Research & Criticism

In the last few weeks I’ve had frequent occasion to ponder the role criticism plays in research. I take it for granted that criticism is a part of research, start to finish, but this is something I’m finding I need to be more aware of when engaging those who are coming to research from other paths. No one likes being told that their hard work needs attention or revision, but it’s as necessary to effective research as having sources.

Evaluating a position is built in—it has to be if research is to work. We are fallible, all of us, no matter how much training we’ve had. We will make mistakes. Good researchers, good students, take those and use those mistakes to improve their work. Sometimes that means accepting the hard fact that a line of reasoning we’ve been working on is flawed and should be abandoned. It sucks when this happens. But, this is the way. It’s how we reach a vaccine that works instead of one poisoning us or having no effect whatsoever; it’s how we know the Egyptians built their own pyramids and not some fanciful space visitor; it’s how we know that Fiore, de Saint-Didier, and Aldo Nadi followed the same universal principles of fence.

Giving criticism is difficult, receiving it even harder, but it’s part of the process and so it makes sense to talk about it in more depth. [1] A decent analogy for the process is to consider refining an iron ingot to make steel. The smith heats then hammers it, reheats it and hammers again. In the process the dross drops to the floor and one ends up with steel suitable for work. Fire burns, hammer strokes hit hard, but they’re necessary. The smith doesn’t use fire or the hammer out of hatred for iron, but to improve it. It’s the same with “constructive criticism,” least it should be.

Elements of Research

Framing the Question

To conduct research well requires sufficient grounding in the topic. A student new to a subject is often given a question to answer or issue to explore. This is what teachers do in secondary school and college. With those new to Roman history, for example I used to give them a prompt because I couldn’t expect them to have command of the events, people, and issues of the time. When we covered one of Rome’s most lasting contributions, naturalized citizenship, I selected relevant works for them to read, and then gave them a question that had them use those selections to answer it. For freshmen, this might be relatively straight-forward, but for upper-division students I could take this one step deeper, such as focusing on one text or an aspect of the larger issue. For a graduate student this goes deeper still—they might read Tacitus, portions at least in Latin, and then familiarize themselves with the relevant scholarship about Tactius’ stance on Roman citizenship. Some upper-division students might do this too depending on ability, major, etc. It’s important we meet students where they are and then push them, gently, to the next step—sometimes we meet them at the door, sometimes sitting at the table in a large room. Assessing ability is part of the job, and, it’s something that test scores are next to useless in helping us do. Teaching someone new to sabre, for a different example, one starts with the most basic material, how to stand, move, and extend the arm, not with second intention attacks, compound parry-ripostes, and advanced tactical use of tempo.

Evaluating the Argument

Once that paper is drafted, or more usually now just turned in, the teacher evaluates it. Did the student answer the question? Did they support that answer using evidence, and, did they do so appropriately? Did they show me how that evidence supports their conclusion or merely state that it does? If they used any theoretical frameworks did they do so accurately? Are there logical fallacies or other errors in reasoning? A major portion of this, and easily the most disliked by students, is simultaneously assessing their grammar and syntax. Clarity is the goal, so extra verbiage, three-dollar words sprinkled for effect, and other distractions are important to excise. Just as we correct a fencing student to use only what they will need in a bout, so too do we correct excesses in writing that undermine a researcher’s thesis.

HOW we make this assessment, however, is everything. Effective editing with kindness is, in my view, one of the most difficult skills to learn. With sentences that are awkward, for example, writing the abbreviation “Awk” in red pen next to the offending line isn’t very helpful. Instead, I resort to “Perhaps rephrase? Maybe something like this: ….,” and now I do this even with seasoned writers. This is a gentler way of pointing out a problem area, but it also helps steer them toward what they need to do to fix it. When one of my fencing students moves their foot before the weapon, I don’t shout them down, but point it out and have them do it again. If the student is sensitive, I remind them that this stuff is really hard to do, that they don’t move like this 99.9% of the time, that we all go through this, and have them do it again, and again, until they get it right.

Term Paper vs. Research Article

The way one evaluates a peer’s research paper is similar to the process that one uses with a student paper, but more rigorous and approached with the assumption that the author has learned how to take criticism. This is a dangerous assumption, however, when working with amateur researchers (“amateur” here meaning not professional scholars). It is likely that an amateur scholar is not used to the process. This is one lesson I have learned painfully this year.

I do a fair amount of editing for colleagues, some professional, some amateur, both generally researchers of skill that know that I’m not blasting them for mistakes, but only trying to help them make their work stronger. It’s part of the job. We assist one another. In a talk I’m delivering this very week I have asked the host and a trusted researcher I know to go over my slides and notes. Each has given me useful feedback that will only help me. Now, I could feel bad or embarrassed that I didn’t think of some of these things, but why? This is why I sent them my work. Research, never mind sharing it, is hard! There is no shame in getting help—that goes for any stage of expertise. They are helping me increase the chances that my talk is a success. I am grateful to them for that. I will also be sure to announce their contribution.

Research Reserved is like a Broken Rapier

Research, if it is to have any meaning, must be shared. Even when I was teaching college courses and trying to publish on the side I embraced this idea. It’s one reason that teaching at junior colleges was important to me; it’s also why most of my publishing to date is what too many of my colleagues consider “soft publishing.” [2] It’s why I took the most important part of my dissertation and shared it for free on academia.edu: more people will see it via google than will read it as a monograph collecting dust on the handful of libraries that might buy it. All this work is useless and self-serving if the only people who benefit from it are other academics.

Scene of Hy Brasil sinking in “Erik the Viking” (1989)–an image that often comes to mind watching academia eat its own.

Of course, this is also one reason I don’t have a tenure-track position or why I am not writing reference works at the moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, because this example is more exalted than my own, but when Prometheus shared fire with humanity the gods felt that he had broken the rules. For those academics whose response to attack has been to hole up in the ivory tower and look down on the supposed rubes assailing them, those of us actively passing out research (or worse trying to teach people how to do it better without collecting a cent) are turn-coats. There’s not much they can do but keep us out of the mix and insult us from afar. Dying industries tend to entrench.

Donning the Big-Kid Pants

In sharing research, however, one must be prepared for criticism. If any prospect of that is repellent, then don’t write and share your work. Forget your friends and/or fans, forget the colleagues miles away who are likely to agree with you—they’re easy; consider only the person who wants to see you fail, because sad to say they sometimes exist. Normally it’s not personal, but it will feel that way. If you’re prepared for that clown, one you’re unlikely to meet, then you can handle anything. There was, in the 1990s, a notorious academic in medieval history, who delighted in shredding graduate students at the Huntington. His work is good, and I’m guessing his classes were, but fellow graduate students who delivered papers at that conference dreaded his responses. He took perverse delight in tearing them down, the way a deranged boxer might in punching a toddler. I never had to deal with him, lucky for me (and him—I was a different person in the 90s sad to say), but I ran into his type more than once. [3] Navigating failed humans like that guy, which no one should suffer, will toughen those up who survive it. Today, were I to deliver a paper and receive grief from this loser I’d be only too happy to engage–he attacks because he is weak.

Research & Responsibility

I can only speak for myself, though I think it holds for many people, but the longer one spends in research the harder it is to embrace arrogance or denigrate others who do this too. There is more out there to explore than we have life to live; producing an argument and then sharing it, globally, is not for the faint of heart. We gain nothing in being mean or beating on someone. However, when an argument is weak, flawed, or in some other way deficient it’s not only proper to say so but also to point it out how. Research may be conducted individually, but done right the product is collective—conclusions, right or wrong, affect the whole. They affect us all. By implication this means we have a shared responsibility, to ourselves, to one another, and to those who read us to do our best work. It’s a collaborative process, really.

It is best not to take it personally; after all, it’s rarely personal. More often that not we do not know or barely know others in the field when it comes to “HEMA.” Social media, unfortunately, has proved an ideal vehicle for “trolls,” half-wits, and those who having been bullied at some point feel they can retaliate anonymously and somehow get their own back. It shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference between a troll and someone pointing out a potential issue with our work. Some people are blunt, a personality aspect hard to detect in writing or online, but well-meaning; some are so apologetic they never get to the point; some are kind and just list the issue, and if we’re lucky, provide some help; and then there are the trolls. Analyzing the comments on your paper, blog, Youtube video, etc. will help you figure out who is who, and, whom it is worth listening to. To be honest, on social media and Youtube disabling comments is the best bet–legitimate critics can contact you in other ways.

Just as there are many ways to give a critique, there are many ways to respond. I’ve witnessed most in this context, and while many are acceptable, the best combines listening humbly and responding graciously. If it helps, fake it; pretend. Imagine that Capt. Red-pen is one of your friends just eager to help you improve your argument. In fairness, criticism, where it isn’t a case of right and wrong, sometimes comes down to style and preference. One editor may not like fancier turns of phrase; one may love it. It’s important to distinguish between substantive issues, which we should always consider, and stylistic ones, which we can examine and then decide if it merits further attention. For example, outside of the US there are countries where use of the “historical present” is acceptable if not normal. This is where the author writes about past events as if happening now, e.g. “Colum Cille visits Brude. They talk. The Pictish king is unconvinced, but polite” versus “Colum Cille visited Brude. They discuss various matters, but the Pictish king, while polite, was unconvinced by the missionary’s message.” If the paper you’re editing or reviewing is written this way ask your writer who the audience is and where they plan to publish it. If they are aiming at a North American market, suggest they revise and use a past tense; if for a journal in Europe suggest they check with the editor of that serial as it may be perfectly okay. For a more common example, some writers enjoy a good turn of phrase, some do not. You can suggest that the paragraph-long sentence might be broken up, but the writer doesn’t necessarily have to change a thing—that may just be the way they write. If they’re publishing, then the editor will have better call to make a case for brevity.

If however, your reader points out a misreading, a missing piece of evidence, an important article you haven’t referenced that should be there, or a misstep in reasoning, then set your ego aside and reread your work. Look at it plainly, as if reading someone else’s work, and see if they’re correct. If they are, thank them and revise; if not, and there is a back and forth, explain it. They may not agree, but at least you’ve had the conversation. There are times when we will make the wrong call, put our work out there, and realize that we should have revised. It happens. [4] It can also be avoided, and it gets easier too, especially if you’ve made that mistake and learned the lesson. Some people have to fall before they realize they can get back up. Some, however, will refuse to stand up, remain prone and fight to the death that they were correct when they’re not. [5] People are people.

A Figurative Glove cast in the Hazard

The excellent Maestro Giovanni Rapisardi (photo via fb)–his approach to historical fencing has much to recommend it

Do your best work. If someone with appropriate training comments on work you’ve shared publicly, have the good sense to consider it—thank them even if you decide to ignore it. You lose no face in being gracious and it will indicate that you are someone who knows how to play nicely with the other kids. A poor defensive response reads a certain way to professional researchers, and if you are going to play their game, then it behooves you to know the rules. They’ll hold you to them whether you like it or not.

I tell my fencing students that they should never, ever underestimate any opponent: treat each one as the most dangerous person that they’ll ever face. We practice, we drill, we train so that under pressure, when it counts, our technique and tactics will be effective. This often means working far more complicated actions in practice—that effort helps refine our game so that when we use the typical, less complicated maneuvers that we do in a bout they are that much crisper.

The same principle works in research—anticipate potential issues and correct them as best you can before sharing your work; read, reread, and verify; share your draft with people trained to evaluate both the material and process. Consider any suggestions. Once that paper is in print or posted online, it is exposed to the world and by extension, so are you. Be prepared for a variety of responses, some great, many more a near silent “meh,” and then a few that seem tailor-made to make you feel as small as possible. Answer each with calm, grace, and confidence—ignore fools, but cultivate a response to legitimate criticism that is measured and open-minded. A lot of researchers fail, some through fraud, some through hubris, some through just being too stupid to listen, and some because they quit when they get a bad review. Every successful scholar abides the dictates of the methodology of research and knows how to take criticism—they use the latter to make their position stronger. You should too.

Notes:

[1] See entry on this site entitled “Dealing with Criticism” 28 Oct. 2019.

[2] Academia is a brutal place. The rewards are few and small, so those lucky enough to find a position or who lick enough boots to land one tend to guard those hard-won prerogatives tenaciously. As with any organization composed of rigid hierarchies, there is a sense that those at the top deserve it, and that those who work below decks, as adjuncts, lecturers, and at junior colleges are where they are because they lack the genius and gifts their tenured peers must possess. It’s bullshit, but between poor pay and the fact that Americans dislike intellectuals their arrogance is unsurprising. What goes for teaching goes for publishing, and even now a monograph and second book are considered “real” work where publishing for the masses is considered less rigorous.

[3] I’ll not name this buffoon, but will say that his two volume medieval reader and work on the Merovingians remains popular. Smart as he might be, important as his work might be, he’s the perfect example of someone who believes their own painful path to full-time teaching entitles him to be abusive. I was far luckier—most of my PhD committee were older scholars, well-respected in their fields, and far too kind and intelligent to indulge in such behavior. The one exception was the guy who tested me on Greek history during my oral exams. It was disgusting enough to prompt my Celtic professor, the wonderful Jószi Nagy (then at UCLA), to ask me the next time I was down there for a class “So, what gives with the macho Greek professor?” He shared the story with the rest of the small class and they were horrified, and this was at UCLA where t.a.s received more comments about how they dress on student evaluations than anything else. Classes with Jószi were some of best I ever took; it didn’t hurt that he is Hungarian and I love sabre either 😉

[4] For a personal example, I contributed to my graduate advisor’s Festschrift, a collection of articles by students and colleagues celebrating his career and contributions to the field. My friend, the late Tom Sizgorich and I, were sort of outliers—Tom focused on early Islam, I focused on early Ireland—but if anything we serve as good examples of just how nimble our advisor, Hal Drake, can be. My submission was on the blending of Mediterranean and Irish narrative motives in the vita of the saint I worked on the most on and whose life I translated in my dissertation, St. Áed mac Bricc. The editor requested that I remove the Latin portions of the quotations I used from my notes, and excise some of the examples I used for the nods to Celtic ideas of the “Otherworld” in the paper. I did. The review that came out in Bryn Mawr Classical Review was kind enough, but mentioned in re my paper that more examples from Irish texts would have helped. He wasn’t wrong. Nowadays I would have politely disagreed with the editor and left them in, but we live and learn.

[5] I’d rather not use an example from HEMA here, not after the most recent encounter with this, so I’ll stick to another academic topic. There’s a scholar in my field, a nice enough guy, and well-trained, but whose analysis tends to suffer from a propensity to make tenuous connections. I’ve seen him do this with both linguistics and historical topics. For the latter, he delivered a paper at one conference that would make a decent movie, but which was poor history. Taking three attestations of the name “Patricius,” instances separated geographically and in some degree temporally, he posited that each referred to the same man. Responses were polite, as they usually are at Celtic conferences (it’s a really small field), but they were to the point too. One of the audience asked “—-, a simpler explanation is that these three pieces of evidence refer to three, perhaps two different people, right? Is it likely that the one Patrick we all know traveled this extensively, and, had time and inclination to put his name on a brick?”

Academic Rigor, Accountability, and “Gate-keeping” in Historical Fencing

Disagreement makes most people uncomfortable—it forces even the most narcissistic to pause, if only briefly, and confront where they stand. If there is an audience, it’s even more painful. There are good and bad ways to handle this. Whether criticizing or receiving the critique compassion should temper the message. Well-intentioned criticism is important, from politics to dealing with fencers who disagree with us, but of late—in the U.S. anyway—holding people accountable has become taboo. Even when warranted, even when it can literally affect lives, the American response is “ain’t no one tells me what to do!” followed closely by “who the hell does his a-hole think they are?!” One doesn’t have to be Dr. Fauci to appreciate this.

In historical fencing anyone critical of the errors we make as a community is at best considered a clown, at worst a “gate-keeper.” Regardless they’re considered a pain in the ass. The nail that tells you this was a bad place to sit, however, is just a nail, and assuming one looks where one plans to sit that same nail is easily avoided. In the rush to sit, however, our collective bottom has planted itself on a number of nails and now, in pain and bleeding, we ignore it. Worse, some maintain that there are no nails, and anyone who says so is a meanie or deluded.

I have no interest in gatekeeping in the sense one can find in the august lexicon that is the Urban Dictionary, e.g.

Top Definition: When someone is an asshole enough to tell you that you don’t have enough qualities to like what you want to like or be what you want to be, solely based on their opinions and experiences, even if  they don’t know as much about what said person aspires to like / be.

or

2

Gatekeeper

1) One who devalues other’s opinions on something by claiming they’re not entitled to the opinion because they’re not qualified, the rightful decision-maker, a part of a particular group, etc. [https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gatekeeper]

In re the top definition, to dress someone down for what they like is stupid. People like what they like. Similarly, to tell someone that they lack the qualities to become something is, on its own, stupid. If it is additional training, then they can get that. The second definition, the one I think applies in most of the cases in which I’ve heard it, is more problematic. There are times this applies, and times when it doesn’t. What do we do when someone qualified attempts to point out something they’re actually qualified to point out? If HEMA is any guide, they get roasted on social media—middle schoolers can’t bully half as well.

We do not like expertise (again, mostly referencing my own nation here), but we apply this hatred unequally. Few people I know would be okay visiting a dentist who picked up the practice for fun and who had not been to school, but when it comes to many other fields, we tend to be more circumspect. The number of times as a teacher I had to refute pseudo-history that a student had learned on the “History Channel” (aliens and giants loom large) made it clear that my training mattered far less to them than what some asshat t.v. personality like the “Naked Archaeologist” (who is not an archaeologist by the way) said. I see the same issues in our community.

In historical fencing there is functionally no difference between a well-supported argument and opinion. But these are different. I can’t stand mushrooms in any form; my opinion is that dung flowers are best left out of meals. That’s an opinion. I cannot back that up with evidence apart from my own sense of revulsion and taste buds. Most people I know love mushrooms, so lucky them, they get mine should I have the misfortune to see them on a plate. I don’t judge them for it, though I may tease them, and they me. Conversely, the statement”vaccines save lives” is not an opinion—this is something we have hard data to back up, a lot of it, and that goes double for the staying power of the special species of idiocy that thinks they cause autism.

Returning to “HEMA,” the phrase “I love Messer, it’s the best!” is an opinion. That person enjoys it more than anything else, and there is nothing wrong with that. Cool, Messer person, do Messer. However, saying “one never retreats in the Liechtenauer tradition” is an argument that one can evaluate by an examination of the available evidence. In cases where there is a paucity of evidence one might be able to argue either pro or con; unless more evidence comes to light, we may be unable to say for certain. In such cases we follow the interpretation that makes the most sense to us given the evidence, and since this isn’t vaccine formulation or designing car brakes that’s okay. Historians still argue over Alexander of Macedon’s ultimate plan for his conquests.

One of the greatest assets within HEMA, as well as its greatest pitfall, is that we are an amateur-driven community. On the plus side, we get a multitude of views, skill sets, and experience helping drive our research. This is good. On the negative side, the amateurs who have made names for themselves are often less inclined to listen to experts, less because those experts might help than the fear they might steal the limelight. We need to remain an amateur pursuit. If academics overran HEMA it would become fossilized, prey to the same b.s. that has long stymied academia and helped make it the supposed den of baddies most people believe it to be. What we need, and don’t have, is better cooperation between amateurs and experts. A middle way.

To some degree we see this collaboration, but it is cliquish, not universal. This past year I meandered into an old, tired debate (lesson fucking learned there) that highlights this powerfully. The battle lines in this particular debate are revealing—on the one side is a group of ambitious up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves, and on the other is a collection of people who in one way or another have been at this a lot, lot longer. Since I’m not a principle in the debate, just a bystander, it’s easier for me to see some things. This doesn’t mean I don’t get things wrong, I do, a lot, but if the various pieces I’ve read by both sides are any guide there is a gulf in understanding with the up-and-comers, paramount of which is how they approach both information and those whose profession it is, in whatever guise, to analyze that information.

The problem is that nothing is automatic. In this contest, for example, the long-time researcher under attack remembers the first iteration of this particular debate, but the fact that his own side emerged the victor in it apparently means nothing to those who weren’t there twenty years ago. Were this almost anything else but fencing research it’s hard not to conclude that the current group attacking a well-proven position would have either avoided the mistake or conceded defeat when it inevitably lost again. Getting them to see this, however, hasn’t worked, because their basis for authority is different. It’s a painful analogy to use, but apt—like Plato’s people in the cave mistaking shadows for reality, these fencers are either unable or unwilling to see how feeble some of these theories are and how unqualified in some instances those devising those theories are. They don’t see it, because if they do then the illusion of authority is brought into question—if one’s experience in HEMA is based off the view of that authority, it raises uncomfortable questions. No one enjoys being in the wrong or realizing that they have approached something with a faulty interpretation. It isn’t fatal, but can feel like it. Once we realize it, we set about trying to do it better; with something like reconstructing extinct fighting arts we are going to get it wrong sometimes. That experience, however, doesn’t need to have been a waste—we learn a lot through mistakes.

I have to wonder if this isn’t so much about research or a quest for the best interpretation, but about making a name for oneself by any means necessary, even at the cost of credibility outside their claque, that drives some of this. This is, anyway, how it looks to those of us trained to conduct research. When faced with damning evidence that defeats a cherished theory, we have but two recourses—quit, which is sometimes the best thing to do, or take that criticism and improve our position if we can. But if we can’t recognize damning evidence as such, then what?

I don’t have an answer to that. Nor do I see any viable solution, because the requirement is humility and that is in short supply in historical fencing. It’s apparently harder to acknowledge another’s training, skill, time in, or anything else unless that person somehow passes whatever the litmus test is for popularity and acceptability. Watching a recognized authority within the community face such deep disregard is both heart-breaking and embarrassing. It should be to everyone.

Should things continue along the same lines within HEMA’s research side it is only a matter of time before a split similar to the one that took place in Olympic fencing occurs. It likely has already. By the time it is obvious it is usually too late.

Note: Concerning George Silver and the Notion of a “Slow Hand”

The recent discussion about George Silver that caused such a hullabaloo within historical fencing was, to my mind, answered in full by Stephen Hand in his paper “Will the Real George Silver Please Stand Up (available free, here: https://stephen-hand.selz.com/ ).”

In a post I shared here [“’Silver’ as Trigger Word,” 30 Dec. 2020] I mentioned that nothing I had seen by Hand suggested that he advocated the “slow hand” as described by those promoting the “alternative interpretation.” Having just purchased Mr. Hand’s English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver (2006), which I had not read at that time, I was finally able to see if Hand uses the term and if his opponents’ reading of it is correct. Yes, Hand does mention a “slow hand,” but no it doesn’t mean what that alternative camp thinks it does.

Page 11 of English Swordsmanship contains the “slow hand” discussion. Hand’s detractors have missed the point of the entire chapter. His approach to explaining this difficult concept uses hypophora, a well-known rhetorical device, in which the author asks questions and then answers them. For example, he asks “So how is it, that in an attack, the swift hand can move before the slow foot and yet both arrive together?” This is a device; it’s a way of setting up his explanation of Silver’s approach by guiding the reader to ask the right question.

The next sentence makes this even more clear, e.g. “Why isn’t it better to start moving with the slower foot and reserve the action of the swifter hand until the last possible moment?” This isn’t Hand asking the question but anticipating the sort of question that a reader without much training might ask. The last sentence in this first full paragraph ties it all together. Hand says, as a teacher might, that these are important questions, and that their answers—which he hasn’t discussed completely as yet—are “fundamental to an understanding of Silver’s true fight.” After all, this is what Hand is doing, explaining a key concept of fencing as Silver expressed it.

In truth, Hand provides the answer early in this section, but for those without a solid grasp of fencing theory they might miss it. Hand writes:

In any attack involving a foot movement, in any art, the attack should arrive at the same time as the stepping foot. This is so that the strength of the entire body can be transmitted through the arm into the weapon, to maintain correct balance and finally, because the attack should land as soon as the movement of the foot has brought the attacker (the Agent) close enough to hit. This is when the foot lands or possibly very slightly before.

That last line is critical. Silver is not talking about a lunge, but a step. In a lunge the true times apply as well—weapon/hand precedes foot and body—but the mechanics of the attack mean that the weapon, ideally, lands just before the front foot comes to rest. It often arrives at the same time. What cannot happen, however, is for that foot to start first. Why? The foot is slow and telegraphs the fact that an attack is coming, information that the defender can then use to decide whether to defend or attempt a counterattack. The weapon moving first puts the opponent in danger—they must deal with the advancing weapon or be injured.

Where a lunge is a compromise between safety and maximum extension of the weapon to target, a step or pass is shorter, the body closer to target as one closes. For example, if one is in Silver’s guard of Open Fight (similar to Ital. guardia alta), a guard where the weapon is poised above one ready to strike and intends to make a head-cut, letting the blade simply fall at the opponent won’t work. The arc is slow. If however one drops the fist down and out this projects the weapon between one and the opponent, increases the momentum, and makes it safer to step and finish the blow. When Hand refers to “slowing the hand, so that the attack arrives as the foot lands,” this is what he’s talking about. It’s a question of sequence—as he explains in the very next sentence:

Moving the hand first creates a threat (the weapon) before the target (the body) is brought into distance. In order to be safe, one must make a threat before one creates a target.

This doesn’t defy Silver’s admonition that the hand being tied to the foot is a false time, because the hand precedes the foot. It starts before the foot, it interposes the weapon before the foot moves, and that is the important part. Whether the blade lands at the same time or just before the foot is another issue, one that takes place after the attack starts. So long as the hand starts first—assuming everything else is in place—then one is observing the true times.

Should anyone think Silver is up the pole about this hand first business, a quick look at Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686) makes an illuminating comparison:

From this presupposed termination, I take note of that which I have said until now, for the precedence of the hand in the beginning of the thrust. Since it is a certain maxim in fencing, that, in finishing the thrust, all the movements of the body have to finish together and in the same tempo, being in a single tempo firm and well situated with the body in the termination. For that reason, to effect accomplishing that, the hand must necessarily move before any other part, since this, having to make a longer path, and a greater movement, it is necessary that it would advance first of all. [n.]

However expressed, the concept can be difficult to grasp let alone perform. Hand does a fantastic job setting up this discussion and clearly took his time to do so because he knows full well how subtle a point this is: it may be a concept foreign to non-fencers or new martial artists and thus needs careful explanation. Despite the effective use of rhetorical devices to guide the reader, some will still trip up, especially if they don’t understand the principle of weapon-first. As Hand says, this is universal to martial arts. For a quick example, if I step into distance before launching a punch I may be punched first; if I kick from out of distance an opponent may trap my leg. Each of these examples distills the complex relationship between measure, tempo, and judgment, that is, knowing one is in the right place to attack.

It is exceedingly difficult to capture the complexities of movement in words. This said, Hand makes it very clear what he means by “slow hand:”

So, leading with the hand creates a threat before creating a target and allows for far greater tactical flexibility. The hand must be slowed, but does not have to remain slow. This natural by-product of attacking in the third or fourth true times can be used as an instrument of great tactical subtlety. I sometimes refer to this as attacking with the slow hand but perhaps a more useful term is broken time. A single time, by definition a single action, can be broken into two or more parts. These parts are not actions in their own right, but are distinct parts of a single complex action.

Anyone with a background in fencing should understand what this means. It’s a very old idea and one common to all fencing. For example, a direct lunge in foil is one tempo; an attack with a disengage is one tempo. However, if I feint or beat, that is two tempi. One might assume that a disengage is two tempi because the blade moves from one side to the other, but this motion happens—to quote Hand—as “distinct parts of a single complex action.” If a reader doesn’t understand this, however, then they are going to find Silver’s true times, especially in Silver’s English, challenging or nonsensical.

“Broken time” is more complex still. I tend to use similar language when I explain this to students. In fencing we often talk about breaking tempo. It is an advanced tactic that experienced fencers often use. The reason is that performing any action in single tempo is difficult enough. It takes time to do it well. As one improves one adds compound attacks and actions of multiple tempi, and then when these are well understood one learns how to break tempo.

This can be done a variety of ways. One can break tempo by changing the speed of one’s footwork, and, by changing the speed of one’s hand. In each instance, however, this only works if the elements of fencing are present, that is, if one is abiding the universal principles which govern it. For example, if I wish to change the tempo of a riposte, I might set up an opponent the first few exchanges to expect an immediate riposte. Then, the next time, I might a) hold the riposte for a second then make the return (an indirect riposte) or b) feint to the same line, but then cut to another (a compound parry-riposte). In that first instance, the indirect riposte, I’m playing with the tempo, I’m slowing my response so that my opponent will parry to the same place they did previously so that I can attack in a new line. That is using a “slow hand.” Of note, my hand still starts first—I do not advance and then strike (having just attacked me it is far more likely that I took a half step back to parry). If I hold an indirect or the first feint of a compound parry/riposte too long I increase the chance of my opponent making a remise (the renewal of an attack after its been parried by attacking to the same line as the original action). All of this, moreover, takes places in nanoseconds, so “slow” is extremely relative.

Most of the confusion should be resolved if one distinguishes between when the weapon/hand starts (it should be first) and when the weapon/hand lands. Manipulating tempo like that, breaking it, is not easy to do well and it can go wrong quickly. It is also a difficult skill to acquire if one hasn’t put in the time to master fundamental actions first. Generally, if a student is still learning the basic rules, if they are still working to grasp the order of operations for an attack, then they’re not ready to work on breaking tempo.

NOTES:

[n] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2019, 111. The original Italian reads: Da questa presupposta termination, prendo ragione di quell che sin’hora hò detto, per l’anticipatione della mano nella partenza della Stoccata. Poiche è Massima certa nella Scherma, che nel terminare la botta, si hanno da terminare unitamente, & in un’istesso tempo tutti I moti del corpo, restando in un tempo solo fermo, e ben situate con la vita nella termination. Perloche, ad effetto di conseguire ciò, necessariamente si deue movere la mano prima d’ogn’altro mēbro; se questa, dovendo fare camino piu longo, e motto più grande; accio si trovi à tēpo nel terminare insieme con gl’altri, è necessario, che camini prima di tutti. [Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, Libro Secondo, Ch. 6, 80, available via Google Books]. NB: “ē” here is an old abbreviation for “em,” thus mēbro is membro, tēpo tempo.

Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited

In discussion with a local group studying Insular broadsword [1] the topic of what makes sabre “military” or “dueling” came up, again. We explored the place of context and how it’s the key to the distinction, such as it is. This may seem a pedantic topic, and it’s one I’ve covered before [see n. 10 below], but because of the popularity of works for infantry drill it’s an important one. If accuracy in our practice is at all a concern, then we need to view all the myriad videos, fb pages, pdfs, and seminars carefully. Many instructors are, without realizing it, instilling an inaccurate distinction between military and dueling sabre. They are not so much different species as they are siblings who chose different MOSes in the army. [2] Failing to realize this results in poor recreation of past fencing systems.

“Military” Sabre

Often synonymous with “sabre” in “HEMA,” the idea of “military” sabre is a term that is generally used only with reference to European systems developed for and used by various branches of period militaries. English sources are arguably the most popular, though Dutch, German, Spanish, and Portuguese works are also in wide circulation. Preference is for earlier sources, and thus the 18th and 19th century English works, particularly those for broadsword as penned by Roworth, Page, Angelo, and others enjoy great popularity. It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that the English government issued regimental manuals, so prior to that various treatises written by military men, such as Charles Roworth, provided the necessary instruction. While less popular within HEMA, for reasons I’ll share below, most French and Italian sources used in HEMA are also military works or were produced by military men.

In commonwealth and former colonial countries there is a parallel and sometimes dual fascination with Scottish “highland” broadsword, particularly in Canada and the United States. These fencers look to Henry Angelo, Sir William Hope, Thomas Mathewson, Donald McBane, Archibald MacGregor, G. Sinclair, and other sources, such as the Penicuik Drawings. The romance and reputation for ferocity associated with the highland clans of Scotland is as powerful now as it was in the late 18th century, a fact not lost on those, like Henry Angelo Sr., whose use of exotic adjectives and nods to exotic warriors helped popularize his system. [3] After all, in some ways the ’45 was just history enough to the generation writing fencing treatises in England ca. 1775-1800 to have accrued legend and wonder, similar in a way to what World War II was for interested children (not to mention adults) in the 1970s and 1980s. It helped too that the enrollment of Scots into the English army as “ethnic” units meant that kilt, bagpipe, and broadsword remained fixed in the minds of English people. Broadsword, however, was not unique to Scotland, but widely used in the Isles from at least the time of The-Englishman-What-Shouldna-be-Named, George Silver. It was during the 17th century rebellion against the crown that the broadsword came into its own, particularly with cavalry, both Cavalier and Roundhead.

The military connection with this collection of works is obvious. However, because fencers often read these texts shallowly, without understanding the context, they form conclusions that are incorrect or at best incomplete. One result of this is that military sabre has become associated with interpretations that are not wrong per se, but which place undue importance on certain elements common to most infantry sword manuals. [4] There are two examples I will cover here. First, is the widespread practice in HEMA of always fighting in close measure. There is a notion that one doesn’t retreat or recover out of the lunge in defense. This is sometimes the correct action, but it is not a rule written in stone, and in fact is sometimes exactly what someone should not do. We are meant to use measure even if it means retreating. Second, there is a fetish for attacks to the leg in much of HEMA sabre; it’s not that leg cuts and defense weren’t part of these systems, they were, but that too much focus is given to them in a context where they make less sense, a bout between two opponents.

Hug Me, No, Closer Brother

One of the most common features of HEMA bouting is sticking to close measure to fight. There are a few reasons for this. On the one hand, one must be close enough to strike, so on a simplistic level the closer one is, the more likely one can strike—conversely, the more oneself is at risk. On the other, because there is a tendency to take images in our sources at face value many fencers, with the best intentions, assume the same distance they see in these images.

A further complication, and a critical consideration of context, is the attention paid in infantry manuals to both footwork and measure. Henry Charles Angelo, in his Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), remarks that his work is intended as

the surest and quickest mode of forming Swordsmen; and the Drill Officers are to understand clearly, that when Recruits have completed their Preparatory and Drill Practices, without and with the sword, they need no longer be required to remember the precise order in which they are here given; nor to repeat them, if sufficiently instructed to go through the Review Exercise effectively, where every Cut, Point, and Parry is shown. [Introductory Remarks]

The language here explains that the goal was forming competent, not expert swordsmen. Further reading illustrates that Angelo assumed that the men trained together, in ranks, and assumed this position or that attack on command (see for example page 28). This is not close, individual training, but training writ large—corrections were made, but not as a maestro might working one-on-one with a student. Given the fact the men were in “Files” (rows) and thus close together, there is little discussion of footwork or measure.

Angelo mentions the advance, retiring (the retreat), and the lunge (36), and further specifies that there can be no set distance for how large the step is, but that the men should shoot for a step of about six inches (11-12). In Section VI Angelo expands slightly upon measure, mentioning both the line of direction (36) and seeking the most advantageous position so that one may effect “a decidedly quick movement in that direction where your opponent has the least means of resistance (35).” What detail he provides pertains to which guard is best against which attack, not how one might move. There is discussion of shifting the leg against leg attacks (cf. 30), but also attention paid to the issues the men will face in rows. Taken together, there is very little to go on in terms of movement and manipulating distance. Angelo mentions “proper distance” (e.g. 30), but doesn’t elaborate. While the regimental swordmaster’s knowledge aided the men in learning that all important information, no such aid is available to those exploring this text. Angelo assumed that his professional readers knew that information. Today’s fencers are left with the barest descriptions.

from Henry Angelo Sr.’s “Ten Divsions of the Highland Broad Sword,” 1799

This paucity of explanation, coupled with images from works like Henry Charles Angelo’s father’s (Henry Angelo Sr.) “Ten Lessons of Highland Broad Sword” (1799), suggest that fencers are more or less always in close distance to strike. Without study of traditional fencing theory, or of the first Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763/1765), any fencer working from this collection of sources is at a disadvantage. One should not stay in measure all the time. Traditionally, depending upon which source one reads, there are three critical measures—out of distance, where one must advance and then lunge to target; in measure, where one can lunge to target; and close measure, where either party may strike the other. [5] Knowledge of measure and how it works, for offense and defense, means that one should be able to get in and out of distance, even if that means making a small tactical retreat to give oneself more room and time to defend. There is nothing cowardly about that at all—it’s tactical. A retreat is not the same thing as turning tail and running.

Ankle-Biters and Eating Thrusts

Why do so many regimental works include leg defense? Training soldiers en masse was not intended to create expert swordsmen, only effective swordsmen, as Angelo remarked; in most cases the focus was and remained on the effective use of firearms. Second, because soldiers might easily find themselves in situations where their legs were vulnerable, leg defense was included. This is one reason there is so much focus on the head and the leg. The question today’s fans of regimental broadsword need to ask, however, is why?

19th cen. engraving depicting Colonel Wm. Prescott in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775.

There are no rules when it comes to fighting with a sword in war. Any polite, genteel nicety picked up in a gentleman’s salle is inapplicable in such chaos. Attacks from multiple directions, punching, kicking, grappling, the mix of bayonet and rifle-butt, not to mention musket and cannon-balls flying amidst the combatants make that impossible; likewise the noise, blood, mud if it is present, smoke, uneven or challenging terrain, and minimal control over distance also affect everything. In such a context it is far more likely that one may have to defend the legs, and all the more so if one is defending a high position such as a bastion or redoubt. Without considering this vital piece of the puzzle fencers today wishing to recreate Napoleonic era sabre will put undue emphasis on a target that in their own context is more likely to earn them a double or counter-attack in time. Too many fencers take these ideas out of context and use them as a litmus test for how “martial” a tradition is—that doesn’t follow, not if examined in context. Put another way, attacking the legs doesn’t make one’s approach more “military,” though arguably knowing how to defend the legs might. Even the authors who cover leg cuts are quick to advise against the practice—it is a prime way to east a thrust al la Calvalotti.

With the exception of reenactors, most of HEMA does not engage in mock battles, and if so, these are more performance piece and living history than accurate reproductions of those battles. They can’t be otherwise, because people would be hurt. Just like the best options today for steel swords, bayonet trainers are dangerous; the introduction of cavalry is a force-multiplier that would make a lawyer drool. This isn’t to knock these events, not in the least, only to state that our ability to stage period “battles” will lack the very things that make the difference: horror, fear, and the threat of death. Most people, whatever it is they study, are—whether they like it or not—fighting in conditions that are closer to the duel than to combat. A few of us cover multi-opponent scenarios, but even these tend to read more like kung-fu theater than the reality, that is, where each of the “baddies” waits their turn rather than doing what they would really do if it were safe, flank or stab from behind. [6] Most HEMA bouts are one on one, or, a duel, however “military” the approach.

“Dueling” Sabre

The complex nexus of relationships around the duel of honor, from its civilian and military contexts to the length of time it remained important (which also varied by culture), make it less easy to “unpack.” There are a few such relationships that one must consider and which temper the attempt to see “dueling” sabre as some completely different species. It would be better to refer to dueling sabre, if one must separate it out, as a subset of military sabre, and one for the most part confined to officers.

Within HEMA one reason that dueling sabre is believed to be “other” is the connection it has to modern fencing; this, combined with the fact that modern weapons are lighter makes modern (or anything smacking of modern fencing) immediately suspect. The poor logic behind this is that “modern” equals “bad” and that lighter weapons are unrealistic or worse, effeminate and unmanly. [7] The issues here should be obvious, but won’t be unless someone has spent some time studying traditional or modern fencing, has done their homework as to weapon weights, and admits that the somewhat Freudian obsession with big, heavy weapons has less to do with historical fencing than it does immature notions of masculinity and unsophisticated locker-room notions of sexual and gender politics.

Most fencers can relate that the duel of honor started in the “Renaissance” and survived into the twentieth century, but what they often fail to mention is that this odd adjunct to European manners didn’t have a linear trajectory. Its practice varied by nation, culture, and time period. For example, while the duel survived a long time in Italy and France, it was actually less long-lived in England more or less ending in the mid-19th century. Some look to 1852, others 1845, in marking the end of the duel in England. [8] The duel in German states began to shift toward a preference for legal proceedings in some cases, and into ritualized student combats, the Mensur, in another. In some places the duel never really took off, the New England region of the United States being one such example. [9] In some areas, like Ireland, dueling enjoyed a violent if again relatively short tenure, and there, as in the US, the preference was more often than not for lead rather than steel. These differences are critical in understanding why works on fencing from countries like France and Italy not only were written and published more often, but also why modern fencing owes so much of its methodology and technique to them. In both nations, though it was usually illegal, duels continued to take place well into the twentieth century, and for several decades one might study with a maestro for a duel in either country who was also training Olympians.

This is important on several levels. First, the general disregard within HEMA for later Italian and French fencing owes much to the connection to modern fencing. Second, because the duel lasted so long in Italy, and because it was especially prevalent within the aristocracy, government, and military, the manuals for sabre reflect as much concern for the duel as the battlefield. This is a critical aspect too often glossed over in the critiques of Italian sabre. As I’ve stated before, the demands of the duelist require more than the demands of a soldier relying on a sabre as a side-arm he may rarely or never use.

Death of Felice Cavalloti, 1898–he died via a thrust from a less-experienced fencer that entered his mouth and pierced an artery as it passed through the back of his head.

Third, most of the influential works on sabre produced in Italy were either written by military men or were intended for use in the military. From Del Frate’s distillation of Giuseppe Radaelli’s revolutionary new method onward nearly every work of note has some connection to the military. Dueling, though certainly well-attested in the civilian world, was perhaps most prevalent in the military. It was one of the Napoleonic era’s most lasting legacies in Italy. Thus, the officers and soldiers who wrote these works knew that in addition to having to provide basic instruction for the soldiery, these works might also be used to teach officers who might, like it or not, be called out to fight. The inclusion of synoptic tables for lessons in Del Frate, Masiello, and others offer far more than the short tracts on basic sabre for the infantry and reflect this very concern. A duelist might face a complete duffer, or, an accomplished fencer, so preparation for the duel demanded more than what an infantry private needed.[10]

So What?

Does any of this matter. It can. It sort of depends. For fencers who see the larger picture everything mentioned here will earn a “yeah, and…?,” but for those who have not yet studied outside their chosen tradition or who think it is a waste of time there’s at least one take away. If these fencers reject Italian or French fencing because it is “only dueling” sabre, then they may wish to reexamine that position. The military sources for sabre produced in France and Italy, because their officers might have to fight duels, include more than infantry manuals, because one needs more in one’s toolkit to fight one-on-one. No comrade is going to flank and spike the enemy focused on you; no stray musket ball is going to remove the soldier behind that enemy. It is one on one, and there is as much if not more danger fighting the unskilled as there is fighting an expert.

If you find yourself fighting in close distance; if you realize you never really move a lot; if you are obsessed with your opponent’s juicy armor-clad thigh; then there is a lot you might mine from French and Italian military sources. You lose nothing in doing so, and here is why—if not exactly contemporary, you will find fuller discussions of footwork in Italian works back to the 17th century, and thus “period” justification for more sophisticated movement. None of this material existed in a vacuum. Moreover, Domenico, Henry Angelo Sr, and Junior ran a salle in London that taught more footwork than the bare-bones infantry manuals. More attention to the richer sources, even within one’s own tradition, will aid rather than undermine your “military” sabre.

NOTES:

[1] I use this as a collective term for those works, mostly Scottish and English, written for the use of sabre or broadsword from the 18th to 20th centuries. It’s a handy way to refer to these popular works. At present I’m meeting with this group to help them with interpreting the texts.

[2] MOS: in the US Army this acronym stands for “military occupational specialty,” e.g. Combat Engineer (MOS 12B) or Cannon Crewmember (MOS 13B).

[3] Angelo, for example, wisely termed his broadsword method “Highland” and “Hungarian.” Like highland Scotland, the influx of Hungarian hussars who revolutionized light cavalry and fashion alike loomed large in popular imagination.

[4] Of note, not all of the Insular works are as skimp on details as to measure and movement, and again context helps us. If one examines Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot with Broad Sword and Sabre (I’m looking at the 1804 edition), to name one example, one will see that the author spends more time discussing these vital considerations of fencing (distance, 37ff; the advance, 39; the retreat, 40; various forms of traversing, 41-43). Unlike later official publications, which were written for professionals teaching soldiers, texts like Roworth’s, though written by military men, covered more ground as readership might include non-professionals. For those keen to stick to works like the Infantry Sword Exercise, adding a study of Roworth, McBane, or Hope will provide much needed elucidation as to footwork, measure, and tempo, and, from the same group of islands.

[5] See Nick Thomas’ nice explanation in his edition of the Infantry Sword Exercise of 1817, here http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Infantry-Sword-Exercise-Angelo-1817.pdf , for more on the Angelos.

Today, these three critical distances are still taught, though sometimes with further divisions, at least for coaching. In the French school, for example, coaches employ six distances for epee. There are nuances I glossed over as well. For example, depending on distance and reach, a fencer in distance to lunge to the body might be able to reach out and hit the extended target/arm without a lunge.

[6] Armored combat is an exception, but in most cases our safety gear doesn’t encourage the realities of multiple opponent attacks. The back, for one, if it is protected is normally only covered by a jacket however heavy, and the back of the legs probably never. Thus, it’s not that we can’t have people avoid kung fu theater queuing, but that we shouldn’t. There are ways to teach multiple opponent scenarios, and they add a bit of flavor to the usual fare, but much of what we will do will mimic rather than recreate out of safety concerns.

[7] HEMA, like most things, is no stranger to what people now call “toxic masculinity.” This is a notion that gets thrown around a lot, sometimes without justification, but it is accurate as it pertains to big man/big sword dick-measuring stupidity and its attendant vices. It will be clear that I have little patience for this business—aside from the idiocy of it, it gets in the way. Fencing is difficult enough with adding onto it.

[8] See for example Martyn Beardsley, “England’s Last Duel,” 8 July 2019, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/englands-last-duel/ ; Jeremy Horder, “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 12: 3 (Autumn, 1992): 419-430; R.B. Shoemaker, “The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honour and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800,” The Historical Journal 45: 3 (2002): 525-545.

[9] There is a lot of work on American duels, and to repeat, I’m not saying we didn’t have them. We did, clearly. But culturally the idea was less “native” to the US, and didn’t survive long, because our people have historically had few qualms about shooting without ceremony those we don’t like and because of an unfortunate and unbecoming love of litigation, two problems we are, alas, still infamous for world-wide and for good reason. For some of the works on dueling in the Americas, see for example Baldick, The Duel: A History (1970), Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood (2004), and Murray, The Code of Honor: Dueling in America (1984) are informative. See also Stevens, Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America (1940), Williams, Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (1980), and Burchfield, Choose your Weapon: The Duel in California, 1847-1861.

[10] I discussed this early on this page, see “Dueling” or “Military” Sabre, May 15th, 2019. It should be obvious why an infantryman, relying on his rifle and bayonet more than a sabre or hanger, would require less training, but for those who don’t see that then a side-by-side comparison of Roworth or Angelo set against Del Frate, Masiello, or Rossi should make it pretty clear even if one is only counting techniques per source. I also believe that competition among military fencing masters for the honor of running the national school meant that they approached their treatise writing almost like a resume. Chris Holzman has been working on some juicy bits from Jacopo Gelli that provide additional details about the rivalry between southern and northern Italian masters for control. I’m not sure when that will be available, but I’m eagerly awaiting it.

Interview with Mike Cherba—Razmafzar TV

Dr. Moshtagh Khorasani of Razmafzar, martial artist and scholar, interviewed my friend Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare) about traditional Georgian arts. The link is here:

I leave it to Dr. Khorasani and Mike to share, but situated as it is Georgia was in some ways a crossroads where cultures met. Persian influence wasn’t restricted to weapon styles and adornment—similar weapons tend to generate similar use. The Georgian buckler, or pari, shares much in common with the Persian separ.

For anyone into history, cultural exchange and influence, and especially sword and buckler, this interview will be of interest.

Italian Sabre & “HEMA”

A recent comment on facebook, one shared by a friend, illustrated something that has long troubled me—the failure to understand that tourney success is as poor a guide to how effective a tradition is as it can be individual prowess. The reason this should concern any sabreur remotely interested in historical fencing is two-fold.

First, there are well-known voices within HEMA who are influential and who have failed to appreciate these facts. Some have made public pronouncements without qualification that are likely to mislead many people and perpetuate ignorant ideas. Regardless of a fencer’s chosen area of focus in sabre one assumes they want as accurate a picture of past practice as they can garner, so for that reason alone it’s important to correct the error.

Second, competitors need to understand that daft comments about the prevalence of one style of sabre or another in major events reflect prevailing culture more than the merits or weaknesses within a given tradition. For a recent example one such commentator remarked

“nobody in modern times has ever won a major tournament using Italian sabre method. Sorry if that upsets you.” [1]

Where to start with this… If this individual, an Englishman, means within the span of modern competition beginning with the Olympics (1896), then there is ample evidence to the contrary. Of these examples my personal choice to illustrate the error would be H. Evan James, British sabre champion in 1905, who clearly didn’t share the commentor’s views. [2] If by “modern” he means HEMA, then that is worth examining in more detail.

There are two key reasons we don’t see more Italian sabre in HEMA and why we see even less in major competitions. Competitive HEMA sabre, by and large, reflects infantry sabre, and perhaps most often English infantry sabre, a watered-down version of a more complex methodology. [3] To be clear, it is not that more complete, sophisticated fencing didn’t exist in England, but that one isn’t going to find it in the Infantry Sword Exercise. Likewise, “simpler” here doesn’t mean “easy”—if anything, fans of infantry manuals face a greater challenge than those of us who prefer everything spelled out.

What this means is that rarely is one going to see any of the more sophisticated maneuvers and tactics one might find say in Masiello or Barbasetti, because those studying 40-page infantry manuals don’t learn them unless they dig deeper into their own corpus or parallel ones. Second, judging, such as it is, is calibrated to what those judges are expecting to see. So, if the level of sabre never rises beyond hop-and-chop, however well-performed, the judges will have a lot of trouble recognizing more complex actions. I’ve observed this first-hand myself at every single HEMA event I’ve ever attended or watched on video.

To use a local example, at the 2017 Winter’s End Tourney near Portland, Oregon, those fencers who attempted attacks into tempo with the point, such as an arrest or who attempted to manipulate distance tactically, suffered. Judges simply didn’t recognize what they were doing. What they saw, as the flags told it, was only what they knew to look for, obvious single-tempo attacks, all of which were made at close distance. Outside of the Italian and Olympic trained fencers present all of the fighters did their best to ape the images they saw in their sources, right down to never leaving close measure! Apparently, no instructor told them that what one might see on Angelo’s poster or described in a drill for the regiment to practice in unison, is not how one actually fights. One fencer, Italian trained, ate the competition alive but fared poorly because the judges lacked the ability to see what he was doing. [4] The fact that it was obvious meant nothing, because it was only obvious to the poor maestro I asked to officiate and to the few of us there who studied French or Italian fencing. Most everyone either missed it or ignored it because it didn’t look, and I quote, “martial” enough, a stupid term, much-used (incorrectly to boot) that boils down to one thing as HEMA-Bruh uses it, hitting hard and fast. A good fencer can hit hard, but chooses not to; a bad fencer doesn’t know the difference.

The quality of judging, like the quality of fencing, is relative—HEMA has yet to realize this. Any fencer who has spent time in Olympic fencing, on the contrary, knows all too well how true this is. An “A” ranked fencer in Bumblefuck, Middle of Nowhere, who is the best of all 6 people in their region, is likely not the same “A” that a fencer who earned that rank in a major city with hundreds of competitors is—what it takes to earn an “A” in the latter environment is a lot more demanding. In HEMA, however, most competitors possess only a modicum of skill, because their sources, even if they mine them top to bottom, do not include enough to make them brilliant one-on-one—the sources were not designed to do that. So, if both fencers only possess an “E” standard of skill (Olympic Fencing’s lowest rating), are held only to that elementary standard, and the judges lack the ability to judge beyond that, then however good those fencers might be, they remain “E” fencers. If this is all they know, and all they care to examine, then they will mistake that “E” for an “A.” This is what a lot of us outside or at the edges of HEMA see whenever we see HEMA bouts or what we conclude when some blowhard touts their supposed prowess.

There are exceptions too—there are students of Insular broadsword that bring out the best of their favored tradition. My go-to when I have questions about broadsword is Jay Maas of Broadsword Manitoba, Canada. In addition to being approachable, Jay is also one hell of a skilled fighter, one who to me exemplifies just how effective the Insular broadsword tradition can be. Why is he so good? Well, for one, he clearly has a knack for the Art, but he also studies not only regimental manuals, but those for highland broadsword, contemporary smallsword, and importantly—modern foil. Most significantly of all Jay understands these sources, that is, he has excellent command of the elements, fundamentals, or universal principles that make fencing what it is. He uses measure, his footwork is fantastic, his toolkit for technique and the options it provides deep, and his sense of timing is spot on. Jay puts in the time as anyone who has chatted with him or watched him fight or teach can attest. When I think of the people I want at an event, who represent their branch of sabre/broadsword, best, Jay is one of my top five, because I know he’s a gracious fencer and will give anyone, no matter what tradition, a fantastic fight.

With regard to officiating, if the standard by which HEMA judges fencing is rudimentary fencing, then it’s hardly surprising those competitors (and perhaps Youtube personalities) don’t realize the difference. Add their misguided hatred of all things non-HEMA and it makes even more sense—they refuse to learn by analogy, and what better analogy is there of how competition can go wrong than the excesses and gaming in Olympic fencing?

Italian sabre within HEMA, if we can even say that exists, is small. Because of the pedagogical approach, because of the source tradition, and because acquiring sufficient proficiency to compete takes time, there aren’t many of us competing. HEMA throws people into competition way too early, one result of which, well, I’m discussing here.

But there is another reason. No competitor who works hard to develop a sophisticated game is keen to jump into an event where none of that matters, where it will not even be seen, or where it will be, oddly enough, ridiculed. The shame there doesn’t belong to those of us in the Italian tradition, but to the boors who lack the inclination to look beyond their own source material, whose ego needs and dreams of badassdom cannot stomach the idea that someone else, or some other tradition, might have something to offer or, heaven forbid, be superior to their own.

It’s not an accident, after all, that Italian and French fencing stuck, that they were the traditions that formed modern fencing, because every nation in Europe, at the time, saw enough merit in the approaches to abandon their own native systems. It is worth noting that at the very time these nations adopted French or Italian methods both of those nations were still witness to the duel. It’s worth reflecting on all this, especially for those championing English infantry broadsword as the paragon of sabre systems, because if the popular Italian masters who so pissed off a certain Englishman circa 1599 don’t provide some hint as to the value Italian methods held for Englishmen, then perhaps the various repeated attempts to introduce more sophisticated sabre into England over the course of the late 19th and early 20th might.

Funny how for all the talk of English sabre no one ever talks about these men save Hutton (who recommended a “Continental” sabre by the way, page 2, Cold Steel, 1889). What about…

Francis Vere Wright, author of The Broadsword: As Taught By The Celebrated Italian Masters, Signors Masiello And Ciullini of Florence (W. H. Allen & Co., London,1889) or…

the Ministry of War’s 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise (based off of Masiello, but with errors in understanding) or…

Lt. Betts, The Sabre and How to Use It (Gale & Polden, Limited, Aldershot & Portsmouth, London, 1908) or…

Leon Bertrand, Cut and Thrust (Athletic Publications LTD, London, 1927)?

For some, I suspect, to discuss English attempts to improve their own fencing by introducing foreign ideas undermines the romance, jingoism, ethnic pride, and one sometimes suspects sadness over the loss of imperial glory. If those are the chief reasons one fences, they are poor reasons.

There is nothing wrong with studying regimental broadsword or infantry manuals, but there is in ignorantly claiming that they are the last word in sabre. For fans of English sabre who really want to know more about their chosen tradition looking beyond these sources is vital. For the Georgian/Regency period, a look at French smallsword and sabre (for the latter Le Marchant (1796) is a must) will be illuminating; both Angelo (1763 in French; 1765 in English) and Olivier (1771) wrote in English and French and Angelo has excellent plates and illustrations. As the grandfather of the Henry that wrote the Infantry Sword Exercise Domenico Angelo’s work will give one some idea of what the Angelo family’s salle offered in terms of instruction, that is, how much more there was to learn than what one sees in infantry manuals. For those more into Victorian sabre, contemporary French works (e.g. the Manuel d’escrime, 1877) and yes, Italian works (e.g. Del Frate (1868 & 1876), Rossi (1885), and especially Masiello (1887)), will help fill in the picture. There is merit in looking outside one’s own tradition, not only for what one might learn to help one’s game, but also because sabre then as now didn’t exist in a vacuum and gaining some sense of the larger picture will increase understanding.

In time, if HEMA survives its growing pains (betting is even money), we will likely see more events that allow for a wider, deeper variety of expression and sabre play than we do now. If and when it’s possible, one such event we’ve been trying to get off the ground here: a sabre invitational last held in 2019 that was slowly growing pre-Covid. The goal with this event is to provide a venue for fencers who want more than Mongo-chop-chop and who are capable of playing at a higher level. There is a lot of good sabre out there, most unfortunately drowned out by the din of arrogant single-tempo champs, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. The sources are there, and there are people who work from them, but that avails one little if they don’t take advantage of it.

NOTES:

[1] Matt Easton, facebook comment, shared with me March 19th, 2021. NB: The friend that shared this with me was quick to say that it may be a joke, that at least that some are treating it as one, and that Easton also appears to have walked back this comment somewhat.

I’ve not had the pleasure yet to meet Mr. Easton, but as a fellow fan of sabre and someone that has often pointed people to some of his videos, I might recommend in a friendly way that he be a trifle more careful. An experienced fencer, and no stranger to sources, Matt might make a joke that someone without his background takes at face value. Certainly the responses to his comment suggest wide support for what he said, and that is a problem being not only incorrect but needlessly inflammatory. No student of Italian sabre is unaware of what the majority of HEMA thinks of their tradition.

[2] Mr. James’ sabre is Radaellian, and if that seems incidental, then that very Italian leather sabre cuff should help cement the fact he studied Italian sabre. For his Olympic record, cf. https://www.olympedia.org/athletes/22152

[3] In an earlier post I discussed this issue, see “Dueling” or “Military” Sabre, May 15th, 2019. It should be obvious why an infantryman, relying on his rifle and bayonet more than a sabre or hanger, would require less training, but for those who don’t see that then a side-by-side comparison of Roworth or Angelo set against Del Frate, Masiello, Rossi, or Pecoraro & Pessina should make it pretty clear even if one is only counting techniques per source.

To reiterate: simpler texts do not equal easy to learn and fight, in fact they are far harder to use well. This system produced some very fine swordsmen, and does today when, like Jay Maas, Paul Wagner, Stephen Hand, Nick Thomas, and others read and study these works in light of fencing principles that supply what the authors of those texts assumed the reader knew.

[4] No, it wasn’t me, I was helping to officiate, but it was a friend of mine, a senior student of Maestro Sean Hayes, and a gifted fencer.

It’s not Just Me—Jay Maas on Cutting in HEMA

In several posts I’ve mentioned issues with cutting in “HEMA,” generally with regard to two ways in which it’s misused. On the one hand there is too much focus on cutting through a target and not enough on how one cuts, never mind the appropriateness of type of target. On the other, cutting practice as litmus test for a person’s readiness for tournament participation is a false positive—the ability to cut a mat doesn’t mean one has what it takes to bout safely. They can correlate, but are not the same.

Jay Maas of Broadsword Manitoba raises similar issues in his latest video (cf. https://youtu.be/VwuCkJaXrs4). It will upset those who fail to understand what he is saying and why it matters, but then that’s HEMA. As Jay makes clear, there are reasons to include it as part of one’s practice, but this should include an understanding of how it is useful and how it is not.

Cutting is fun, another point Jay makes, and that alone is one reason to do it (with full recognition of safety issues and with appropriate protocols). It can also be a good check for one’s cutting mechanics, but it is just one way, not the only one. Practiced without awareness of the pros and cons, included inappropriately, cutting will—as Jay cautions make one a poor fencer.

Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

Photo by Kalisa Veer, https://unsplash.com/@kalisaveer

We can do most anything when it’s important to us. In the sodden pinelands of the Pacific Northwest the pursuit of most everything entails acceptance of weather if not outright preparation for it. Whatever it is, hiking, sailing, running anyone devoted to these activities does them irrespective of weather. Fencing is normally more or less immune to the elements because usually it’s indoors. Here, because of the damp, we may buy and apply more 3-in-1 oil than others, but fencers everywhere must combat the rust that mixing damp kit and steel fosters. The combination of PNW weather and a pandemic, however, means facing unique challenges. Most fencers at this point have either participated in or know people who have attended online classes, posted footage of drills, or who have even worked out together via zoom or google-meet. Because we can’t congregate inside or in large groups, we’ve had to be creative. Many of us studying the Art have to train; it’s not just the exercise, but that it’s part of who we are, our way of understanding the world, even acting in that world, and so we can’t not, if that makes sense.

The group classes I was teaching either collapsed thanks to Covid or have been put off until it’s once again safe to train indoors. The more fencers with whom I speak the more I hear similar tales of woe. Most of us, if we have a space, pull in just enough to pay rent; moreover, the most affordable insurance demands that we operate as non-profits, so it’s very week by week, skin of the teeth staying open. I wasn’t the only one to lose a space and the people who used it. While easy to take that to heart—and one does at least in part—the truth is that most martial arts studios, of any kind, probably have a shorter half-life than new restaurants. My other classes, conducted through a local parks and recreation organization, will (hopefully) return when we’re in a better place with Covid, but otherwise I imagine what I am doing now will continue.

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

Most of this year I have taught a handful of people, individually, once a week, outside, and masked. Living where I do this means navigating months and months of rain. I’ve found a few places, such as public parks, with sufficient covering to keeps us from being soaked, but at various times these have been closed during quarantine.  So, we’ve used porches, garages, one portion of a barn, my backyard, an empty street, and a local basketball court. Focused on the students, and what they need, as well as how best to supply that, it’s easy to ignore the cold or wet (less so the heat for me). It also strikes me, each practice, how dedicated these fencers are. They meet with me every week, and like ancient Persia’s messengers, “are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” [1] Their zeal in turn keeps me going too; I work harder, prepare more, and do all I can to help them improve. I owe them my best.

There are times, though, when just how weird all this is hits me. Probably my favorite example, so far, was having to stop practice to chase a chicken back into its coop. One of my students lives on a small farm just outside of town, and we often meet in a space next to his barn. We had a good laugh about it once that blasted wee dinosaur was back in its cage, but never did I think managing fowl was something I needed to be prepared for. Ridiculous moments like that help make the difficulties in working out of doors easier. Slipping on mud, wet planks or concrete; walking to practice with a giant garbage bag over my fencing gear (not looking at all suspicious, I’m sure); the strange head-bobbing machinations we make to ensure that face-masks don’t become headbands inside our fencing masks; and competing for covered space with any other group who normally trains indoors (high school dance and cheer teams, kids at play, adults meeting to chat so many feet apart) it’s all become part of the equation. In addition to the sad contributions we make to slapstick comedy, there are other benefits.

This farm I visit once a week, for example, has a little concrete, but is mostly gravel where we practice, and so footwork drills in particular are affected. Working without a decent floor creates a number of hurdles. Concrete is nice and flat, but hard; it can also be slick. Gravel is pure rubbish to fence on, but sometimes the only option, especially as what isn’t mud is more than likely a fen in hiding. Grass is slick, but also hides those covert fens until one steps into them and loses a shoe (NB: shoes fill surprisingly fast with mud. It’s worse than chickens). Wood, such as decking or the planks at certain parks (sitting areas, bridges, etc.) are better, but the latter are normally full of benches, picnic tables, or railing. Somehow, wherever we end up each week, we “make it work” (the excellent Tim Gunn, a fencer by the way, would be proud). One unlooked for benefit from all these odd places is that trying to fence on them helps put some of the observations in the sources about terrain into higher relief. For one example, Monsieur L’Abbat, who wrote about smallsword, not only recommends that the lead foot be lifted slightly and set down “flat and firm,” but also that the rear foot, depending on the ground, not turn over too much onto the edge. [2] It also, I believe, helps us learn to adjust footwork to fit the ground—the importance of proper technique with footwork is all the clearer too: if we don’t do it right there is the very real chance that we’ll twist a knee or ankle or end up cap-a-pie in mud. Terrain also affects measure which can affect tempo, and while certainly not an ideal way to work those all-important universals, what we’re learning would be difficult to do otherwise.

In a similar way, attempting to fence in winter clothing can be illuminating. It’s rarely truly cold here, but the damp makes it feel much colder, and balancing layers with exercise is tricky. Like normal outdoor activities we often start with more on and discard layers as we warm up. No one, however, wants a nice winter coat slashed or poked, and so this often means various layers underneath fencing jackets. Mobility can be affected either way. The days where we conduct lessons without rain and roof mean situating ourselves as best we can to avoid the sun (it can refract nicely on the mesh of the mask); if it starts to drizzle we normally keep going, but rain makes it hard to hear and see, never mind the potential danger in slipping. That’s really not ideal even with practice weapons in hand. While additional clothing, because it’s modern, doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of how fighting in a great coat, justeaucorps, or pelisse was, it nonetheless makes us aware of how clothing can affect technique, and, of what we need to do to ensure we maintain good form.

In recent weeks some of this has been harder to juggle. An ice storm last weekend made homework for the epee course tricky; my other responsibilities and various jobs, vehicle failures, changes in school schedules, everything it seems makes coordinating lessons a little more difficult. But I do it. We do it. Because we can’t not. More than anything else this is the fact that comes up for me most when I stand back at look at the past year.

Salute, from Girard, P. J. F. Traité des armes. France: La Haye, 1740.

It’s an honor to meet these students each week. With all that is going on in the world, in their own lives, with all the shared challenges humanity faces, they make time for fencing. Rain, snow, or shine, they make it. Their level of dedication, depth of passion for the Art, and the discipline it takes to do that each week is truly impressive. As their instructor I’m humbled by that, especially given the loss of a school and students, of major plans that had to be postponed, of all the disappointments, because these woes are out front, visible, and quick to clamor for attention. It would be easy to dwell on what I lost.

When the Art is our life, when what we learn in studying it is the lens through which we understand so much of what we experience, when it is for lack of a better expression a way of life, a creed, then these seemingly small victories appear less small. My students are fencers in a long, difficult bout, and they’re not giving up. Covid, online school, sick friends and relatives, job issues, isolation, all that may have points on them, but they’re not forfeiting; they’re still in the fight. That sort of resilience is perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning each week. It’s proof of fudoshin (Japanese “immovable mind”) and its benefits, of the ability to focus despite calamity, poor weather, or chickens. [3] Sharing this time with my students, handing down the tradition handed to me, and seeing them improve, all while things collapse around us… there’s beauty in all that and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

NOTES:

[1] Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 8.98. See for example Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 4 vols., translated by A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-1925, available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.%208.98&lang=original

[2] Andrew Mahon, who translated L’Abbat’s book into English, makes a piquant observation about the rear foot and the ways in which it might turn onto the edge:

“Monsieur L’Abbat recommends the turning on the Edge of the Left-foot in a Lunge, as may be seen by the Attitudes. This Method indeed was formerly practised by all Masters, and would be very good, if their Scholars had not naturally run into an Error, by turning the Foot so much as to bring the Ancle to the Ground, whereby the Foot became so weak as to make the Recovery difficult… Therefore I would not advise the turning on the Edge of the Foot to any but such as, by long Practice on the Flat, are able to judge of the Strength of their Situation, and consequently, will not turn the Foot more than is consistent therewith.

It may sometimes be necessary to turn on the Edge, on such Ground whereon the Flat would slip, and the Edge would not, if it were properly turned; but even in this Case, by turning it too much it would have no Hold of the Terrace, and therefore would be as dangerous as keeping it on the Flat.

The chief Reason for turning on the Edge, is that the Length of the Lunge is greater by about three Inches, which a Man who is a Judge of Measure need never have recourse to, because he will not push but when he knows he is within Reach.

Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, or the Use of the Small Sword, 1734, ed. Andrew Mahon (Dublin, IRE: James Hort, Gutenberg.org).

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

The Foot should fall firm without lifting it too high, that the Soal of the Sandal, or Pump, may give a smart Sound, which not only looks better and animates more, but also makes the Foot firm, and in a Condition to answer the Swiftness of the Wrist.

Care must be taken not to carry the Point of the Foot inward or outward, because the Knee bending accordingly, as part of the Thigh, goes out of the Line of the Sword, and consequently, of the Line of Defence, besides ‘tis very disagreeable to the Sight.


The Feet sometimes slip in the Lunge, the Right Foot sliding forward, or the Left backward; the first is occasioned by carrying out the Foot before the Knee is bent, whereas when the Knee brings it forward, it must fall flat and firm; the other proceeds from the Want of a sufficient Support on the Left Foot.

Il est bon que le pied frape ferme sans l’élever, que la sandale claque avec éclat, ce qui non seulement paroît & anime advantage, mais encore bonifie le peid & le met en état de suivre la Vitesse du poignet; il faut éviter de porter la pointe en dedans ou en dehors, parce que le genoüil ployant sure cette ligne se fort, & une partie de la cuisse de la ligne de l’epée, & par ce moyen de la défense, outre que cela choque extremement la veüe. Les pieds peuvent encore manquer dans l’alongement le droit glissant en avant & le gauche en arriere; le premier vient de ce qu’on porte le pied avant de ployer le genoüil, au lieu que quand le genoüil le deviance il ne peut se porter qu’à plomb, & par consequent avec fermeté, & l’autre se fait par le manque d’apuy sur la partie gauche.

Jean-Francois le Sieur Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes ou de L’Epee Seule, 1696 (Toulouse, FR: Chez J. Boude, La Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens), Ch. 3, p. 18-19.

[3] 不動心(fudōshin) is a concept in various schools of Japanese swordsmanship. My exposure to this concept, for fencing, was via kendo. There are various resources for those interested in this idea. See for example, Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1982); Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979); Michael Maliszewski, Ph.D., Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1996); Hiroaki Sato, ed., The Sword & The Mind (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986).

_Semper Anticus_: The Importance of Continuing Education

Resilience and creativity may not be the most lauded skills in fencing, but they probably deserve to be included among the virtues traditionally associated with it. Despite Covid-19, storms, fires, political upheaval, and much more, fencers have still found ways to study and train. The pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to pursue the Art, from sharing solo drill footage to various online meetings. In a sense it’s an ideal time to work on self-improvement because most of us can’t congregate yet. We have time to expand our knowledge, increase our skill-base, and hone ability. It can help to have goals with this–this past week I started an extended course via the USFCA (the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association), online, and though we’ve only met once it’s clear to me just how valuable this class is going to be.

One thing I have always told students, be it in college courses or during fencing lessons, is that we never stop learning (we shouldn’t anyway). A teacher is first a student and if they’re smart they remain one. I have probably expressed this different ways, ad nauseum, in most settings, but it’s because I believe it’s true. Even if we have something down well and have taught it umpteenth times someone else may know a way to improve our approach. There’s always more to learn or new ways to do what we already do well. Every instructor should take time to continue their education–it’s important.

Interacting with new people, and especially a new maestro, can be difficult for many people, but for those of us farther along the introvert spectrum it can be down-right daunting. Luckily, a good friend alerted me to this course and is taking it himself–it turns out that two other people I know are as well, one a local coach, the other a master in California. I was nervous going into the class, partly because of the social interaction (something quarantine has done little to help), partly because despite using a lot of technology I tend to struggle with these online meeting platforms, and partly because as someone who has focused on historical fencing, who has had a challenging relationship with competitive fencing, it’s easy to feel out of place. Turns out there’s a lot that can tag along with that last one.

One Art, Many Paths

Like many people, I started teaching fencing when assigned the task by a maestro. The last two masters I studied with, both of whom I spent a fair amount of time with, asked me to help newer students or assist their more advanced fencers prep for an event. Dutiful and honored I did my best. I enjoy teaching and the chance to do so was fun, but teaching is also critical in improving our own ability and knowledge. Having to teach something goes beyond being able to do it–we have to understand it. I didn’t want to disappoint my maestri or steer my fellow students the wrong way. They trusted me to do a good job or they wouldn’t have asked me, but that doesn’t mean I felt up to the task every time.

My approach to teaching is, more or less, what I saw my own teachers do. This goes for everything: the sections of a lesson, the types of drills, the various cues–verbal and physical–we use, everything. In time, we develop our own style, we tweak this or that perhaps, but this method is by definition often informal, organic, and implicit rather than explicit. Feedback from those same masters helped, as does time in the saddle, but just how different this is from formal instruction in how to teach hit me hard last week.

This course is the first “how to teach” course in fencing I’ve taken. The maitre d’armes teaching it, a highly-respected, published, and extremely well-trained instructor, hit the ground running day one. He put names to things, gave explanations, and explained a lot of what we do as fencing instructors, things I have done but never really thought about. If that class had been the only one in the series it would still would have been extremely valuable, but to know that I have weeks and weeks of similar instruction coming is exciting. It’s also intimidating.

The course in question is on epee/spada, the weapon of the modern three I’ve had the least training in, but which I have fought quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about it, both in terms of its development as a distinct weapon and with regard to modern tactics. In addition to improving my teaching I hope to gain further insight into the weapon. Often tackling the hardest aspect of a challenge first makes sense, so epee being the least familiar to me, it’s a good place to start.

Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8

The cosmos, if we’re paying attention, has a funny way of ensuring that we stay humble. Of the various gaffs in the universe’s comedic toolbox one of the most painful (if sometimes amusing) has to be self-sabotage. We can be our own worst enemies, and moreover, in different ways. In my case, the first homework assignment for the epee course put the spotlight on a prime example of this, and for spice, on multiple levels.

It may seem odd to share this, but to date I have found that sharing tales of failure as well as success isn’t just honest, but sometimes helpful. How, for example, is a student going to know it’s okay to make a mistake if we can’t admit our own? Maybe they will learn to harness failure or missteps without our help, but it sure might save them some pain if they have a model for how one might do that. As teachers we don’t expect or look for perfection, just improvement. Part of our role, I think, is making it okay to mess up, to fail, or as common parlance has it, “to suck.” We need to be able to be bad at something first if we wish to get better at it. I don’t think this is a one time deal either, but a reoccurring process we experience at various plateau moments in learning. I am not one to boast and it makes me uncomfortable when others do it–the culture I grew up in considered such behavior ugly–but I will say that I’ve been fencing a long time, teaching a long time, and I make mistakes too. I will make more. It’s part of learning. So, while the following story may read as more humiliating than illuminating, that’s okay–if it makes it even slightly less painful for anyone else to mess up, then great. Sharing this example also sticks it to my own ego, the root of the problem, and that is healthy as well.

In my own most recent example, I was intrigued but puzzled by the maestro’s homework assignment. I understood it, I thought, and it struck me as odd, but I assumed I more or less knew what he wanted so didn’t follow up with him. I should have. I always tell students to ask questions, and, that no question is stupid in class. Better to ask than not.

He had asked us to make a video where we coaches devise two responses against the student as the student recovers from the lunge. It will likely be immediately obvious to many reading this that after having shared these two options one would have the student demonstrate counters to them. I mean, that is what we do each time we teach, right?, we take them from this action to the next, sometimes building complexity, or changes of tempo, or working distance and the student eventually makes the touch. [1] Even with Covid I teach three times a week and never make this mistake. Well… I took the instructions rather literally.

Why? I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few days to think about it and I think I’ve figured it out. First, in the past when a maestro has given me an instruction I have carried it out, and, normally without question. If they said “okay, now do x, but in this tempo…” I did it; if they said “Help Sarah with transports,” I did it. In silent lessons they wouldn’t say anything and I had to figure it out from physical cues, precedent, or deduction based on principles. This may sound rather military in obedience or thoughtless, but it isn’t really. Two of the masters I worked with were retired military officers, and having grown up in that culture it’s comfortable if not natural to me, but one reason I didn’t join the military was because I actually don’t take orders well. [2] It’s also part of traditional fencing culture–there is a time and place to ask the maestro about something, but normally one doesn’t when the sala is full, the maestro busy, and there is work to do. If the master pauses a lesson and calls to us, we answer, especially when they are asking for us to help.

The other issue, the critical one, was over-thinking. On the one hand, I tend to feel like I wear a scarlet “H” on my jacket when I’m around many Olympic fencers. If you’ve read any of the previous posts here that will make sense, but if you haven’t in summary leaving the competitive world for the historical doesn’t earn one a joyous send-off at the pub, but the finger and all too often a loss of respect. The three other people I know in the class, all with experience in a variety of branches of fencing, also have more formal training in teaching fencing. [3] When we feel like the odd one out our brains can go crazy places–in this case, I focused too much on what the assignment said and not what we were supposed to get out of it. I was more worried about what the instructor would think of me, that I might earn a larger letter “H,” than just demonstrating via that homework what I’d do in that instance. That rabbit hole leads to crazy town and interior monologues such as “Maybe it’s a test of sorts to see what we know or how we think? If so, then it’s okay to focus on that alone… or is it…” repeat. It’s a horrible place to be. The solution was simple, but I was too worried to think of it: it’s a class on teaching, so, if I gave a student A and B, what might they do with them?

More wisdom from “Blackadder II” BBC

Coming up with two options as the student recovered was not the problem, but in worrying more about getting it right I neglected the most important aspect–why do it at all, so what, why does this matter? The most important question was to consider why the maestro assigned this, what it was meant to impart. Even in the midst of feeling bad about it that irony wasn’t lost on me.

Part of the assignment was to take video of these actions. My eldest son, a wiz at all this technology stuff, helped me, as did my spouse, and I put together option one and option two. This is where another layer popped up–trusting our gut. It felt like a really weird place to stop: if it’s just me showing the option, then the student is hit, and well, that’s not really what we do. We set things up for the student to make the touch properly. I was afraid to trust myself, reassured myself that this is what he asked for, and submitted it. But, the rest of the afternoon I just kept thinking about it. It bothered me.

Later, in chatting with a friend in the class, he showed me what he and his student had done. It was all there. He shared his two options, and significantly, what his student might do to counter them. I knew it! Panic set in. Every scenario blitzed through my head, and in each one I was hounded out of class, the look of polite disgust of my fellow students blatant in their zoom boxes, the maestro shaking his head slowly, the mean jailor from “Games of Thrones” pointing at me and saying slowly “shame…. shame….”

What could I do? Maybe nothing this time, but I needed to do something to change my mindset. I asked my son if he’d be willing to add an additional move; he was; so, we made another short video and I explained in it that I’d left out the most important part, where the student defeats those two options. The maestro saw it, and in discussion about it was kind, generous, and full of helpful feedback.

Teacher, Teach Thyself and Be Taught

I’d broken my own rule, the one by which I do most everything now, which was to leave ego out of it. I was so worried that I’d put it a poor showing, that I would mess up, that I would look stupid, etc., that I fulfilled the fear or at least felt that I did. Anyone who has weathered disappointment or failure ideally is better able to handle them the next time, and while it took a while to shake off the feeling of embarrassment, of letting myself down, and all the rest, when I could finally see it objectively I was glad it had happened. Having screwed up, what could I learn from it?

Too much concern over how we’ll be received or viewed, of what others will think, not only can taint an experience, but also prevent an experience from happening. Fear of censure or failure, worry about making a mistake or looking stupid, all of that can prevent us from doing the things we need to do, things we like to do, things we should do. Not the karmic burden I would have picked, but it’s hardly unique to me. Many if not all of us suffer this at one time or another.

We need to give ourselves, and sometimes be reminded…, that it’s okay to be new to something, to mess up, to be vulnerable. If we stumble, we get back up; if we fall again, we get back up. Ever forward.

If there is one thing more I learned it’s that being in this class, learning new things, and well… re-learning some of these same lessons again…, is precisely where I’m probably supposed to be. I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ll learn more, and really, that’s the point.

NOTES:

[1] The exception to allowing the touch is when a student performs the action incorrectly; in this case the attack may fail or we ensure that it does, and then examine why. All of that is geared toward helping them perform the correct action the right way and gain the touch.

[2] It’s a long story and not particularly interesting, but I had all but completed the initial ROTC courses at my first college and the commander met with me to figure out the next step. When I told him my major, he paused then said “Huh… well… um… let’s put down ‘undecided’ for now” and I realized then and there I was going to be a poor fit.

[3] These are three people I respect a great deal and whose friendship I value. The master in California is equally at home in Olympic, HEMA, and the SCA, and a super cool chap on top of it all; the local instructor, an old friend I’ve fenced with off and on for over a decade, and I were going to start on our certs together, but things happen and he started last year; and last, a good friend of mine and fellow devotee of Italian fencing is the one who told me about this class–he has taken a variety of courses, at Sonoma, in the USFCA, and in Europe.