Interview with MKDF Lead Instructor Jess Rozek: The East Coast Growth of HEMA, Part I

Jess Rozek just could not find what she wanted to do. She had tried a class or two of various martial arts, but they were not for her. Not until she watched Reclaiming the Blade in 2011, where it connected with her interests with fantasy and science fiction. From there, she found HEMA and Grunberg Freifechter in Vermont and never looked back. In 2013, she moved to Maryland, enrolling in and later teaching at Maryland Kunst des Fechtens (MKDF). Today, Rozek talks about her beginning years in HEMA, MKDF’s history, Jake Norwood, and the art’s appeal to the LGBTQ+ community. All images provided by Jess Rozek. This is the first of a two-part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for joining us, Jess!

Jess Rozek: Glad to be here and can’t wait to talk about HEMA!

MAYTT: According to a short biography online, you first entered into Olympic Fencing, the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), and aikido before you found HEMA. How and when did you ultimately find HEMA and did your previous martial experiences aid you in historical fencing?

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Jess Rozek posing during a class at MKDF.

JR: So, actually, there is one thing that I should’ve cleared up: I never actually ended up going to these things. I went to, for instance, a single aikido class, had friends that did Olympic fencing, and friends that did SCA. And none of those communities or what they did really clicked with me. I ended up ultimately finding HEMA through some sort of ridiculous coincidences.

I was in college. I had a Netflix account and Netflix had been pushing this documentary on me for a couple of months. And I thought to myself, I really don’t want to watch a documentary, so I kept putting it off. And then over winter break, I was sitting in my apartment. I said, “Fine; I’ll watch this documentary.” The documentary was called Reclaiming the Blade. Immediately after the credits rolled, I went, “Oh my god! This is a thing I can do??” And I looked it up and, as it turned out, there was one single person in northern Vermont that was doing this. I found out a little bit later, he had actually just put this posting up on the HEMA Alliance a week before. So, if I had watched Reclaiming the Blade when Netflix wanted me to, I probably wouldn’t be in HEMA because there wouldn’t have been anything around me. The coincidences are a little much. [Laughs]

MAYTT: That’s having the stars aligning just right.

JR: Oh yeah. And on top of that, I grew up with fantasy books and things like that. I’m a huge sci-fi/fantasy lover. I grew up watching Highlander and after seeing that, what person doesn’t want to do swords? Then, as it turns out, the guy who had just started Grünberg Freifechter, Charles Murdock, looks an awful lot like Duncan MacLeod. The stars aligned; it was like the whole universe was saying, “Come on in! HEMA’s here for you!”

MAYTT: That’s just awesome! How would you describe the training approach to HEMA when you first started?

JR: Back then, and even before that, HEMA was mostly made up of small study groups. They called themselves clubs – so did we – but the reality is very few of them, frankly, had more than five members. One of the largest clubs on the East Coast at the time was Maryland KDF had approximately ten current or regular members – that made it a big club. Obviously, there were clubs that had more people, but the vast majority of HEMA groups at the time were little study groups that had an interest, bought a book, and said, “Hey, this looks cool. Do you want to hit me with swords?” Inevitably, it started out with their friends. So, we were a group of two and/or three, depending on if the other student wanted to come. And that wasn’t unusual. I would say about ninety percent of the clubs were just like that – one person had previous martial arts experience and a handful of other interested people willing to get hit with sticks. Nowadays, not to say there aren’t any study groups, because there absolutely are, but there are many more clubs that hold memberships of fifty-plus people.

Today, in the Baltimore/Washington area, there are three clubs within an hour’s drive within each other that all maintain a membership of approximately forty to sixty students. Even if you are a small study group with one interested person with martial arts experience and five other people willing to be hit, you can go places. You can go to these bigger clubs and learn a little pedagogy; you can go to tournaments and see how other people do it. And we used to not be able to that because, in large part, the pedagogy was not “written down” yet – things weren’t as codified as they are now. This included training – what the sources say – and club cultures. I think traditional Asian martial arts don’t have to deal with this. HEMA people all, in essence, speak different dialects of the same language. It doesn’t help that there are multiple manuals from multiple countries from multiple time periods. But even within manuals, each club will have a slightly different way of doing things. These days, it’s a little less true. We are a little more homogenized now, in part, because of the efforts of people ten plus years ago when it really was each and every club, more or less, having its own dialect of whatever art they were learning. 

On top of that, we now have companies that make gear for us which, in a lot of other martial arts, is something that they don’t have to deal with and, of course, doesn’t affect their training. But for HEMA, in my first tournament, you could tell who was part of what club based on what they chose to wear for protective gear. Some groups wore camo flak jackets, other groups did motocross or motorbike protective jackets, and another group wore shin guards all over their body. [Laughs] The next iteration of that tournament the following year, we had at least one company that started making gear for us and for the first time ever, we all had roughly an equal level of gear, roughly equal level of weight in swords, and we moved, more or less, the same way. Now, of course, we have many more companies that help us out. So now, there are more gear choices for people which makes training accessible for more diverse audiences.

MAYTT: What aspect of HEMA keeps you motivated to train and teach today? What keeps you coming back for more?

JR: For the most part, I really enjoy teaching people. My first real job was as a ski instructor when I was fifteen and I kept doing that right up until I moved away to Maryland. I just really enjoy teaching and educating people. And that’s one of the things I love coming back for, or staying for in HEMA, because that same feeling I got when I watched Reclaiming the Blade of, “Oh my god! This is a real thing?” to, “All of my fantasy sword dreams are coming true!” You can see it in beginner classes the first time they hold a sword and then, usually, when they get to spar for the first time, when they can put their skills to use, they’re just so excited! [Laughs] It’s, frankly, one of the best things.

And then lately, there has been a shift in HEMA away from the standard longsword. So, the longsword is still the main weapon that everybody starts with. There’s been a lot more interest in people doing what you might call niche weapons, so various saber styles, rapier, polearms – random other weapons. That’s also exciting too, just being a new student.

MAYTT: In 2011, you helped form the Grünberg Freifechter group in Vermont. What were some of the factors that led you to establish a HEMA group in Vermont?

JR: Charles Murdock, my instructor, had been practicing traditional Asian martial arts – so many that, frankly, I don’t remember the names – since before I was born. So, he had an extensive martial art background. He had sort of become disillusioned with a handful of arts and, also on top of that, in Burlington, Vermont, there aren’t that many dojos of any stripe. He decided, “Hey, why not pick up a new weapon form and this one seemed really cool.” His other student was his partner at the time. So, I was kind of his first real student – that’s mean, because his girlfriend was his first student – but I was his first “outside” student. But by dint of that and by me being excited about it, bringing my friends along, his willingness to take on excitable college students, and helping him get the word out there, he has a thriving club up in Burlington, I think with maybe ten regulars, which is pretty good, given that Burlington is a fairly small city and has a transient population of college students. But I also helped design the patch, so I’m pretty proud of that.

Rozek and her first HEMA instructor Charles Murdock in 2013.

MAYTT: Your legacy is basically ingrained forever in that group.

JR: It is kind of fun when I see new Freifechters and I ask, “Do you know who designed that patch? That’s right, me.” [Laughs] And they’re like, “Who are you?” And I’m like, “Yeah. That’s fair.” [Laughs]

MAYTT: How would you describe the change in HEMA from 2011 to right now?

JR: For the most part, there were a handful of big events that really changed the HEMA scene. For the US, one of them was the formation of a stateside tournament that was very popular.

In Sweden, they have had Swordfish – I honestly don’t remember what the first year of Swordfish was – but Sweden was considered to be the place to be if you thought you knew how to fence. Coming off of that, Jake Norwood was friends with a lot of people in Sweden and had been to Swordfish many times and he decided to create a stateside tournament based on the same ideas. They actually had a very similar ruleset the first couple of years and they called it Longpoint [the name of one of the guards]. And Longpoint ended up growing into one of the largest tournaments in the United States. So, that certainly helped grow the martial art.

At Longpoint one year, in 2016, they actually contacted the New York Times, and they did a newspaper article and a video about Longpoint and about HEMA. After that video came out, we saw, easily, double the attendance. I remember being particularly irritated because this video came out a week after I had just started a new beginner’s class. So, all of a sudden, I had ten extra people asking me on the second day of class, “Can I join your beginner’s class? I just found out about this.” Which was great, but also terrible timing. [Laughs]

Things were smaller back then, by far. I used to know everybody. [Laughs] Which was great because, as a result, I have a lot of HEMA street cred because a lot of my friends are instructors that have been around for a long time. And I used to be able to go to Longpoint and basically know everybody that was there, even if it was a second or third sort of relationship, and I got to meet their new students, which was awesome. Then, after the New York Times video was published, all of a sudden, about forty to fifty percent of the people I didn’t know. Which was also great, because that means there were new people to fight and new ideas coming into HEMA. We’re both less intimate and more intimate because people are now with their clubs more. There’s a deeper club culture, rather than an overall HEMA culture. When we used to have fifty people at a tournament, we used to say that was a lot of people. Nowadays, there’s like fifty people to a single club!

MAYTT: It is amazing how the community just grew, almost doubled in a year!

JR: It was genuinely a little insane. But it was sort of an accident of coincidences, just like how I joined HEMA, where it came out at the right time. It felt like HEMA had started to reach a plateau – it was our first real plateau after so much growth. And people have had a renewed interest in martial arts in the last ten or so years. So, that also helped. Of course, it utilized YouTube and it was the New York Times. So, if we have the official backing of – we always joked, if we were on TV, we would be ESPN The Ocho – a newspaper, like the New York Times, we must be legitimate. Out of the blue, we had gone from this sort of small little thing; and that year, the tournament wasn’t small. There were about 150 people. It was starting to be you show up, you know all the club heads, and maybe not all the students. Then, out of the blue, it was an explosion of new clubs, new instructors, new study groups, and new and interested people. And the following Longpoint 2017, I believe, was the biggest they ever had. They capped it at something like 300 people, which I know isn’t big for many other martial arts tournaments, but that was enormous for us. We had to move hotels. It was a wild time to be in HEMA.

MAYTT: You later moved from Vermont to Maryland in 2013. How did you come to find Maryland Kunst des Fechtens (MKDF)?

JR: I had gone to my very first “real tournament” which was Longpoint, because, again, if you were somebody that was anybody or if you wanted to try your skills against people that were considered the movers and shakers of HEMA, you went to Longpoint – especially if you lived on the East Coast. So, Charles decided that I was good enough to compete. He and I actually drove down to Maryland and went to Longpoint 2012. Didn’t sleep the whole day; it was wild. [Laughs] When I got down there, I met the people at MKDF and the other local clubs, met their club leaders, and a bunch of the other people from the mid-Atlantic region because, not shockingly, being up in Vermont is isolating. We went back, having met all these great new friends. I, shortly thereafter, lost my museum job and started looking for somewhere else to live. A guy I had met at Longpoint said, “You know, if you need a room down here, I got one for you.” So, I moved to Maryland, in large part to help further my career because I’m a historian and I figured the DC area has lots of museums, but because my now-husband was kind enough to offer me a room to stay in for free. He was part of MKDF and I just left my home club, so I just joined MKDF.

MAYTT: Since 2013, what have you learned about the history of the club?

JR: So much. [Laughs] We absolutely missed our tenth anniversary and we’ll probably miss our fifteenth as well. Maryland KDF was founded in 2009, though the idea for it was around in 2008. The guy who founded the club was Jake Norwood. He left his old group in 2008 with several other people who ended up becoming influential people in the modern HEMA movement. He moved to Maryland and had an idea to set up his own club because he was dissatisfied with where he had come from. He set it up in 2008-09, I believe, in a park. I actually don’t know where because nobody seems to remember where this park was. It’s a mythical park, in Maryland, somewhere. And I don’t know if you know but Maryland gets quite humid and hot in the summer which precipitated them into renting a room at a local Krav Maga club around 2010. He stayed with the club until 2013. Actually, my first day at the club was his last day because he had gotten a job down in DC and didn’t want to travel [from Maryland] down to DC because it’s a very populated area and traffic is kind of a mess. So, he moved down to Alexandria, Virginia.

Anytime leadership moves clubs, there’s always a transition. We ended up losing Jake and one of the other instructors, and one of the other instructors ended up having a kid, so he wasn’t available. What we were left with were a handful of people who knew the particular style of HEMA that the club taught. I had the most teaching experience but very little HEMA experience specific to MKDF because my old club taught a slightly different system. Together, we all worked out looking at the manual that MKDF studies and I helped form the club’s pedagogy. Through that, I ended up learning about that particular manual and was able to run with it from there. We held our first beginners’ class about 2015, or late 2014. Honestly, once we started having real beginners’ classes, rather than people walking in onesies and twosies and having to stop class to teach them – from there, the club really took off. We used to have five people and then we could consistently stop counting on our fingers, which was great. But within a handful of years, we started outgrowing the Krav Maga studio and we ended up moving to an Olympic fencing salle around late 2016, where we were allowed to keep holding beginners’ classes and, by having more room, we were able to grow the club. We had a real gear closet which helped because HEMA often has a high entry cost. By being able to give people the gear as loaners, we were able to get many more people through the door. Then, in 2018, we left the fencing salle and moved into our current home, Top Tier Columbia, which is an enormous gym/CrossFit center that’s just perfect for us. They love us and we love them. They have been instrumental in growing us into what we are today.

We’re so excited that we no longer have to explain what HEMA is all the time and that people don’t look at us weird anymore. When I started, somebody would go, “Oh my god! You have a sword in your car!” “Yeah. Have you heard of HEMA?” Usually, it was no. I would explain to them that it is historical European martial arts. “The SCA?” “No, not the SCA. It’s like it but not. It’s not LARP.” And it would spiral out of control from there. It’s great now that I can go up to a handful of people and they would have heard of the term HEMA or historical fencing – I don’t think HEMA will ever be “mainstream.” But that’s made a huge difference and it does speak a lot to the incredible growth over the last fifteen years or so.

MAYTT: Additionally, the school is within the vicinity of Jake Norwood’s Capital Kunst des Fechtens (CKDF), a pioneer and disseminator of HEMA in his own right. How much interaction do you have with him and his school?

JR: We consider ourselves sister clubs, CKDF and us. We didn’t see Jake a whole lot, in large part – we always joke in Maryland that going down to visit Virginia is like visiting another country and, frankly, that would be easier. [Laughs] Given when we have class times it means that you would be driving in peak capital traffic – rush hour traffic. For the most part, outside of tournaments and specialty classes, we didn’t end up interacting with Jake too much. Of course, the two clubs were friendly with each other and remain friendly with each other as the two sister clubs in the area. It’s nice having somebody we can make fun of who is a little younger than us on the other side of the Beltway. And that’s fine; they make fun of us back.

A 2014 photo taken by Rozek, which, at that time, was a large turn out for MKDF.

MAYTT: You brought up Longpoint as his contribution to HEMA, but what else do you feel are his other contributions to the art?

JR: Not to put too fine of a point on it, Jake is a force of personality. Without him leaving his previous group, ARMA, in 2008, we wouldn’t have the modern American HEMA movement that you see today because many other people left ARMA that year and none of them went on to create, for instance, HEMA Alliance. In HEMA, we are a little complicated; we don’t like having overarching bodies that tell us what to do, [Laughs] but Jake went ahead anyway and made the HEMA Alliance, which is both a repository of knowledge of where to find clubs but also what events are happening where. It’s also a place where people can learn about HEMA. The website is mostly informational but also, he set up the ability for all of us to have insurance, for instance. Without Jake, I’m sure somebody or several somebodies would have come up with a similar system, but he was genuinely the one that spearheaded a lot of the creation and club etiquette. In what was seen in modern HEMA, which includes things like what does a club look like versus a study group; what should a club look like; what should an instructor look like; what should the presentation of an instructor look like? On top of that, having a certain level of body fluency was considered very important to be an instructor. Jake helped mold a lot of if you walked into a HEMA club and didn’t see x, y, and z, then maybe they’re not a real HEMA club or not treating it like a real martial art; but if you did see x, y, and z things, then they’re probably legitimate. He did a lot of that, along with a handful of other people.

Longpoint is probably the one he’s most well-known for because it grew to become its own entity. MKDF nominally ran it for the first three or so years then it became such its own thing, that even though our name was on it, it wasn’t – it was run by Jake’s committee because it was such an enormous undertaking. As a result of it, there was a rule set that was instituted in 2014 that many other tournaments in the US use today. Often, they tweak them for what they want to get out of it, but the basic template is from Longpoint’s ruleset. Before Longpoint, every tournament had its own, wildly different ruleset, [Laughs] which was good and bad. But the fact that so many tournaments nowadays – unconsciously even – use Longpoint’s rulesets says a lot.

MAYTT: You bring up Norwood’s departure from ARMA. It seemed like the HEMA Alliance was his answer to ARMA and what should not happen in HEMA. Is that a correct interpretation?

JR: It’s funny because it’s both yes and no, because the modern study group system is effectively ARMA. Not that people weren’t doing it anyway, of course, but ARMA started in large part because they had little study groups of people that were interested. Their whole thought was, “This is really cool; nobody else is doing this. If we standardize it, then we more effectively teach it across a broader audience and across more locations.” Not that there wasn’t anybody else doing the work, but ARMA and its predecessor, HACA – Historical Armed Combat Association – were formed in the early 1990s [ARMA incorporated in 2001], before the spread of the popular internet, and the way they felt to disseminate the information best that the handful of researchers were doing was to set it in stone. “This is what our researchers have come up with. This is what they think the manual says. Now we’re going to come up with a pedagogy and that’s what you’re going to learn.” In some ways, it was novel and, in other ways, it follows a very traditional martial arts path. [Now] we set the techniques not in stone, but in wood. [Laughs] That’s what people learned and they had tests for different levels – you could be a scholar, Free Scholar, Provost, and Master. They had different ranks and basically how good you got at understanding the manual, how it works together, and understanding your sources, you moved up the ranks and could be an instructor of your own study group. And ARMA is still successful today. They still do have groups, mostly down in Georgia.

The Grünberg Freifechter patch that Rozek designed for her first HEMA school.

So, Jake was John Clements’ right-hand man. Basically, the guy that helped push and create these policies. When he and many other people left, I think on some level, they set up the new form of HEMA in a way that was, like you said, their answer to ARMA – maybe what it should have been kept as. Some of that was skewing everything that had a top-down management to some extent. Not that it didn’t because, of course, Jake and people that started this back in the late 2000s did have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what HEMA should look like and what we should be doing. But the setting in stone of the pedagogy was removed so that individual researchers could look at the manuals, come to their own conclusions, and then defend those conclusions in front of other like-minded people. So, it was a little more communal but also scientific. You didn’t just have to take the word of whoever was the loudest. That, I think, really helped in seeing all the things that maybe weren’t ideal in ARMA beforehand, taking those things out and leaving the best parts of ARMA– leaving the research and study groups and the close knit, intimate groups, and getting those groups to study with each other and just be very brotherly. Those are the best parts of ARMA and that’s why people still participate with ARMA because they have a very close knit culture, in large part. Obviously since then, HEMA has grown.

I should note that it’s not actually accurate to say HEMA versus ARMA, because ARMA is the group and HEMA is the martial art. They also study HEMA, though they call it something else [Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe]. I make that note because a lot of people get confused with that. But the modern HEMA model is, I think, founded off of the best parts of ARMA. And that model still continues to be successful.

This is the first of a two-part interview. Read the second part here.

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