What is "HEMA"?

I’m starting to grow tired with the term “HEMA”. It has always had a kind of silly sound to it, and it never has accurately defined or described what I do.

This of course simply means that I don’t really see how the term fits in with my study/teaching/learning of martial arts. First and foremost, HEMA refers to certain kind of longsword fighting, and in growing quantities to the modern competitive longsword fencing we will eventually have in a more regulated form. I would be surprised if it would become known by any other term.

I kind of realized this while visiting some international events earlier this year. While I do enjoy all sorts of aspects of “HEMA” I don’t want to train with longsword. I don’t want to train with rapier. I don’t want to practice rondel dagger defenses or ringen. At least not more than I want to study traditional Italian knife fighting, Filipino stick fighting or some other forms of martial arts. I don’t have the time to do all of this anyway, but the weight that comes with the term “HEMA” is not really beneficial.

Talking to people I noticed that I was actively seeking people who would specifically have interest in sidesword. Not rapier, since it is vastly different and not really “compatible” for useful all-round sparring and comparing techniques and ideas. Exactly in the same way I don’t like it when people expect me to be willing to fence with them with longsword or rapier I do not wish to impose the same expectation to others. Sometimes it can be ok, trying out new and different things, but when it is not the thing you focus on the purpose of the exercise becomes different: instead of seeing how well your previous training holds up and whether you are heading in the right direction you have to focus on adapting it to another weapon — which can be annoying if it is not what you are looking for at the time.

These experiences led me to realize that to help me in my path right now the answers may not be simply within the “HEMA” community, but in looking out there with a wider view. There are plenty of other experienced fighters and martial artists from various single handed weapon styles, whose skills can augment my understanding of the sidesword. It is even possible that the average eskrimador is more interested in learning the sidesword than is the average longsword fighter.

So, in light of all this, what I do — Bolognese swordsmanship, or Italian sidesword or whatever one wishes to call it, is part of HEMA of course. But HEMA is not what I do. And while it is great to be a part of this ever growing community of loosely connected swordfighters, it is also becoming a reality that the smaller communities born within this big cloud are becoming big enough to sustain themselves without the need for us all to be claiming that we do “the same thing”.

And it is great to see this development in many new events that are targeted for more specific groups: there are now events specifically for rapier, mounted combat and other styles. This coming autumn also in Bolognese swordsmanship in Bologna.

So, what does someone do who practices HEMA? It’s probably going to need a bit of elaboration, as someone doing HEMA can be (for example) doing just research, be a tournament fighter with little knowledge of the sources or be just someone who started yesterday by swinging a plastic sword around at their backyard. For me, I just practice fencing with the sidesword (regardless of the not so graceful origins of the word), or if I need to be more specific, the martial arts of Renaissance Italy, as described by Bolognese fencing masters of the 16th century.

[Note: the cover photo is from the Dijon event this year, where I got to fence with some great sidesword fencers of the Bolognese style. In the photo I’m facing Catherine Loiseau with sword and dagger. Photo credit belongs to Aurélien Calonne.]

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