July 27, 2021

For this first article I could have picked an easier or fluffier topic. But apparently, I am a sucker for punishment and I have gone in with both feet to what can sometimes be a contentious issue in the HEMA-verse. Firstly, is HEMA an academic pursuit or is it a sport where you should train to win? And secondly, which approach is better?

Well in the first instance, HEMA is whatever the hell you want it to be! It’s YOUR hobby, it’s YOUR pastime; you do it because it’s fun. If you want to use it to learn the history of swordsmanship and see if you can replicate the manuscripts then that’s absolutely fine, great in fact. Likewise, if HEMA for you is a competitive sport where you wish to test yourself against the toughest opponents and want to win fights, that’s great too. There are too many people that will tell you that the way you choose to do your hobby is wrong. Anyone who tells you what to do and how to enjoy it is part of the problem and should be ignored. You can usually spot these types by their bloodied fingertips from all the angry typing they do online.

And here would be my first piece of advice. If you have the luxury of a club to attend, attend it and don’t engage with the online element too soon. Enjoy your hobby, figure out what you want from it first, and then see if there are groups online that can support your chosen approach. Any decent coach will support how you choose to do your hobby. And if they don’t maybe that’s a warning flag. Remember, you never have to drink the Kool Aid to be part of a good club.   

The second element is much harder to answer directly, but possibly more important to address. As a sports coach, my first instinct is to say that the sporting element is the be all and end all: that it’s a sport, and we need to train to win. However, the sport-inclined must always remember that without the history element, we are rudderless and have no basis from which to learn and we will essentially devolve in to a messy slap-fight with swords.  

And the historically driven of us, that think anything outside of a manuscript “isn’t HEMA”, must realise that without the drive and progression that a competitive sport provides, HEMA will stagnate. And we will be left with nothing more interesting than standing around in a village hall playing top trumps with historical texts.

As I mature as a HEMA coach and fighter, I realise more and more that it’s not a case of either/or, but a case of both. The sport and the history are the heads and tails of the coin that is HEMA. Without one the other just doesn’t work and is valueless. We as HEMA practitioners must learn to take inspiration from history, and use the texts to solve current fighting problems. After all, there is nothing new under the sun, and the answers to everything in HEMA have already been written down, it’s just a matter of discovery. But we must also embrace it as a sport, as this will give us huge feedback on our progression. Understanding fight timing, measure, and the opponents’ reactions and instincts will give us a huge boost to our academic learning, and put our historical studies into practical context.

So to answer the second part, I think you would literally be a halfwit not to choose both.