In the last few days, the HEMA community has been collectively groaning in wonder at the series of videos of YouTuber Shadiversity that claim to talk about historical European martial arts, but consistently miss the mark both in regards to the community and its practice.
You might be lucky enough to not have heard of Shadiversity till now, or you might know him second-hand. This will be an attempt to point out the important bits if you don’t want to bother with researching the main players and events in this HEMA drama.
It all starts with…
The HEMA community nowadays has a handful of well-known YouTubers – people like Matt Easton, Federico Malagutti, Martin Fabian, and a ton of good to awesome school or club channels. However, there are also some people who sometimes cover topics close to HEMA, without being HEMAists themselves. A prime example of that is Shadiversity, an Australian dude with a medieval/fantasy slant of his content.
A well-known borderline example of a YouTuber HEMAist is Skallagrim, a Canadian who began his channel as one focused on weapon reviews but eventually started practising HEMA. But like Shad, Skal is also not famous for HEMA specifically.
To contrast these two examples, Matt Easton, who has also been involved in this mess, is a well-known HEMA instructor and pioneer, a weapon collector, an antique arms dealer, and an independent military history researcher.
The topic – what is and isn’t HEMA?
HEMA – Historical European martial arts – is generally accepted to be a movement aimed at reconstructing historical fighting systems that come from or are connected to the European continent. It is primarily focused on using historical treatises on fighting – a variety of documents, hundreds of which are available nowadays, many of them for free online, which were some variation of instructional books from the past.
The HEMA community is extremely varied and covers martial arts with and without various weapons from the 1300s to the early 20th C, but the vast majority of practitioners are focused mostly on medieval and Rennaissance systems dealing with swords.
Shadiversity, though, has another definition.
Shad’s definition of HEMA
According to him, HEMA is everything you do that is connected to weapons and history. It doesn’t matter if you follow a historical source and try to recreate a historical system, or you just watch some videos of people online and look at any illustrations that show weapon use from history, you are doing some sort of HEMA.
It also doesn’t matter if you ever use historically accurate weapons, even modern LARP foam swords, which resemble historical weapons only if you squint hard enough from far enough, are good enough.
Shad also claims the sources can be wrong (which is true), that they don’t really give a fair representation of the fighting of the past (which is definitely true for earlier periods). This is just the start of his long list of true claims, which pretty much every experienced HEMAist knows and understands.
Shad’s “HEMA Philosophy”
And we come to the first video that sparked controversy – 40 minutes of footage in which he presents his understanding of HEMA with a couple of friends and a couple of LARP rubber longswords.
In short, the video presents some complete basics, shared by pretty much every weapon martial art in the world, demonstrated by people with the skills of a student of 1 year at a good HEMA club – including Shad himself, who has fenced HEMAists.
It is important to note that in the past – in 2016 – Shad has visited a HEMA event and has fenced beginners and intermediate fencers. At the time he freely admitted he would join a HEMA club if one was nearby. Yet he has been offered help and teaching from local HEMAists in his region and has refused it.
Shadiversity’s misrepresentation of HEMA
We come to the key reason for the drama – the continuous misrepresentation of HEMA and the HEMA community by Shad, most exemplified in his last video on the topic, title “let’s be honest about HEMA”.
According to him, to many HEMAists the treatises are like a gospel – all you need is in them, everything that isn’t in them is wrong and ahistorical.
It is important to note that such an idea is practically unheard of in HEMA nowadays. There are different degrees of what is considered strictly representative of a specific source, style or tradition, but no one has such a fixed concept of HEMA practice and interpretation.
Another argument he makes is that utilizing any technique, whether it’s from a treatise or not, is viable and should be accepted if it’s effective – implying someone in HEMA claims otherwise.
In general, everything in HEMA tournaments that is safe to perform (unlike, say, a mordschlag) is allowed. A handful of limited rulesets (some of which are based specifically on historical ones) include some specific limitations.
In club sparring no instructor will ever tell you – this is not in the treatise, don’t use it – if it works consistently. Mostly because the chances of a technique to work consistently and not be in a source is minuscule. Everything that works in HEMA sparring shows up in one variant or another in historical fencing books. Sometimes a technique is shown just from one side, but it works just as well from the other side. Sometimes a slight angle change might make a technique look “different” to an amateur, but it is just a variation of an already existing technique.
Shad also argues that fencers should experiment and use what works for them – which is absolutely true and any HEMA instructor will tell you the same when it comes to sparring. However, some HEMA people like to experiment and try to figure out even things that don’t initially work – this is also part of the process.
He also claims that tying yourself to only follow the treatises will make you a worse fencer. Truth is, with the vast (and growing) amount of sources from all periods, you will hardly be capable of tying yourself to one. Most systems include multiple sources, and eventually, most HEMAists take interest, fence and study with more than one weapon/system.
Following these claims, Shad also implies that HEMAist uses only fencing treatises and nothing else, when material objects, such as actual historical weapons, and other sources from the period – illustrative or textual, are also very valuable to reconstructing historical fighting arts.
This is patently false – pretty much every serious HEMA practitioner (eventually) studies all of the above.
Due to the reactions to his video above, Shadiversity made another claim – that HEMAists are elitists and want to gatekeep HEMA only to those who study the sources.
The HEMA community is one of the least elitist combo of martial arts teachers and history buffs you can find on the face of the Earth. The community also makes constant efforts to make studying HEMA easier, cheaper and more accessible to everyone.
Skallagrim eventually made a video on the topic of HEMA elitism as well. He concludes there is a certain level of elitism in HEMA on average, and some instructors take things extremely seriously and professionally. Some HEMA discussions online also can get toxic – which is true for any community.
Matt Easton was the first to react, without naming Shad specifically, with a detailed video on what history is and why the treatises are the most important point of reference that defines HEMA.
In short, the study of history is mainly focused on written sources – which is why the term pre-history exists, defining the period before written sources. Written sources require interpretation, but some can be quite specific and reliable, especially when the identity and life experience of the author can be confirmed by other sources. HEMAist trust fencing treatises also because many of the masters are known as teachers of fencing, some – as soldiers, others – as duelists.
In addition, Matt makes the argument that without those treatises, HEMA wouldn’t be what it is today – which is certainly true. Other sources and material artefacts can be very important additions to the sources, but you cannot reconstruct a fighting system on that basis alone.
There are practices that try to do that – for periods where we don’t have fencing treatises, like the Viking age. Such efforts are considered by some HEMAists too speculative to bother with, but many consider them a part of HEMA still. It is also important to note that such studies are often done in conjunction with HEMA because they are connected – Viking swords are the predecessor of arming swords, and we do have sources on arming sword use. The most competent reconstructors of Viking or Norman fighting are also quite familiar with later fencing sources, and it shows.
“If two people in the modern world got foam swords and just sparred – every day, once a week or once a month in their back garden, it’s what they are doing HEMA if it’s the only thing they do? No. Because there is no tie-in, no tangible connection to a historical source”, Matt concludes.
Martin Höppner from Schildwache Potsdam also made a response video on the topic. He makes a good short explanation of how HEMA works and points out you can learn HEMA from an instructor without touching the sources. But if you try to reconstruct a specific art that doesn’t have instructional sources, you will be guessing a lot more, your practice will be suboptimal, and you will not really be doing HEMA.
“A martial art is more than just a few actions, it’s a philosophy, it’s a mindset, timing, pressure, everything, all of that. Just because a few actions overlap, don’t make your modern practice a certain martial art”
Oskar ter Moors, another HEMA Youtuber and instructor, also made a video response on his channel, the Virtual Fechtschule. He argues that for something to be HEMA, it has to be based on historical sources, AND those sources need to be of some quality. Oskar thinks experimental and experiential archaeology is a very valuable part of research into combat systems. He also gives a good example of how one would approach the use of halberds by Landsknechts – despite the fact that a specific Landsknecht source on its use doesn’t exist.
“I don’t like the postmodernist approach where you say – anything goes, just do whatever – is as good as a thoroughly researched historical approach.”
This is naturally not a completely unbiased review of this HEMA drama – it can’t be, as we are HEMAists discussing the confusion and misinformation shared online by a non-HEMAist. But you can watch all the videos and draw your own conclusions.
My POV – The Celebration of Mediocrity.