Interview with Retired HEMAist Michael Edelson: HEMA in the Northeast, Part I

Michael Edelson began studying Yagyu Shinkage-ryu in the early 1990s and happened onto historical fencing by chance. From there, he bought himself a fight book, gathered some friends together, and started figuring out what the historical sources said to do. In 2005, Edelson established his New York Historical Fencing Association. Becoming friends with influential personality Jake Norwood, he helped organizing Longpoint and with Norwood’s assistance, unveiled sword cutting competition in HEMA on the East Coast. Since the Covid-19 Pandemic, Edelson has retired from HEMA and taken up competition shooting, but he still took some time to talk about his time in historical fencing and why he retired. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Mr. Edelson! Thank you for joining us to talk about your time in HEMA!

Michael Edelson: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: How and when did you first come to find HEMA? What was it about the art that convinced you this was for you?

Michael Edelson working at a tournament. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association.

ME: I was studying Japanese sword arts. I’ve been doing that since the early 1990s and I got involved in a Yagyu Shinkage-ryu in Long Island, New York. I was living in Brooklyn, New York at the time. I was always curious about western swords but, for me, the object itself has to be there for me to be interested in the way of using it. And Western swords were kind of garbage. [Laughs] They were basically toys. So, I took a little bit of a break when my daughter was born and I tried to get back in Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, but at that time, they had better Western swords. So, I bought one and I became curious. I bought some books too. This was around 2004 or 2005.

Like a lot of people, I grew up reading the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and watching the various animated and non-animated adaptations. You see a sword like that, and you picture adventure and all that stuff that goes with it. When I was a boy, I was fascinated with swords because a lot of boys are into weapons for various psychological reasons that we don’t need to get into. That’s why European swords. If I had grown up watching Seven Samurai, which I didn’t unfortunately because that was a great movie, I would be more into Japanese swords, which I started out in. I liked those swords, but not as much. Now I like them more but that’s beside the point. It’s really simple cultural things that aren’t profound. I didn’t go up to the top of the mountain and discover wisdom. It was just, fantasy! [Laughs]

MAYTT: How would you describe the average training regimen of HEMA? Were there only small study groups that continually referred to the manual or were there knowledgeable instructors that knew the manuals through and through?

ME: At first, it was just me when I got the book. Because I had done Eastern martial arts for so many years at that point, I was just like, “Must go in with empty cup. Must accept what these people know, what they’re doing, and must listen to them.” That was wrong [Laughs] but I didn’t know at the time, so I was looking at the book – looking at it from an Eastern martial arts perspective – how to break it down, how to learn the skills. I was trying to break it down in order to build the skills the authors were describing, but the more I read it, at the time, it seemed more like esoteric wisdom that you had to unlock secrets to understand. Now I understand it was more like they didn’t understand what it was really about – I’m not really blaming them, because they were doing the best they could. Then I started a group because the best way to do this would be to get together with likeminded people, experiment, and figure things out. So, that started around 2005.

MAYTT: I can see how that could be difficult when you were first starting out. When you founded your school did you have the opportunity to look at other people’s notes and compare them? Or was it still an “on your own” feeling?

ME: In a way. The way it worked back then is that you had your forums, pre-Facebook. One of the big ones was Sword Forum International, and we also had our own forum. There were a couple of them: My Armory was another one. So, you would have your local group where there were people who turned to you for guidance and didn’t really know that much on their own. And then you would use them as – I don’t want to say guinea pigs but – you would use them as guinea pigs. [Laughs] Basically, we were working from translated sources. Back then, it was mostly interpretations that we were reading, and translations got more and more popular as the interpretations became lacking. As I mentioned before, the interpreters, the ones doing this, was really difficult to get things right, and of course, they didn’t. You can’t expect them to. Who would? Who would get it right? So, it’s nothing against them.

So, we started looking at translations and started comparing them to other translations of the same thing and different sources in the same traditions, and so on and so forth. Then we would compare notes, play with our guinea pigs, beat them up a little bit, and say, “The way I beat my guinea pig up is better than the way you beat your guinea pig up, so I’m better than you.” And then we would argue, because all internet stuff devolves into arguing. And sometimes arguing advances knowledge because you can learn. For example, if someone asks me a question, “How do you do this?” “Well, I don’t have time for you.” But if someone says, “You’re wrong! You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re an idiot!” I’ll type up a ten-thousand-page response about why the person is wrong and explain everything. And this influenced how I interact with people on the internet because I learned through trial and error that the best way to learn something is to tell someone that they were wrong and stupid. So, I kind of developed a reputation as a difficult person on social media when that came about, because that’s how I dealt with people. “Hey, I want something from you; you’re dumb and stupid.” But it worked and that’s kind of what advanced HEMA in the early days.

And then we started having tournaments and that changed everything. At first, for the better and then tournaments kind of got a life of their own and became their own thing for their own reasons as opposed to pressure testing whatever interpretation of your source material.

MAYTT: How have you seen HEMA training change or evolve since you began training?

ME: It started the way most grassroots things do – “grassroots” is a political term but its analogous. You know, it’s just a bunch of schmucks in a basement or backyard, or driveway in our case – it was a very long, secluded driveway. We were just doing that. The larger the community grew, the more talented people it attracted, the better the collaboration got, which in turn fed the collective knowledge. One of the problems with early HEMA is that – or WMA as it was called back then – there was no way to separate the burger kings, what we called the paper-crowned self-appointed experts, from the people who knew actually what they were doing because it came down to who could talk the best. Who was the best at typing on the internet were the leaders of HEMA. I think that one of the ways that I emerged as an early leader was because I was pretty okay talking on the internet. I typed fast and usually have semi-coherent things to say.

Edelson (center right) leading a seminar. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association.

But once the competition scene started, the burger kings lost their paper crowns, so to speak. They still hold on to them and I don’t think anyone has retired or left the scene. They’re all still there but people stopped taking them seriously and their little bit of influence shrank to their local areas. Once you knew who to listen to, once you knew who the serious people were, that advanced the level of fencing and knowledge tremendously. And then serious researchers came into the scene; Wiktenauer was formed. So, the collective knowledge grew to the point where it became something very different and something much more advanced and more developed than what it started with.

MAYTT: In 2005, you founded your school, the New York Historical Fencing Association (NYHFA). What series of events led you to establish your school, and did you have any inclination that it would grow into the entity that it is today?

ME: There’s two things I should clear up. First, I didn’t start the group to experiment on people; that’s just how the mechanics of the growth turned out to be. I started it for social reasons and to bounce ideas off of people I train with. You can train a lot by yourself, but only to a certain extent.

The New York Historical Fencing Association was everything you said it was up until the pandemic started. It did not survive, which I am very not unhappy about. I don’t want to say that I’m pleased. We had plans to bring parts of it back. I think there is one active branch near Saugerties, New York. We have plans to start something back up in New York City. But I stopped being involved in it because the pandemic changed a lot of people’s lives and the way it changed my life was that rather than feeling like I lost something, I felt free. I felt such relief I can’t even describe it. And I said that I would never go back to this. I just let it go.

Unfortunately, because it was a good thing for the owner, the branch in the city which was actually a business that was a multi-discipline school that had NYHFA classes in it, the business went under, which I’m not happy about. The person lost his dream. I hope he’s doing well. But the fact that there was no longer a NYHFA branch there was not terrible. Again, nothing against anyone there or anywhere, I was done with it and without my continued involvement and without that branch there existing, it withered away, and I let it. We’re bringing it back because some people want it back, who are not me. [Laughs] They’re going to do it and not involve me at all except for helping them along. Unfortunately, I can’t unlearn and forget.

MAYTT: If you do not mind me asking, what led you to retiring from your role in HEMA?

ME: There were a bunch of us that started off doing this for ourselves, but we ended up really doing it for the other people – the community. We would work tremendously hard. The person that comes to mind is Jake Norwood, who I worked very closely with and a very good friend of mine. Him, me, and a whole lot of other people put everything they had into it. And different people react differently to that. For some people that put a lot into it, the more they built, the more they loved it. Whereas for me, it took so much out of me.

For example, I was the one who brought cutting with swords against tatami to HEMA because people were like, “Edges? What’s that?” “Cutting? With swords? Nah!” [Laughs] so there were all these cutting tournaments that I ran and organized and then they grew from there and other people ran and organized them. I only ever got to compete in two of them – and I ran dozens of them. Everything I was doing was for other people – running events, teaching at events – none of it was for me, so it just drained me to the point where I had nothing left to give. And now I’m free.

I learned how to fight with a sword by combining Japanese techniques and the piece of the sources that were actual fighting, which there were, and they evolved and were amalgamated. But without the historic context, why am I learning to fight with this obsolete thing? Why am I teaching other people to fight with this obsolete thing when I should be teaching, for them to have utility, competition fencing, which I had very little interest in. I did pretty well in it. Won some stuff; got a bunch of medals, but I was never into it. I never enjoyed it. Now I do competition shooting and I love it and I love every second of it. I never had that with HEMA. But the point is, what am I doing in HEMA? Why am I teaching things that are non-historic – they probably are because they are really simple, and fighting is fighting. The way a samurai fought with a katana would be very similar would be very similar to the way a knight fought with a longsword because they’re very similar weapons, despite their slight difference – they are differences, and they are superficial, and it takes an expert to understand what they are and why.

So, there’s very little point to it. Once you remove the historical aspect, then I had no interest in continuing to teach either tournament fencing or burgher-hobby fencing. The appeal of it kind of drained out.

MAYTT: Many HEMAists consider you to be instrumental in creating, establishing, and propagating the cutting practice and competition into modern HEMA. Where did you get the idea to incorporate this cutting aspect usually seen in Japanese sword arts? What was the HEMA’s community initial reaction to the cutting practice?

Tristan Zukowski demonstrating HEMA’s version of tameshigiri at Longpoint. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association and Mandy Michels Photography.

ME: As far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t an idea that I had. I grew up in martial arts, learning Japanese swordsmanship, and that was just taken for granted. It’s a sword. So, if you really break down what using a sword means, there’s several contexts: there’s a social context, a sporting context – these all existed in his history too. If you remove those and boil down to what the essence of the weapon is and what it’s for, it’s for killing people. There are different swords – some are ceremonial. But essentially, swords are weapons. And when you teach someone to use a sword, what you’re teaching them to do is to strike at another human being in such a way to deliver a grievous injury. When you don’t know how to do that – you have these tulwar attacks in India, where you have twelve guys standing over this poor guy with razor sharp tulwars and the guy is alive. Sure, his arm is hanging off but he’s crawling around. If they knew what they were doing, one strike in the right place would end that whole thing. And the sword would get all bent because they have no idea what they’re doing. And that’s what happens when you use swords and don’t understand what they’re for.

So, all the fencing we have in the sources are like more of a social aspect of swordsmanship. It’s hard to explain without going into hours with details about what the sources are, but the essence of swordsmanship is striking with the sword effectively and you can’t do that without cutting. Because cutting through thick fat things like a human body is very difficult, without bending your sword, without getting it stuck, without rolling off because your edge alignment isn’t good, and without you ending up with four other guys whacking a poor naked dude with tulwars and not killing him right away or for the next hour.

So cutting was essential. It boggled my mind that anyone could look at swordsmanship and say, “Why cut?” That’s like looking at competition shooting sports and saying, “Why shoot? Can’t we just point the gun at things? Like we just point the gun at the target and look, I did it. We don’t have to shoot. That’s dumb. It makes a lot of noise, and it hurts my ears and its hard.” That I would have to hit the target, so I’m just pretending that I’m awesome. [Laughs] That’s the best analogy I’ve come up with so far. So, it was natural to me and it took a surprising amount of effort to get people to understand that it’s essential and even people today still argue that it’s pointless.

MAYTT: What are their arguments or evidence that cutting with a sword is pointless?

ME: There’s two types of people that argue this and one of them has a very valid point, which I don’t argue with at all because they’re right. That point is, “I am practicing the hobbies of medieval burgermeisters” – businessmen, not hamburgers. [Laughs] The wealthy merchant elite of cities did this as a hobby. That’s actually where most of the sources come from, despite their claims to the contrary. They actually didn’t try to kill each other, they fought with these blunt things and, “I don’t need to know how to cut with a real sword, because that’s not what I’m doing.” And they’re totally right. That’s totally valid and I have nothing negative to say about that whatsoever.

And then there’s the other person who says, “Well, the sources didn’t talk about cutting, I don’t have to do it.” There are several arguments stacked in this one. “If I hit someone with a sword hard enough it will hurt them enough that I don’t need this perfect edge alignment, this crazy Japanese perception of perfection.” It’s frustrating. Those people also like to pretend that they’re doing the true warrior art of the medieval knight. The true medieval knight would have looked at them and said, “You don’t know how to use that weapon? Off with you, peasant!” [Laughs]

MAYTT: I can see how there are problems with the second argument because then it starts to become not historical.

ME: That’s the thing, they are historical. The sources that we have are not written by warriors. They claim to have been. We believed that they were, and most people still believe that they were because it’s hard to let go of that fantasy. For example, the Liechtenauer sources, the German longsword manuals, start with, “Young Knight, learn to love God and revere women…” It sounds like it was written for the nobility, but it wasn’t. Like if you read writings of the period or academic writings about that period, the fencers were, again, burgermeisters, businessmen who ran around teaching people tricks.

It’s not that easy. It’s a combination. There were real sources. Probably the original Liechtenauer was a real fighter, and he wrote some things down, and those things were changed. So, because these people were businessmen, it’s hard to sell swordsmanship as “knowing how to kill someone with a sword so practice these simple things a lot and you’ll be really good at it and don’t worry about all these tricks because those people can’t fight and they’re dumb.” You can’t sell that. But you can sell, “Hey, you wanna win? I’ll teach you these cool secret techniques.” It’s like human economics exerting its influence over fencing. Now, again, most people do not believe this and it’s very difficult to accept. It’s also why I left HEMA because one of the things that attracted me to it once we had it more developed in swords was the historical aspect – we were recreating the historic fighting arts of the medieval knights. And then I realized that we weren’t. And we had some writing from actual knights that directly contradicted these burgher fencing arts and it’s a giant mess.

MAYTT: How different were the burgermeisters manuals to the knight manuals?

ME: We don’t exactly have knight manuals. We have information. We have one [manual] – I forgot what it’s called – and it was written by a knight. Basically, we have rooms of knightly tournaments. In the Holy Roman Empire, you had these things called fetchschules, which is where the burgermeisters got together and played with training swords. Those had various and specific rules. For example, they would fence to the highest bleeding head wound. Their swords had spatulate tips and you tried to get past your opponent’s guard and cut at the head. I have scars on my head from an illegal European blood dueling cult. [Laughs] I’m calling that facetiously, but it’s a brotherhood of fencers who wanted to pursue that historic aspect. I did that for a while. A lot of the sources describe that sort of fencing and it’s very cool. It’s very spiritual in a sense because a lot of the values and traditions that people believed in was wrapped up in their fencing. But that was awesome. It wasn’t the kind of sword fighting that drew me to it originally – not that I didn’t like doing it or the people that I did it with. I thought it was great, but I didn’t want to teach that kind of fencing, for example.

Anyway, the burgermeisters had this intricate fencing where they eventually developed protective masks, which they didn’t have at first – which is why they lost eyes and stuff. And then you would have a knightly tournament, where you would have a knight suit up in armor, fight each other with swords, and it would be whoever beat each other into submission. It was more like they had that Armor Combat League – kind of like the SCA but with blunt steel swords. So, what those guys do is much more historical – not historical, more analogous not to what the combat would’ve been like but it’s more analogous to what the tournaments were like. So, they got it more right than HEMA did as far as competitions. So yes, tremendous differences along those lines.

Again, with the knights, there is some evidence that real fighting men disdained the fencing master’s tricks until they were challenged to a traditional duel, in which case they went to the fencing master and said, “I’m sorry for what I said!” [Laughs] Because it wasn’t one-on-one. This whole one-on-one, show up at noon, that’s a fantasy. That happened in traditional duels and really almost nowhere else, except for some rare, miraculous coincidence – two people with the same weapons, under rules, fighting out in the open, that was not a common occurrence. So, when a fighting person was caught up in a situation where they had to do that, they wanted to find the nearest fencing master and have them teach them all these crazy tricks that they made fun of a day ago.

MAYTT: Another one of your endeavors is the HEMA Longsword Triathlon, which debuted in 2013. According to your biography in the NYHFA website, you established the triathlon to “safeguard [HEMA’s] martial spirit and to prevent its regression into a contest for points and accolades.” In the years you have run this event, how do you feel that your event has consistently achieved its purpose?

ME: So, some clarification: I didn’t run the event where it took place. That was Longpoint, with Jake Norwood and Ben Michels, and I helped run it, so I was one of the people who ran it, but it was not my event per se. The idea for the triathlon kind of came out of conversations I had with Jake Norwood about how to keep the whole martial spirit alive in HEMA. I did a triathlon where it was cutting, fencing, and wrestling with the sword at my own event in New York. And then after that, we did it with cutting, regular wrestling, and fencing tournaments. The idea was, in order to win, you had to train a holistic skillset.

Edelson (center right, holding staff) acting as referee while Jake Norwood (center left) fights. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association and Mandy Michels Photography.

So, competition drives training. You can say, “I only use competition to test my techniques; I don’t train for it.” Yes you do, because when you fence, you wear competition gear, competition techniques; if somebody kicks your butt, you learn that technique and apply it, and all this kind of stuff. And people are motivated by incentives and medals, glory, and standing up in front of a hundred people cheering, that’s a big incentive. I felt it and it was great and wonderful. You want that – if you see someone else have that, you want it for yourself. If and when you get it, you must have more. So, what we decided was that we will provide this incentive but not just for people who can play with sword-like metal sticks and be the best at that; we wanted to make sure what they’re training has validity in actual sword fighting. So, if you can fence, can you also cut? Because if you can’t cut, what is your fencing? You’d be unable to hurt me – unless you can stab me.

We really didn’t have a third thing, so we just threw wrestling in there.  You can do wrestling with the sword in the tournament, so that was kind of a placeholder. Not that wrestling by itself isn’t an important aspect, but that’s not what we’re going for in the triathlon specifically. But later on, we replaced it with paired technique, which is kind of like Japanese kata competition, where you demonstrate the knowledge of the source material. A guy named Cory Winslow came up with that – the idea was, do you know the source material? – this was before I started to hate the source material—can you use the weapon the way it was intended, and can you apply what you learned in a dynamic situation? That was supposed to guarantee or help ensure that the people who were winning and had the highest incentives – because we had the biggest prizes for the triathlon, the biggest, best medals. “And the winner of the event is Bob Jenkins!” And the winner of the longsword tournament is sitting there, and he’s forgotten; he took his little medal and went back to his table. The person who won the triathlon was the big hero. That worked for a few years and, of course, people are clever; whatever rules you throw at them, they would find ways to game them. So, what happened was that each of the tournaments became its own thing. You train specifically for the cutting tournament, you don’t care about using the sword, you don’t care that all whether your techniques would work in the longsword tournament – you don’t care about that because those are two separate things for you, and so on and so forth. So, eventually people found ways to game the system – not everyone. There have always been and will always be people who are true to that idea of their own accord. We didn’t have to nudge or encourage those people. Perhaps helping them understand, in some cases. The people who don’t care about it and are only doing it because you’re forcing them will find ways to game it, and they did.

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


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