What is HEMA?

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In the western world, many of us don’t think of Europe when we think of martial arts. You might think of Karate or Kung Fu, which isn’t wrong. 

But martial arts also includes fighting styles from medieval and renaissance Europe. European martial artists would fight with anything from battle-axes, to their bare hands.

These expired martial arts are being revived through the study of old battle traditions and practices from Europe. This is the focus of HEMA

You may have heard of HEMA in your life, or even seen sword fighters in black uniforms. Fencers with both hands on the sword, may be kind of suspicious to you.

Even if you haven’t seen these, you may have heard of a sport that falls under the umbrella of HEMA. 

Well, whether you know of it or not, fencing is a part of HEMA, and are both important to each other.

What Does HEMA Mean?

What is HEMA? Historical European Martial Arts, and is exactly what the name implies. A group of martial arts involving mainly sword-based combat originating in Europe, from the 1300s-2800s.

Historical European Martial Arts

HEMA isn’t any single style of fighting, but a combination of several styles. It uses martial arts that have either died out centuries ago or evolved past its time. Including knowledge and tactics from hand combat as well as sword combat.

Masters recreate old styles of fighting by using readings from manuscripts, and trial and error. So, HEMA is only a modern interpretation of teachings from masters of different arts in history.

The most difficult part for the HEMA community is interpreting these teachings, which were normally only made for other masters, or individual students. So trying to learn these teachings takes a lot of time and trials.

Combining arts from Europe’s history to create HEMA. With the goal to preserve historic European arts, HEMA practitioners teach swordsmanship to students around the goal.

Is HEMA The Same As Fencing?

Technically, HEMA is its own form of fencing. As we’ve come to know today in modern fencing, we only use the epee, foil, and sabre. But HEMA fencing uses many other historic swords, just with different teachings, and rule sets. 

Is HEMA The Same As Fencing

Fencers in the middle ages used several different kinds of swords, but only the sabre, epee, and foil are used in today’s fencing. However, the swords used today in HEMA, used to be considered an official form of fencing.

If we were living in the 1400s, you might say HEMA and fencing are the same. But as fencing progressed, it left behind most swords and favored the rapier. This evolved fencing into the foil, epee, and sabre competition that it has become.

But the other weapons didn’t die out completely. This is where HEMA comes into play, rebirthing the arts that were left behind when modern fencing took form.

HEMA is now its own form of fencing, as it was in the medieval era.

Is Fencing A Martial Art?

Yes, fencing is its own type of martial art, originating in Europe. But the type of fencing today we play in the Olympics is not a part of HEMA.

Today’s fencing is the result of generations of change and evolution in the sport itself. You can consider today’s fencing as the grandchild of HEMA.

HEMA Weapons

HEMA Weapons

You might see a HEMA master with a different weapon every time you see them. There are several weapons used, including; two-handed longsword, one-handed sword, rapier (sabre), dagger, polearm, axe, and stick or staff (which actually made its way to the Olympics for one appearance).

Many of these swords are considered a form of fencing. Just not as we know it as fencers. You could even catch HEMA fencers with shields in their hands at times.

A HEMA fencer wears all black, as opposed to a fencer’s all-white ensemble. They can be seen wearing the same kind of mesh-wired mask, two gloves, and a protective jacket. Except HEMA fencers might want to wear extra protective gear since the weapons are a bit more dangerous.

The Longsword

One of the most popular weapons you might see a HEMA fencer with is the longsword. With a long grip for two handed use, this was a knightly sword, born in the medieval ages, dating as far back as the 12th century. 

One and two-handed use of this sword were both popular., and some swordsmen could be seen using a longsword alongside a shield. Many European fighting styles are based around the two-handed use of the longsword.

HEMA Long Sword

European warriors and knights would practice the use of longswords in battle, this is where the fairytale image of the knight in shining armor would come from. As the shiny knight with a longsword, shield, or stallion, was once a reality.

Restoring Historic Martial Arts 

Starting in the 90s, several HEMA groups emerged around the world. Thanks to the sprawl of languages worldwide, people from Asia to North America are learning from the historic European manuals and treatises. 

Knight Swordsman in Full Armour, 3D render

Language barriers are no longer a problem, and martial arts can be taught as easily as ever, especially with modern technology, and the use of the internet. It’s easier than ever to study the historic martial arts, without having to read 500-year-old books.

Although the main purpose of HEMA is to restore martial arts from the middle ages, some recent arts are touched upon as well.

Some main martial arts that are the focus of HEMA training include; Bartitsu, Ringen, Glima, Destreza, German Fencing, Canne de Combat, the English Longsword School, and Bataireacht. 

These martial arts are based around skills learned in different forms of hand-to-hand combat, weapon combat, and a mixture of both. Wrestling, boxing, and disarming teachings are used on the more physical side of HEMA.

HEMA is great for the revival of European fighting culture. Through global tournaments, fighters from eastern Asia to Western America are making use of manuscriptures from centuries ago with HEMA.

It’s crazy to think systems of war teachings that came from and died in Europe, are now being revived all around the world for fighters to develop further.

With fencers, and HEMA fencers worldwide, these historic martial arts are being revived throughout the world, and new techniques and teachings are still being developed. As well as new styles being born through western, Asian, and European arts.

It’s great to see the art of the sword flourish.

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