What is HEMA?

Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell
Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell fencing on the banks of Loch Lomond. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2012.

What is HEMA?

“HEMA” is an acronym for “historical European martial arts”, which are the martial traditions from Europe’s history. This activity is also sometimes called “historical fencing”, or “WMA”, for “Western martial arts”.

We work with textbooks written by medieval, renaissance, and early-modern fencing masters, who codified their art into writing. They wrote treatises about fighting with the different weapons of their day, and these treatises survive in manuscripts and printed books, in libraries and collections all over the world.

We study these books, interpret the treatises, and teach the fighting systems as proper modern martial arts. For this, we use safe modern equipment: our training swords are blunt and made from high quality steel (and we also use durable plastics for some training swords); we use fencing masks and padded gloves to keep ourselves safe. By using modern equipment, it allows us to practise these historical fencing skills in a comprehensive and complete fashion without any worries about safety.

Daria Izdebska and Keith Farrell fencing with the longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

HEMA engages the brain

There is a strong academic aspect to HEMA for people who are interested in getting the brain involved. A complete study of HEMA involves history of art, learning about the social and legal contexts of different countries and places in history, discovering the biography of the fencing masters themselves. There is also learning about codicology to study the books and manuscripts, and learning about language and historical languages to be able to engage with the source material directly. We study the physical pieces of arms, armour, and other textiles that are extant in museums and other collections, allowing us to understand the items about which the treatises have been written.

Of course, not everyone is interested in all of these aspects of HEMA, and not everyone needs to be. If it strikes your fancy, then the instructor will be delighted to point you towards some useful reading material to get started. It is very easy to start learning more about the history and context of the arts we study, and, if you want more, it is quite possible to become involved in further research for publication on blogs, in peer-reviewed journal, or traditionally published printed books.

sword and buckler
A sword and buckler sitting on a table at the University of Glasgow. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2011.

HEMA can be a high level sport

For people who are more physical, the practice of HEMA can be elevated to a very high level of athleticism and competition, with tournaments all around the UK, Europe, and internationally. Although competition is not a focus for many practitioners, entering competitions is a healthy part of developing a complete skill-set, and the best way to do well in competitions is to display good fencing skills developed through competent and diligent training at club level.

I have competed in tournaments around the world, and have won some medals. While I am not a very competitive person at heart, I recognise just how useful competitions have been in helping me improve my fencing skills, and so I recommend that most people should consider entering some competitions at some point in time. Of course, it is better to ensure that you have a solid grasp of your fundamentals, and you should be able to keep yourself safe in sparring when fencing with people from other clubs, who might do things a little differently to your normal training partners.

Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie
Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie fencing with sabres at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

HEMA can be a gentle and low-impact motion

While the techniques and sequences can be used in high-intensity, high-impact situations, they can also be practised and performed in a relatively gentle and low-impact fashion. HEMA can be a very enjoyable way to stretch and move the body, improving your general fitness and your understanding of how the body works.

The focus in any lesson I teach is learning to do everything correctly, with a strong emphasis on body structure and the mechanics of each action. This makes the activity perfect for people who just want to move around and do something interesting with sword in hand, without worrying about high-intensity sparring or competitions. It can be challenging enough to coordinate the body so that everything works as it should!

Keith Farrell and Colin Farrell
Keith and his brother Colin fencing with longswords during a demonstration at Glasgow University. Photo by Rene Bauer, 2012.

HEMA is inclusive and friendly

One of the best things about HEMA and the community is that the activity is totally inclusive. Men and women, young and old, fit and unfit, natively European or coming from anywhere else in the world – everyone is welcome.

I have met some truly fantastic people in my travels. As I have been invited to teach at events through Europe, North America, and Australia, I have had the opportunity to meet some tremendous fencers, some kind and generous hosts, some knowledgeable scholars, and some inspiring teachers. At each event, it is a pleasure to socialise with all the attendees, getting to know them and learning what draws them to HEMA. It is fair to say that at most HEMA gatherings, we spend about as much time socialising with drinks in hand as we do fencing with swords in hand!

Keith Farrell teaching at the LangHEMA 2016 event in Alba, Italy. Photo by Le Spire del Lupo, 2016.
Keith Farrell teaching at the LangHEMA 2016 event in Alba, Italy. Photo by Le Spire del Lupo, 2016.

Getting involved in HEMA

The HEMA community is growing quickly, and new clubs are shooting up all over the place. There may well be a HEMA club in your city, or nearby. If not, then set one up and introduce yourself to the community!

I teach a club in Liverpool, aptly named Liverpool HEMA. If you are in the north west of England, and would like to drop by, please feel more than welcome to get in touch with us and invite yourself along to a session.

My organisation also has a full time training venue in Glasgow: the Vanguard Centre. If you are in the central belt of Scotland, again, feel free to invite yourself to the school and take part in whatever activity is taking place that day.