Sample: The HEMA Heresy – Robin Catling

Image: The HEMA Heresy. Phot: Valerie Widowson[From the forthcoming publication The HEMA Heresy: Reconstructing Historical European Martial Arts]

Almost all our our study of Historical European Martial Arts is based on original period manuscripts written by fencing masters of the time. But practical issues in reconstructing the techniques does raises suspicion about some of the content…

In essence, the HEMA heresy proposes that the treatises were as much sales brochure as technical record. Incomplete, artistically challenged and not quite the Haynes manual of combat that we’d like them to be. I congratulate anyone who manages to write a book even today. Our historical masters had severe limitations in terms of skills, time and material expense  to produce anything.

Those masters might reserve a couple of flashy signature techniques to impress the patrons, while hinting at untold mysteries to keep the punters coming in. All topped off with a bit of Barnum and Bailey showmanship for good measure.

This is why I treat HEMA like archaeology. Is there context, is it accurate, does it fit, does it work?

Whether or not a particular combat system ‘works’ often relies on the guy opposite behaving predictably within the rules and counters of that system. That means not simply planting one on you when he’s supposed to parry. And if the other guy is drunk or just a little bit crazy, then throw the whole rule book away.

Psychology is a huge added dimension that even the best of the treatises cannot put across. It is far better to intimidate your way out of a situation than launch into it like a berserker. Military history is littered with stories of extremely skilled and well-trained people who freeze at the sound of the first shot or the unsheathing of a weapon.

We can train all we like, but what happens when you add full contact and sharp blades becomes a different story, one that completely changes the approach to any encounter.

Any time you walk willingly into a fight, you become a gambler. Whether you’re unskilled, playing snap! or highly skilled, playing poker, you’re still playing the odds while the other guy may not even be playing the same game.

Which leaves HEMA where, exactly? HEMA is safely proscribed faux-violence, with blunt weapons and plenty of protective kit. The primary objective of not killing or injuring your training partners takes precedence over the secondary objective of delivering historically accurate fighting techniques. The mindset of the Medieval, Renaissance or Napoleonic fighting man is something even professional historians struggle to reconstruct. The reliance on the masters’ techniques in actual life-or-death, hand-to-hand fighting on a daily basis would have had a major effect on how people actually trained and fought. It’s something we can only approximate through HEMA, however resolutely we stake our claims to ‘authenticity.’

That doesn’t stop us having fun, though. RC

Image credit: Robin Catling, Nate Zettle, Quadrohemia 2018 by Valerie Widdowson