Mike Roth always enjoyed playing with swords, even as a child. He quickly joined a fencing class while in college and wanted more. Roth soon found Mark Wickersham at Five Rings Fencing in 2013 and has not stopped fencing single sword since then. About five years later, Roth established his Heartland HEMA and has placed in many tournaments and events. Today, Roth took some time to talk about how he got to that point and the future of historical fencing in the United States. All images provided by Mike Roth.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Mike! Thank you for joining us to talk about historical fencing in the Midwest!
Mike Roth: I’m glad to be here, thank you.
MAYTT: When did you take your first HEMA class? What about historical fencing made you want to explore it more?
MR: So, depending on the definition of that, I started fencing in college just as a Physical Education class for fun. I’ve always been interested in swordplay. Most people in HEMA are the kids in the backyard with sticks hitting dragons. When I was in college, this was offered as a PE class, and I thought that it would be fun. That was in 2006 and I really took to it and really enjoyed it. But that was modern Olympic fencing, so most people would not consider that to be truly HEMA anymore but let me go into it. Modern Olympic fencing evolved out of Western swordsmanship, which is what we are doing now. But my first true HEMA class was in 2013 under my fencing master, Mark Wickersham, where I started to learn from him. I learned rapier, small sword, historical sabre, and a smattering of longsword here and there. So, that would have been 2013 which would have been my first true historical sword class.
It kind of got into it almost by accident really. Like I said, I was doing fencing, and the club Five Rings Fencing out of Kansas City currently teach both Modern Olympic and historical fencing, so I was looking for a new club because I had gone to was just too far away – I just couldn’t keep driving to it because Kansas City is a rather large city, as far as geography. It was like an hour each drive and this new one was right down the street – “Oh, I’ll try these guys out. They seem really cool.” And they are. I’ve been fencing under Mark since then. They were sort of doing a historical sabre tournament, which would later become the Five Rings Fencing Tournament, which is one of the longest lasting historical tournaments in the Great Plains. It might be one of the longer ones around – I’m not quite sure of that. I really enjoyed that. I bought myself a rapier and started to learn how to do rapier fighting. And then that was the rabbit hole.
MAYTT: What was the training like when you first began? Was it an instructor teaching from a treatise or were there already competent instructors that could teach from a number of treatises? In your opinion, how has training evolved or adapted since you began HEMA?
MR: My school, Heartland HEMA, that I own and operate, and my coach’s school, Five Rings Fencing – which is our lineage to that – is a rarity in the HEMA community. It does exist – I actually thought this question might come up, so I brought a source, Guy Windsor, well-respected, and does have a source on that – there are such things as lineage schools in HEMA, which I saw that you had an Eastern Martial Arts background. It’s nothing weird to you; your teacher had a teacher, who presumably had a teacher, who had a teacher. If you really tried, you could probably trace that lineage pretty far back, I would assume. Mine does too. Now, most HEMA schools don’t and there’s a really big reason for that, and that reason is guns. Once you get to automatic weaponry, sword fighting is really not that useful. About World War I is the last time we actually see sword fighting being a used martial art, like an actual martial art. Automatic rifles just changed everything.
So, the martial aspects go away, but the tradition continues a lot in what I’ve said before modern Olympic fencing – the epee, foil, and sabre. Some schools – not a lot – have, as well as teaching the sport, how to win an athletic event and losing pretty much all martial aspects to their fighting at all, which is why HEMA had a big resurgence because modern fencing – I love it and it has a lot to offer – but it has lost its way being anything realistic or historical fighting at all. But some schools did keep those traditions alive and taught that alongside the more modern fencing and my first school did. So, my master has a master, who has a master, and so on. We have a lineage document that we’ve kept – it’s pretty good, at least for the first seven generations or so, you can be very sure about it. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve done ancestry.com or anything like that, but further back in time, the harder it is to be one hundred percent certain that this is exactly correct, and that is true with the fencing lineage. We can go pretty far back to Italy by direct and at some point, a couple of hundred years, make some logical jumps, saying that the style really follows this guy’s style; it probably has relatives to that. But we keep a living lineage document.
That’s how it was taught to me. A lot of clubs have somebody who got interested, got into one of the old treaties, studied it, started a school, and teaches from the treaties. Mine doesn’t do that. We have a strong living tradition. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t use treaties – you should. Like I said, I have this [shows manual] here; my bookshelf has forty different books on there. I’ve read probably half of them, honestly. But we read these and we gain insight from them, but we’re not married to them, in my school, in my teachings.
MAYTT: I actually talked to HEMA practitioners, and they were saying that the living lineage aspect is becoming a little more popular in the movement and he did not say if that was good or bad.
MR: So, what I think this is talking about is a founding of new lineages, which actually makes sense of what would happen. So, HEMA is now getting older. It’s now twenty years and people have been doing this for a long enough time. I have students and my students are starting to teach and they will have students. So, this is now becoming lineages. Even people who didn’t have a lineage to start with – they just took a book and said “I’m going to read this book and from this book I will teach” – they are now having students that haven’t probably read the book because they just learned from their master. Good and bad, yes. Natural progression? I would say so. I would probably even venture to say that every other martial art doesn’t necessarily read a book; they learn from their teachers. I took boxing and wrestling in high school and college, and I never read a book on boxing or wrestling. They taught me and I learned from the teacher.
MAYTT: I see. What factors led you to establish your Heartland HEMA? Was there something you saw was missing from the larger HEMA landscape?
MR: A little bit. Kind of a complex question on that one. I’ll start by saying, as much as I love this martial art and this sport, it is absolutely not how I make my living. I’m in anesthesia; this is a hobby and I’m passionate about it, but this is a hobby. So, when I was in my rotations for Med school and I was not sure where I would end up living, I was looking to join a club or make a club if I couldn’t find one, and I ended up joining a club in Kansas City that offered longsword, which is like seventy-five percent of HEMA. It’s not my main weaponry and this club didn’t have anyone to teach single handed stuff. I had a good background in that, so I made an offer, and I took the role. The couch and I parted ways, but I had already started gathering a following of students that were coming to my classes. They approached me about starting our own school, so together we made the decision to start our own school and so we did.
This happened about five or six years ago [2017/2018].
MAYTT: You mentioned that you started teaching a handful of years ago; what was that experience like for you?
MR: Interesting because I hadn’t really planned on it really. But I was really, “But I don’t want to stop fencing. I really enjoy that.” At the time, I was thinking about taking a job in a city that didn’t have a HEMA club so thought, “I better start thinking about coaching or else we’re not going to have a club.” You either find people to fight or you make people to fight; one of the two. But I ended up in Kansas City; a job came up at the zeroth hour that was wonderful, and I was able to take that opportunity. I’ve always been a teacher in some fashion for most of my adult life. I’ve been a full-time teacher at a hospital before. In undergrad, I did chemistry lab and tutoring. And anesthesia, I preset and teach anesthesia to students as they rotate and learn how to do on job stuff. Just learning to do it physically. Funny enough, the similarities between anesthesia and fencing are distinctly there. [Laughs] I use the same terms a lot of times for both students. Because it is about being smooth, calm minded, and effective under pressure. And you get that in both situations. So actually, a lot of times, “You’re moving too fast. Slow down.” “What has happened? What is about to happen? What do you need to do now?” Things like that. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
So, the teaching aspect, I’ve always done some sort of teaching and I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and coaching I’ve really loved and took to it very well because it’s something that I’ve enjoyed doing. Actually, one of my prouder moments is when I’m coaching a student and I see the opening – I see what needs to be done – I tell them that, they follow through, and they win. Or, what’s more interesting is when my student beats me – that’s happened once or twice – because then you’re full of joy, [Laughs] but so much rage. No, it’s so awesome when they beat you at a tournament and you’re like, “I am so upset that I lost, but I am so proud of you that you won and beat me to do it.” That is amazing. It does happen because anyone can win a fight any single day. But I got a couple of students who are really good and are going to go really far in their career.
MAYTT: As I have noticed with other martial arts, the East and West Coasts are populated with schools and practitioners, however, the space in between those coasts is sometimes sparse, comparatively speaking. What is it like running a HEMA school in the Midwest? Have you seen skill differences between practitioners from the Midwest and those from either of the Coasts? Does one environment produce more opportunities to create a “better” HEMAist?
MR: So, that is more complex than you meant it to be actually. At the heart of it – and I will preface this by I’m taking a small sabbatical and my students are running the club, but I am still technically president of the Great Plains Regions and one of the cofounders to that, which is Missouri and the general states around there. We originally called ourselves the flyover region, cause, like what you said. When I first started, my first HEMA tournament had like six or seven people in it. Very small. Donnybrook, the tournament that I run, last year , had close to a hundred people. It was a two-day event with seven different events in it. So, we’ve grown it a lot – you could say painstakingly. Others and I have really put a lot of effort into making that community grow and it has really just sprouted. It’s just crazy. It’s awesome. The one city I was talking about was Springfield, Missouri, when I was looking to get a job there, there were no clubs, now there’s three clubs. Kansas City is so geographically spread out, there are four HEMA clubs now: Heartland HEMA, Baer Swords, HEMA of Kansas City was Medieval Fencing Guild, and Five Rings. And what’s nice is that they have their own niche. Mine tends to air towards single weaponry but we do have very successful longsword fighters. Bare Swords is a much more sportified longsword. KC HEMA is harness, which is like armor fighting and longsword, and five rings is much earlier modern and modern Olympic fencing. So, everyone finds their niche.
Nebraska has grown like crazy. Kansas has really done well. Oklahoma has one of the best clubs in the entire world there. If you haven’t interviewed him, interview Jeremy Pace, he’s one of the OGs. Illinois is going really big. So, we’ve worked hard, we’ve come together, we’ve collaborated. We try to organize our events so that we can all go to each other’s stuff and not step on each other’s toes. It really has grown, and it’s grown to be a powerhouse. Chris Preyer and myself hold one of the top fifty in longsword. He’s from one of the other clubs, but he’s really good. But we have the top three positions in single stick – myself, Chris Preyer, and Bryce Lowman, my student – in the world. Top two for small sword. So, the things that we do, we’ve developed and do well. Longsword is still very much the game, but we are moving up in that too. You either find people to fight or you make them, and we’ve made them. The flyover region or the great plains is not something to scoff at any more like it once was.
MAYTT: So, you essentially created your own opportunities to better yourselves than the Coasts.
MR: Well, the Coasts are great, the problem is that they’re far away, so we can’t make it to them. So, what we did was – we have five or six tournaments that are decently populated in the Midwest as opposed to one a year with six people when I first started. So, it has really grown. Even the smaller ones now are seeing thirty to forty people showing up, which is not small anymore – it’s not nothing. It’s not seventeen. So, the numbers continue to grow. So, I think as HEMA becomes more popular and known, we will see those numbers only getting bigger.
MAYTT: As you have made mention, you have a verbose history of competition, as your HEMA Ratings profile and biography on the Heartland HEMA website mention. How important is it for practitioners to engage in competition? Would you say that students would be missing out of an aspect of HEMA if they do not compete?
MR: I’ll start by saying that this is a hobby and it should be what you want it to be. If you want to do this for funzies – just play around with swords and hit your buddies – that’s awesome, that is amazing, that is absolutely, a hundred percent good. If you want to get in shape, this is a great way to do that. I use my iWatch; I track my workouts when I do it. I regularly get 1,000 to 1,500 calories when I do it. Sometimes I even push 2,000. So, I can do that.
If you want to really master swordsmanship, you need to compete. And that’s just how it is, because none of us are fighting with live steel, and that’s the crux of the issue, is all of what we’re doing, at best, is representing – more accurately, it’s pretend. The mind is not in it the same way it would be if we were fighting for life and limb with actual live steel. And so, the only way to try to really come close to recreating the pressure, that sense of urgency, that self-preservation is metaphorically, is when skin is in the game. And the best way to do that is at a tournament. Even when you’re at practice and you do live sparring and you do it for points, it’s not the same. You go to a tournament and there is pressure, you have butterflies, and your hands shake. You have to learn to deal with that. One of my fencing coaches would say, “The true fight – the real fight – is not between you and your opponent; it’s between you and yourself. The real art is the self-mastery.” So, without competition – that forged in fire – you just don’t get the mastery of swordsmanship and of the weaponry.
But I want to circle back in and say if that’s not your goal, that’s fine! If your goal is to become proficient in history and read all of the sources, that’s okay too. And just for fun is just as good. But if you want someone to be a truly good swordsman, you need to go and test it. The proof is in the pudding.
MAYTT: I have talked with a few other HEMAists who have lamented at the sportsification of the movement, with the historical fight books becoming secondary. Is there any truth to this sentiment or are things being blown out of proportion?
MR: Personally, I think so, yes. I think they’re getting a little blown out of proportion. I don’t understand what they want – just having people reading the books? That’s fine. That’s great. But people like fighting because people go to martial arts to pick up swords. I don’t feel it sportsification – I feel that is kind of a bit a grumbly; “I should be better because I have a deeper understanding.” Well, that guy’s twenty and he can bench press 250 pounds, and he’s faster than you, and when you fight him, he actually might win! There’s athleticism in athletics. Weird right? This is a technical sport, a technical martial art – that is true, you can be much later in life and still be very competitive. Rob Childs is a god damn god of the rapier, and has in his fifties, and he’s still untouchable. But he works at it though. He’s in shape and has really skilled. But an average dude who has a really good book knowledge against a much less average dude who’s incredibly in shape, they might win in a fight. but that’s true in any fight. you put a not in shape, really technically knowledgeable boxer against a really fit, in shape dude, that dude might win. We’re talking about fighting here, not atHEMAtics, I guess.
So, the idea that it’s becoming too sportified is, I think, the natural progression. I think it’s what’s going to happen, and I think it’s good for the sport – good for the martial art. I dream of the day – it’s not going to happen – where I can go, “You do HEMA? I do HEMA!” and it’s not weird and we can talk about it like if you did tennis or golf, or something. But it’s probably not in the near future.
I think, as far as sportsification goes, we, as a community, need to do one particular thing and that’s learn the lessons from our predecessor and not make the same mistakes modern Olympic fencing did, which I don’t see us doing so far, which is really good. You know, lose the martial aspects. Electric equipment is wonderful, but it loses the martial aspect. The weapons are way too light. We work to keep our weapons pretty historically accurately weighted. We’re trying to make it so that when we’re fighting, the rules make sense to fighting – targets to the head are worth more than the foot. People are experimenting and trying new things. But the biggest thing that we can do is not become like modern Olympic fencing, which is definitely a danger and has been a danger since day one. I don’t think we’re falling into it yet, but it is something we should always strive against. I think that it’s good that more people are fighting – that’s awesome man! It means that there’s more people to go fight.
MAYTT: Interesting. Conversely, how important is the scholarly or academic portion to HEMA? Are practitioners missing or foregoing an essential part of HEMA if they do not produce any research and if so, how can the larger community make this aspect more inviting to those practitioners?
MR: It is very important. Again, it all kind of depends on what you wanna do. If you break it down, there are four letters: Historical, European, Martial, Art; what letter do you want to capitalize? They said this online in the forums – are you lowercase “H” or capital “M”? But it’s very important and the reason why I think it’s important is because without it, you don’t have the context to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This is not a live martial art, and anyone thinking so is fooling themselves. I’m never going to fight somebody with a claymore – I’m not. [Laughs] When you go to jiu-jitsu, there’s always the thought that this might serve me; I might get attacked and I might be able to do an armbar. Or even with boxing. That’s not happening with these. It’s just not. if you are, you’re fooling yourself. This is for fun, this is for athletics, this is for intellectual stimulation. So, if we don’t have the historical background to anchor us to what is real, we will fly off into the realm of fantasy and we’ll get the Final Fantasy sword.
We need to understand the historical context, the cultural context, the mechanics of biology, physiology, and physics, which a lot of those people have dealt with. So, if we don’t look at those, we will lose our way. But the saying that I’ve always held to is that “history and tradition should be a rudder to guide but not an anchor to stop.” If it’s hindering our progression, then it’s become problematic. But it should be there to guide us and help us understand.
MAYTT: Could you give an example of when tradition would then deter from progressing, because I have people tell me that tradition is part and parcel of the martial art.
MR: Specifically for Eastern Martial Arts, because I worked very heavily with a buddy of mine – Kido Armory – who was really trying to break the kenjutsu tradition of not using steel to fight. has worked hard on that – has actually created his own company and getting his own swords made. That would be one, off the top of my head, for Eastern, where that tradition is holding them back heavily because they can’t do the same fighting that we do now, because we use steel trainers.
In Western Martial Arts – I’ve actually had conversations online with people where they will literally say that if it’s not in the treatise, then it doesn’t count and can’t be used. Well, it works, and I will actually use this in fighting. And they’re like, “Well, you can’t use it because it doesn’t exist.” It’s almost like putting blinders on.
I guess in my mind and my philosophy is to be the best sword fighter, because I have a living lineage, I’m not so tied to the sources; I’m not taking this as gospel truth from the masters. The masters are important. I’m not trying in any way or shape to say that’s not true, but they weren’t gods; they were men doing their best at a time with the information and the materials they had at the time. So, my idea is to become the most proficient swordsman with each type of sword I want to fight with however I can. And that often means using techniques from multiple sources, which is fine. A lot of our better folks here – I have the basics to Italian footwork on my bookshelf – they go, “Hey, here’s a bunch of different stuff from a bunch of different masters. Here’s the basics. They say this; he says that.” You shouldn’t be tied to one person, but if you want to, it’s fine. If you want to be Hans Talhoffer and be exactly like how he was and that’s your goal for HEMA, to be exactly like Talhoffer, good! Go for it man. That’s awesome. Then that’s your goal and you should accomplish that. More power to you. My goal is to be the most proficient swordfighter. We have different goals. There’s nothing wrong or right about it. I’m not putting you down; I’m just doing it how I want to.
It’s actually kind of nice in the HEMA community that we don’t have a governing body, which is a double-edged sword, but because of that, people can pursue this idea how they want to, however they like to. If they want to become an English swordsman, which is hard because there’s not many treaties, they go at it though. If they want to pursue the holy roman emperor time period in the way that they want to, they get to do it because there’s no one guiding body. History’s very long; Europe’s very big. There’s a lot of stuff to do.
MAYTT: I see. You had the chance to be a part of the Coordination Committee for CombatCon. What was the experience like for you? Was it something you wanted to do for some time?
MR: Not really. It was something that came about. As someone from the Midwest and someone with more experience in later period weaponry – smallsword, sabre, single stick, rapier, things like that. So, the committee was originally composed of this really cool idea of different people from different geographical areas of the United States and people with more experience from different time periods. We had a cutting guy, armor guy; we had a longsword girl; we had a medieval woman as well. We had men and women equally treated. So, I kind of represented the Midwest Region and the later modern period as well. It’s an interesting dynamic because you have so many people from different backgrounds interacting trying to come up with the same goal, but it’s very productive. I’m thoroughly honored, and I am enjoying guiding that tournament, which is one of the bigger ones in the world at this point, which is, in some ways, guiding the rest of the HEMA community. We want to make sure that we see it grow in the fashion that we think is most positive.
MAYTT: When about did Combat Con approach you?
MR: I started in 2019.
MAYTT: And you are still part of the Coordination Committee?
MAYTT: I have found many HEMA practitioners through this event, so I have an idea of what it is. Since you have some behind-the-scenes experience, can you explain what CombatCon is?
MR: Well, it’s a Con – it’s a convention. Comic Con – same thing. So, there’s a bunch of different combat stuff there. There are classes, which are really really cool, where they get experts from around the world. That’s where I first met Paul MacDonald, who’s the world’s foremost expert in Scottish backsword and claymore. I’ve gone to his lessons several times in several places, and I have a good working rapport with that gentleman. The lesson I took that year was the Native American tomahawk, which was awesome. Sabre, whip, Viking – they do all sorts of lessons and things. Combat-wise, they do how to videotape combat, how to choreograph combat, how to write for sword fighting. So, they have classes on all sorts of things. They have the lightsaber fighter. They, of course, have a very large HEMA tournament, which has armor, cutting, smallsword longsword, multiple classes of longsword, rapier; so, it’s a very big HEMA tournament. They also do vendors – they have tons of vendors. So, it’s a really cool experience in Las Vegas. It’s pricey but it’s really fun. I enjoy going there every year. I get to see friends across the country that I don’t see very often. It’s like, “Hey! What’s up? I haven’t seen you for like a year!” You chill out and hang out.
MAYTT: Who would you consider as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?
MR: Definitely, Jeremy Pace is at the top of the list. He, in my opinion, is the most successful HEMA club in the country; he has over 100 students. Hess ranked third in the world, which is saying a lot because that is the most competitive weapon. His student, Derek Nash, is like fifth, so it’s not a fluke. They put on one of the biggest tournaments, Gesellen Fechten. I would definitely reach out to him.
Some other people, Justinder Singh would be a good one actually. From his experience, leaving Blood and Iron, because Blood and Iron was one of the OG clubs that did run CombatCon. So, he might be good to get his experience on that. But Brittany Saint Leafy at Mordhau, she’d be great and actually the top of my list to talk about that, the emergence of HEMA; she’s way up there.
I think the initiative to start a club sets them apart. It’s hard – it’s really hard. I don’t know how people realize how much energy goes into starting and running a successful HEMA club. It’s a lot. It’s often hard to break through the different barriers – getting enough students, getting enough gear. Because boxing and even karate, you need nothing. With this, you need, at minimum, something to hit each other with and gear to do it safely. So, the gear alone is a daunting aspect. So, for the people to take the time, put in the energy, the blood, sweat, and money to start their own club and to grow it successfully – nurture it into something that can be sustaining is very admirable.
MAYTT: Final question. Where do you see HEMA going or evolving in the next ten years here in the United States?
MR: First, I would like to say that Covid was rough. I know a couple schools didn’t make it, and mine, I’ll be honest, mine held on by the skin of its teeth. For a couple of months there, we had three or four students max. It was tough. Now, things seem to be coming out of it, which, as a provider of medicine and anesthesia, I really don’t want to go through that again. I hope that was a historical event that we don’t have to relive, I’ll say.
I think it’s going to go on the same trajectory it is now. I think we’re going to see more people getting into it. Probably see more clubs being open, which is wonderful. Again, the more the merrier. We’d love to see people do it. Probably more tournaments becoming more regional. The ones that are bigger, they are probably going to get bigger, gaining steam and holding big and national events. I imagine Gesellen Fechten being in that realm. Badger State Games. Potentially, Nebraska State Games. Mine, Donnybrook, I really hope that does. CombatCon, SoCal Swordfight, Southeast Renaissance Fencing Open. Those are big ones, and they’ll all get bigger.
I think just seeing more people doing it. It will, eventually, come to a pass where we will make a governing board like the Olympic fencing does or we won’t. I’m not really sure how that’s going to go. Right now, we don’t, which has its benefits, but it also has its fallbacks. That’s the reason why HEMA is not in the Olympics – it doesn’t meet the criteria. In order to go to the Olympics, you need to have a governing body, which we don’t, we can’t be an Olympic sport. Some people think it’s good, but I think it sucks, because I would love to go to the Olympics and have HEMA. That would be awesome. So, there’s drawbacks to that; there’s pluses to it.
Again, we’re limited because cost is a barrier to this martial art that is not in other martial arts. You buy one gi for seventy bucks and you’re good for a lot of martial arts. Here, nothing costs seventy dollars. Masks cost twice that. If you want to get good quality stuff, my mask is 350 dollars alone. So, there’s living barriers. But I think as clubs develop and become more sustainable, they’ll be able to buy gear and hold on to students. And we’ll see more and more people joining and the community growing. It would be cool; it would be really exciting.
Lastly, I’d like to reach out to other martial arts that do weaponry: come fight us. That’s super fun. That’s so fun when we have cross pollination. Get to see katanas or Chinese Dao versus rapier or sabre or longsword. It’s neat! I know we’ll have to bend traditions for both our sides and have to meet in the middle, but we’ll provide you with safety gear, we’ll provide you weapons; we just want you to come and play with us.
MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us about historical fencing!
MR: Thanks for having me; it’s been cool.