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This FAQ pertains medieval martial arts.
If you are interested in modern fencing, please visit Fencing for Fun!

• What are Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)?

Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA for short, are the historical combat traditions of Europe. This is a matter of distinction from Eastern Martial Arts, popularly known in the form of such traditions as Karate, Kung Fu, etc., originating from Eastern cultures. Unfortunately, when people think "martial arts," the tendency is to immediately think of Eastern forms to the exclusion of all else. The words martial arts literally mean "Arts of Mars," with "Mars" being the Roman god of war! "Martial arts" simply means "fighting arts," and these arts encompass all cultures, not any single one. All cultures have fighting arts, whether or not they've survived to be practiced to this day. The fact is that there are hundreds of surviving manuals from the European middle ages, renaissance, early modern and later eras that are instructional in the combat forms popular in their day. The oldest known armed combat treatise in the world is a southern German work from about 1300! Despite the abundance of such documentation, it is only since the late 1990s or so that HEMA has begun experiencing a renaissance of it's own, with avid historians and martial artists alike discovering these long-neglected manuscripts and attempting to re-create the historical combat arts of Europe. Our focus is the medieval tradition of German-speaking lands.

• Are Historical European Martial Arts similar to Eastern Martial Arts?

In many ways, yes. The end result of any real combat art is to dispatch a foe quickly and simply, and those Eastern Martial Arts that have retained these traits over time also share them with the faithful practice of Historical European Martial Arts. All martial arts are based on what the human body can do, and the human body only has so many ways it can move. Those who were determined to hurt one another were very skilled at finding the very best ways of doing so, no matter what continent or time period they came from. Elbows only bend one way, after all, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out which way that is! Possibly the largest difference may be that, since some Eastern Martial Arts have been passed down orally over so many generations, in some cases they have become a sport or fitness activity at the discretion of the instructors or cultural influences (this happened in Europe, as well, as evidenced in the manuscripts of the late middle ages versus the renaissance). With the exception of classical fencing, HEMA does not have an oral history nor any modern lineage of masters who have attained their knowledge through direct instruction going back any further than a couple of decades. However, what HEMA lacks in this respect, it gains by the availability of reliable, original source material which can be translated, interpreted, tested and applied. Ultimately, what has been revealed is that the combat traditions of Europe are easily on par with those of the East, and a practitioner of Kung Fu or Jiu Jitsu will immediately find the hand-to-hand techniques of Europe to be quite familiar. Effective fighting is universal.

• Is HEMA similar to what I've seen at the renaissance faire/on TV/movies?

HEMA is not what is typically seen in entertainment venues such as TV, movies, plays and reenactments at renaissance faires. These are forms of entertainment which, with few exceptions, do not represent actual historical martial arts. It must be remembered at all times that movies, television, games, and other forms of entertainment are just that- entertainment. While an actor might occasionally pose in a way that is similar to what is seen in period combat, most moves seen in stage or theatrical combat would get a person killed quickly if defending their life against someone skilled in historical combat arts. The purpose of a martial art is to fight efficiently, not entertain. Similarly, many hobby reenactors put on demonstrations of what they call "medieval combat" which also does not resemble anything seen from the available manuscripts from the period. When asked, very rarely can they cite an actual medieval source for what they are calling "medieval." The presence of a sword or even armour does not make combat inherently "medieval." What makes it "medieval" is if it was practiced in the middle ages. If they cannot demonstrate that they're drawing from a period source, be very skeptical.

• Is HEMA similar to the fencing I've seen on the Olympics?

In a limited way. Olympic style fencing is a modern sport that came about as a result of 19th Century duellists needing a safe way to train for duels. At that time, known as the "Classical" era of fencing, it was still about actually using the weapon for one's defense in a real encounter, and for that reason Classical fencing, as traditionally practiced, is a facet of HEMA. Since modern fencing derived from Classical fencing, it has inherited a connection to an actual practical combat art. However, like some Eastern Martial Arts, modern fencing is not about defending oneself in a real encounter. Modern fencing has come to prioritize being the first to score the point in a match, even if both people get touched- definitely not a desirable outcome in a real fight with real swords! Its connection to an actual martial art isn't all that far back in it's past, but today fencing is a sport. Fencing, both in classical and sport forms, bear little superficial resemblance to the combat practices of the middle ages, though if you follow it back through history, they are distantly related. If you are interested in taking our fencing classes, please visit Fencing for Fun.

• Weren't medieval swords big, heavy, and awkward to use?

Not in the way that television and movies would have you believe. A longsword, which is approximately 48" in overall length, had a weight range of about 2 to 4 lbs. An average single-handed sword, with an overall length of about 38", weighed in at about 2 to 3 lbs. Even the largest swords ever meant for battlefield use, sometimes at a towering 72", averaged only 6 lbs., with 8 lbs. being considered the very top end of acceptable weight for that type. As with any tool, to appreciate the characteristics of a weapon, one must know how to effectively use it and train with it often. The result is that the weapon becomes an extension of your body, facilitating deliberate and efficient movements, rather than brutish hacking as most people are accustomed to thinking. The best online source for sword measurements and weights is The Wallace Collection.

• Do you train with real swords?

We use a variety of training tools. For test cutting and solo drill, we use sharp replica swords which closely approximate the real thing. For much of our paired training, our primary training tool is a realistically proportioned practice sword called a waster. Qualified students use synthetic weapons and wear safety gear when doing "focus" drills and competitive bouting, because of the inherent risks involved when using accurate and correct technique in this martial art. See our Equipment page for more information.

• How do I join?

If you are local to Eastern Washington State, our Academy is open to those who are interested in studying with us at our classes in Ellensburg. We also take our training on the road when doing workshops.

• How do I find out more about knights, armour and other medieval stuff?

Visit Knights of Veritas for information about educational presentations regarding medieval knights.

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Historical combat arts are not to be undertaken without proper professional instruction. Do not try this at home.

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