“You know, martial arts are useless in the age of the gun!”

Last weekend, an Australian man with no inner monologue approached me and a couple members of my HEMA club with the following statement: “You know, martial arts are useless in the age of the gun!” Which, even without the accent, would have been a weird thing to say and a weird way to say it. My instructor gave him a thumbs up in acknowledgement and we got back to what we were doing.

But, like all personal attacks I receive about things I like, it got me thinking and self analyzing. Even though I fully acknowledge that swordfighting is a fringe, archaic hobby without a ton of real-world applications, I’m only human — and humans are naturally defensive. So, I got to thinking up a rhetorical rebuttal to this man, who walks around parks and talks at people:

“No shit.”

Kind of glib, but like I said, we were in the middle of something when he interrupted. But this also raises what I think is an important point about HEMA, or any hobby or activity that isn’t strictly speaking practical. Of course we know that guns > swords. But you can’t live your life only doing what’s practical or necessary. I mean, look at people who have a shitload of guns. Is that practical? No. Chances are that if you have a gun for self-defense, you’ll never use it for that purpose. Really, carrying any kind of weapon in modern day America is impractical, so learning how to shoot is probably less practical than learning how to punch somebody with your car keys.

Still, his statement had me asking myself: why do I think HEMA is important? Do I think it’s important? After all, just because you like something does not mean you think it’s worthwhile. Plenty of us spend our time doing things we consider a complete waste: Netflix binges, commenting on YouTube videos, buying your dog a birthday card, etc.

The sword is obviously no longer an important part of our day to day lives. But it also features heavily in our contemporary culture and, for that reason, I think it still has importance.

Though the sword stopped being widely used in a military context by the early/mid-20th century (they were still used in WWII, but were in the process of being outclassed by ballistic sidearms), they are still very much alive in contemporary media. From Game of Thrones to Vikings to Kill Bill, the sword remains an appealing symbol in historical, fantastical and even modern contexts. Although the sword is effectively obsolete (I mean, they still work, but people aren’t wearing them), modern culture still places some kind of value on them. No tour of a wildly successful rap artist’s home is complete without checking out his katana collection. Today, we even put the sword on a pedestal, deifying it beyond its historical proportions. It was not the best weapon of its time, simply a fashionable and convenient sidearm. It was more akin to the pistol than the rifle. But the mythology of the sword — particularly eastern swords — has raised it to a level beyond practical application. If we have decided that the sword is still a lofty symbol in our modern culture, to the point where it features in contemporary military recruitment advertisements, then it’s important enough to learn about, if only to make the pop culture representations better.

TL;DR: Did you think some of the fighting scenes in Game of Thrones season five were kind of shitty? Then you should at least support the concept of people studying this stuff. it might make shows better.

Also, this happened last year in India, so you never know:

(Errant final point: Sometimes you don’t have a gun with you. For many of us, that’s literally all of the time. This is when martial arts might come in handy.)

Do you guys talk in funny accents and wear silly, puffy pants?

Quick post: When someone who doesn’t know what “historical fencing” is asks me a question about it, it’s usually: “Do you guys talk in funny accents and wear silly, puffy pants?” (you might remember this line from the post title).

There are a lot of different groups of people who do reenactments, Renaissance fairs, stage combat, Society for Creative Anachronism, etc. These things aren’t mutually exclusive of HEMA — a lot of people do HEMA and one or more of the other things. A lot of people do HEMA and eastern martial arts, like Jiu Jitsu or Aikido.

See? Most of us don't look this good naked. And sometimes it's cold.
See? Most of us don’t look this good naked. Also, while this guy may not be too well endowed, he’s also getting stabbed in the face, so cut him some slack.

But I think the short answer is that HEMA is not about reenactment. If you want to wear period-accurate gambesons and steel gauntlets, you can do that. But, you can also wear polyester gambesons with PVC armor and lacrosse gloves. We also wear modern fencing masks, which are not period-appropriate. Most of the techniques we study are intended for unarmored fighting, which means that all of the safety gear we’re wearing is effectively just there for practical safety purposes. We’re not really trying to emulate the fashion shown in the manuals. This is especially important to note when it comes to Renaissance fencing plates, where the figures are drawn naked.

So, if you’re trying to wrap your head around what exactly HEMA is — is it a sport? Is it for reenactors? Roleplaying? — just think about how you view the more established Eastern Martial arts. The focus is on the martial art, the techniques, the forms, the guards, economy of body movement, how to swing and thrust a weapon, how to defend against an attack, etc. It’s also about treating even a blunt fencing sword as if it was sharp. We’re basically training as if we’re preparing for a swordfight that will never actually happen (barring your various post-apocalypse fantasies, or a trip to Saudi Arabia). And, if you think that’s kind of dumb, maybe you’re right. But then so is playing any sport unless you plan on going professional. It’s OK to do something just to do it. Any reason beyond that is gravy.

The primary difference from a modern martial art like, say, Krav Maga, (aside from the fact that we’re using weapons nobody uses anymore, except for knives) is that our source material is about 600 years old and people are still figuring out what these guys meant and how to fill in the various gaps in our understanding. For those who are interested in that period of time and place, working with these manuals isn’t just a good way to learn how to use a sword (or dagger, or grappling, etc.) — it’s a way to understand how people back then thought, how they approached pedagogy, and how and why they might go through the extraordinary effort of writing and publishing works during a time where doing so was very labor intensive. Plus, you get to see their margin doodles:

Jousting competition between a rabbit riding a snail man vs. a golden retriever riding a rabbit. Pretty typical shit.
Jousting competition between a rabbit riding a snail man vs. a golden retriever riding a rabbit. Pretty typical shit.

Anyway, back to my main point: cosplaying for HEMA is like cosplaying at the opening night for a fantasy movie. You can do it if you want, but most people aren’t and it’s definitely not mandatory.

Fencing vs. sport fencing

Some, not me, but some, might say that I really blew it in that last post by not explaining the difference between fencing and sport fencing.

When most people think “fencing,” they think of Olympic fencing. Or, this:

It’s easy to dump on sport fencing and make snide little remarks about how it looks more like the members of Daft Punk playing electric tag with straightened out coat hangers than it resembles a sword fight, but we don’t do that here. Here, we think it’s still pretty cool, but it’s a very different art than fencing in the classical sense, or “historical fencing.”

Don't feel too bad for this guy -- there's a solid chance he was a Nazi. (source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)
Don’t feel too bad for this guy — there’s a solid chance he was a Nazi.
(source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)

Sport fencing is the game of tag that evolved from fencing, which, historically, meant training in martial combat, especially for defensive purposes. As sword culture came into the modern age, laws changed and stabbing someone in the street for a minor offense became less socially acceptable. Rules were introduced into fencing culture to mitigate injury and keep things civilized. This is where you get strictly regulated fencing forms like Mensur, in which two German frat boys slash at each other’s faces with sharp swords while keeping their feet planted and maintaining a fixed distance with the opponent. I should note that Mensur is not actually a sport, but rather a German pastime in which there are no winners or losers, only questionable character building and rad facial scarring.

Here’s a breakdown of the basic differences between sport and historical fencing:

  1. Emphasis on defense – Historical fencing takes into account the concept of not dying. Not dying was a big deal during the Middle Ages, especially since they didn’t really have trauma surgery or antibiotics. Sport fencing, meanwhile, is about tagging the other guy first without worrying so much about what happens after. In historical fencing, landing a hit is great, but isn’t worth much if you take a hit immediately after. You have to assume that your opponent might not “die” from their wounds until after the duel is over, meaning that as long as they are upright, in range and armed, they are still a threat. This is also why we often play through hits — i.e., the fight isn’t necessarily over after a successful hit.
  2. Lateral movement – Sport fencing is linear, so it’s a bit like it happens in a two-dimensional plane. Historical fencing does not do this. Stepping offline to avoid an attack or to open up a new line of attack is extremely important. Can’t get through your opponent’s defenses head-on? Go around to the side.
  3. The gear – Sport fencing weapons — saber, foil and epée — have evolved over time to be very different from the swords that inspired them. Historical fencing aims to find the right balance between safety and historical accuracy with its wood, synthetic or blunt steel weapons. HEMA also incorporates real swords (sharps) for test cutting and even controlled sparring. Heavier protective equipment is usually worn, particularly in a tournament setting, or when sparring at higher speed and/or with steel. This could be anything from lacrosse and motocross armor to specialized modern HEMA gear to historically accurate clothing like gambesons, mail or even full plate.
  4. Rules – Sport fencing has rules, but I don’t really know what they are. Historical fencing has no rules. You can head butt, punch, go for the groin, throw your weapon, stab your opponent with their own sword or dagger — whatever. The limits are self-imposed; think of it like a BDSM sex dungeon where the participants set their own rules based on preference and safety. The safe word is usually a labored “YIELD.”
  5. Colors – Sport fencers wear white and HEMA fencers wear black, mostly. I have no idea why, but good luck finding a HEMA fencing jacket that isn’t black.
  6. The aim of the art – Sport fencing aims to play to the rules of sport fencing. HEMA/historical fencing aims to play to history. The goal is to understand the fighting systems of whichever period in history you’re focusing on.

This isn’t all to say there is no sport in HEMA. Tournaments like Longpoint, Swordfish, IGX and more feature a spectator-sport atmosphere, rulesets and scoring systems. The important distinction to make, however, is that these tournaments are not what HEMA is all about. They are extensions of the movement, rather than its focal point. The goal is the training; the tournaments provide an outlet for this training, but they are not the end in mind at weekly practice.