can make other people feel quite uncomfortable and perhaps even feel unwelcome. It can be a quick way to make your other students (or prospective students) lose their trust in the club by allowing potentially tone-deaf people to turn up wearing whatever they want, that might often be loaded with problematic connotations.
The original question about whether or not you can wear medieval armour to HEMA events is one that has been asked often over the years. I think that it is worth returning to it from time to time, to make sure that people understand why we tend to do things the way we do in the community.
After giving this answer, I was asked a follow-up question:
Just curious as to the last bit of your comment – what problematic connotations might wearing medieval armour have? I don’t advocate for this at all, just curious as to this last bit of your comment.
This is a good catch, and is probably something in my answer that requires further expansion.
There could be quite a few issues that people wonder about when they see someone wearing a piece of armour instead of more “normal” HEMA gear.
Maybe a sign of hard hitting?
For example, the people who tend to wear steel helmets for sword sports tend to be reenactors, SCA people, and HMB people. The SCA and HMB people are certainly in the habit of hitting hard when they fight – the whole purpose of wearing the steel armour is so that they can do so.
Therefore, if someone turns up to a club or event in a steel helmet, people might begin to wonder if this person is going to be a hard hitter. And if the event organisers or club leaders allow a hard hitter into the training space, what does that say about their approach to contact levels and risk mitigation in general?
Someone who is a bit more hesitant about receiving hard hits might easily decide that they can’t take the risk and won’t come back to the club as a result. It could be a prospective new member who is lost, or it could be a long-term member who just does not feel safe anymore. I have seen both examples occur in clubs over the years.
That is one of the things I think to myself when I see people in steel armour at HEMA events – unless, of course, there is supposed to be some kampffechten at the event, in which case it is all perfectly reasonable. But if someone turns up to a general training session or sparring gathering and is wearing steel armour, I do begin to wonder about what sort of level of contact is going to be accepted or even expected.
Is there a reason why they wear these symbols?
Another example would be if someone turns up wearing Templar regalia as part of the armour. While that is not by itself a huge problem, it can make people start to wonder if this person gravitates towards the Templars for a specific reason, or if the regalia is a sign of their beliefs. The simple presence of certain insignia can make people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know whether or not it suggests something about the person wearing it, and furthermore, whether it suggests something about what is permitted by the club leaders or event organisers.
If that seems a bit far-fetched, because you haven’t had the experience yourself of such things being a problem, then I would urge you to try to think about it from the perspective of people who have had the experience of being on the receiving end of problematic political or social views. To make a training environment safe for people who have suffered such experience, the very least that club leaders and event organisers can do is to make sure that people are not flaunting symbols of such views. I wouldn’t let people come into my class if they were proudly wearing a swastika, and so I would also be hesitant if someone wanted to wear something with considerable links to the Crusades or suchlike.
It is all a bit of a sliding scale. Does all of that apply if someone turns up with steel gauntlets because they want to keep their hands safe? What about steel knee or elbow cops, or a gorget with steel plates? There is clearly a reasonable end of the scale, and with some items the most reasonable explanation is that people want to wear them because they believe these items to be more protective than the more modern alternative.
At the other end of the scale, however, the simple act of someone turning up wearing certain things can cause other people to feel a bit worried about all the baggage that might come with that. The worries might be unnecessary and the person in question might be truly lovely (but maybe totally oblivious of what their choices of gear are making other people think), or the worries might be quite on-point and informed by long experience.
I believe that a good event organiser or club leader should at least think about these things and how to deal with it should the situation ever arise. Any answer could be the right answer for any given club or event; but every answer will encourage some people and discourage other people, and there is no way around that.
I don’t think this is a particularly hot topic for discussion at the moment. It used to be, a few years ago, when there was much less HEMA gear available off the shelf for people to buy. But nonetheless, it is still a discussion that comes up from time to time as new people ask what seems to be quite a reasonable question. And therefore, it is worth having an article with thoughts on the matter, to share with people who are asking the question in good faith.
And of course, it is always worth revisiting some of our base assumptions every so often, to consider if the way that we are doing things or if the decisions we have made are still sensible and working well for us. It is always good to let people ask “why” or “why not”, and it is also important that if we feel strongly about the issue, we have a good explanation to offer in our answer!
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.