All good martial arts are contextual. That is, it isn’t enough to learn martial techniques without visualizing and training the context in which they will be applied. From the broadest view, it’s important to distinguish whether particular martial techniques are designed for a specific social context, for a sporting environment, for military application, or for personal defense. More importantly it’s critical to understand the specific martial threats and social influences that inform the martial art in question. As such, many practitioners of martial arts with long traditions find themselves in less-than-defensible positions when confronted with a modern self-defense scenario, often because their particular martial art was designed for an environment and a social context long past.
In Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA), perhaps more than other arts, we indeed find it difficult to contextualize our training. The social and martial context that we train for have long past, and we’re left with many gaps in our understanding of the martial challenges faced by our ancestors. In many cases, all we have are educated guesses, ones that we continuously challenge and revise as our understanding grows. HEMA, therefore, is a growing art, one that has seen constant change as our understanding of it matures.
Many HEMA clubs struggle with training the historical context of the art while still maintaining a martial environment. A club that devotes itself too fervently to the historic part of the art at the expense of the martial, runs the risk of training techniques that seem to beautifully match their historic descriptions but somehow aren’t tenable when the intensity or uncertainty increases. On the other hand, a club devoted to martial training at the expense of historic rigor runs the risk of creating an intense but anachronistic fighting form, one that wouldn’t stand up to the social and martial challenges that our predecessors faced historically.
The challenge most HEMA clubs face is this: with the limits of our current knowledge, to create a martially minded art we have to make some interpretative leaps, to extrapolate some ideas from our incomplete understanding and train some ideas that may only be vaguely implied in the texts. Each club has to determine for itself how far down the speculative road to travel and how far to depart from a literal interpretation of the historic record.
In our club, we try to walk the fine line between the historical art and the martial art that we practice. That means in our training we try to
- keep the historic texts as the focus of our study
- continually challenge our core assumptions about the art
- test our understanding of historic techniques by subjecting them to intense timing and distance challenges, often in full-speed drills or sparring.
- attend tournaments, with the understanding that while tournament fighting is probably the pinnacle of intense HEMA fighting, it does serve to decontextualize the art to a degree.
- add uncertainty (unknown tempos, multiple decision points, variable training partners, etc.) to all of the historic sequences we study
- contextualize each technique as much as possible to understand the specific scenario where it would or would not be effective
- individually increase our own understanding of the historical and social environment in which our art flourished
- cross train with practitioners of other arts and with a variety of other HEMA groups