European: a problem of definition

I recently noted with interest that a martial artist, while promoting their book, advocated dropping the term ‘HEMA’, as it is being used by right wing extremists. The issue is seen as being the term ‘European’, which apparently can be manipulated by certain elements to bolster their agenda. The author goes on, correctly, to state that there was no such thing as a European wide martial art and that many of the techniques are mirrored by those practised in arts outside of Europe.

Terminology in general can be viewed as problematic, as it seeks to define and encapsulate. It can be doomed from the beginning where exceptions drag down the total. In our case, much of HEMA is arguably not historical; it may be sport rather than martial; it may be a science not an art. However, rather than splitting up the term and damning it in detail, it may help to understand what said term attempting to do. To begin with, it is generally accepted that a primary driver for HEMA was to move away from Olympic fencing and investigate martial practices from the past. These practices needed to be differentiated from the eastern martial arts, prevalent at the time. I should add that those seeking a label (which I doubt was ever a primary concerned), were often themselves practitioners of eastern arts, Olympic fencers, reenactors, etc., who were seeking a definition, not establishing a political movement. But what definition to use? ‘Western’ martial arts was one term, but given that most sources were written in Europe or by Europeans, then, well, we have our ‘E’.

So far this is not controversial, but is it accurate? Certainly there was no European wide form in the middle ages or Renaissance, nor, arguably, would individuals at that time have considered themselves European. There was certainly movement of fencing styles throughout Europe and there is growing evidence of interaction, as well as rivalry, between different masters, but this was contact, if not a network, of schools and individuals rather than necessarily anything deeper. States like Spain or cities like Strasbourg may have legislated and even codified aspects of martial form and use, but there was no official cultural exchange in a modern sense. If there was commonality, even post reformation, it would have been with the concept of Christendom. This, of course, would be a contentious term to use, given that it would have to assume that modern practitioners would subscribe to a religious ethos in their martial practice. Arguably, ‘European’ as a description of geographical generalisation is less charged and more accommodating. Politically, the concept of Europe in modern usage is often seen as a counter to single state individualism.

So, we are studying martial forms, written in the past in the area of Europe. We know that, while there are similarities, there were many differences between much of the practices in for example parts of the Ottoman Empire and further east. Given that the heritage was similarly different, it is reasonable to differentiate as well as to compare. While there were, and are, huge varieties in the cultures west of the Urals, many written sources can be placed together in a collective set, sharing similar features and evolutions. This forms a useful corpus of study. It does not suggest that one has to be from said region to study them, nor does it deny the ability to compare and contrast with other forms. I should add that to suggest one general term should be abandoned for fear of extremism does also suggest that the emerging martial forms in central Asia, so long supressed by Imperialism, should also avoid regional identification and perhaps also identity. And thus we lead to a rather insidious form of racism.

I have noted with dismay in other posts my concern that we lose the History and I’m bemused by this idea that European somehow equates to extremism. That studying martial forms found in Europe should lead to intolerance is akin to suggesting that learning a foreign language is cultural appropriation. All this does is lead to a sensation of fear and gives the idea that HEMA is riven by Nazis. The promotion and perpetuation of fear only begets more. Claiming that a term is now owned by extremists gives extremists that ownership. I don’t believe one should simply surrender a term to groups that one find objectionable. Appeasement does not work. What is more, the fear baiting trumpeted about this allegedly endemic problem is being portrayed to the outside world, which will deduce that all those in HEMA are racists.

HEMA has problems, as does all other martial art groups and they need to be addressed but, as David Rawlings has rightly said, we should celebrate the huge successes in the community and the ever increasing diversity found within. HEMA is for everyone and not to be abandoned to a few extremists. Perhaps, rather than seeking to fulfil this prophesy, we can research and study and practice and share HEMA.

Comments 5

  1. The problem at hand is not so much historical as it is political/social. Extremists have adopted the view that all things European are the source of all that is wrong with Western Civilisation, and indeed the entire world, a simplistic, untutored view which fuels their personal angst. Those with a more sophisticated perspective need not abandon admiration for the quantity and variety of artistic and social achievements that have brought us to a disciplined study of this most productive culture. We are the carriers of tradition — not an obsession with the ashes but rather the passing of the flame.

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      In this case it’s spurious claims that the term ‘European’ is being used by extremists. There is little or no foundation in the claims and appears to be a way to promote their upcoming book

  2. I’ve yet to see if the author (of the original post) is backing his position with sources.
    Other than that I’m calling bullshit.

    Where are these nazis? Did they appear out of ether?

  3. Hi, Rob,
    Thanks for this, and fully agree. I’d like to especially highlight the point you’re making that “European” as a term is primarily designed to deny nationalisms (as is starkly evident in current discourse in the UK) and to be inclusive, rather than to be limiting and exclusive.
    Tongue-in-cheek, a more appropriate alternative term might be “HHREMA” – Historical Holy Roman Empire Martial Arts?

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