Starting with HEMA: A Personal View

An artistic "still life" collection of HEMA gear!

An artistic “still life” collection of HEMA gear!

Today’s blog article is courtesy of Alex Davis, who is relatively new to the study of HEMA, and who wanted to share some of his thoughts on beginning in this activity. He attends lessons with Schola Gladiatoria, in the safe hands of Lucy and Matt Easton, and makes occasional visits to the English Martial Arts Academy with Martin “Oz” Austwick.

Are you new to HEMA, or to any martial art? Here are some of my experiences and my reactions to HEMA, touching on different aspects of the activity that a beginner may experience. I think of them Challenges, along with one Requirement, not necessarily to overcome them but to meet and react to them, and to show how rich and varied HEMA appears to be. I could think of them facets or principles, but the word Challenges seem fine, because they call for me to achieve something and change or improve myself. It seems that with each class, something develops that raises further questions for assessment and refinement. It is probable that I may want to change some of below in another six months time.

These experiences are my own. I do not suggest they are shared by everyone, though I am hoping they may create some thought or discussion. I expect some things may strike a chord and some things may not. We are all different.

I am very grateful to all the instructors and fellow students who guide and share as I learn and practice HEMA. Without them I would not feel able or willing to contribute.

HEMA came to my attention while watching several YouTube videos that caught my interest. I was looking for a new activity, and what seemed to me the sight and sound of people inspired by history, fencing with swords, protective masks and clothing, showing skill and daring, was instantly attractive. “Why not go and see what it was all about? What do I have to lose? Take the risk, send an email and visit the next class!”

The first class was an experience-and-a-half. Exhilarating, fascinating and challenging, all wrapped up in a HEMA bundle.

The Safety Requirement.

The instructor is boss and they set the boundaries and direction of the class – it is part of the martial tradition and is established for very good reasons, not least that of safety, because I want to gain experience without mishap or injury. A bit like being at work, an instructor will give out portions of activity to do and complete as best as I can. Safety does not start and end with the instructor: I have a responsibility as well. So being in full control and knowing when to stop immediately and maintaining kit in good condition is required practice to ensure a safe environment for everyone.

Having said that, injuries do happen. It is the downside of HEMA. The challenge is, how can they be minimised?

The Preparing for Class Challenge

I’m often keen to want to get to a class and learn something new and measure progress. However sometimes I am tired, distracted or not in the right mood so I want to get myself into a frame of mind where I can maximise the benefits from the class and in turn, offer as much back. Some of the things that work for me:

– I try not to rush and stay relaxed.

– I need to bring suitable gear especially for sparring if the club does not provide it. This may change from club to club.

– I want to push away all the concerns of work, family or events from the day. Listening to music helps me and I find certain tracks hit that HEMA spot.

– I try to foster a playful, spontaneous frame of mind that wants to explore. I find this brings on other challenges, more on this later.

The Physical Challenge.

Yes, I was innocent. The first warm up exercises quickly revealed a lack of athletic prowess. Well, to be honest, rather a lot of non-athletic prowess. What to do? My first tip: be good to yourself and take care. Do what you can, be challenged, but know your own limits. I could hardly do press-ups so doing them in double figures was well beyond my ability. However, having a realistic, careful plan and targets helps and over time stamina and strength improve.

Holding a sword, especially a single-handed sword, in various positions for any length of time will be tiring. I found my muscles were not used to this but with careful practice strength develops. Instructors can advise on exercises while doing other things at home.

Finding some other activity outside of class helped to add to my enjoyment of HEMA by increasing fitness levels, while HEMA contributed to the secondary activity. Spotting how things complement each other is another fun Challenge.

The Mental Challenge.

I was starting out with no knowledge other than watching YouTube videos. For me, this was an advantage. I was a blank tablet without too many assumptions. Having said that, the learning curve in a mixed ability class is steep; footwork, sword movements, this, that – it can be overwhelming Tip: be good to yourself and try not to self-criticise. For me, there is a point in a class, usually around the one-hour mark, when I get tired mentally and start to lose focus, just when the more advanced instructions are being given. Dangerous times for those self-critical thoughts to pop out which I have found hinder learning and enjoyment. How I react to these thoughts can often determine what I gain from the class.

HEMA may not help the beginner with the mental challenge. There are many systems from over the centuries that can be taught at the same club. Again, having a plan helps. For me, getting to a class that helped to solidify previous classes without introducing too many new things was useful. But then, variety is the spice of life and HEMA, and dealing with different things builds the mental muscles. And this is related to another challenge that I will discuss shortly, the Challenge of Balance!

The Mistake Challenge.

Or, a red flag for all those inner critical thoughts to come running out. I come to class with some expectations as an adult: “I’ve been shown something, it looks easy, I must therefore do it perfectly each and every time”, and suchlike. So my adult part can tend to put me under pressure to perform. This is a difficult one for me so I want to prepare how I relate to “mistakes” when they happen in class: the blade needs to go here in this way, that foot is wrong, the drill stopped working before completion. When the instructor heads over these are opportunities of pure, one-on-one instruction from someone experienced so I want to prize them! Sometimes I find I am not quite ready to fully understand or make the immediate change, so I keep the advice somewhere safe for future use.

Mistakes are not necessarily “bad”; they are experience to which I attach a judgement to make them “bad”. If I know this, I have a choice whether they really are a mistake to get that “bad” tag. Though having said that, walking across the floor between fencers in full flow with steel swords was a bit Homer Simpson. So, my point: mistakes happen it is how we learn but the question becomes how do I learn from them, and whether I want to use valuable energy to criticise myself in a negative way?

Some clubs may encourage fellow students to give feedback, for instance, while doing paired drills. I may be asked to negotiate something (whether to start an exercise, or receive the start of an exercise, or use another hand if using a single-handed sword). I may be asked to change something in the way I do the drill, perhaps I am not energetic enough, or maybe I am too close or too far away. This can be confusing and is a tricky moment; I may be focusing on something else and my adult part is being engaged! What I have learned is to try and listen and help as best as possible; but if I am doing as the instructor has asked, we are good. They and their helpers are often always on hand to guide us through any issues either individually or as part of the whole group.

To be honest, I can be a bit feisty and stubborn and not think about what I say before I say it. So, being patient, calm and steady are good skills to develop. Things often happen for a reason so taking the time to identify and understand the situation helps perhaps with a question or two.

Sometimes I remind myself, “when I first started I had never handled a sword”. When working with a very new beginner I find working slowly but deliberately and helping without interfering too much adds to a positive experience. This was exactly what I found when I started classes. Sometimes, they may have other martial arts knowledge and need little help, sometimes a little direction gets us going – the instructor often spots when to head over and help us out if we are not able to overcome a problem.

Not really a mistake, but I will put it here: if for any reason you may be left alone (like working drills with three people or there is break for a couple of minutes) this is a fine time to watch others and spot things that catch your interest; more fencing food for analysis later on below!

This may be a little odd, so I have left it to the end. Having some insight into how you relate to the world can help avoid or deal with mistakes. What do I mean? People are different and they may prefer to relate to the world in different ways. This is understood by business and the psychology profession. I am an introvert rather than an extrovert and often up in my mind in a rather fantastical place, far from worldly swords, drills and what my body might be doing or not doing! Practical things are not really a strong suit. Knowing this, I tend to learn in a preferred way. I can struggle with audible instructions so sometimes it is easier if I watch or understand the intuitive possibilities. Positioning yourself to work with your strengths can aid the learning process.

The Sparring Challenge.

Sparring is the opportunity to wear a fencing mask and other protective equipment to allow combat at various levels of intensity with plastic or non-sharpened steel weapons. For me it is thrilling, intense and for the first few goes a little daunting, even discouraging (watch out for those self-critical thoughts!). Clubs may differ how this is introduced and it is very likely I will need to demonstrate a minimum level of competency before being allowed to spar in a light and controlled way, normally with a senior club member to guide me along and give feedback. My experience is that sparring is best regarded as a privilege rather than a right – something to be worked towards. Sometimes a class may not have time to allow some sparring for beginners; that is the way things go! An inconvenience is an opportunity ill-considered, so an opportunity on my part to practice patience. But when it is offered, sparring is a fine chance to try things out and see if they work in a less cooperative environment.

At the start, fencers will salute each other; during their sparring, they will indicate when and where they receive hits from their opponent. Respect for the tradition and for other fencers is one of the boundaries that helps learning.

The Analytical Challenge.

Or as I experience it, sifting through experience to discover common fencing strands that repeat themselves over classes and different systems. So, a cutting technique or the insights into distance (measure) and timing (tempo) may be shared over the centuries between treatises and systems. For me, this is a fun challenge and a bit like joining the dots to find the hidden, shared fencing system, rather than an adherence to one or other of HEMA’s particular forms.

Analysis is sort of fencing food. Working on what happened (it could be a moment of enjoyment or disappointment) and identifying the cause and alternative outcomes starts to open other possibilities. A bit like a mind game that can keep me occupied between classes.

Analysis can help to form a plan, perhaps something needs to be worked on and adjusted? How and who can help this happen?

The Balance Challenge.

This one keeps popping up in many forms. I don’t have answers as the need for balance may go one way or another, depending on class or situation.

Play and Discipline. Play helps me to learn and takes me to unexpected and special places, but to learn in this way, there must be firm boundaries. Instructors offer one source of boundaries, but I want to develop my own so that I can switch from a spontaneous and playful mindset to something more controlled to navigate the relationship between the “Martial” and the “Art”.

Thought and Calmness, Doing and Being. It is hard for me to articulate fully, but there seems to be balance between an inner world of plans and making something happen, and another world of calm attention to allow something to happen naturally and spontaneously.

Theory and Practice. HEMA is so many things and not just class. Exploring and discovering original source material and later research and the offshoots into archaeology and history can inform and provide a favourite HEMA insight: context. I find handling the real historical weapons a special treat. All of this enriches the class experience.

Tradition and Sport. A popular topic of discussion. Is HEMA there to win points and claim victory, or is it there to rediscover and validate something from the past? For me: both. I don’t like receiving a hit and I certainly gain satisfaction from executing a clean strike in sparring. But then, I find as much enjoyment making a successful (still rare) parry or making my opponent waft air. Doing something I have learned and find in a treatise or manual written centuries ago is very rewarding, even if I “lose”. But then if I “lose” with our normal safe training weapons, I have failed, because if I were back in history then the outcome would not have been so healthy. And besides, without sparring and competition, how can techniques be validated? But then standardising everything to enable fair sport would seem to move away from historical reality. The constant tension of tradition versus sport seems to be nose and tail of the same HEMA beast, different but complementary.

Enthusiasm and Patience. Or to put it another way, developing judgement and wisdom. I’ve found being over-enthusiastic can get in the way but then being too passive can miss opportunities. I might have a lot of questions to ask at class, or I might want to pick up interesting HEMA objects. Perhaps it is not the best time to do this when fencers are just about to head off for some sparring! I find HEMA people are passionate about their activity and more than willing to share, so developing the judgement to gain answers and experience at the right time seems important, and in a strange way, this seems to go hand-in-hand with my growing fencing skills. If the reply is not answer enough, there will be plenty of opportunities to ask again in the future. Finding the right balance is very much work in progress.

The Bank Funds Challenge

HEMA can be addictive; beware!

The Why? Challenge.

Long gone are the days when European society used bladed weapons to settle disputes or transfer power. Thankfully, today, we use other methods to avoid and deal with violence. So why do I want to practice HEMA? I suppose it has some self-defence value in the modern world though avoidance is always favoured. But for me, it is simple: it’s just fun, a brilliant way to learn something new and interesting, keep fit and an opportunity to relate to the world in a different way. And perhaps, if I work hard enough, it might allow me to develop in ways I had not expected.


I hope these words may be helpful to someone starting to attend HEMA classes? I am certain there will be different experiences and reactions that are just as valid and helpful, and it would be interesting to hear about them so that we can all learn together?

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