This three-piece article, while aimed more at teachers of HEMA is also relevant to students of HEMA, since we are all students and the difference between learning and teaching can be a fine one. Furthermore, the article speaks just as much about learning as it does about teaching and how we learn is important to understand for all of us on a personal level. Finally, the future of HEMA depends on all of us, on how much and how well we study and are willing to share ideas, debate and fight.


Few instructors in HEMA actually have a formal teaching background with education in pedagogics and methodology and instead we borrow from our own experiences in school and leisure and sports activities, adding some smaller bits taken from literature on the topic. While having an actual teaching background in academic topics doesn’t necessarily make you a good instructor on martial arts or historical fencing, just like being a good fighter doesn’t automatically turn you into a good teacher in the same. But, being a former teacher, and also married to someone who teaches these very topics at university, I have found my studies in pedagogics and methodology quite useful with regards to how to think and plan. Consequently, I would like to share some of my thoughts on how to create a good learning environment and also things that will help you in teaching.

All of this can be applied both to longer courses and short workshops. It is of course difficult to include all of this into a single class under the circumstances we normally teach, but it is something to keep in mind and strive for.

Why is the study of pedagogics important to HEMA?

While knowing pedagogics and teaching methodology is obviously good for anyone who teaches, HEMA also has some unique characteristics which separates it from the study of other martial arts and sports, namely that it also includes the study of text and image sources from the Middle Ages and onwards. Studying HEMA thus ideally involves both theoretical and practical studies, both for the students and for the teachers themselves. And as anyone who has ever tried teaching knows, it is through explaining things to others that we best shape our own ideas so that we ourselves also understand what we believe we know.

Consequently, as teachers of HEMA we can’t just study sports training methodology or research methodology, but we also need to study theoretical pedagogy and learning processes, to aid our students in their studies, and help ourselves learn how to shape our ideas into a logical teaching structure so our research-based understanding can be shared in the best way possible.

A growing issue, I believe, to seriously consider in modern HEMA is how, as we build a stronger and stronger understanding of the sources, and as we become more and more publicly recognized, don’t turn complacent with our achievements and understanding, creating a strict and dogmatic HEMA too soon. We are still a very new sub-science and modern martial art, largely created by laymen, and with a long way to go yet. We are right now what astrology was to astronomy, what alchemy was to chemistry. Consequently, we need to safeguard that the theoretical study of HEMA continues with constantly growing strength and good health or else risk failing coming as close as we potentially can to what these arts once were.

Strongly related to this, is whether the teacher should serve as a role model or a guide. For a long time in HEMA the role models have been the masters that we study. However, as modern HEMA evolves, the role model is likely to more and more turn into the instructors, the successful tournament fighters and the researchers themselves, a process that is already happening in my opinion. This is problematic as we are all so far removed from the original masters in their understanding and world views. This is how older pedagogics worked and this old teacher-centric focus, combined with complacency with the state of things, risk fossilizing the development of modern HEMA, only looking at the sources through the eyes of a limited number of people teaching a modern dogmatized historical fencing.

This is not about the dreaded “sportification” per se, but about a branching off into a certain modernization of historical fencing that creates its own lineage which becomes the norm. And while very satisfying to us all, being able to pull off very cool things straight from the sources in sparring and tournament doesn’t really protect against this process and can in fact help support it in some cases.

To a degree this is inevitable as HEMA grows, since some people will always just wish to be taught with as little own intellectual effort as possible. However, if we wish to counter this fossilization & branching off process, and from a teaching perspective, we need to consider how to put less focus on the instructor and more on the student and his or her relationship to the sources.

This however doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t lead by example or no longer strive to become the best they can be at fencing. It is more a matter of keeping a sober perspective on things. And the teachers have to serve as role models, but it is important to remember as role models of what? The answer to that question should in my opinion be; as dedicated students of the sources, with all that the word student implies, and as such lead by example. That said to understand something properly, one also have to be able to do it.

Different schools of pedagogics

With all this in mind, before we actually go into the implications and the list of advice, we need to briefly look at some of the pedagogues that most education systems are inspired by and also some older influences that affect modern HEMA training. At the bottom of all these lie different views on how people learn and develop and they are quite drastically different, not least in how teaching is applied to the believed learning processes. Adding to this there is a whole social layer tied to how society works, expecting students to be well-functioning parts of it through school training. Not everything is directly applicable to sports education, especially in an environment where there is considerable risk of bodily harm, but the ideas on learning, cognition and memory etc are relevant.

We need to start from the beginning though, with the gymnastics of the 18th century. Before this time, athleticism was most commonly associated with real world activities and schooled training revolved around fencing, wrestling, riding and dancing, even if ‘sportslike’ games like running, jumping, throwing, handball and tennis existed already in the Renaissance. Views on teaching and human learning changed quite drastically with the Enlightenment and there was a growing movement to educate all of the population, expanding on the ideas of Rousseau; that all humans were equal and free by nature. This would continue to evolve through the 19th and 20th century, and with the growing industrialization turning towards more and more complex apparatus and machines for training leading up to modern gym machines, which of course also led to various counter-movements that encouraged free-standing body-weight exercises. Much of it still remains in our gym halls and on the old playgrounds of our children.

But let’s not rush ahead of ourselves.

Johann Bernhard Basedow (1724-1790)

Johann-BasedowJohann Basedow was a German teacher who developed his own educational system based on the ideas of Rousseau. The education was free from religious influence and the children were treated as children rather than small adults. A heavy stress on physical activities was part of the system. It included a 10-hour day with 5 hours of classes, 3 hours of fencing, riding, dancing and music, and then 2 hours of manual work tied to a craft. The school employed Johann Simon in the 1770s as its first teacher in physical education and he can thus be seen as the very first modern gymnastics teacher.


Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827)

200px-Johann_Heinrich_PestalozziJohann Pestalozzi was a Swiss teacher who was very influential among the reformers of education in the early 1800s. Part of his focus was on humans as social beings and that education should be connected to life so it was useful.

He also believed that the teacher should act as a guide rather than forcing the student to learn through various means. The teacher should stimulate the student to want to learn and be skilled in inspiring. Teaching should follow a natural progress from easy to advanced, adapted to the student’s level. His school included a daily hour of gymnastics, five days per week.


Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839)

220px-J-C-F-GutsMuthsJohann Gutsmuths was a German educator and teacher and he is known in particular for his interest in physical education, often being refered to as the “grandfather of gymnastics“. Strongly influenced by earlier pioneers of gymnastics and especially Basedow, GutsMuths developed an outdors program designed to increase suppleness, balance and muscular strength, which included exercises like tumbling, climbing, jumping, vaulting, balancing, exercises still common in modern gymnastic halls in various shapes and forms.

His exercises were arranged according to age level and difficulty and he kept detailed notes on the progress of each student.

"A Gymnastic Exercise Ground," frontispiece from Gustavus Hamilton, The Elements of gymnastics, for boys, and of calisthenics, for young ladies London, 1827

“A Gymnastic Exercise Ground,” frontispiece from Gustavus Hamilton, The Elements of gymnastics, for boys, and of calisthenics, for young ladies London, 1827

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) – The inventor of bars and rings

280px-Friedrich_Ludwig_JahnGerman gymnastics teacher Friedrich Jahn was a strong patriot who was very frustrated with his country’s Napoleonic humiliation and thus sought both to establish a united Germany fighting Napoleon, and to form patriotic student fraternities, while focusing on the use of physical training to strengthen the morality and patriotic spirit. For this he devised the Turnvereine (gymnastic unions) which weren’t just athletic organisations but also political ones.

The name comes from “turnen” which Jahn believed was an old Teutonic word for gymnastics. Jahn consequently has also been called Turnvater – the Father of Gymnastics.

In 1809 he became a gymnastics teacher in Berlin, teaching in a Pestalozzian school and after the war he became the appointed state teacher of gymnastics. However, his ideas on politics were controversial and he was thus arrested and put in prison in 1819 for almost six years in total.

Bundesturnhalle in Milwaukee, USA, ca 1900

Bundesturnhalle in Milwaukee, USA, ca 1900

Jahn was a student of Guthmuths and much of his gymnastics focused on the use of various apparatus and primarily on increasing muscular strength. For this he invented the high bar, parallel bars and rings. The exercises also commonly involved the use of dumbbells.

Franz Nachtegall (1777-1847) – The Danish father of physical education

nachtegall-901x1024Franz Nachtegall was a Danish pedagogue in body exercise. He founded a gymnastics society in Denmark in 1798 and taught gymnastics both privately and publicly. He is counted as one of the most important Danish gymnastics pioneers.

Nachtegall didn’t actually design his own system for gymnastics, but was heavily inspired by the works of GutsMuths. Being the director of the Military Gymnastics Institute in Denmark, which as the first in Europe prepared teachers of gymnastics for military and civilian schools, he would have a strong influence on gymnastics pioneer Pehr Henrik Ling and his Swedish system for gymnastics.

The exercises were similar to those of GutsMuths, including rope climbing, climbing, balancing, tug-of-war, jumping and use of wooden horses.

Roper's Gymnasium, Philadelphia 1834

Roper’s Gymnasium, Philadelphia 1831

Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839) & military & civilian drilling

Pehr_Henrik_LingAmong students of the history of gymnastics Swedish P.H. Ling certainly belongs to the list of the most influential and important pioneers of modern gymnastics. Having completed his studies he travelled and taught in Denmark, Germany, France and England for seven years before becoming fencing master at the University of Lund. His experiences here would influence him strongly, not least his five years in Denmark, studying at the Military Gymnastic Institute under Nachtegall.

Following illness with, gout, rheumatism and tuberculosis, and realizing from personal experience the importance of gymnastics to restore his own health, he became a strong proponent of gymnastics, arguing its benefit for health.

He devised a science-based system of gymnastics, divided into four branches; pedagogical, medical, military and aesthetic. Pedagogic gymnastics was defined as “whereby one learns to master ones own body”, while military gymnastics was more or less equivalent to fencing. Medical gymnastics in turn meant physical therapy and aesthetic gymnastics ´was defined as “whereby one expresses the inner self“. Mainly the first three elements were properly developed and especially the pedagogical and the medical gymnastics came to be highly influential from an international perspective.


Military and civilian exercise at Karlsborg, Sweden, ca 1930-40

While Jahn’s system focused much on isolated movements designed to increase muscular strength, Ling was more interested in harmonious movement using the whole body. As he commonly taught the military, much of the gymnastics was based on drilling in large groups, following the example of the instructor, with free-standing exercises that should be performed perfectly to achieve optimal medical and physical effect, something which has influenced gymnastics heavily for about a century or so after, and in some ways even to this day. The movements were simple and fundamental and many exercises emphasized rhythm and coordination using hoops, clubs and small balls.

In 1813 he became the principal of the newly instituted Royal Gymnastic Central Institute for the training of gymnastic instructors and in 1831 he was elected into the Swedish General Medical Association and into the Swedish Academy in 1835.

Gymnastics for civilians and military at the school of French Joinville-le-Pont, ca 1905

Gymnastics for civilians and military at the school of French Joinville-le-Pont, ca 1905

Ling would also come to have a great influence on the modern training of Japanese and other Asian martial arts as the Japanese martial arts were restored after their low period of 1852, when Japan was reformed in the shape of a western society, to about 1895 when the old traditions were starting to be brought back again.

Originally martial arts training was taught one-on-one with a master and a single student. However, with the growing desire for a restoration of Japan’s old cultural expressions, Kendo, Judo and Naginata Do were created out of the older and truly martial arts of Kenjutsu, Jujutsu and Naginatajutsu, and thus in a somewhat neutered version brought into schools for the health and education of youths in 1911-13, with the actual teaching methods formalized properly 1936.

When doing so the Ministry of Education and in particular Ozawa Unosuke looked to the Ling pedagogics as it was still considered to be quite modern and commonly used in Britain, USA and Sweden. Consequently, a new way of teaching martial arts was introduced to Japan with a proper syllabus in 1913, prescribing, among other things, having students working in group, systematically performing isolated movements under the supervision a master, but also warmups and pair work, a tradition that to some degree also has been transferred back into HEMA teaching, thus coming full circle by bringing back the old European drilling methods of the 1800s despite the fact that European gymnastics have evolved considerably since its export to Japan.


Having thus looked at a few of the most influential gymnastics pioneers on civilian and military gymnastics drill and martial arts training we will now turn to the more theoretical thinkers on pedagogics.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) & Constructivism

Jean Piaget Jean-piagetwas a Swiss psychologist and philosopher who focused on development and is known in particular for his studies of children’s learning. He is a pioneer in what is called the constructivist theory of knowing, a theory which focuses on cognitive development, but his teachings didn’t become popular until the 1960’s then replacing the common Skinner Behaviourism and leading to the study of development becoming an important sub-discipline of psychology.

Shortly his theories revolve around development in early childhood and how it is vital to the growth of intelligence. He also poses that learning through experimentation and own discovery is crucial. Important components are perceiving, reasoning, believing and remembering. Learning and developing comes from both biological maturation and environmental experience and through posing a theory, trying it out, succeeding or failing and continuing developing. Focus is on the student and its inner processes.

Piaget himself once said

“Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society … but for me and no one else, education means making creators… You have to make inventors, innovators—not conformists” (Bringuier, 1980, p. 132).

So, the goal is here not to mimic a role model, but to develop understanding and skills from the student’s own capabilities, free from punishment or reward.

The Skinner Behaviourism which Piaget’s Constructivism replaced suggested that man had no true free will and that any action was always a result of the expected consequence, i.e. negative experience, like punishment or harsh criticism will stop a person from repeating the same thing, and vice versa. The process was seen as almost mechanical, close to the conclusions drawn from Pavlov’s Dogs, and the theory did not accept “private events” such as thought, perception and emotion. The resulting pedagogics based on Skinner’s research were almost completely opposed to the teachings of Piaget, and in practical terms used positive and negative reinforcement to support learning.

Piaget is without doubt the most influential developmental psychologist of the modern age and his work has inspired much work by modern psychologists who have revised and improved on the works of this important pioneer. This led to a complete reformation of the school systems or Europe and the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, turning away from a teacher-focused classroom environment to a student-focused one, a pedagogics which remains the primary one to this day.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev_VygotskyLev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist who founded what is commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology. The theory revolves around development and reasoning emerging from practical activity in a social environment. He saw learning as dependent both on earlier learning as well as on available instruction.

The concept of internalization is important, meaning the stage where a person actually masters something properly, as opposed to just having a theoretical understanding of it. Adding to this comes the concept of appropriation, where a person makes a concept his or her own, not just mastering it, but also being able to adapt it in a personal way. This of course requires that the student is given sufficient amount of time to both internalize and appropriate the concept. The amount needed is of course also individual.

Vygotsky’s most important contribution to developmental psychology are considered to be his thoughts on the relationship between language (silent inner speech and outer oral language) and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. Self-thought and social communication are two different languages that both affect one’s thinking. In short, complex language allows complex thoughts, while a limited vocabulary also limits thinking.

Célestin Freinet (1896-1966)

Célestin Freinet BrasFreinetwas a noted French pedagogue who similarly to Piaget put focus on the students’ own experiences. He was a schoolteacher in the village of Le Bar-sur-Loup and it was here that he developed his teaching methods. In his school he had introduced a printing press that his students could work with and he also made many field trips with them as he believed it was important for them to not be isolated in school but experience the various aspects of the grown up world which they were to become part of.

Important concepts of his teachings were:

  • Produce actual results, i.e. real objects or services that can be used.
  • Group-based experimentation and learning through trial-and-error
  • Cooperative learning where students learn together by producing something
  • Personal interest, working from the student’s own knowledge and interest, using their natural curiosity as starting points.
  • Personal experience, using the existing experiences of the students to aid in learning.
  • Democracy, allowing the students to decide on processes and topics in the classroom

The ultimate goal was to create independently and critically thinking students with a strong sense of identity.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

480px-Maria_Montessori1913Maria Tecla Artemesia Montessori was an Italian physician and teacher that has been greatly influential on modern pedagogics leading to the forming of Montessori schools all over the world.

Her ideas revolved around freedom of choice for the children, allowing them control over when and what to do various things.

The core belief is that students strive to learn and develop themselves and that this desire follows different sensitive periods. Consequently, teaching needs to follow this, which will happen by itself if the child is allowed to work as freely as possible. Structure and discipline grew out of the children’s own natural desire for order and was preferably defined and maintained by the children themselves, of course with the teacher as a guide.

Teaching also involved much creative work both in writing, sculpting, painting, dancing and making music, even toys, but only one of each, thus forcing the students to learn to collaborate and share with respect. The actual physical learning environment was seen as important, encouraging the use of patterns, colours, plants, comfortable furniture etc, making the whole experience more comfy and warm. Learning should be fun and the teacher should primarily serve as a guide to discovery of knowledge. The child learns by itself without demands or expectations from the outside.


Modern pedagogics concepts relevant to HEMA teaching

Briefly we can sum up some of the pedagogical and methodological concepts defined by these pedagogues and which are relevant to teaching HEMA, filtered through my own personal beliefs as:

  • People have a natural desire to learn and there is no need for punishment or reward. The teacher only needs to stimulate the students’ natural curiosity.
  • The teacher should act as a guide to knowledge and understanding rather than as a role model or authority of power. The focus shouldn’t be student on teacher, but teacher on student.
  • Teaching should be adapted to the students’ level, needs and capacity, thus requiring individualized teaching.
  • The teacher should note the student’s progress so the teaching can be continuously adapted to the changing needs of the student.
  • Smaller groups are preferable to larger and individual teaching is the best for some types of learning, but not all.
  • Learning is easier when there are multiple connotations, i.e. points of recognition, meaning it is good to teach a topic from different angles and allowing the use of different senses. This also requires regular variation on exercises.
  • The physical environment in which the teaching takes place is important and can both support and hinder the learning process. Preferably it should make the students relax and feel inspired.
  • Experimentation and own discovery is very important to learning as the student has to figure things out themselves, with the teacher as a guide.
  • Context and larger overview on how things connect ease understanding of individual objects and concepts. Consequently, the teacher needs to help the students discover larger structures.
  • Concepts that produce an actual result is easier to understand than just theoretical explanation of a result. This means ideally the student should be able to create or experience the actual result. In the case of martial arts this can involve exposing the student to situations that add an element of fear or stress, e.g. a tournament or practicing with real weapons or little protection.
  • Language enables thought and consequently terminology and language relating to concepts and principles are important. However, they are easier to remember if they are tied to an actual result and have multiple connotations. Also, this means that theoretical study is important as language helps create structure so one can understand the principles that the fencing is founded upon and exploit.
  • Proper understanding involves internalization, i.e. mastering a skill at a profound level, and appropriation, where one can adapt the skill in a personal manner. This means the student needs to be given sufficient amount of time and thus have opportunity for individualized training.
  • Cooperative experimenting can aid in learning.
  • Personal experiences and interests in the student can function as a foundation for study.
  • Students desire order, but can create and uphold such themselves, if given the confidence.


In part 2 and 3 of this article I will speak of the implications of all this, as well as share more personal advice rooted in the above, but based on my own teaching experience. Thank you for your patience in reading this article. I sincerely hope you find it useful regardless of whether you are a student or a teacher.

Roger Norling

Further reading

HEMA Pedagogics Part 2: The Implications
HEMA Pedagogics Part 3: How to create a good learning environment


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