I recently got my latest book, The Theory and Practice of Historical European Martial Arts, back from the editor, and am working through it. There are always last-minute changes to make, but they are usually minor additions or rephrasings. This time, there is one major change: I have decided to stop using the term HEMA altogether. It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute. I will not share examples of this behaviour because I see no good reason to spread poison, but trust me, it’s out there.
The Nazis in Germany in the 30s did the same thing to all sorts of elements of European culture, from co-opting Norse mythology, to taking a perfectly innocuous symbol (the swastika, which you will see on monuments and book covers before the 1930s) and making it forevermore associated with evil incarnate.
The principles and practices I cover in the book are by no means only applicable to European styles and sources. They could be used for any art— indeed, my friend and colleague Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani is using the same sort of approach in his reconstruction of historical Persian martial arts. So the “European” bit is entirely unnecessary, and seems to promote division rather than unity. I don’t practice the arts I do just because they are European.
It’s not as if there was any such thing as a general European martial art anyway, other than perhaps gunnery; I teach Italian rapier, Italian medieval knightly combat, French smallsword, German sword and buckler, and so on. Every source comes from a specific time, place and culture; to call them European would be uselessly general.
So fuck them. They can have the HEMA label. The E is redundant. We could call what we do Historical Swordsmanship, but that would exclude the boxers, knife fighters, WWII combative practitioners (the only style I can think of that definitely killed Nazis!), wrestlers, jousters and all the rest that don’t use swords. We could call it Western Martial Arts, though the “Western” is perhaps misleading too; Polish sabre is Eastern European; to me it would feel odd to call it “Western”, though it is when considered in relation to Asian martial arts.
In the interests of specifying the historicity of what I do, its martial nature and its artistic beauty, I’m calling my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts, and dropping all references that would seem to imply these arts are valuable because they are European.
In the global fight against fascism that faces us today, it is probably the tiniest, feeblest, blow. But we have to start somewhere. I don’t think we can reclaim the term HEMA any more than we can reclaim the swastika, but it’s just a four letter acronym. It’s what we do that counts, not what we call it.
In case there were any doubt about my stance on this, here’s a photo of a class I taught recently. Race, sex, religion, country of origin? Irrelevant. Community fostered by a shared joy in the Art? Priceless.
UPDATE: There has been a ton of commentary on this on various social media platforms, which can be distilled down to the following stances:
- Yay! Glad Guy said that.
- Okaay, but we must FIGHT to keep the term HEMA and not yield the E to the fascists
- Fascists are bad, but this is not helping at all
- There are fascists in HEMA? Where?
- Are you calling ME a fascist? (for the record, I’m very carefully not naming anyone)
- Guy is a dick.
Let me point out that the only action I am taking is re-naming my book, and adjusting the content to reflect the fact that historical martial arts are not all European. I take the point that my proposed course of action may not be effective (time will tell); and I also understand that many decent people are very invested in the term HEMA. Personally, I’m not and have never been; when I started out we called what we did Historical Swordsmanship, or Western Martial Arts. I think my point stands that HEMA is not a very good descriptor for the Art, and I’m sympathetic to the “don’t give the fascists an inch” standpoint. But nothing I’ve seen so far has lead me to want to change my mind (and undo the last few hours of edits!).
Regarding the last point, I’d rather be hated for who I am than respected for who I’m not. If trying to do something to counteract the far right loses me the respect of some people, then I’d rather not have their good opinion. If you approve of the sentiment but not the tactics, then by all means, let’s talk tactics.