Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), anyone?

Nick Laing, the sole teacher of HEMA in Cardiff, Wales, masters swordplay and had his ribs cracked twice.

by Sadika Hamid

Nick Laing wearing his HEMA gear from head-to-toe.

This isn’t your typical university student bedroom. Two steel German longswords are sprawled over a crumpled purple blanket. In the corner of the floor, there was a one meter long sports bag filled with nylon swords, placed in between piles of clothing, a speaker box and other miscellaneous objects.

The room’s owner, Nick Laing, then selects one the weapon he is the most proud of, a blunt steel sword measuring 141 centimeter, weighing around 1,6 kilogram. At 5 foot 9 tall, Nick got his sword made four inches longer than usual so his hands can have a longer reach. “This design dated back 700 years ago. This would be the sort of sword people would use for training back in the day.”

Nick is adept at using long sword and is currently researching side sword and round shields. “I don’t even remember how far back into my life I want to try sword fighting. On top of that I have always really been interested in history.” He took up fencing when I was 12 years old. Now the 22 year old student teach people how to fight like a medieval warrior, a lost art which has been going through a revival in the last 25 years.

Nick’s sword collection in a wide range of sizes.

There are around 300.000 people in the world who have the same passion as him. “Basically it started when people find old manuals and treatise from various museums and library, (written by) soldiers and fight instructors through medieval history, Victorian period, et cetera. They essentially trying to reenact that.” This discipline is now called Historical European Martial Art or HEMA. Nick is currently the only one teaching it in Cardiff, at Virtus Sword School, Canton.

HEMA: a happy discovery

Nick got interested to HEMA by a complete accident. On one sleep deprived night, the Edinburgh native search for fencing class in Cardiff. “I was so tired I can’t think of the word “fencing”. So I type in “sword Cardiff”. That is when I discovered the club I am in now.” He gave it a try, and fell in love with it.

“It is something I want to do since I was a kid. And on top of that it’s a free license to hit people with a sword,” he said, laughing. After two years, Jack, the club founder, seeing Nick has the most experience in his class, entrust him to run the course. Virtus Sword School has now around 14 students. Older students often underestimate Nick because of his young age.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to prove them wrong. “I hit them.

Hypothetically, Nick also know how to kill people twice his size. “Aim for his hands. Arguably, the most breakble bones in your body is your fingers. So just keep spiking away and tickle a bit of his hands, maybe try to cut a few veins, break a few bones, then go for the knees and go for the throat.”

Fights gone wrong

The fighting practice at HEMA classes could get so intense as to cause serious injuries. ”I had cracked rib twice and a few cracked fingers.  My knees was knocked until I couldn’t stand. A sword stab me at the neck,” Nick said. Even playing with a practice nylon dagger could be dangerous. “I cracked my rib once when training with my assistant because we put all of our body force behind the strike.”

That is why safety are of outmost importance. Beginner students trains with nylon swords. Protective gears such as fencing mask and gloves must be worn at all times. Whenever Nick uses a blunt steel, he wears an 11 kilogram jacket made out of 11 layers of cotton with polyurethane padding on the arms and shoulders.

But it is just not all about fighting. A big part HEMA is getting the technique as accurate as the original sources intended it to be.

“It is not done only for the sake of history curiosity. This teaching technique are supposedly there to be save your live from danger or to end someone else. So if you do it wrong, that can end very badly for you,” warned Nick.

He has spent sleepless nights deciphering obscure terms. Considering how recent HEMA is, his quest might still be long. “There are a lot of techniques I do not know yet. I know someone that has been there for 20 years now, and he is still learning.”

Sadika Hamid is a multimedia journalist based in Indonesia. She works for the top political weekly in Jakarta, Tempo. She speaks English, Bahasa Indonesia, and French, and is also pretty well-versed when it comes to food. 

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