Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)

In an age of modern high-tech entertainment, it should perhaps raise a few eyebrows that 21st-century youngsters retain an interest in medieval combat techniques. But the massive success of TV shows such as Game of Thrones and the thriving fantasy roleplay computer game genre is a testament to just how much interest there is in traditional combat techniques.

But now, that interest is making the break from computer and TV screens into the real world. In New York City’s East Harlem District, Sword Class NYC has attracted a sizable following to its real-life sword-fighting classes. And these are not your typical martial arts enthusiasts.

The New York Post recently profiled one of the participants of their Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) classes. Her name is Liliana Klein, she is 17 years old and stands just 5 foot 1 inches (155cm) tall. Her weapon of choice is a Germanic longsword, a huge instrument which itself measures some 4 foot (122cm) in length.

From ‘The Elder Scrolls’ to Brandishing a Broadsword

Historical European Martial Arts HEMA, Flickr CC License.

So, why has this petite New Yorker spent the last year learning how to fight using this outdated weapon. It was all down to a computer game she became obsessed by called ‘The Elder Scrolls’, hugely popular action role-playing open world fantasy video game which has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.

After falling in love with the ancient fighting techniques on her computer screen, Liliana decided to try the real thing for herself. And a year on, she is now a bigger fan of Historical European Martial Arts than her computer games.

“With real-life sword-fighting, it’s more about technique than castles and armour and speaking old English,” she told the New York Post. “I still love the games, but learning [HEMA] has been so much better. And it’s not as much about looking cool. Though you do look pretty cool.”

Klein’s interest led to her discovery of Sword Class NYC, which is thought to be one of just 10 training centres in the tri-state area for HEMA. Their official name is Sung Do Kwan in Korean or Seitokan in Japanese, both of which means ‘Academy of the Sacred Sword.’ They were founded in 2009 and claim to be the only school in the USA that offers both eastern and western sword styles training.

USA’s Armoured Combat Leagues

Historical European Martial Arts HEMA

Their success has happened alongside a growth in Historical European Martial Arts interest more generally in the USA. There is now a National Armoured Combat League which boasts around 360 members and holds inter-city competitions at around 10 different events a year.

Meanwhile, in New York, there is also a city-wide Armoured Combat League, which already has around 40 members despite only being founded two years ago. One of them, Romario Prendaj, a 20-year old student who has been obsessed with knights since he was a small boy playing games like the global phenomenon “Final Fantasy“, explained why he took up HEMA.

“I wanted to see it through my own eyes — to see guys coming at me with full force so I could experience exactly what [knights] would have gone through,” he explained.

Growth in Historical European Martial Arts HEMA

Historical European Martial Arts HEMA

Whilst growth in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) participation has been steady, the one thing that has perhaps stopped it gaining more of a foothold amongst fantasy fans is the cost involved. A decent sword that can be used in competition is not cheap, with even basic models costing as much as $500. Then there are the various pieces of protective equipment that participants are also required to have. These can cost several hundred dollars as well.

And the unique skillset that is involved means that even classes themselves come at a price. At Sword Class NYC, a session of eight classes will cost $160 for eight classes, although that does include the loan of all the equipment you will need.

So the cost will prove prohibitive for some, at the moment at least, but for those who can afford it, a unique martial arts experience is available. The historic martial arts techniques that are taught at schools like Sword Class NYC are totally authentic. So much so, that fantasy game developers are now looking to HEMA practitioners to help them make the fantasy combat in their games more authentic.

When asked about this, Liliana Klein joked that “The animation disgusts me [now].” She has clearly been fully converted from fantasy games to a fully-fledged historic martial arts enthusiast. Who knows how many more will end up following in her footsteps.

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