There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.
When I got involved in historical fencing, I thought that it was a community of amateur scholars with a broad interest in history like the serious re-enactment groups I knew. The end of the community which I became involved with was led by former members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who had drifted away from the organization as their interests drew them in a more historical, less creatively anachronistic direction. While my academic déformation professionnelle means that I often have small differences with people whose focus is on recreating past skills and experiences, I can usually find enough common ground to have a conversation with them, and sometimes I have a source to contribute which is much more useful to them than to the academics who originally discovered it. It was obvious to me that turning 15th century manuscripts into working martial arts required a broad familiarity with academic research in medieval studies, and the historical fencers whom I knew seemed to agree.
As the years passed and I explored the movement, however, I had a number of unsettling experiences. Several prominent members of the community began to transform themselves into gurus or life coaches. I did not have anything in my experience to prepare me for that transformation, since to me a fencing instructor was someone who taught a simple, practical skill like carpentry which made them no wiser or more foolish than anyone else. When I asked questions about people’s interpretations of the fencing manuals with the same polite insistence which I apply to any other claim about the past, I did not always get the answers which I wanted, and attending events to ask questions in person and gathering books and articles did not help. In an email exchange, I was startled to learn that an American member of the community who is very active online, and very critical of the mainstream consensus about how to read the 15th century manuscripts I worked on, had not read the best book describing that consensus several years after it was published; no doubt he was equally surprised that I expected him to address the best arguments for the consensus as part of his defence of his own views. And I discovered that the movement was embroiled in bizarre personal politics, with many instructors outside the group which taught at WMAW feeling themselves excluded and talked-down-to and founding their own counter-events and anti-organizations in response. (I first understood in my gut why they feel that way as I read The Medieval Longsword by one of the instructors ‘in’ at WMAW).
In the end, however, these personal politics were drowned by larger forces. Many of the founders of the HEMA movement were lukewarm about creating tournaments for their students to demonstrate their skill, whether because their own experience in combat sports had left a bad taste in their mouth, or because they felt that historical fencers were not yet skilled enough to fence safely under the stress of competition. (An early tournament in Vancouver circa 2009 kept the volunteers busy mopping up blood, and I saw a bad fall and many wardrobe malfunctions at a tournament in Bavaria in 2014). Some of the groups which were less lukewarm found that attendance at their lessons exploded if they offered competition and framed it in the right way, positioning themselves as more athletically serious and less nerdy than other kinds of historically-themed fun with swords.
This tournament-focused branch of the movement has rapidly developed its own culture and tribal markings: members can be recognized by their black nylon sportswear, painted fencing masks, and habit of reciting a long list of clauses “we are not LARPers … we are not re-enactors … we are not Battle of the Nations … we are not the SCA …” to anyone who does not run away fast enough.* This community gets very excited whenever someone finds a new fencing manual, or publishes a book on fencing schools or illegal violence with the right flavour, but is quieter when someone suggests that understanding a fifteenth-century text requires a variety of knowledge and skills taught by medievalists who are not interested in swords, or that if their favourite source has large sections on fighting in armour and on horseback, they might want to buy armour and try riding one day.
In most parts of Europe and the US this branch has rapidly outgrown the wider movement that birthed it, although things seem different in some places (the Spanish, for example, still seem to prefer a more academic approach). Indeed, I predict that as the sport fencers aggressively seize the name “HEMA” and loudly define themselves against other branches of the movement, people in those other, smaller branches will find it easier to adopt new names than to keep pushing back.** I am certainly tired of explaining to them “no, actually some of us think historical clothing is nifty! I don’t want to talk about how to make a better tournament. And insulting other groups which play with swords is not cool, because if we are polite some of them may try what we do and decide it is fun too.”
While I have put historical fencing aside due to lack of local practice partners and the press of my studies, I hope to take it up again one day. I love the sources, and think that reconstructing martial arts from manuals has produced some research which could be written up in a formal academic way and which should be more widely known. Fencing is a good excuse to get some exercise, and historical fencing is safe enough as long as one stays away from tournaments. Historical fencing has introduced me to an assortment of curious characters more marvellous than those in any Feynmann story. But right now, when I want to talk to non-academics about history, I find a more stimulating, respectful environment amongst people who practice historical crafts using blacksmith’s hammer or tailor’s shears or song book. I thought that historical fencers were interested in history, and I was wrong. While there are scholarly and broad people in that community, they are very scarce, and it is easier to identify them by their membership in other hobbies than to look for them in the wider historical fencing community. Asking historical fencers in general why they interpret the sources the way that they do, or encouraging them to read broadly in the sources from the place and time which produced the fencing manuals they work on, does not feel like a good use of my time.
This essay was written sick and revised sober, in the manner of a Persian council.
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* The best place to get a feel for the style of dress which the sport HEMA movement uses to identify itself is photos from tournaments such as Swordfish, although arguments about equipment are also educational (many members are humourlessly determined that their kit have no bare metal, even where strength and lightness are most important such as the hands, just as they insist that their kit is not armour and must not look like armour, even as they burden themselves with hard plastic shin-guards and thick synthetic coats). Most of the reciting of lists occurs face-to-face, but there is a beautiful example in the HEMAC Manifesto (complete with a promise that “some of our best friends are re-enactors!”) and another on video in the documentary Back to the Source which is available on YouTube. I understand that sites like Reddit and Tumblr contain all kinds of material where people deeply involved in the sport faction talk about what is important to them (Edit 2016-04-13: and in fact, a fellow in the Netherlands on Tumblr does not like this post one bit). (Edit 2016-04-25: Another crystal-clear example occurred on YouTube, where Paul Wagner, a very well established Australian member of the community, demonstrated that the padded jackets which are popular with fencers today do not protect very well against blows with blunt swords, and suggested borrowing ideas from historical armour such as stuffing the jackets with small plates; a viewer felt that he was missing the point, so explained “Thank god we have the AP Spes jacket so we dont have to look like larpers.” As far as I know, that jacket is no more protective than the style which Wagner had just demonstrated did not work). (Edit 2017-05-31: And just to get the full trifecta, someone interested in 16th century fencing on Reddit warns someone curious about the movement that “People get shit for wearing puffy pants at tournaments, even though they are depicted in the manuals we study.” I have to say though, at the events I attended in the USA and Canada, you could wear what you liked as long as it was safe). (Edit 2019-04-23: For a view from inside another end of the community, see the learned and revealing article by Jack Gassmann, Jürg Gassmann, and Dominique Le Coultre, “Fighting with the Longsword: Modern-Day HEMA Practices,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5.2 (2017) pp. 115-133 https://doi.org/10.1515/apd-2017-0011 which walks through every one of the ethnic markers I noticed but presents them as pure common sense)
One thing which made me realize that I was seeing ethnogenesis in action was when I heard an American state exactly the same excuse for banning metal masks and gloves which I had read a few years earlier from an Austrian:
Q: Out of curiosity, why do [many HEMA tournaments] ban metal gauntlets? A: You are not allowed to wear metal armour in HEMA because you are allowed to grapple your opponent. Imagine getting hit in the throat with a 16ga steel gauntlet during a tumble…
Q: Wenn ich fragen därf, warum ist Schutzausrüstung aus Metall verboten? A: Weil es kein Ritter Turnier ist sondern eine moderne, sportliche Veranstaltung: altes Fechten in neuem Gewand, vergleichbar mit dem heutigen Fechtsport. Darüber hinaus, aus Sicherheitsgründen: Ringen ist ein wichtiger Bestandteil dieses Fechtens. Harnischteile, besonders Stahlhelme, sind beim Ringen sehr gefährlich, da sie Hebel bilden (Nacken) oder einen Gegner, der selbst keine Harnischteile verwendet, durch ihre Kanten gefährden.
Personally, if I trust someone enough to let them pommel me in the face with a sword, I trust them enough to use an appropriate level of force in punches, locks, and throws, and I don’t see any scharfe Kanten (sharp edges) on the helmets by That Guy’s Products and Windrose Armoury which I have handled. But maybe I am just macho and heedless of the danger. ↑
** For example, Ilkka Hartikainen, a very physically capable practitioner of 16th century fencing, publicly stepped away from the ‘HEMA’ label in July 2015 (http://marozzo.com/2015/07/16/what-is-hema). As he explained, he was tired of people assuming that he also did 15th or 17th century fencing, or wrestling, or all the other diverse activities in the wider HEMA movement. I know others who have continued to fence and teach but lost interest in being part of a wider movement. ↑