No, not that HEMA!


I just found a link to a movie about HEMA. That may be perfectly straightforward to you, but in Quebec, a few days before Halloween, it needs clarifying, because hema is the Greek root for blood, and the organisation known as Canadian Blood Services elsewhere in Canada is named Héma-Québec here in my home province.

It’s also a Dutch discount retail chain. But I don’t mean that either. This Google-driven century is at risk of finding itself lost in translation (!).

The HEMA that caught my attention stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and the link I found is to a documentary film titled Back to the Source—Historical European Martial Arts.


Though it might seem unlikely and even funny if you had just met me, the martial arts, LOTR and D&D* culture (*Lord of the Rings and Dungeons&Dragons ), and even lightsabers have been part of my life for a long time, and just this year, I was introduced to stage combat in the British tradition—which, to the initiated, simply means authentic combat.

And that’s why I noticed it. A year ago, this would have meant nothing to me, but now, in my post-LAMDA life, I have a broader frame of reference and a better understanding of the reasons why this is serious business to so many.

HEMA, as explained in the film, is the painstaking reconstruction of European martial arts through the source material and its application through sparring. Its a fascinating mixture of erudition and actual combat.

The historical European martial arts include such diverse and disparate skills as Ancient Greek boxing, jousting, Le Jeu de la Hache, stick fighting, mastery of the spada da lato, dagger, and many many more, all of which are connected through history and geography, allowing the scholars, students and practitioners of HEMA to trace the lineage of their art from Antiquity to the present.

In the film, many HEMA scholars, practitioners and instructors (often all three at once) speak directly to the camera. As I looked and listened, I tried to imagine who these men and women might be. Unlike other martial artists whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation, the gargantuan task of HEMA scholars and fighters is to reverse engineer the source material. In this case, the proof of the pudding is in the fighting.


The movie presents HEMA devotees from all over the world. It seems to me that dedicating one’s self to the arduous uphill battle of resurrecting the myriad forms of martial arts that border extinction requires complex motivation.

In a short sequence early on, one instructor, who speaks with a slight Scandinavian accent, explains:

“This is the reason that people are interested in HEMA to begin with, I think. It’s that we live in modern times, and in modern times, we change everything all the time. There’s always the latest thing that you need: the new Iphone, whatever it is, and we do that by discarding everything that is old, in a way.


So when we’ve discarded that, we tend to feel a bit rootless and I think that is part of the reason why so many people are interested in HEMA, because there’s a link that ties us together with our ancestors, through these sources. You can read these manuscripts and old texts and hear the voices of old fencing masters.

And it is also a manifestation of a different type of society, with other values where honour and courage and so on are very important aspects of everyone’s life.“

I don’t know that I agree with him; his is a romanticized vision of the past and of a practice most often centred on killing and inflicting damage to an opponent in the most efficient way possible. But his passion for HEMA is an eloquent example of the foundational value of cumulative knowledge and tradition in cultures through time.

It also speaks to the paradoxical beauty and ugliness of war. While most of us are satisfied with wielding virtual swords in artificial cyber-worlds, the men and women of HEMA seek to understand the stark, ancestral reality of bone-crushing, flesh-slicing combat, life and death.

The mysterious attraction of sabre and broadswords, of codified combat and exacting, rigorous training is undeniable. Though I’ll never fall completely under its spell, I’m drawn by the dangerous beauty and the pure drama of it.


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