_Fratres in Armis_—Historical Fencing, Shared Traditions, & Friendship, Prague 2021

photo courtesy of Michael Knazko

Until I was on the plane from Denver headed toward Munich—the last lay-over before Prague—I wasn’t convinced that this chance of a lifetime was going to materialize. Call it Covid-fatigue, hard experience pushing too many boulders uphill, my native fatalism, or all in some degree, the idea of traveling to an historic city to teach seemed too good to be true. Even to have been invited seemed unreal to me; it still does. It’s the sort of honor one appreciates and fears at the same time. What if I let my friend down? What if I let the participants down? I know I’m a decent teacher, but of the caliber for something international, something important? I wasn’t so sure; I’m still not.

Stage-Fright & Fight

There were added challenges this time too. As one of only three native English-speakers out of some forty attendees, I knew that I had to speak slowly (hard when one is nervous), clearly, and read the audience effectively before moving onto something new. Much of that fear, to be honest, was merely that, fear—Europeans generally learn English better than we Yanks and so many speak multiple languages. As an American it’s hard not to feel out of place for being a monoglot (if not for other reasons of late). With no Brits in attendance—telling, that…—one couldn’t even enjoy the GB Shaw sense of otherness that separates us Yanks from the Brits, a common language.

Another challenge was that I wasn’t just representing myself, but my host and friend, Michael Kňažko, and I didn’t want to let him down or embarrass him. He had invited me from far away, had featured me prominently in adverts leading up to the event, and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint him. True, he knew me well enough from our online chats, from what I write here, etc. to suspect I would be a good fit, but one never knows until the moment itself. Moreover, I wanted to do a good job, because from all I had seen SabreSlash is precisely the sort of event I want to support. I wanted to do it justice and help it succeed.

At dinner the night before the event, I met one of Michael’s maestri, Leonid Křížek, and we enjoyed a good chat. He began with “So you’re the American fencing guru,” which in an instant conjured every nervous thought and doubt within me. He asked after my training, the masters with whom I studied, and where I stood on certain fencing matters. I answered honestly, and it was reassuring that much of what I said met with the nods of a like-minded fencer. It was the second sign that Saturday’s workshop might go more smoothly than I feared. The first such sign was the instant rapport Michael and I enjoyed. By the end of dinner I was less nervous than excited.

Much of survival, of living, is learning how “to mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance,” or less poetically, to experience the nerves, or fear, or whatever it is and undaunted face what comes irrespective of feeling or outcome. [1] In some ways the last decade has been a master’s class in this, publicly and privately. In the end, the only answer is to be oneself and as genuinely as possible. For me, I’m at my best, I teach best, when I focus on the Art, on the material, and not my experience of it. After all, that is what it is all about, the Art; it’s not about me. I’m only one conduit of many through which the Art meets and enriches new students. So, as long as my focus is correct it’s difficult to go too far wrong. There is a distinction between being recognized as a decent vector of the Art, as one of its representatives, and a personality associated with the Art. The former wishes to promote the Art, the latter themselves.

It’s never easy to assess how these things go, least it isn’t for me. I’ve never been good at reading class reactions post-event. Even after the very first seminar I helped teach, my partner Will Richmond and I couldn’t decide between the two of us whether it had been a success or not; we were later reassured it had been. At SabreSlash I stuck to the topic, tried my best to demonstrate, explain, and then assist as needed. No lie, it was fun; I love teaching this stuff, and to have people from all over Europe, from Mexico, and the US there was humbling. There were some seriously skilled, knowledgeable fencers at this event, and I learned a lot from them too. [2]

A Shared Heritage

In a separate post I will review the event, but here I should like to focus on the big picture, the portions harder to put into words. Between my portion of the workshop and Michael’s one thing became vividly clear—we represent the same tradition. [3] Our halves of the day complimented one another well, built upon one another; this was true on the surface as well as in subtleties. Even our method of saluting is the same, and, directly connected to the north Italian practice that emerged from Milan in the 19th century.

1902 charter, courtesy of Český šermířský klub Riegel

It’s difficult for me to describe the kinship I felt with him and many of the other fencers I met. My second evening in Prague Michael took me to one of the oldest clubs in Prague, Český šermířský klub Riegel (ČŠK Riegel) for a special treat. [4] One of the fencers there, a man who began at Riegel in 1949, Maestro Josef Šolc, manages the club archives and shared some of its treasures with us. There was the club charter penned in 1902 at a local pub, the contract that Italo Santelli’s brother, Orazio, had to teach at Riegel, and lists of members each year since the club’s founding, among many other gems. For the historian there was far more to these records than there might first appear. Czechia has witnessed much in its history, and in the 20th century experienced many of the major events, from Nazi occupation to Soviet control to liberation in 1989. These files document this history in a unique way. As a foreign visitor I can appreciate Czech history but cannot experience it; however, as a fencer in the tradition established by Radaelli’s students looking at these sources was to examine a shared heritage. This hit me powerfully. The maestro taking us through the archives, my friend explaining in English what each was, none of it felt foreign—we are brothers, part of the same family. These records document their branch of our shared tree. We often come to know people better through fighting them, but I’d add that sometimes it doesn’t take a visit to the piste to recognize one’s own.

Seeing and feeling these connections was not a surprise, but validation of all that had emerged in our many discussions upon my arrival. The word Michael used is perhaps the best to use—confirmation. Chatting with one another was confirmation for us both that our approach and goals are not as odd as they sometimes feel. It’s hard to express how important that is. Sandwiched somewhere between Olympic and HEMA, but not belonging to either, it’s easy to feel adrift between larger, opposing waves. It can be a lonely place. Both Michael and I prefer the term “historical fencing” or “classical fencing” for several reasons; we value the traditional approach, the classical school, and that has often been a hard-sell for our colleagues in the more popular camps. To the casual observer, so I’ve found out, these various “camps” look much the same. However, the differences are important. [5]

Fratres in Armis

One of the points I have made many times on this site, and which Michael embraces too, is that we get farther with honey than we do vinegar. This is to say that leading by example, living the example, is preferable to beating someone over the head with facts or criticism. Sure, there are times for the latter, but in general showing rather than telling is more effective. It’s not necessarily a quick approach. To own the truth it will not reach everyone, but it will reach some.

SabreSlash showed a large group of fencers the benefits of the traditional approach. The proof was perhaps most obvious in seeing fencers include techniques and tactics we had covered in the workshop in their tourney bouts. That alone is a major victory, but more than that, the emphasis on workshops over tourney awards, the inclusion of skilled Olympic (and historical) directors, and the erasure of the lines that most often separate us demonstrated the value of SabreSlash. Michael’s goal with this event is to promote skill, fun, and friendship, and he delivered. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to make SabreSlash again, but I intend to—even if I have to walk 😉


[1] Cf. Walt Whitman, “A Song of Joys,” https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1881/poems/90

[2] The one French attendee, a lovely chap named Paul, took me through some of the method by M. Billès (if I recall correctly). On Monday, after the event, I had an excellent chat with two Spanish friends about the manual of Merelo over some rather strong pints of pilsner.

[3] Cf. https://www.ars-dimicatoria.cz/en/barbasetti-military-sabre-since-1895-2/ This link will explain far better than I can the deep impact that Barbasetti had in Central Europe and in Czechia. Michael’s school continues this tradition. My own fencing lineage looks back to a parallel situation, i.e. where Italian influence transformed Central European fencing, only in Budapest.

[4] Cf. https://www.czechfencing.cz/portal/teams/detail/21 . See also Michael Knazko, “Master Orazio Santelli’s years in Prague, 1902-1913,” at Ars Dimicatoria, CZ, https://www.ars-dimicatoria.cz/en/master-orazio-santelli/

[5] Briefly, we see competition as a tool rather than an end, a chance to test what we learn, to figure things out, not as the chief litmus test of skill. Competition, by definition, is too artificial to provide that sort of insight. It should be fun, it should teach.

We look to surviving tradition, because variations for sport notwithstanding the foundation of the system we learned is the same.

We also look to the collection of sources that enshrine the system, in toto. All of them. Some of us are purists, some of us are not, but pound for pound the sources however they differ hand down the same tradition.

We also, and importantly, look to the logic of the sword as a weapon vs. as a piece of sports equipment. Don’t get hit. Don’t rush, but think and plan.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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