Tuesday, 30 August 2011

On 'Doing' Historical European Martial Arts...

Okay, I've had a few different trains of thought sloshing around my head since FightCamp and this is my first attempt to put them down on (electronic) paper. It was either this or get depressed about the job market...

Let's start off with some (provisional) definitions. Definitions are good. They make sure that we're singing from the same hymn sheet. They're also definitions about HEMA. HEMA related definitions. HEMANITIONS! Like demolitions. Like competitions! BUT WITH MORE HEMA! (No wait, that's really, really stupid.)
  • System - A coherent framework, which is to say that it's a way of thinking and understanding stuff. In the context of HEMA they normally have to do with how to 'win' a fight, although you could say that Dom Duarte has a system to do with horsey stuff, which in turn draws from Aristotelian thinking. You can talk about the longsword system associated with Lichtenauer, or for that matter Brazilian Jui Jitsu. They're martial arts, but they're also systems that we can make comparisons between.
  • Technique - An action, normally one which puts you in a mechanically better position to win the fight. A 'Krumphau' might be a technique, but so would a lunge, or an arm bar. The documentary evidence is full of techniques, and a lot of the focus of HEMA has been on working out how to perform techniques based on the sources.
  • Scholarship - All that stuff historians do. Pretty relevant to reviving dead arts.
  • Attribute - Lots of the sources have a section in them on what you need to be a good swordsmen. You know, the 'Eyes of a falcon!', 'Dance-moves of a deer!', 'Cat-like reflexes of Fiore!' stuff. In modern terms we might think of strength and stamina.
  • Skill - This is a bit more airy-fairy, but thinking about 'skill sets' might make more sense. I think it's pretty coherent to say that someone can be skilled at performing techniques well. But you could also say that they're skilled in reading their opponent's intentions, or skilled in knowing when to perform a certain technique at the right moment. A 'good' hip-throw is useless if you lack the skill to perform it at the right time. I guess it’s a kind of practical knowledge.
  • Concept - An important part of the system, concepts are ways of understanding the world, or in HEMA terms of describing what's doing on. Some concepts are relatively easy to demonstrate - such as 'absence of blade' in Olympic fencing, but they might be as complicated as 'fulhen' in Lichtenauer. I guess understanding a concept is theoretical while ‘skill’ is practical - you can conceptually understand the blade engagements that take place in a technique like ‘mutieren’, as well as be skilled in carrying out the technique.
These definitions aren't perfect, I admit. (And language only has meaning through use. There are not set meanings to... Wait, what? Wrong place wrong time? No, please don't hit me!) I have no idea whether 'Provoker-Taker-Hitter' is a concept or a technique, or whether 'footwork' is a skill or a set of techniques. But to be honest I don't care, all I'm doing is laying out my understanding of those terms when I use them.

Now, back to the title. When we say that we 'do' HEMA, what do we mean by that? After all, if I say that I 'do' fly-fishing, everyone has a fairly good understanding that I mean that I stand in rivers with a rod and attempt to catch fish. I guess the same could be said of HEMA - in doing HEMA people hit one another while understanding that hitting of each other through historical frameworks. So I wouldn’t say that Mark Gilbert, a LARPer who comes to Fightcamp, ‘does’ HEMA. He hits people with sword like objects, but doesn’t seem that interested in the historical and conceptual stuff (although I might be doing him a disservice with this.) Equally I’m not sure that Sydney Anglo, the historian, ‘does’ HEMA. He’s brilliant at research and conceptual stuff, but he doesn’t seem interested in reviving it as a martial art. No sword waving for him. Instead, there is a middle ground. A goldilocks approach. A golden mean. All that crap.
and back to Oats and Squats.
But on the other hand people are into HEMA in different ways and because of different motives. If there is a spectrum of people’s motivations for getting into HEMA, at one extreme there are guys who consider themselves 'scholars' of fencing, and at the other there are the guys who are only interested in hitting people with swords. It just so happens that HEMA is the most convenient or appealing movement for them to do that in (as opposed to classical fencing, or the SCA, or whatevs). But it also isn’t just one spectrum - I've also heard people say that they just want to stop themselves getting ‘bingo-wings’; that they want to become ‘the best anachronistic fighter they can’. Some people want to be a knight, or sword fight like they do in the movies. Cool, whatever. I’m not going to try and claim that one reason is any ‘better’ than another, although I might point out that other activities might be better for those people achieve those goals.

You're not a knight. This grizzly wheeler-dealer is a knight.
Now, for most of the life of this blog, I've been focusing on becoming better at running HEMA classes, on trying to have sound interpretations of the sources, or on understanding the systems that they present. This is a cool story, bro. But at FightCamp 2011 someone pretty much said:
'How many teachers does it take to make a good fencer?' 'None, but they have to want it really, really hard.'

In other words, no matter how good you are at untangling the sources, or at interpreting the techniques in them, you’re not going to be a good fencer/fighter if you can't put that into practice. And coming away from the sparring barriers at FightCamp I'm pretty sure that I can’t. I'd been 'studying' HEMA, rather than training at it, in much the way that you study to become a physicist, but train to be an electrician. Go read some Aristotle, he’s full of this crap.

Unfortunately though, I like to pretend that I subscribe to the 'Best Anachronistic Fighter I Can Be' school of thought. Not anachronistic in the SCA sense, but rather that I would be unlikely to fight in such a manner in this day and age. We might as well just call it 'The best martial fencer I can be' since I can't afford a horse! It's a hobby, something to work towards, and it takes into account reasons as to why I might not get to Lichtenauer levels of beastiness. Sure, there are other motives like chillin’ with some cool guys, but ultimately it’s because I want to get as much better as I can. Needless to say, realising quite how poorly I’m fencing is not a good thing in my own terms.

(See also: ‘The "No excuses" line is marketing bullshit. There are perfectly good excuses for not doing things that you intend to do. Life gets in the way. It's just that we'll call you out if you give shitty excuses.'; ‘You can start doing this if you have a very low level of fitness. We'll take care of it. You can't keep doing it and be unfit though’ and ‘This hobby isn't for everyone, nor should it be.’)

Returning back from that tangent, I feel that I've been focusing too much on scholarship rather than training to become better at HEMA. So, how can I train to be better?

Go and join GHFS.

Well, limited class time means that sessions are a poor way of getting better martial attributes - fitness classes and circuit training probably aren't the best use of meagre two hours a week. If we had three or four sessions (and someone knew what they were talking about), that would be a different matter all together. Time to set up a pell in my back yard. And go running. And drink less... On the other hand though, classes seem to be to be the place for training to get better skills and be able to perform techniques better - with alive drills, training with intent, purposeful sparring etc.

'But Mike!', I imagine you crying, 'Isn't this what you've been advocating all along!'. Yes, yes it is I suppose. But it's also not something that I've been experiencing much. I’ve either running sessions or taking part in (to my mind), fairly directionless sparring. Hitting people for the sake of it. As much as I hate to say it, there's also probably the matter of partners. Various people have discussed before about how it's possible to 'rob' your partner out of a drill, to (even subconsciously or due to lack of understanding) stop them from getting anything from it. Equally you can have people who are unenthusiastic about the idea of training to get ‘better’, and instead just want to go whack each other with sword like objects.

Shit happens, people have off days, and not that there's anything wrong with that. It just means that I’m not getting better at HEMA. I’m not getting what I want from the hobby. Pretty narcissistic, but what the hell.

Which sucks. But then again I've heard the same kind of thing from people in three different HEMA organisations, that they feel that a lack of motivation, and a lack of collective will to improve as fighters, is making them wonder if HEMA is worth it. People have limited resources of time and money, and it’s entirely reasonable to say ‘I want to love this activity, but at the moment I can’t justify it over eating protein this week.’

Which isn't in any way to say poor training partners or poor teachers are bad people. In my experience there isn’t much of a relation between enjoying the company of a person socially, how much you can get from training with them (or for that matter the validity of their HEMA interpretations.) Yet on the other hand there are undoubtedly groups where it all works - that give an impression of having an awesome atmosphere, where people 'do' HEMA with the same intentions, engage in research and come up with martially effective results.

And damn but am I jealous of them.

(Coming up at some unknown point in the future: What to do from here. Suggestions please on the back of a post card. I have a rough mental road-map. It’s just that ‘Drink Powerthirst’ is one of the stages.)


  1. GHFS doors are open whenever you decide to swing by.


  2. Thanks for the offer Anders, I'll swing by if the opportunity ever presents itself!

  3. Come to Swordfish! 4-6 November.