Emus & Fences

Approached correctly every bout, win or lose, is a lesson. What we get out of it depends on our awareness, experience, and humility. However poetically one might view it ultimately there’s a direct correlation between what we learn and honest self-awareness. If the latter is lacking the lesson is likely lost. It’s the same with disagreements.

The minor furor over a post on this site (“‛Silver’ as Trigger-word in HEMA” 12-30-20) has had me pondering its lessons. Much of that exchange, sadly, proves the wisdom of both La Rochefoucauld, who said “we hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us,” and Thomas Paine who remarked “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason… is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” [1] Witnessing such a deep degree of intractability after the presentation of proof debunking a theory is painful, but with widespread examples of similar cognitive dissonance—“Q-anon,” anti-vaxers, the ancient aliens crowd, etc.—it should probably be less of a surprise if no less a disappointment.

It’s unfitting and small to celebrate anyone’s humiliation, especially when it’s public, obvious to all but them, and as divisive as it is amongst common associates. Just as one doesn’t deride and mock an opponent they’ve soundly beaten, so too should one refrain from crowing over another person’s embarrassment. The tired and pointless debate over George Silver’s “true times” etc. will persist as long as there are those who don’t understand what he said and how it conforms to the same bloody principles fencing masters with half a brain have espoused for centuries. To kick someone who has failed to grasp that is akin to scolding a child for not understanding calculus when they haven’t completed a basic study of algebra. It’s not nice and it’s counterproductive. In this case, and following the same analogy, too many children apparently skipped algebra and dove into calculus before they were ready. Called on it, they cross their arms, pout, and retort that math is stupid and so are we not only for pointing it out, but also for trying to help.

This issue with Silver isn’t a case of opinion, but of demonstrable fact, and yet no piece of evidence, no argument, nothing made the slightest impression. Research is difficult, more so than most people realize, and it’s easy to fall into one of the myriad pitfalls that await the unwary. These are pitfalls one must navigate or pull oneself out of in learning how to practice history—significantly, this is training that one never really completes, because the pitfalls remain. There are always pitfalls to avoid. As a professional researcher (among other jobs) I thought I might be able to help my wayward colleague. He had no interest in my help, called my ability into question, and then kindly offered to help me if I ever get “serious” about the topic. Not much one can do in such cases but Gallic shrug.

Fish Slapping Dance, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

I can’t explain why someone would staunchly defend a position so thoroughly undermined, but I worry about it because this problem goes beyond one hapless researcher. There are numerous examples of research gone wrong in most facets of “HEMA” study. Some would be relatively easy errors to correct, but as so often happens what should be about the material is really about ego. For example, there’s a glaring translation error, one that should have been obvious from the title page, in a smallsword text that came out in 2019. The mistranslation suggests the use of translation software, which is bad enough, but also of failure to have anyone expert in French review the finished product. Readers who asked about it were shut down by the “translator.” How the translator and his pals reconcile themselves to de St. Martin’s advice in using a “swordfish” instead of a sabre I don’t know—if I had to guess maybe they believe the French called sabres swordfish. Regardless, it’s it’s a poor translation. [2] This by itself reveals that the transcriber’s background is probably insufficiently deep to tackle this project. Few seem troubled by it, but it matters because he isn’t the only one producing shoddy translations.

Questionable translations tend to lead to questionable interpretations. At the very least the former call into question both translator’s skill and reader’s sense. In multiple cases I’ve witnessed a translator double down on their mistake, publicly—this reveals an attitude toward scholarship that defies reason. They either don’t know that they should be embarrassed or are incapable of feeling it. Quintilian supposedly remarked that “There is no one who would not rather appear to know than to be taught,” and in HEMA this apparently proves to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s a problem. From these shoddy translations to the misapplication of cutting mechanics borrowed from various Japanese sword-related ryū, from blind faith in images to a lack of familiarity with elementary fundamentals in fencing, HEMA scholarship is a patchwork composed of the finest linen and the most threadbare fabric. Bad as this is, the deeper concern is that too few people care, and that those with a stake in things, who enjoy their status, are quick to denounce any detractors however sensible their objections are.

Any parallel drawn between inferior HEMA research and a well-known parable by a famous Attic lover of wisdom concerning a cavern is likely to upset a lot of people, but it’s an easy parallel to draw. Less familiar, but far more succinct, are the words of another sage:

τί πρῶτόν ἐστιν ἔργον τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος; ἀποβαλεῖν οἴησιν: ἀμήχανον γάρ, ἅ τις εἰδέναι οἴεται, ταῦτα ἄρξασθαι μανθάνειν.

What is the first business of him who philosophizes? To throw away self-conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows. [Epictetus,  Διατριβαί‎ /Discourses, II.17] [3]

This is, I think, the major stumbling block in “HEMA,” too much unfounded belief in one’s own ability, be it knowledge, skill, or both. Second only to this is the collective failure in giving the floor to those so deluded. Unchallenged it’s hard to see that the shadows one takes for reality are illusory—after all, so many people make the same mistake. They go hand in hand and reinforce one another. As a community’s members begin to self-identify and are viewed as “those in the know” it becomes all the harder to see the problem or take criticism. When someone does eventually question them it goes poorly, because in so many ways it’s not about the subject, but about how they view themselves and how they believe others see them. External validation is powerful, but it’s dangerous. Acclaim can exist on falsehood just as much as truth. For HEMA, it has become more important to be seen as an expert than in fact to be one.

Authority & HEMA

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! George Silver Theater!!! Ok, clearly quarantine has gotten to me too…

In an endeavor as multifaceted as ours, as broad in subject and timespan, there is no one expert, but a diverse collection of different experts. Authority, such as it is, should derive from informed consensus, not merely what is popular or because some swordy celebrity said so. That same authority should make logical sense, should be based upon the best each category of expert can supply in light of the evidence, and should be demonstrable to the degree possible. This demands an acceptance for what is logically sound and what is and what is not decent evidence or argument. If the recent episode of George Silver Theater is any guide our community can’t agree on the most elementary facts and struggles to apply the most basic reason—not much point in discussing anything when that’s the case.

We have multiple sources for authority in historical fencing. Many of them are worthy sources too. One of the strengths our community has is that so many skilled points of view inform it. We are less hidebound as a result, more open, and this is a good thing. The motley collection of artifacts (e.g. period weapons and armor), manuals and treatises, anecdotal evidence (e.g. accounts of duels and battles), legal proceedings, commentary (e.g. Brantôme or Gelli), artistic depictions, and fragmentary miscellanea of all kinds present us with a giant puzzle missing numerous pieces. We can get a general idea of what the image would be upon completion, but we can never assemble the whole. [4]

In light of this having different perspectives is vital. A sword-maker like Gus Trim has insights into more than the geometry necessary for balance, impact, and effectiveness in swords, but also perception into use because of those insights (not to mention long experience in Chinese swordsmanship). Kaja Sadowski of Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly assists police in learning how to handle attackers—real-life experience as a martial arts instructor adds something to Kaja’s examination of rapier that most of us lack. The images produced by Roland Warzecha, a trained illustrator and artist, capture details that many of us miss. Examples are too many to count, and from most conceivable fields—archaeology, art history, dance, data analysis, engineering (of all sorts), equitation, history, linguistics, military experience, teaching, writing, and a wide variety of skilled trades. Most of all, there is passion for the topic, a love of swords, and much as we disagree this unites us. It should anyway.

Fencing Competition diploma, Milan

However, in assigning any one of these voices authority we must be careful—are they, in their field, up to the task? What qualifies them as an authority? Sometimes it’s easy to determine. Fencing masters who are certified to teach, who know the languages necessary, and who—importantly—have studied fencing history are one example. There are many who have proven their ability within the historical community, maestri such as David and Dori Coblentz, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, Giovanni Rapisardi, and Gerard Six to name only a few. Certifications are not everything, but they are a measure, and so it follows that those possessing them might have some insights by virtue of that specialized study.

At other times, credibility is less obvious, and this is where we tend to get into trouble. Training, good sense, and demonstrated ability as defined by a person’s field seem good places to start when considering credibility, but this requires us to have some familiarity with the specific discipline. How much knowledge is enough to do that adequately? At a minimum we need to know to whom to go for help, and in a community with as many talented people as ours someone we know is bound to know the right people if we don’t. It’s important to ask the obvious questions too–if, for example, someone has put forth an edited version of an old master’s work, then we should look into their suitability for the task. What training have they had? How are they qualified beyond interest and self-confidence? Who backs their project, if anyone, and what are their qualiifications?

With respect to fencing we have to consider any training they’ve had, not only in terms of how long they’ve studied, but also the quality of that training. We must consider their strengths and weaknesses within this background—one may be a fabulous teacher, but a mediocre competitor or vice versa. There is a difference in training, most of the time, between someone who studied with a maestro for a decade and someone who worked with an instructor who has one year more experience than the student. If nothing else it is depth of material and established pedagogy; a maestro, by virtue of the process of certification and teaching, typically draws from a deeper pool than the amateur who has memorized all of Henry Angelo’s Infantry Sword Exercise or who has attempted to wrestle with “Die Zettel” and associated glosses.

In terms of scholarship, someone like Jeffrey Forgeng, who has both the academic credentials and demonstrated ability to handle historical fencing sources well, is a good guide. Not everyone need be as skilled as he is, but he’s an excellent role model, and if one is going to attempt something beyond a short essay, then examining carefully how Forgeng treats evidence, builds an argument, and supports that argument will be valuable. There is no shame, incidentally, in realizing that a project is beyond our skill. However, when one attempts an academic paper and proves that they have no idea what they’re doing those who do are likely to find issues with it. In that case, the sensible thing to do is put ego aside, listen, consider what they have to say, and see if it can improve the project. If something is more complex, find help, contact a scholar—there are a lot active in HEMA—and see if they might be interested in collaborating. [5]


The most difficult part of this process is assessing ourselves. We must know our limitations. This doesn’t mean we settle for them, but that we’re aware that we don’t know everything, we don’t have all the answers, and that none of us has a monopoly on skill. We should strive to improve always. It’s far easier to start the long road to improvement when we take honest stock of where we are now. We need to do so without censure or pride or we skew that assessment. This means that there will be times when we’re not good at something. Everyone is a beginner at some point—have the courage to be a beginner or at least to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

At the same time, we need to have the strength of character to recognize another person’s gifts. If we’re smart, we’ll lean on them and their expertise. This doesn’t mean playing the sycophant or using people, but doing what we do unconsciously all the time when we seek a new doctor, tattoo artist, or vacuum repair shop. Expertise, in most cases, includes an unending, continuing education—any credible expert knows that. Likewise, credible experts know that they make mistakes too, but the better ones acknowledge and correct them.

Cultural bias to the contrary, skilled researchers normally spend years acquiring the tools of their trade, not just those of analysis but also familiarity with the discipline and its scholarship. [6] A violinist, by analogy, must learn the instrument, how to produce vibrato and slide as well as familiarize themselves with the corpus of music they wish to pursue. This same violinist, if they work at it, may be able to play both the Capriccio No. 23 of Locatelli and “The Longford Tinker,” but it will require a great deal of work and not everyone has the discipline, time, and degree of talent necessary to achieve such virtuosity.

If we’re honest with ourselves it’s a lot easier to be honest with others, and, to appreciate their gifts. It will fall hard on some ears and hopes, but the truth is that the branches of the Art we study—with few exceptions—are extinct, so no one can master them. “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” [7] I don’t wish to go into the issues around the idea of “mastery” or the specific meaning that goes with maestro d’armi, but if the historical record is incomplete then any study of it is too. We are all apprentices when it comes to historical fencing. We cannot be otherwise.


[The title of this post is a nod to a fact my first-grade teacher, Ms. May, shared with us from her time in Australia. She related that emus, when they want to get through a fence, have been known to keep butting it with their heads until the fence gives or they do. I leave it to Aussie colleagues to verify that, but it’s a good metaphor for how nonsensical HEMA’s approach to research can be]

[1] See reflection #347, La Rouchefoucauld, Reflections, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9105/9105-h/9105-h.htm. For the French, “Nous ne trouvons guère de gens de bon sens, que ceux qui sont de notre avis,” see http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14913/pg14913.html

Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” V. March 21, 1778; (the series of pamphlets ran from 1776-1783, cf. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_307972); see also https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3741/3741-h/3741-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

There is a difference between building a case on limited evidence that is sound and one that mishandles that evidence or ignores it. Roman historians who study Julius Caesar rely on the same set of sources, but draw different conclusions based on them, especially with regard to Caesar’s goals in pushing change in the government. We cannot know absolutely what he meant to do, but we can devise reasonable possibilities. The question is important, even when our answers are imperfect, and we learn something of value even when a theory is incorrect but well-built.

[2] There are times, especially with older works, where the current, first option in a dictionary isn’t correct. Translations programs tend to provide the most common, current definition. So, when presented with espadon in French, and the work in question is from 1804, it’s smart to look beyond the first entry. My edition of the Petit Larousse (1961), provides the following:

ESPADON n., m. (ital. spadone, grande épée): Grande et large épée qu’on tenait à deux mains (Xve – XVIIe s.). Zool.  Poisson des mers chaudes et tempérées, atteignant 4 m de long et dont la mâchoire supérieure est allongée comme une lame d’épée (p. 398).

Helpful as this is, we can be sure that de St. Martin wasn’t talking about long- or great-swords, so, we keep looking. Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) likewise defines espadon as a “short two-handed sword,” so it too is little help, though he includes espade which he defines as “a broad short sword” which gets us a little closer (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/397.html). The University of Chicago has an excellent, searchable database that looks to several period French dictionaries. In Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, Sixième Édition, 1835, there is a definition that makes more sense in re de St. Martin’s usage. It reads:

ESPADON. s. m. Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Sixième Édition. T.1 [1835]

ESPADON. s. m. ESPADON. s. m. Grande et large épée qu’ on tenait à deux mains. Jouer de l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en termes d’ Escrime, Du sabre dont on apprend à se servir. Maître d’ espadon. Apprendre l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en Histoire naturelle, d’ Une espèce de grand poisson dont le museau est armé d’ un os plat et allongé comme un glaive.


The second definition refers to the usage of espadon with regard to fencing where it means “sabre.” The 5th edition of this lexicon, published in 1798, six years before de St. Martin’s work came out, does not provide this definition. Like my Petit Larousse it offers only the late period two-handed weapon and the fish as suggestions. Significantly, the Academy dictionary at least as early as 1694 included the term sabre as we typically think of it. Any translator faced with a less common word must thus move beyond a dictionary and see how other contemporary writers used the same term; if that comes up short, then one must go by context. The images in de St. Martin’s treatise clearly depict a sabre, not a fish, and so one would be safe translated his espadon as sabre.

For de St. Martin, the safest source to use is the original, a copy of which can be found via Google books. Cf. M. J. de St. Martin, L’art de faire des armes, réduit a ses vrais principes (Vienne: de l’imprimerie de Janne Schrämble, 1804). In addition to the “translation” mentioned above, there is one that has been put out by P. T. Crawley and Victor Markland, The Art of Fencing Reduced to True Principles, Lulu Press, 2014).

[3] Perseus at Tufts University has a good translation, as well as the Greek text, on site: see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0236%3Atext%3Ddisc%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D17 . The English text they provide, and quoted above, is Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, with the Encheridion and Fragments, trans. George Long (London: George Bell and Sons, 1890). See also Epictetus, Discourses, Books 1-2, Translated by W. A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library 131 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).

[4] For Pierre de Brantôme (d. 1614), see Duelling Stories of the Sixteenth Century from the French of Brantôme, George Herbert Powell, Ed., London: A. H. Bullen, 1904 (available on Google Books); J. Sambix, ed., Mémoires de Messire Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, contenans les anecdotes de la cour de France, sous les rois Henry II, François II , Henry III et IV, touchant les duels, 1722.

For Jacopo Gelli (d. 1935), see his Bibliografia generale della scherma. Con note critiche, biografiche e storiche, Firenze, L. Niccolai, Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890.

[5] Jeffrey Forgeng, in addition to non-HEMA related topics, has produced excellent editions of both Ms. I 33 The Walpurgis Manuscript and of Meyer’s system. Russ Mitchell, author of Hungarian Hussar Sabre and Fokos Fencing (2019) and translator of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (1906), is another excellent example of how one might approach difficult sources effectively. His Hussar Sabre is particularly well-designed for HEMA.

[6] Historians in my field, for example, spend considerable time on secondary literature and the most recent evaluations of the topic because things change, we find new evidence or fault with older theories. Sometimes those changes are dramatic (we know far more about Stonehenge now than we did even ten years ago), and sometimes they’re slow (medieval historians in recent decades have realized there’s not only evidence for once neglected segments of the population, such as the poor or women, but also good reason to study them).

[7] Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years, is a collection of articles from the Toronto Star collected by Gene Z. Hanrahan in 1962 after the writer’s suicide. It was published in New York by Dell Publishing Co. At least one scholar believes this collection was put together to capitalize on popular feeling concerning Hemingway’s death. See Frank Stewart, “Hemingway Scholarship and the Critical Canon in American Literature,” 広島修大論集/Studies in the Humanities and Sciences 41: 1 (2) (2000): 305-345.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

4 thoughts on “Emus & Fences”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s