Michael-Forest Meservy began training in HEMA in 2001, later founding the Noble Science Academy in 2007, and cofounding the Wiktenauer two years after that. Today, Meservy discusses the fragmented history of HEMA, the scholarship involved in interpreting the sources, and the movement’s future. All images provided by Michael-Forest Meservy.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome! Thank you for joining us for this conversation about HEMA!
Michael-Forest Meservy: Thank you; I’m happy to help in any way I can!
MAYTT: You began training Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in 2001. What aspect drew you HEMA rather than an Asian martial art? How does that aspect continue to motivate and inspire you to train today?
MFM: When first I held a proper sword in my hand, I thought, “Woah, this is it,” and realized I had found my calling. Now, I’ve definitely had some interest in Asian martial arts, too—I loved Karate Kid and the Ninja Turtles when I was a little boy, and I’ve dabbled in Tae Kwon Do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and others. But HEMA demands everything from me and I love that.
MAYTT: What was the training like when you started? Was it an instructor teaching from a treatise or were there already competent instructors that could teach from a number of treatises? In your opinion, how has training evolved or adapted since you began HEMA?
MFM: Oh man. HEMA was still pretty young back then. We were just trying to cobble everything together the best we could. We practiced in parks. The only specialized equipment we had were wooden wasters (thanks, Purpleheart!) and fencing masks. We had no clue what appropriate levels of protection were. People were crafting padded swords at home so that we’d have a way of sparring safely. I’m glad those days are over, hah!
One thing that it’s really important to realize is that, back then, the treatises were really hard to come by. You couldn’t find them online. The Wiktenauer didn’t exist. YouTube didn’t exist. Very few historical treatises had been translated, and most of them weren’t even readily available in facsimile in any format. The leadership of our club—guys like Jake Norwood and Stew Feil—had to make a dedicated effort to purchase translations to study, but a lot of our curriculum had just been passed down from Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA) leadership. Jake knew a few things, to be sure, and was the best fencer among us, but our interpretations back then were pretty terrible. There was a lot we didn’t understand about our sources (and a lot that was simply unavailable), and a lot we didn’t understand about biomechanics. But it was a start.
Now, you’re starting to see schools that are professionalizing, and taking everything to the next level. At the Noble Science Academy, we have our own dedicated training space. We’ve got our own fitness classes, taught by certified personal trainers, specialized for swordplay! Thanks to the ready availability of the treatises, we understand historical techniques better than ever, and we teach them with a focus on proper biomechanics in addition to historical authenticity. It’s a completely different experience.
MAYTT: You bring up HACA as a starting point for many early HEMA practitioners. Could you tell me a bit about that organization and how it influenced future HEMA practitioners, if it did? Also, how different is the community’s curriculum to HACA’s; have some aspects been expanded, adapted, and/or deleted as more knowledge and resources became available?
MFM: In the early days, HACA (now rebranded as ARMA) was one of the few “biggish” organizations supporting HEMA in the US. (Incidentally, the Community hadn’t settled on the name “HEMA” back in those days). Because HACA provided a curriculum and support structure back when there were very few resources available for HEMA, it helped HEMA to grow. HACA’s organizational structure was very top-down and closely directed. Individual clubs didn’t have a lot of freedom to pursue HEMA in ways that fell outside the purview of HACA’s curricula. To oversimplify a little, this would eventually lead to the great “ARMAgeddon” schism and ultimately become directly responsible for the creation of the HEMA Alliance—all of the Alliance’s original leadership were, I believe, ex-ARMA, and they wanted to run things rather differently.
But the Community doesn’t have “a” curriculum. Every individual school has their own curricula. In some cases, organizations (like the Noble Science Academy) may have unified curricula shared amongst themselves, but there is a massive diversity of curricula and approaches to the Art, so it’s hard to talk about how the Community’s curricula differ from one particular organization. But, as said before, our interpretations were pretty terrible back when I was part of HACA. Back then, access to the sources was limited, and there was not nearly the level of sharing and cooperation that we see today in HEMA. I would say that most of what we see in HEMA today is worlds better and totally different than what we were doing in HACA back in the ‘aughts. We have the advantage of high-quality scans of original treatises, extensive transcriptions, and high-quality translations (some of which are freely available online). We have the advantage of decades of experimentation and a greater understanding of proper biomechanics. Speaking for the Academy, I can say that what we teach now is fundamentally superior to what we were doing back then.
MAYTT: It is amazing to see how far the Community has grown since then! You began your HEMA journey under the tutelage of Jake Norwood. What was he like as an instructor and as a person? In your opinion, how did he help solidify HEMA in the Utah region?
MFM: So, Jake is the one who got me into HEMA. We shared a class together in college, and one day after class, Jake was like, “Hey Michael-Forest, do you like swords?” And that’s how I got started! But Jake is an amazing guy. He’s a good, honest, and kind person, and it’s well-known that he’s an excellent fencer. He’s also a great teacher. Of course, back then, there was so much we didn’t understand. But we kept working on it. And Jake was always super helpful. At one point, after he had moved to Maryland and I to Nevada, I reached out to ask him to vet an interpretation I had been working on, and he and Ben Michels shot me back a video in response.
Jake is a pioneer, and a great leader, and to me it’s bittersweet when he moves on to the next thing. He was instrumental in spreading HEMA in Utah, and basically put in place the leadership that would end up forming the True Edge Academy. He created Maryland Kunst des Fechtens (MKDF) and then moved. Later on, he founded the HEMA Alliance, and then, after a few years, declined to remain part of the leadership. He got Longpoint started—arguably the biggest and best respected HEMA event in the Americas back then—and then, years later, had moved and relinquished that project. But Jake has always been about bringing people together, and getting them to focus on the Art.
MAYTT: In Asian martial arts, organizations play a dual role of keeping schools and instructors in contact with each other and to provide an avenue back to the art’s roots in the country of origin. With HEMA, the respective arts’ roots are present in the treatises available. What role do organizations play within the HEMA community and how do they raise awareness of the historical martial arts?
MFM: It really depends on the organization. Many of the smaller organizations, like us at the Academy, exist to support our schools and facilitate growth and discussion across all fronts. Others exist primarily as a vehicle for insurance and legal legitimacy. But one thing that we all have in common is that we want to see HEMA grow. We want to help people find good HEMA training locally. And so, we’ll share our love of HEMA, and help people to learn where they can find training.
MAYTT: In 2007, you and others founded the Noble Science Academy. What factors lead you to help cofound the school? Was there something you saw that was missing from the HEMA landscape that only you could provide?
MFM: We wanted to be part of a federation that would facilitate the sharing of ideas, translations, and interpretations, allowed for individual and local freedom of study, but that also provided a rigorous curriculum and testing process that was vetted by a democratic council of scholars. We wanted to be pushed, to be guided, and to be part of something big and meaningful. When we created the Academy, nothing like that existed.
And we still do a lot of things at the Academy that are pretty unique. We have a Council of Scholars (freely open to all Scholars in the Academy at any school) who contribute to our curriculum and work together to develop resources to help everyone to fence better. Our testing process is the most rigorous I have ever seen in a HEMA school: we once had an outside instructor (running his own club) who asked to take the test for our lowest rank in longsword. He failed every single portion. We have an Apprenticeship program where every single student can get ten hours per weapon of free one-on-one instruction from a senior Scholar. We have dedicated fitness classes focused on developing explosive movement specifically for swordplay run by certified personal trainers. We have offered classes in Early New High German and other languages. Of course, we help our schools with filing for business licenses, getting insurance, etc., so they don’t have to worry about having to figure out all of that on their own. But our real focus is on providing actual training, education, and resources. And we don’t push any of this on our schools. All of the Academy’s programs are opt-in. Every school is autonomous. But we strive to stay in constant communication because our goal is always to lift each other up, and to grow together. We work in harmony. Right now, we’re just three schools, but our doors are always open.
The Academy’s motto is Nihil sine studio: “Nothing without effort.” We work hard, together, to make our HEMA the best we possibly can. And the Academy’s entire existence is predicated on facilitating that.
MAYTT: That is interesting. You and many other HEMA practitioners have noted and emphasized that learning and practicing HEMA is more than just physically doing techniques prescribed in a specific treatise – there is an academic/scholarship aspect to the practice. In your opinion, how closely are training and scholarship tied? How does each aspect influence the other?
MFM: For some of us, training and scholarship are inextricably linked. If we’re going to keep the “Historical” part of HEMA, everything we do is tied to the sources, but there’s more to it than that. What my students and I have found is that as we return to the sources, making sure our translations are good, we find more and more insight into how these techniques should be performed. Whenever we’re struggling with making something work in freeplay, we revisit the sources, and we often find a clue that helps to “unlock” the technique and enables us to make it work well in a noncooperative situation. So yes, the movements come from academic study of the historical treatises, but at the same time it’s impossible to fully understand those treatises if you don’t understand the way biomechanics work with every movement, or don’t know how to read between the lines: the sources are often very vague. And all of that comes with practical experience, sword-in-hand, with a lot of sparring.
Now this is not to say that people can’t get into HEMA without engaging the sources directly. If you’re at a good school with a qualified instructor, you don’t need to worry about sussing through medieval manuscripts to figure out how to fence. You just show up and they explain it all to you, and if you want to just be a sword-athlete and ignore the treatises, you can. But I sincerely believe that studying the sources is not only mentally enriching, but it also results in direct improvements to the quality of our fencing. And I believe that there is still much more yet to be gained from their study, so we at the Academy like to encourage everyone to engage the sources when possible.
MAYTT: In 2009, you, Ben Michaels, and Michael Chidester created Wiktenaur. Could you tell me how the three of you met and the background to Wiktenaur’s creation? Did you foresee the impact the online source would have for the larger HEMA community?
MFM: So, Michael Chidester and I both got started in HEMA in the same club at the same time. We go way back. Ben Michaels helped to found MKDF with Jake back in Maryland, and so I first met him through Jake.
To understand why the Wiktenauer needed to exist, you need to know what the HEMA Community was back like in the ‘aughts. Back then, acquiring treatises was difficult. Generally, they had to be purchased, and a great many were not available in print or in translation. Those who had scans of manuscripts often guarded them jealously. There wasn’t the same openness we take for granted today. We hated this. We felt very strongly that public domain manuscripts should be freely available to everyone. Anyone looking at a page title in the Wiktenauer may notice a string of Latin words: “Insquequo omnes gratuiti fiant:” “Until they are all made free.” That’s the goal of the Wiktenauer. Michael Chidester has, for as long as I’ve known him, been an avid collector of treatises, and, even before the Wiktenauer, worked hard to create concordances between the various treatises. He’s done a lot of ground-breaking work in that regard, and we wanted to be able to share his work with the greater HEMA community. I believe Ben was experienced in sysadmin, and I had extensive MediaWiki experience. So we all worked together to make the Wiktenauer a reality.
I’d like to think we knew that what we were doing was important. But I’m not sure we understood just how important. I don’t think it would be a lie to say that the Wiktenauer has revolutionized the way the community approaches treatise study. It’s an incredible resource.
MAYTT: Who would you consider, both past and present, as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?
MFM: So, in the United States, I’d say the real pioneers generally come in three varieties (and some people are more than one)! There are those who have been instrumental to the growth of the community, those who have helped to revolutionize our equipment, and there are those who have transformed our understanding of the art. The latter is often done little by little, bit by bit, and has been the work of hundreds of individuals, but Michael Chidester deserves special note for his concordances and work in bringing together the disparate manuscripts and treatises all in one spot. Michael Edelson is probably single-handedly more responsible for making cutting with sharps a big deal in HEMA than any other person. Jeffrey Forgeng deserves some credit for providing some of the very first professional quality translations available to the Community. But there are far too many people who have provided usable amateur translations (often for free), transcriptions, and various interpretation work to name.
In the equipment front, Christian and Natasha Darce of Purpleheart have been there pretty much from the beginning, always working hard to try to get us the equipment we need. Howard & Amy Waddell of Albion provided some of the first quality steel swords. Other innovators like Brian Hunt (who did some amazing work on HEMA helmets and provided some of the first synthetic wasters) and Jeremiah Smith of Black Lance (who produced the first fingered gauntlets good enough for steel fencing for the Community) are worth mentioning.
Then you have those who have grown the community. There are so many people who have done so much work here that I’m sure I could not mention them all, even if I knew who they were. Jake Norwood obviously had a huge impact on me personally, and also—as one of the pioneers of the HEMA Alliance and the US tournament scene—the greater community. Jon Mayshar also did a ton of work in the early days to connect HEMA out West. I know that Jeff Tsay and Charles Deily, among others, were instrumental in bringing together HEMAists in New England and getting a tournament scene started up there. And so many other people who, like myself, were the first to bring HEMA to a state or region, or the first to start a school, or an event, or what have you.
I think what sets pioneers apart is that they embrace the work that needs to be done.
MAYTT: That is a lot of people that helped make what HEMA is today! HEMA’s popularity has grown since the inception of the modern revival movement, though it is not as popular as other martial arts and physical activities. What factors do you feel currently hinder HEMA to achieve that type of popularity and notoriety and are there plans within the community to tackle such factors?
MFM: I think the single biggest hurdle to the growth of HEMA today is lack of professionalism. HEMA started out as a grass-roots movement. Backyard clubs were the norm fifteen years ago. Some people still want HEMA to stay that way—cheap, casual, uncertified, and substandard instruction is still widespread. But some of us are working very hard to professionalize HEMA and bring it the dedication, respect, and popularity it deserves—and that won’t happen in backyard clubs.
MAYTT: Throughout my research of the martial arts, male practitioners seem to outnumber the female practitioners. However, HEMA looks like it attracts a fair number of female practitioners, making the comparison close to equal. What, in your opinion, is the appeal of HEMA to women that other martial arts are missing?
MFM: Let’s face it: swords are cool! Why does your gender matter? I also think as HEMA professionalizes, we’re seeing a lot more women involved, and that’s fantastic. One thing we recognize is that, when we’re talking about weapons, people usually don’t come to a HEMA school to learn self-defense. They join because the experience of learning to fight with swords and engage viscerally with history is glorious. One of my students joined as a referral, and she had such a blast that she’s since gotten six of her coworkers to try classes out, and most of them have remained dedicated members! So now we’ve got this little chocolate shop in town filled with swordswomen—it just warms my heart to think of that.
MAYTT: There are many activities and martial arts for the average person to choose from in today’s society. In your experience, what makes HEMA unique compared to other physical activities and weapons-based martial arts?
MFM: HEMA is the only thing I’ve ever done that has required everything from me—it pushes my body, my wits, and even my scholastic mind. It forces me to constantly grow and adapt and improve. HEMA is a modern, physical art, but for anyone who’s interested in European history, it’s a direct connection. And I think that’s what differs HEMA from something like modern fencing: You’re always thinking about that history, and how the swords were really used. Not just how to play the modern game, or how to do something that looks impressive. Historically, when they fought with swords, if they made a mistake, it was often a matter of life-and-death.
MAYTT: Final question. Where do you see HEMA going in the next ten years, barring the current COVID situation? How will both the arts and the scholarship develop and flourish in the future?
MFM: I think HEMA is going to come into its own in the next decade. Professional schools will start springing up everywhere. We’ll probably run into McDojo issues. But the big thing is that I think HEMA will become a household name. Because we always have the treatises, and there’s always so much more that can be learned from them, we’ll continue to see scholarship transform our understanding of the Art. I’ve been studying the sources for well over a decade now, and I’m constantly learning new things from them—even from the same sources I first started studying over twelve years ago!
MAYTT: Thank you again for this HEMA conversation!
MFM: You’re welcome and thanks for having me!