Fingers crossed…

In about two weeks, so long as my nation pulls its head out of its collective backside in re Covid’s delta variant, I will be on my way to Prague, Czechia, to participate in SabreSlash 2021. The betting is even money as to how effectively we get numbers down and/or whether the EU will ban US travelers, but fingers crossed I can make it.

I left facebook a while ago, but friends send me screenshots of the adverts and posts about the event and it looks like a blast. The first day consists of classes, one of which I’m teaching, and the second day there’s a tournament, cutting party, and mustache contest—this last has contestants attempting the glorious lip-fur a la Barbasetti or Masiello. I love events like these and I’m eager to meet the other attendees as well. We’re at capacity for pandemic guidelines size-wise, but people are coming from all over the EU, from Mexico, and the US and I know I will learn a lot.

Competition could be fierce

Happily, I’ll have a few days to see Prague as well. The historian in me can’t wait to see the castles, the 15th cen. clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, and museums, but this is also the city of Kafka and Kundera, of Dvorak and Smetana, of Vaclev Havel and Siegfried Flesch, one of the country’s most famous fencers, and I’ll be grateful to see what I can in the short time I’m there.

It is a signal honor to be invited to teach there, and I’m doubly humbled by my hosts putting me up during my stay. Though I’ve seen a few different corners of the world, I’ve found that the best experiences, for me anyway, are those that give one a look at life and culture in a new place. Much as I love historic sites, what sticks with me, what I value most are the conversations over coffee or drinks, struggling to communicate in a language not my own, making connections with people, and gaining a slightly better sense of their world. The chance to fence on top of that? All the better!

Vis enim vincitur arte

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 090/94 verso, (from UCalgary, Canada, digital collections, Gawain Ms)

In most any quest one is more likely to find Tech Duinn than Tir n mBan or Kêr Iz. Only in stories is anyone, normally a hero, able to win a prize, earn a skill, or achieve much without effort. Even there the best efforts can fail—for every Gawain there is a Connla. [1] Not all effort is the same. Not everything is up to us. We can direct energy in the wrong direction, and so it’s worth pondering how we can best apply ourselves so that we don’t waste time or energy (all other factors notwithstanding). The importance of this goes beyond how we train and into how we lead our lives, into what battles we choose to fight, what company we choose to keep, and in what pursuits we direct our efforts. Everything.

I took as the motto for this school a line from F.A. Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), vis enim vincitur arte, “For force is conquered by art,” not because power doesn’t have its place, but because without art power only does so much. One may be a powerful speaker, but without some skill in rhetoric any speech will suffer no matter how passionately one delivers it. In the same section, Marcelli shared a Latin rendering of the first two lines in Hippocrates’ Aphorismi, Ars longa, vita brevis, that is, “the Art is long, life short.” [2] The cipher I adopted for myself (see image just below) I made from two bits of clipart (one must be mindful of intellectual property rights)—a skull argent, affronté, crowned, trisected by spada, sabre, and foil—and is meant to capture this notion, that is, that the Art is eternal and we are not. It plays well with the usual memento mori aspects of this specific charge. I noticed another fencer adopt it, a chap in Italy I believe, and if it speaks to him too, great.

Memento Mori

For me, there is a lot that this cipher encapsulates. We only have so much time, so we should use it well. We should face the Great Question as bravely as we face an opponent: eyes forward, devoid of emotion, and ready. Whatever the weapon (the three stand for all) we should be ruled by the Art and the respect and discipline it teaches. If we want what we do to matter, if it is to matter, then we must embrace that journey without simplistic expectations about the outcome or too much concern about how it will be received—we focus on the work instead. We focus on the Art, less so our experience of it. This is easy to say, but much harder to carry out; so, mindful that death wins in the end, that nothing comes without struggle, and that we should consider how we want to be remembered, we press on despite setbacks, criticism, or failure. Failure, after all, is just another teacher.

It’s difficult sometimes, and natural to ask, whether we’re wasting our time or effort. We should ask this frequently. We can’t always know when we are wasting our time, especially without a skilled coach or similar insight, but there are a few areas this tends to go wrong and that are worth monitoring. Unqualified to give anyone life advice—not like I’ve figured my own out yet—what follows focuses on a few aspects of the Art where we tend to go wrong.

Attribute vs. Technique Fencing

One area we see misplaced effort is in forcing through an action. It’s not that this didn’t happen—we can be pretty sure it did—but in and of itself relying on one’s strength, or speed, or reach only brings short-term benefits. Two caveats. One is that competitive “HEMA,” like it’s sibling Olympic competition, will sustain an attribute fighter or fencer a long time. At present it will serve one longer in HEMA, because there are fewer truly skilled fencers who compete. [3] I am not against tournaments—they’re fun—but they have garnered more weight than they should have. I’m not the only person who believes this; as Matt Easton and Mark from the Exiles recently commented, the goals, training, and attitude toward the Art differ across the historical fencing spectrum. As unpleasant as this may sound, success in competition may correlate with a high degree of skill, but it doesn’t have to; in fact, in general all one needs is the need to do well and a deep degree of commitment to each fight, each blow. Olympic is no exception. [4]

Second, there are situations, particularly in mixed-weapon settings, where differences in weapons tell. A recent example of my own was fighting with a friend, Josh Campbell; he was armed with a 3+lb (1.36kg) baskethilt; mine, a later period model, weighs in at 2.36 lbs (1.072 kg). One head parry I took I didn’t take at the right distance and the mass of the other weapon easily defeated my defense. I only bout full-tilt with people of appropriate skill and control—I can’t afford to be injured—and this man, strong as he is, is able to stop a blow on a dime. The touch was his—yes, I had “parried,” but insufficiently, and had the fight been in earnest that blow would likely have ended it right there. Using one’s natural abilities is not wrong, but the best fencers combine those gifts of heredity with technique and understanding. This is true regardless of the person. In the example above, Josh could push through most any blow he wants, but he doesn’t—he knows that he needs to let the sword do its job, he knows to use its weight to save him effort, and in situations where the mass of that weapon will overwhelm he has the control to moderate force.

As another example, height and reach can be a boon, but so too can the lack of it. A good coach will help each fencer develop those inborn abilities in conjunction with the technical repertoire both learn. When I am teaching a shorter fencer, even at the outset we discuss things that are not going to work against a much taller opponent. If fencer A is 4’ 5” and B is 6’ 4,” and B launches a head-cut, A can use parry 5, but will likely need better measure to create an angle that keeps them safe. Moreover, A probably shouldn’t riposte to the head—they’re at a disadvantage there. The lower lines are a safer bet as they’re closer to A and harder, generally, for B to cover as quickly. B, on the other hand, can more easily target the high lines and extended target—going for a leg shot against A, which is daft for a variety of reasons, is more so given the height difference. [5]

Drilling

The famous line attributed to Bruce Lee about kicks, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times,” highlights the importance of meaningful drill. If we practice something unimportant or incorrect 10,000 times, all we do is hone a skill we don’t need or which we should be using differently. One of the arguments for a capable instructor or sensible study group is that it’s so easy to go wrong and guidance can help prevent that. There are, sad to say, people out there who have been at all this a very long time, and yet have extremely little to show for it. It’s hard not to feel pity for people in that plight, especially when it’s public. To have devoted so much time, energy, and passion for so long and to have so little to show for is unfortunate. It is, however, fixable.

For historical fencers, any drill or exercise beyond typical warm-ups or well-known conditioning routines should rely heavily on whatever source or sources one is using. Those drills connected to using measure, footwork, tempo, or other universals should be in play, but may differ by weapon. One uses different footwork for longsword than smallsword, but both require one to be able to move in any direction; both employ different categories of measure; and both exploit tempo. If your group or coach isn’t having you work on universals, that’s a problem. So too are any of the “bullshido” sorts of drills. What are these? One example, for footwork, I experienced myself. In one class I tried (but left), the instructor insisted that one land demi-pointe in the lunge. Nothing in the corpus supports this idea—no lie, I’ve looked—and when questioned he just got angry. [6] Other common examples include too much focus on speed, hardness of a blow, and drills that train actions that run counter to universal principles and/or one’s source.

Another common problem, but not strictly bullshido in nature, is the type of drill that comes from a source but which is a dead-end. Another example from the same instructor was his use of the stick drill in Henry Angelo’s Infantry Manual (1845). It makes sense as a reminder of the author’s numbers for cuts and guards, and as a warm-up perhaps, but I never saw him go beyond that save to one other set-drill. In all the times I visited that group over a year the only thing they ever covered in their two hours of class consisted of those two drills. Every practice… Fencing instruction is progressive, not static. If you are still doing the exact same drill the same way a year later, and that is all you’re doing, that’s worth examining.

Yachts in Kiddie Pools

HEMA is riddled with people who shouldn’t be teaching. There is a difference between the most experienced person running a study group in some isolated place and the person with a few years’ experience who just decides they are good enough to teach. It can be subtle. The former teaches because it’s the only option; the latter teaches because their self-worth needs dictate that they must teach to feel legitimate and/or be seen as such. There is grey area in all this too.

Selecting an instructor is difficult sometimes. Personality fit, distance, and time conflicts are one thing, but among the trickier issues is assessing what experience means. Like effort, not all experience is the same—seven years of this class or that, some tourney wins, and a big head do not an instructor make. They “can,” but it all comes down to how those years were spent, the quality of that experience. Because HEMA at large lacks sufficient time in the saddle, because the average level of understanding and ability is so mediocre, not only do we see more run of the mill fencers attempting to coach, but also a concurrent disdain for actual training. Not everyone can manage being shown up, and since many of HEMA’s popular darlings enjoy the modicum of fame they’ve run into, anything that might chip away at it is unwelcome.

If you want to teach, if you’re drawn to it, great, but do it right. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to work with an established, well-respected, and viable program. I’m happy to suggest a few. If these options are unavailable for some reason, then reach out to a teacher of recognized skill. What does “recognized” mean? Good question. Assuming someone is out there teaching what you want to pursue, a few ways to assess them include

  • their relative experience (how long have they been fencing or studying that topic?)
  • their training (what training have they had? Where did they obtain it? How is it regarded outside its own circle?)
  • the quality of their research if they’ve conducted any (did an academic journal publish it or a personal website? Was it peer-reviewed, and if so, who are those peers? How does it read? How solid is their support? Their thesis?)
  • teaching experience (where and whom have they taught? Have they been asked back? Have they taught both beginners and advanced fencers? What do other teachers think of them?)
  • are there reports of inappropriate behavior or red flags as teachers (condescending, dismissive, abusive, etc.) [7]

These are general categories, so general that depending on how one assesses each of these even some of the worst instructors will likely make the cut. Popular doesn’t necessarily equal excellent. I don’t care to name names, and won’t, but I know some teachers who are hands down the best in their field who do not travel widely, do not have an entourage, or post a billion videos of themselves; they are people any one of us should hope to work with at least once. Some names are easy—if I ever have a chance to take a class with Chris Holzman, Dave Rawlings, Francesco Loda, Christian Tobler, Jess Finley, Tom Puey, Kaja Sadowski, Manouchehr Khorasani, or Da’Mon Stith (again) I will jump at the chance. Whatever it is, I will learn something, I’ll be challenged, and with luck grow. As a final consideration, the best teachers I’ve known may have known they were good, but not one was a braggart; in fact, I know a number of gifted teachers that constantly question their ability. Painful as that is for them, it indicates that they take the job seriously and want to do it right. The feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with teaching.

Research

I’ve covered this often and thus will be brief. There is good research, and there is poor research. Some practitioner’s Youtube video is likely going to have less weight than an article vetted by a peer-reviewed panel, an established historical authority or fencing master, or a well-respected translation of a key source. If that practitioner happens to be a maestro; if it’s a trained historian, archaeologist, or museum curator; if it is one of the handful of long-time historical fencers who have earned the authority that these others assign to them, then you’re on firmer ground. Naturally there are exceptions.

Anyone can be on Youtube; anyone can print a book; anyone can claim any number of things, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worth considering. Lucky as we are to enjoy a period like that initial boom after Gutenberg with our on-demand and self-publishing, we get all the downsides too. For every Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550) we also get far too many Nostradamus’ Les Phrophéties (1555)… It pays to be cautious.

All this Time Wasted—now What?!

What do we do if we realize we’re on the wrong track? What if one realizes one day that their coach only knows the first two pages of a manual or that they’re teaching something counter to all received knowledge? What if we realize we’ve used a bad translation? The good news is that when we realize we’ve wasted our time, on anything, we can stop and reorient. Jump off the wrong track and find the right one.

It’s become a commonplace to quote Edison about lightbulbs, but it holds: the years one may have spent pursing the Art in less effective ways are not wasted, not if one uses them. They amount to firsthand knowledge of what doesn’t work, and that becomes armor against future missteps. Even the awareness that it’s possible to land with a dud of a coach or use a bad interpretation affords some protection: it makes us more careful.

Wipeout!

This discovery can be traumatic, deeply upsetting, and disorienting. Sometimes we need to sit with that disappointment for a while. To use a west coast analogy, it’s like being hit by a wave while surfing: one is knocked off the board, dragged underwater, and yet one doesn’t fight the wave; one lets it pass and then comes up, pulls in the board, and starts over. If one loves surfing, then one doesn’t quit, but tries again. It’s the same with fencing, with the Art. We will meet disappointment in many forms; that doesn’t mean we have to like it or quit. These are just moments of clarity, punctuated instances where we can actually see progress, funny as that might sound. These are the segues between levels of understanding, between jumps in skill, at least they can be if we use them as such.

NOTES:

[1] Tech Duinn, the House of Donn, is one of the Irish “Otherworld” locations, but has strong associations with death, Donn being the ruler of the dead in some accounts. Dursey Island, off the Beare peninsula, County Cork, Ireland, has often been linked to Donn’s House. Tir n mBan (“Land of Women”) or Kêr Iz (Breton, “City of Ys”) both refer to other popular versions of the Celtic Otherworld, the first in voyage tales like Imram Curaig Maíle Duín (The Voyage of Máel Dúin), the second in several Breton sources. Gawain, one of the knights of Camelot, is famous as the opponent of Bertilak, the Green Knight, and Connla, a son of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and Aife, one of the two masters who trained the hero in Scotland. Connla dies fighting his father who only too late realizes that the conditions he left with Aife for the boy led to the child’s death.

[2] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, The Rule of Fencing, Book 2, Ch. 1, 55-56 in Holzman’s translation. More and more this book is one of my absolute favorites.

[3] I’ve discussed the issues around tourneys a lot. I do so because a) I actually like tourneys and b) hate seeing them conducted poorly and/or misinterpreted as the litmus test for skill.

[4] The drive to win, the self-worth need for it, will sustain a person a long time. I’ve observed this so many times in both TKD and in fencing (of all sorts). Our mental state in a fight will more often determine success than skill, because skill doesn’t work on its own—it requires a brain to make it work, and the calmer, more determined that brain, the better that skill presents. This is why at high levels of competition, where both skill and mental fortitude are stronger, skill can play out in ways that we do not see with beginner or intermediate fighters. This said, even skilled competitors can and do resort to theatrics to win when they arguably should not (e.g. certain bouts in women’s sabre, Athens, Summer Olympics, 2004).

[5] Yes, attacks to the leg are present in historical sources, but usually taken out of context and over-used. They make very little sense in the setting of a duel save where the height between the two opponents is so great that the shorter fencer might strike the legs more safely.

[6] The demi-pointe lunge, as I call it, has been the subject of my research this past year. I’ve spent probably way, way too much time on it, but with luck it will put the kibosh on this ahistorical practice.

[7] I’ve not been specific here to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness with those sections of the community who put their faith in the very people I’m saying one should avoid. The greatest hurdle in assessing any teacher by these rubrics is that each one can mean something different to someone else. What I think constitutes solid research is different than someone who hasn’t had my training; it’s why I believe in vaccines, it’s why I see racism as a current rather than historical problem, and my I lament the rise of the ancient-aliens method of [cough] “thinking.”

The training I think makes a good fighter has a proven track-record, an established and venerable pedagogy, and reams of supporting literature. This is why five years spent with a qualified epee coach means more to me than five years one has spent with JoJo the Knee-Hammer whose school mantra is the HEMA equivalent of Cobra Kai—the former will teach one universals that can be applied across weapons and periods. JoJo might stumble into some universals, but JoJo also doesn’t care about universals. JoJo thinks that wimpy sporty stuff is for dorks.

My idea of a good teacher is one who seeks to help one grow and actually has the ability to make it happen. A good teacher knows their own limitations and when to send a student onto someone more skilled or appropriate. They support, push, encourage, and set an example to follow. A good teacher doesn’t put down a student, doesn’t embarrass them, and doesn’t beat them up. A great teacher seeks to create students that surpass them. Generally, that teacher has some legitimate teaching; they’re not just the “best” fighter in their little mix of merry men, a mix they are careful not to leave lest their status be called into question. Good instructors remain students, remain open to growth and improvement, because they recognize that there is always more to learn, things to improve or fix, and that no one ever, ever masters it all. A good teacher also supports other teachers, helps them, and accepts help from them, and is willing to lose students to them if that student would be better served by another.

[NB: there are plenty of well-trained teachers who are duds too, I know, and I’ve worked with a few myself, but that fact doesn’t negate the value of solid training]

HEMA(S): Food for Thought

Though this started with a video by Matt Easton, I’m sharing the one from the Exiles as it more succinctly summarizes some of my own thoughts on this issue, to whit, whether HEMA has “lost its way” etc. It was also gratifying to hear, finally, someone else say that they believe that much of Fiore’s technique won’t work in tournament/bouting settings. It was not designed for agonistic combat, and so arguments about its usefulness in tournaments are nonsensical.

As to the question of HEMA “losing its way,” from where I stand this question was more appropriate ten to fifteen years ago, which is to say that the fragmentation Mark and others allude to already happened. We have those who are more source-based in their interpretation, those who just want to fight with period weapons, and a spectrum of people in between these poles. As Mark says here, and as I’ve made a broken-record of on this site among other platforms, one problem is failure to consider the contexts in which we work, and, the ways in which these contexts inform–or do not inform–the others. I have no wish to raise the dead, not this particular dead anyway, but the debacle over the attempted reinterpretation of Silver illustrates this well. If nothing else it put a spotlight on how different HEMA camps view one topic.

Like Mark, and contrary to local opinion anyway, I don’t give a fig what sort of HEMA one chooses to do. I really don’t. Do what makes you happy and speaks to you. Where I draw the line is someone claiming to speak with authority when they lack that authority–returning to the previous example, tournament experience, a few seminars, and over-confidence in one’s intelligence and skill do not mean one is qualified to speak about historical source analysis. For my part, I spent years acquiring and practicing those skills. Moreover, I spent some ten years in various tournament settings (an almost even split between TKD and fencing), so I know how they work, what they mean and what they don’t mean. I’m older than most, so yeah, I’ve had time to do all that.

The key, I think, is to know who you are and what it is you’re doing, to know that context. If you want to win tourneys, great, go do that; if you want to work from the sources, great. But unless you do or have done both, and can demonstrate that, it’s the better part of valor to stick to your bailiwick.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zl35YAftYc8

That’s… Wylde

Two close friends, Alex and Sean, of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR), have been working through Zachary Wylde’s The English Master of Defence OR, The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (1711). [1] This treatise is, like others from about the same time (e.g. Hope and McBane), typically unpopular with people trained in traditional fencing. The suggested guard, the variety of terms in non-standard spelling, and the tacit if not explicit issue that these works take with then traditional fencing is off-putting. [2] However, as someone who was skeptical at first, time spent with this book and blade in hand will reveal that it’s no joke. Wylde provides a viable system, one not just for smallsword, but broadsword and quarterstaff as well.

Alex and Sean took a look at his section on the flannconade and variations, and, shot video:

Wylde’s Flancanade

NOTES:
[1] Cf. http://www.the-exiles.org/Manual%20Zach%20Wylde.htm

[2] Wylde’s vocabulary underscores the fact that English did not have a standard, authoritative dictionary as yet. Even before Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), itself derived from other word lists, England had had lexica of different sorts, mostly for other languages, e.g. the Latin-English The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knyght (1538) and an Italian-English dictionary I still use once in a while, John Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598). There were a number of dictionaries produced in England in the 17th century, even specialized ones for slang, but it wasn’t until after Wylde’s time that any dictionary came to command spelling conventions and definitions for the language. Students of Wylde may find James Orchard Halliwell-Philipps’ A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, 2 Vols. (London: John Russell Smith, 1881) useful.

Meet them Where they Are

Last night I finished up the penultimate summer intro-to-fencing camp. These short courses are always challenging—they pack a lot (too much) into a handful of days, and the shorter the run the longer each individual class. Managing all that and keeping kids between 12 and 15 engaged is not for everyone. I like the challenge of it, and seeing children enjoy the class, and hopefully learn something in the process of it, makes it worthwhile.

One thing working with kids will demonstrate powerfully is that people learn in different ways. They also have different comfort levels. Being sensitive to these facts is vital. I always have a plan for class, but built into it is a degree of flexibility because once through the door it can all change. It usually does. However well planned, a lesson plan doesn’t determine how a class goes; the class does. It’s not just the class in toto, but individual students, sometimes both, that can mean leaning into that flexibility.

In the last two courses I’ve taught I’ve had a student in each hesitate to join. When it’s clear to me that they aren’t struggling with the oddities of fencing jackets or distracted by gym traffic, but hesitant for some other reason I find a way to get things going and then check in with them. One thing that makes that easier is letting students know from the off that if they need a break, they take it; if they have a question, they should ask. I do all I can to make it a safe environment. No one learns much, or has fun, if they don’t feel safe.

This past week, once the rest of the class was starting footwork drills, I checked in with this student. Just getting them talking can be hard—they don’t know me, they’re in a new class (and often with kids they don’t know), and however interested they might be all of that, not to mention other factors, can weigh into how present they are. The past school year’s stress, the mix of isolation and virtual life, all of that has taken a toll on children. It can be hard to snap back.

A parent had told me that before quarantine this child had advanced pretty far in Tae Kwon Do, so I figured their hesitation was less likely physical. Often a student just wants to get a feel for what we’re doing, so after asking them if they were okay and if I might help them with anything I told them that they could join, watch, or think about it, that there was no wrong answer. Over the course of the week this student mostly watched—each day I checked in with them before as well as a few times during class. The other students were curious, but followed my lead—I told them some people learn by watching, some by doing, etc., and that people join when they feel like it. That was enough for them.

I did my best to meet this student where they were. Having been in classes, having worked with instructors, and having spent so many years teaching I know that it doesn’t always go that way. Just as people learn differently, so too do they teach differently. No matter how hard we try, there will be people we can’t reach, people who just don’t take to us. That is part of teaching. However, we increase the chances of reaching more of them if we are sensitive to the fact that a student’s comfort level and/or learning style may vary.

This doesn’t mean we cater to each student. We can’t teach much of anything that way. I more or less stick to my lesson plan—the difference is that I don’t force students to conform to it as one might in boot camp. It’s an intro class, one designed to give the some sense of what fencing can be, and, for fun. If they take more classes, if they get serious, the necessary discipline will develop.

Listening to Nestor: Injury, Age, and Pursuing the Art

Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon; Attic red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400–380 BCE): photo from wikicommons, © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In Book 1 of “The Iliad,” when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a question of honor, one of the first to attempt to speak reason is the aged warrior, Nestor. Though shown some deference, neither party is keen to accept Nestor’s wisdom–one almost gets the sense that they’re humoring him as they do often later in the poem. [1] To be fair, Nestor can go on a bit, and is quick to throw his age and associated experience at his junior colleagues. The thing is, Nestor was right–had Achilles and Agamemnon listened to him the problem would have been solved. Of course we wouldn’t have the poem either. In fencing we have a wide variety of Nestors. Sometimes it is a gimpy limb clamoring via pain to remind one that it might be best to stop a drill or sit out the next bout. Sometimes it is an elder fencer or an even older master. If we’re really unlucky, Nestor may take the form of one’s physician.

Achilles chose glory and a short life over less fame and a long one, and many fencers are the same. In one’s teens, twenties, even thirties one can still do many things one maybe shouldn’t, but since recovery time is relatively fast, since one is still nimble, strong, etc. it’s easier to go for broke and relegate any worry to later. I’m a good example. As a younger person, say 17-35, I could fence for hours; I fenced several days a week; any injury was normally minor and healed quickly; and I took chances that only those without larger responsibilities take, such as fencing with 3-4lb sabres and only a brass stirrup guard to protect the hand (or fail to protect it as I found out once). [2] There is no round-trip ticket to yesterday, so hindsight is as useless as it can be painful. However, like a Nestor, meaning I realize that neither Achilles nor Agamemnon are likely to listen, I feel compelled to encourage anyone keen to fence into their dotage to be mindful of their choices and take care of themselves. Cultivating sense at a younger age is tough, but ideal–the sooner we take care of ourselves, the longer we’re likely going to be able to fence.

Conditioning, Stretching, and Rest

We’re less likely to be injured if our over-all health is decent. If we eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain decent cardio everything is easier. For those keen to lift weights, fine, but for fencing you don’t need to be a body-builder or circus strongman. It’s better to build useful, appropriate strength than attempt to be yet another six-pack clad wanna-be model. [3] There are a number of resources for diet and exercise–if all else fails ask your doctor.

Stretching before and after fencing is important. Normally we warm up a bit, then stretch. None of this needs to be strenuous, just enough to keep you limber and less likely to pull or tear anything. Here too, it’s unnecessary to do the splits–don’t push anything, even a stretch, too far.

Equally important is recovery time. Our bodies need rest after exercise, and if we push past rest we only increase the chances of injury. This could mean tearing your ACL or striking an opponent too hard. Take breaks. It’s a fencing class, not boot camp, and no instructor should push anyone beyond reason. Likewise, no instructor should ever shame anyone for taking that break, being unable to do a particular exercise, or anything else. There are usually alternatives to many stretches and a decent instructor will suggest one of those if possible.

Injury and Recovery

If you end up with an injury take care of it. Happily, injuries are normally few and far between in fencing provided one isn’t a knucklehead. Wear your protective gear, observe the safety rules of the sala, and look out for one another. Most injuries occur because people fail to heed safety precautions, or they’re mucking about, or they purposefully disdain safety protocols out of some he-man notion of toughness.

For anything beyond the occasional bruise it’s often wise to see a medical professional. A deep cut, a stab wound, a potential concussion, a broken bone, a torn or pulled muscle or ligament, anything like this could have serious consequences. See a doctor, and see a proper one, one with MD behind their name, not one of the many purveyors of pseudo-science. [4]

Give yourself time to heal. I once sprained my ankle the night before a tournament, but being 21 just wrapped it tightly and fenced anyway. That wasn’t smart. If we start training before an injury heals we run the risk of making it worse, but sometimes we also ensure that we keep that injury for the rest of our lives. Most of the joints on my right side are compromised in some degree, and some of these injuries, such as tennis-elbow, could have been alleviated by dealing with them properly at the time.

Age: It just plain SUCKS

Goals 😉

Age in some degree is relative, but as a general rule the older we get the longer it takes to heal, the more recovery time we need, and much as we might hate it we slow down. It sucks. I know because I’ve fenced for over three decades. IF we want to keep fencing until we literally cannot, then we have to be cognizant of our choices early on.

Somethings, alas, are just a younger person’s game. Longsword, for example, one “can” do as an older person, but one probably shouldn’t. It’s one thing to dabble with another old codger or take the occasional seminar, but it’s less wise to enter tourneys at a certain age. They can be rough, and tough as some old people are the simple fact is that they break more easily. No 20 or 30 something is going to take it easy on you, and if they did, you’d only be insulted.

This can be super hard to accept when we really love something. In the past year or so I’ve realized that the clock is ticking for me and using appropriately weighted historical sabres. I “can” fence with them, and still do, but not as often as I did, because much as I miss it if I continue to use them all the time I won’t be fencing any sabre down the road. When this happens we have to make some difficult choices. I teach more than I fight now, I often use lighter sabres (such as the S2000 Olympic with kids), and I focus on other weapons I enjoy.

For example, though I’ve always read up on and dabbled in smallsword, it’s increasingly becoming one of my chief studies. [5] The others are largely related to it, such as late period rapier and smallsword’s 19th century descendent, epee. They don’t have the flash and fire of sabre, and I miss that, but they share the same intellectual aspects, rely on similar strategies, and even include, epee excepted, some of the more physical options in sabre and broadsword. Weapons seizures, for example, add a bit of spice.

The Take Away

Fence, and fence hard, but be smart. To me, the best approach is a middle-way, something between Sterne’s health miser and Blake’s supposed palace of wisdom. This is to say that we don’t want to be so careful that we’re bored and learn nothing–the Art is about fighting and thus must be practiced–but nor do we want to fight like our lives depended on it each and every time. Moderation will serve most of the time.

Whatever one fences, it pays to be aware of the wear and tear on your body, because it is a pain delayed. We pay for the fun of our 20s in our 40s, and it’s all downhill after that. If you don’t plan to fence into your 90s, cool, then go nuts. If you do think you might enjoy fencing until you drop, and you’d prefer not to do it from a wheelchair or from behind a walker, then maintain your health, fence responsibly, and let that ligament heal no matter how long it takes.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. “The Iliad,” Book 1, ll. 318ff

[2] In the age before better gloves, a guard that turned in a sweaty grip or broke could mean a trip to the ER. Pinky nails, btw, do grow back, but it takes months.

[3] I know a lot of people keen to lift, and some may be unhappy with this statement, but I stand by it. Unless one intends to wrestle a fair amount, where size and power mean more, any weight-training for fencing shouldn’t focus on bulk.

[4] This may also offend, but chiropractors, some massage outfits, and others are not doctors. In the PNW I have found that a lot of people go to chiropractors–I’m not sure why. While I’m sure there are some who provide what is probably decent massage, the “science” behind their practice is dubious. See for example:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1556349913601667?via%3Dihub

https://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/S0885-3924(07)00783-X/fulltext

[5] The first work on fencing I ever bought was a facsimile copy of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763; 1787); I found it at a used book store in 1986.

Steel Bouquet, or, The Advantages of Multi-Weapon and Multi-Text Study

The title might make a decent band name, but no, I’m not starting a band. It’s meant to capture the common photo of an instructor grasping either their favored weapon or multiple arms. [1] Normally they’re clad in the jacket or gambeson that accompanies those tools best. Fancier shots have black backgrounds highlighting vaguely period expressions with a tinge of hipster coolness. Not knocking them, they can be nice, but it’s beyond whatever emotional depth or panache they’re meant to express which I wish to touch on here.

Many if not most fencers in the Olympic orbit become single-weapon fencers. It’s often true in historical circles too. They specialize. Historically, one started out in foil and then perhaps explored sabre or epee. The “three-weapon” fencer actually deserving of the name was, when I was starting out and even when competing, something of a special case. For context, I mean NCAA and USFA fencers between say 18 and 25. Many might dabble in the other weapons, but the fencer who could actually fence each as intended was less common. In my college club there was one fencer who was truly a three-weapon fencer, Dennis.

A close friend, and now one of my oldest, Dennis has more than once been a mentor to me. He will always be. When I was struggling with something new in sabre, for example, he would drill with me until I got it. When I destroyed my right arm in an auto accident, it was Dennis who agreed to train me as a lefty. Even now, Dennis has helped me as he could with an epee coaching class, playing the advanced student for me in video homework. A number of years ago when I was still working on competitive issues in Olympic fencing it was Dennis who ended up co-authoring a paper on difficulties in judging foil. He is versatile. He can help with all these things, and more, because of it.

Beyond the obvious perks to versatility, there is a still more important reason that it’s a goal worth pursuing: depth of understanding. It’s an analogy I’ve used a lot, but studying a different weapon or tradition is like learning a new language, one that helps you understand your own that much better. Over the past year, when most of us have been unable to meet up to fence, I’ve watched and/or advised people working in isolation. Some had partners to train with, many more did not. But what I noticed in each case was the more that these students included disciplines and weapons they didn’t normally study the better they got at their primary focus. More than that, their understanding of the universal principles underlaying all fencing increased. It was akin to watching what I imagine Dennis’ first few years fencing were like.

It can be daunting trying something new. At a certain point in training, however, it can be the catalyst one requires for growth. This raises an important question—when should one start dabbling in other weapons and forms? Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), in a short thought-piece I shared here a while back (“Alex Spreier on Universals,” 2 May 2021), summed it up well:

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

The idea of dedicated, formal study of one system or weapon for years goes against common practice in “HEMA,” but it is nonetheless the best path to improvement. As Alex explains, what this focused time does is impart the necessary skills to acquire new ones later; at the same time, it builds an intellectual framework and vocabulary that assists pattern recognition and retention in learning.

On an app that serves as the virtual lounge for the “collective” of schools that work together in this part of the PNW, we have had several ongoing discussions; in depth, evidence-driven conversations about key principles, ideas, or techniques that we have less information for than we’d like. One in particular highlights the importance of cross-training and text-diving.

Ex. Mezzo Tempo & Counter-time

The example in question was put forth by one of the instructors, Andy Playmate (Northwest Armizare), who has been running the longsword pod. In looking at tempo in longsword, and what a few different interpretations/translations say, he asked about Vadi’s notion of mezzo tempo or half-tempo and how it relates to counter time, attacks in preparation, etc. A rapier fencer as well, he asked questions related to both weapons: “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” Great questions and ones which underscore how difficult it can be to unravel key concepts even armed with good training and vocabulary.

Starting with Philippo Vadi (fl. 1480), what does he say?

I do not have a copy of Vadi handy, so here I will rely on Guy Windsor’s translation available at Wiktenauer:

Chapter XIIII. Theory of the half tempo of the sword

I cannot show you in writing

The theory and way of the half tempo

Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike

Reside in the wrist. [2]

The half tempo is just one turn

Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,

It can rarely fail

When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,

One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:[44]

Often the quick flight from one side to another

Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,

Because in one go it strikes and parries.

Oh what a valuable thing, To practice it according to the good principles,

It will let you carry the banner of the Art.[45] [3]

In my reading of Vadi, mezzo-tempo here suggests an action that blocks and cuts/thrusts at the same time. For once, Florio’s glossary [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/] may be helpful here. He defines mezzo a few ways, but while it can mean “half,” it can also mean “a mediator, or intercessor. As a space or interveall of time or place” (313). Mezzo here may mean more “middle” as an action that either splits the difference or occurs during the “middle” of an opponent’s attack; mid-tempo. I can’t say that for sure, but given what Vadi says here—and going by Windsor’s translation—that makes sense to me. One way to illustrate this is to image that Fencer A throws a cut, a mandritto fendente, and B selects the time in which that cut is still developing to intercept it with a cut of their own, likely with a step somewhat to the side (to the right assuming two right-handers) that at once blocks and stops the incoming attack and that strikes at the same time. A close out like this, something later rapier masters saw as ideal, might be defined as a type of counter-attack, but perhaps the most accurate term would be an attack into preparation or an attack into tempo, that is, where one attacks as the opponent initiates their attack. Certainly what Vadi describes here is in line with later masters. [4]

Looking at what other masters say about mezzo tempo makes sense as we try to figure out Vadi. For Italy, the next generation of masters, especially the Bolognese school, is a logical next step. The Bolognese masters also employ the term, but don’t agree amongst themselves as to definition. The Anonimo and Viggiani, to name two, both use mezzo tempo but define it slightly differently. Viggiani, for example, wrote:

Sometimes one attacks with a half blow, in mezzo tempo. It is true that the majority of attacking is in mezzo tempo, since, when there are two who are well schooled in the art, he who wishes to attack will deceive his companion in such a fashion that, when his adversary is about to perform a blow, he enters with dexterity and speed and strikes in the middle of the adversary’s blow with a half blow

In the Anonimo, mezzo tempo is an attack into preparation, and contra tempo is what we see in Vadi, an attack into tempo that closes out the opposing steel and strikes simultaneously. The author of the Anonimo uses more ink to explain that there is no such thing as a half tempo, but that since one can make a “half attack,” that is, one that stops at stretto distance and is made more quickly, that they refer to it as “half” tempo (as an aside, this is a lovely example of a fencing text differentiating tempo and speed). Again, “mid-tempo” might be a better translation. Regardless, the Anonimo offers less detail about mezzo tempo. As to counter time, we read “Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless, while you simultaneously make one that strikes him.”

Dal’Aggochie, as Mike Cherba pointed out, was probably the clearest. For him, mezzo tempo is “A half tempo, the final one,… when you attack while the enemy is throwing his blow.” [5]

Um, they don’t Agree, so… what now?

So, what is the student to do with all this? How does one reconcile these disparate definitions? Vadi, Viggiani, the Anonimo, and Dal’Aggochie all include mezzo tempo, but don’t agree. It can help to group them together and see how they differ. All include an attack that interrupts that of the opponent. Vadi and Viggiani call this mezzo tempo; the Anonimo calls the same thing contra tempo. Dal’Aggochie may refer to the same thing; his half tempo sounds much the same as the others, but being less specific as to when exactly one attacks the enemy it’s less clear. Is the attack made as they are preparing (an attack in prep), as they are mid-strike (half-tempo), or is it in response to a counter attack (contra tempo)?

This is where looking at the modern definition, one derived from this tradition, can be helpful. It may not be the same, that is always a possibility, but it’s a place to start. Counter-time, sometimes referred to as contretemps (Fr.) or contra-tempo (It.), is different from the early notion of mezzo tempo. It’s usually a technique for more advanced fencers. Not each master in the past defined it quite the same way, though most tend to suggest the definition that survives today, that is, “a planned action made against an opponent’s stop-thrust or stop-cut. First draw out the stop hit, and then parry it and hit the opponent in a lunge.” [6] Other definitions are similar.

Here is one from the wiki at Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada: “this is the opportunity to strike during an opponent’s offensive action with a shorter attack of your own that closes the line.” [7]

Masaniello Parise (1884), discussing counter time for sabre, not surprisingly is more in line with current definitions. This action is made “with veracity, advancing a step and immediately defending with a circular or opposition parry against the opponent’s action in tempo [i.e. counter-attack], and secure in defense, and ripostes without delay.” [8]

There are, however, exceptions. On one page of an old site at the University of Northern Arizona, guessing one of William Wilson’s, the editor quotes the Pallas Armata (1639) and defines contratempo as “a thrust in the same line that your adversary thrusts in (Pallas Armata, p. 6).” [9]

With the exception of this last definition, all describe a counter-offensive action made against someone making a counter-attack. It’s not specific to weapon, only the tempo in which a weapon, any hand-to-hand weapon, might be used. The distance required by such a maneuver is critical as is the speed and accuracy with which one strikes. Tempo, distance, speed, judgment, initiative, these are all universals, the elements underpinning all fencing.

Returning to Andy’s question, “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” what can we say after reviewing some of the literature?

My answer would be that a stop thrust, if it closes the line as it lands, might be an example of mezzo tempo. Certainly that seems to fit the majority of the definitions we just examined. A stop cut might too, but these often do not close out the line—they are cuts made against an open line, but always followed by a parry and riposte in case the stop cut fails. Since it’s not usually the final blow, a stop cut doesn’t fit Dal’Aggochie’s definition well either; it’s a counter-attack followed by a defensive action. Stop-cuts, like stop-thrusts, are attacks of opportunity, but less likely performed with a close out. I’ve not touched the second question, but attacks against the forward target are reflected in more than one medieval source—for a graphic example the hands lopped off and flying in Talhoffer (ca. 1467) might serve. While the stop cut we use in sabre may derive from something native to cutting weapons, it’s not impossible that the later stop-hit/stop-thrust derived from the rapier iteration of mezzo-tempo. I’m not sure what work has been done on this if any, but it might be fun to explore.

So what?

What I’ve hoped to show with this example is two-fold. First, time spent (at the appropriate stage) working on additional weapons or systems increases our understanding. The fencers asking these questions arrived at them thanks to cross-training. They’re making connections, seeing parallels as well as key differences.

Second, the increase in awareness and understanding, in seeing yet again how the same universal principles apply, makes it that much easier to “unpack” the next new system or weapon. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, just easier. In the aggregate our knowledge and skill should grow and improve.

Importantly, one must be cautious not to misapply modern understanding, or worse—exceptions, onto the past. The more one knows of the universals across time, across masters and texts and periods, the less likely this is a danger. Many members of the historical community make the mistake of assuming anyone referencing modern works is, by definition, guilty of anachronism. That is not true, but it can look that way to someone unarmed with that knowledge and understanding. Since they cannot distinguish between excesses that help one gain points in a sport, and the universal principles that most fencers learn before they try on the silly stuff, they have trouble seeing how anything past 1500 can have any relevance. Modern discussion of the universal principles did not pop out of a cereal box on the 1 of January, 1900 or 2000; they derive from the corpus of works we read in historical fencing. Time spent with solid modern works, like time spent with another weapon, so long as approached responsibly, will help more than hinder.

NOTES:

[1] A quick google search using the terms “fencing instructor portrait” will bring up some decent examples.

[2] “Wrist” here makes more sense than “knot,” though polso is the modern Italian for “wrist.” Nodo, here, can mean knot, but it can mean junction, crux, etc., and my guess is that the other translators may have used Florio’s 1611 Dictionary (p. 333; cf. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/), where he stipulates that Nódo can mean “also the joint of any cane.” By context Vadi clearly means turning the hands so that one simultaneously blocks and strikes. “Of all the art this is the jewel” certainly makes sense in light of that idea.

[3] For Vadi, https://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/Philippo_di_Vadi#Introduction  

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686), I.I. Ch. IV., 23 in Holzman’s translation.

[5] For Viggiani, see W. Jherek Swanger, The Fencing Method of Angelo Viggiani: Lo Schermo, 64r; p. 7 of the pdf; for The Anonimo, see Stephen Fratus, trans., With Malice and Cunning: Anonymous 16th Century Manuscript on Bolognese Swordsmanship, Lulu Press, 2020, 64 (see also p. 49); for Dal’Aggochie, see The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation, trans. Jherek Swanger, Lulu Press, 2018, 29v.

[6] Rob Handelman, and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes (San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014),441.

[7] http://wmawiki.org/index.php?title=Academie_Duello_Glossary

[8] See Christopher A. Holzman, ed., The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015, 272-273.

[9] https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing/terms.html

Alex Spreier and Sean Mueller on Razmafzar TV

In another wonderful interview Dr. Khorasani chats with two friends about the Art, Alex Spreier and Sean Mueller of High Desert Armizare, Bend, Oregon. These are two fencers I chat with frequently and fence with whenever possible.

High Desert Armizare, as the name suggests, began as a club working on the corpus of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410). One of the wonderful things about _Armizare_ is that it was comprehensive. We see the tip of the iceberg in the surviving texts, but what we see covers everything from wrestling to mounted combat. Alex, who studied classical Italian foil and _Armizare_ with Maestro Sean Hayes for years, combines that solid training with the insight and intellectual nimbleness of a professional educator. It’s one reason that he is fascinated by the Art in toto, and, able to examine it effectively. Whether it is 15th cen. pole-axe in _Le Jeu de la Hache_, Zachary Wylde’s smallsword, Xing Yi Quan, or sabre, Alex dives in with passion, discipline, and proper rigor.

Sean Mueller, a long time student at HDA, is likewise universal in interest and skill. Like Alex, he’s no stranger to grappling arts—eastern and western—and his study includes everything from Fiore’s system to broadsword, Judo, smallsword, and the _bastone_ of Cerri (his blog on Cerri here on wordpress is excellent—see the “Links” page). A skilled jeweler by trade, Sean’s attention to detail, patience, and precision add to the intellectually responsible method he applies to the Art.

Their skill and passion, the joy really they find in exploring martial arts, is evident in this interview. I learn something whenever I chat with them and you likely will too. Here’s the link: