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

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 😉

NOTES:

[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.

Prague Bound

So far the mysteries around boarding passes have worked out—travel has changed since my last international flight.

This time tomorrow I should be leaving Munich for Prague, and, Sabre Slash 2021 with the excellent folk at Barbasetti Military Sabre (https://www.ars-dimicatoria.cz/en/barbasetti-military-sabre-since-1895-2/) 🙂

308pm MT: First leg, to Denver, complete, now the long stretch, to Munich, DE:

Fingers crossed…

In about two weeks, so long as my nation pulls its head out of its collective backside in re Covid’s delta variant, I will be on my way to Prague, Czechia, to participate in SabreSlash 2021. The betting is even money as to how effectively we get numbers down and/or whether the EU will ban US travelers, but fingers crossed I can make it.

I left facebook a while ago, but friends send me screenshots of the adverts and posts about the event and it looks like a blast. The first day consists of classes, one of which I’m teaching, and the second day there’s a tournament, cutting party, and mustache contest—this last has contestants attempting the glorious lip-fur a la Barbasetti or Masiello. I love events like these and I’m eager to meet the other attendees as well. We’re at capacity for pandemic guidelines size-wise, but people are coming from all over the EU, from Mexico, and the US and I know I will learn a lot.

Competition could be fierce

Happily, I’ll have a few days to see Prague as well. The historian in me can’t wait to see the castles, the 15th cen. clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, and museums, but this is also the city of Kafka and Kundera, of Dvorak and Smetana, of Vaclev Havel and Siegfried Flesch, one of the country’s most famous fencers, and I’ll be grateful to see what I can in the short time I’m there.

It is a signal honor to be invited to teach there, and I’m doubly humbled by my hosts putting me up during my stay. Though I’ve seen a few different corners of the world, I’ve found that the best experiences, for me anyway, are those that give one a look at life and culture in a new place. Much as I love historic sites, what sticks with me, what I value most are the conversations over coffee or drinks, struggling to communicate in a language not my own, making connections with people, and gaining a slightly better sense of their world. The chance to fence on top of that? All the better!

Vis enim vincitur arte

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 090/94 verso, (from UCalgary, Canada, digital collections, Gawain Ms)

In most any quest one is more likely to find Tech Duinn than Tir n mBan or Kêr Iz. Only in stories is anyone, normally a hero, able to win a prize, earn a skill, or achieve much without effort. Even there the best efforts can fail—for every Gawain there is a Connla. [1] Not all effort is the same. Not everything is up to us. We can direct energy in the wrong direction, and so it’s worth pondering how we can best apply ourselves so that we don’t waste time or energy (all other factors notwithstanding). The importance of this goes beyond how we train and into how we lead our lives, into what battles we choose to fight, what company we choose to keep, and in what pursuits we direct our efforts. Everything.

I took as the motto for this school a line from F.A. Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), vis enim vincitur arte, “For force is conquered by art,” not because power doesn’t have its place, but because without art power only does so much. One may be a powerful speaker, but without some skill in rhetoric any speech will suffer no matter how passionately one delivers it. In the same section, Marcelli shared a Latin rendering of the first two lines in Hippocrates’ Aphorismi, Ars longa, vita brevis, that is, “the Art is long, life short.” [2] The cipher I adopted for myself (see image just below) I made from two bits of clipart (one must be mindful of intellectual property rights)—a skull argent, affronté, crowned, trisected by spada, sabre, and foil—and is meant to capture this notion, that is, that the Art is eternal and we are not. It plays well with the usual memento mori aspects of this specific charge. I noticed another fencer adopt it, a chap in Italy I believe, and if it speaks to him too, great.

Memento Mori

For me, there is a lot that this cipher encapsulates. We only have so much time, so we should use it well. We should face the Great Question as bravely as we face an opponent: eyes forward, devoid of emotion, and ready. Whatever the weapon (the three stand for all) we should be ruled by the Art and the respect and discipline it teaches. If we want what we do to matter, if it is to matter, then we must embrace that journey without simplistic expectations about the outcome or too much concern about how it will be received—we focus on the work instead. We focus on the Art, less so our experience of it. This is easy to say, but much harder to carry out; so, mindful that death wins in the end, that nothing comes without struggle, and that we should consider how we want to be remembered, we press on despite setbacks, criticism, or failure. Failure, after all, is just another teacher.

It’s difficult sometimes, and natural to ask, whether we’re wasting our time or effort. We should ask this frequently. We can’t always know when we are wasting our time, especially without a skilled coach or similar insight, but there are a few areas this tends to go wrong and that are worth monitoring. Unqualified to give anyone life advice—not like I’ve figured my own out yet—what follows focuses on a few aspects of the Art where we tend to go wrong.

Attribute vs. Technique Fencing

One area we see misplaced effort is in forcing through an action. It’s not that this didn’t happen—we can be pretty sure it did—but in and of itself relying on one’s strength, or speed, or reach only brings short-term benefits. Two caveats. One is that competitive “HEMA,” like it’s sibling Olympic competition, will sustain an attribute fighter or fencer a long time. At present it will serve one longer in HEMA, because there are fewer truly skilled fencers who compete. [3] I am not against tournaments—they’re fun—but they have garnered more weight than they should have. I’m not the only person who believes this; as Matt Easton and Mark from the Exiles recently commented, the goals, training, and attitude toward the Art differ across the historical fencing spectrum. As unpleasant as this may sound, success in competition may correlate with a high degree of skill, but it doesn’t have to; in fact, in general all one needs is the need to do well and a deep degree of commitment to each fight, each blow. Olympic is no exception. [4]

Second, there are situations, particularly in mixed-weapon settings, where differences in weapons tell. A recent example of my own was fighting with a friend, Josh Campbell; he was armed with a 3+lb (1.36kg) baskethilt; mine, a later period model, weighs in at 2.36 lbs (1.072 kg). One head parry I took I didn’t take at the right distance and the mass of the other weapon easily defeated my defense. I only bout full-tilt with people of appropriate skill and control—I can’t afford to be injured—and this man, strong as he is, is able to stop a blow on a dime. The touch was his—yes, I had “parried,” but insufficiently, and had the fight been in earnest that blow would likely have ended it right there. Using one’s natural abilities is not wrong, but the best fencers combine those gifts of heredity with technique and understanding. This is true regardless of the person. In the example above, Josh could push through most any blow he wants, but he doesn’t—he knows that he needs to let the sword do its job, he knows to use its weight to save him effort, and in situations where the mass of that weapon will overwhelm he has the control to moderate force.

As another example, height and reach can be a boon, but so too can the lack of it. A good coach will help each fencer develop those inborn abilities in conjunction with the technical repertoire both learn. When I am teaching a shorter fencer, even at the outset we discuss things that are not going to work against a much taller opponent. If fencer A is 4’ 5” and B is 6’ 4,” and B launches a head-cut, A can use parry 5, but will likely need better measure to create an angle that keeps them safe. Moreover, A probably shouldn’t riposte to the head—they’re at a disadvantage there. The lower lines are a safer bet as they’re closer to A and harder, generally, for B to cover as quickly. B, on the other hand, can more easily target the high lines and extended target—going for a leg shot against A, which is daft for a variety of reasons, is more so given the height difference. [5]

Drilling

The famous line attributed to Bruce Lee about kicks, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times,” highlights the importance of meaningful drill. If we practice something unimportant or incorrect 10,000 times, all we do is hone a skill we don’t need or which we should be using differently. One of the arguments for a capable instructor or sensible study group is that it’s so easy to go wrong and guidance can help prevent that. There are, sad to say, people out there who have been at all this a very long time, and yet have extremely little to show for it. It’s hard not to feel pity for people in that plight, especially when it’s public. To have devoted so much time, energy, and passion for so long and to have so little to show for is unfortunate. It is, however, fixable.

For historical fencers, any drill or exercise beyond typical warm-ups or well-known conditioning routines should rely heavily on whatever source or sources one is using. Those drills connected to using measure, footwork, tempo, or other universals should be in play, but may differ by weapon. One uses different footwork for longsword than smallsword, but both require one to be able to move in any direction; both employ different categories of measure; and both exploit tempo. If your group or coach isn’t having you work on universals, that’s a problem. So too are any of the “bullshido” sorts of drills. What are these? One example, for footwork, I experienced myself. In one class I tried (but left), the instructor insisted that one land demi-pointe in the lunge. Nothing in the corpus supports this idea—no lie, I’ve looked—and when questioned he just got angry. [6] Other common examples include too much focus on speed, hardness of a blow, and drills that train actions that run counter to universal principles and/or one’s source.

Another common problem, but not strictly bullshido in nature, is the type of drill that comes from a source but which is a dead-end. Another example from the same instructor was his use of the stick drill in Henry Angelo’s Infantry Manual (1845). It makes sense as a reminder of the author’s numbers for cuts and guards, and as a warm-up perhaps, but I never saw him go beyond that save to one other set-drill. In all the times I visited that group over a year the only thing they ever covered in their two hours of class consisted of those two drills. Every practice… Fencing instruction is progressive, not static. If you are still doing the exact same drill the same way a year later, and that is all you’re doing, that’s worth examining.

Yachts in Kiddie Pools

HEMA is riddled with people who shouldn’t be teaching. There is a difference between the most experienced person running a study group in some isolated place and the person with a few years’ experience who just decides they are good enough to teach. It can be subtle. The former teaches because it’s the only option; the latter teaches because their self-worth needs dictate that they must teach to feel legitimate and/or be seen as such. There is grey area in all this too.

Selecting an instructor is difficult sometimes. Personality fit, distance, and time conflicts are one thing, but among the trickier issues is assessing what experience means. Like effort, not all experience is the same—seven years of this class or that, some tourney wins, and a big head do not an instructor make. They “can,” but it all comes down to how those years were spent, the quality of that experience. Because HEMA at large lacks sufficient time in the saddle, because the average level of understanding and ability is so mediocre, not only do we see more run of the mill fencers attempting to coach, but also a concurrent disdain for actual training. Not everyone can manage being shown up, and since many of HEMA’s popular darlings enjoy the modicum of fame they’ve run into, anything that might chip away at it is unwelcome.

If you want to teach, if you’re drawn to it, great, but do it right. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to work with an established, well-respected, and viable program. I’m happy to suggest a few. If these options are unavailable for some reason, then reach out to a teacher of recognized skill. What does “recognized” mean? Good question. Assuming someone is out there teaching what you want to pursue, a few ways to assess them include

  • their relative experience (how long have they been fencing or studying that topic?)
  • their training (what training have they had? Where did they obtain it? How is it regarded outside its own circle?)
  • the quality of their research if they’ve conducted any (did an academic journal publish it or a personal website? Was it peer-reviewed, and if so, who are those peers? How does it read? How solid is their support? Their thesis?)
  • teaching experience (where and whom have they taught? Have they been asked back? Have they taught both beginners and advanced fencers? What do other teachers think of them?)
  • are there reports of inappropriate behavior or red flags as teachers (condescending, dismissive, abusive, etc.) [7]

These are general categories, so general that depending on how one assesses each of these even some of the worst instructors will likely make the cut. Popular doesn’t necessarily equal excellent. I don’t care to name names, and won’t, but I know some teachers who are hands down the best in their field who do not travel widely, do not have an entourage, or post a billion videos of themselves; they are people any one of us should hope to work with at least once. Some names are easy—if I ever have a chance to take a class with Chris Holzman, Dave Rawlings, Francesco Loda, Christian Tobler, Jess Finley, Tom Puey, Kaja Sadowski, Manouchehr Khorasani, or Da’Mon Stith (again) I will jump at the chance. Whatever it is, I will learn something, I’ll be challenged, and with luck grow. As a final consideration, the best teachers I’ve known may have known they were good, but not one was a braggart; in fact, I know a number of gifted teachers that constantly question their ability. Painful as that is for them, it indicates that they take the job seriously and want to do it right. The feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with teaching.

Research

I’ve covered this often and thus will be brief. There is good research, and there is poor research. Some practitioner’s Youtube video is likely going to have less weight than an article vetted by a peer-reviewed panel, an established historical authority or fencing master, or a well-respected translation of a key source. If that practitioner happens to be a maestro; if it’s a trained historian, archaeologist, or museum curator; if it is one of the handful of long-time historical fencers who have earned the authority that these others assign to them, then you’re on firmer ground. Naturally there are exceptions.

Anyone can be on Youtube; anyone can print a book; anyone can claim any number of things, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worth considering. Lucky as we are to enjoy a period like that initial boom after Gutenberg with our on-demand and self-publishing, we get all the downsides too. For every Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550) we also get far too many Nostradamus’ Les Phrophéties (1555)… It pays to be cautious.

All this Time Wasted—now What?!

What do we do if we realize we’re on the wrong track? What if one realizes one day that their coach only knows the first two pages of a manual or that they’re teaching something counter to all received knowledge? What if we realize we’ve used a bad translation? The good news is that when we realize we’ve wasted our time, on anything, we can stop and reorient. Jump off the wrong track and find the right one.

It’s become a commonplace to quote Edison about lightbulbs, but it holds: the years one may have spent pursing the Art in less effective ways are not wasted, not if one uses them. They amount to firsthand knowledge of what doesn’t work, and that becomes armor against future missteps. Even the awareness that it’s possible to land with a dud of a coach or use a bad interpretation affords some protection: it makes us more careful.

Wipeout!

This discovery can be traumatic, deeply upsetting, and disorienting. Sometimes we need to sit with that disappointment for a while. To use a west coast analogy, it’s like being hit by a wave while surfing: one is knocked off the board, dragged underwater, and yet one doesn’t fight the wave; one lets it pass and then comes up, pulls in the board, and starts over. If one loves surfing, then one doesn’t quit, but tries again. It’s the same with fencing, with the Art. We will meet disappointment in many forms; that doesn’t mean we have to like it or quit. These are just moments of clarity, punctuated instances where we can actually see progress, funny as that might sound. These are the segues between levels of understanding, between jumps in skill, at least they can be if we use them as such.

NOTES:

[1] Tech Duinn, the House of Donn, is one of the Irish “Otherworld” locations, but has strong associations with death, Donn being the ruler of the dead in some accounts. Dursey Island, off the Beare peninsula, County Cork, Ireland, has often been linked to Donn’s House. Tir n mBan (“Land of Women”) or Kêr Iz (Breton, “City of Ys”) both refer to other popular versions of the Celtic Otherworld, the first in voyage tales like Imram Curaig Maíle Duín (The Voyage of Máel Dúin), the second in several Breton sources. Gawain, one of the knights of Camelot, is famous as the opponent of Bertilak, the Green Knight, and Connla, a son of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and Aife, one of the two masters who trained the hero in Scotland. Connla dies fighting his father who only too late realizes that the conditions he left with Aife for the boy led to the child’s death.

[2] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, The Rule of Fencing, Book 2, Ch. 1, 55-56 in Holzman’s translation. More and more this book is one of my absolute favorites.

[3] I’ve discussed the issues around tourneys a lot. I do so because a) I actually like tourneys and b) hate seeing them conducted poorly and/or misinterpreted as the litmus test for skill.

[4] The drive to win, the self-worth need for it, will sustain a person a long time. I’ve observed this so many times in both TKD and in fencing (of all sorts). Our mental state in a fight will more often determine success than skill, because skill doesn’t work on its own—it requires a brain to make it work, and the calmer, more determined that brain, the better that skill presents. This is why at high levels of competition, where both skill and mental fortitude are stronger, skill can play out in ways that we do not see with beginner or intermediate fighters. This said, even skilled competitors can and do resort to theatrics to win when they arguably should not (e.g. certain bouts in women’s sabre, Athens, Summer Olympics, 2004).

[5] Yes, attacks to the leg are present in historical sources, but usually taken out of context and over-used. They make very little sense in the setting of a duel save where the height between the two opponents is so great that the shorter fencer might strike the legs more safely.

[6] The demi-pointe lunge, as I call it, has been the subject of my research this past year. I’ve spent probably way, way too much time on it, but with luck it will put the kibosh on this ahistorical practice.

[7] I’ve not been specific here to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness with those sections of the community who put their faith in the very people I’m saying one should avoid. The greatest hurdle in assessing any teacher by these rubrics is that each one can mean something different to someone else. What I think constitutes solid research is different than someone who hasn’t had my training; it’s why I believe in vaccines, it’s why I see racism as a current rather than historical problem, and my I lament the rise of the ancient-aliens method of [cough] “thinking.”

The training I think makes a good fighter has a proven track-record, an established and venerable pedagogy, and reams of supporting literature. This is why five years spent with a qualified epee coach means more to me than five years one has spent with JoJo the Knee-Hammer whose school mantra is the HEMA equivalent of Cobra Kai—the former will teach one universals that can be applied across weapons and periods. JoJo might stumble into some universals, but JoJo also doesn’t care about universals. JoJo thinks that wimpy sporty stuff is for dorks.

My idea of a good teacher is one who seeks to help one grow and actually has the ability to make it happen. A good teacher knows their own limitations and when to send a student onto someone more skilled or appropriate. They support, push, encourage, and set an example to follow. A good teacher doesn’t put down a student, doesn’t embarrass them, and doesn’t beat them up. A great teacher seeks to create students that surpass them. Generally, that teacher has some legitimate teaching; they’re not just the “best” fighter in their little mix of merry men, a mix they are careful not to leave lest their status be called into question. Good instructors remain students, remain open to growth and improvement, because they recognize that there is always more to learn, things to improve or fix, and that no one ever, ever masters it all. A good teacher also supports other teachers, helps them, and accepts help from them, and is willing to lose students to them if that student would be better served by another.

[NB: there are plenty of well-trained teachers who are duds too, I know, and I’ve worked with a few myself, but that fact doesn’t negate the value of solid training]

HEMA(S): Food for Thought

Though this started with a video by Matt Easton, I’m sharing the one from the Exiles as it more succinctly summarizes some of my own thoughts on this issue, to whit, whether HEMA has “lost its way” etc. It was also gratifying to hear, finally, someone else say that they believe that much of Fiore’s technique won’t work in tournament/bouting settings. It was not designed for agonistic combat, and so arguments about its usefulness in tournaments are nonsensical.

As to the question of HEMA “losing its way,” from where I stand this question was more appropriate ten to fifteen years ago, which is to say that the fragmentation Mark and others allude to already happened. We have those who are more source-based in their interpretation, those who just want to fight with period weapons, and a spectrum of people in between these poles. As Mark says here, and as I’ve made a broken-record of on this site among other platforms, one problem is failure to consider the contexts in which we work, and, the ways in which these contexts inform–or do not inform–the others. I have no wish to raise the dead, not this particular dead anyway, but the debacle over the attempted reinterpretation of Silver illustrates this well. If nothing else it put a spotlight on how different HEMA camps view one topic.

Like Mark, and contrary to local opinion anyway, I don’t give a fig what sort of HEMA one chooses to do. I really don’t. Do what makes you happy and speaks to you. Where I draw the line is someone claiming to speak with authority when they lack that authority–returning to the previous example, tournament experience, a few seminars, and over-confidence in one’s intelligence and skill do not mean one is qualified to speak about historical source analysis. For my part, I spent years acquiring and practicing those skills. Moreover, I spent some ten years in various tournament settings (an almost even split between TKD and fencing), so I know how they work, what they mean and what they don’t mean. I’m older than most, so yeah, I’ve had time to do all that.

The key, I think, is to know who you are and what it is you’re doing, to know that context. If you want to win tourneys, great, go do that; if you want to work from the sources, great. But unless you do or have done both, and can demonstrate that, it’s the better part of valor to stick to your bailiwick.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zl35YAftYc8

That’s… Wylde

Two close friends, Alex and Sean, of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR), have been working through Zachary Wylde’s The English Master of Defence OR, The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (1711). [1] This treatise is, like others from about the same time (e.g. Hope and McBane), typically unpopular with people trained in traditional fencing. The suggested guard, the variety of terms in non-standard spelling, and the tacit if not explicit issue that these works take with then traditional fencing is off-putting. [2] However, as someone who was skeptical at first, time spent with this book and blade in hand will reveal that it’s no joke. Wylde provides a viable system, one not just for smallsword, but broadsword and quarterstaff as well.

Alex and Sean took a look at his section on the flannconade and variations, and, shot video:

Wylde’s Flancanade

NOTES:
[1] Cf. http://www.the-exiles.org/Manual%20Zach%20Wylde.htm

[2] Wylde’s vocabulary underscores the fact that English did not have a standard, authoritative dictionary as yet. Even before Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), itself derived from other word lists, England had had lexica of different sorts, mostly for other languages, e.g. the Latin-English The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knyght (1538) and an Italian-English dictionary I still use once in a while, John Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598). There were a number of dictionaries produced in England in the 17th century, even specialized ones for slang, but it wasn’t until after Wylde’s time that any dictionary came to command spelling conventions and definitions for the language. Students of Wylde may find James Orchard Halliwell-Philipps’ A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, 2 Vols. (London: John Russell Smith, 1881) useful.

Meet them Where they Are

Last night I finished up the penultimate summer intro-to-fencing camp. These short courses are always challenging—they pack a lot (too much) into a handful of days, and the shorter the run the longer each individual class. Managing all that and keeping kids between 12 and 15 engaged is not for everyone. I like the challenge of it, and seeing children enjoy the class, and hopefully learn something in the process of it, makes it worthwhile.

One thing working with kids will demonstrate powerfully is that people learn in different ways. They also have different comfort levels. Being sensitive to these facts is vital. I always have a plan for class, but built into it is a degree of flexibility because once through the door it can all change. It usually does. However well planned, a lesson plan doesn’t determine how a class goes; the class does. It’s not just the class in toto, but individual students, sometimes both, that can mean leaning into that flexibility.

In the last two courses I’ve taught I’ve had a student in each hesitate to join. When it’s clear to me that they aren’t struggling with the oddities of fencing jackets or distracted by gym traffic, but hesitant for some other reason I find a way to get things going and then check in with them. One thing that makes that easier is letting students know from the off that if they need a break, they take it; if they have a question, they should ask. I do all I can to make it a safe environment. No one learns much, or has fun, if they don’t feel safe.

This past week, once the rest of the class was starting footwork drills, I checked in with this student. Just getting them talking can be hard—they don’t know me, they’re in a new class (and often with kids they don’t know), and however interested they might be all of that, not to mention other factors, can weigh into how present they are. The past school year’s stress, the mix of isolation and virtual life, all of that has taken a toll on children. It can be hard to snap back.

A parent had told me that before quarantine this child had advanced pretty far in Tae Kwon Do, so I figured their hesitation was less likely physical. Often a student just wants to get a feel for what we’re doing, so after asking them if they were okay and if I might help them with anything I told them that they could join, watch, or think about it, that there was no wrong answer. Over the course of the week this student mostly watched—each day I checked in with them before as well as a few times during class. The other students were curious, but followed my lead—I told them some people learn by watching, some by doing, etc., and that people join when they feel like it. That was enough for them.

I did my best to meet this student where they were. Having been in classes, having worked with instructors, and having spent so many years teaching I know that it doesn’t always go that way. Just as people learn differently, so too do they teach differently. No matter how hard we try, there will be people we can’t reach, people who just don’t take to us. That is part of teaching. However, we increase the chances of reaching more of them if we are sensitive to the fact that a student’s comfort level and/or learning style may vary.

This doesn’t mean we cater to each student. We can’t teach much of anything that way. I more or less stick to my lesson plan—the difference is that I don’t force students to conform to it as one might in boot camp. It’s an intro class, one designed to give the some sense of what fencing can be, and, for fun. If they take more classes, if they get serious, the necessary discipline will develop.

Listening to Nestor: Injury, Age, and Pursuing the Art

Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon; Attic red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400–380 BCE): photo from wikicommons, © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In Book 1 of “The Iliad,” when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a question of honor, one of the first to attempt to speak reason is the aged warrior, Nestor. Though shown some deference, neither party is keen to accept Nestor’s wisdom–one almost gets the sense that they’re humoring him as they do often later in the poem. [1] To be fair, Nestor can go on a bit, and is quick to throw his age and associated experience at his junior colleagues. The thing is, Nestor was right–had Achilles and Agamemnon listened to him the problem would have been solved. Of course we wouldn’t have the poem either. In fencing we have a wide variety of Nestors. Sometimes it is a gimpy limb clamoring via pain to remind one that it might be best to stop a drill or sit out the next bout. Sometimes it is an elder fencer or an even older master. If we’re really unlucky, Nestor may take the form of one’s physician.

Achilles chose glory and a short life over less fame and a long one, and many fencers are the same. In one’s teens, twenties, even thirties one can still do many things one maybe shouldn’t, but since recovery time is relatively fast, since one is still nimble, strong, etc. it’s easier to go for broke and relegate any worry to later. I’m a good example. As a younger person, say 17-35, I could fence for hours; I fenced several days a week; any injury was normally minor and healed quickly; and I took chances that only those without larger responsibilities take, such as fencing with 3-4lb sabres and only a brass stirrup guard to protect the hand (or fail to protect it as I found out once). [2] There is no round-trip ticket to yesterday, so hindsight is as useless as it can be painful. However, like a Nestor, meaning I realize that neither Achilles nor Agamemnon are likely to listen, I feel compelled to encourage anyone keen to fence into their dotage to be mindful of their choices and take care of themselves. Cultivating sense at a younger age is tough, but ideal–the sooner we take care of ourselves, the longer we’re likely going to be able to fence.

Conditioning, Stretching, and Rest

We’re less likely to be injured if our over-all health is decent. If we eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain decent cardio everything is easier. For those keen to lift weights, fine, but for fencing you don’t need to be a body-builder or circus strongman. It’s better to build useful, appropriate strength than attempt to be yet another six-pack clad wanna-be model. [3] There are a number of resources for diet and exercise–if all else fails ask your doctor.

Stretching before and after fencing is important. Normally we warm up a bit, then stretch. None of this needs to be strenuous, just enough to keep you limber and less likely to pull or tear anything. Here too, it’s unnecessary to do the splits–don’t push anything, even a stretch, too far.

Equally important is recovery time. Our bodies need rest after exercise, and if we push past rest we only increase the chances of injury. This could mean tearing your ACL or striking an opponent too hard. Take breaks. It’s a fencing class, not boot camp, and no instructor should push anyone beyond reason. Likewise, no instructor should ever shame anyone for taking that break, being unable to do a particular exercise, or anything else. There are usually alternatives to many stretches and a decent instructor will suggest one of those if possible.

Injury and Recovery

If you end up with an injury take care of it. Happily, injuries are normally few and far between in fencing provided one isn’t a knucklehead. Wear your protective gear, observe the safety rules of the sala, and look out for one another. Most injuries occur because people fail to heed safety precautions, or they’re mucking about, or they purposefully disdain safety protocols out of some he-man notion of toughness.

For anything beyond the occasional bruise it’s often wise to see a medical professional. A deep cut, a stab wound, a potential concussion, a broken bone, a torn or pulled muscle or ligament, anything like this could have serious consequences. See a doctor, and see a proper one, one with MD behind their name, not one of the many purveyors of pseudo-science. [4]

Give yourself time to heal. I once sprained my ankle the night before a tournament, but being 21 just wrapped it tightly and fenced anyway. That wasn’t smart. If we start training before an injury heals we run the risk of making it worse, but sometimes we also ensure that we keep that injury for the rest of our lives. Most of the joints on my right side are compromised in some degree, and some of these injuries, such as tennis-elbow, could have been alleviated by dealing with them properly at the time.

Age: It just plain SUCKS

Goals 😉

Age in some degree is relative, but as a general rule the older we get the longer it takes to heal, the more recovery time we need, and much as we might hate it we slow down. It sucks. I know because I’ve fenced for over three decades. IF we want to keep fencing until we literally cannot, then we have to be cognizant of our choices early on.

Somethings, alas, are just a younger person’s game. Longsword, for example, one “can” do as an older person, but one probably shouldn’t. It’s one thing to dabble with another old codger or take the occasional seminar, but it’s less wise to enter tourneys at a certain age. They can be rough, and tough as some old people are the simple fact is that they break more easily. No 20 or 30 something is going to take it easy on you, and if they did, you’d only be insulted.

This can be super hard to accept when we really love something. In the past year or so I’ve realized that the clock is ticking for me and using appropriately weighted historical sabres. I “can” fence with them, and still do, but not as often as I did, because much as I miss it if I continue to use them all the time I won’t be fencing any sabre down the road. When this happens we have to make some difficult choices. I teach more than I fight now, I often use lighter sabres (such as the S2000 Olympic with kids), and I focus on other weapons I enjoy.

For example, though I’ve always read up on and dabbled in smallsword, it’s increasingly becoming one of my chief studies. [5] The others are largely related to it, such as late period rapier and smallsword’s 19th century descendent, epee. They don’t have the flash and fire of sabre, and I miss that, but they share the same intellectual aspects, rely on similar strategies, and even include, epee excepted, some of the more physical options in sabre and broadsword. Weapons seizures, for example, add a bit of spice.

The Take Away

Fence, and fence hard, but be smart. To me, the best approach is a middle-way, something between Sterne’s health miser and Blake’s supposed palace of wisdom. This is to say that we don’t want to be so careful that we’re bored and learn nothing–the Art is about fighting and thus must be practiced–but nor do we want to fight like our lives depended on it each and every time. Moderation will serve most of the time.

Whatever one fences, it pays to be aware of the wear and tear on your body, because it is a pain delayed. We pay for the fun of our 20s in our 40s, and it’s all downhill after that. If you don’t plan to fence into your 90s, cool, then go nuts. If you do think you might enjoy fencing until you drop, and you’d prefer not to do it from a wheelchair or from behind a walker, then maintain your health, fence responsibly, and let that ligament heal no matter how long it takes.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. “The Iliad,” Book 1, ll. 318ff

[2] In the age before better gloves, a guard that turned in a sweaty grip or broke could mean a trip to the ER. Pinky nails, btw, do grow back, but it takes months.

[3] I know a lot of people keen to lift, and some may be unhappy with this statement, but I stand by it. Unless one intends to wrestle a fair amount, where size and power mean more, any weight-training for fencing shouldn’t focus on bulk.

[4] This may also offend, but chiropractors, some massage outfits, and others are not doctors. In the PNW I have found that a lot of people go to chiropractors–I’m not sure why. While I’m sure there are some who provide what is probably decent massage, the “science” behind their practice is dubious. See for example:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1556349913601667?via%3Dihub

https://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/S0885-3924(07)00783-X/fulltext

[5] The first work on fencing I ever bought was a facsimile copy of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763; 1787); I found it at a used book store in 1986.