About HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)

The term “Historical European Martial Arts” (HEMA) refers to a wide array of martial disciplines traditionally practiced in Europe and its colonies. These consist of the following:

  • Unarmored combat with various weapons (longsword, rapier, sword & buckler, polearms, etc.) 
  • Armored combat with various weapons (sword, dagger, spear, poleaxe, etc.)
  • Mounted combat (armored and unarmored, primarily with sword and lance)
  • Unarmed combat (wrestling, punching and kicking arts; integrated into all of the above)

Unlike other martial arts, which have living traditions, HEMA is primarily based on the study of surviving manuscripts and books written long ago by European fencing and wrestling masters. Thus, they are reconstructed fighting arts. HEMA has been practiced in a systematic way since the mid-1990s, although attempts at reconstruction occurred as early as Victorian times. The European fighting arts evolved over time, with each era having its own focus and flavor:

  • Medieval: The period of greatest diversity, with a primary focus on the longsword, following the teachings of masters such as Johannes Liechtenauer and Fiore dei Liberi.
  • Renaissance: Focused on the rapier systems of the late 16th and 17th centuries
  • Early Modern: Primarily smallsword, military sabre systems, and stick-fighting systems

Most HEMA clubs focus on Late Medieval fighting art (especially the longsword) or on the Renaissance sword arts (especially the

rapier). However, many clubs practice the arts of more than one period. Above all, HEMA is characterized by its diversity. Regardless of a club’s particular focus, the practice of HEMA typically consists of: Physical conditioning; training in martial techniques (alone, with a partner, or in a group); putting martial techniques into practice by sparring with opponents; and the practice of related skills, such as using the sword to cut through targets. Some HEMA practitioners choose to take part in tournaments as a way of testing their skills, but this is by no means required.  Although our practitioners come from many backgrounds, HEMA is none of the following:

  • Live Action Role Playing (LARP)
  • Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)
  • Medieval/Renaissance Re-Enactment 
  • Stage Combat 

The bedrock foundation of HEMA is the study of primary source material, such as old books on fencing and wrestling. Because of this, scholarship and research are important parts of the practice of HEMA. Many of these old works have been translated, and quite a few are illustrated. A wide selection can be found online at sites such as www.wiktenauer.com or by Googling “HEMA”.

--Written by Matt Galas