The Digital Maestro: HEMA Reconstruction in the Age of the Internet

For better or worse, the internet is here to stay. It lives in our pockets, on our TVs, and now, it has pervaded the realm of swordwork (and other martial arts of all kinds) in ways the previous generation probably never thought possible. Or at least, didn’t think possible so soon.

What does that mean, though? For the community, for the aspiring fighter, for the teacher or the academic? Has it (or will it be) game-changing, or is it simply another tool?

It can be intimidating, certainly, the wealth of knowledge available right out of the gate for new practitioners. The “Where do I start?” question isn’t getting any easier, for new practitioners.

I strongly advise against starting here. You couldn’t possibly have learned how to make your shield put on a helmet and it’s fanciest clothes, so there’s nobody to properly referee the hugging contest.

Take Wiktenauer, for example – an almost all-encompassing library of treatise, books, biographies for masters, and more. Anyone in the HEMA community with access to the internet has likely at least accidentally ended up there, but trying to use it as a jumping on point can be extremely overwhelming. The sheer amount of information that exists for HEMA seems to be multiplying every day as new texts are translated, retranslated, released, re-released, critiqued, edited, and more.

This isn’t to say I wish that weren’t the case – I think that’s amazing. I believe that source material applied practically is the single best approach to reconstructing the arts without watering them down or accidentally loading them with our confirmation bias. It’s simply to say that the volume of information does not necessarily equal the usefulness of information as a whole.

A second effect has been created by what many consider the darkest pits of despair in the digital world. Dreaded by some, understood by fewer. If there were a map of the internet contemporary to our sources, this portion would just be mostly drawings of serpents and leviathans with “Here there be monsters” scrawled hastily in ink.

The comments section.

Battle of Meyer’s Krumphau Instructional Video, 2007, Colorized [sic]

Not specific to a particular platform, EVERYTHING has a comments section now. Yes, Facebook and YouTube, but most articles that are published invariably end up with a comments section as well. What this has resulted in is a mutation of the traditional academic process of peer review into this instantaneous and often heated debate every time anything of any note is published.

Lacking a direct lineage and due to lost pieces of information in the history of the arts, HEMA has had to rely on a hefty amount of inference and reconstruction from source materials that have debatable artwork, linguistic discrepancies, and other fact-disputing flaws. Every video of a pass or technique, every opinion article, every new piece of equipment or experimental reconstruction is IMMEDIATELY subject to peer review the moment it crosses the threshold of a router. Conducting a meaningful experiment in an environment like that isn’t easy – in fact, it’s specifically avoided by peer-reviewed journals and thesis defence in academic research-based communities.

Peer review means treating others like your peers, otherwise, you’re just a knock-off, five-horned, available-under-fair-usage-rights-and-not-Godzil – a monster. It makes you a monster.

That being said, the “comments section” or the analogous real-world roundtable of discussion that occurs at nearly every HEMA event I’ve attended, is not without value.

Approaching the access to this ability to communicate and the speed at which it occurs with care, tolerance, humility and consideration is critical.

A great example is currently coming out of the northeastern U.S., where Maestro Ramon Martinez, Maestro Jeanette Acosta-Martinez, and Brad Waller have entered into a joint distance-research project to translate, dissect, and critically analyze the works of Marozzo. They’ve maintained a set meeting schedule and an internal review process for each plate and section of the works – an approach that certainly doesn’t fit everyone’s style, but has provided the outcome to be both objective and academically sound. The value of collaborative projects like this can’t be understated in a world where the “internet maestro” is always willing to voice their opinion.

It’s also not to say that we should all be silenced, either. I’m by no stretch a master of… well… anything. Realistically, most people aren’t. To claim that anyone without that status, or even those whose status may be understated in the community, have nothing to contribute though? That’s playing it safe at best, and willful ignorance at worst. Why spend so much time searching for truth and for answers, if we’re unwilling to take serious, credible, logical voices into consideration regardless of a rank? If we can treat an opinion (and the person with the opinion) with consideration and respect there are lessons to be learned by many, even if that opinion is incorrect. For what it’s worth, statistics show that for something like every two people who comment, there are seventeen people who read the comments section – what kind of example do you want that mass majority to have when they scroll down?

If newcomers are willing (and expected) to be open-minded towards learning, so should those who have been practicing the longest. In this way we will continue to grow as a community. Opinions will be challenged and defended (thus strengthened) or changed (for the enrichment of all). It is our responsibility to be custodians of the information that exists, keeping it clean and tidy and safe, while adding to the treasure trove we share.

Like… I don’t know. Like weird, communal dragons. With a hoard that you can’t physically touch or always understand. Yeah. Confused, collaborative, dragons.

Collaboration is critical and that could be the saving grace of the internet age. When done respectfully we can garner tremendous results. When not, it make us look like angry children, or armchair quarterbacks, or angry childish armchair quarterbacks. How we approach this collaboration will determine the lasting effect this digital HEMA “Wild West” has on the community as a whole. Let’s all work to make it a positive one.