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

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

MAYTT: Thank you for that clarification

JR: A lot of people get confused because they are both four-letter acronyms. I suppose it would be most accurate to say ARMA versus the HEMA Alliance and that assumes the HEMA Alliance includes all of the clubs that “fall under it” even though we’re a bunch of anarchists. [Laughs] The HEMA Alliance is the closest thing we have to the overarching structure of ARMA and the martial art that we practice is HEMA.

MAYTT: Who else would you consider to be an influential person in the American HEMA revival movement? What was it about these individuals that set them apart from their contemporaries?

JR: That’s the thing. There are so many unbelievably important people in early HEMA especially and they’re all, on some level, all easy to recognize because their clubs or their methodologies are still in use. They are still people that students today know the name of. There are so many of them because, like I said earlier, the study of HEMA is often done in small study groups. Spread that out across the United States and you have a lot of area and a lot of clubs to cover. And then on top of that, some of them are pioneers in research; others are pioneers in getting tournaments started or getting women into the martial arts, things like that. If I started naming currently influential people, it would be inherently unfair and incomplete because without having people continually doing the work, we wouldn’t have this. So, that being said and keeping in mind that I have not been overseas and I live on the East Coast of the United States, I will probably miss some big names from across the country and overseas.

Jess Rozek posing during a class at MKDF.

I would say, at the very least, the people that started interest in the 1990s are people like Roger Norling, who lives in Sweden; Matt Galas, Kevin Maurer, Christian Tobler, and Mike Cartier are all people – half of them were in ARMA– that started during the pre-internet/infancy of the internet doing the work of either translating manuals or gathering people to them. You could credit them and their cohort with starting the first groups of people that said, “You know what? I really like to hit people with swords. Oh hey, I have this book that tells me how. Do you want to do this too?” [Laughs]

Some of the next generation are people like Jake Norwood, Michael Chidester, Ben Jarashow, Ben Michels – a lot of Bens in that early time – Richard Marsden, Christian Trosclair, Guy Windsor, Jeanri Chandler, Cory and Betsy Winslow. They’re all people that did more of the early translations that were broad and a bit amateur in some way, compared to now – it was done and dirty and got the job done. “We know that that word means strike and it said, ‘If you strike him in the head…’ we can work with that.”

The next generation of people refined that a little more and they started the discussions on, “This is a weird word, specifically in German, where else do we see this weird word because it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the manual.” Jess Finley, who I cannot forget and still continues to do an incredible amount of this work. They tried to find a better refinement of the terms that we use and a better understanding of why they say, “Do this thing here and we named it this really odd, very specific dance move.” That’s supposed to tell us something, right? That group of people did a lot of that and also started the first big tournaments, started the first big clubs, and the first out and about research movement. These include Michael Chidester, who runs the Wiktenauer and he’s the one that started gathering all the manuals that we had in translation, finding all of those translations, doing his own work, and giving lectures on them and classes on how to do this kind of research and how to understand the manuals, which of course hadn’t been done yet. Other people, like Mike Edelson, without him, we would not have cutting competitions, which he took directly out of iaido and Toyama-ryu. He took directly from his experiences in an Eastern martial art and applied them to HEMA because why shouldn’t we be able to do that with the longsword? Historically, they did cutting, obviously not tatami, medieval Europeans practiced mostly in clay, but we felt that tatami was easier to get a hold of and cleaner. [Laughs] Without Edelson doing those things and then talking about why biomechanics are so important, we wouldn’t have cutting competitions and we certainly wouldn’t be as mindful of cutting biomechanics or how it actually impacts a target. Without Ben Jarashow and, actually, Ben Michels both, they ran the behind the scenes at Longpoint. Like I said earlier, Longpoint became its own entity and that quieter work that often doesn’t get celebrated. Without the two Bens, we wouldn’t have the ability to do the tournament mathematics that we choose to do for these big tournaments. Without Ben and Ben making sure those things ran smoothly, Longpoint wouldn’t have become as well-known as it is.

Then there are other people that do little pockets of research. James Clark for one. I mentioned Mike Cartier and Kevin Maurer. Both Mike and Kevin also came out of ARMA. They founded the Meyer Freifechter Guild, of which I was a part of originally. They were instrumental in bringing the Joachim Meyer manual into the light of day. It’s a manual that a lot of people start with in HEMA, or used to start with I should say, because it’s one of the newest ones [from 1570] we have so it’s written in a much more understandable way for the modern mind. He explains things the way modern people understand because the late 1500s is considered to be the Early Modern period. Without them, we wouldn’t have an easy access longsword manual to start understanding how it goes all together. James Clark was one of the first people to bring to light montante [greatsword] manuals in the United States, certainly, if not the world. He went out of his way and taught himself medieval Portuguese to do it. It was sort of the first big push into seriously learning weapons that weren’t longswords and not just playing around with other weapons, because we used to do a lot of, “Ha ha! Isn’t this fun!?” But nobody actually studied it seriously and James Clark was one of the first people to take an alternate weapon and not only translate the manual, but genuinely start to study it seriously as its own thing, separate from and not dependent on longsword.

A “really cool” image of Rozek in all of her gear at a tournament.

The last two people are Mariana Lopez for starting a group called Esfinges, not that she’s not a brilliant coach in her own right, but she started a women’s only group on Facebook called Esfinges that has been credited as getting many women into HEMA because it’s an easy safe space for people to enter and to learn about, especially ten years ago or so, what jackets fit, what pants fit, what protective gear can I wear as a woman. And that was unbelievably important. Last but not least, Natasha Darcé and her husband Christian who run Purpleheart Armory. They are one of the major suppliers of weapons, books, and gear to HEMA. They also sponsor a tournament down in Texas [Purpleheart Open]. They’ve been around long before HEMA picked up speed, but they’ve been a consistent supplier, advocate, cheerleader of all things HEMA for as long as I can remember. That’s one of those roles that people overlook sometimes. Without them there being a consistent supplier, maybe we wouldn’t have consistent gear like we do today and we wouldn’t have somebody like them always there for us, which is great.

This list still doesn’t cover the big name people in Europe or with Swordfish and the group that runs it, the Gothenburg Historical Fencing School, they’re one of the biggest and oldest clubs in Europe. And without them, who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t have modern tournaments the way we do today. Then the progenitors of HEMA in the various countries that HEMA has gone out to. There is a HEMA club in Vietnam. There are several in Australia; there’s one in Hong Kong; I believe there’s one other in Taiwan. The list is just, mostly, East Coast United States, never mind all the other countries and places that HEMA has spread to. Without those other folk, we wouldn’t have the numbers and we wouldn’t have the spread that it does, which is unbelievable – it’s amazing! [Laughs]

MAYTT:  You brought up a handful of practitioners that tried to create a safe space or a more comfortable atmosphere to bring female practitioners into HEMA. 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?

JR: With the caveat that I’ve officially taken two and a half classes of traditional Asian martial arts, I would say probably yes, though I think in large part due to HEMA being at the right place at the right time and probably, in smaller part, tradition. The 2010s, I think, have been a banner time for women being able to get into things like this. We’ve no longer, as much across the board, disallowing women to be violent. Of course, not in a “I’m going to scratch your eyes out” kind of way, but we no longer, as a society, tell women as often that they can’t do martial arts, that they shouldn’t do martial arts, that it’s not feminine or womanly. I think that’s a shift that holds true throughout the Western world that we are allowing women, culturally, to be physical, to be athletic and the explosion of HEMA, especially with that New York Times video, coincides quite neatly with that.

On top of that though, we always say in class that the sword is the great equalizer. Our longswords are approximately forty-eight to fifty-one or -two inches long and there is a lot that having a sword in your hand negates between people of different body types. Of course, as in all things, somebody who is very big versus somebody who is very small, there will always be advantages for the big person. But for the most part, the sword does quite a bit to negate those advantages. I think that helps a lot as well. Additionally, we have no men’s tournaments versus women’s tournaments. There are women’s tournaments, but the other option is the open which is mixed. We’ve never genuinely considered dividing HEMA into men’s tournaments and women’s tournaments – that’s in large part because in the beginning, there was no point, there weren’t enough people. But as time has gone on, we’ve never seemed to need it, necessarily. There are many, amazing female fighters who can easily walk into a tournament and take on all of the other participants, regardless of gender. But when this all started, there used to not even be women’s tournaments.

When I started HEMA, I was one of four women on the East Coast that fought [in tournaments]. Two of the other three still do today. There’s something about it. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the backing of tradition because HEMA is so new and silly; cultural ideas of what martial arts a woman should do don’t apply. We don’t seem to fall into that because everybody that grew up on fantasy books has, of course, read about swordfighters, male, female, or otherwise. I think, in short, it’s a confluence of things: that society has gotten a little more approving of women being athletic and physical, HEMA happened to explode on the scene at that same time and then, because we don’t have any real tradition or traditions going back way into the past, but because HEMA is also regarded as a little nerdy and possibly as a little silly. It makes people more comfortable to start and then, before they know it, they’re stuck. Those things altogether and then our major weapon negates a lot of advantages between men and women. I think that makes it a lot more accessible for a lot of women. By dint of having more women, we are also a safe space for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community because they see it as, “Well, it’s not a boy’s club and they are accepting of women, then that implies that people aren’t going to be mean or nasty about other genders or other presentations.” As a side effect, which has been wonderful is we end up with a lot of LGBTQ+ fighters as well. And instructors actually, which is great.

MAYTT: You bring up the LGBTQ+ community and I follow some HEMA profiles on social media; the representation of the LGBTQ+ community is like night and day with HEMA and traditional Asian martial arts. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a LGBTQ+ Asian martial artist or competitor and I think it is something they can learn from HEMA.

JR: I think that’s maybe one of our strengths. In this case, we don’t – it’s going to sound like we don’t see color – separate people. I don’t particularly care what your presentation is: male, female, non-binary, whatever. It doesn’t matter to me [in a training aspect]. What matters is do you want to swing a sword, because swords are awesome. [Laughs] I know a lot of other clubs from the get-go, in their beginners’ classes or whatever they choose to do as an intro class, do the same. Nobody likes to be singled out, ever. And so, I think that makes a lot of people of other presentations much more likely to walk in because I won’t ever make a big deal out of it because it doesn’t matter. It matters more if you’re a big person, or a small person, or a short person. I can give you tips for all of those things. Otherwise, you’re a fighter or a fencer, same as everyone else and, in that, is real acceptance, I think. And we don’t have to focus beyond that because, on some level, there are no men’s divisions versus women’s divisions. It’s the Open and a lot of women’s divisions. And now, we’re starting to have whole events for women, non-binary, and transfolk run by those same people. It’s funny because it happened without us trying. [Laughs]

Rozek and her first HEMA instructor Charles Murdock in 2013.

One day, I looked around my club and suddenly realized I had three trans members. I was sitting there thinking, “Oh my god. This is so cool!” and then, for fun, I also counted out the people there that were bi, lesbian, non-binary, and gay and I thought to myself, “When did that happen?” [Laughs] It’s really awesome, but it’s a cool side effect of us, more or less, treating everybody exactly the same and on top of that our tournament system doesn’t require the usual sex binary. We ended up as this wonderful safe space for all people with violent tendencies.

It’s remarkable, honestly. Sometimes, when I think about, hmm, like, “How are we still here?” We were once called, uh – somebody once wrote an article about HEMA practitioners and the HEMA Alliance as a loose coalition of lone wolves. And that was supposed to be mean, yet somebody made patches about it. So sad to say I don’t own one. We took that as a great thing and somehow it all worked out.

MAYTT: In the more modern times of HEMA, how important do you feel the research aspect is to the greater HEMA movement?

JR: Without overstating it, without research, we would not have HEMA. Without researchers, we wouldn’t have this. That’s like full stop. If somebody back in the 1970s or 1980s didn’t see a fight book in a library or a museum and didn’t think that the world needed to know about it, this wouldn’t exist. A lot of that research still goes on to today, not quite in the same way. The major sword art that we start with is longsword because there are many more manuals written about longswords. They’re more publicly available and there’s just a lot of them. So those early pioneers translated a lot of those. So, the longsword translations that go on today are a little more niche. They’re more refined. Say, if somebody published a book, people would argue that this word means this; is that English quite right or can we get a little more nuanced out for it to really see what the author was thinking about. And that’s what the longsword manual research is these days; it’s a little more esoteric.

That being said, almost every club that has twenty or more members has a person that’s interested in different weapons and they are doing the research themselves. In MKDF alone, I can think of at least three people that have translated, learned, and then taught saber manuals – all different. Actually, four people. One English, one French, and one Prussian. And the other guy argues with the English and French guys and yells about the translations. It’s great. [Laughs] Another person in the club decided to take on Jaegerstock which is a quarterstaff that has two leaf blades on the end. He decided that that would be a cool thing to share so he found a book that had been translated into English, but it was done a long time ago and badly. He printed out the German, even though he doesn’t read German, [Laughs] and attempted to learn it and teach people and it was a ton of fun!

Like I said, James Clark was instrumental in introducing montante, or the greatsword, a sword, at least for me, is often taller than I am [5’+]. And there are several different styles. The most common one is Portuguese and that’s why he ended up learning medieval Portuguese. But there are also sources in Spanish and Italian and nothing in German yet, unfortunately. But without that, we wouldn’t be able to have montante classes – somebody in our club just finished teaching a montante class actually. I will be teaching a class on the biomechanics of montante, saber, and longsword and we’re only able to do that because of the people that continue to translate montante, saber, longsword, rapier, and dagger sources. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this plethora of weapons. HEMA used to mean longsword. We used to joke that HEMA does cover ancient Greek wrestling all the way down to bayonets, but realistically, if someone said they do HEMA, it meant longsword. These days, that’s less true.

There are people that specialize in wrestling, or what we call ringen, which is sort of a judo-like system. There are people that specialize in English saber. There are people that specialize in French saber. There are people who specialize in Italian saber. There are people that specialize in northern Italian rapier versus southern Italian rapier. There are people that specialize in early German longsword, there are people that specialize in late German longsword. There are people that specialize in English longsword because there’s a single manual and we might as well do something about that. [Laughs] Without those people doing, frankly, this incredibly important work, we wouldn’t have these cool, other classes and we’d end up stuck with longsword.

We joke in our beginners’ class that you never know from week to week, that a cut I’m teaching may look different tomorrow. It used to be that bad, thank God it’s not that bad anymore! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Do you think there is a split between the researchers and the competitors, that a HEMAist can only be one or the other not both?

JR: Both yes and no. Like I said, the longsword researchers have a tendency to continue doing HEMA through research. A lot of that early cohort that I was talking about, the influential people, were famous longsword folks. They were people who won tournaments back around 2010 and these days, they choose to continue doing HEMA and giving to HEMA by doing research. That being said, the other niche weapons are mostly being translated or studied by people who are currently fencing. The four guys I mentioned in our club are teaching, they are fencing, they go to tournaments. Two of them started this because it was a pandemic project, but this is now their passion project. Maybe they’re not translating it, but they took a translated manual that maybe nobody cares about or got lost, which happens, and they said, “You know what? This is really cool. I want to try it out.” And so, it’s very early HEMA energy to grab a book, grab a buddy, and try to smack each other as nicely as the book says to. And I love that it’s still persistent in HEMA.

MAYTT: It is like a cycle of things, where something gets started and goes on this way with everyone else. And then smaller cycles start doing the same thing that the earlier people were doing and then it snowballs into something else.

JR: Oh yeah. We very much go through fits of weapons. About five years ago, everybody was very into Polish saber. These days, it’s more saber in general. About five years before the Polish saber, people were super into sidesword. Right now, smallsword is the up-and-coming cool thing to start working with. Longsword will always be the overarching king, but we go through ridiculous cycles – almost like fads. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Final question. With the recent pandemic receding from its emergency status in the United States, where do you think American HEMA will go in the next ten years?

JR: I don’t know. On some level, I think that we will continue to grow – there will be more study groups that will become real clubs and that, in turn, spawn more study groups. Kind of as we have been for the last ten or so years. I think HEMA will also start to become more well-known in some ways. People are doing entire YouTube channels about HEMA things and ideas. People have always been interested in knights in shining armor and all that and now people are starting to put up YouTube videos about that. Okay, that’s cool, but now we understand how that knight moves in armor, we understand what the knight does with a sword, so how does that inform our idea of knights in shining armor? People are making content left, right, and center about swords and swordwork. There are famous authors that are reaching out to HEMA instructors – Brandon Sanderson for one, reached out to a HEMA club about how to write a sword fight [for the Stormlight Archive]. Neil Stephenson, I believe, is actually part of a HEMA club in either Seattle or northern California and, apparently, it’s him and a bunch of his writer friends who are all part of this HEMA club in large part because they wanted to learn how to write a sword fight and found that they were having fun. [Laughs] Even if our population doesn’t grow hugely, I think we are coming to some kind of plateau that, in order to get off of it, it will require the order of a New York Times video or showing up in more mainstream media.

There are people in the background doing the informational work. There are people that are now fight choreographers because that’s their job and they’ve gotten to the point where they are the fight master and now bring in historical fencing. Like, on The Magicians, one of the fight choreographers is a HEMA person and you can see it in the show actually. There’s a sword fight and they actually use guards that we use. They’re modified for on screen, of course, but I recognized a couple of things, which was very cool.

So, a lot of the background work of filling in the public’s gaps in knowledge when it comes to medieval Europeans, I think, will be a lot of where HEMA goes. From there, if you choose not to be a casual consumer of medieval Europe, it’ll be really easy to find a HEMA club. You’ll have all this information on YouTube and wherever and then when you go, “Hey, how do you know that stuff?” Somebody can go, “Oh, let me tell you! I’m part of this martial art and I can direct you to a HEMA club.” I think given how many misconceptions there are about medieval Europeans, I think that’ll be really cool. Then maybe we can start seeing better stuff in the media, but also allow it to become cool, kind of like The Karate Kid did in the 1980s for karate. I think that would be really neat.

MAYTT: I would love to see more HEMA in mainstream stuff. I think that would be cool!

JR: I think it would be so cool and the handful of times I’ve seen HEMA in movies, mostly indie movies, the fight scenes are so epic. They’re so cool! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and talking about HEMA! It was fun!

JR: Thank you and I enjoyed our talk!

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

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