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Two long-sword fighters spar during a local HEMA class. Photo by Jeff Nelson

The Story Behind Historical European Martial Arts

The Krieg School of Historical Fencing turns long-lost European fighting techniques into modern art forms.

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Outside of Game of Thrones, swords don’t make many appearances anymore—unless you’re a HEMA fighter. HEMA, which stands for historical European martial arts, is the realistic re-creation of duels based on Renaissance-era combat techniques. It’s only been around since the late ’90s, when scholars began translating 400-plus-year-old German and Italian fighting treatises into English. Over the past several years, though, the HEMA movement has quietly grown, from a few Renaissance re-enactors to more than 300 clubs in the United States.

This surge of interest prompted Ben and Meg Floyd to launch the Krieg School of Historical Fencing—a Denver satellite of a Tampa, Florida, HEMA club—in 2015. The couple runs programs for the long sword, a cross-shaped weapon with a thick blade (think: Aragorn’s weapon in Lord of the Rings), and the rapier, a narrower sword used more for stabbing than slashing (like Inigo Montoya’s in The Princess Bride). The Krieg School has rented space in a fencing center on East Colfax Avenue, but ballooning class sizes recently forced the Floyds to look for their own building. They’re in negotiations for a 7,000-square-foot location and hope to add a German style of wrestling and more beginner sessions once they move.

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Basic technique for the long sword, the most popular form of HEMA, involves four defensive postures, called guards. Fighters swing their swords to try to force their opponents out of each defensive stance and into more vulnerable positions. Judges tally points differently in each tournament, mostly because each club—and even each individual member—has its own interpretation of the archaic fighting manuals. This scholarly component differentiates HEMA from many other martial arts, creating a community that’s “a wonderful cohesion of academia and athleticism and nerdiness,” says Krieg School fighter Gaelen Cox.

Still, the end game is the fighting. The goal of most HEMA battles is to touch your opponent with your sword as many times as possible within the allotted time period, typically between 90 seconds and two minutes. It’s even better if you hit the head, shoulders, or torso—the areas most susceptible to serious injuries. Don’t worry: The HEMA Alliance, the sport’s governing body, doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Fencing masks, throat protection, puncture-resistant jackets, and knee and elbow pads are all required before you exchange blows. But wounding the other fighter’s pride? That’s fair game.

Where to see it:
Date:
May 12 to 14 at Rocky Mountain Krieg, one of the Krieg School’s international HEMA tournaments
Venue: Bladium Sports & Fitness Club, 2400 Central Park Blvd., 303-320-3033
Cost: Free for spectators

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