Interview with Wiktenauer Editor-in-Chief Michael Chidester: HEMA in the United States

Michael Chidester is the Editor-in-Chief of Wiktenauer and, as Director of the Wiktenauer, an officer of the non-profit HEMA Alliance. Michael is a Research Scholar of the Meyer Freifechter Guild, a founding member of the Society for Historical European Martial Arts Studies (SHEMAS), a member of the Western Martial Arts Coalition (WMAC), and a Lifetime Member of the HEMA Alliance. He has lectured on historical martial arts across North America and Europe, and has authored or edited several books. His most recent project is creating exact replicas of fencing manuscripts through a company called HEMA Bookshelf, with the objective of helping fencers learn more about the physical properties of the works we study. All images provided by Michael Chidester.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Michael Chidester! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Michael Chidester: I’m happy to be here and help in any way I can.

MAYTT: You began training 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?

MC: To be honest, in 2001 I was a freshman in college and didn’t know anything about anything. I was interested in learning some form of sword art, and I assumed that meant either Olympic-style fencing or a Japanese sword art. I located a kenjutsu school pretty far from campus, and before I made it out there, I heard about the local ARMA club (still called HACA until 2002) and managed to meet up with them. Until then, I had no idea that martial arts focused on Medieval European weapons even existed, but it was everything I hoped it would be and I never looked back.

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?

MC: The ARMA Provo study group had two leaders, Jake Norwood and Stew Feil, both of whom would go on to gain senior rank in ARMA and then to become internationally renowned fencers after they left (though Stew has since fallen out of the community). At the time though, they only had about a year of training under their belts (taught by a guy who only had about a year more than them), but that still made them the most experienced ones in the group.

Michael Chidester (left with shaft) refereeing a match at Fechtschule New York in 2014.

My recollection is that training sessions in those earlier years consisted of drills they learned from other ARMA members, including lots of solo cutting drills, and paired drills practicing techniques derived from a hodgepodge of treatises—mostly Mark Rector’s Talhoffer translation, Hans Heim’s Egenolff translation, and Greg Mele’s Vadi translation, with a bit of Jörg Bellighausen’s Ringeck translation mixed in. I learned a polyglot assortment of random terminology, but I also picked up some basic techniques that I still fall back on sometimes even though my fencing philosophy and strategies have evolved enormously since then.

We also sparred quite a bit, but we didn’t have much by way of protective equipment. We fenced with wooden sword simulators and light gloves, and had about three fencing masks for a club of ten to twenty people. So, we learned to fence carefully, to pull our strikes before making contact, and to deal with bruises, welts, and the occasional broken finger.

Training has advanced enormously since then, of course. There are now a goodly number of professional schools and full-time instructors (especially prior to COVID-19), as well as many groups that follow the club model but have polished, educated instructors.

Introducing better safety gear led to better fencing as well as the first international open tournaments. Once top fencers began testing each other in open competition, people were able to discard a lot of technical interpretations that didn’t work under pressure and the overall level of fencing in the community was pulled upward to a huge degree. Improvements in fencing skill likewise led people to look at the treatises with fresh eyes, and things that previously “didn’t work” suddenly began to make sense.

This upward spiral has been with us ever since, and has also been paired with more and more emphasis on pedagogy and training philosophy, which we’ve developed not only from historical research but by borrowing from other martial arts (especially Filipino and Japanese arts) and sport science (especially modern Olympic fencing). And I like to think that the efforts of many people to improve access to the historical treatises themselves has also supported this development.

MAYTT: It is interesting to see how the training has evolved since the early days. In addition to training, you also conduct and publish research on the different fencing treatises. What inspired you to take up the scholarship aspect of HEMA and how closely are training and scholarship tied? How does each aspect influence the other?

MC: I gained a middling rank in ARMA by 2005 or so, and it was custom in our study group that people at that level start working on interpreting a treatise that was outside our normal training, with the idea that we would bring our learnings back to the group and enrich the curriculum. The ARMA curriculum had shifted over those years to become primarily German-centric, so I thought I would look at the main fifteenth century Italian source, the treatise of Fiore de’i Liberi.

Chidester comparing an original 15th century fencing treatise with a facsimile of a different copy of it at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018.

I was pretty fluent in Spanish at that time (after living in Mexico for a few years), so I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to work with. (Spanish and Italian aren’t quite as similar as I naively believed, and I ended up taking two years of Italian courses to help out.) At the time, I scraped together the few bits of translation that were available on the internet, laborious organized the three known versions of his treatise, and put the compilation into a giant three-ring binder, and started training from it with other members of the club outside of normal meetings. All of the stuff that later happened on Wiktenauer started with that first project.

Scholarship is a sort of loaded word, but to me, a basic level of study of the treatises can’t be separated from training. HEMA isn’t just about defeating an opponent in a ring with sword-shaped training tools—there are a lot of sports and hobbies that can be summed up that way. HEMA is about rebuilding something that existed centuries ago, trying to restore teachings and practices that were lost and fashioning a bridge to lost traditions and broken lineages. The HEMA instructors who I respect have one foot in the past in some way, always measuring their teachings and their successes against what we can learn about these historical practices.

Perhaps we can find ways to win sparring matches more efficiently than what’s described in the treatises, but I don’t see much point to it. Wining matches isn’t why I do this—whatever fantasies of being a master swordsman I had twenty years ago are long gone. I do it to understand the past and the people who fought in it, and we can only do that by staying focused on what they did.

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 manuals available. What role do organizations play within the HEMA community?

MC: Organizations can be positive or negative.

By far the largest organization in the United States is the HEMA Alliance, and several of its founders (including Jake and Stew) had recently quit ARMA when they started organizing it in 2009. They saw ARMA as overly focused on controlling its members and clubs, so they designed the HEMA Alliance to be incapable of exercising any kind of control. Its purpose is to be an umbrella organization that offers services like insurance and instructor credentials with few strings attached. This has led to its own problems, of course, since an organization that has no influence on its members isn’t really capable of lifting them in positive directions.

In Europe, there are various HEMA federations, but that is primarily for legal reasons—in some countries, all sporting activities require national federations, so if you don’t have one of your own, control over your activity gets passed to the nearest equivalent. So to avoid outside forces imposing things like equipment standards or tournament rules, they have mostly organized their own federations, sought government recognition, and more recently organized an international federation called IFHEMA to grant status in countries that require national federations to be part of such an organization.

By and large, though, the HEMA community is built on volunteerism and relationships in an essentially anarchistic fashion. It has sort of arisen organically through the actions of many individuals over decades. People who are interested in history or fantasy or martial arts encounter HEMA, either online or through local clubs; if no club exists near them, they organize their own (ideally after receiving some in-person training, but sometimes that’s impossible). Workshops and tournaments are organized by individuals and clubs according to their own standards, and if they sound interesting, HEMA people show up (sometimes traveling from other continents). The ones that are good succeed, and the ones that aren’t die out.

Clubs form networks to share ideas and resources, tournament organizers form leagues to cross-promote and generate more interest in their events, instructors band together to create more complex training camps. All of these bring clubs and individual fencers together, we fight and drink and stay up all night talking, and that creates community. HEMA practitioners often talk about “the community” meaning a nebulous body of people who communicate on message boards and subreddits and social media, but in my opinion it’s the personal meetings and the body-to-body transmission of fencing knowledge that really draws us together as a community.

One of the many sparring matches Chidester experienced through his HEMA journey.

All of that said, there have been attempts to create federations based around a specific art, and I think that’s a step that needs to happen in order to preserve and codify the collective knowledge of our senior teachers so future (and current) clubs can have a shorter learning curve than figuring things out themselves or watching random YouTube videos. That’s a difficult endeavor, though. A federation for the study of Armizare (the art of Fiore de’i Liberi and Philippo di Vadi) arose a few years ago called the International Armizare Society (IAS), and the great 16th century German master Joachim Meyer has the Meyer Freifechter Guild (MFFG), but no such group exists yet for the art I focus on these days, the Kunst des Fechtens of Johannes Liechtenauer.

MAYTT: I see both similarities and differences. In 2009, you and others founded the True Edge Academy of Swordsmanship. What factors lead you to help cofound the school? Was there something you saw was missing from the HEMA landscape that only you could provide?

MC: To be honest, it wasn’t anything as noble as that. In 2009, ARMA suffered a major fracture, with four senior members resigning and a significant portion of the membership either leaving with them or being banned from the group by John Clements (if he suspected they were sympathetic to them).

I had been similarly banned in 2005 or 2006 after a disagreement with John Clements over the interpretation of Fiore (and mouthing off a bit in the process—I was still a dumb kid). My study group was told to kick me out, but the instructors decided to ignore that order and secretly keep me. They hoped to convince Clements to let me rejoin at some point, but it never happened. By 2009, I was the head instructor in the club and the person listed as study group leader in ARMA’s records was one of my assistant instructors.

When the ARMA splintered, Clements banned all clubs and members living in Utah (since the leader of the other major Utah study group had separately resigned a few months earlier, and he suspected a conspiracy). We weren’t about to stop fencing just because he took our red t-shirts away, so we dropped the name and kept the study group.

Because three of the four of the members who quit were former leaders of our study group, we knew that they were working on organizing what would become the HEMA Alliance, which we assumed would be similar to ARMA and figured we would just join when it launched. When it became clear that the Alliance would be a very different organization and would not have chapters like ARMA, the instructors got together and chose a new name and identity for the club.

I left True Edge in the hands of my assistant instructors when I moved to the northeast in 2011. The club is still going to this day and has expanded to several locations, and I am quite proud of the current crop of leaders (who I see at events from time to time).

MAYTT: In the same year, you, Ben Michaels, Michael-Forest Meservy 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?

MC: Wiktenauer was originally the brainchild of Ben Michels, who I hadn’t met yet in 2009 but I knew as a student of Jake Norwood at the club he founded in Baltimore, Maryland KdF.

In those days, the study of fencing treatises was very difficult. Sources tended to be jealously guarded by the people who had them, or only available to those who could pay. The ARMA had a library of scans and a few translations that members could access but weren’t allowed to share with nonmembers. AEMMA had an open digital library, but it was subscription-based. Scanning was still pretty expensive, so libraries and museums weren’t yet in the habit of putting scans online for free, and instead charged a lot of money to purchase them and forbade sharing.

There were various people transcribing and translating treatises, but most of them either published the results in books (which tended to sell out pretty fast and become unavailable, even to people who could afford them), or passed the results to their friends and never distributed to the rest of the community. The exceptions to the rule, like Dierk Hagedorn or Mike Rasmusson, were rare.

Gaining access to the treatises thus required connections that most people didn’t have, and a sort of black market existed where people would trade scans and translations around. If you had something no one else did, you could write your own check. If you didn’t, it was very difficult to get your foot in the door. For example, I discovered that the Morgan Library put scans of a manuscript fencing treatise (along with 10,000 others) in a research database that my university subscribed to. I used those scans to trade for several very rare items before they became common enough that they stopped being valuable.

One of the many sparring matches Chidester experienced through his HEMA journey.

Ben Michels believed, as many of us do, that the treatises belong to everyone and should be freely accessible. He envisioned Wiktenauer as having two missions. The first was to act as a sort of “Wikileaks for HEMA” (Wikileaks was often in the news back then), where people could anonymously submit their collections to be posted publicly. The second was based on an idea that most of the arguments about techniques were based on a lack of access to information. He wanted Wiktenauer to lay out all the treatises plainly, with all the various teachings on a given technique side by side, and expected that then the correct interpretation of them would be obvious and arguments would stop. This may sound a bit naive now, but we didn’t realize yet the extent to which different masters disagreed with each other.

In November of 2009, he sent out an email to a dozen people who Jake recommended as people focused on manual research and proposed this project, asking them to kick it off with contributions. I was on this email list, and I was deeply pessimistic that it would work out the way he expected because of how much secrecy attended all aspects of research back then. Many of the others on the email offered to contribute resources, but I was the only one who also offered time and effort to build the site.

By mid-2010, Ben had realized that it was never going to lead to the kind of clarity that he hoped for, and he lost interest in the project. When he drifted away, control of the project fell to me. I refocused Wiktenauer on looking at the complete teachings of different masters and lineages rather than individual techniques, and my work on Fiore and Liechtenauer formed the basic foundation of the site and the template for everything else that would eventually go into it.

Michael-Forest’s role was smaller, but still important. He was a fellow member of ARMA Provo for a few years, and we kept in touch after we both moved away. He put significant effort into the project early on and helped solve some technical problems to get it on solid footing. After the first year or so, he also drifted away to focus his efforts on running his own club.

As for the impact it’s had on the community, I had no idea. I just had thought of the resource I would have liked when I was starting to teach my own classes and built that. I had no idea the extent to which it would eventually take over the discussion of fencing manuals. I did design it to specifically buck some trends in the way people thought about treatises ten years ago that I thought were bad, but the ways in which my ideas have taken hold in people’s minds have produced their own problems which I’m trying to fix again. Such is life.

MAYTT: In 2012, you were appointed to Director of Wiktenaur. Could you tell me how Wiktenaur came to be and what was the experience like when appointed to the position of Director?

MC: I already answered some of this above, but this title is not as exalted as it sounds. Essentially, we were paying for our own server costs out of pocket, and the costs kept increasing as we got more and more traffic. In 2012, I asked the HEMA Alliance governing council if we could move under their umbrella and have them foot the bill. They agreed, and as the project lead, I was appointed an officer of the Alliance so my activities would have official standing.

This also granted us a share of the Alliance’s 501(c)3 non-profit status, which improved our bargaining position with libraries and museums and has helped the project run smoothly ever after. Down the road, we held multiple, extremely successful, fundraisers and have paid our own expenses since 2014, but we have remained with the Alliance for the non-profit status and out of a general sense of goodwill toward their goals.

Before we move on, I should also give credit to Christian Trosclair, who has been hugely influential in the course of this project. He’s acted as systems administrator since about 2012 and is also a prolific translator who has contributed to many articles on the site.

MAYTT: I see. Who would you consider as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?

MC: Hah, there are too many names to count and any list I give will betray my own prejudices about what’s important. It’s also hard to separate North American HEMA from Europe, since the east coast has had strong ties to the European scene for the last decade or more. I’ll give it a try, though, focusing on people whose influence extended outside of their own local or regional scene.

The godfather of American HEMA is Dr. Patri Pugliese, who died in 2007 but had spent the previous twenty years distributing paper copies of a huge catalog of fencing treatises to anyone who asked for only the cost of postage. In the early 2000s, he also allowed them to be scanned and placed online as the Raymond J. Lord Collection, spreading them even further. In the area of treatise discovery and study, Steve Hick is also hugely important but often forgotten.

One of the many sparring matches Chidester experienced through his HEMA journey.

Christian Tobler and Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng published translations in the 2000s that have been studied far and wide and continue to influence interpretation and practice today. In terms of free translations, Mike Rasmusson’s site and his Meyer Translation Project were beacons in the 2000s, and I’ve already mentioned how important Christian Trosclair’s contributions are.

Greg Mele has been the principal organizer of WMAW (the Western Martial Arts Workshop) for twenty years, which is far and away the largest workshop-centric event in the western hemisphere, which provided a central place for instructors from around the world to meet and share ideas. He was also one of the people behind the infamous Sword Forum International (I forget who the others were), which was a central online meeting place for HEMA enthusiasts for over a decade.

I would also include John Clements on the list, not for his personal accomplishments, but for the fact that his group ARMA was a dominant force in US HEMA from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. Many people who became leaders in the community had their start in ARMA, though the policies of the group meant that they couldn’t reach their potential until they left it. For example, after leaving ARMA Mike Cartier (who died last year) founded the MFFG, which has grown into a giant network of clubs reconstructing the teachings of Joachim Meyer. After leaving ARMA, Jake Norwood has been a veritable Johnny Appleseed, starting up clubs all over the place as his career moved him around as well as cofounding the HEMA Alliance and organizing Longpoint, the de facto American championships, for almost a decade.

Though a relative latecomer to the scene, Mike Edelson spent the last ten years establishing cutting as a respected discipline in HEMA. His background in Toyama-ryū heavily influenced his own implementation, but cutting practice and cutting tournaments have spread across North America and Europe largely because he pushed them so hard in his early years in the community. They’ve brought with them a tightening of cutting mechanics and deeper insights into the use of sharp swords, and as they spread, they’ve morphed and evolved into many other shapes representative of the various arts we study.

Mariana “Perica” Lopez Rdz. co-founded an organization called Esfinges which is an international network of woman HEMA fencers. Esfinges has been a huge part of bringing women into the community and helping them find a place and stay here. Tanya Smith is another relative newcomer, but her women-centric event Fecht Yeah has also played a significant role in building space for women and nonbinary people in the community.

And in terms of people who shaped our community over the past twenty years, Natasha and Christian Darcé deserve a mention. They formed Purpleheart Armoury, the oldest HEMA supplier still in operation, before I ever started fencing, and they’ve been supporting us by developing new equipment and distributing for others ever since, as well sponsoring almost every tournament in the country (and organizing their own annual tournament in Houston).

From what I’ve seen, people who have stayed active in the community for decades tend to fall into two groups. One group becomes more and more isolated, focused on their own school and their own projects and their own fencing. They slip from relevance and don’t understand why no one remembers them anymore.

The other group is always trying to evolve with the times, excited about each new development and project in HEMA, and looks for ways to serve the larger community rather than controlling it. These are the ones I respect, and the ones who are still mentioned in conversations about HEMA leaders no matter how old they get.

MAYTT: 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?

MC: I think it’s on the cusp of exploding (or, you know, was prior to COVID-19). Its initial appeal was to geeks of various stripes, but a lot of effort has been made especially over the past ten years to sand off the rough edges and make in more accessible to the general public. We get more athletes participating now than we did ten or twenty years ago, and more people who are broadly interested in martial arts or staying active. The spread tournaments to offer a concrete training timeline and measurable goals lead to the first big burst of growth, and I think more are coming.

I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not, of course. I can see us reaching a day when the standard expectation for HEMA is an MMA-style tournament culture. The kind of direct engagement with history that I love in our community is not something that appeals to most people. HEMA doesn’t just belong to me or to people who like the things I like, obviously, but it makes me sad to think that we might lose that as the community grows. I’ve been wracking my brain for some time now to try to find ways we can bring the “spirit of old HEMA,” if you will, to giant new generation, and fortunately, I’m not the only one preoccupied with this question so I hope we solve it.

MAYTT: I can see how that would be a fine line to teeter on. 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?

MC: This varies heavily by club, and I bet there are a lot of women in HEMA who would dispute the idea of numbers that are even close to equal. In my local club here, Athena School of Arms, we seem to have numbers that are close to even, but there are a lot of clubs in the world that are sausage fests.

I’m not an expert on this subject, but I think there are a lot of pieces that add up to something good. Because we’re detached from any traditional structure and pedagogy, we have the potential to be more flexible when it comes to teaching people with female bodies rather than adhering to teachings and mechanics designed for male bodies.

Our community has traditionally recruited from the ranks of geeks, and there are as many female geeks as male (especially gen-xers and millenials), so we have that in our favor. And women tend to feel safer in groups where there are other women, so once a few women join it tends to be easier to recruit more.

We are primarily focused on weapon arts, and while a lot of the idea that weapons are a perfect equalizer is bullshit, there’s a little bit of truth to it. The skill gap necessary to defeat a larger, stronger opponent in a sword fight is smaller than it is in, say, wrestling. So I suspect it’s a less intimidating activity for women to start out in than a lot of unarmed martial arts.

The biggest piece might just be that a lot of people in HEMA are deeply concerned about this and go to great lengths to ensure that their clubs and schools are safe and welcoming to women. There’s an event called Give a Girl a Sword that happens at clubs around the world a few times a year, specifically targeted at giving intro lessons to women. There are events for women, such as Fecht Yeah mentioned above. And we’re seeing more women become instructors in their own right, and a class taught by a woman rather than by a man is more likely to seem accessible to other women.

But like I said, I’m no expert. There are a lot of people in the community more qualified to discuss this than me.

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?

MC: The mystique of European weapons is very real. It’s what we see most often in fiction, and what a lot of people fantasized about as kids (and also as adults). Telling people that we have authentic teachings about those weapons can be a strong lure. That’s why I joined in the beginning.

The treatises, with their obscure and cryptic words, are also a puzzle that appeals to a lot of people. Turning them into physical actions and using those actions to win bouts has a special kind of flavor.

But I think part of the appeal is it’s choose-your-own-adventure nature. There are more weapons than I can even count being practices somewhere in the community, and usually a number of different historic traditions covering them. Conversely, you don’t have to care about history at all and can just show up and fence and most people won’t judge you. Tournaments are all over the place, but you don’t have to compete if you don’t want to.

HEMA means so many things to so many people that it seems like there’s a potential niche for anyone.

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?

MC: That’s tough to say. We’ve been at a crossroads for the past few years, and we haven’t passed it yet. There’s somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 practitioners worldwide (hard to get exact numbers without a governing federation), meaning we’re starting to get big enough to be worth noticing by larger sports that would want to swallow us completely. There was already a debacle several years ago where the US Fencing Coaches Association tried to launch a program where their fencing coaches would start teaching Olympic fencing dressed up like HEMA in the hope that the public wouldn’t notice. That would do some harm to the overall movement, though existing clubs probably wouldn’t notice for a long time due to our grassroots nature.

If that doesn’t happen, we’ll continue to grow and experience more events (like the 2014 New York Times article) that will cause sudden jumps in interest and membership, and that could be just as bad until we get batter at assimilating new people and passing on institutional knowledge.

The scholarly side hasn’t grown in proportion to the overall community in the past decade. If anything, the amount of research being published has dropped a bit over the past few years. I expect that that will continue as the community grows, and those who want to dive deep into the sources will be a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall group.

But that’s okay, in the end. We don’t need every person in HEMA to be earnestly studying treatises, as long as their teachers are. In the current community, most of the instructors that I know are still interested in the treatises as the ultimate source of their fencing, and try to pass that on to their students. As long as that stays true, then I think we’ll be fine.

MAYTT: Thank you for this great conversation on HEMA’s history and your own journey!

MC: I was happy to take part!

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