Interview with HEMA Instructor Thor Tyrsman: Historical Fencing in College

He says it was fate that brought him to Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Thor Tyrsman of the Knight’s Blade HEMA Association oversees one of the few college/university-based HEMA clubs and has produced many students that have gone on to assist other schools and even founded their own once they graduated. Tyrsman took some time to discuss his experience forming and teaching European swordsmanship in a university club. All Images provided by Thor Tyrsman.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for joining us, Thor Tyrsman!

TT: I am interested in seeing where this goes!

MAYTT: With a name like Thor, it would seem almost like destiny for you to take to Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). How did you find HEMA and know that this was a fit for you? What aspect inspired you to begin training and does that aspect continue to motivate you to train today?

TT: I don’t know about destiny, but I do believe that fate led me to my introduction to HEMA. In 2012, my first year at University of Central Florida (UCF), I had a friend in one of my classes tell me about a sword fighting club on campus. I thought it was going to be some guys messing around with foam swords and all that, but I figured I would go check it out, anyway, for a laugh, if nothing else. As soon as I saw it was a serious thing, it hooked me in right away.

I have always been athletically inclined (Varsity Football, Basketball, and Wrestling all through High School, Collegiate Football and Wrestling, tried out for the Hockey team at my first college, etc.), so I thoroughly enjoyed the new physical challenges presented by HEMA, as it was so far removed from just about everything I had done previously, including past Martial Arts (studied some Okinawan Karate and Judo as a kid/preteen, and I was a bit of a scrapper in high school). The historical basis really grabbed me as well, as I am a bit of a history nerd. That blend made HEMA a pretty big part of my life, and I intend to keep it that way.

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?

TT: I was lucky in that I had a strong group of instructors who really fostered my growth in HEMA. The group I started with was Knights Melee, which was a Registered Student Organization with UCF. They were also a Meyer Freifechter Guild (MFFG) member group, and specialized in Meyer, but specifically Longsword and Dagger during my time with them. My instructors, mainly Mike Vaughn, Justin Campbell, and Thor Einarr, saw that I had potential and really drove me to improve. We had a decent sized group, probably ten to twelve strong by the time I was there, and it was pretty well organized, although the instructors were all at the point of graduating out, with no clear line of succession.

Thor Tyrsman (center) instructing Jeremy Stephen (left) and Andrew Truax (right).

I think it’s less that training has evolved. I think it’s more that we are better informed, have access to better translations and resources, and have simply learned from past mistakes on every aspect: event organization, drilling, what the treatises actually mean compared to what earlier translations made it sound like they meant. When you refine the process of learning a skill, the skill will naturally become better, and I think that HEMA, as a whole, has become more and more refined over the past nine years.

MAYTT: That is interesting. Tell us a little bit of the background to your Knight’s Blade HEMA Association. What factors led you to its foundation and what did you first set out to accomplish? How have those goals evolved since the Association’s founding?

TT: So, as mentioned before, when I had joined Knights Melee in Fall 2012, the instructors were just about all in their final year of college. Summer 2013 rolled up, and they made the decision to dissolve the club, as there were no new instructors to take their place. I stepped up and asked to be given the club equipment, under the pretense that I would have a new club ready by Spring 2014. One of their younger instructors, Nathan Gedamke, and I spent the Summer and Fall semesters of 2013 training one-on-one just about every day to get ready to run this new group, which we decided on naming Knight’s Blade HEMA Association.

We felt that UCF, being the Golden Knights, needed a HEMA group. It just fits. We also made strives to try and correct some of the issues that we saw with the organization of the previous group.  We grew from two guys trying to save their HEMA group under a new banner, to having nearly thirty students at one point during our first semester teaching. It grew from just wanting to pass this knowledge along and teach these skills to those willing to learn, into training people to be quality instructors should they want to continue HEMA after college, and forging quality athletes, as well. As much a debate as there is about sportification of HEMA, I think it’s beneficial to have people exposed to both a helping of traditional training and understanding, and practical competitive know-how.

MAYTT: What were some of the steps you took to establish the Knight’s Blade HEMA Association at the University of Central Florida? What influenced such a decision, and do you think that college and university campuses are part of HEMA’s future?

TT: Being a Political Science major, I knew our biggest hurdle would be getting someone in the Student Government to vouch for us, as the previous organization had some issues with ranking members at the time. Luckily, we had a student rep join one of our fall practice sessions, see what we were about, and he jumped every hurdle needed to get us on the up and up with SGA.  After that was registering as a Student Organization, and building a functional leadership ladder, our first semester we rode as a private entity, but by Fall 2014, the group had a firm base and strong student leadership. 

I do think that college/university campuses can be a great place to have foundational HEMA groups sprout up, thrive, and if anything, can feed large private groups with students who have a well-rounded understanding of the basics, and exposure to a proper study environment. The main challenge is maintaining enough of a tradition that your Juniors and Seniors are teaching the Freshmen and Sophomores the ropes, and readying those that want to teach for instructorships, and that can transcend just the individual club alone. I know several of our members who have gone on to train with, and even help run/manage, other groups after leaving UCF, including the instructors I initially studied under (working with some of them on getting a new private club started up, currently). I think college clubs are a huge boon to the community.

MAYTT: You also serve as a Meyer Freifechter Guild representative to the club. How did you find yourself in the MFFG? Was it the material and sources they were focusing on that drew you to the Guild?

TT: As a member of Knights Melee, I was already associated with the Guild. I wanted to have their backing for Knight’s Blade as well, as having a large guild/fellowship backing you up can sway the minds of those that see what we do as “A bunch of nerds LARPing,” and, in turn, want to try and disrupt what we were attempting to rekindle. I was familiar with the material, working out of The Art of Combat, but knew that I needed to know more, and the leadership at the MFFG was always more than willing to fuel that desire for knowledge, and assist as much as was possible with advancing as a practitioner and a scholar.

MAYTT: As an instructor of HEMA, how important is the competitive aspect of the art? Is it something that every practitioner must participate in or can HEMA largely survive without intensive competitions?

TT: I touched on this in a previous question, but I am of the mindset that competition is important in HEMA. It sets goals for those of us that aren’t always content with just learning and swinging at air. Even sparring in-club gets boring once everyone is on the same level, and I would imagine most people would love to test their mettle against outside practitioners, to see if they really are as good as their in-club bouts have convinced them they are. 

Can HEMA survive without it? Absolutely. Do I think it’s beneficial to the art to have competition? Extremely so. Should everyone HAVE to participate in it to be “HEMA Practitioners?” Hell no. Do what is comfortable with you. If furthering the Art, for you, is best done through research papers and studying long lost manuscripts and finding ways to make learning the material more efficient, by all means, do that. But sadly, a lot of that side of the Art is not visible to the outside world. HEMA can’t grow further as an accepted Martial Art without some visual representation of what it is we do, and competition showcases that.

Tyrsman and Stephen training longsword.

MAYTT: Balance is always important during training. 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?

TT: Mike Cartier, for sure, as a founding member of the Meyer Freifechter Guild, and as a major part of the HEMA-ARMA schism that led to the elevation of HEMA into what it is today. Along with Kevin Maurer, Chris Vanslambrouck, and other long-time Guild Members who have dedicated themselves to the Art, I think we owe Mike a huge amount of gratitude for all he did for HEMA both scholastically and practically. We lost an amazing person, practitioner, leader, and friend when he passed away.

I also think the hard work of individuals like Michael Chidester, M. Oliver Dupuis, and others on the scholarly side of things have made huge contributions into how we understand HEMA, the different treatises, and how to properly apply their findings and interpretations. 

I’m sure there are many more names on my list of people I feel have made huge gains for the community, that I’m drawing a blank on.

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?

TT: Barring another pandemic, you mean? [Laughs] Because I know that had a massive impact on smaller organizations like mine.

The world has changed drastically since I started practicing HEMA in 2012. That, or the façade of normalcy is finally gone. HEMA groups deal with a lot of the same issues many organizations of this nature deal with, and how we address these issues will impact the community’s ability to continue to grow. I think that we need to stand firm against any and all attempts to subvert what HEMA is into something it’s not. Even internationally, we are a small community, so when someone claiming to be a major player in the HEMA world causes some issue that is viewed negative by the people at large, that reflects negatively on the Art as a whole. There is just no way around that.

I think making sure that all incoming people and those on the outside looking in are aware that we are a fully inclusive Art, and we will not tolerate any issues flying in the face of that, is key.  I think even more so in today’s environment, now that HEMA is becoming more visible to the world at large. I know the MFFG has made such strides in our member groups and is extremely steadfast on the matter. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s done us well.

MAYTT: Could you define what HEMA is and what previous attempts have people and practitioners made to subvert the art into something it is not? Earlier, you brought up the debate of sportification of HEMA; would that be considered an example of subverting HEMA?

TT: HEMA, to me, is an effort and movement to study and recreate various regional Martial Arts from Medieval and Renaissance Europe, utilizing historical manuscripts and translations of said manuscripts to better understand the history of combat from that time period and that region of the world, in scholarly, formative, and competitive fields of recreation.

I feel that there has been an influx of people who hold certain beliefs about heritage and superiority trying to find ways to turn things like HEMA into political theater and safe haven to grow their misguided beliefs, much as they have done with other aspects of historical and religious European practices, like Asatru/Heathenism (Dealt with this issue far more than I would like as a practitioner of the Faith). I’ve personally dealt with this type of situation in my group where individuals holding similar beliefs have had to be told to remove themselves, and if it’s happening at a massive and extremely inclusive educational institution (UCF is the largest public university in the U.S., and extremely diverse), then I can see it happening in other venues, as well. Hell, we just saw an incident where someone battered the French President, and the French media began to attempt to connect the assailant’s supposed HEMA background (claimed to be a longsword instructor, which was quickly debunked) to his far-right ties and political ideologies. While I think this isn’t an endemic problem, per se, there is potential for it to become one if it is ignored.  Inclusivity, and frankly an intolerance to intolerance, is something that needs to exist so that associations like the example above don’t begin to form around HEMA as an art and a sport.

Sportification of HEMA doesn’t qualify as an effort to subvert HEMA, as I see it.  It may move away from the historical and educational side of it, but saying that it will ruin what HEMA is dumbfounds me, as examples of competition and an air of competitiveness exist in manuals that we study out of, and sources that accompany them.  Any form of physical contact art/sport/etc. is going to have a competitive side to it; it’s how people improve their skills outside of the clubs they are in. People competing at a high level (say, Olympic) still have to learn the basics, and study their art, for years before they are at a place to attempt national or international competitions; and then they have to compete against all these other people who have done the same exact thing, training and studying for years and years, just to show they are the better competitor than everyone else vying for that coveted spot. Will some nuances be lost on this path? Absolutely.  but does it kill the art? No. Plenty of people study Martial Arts with NO aspirations of becoming an Olympic Fencer/Judo/Boxing/”Insert Martial Arts Here” competitor. In all honesty, it will probably give more positive exposure to HEMA, which will bring in more people, whether those who aspire to be martial artists in the traditional sense, those who are interested in the arts in a scholarly sense, or those who look to fulfill a goal of being the best competitor possible.

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?

TT: I like that it’s still a welcoming enough environment that I can be on a first name basis with just about everyone at a large event, and that it is extremely inclusive. I’ve gotten tips, pointers, and on-the-fly instruction/coaching from people that seemed like living legends before I met them and turns out they are just super cool normal people that practice the same martial arts as I do and want to see me at my best. I think the active rebuilding of the art from old manuscripts written 300+ years ago adds to that, as it shows just how important some of these techniques could be. I remember starting out when building Knight’s Blade, spending days trying to figure out exactly what Meyer meant in -x- passage, and if it seemed weird, how could I reinterpret it to get from point A to point B. That’s a level of hands-on learning that isn’t the same as many other martial arts, in my eyes.

MAYTT: Final question; we touched upon this earlier, however, what do you think the future holds for HEMA? What do you think it will look like and where will the art and community be in the next ten years?

TT: I think the future is bright. Lockdowns are lifting, groups are coming back together, and we’re all antsy to get back to business. I think that this year off due to COVID will have HEMA hit the ground running and building bigger and better.

As for what it will look like, I can’t really say. I’d love to see it become a staple household name when people think of Martial Arts, but I’m not sure that is what’s best for HEMA. We will just have to let time dictate what happens with it all.

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