HEMA Blog post #1 – To be a Historical European Martial Artist

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Being a Historical European Martial Artist, and what it means to me.

By Matthys Kool:

There are many debates online about “the right way to do HEMA”. And I thought I’d give my opinion on this topic as well.

Let me start off by stating that there is no such thing as “the one way to train” anyone who says this is simply wrong. It depends on your goals and context. There are, however, wrong ways to train. With  certain goals in mind you should adept your training to those goals, which means that some things are wrong for you at a certain point.

Personally I want to be as good and complete of a fencer as I can be. I want to be able to be everything HEMA has to offer. This means that there is a wide variation of training that I need. Let me break that down into smaller components. It also means that I want to do all this with a variation of weapons.

For me, doing HEMA consists of the following parts: Sources, Techniques, Sparring, Cutting, Physique and Teaching.

  • Sources: I have to be able to read, understand and work with the sources. I’m not able to translate most texts myself. I speak Dutch, English, a little German and a tiny bit of French. Which means I need translations, which sadly enough also means that for some part it’s immediately an interpretation of the translator. I like all sources, I want to know what Fiori says, what Marozzo says, what Meyer says and much more.


  • Techniques: I have to be able to perform the techniques. I can do this at slow speed, but also need to be able to do this at high speed. Slow technical training is a very good way to do this. Study a technique, train it and slowly speed up. The saying that if you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast is indeed very true. But, if you can do it slow doesn’t mean you can do it fast and that you can do it fast doesn’t mean you can do it under pressure. 


  • Sparring: I have to be able to perform the technique under unplanned circumstances. By training a technique with a training partner, I’m first creating a situation that allows me to perform a certain technique. For example, my partner will attack with an oberhau and I perform the counter I am training. The situation is a very forced. Which means that at some point I need to change the exercise by adding other options for the attacker. It makes me focus on the situation, not so much performing the same movements. For example, instead of an oberhau, my partner throws a zwerchaw or cut to the legs and I have to adapt my reaction to this. But if he does come in with an oberhau, I have to perform the technique that we were focusing on. This is the first step. The last step would be at a tournament against a high(er) level fencer who doesn’t want me to hit him, and his actions are unpredictable. Sparring can be done in many ways, all of which are valueable. Sparring with limited targets or limited intensity are just as valuable as sparring with all targets and full speed and full intensity. I want to do it all because all the different exercises make me a more diverse fencer and they all focus on slightly different skills. Be aware though, that to be better at sparring, you need to do more than just spar.


  • Cutting: I have to be able to cut. This is very simple, if I’m fighting with a sword, I want to be able to use all of its potential. I need to do test cutting. Not much more to add here other than saying I do think we need to make sure that cutting stays a part of the larger picture, and doesn’t become the only thing someone does.


  • Physique: I have to be able to perform my techniques in unplanned situations against unwilling opponents. This means I have to be fast enough and strong enough. It also means I have to be fit enough to do it for the entire fight, session or tournament. If you know a technique, you can perform it perfectly and you have the timing so you know when to execute it, but you don’t have the speed, strength or explosiveness to do so. It still doesn’t work. Just like cutting, this isn’t what you should focus on primarily . But I simply have to be able to reach a certain level of fitness to perform what I want, when I want. This means lots of HEMA training, but also other kinds or training. More fitness specifically like speedladders, cycling, weights, you name it. If I want to train my explosiveness I do other training than when I want to train strength or endurance.


  • Teaching: I want to be able to assist, instruct and help others. This means I need to be able to explain the material in different ways. We all learn slightly differently so an explanation that works for one student, doesn’t need to work for someone else. This means I need to think about the information (techniques or movements) in different ways. It also means that I really need to understand the sources, which goes back to the first point I made. 

So, the bottom line is that I value (almost) every training. Specially as long as you are honest about what you do. If you refuse to spar, for whatever reason, that is fine. But it’s not your place to complain about those who do. If you only train for tournaments, it’s your call, but personally I think you are selling yourself and HEMA short.