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

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

MAYTT: I know Covid messed a lot of things up, but are there plans to bring the triathlon back that you know of, or did it just fizzle out after people figured out ways around the rules?

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

ME: So, the triathlon was only a big thing at one event. There were similar things done at other events but Longpoint, which was the largest competitive HEMA event in the world at that time, was where that took place. And because Longpoint was like the Super Bowl of HEMA, everybody wanted to win Longpoint. Because if you win Longpoint, you had street cred for life, especially the later Longpoints. Not so much with the earlier. Starting in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 was almost the last Longpoint where the organizers got so burnt out, they said that they couldn’t do this next year. And the event got so big – I think it was the largest HEMA event ever – there were about 400 people or more at this massive hotel and it was just insane. So, we decided to do it every two years. I was a supporting organizer, not one of the main organizers. So, in 2019, the three principals decided that they were never going to do this again. Or I think two of them decided that and the other one had to stop because he couldn’t do it on his own. So that was the end of Longpoint and that was kind of the end of the whole triathlon concept.


ME: That’s what happens when you try and force people to do things a specific way. If power and influence wanes, they go back to their own little realms. And there might be some other events that are trying similar things. I don’t know and don’t care anymore. But as of 2019/2020, before the pandemic, that was the end of it.

MAYTT: A few people I have spoken to have stated that they have seen a major change in competition-based HEMA, creating a more sportified version of the art. From your perspective, is there any truth to this statement, and if so, is there a way for the art to return to its martial spirit and pre-sportified roots?

ME: It’s absolutely true and it was inevitable. There’s something called HEMA Ratings where they rank HEMA fighters. As soon as that appeared, that’s it. It’s done! Within a year, you start to see people talking about, “Wow! Bob Smith was in the top 100 in HEMA Ratings. He’s a top 100 fencer; you can’t tell him he’s wrong! He’s like a god!” Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about because now, what anybody wants is to climb in the competition numbers. People say, “No, that’s not why I do it.” Yeah, it is, and you may not even know it but it’s what you’re doing. Because unless you’re one of these people that don’t know their rating, doesn’t care, never checks, then you’re not influenced by it. But if you know what your number is, you’re influenced by it, whether you know it or not. So basically, if your biggest incentive is to win competition, what are you going to train for?

It’s kind of like in competitive shooting, you have different divisions, and you have different types of guns and gear. If you want to win, and not just in your division, you have to go to the Open Division. And the Open Division is where they have race guns, and they are these monstrosities with giant magazine wells to reload real quick and big compensators and frame-mounted red dots; and the holsters where you put the gun in and its barely touching it, so you drew it really quick. If you want to win, you have to have one of those guns, because you can’t compete with those things. If you don’t go full competition, you can’t win. You will never be one of the people that’s at the top.

This was not true in the early days of HEMA because nobody had refined tournament fencing to such an extent because it wasn’t really going on that much. For example, Europeans, when I was doing HEMA, were always known, on average, better than the Americans. The reason they were better than the Americans were they because they never messed around with the “We wanted to be martial.” They were super into competition, and they were doing it for a while, years I think, before we started it. So, they had more developed competitive fencing than we ever did. They couldn’t cut or use swords to save their lives. It was only after we started it at Longpoint that they bothered to learn to cut and come there, and towards the end, they actually started doing well and some of them won. I was like, “No! What do you mean Europeans are winning at American events?” [Laughs] It happened.

They’re good people and they train hard and if they see the incentive, they go for it because the study of economics is the study of how humans respond to incentives – that’s what makes the world turn. Once, in the beginning, it was possible to just do your techniques and just be martial, not care about competition, and winning. I did it; Jake Norwood did it; a bunch of other people did it. But now that it’s so super-refined, to go back to the shooting analogy, if you don’t use the race gun, you’re not going to win. And the race gun is analogous to using techniques specific to these simulated swords in this specific year in this specific context with those specific rules. If you don’t go fully into that, you’re not going to be the best. And once you have the incentive to be the best that’s strong enough, that’s inevitable.

And as far as what can be done to change that, nothing. You could start over. You could say that we’re going to purge the infidels and we’re going to take all the like-minded people and bring them together and start over. You could do that but it’s kind of like a rollercoaster. You went down the slide, you grabbed yourself back to the top, and what do you think is going to happen? You’re going to slide right back down. Either that or you stay small and stay exclusive. That’s the only way. In Japan, you have kendo, for example, and you have other arts, the kenjutsu and battodo people who actually want to learn how to use a sword and kendo people want to learn to win the kendo game, whether they want to want that or not, that’s what they’re doing. And so, they have that divide. There’s cross training; for example, if you want to be good at fencing and fighting with a sword, you want to go to kendo. If you do kendo and want to learn how to use a real sword, you should go to kenjutsu. But if you just do kendo, you’re a game player. So that’s how that works.

You could divide the two in HEMA similarly, but the martial sword arts are maybe 1000:1, meaning for every thousand kendo people, there might be one person who does kenjutsu, because it’s exclusive. They don’t select intentionally for that, but it’s self-selecting. If you want to yell loud and swing sticks, you go to kendo. If you want to study and be more of a martial nerd, you go to the other things. So, could you do that in HEMA? Yeah, but you have to force it; “No, not you. You can’t train with us. Not you.” People don’t like to do that – I don’t like to do that. You could but it wouldn’t last.

Edelson (center background) reffing for a sword and buckler match at Longpoint. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association and Mandy Michels Photography.

MAYTT: I see. And it would get so exclusive that nobody would bother showing up.

ME: Swords are obsolete. There’s absolutely no point in learning how to use a sword at all. I mean, you could say that if you’re on your own the street and you have a bat. Yeah, that’s true; give me a bat and I’ll wreck some dudes. But you’re not going to carry around a bat. It’s not really practical. You have to train for a valid incentive. This esoteric, “I’m training for martial swordsmanship” is not an attractive incentive for ninety-nine percent of people. That’s why Olympic Sport Fencing is Olympic Sport Fencing – you fly around and tap people with their little wires and the light goes off, and that’s how it’s going to be and it’s never going to go back – until guns disappear, because magic, and we have to use swords again.

MAYTT: That would be an interesting world to live in.

ME: Please, no. I love shooting too much.

MAYTT: Since you helped run Longpoint, you invariably work with Jake Norwood, who, to many American HEMAists, consider to be a leading figure of the movement. Could you tell us more about him and how you two began working with each other?

ME: He wasn’t the one that did the most work in Long Point – that was Ben Michels and Emma Graff – but he was the head honcho of Long Point. Jake is a wonderful person, and he deserves the nickname that he has, which is Captain America. He was actually a captain in the army, and I don’t know if they knew that when they named him Captain America, but that’s beside the point. He was always a very honest, very earnest, and very martially minded person, meaning that he wanted HEMA to be almost the same thing that I wanted it to be. We just met – I was involved in some other groups, and I left that in about 2011 and we met. Those groups convinced me that if I sever ties with them, I would be a pariah in the community, no one would like me. Then I realized that they’re a very tiny portion of the community and there’s this whole greater community out there. Jake Norwood was in charge of it. I kind of went to him and was like, “Can I play with you guys now?” And they’re like “Yeah! Come! Play with us!” It was awesome; it was great.

We became friends pretty quickly because we got along and I guess – we really became friends at the Pacific Northwest HEMA gathering, which was one of the tournaments in 2012, when we ended up fighting each other for gold. It was a really phenomenal experience and we bonded at that time. So, it grew from there. But even before then, we wanted to work together, to make Longpoint better and to make HEMA better through Longpoint.

MAYTT: Is he still active within HEMA?

ME: So Jake, his model of doing things is different from mine, where I want to build this vast empire that I controlled with an iron fist, he would start a club, build it up, and move for work, and leave it in someone else’s hands. So, he’s got a few of those that’s still out there. And now he lives in – I always get these northern European/Nordic countries mixed up – the Netherlands. He’s really into the armor stuff now. He has a really nice suit of armor, or harness, as the nerds call it. He’s really into that and he goes to events over there because there are a lot of European events. I don’t know what he does during those events; I don’t know if it’s just armor stuff or if he still does longsword tournaments. It’s hard when you’re older. I started competing when I was forty. A lot of people start competing in their twenties or their late teens. But when you’re forty, it’s hard because your body is dying and you’re trying to get it to do these physically really challenging things. But even forty is okay. When you get up into your mid to late forties, it gets really difficult. People do it and there are some successful fighters like Charles Murdock who was a very good fighter and was forty-seven or forty-eight the last time that I knew he competed. He might be still doing it for all I know. But you’re not going to win major events when you’re in your late forties or early fifties. Like I said, I don’t know if Jake is still doing it – actually competing – or he just does armor. He’s getting up into his forties; if he’s not doing it, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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 peers?

ME: So, we already talked about Jake Norwood, who is probably the most influential person in American HEMA. Wherever you look at who did something, Jake Norwood was behind it in some way. Not everybody but he helped a lot of people. He helped me get the whole cutting thing across; I couldn’t have done it without him. Of course, creating and running Longpoint was massively influential. It transformed HEMA from this backyard nerd fest to something that was taken so seriously that HEMA was invited to participate in the 2019 European Games in Minsk, Belarus. Jake and I were co-captains of Team USA. Our job was primarily to pick the fighters. We had the option of going there; we both decided that we really didn’t want to go to Minsk. So, we picked the team, and they went. One of the guys that I picked wound up winning a silver medal in rapier. That popularity and being taken seriously by the world was largely his doing.

You mentioned Michael Chidester, who, by creating Wiktenauer, created this library of knowledge. Previously, if you wanted source material, you would have to buy a book for money. And when you wanted to reference it, you would have to go into your book, find the spot in the book, and it was hard. One of the jokes I make is that a lot of people bought my book but very few people actually read it. What he did was he made a lot of information easily accessible. So, if you want to find something, you don’t have to read a book or buy a book, you can go to the website, do a keyword search, and poof, there it is. And actually, Ben Michels, I mentioned him before, he actually helped start Wiktenauer, though Michael Chidester took it over, and he was the big brains behind Longpoint. He did most of the work there, along with Emma Graff who is either his girlfriend or wife. The two of them were the work behind Longpoint. Without them, there would have been no Longpoint.

Edelson (left) gearing up for competition. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association.

Who else? Cory Winslow. So, he had this group, Medieval European Martial Arts Guild and branches of it still survive, though Cory himself is no longer involved. He kept making these videos where he demonstrated techniques right out of the sources. It was like him and his friend were both tall and skinny and had long hair and wore this period garb so it looked just like living illustrations from the sources. They would do these techniques and have these arched backs, all this good form and people loved that, and they would watch that and would be inspired to try to learn and recreate these techniques. So that was hugely influential. And of course, he was the one that created the paired techniques tournament, which unfortunately does not survive till modern day because it’s not sexy enough. Everyone wants to fight! Cut things! Destroy things! Wreck any noobs! But it was actually one of the harder tournaments to compete in. I competed in a few of them, and it was such a pain in the ass. It was so hard. You had to like perfectly to execute these complicated techniques and be judged on every movement you make – it was such stress and pressure. I hated it! It was a great competition, but I hated competing in it. It was harder than cutting tournaments; it was harder than longsword fencing tournaments. If you have a medal in that, it’s well-earned. I don’t know if it survives – I haven’t heard of anything recently.

MAYTT: Neither have I. Everyone that I have talked to have discussed cutting or the fencing tournaments.

ME: There’s a lot more people but there’s also people on the West Coast. But I’m not really as familiar with them and what they do over there. It’s like a foreign country – as far as HEMA goes. It’s kind of like China. [Laughs] There’s a lot of them there and I could give you a bunch of names, but I couldn’t really describe what they do, not well. I could give you superficial descriptions but you’re better going to someone off the west coast. They can give them more justice to what the west coasters do than I could.

There’s also a lot of people in Europe too. I can name them and talk about them, but again, it’s not going to do justice to what they contributed because I don’t have intimate knowledge. For example, Jake and Chidester, and all those people, I worked with them, and I saw what they did everyday so I could talk about it. Those other people, it’s more like I know about what they did but I’ve never seen them do it.

MAYTT: You also authored a book, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application, in 2017. What inspired you to put your thoughts to paper and how was the book first received in the HEMA community?

ME: One of things I do is take the ideas that other people have – things that people take for granted or things that people do without understanding – and I make it my job to understand them and put them all together. So, I did that. Lots of people do that, but the additional thing that I do is write it down. So, I spent a lot of time training with Sang Kim [of Byakkokan Dojo] in New York City. He does Toyama-ryu Battojutsu, but it’s a special kind. There’s a guy, Yoshitoki Hataya Sensei in Japan who kind of have their own branch of it and they do something called gekken, which is basically sparring with blunted steel katana in armor for competition, but in practice, it is with these padded swords that are stiff. I like fighting with them a lot more than steel longswords because you had to wear all that gear to fence with steel.

And so, when you wear all that plastic gear, you can’t move freely. You think that knights fought in armor, but that armor was expertly fitted. If you had a suit of armor that was masterfully fitted to your body, you could do anything in it. There’s almost no restriction on movement and you can get a suit of armor made today by one of the few really talented people out there and it will feel like that. But when you have the plastic gear, it’s like you’re mixing sizes together – size large here, size XL here, size this here. You’re strapping all this on and you have a hard time fighting in it. When you’re fighting in your own body, nothing on you, not even anything on your head – which I don’t recommend with those swords because you will get a concussion – but it’s such a liberating feeling.

Anyway, I trained with him for many years and he’s not only one of the best fighters and cutters, but the best swordsman that I ever saw, met, and trained with. He taught me most of what I know about cutting (and fighting). I took that knowledge, compiled it, meshed it with historical sources, and wrote it all down. It’s not my stuff; it’s kind of like the collective knowledge of humankind of how to use a sword to kill. I didn’t invent any of it; I just learned it and put it together. I was a technical writer for about twenty years, so that’s a skill and a talent. People were waiting for it for a long time and when I released it, people were taking photos of themselves next to it and tagging me. It did pretty well financially; it still sells but Amazon won’t let me advertise it anymore because it shows decapitation on the cover. It’s from a frickin’ period manuscript image that I had to recreate so I don’t have to be sued by museums. They said to change the cover or stop advertising, so I stopped advertising.

MAYTT: Before you retired from HEMA, where did you think American HEMA will go in the next ten years?

ME: I don’t know honestly. One of the directions the community has gone is – so human beings are motivated, as we discussed, by incentives. One of the things that people want is they want to climb social hierarchies. That’s a very strong evolutional, biological incentive that we all have inside us. In a martial sport, the way you climb hierarchies is simple: you become the best. Or better because the better you get, the more acclaim you get when you climb the hierarchy. HEMA is kind of divergent in that respect because it is as much a social event as a martial or a sporting one, where a huge part of it was a social influence. I think it started out like that because the people in the early days were all friends because it was this dumb thing that they were doing in their backyards. So, if you’re doing it with your friends, you would hang out afterwards. You meet other groups, and you want to be friends with them too, so it’s all friends, friends, friends. There’s a big social component to that and I think the community has gone heavily into the social aspect of that.

Edelson (front center) with his New York Historical Fencing Association members. Source: New York Historical Fencing Association.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know if that will fizzle out. The reason I mentioned climbing hierarchies is that a lot of people in HEMA – more so these days – climb hierarchies on social factors than fencing ones. These people, now, will have influence on the community and they can steer the community in different directions. I can’t speak to that. I can predict where martial sports will go because I’ve seen it all before, but this socially driven martial sport, it’s uncharted waters – I don’t know. It will either fizzle out and go back to what it was, which is unlikely, or it will turn into some fringe, weirdo thing like the Furries, where you have conventions where you have people who like to dress up in HEMA gear and slap each other around, pretend to fight, and drink a lot.

It’s interesting; I wish in some cases, in very small cases, I wish I was still part of HEMA so I can see the dynamic evolve because I have no idea what it’s going to create. Maybe it’ll be wonderful, maybe it’ll be awful, I just don’t know. But I don’t think it’s a martial sport in the United States to the extent that it was even three or four years ago. Not that there aren’t great fighters, but the whole community as an entity is going in a different direction.

MAYTT: That would make it really hard to have a HEMA brand, so to speak. If it’s diverging and becoming more of a social event, then it might come onto the same grounds of the Society of Creative Anachronism.

ME: You know what? SCA is a pretty good comparison. I’m so dumb. That’s very insightful; it might become the new SCA, where it’s as much about getting together, wearing costumes, and having fun. And then the people who are fighting, “Are they? Let’s go watch!” Because HEMA has nothing to ground it in the way Japanese martial arts do because when I trained with Sang Kim in New York City, we would hang out after practice, we would all go down to the convenience store and bring up some food and drinks. We would hang out and we were friends. Sang and I would talk on the messenger and then we would hang out sometimes outside of class, but there was a defined dojo hierarchy, and this exists in all martial arts. Sang was the teacher, he was in charge, then you have the dojo seniors; they are seniors not because they are popular but because they’ll kick your ass. And I was one of the seniors when it came to gekken because I was one of Sang’s brutal enforcers – I loved that. Some uppity new guy would come up and I would do gekken with him, not in an angry or bad way, but always to teach and to benefit the person.

So, it never occurred or it would never be a thing where someone was socially popular – let’s say Bob was shit at everything but everyone likes him and organizes events really well; “Hey Bob; how should we conduct training next month?” Not that exact question but in HEMA, Bob would have a massive influence in how to course the direction of the club. In Japanese arts, that’s not a thing; in shooting sports, that’s not a thing. If you can’t shoot, people might like you and hang out with you, but no one’s going to respect your opinion on shooting. And same thing in Japanese and Chinese arts. But in HEMA, it’s a thing if you’re socially popular, you actually have influence over everything. It was weird. There’s no martial culture, no martial tradition. Even HEMA Ratings, which I think is a terrible thing because it sportifies HEMA, if you wanted that sport and wanted grounding in that sport, at least HEMA Ratings could give you that foundation for someone to say, “Hey, what are you? Number 10,097? You have nothing to say.” But HEMA doesn’t have that, which is weird because they do have HEMA Ratings and it’s very influential. It’s a mystery. Maybe you can discover it; that can be your job.

MAYTT: I will make sure to come back to you with my findings. Thank you again for joining us to talk about HEMA!

ME: It was fun.

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


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