The acronym HEMA (for Historical European Martial Arts) has been in use since about the year 2000 (popularized with the foundation of the HEMAC in 2001) for an emerging type of “revived” of martial art which had developed during the 1990s. Practitioners concern themselves with the reconstruction and revival of historical traditions and schools of armed and unarmed combat which had been “dead”, i.e. practice of which had been discontinued for a considerable time. Even in cases where there is a surviving continuous tradition, as in e.g. sport fencing which is connected by unbroken tradition to the fencing styles of the later Middle Ages, HEMA by definition disregards the living tradition and reconstructs the historical style as it was during a given epoch based on documentary evidence from that time.
The specification of “European martial arts” serves to distinguish HEMA from the practice of East Asian martial arts (which may or may not be historical in scope). This is made explicit because the term martial arts itself was coined in the early 20th century as a loan translation of Japanese bujutsu, and especially during the 1960s to 1980s was mostly limited in application to styles of this regional origin. (yes, it is true that the phrase “martial arts” can be found in texts as early as the 17th century, but it was not a fixed expression and could refer to any “art which is martial, i.e. warlike”, including the art of tactics or strategy in warfare, as it were German Kriegskunst as opposed to Kampfkunst. The coining of the fixed term “martial arts” in its current meaning dates to the early 1900s). The latinate English term fencing itself originates in the Elizabethan era and referred to refined systems of rapier fencing (while, conversely, French escrime and Italian scherma use a term of Germanic origin, from scerman, with the equivalent meaning of “to defend”). The proper pre-Elizabethan term would simply be “to fight“, as in German fechten and Fechtkunst “fighting arts”.
HEMA as a modern martial art is to be distinguished from dramatic performances (theatrical fencing or show fighting). It is by definition concerned with the reconstruction and as far as possible recreation of the historical fighting arts. Choreographed demonstrations of such arts are mostly focused on dramatic effect, and they may or may not be based on the training of historical techniques in the sense of HEMA.
A literal interpretation of “HEMA” would open very wide array of possible disciplines, from each historical epoch and each European nation. But de facto, HEMA consists of a comparatively limited number of styles, centered on the German and Italian styles of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the early modern styles of fencing with the rapier, the sabre, the basked-hilted sword (“broadsword”) or the small-sword.
These historical styles of fencing do not only, and not primarily, differ from modern sport fencing by the use of historical weapons. They are also characterized by a much wider palette of permitted techniques. The use of a fencing arena (as opposed to a “strip”) allows for free footwork and more complex possibilities of angled attacks, and the historical basis in serious combat (duels or self-defence) extends the possible moves beyond attacks with the blade, including attacks with the pommel or hilt, disarmaments, and infighting techniques such as striking, kicking and grappling techniques.