One of the researchers I most respect and enjoy chatting or bouting with is Da’Mon Stith, one of the driving forces behind HAMAA, the Historical African Martial Arts Association. The challenges faced in studying such a vast collection of arts, so few of which were codified, and which have survived in part via dance, sport, and as elements of later systems present hurdles that require delicate, sophisticated approaches. He does this remarkably well, and in my view sets an excellent example for how one should set about exploring a rich, difficult corpus with appropriate caution, passion, and effectiveness.
I say often that if Da’Mon is teaching anything, take it—you will learn something and have a blast. This is part one of his interview with the equally wonderful Dr. Khorasani.
My friend Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare, Sherwood, OR, USA) recently shared some basic drills for Georgian sword & buckler with renowned scholar and martial artist Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (Razmafzar Persian martial arts organization; Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and ISM (International School of Management, Germany). I had the pleasure to serve as Mike’s pell and drill partner for this video, something I’m always happy to do as Mike is doing important work and this fight system is extremely fun to fight.
NB: There is a lot here, so for those interested, start with the first few exercises before moving onto the more intermediate drills.
Alex Spreier of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR, USA) is my go-to for any question about universal principles across systems. Trained as I am to recognize and analyze patterns, it’s natural to him and he does it better. The piece below is a short one he shared with me ; I asked if I might share it, because it’s good, to the point, and gives solid reasons for why we should bother looking across systems in our own study of the Art.
“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.
To deal straight with the elephant in the room (Hi Gerald!) is that several years of dedicated study is hard. Of course it’s hard. A key part of studying anything is the struggle of learning something new. An often used quote about training from Bruce Lee states “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” This is a great mindset and one I wholeheartedly encourage. However, many folks who use this quote fail to mention that in order to know what is useful, useless, and your own, you need to have a base level of understanding. The most common mistake made by beginners is for them to approach any training with that Bruce Lee quote in mind and neglect/refuse to train certain actions because they are uncomfortable. If a movement is uncomfortable when first training it first of all, ask your instructor what to do about it. Whenever we start training something there will be some discomfort as we learn how to move our bodies in a new way. This discomfort is very different from a movement being “useless” but that can be for another paper.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of analogies so here we go: When you start learning to read you need to develop phonemic awareness; the understanding that specific letters equate to specific sounds. From phonemic awareness you move on to learning how those letters combine into words, then the words combine to become sentences, then paragraphs, etc. This process takes years before you are proficient enough to really read. Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill and without it learning to read is exponentially more difficult; even though it’s something that a skilled reader rarely thinks of anymore. In the same way, when you start learning a martial art you learn basic movements (footwork, attacks, defenses, etc) and these components build up to more complicated movement patterns, which creates your “vocabulary” through which you understand your art. This is your phonemic awareness – you are beginning to equate certain words/phrases with certain movement patterns. You cannot begin to recognize patterns without having an understanding of how your art creates patterns.
Humans love patterns. We love them so much we will create patterns out of whole-cloth! Because of this predilection towards pattern recognition and creation, anything created by a human mind will have an underlying pattern to it. Martial arts are no different. As you spend your time studying your Art, you will naturally start to recognize patterns in movement built into your art. These patterns are HOW your art works. If you are struggling to find patterns might I suggest:
Footwork – how does your art use footwork to attack? To defend? To evade?
Attacks – how does your art attack? Are the attacks from certain angles all built the same? Are there any restrictions on attacks?
Defenses – how does your art defend? Different motions than attacks or the same?
Set plays – does your art feature any set plays, sets of movement that are repeated in different situations?
Once you have spent time studying your system and have begun to recognize the patterns in footwork, attack, and defense come the fun part – Play around. If your system has multiple weapons try the techniques for one weapon with a completely different weapon (i.e. think about Fiore says about dagger defenses and use that with a single hand sword). Or grab a weapon from a completely different system and try to apply your techniques, your patterns, your Art.
In both cases, whether what you tried worked or did not work, ask yourself the important question – Why? If it worked, why did it work? What about that movement pattern makes it work with a different weapon? If it didn’t work ask yourself the same things. Hopefully you will come to recognize two big things:
One – if a movement pattern works no matter the weapon, that pattern will be repeated in your system and other systems.
Two – if a movement pattern doesn’t work then there is something particular to that weapon/system that makes it unique.
One of the hardest things about Universals is recognizing them in other arts. This is because they may not look like what you’ve trained and internalized. So we need to look beyond the explicit movements and look at what the movements are trying to accomplish. A boxer bobbing to avoid a punch and countering with their own punch, a Khevsureti from Georgia dropping to their knees & thrusting to avoid a blow, a tai chi practitioners slightly twisting their shoulders to avoid a punch, a rapier fencer executing a passata sotto, a wrestler sprawling to avoid a double leg takedown. Despite these motions looking very different from each other, each is an example of a Universal Principle: Evasion is an excellent defense. This is why looking at what the movement accomplishes is so important.
After all, the movements themselves are the means to an end. This is why it is also important to allow students (and yourself) to make each technique and movement their own – so long as it still accomplishes the goal of the technique. “If it’s dumb and it works it ain’t dumb.”.
The major benefit to all of this work of finding principles is that it allows one to become a martial arts translator. If you are able to recognize that a particular movement is a forehand descending blow with a weapon then when teaching you can explain that it is a fendente, or an oberhau, or an Angle 1, or a mandritto, or a kesa giri, you are able to translate what you want to see into what the student already knows. This closes the understanding gap and allows them to practice, in a way, their Art with a new weapon which cuts down on the amount of explanation and talking time and increases the hitting/throwing time we all come for.
So a practice for this is to watch videos or take classes in another Art and translate what you see into your own Art. If there is not a term for what you see in your Art, how can you define what you saw in your language?
“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” – Uncle Iroh
If you keep asking why you eventually end up here – why bother? Why do this at all? Why not just study my system, or several related systems, and just do my thing? You can do that and be very happy and a very accomplished student of the Art. But stretching your boundaries does nothing except deepen your understanding of the Art. You understand what things seem to work in a variety of places and what things are heavily dependent on context.
Ultimately the wisdom of Iroh rings true (as it almost always does). Understanding how to find principles lets you gain wisdom from many sources. I have never studied Japanese sword arts but by perusing “The Sword and the Mind” (Thanks Jim) I have been able to put into practice some new techniques and gain some new insights all without ever picking up a bokken. Could I do this without my years of training in Armizare? I don’t think so.
I’ll leave you with a final analogy – the Art is a big color wheel. The principles are the primary colors. The multitude of techniques are what happens when you mix all those primary colors. This is how you create works of art. Of Art.
With apologies to Minor Threat (and ultimately to Paul Revere and the Raiders) there are times when it’s appropriate to act as a stepping-stone.  Granted, in a political and social context it’s a condition to avoid, but as a teacher it’s a model I rather like. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone walking over me or anyone else, but in the sense of approaching our particular instruction as just one stop along a longer path. There are a few reasons I prefer this model to the top-down one too often assumed.
Despite centuries of change our conception of teaching is more or less medieval. The university, for example, was born in the Middle Ages and was, like most of society at the time, hierarchical. It’s not a bad system, and it works for many things, but it has been slow to adapt as societies have changed, as the purposes of education have changed. Other guild systems, particularly in skilled trades, have adapted better.  In fencing, as I’ve shared here before, the traditional model of master and student has worked well, and working one on one it’s still the best way to learn (assuming good rapport). I maintain it is still a discussion rather than a lecture, or ought to be, but I’ve worked with masters who definitely saw it as a one-way transfer and still I learned a lot. Group instruction tends to follow the same notion of information transfer.
No one in traditional or historical fencing is unaware of the challenges in teaching groups—it’s just plain harder to do.  Attention is divided, skill levels and experience can vary widely, and some systems are harder to teach than others. Seminars, for example, can be great, but we have to be realistic about our goals with them. That holds for students as much as instructors. Typically an instructor runs a class in a short window, from say two hours to a day, and in most cases expects attendees to keep up. Seminars are great for exposing people to something new, but not so great for retention or skill-growth unless the students are relatively advanced and know how to learn.  Meeting different needs in different ways is extremely difficult to do, and few top-down models accommodate the flexibility to do any of that well. So, one downside to the top-down model is that it tends to be unadaptive; this is more true in group settings than in individual lessons since an experienced instructor can read a student’s skill level and identify problem areas more easily. With a small group one can move among students and manage more individually, but in cases where one student needs far more help than the others figuring out how much to dial back or press on is a tough call. Finding a happy medium in cases like that is challenging—too often we either leave someone behind or hold everyone else back.
An additional issue with the top-down model centers around expectations. People who seek out a fencing master at a traditional or Olympic school accept that someone will be teaching them, and, that the person in question has information or skills that they themselves do not yet possess. Thus, a maestro, by virtue of training and experience, has built-in authority than no historical fencing instructor without such certification can assume. For the most part, “HEMA” has been more grass-roots, and authority far less obvious or certain. It’s a perennial problem. HEMA is ever at the whim of demagoguery. Popularity spreads via social media and has more weight than most anything else save tournament success. The problems with both should be obvious, but they aren’t. There is no automatic equivalency between fame and skill; they can correlate, sure, but that’s a maybe, not a given. Likewise, tournament performance can mean something, but it doesn’t mean what those who hold it up as the tantamount benchmark think it does. This is one reason that movements like HEMA eventually fracture—no amount of evidence puts the slightest dent in anything driven more by ego than sense, and both popularity and naivete about tournament success are, by and large, inseparable from ego needs and external validation.
In a related way, instructors who favor the top-down model sometimes suffer a strange mix of imposter-syndrome and arrogance. This drive for success is fueled by a wish for recognition from students and fellow instructors and/or a fear that they’re letting their students down. In this version they feel they aren’t doing enough or that their efforts are inadequate, or, that their work is unappreciated. That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. We must be concerned about doing the best work we can do, absolutely, but the responsibility to learn is not the instructor’s alone. Students must carry their burden too. People learn in different ways, at different rates, and try as we might there is only so much a diligent instructor can do. Sometimes no matter what we do, we are just the first to acquaint students with a new idea; this means that often they will not realize it let alone recognize each step or person who helped them. If our goal is sharing the Art more than appreciation then we should be happy with the fact they have that new understanding. If they remember us, great, but they don’t have to.
My preferred method of instruction is collective, mutual, because in teaching others we learn and grow too, least we should. However skilled, a teacher is nothing without students—it’s somewhat symbiotic. One of the benefits to this model is that it assumes and incorporates student skill and experience, and thus the burden to “teach” while still on the instructor is a burden in some respects shared. For example, for the last few months I’ve been advising a local branch of a larger club in Insular broadsword. Thanks to Covid, this school, one of the largest in our area, can’t meet en masse, and so they’ve divided in two for the time-being. The head instructor, Mike, is a close friend of mine; I check in with him about my curriculum, our progress, and keep him informed because I’m working with part of his crew. It’s collaborative in the sense that my friend trusts me to give them what they need, and that I’m coaching some of his people, but it goes a step deeper than that.
I rely on the experience and perspective of these students. Most have studied Fiore’s Armizare, some fight in harness, and most have also studied other branches of the Art, from MMA to other schools of fencing. Because they were taught well, they understand the basic, universal principles behind sword-arts, and thus are quick studies. I speak just enough Fiore to help them bridge the differences, say in comparing Roworth or Angelo’s cutting charts, Radaellian molinelli, and Fiore’ segno—all cover the same lines (not an accident), and, all enshrine critical aspects of their respective systems. Working from the familiar they more easily gain the unfamiliar. They ask questions, we break to discuss what they discover during the drills I put them through, and as a result they’re building not just technique, but as importantly, understanding by applying it in problem-solving.  Time will tell how many stick with it, but their time will not have been wasted. The knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for the Art will have grown.
Like a well-placed, solid stepping-stone my function is to support them best as I can while they’re with me. Some will continue down this path, a few may follow the same path but with a different instructor, and many more will take another route all together, but if I’ve done my job I’ve given them what they need while their feet stood on the stone I manage. Kahil Gibran (d. 1931) famously wrote that “Your children are not your children/They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./They come through you but not from you,/And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”  A less poetic by equally powerful analogy is the unsung hero of any nation, the elementary school teacher. They teach students for a year, teaching them the skills they will need in life and that will enable them to continue learning. They get little respect, next to no pay, yet no one has a more important task than they do. No one. Nothing I teach is as important—people can live with knowing how to feint-cut head or disengage—but like them most fencing instructors are a temporary fixture in a fencer’s life. That’s not always the case, but I think it’s a healthy approach—it keeps us responsible and on task, and helps us avoid concerns over turf, ownership, and other distractions. So, “my” students are mine while they work with me, and in the sense that they may carry on to others what was passed on to me, but their journey with the Art is their own. This doesn’t mean I have no responsibility, quite the opposite, but it does mean that my focus remains on the material, on sharing it effectively, and in helping others learn and enjoy skills difficult to acquire rather than on numbers, reputation, or a legacy. I must make the absolute best use of the time I have with them, and since it’s usually short, I must stay sharp too, reading, drilling, and improving.
The collaborative model is more result than method. In truth, when I’m teaching or advising generally it’s because I have the background, education, and training to teach that topic. I won’t teach things I know I’m not qualified or ready to teach (yet another plug for continuing education). One reason people go to me, when they do, is because I know the sources well, and I’ve been fencing and researching it for a very long time. None of it “belongs” to me; it was all devised and written by others, some of which was passed on to me, some of which I have studied, but regardless I’m more a conduit than anything else. A blocked pipe is inefficient, it doesn’t do its job well, so potential clogs, especially those of ego, have no place in teaching. One needs to be confident, but any real confidence is born of ability, not desire, and smart students quickly spot the difference.
In sum, what I want is for them to learn and enjoy the material, not shower me with attention, kudos, or external validation. The top-down model can work, but it more easily facilitates those interested in self-worth generation than the Art. For instructors like that, because they are the font of information, it can be harder to be questioned, less comfortable working with other equally skilled (never mind superior fighters), and easier to worry too much about rep and not enough about the material and the best strategies for sharing it.
An important caveat: all of us have an ego. Most if not all of us struggle with self-worth in some fashion. I’m no exception. The difference is I’ve been lucky, or unlucky depending upon how one views it, to have spent far, far too much time around people driven by ego, and I’ve seen the results both to those same people and those they teach, in fencing and in academia. The fewer the rewards, the more savage the fight over scraps.
Having started in Asian martial arts, where Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the ego inform so much, I view the Art, whatever the branch, fencing included, as paths by which to grow.  Decades of training, wherever I’ve had it, have only proven to me how important it is to get out of our own way. Li Mu Bai, one of the protagonists in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), said “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up to find yourself again.” This applies to many things, teaching included, and I believe that we do our best work, teach the most effectively, when we recognize the gifts others bring to a class, when we try to meet them in the middle, and when our focus is genuinely on the Art rather than ourselves.
 Cf. Paul Revere and the Raiders, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” Midnight Ride, 1966, Vinyl; the song was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. I’d heard the original and the cover by the Monkees, but by age and location I always think of this as track by Minor Threat, “Steppin’ Stone,” Minor Threat/First Two Seven Inches, 1984.
 There is a lot of literature about medieval education. See for example John W. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 (Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1997); Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th Century (New York, NY: Meridian, 1972) & The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965) are now dated, but classics and worth a read; Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 3rd Ed. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1991);
 See especially László Szabó, Fencing and the Master (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997, 11-14; see also Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005), 132139; 182-187; 280.
 Advanced students, because they have a solid knowledge of universal principles, can more easily “mine” a class than can new or intermediate students. Newer students still benefit, and as I’ve set things up they intermix with more advanced students for whom broadsword is new too. This brings them all up faster. In the past, this has worked well, and seems to be doing so now. The only hiccups hitorically have been unteachables, i.e. students who believe they already know everything and dismiss what we’re doing because it doesn’t conform to their notion of things. They tend to be disruptive, critical, and keen to put the stupid instructor in their place—happily, they don’t last and leave when they can’t “spar.” Until recently I was keen to try to help them out, convert them as it were, but there is an old saying about arguing with a fool only makes two fools, so…
 More and more I’ve been working to adapt some of the approaches we use in individual lessons for groups. My plan for the next post is to explore some of this in more detail.
 Kahil Gibran, The Prophet (West Molesey, UK: Senate, 2004), 20.
 Lest anyone think that self-improvement via fencing is unique to Asia I’d like to share this short passage from J. Olivier’s smallsword treatise from 1771:
It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the Body, strengthens it, and makes it upright; it is it, that gives a becoming gait, and easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity; it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness; and animates a proper confidence; it is it which, in teaching us to conquer ourselves that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society.
[J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books), xliv-xlvi.]
This video features Nick Thomas (of the AHF, UK) reviewing Feather’s smallsword models (I believe this company is in Serbia). They look quite nice, and Nick’s review covers their construction and compares them to a few period examples in his collection. At 110-130€ this looks to be another viable option for smallsword trainers:
Referring to “context” is a commonplace in historical fencing. It means different things in different… contexts. We use it to mean the time and culture of a specific type of practice such as 15th century armored/unarmored combat; we mean the specific instances when such and such a system was applied (following the same analogy in war, the lists, in self-defense, as an instructor); we also use it to discuss the text that relates that same system, in this case everything from the question of author (did the master write it or have it written or did a student write it about them?), their purpose for writing it (as an attempt to woo patronage, as an aid to students, as an official government publication, etc.), how widely that text may have been known and used, as well as the culture of the book in their time. We also mean by “context” the reality of actual fighting versus training, bouting, tournaments, or play. Sometimes we can’t answer all of these questions or those that follow from them, but they’re important to ask regardless. If we don’t consider context(s) then we are likely to go wrong in our interpretations. It’s easy to go wrong even when people try to consider context.
For those who read the sources it’s also important to remember to read more than just the section on technique or plays. Any front matter, from dedications to prefaces, is worth a look if only once, because some questions we should have are often answered there. For example, in a preface an author often explains their purpose for writing, and if we’re lucky, something of their approach. Dedications likewise can tell us for whom they wrote the book, their relation to that person if any, and sometimes other connections we might not expect to see.
Few lessons or classes pass where we don’t discuss context in some way. With my sabre and broadsword classes, for example, we often discuss options as they pertain to the duel or combat. What isn’t allowed on the dueling ground is perfectly okay in the field. Put another way, the options we have say from a parry-riposte vary significantly in this case—following up a parry-riposte with a punch via bell-guard to the face or knocking someone to the ground was okay in combat, but an absolute no-no on the field of honor in most cases.
One analogy that has proved useful in smallsword lessons is to compare a smallsword to a small caliber pistol. There is this tendency to believe that for a weapon to be threatening it must be large, heavy, imposing, obvious, but this makes little sense—a weapon is a weapon, and whether a .32 caliber pocket pistol, switchblade, or kosh only a complete fool would think “nah, not dangerous enough.” No one wants to be shot by a .32 or .22 pistol. Will a .45 or .50 have more stopping power? Yes, but in context the people who carry small caliber pistols are citizens who do so for self-defense, not soldiers. Peace of mind is the most powerful benefit a citizen gains from carrying a weapon—too often they have next to no practice using it and certainly not against people. The less insane among those who carry pistols hope it will be a deterrent, not overwhelming force. Assuming they have composure enough and time to pull a weapon, aim, and threaten or shoot just producing the gun will make most assailants react: it’s still a gun, .22 or not. Faced with a small pistol the assailant still has to think “is this worth six small bullets in my body?” 
In like vein, a smallsword may not be as imposing as greatsword, but it’s fast, sharp, and deadly. It’s easy to assume some brigand seeing a fop with his sword-jewelry might think the dandy is an easy mark, but was he? The guy open-carrying may be a crack-shot or may never have fired the thing, but how many people will take the risk to find out? It’s abnormal to carry weapons in American culture—we don’t need to, not like people do in other areas of the world, and so when we see someone at a grocery store with some giant chimney on their hip we normally assume political posturing, mental health issues, or both. In the 18th century, when men were still carrying swords as a part of dress, seeing a weapon was relatively more common. It was part of the scenery. We can ask the same questions of them that we do of modern open-carry fans today: how much skill did/do they likely have?
The answer to the question is less important than asking it, because it puts us in touch with our assumptions, our bias built from our own context. It’s tricky—one the one hand, drawing analogies can help, but on the other we have to be careful not to equate the two halves of the analogy. It’s analogy—comparing two things in order to clarify or explain something, not equivalence. In this case, there are some important, critical differences between a smallsword and a .22 snub-nose, just as there is between an item of dress as normal as a hat and something that people notice because it’s an exception to normal, to the everyday. In this case, the point of comparing a small caliber pistol and smallsword is that both will ruin your day even though they’re not the M-60 or a montante.
I’ve pulled a few works from the 18th century and excerpted portions of their prefaces to see what they have to say and what we might learn from them. They are:
1702: Henry Blackwell’s The English Fencing Master
1707: William Hope’s A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing
1758: Juan N. Perinat’s Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre
1771: J. Olivier’s Fencing Familiarized
1780: John McArthur’s The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion 
Taking each in turn, what do we learn?
Blackwell, Henry. The English Fencing Master. London: Printed by J. Downing, 1702.
I could very willingly have sav’d my self the Trouble of a Preface, had I not lain under a Necessity of Apologizing for the Brevity of this Undertaking, which I desire the Reader to accept as follows.
In the first place therefore, I do assure you the Peruser of this small Treatise, that there is scarce any thing needful to the Knowledge of the Small-Sword which is not here laid down, and that in so plain and clear a Method, as will give both Satisfaction and Delight to All Lovers of this Art. An Art so necessary to be known, and so proper a Qualification for constituting a Man a Gentleman, that I had almost said he can be none that is not skill’d therein.
A second Reason I might alledge for the Conciseness of this Work, is, that I have made use but of few Lessons, as judging that way most practicable, many Lessons being rather cloying than Instructive; besides that we too often experience, that Gentlemen are apt to forget one while they are learning another, by which means they scarce ever become perfect in any.
And now, were it any ways Useful to my Design, I might run a large Encomium in praise of Sword-playing, and show you particularly how England of late Years has exceeded all other Countries herein, even France it self, which has long boasted its Preference in this respect; but this being the Work rather of a Panegyric than a Sword’s-Man, I shall wave that point, and conclude with telling you, that if this Edition finds Acceptance in the World, I intend to enlarge on this and other parts of it, and oblige all Lovers hereof with a compleat System in a Second Edition. H.B.
Several things stand out in reading Blackwell’s preface. In the first line he informs us that this work is not long—“the Brevity of the Undertaking” is a florid way to express this, but amounts to the fact he will not be presenting an exhaustive treatment. He reiterates this a second time in the next section by referring to his “small Treatise” and significantly that despite the length the core of the system is present. Blackwell may assume some familiarity with fencing as well—a text he believes will please “All Lovers of this Art” is suggestive at least that some of his audience he expects to have a nodding acquaintance with the Art. Touching on the key aspects of the system the author then informs us that he includes few lessons as he believes these tend rather to confuse than help. In short, Blackwell tells the reader from the off that his work is not complete, but a distillation of key aspects of smallsword laid out in approachable lessons. For the historical fencer today keen to mine this text, this is important: it’s not complete, so while useful and informative, additional reading will be necessary.
Hope, W. A new, short, and easy method of fencing: Or, the art of the broad and small-sword rectified and compendized. Edinburgh: Printed by James Watson, 1707.
[x] A Dexterous Smalls-sword Man, how adroit soever he may be at the handling of his Rapeir in a Duel after the Common School-Method, will, when he comes to Engage at Clos Fight in a Field-Battel, either with Foot or Horse, find himself extremely put to it, and almost as much to seek, as if had no Art at all, if he be Masters or no better Defence, whereby to secure himself, than the Ordinary School Parades of Quarte and Tierce, which belong only to the Small-sword or Rapier; & whereof the unsuccessful Practice, (even in Duels, laying aside their Insufficiency in a Crowd, or Field-Battel) hath no doubt made many People value less the Art of the Sword, than otherwise they would have done; judging thereby, that there could be no better nor securer Defence drawn for it: For in such a Juncture, I mean in a Crowd or Battel, a Man hath neither Time nor Bounds, nicely to Ward off his Adversary’s Blows or Thrusts, nor to Break his Measure, as he would have, were he Engaged only in a Duel. Here he is a little more at Large and Freedom; but there, perhaps surrounded by two or three Stout and Vigorous Single Soldiers, or Troopers, who are with Fury Sabring, and Discharging Blows upon him.
In this selection from Hope we see a stark contrast to Blackwell. Of concern here is Hope’s recognition that school play and actual combat are not the same. Most smallsword works make great hay of quarte and almost as much of tierce, but to Hope’s mind that is not enough.  It may serve in the salle, but on the ground or in combat these two principle parries are insufficient. As he remarks, the distance required to make these parries work well is not guaranteed in combat; the same is true of the ability to break measure. In a duel between two people, there is comparatively more room to act, more options, and fewer restrictions. That concluding line is particularly clear—armed with these more extended parries what shall the poor person with a smallsword do against three soldiers or cavarlymen bearing on him with sabres? Unlike the movies, they’re unlikely to take turns. Hope’s preference for a hanging guard, something one sees less often in smallsword treatises, makes more sense given that Hope’s assumptions are different.
Perinat, J. N. Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre. Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758.
The art of fencing, that I demonstrate in this work, is one of the most essential parts of the military, whose object is the defense of our Holy Faith, the king and queen, and the state, and the glory of defeating their enemies. Because of this, in the most political governments special care is always taken that the youth destined for arms are instructed early in the art of fencing, to the end of acquiring agility, skill, boldness, and fearlessness.
In order to be able to perfect this art with more ease, it has been divided into two parts. The first, that one sees only in the play of the smallsword, pertains properly to the officers of war. The second, that one sees in the handling of the sword or sabre, is more commonly for the soldier. These two branches have always been separate from each other, and each one has had its own masters, but as the Marine Officers are destined for work in which it is very useful to be able to use the sabre, and that some have asked me to teach them, I have happily consented to give them this instruction, not withstanding the common worry of the academy masters, that they would lose some of their rights and prerogatives if they would teach the play of the sabre.
It is also true, that not all masters of the smallsword can teach the play of the sabre, and it is necessary to have found, as I have, the occasion of learning it. I confess, that in ten companies that I have done, in which I have encountered various sites and assaults, I would have perished had I not known how to parry a sabre.
In order to make this book more manual and less costly (which is the first brought to light in Spanish on the play of the foil), I have only placed in it the most necessary and subtle of the art. But if the public will receive it with benignity and manifest desire for a more extensive treatise, I will dedicate myself to giving one so complete that it won’t leave any desire for more on the subject.
As it has not been possible to represent in plates all the postures of the art, nor give greater perfection to the drawing, I ask the reader to pay attention more to the explanation than the plates, taking care that in all the thrusts in Fourth and its parries, the body has to be found in the same posture, as well as in those in Third and its parries, and that all the innumerable thrusts and parries that the art encompasses are founded in these four principal points, without the more skillful master being able to alter anything.
Juan Perinat’s treatise, like Blackwell’s, focuses on essentials. He tells us as much in the second to last paragraph, as well in suggesting that one pay more attention to the text than the plates. He suggests that because there are fewer plates that one is going to get more out of the text. Of note, he brings the study of foil (for smallsword) and sabre together in this work, something less common in mid-18th century Spain. As Perinat says, not all smallsword masters know sabre, but in active service he has found it useful, and thus believes that even officers should have some knowledge of it. There is a lot here to consider. As with Blackwell, to appreciate the place of Pernat’s treatise requires additional reading.
(xii-xx) The principles laid down in the following treatise are such as have arisen from the most serious attention to all the ordinary, as well as all possible thrusts with the sword rendered plain and easy by example, according to the usage and opinions of the most eminent swordsmen and masters of the academy at Paris.
When I was last in that capital, you are sensible Gentlemen, that the stay I made there, had no other object than our common improvement; and I shall esteem myself happy, if by all my cares, I am enabled to demonstrate the ardent desire I have to render the art of which I am a possessor at once both useful and agreeable.
In order to attain both these aims there can be no other method adopted than that of a theory well founded, such as may serve for a basis to all those movements which an agil and well framed body is capable of practicising, in order thereby to discover their defects or to point out their particular merit: without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage: this is what I have endeavoured in the best manner I could to demonstrate to you.
How far I have succeeded I submit to your determination, happy if it contributes to the only view I proposed by it, your advancement…
From the Preface:
(xxii-xxix) This treatise on fencing will I hope be favourably received by all the lovers of that exercise; it will not only be found useful in regard to execution, the perusal of it from time to time will also serve to recall the principles to mind, and enable one to arrive in some measure at perfection; for it is not enough to preserve a same equality in an exercise, and to practise it now and then, the memory must likewise be refreshed by a revival and thorough examination of the principles; theory being as necessary as practice.
I have expressed myself in as clear and intelligible a manner as I was able, in order to be understood, even by those who may never have learnt this art. I have drawn no comparison between the ancients and moderns, as many have done; it serves only to perplex the learners ideas; of what import is it to me, that the ancients called prime what we term second: the name is of no consequence; it is the manner of pushing the thrust that it behoves us to learn, and it is what I have studied to demonstrate distinctly.
Neither do I speak of disarms, voltes, passes, plungeouns, etc. these are only thrusts of convention, obstructive to the proficiency of the learner, and which the ancients used only for shew, and to lengthen their lessons; now that we are more enlightened, it is found that these disarms, etc. are in reality very dangerous, expose much and impede execution.
I have likewise past over in silence the parade with the hand, which however may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand; but as it exposes as well as the disarms, I have not mentioned it; my intention being to give none but true principles that lead to perfection: and for this reason I have made the play as simple as possible, to render it the more secure, the more easy, and intelligible.
Olivier was writing in the late 18th century and thus at a time when the sword as a necessary part of a gentleman’s dress was going out of fashion. Nonetheless, he set out to provide the principles underlaying all play with the sword, and significantly, extols the role of theory. What he has to say of theory is worth quoting in full:
without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage
In Olivier’s mind, this work will help refresh a fencer’s memory as to the pertinent theory necessary to fence well while at the same time helping one recall techniques one may have forgotten. On this last note the master advocates occasional if not regular practice. In contrast to Hope, however, Olivier wastes no time, as he sees it, on past practice, especially on the various movements that less than a century before had been standard. This is important. Olivier casts these not as alternatives to the linear actions, but as fodder used by masters to extend lessons and garner more payment. Disarms too he discards as dangerous. Though he admits that the use of the off-hand to assist in parrying might help in some cases, he doesn’t cover them since like disarms it can leave one open. He makes a distinction here between the fencing he is presenting and what “may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand.” What we see here is an acknowledgment that school play and what one might use on the ground could be different.  The historical fencer restricting themselves to this text might wish to read others alongside it if they are keen for more than school play and if they want to see what parts of Olivier correspond to more practical works.
McArthur, John. The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion or A New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing. London: Printed for James Lavers, 1780.
[vi-xi] The motives that principally induce me to publish the following Treatise on the Theory and Practice of the Art of Fencing, are, because such Treatises as I have perused, have been published by Professors, or Teachers of that art, and are incomprehensible to young learners; owing to the intricate manner they have made choice of, in describing the different movements, parades, and thrusts, which should be rendered as simple and easy as the nature of the Art would admit; so that young learners might acquire a perfect knowledge of the Theory of Fencing, and be enabled to execute, or put the same in practice, with little or no instructions from masters.
The treatises hitherto published, are entirely calculated for such persons as have a proficiency in Fencing; and not for gentlemen, who might only have the opportunity of a few months lessons. They may indeed be of use to the former, by having recourse to them occasionally, in order that they may recal to their memory what might be acquired during former practice; but can avail little to such gentlemen, as have only been superficially grounded in the principles of the Art.
I flatter myself, that proficient in fencing will find many things new in the following sheets; and young learners, who have a genius for the art, with the assistance of two or at most, three months lessons from a master, will be enabled to acquire a thorough knowledge of it, so as to put all their parades and thrusts in execution, when entering upon assaults or loose play. I will allow, that a great deal of practice is absolutely necessary, before a young learner can execute all his parades and thrusts with that ease, agility, and justness necessary; but, by strict attention to the rules I have laid down, after receiving thereof from a master, he may acquire justness and agility in fencing, equally as much by practicising these parades and thrusts with a learner, who has made similar progress, as if he practicised them with a master; always observing to execute every manoeuvre with minute exactness; and to prevent his contracting erroneous habits, to have frequent recourse to the lessons and instructions here laid down.
McArthur begins his preface by telling the reader that he desired a simple, straight-forward text for new fencers. In his opinion too many of those penned by the masters contained difficult language, unfamiliar terms, and explanations. Though this sounds a little like Ye Olde London Hemabruh, McArthur also has high praise for Olivier and the Paris Academy. Of particular notice is McArthur’s statement that many gentlemen only have a few lessons, and thus that there was a need for a book that would enable such fencers to recall what they had learned between lessons. Moreover, McArthur still sees a role for the master, even if he also claims that a new fencer, so long as they are disciplined and adhere to the principles he lays out, might make as much progress with another dedicated learner. The work closes with a discussion of “serious affairs” and practical advice. Published less than a decade after Olivier’s work, which in some ways reveals the trend toward school play, it’s clear that even in 1780 an English fencer might wind up in a duel.
So these different authors had different reasons to write and perspectives—who cares? If you’re serious about smallsword then you do. Change the subject to longsword, sabre, or pole-axe and the answer is the same. Each one of the texts here present’s one author’s view; there will be overlap between them, and, there will be differences. Looked at together we get a better sense of the state of fencing and fencing education between ca. 1700-1800. We learn some important facts about context for one:
during the 18th century the slow split that led to the division of fencing into academic and practical was already under way
similarly, texts like Hope (1707) and McArthur (1780) both cover practical advice for serious affairs where Olivier (1771) focuses on the assault or bout, so rather than a formal split the two extremes coexisted and were often taught under one roof (so, use of off-line footwork, off-hand parries, disarms is no more or less smallsword than not using them)
we learn that many gentlemen might have studied fencing, but some only for a short time—this has implications for the average level of skill at the time
we read that even someone keen to make things simple like McArthur put great value on theory, because if one grasps the principles then they’re less likely to fall into error
that the sabre, often considered a common “soldier’s weapon” (at least in Spain) in the mid-18th century, became as popular if not more so with officers by at least the Napoleonic period if not the last quarter of the 18th century
we also realize that while the difference in these works, some more “serious” than others, stand out to us, that reading all of them will give us a better sense of things than focus on one or the other does—neither sort existed in a vacuum
These are just a few quick conclusions after a cursory read. What they tell us, however, is important. If our goal is to produce interpretations that are as accurate as possible, then we have to consider more than one source (where we have more than one). A look at the collective corpus for smallsword, for example, will benefit a student in many ways, from gaining an appreciation for how different authors at the time approached the same problems to how many different ways they describe an action like the lunge. Students of the time often studied with different teachers. Fiore in the 15th century tells us that he did, and the same was true four and five-hundred years later. It’s even true today. What holds for instructors, holds for treatises—it’s in our best interest to spend time with more than one. We will understand our systems better, and so long as we’re careful and consider context, we’ll likely interpret those systems more accurately and effectively too.
 I realize that cultists of the gun in my nation may take umbrage with this, but I stand by it. Like many military brats I grew up around firearms and was instructed in their use. Moreover, from those who served in my family to friends of mine serving now I’ve heard ample anecdotal evidence that confirms rather than denies my assertion here. My father, for example, opted for a .45 pistol over a 9mm as he found the stopping power greater and in his context, jungle warfare, taking out one opponent fast meant dealing with the next (maybe unseen as yet) more quickly. A Marine I’ve known since high school favors a 9mm as sidearm, and he has fought in I don’t know how many tours since 2001. Lastly, from my own experience I’ve seen what a small caliber bullet can do. A close friend of mine, my eldest son’s godmother, was shot through her wooden door by a home-made .22 pistol (likely a gang initiation, but no one was talking of course). Had the door been any thinner she would have died—the bullet was slowed by the door so that when it hit her sternum it ricocheted up into her neck rather than shattering or passing beyond the breastbone. The bullet remains there today as not even the excellent surgeons at Baltimore’s shock-trauma felt safe removing a slug so close to an artery.
 Titles listed in order of appearance:
Henry Blackwell, The Gentleman’s Tutor for the Small Sword, or, The Compleat English Fencing Master, 1702/1730 (London, GB: J. Jackson, Archive.org.).
Sir William Hope, A New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small-Sword Rectified and Compendiz’d, 1701 (Edinburgh, SCT: James Watson, Google Books).
——. New Method of Fencing, 1708, Highland Swordsmanship: Techniques of the Scottish Swordmasters, ed. Mark Rector (Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001), 89-189.
Juan Nicolás Perinat, Art of Fencing Foil and Sabre, translated by Tim Rivera, 2018 (Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758).
J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books). [NB: dual language, English and French]
 Cf. posts such as “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited, 23 March, 2021.
 In some ways it’s likely impossible to determine exactly when this began. De la Touche, writing in 1670, features fencers using foils and in some cases making actions that seem risky, and yet the duel in France—while illegal—had not disappeared. Is his work academic or practical? My answer would be “yes.” It’s both. It’s what one might learn in an academy, but which still had practical use. Most of the 18th century works that I’ve read so far cut both ways (pardon the pun)—many fencers likely engaged in fencing as we do, as a past time, and yet some of their mates may have been called out or called out others. In the study I’m making now the split becomes more apparent in 19th century works; some of these barely touch on footwork, something no fencer can dispense with outside of the most artificial contexts (yes, I realize there are practices such as the Mensur where neither opponent may move, but while a bloody affair the Mensur is as much ritual as it is a duel—no one is fighting to the death with those sabres. The combats are, in a way, a drinking game. There were plenty of duels as we think of them in German principalities, from point-fencing to sabres mit Stich and pistol. See for one discussion Kevin McAleer’s Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).
It’s easy to point out examples where we go wrong in using historical fencing sources. It’s also important if we care about producing the best interpretations we can, but on it’s own pointing out a problem isn’t the same as providing possible solutions. From time to time I like to take a passage from a source I use and share my approach. The one caveat is this: I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first to admit that. What I do have, however, is extensive training in language, source analysis, and fencing theory, not only theory as it is taught now, but theory as it developed over the past 500 years. Taken together these can be valuable tools for making sense of sources.
Start with the Source
For historical fencers our primary authority is the page. This can be tricky. We are removed in time and culture, explanations vary in depth, and we often face an incomplete record. Each of these factors alone or together affect how much of that authority we can access, and thus, how much we can interpret with any surety. The more information we have for a system, the better, but this depends too on the nature of that information. We have, for example, far more detailed description for rapier across languages and time, but have far less for medieval sword and buckler.
Most people, in my experience, look to an instructor for help; the burden for doing this work is then more or less shifted to that club and its instructor. Assuming one’s instructor is doing an effective job at interpretation, then there’s arguably less to worry about. However, a good instructor will be able to explain their work, methodology, and approach. In ideal cases they share that information day one. This is one opportunity where we can assess an instructor’s ability.
If you don’t have access to an instructor, if you like to read on your own, or if your instructor is giving you homework, then it helps to have some help. Let’s say you are one of my students and I’ve given you this passage from a key Radaellian sabre manual, Settimo Del Frate’s Instructions for Fencing with the Sabe and Sword:
56. Molinelli Alternating with Parries
When the student has learned the execution of the various molinelli and parries, he must become competent in their execution by repeating the same molinillo many more times, alternating between the various molinelli, and alternating and mixing them with various parries. He will also do this exercise while moving. This practice must be performed with proper progression to be worthwhile, giving the student nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre, which he can easily put into use. He will also learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm. The exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction.
This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount. When the various molinelli are executed at the same time, the commands are given for the execution of the molinelli and parries, only having to modify the preparatory command to the exercises that the students are to execute.
Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—
A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.
The exercise is easily varied, and it will be necessary for you to adhere to a reasoned and complete progression, in order to obtain from this important practice the greatest possible benefit.
[Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Ca. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 39-40]
56. MOLINELLI ALTERNATI CON PARATE
L’allievo che ha appreso l’esecuzione dei diversi mo linelli e parate, è esercitato nella loro esecuzione, sia ripetendo più volte lo stesso molinello, sia alternando i diversi molinelli tra loro, sia alternandoli frapponendovi le diverse parate ed anche le diverse marcie. Quest’esercitazione fatta a dovere e con giusta pro gressione varrà a dare all’allievo quella scioltezza e faci lità nel maneggio della sciabola per cui potrà mettere in pratica più facilmente e sentire i vantaggi di muovere e ruotare la sciabola ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno per movimento d’avambraccio, e varrà inoltre a chiarire nella sua mente la ragionata progressione dell’insegna mento ed i suoi vantaggi. Per questa lezione di molinelli alternati e misti con parate, si avrà solo da insegnare, come cosa nuova, il modo ed il tempo di girare il filo con giusta gradazione, quando si devono eseguire più molinelli dalla stessa parte; per il rimanente valgono le norme date per l’ese cuzione dei molinelli e parate, fatti separatamente, avendo solo l’avvertenza di modificare il comando ana logamente agli esercizi che si fanno eseguire.
Due molinelli di testa, il primo da sinistra il secondo da destra –parata di 5a e molinelto di figura da destra – oppure:
Due molinelli di figura da destra –parata di 6a, e molinello di montante da sinistra – oppure:
Un molinello di figura da sinistra –parata di 1a, mo linello di testa da sinistra — cavazione (o coupé) e guardia di terza, ecc., ecc.
Gli esercizi come si vede facilmente, ponno essere mol tissimi e svariati, e sarà necessario l’attenersi ad una progressione ragionata e completa, onde ottenere da questa importante esercitazione il maggior frutto possibile.
[S. Del Frate, Istruzione per la Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada, Milano: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 49-50.]
If you have some Italian and a copy of the original work, then it’s a good idea to place it side by side your translation. In this case, Chris Holzman is one of the best translators working on the Italian corpus: he has a number of native speakers—who are also experienced fencers or maestri—read over his work. This is a vital process in any translator’s work. It’s due diligence. Even with an excellent translation it is helpful to look at the original provided you possess some ability with the language. Reading them side by side will reveal a translator’s choices, but it will also reveal nuances that translation sometimes has trouble capturing.
Now, what do you do with this passage? First, read it more than once, and as you do so isolate key ideas. Right away one knows from the subheading that the number “56” suggests that this is deep within the text. The author, Del Frate, was adamant about the logical progression of lessons, so if anything here is unfamiliar then rereading earlier sections will help. If for example you don’t remember the difference between a molinillo to the head from the left and one to the face, go back and read that first. Or maybe you don’t recall exactly which parries are which. Go back and review. Once you feel more certain with these, then reread the passage again. Then read again and take it line by line.
The first line informs us that this exercise builds on previous lessons, so review can be useful. It also tells us that what this section provides is a way of mixing the molinelli with parries. In review you recall that Del Frate introduces the concept of the molinelli first (§8, 10 Holzman; §8, 16-17 Del Frate), then covers each molinelli in turn through Chapters VIII -X (§42-55, 339, Holzman; 39-49 Del Frate), and finally he offers a few different exercises with the molinelli, such as the one covered here, as well as with a lunge (§57, 41, Holzman; 50-51 Del Frate) and against attempts at engagement (§58, 41-42; 51 Del Frate). If the idea of mixing molinelli and parries is odd at first, then be sure to read each of these sections in succession first.
Del Frate’s method, Radaelli’s, is progressive. We first learn the molinelli as an exercise and way to foster strength, flexibility, and edge alignment. As we improve, we see that each of the molinelli not only cover the major lines of attack, but travel through each of the parries as well. From standing we add movement, first with a bit of lean, then with the feet, the lunge, and then all of it together. So, since this mix of parries and molinelli is near the close of the section for sabre and just before the synoptic tables, it figures that the author assumed some facility first. In the cavalry this was, of course, a lot easier to establish as the troopers had regular drill under military sword masters.
The next few sentences establish additional reasons for the drill:
it will impart “nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre”
the student will “learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm” 
and “the exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction”
These are handy to keep in mind as you work through the drill—they’re the reasons we bother doing it. We also learn that this exercise teaches us one new thing:
This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount.
Now, assuming you’ve had experience with molinelli and can perform them pretty well, how do you incorporate this section of the text?
Important to note, Del Frate is addressing an instructor here, thus the reminder that in giving commands the only change is what commands the instructor gives. To explain this Del Frate provides three examples. These are a fantastic place to start.
Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—
A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.
Each of these can be performed solo or with a partner. If you’re mining this section for pell-work, then start with these three and when you’re comfortable mix and match with other parries and molinelli. If you have a partner, it will help to write out just how this will work, and then when you meet go through it a few times slowly, e.g.
Del Frate, “Mixing Parries and Molinelli” [cf. Holzman, 39-40; DF 49-50]
1. Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
Drill as Is:
Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 2nd
Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left to the right; B receives touch
Fencer A makes molinillo to the right to left; B receives touch
Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek
Drill as Partner Drill*
Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 3rd
Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left; B parries 5th, cuts head
Fencer A parries 5th, makes molinillo to the right; B parries prima, ripostes to head
Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek
*This adds an additional parry for A, and more realistic responses from B. Everything we do should have real application, especially in partner drills. An instructor can take the part of B in the first instance, because part of an instructor’s job is to provide a target. We can assess what a student is doing well in this way and make corrections. As we add complexity, the instructor’s role takes on more realistic behavior.
Starting with a drill as written is best. This can be surprisingly difficult at times. In Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee, for example, his description of the rising cut from the right is dense. It’s not impossible to figure out, but it’s not the clearest description either. So, take your time, and if needed take one portion, one move of a drill at a time.
As an instructor I use this differently than I do as one of a pair of fencers just working out. If neither you or your partner is the instructor, then the second option above is going to do more for you, because it more closely mimics what we actually do in a bout. While we might make two cuts in succession, more often than not our opponent will react to the first one, so mixing in more for Fencer B makes sense. It’s still important to go slow before going fast, and to keep it simple at first. Even if that is just for warm-up, it will help. It’s practice seeing the lines, gauging the time to respond, all of that. Doing the drill as-is is fine too.
For the instructor sharing a drill like Del Frate’s molinelli with parries, focus on proper technique, placement, and flow with newer students. It’s a good place to start with multiple action drills. It will take time to perfect, but early encouragement and praise of what they are doing well is vital. As they become more familiar with the drill the instructor can shape the clay as it were more directly; students tend to be more accepting of criticism when they have a better grasp of the task and when they don’t hear a litany of complaints the entire lesson. This stuff is difficult, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—an instructor should never forget that.
If an instructor is working with more advanced students not only can one mix and match molinelli and parries, but also the tempo. The second drill, for example, where there are two cuts made to the face from the right, then a parry of 6th, and a molinillo from that parry to the flank, one can have the student start out making each portion in regular succession, then change it up so that say the second cut arrives faster, or the parry-riposte is made faster (so slow, fast, slow, slow; slow slow, fast-fast).
Adding movement to this is another option. Traditionally this is how fencing lessons often go—it’s how I learned and it’s what masters are still teaching instructors. Have the students start out standing in close measure; each will go through the exercise 5-10 times. Next, have them move one step out and advance/step in to target. Then, have them take a little more distance so that they’re in critical distance or about tip to tip/top third of the blades; from here have them perform the drill with a lunge. Lastly, have them advance in and lunge. With the advance lunge it’s possible to play with tempo via the feet too.
If in doubt or if you want more perspective, reach out to other fencers working in the same tradition. If you don’t know them well, then it pays to start your message or email politely. That should be obvious. You may find not only help, but new ideas to share with your students or group. There is no reason to go it alone, not when there are people who have been working on the same material for a long time.
 If one only looks at the image and description of the grip where the the thumb is placed on the backstrap, etc., then it is easy to miss that in use the hand’s position changes fairly often. One thing the molinelli teach us well is how this works, and, how to make those minor adjustments with control.
 Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899/1936), 24:
20. Molinello to the Abdomen
This molinillo is composed of two movements:
1. Starting from the final position of the molinillo to the head (Fig. 10), describe backwards with the point half a circle, until your forearm is in a horizontal position (Fig. 13).
2. Continue this movement, hollowing the small of your back, raising the elbow as much as possible, in order to describe forward with your blade another half a circle and deliver a horizontal cut to the abdomen of your opponent (Figs. 8 and 14).
And for comparison, the 1899 text in German (46-47):
20. Schwingung auf den Bauch.
Sie wird auch in zwei Theilbewegungen zerlegt:
1. Man gehe von der Schlussstellung der Schwingung auf den Kopf aus (Fig. 10), führe die Klingenspitze mittelst eines lothrechten Halbkreises in der Richtung des Klingenrückens so nach rückwärts, dass der Vorderarm mit dem etwas erhobenen Ellbogen wagrecht liegt (Fig. 13).
2. Nun setze man die Bewegung durch Kreuz hohl unterstützt, halte den Ellbogen so hoch als möglich und führe die Spitze, einen Halbkreis beschreibend, direct nach vorne, so dass die Klinge den Bauch des Gegners durch einen nach links ansteigenden Querschnitt träfe (Fig. 14).
Of note, in step 2, there are some differences in language that are significant. The word Kreuz, for example, here means “small of the back,” not “cross,” the primary definition. As a native speaker of English (American), this definition works better for me than “hollow,” which is perfectly correct, but less specific. Conversely, Querschnitt, “cross-section,” doesn’t explain the action as well as “horizontal” does. However, ansteigenden, from ansteigen, “rise,” would be helpful in English. Classically, the rising cut from the right is less horizontal than it is diagonal, and it is, for me at least, the least easy to perform.
Critical distance is where a fencer can lunge to target. This is relative given height, reach, etc., but a good place to start is where the blades would cross at the top third or tip. If too close or too far, one can adjust. I often refer to this concept merely as being “in distance.” Most of our attacks in sabre are delivered via lunge, so figuring this out is important not only in lessons, but in partner drills, and in a bout.
 In the “links” on this site, near the bottom, I’ve listed a few resources for those working in the late Italian tradition.
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.  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.”  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.
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.  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.  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.  People are people.
A Figurative Glove cast in the Hazard
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.
 See entry on this site entitled “Dealing with Criticism” 28 Oct. 2019.
 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.
 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 😉
 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 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.
 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?”
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.
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.