SportyHEMA vs The Art – My take on a divisive issue.

There was no post last week as all the things seemed to be happening all at once, work, home and everything else as well. I’m really pleased that there has been a lot of discussion around the subject of my last post. The Irish HEMA scene does seem serious about making tournaments safer, reducing injuries and making them inviting for as many potential entrants as possible.

HEMA is a fairly closed system, the issues we face are being worked on in various ways by lots of different people but there is still only ever going to be so many issues to discuss. Safety is naturally going to been of them but the discussion going on around the IHFL also raises another perennial issue for me.

A feder in the forest

Column inches and YouTube minutes are being devoted to the suggested division between what I choose to call ‘SportyHEMA’ and ‘The Art’; a widening split between HEMA as an historical, almost academic pursuit and HEMA as a competitive, athletic activity. I can never remember if I have discussed this myself in any detail so I thought I’d address (or possibly re-address) the subject here.

I think this split is seen as a classic split between Geeks and Jocks. To me this is a false dichotomy created out of social conditioning. Neither ‘Jocks’ nor ‘Geeks’ can accept that in the case of HEMA they are part of a single continuum rather than opposing sides. Sides like these are are largely the invention of 1980s American high school films like the Breakfast Club, Can’t Buy me Love and Heathers (not an exhaustive list obvs), in my opinion anyway.

The film references may be a little flippant but that’s just my style. My point is that the division is a constructed one, not a naturally occurring one.

What follows is a speculative reconstruction of the “History of HEMA’ based on the situation I see around me and not on actual facts, dates, interviews or anything you might call evidence. Don’t worry, you can trust me, I’m an Anthropologist. It’s fine we do it all the time…

As a product of academic research, translation and other bookish activities, HEMA can be viewed as a legitimate means of understanding the past through personal experience of its martial culture. A type of experimental approach to history. In the early days I imagine this was quite the niche activity and this is suited to the academic mindset. The natural tendency there is to ‘discover’ and develop a field of study, become ‘expert’, define the discourse within and around the subject and build your career and reputation around it.

There is a contradiction at the heart of this way of thinking. To gain renown and prestige you want your field of expertise to be well known and well thought of but at the same time you want to ring fence it and make it obscure enough that the masses aren’t able to become too knowledgable and jeopardise your position as defining authority on the subject. This is best perfected by physics personalities (DeGrasse, Einstein et al.). Nobody can deny that physics is important (light, mass, gravity, time etc), but most people simple don’t have the math to challenge the big boys. The clique is not only secure but valued by  the wider society, ideal.

HEMA isn’t/wasn’t so ‘lucky’…

Once the incredibly difficult and vital work of researching, locating, translating, interpreting and finally publishing a treatise has been accomplished almost anyone with a bit of spare time and willingness to practise can become knowledgable. HEMA is much more accessible than physics and it began to attract the masses. Both Geeks and Jocks.

Some people don’t get interested in HEMA because they want to win medals. They were never interested in competition, they want an activity that allows them to learn an historically valid skill, study ‘ancient’ texts and build a community of like-minded people they can work with, share insights with and call their own. These are the people who will paw over individual sentences, look for nuance in translation that may have been missed and research anatomy to get closer to the ‘truth’ of what he Masters were teaching.

As HEMA is essentially the embodiment of historical descriptions of techniques of violence, anyone with a body can give them a go and those who are able to embody them well – to whit, athletic types – will become very good at them fairly rapidly. Before long, new and good understandings of those martial techniques will be developed by the Jocks and not the Geeks. They will be undeniably effective understandings based on the repeated embodiment of the techniques, not theoretical understandings. As such their validity cannot be truly denied.

The Geeks, as proto-hipsters, don’t want to see ‘their’ HEMA turned into a sporting activity they don’t want to compete in and so will criticise the SportyHEMA types as not doing ‘real HEMA’ (see, what you do is imply that what the Other is doing is so far removed from what you are doing that it isn’t even really the same thing, thus preserving the sanctity of your own field and totally invalidating the Other).

The HEMA Douche – not my video, no claims I could ever produce anything so funny!

Tournament fencing has become more popular and as they are essentially games (with rules that actually distance the bouts from actual violence even further) the academic side call them compromised and in-authentic; which to a certain extent they are. However I don’t think this makes them truly invalid. Competitions that allow or disallow certain weapons, techniques and levels of risk were a part of the historical context and as such there should be space made for them in the modern.

Jocks for their part are not blameless. They are driven to win, they are willing to employ historically questionable moves, with massive amounts of force and repeat them ad infinitum in their pursuit of medals. They learn the bare minimum needed to gain the points they are after and instead of contributing to the pool of shared knowledge established by the Geeks they take from that pool and use it to prop up their egos.

These characters and their behaviours don’t really exist. No one is a purely Geek or Jock, because such categories aren’t real. Within us all we have the capacity to seek victory and the sincere desire to employ quality ‘real’ techniques. The tournament scene is vibrant and entertaining and has a valuable place in HEMA. The tournament scene would not and could not exist without the continued academic efforts within the community. SportyHEMA and The Art aren’t opposites, they can and should be seem as part of the same range of activities, they both benefit each other and it is perfectly acceptable to focus at any combination of the two, weight being given wherever you like,  without being made to feel you are ‘killing HEMA’.

We need to understand why we are tempted to ‘Other’ people who are involved in different aspects of HEMA than ourselves. An honest attempt should be made to break down the perceived divisions between one ‘side’ and the other. Making tournaments less intimidating, safer places that reward technical ability as much as athleticism is a vital part of this. If some people are lucky enough to combine the two then they shouldn’t be brought down in order to protect a constructed niche that we have moved way beyond. Likewise those that contribute to HEMA through their tireless, in depth research that is beyond most practitioners should be valued and recognised for their contributions.

Next week… World peace and my suggestion for the Middle East…

I hope that what I write is enjoyable and leads people who read it to think about what they do, how they do it and what they want to get out of it. If you like what you have been reading, let me know but more importantly (for my ego at least) share this post with all and sundry. I love to hear from you, let me know what you think of the my blog, either below in the comments or via the Wrathful Peasants page.