HEMA FAQ

What is HEMA?

HEMA is the collection of martial arts typical for the Indo-European people throughout history. They all share similar principles, strategies, tactics and techniques. Minimal differences exist between language subgroups and isolated geographical locations. Weapons and armour change throughout time but, barring equipment specific pro's and cons the style itself is very similar as well. Throughout all the great migrations of the Indo-European people conflict within and without was common due to the central position of its path in the world and simply put: human nature.

During the twelfth century book production changed from monasteries to universities for theology and liberal arts followed by a demand for specialized and general texts by commerce and the bourgeoisie. In the centuries that followed a lot of martial arts knowledge was written down and a lot of these manuscripts and books are still available in libraries and private collections around the world. They provide us with the knowledge of that time when HEMA was still used on the battle field and in other scenarios of conflict. Specific aspects of the Historical Martial Arts have been further proven by archaeological evidence such as weapons, armour, equipment and even bones and the injuries inflicted upon them.

Throughout the sixteenth century city states and nations in Europe established standing armies and even the early precursors of the police. More and more people lived in cities where arms in a highly dense population don't contribute to personal safety as much as they used too. With standing armies outside  and constables within cities there was simply a much smaller need for personal arms. Add the rise of firearms to this situation and it is easy to see why the martial arts transformed to a less lethal form resulting in the martial sports we know nowadays such as fencing, boxing, savate and wrestling.

The modern HEMA revival researches the historical evidence and practices and tests these out in different situations. The modern uses of HEMA range from tournament duels to self-defence and from armoured group battle to professional use by law enforcement. Whatever your goal and need for Martial Arts, HEMA is very diverse and practical. Find the right teacher within your interest group and you are sure to have a great time while learning a highly practical and useful martial art.
HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts.
The origins of the Historical European Martial Arts are lost in history as they follow the migrations of the Indo-European people. Additionally it was influenced by the people that they encountered in combat so it was always in a continuous motion that still goes on today.

The modern revival started in the late 19th century with the soldier, writer, antiquarian and swordsman, Alfred Hutton. Hutton wanted to recreate the old arts based on the information available at the time. Since then numerous historical manuscripts have been rediscovered, and research and translation projects have been under taken. In the 80's and 90's of the previous century people started  to group up more commonly to practice together leading to a worldwide community that is going strong today and increasing by the day.
It is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
No, not by itself. The practice of martial arts yields a lot less injuries than sports like soccer. You practice together with your training partners, not against them. And you and your training partners share the responsibility to not injure yourself and others.

If you decide to practice HEMA competitively the risk of injury increases due to the added stress. However remember that back in the day, when this was used on the battlefield, people wanted to go home to their families in one piece. If done correctly you can come away uninjured, even in self-defence.

Over the years the equipment for weaponized sparring has greatly improved. Weapons and armour are continuously improved upon to make them safer and more effective for training and sparring purposes. For questions and information on HEMA weapons and armour check out the 'HEMA equipment' forum

If you like to hurt people than HEMA is not for you, go away.

Is HEMA like...

No. LARP (Live Action Role Play) is a form of role playing game where the players physically act out their characters interaction. This is often done in a fantasy setting which involves foam swords and armour. Combat in LARP can't be compared to HEMA although you might benefit in your game from practicing HEMA.

Find out more about LARP here.
No. Historical re-enactment is an educational or entertainment activity in which people follow a plan to recreate aspects of a historical event or period. So while there may be overlap between the two, the goals are completely different.

Most HEMA groups don't focus on any specific event, area or time period, nor is the goal to recreate the past lifestyle. We focus on the Historical European Martial arts.

Find out more about re-enactment here.
Partially. Fencing is a modern combative sport using a small sword: a foil, sabre or épéé. It derives from the original Historical European Martial Arts just like boxing, kick boxing, savate, wrestling etc all find their origin in these old martial arts. 

No. Movie fights are purely meant to entertain the audience. Big flashy movements, with large, heavy shiny weapons and armour usually do the trick.

However 'back in the day' where HEMA was still used in actual combat (during the 15th century for example) such utter nonsense would get you killed. HEMA is a highly evolved martial art for which many, unknowingly, gave their lives. Those that lived to tell the tale taught the new generation and so it went on and on until in the 16th century when the rise of hand held guns and social changes created distance. The distance was created both between people and the battlefield as well as between the people on it.

Sometimes. Human beings are generally uniformly equipped with a head, two arms, a torso, legs etc. So when it comes down to a physical fight there is a natural limit to what you can and can't do physically.

As with all martial arts worldwide, you have to decide on what it is that you want! What do you want to practice and why? Once you know that it is you can search for a good fightschool (The European term for dojo) that fits your needs. In the end the right fightschool with a kind teacher makes all the difference.

HEMA for self defence

Yes, very much so. Professional security personnel often has to head towards the violence instead of creating distance from it like any sane citizen ought to do. 

The Historical European Martial Arts are millennia old, developed over time while being used in actual combat in a wide variety of situations.

As there are many different kinds of violence and volatile or even violent situations the martial art used needs to be flexible. After all, giving a crazy old lady a low kick just because she is throwing cans around in a supermarket isn't very professional. HEMA by its nature is very scalable and flexible, thus fits this base requirement perfectly.

The hard part is finding a teacher that can teach you all the other meta-skills that you need to apply a martial art in the real world violent situation, that however is a problem all martial arts share. 
Yes, absolutely.  If the strongest, the fastest or the most aggressive person would always come out on top in a fight we wouldn't have martial arts today. Physical attributes help greatly in violent situations at the untrained level, but as your physical and mental skills develop their influence drops down to become only marginally important.
Thankfully, in most parts of the world, people don't carry swords anymore. Like the gun the sword is a weapon purely created to kill. As such it feeds directly in to the universal human phobia for violence. The difference is that the sword is heavily romanticized because it isn't in common use anymore. 
None the less, the sword is an awesome training tool. It immediately brings the point across that violence is real, and is dangerous. Where people foolishly think that punches and kicks aren't really dangerous, the sword immediately does away with such foolhardy sentiment. You have to move and you have to do it right or else you may very well loose your bits.

Women in HEMA

Yes if your group and practice of HEMA requires gear there are a few things to take into account:

  • Most gear is sized for men, women tend to need smaller gear so make sure the gear fits. A proper store will provide a size chart and sell gear that is suitable for women. Some even offer custom fit gear;
  • However a lot of gear simple isn't suitable at the moment. There is still a lot to win here as a large amount of female HEMA practitioners create their own gear or customize existing gear;
  • In competitive play and practice with steel weapons a groin protector is advisable. Most people think this is only important for men, but a hit to the groin can be very painful no matter if you are a man or woman. This shouldn't be underestimated. Unfortunately the quality of groin protectors for women is very poor;
  • The same goes for the chest, a strike there can also be very painful, more so then for men, so a hard plate together with a properly fitted sports bra is advisable. Again quality of the available equipment is often lacking.

For more information on female equipment visit the Esfinges forum or inform about this on the Brynhildr forum here at Fightschool.
As mentioned elsewhere in the HEMA FAQ, physical attributes matter very little compared to other aspects that come in to play in the practical usage of a martial art. So being small or big of posture is of little concern in defending yourself.
Of course. There are several reasons for this:
  • The first reason is a practical one, there are usually more men than women in martial arts;
  • As mentioned elsewhere in this FAQ, HEMA is a martial art. Therefore physical attributes or sex are of very little importance for the end result. No matter in which setting you practice and use HEMA;
  • For practical self-defense it is essential that that you train with people of all shapes, sizes, men and women. This will not only help in understanding the subtle differences in size but also give you the experience that it really doesn't matter all that much and thus the confidence to defend yourself against any attacker. For these same reasons it is important for men to practice with women as well;
  • Competitively, in HEMA tournaments you will find tournaments that have gender based as well as mixed competitions.
Yes, Esfinges is a female international HEMA network, created to unite and support women martial artists, and to encourage and assist more women tot take up the practice of Historical European Martial Arts.

Eliisa Keskinen of the Nordic Fencer blog writes, among other subjects, about women's HEMA, you may find articles here that interest you.

Finally, you may ask your questions and participate on the Brynhildr forum here on Fightschool.
Not to our knowledge. If you run one let us know.
The NYT video shows people fighting in tournaments, the competitiveness and associated stress levels make it easy to get bruised or injured. While protective gear is used that is by no means a guarantee that you won't get bruised or injured. It is up to you to decide if that is something you care about and up to degree.

The easiest way to avoid it is to not participate in sparring and tournaments.

Sparring is of very little importance for real world self-defense, in fact for that purpose it is counter productive. So depending on your goals and reasons for practicing HEMA you can decide on what you want to do.

East versus west

No. For the same reason that there is no HEMA living lineage as you see in some of the Eastern martial arts.
That depends. Simply put the answer depends on too many variables to fully list here. Focusing on a specific blade is not advisable. It ignores the wide variety of blades, materials, goals, uses, techniques, situations, tactics, strategies, armour etc. 

Nearly all swords are carefully engineered for one thing: killing. Swords were extremely good tools for this objective. No matter their origin, shape and other characteristics, swords are marvelous feats of engineering and metallurgy.
Practical as we westerners are, we have ignored the close combat side of HEMA with the (r)evolution of arms (guns) and by the demand of social changes. HEMA has survived in sports form in boxing, wrestling ands fencing. However there is no known traceable lineage where the art was transferred “unchanged” from master to student.

That said, history has left us with a plethora of excellent sources, archaeological finds and manuscripts describing and depicting the practical use of the art, mentality, governing principles, tactics and strategies.

This of course isn't perfect lineage but neither is a lineage where, as is common, the art is changed due lack of practical experience or by sheer arrogance and self-important feelings of the 'master' of which eastern martial arts can supply plenty of examples. 

It is up to us as the HEMA community to keep researching the art scientifically. This means we have to adapt flexibly and fluently as we discover more about it and gain a deeper understanding of the art. We have to remember as we train and use HEMA that new (or rediscovered) understandings will absolutely arise as we work with the materials available, and that those new understandings will require us to adapt our execution of the art going forward.