The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Reasons to study Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in the modern world

I previously looked at the reasons why people studied martial arts in the past. I will now look at the reasons or ways of HEMA in the modern world. (Thanks to Rory Miller for voicing a number of these ideas relating to Martial arts in general, they seemed a good fit with some adaptation to HEMA)

Of course there will be some overlap between the past and the present day, but there are some important and major differences that need to be considered.
Again my aim is not to claim that there is any ONE right way, rather we should consider what we want to get from training in HEMA. We can then determine how we focus our studies; which arts are most likely to give us what we are looking for and equally, which modern approach best facilitates it.
Much of what is written here may equally be applied to someone considering which of the more “conventional” martial arts to study and again I make no claim to be presenting anything new. Rather my goal is to, perhaps bring together different trains of thought and to highlight areas that I have observed in the HEMA community at large and in the EHCG specifically.

Many of the subjects I will be discussing below could be explored in much greater detail and in greater depth. For some of the topics I will do just that in later articles.

As I discussed previously, historically people studied martial arts for different reasons.
In the modern world the study of these historical arts can be broken down in to the following five categories:

1 Self-defence/Professional use of force
2 Tradition/Physical art/Self-discipline
3 Spiritual Growth/Health
4 Sport/Tournaments
5 Entertainment/Education/Demonstration


There are now a huge number of historical martial arts being studied and an even greater number of groups studying one or several of them. Each group will be working from the materials of one or more masters, or one or more versions of the works of those masters or the traditions they spawned or evolved from. Other groups, like the Guild will deal with the under lying common Principles found though out the arts.

As such one should consider the goals stated or otherwise of the group that you train with or are thinking of training with and how that relates to which of the five ways you wish to follow.

The following will go some way to defining these areas of focus.

Self-defence/Professional use of force/”Learning how to fight”
Historically this would have been the reason why most people learnt the skill, though was not always. Self-defence here refers to those skills and techniques that one can use when suddenly and unexpectedly attacked, in daily life. Professional use of force here refers to those skills used by members of the armed forces, police and those involved in personal/professional security.
If your goal is to learn self-defence then there are many better ways of doing so than by studying HEMA. I am not saying that there are not valuable lessons in these works for someone who knows what they are doing, or that the skills of the practitioners of the past were not effective, they clearly were. In some ways that is where the problem lies, what was acceptable in a self-defence situation in the 1400s may not be legally or morally acceptable today. Also most of what constitutes self-defence is to do with situational awareness, and about how to avoid the places, people and situations where you are likely to become a target. In most cases by the time you need to be using the physical techniques which we see and are described in the manuals and which it should be pointed out are similar to many techniques seen in different cultures and in different eras, its already too late. Again all of these skills need to be addressed first and foremost in the modern world.

If your interest is in the professional use of force, then you should be someone currently involved in the legitimate professions for whom these skills are necessary. As such you should already be involved in the study of appropriate skills.

Of course one can want to study and learn in these areas from a tradition/historical perspective, though in this case that is better addressed in the next focus

Before moving on. What we must not forget, is that in the historical context, these skills were very much practised with a deadly intent. We should then approach the recreation and development of these skills with the respect and seriousness of intent that such skills warrant.

Tradition/physical art/self-discipline –
Tradition is, I would argue, where most of us stand. We are interested in history, we are interested in developing a skill that was used in the past and in wanting to find out about our past we strive to understand how our ancestors applied martial skills. Recreating these traditions is a worthy and valuable cause.
The physical art that goes along with this recreation is in itself worthy of learning and developing any skill to a high level is a worthy practice. The self-discipline required can allow us to master ourselves in ways that other pursuits may not. If for no other consideration, Tradition, Physical art and self-discipline are reasons to study and train in HEMA. After all, these are some of the main reasons why people study Asian martial arts

Spirit/health –
The development of the physical and mental discipline required of any martial art, will arguably develop your spiritual growth, and can also arguably make you a better person, though this is not always the case.
Almost all warrior/martial traditions contain aspects that one can label “spiritual”. After all, if such traditions are to function within a larger society, then those that practice them need to know when to kill or harm and when not to. Also, those that make the use of violence part of their lives generally try to come to terms with the act of doing harm or taking the lives of others. They generally also address and attempt to come to terms and accept that serious injury, disability or death are likely results to themselves. At least they should if they want to retain some mental stability. As such, I would argue that this form of “spirituality” is a by-product of the other aspects of the training, rather than a goal in itself.

There are also those who seek to use martial arts to develop both inner peace and harmony that goes beyond the aspects offered by the self-discipline discussed above. This si something that one can see in Japanese martial arts when one looks at Bujutsu and Budo, in Budo the art is used to develop spirtual growth.
As yet this is something that is not really encountered in in those groups studying HEMA, though there are a number of groups, studying arts of dubious genuine historical ancestry that do emphasise spiritual growth as a major goal.

Health is likely to be a greater lifesaver than any other aspect of HEMA. Keeping physically active offers a number of health benefits that I don’t need to go into here. Training in HEMA is just as effective at keeping one physically fit as many other forms of exercise, without going down the path of “Swordfightercise”© etc.

Sport/tournament –
This is a growing aspect of the HEMA community. Some see it as fun addition to their training, some take it more seriously training, preparing, and approaching it as one would for any other sport and seeing in the sporting aspects, a way to popularise HEMA. Yet others try to emphasise rule sets, weapons and protective equipment to come as close as possible to real combat with the skills and weapons that were used. They seek to test their skills in what they see as the closest approximation to real combat that is currently acceptable, because of its un-scripted nature and competitive drive.
None of these approaches are in or of themselves wrong or bad. However it must always be born in mind that sportive and combative are very different one from the other and ability and proficiency in one does not of itself prepare you for the other.

Of course historically tournaments were a major aspect of life for certain parts of the fighting classes, These tournaments in a similar way to their modern counterparts, emphasised protective equipment, safer weapons and rules, all of which moved the action away from real combat to a greater or lesser extent. However there is one major difference between the past and the present. Generally in the historical context, certainly during Middle Ages, such “sporting” events were an adjunct to actual combat. Someone who fought in a tournament could and often did, fight in actual combat, either on the battlefield, in self-defence or duelling in earnest. This balancing of the sportive with the combative, the reality with the game, is something that is, for obvious reasons, missing from the modern practice of HEMA. This should be born in mind when considering and comparing the sporting aspects of HEMA in the past and present.


Entertainment /Education/Demonstration
An understanding of the HEMA can obviously be a great benefit when creating fights for film, theatre and television, whether to make the action more historically accurate or to produce more efficient movements. Understanding how to use entertainment to bridge the gap to education is vital if one wants to attract a wider audience to an understanding of history in general and specifically HEMA.
So a Fight Director, fight performer, Historical interpreter, historical show fighter, can and arguably, should all make use of HEMA. When done well and with proper consideration of the other areas already mentioned above, are all valid aspects of HEMA, which should not be looked down on as inferior or less serious reasons for training.


Conclusion
Everyone interested in studying HEMA should ask themselves questions including;
What aspect/s of the historical martial arts draws their interest?
Which of the modern ways offers the best opportunities to achieve that in the modern world?

One should try to understand what it is they want from their study and training in HEMA.
The different focuses have different goals, and will have different optimal mind and skill sets, and these will be best brought about by different training approaches.

I would maintain that the different ways are not mutually exclusive and that one can address and do well in many or perhaps all of them. However to do so, requires that one properly understands or at least recognises the differences between. One must also not forget that, by spreading ones focus over a wider range of study it is likely that one will not achieve much or gain as great an understanding as if on makes a tighter focus of one area of study.

1 comment:

  1. A very neat and accurate summation there. I fall into, or dovetail with, maybe three of those categories.

    I know that what we do in our displays while popular, is a long way from the true art. We do try to include as much of the art as we are able, and indeed are very clear to our audiences that what they have witnessed is an entertainment. At the end we try to show the difference between one and the other.

    The training we do is more true to HEMA. Faithful to what I understand to be "The Guild" way of structuring. Because without that foundation, without that desire to find some kind of truth, well...that is the as I say the foundation. The thing that attracted me in the first place.

    Competition is something that tweaks my curiosity. It is in it's own way as far from "The true art" as our displays. But for me, and some others, perhaps the only way to...test, if you like, how what we learn may work in a one on one situation. It is not real, and cannot be. No amount of rules can replicate a life and death situation.

    Both our Guild Master and secretary are, or have been deeply involved with bringing some authenticity to stage and screen and as such, I always felt I was true to the Guilds founding principles. Training and guiding a training group in the way I had learned. Then bringing these skills to the public either on screen or in public.

    Recent years have exposed me to other things, both by Guild members and others. Some of these things I have brought back to my TG. A certain amount of cherry picking I admit. But always within that format I see as Guild.

    The world of HEMA is always growing, changing. Different groups are coming along
    with their own take on it. Within the Guild different Chapters and Training Groups focus on different aspects as laid out so well in the original post.

    I suppose what I am saying here is that for me, The Guild is a state of mind. An attitude and way of being. All those people I have met seem to share that. A diverse group of people, that all share the joy and pride that comes from being Guild.

    Honor above all, above all honor.

    Paul Wickham G.T.G. Eire

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