Today’s community interview is with Maxime Chouinard who lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and who is the leader and main instructor of Kingston Irish Fighting Arts, as well as the director of Antrim Bata and head of Kingston Niten Kai Mr. Chouinard also runs the renowned HEMA blog “I don’t do long sword”.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Maxime Chouinard. I am from a small town called Sainte-Anne-des Monts in Quebec, Canada. Some of your readers may not know, but Quebec is predominantly French speaking, while the rest of Canada is mostly English speaking, so my first language is actually French. I currently work as a curator for the Museum of Health Care in Kingston Ontario. One of my great passion is of course martial arts, and I have been practicing for more than 20 years now.
Can you tell me a bit about what got you interested in starting with HEMA?
I started kenjutsu in 2002, and started going on Swordforum, which is where I became aware of HEMA. I quickly started to practice with friends and in time my interest mostly settled on 18th-19th century arts. A few years ago, I decided to start a blog called I don’t do longsword. It was partly tongue in cheek, but also because I was a bit tired to see every post about sabre or pugilism get drowned by posts on longsword and co.
What does HEMA mean to you? How do you define it?
My view of HEMA is relatively large. I think that a big part of HEMA right now functions from a positivist perspective, that is that by examining documentary sources we can arrive at a perfectly objective interpretation. To me, HEMA is first and foremost the study of martial arts from the past. To this end, it is my opinion that we must take into account and examine every source of information, be they documentary or even oral. Now, this is not something that is of much concern to people working from Medieval and Renaissance treatises, which arguably comprise most of HEMA researchers right now, since traditional knowledge of these arts and their contexts is mostly gone. But when someone starts to explore the 18th century and onward, the perspective changes as living lineages -which represent a form of oral history and intangible heritage- are increasingly present and relevant.
There are a lot of resistance to this idea, that living lineage can represent a form of HEMA, and I think this comes from a resentment from the early HEMA community as traditional martial arts were not always very nice towards HEMAists to put it lightly, and although there is a lot more interest from the mainstream martial arts community that attitude is still there to some degree. That said, I think we have to go beyond that now, and while maintaining a wall between HEMA and living lineages makes sense for some, we must acknowledge that it is foolish to study for example Radaellian sabre without examining the surviving schools.
Beyond that, I think that HEMA is first and foremost a community, what some sociologists would call “participatory culture”. This phenomenon has been studied mostly through internet fandom communities, but I think HEMA is a fascinating example and a lot more complex. I think this is an aspect which the HEMA crowd should really claim as its own.
Can you tell me about your particular focus in HEMA and how your understanding and perception of it has changed and evolved since you started with it?
My focus is really on 18th-19th and early 20th century HEMA. What I would call “Industrial martial arts” and the remaining vernacular traditions which survived in that period. When I started HEMA, I tried to do as much as I could. Longsword, rapier, sabre, wrestling, staff, stick etc. I still think it is very useful to explore as much as you can, but at some point I decided to really focus my practice on what a 19th century man could know: sabre, smallsword, cane, staff, wrestling, boxing, knife fighting. I always had a great interest in French sources, of course because it is my first language, but also because I think they deserve to be better known than they are right now.
In 2007, I learned bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting from a master in Ireland. Over the years, this has become one of my main focus of practice and research. This experience has really brought me a new understanding of vernacular martial arts. I have spent the years since applying an HEMA approach to my study of this art, trying to better understand how what I had learned fitted in the historical context. It’s a different approach from a purely reconstructionist one, but an approach which has value regardless.
19th century sources have a reputation of being “lazy Hemaists” material. Because, unlike many earlier documents, they go in extreme details on their techniques. The problem with them though, is that while they are very detailed, they usually don’t go farther than the bare basics. And so you really have to go and read as many sources as possible to get a complete view of what would have been taught in a salle. Just like fencers did at the time. When you read authors like Valville, Angelo, Grisier or André, what you realize is that these masters traveled around Europe and read many sources which in turn influenced their practice. We are after all talking about an era in which communications and travel was faster and easier than ever before.
I think people have this view of 19th century fencing that is very nationalist and compartmentalized. Just because your interest lies in early 1800s Russian fencing for example you should not limit yourself to sources of that specific area, because contemporary masters and students did not! Study a style you like, but when you understand it, broaden your horizons. If you teach, try to know as many sources as you can, so that you can suggest the best source for a particular student’s style.
What difficulties and obstacles have you encountered in trying to explore it?
Right now the community of 19th century HEMA is somewhat dispersed. There are close to a thousand manuals published in that era, so finding someone working on the same manual as yours can be tricky. Some areas are well explored already, such as British cut fencing, but I hope that other sources get the attention they deserve.
What are your dreams for the future of your particular focus in HEMA?
I hope that martial arts from my area of interest become more popular and better explored. We are getting better, but the skill level right now is not quite where it could be. I also hope that people get a better appreciation of living lineages, because they have so much to teach and can really avoid a student years of fumbling in the dark.
I also hope that we will see more clubs daring to focus out of longsword. We need more variety, and for people to really put arts like sabre at the forefront of their practice.
Finally, I hope that the HEMA community opens up to other similar branches. I have nothing against the “E” in HEMA, such specialties are found in other fields of history after all, but what really irks me is how we don’t yet have any “HMA” groups to act as a bridge between HEMA and things like Persian, Chinese, African, Korean and other branches of this area of study. People say that this is a way to spread the idea that martial arts existed in the West as well, but I don’t think this is really the best approach.
What are you working on now?
Too many things! I practice weekly with a group that trains in Angelo broadsword, and work on French sources such as Valville and the Joinville manuals. I am writing a foreword for an upcoming publishing of Valville’s translation, working on a book on Irish stick, a compendium of medical sources related to sword wounds, and a few blog articles: one on la canne and the other on the history of punching.
What are your plans for the future?
I wish to make Irish stick grow and hopefully bring it back to it’s country of origin. Otherwise, continue to attend HEMA events, write stuff and meet some new people!