Many people practice HEMA as a casual hobby or a sport and they are in many ways lucky – they can enjoy the training and the tourneys and have fun.
But if and when you get more serious in HEMA, and I don’t necessarily mean only teaching professionally, you face a dilemma. Is what you do real, or is it just a modern fantasy to keep your office-dwelling brain active?
I hope there is no need to say it, but just in case, I will. None of what we do is “fighting for real”. Our fencing practice is a series of games, drills, or mini competitions – mainly against ourselves, sometimes seemingly against others. Our most accurate simulation may at best physically approximate a splinter of the reality of actual combat.
We should know this. We are not special. The same goes for every martial artist or combat sport athlete and those that have a head on their shoulders worth something know that.
Is HEMA a fantasy land, just more physical than board games and more stylish than LARP? It can be, and for many people it is. And that’s fine.
Is it just a modern amateur sport? In a way, it is. In fact, that should be the minimum it is. Any HEMA club should provide to some extent all the benefits of a sport – better health, better shape, better attitude. There should be a team spirit, a camaraderie among fencers. There should be healthy competition. These are all typical ways humans grow.
Some of us might want it to be more than that. And it can be. We can plant the seeds for much, much more and enjoy whatever sprouts out in time. We can be martial artists, we can study fighting and violence, we can develop our technical skills, our scholarly skills, and delve deep into the foundations of HEMA – the sources, written and physical.
And we may even find something special, just for us.
What we should be careful about is not deluding ourselves. A good martial artist is not someone who beats someone else in a sporting bout. He might be, but that is not enough to define him.
The question remains unanswered – where is the real fight?
It is right there, in between all the technical mumbo-jumbo. It is in developing a skill with brothers-in-arms. It is in learning about learning. It is in being confused, being slow, losing. Yet coming in to training yet again.
It is in figuring out what tournaments mean to you and what you can get out of them. It is in the struggle to be honest to yourself.
It is in learning to be more than you are, but not feeling like you are more than you are.
A couple of centuries ago a great swordsman wrote a treatise called “The Way to Walk Alone”. Although I would rather translate it “the way to move on your own”. The fourth precept in the treatise says:
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
That is where the real fight is.