Let’s be Honest About HEMA… A Response to Shadiversity

This blog post is a response to Shad (of Shadiversity youtube channel fame), and is recent videos about “gatekeeping” in HEMA – it is a collection of somewhat rambling thoughts, originally intended for just a comment on his youtube channel, but ending up much longer.

By way of background, I have met Shad a couple of times – once while visiting a historical event, and once at a HEMA event (the only one he’s been to that I know of), he seems a nice enough guy in person, and I don’t bear him any ill will. This is my immediate thoughts following his video.

I agree let’s be Honest About HEMA.

Let’s be honest about what it means and ‘allows’, and how the term is used.

Moreover let’s be completely honest about what we do in our own HEMA training, and our motivations for these kind of videos.

There are 3 parts to looking at this:

  1. An Honest appraisal of the the language being used
  2. An Honest appraisal of what counts as HEMA
    (strong or weak, more on that later)
  3. An Honest appraisal of how much HEMA gatekeeping happens

Honesty about what language is and how we use it

A large part of Shad’s video deals with definitions, and when it comes to definitions we have to pay attention to Matt Easton of Scholagladiatoria’s favourite word – Context.

When we say we “do HEMA” what are we trying to convey? How and where are we using it? What are the consequences of a misunderstanding?

Definitions are wonderful – they can be shaded, manipulated and bent to our will as the need arises – they can even be discarded entirely at times. The thing about language is that it doesn’t emerge miraculously from dictionaries, it arises from how people use language for a given purpose.

When someone designs a “killer” app, if we go and look at the definitions then we should probably intervene – the app is going to kill someone! Of course we understand this isn’t the case – the usage of the word “killer” has changed from a strict dictionary definition.

When people say “that’s just a theory” about something, they’re usually not referencing the scientific usage of the term theory.

What about the term “feder”. It’s definitionally incorrect. Where were these swords defined as feders originally? There’s no such term historically speaking, yet anyone from the historical fencing community immediately knows what you mean when you say feder.

When it comes to HEMA there is no external dictionary definition – it’s defined by the its usage by those doing it. What people call HEMA today may differ greatly from what they call HEMA in 20 years, so firstly let’s stop arguing over the dictionary definitions involved around the word ‘history’: this is a red herring in this discussion – we’ll all get much further by talking about what we mean and why anyone cares.

So in a roundabout way Shad is right that we use the term HEMA arbitrarily. Just like we use the term short, or tall arbitrarily – there aren’t strict definitions for them. Worse, at grass roots level every other word we use every day in the English language is arbitrary – there is usage that is broadly agreed on, but we often miscommunicate.

So instead we have to ask “who are the users of the language of HEMA and what is it generally taken to mean”.

What is and isn’t HEMA – the continuum of swords!

Usually the term HEMA comes up when we’re talking about a very specific activity in a very specific context.

If you run a HEMA club, for example, people have an expectation of exactly what it is that you do – and that’s where the “mainstream” HEMA definition is useful – historical fencing based on known sources and corroborating information from art, literature, sculpture, and artefacts.

That’s not to say there isn’t a broader and more “general” definition of HEMA.

It could be argued that any kind of experimental archaeology using period weapons to emulate a specific historical context is indeed “doing HEMA”. Of course, experimental archaeology is actually a very specific term, however, once again language is defined by usage and we all know what is being referred to when we use it, so any time this comes up I’ll assume we mean: “trying to broadly emulate a cultural activity of a historical period.”

I don’t think most people would disagree that this is HEMA of some type.

When shad describes playing with swords, how does this fit into the experimental archaeology picture? (unfortunately foam swords don’t even emulate important physical characteristics of swords, but I’m going to be as fair as possible and leave foam swords out of this discussion entirely, as that’s not the only thing Shad does).

This kind of activity – picking up swords and hitting each other until you “get good” and declare that you’ve “done history research” displays an unbelievably low standard of evidence or support. The reconstruction here would be characterised as:

"what if two peasants who had never used a weapon before, picked up swords and started hitting each other."

Did this every happen… well almost certainly somewhere, though it could be argued that they would be living in a culture steeped in the material culture of the time, so probably had some inkling of sword use based on the many combative games that existed, as well as general cultural exposure. To be as intellectually generous as possible, let’s assume the participants were making an earnest effort reconstruct fencing. Could this be in some way considered HEMA?

In fact yes… in a very very broad way… but we have to be HONEST that this kind of HEMA has very little good corroborating evidence in if taken in isolation, and hasn’t really been put to the test against any other approach or data points. Is it HEMA? Yes that may be so, but it’s not very good HEMA.

And that’s fine – as long as we’re HONEST about it, and don’t try to claim legitimacy about your expertise.

As a point of comparison, you wouldn’t just pick up a stonemason’s tools from the medieval era and just have at it on a lump of rock. You would likely look at the type of masonry they created, consider art and written accounts, compare other artefacts related to the field, compare tools from different places and so on. Without an instructional text this is the equivalent of the kind of HEMA for which we don’t have instructional sources (as mentioned by Shad). The more corroborating evidence, the more seriously we would take the outcome – and stonemasonry is one such area where people have done exactly this

So clearly we’re seeing some kind of spectrum here, and at its lower end is ignoring all other evidence and just playing with swords. If we were to consider HEMA as an academic pursuit, this would almost certainly not meet any kind of peer review, and you definitely couldn’t claim to be an expert or even an educated amateur on this basis.

As we move up this spectrum we expect to see more corroborating evidence, and much more specificity to a given context – this is how expertise works in most fields of endeavour, especially history, which Shad has gone to great pains to describe definitionally.

So the more specific our target context becomes, and the more reliable data points we can find to corroborate it, the “better” our understanding becomes, and the more confidence we can have that what we’re doing is representative of something that actually existed. We move from very “weak” HEMA to a stronger HEMA that while it might be more specific to a time or a place, would generally be considered better representing a certain moment in history.

Let’s move up the HEMA spectrum to “speculative” HEMA – the kind done by Roland in trying to reconstruct viking era combat. Instructional texts don’t exist for this, but there are a lot of specific data points we can use as points of comparison – descriptions of how people fought, illustrations, historical artefacts, and so on. We can also use actual experimental archaeology – trying to replicate the damage we see to weapons of the period, for example. Now our experimental archaeology is more specific, and with that comes more a more rigorous your analysis.

The best standard for this that we currently have, of course, is directly correlating our efforts to emulate cultural activities of a historical period (in this case fencing) with accounts of how it was done back in the day – descriptive accounts, treatises, and so on, and coupling this with pressure testing and review by others in the community. And this work can’t be easily dismissed – there are people who devote years of research to finding historical texts, translating, cross-referencing linguistic elements of texts, finding historical data points, and on the other side of things are those who have spent years recreating these activities and subjecting them to the constant pressure of fencing and public debate.

With this specificity to sources we do, of course, lose the generality of fencing that Shad mentions in his video. But this is the strength of this approach rather than the weakness – making up a “naive” style of fencing from whole cloth is something that likely never happened – fencing didn’t develop in a vacuum, but as part of a much wider cultural backdrop of combative sports and centuries of previous sword discoveries.

We can have a specific and constrained method of HEMA, or a broad, vague and unconvincing method.

Now I’m not trying to say that Shad is operating at this weakest “layer” of the HEMA spectrum – he has clearly looked at other people doing HEMA (albeit apparently with a fairly limited degree of interest), and has some knowledge of history, and seems to genuinely be interested in investigating claims around historical swordsmanship. So is he doing HEMA? Yes – of course.

Is he “good” at HEMA? who knows, and it doesn’t matter anyway?

Is he “good” at fencing in any meaningful way? Hard to say, he has chosen to exclude himself from actually fencing with anyone in the HEMA community, except for a single video from 2017 which gets trotted out whenever HEMA comes up. This in itself is curious – it would seem that if a person had a genuine interest in HEMA they would come to at least some HEMA of the many events, or even fence with people in the HEMA community, yet aside from this single snippet, there isn’t much evidence that he spends a great deal of time fencing at all.

He does, however, seem to be claiming a certain degree of legitimacy as to his expertise, and with such claims, come the appropriate critique in this free market of ideas that comprises HEMA.

This critique isn’t unusual, it’s actually one of the strengths of HEMA – even the most respected members of the HEMA community aren’t beyond question about how a particular technique is performed, or how it fits into the larger fencing context – there is no ultimate authority.

So why critique how strong or weak our HEMA is on this spectrum? Why differentiate at all in the use of language?

Simple – HONESTY.

With the growth of this as a sport and martial art, people are paying their hard earned cash to learn HEMA. This is where the rubber hits the road (sword hits the maille?) when it comes to the term HEMA.

We owe it to them to be “Honest About HEMA” or honest about the qualities of HEMA we practice and how rigorous our understanding is.

If you claim to be “teaching HEMA” or have a “philosophy” behind how you teach it, then the usage of the language has an understood connotation that people quite rightly expect.

This applies to everything – not just HEMA. If you say you’re running a BJJ school but have never trained with anyone or rolled with an actual BJJ practitioner, though have watched videos on YouTube, then you need to be honest about what you’re doing (and no, this isn’t at all like the karate example Shad mentions).

For example let’s say I open a school teaching historical longsword. However what people don’t know is:

1. I made it up by playing with LARP swords in my yard
2. I never even attempted to correlate it against historical sources, or other forms of evidence
3. I’ve never fenced with anyone else in the HEMA community

This is pretty dishonest, and if people were to compare it to the rigorous research and testing from other schools they’d be right to be disappointed (again, not saying this is what Shad himself does, just using the weakest example).

Incidentally; there are are schools in Melbourne (not far from Shad) that teach swordsmanship but don’t claim to be doing HEMA. They compete in HEMA tournaments, are insured alongside other HEMA clubs, and use historical swords, but they say outright that their system is of their own modern invention (albeit inspired by some historical elements) – and if they suddenly started saying they did HEMA, virtually all of the other more “traditional” HEMA clubs in Melbourne would fine with it – so much for gatekeeping.

One of the methods I practice, for example, is 16th century German longsword (as described by Joachim Meyer). This was an art for a specific context – late 16th century fencing in the Germanic cities of the time!

And I would never claim otherwise – it’s not a general pan-European fencing system, it’s a specific time and style – I’m being HONEST about my art.

It has involved equal parts painstakingly attempting to understand the social context of the system, cross referencing the fencing manuals themselves with accounts of fencing tournaments, armed crimes, injury reports, legal statutes, social structures of fencing at the time, and more, coupled with countless hours of practice and experimentation to find the underlying ‘truth’ in the system of fencing.

The dreaded gatekeepers!

So what about point (3) – the terrible term that has come up in previous videos – GATEKEEPING?

Simply this: when we’re arguing about what is and isn’t gatekeeping then yet again we need to consider the context.

Search the various HEMA pages on Facebook and you’ll find lots of people saying “I don’t have a HEMA club nearby, what should I do” – to which the answer is usually “start your own! Here are sources to use! Let me PM you and we can talk about how you can go about it! Here’s a place you can get insured if you want to practice!”

I’ve seen HEMA groups send gear and weapons to people just starting out to help get them started, and I’ve never seen anyone say “no don’t do HEMA on your own at all”, even if they did strongly suggest cross training with other martial arts to get some perspective.

Most of the source material has been made freely available by people who have spent years researching, discovering and translating material, and almost everyone else is more than happy to help get people started. This includes art, descriptions, videos of peoples’ interpretations of techniques, pages of descriptions of weapon measurements and specifications, and more.

If this is gatekeeping then it’s a very strange way of doing it.

In the context of martial arts, HEMA has some of the lowest levels of gatekeeping to people entering that I’ve seen.

If you were to look up Japanese swordsmanship community pages, I wonder if you would see people saying “start your own club” to people who don’t have somewhere to train? I’ll save you the time – you wouldn’t see that.

Yes, there may be toxic people in the HEMA community who do gatekeep and hold elitist views. Even those of us who have been around the historical fencing world for a long time have seen that or been subjected to it… but I’ve yet to see a community where you don’t find at least some hyper elitist types! But this is a very small minority.

Most HEMA folk are more than happy to say that the most simplistic level of HEMA can at least in theory include devising a system on the basis of nothing more than picking up swords and trying to figure out how people in earlier times might have used them in a specific context – even while intentional excluding valid sources of information.

We would, however, tend to judge someone pretty harshly who then claimed to be an expert on the subject having so assiduously avoided the known sources for so long (again, not saying that’s what he’s doing).

At its heart, speculative HEMA is still HEMA – albeit of an less rigorously corroborated kind.

If Shad wanted to support the validity of this approach it might help to show actual videos of doing that. Videos showing this extensive work and experimentation, as well as the system he has elucidated being used against other more specific systems?

When saying he doesn’t limit himself to foam swords he is yet again replaying the same video from 2017 of him fencing a young HEMA guy who had done an hour of longsword a week for a few months, and who was kind enough to agree to fence with him for fun on that day. This is an opponent he cherry picked, while declining to fence in a similar way with any of the more experienced fencers, or even reenactors, there.

This footage gets brought out time and again to support the idea that he frequently fences steel longsword with other HEMA folk, yet where do we see him presenting the outcomes of his system, fencing with the broader HEMA community in Australia, or coming to the many tournaments and events that have run in Melbourne (just a couple of hours away from him)?

It’s true that a short time after that video was taken he came to his only actual HEMA event (all the way back in 2017), though again he didn’t cross swords with anyone, acting almost exclusively as an observer and not a participant.

Once again again it’s about being honest. In this case honest with yourself – if you had genuine interest in swordsmanship wouldn’t you want to fence with the best people you could find, especially when loaner equipment was available on hand? With notable international fencers and respected fencers from other Australian cities present, this was the perfect opportunity for Shad to test his experimental reconstruction methods.

When he did minimally join in a couple of workshops he constantly went off topic with the classic beginner martial artist behaviour of “yeah, but what if I do this!”, and trying to “win” at a drill where he was supposed to supply stimulus to illustrate a very specific principle. This shows startling inexperience of martial arts from someone who claims a certain degree of expertise.

Participating isn’t for everyone, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t voluntarily exclude yourself from everything in the HEMA world and call it gatekeeping.

That’s not gatekeeping… it’s choosing not to take part.

The Victorian HEMA community supports at least a dozen clubs or subgroups, practicing all manner of weapons, from smallsword to halberds. We also have close ties with the Buhurt and reenactment communities, jousters, sport fencers, and more, with many people cross training openly and happily with no attempt to gatekeep against “outsiders”.

To be honest, having met Shad, he seems a nice enough guy to chat to. So what’s going on here with the apparent hostility toward the HEMA community?

A cynic would suggest clickbait videos like this are a way of garnering views, but I’d rather be charitable in ascribing motivation, and assume that Shad is being honest and sincere.

Perhaps he’s had a bad experience with a vocal and unpleasant minority and that’s led him to feel this way – and I can understand. If this indeed the case and he’s had bad experiences, then he should know that the whole community isn’t like that.

Perhaps he wants to be part of HEMA, but just finds the hard work part all too much due to existing time constraints, or is not interesting to him. Again, fair enough.

In the end, though, you can’t be a gatekept if there was no gate to begin with.

Nobody is stopping people from practicing HEMA in whatever way they choose, but on the other side of the coin they should also expect to be asked for supporting evidence for their work, and given appropriate critique in the right way.

If you’re dipping into the massive ocean of historical and archaeological evidence with just your toe, that’s okay.

But be Honest about it – don’t claim that your gingerly dipped toe in those historical waters, is the same as someone swimming far from shore, and don’t say that HEMA is being gatekept when the only thing preventing participation is yourself.

1 thought on “Let’s be Honest About HEMA… A Response to Shadiversity

  1. Very well said. This I believe is the best response to this whole thing that I have seen. Defining a thing and then inviting people to participate in said thing is not Gatekeeping.

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