Reflecting on Back to the Source

Hauteville, Cédric. Back to the Source – Historical European Martial Arts Documentary, 2015.

In beginning my research into Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), I scoured different resources that would give me a general overview of what HEMA is, how it started, and what is its purpose. When discussing my research with another colleague, they suggested I seek out Back to the Source. I was pleasantly surprised, as this was the overview and introduction into HEMA that I was looking for. Put together by a HEMA practitioner, Back to the Source dives into its history, what the practice is, and its purpose through multiple interviews with leading and pioneering figures. This information allows for the newest practitioners and those interested in HEMA to gain a foundational understanding of its practice.

The modern revival HEMA movement’s history, in a sense, began with interest in European swords and literature of knights and warriors overcoming obstacles and completing quests. With this romanticism perspective on Medieval combat, many would-be HEMA practitioners would search for manuscripts and manuals to learn combat arts that fall between Antiquity and the Victorian period. Such endeavors were done in isolation from other like-minded practitioners, learning from translated books and their self-teaching techniques and concepts. Some early practitioners were lucky enough to find a partner or two to train in someone’s backyard. With such isolation, many developed their own individual interpretations of the techniques and concepts from these manuals. With the advent of the internet, the community grew, enabling practitioners to exchange ideas, and the inception of tournaments as a way to further interpreting the manuals in a non-training environment.

The practice of HEMA, then, is two-fold. There is the physical aspect, where practitioners learn and experiment techniques and concepts from a source manual; then there is the academic aspect, where practitioners conduct their own research into the master(s) who wrote a manual, the broader historical context in which the manual was written, and how the techniques changed over time. According to many of those interviewed, having a familiarity with a source is just as crucial as being able to perform what is demonstrated in the manuals as a holistic approach helps form and establish a practitioner’s own understanding and interpretation of the source. Furthermore, such methods will ensure, as those interviewed stress, the HEMA community wil continue to grow and evolve.

To the interviewees throughout the documentary, the purpose of HEMA has as many purposes as does it has practitioners. While there are many that cite both the physical and academic aspects of HEMA, others propose that there are other aspects or purposes for HEMA practitioners. One major purpose could be reconnecting to the past, while another could be a sense of heritage that may be missing in modern times. Additionally, there is a competitive aspect to HEMA, where tournaments both help raise awareness of the community and practitioners find which techniques work from their chosen manuals. This aspect or avenue, however, is not the main focus of HEMA, as the interviewees concur. To these interviewees, they do not want the broader public to get the wrong impression of HEMA. They maintain that even though the community offers tournaments for each other, they emphasize that the physical experimentation and the research aspects are the two factors that initially propelled and continue to propel HEMA forward any beyond.

By the end of Back to the Source, I felt I obtained enough knowledge to establish a base for further research. Even for those not actively researching HEMA, Back to the Source is a wonderful documentary of physical and martial culture within the United States and abroad.

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