The British Federation for Historical Swordplay

What is HEMA?

HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and to be HEMA an activity must be all of those. That is, it must be drawn from a recognised historical source, it must originate in Europe (or with people of European descent), and it must be a historical fighting art. Some activities, such as 16th Century Italian rapier fencing or Polish military sabre, fall squarely and rather obviously in this area. In other cases, the situation may be a little more nebulous.

Some activities are most definitely Combative, European and Historical, but are still taught today. For example, there are references in Roman histories to traditional British wrestling, which suggests that this is definitely HEMA. But wrestling of this sort is still taught today, and is used with great effect by some Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitors. Does this mean that traditional wrestling is not HEMA after all?

The question here is one of context. If traditional wrestling is being taught for the purpose of training MMA competitors, then this is not HEMA. The same techniques, taught using the same methods but as a historical art would come under the remit of the BFHS. This is primarily an insurance issue, though it is also relevant to membership of the BFHS. Our member groups teach and train only historical European martial arts, and cannot mix in non-HEMA activities under our insurance policy or as BFHS members.

The earliest known historical source (at the present time) is the I33 manuscript, which may date from 1270 or a little later. It is not possible to provide historical provenance for fighting arts dating from before this period unless they appear in later manuscripts. The end-point of Historical arts is harder to pinpoint. First and Second World War Military Combatives are considered to be HEMA, and a strong case can be made for the duelling epee systems of the early to mid 20th Century. Again, context is more important than date in this case – 1920s competitive epee fencing might not be HEMA, but a duelling system from the same era would be.

HEMA is more than simply the equipment used. By way of example, obtaining a couple of authentic rapiers dating from 1600 and inventing a system for fencing with them is not HEMA since it lacks historical provenance. Similarly, fencing with authentic weapons but in a manner geared to winning tournaments as opposed to fencing ‘as if with sharps’ is not HEMA.

With the recent expansion of popularity, it is not really surprising that groups not previously associated have begun offering what may look like and/or be claimed to be HEMA. There is also some possibility of confusion with re-enactment, live-action roleplaying, stage combat and Olympic-style or ‘sport’ fencing. There are activities which are to a greater or lesser degree related to HEMA, and often with transferrable skills, but they are not the same thing.

The BFHS is not in a position to comment on the merits of other activities. By choice we are respectful of the skills, dedication and knowledge of others, and mindful that our own chosen activity might be politely described as ‘a bit niche’. The following comments are thus intended as the most general of descriptions, serving mainly to illustrate the differences between these activities and our own.

At the risk of excessive generalisation:

Re-Enactment is about putting on a show and re-creating the look and feel of a period in history. Re-enactors are often very skilled with their weapons and knowledgeable about them, but their focus is different to that of a HEMA group.

Live Action Roleplaying is a game wherein players act out stories set in a fictional world. LARPers may or may not be knowledgeable about real-world history or weapons use; some of their weaponry can be rather fanciful.

Stage Combat is a specialist skillset aimed at making a fight look exciting and convincing. Some elements of stage combat are historically authentic, others have nothing to do with actual combat but look dramatic on the stage or screen.

Olympic-Style or ‘Sport’ Fencing is the modern descendent of traditional swordplay. It is governed in the UK by British Fencing. Olympic-style fencing is electrically judged and is highly competitive, with technique geared more towards scoring under the current ruleset than using the weapon as if it were sharp.

Qualifications in teaching HEMA do not translate to the ability to teach any of these activities, nor does our insurance policy cover them. The converse also applies; a modern fencing coach or stage combat instructor is not qualified to teach HEMA unless they obtain separate accreditation.

Historical European Martial Arts is thus characterised by certain attributes. It is made up of both scholarship and fighting ability in varying proportions. Strokes and techniques are delivered as if the intention were to wound (but not excessively hard) and the weapons are used as if they were sharp. It must be possible to show how a given stroke or technique is derived from a historical source.

At the same time, an element of practicality must also exist and of course we are not re-enacting or playing a role. We are studying historical swordplay and related martial arts, but we are not pretending to live in the past.

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