Further Tales in Continuing Education

ἀλλ᾽ ἄνδρα, κεἴ τις ᾖ σοφός, τὸ μανθάνειν
πόλλ᾽, αἰσχρὸν οὐδὲν καὶ τὸ μὴ τείνειν ἄγαν.

For any man, even if he’s wise, there’s nothing shameful
in learning many things, staying flexible
. Sophocles, “Antigone,” 710ff [1]

Entrance, Halberstadt Fencing Club, San Francisco, CA

Tired and sore, but still on a high from a weekend of learning and camaraderie, I returned to Portland today from San Francisco. I was there to attend a teaching clinic at Halberstadt Fencing Club run by Maitres Rob and Connie Handelman. [2] Last year I had the pleasure to take an online/zoom class with Rob on epee, and it was easily one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. So, when the excellent Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA, USA) told me that Rob was offering another class I didn’t have to think about it—whatever it was, I wanted to take it.

Though I had not met Connie, I had read her book on sabre and the prospect of working with them both was exciting. It was also intimidating. It’s not just that Halberstadt is a premier level competitive school and run by well-known and respected coaches, but that I often feel out of place at clubs like this. There are exceptions, but be it “HEMA” or Olympic fencing I’m never unaware of that fact I’m not a perfect fit in either branch. The discomfort is worth it, because I believe in the respective virtues of both branches. I talk about building bridges, so it’s important to be one myself to the degree that I’m able. Besides, one ought not shun any valuable source of education and improvement.

Common Ground

It’s unfortunate that an over-abundance of ignorance, pride, and a corresponding lack of interest in taking the time to examine the other, is an affliction shared by both Olympic and “HEMA” fencers. Generally, neither camp takes the other seriously. The excesses in both make it easy to point out flaws, but these receive a disproportionate amount of attention. It also obscures a fact that is likely uncomfortable for many: at the root there is less that separates them than unites them. One need look no farther than the central, foundational role that the universals—what Rob calls the “elements of fencing”—play. Fencers within the sport may not see them in “HEMA,” especially in the video most often shared online, and those in HEMA may not understand them (or worse deny their reality), but regardless these universals, measure/distance, tempo, timing, speed, initiative, and judgment are what makes fencing what it is. Even “trade-craft,” a feature the Handelmans include, is as active in “HEMA.” This is how we use rules, drama, and psychology to influence opponents and judges.

This is a long introduction to say that friends of mine on either side sometimes scratch their heads about the choices that I and those like me make when it comes to keeping one foot in Olympic, and one in historical. I’ve spilled enough binary ink on the why and how I got started in classical and historical fencing, so here I want to explore why I look to the Olympic side for instruction. In short, it’s better. It’s the best place to acquire not only technical skill, but an understanding of how that skill reflects and expresses the universals. For anyone interested in becoming an effective instructor Olympic pedagogy and the importance placed on effective teaching cannot be beat.

The mistake that “HEMA” makes about the sport of fencing is that it takes what it sees in competition as the sum. It’s not. Competition footage shows one competitive outcome of the principles and techniques, strategies and tactics, that fencing comprises. For example, every fencer—foil, epee, or sabre—is taught that the weapon and hand precede the foot. Any decent text on the subject, from our earliest extant sources to modern textbooks, verifies this. Put another way, ROW (“right of way”) in the sport and the “true times” of the Englishman who Shall not be Named assume the same principles. The chief difference is context, and within that, purpose.

There were sword-fighting competitions in Silver’s day too, sure, but unlike today there were real-life combat uses as well. We can do all we can to reach for as accurate and historical an interpretation as we can, but in the end this one difference undercuts our efforts. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. It’s something we must bear in mind, not only because it keeps us honest and can improve our interpretations, but also because whatever we come up with is no less artificial than what one sees at a NAC, the world cup, or in the Olympics. For those like me the preference for historical fencing reflects more of a difference in outlook in re rulesets than anything else. To me, off-target or being struck even when one has ROW means that one has still been hit, and I am uncomfortable with that. My friends in Olympic fencing, however, are not ignoring these hits, just assessing them differently and emphasizing another aspect more. The importance within ROW placed on the priority of the attack in foil and sabre assumes the same logic we use—that we should be using—in historical fencing: if something sharp is speeding toward us, we should defend first; if the attack is flawed or our use of measure better, we can attempt a counter-attack into that initial attack, but a smart fencer will still cover themselves as they complete that counter.

All of this is to say that viewed without the mud-splattered spectacles HEMA wears when viewing Olympic what makes fencing fencing is common to both branches. What we emphasize is different, and thus, how we employ technique. The clinic at Halberstadt this past weekend looked at every aspect in a granular way—each idea, technique, could be and was broken down as needed, then rebuilt so that in the aggregate one had a better understanding of it, why we do it and how, and how to teach it. It’s this last part that HEMA lacks most of all.

Teaching: Depth & Breadth

To dive deep into everything we covered would make for longer reading than my already wordy posts tend to be, so I’ll focus on a few examples. The first is attention to types of lessons—there are teaching lessons, where a student acquires a new skill such as a change-beat; there are option lessons, were a student explores a technique or concept from different angles. Using the change-beat, they may start standing, then add a step, a lunge, or advance lunge. They might change the tempo or line; the student might employ the change beat offensively or defensively (moving forward for the former, backward for the latter). There are tactical lessons too. The breadth of what can cover with a single action is vast.

Older Halberstadt arms

In terms of depth or specificity, each portion of the change-beat can be broken down into component parts. In one drill the coach playing student made a light beat in 4th to start the sequence, the coach made a light beat back, and then the student disengaged and made a beat in 3rd before striking. When the student makes each beat, at what distance, where they make it, how fast or slow they make it, all of that can vary, so understanding each step, its execution and purpose, is vital. For a coach, the ability to identify where something is going right or wrong, what section the student is struggling with, is crucial in helping them correct the mistake, drill the action correctly, and ultimately allow the student to add this action to their toolbox.

This method can be applied to historical fencing too, and, is by the better coaches. Armed with a knowledge of the universals, fundamental classes of actions, and a methodology for breaking actions down a researcher can look at one of the sources and more successfully engage that source. These skills do not automatically mean that one “unpacks” a text perfectly or accurately to the time, but it is better for several reasons. On the one hand the knowledge-base and methodological approach of modern fencing pedagogy is, arguably, the most effective means by which to attack these works. On the other, this same approach provides an international lexicon for describing what we read. Maybe that is as far as we get, maybe we only gain a better sense of the parries that Rosaroll & Grisetti mention but don’t really define, but this is still progress. [3] It is still useful. After all, modern fencing’s theory and pedagogy didn’t develop in a vacuum: it is the latest iteration of an art and science that one can chart in the corpus back at least 600 years. Today’s fencing, for all its differences, is still a grandchild of the sources the historical fencing community examines. They’re related.

Awareness & Cultural Difference

As one of two historical fencing instructors at the clinic this weekend I had a ring-side seat of the cultural differences, or perhaps better the “technical” differences, between say Radaellian sabre and modern sabre. I was there to learn, to catch up in a way, because with few exceptions I’ve not followed developments in the modern game since 1996. I know things have changed, but not having a lesson from a coach using modern understanding there is a lot to learn. For example, the banderole or “bandolier” cut, a quick slicing chest cut that starts in the inside high line and ends in the outside lowline before one snaps back into guard, no longer uses the edge. I learned it the old way, and as a fencer focusing on historical expression, I prefer the cutting edge to that flat. However, when in Rome one does as the Romans do, so, I learned how they make this attack today and why they do it that way. [4]

One of the critiques my fellow coaches and the two maitres made often was that my actions are larger than those they teach. They use sabres under 500g where I use one, typically, around 700-750g. One can make a disengage with either sabre, but the weight of the historical sabre, the fact the blade is curved, and how all of this affects measure and tempo means that sometimes actions are “larger.” Large actions are a bad idea in modern sabre even if by “large” we mean a relatively narrow difference—it’s a lot easier and faster to attack into tempo if one’s disengage isn’t super tight. Size of action, in some degree, relates to size and weight of weapon.

Because I was there to learn, to improve, the last thing I was going to do was argue that they should do it my way. My way won’t work in their context. I did what I think one should do in these situations—where appropriate I explained briefly why I did it that way (this is how they taught me 30 years ago, this is the way the texts I focus on now do it, etc.) but only to explain, not to contest or to make excuses. I followed this with a request that they show me how they do it and a promise to do my best to use their method. To argue that Radaellian molinelli are superior, or double-down on my old coaching, doesn’t signal that I’m there to learn and doesn’t tend to impress those who may be quizzing me later in a certification exam. I may prefer a different, historical method, but to insist on it in a modern school, one I am visiting in order to learn, makes little sense.

For my part, it was kind of fun seeing what stood out to them and what was the same. Their observations provided me not only awareness of what they do, but through their eyes what I am doing, and, how well I might be doing it. These are real time, get-to-know-people opportunities, and importantly a chance for me to represent what I do (hopefully) better than the videos they associate with “HEMA” do. Maybe it fails, maybe not, but trying to meet on common ground, respecting the expertise and culture of others who study the Art, remaining curious and open-minded, embracing suitable humility, honoring the skill and knowledge of others, and doing my best to represent historical fencing well is never wasted effort.

I am grateful for the time, dedication, rigor, and kindness the Maitres Handelman extended to us all, even to us two historical weirdos, and look forward to their next clinic whatever it is.


[1] For the Greek, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0185%3Acard%3D681 ; for a translation, see https://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/sophocles/antigonehtml.html; the translation of this line can vary. In The Complete Plays of Sophocles, Moses Hadas, ed., Sir Ricard Claverhouse Jebb, trans. (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1988), 133 the line is rendered “No, though a man may be wise, it is no shame for him to learn many things and bend in season.” The verb in the last clause, τείνειν, from τείνω ” to stretch, stretch to the uttermost” seems a fitting verb in this context of this post.

[2] Cf. https://www.halberstadtfc.com/. Halberstadt was founded in 1942 and is one of the oldest continuously running clubs in the country.

[3] Rosaroll & Grisetti discuss parries, but do not describe them in great detail, cf. § 81 and §173ff in Giuseppe Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, 1803, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018), 110, 161ff.

[4] We compartmentalize many things. Just as I use a Georgian khmali a little differently than an Italian sabre or French smallsword, so too can I use a sabre different ways. The reality of teaching the introductory classes that I do is that not all those students are interested in historical fencing. Some want to be Olympians. My approach in the P&R setting is to provide an introduction and foundation in basic skills, something hard to do in the short time these classes run. The focus is on fun, on getting kids excited about fencing, any fencing, while at the same time giving them a platform from which they can go any direction with it they might want. In SdTS classes and lesson I focus on historical, at CPRD they’re a little more agnostic.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

4 thoughts on “Further Tales in Continuing Education”

  1. “ I did what I think one should do in these situations—where appropriate I explained briefly why I did it that way (this is how they taught me 30 years ago, this is the way the texts I focus on now do it, etc.) but only to explain, not to contest or to make excuses. I followed this with a request that they show me how they do it and a promise to do my best to use their method.”

    This! This needs to be tattooed on the grey matter of every martial artist in the world.


    1. Thanks Alex. What surprised me was that instructors who work within the same Olympic context as the masters at HFC were quicker to argue or say “well this is how we do it at my club.” That was… weird… to see.


  2. I have noticed with my own studies that as i approach and read the classical and modern material on fencing it has only enhanced my ability to interpret the medieval and Renaissance material with more confidence. And for me it is due very much the way it operates as a lingua franca with which to help “translate” the older texts.

    And yeah, the history of fencing in text seems to be a study in the evolution of pedagogy itself! At least it should be something picked up on if ones surveys the while timeline as im beginning to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes sense to me too. Had it not been for the 1990s in the sport a lot of this would have been easier or at least less divisive. The failure to manage whipover in sabre and oddities like the “flick” in foil led to an exodus of people large enough to create an alternative. The proto-HEMA movement was already underway, but a lot of classical fencers were in that mix and more joined as it became clear that the sport wasn’t going to fix the problems. None of these categories is set in stone, but in a general way I think this holds. Species vs. Genus.


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