Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces

When we occupy any space lacking clear definition it can be both unsettling and liberating. In either case much of what feeds our experience in threshold areas comes down to external reaction to it, our earlier experiences, and our expectations. I’m not sure which is harder to manage; each in its own unique ways can play merry hell with us. Now three quarters through what is easily the best fencing course I’ve ever had the pleasure to take, I’ve had another chance to examine, closely, life-in-the-limen. This class, a twenty-one week exploration of everything one could wish to know about the techniques and teaching of epee, is fantastic, but it has reminded me powerfully that I am too “historical” for my Olympic colleagues, and too “Olympic” for my historical ones. I don’t really belong in either camp, but value both for what each offers. One of many pluses to being stuck in some ill-defined space is that for all the confusion there is clarity too—one is just distant enough to see things more objectively provided one is honest and looking. About a year ago I posted a piece, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps” [22-7-21], that touched on a few aspects of having one’s feet in multiple spots. This post picks up where that one stopped.

Culture & Tunnel Vision

We like to be comfortable, so we seek out and nestle into communities where we suffer less cognitive dissonance. While opinions vary in such communities there’s nonetheless a general acceptance of operating truths that allow for easy interaction, predictable outcomes, and a sense of contentment. We don’t like when someone disrupts the illusion. Sometimes we experience that as mild frustration and bewilderment, at others we become actively hostile. We don’t always pause, step back, and regard the scene with an analytical eye, though we should. This is all the harder to do when we’re used to a degree of conformity; any outlier can be dust in the eye, nothing necessarily fatal but nonetheless annoying. [1]

No one is exempt from the tunnel vision that comes with a culture, any culture, but it’s also true that one’s vision can widen. The more one struggles to see things within a different culture, the wider that perspective can become. It’s one reason that travel and exposure to other ways of life, of thinking, to different values, are so vital—not everyone emerges from those experiences more open-minded and compassionate, but many do. In a way it’s a particular form of learning how to pay attention, even knowing to, and that on its own is reason enough to try.

Too “Historical” for Olympic?

As a caveat, this particular master and I have not chatted about any of this, so what follows is nothing save my musings about a possible interpretation of what I’m seeing. I could be dead wrong. This is something I must be aware of and note: knowing my own mixed history with the competitive world I might be applying a bias where there isn’t one. With this said, there are a few things that have struck me that speak to the gulf in culture.

This class, online thanks to Covid, is taught by a well-known, talented, and excellent master. I’ve come to have a lot of respect for this man—he’s kind, a teacher’s teacher, and inclusive in outlook (e.g. he discusses the differences in teaching children, adults, and veterans [40 years +], and doesn’t just focus on male instructors). But as a long-time maestro in the competitive world he, like any of us, has assumptions when interacting with other fencers. Most of the people in this class, so far as I can tell, belong to more traditional salles, and thus have potential students working in the same way close to hand. A few of us do not. This matters, because teaching a fencer who has decent training in Olympic fencing will read differently than those of us who work with a wide variety of fencers.

A sport fencer understands, among other things, how individual lessons normally proceed. It’s part of their culture. Likewise, there are types of drills, expectations about practice, and attitudes toward new material that make it easier in a class like this to work with like-minded people. In contrast, my students come from very different backgrounds—not one, at present, has ever stepped foot in a typical Olympic salle. Some have never fenced or studied any martial art; others have studied empty-hand traditions, but nothing weapon-oriented; still others have extensive experience in other martial arts and weapons, and most of these I have met through “HEMA.” [2] Thus, when working with one of these students, in most cases they did not come up via the same individual lesson system. Their basis for authority is different, and, unlike most sport fencers they are more likely to question it. [3] One can tell not only by their kit, which is immediately recognizable in most instances from that worn for sport, but in how they move and their responses to particular actions. [4]

Even knowing (or accepting) that there are different types of fencers is not something one can take for granted. I have seen this play out many times, not only in Olympic contexts, but also in historical ones. As I’ve often remarked, on either side most people are familiar only with the excesses—to the degree that anyone is aware of historical fencing, they know it primarily through its least robust if most popular expressions, the sort of thing that makes for good t.v. (this is not a compliment). Olympic fencers see people in black (a color only masters in their world wear), whacking away at one another with little sense of tactics, poor fundamentals, and what appears to be a sad display of might makes right. HEMA players, on the other hand, mock the size of Olympic weapons, the lack of attention to fencing’s past, and that sport’s own celebration of the ridiculous (to cite an easy example the fact that any part of the sabre blade may score). Both camps are correct. Both are incorrect. However, unless one has spent sufficient time in either world that dichotomy will be hard to accept.

Too “Olympic” for Historical?
Bias belongs to all, and having talked about many such examples before I will share one that I hope I’ve not already cited: if I did, my apologies (I searched this site for key words, but it’s not the most fine-tuned search tool). In 2016, at a large event, I had a chance to bout with a well-known HEMA personality. I was struck by how poorly this individual read the room. It’s normal practice to size up other fighters—we can tell a lot from watching them fight, but so too can we glean a lot from their kit. The kit my two friends and I wore should have told him a few things.

Santelli Sabre Mask, old sabre jacket, and three “non-standard” (as an instructor once remarked to me on seeing the one bottom right) sabres

If my age wasn’t something to notice (it should have been), then an old, battered Santelli sabre mask, an even older sabre jacket held together in parts by dental floss sutures, and a mix of weapons that included old AFS parts as equally unavailable as that mask should have said something. [5] That it didn’t told me a lot—this was someone who didn’t recognize that my gear was at least 16 to 20 years old; at my age this gear was likely mine and not an older sibling’s or parent’s, so… by process of elimination I had probably been fencing at least 16-20 years (at that time I had been fencing 29 years). I was polite, because one should be, but amused that this individual then proceeded to explain to me and the others what a “sabre” is, and, that we wouldn’t be using the point as his aluminum tools didn’t flex. His gear—his choice, but that was telling too: he doesn’t fence with people who have sufficient control to work with stiffer weapons.

I was the first to bout with him, and the little bit of intel I had gathered proved reliable. We set-to a few times, and it was eye-opening. Given his popularity I assumed, incorrectly, that this guy must be at least a decent fighter—he’s not. In fairness, I assumed he was likely dealing with some manner of health issue or had recently been ill (he was rather gaunt), something that seemed all the more likely when he stopped after a few passes, out of breath, and replied to my query of whether or not he was okay with “I just didn’t think it would last this long.” One of my two friends fought him next, with similar results, and after that he wouldn’t fence anyone save the friends who came with him. With his reputation I imagine that being schooled by two unknowns was unappealing press: again, very telling. Having been advised always to seek out better fighters by my masters, eastern and western, I would have wanted to chat with my opponent after the bout, maybe see about learning more from them.

As I thought about it that day, and as it has increasingly appeared to me since then, it’s not that my famous opponent hadn’t done his intel, but that he drew the wrong conclusions from it. He saw old Olympic equipment, and in my case, a man slightly older than himself, and assumed easy pickings. After all, what could a former sport fencer possibly know that would be of use in “real” sword-fighting? It’s a bias I’ve run into more often than not in “HEMA” contexts. It’s as erroneous an assumption as concluding that all HEMA is bad. It’s not. Some is great. Much of the tragedy both ways is a lack of ability to separate good and bad fencing. If nothing else during quarantine my interactions with a number of HEMA and Olympic folk have proved how painfully true this is.

Sword-bridges & the Time between Times

Sir Lancelot crossing the sword-bridge; relief from Sainte-Pierre, Caen, Normandy, France, ca. 14th century

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la charrete (The Knight of the Cart), Sir Lancelot must cross a bridge consisting of a sharp sword. Medieval images of the poor knight traversing this pointed symbol were popular, and regardless of what one may know about armor and its effectiveness, upon first viewing what we tend to see is a person trying to get across something dangerous. [6] They’re powerful, vivid images. In like guise, poised between two worlds but belonging to neither of them, is similar in that it often feels like one is walking a knife’s edge. Disaster, in this latter case, is less a danger than discomfort, but I wouldn’t discount that discomfort. It can be surprisingly brutal and difficult to navigate. If nothing else, where is one when the only two communities seemingly the most likely to take one seriously both consider one an oddball?

One thing that makes it easier is finding other oddballs—the handful I know, and I mean “oddball” here as a compliment—are spread out across the globe. They are the only reason I still have fb messenger. Interaction with them, normally virtual, is a lifeline, and sometimes the only medicine against the feeling that maybe we’re completely insane. Another product of not buying either branches’ interpretation in toto is that the confidence that comes with such conviction—however great a mistake—is a stranger to us. No one likes being told that a cherished belief might benefit from further study or reconsideration, but objective looks at both camps quickly demonstrates that neither is perfect. [7] The only antidote to misplaced conviction is to make such questioning habit, and we’re not living at a time when rational inquiry enjoys much popularity.

The uncertainly projected at us can undermine everything we do if we let it. However, it doesn’t have to, because if mythology teaches us anything it’s that liminal spaces are where things happen. Dawn or dusk, the meeting of sea and land, doorways, and similar boundaries are all locations of significance, preserves of magic, of change, of adventure, from Pwyll on the gorsedd to Halloween night. [8] This is to say that occupying a middle ground doesn’t have to be negative; it can be transformative. Following the mythological parallel, this change is rarely comfortable, in fact it is often harrowing, but it’s anything but boring. It’s not an easy place to be; it can be extremely disorienting and lonely. People will not understand it sometimes, they will judge it and us, but there is always a cost to growth. If the goal of martial arts is ultimately personal growth, with all the attendant good that should follow from it, then discomfort is worth it.

So What?

Why does this matter? How might the experience of one obscure fencer affect you? It depends. If you’re a fellow traveller, then you have another oddball in your corner. If you’re in a similar position in re being sort of stuck between two worlds, then maybe this offers some comfort or a way toward it. Maybe it means nothing—that’s okay too. Beyond the personal, though, there are some important ramifications for examining the boundaries we operate within or set up.

There are changes, for example, coming to Olympic fencing in the United States that will likely affect many of us. The official fencing organization, the USFA (United States Fencing Association), which is tied to the Olympic team, and the USFCA, the United States Fencing Coaches Association, which has overseen the training of instructors, will come together to meet the dictates of the US Olympic Committee which mandated that “coaching education be provided by each Olympic/Paralympic sports organization in order to be certified as a governing body in 2021.” [9] It goes beyond space to cover this adequately here, but on the ground this means the creation of even more effective gate-keeping.

I’m all for ensuring qualified coaches and instructors—regardless of one’s camp—but both organizations, especially the USFA, only acknowledge one type of fencer and one type of coach, both competitive. It remains to be seen how this will affect instructors like myself who teach on the local level and who are not sport-oriented. The first question I was asked when I approached my local parks & rec organization about starting a class was about my qualifications. “Time in the saddle” was the most honest answer I could offer along with a resume of experience. Will that work in a few years? I don’t know, but one thing I do know, and am happy to prove is that I can teach your kid basic foil, epee, and sabre. [10]

Maestro Gerevich with students [https://sportmonitor.info/?p=14739]

I don’t pretend to be a maestro, I don’t attempt to teach what I haven’t had sufficient training in, and I am quick to recommend other coaches as appropriate. My goal with the introduction to fencing class is exactly that, an introduction, exposure to the exciting world that is fencing in all its guises. That has value, but not all fencers see it that way, and it seems to me that allowing any hardliner to create and enforce boundaries that affect everyone is a bad idea. Reasoned arguments and rhetoric will not move anyone, but action might, so maybe the best preparation as these changes appear, as others attempt to pigeon-hole us, is to cultivate our inner Aladár Gerevichs. This fencer, at 50, was told by the Hungarian Olympic committee that he was too old to fight, so he challenged the entire team and beat the snot out of all of them. He then went on to win yet more gold medals. He didn’t let the committee define him, and we should let anyone else tell us who to be either.

NOTES:

[1] I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…  I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…

[2] Among my current students are those with no martial arts training whatsoever; a former KdF longsworder, several current students of Fiore (whose works offer an unified approach to wrestling, dagger, sword in one hand, sword in two, polearms, and mounted combat), and a mix of people with some sabre, MMA, Eastern Martial Arts, and wrestling backgrounds.

[3] Authority in Olympic is rarely questioned. One is taught, one uses what is taught, and if it’s not effective (as happens sometimes) the reaction by most is “where did I go wrong with this?” vs. “this must be bunkum.” Authority rests with the body of technique and tactics passed down over centuries and taught by the maestri and their junior instructors. It is not source-based. Most Olympic fencers have little interest in the sources, and to be fair they don’t need them to do well in competition. The early sources approached fencing as martial art, not a sport, and the requirements in each are different however much they share.

[4] Kit differences are most obvious in masks and jackets. HEMA, for some reason, adopted black as its basic color, perhaps as a middle-finger to Olympic. I don’t know. The weapons too are often different. Sabres, for example, tend to be training copies of period weight versions. Responses are different as well. For example, a friend of mine this past weekend agreed to help me with my epee class homework—the assignment was to film a short teaching lesson on parry-riposte. He’s an experienced sabre fencer (ditto Fiore, Georgian, and MMA), so he was a quick study for what we were doing (I opted to work on parry seven)—as we added complexity to the basic p/r, we ended up in infighting distance. Modern epee employs a variety of techniques for this, but not grappling… My partner’s first reaction was a weapon-seizure—very historical. It wasn’t wrong, but wasn’t right for modern epee 😉

[5] Sabre-specific gear disappeared with the demise of Santelli Fencing in 2004. This company, which had been around since 1942, was the only one still making jackets without the cuissard, the section that covers the groin, as well as masks with leather attached to the top. The sabre jacket was outlawed for competition not long after sabre went electric in NCAA competition—sorry, forget which year that was—but if I recall correctly the latter years of the 1990s. Thus, anyone of a certain age still using this sort of gear should stand out, but won’t unless one knows the difference. Zen Warrior Armory/Triplette Competition Arms, makes a “Classical” jacket sans cuissard that many of us accustomed to the older sabre jacket wear. They’re excellent.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, the French author and major figure in producing and spreading Arthurian romance in the Middle Ages, produced some of the most beloved Arthurian stories. Most of his work was penned, probably, between the 1150s and 1190s. In some depictions the knight is bleeding from his crossing, even when clad in armor of the time (mail). This is another reminder that art is tricky to use: clad in mail, and assuming that it would be in contact with the bridge, carefully crawling one’s way would not slice through the armor. For a few examples, and my source for the image above, see:

Crossing the Sword Bridge. Sir Lancelot of the Lake in Medieval Art

[7] Hard-liners either side of the divide often believe that their way and their way alone is best. Support for these assertions is often only gathered within the bubble they occupy. For example, HEMA players are quick to dump on Olympic right-of-way/ROW rules. The fact that both fencers might be hit, but only one scores sits ill with them. I get it. Were the weapons sharp… that would be bad, but no one in Olympic fencing is fighting as if the blades were sharp. They haven’t for a very long time. Instead, they’re playing a game, a sport based on fencing with sharps. It derives from the martial art—it is not the martial art. It’s the same for kendo, competitive TKD, etc.

Olympic fencers, on the other hand, find the lack of consistency in HEMA training abhorrent. Faced with such a wide variety of texts, weapons, and interpretations, quality is all over the map. It’s hard to point to any one place as a rubric by which to measure what they see, and to be fair most of HEMA is an absolute mess. The schlock people take for insightful interpretations would be laughably bad were it not so entrenched and popular. It’s hard to blame any sport fencer who pokes fun at some chump in black stepping into distance first, being brained, and only then making an action. It’s as baffling to them as it is to me that these same fighters then defend whatever the hell it is they think they’re doing. In contrast, traditional pedagogy is venerable and well-documented; it provides an easy check (or should) when a sport fencer sees something off in the sport.

All this said, ROW makes a lot of sense IF one understands it. Likewise, the difficulty in analysing and interpreting period texts would make sport fencers less likely to crow if they tried it themselves. Traditional pedagogy is the single most effective training in unpacking those ancient works, but it’s not automatic—the sport has changed a lot in the past century, in the past twenty to thirty years, so one can’t assume automatic equivalence between even the most basic concepts. They might be the same, but it has to be tested, compared, and verified, and even then unless the master who wrote the work is explicit it remains an interpretation.

[8] The tale of Pywll, Prince of Dyfed (POO-ilk *, Prince of DUH-ved) is one of the four tales in the Mabinogi, a collection of medieval Welsh tales. The gorsedd (GOR-seth), or hill, that he sits upon one morning while hunting, is a common motif in Celtic mythology, cf. Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange, north of Dublin, Ireland, and its associated mythology to name only one example. Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1977) is an excellent edition in English by a noted scholar. The stories were written in Middle Welsh, but there are good Modern Welsh versions too, e.g. Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi: Allan o Lyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, edited by Ifor Williams (Caerdydd, CY: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1996). [*The double “l” in Welsh is hard to render in print, especially for me as I’ve only formally studied Middle Welsh, but this link provides some help: https://youtu.be/hQBGOb7iQZ0%5D

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, etc. was originally the Celtic new year, Samhain (SAH-win), one of four major days marking the year (the others coinciding with the other major events in the agricultural year, though they also correspond more or less to the vernal equinox and the winter and summer solstices). The others are Beltaine (BEL-tinuh), May 1st; Lugnasa (LOO-nussa) Aug. 1st; and Imbolc (IM-bol-eg; there is an epenthetic vowel between “l” and “g”), Feb. 1, though in each case these dates are reckoned by night so that the last days of April, July, and January figure into the dating as well. For those familiar with the Venerable Bede’s account of the Augustinian mission to Britain ca. 600 CE (cf. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.23ff), and especially Pope Greogry the Great’s advice in re adapting whatever might be from native Anglo-Saxon belief, the association between “pagan” festivals and Christian holy days should come as no surprise. Though dated, Rees and Rees Celtic Heritage remains one of the best explorations via myth, folklore, and late observations of certain traditions (Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1990).

[9] Cf. Alternative 2, https://cdn1.sportngin.com/attachments/document/2321-2361357/BOD_Meeting_Agenda_Feb_24_2021.pdf#_ga=2.58283373.695458512.1623795741-742804632.1623795740 The minutes of this meeting, as of 15 June 2021, are no longer accessible.

[10] One reason I am taking the class is to obtain certification that may become necessary down the road. Epee, as the most historical of the three weapons, and as the one in which I’ve received the least amount of training, seemed an ideal place to start. I’m on the fence in re foil and sabre—both have changed so much that I’m not sure the rubber stamp is worth the frustration of having to suffer through explanations for the perversities afflicting the teaching and use of either weapon.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

3 thoughts on “Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces”

  1. This was really well written Jim. It’s interesting, probably because of having friends like you, but I often feel on the fringe or at odds with the HEMA community as well. This article was a nice summation of similar thoughts I’ve had.

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    1. Thank you Alex, very kind of you to say. This may sound like a cop-out, but I think we assume HEMA is monolthic and measure what we do against that notion. It’s not monolithic, however, so comparing ourselves against it, if it means anything, only means we are outliers where it all averages. We serve ourselves and students better if we focus on the material and define where we are/what we’re doing that way.

      Liked by 1 person

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