Tamás Kelemen, intructor of HEMA club “Kard Rendje” (Order of the Sword) located in Budapest

Tamás Kelemen: “I’m dedicated to Olympic fencing methodology”

In most countries, Covid restrictions are being lifted. No one knows for how long, but this is a chance for plenty of HEMA clubs to reopen. Tamás Kelemen, from Hungarian club “Kard Rendje” (Order of the Sword) tells us how they have survived through the last year and how are they rebuilding their foundations.

Jakub: Is HEMA popular in Hungary?

Tamás: Not really. “Ars Ensis” and “Kard Rendje” are the biggest clubs. There are also some smaller ones, but I usually don’t see them at tournaments. Kard Rendje has chapters in Győr and Budapest – we do training camps and all other kinds of events together. We also run competitions for any Hungarian fencers who would like to participate.

How did you manage during the pandemic?

Before Covid, we used to rent a training hall from a university – it was great, cheap, and we could store all of our equipment there. Then all of the educational institutions had to shut down. Even now, when Hungary already has restarted its economy, universities don’t rent out halls, due to what might unexpectedly come next.

Kard Rendje, Budapest HEMA Club

While we couldn’t meet in person, I bought an HD webcam and started broadcasting online trainings on Discord. Between 10 and 20 people were watching and doing all kinds of exercises – only we didn’t do sparring; thrusts would be rather dangerous to our cameras.

The tricky part was to make sure that everybody participating has enough space. I have a very large room in my flat but not everybody is that fortunate, so after a few trainings, we switched to do the whole stretching – for almost an hour – strength training, and footwork: steps, jumps, skipping. It was like a workshop. We also held little technical presentations about different techniques, for example about Meyer’s square: why do we use it? What’s its point? What are its applications? Then, everyone was expected to go outside, practice it and – if they were able – record themselves and send the videos to the instructors, so we could evaluate them.

What about now? Are you struggling to find participants?

Sort of. During the spring, we were able to reopen and had to sign a contract with a hall’s owner. Unfortunately, we had to pay for a whole year in advance, not knowing if we would be able to continue training for a whole year and not knowing how many of our members will come back. Let’s face it – we had a group of about 20 beginners starting a year ago. About half of them came back. It’s understandable – they were also not sure about the future, and it was in the summer, so students were doing things students usually do in summer.

When we started again in June, we were able to legally train only if everyone had their vaccination certificates. It was mandatory for holding any events, and it was actually possible for police to just come to an event and check if everyone had it. It’s not required anymore.

It’s still summer, so my expectations are not very high. Everyone is on their holidays.

Before Covid we used to suspend all trainings for the whole summer, so this is actually an exception – we didn’t train for a whole year, and this time we decided that we really should; everyone was really excited about coming back. I hope more people will come back in September. I have a plan for starting a new beginner’s group, and I hope there won’t be a fourth wave.

Organizing it all was a real pain it the butt, but honestly, I was really dedicated to training beginners.

Personally, I came from Olympic fencing. I was doing foil fencing for over 10 years, then I switched to HEMA, and now I’ve been practicing HEMA for over 7 years. I have that idea that what we should take from Olympic fencing is their methodology and their educational mindset – gymnastics, methods of learning stuff, etc.

What is the most important lesson Olympic fencers could give to HEMA fencers?

Footwork! In my opinion HEMA footwork is – oh boy – really underdeveloped. Some HEMA fencers seem to despise drills for some reason. In Olympic fencing, it’s common to just stand against the wall and do the damn thrusts for hundreds and thousands of times. There is a good reason for that: you need every technique to become a routine.

In a fight, you have no time to think about if you are in a binding and should do this or that. A technique should come as an instinct, like driving a car. You need to think about the situation, not about particular techniques. It’s a gap in the structure of our education, but I believe it will change in the future.

Kard Rendje, fencers at Tyrnhaw, 2019

In Kard Rendje, we are actively working on changing it for the better. Four of our instructors – myself included – are taking the official certification of Olympic fencing instructors in September. We want to be instructors who know gymnastics, body structure, anatomy, and also the financial/managerial parts of handling anything connected to events or a club itself, so we can provide the best experience and  learning curve to our students. And I don’t think we are alone: more and more people would like to learn more and be better fencers. Personally, I want to interpret treatises as a main point but with the modern structure. Olympic fencers are really good at training; what if we train like them but for the HEMA?

Do you think historical masters used poor training methods?

Not necessarily, but we can’t treat historical treatises like complete combat manuals for us, modern people. Back in the day people didn’t learn from those treatises. They were guidelines, but fencers were learning directly from various masters.

I have a little side story about teaching people with no background. There are plenty of Chinese families coming to Budapest with children. Usually, Chinese parents don’t speak any languages apart from their native tongue. They send their young children to Hungarian schools, believing they will learn Hungarian during regular education. But in Hungarian school, you learn Hungarian with an assumption that you can already communicate. You learn the grammar, but you don’t learn the basics.

I used to teach Hungarian to Chinese kids. They asked me for help with exam preparations and I realized the huge gaps in their education. Even if you didn’t learn any grammar as a child, you have a sense of the language. For example, in Hungarian we don’t use any genders, but we use three grades of honorifics. School teachers and Hungarian books don’t teach that at all. When I talked to one of those Chinese kids, he was clueless about these formal and non-formal cases.

Kard Rendje, fencers at Visegrad, 2021

I think it’s close to how we should understand treatises. For historical people, swords were everywhere. They have seen them in very basic situations. As children, they could play with swords or at least with a stick. There are lots of sources describing Hungarian shepherds using some sort of weapon, like staves of axes. Even non-military people had some basic idea about self-defense or something similar.

Now we can just assume they had a lot of basic knowledge that we don’t have, and we need to replace it with something.

Any examples?

If you interpret HEMA as historical art, and focus on your research, then e.g. “Vor, Nach and Indes” is a very interesting topic – what was the historical interpretation, what they used to think about these words. But if you try to apply them to fencing, then there comes distance and timing training into the picture. Olympic fencers do this all the time. They know you have to feel the tempo of your opponent, feel the rhythm of the movements, and know how to exploit it, how to finds accurate spots for your actions.

It sounds like a terminology issue.

In treatises, chronologically, we find how definitions evolved. To me, it doesn’t feel like idea itself evolved, but like they found new words to express that idea and how to teach it. They played around with words and tried to express things better. Modern “tempo” is just the purified version of the same idea. But these are just guesses.

So which terminology do you prefer – Medieval German or modern?

When I started training HEMA in Kard Rendje 7 years ago, we used versions of treatises translated to Hungarian. Then, I had to relearn the German words. And I also find Italian expressions way more beautiful.

But from my Olympic fencing past, I know having French as THE language of fencing helped a lot. With it, you know what happens.

During HEMA tournaments there’s always a lot of arguing and people are getting upset because fencers don’t always understand what the judge describes. Even if they’re speaking literally the same language, participants, judges, and referees often lack the common ground to explain things. This language barrier creates unnecessary friction. I’ve seen masks flying across the hall for this reason.

If we had one common language, it would help. It wouldn’t solve all issues, but it would be helpful. Which language should it be? Personally, I’d say German would be better, because it’s already more common.

One thought on “Tamás Kelemen: “I’m dedicated to Olympic fencing methodology”

  1. Great article! Romance languages are far closely linked and widespread than German though, so as portuguese I’d much prefer Italian, and I’m sure Spanish (all kinds of it), French, Romanian, etc. romance language speakers would prefer Italian.
    Also, it does sound better ;D

    Liked by 1 person

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