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

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

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

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

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




1) One who devalues other’s opinions on something by claiming they’re not entitled to the opinion because they’re not qualified, the rightful decision-maker, a part of a particular group, etc. []

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.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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

  1. “You’ve got to get yourself into a flexible frame, or you are no place!” Mr. Waturi

    “Up with mushrooms!” Phantastic Phrip


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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