Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wield a sword and fight like a musketeer or the medieval knights of old? If so, then you’re in luck because their martial traditions are still alive and in use with Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Let’s talk about the hidden world of HEMA and begin to explore its long and fascinating history, benefits of training, weapons, gear, techniques, and even tournaments!
What is Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)?
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is a modern martial arts discipline that seeks to recreate and revive the techniques of European martial arts that were practiced in the past. HEMA is based on surviving historical sources such as manuals, treatises, and other documents that detail the techniques of medieval and Renaissance European warriors, soldiers and famous duelists.
HEMA is not just a martial art, but a cultural hobby practiced by people from all walks of life. It is an inclusive art form, open to everyone regardless of age, gender, or physical ability. With cross gendered competition built into the system from the very beginning as well as safe spaces for underrepresented genders, HEMA is one of the most inclusive sports out there. It is also a great way to increase fitness and reinforce healthy habits while building confidence and coordination.
HEMA is about learning a specific way to use each weapon rather than just swinging a weapon around or figuring it out as you go. We learn on the shoulders of giants through lineages that have traveled through the ages. The lineage of HEMA dates back thousands of years and originated in places like ancient Greece with the hoplites developing regimented combat styles. Specific styles of using a weapon can be seen with Roman gladiators and their “classes” that came with a fixed set of equipment that was used in a consistent way. Over the centuries countless lineages circled around Europe, being passed down from generation to generation and being slowly refined until the medieval sword masters eschewed the oral tradition and chose to write down their thoughts and techniques.
During the Middle Ages, sword fighting schools flourished across Europe. Most every region developed their own styles and variations of swords which were driven by war and by these very schools! Two prominent styles used today are the 14th century Italian based on Fiore de’i Liberi treaties and 15th century German based on the works of Johannes Liechtenauer. Unfortunately with the growing prevalence of guns, sword based martial arts began to fade away from a martial tradition and evolved into a practice of the upper class and military officers. Many manuals and treaties did not survive and many regions' styles have been lost to time. However the upper class eventually developed olympic sport fencing and military officers, in a 19th century Medieval revival period led by Alfred Hutton, developed their own manuals that are still used in HEMA today.
While western weapons based martial arts never truly faded away it wasn’t until the 20th century that many foundational pieces of HEMA were rediscovered and revived. In the late 1990s, a group of martial arts enthusiasts started to study and practice HEMA by translating these works and trying out living archeology. It is on their shoulders that the modern practice of HEMA was born. Today, HEMA is practiced all over the world and is a growing martial arts discipline.