Interview with Mordhau Historical Combat Cofounder Brittany Reeves: Her HEMA Journey and the Revival Movement

Brittany Reeves began her Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) journey in 2011 while in Vancouver, Canada. With a degree in Ancient and Medieval History, she cofounded Mordhau Historical Combat with her husband, Kyle Griswold, in the beginning of 2018. There, she is committed in helping guide the new generations of HEMA practitioners. Today, Reeves joins us to talk about her journey through HEMA and the revival movement in the United States. All images provided by Brittany Reeves.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for joining us as we discuss HEMA and your experience within it!

Brittany Reeves: Thank you for reaching out. Can’t wait to see where we go!

MAYTT: You began your HEMA journey in 2011, while in Vancouver, Canada after seeing a demonstration in the city. What aspect of the demonstration and/or HEMA made you know that this was for you? Does that aspect still motivate you to train today?

Brittany Reeves ready to clock someone with a war hammer.

BR: I was working on completing my bachelor’s degree in Medieval History at the time, and it just seemed so serendipitous. Until then, I had no idea anything like that existed, but it sparked something in me. There were a lot of appealing factors; it was fitness without going to a gym, it had a magnetic social aspect, and it blended with my academic interests at the time, considering my studies. Now, ten years later, I’ve definitely found new motivations, but the initial spark hasn’t died.

MAYTT: Having experienced HEMA in two different countries, what were some similarities and differences between the way HEMA is practiced and interpreted in Canada and the United States?

BR: HEMA is a niche community, and though it is growing rapidly, it’s still considered small. Because of that, HEMA between Canada and the United States wasn’t all that different as most of the ‘big name’ community influencers knew each other and collaborated to run several large regional tournaments. Due to that factor, it was actually East Coast and West Coast HEMA that seemed to be more divergent from one another. Western Canadian HEMA and West Coast American HEMA were culturally homogenous for many years as it was very easy to travel from Vancouver to Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. But travel to New York, Toronto, Boston, or Montreal was more expensive and included several time zone changes. So those two regions of East and West developed more exclusively, and the international divide was less prominent.

MAYTT: I can see how that would be a factor in forming distinctive styles. When did you begin teaching HEMA and how did your perspective on the art change with your new role and responsibility? What habits did you change or drop when you became a teacher, if any at all?

BR: I threw myself into HEMA with great dedication, it wasn’t unusual for me to be putting twenty-five hours a week into training. It was thanks to that grind that I started teaching really early on in my practice as a junior and then assistant instructor. My first time teaching at an international event was 2017 in New York, which opened many doors for me to teach across North America and in Europe as a sought after instructor.

It was in 2018 that I founded Mordhau Historical Combat, where I am the Head Instructor of my own school with my own students, as opposed to being a senior instructor for someone else’s school and someone else’s ambitions. Before founding Mordhau Historical Combat, HEMA was largely a selfish endeavor for me. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it was very much a pursuit that focused entirely on my own goals and achievements. My focus shifted entirely when I had my own students. The days of putting in twenty-five hours a week of training time are way behind me, instead I’ll easily put twenty-five hours or more into teaching, coaching, and doing all the things that come with running a martial arts school. It’s less about me now and more about how I can support the growth of my students and provide them with an exceptional experience. 

One of the habits I dropped was one of the worst habits I had. I was very hard on myself before becoming an instructor and I didn’t give myself much room for failure. I was very uncomfortable with the idea of looking silly or not knowing something. In order for me to be a good instructor, I needed to overhaul my perception of success and my understanding of how failing is a necessary and acceptable part of the learning process. It was not an easy process for me, but it was worth it for me and my students.

MAYTT: You and Kyle Griswold founded Mordhau Historical Combat in Mesa, Arizona. When was the school established and what influenced both of your decisions to begin a school? Did you feel that there was something missing in the HEMA landscape in Arizona that both of you felt you could help fill?

BR: Kyle and I established Mordhau Historical Combat in January 2018 after we both parted ways from our respective HEMA schools. We both started HEMA under the tutelage of well-known and established instructors, and found ourselves being pushed from the nest, so to speak. There was no drama or animosity, it was just the natural progression of a new generation setting out. We were both very successful on the tournament scene, had taught at high profile events, and felt like we had a lot to offer the next generation of HEMA students, who one day might go out and found their own HEMA clubs. It was never about trying to fill a void or feeling like something was missing, it was simply that we were both very passionate about our art, received the blessings of our respective instructors, and it was the natural next step in our journey.

Reeves (right) sparring in full armor and with a battle axe.

MAYTT: I see. In teaching and training with your spouse, there are aspects that will inevitably change. What is that experience like? Did you have to pull back on the intensity of training to ensure both return home without any major injuries? What changed in teaching methodologies; did you find a middle ground for both of your styles?

BR: Teaching with Kyle is a joy. We have very different teaching styles and skill sets that are fortunately very complimentary. Together, we offer well rounded and effective instruction. We were both well-established practitioners and heavily decorated competitors well before we founded the school together, so we entered into this venture on equal footing with a clear goal in mind. I trust him completely and we’ve always been very mindful and considerate of respecting each other as instructors. It can be very tempting to want to correct or help your spouse, but it would be disrespectful to do that to them when they hold the same authority as you within the school. When we are on the mat, we are instructors. When we are off the mat, we are husband and wife. We aren’t perfect and sometimes we disagree, we’ve both stepped on one another’s toes over the years, but I think we have discovered how to work together in a way that is both effective and delightful.

Training with each other is more difficult, but we’ve never had such difficulty that we had to worry about hurting one another. Or at least, not any more than we would when training with anyone else. I’m significantly more comfortable with Kyle than I am anyone else which is unique in the sense that I can be emotionally vulnerable with him in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate in front of my students. If I’m frustrated or want to cry, I can. If I feel like throwing a gauntlet, I can. None of that is polite or acceptable behavior for an instructor, in my opinion, but I don’t have to be an instructor when I’m training with Kyle. I have a safe outlet with him when I need it.

MAYTT: At Mordhau Historical Combat, you focus on Germanic traditions – Kunst des Fechtens (KDF) – which seems to be the most common style of HEMA. Why do you think that is so? What makes the Germanic traditions superior, so to speak, to other European styles and traditions?

BR: German systems are definitely the more popular choice in HEMA. I think that has a lot to do with the availability of sources in the early days. One of the most valuable resources within the HEMA community is wiktenauer.com, which hosts a collection of source material and makes it easily accessible. The Wiktenauer prioritized access to German sources and then expanded greatly from there. It has grown tremendously over the years and one can find sources from a plethora of origins such as Italian, Flemish, Spanish, or Portuguese, to name a few. So early on, it was far easier to come across German source material that had been translated into English and also made accessible via the internet. The community was also blessed with scholars who had translated and published German sources, such as Dr. Forgeng’s translations of Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say Germanic traditions are superior, but I do think that the amount of surviving source material and modern scholarship on it does make it one of the better understood systems in HEMA thus making it less daunting for new practitioners.

MAYTT: That is an interesting history of the German sources! From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like there is a fair amount of female representation within HEMA compared to traditional Asian martial arts. In your experience, how much does this statement hold up? Are there aspects that the HEMA community’s a whole could work on in relation to gender representation or is it enjoyable the way it is now?

BR: HEMA does have a very high number of women who engage in the community. Of the four HEMA schools currently in Arizona, three of them are co-founded by women. The school I started with in Canada was co-founded by a woman. It’s more common now to see women in the community filling all types of roles, but that is due to the tremendous efforts to normalize that over the years. Ten years ago, it was not as common as it is now. Generally speaking, the HEMA community is very supportive and respectful of all people, and while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly not a bad place to be on any given day. There is always room for improvement.

Reeves ready to engage with a spear.

MAYTT: In addition to being an internationally recognized HEMA instructor and competitor, you have a bachelor’s degree in history, specifically ancient and medieval history. How does that academic background help you better understand and convey the information to your students?

BR: Officially, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ancient and Medieval History with a Minor in Art History. My studies didn’t actually touch on warfare or military history often enough to directly inform my understanding of HEMA specifically. However, my ability to interpret and research manuscripts was invaluable, as well as having a strong understanding of the ever-changing sociopolitical climate of Europe helped frame my understanding of the source material used within HEMA. I try not to get too dry with my students about history, but I try very hard to point back to the sources when teaching. I want my students to know where I get my information and that they can look into it any time for themselves. I want to stay true to the ‘H’ in HEMA.

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?

BR: The list is long, but I’ll try to keep it down to only a few. Hands down one of the most significant people would be Michael Chidester for his founding of and continued work for the Wiktenauer Project, which I mentioned above. I don’t think HEMA would be anywhere near its current iteration without it. Keith Farrell is another whose scholarly efforts have been foundational to HEMA in Europe and North America. Although he is not American, his translations, research, and interpretations were inspiring and influential to me as a young HEMAist, most notably his German Longsword Study Guide. I also think Jake Norwood is one of the most notable pioneers for his efforts towards establishing tournament culture in North America. Jake’s scholarly endeavors are also significant, but I think most people associate him with getting LongPoint off the ground. LongPoint was one of the most prestigious and largest HEMA events in North America. It had set the standard for professionalism and sent ripples through the tournament world which effects can still be felt now. I also think Mike Edelson’s efforts to bring test cutting and competitive cutting into the mainstream for HEMA deserves a nod. His book, Cutting with the Medieval Sword, is a gem.

MAYTT: Moreover, you and Phillip Martin host the Valley of the Sun Cutting Tournament. For you, why is it important to perform cuts with a sword?

BR: Real swords are sharp, and their function is to cut or thrust. For obvious safety reasons, we do not spar with sharps. However, you lose some sense of what a sword could actually be capable of if you have never handled or used a sharp. It can be surprising to learn how little force it takes to stab through an object, and yet at the same time how difficult it is to cut through a couple layers of fabric. Cutting with sharps allows us to have a more holistic understanding of sword fighting, whereas only doing sparring with blunt swords is very one dimensional.

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?

Reeves taking a rest from sparring in full armor.

BR: I see HEMA continuing on its current path towards becoming more refined and accessible. Accessibility is my buzzword for this question. You’ll see new schools popping up in more towns and cities, for example. We are starting to see vendors dedicated exclusively to HEMA gear and weapons, which was almost unheard of ten years ago. As manufacturers and vendors for gear and weapons become more established, it will only enhance accessibility. Recently, Covid had a large impact on online HEMA content as well which also increased accessibility, and I see this continuing for several more years. I’m very hopeful and optimistic for the future of HEMA.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and taking us on your HEMA journey!

BR: Thank you for having me! It was fun!

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