Historical European Martial Arts

Historical European Martial Arts, also known as HEMA, denotes martial arts having a European origin. The martial arts were formerly practiced by people in different European countries; but with time, some of these martial arts have died out while the others have evolved into different forms.

The documentations regarding the origin and history of martial arts with Classical Antiquity, like Gladiatorial combat and Ancient Greek wrestling, are very limited. The surviving combat manuals and technical documents date to the later parts of the Middle Age and the early parts of the Modern period. In a broader sense, arts of the nineteenth century like classical fencing and early hybrid styles like Bartitsu are also considered to be parts of HEMA. Many folkloristic and traditional styles attested in nineteenth and twentieth century, such as traditional stick-fighting and folk wrestling methods, can also be considered to be types of HEMA. Sometimes, the traditional and modern disciplines are collectively referred to as Western martial arts or WMA. The longsword held an honorable position among these traditional and classic disciplines during the later parts of the Middle Age. The term Historical European Swordsmanship or HES is sometimes specifically used for denoting swordsmanship techniques.

Historical European Martial Arts Picture Some of these disciplines have been reconstructed since the 1970s. From the 1990s, people have been practicing the reconstructed forms systematically.

Early History of HEMA (Before 1350)

There are no written historical documents that go any further back than the later periods of the Middle Ages. However, some Ancient and Medieval texts, such as the Middle High German epics and Icelandic sagas, record the history of some military knowledge and martial deeds. Combat and weaponry (like the Morgan Bible and) have also been depicted in some historical artwork. The old fighting methods like gladiatorial combat and Pankration have been attempted to be reconstructed by researchers with the help of these treatises and pictures.

Late Middle Ages between 1350 and 1500

Johannes Liechtenauer is considered to be the principal figure of martial arts (mainly in Germany) during the Medieval ages. His teaching methods were recorded for the first time during the second half of the fourteenth century; although, no documents written by him are known to survive. Numerous Fechtbücher or German fencing-books were published between the fifteenth century and the seventeenth century. Around 55 of these Fechtbücher are still extant. Many of these books describe different teaching methods of Liechtenauer.


Collections of older Fechtbücher or German combat manual techniques were published in the sixteenth century. Some of them were printed by Paulus Hector Mair (1540s) and Joachim Meyer (1570s).

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the German fencing technique had developed some sportive tendencies. The documents of Joachim Meyer and Paulus Hector Mair mainly discussed the teachings of Liechtenauer, but they also expressed some new characteristics of the combat technique.