As with all martial arts and combat sports, HEMA comes in many flavours. There are also various activities that resemble Historical European Martial Arts but which are not quite the same. There are many groups within the BFHS and many more outside it; if one activity or group is not to your liking there may be another that suits you better.
The BFHS can guarantee the standard of teaching in groups which have qualified under our own programme; we cannot comment on the standards of others. We would advise those interested in HEMA to watch for certain ‘red flags’ and to treat any group that has one or more of these traits with caution. There are also more individual considerations, some of which begin with the prospective student.
For example, not everyone who thinks they want to join a HEMA group is actually looking for what it will offer. Stage fighting, re-enactment or Olympic-style fencing might actually suit you better – though of course these are not mutually exclusive with HEMA. It is quite possible to be involved in several related activities and to gain relevant experience and skills from all of them.
Many of the ‘red flags’ associated with HEMA (or ‘claiming-to-be-HEMA’) groups are similar to those associated with other martial arts.
Racism, Sexism and other forms of Discrimination have no place in any activity. HEMA is sufficiently diverse that almost anyone should be able to take part, perhaps in a modified way to suit their capabilities. Certain activities might be physically impossible for some people and some medical conditions might prevent participation, but a prospective student should not be made to feel unwelcome nor receive inadequate teaching for discriminatory reasons.
Lack of Qualification and Study on the part of the instructor is a major red flag. Instructors should not only be able to show that they are properly qualified and insured to teach historical martial arts, but must also be able to indicate where their material comes from. All historical material has to be interpreted of course, but an instructor should be able to indicate the path back to the source.
Lack of Skill on the part of the instructor is a serious problem. Some instructors are inexperienced and cannot be expected to have the same level of coaching skills or subject knowledge as others, but all instructors should be able to handle the weapons competently and demonstrate the standard strokes and techniques. An instructor who claims to be able to teach a vast range of different disciplines may be correct, but should be viewed with caution – it is difficult to be highly skilled in more than a small number of areas.
Inadequate Safety Precautions are another reason to find a different group. The BFHS has a recommended level of safety equipment for any given activity, and some variation from this is entirely acceptable. However, fighting or even just training with steel weapons is potentially hazardous. Lack of safety equipment and/or safe practices is a red flag that should not be ignored.
Non-HEMA Elements do not necessarily render a group unsuitable, but should be regarded with caution. For example, a group that claims to teach self-defence as part of its HEMA activities is questionable – self-defence should be taught by properly qualified instructors. Likewise, elements such as Japanese-style belts and grades have no place in HEMA.
Extravagant Claims tend to indicate that there is something wrong with a given group. Whilst there is a certain historical authenticity to fencing masters claiming that they are the only ones who know anything useful and everyone else is an idiot, the reality is that nobody has all the answers and there are no invincible systems. Note that publishing large numbers of videos and having many followers on the Internet is not the same thing as being a good instructor. Nor are strongly held and loudly stated opinions an indicator of competence.
Lack of Respect for the Martial and Historical Nature of HEMA is another cause for concern. Some groups pay lip service at most to fencing ‘as if with sharps’ and advocate point-getting techniques for competition. This is all very well, but abandoning the main tenets of HEMA in order to win a medal in a HEMA tournament does not validate the approach.
Lack of Respect for other Groups or Activities may not be a ‘deal-breaker’ but it can lead to problems. Some instructors are disparaging about other systems within HEMA or outside it, which can cause needless friction or be uncomfortable for those who have come from those systems. Arguably, courtesy and respect lie at the heart of fencing, given its social context. Those that are discourteous to others may be lacking in other areas, too.
All this might seem discouraging, but the fact is that most groups have a lot to offer. We are simply advocating caution when faced with certain characteristics. A good group will be welcoming and will teach something that looks and feels like a historical martial art in a safe and effective manner. Instructors will be able to answer questions about their qualifications, who they learned from and where their material originated, and will be able to perform their art or system with obvious competence.