The Future of Aussie HEMA

I’m going to make a prediction about the future of HEMA in Australia. I’m willing to put money on it.

Within three years, we will see a national umbrella organisation founded specifically for the purpose of running a high-level national HEMA competition. It exists solely to run the tournament and dictates the rules, weapons, protection and other entry requirements competitors must meet. The organisation will not train competitors itself but allow entry to any competitor suitably qualified under its strictures. However, it may accredit other schools and groups as providing a training program appropriate for the national competition. The organisation will provide permanent referees and other officials trained to administer the competition rules rather than scrambling to find people at the last minute. The entry costs – both in terms of dedication to training, insurance and fees – will be high but so will the rewards for the winners. Qualification will be rigorous and difficult. There will be corporate sponsorship but the event probably will not yet attract media attention.

A major split is coming in Australian HEMA. And I think it’s a good thing.

The community is divided. There is a small knot of people keen for hard-core, intense, high-level competition. There’s another group equally committed and focused on recovering the past and reviving the tradition of swordsmanship. On the continuum between the extremes of competition-based HEMA and art-based HEMA (for want of better terms) lie every other HEMA practitioner, interested in a mix of both in varying proportions. Because — it goes without saying — swording is just big fun.

This will happen. Within three years. But there are risks.

Art-based HEMA risks losing touch with the realities of swordsmanship. It is in danger of devolving into blindly following ideal forms, zen-like movements for their own sake without understanding their true aims and purpose. Perfecting each step, the position of the arms, the feet, the turn of the hips is the objective. No longer is it connected to the reality of swordsmanship – trying to put a length of steel into the body of another person.

Competition-based HEMA risks losing touch with the long albeit reconstructed history of western swordsmanship. Whatever works. Whatever wins the point is the goal. After all, the only rational context for swordsmanship in the twenty-first century is competition. Technique adapts to context but loses any connection with how sharps were used in lethal encounters.

Will we be forced to choose one or the other? I think the answer is a definite yes.

For a start, consider the issue of insurance: public liability, player insurance, event insurance. The re-enactor insurance that most groups take out doesn’t cut the mustard. I’m no lawyer but I can’t see it covering us for what we do. We need martial arts insurance if we’re going to continue to ratchet up the level of competition. Without it and sooner or later, someone is going to get sued and, at best, lose their house. The implications of this for weapons, protection, training, rules, allowed techniques, etc, will force the split if nothing else. Some HEMA practitioners are willing to pay the cost. Some are not.

The potential for litigation will have other impacts. For example, based on my limited layman’s understanding of duty of care, event organisers may be called on to refuse competition entry to those who are not formally trained in whatever is used in the competition. Haven’t trained longsword? You can’t enter a longsword competition. Haven’t trained grappling and throws? You cannot enter a tourney where ringen is allowed.

Sure, this is a pessimistic perspective. But is it an unrealistic view?

Is it what I personally want for Aussie HEMA? Yes and no.

Yes. I want high-level competition to develop. I want the national competition umbrella organisation to be formed. In my view, this is the only way it will happen. It will happen within three years.

But competition at this level doesn’t interest me. I’ll never enter the tourney (even if my creaking bones could pass qualification). I’m an historian who plays at martial arts but I’m not a re-enactor. My interest is in a particular slice of the history of western swordsmanship. I’m never going to use a sword in a fight and I can’t bring myself to pretend I ever will. My interest is in turning what I read in books into the practical, judicious and nuanced handling of obsolete weapons.

Facing antagonistic opponents is a large part of proving my interpretations may be correct. This is where the current inter-school “friendlies” come into play. It’s competition but with limits – formal or otherwise – on the intensity and allowed techniques and which takes advantage of a different set of rules from one event to the next – often focusing on achieving particular outcomes.

My great fear is that we may lose the wealth of diversity displayed by Aussie HEMA. Different groups each concentrating on their own section of the art and practice of swordsmanship is one of the greatest strengths of HEMA in this country. It would be a tragic loss to us all if we ever succumbed to the diseased mindset of The One True HEMA (whatever that may be).

I want the insights into the use of swords gained in this forum to feed into the high-level arena. Improvements in our understanding of the Art can only benefit the national competition.

I want the experience gained in a national competition to better inform my studies. The speed and intensity of combat, even given that it is no longer lethal in intent, provides insights what works under pressure that can not but assist in interpreting source texts.

The split is coming. And I’m looking forward to it because the tension now between the two extremes of the continuum is unsustainable.