The truth, the half-truth & nothing like the truth

Oct 22, 2019

I GREW up surrounded by castles and history. As a small child, my parents took me to visit these majestic ruins and I as I got older, I’d often head off on my bike to explore them with friends. We’d whack each other earnestly with just about anything we could get our hands on that, at least in our childish imaginings, resembled a sword, mace or spear.

I GREW up surrounded by castles and history. As a small child, my parents took me to visit these majestic ruins and I as I got older, I’d often head off on my bike to explore them with friends. We’d whack each other earnestly with just about anything we could get our hands on that, at least in our childish imaginings, resembled a sword, mace or spear.

Could I therefore now, more than 40 years on, justifiably assert that I began my journey into Historical European Martial Arts at the age of five or six? No, I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.

Yet here we are. In recent years, I’ve began to notice a trend developing among a growing group of HEMA instructors around the world. And I’m not alone in spotting this. In fact, a few chance conversations, free of any confirmation bias, have made it apparent that I’m not simply imagining it.

Okay, so what is it? Well, in short, it’s biographical conflation. In some cases, it’s deliberate vagueness. In thankfully few instances, it’s downright calculated bullshit. But in all eventualities, it is nothing more than a clear misrepresentation of one’s credentials and experience to enhance one’s profile - and therefore standing - within the HEMA community.

Why does this annoy me? For one, it’s dishonest when it comes to attracting potential students. Secondly, it threatens the legitimacy of what we do. All of us.

I’ll get into specifics, but before I do, I’ll state clearly and emphatically that I will categorically: Not name anyone Use any direct quotes from biographies that will identify anyone Not expect anyone to change a damn thing because I am not the HEMA police

​With that, I’ll begin with examples of what I’ve found.

Pushing back into prehistory

I began my HEMA journey in September 1994, at Napier University in Edinburgh, with the foundation of the Dawn Duellists Society. I was, up until that point, a sports fencer focused on sabre.

In the following two years, we began to realise that there were others like us elsewhere. Through chance meetings largely related to incoming students to Edinburgh’s universities from both the UK, Europe and the USA, a small community began to grow. This was added to by our immersion in the UK reenactment scene, which also led to further associations being formed with like-minded individuals and small groups from both the UK and Europe. After all, we had few people to practice with outside our own circle.

Period sources, at this point, were provided in hard copy format - most usually photocopies - from a handful of researchers in the US. The most notable of these was Patri Pugliese. Beyond this, we also discovered Mike Loades and the late John Waller, both phenomenal hands-on historians, who brought Elizabethan swordsmanship to life in their 1991 video, The Blow by Blow Guide to Swordfighting.

Then came the Internets. And we all know what happened next.

In 1995, however, I’d estimate that there were no more than half a dozen groups worldwide studying what I would tentatively term proto-HEMA.

Now imagine my surprise when I begin to see, in recent years, a number of what I’d consider ‘late arrivals’ to the HEMA community stating in their biographies that they were active as far back as 1982. Except they don’t state it that clearly. In fact, they usually obscure that message with word salad.

One example of this is to conflate just what constitutes ‘HEMA experience’ by adding in other activities - some arguably related by their nature - without intentionally separating them from what we understand to be HEMA as a unique activity today.

“How many drops? Thirty eight … simulated.”

This quote from the movie Aliens immediately springs to mind as a perfect example of the issue of clarity that I’m raising.

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant? Gorman: Thirty eight… simulated. Vasquez: How many combat drops? Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one. Drake: Shit. Hudson: Oh, man..

​This is the equivalent of how I feel when I read one of these biographies and see obfuscation in action.

HEMA by its very definition is a catch-all categorisation. We have - and did - argue for a long time about what fits under the umbrella of that acronym. Boxing? Sport fencing? Folk wrestling? That’s not the real debate here, though. The issue is clarity. The above activities may well be related to HEMA, arguably in the same way that jujitsu is also a martial art, but they need to remain separate and within their own merits when it comes to stating one’s experience.

A good example of this in a problematic biography would be a statement such as:

“The instructor has over 30 years of martial arts experience including HEMA.”

Innocent as this may look and even be, it is still misleading. How many years of the 30 have been in HEMA? One? Five? What are the other martial arts hinted at and how do they relate? Surely it would be much more informative and less nebulous to state:

“The instructor has 15 years experience in judo, has boxed for 10 years and began to study HEMA in 2010.”

This, as many of you will no doubt agree, is a mild case. I find it far more problematic when I see a HEMA biography with statements such as:

“The instructor began his study of swordsmanship in 1985.”

Now this can be read in a number of ways. Either this person was way, way beyond the loop in accessing primary source materials before any of their contemporaries had even realised the sources existed, or something else is being slotted in as ‘relevant’.

In all the cases I have found, this ‘foundational knowledge’ has either been sport fencing, stage fencing, historical reenactment, Japanese swordsmanship or - in America - the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I have no problem with any of these pursuits and welcome their respective merits. Even though sport fencing has a common ancestry with smallsword - which is most definitely HEMA - it predates our revival and is therefore separate in my view.

In my own case, I’m keen to separate my sport fencing experience from my HEMA experience. Otherwise I could push my ‘start date’ back to 1987. Just like I could go all the way back to c.1976 if I count my wooden sword adventures to slay tall grass.

I’ll make one caveat, however, and that is classical fencing. And I’ll leave that untouched in this debate.

Spurious titles and accolades

No. I’m not even going there. You know who you are.

Integrity has to be given away

I’ve expounded on a few examples of what I’ve found lurking in a number of HEMA biographies. The question now is what to do about it.

I’d ask myself - what does a prospective student see?

We owe it to all our students to be clear about our experience, like any teacher would be expected to be. And that means clearly breaking down, separating and delineating our skills journey. If you have done kung-fu, say so. Likewise, any other martial art. And when it comes to HEMA - the study of combat arts from historical sources written down in treatise form or similar - do the same.

Even if you have only been involved in HEMA for a few years, SAY SO. It will not detract from your worth if you are a good, conscientious instructor. That’s something any student will tell you.

You have nothing to gain by conflating your experience. You may satisfy your ego, but at the price of your integrity.

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