Historical European Martial Arts

From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia



Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is an umbrella term describing the modern revival of historical European systems of unarmed and weaponed combat, including battlefield, dueling and self-defense applications. These systems were recorded by master teachers and practitioners in detailed, illustrated manuscripts and treatises and (later) published in books, during the period 1300-1920 A.D.

HEMA is distinguished from the term "Western Martial Arts" (WMA), which includes any martial art or combat sport of European origin, including traditional "living lineage" styles such as boxing, savate, jogo do pau (Portuguese long-stick fighting), etc.



The first HEMA movement occurred in Europe, especially in France, Italy, Germany and England, during the mid-late 1800s. During this period, numerous fencing masters who had access to antique combat treatises began to experiment with "obsolete" and anachronistic weapons and fighting styles.

Their motivations varied; some wanted to revive these styles as a matter of cultural pride, others simply had an academic interest in earlier forms of fencing. Still others were involved in staging fight scenes for "historical spectaculars" and plays, or wanted to glean ancient techniques that could be adapted for military swordsmanship. Unfortunately, most of these efforts were cut short by the advent of the First World War.

Throughout most of the 20th century, interest in historical European martial arts techniques was limited to professional actors and fight directors working in the theater, film and television industries. As entertainment media, combat realism and historical accuracy were typically of lower priority than safety and dramatic concerns.

The second and current HEMA movement began during the late 1960s as an off-shoot of the hobby of historical re-enactment. Groups and individuals with an interest in particular periods of European history, especially the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, began to research and then recreate many cultural artifacts of these periods, including various forms of hand to hand combat.

By the mid 1980s some groups were beginning to specialize in the practical study of European martial arts techniques based on authentic historical sources. Increasingly, these efforts were undertaken for their own sake, divorced from or only tangentially related to other aspects of the historical re-enactment hobby.

With the widespread advent of the Internet from the late 1980s onwards, many of these previously isolated enthusiasts discovered and began to communicate with each other, sharing resources including copies of various key historical combat treatises.

Over the past ten years, many of these treatises, most including explicit technical instructions and profuse illustrations, have been translated into various modern languages. Interest in and practice of HEMA has grown into a thriving international movement able to support professional instructors, numerous clubs, national federations, conferences and tournaments. The movement has also spawned a burgeoning market for training aids such as books, instructional DVDs. magazines, weapons and protective equipment.

Techniques and Training

The HEMA movement as a whole encompasses a wide variety of weaponed and unarmed combat styles from numerous cultures and historical periods. The techniques and training methods of HEMA schools depend largely on the type(s) of martial arts promoted by those schools.

An example: the two-handed sword

The use of the two-handed sword is popular within many HEMA schools and societies. The practice of this weapon typically draws from either the Germanic or Italian traditions, although some modern schools combine several sources together in an effort to develop a generic form of two-handed sword combat, representative of a historical period rather than a specific culture or the work of an individual historical master.

Training with the two-handed sword typically includes intensive solo and partner drill work with facsimile weapons, often referred to as "wasters", which may be made of hardwood, aluminum, steel, nylon bar or polycarbonate plastic. Some schools also modify the shinai (bamboo practice/fencing swords) of Japanese kendo to create training weapons that resemble the characteristics of the European two-handed sword.

Drills with the two-handed sword include an extremely wide range of aggressive, defensive and counter-offensive techniques, including numerous disarming and grappling methods.

Free-fencing or sparring exercises are employed to pressure-test the techniques developed through drill-work. In free-fighting, combatants typically wear protective equipment according to the type of weapons that they are using. For example, fighters using padded two-handed sword facsimiles may wear relatively light armor consisting of a fencing mask, mouthguard, padded gloves and a groin cup. Fighters fencing with heavier and more realistic weapons wear stronger and more extensive armor, including full-scale replicas of Medieval and Renaissance plate armor when fighting full-contact with steel swords.

In addition to drilling and free-fencing, many practitoners of two-handed sword-play also train in various forms of full-contact striking and cutting against various targets such as pells (wooden posts), as well as "test-cutting" exercises using sharp swords.

Other popular styles


Other popular styles of combat within the HEMA umbrella include rapier fencing, often with the addition of "off-hand" weapons such as daggers, bucklers (small shields) or cloaks, polearms including halberds, quarterstaff fencing, sword and shield fencing, dagger fencing and various forms of stick fighting. Unarmed combat techniques such as throwing and grappling are often integrated into weapon fighting and are sometimes also practiced as stand-alone methods.

Although the greatest interest lies in the HEMA of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there is a growing interest in 19th and early 20th century styles such as classical fencing (i.e., fencing as it was practiced as a form of training for real combat, rather than pure sport), historical maritime combat (the weapon styles used by sailors during the 1800s), civilian self defense methods such as Bartitsu and the sport of classical pugilism (bare-knuckle boxing).

Ranks and Progression

Although there is no formally recognised nor universal progression of ranks within the HEMA movement as a whole, various clubs, schools and organizations do maintain formal ranking systems, often based upon historical models.