HEMA—A historian’s perspective

So, to start with, what is HEMA? The acronym stands for Historical European Martial Arts. Fine. What’s it all about? Basically, we realised we had a bunch of previously forgotten manuscripts which were dedicated to teaching you how to fight—ranging from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to the Early Modern Era. Ever wanted to fight like a knight, a Renaissance gentleman or a Scottish highlander? No problem. Now you could do it authentically.

But, big deal right? Fun for those people who want to do re-enactment but what purpose does it really serve? I admit, I find it enjoyable but after delving into these manuscripts myself, with a historian’s eye, I think there’s something really beneficial the study of HEMA can do for history as a whole.

What is the key problem with history? Ever heard the term, “social sciences”?  Well, if you’ve ever been on a university campus you’ll have probably had or overheard an argument about whether the Arts are as valuable as “proper” science and if things such as history should be classed as social science. I love history, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve got a point.

I would say in the practice of history we try to be as “scientific” as possible. We try and base our theories on the evidence available. There’s just one catch, you can’t replicate the past. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And the further back you go, not only have you’ve got even less to work with but the societies become even more different to our own. You can dress a modern Italian up in a toga and hail him “imperator”, you can even feed him garum and give him slaves in a quasi-Stanford Prison Experiment, but he’s not going to know what it’s like to think and speak in Latin (and maybe a little Greek) or what it’s like to live in a society with high infant mortality and Hannibal at the gates. And I doubt he’d go for sponge loos even if you told him to.

You get what I’m saying? The best we can do is a shallow surface that looks like the past. Great for films and TV. Great for writing a novel… but we don’t have the resources or (I would expect) legal consent to fully reconstruct an ancient society with actual living humans. And, even then, we still have too many missing pieces. Science relies on the ability to test hypotheses through repeated experiments. The key problem in history is that even the evidence that survives is inherently one-off and unique and can’t be repeated.

Now there are other branches of social science which come closer to being a proper science. I would say psychology is definitely there (duh) but political science comes close. It uses history to find patterns it can use both to predict the future and mould it to be better than the past (ideally anyway). But I would argue that HEMA is, in a very real sense, about as close to scientific as we can get within the practice of history itself.

Some HEMA texts are more detailed than others, but when you’re working with something like Fiore’s Fior Di Battaglia you’re almost working with a step-by-step guide for how to fight. You can follow his detailed techniques, try them out and see if they work. If they do, yay, if not you can experiment to see why. See what I said there? Experiment.

Reconstructing forgotten but detailed martial arts gives you the unique combination of precise directions to follow and the chance to actually try them out. You have both the historical source and a chance to test it. It gives you a chance to scientifically get as close to replicating that aspect of history—historical combat—as possible.

Now a few naysayers will probably say a few things here.

How can you know what you’ve come up with was the same as what they did? We can’t always know for sure but our bodies are limited by biomechanics i.e. there’s only a finite number of ways to do things, so with diagrams and explanations, it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities. Also, if people in different countries, experimenting with the same source material, end up with similar interpretations based off repeated experimentation, that itself is a form of scientific experiment.

You’re not actually afraid for your life so it doesn’t count. I dare anyone who says this to go along to any kind of martial art, re-enactment or even LARP group, fight people there and then say it. Humans have an inherent natural fear of getting hit and adrenaline only makes that more acute. There may be some people in competitions who game the system with martially unsound attacks but the pain (or shame) of being struck is enough for the rest of us to treat it, in a sense, seriously.

You’re not using sharp swords, unless you’re using sharp swords it doesn’t count. This is rubbish for two reasons. One, we do actually have a few (crazy) people who test the techniques with sharp swords. Turns out they work even better. Guy Windsor would be your key man to check out if you don’t believe me. Two, people in the past rarely actually trained with properly sharp weapons (for obvious reasons). Everything from the Romans’ use of heavy wooden gladii, to the Ottoman game of Matrak, points to a belief that you could effectively train valuable skills without using properly sharp swords.

I could go on but hopefully you get the idea. My point is that HEMA gives us a way of testing a historical phenomenon and being able to effectively reconstruct it. We still aren’t fully there yet in understanding every aspect of every system, but the beauty of it is that we can try. We might not always be able to apply the scientific method in history, but the times we can should remind us how valuable it can be.

Now I get that that was a long rant. Hopefully it was worth it. Maybe I’ve convinced you there’s something special about HEMA, or maybe I’m just showing my own biases for all to see; the beauty of history…

(photo: excerpt from Fiore Dei Liberi’s Fior Di Battaglia. Source Getty Museum. English translation available at http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fiore_de%27i_Liberi)

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