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3 Ways to Add Historical European Martial Arts to Your British Literature Class

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

Sometimes integrating movement into a literature class feels scary--without a meaningful connection to content, the activity's why might be lost on the students.

In British Literature, I've added judicious use of Historical European Martial Arts to provide movement and deeper connections to and engagement with the older literature.

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is the study of fighting manuscripts in an attempt to renew the martial arts of Europe (it's much more than that, but, for our purposes, this suffices!).

These are the martial arts that authors are describing or referencing in Beowulf or Sir Gawain or Macbeth.

With the help of local HEMA practitioners, I've used three styles of martial arts with success in the classroom--both my class and classes I've visited as a teaching artist.


If you've taught Beowulf, then you know all about this! The epic battle between Beowulf and Grendel shows off Beowulf's nobility, but it also demonstrates his prowess in the martial art held in highest esteem in the Germanic warrior ethos.

I bring in my HEMA instructor from Sword Carolina who demonstrates ways Beowulf could have wrestled Grendel in the position to rip off his arm, and then he teaches the students the basic positions to do a simple throw.

In a socially-distanced environment, the actual grappling would be taboo, but a demonstration and discussion of the importance of grappling would still keep interest.

Spear Fighting

At one point, spears were Europe's most widely used weapons. They're also featured in the poem "The Battle of Maldon."

When teaching this poem, I show the students how to use spears with and without shield and then use the activity to move into choreographing the spear fight scene central to the poem.

If you want to make your own shields and spears, read the blog post "The Battle of Maldon": Making Shields and Spears.


Because of movies, longswords are usually the first item we picture when the words "sword" or "Medieval weapon" are spoken (unless Vikings changed that!).

Students love the feeling of power and control that comes from sweeping a longsword through the air!

They love posing with the swords even more.

When we begin the Medieval unit, I bring in my HEMA instructor to show the students how to handle the sword by teaching them the unterhau and oberhau (two basic cuts or attacks) and several simple guards so they can get the feeling of the fight into their bodies before reading a text.

I also show the students fights from HEMA tournaments so they can see how fast and nimble the longsword is rather than imagining it to be purely a smash-em-bash-em weapon.

NOTE: I am careful in which classes I incorporate these activities and always provide an alternative for students who aren't interested or who feel threatened.

Even if you can't bring in an instructor, finding HEMA videos to show training or the handling of weapons can give students a greater understanding of the era and reading materials.

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