Keeping our Fencers Safe

Below is a link to an important piece by Maestro Jen Oldham—it details ways to foster a heathy community and fight abuse. No matter with whom one might work this is a crucial aspect of an instructor’s job, but it is all the more important for those of us working with children.

I’ve written about this before and will again, because creating safe spaces to learn is not a one-and-done event, but a way of working, a way of creating and maintaining a healthy community. An instructor should be above reproach: they should be a role model, an advocate, a guardian, and conduct themselves in as transparent a manner as possible.

There are few crimes or sins lower than hurting children—it’s a triple evil: they cannot defend themselves like an adult, their stage of life hasn’t prepared them to recognize or manage threats as easily making them more vulnerable, and some abused children become abusers in turn. Adults have a collective responsibility to protect children—each of us must do our part. Maestro Oldham’s list below is a nice primer:

https://www.wfencing.org/post/protecting-fencers-from-abuse-and-supporting-victims-of-abuse?postId=b0414af9-a9cf-4551-ab81-7443a6bd416c

The Collective: You will be Assimilated. Resistance is… up to You, Really

As Thanksgiving, a national holiday here, approaches I’ve been juggling lessons and classes as one does around any such occasion where both work and school schedules are in flux. Issues with the holiday aside—a different discussion—one doesn’t need an event to be reminded that it pays to be thankful. I don’t mean this in the trite, “live, laugh, love” sense, but in the active consideration of the myriad ways one should cultivate gratitude. My sad nod to Star Trek’s aggressively assimilating baddies notwithstanding, this post is a public celebration and confession of thankfulness for what several of us locally term “The Collective.” [1] The Borg, to be fair, are a poor analogy for what we aim to do with this conglomeration of fencers and clubs, but we do share one thing with the Cubist cyborgs: we are a tight-knit group. 

What is this “Collective?” It’s not some quasi-communist organic hop-farm, though in Oregon perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad guess, nor is it a collection of silent-musicians or driftwood artists who work out of a local barn, but a loose confederation of fencers and clubs who have decided that they want to work together and that they like doing so. Generally, the fencing world is divided much like ancient Greek poleis were, this is to say that they are independent, sovereign, and while united by common purpose and sometime-allegiance to umbrella organizations, they are more or less rivals and constantly competing for the same meagre resources. That isn’t good or bad, just the way it is, but several of us, united by common purpose and similar values, have decided to buck the norm and form (following the nerdy Greek analogy) our own Boeotian League. Well, hopefully minus the issues that assailed that alliance post Persian Wars. [2] 

Whose sala is that? We seek “The Collective”

This is an informal alliance, one open to anyone with similar goals and outlook, and all without meetings, dues, or anything else. It grew naturally out of the ever-changing landscape of local historical fencing but, being flexible, has tended to weather such changes better, and more than that, provide support as our own schools are buffeted. Clubs pop up and then disappear, grow great then decline, or somehow sustain themselves, but as all this happens the Collective continues and thrives. It’s hard for me not to conclude that despite what we might lose individually we gain a lot more collectively. 

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in supporting one another, in helping with classes or seminars, in plugging one another’s events, in sending students to an instructor who might be a better fit, in loaning gear, whatever it is, we end up with stronger clubs. One of the schools in the collective is large, easily the largest in the state, whereas the rest of us run groups consisting of a few people; how the numbers fall out per location matters less than they what they represent as a whole. Any student from one of these schools is welcome at the others; instead of one head for help or advice they get multiple people with varied and deep backgrounds in various branches of the Art. These days, sadly, it’s worth noting that they are safe at any one of these schools as well. [3] 

Personally I experience this collective on two fronts. First, and close to home, are friends, colleagues—family really—from An Tir, High Desert Armizare, Historic Combat, and Northwest Armizare; and second via the mixed modern miracle/curse of the internet, I also enjoy the wisdom, wit, and work of more extended kin from Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, The Guild of the Silent Sword/HAMA, Sala della Spada, and Sword School Wichita. Then there are the students I teach and the colleagues with whom I work each week. 

Each of these individuals I chat or interact with regularly or failing that as often as I can. I learn from them, laugh with them, and do what I can to support and promote them. I’m grateful for their instruction, advice, humor, and backing. Thank you, each of you, for all that you do. 

NOTES: 

[1] I don’t know enough about Star Trek to provide a lot of guidance, but this is one place to check out if you’re into things Kirk/Picard/Cisco/Janeway/etc.: https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/star-trek-picard-essential-borg-episodes#:~:text=Although%20the%20first%20canonical%20appearance,The%20Best%20of%20Both%20Worlds.%22 

[2] The Boeotian League formed in the mid-6th cen. BCE under Thebes. When the allied Greek forces lost at Themopylae, the League sided with the Persians, the smart money being on the powerful rival from the east. When the Greeks managed to beat back the Persians they naturally were unhappy with those states that had supported the enemy. The League was broken in the wake of that victory and didn’t reform until 446 when with Spartan help the Boeotians successfully left the Athenian Empire. In the 4th century BCE the League’s allegiance switched back to the Athenians, but crises with the rise of the Macedonians led to a revolt against Alexander that was crushed. For more information cf. Raphael Sealey, A History of the Greek City States 700-338 BC (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), esp. Chs. 16 & 17. 

[3] News reports, regardless of bent, require far more corroboration than they should, especially for anything that will make for ratings, but this said Oregon has had a rough go the last few years. For all the blather about individuality, toughness, etc. the truth is that it only took a mask-mandate to undermine any pretense to civility or toughness. The small city where I teach harbors in microcosm what the rest of the state, the nation really, wrestles with in macrocosm. This is not just posturing either: I work with students who feel the prejudice leveled at them by those keen to return the US to 1850 (or make it Berlin ca. 1940); it’s not theoretical for them nor is it for me.  

Mastery, Revisited

Mastery. It’s a word that conjures a variety of emotions and images. In fencing the word means different things depending on context. For most Olympic fencers the word refers primarily to a teaching position, that of “master,” and second, in a more abstract sense, to a high degree of skill. Often these are considered to go hand in hand. Outside the Olympic fencing world, however, it’s more difficult to define. On the one hand, because there are certified masters who dabble or contribute considerably to historical fencing and martial arts, we do have some masters in our midst, but on the other there is no single governing body within the historical community itself with the power to confer the title. [1] I’ve discussed this before (cf. post “Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery” May 24, 2019), and will try not to rehash the points I made there, but instead will focus on the topic from a different angle, one that comes up frequently. What is “mastery” in historical fencing? Does it even make sense to discuss “mastery” in historical fencing? Is it possible to have “masters” in our corner of the fencing world? [2] 

Master Ken

Though the topic of mastery can be a red herring, there are important lessons to be learned from examining the notion sans dreams of grandeur or aggressive McDojo-style marketing. It can help to unpack what “master” and “mastery” mean, because we use these words in different ways and they can mislead us if we aren’t careful.

“Master” as Occupational Title 

There are ample resources that discuss master-as-instructor, so I’ll only briefly state here what that means in terms of a maestro di scherma or maître d’armes. [3] Fencing masters, with some variance by accrediting body, generally have demonstrated to other masters that they possess a thorough understanding of theory, a command of both fundamentals and advanced skills, ample grounding in tactics, and some degree of skill in execution: at the very least they must be able to impart their knowledge and skill to students correctly. They must demonstrate not only knowledge and skill, but an ability to teach, and much of their training from moniteur to master consists of OJT. This means something. It doesn’t mean everything, but variance by person notwithstanding that training has worked for close to two-hundred years if not longer. Masters are first and foremost teachers, concerned with fencing education. In most ways this is not new. For all the famous masters named in the history of dueling or competition there were ten times the number of them quietly working in the background. 

Maestro Barbasetti

Some masters (extremely few) may know more history, but for the most part their focus has been the competitive sport and running a business. Historically, maestri were of humble station—a marquis or colonel might employ them, but they were not social equals. It wasn’t really until the modern Olympics and the birth of national competition that much of that changed. [4] Outside of world, national, and collegiate competition many maestri struggle to stay afloat. It is not an easy career path, and it’s not uncommon for fencing masters to hold down other jobs. [5] 

What separates a certified master from others is the fact they have undergone and succeeded in a program managed by those who did so before them. In truth, anyone who puts in the time, and has good teachers, might learn as much and develop the necessary skill level, but without the approval of certified peers they will never be a master, not in terms of professional title anyway. In a recent lecture by Dr. John Sullins online at Sala della Spada, the maestro explained that there are people who are masters in all but name; the example he cited was a fellow student he knew in the Italian program whose knowledge, ability, and teaching were excellent, but who never took his master’s certs. In this case, that student was recognized by his peers as equivalent to a master, but he isn’t in terms of accreditation. This doesn’t mean that the title is meaningless or that anyone can do the same thing, but to say that from time to time there are people out there who can and sometimes do the same job as a maestro. Hopefully they have the decency to avoid the title not having earned it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t learn from them. 

Historical Fencing & the Master 

Maestro Alfieri (fl. 1640)

For the most part the term “master” within historical fencing refers to an ancient title and job description. We speak of Master Fiore, the Bolognese Masters, Master Girard, Master Santelli, etc. Ideally, we recognize that while all these fencers may have shared this title that the title itself, the responsibilities that went with it, varied over time and by context. It’s a convenient term for “past experts.” Outside of modern, accredited masters working within historical fencing the idea of master as expert from the past is the safest, least problematic use of the title. This is true even when we use the term for experts who didn’t hold a certification as we normally think of it. 

Periodically the question of creating modern masters of historical fencing pops up, normally within the confines of social media, YouTube, and like ilk. There is something of the how many angels to a pinhead about this question—it’s decent navel-gazing, philosophical fodder, but functionally tends more to distract than inform. Our time would be better spent doing footwork drills. Where “master” as ancient title causes few issues, the discussion of creating modern masters of dead arts is a minefield. Opinion varies a lot as to the answer; here are my two cents. 

Master of a Dead Art vs. Master of Historical Fencing 

First, I’d make a distinction between master of a past art, say the Liechtenauer tradition or the Dardi School, and a master as it were of historical fencing. It may disappoint some of my associates, but I believe creating a master along the lines of the first definition is impossible. These are dead arts; the line was broken and in most cases a long, long time ago. Not only do we lack critical information about these past systems, but also our context is entirely removed from those of 15th century Germany or 16th century Bologna. It’s hubris to think we can do anything more than create a version of those arts, and, a version extremely modern and lacking much of what underpinned these ancient systems in their heyday. To name one example, the International Armizare Society (IAS) might create a neo-Armizare, but they cannot revive Armizare as Fiore taught it. Thus, they cannot create masters of Armizare per se, only masters of a modern take on Fiore’s teachings. [6] 

A master of historical fencing, theoretically, might be possible to create, but this title or position would be akin to earning a master’s degree in the history of medicine versus earning the MD and becoming a practicing physician. The requirements would demand command of the universal principles underlying all hand-to-hand combat, at least a working knowledge of several areas of historical fencing, demonstrated skill across those areas, and sufficient understanding of fencing pedagogy to teach effectively. The board reviewing this would consist of those fencing masters who work on historical topics, historians or similar experts who work on the regions and periods under question, and a few carefully selected people from the historical fencing community whose ability and insight would temper both the perspective of maestri created in modern programs and historians who more than likely have never held a sword. I have often thought about what such a panel might look like, even down to course of study and whom I would pick for the committee, but in truth the wide divisions within the community, communities really, suggest that if such a program were to arrive it won’t be any time soon. 

For now, I would suggest that the closest one can get to being a master of historical fencing is either to study formally the period in question and obtain training as a fencing instructor, or, become a fencing master and focus on the source tradition. This would mean attending an accredited program with ample attention paid to traditional technique.  There are already maestri doing this. [7] Some of these masters may be associated with “HEMA,” but in the US this is less often the case—here the hoi polloi in “HEMA” shun sport or traditional fencing. The few masters I know who work on things historical by and large work in small cohorts independent from mainstream HEMA. The scarlet “M.d.S/E.” applied to their plastrons isn’t lost on them; it makes little sense to waste time on a community where one is unwelcome.  

This is less a problem in Europe—fencing is venerable there where it has remained novel and exceptional State-side. To name only two examples, Maestro Francesco Loda, who also holds two PhDs in history, can navigate between historical and Olympic fencing easily. There is less of a stigma attached to the latter in Italy. Likewise, in Prague, Czechia, the Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895 school actively works with maestri from Club Riegel. Prevot Michael Kňažko, who runs this program, has a classical focus intimately connected to the Radaellian tradition as expressed by Luigi Barbasetti, but works with fencers from a variety of backgrounds too, everything from historical to Olympic to actors working their way through The Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) in Prague. Leonid Křížek and Michael Šolc, maestri at Riegel, also work with Barbasetti Military Sabre and I’ve seen how effective the combination of traditional pedagogy and attention to the sources is firsthand. [8]

HEMA & the Masters of the MiniVerse 

“I said no grappling HEMA-man!”

As often as the topic comes up, and as badly as some obviously wish to be considered masters, the chance of a viable accreditation program in “HEMA” worth anything is slim. At present the likely outcome of any such effort would be a self-promoting society of vanity-degree holders. Even collectively, from every branch of the community, there is likely neither enough aggregate ability or agreement as to what this would look like or how to evaluate candidates. There is generally a poor understanding of theory where it’s not outright rejected, a shallow level of source knowledge except sometimes in the case of one’s particular focus, and by and large the average level of skill is mediocre.[9] Most importantly of all, there is no dedicated work toward improving teaching, and worse, even less interest in enlisting the help of people best situated to help correct, trained fencing maestri. 

There are other issues around creating “masters” in HEMA. Outside the community would this certification mean much? Would traditional maestri consider them as well-trained as themselves? I don’t have an answer, but I think it would be a hard sell if the only actual teachers in the field weren’t involved in some respect. We can ruminate as to what qualifications such a “master” ought to have, but while perhaps a fun exercise no amount of boxes checked would likely make Person X a master in the eyes of most people. 

Masters by Popular Acclaim 
Another possibility, one rife with issues, is the potential to become a master by acclaim. How this wouldn’t descend into trouble is hard to imagine: there would be the big fish in small ponds who are the best in their pond, but unremarkable outside it; there would be those desperate to be seen as masters and angle for it, but who aren’t remotely qualified or interested in the actual job; there are also people of sense who, if named, would wisely say thanks but no thanks. Off the top of my head I can think of two people right now, both less connected to HEMA but involved in historical fencing, who to me embody the best aspects of mastery—they’re truly skilled, but they’re also dynamite teachers. Neither I think would be comfortable with the title, honored though they might be, and it’s hard not to blame them. [No, I’m not one of the two—one lives in Kansas, the other in Texas, and that’s as much as I’m willing to say 😉] 

Mastery—Goal or Approach? 

Master Pai Mei, “Kill Bill” Vol. 2 (2004)

Leaving aside the traditional notion of a person capable of passing on a body of knowledge effectively, especially to other instructors, what about the concept of “mastery” itself? Most people mistakenly supply the idea of a superior fighter to the label. A master in this sense is more akin to the white-haired, long-bearded kung fu master in B movies, wise somehow and utterly capable of humiliating any foe. It’s a lovely fantasy. The reality is that some masters died fighting, others never had to fight—it was not their job. They were primarily teachers. 

We’re conditioned to view a master through the lens of fiction and cinema. The scenes of challenge in films like Bruce Lee’s “The Chinese Connection/Fists of Fury” (1972) or its updated version “Fist of Legend” with Jet Li, where school rivalries lead to murder and additional challenges in vengeance, we unwittingly apply not only to Asian martial arts but others too. It’s present in the western canon of film as well—Prince Humperdink, remember, as he surveys the ground where Inigo and the Man in Black fought, concludes that they were both “masters.” I’ve yet to meet a master, of any kind, who has had to live or had any wish to live the life of Mister Miyagi; and while I’ve met more than one John Kreese of Cobra Kai, they stand out and in time bully themselves out of a job. “The Karate Kid” (1984; 2010) is not reality; it’s just a good story. 

It is true that many western masters, from Fiore to Pini, fought duels. Many more did not. Many also lost. One examination of Talhoffer, for example, suggests that he lost to another fighter. [10] This was likely more common than we think. The context of these duels is important too, especially since we have nothing remotely related to them today. Competition between masters has often been more about attracting students and staying in business than beating rivals; how they do that today is just different. Where Fiore had to fight, sometimes without armor no less, because he might lose his following otherwise, today’s masters fight it out with sale memberships, ad campaigns, and hopefully offering the best program they can. For masters in Italy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, professional rivalries might spill out onto the dueling ground, but not all the duels these masters fought were over teaching turf. 

Masteries 

Ron Burgundy, “Anchorman,” (2004)—I’ve seen too much of this attitude in “HEMA”

We define “mastery” different ways in fencing because in truth there are different aspects of it one can attempt to chase. Some fencers, probably most, look at mastery as a goal, as something they can attain by being the “best” fighter out there. Others, might focus on the most accurate knowledge and demonstration of technique. Still others might aim to possess near bardic knowledge of the sources. Then, there are the fencers who wish to possess all three. There are pros and cons to each of these, but the focus on “mastery” as a goal, as something we can work to achieve often leads us to the wrong places if not bad ones.  
 
This is not to say that one shouldn’t strive to do one’s best. Nor is it to say that one shouldn’t try to win bouts, develop gorgeous technique, or an impressive knowledge of the sources, but it is to say that mastery is perhaps best used as a carrot. After all, “best” is a relative concept—the “best” fencer in Bigcity USA may lose to the “best” fighter in Pigsty Village. This is another area I’ve said far too much about, but it’s true. One adage to keep in mind in re the question of superiority is the anecdotal remark that the finest fencer in France doesn’t fear the second best, they fear the worst. The second will, as soon as they take guard, reveal the fact that they’ve been trained if the fact wasn’t widely known; the worst fencer, however, is unpredictable and therefore in many ways far more dangerous. 

Tae Kwon Douglas, “Disjointed” (2017-2018)

Excellence, one’s best, is a good goal to work towards, but we do that work best when we realize that the concept of mastery itself is relative at best, chimerical at worst. Mastery, in many ways, is perhaps better viewed as more of a journey, an approach, than a destination or attainable goal. We can strive to improve, grow, and become better fencers and fighters, and with luck, better people. This focus does much to help rid of us the usual suspects that affect our growth and improvement. If our fiercest competition is ourselves; if the person we most want to beat is ourselves yesterday, then we’re more likely to see our fellow fencers as fellow travelers on the same journey. We will be more likely to view them as our partners, as our fellow guides. While we strive to beat them in bouts, we do so recognizing that ultimately they are helping us overcome ourselves and grow as fighters and people. [11] 

Take Aways 

I believe historical fencing would benefit from having something akin to a master of historical fencing program, but it’s hard to see that working out to the satisfaction of the majority. Perhaps one day we might see such a thing materialize. Until then, it behooves us to give credit to what today’s masters have to teach us. In like vein, I’d urge the masters, and especially the accreditation programs, to include more of the source material that informs today’s fencing than they do. Even the Italian program State-side doesn’t avail itself of the rich corpus that created it. [12] 

For us as individual fencers, if we focus on mastery as something to reach for, but which we can never attain we’re more likely to focus on what we should and improve. The line between the urge to grow and the ambition to be seen a certain way can be a slippery slope; it’s far easier to seek public acclaim because our culture idolizes fame, even fame where a handful of people comprise the audience. The Art is difficult, it is demanding, and distractions that pander to our egos rather than support our practice we should avoid. 

NOTES

[1] There is an option in the USFCA for focus in historical fencing, but I’m not sure if this is a dead letter. Some unfortunate political ugliness entered the picture and so far as I know no additional fencers have been so certified. 

[2] Facebook has been one platform of discussion, see especially Jay Mass, post Dec. 19, 2018; and Da’Mon Stith, post/video, July 10th, 2020. 

[3] In short, masters are custodians of the tradition, not only as instructors in their own right, but as those who certify new instructors. Provosts/Prévôts do much the same work as masters, but focus more on training fencers vs. other teachers. Moniteurs are able to teach all the fundamental actions and techniques and some tactics. Among treatments of the occupation, see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956); though dated and requiring caution, Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Defense (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003), originally published in 1885, remains useful; Richard Cohen, By the Sword (New York, NY: Random House, 2002); Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334; William H. Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998); Jacopo Gelli, Bibliografia Generale della Scherma con note Critiche, Biografiche, e Storiche, Testo Italiano e Francese (Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890);  Michael Julian Kirby, “From Piste to Podium—A Qualitative Exploration of the Development of Fencing Coaching in Britain,” MPhil, Universty of Birmingham, UK, 2014. 

[4] The social position of maestri historically was relatively low. In the Middle Ages fight-masters might be men of some degree of rank or an experienced commoner. Depending on where one was and when, some military training for young aristocrats might be obtained from extended family, friends of the family, or in some cases acquired living abroad. Local masters might be hired as well. Patronage was important and remained so into the 19th century. As the aristocracy increasingly transformed into the officer class, and as their time opened up for other pursuits, fencing started to become a “class” pursuit as well as important training. In time, fencing, like dancing, equitation, and good manners were considered proper elements of education, and this helped elevate those teaching these young people. Some, like Domenico Angelo, became minor celebrities, but for each Angelo there were just as many masters whom we only know by name or who had to rely on other avenues to stay afloat. James Figg, for example, a well-known instructor in early 18th century England is best remembered as a prize-fighter. 

[5] Many of the masters I know or have worked with hold a “day job” in addition to teaching fencing. We used to joke that as formidable as Maestro Couturier was as a fencer and coach, the fact that he worked for the IRS made him twice as scary. 

[6] As of this date the section on certification is under construction, but cf. https://armizare.org/  

[7] There are a number of certified maestri working in historical fencing—to name only a few there are David and Dori Coblentz, Adam Crown, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Leonid Křížek, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, and Giovanni Rapisardi. 

[8] The quality of teaching at Barbasetti Military Sabre is extremely high. There is a direct correlation between the fact that the instructors are all well-trained in fencing as well as in other branches of martial arts. They recently lost a dear friend and maestro, Jan Kostka—though he has passed on I didn’t want to mention the instructors at the school without mentioning his important place and contribution to their program. 

[9] Experience is a relative concept and has to be viewed against several other important considerations. One might spend a lifetime fencing and have little to show for it; one might spend a few years and become a paragon of technique and application. However, these tend to be exceptions, poles of the spectrum, and most people fall somewhere in the middle. So, the HEMA player with five years’ experience in say KdF may know a bit about “The Zettel” and even more about Meyer, but will have little reason to weigh in on things Olympic and vice versa unless they’ve spent suitable time on them. 

[10] See for example: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/1444-two-fencing-masters-in-rothenburg/ 

[11] For the cinematically inclined, the discussion about tea/martial arts in “Fearless” 2006) provides a nice example of the idea that “through the competition we can discover and get to know one’s true self” https://youtu.be/ZVkI0vbHcz4 

[12] I have great respect for the Fencing Master’s Certificate program at Sonoma State University, California, but at last check they were using only the works penned by Maestro William Gaugler. It was Gaugler who brought the program to the US and established it in San Jose. Given the talent there, I’m unsure why they would limit themselves to Gaugler’s works when there are so many more, and many better, than those of the late maestro. Since the focus of the program, as I have understood it anyway, is both traditional and focused on pedagogy, it’s puzzling that they don’t rely on László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master or avail themselves of the translations made by Chris Holzman. 

A note on Francesco Marcelli’s _Stoccata Annervata_

One of the hallmarks of the Roman-Neapolitan school of fencing is the stoccata annervata or annervated thrust. A fencer today examining the illustrations in Marcelli or Pallavicini’s works may find this particular action odd as it looks so stiff and awkward in comparison to the bent-leg lunge of today (a.k.a. a stoccata if to the inside line, imbroccata if to the outside line/outside the arm). Wiser and more-knowledgeable heads than mine have explored this variety of the lungish attack far better than I can. [1] Thus, while I cannot add much to their conclusions I must, like anyone else wrestling with a source, figure out how to perform this maneuver and teach it. What follows is my working interpretation at present, and I share it less because I’m convinced I’m correct than because it illustrates another example of a fencer working closely from a source.

The translation I rely on is Christopher A. Holzman’s–his is the first translation into English and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the historical fencing community. This is not to denigrate in any way his Del Frate or other offerings, but to say that Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing (1686) is easily one of the finest works on fencing ever written. It’s value extends beyond the weapons he covers (chiefly rapier and associated side-arms)–for his coverage and explanation of universal principles alone Marcelli is a must-have source. Much as I hate the parlor-game question–“if you were on a desert island and had only one X, what would it be?”–I can answer it for works on fencing: it would be Rules of Fencing. [2]

My academic training urges me to find the best translations I can, but never to forget the original source. Thus, while I rely on Chris’s excellent Marcelli, when it comes down to anything I must investigate closely I make sure to read the Italian next to it. I provide the original Italian after quotations in English below. Note: I am not fluent in Italian. I have only a functional get-the-gist-of-it ability and only for things like fencing or ancient and medieval history. Wine-lists, menus, Dante, yeah, can’t read those (yet). Like many historians working in early European topics I must have a working command of some languages in order to identify if not read key secondary works in languages other than my own. [3]

Here, I will share some key passages for the annervated thrust, then share how I’m reading them and why.

Pallavicini (1670/1673):

Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, in his Fencing Illustrated (2 vols., 1670 and 1673), provides useful depictions of this annervated attack:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, p. 2

The explanation Pallavicini offers for the first illustration (p. 2) explains how one launches the attack:

The present figure shows the visual line with the assigned letter A, so, at the point of standing in stance, the the first thing is of the right arm going out, then tensing the left knee (which is bent) and in tensing it, extending it, the right foot is made to advance on the ground performing the thrust in 3rd.

[Figura mostra la linea visuale per la lettera assegnata, A, al punto cosí standon in piāta, la prima cosa e d’uscire primo il braccio destro, è doppo annervare il ginoccho sinistro, in cui stando curvo, & in annervandolo disteso, fà avanzare il piede destro in terra, e tirando la stoccata di terza…] [4]

We see a similar completed attack on page 7 where the author describes the drill of thrusting against a hanging ball:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._. Vol. 2, page 7

For the sake of comparison, here is the same maneuver from another contemporary master, Giuseppe Villardita, author of A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (1670):

Villardita, _A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing_, 1670, 28-29

Franceso Marcelli (1686):

While other works within the Roman-Neapolitan orbit I find useful for context I focus mostly on Rules of Fencing/Regole della Scherma (1686). Like others within this tradition Marcelli employs an annverated attack, but importantly spends as much time or more on a version of the lunge ancestral to the modern iteration.

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V,, p. 15, fig. 4

Accompanying this image Marcelli writes:


All the movements that I have proposed to be made in performing the thrust are seen marked with the numbers in the present illustration. The number 1 signifies that the aforesaid Cavaliere has started the sword hand first. The number 2, marked near the left knee, denotes that after having brought the hand forward he has violently extended that knee, which was bent. The number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

[Tutti i moti, che hò proposto da farsi nel tirar la Stoccata, si veggono segnati co’i numeri nella presente figura; dove il nu. 1 significa, che il sopradetto Caval. hà partito prima la mano della spada. Il num. 2., segnato vicino il ginocchio sinistro, dinota, che doppo haver anticipate la mano, hà disteso con violenza quel ginocchio, che stave piegato. Il num. 3., che stà nel pie destro, signitica, che quello e stato il terzo moto del corpo; e doppo haver caminato la mano, & annervato il ginocchio, ha caminato il piede, il quale e l’ultimo moto, perche hà da far camino meno di tutti.] [5]

Interpretation:

Standing “heroically,” Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent in “Blackadder the Third,” Episode 4, “Sense & Senility,”1987

Looked at alone these images, as useful as they are, can be misleading. Taken literally one is likely to jam the knee, slip, or split one’s pants. No matter how well rendered we must be cautions with images. We must read them with any accompanying text, and, consider how the fencer gets to this position. Put another way, what does the guard position one is in prior to launching the attack look like? Placed side by side what can we deduce about moving from guard to annervated thrust?

Here is one example from Pallavicini, Vol. 1, for the guard position:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Ilustr._, Vol. 1. Ch. XVIII, illus. 4, p. 39

And here is an example from Marcelli:

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 6

The guard position is back-weighted, body upright, rear arm up and out of the way (if unarmed), front foot toward the opponent, and weapon directed to target. The rear shoulder, so Marcelli remarks, should be over the bent rear knee. The weapon hand should be about belt high (cf. Marcelli, CH, 83ff).

Critical to understanding this style of attack is how one most easily shifts from this rear-weighted guard position to the annervated thrust. As Marcelli states the right or lead foot doesn’t move very far, and both Pallavicini and Marcelli are explicit about the speed and force used in snapping the left or rear leg into an extended position forcing the right foot forward.

This is less a lunge per se than a quick step made by shifting weight from the rear leg to the front. It is shorter than than lunge as we know it, and must be because landing straight-legged on the front foot is not something comfortable or safe to do if the step is too long. The Roman-Neapolitan masters took time to explain just how far one should stand in guard.

Pallavicini, for example, explains

In order to know how large the man’s stance must be, the proper distance is a third part of the man’s height, counting from the left heel to the narrowest part of the right foot, as my Figure shows, marked with a straight line from the point of the left heel where the right foot is placed over the same line, since it shows a distance of three and a half palmi [approx./ 8.5-10 inches/20-25cm], in which the man comes to stand more comfortably in the proper proportion of the stance. Since this Figure stands with the point of the sword in the ground, I have made it easier for the student to know how to find the proper length of the stance, which is made by bending the left knee, and advancing the right foot on the straight line. In order to know how much the right foot must be advanced, the sword point is placed on the ground, and keeping the left knee bent, and the right knee extended, the body stays in the center, as my Figure shows, and the right foot must advance as much as needed to touch the sword point.

[e così per sapere la quantità quanto l’huomo deve star largo di passo, la guista distanza è la terza parte dell’altezza dell’huomo, numerando dalla punta del Tallone sinistro per insino alla legatura del piede destro, come mostra la mia Figura segnata con la linea retta, della punta del tallone sinistro dove posa il piede destro sopra la medesima linea retta benche mostra la distanza delli tre palmi e mezzo, nella quale l’huomo viene à stare più commodamente nella giusta proportione della pianta, e benche stia questa Figura con la punta della Spade in terra, l’hò satta per più faciltà dello Scolaro, per sapere trovare la giusta distanza della pianta, la quale si fà curvando il ginocchio sinistro, e doppo avanzare il piede deitro per la linea retta, e per sapere quanto deve avanzare il piede destro s’abassa la punta della Spada in terra, e tenēdo il ginocchio sinistro piegato, & il ginocchio destro difesto, & il corpo che stia in cētro, come mostra la mia Figura, & il piede destro deve avázare táto quanto hà di toccare la punta della Spada.] [6]

Pallavicini illuminates this notion thus:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, illustration 2, p. 5

Marcelli’s treatment of the type of steps and guard position are separate, but the latter assumes the former. For example, in explaining how ones comes into guard he writes

having first planted the left foot on the ground, he should bring the right foot forward as much as is necessary to form a correct and proportionate stance, in relation to the distance of the step with which the blow must be extended, in order to be able afterward to easily recover with it (a thing so necessary, and of such consequence, that upon this depends the good or bad outcome of the operation).

[Impugnata in tal maniera la Spada, e piantato prima in terra il pie sinistro, porri avanti il pie destro, tanto, quanto basta a formare un passo giusto, e proporionato, respetto all distanza del passo, co’l quale si deve distendere il colpo, per potersi doppo con esso rihavere con facilita (cosa tanto necessaria, e di tanta conseguenza, che da questa dipende il buono, o cattivo successo dell’operatione).] [7]

This makes far more sense when one recalls the earlier passage on the types of steps. For brevity these are:

  • the straight step: made when one moves along the line of direction
  • the traversal or oblique step: made when we leave the line of direction and go left or right
  • the mixed step: a good example is the inquartata
  • the curved step: made when gaining, passing, or seizing the opponent’s weapon vs. returning to guard

[Quattro forti de’Passi si possono formare nel caminare à fronte del suo
nemico. Il primo è’l Passo Retto. Il secondo, è’l Passo Trasversale, or vero
obliquo. Il terzo, è’l Passo Misto. È’l quarto e’l Passo Curvo.

Il passo si fà, quando si camina per linea retta incontro del suo nemico, e
si move à dirittura per quella medesima linea nella quale stà situaro il suo
contrario. Questo si dice, caminar retto.

Il Passo Trasversale, ò vero Obliquo, è quel passo, il quale si forma,
quando uscendo dalla linea retta si camina a man destra, ò à man sinistra del
suo contrario…

Il Passo Misto, è quel passo, che si fà con l’Inquartata, quando che si
hanno da sfuggire le stoccate che son tirate di dentro…

Il Pass Curvo si fà solamente, ò nel guadagno, ò nelle passate; benche in queste non si finischi di terminarlo, con tutto ciò da questo passo si guidano… [8]

This is, as Marcelli himself remarks, a “natural and composed posture of the body” and easily adjusted to navigate measure and set the stage for one’s choice of footwork. We unconsciously manage this all the time whenever we’re on guard; we adjust measure, we shift our feet, we shorten or lengthen steps based on what it is we need or wish to do.

Conclusion

The necessity for (relatively) easy movement, combined with a guard position designed to keep the weapon out and oneself as far back as possible, makes little sense if one of the primary methods to deliver a thrust is awkward. Just as one doesn’t serve up popsicles on fine china, so too does one avoid a stilted, jarring attack from an efficient, sophisticated guard. It needs to work.

These masters, Marcelli especially, were not simple-minded. Their students might be wounded or die if their teaching included some walk-like-an-Egyptian-lunge. It doesn’t follow. If in our interpretations we find ourselves landing with pain on the front leg, if we are off balance, then likely we are missing something.

So, what is this annverated attack then? It’s a from of half-lunge. Like the bent front-leg lunge this version uses the rear leg to propel the body forward. Nothing, however, happens until that weapon moves first. The lead foot is lifted a short way and set down with a straight leg. It’s this last portion that is different and a little tricky at first.

A natural question is why use such an attack? Part of the answer is about the context in which the Roman-Neapolitan school developed, one in which Spanish destreza played a significant role. Many of these masters quote from Carranza, Narváez, and Pacheco just as they do the luminaries of the Dardi School and others (see for example Pallavicini, Vol. 1, p. 78, in Holzman’s translation). [9] Another reason is the reality of a sharp point. In an age when most people learned to fence to protect themselves defense was foremost. Our study, however dedicated, is removed in time and purpose from the very real danger of being spiked, and so we are accustomed to taking chances we likely wouldn’t were our weapons sharp. This is a point I make a lot and I won’t belabor it here, but in sum the annervated attack is less extended, easier to recover from, and a compromise between reach to target and the dangers of over-extension.

I’m still working on this attack, but as I read and reread the sources, as I try out this annervated thrust with students, the one thing that comes to mind each time we work on it is that this had to work at least somewhat well to have appeared in works from at least 1670 to 1725 (give or take some years). Chris Holzman suggests in his translation of Nicola Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) that this interesting form of attack seems to have gone out of fashion by the time Rosaroll & Grisetti penned their magnificent The Science of Fencing (1803).  The bent front-leg lunge we see in Marcelli, and which we see little of in Terracusa e Ventura, is the precursor of the lunge that most of us have learned since. [10] 

Why did the annervated attack disappear? One reason may be that by 1800 fencing, while still important–especially in Italy and France where the duel survived longest–had also long been transforming into a past-time and sporting pursuit. The conservatism of the annervated thrust is less well-suited to the speed necessary in agonistic fencing, ditto the less aggressive reach to target. So much of rapier has analogues in modern epee and foil, but this attack, this odd somewhat stilted looking thrust, is an exception that allows us a unique look into the Art’s more serious past.

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Part 1, Bk I, Ch. VI

NOTES:

[1] See especially Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), and Francesco Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2019).

[2] Feel free to disagree. The two works that I have found comprehensive, not only for technique but theory, are Marcelli and the later Science of Fencing by Rosaroll & Grisetti.

[3] European colleagues are often at an advantage in language acquisition. Living so close to other language populations and a longer tradition of language study make a difference. Outside of Latin, Middle Welsh, and Classical Irish, the three languages I spent the most time on, as a late Romanist/early medievalist I needed to be able to read some Greek, German, French, and Italian. With the exception of Latin and perhaps Middle Welsh, where I’m arguably semi-literate, I consider myself functionally illiterate in the other languages outside the extremely restricted works on history and fencing that have been my focus.

It should be obvious, but for any long passage and certainly anything I publish I always have someone expert in the language check my translation and/or interpretation of what I read. I do this even with the Latin translation work I do because it’s due diligence; it’s equally important to mention this expert help as well. 

[4] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, p. 2; Holzman, The Second Part of Fencing Illustrated by Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini (Witchita, KS: LuLu Press, 2020), 1. The image of the fencer thrusting at the ball is on page 7 in Pallavicini, and page 11 in Holzman’s edition of Vol. 2. See also Giuseppe Villardita, A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (Palermo: Imp. Cuzol. G.V.G. Imp. de la Torre R.P., 1670), image between pages 28 and 29 in Google Books.

[5] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V, p. 15, fig. 4; Holzman, 288.

[6] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, 5; Holzman, 7.

[7] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 62-63; Holzman, 84.

[8] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 31-32; Holzman, 37.

[9] See for example Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 1, Trans. Holzman, xi-xiv; Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 1-12; 38, n. 49. Dr. Loda notes that the upright stance of the annervated thrust recalls the upright stances common to much of destreza.

[10] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017); Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

POST SCRIPT: I need to get better photos with the measuring tape, but I did an experiment this morning [9 Nov. 2021] to test out the proportions of the guard and annervated thrust. Using the method mentioned above where one uses the sword to step toward when I’m in the Neapolitan guard there is approximately 18″/45.72cm distance between my left/rear foot and the heel of my lead/right foot. Depending on the degree of bend in the rear leg this can extend to 2’/61cm distance between my feet. This accords pretty well with the proportions Pallavicini lists, that is, that the space between my feet is about a third of my height when on guard. An annervated thrust from this stance is super short in terms of how far forward the front foot extends.

All for One, One for All: Teaching other Teachers

Lehr tuht viel, aber Aufmunterung tuht alles.

Goethe, letter to Adam Friedrich Oeser, 9 Nov. 1768

Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

“Teaching does much, but encouragement does everything.” So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to a fellow artist in Leipzig. [1] This is one of those quotations that speaks to me because I’ve seen the truth of it borne out again and again. It’s not enough to know something—we have to believe we’re able to do it in some degree, and while most of that must come from within, encouragement never hurts so long as it’s not empty. Having studied with a variety of teachers, some supportive, some arguably abusive, and moreover having watched others study with the likes of both, I’ve become a firm believer in the adage about honey and vinegar.

Some corners of the historical fencing world have embraced the notion that “what hurts, teaches,” and on a very superficial level this is true—if one grabs a hot pan and is burned, one is less likely to make the same mistake again. However, what might work for a toddler acquiring knowledge of how to navigate hot or sharp things is generally an extremely poor way to learn a sophisticated body of skill requiring mental and physical dexterity and agility.

Teaching other Teachers

In this post I’d like to focus on teaching other teachers. Sometimes we do this collaboratively, that is, by working together. Where I live there is a small group of us who do this most of the time. We ask one another to help with demos, run classes or specific seminars, and send one another students who might be a better fit for that colleague. We can pick up a lot by watching how others teach, how they solve problems, how they manage questions, challenges, or hecklers. It’s an informal, somewhat organic process when we’re in it, but usually we discuss these occasions too. It’s sometimes scary asking a colleague how something went, especially if we know they’ll be honest, but then this is why we ask—that honest answer, however uncomfortable, is what can help us grow.

We might share lesson plans, offer a different take on a drill, or recommend a source. Often, though, what we offer is encouragement. To teach is to be, at times, a cheerleader. Few tasks are as difficult as teaching—one must have sufficient command of a subject, sure, but no amount of knowledge means much if one can’t share it effectively with others. Much of the worry that informs imposter syndrome and other varieties of doubt stems from this concern. That’s the goal, after all, to share information, and when it comes to teaching other teachers what we’re doing goes beyond the subject and into how one shares that subject. Experience helps temper doubt just as it helps us see and correct mistakes.

This process, the challenge and excitement of it, has been on my mind a lot this past year. I’ve spent more time advising and/or helping newer instructors gain skill and confidence in their teaching than before; it’s more one to one versus collective, though it’s still a collaboration. It’s one of the hardest, most demanding responsibilities I have, but also one of the most rewarding. When it comes to raising up new instructors one of the most critical things we must do is also one of the hardest—help them develop their own style.

Learning Styles

In the late 4th century CE Symmachus, a late Roman statesman, in an attempt to reintroduce the Altar of Victory into the Senate House, asked the Emperor Valentinian “What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road…” [2] In a similar way there is no one way to learn. As with students, when we help other instructors, we have to remember that our goal is to help them teach as best they can, in their way. The goal is not to reproduce ourselves, but to produce an effective teacher. What does such a teacher (usually) require?

Experience

There are many ways to learn, and what works for some may not work for others. As an instructor or teacher it behooves us to remember this. I’d like to cite a friend of mine, an instructor I’m working with, as an example. He is a martial artist with a long and varied background—this is important. If he only had a year of study chances are good I’d not be working with him on teaching. [3] Experience matters. This friend is in a place in his career where the logical next step is to teach, not only because it will help him grow, but also and perhaps most importantly because he wants to teach. To be clear: no one needs to teach. One should only teach if one wants to, if called as it were, and not out of sense of obligation or because they think they need to in order to be taken seriously. Many of the best fighters in history were not instructors. [4]

Acquiring what They Need

My friend has studied sabre/broadsword off and on for about four years in addition to other weapons. When I first chatted with him and pondered what he needed most it came down to two things: a deeper acquaintance with the corpus of texts and more experience teaching. In some cases, most really, I’m also working with a new instructor on the skillset, but in this case he has more than ample technical skill. That can and will improve as he learns the corpus and shares it, so we focus on what needs the most work.

He learns differently in some ways than I do. I know because I asked him; whenever I’m unsure, I ask and it saves a lot of time and hassle. Reading, for example, is not his favored way to take in new information, so instead of having him read a source front to back, he reads a chunk, thinks about it, and then we discuss it. If he incorporates it into a lesson plan, he shares it with me and we discuss it again. He’s a super intelligent chap, so understanding the material is not the issue, and in this way he tackles sections at a time. Part of my job is helping him relate these sections to the whole. Thankfully his experience in martial arts, and with swords of various types, makes that more enjoyable than laborious, but if he required it we would spend time on fitting all the pieces together too.

We’re also about to start meeting regularly, probably over zoom or google-meet for convenience, to discuss what he is studying and got through it on camera. Fencing is movement, it’s visual, and so meeting in person and via technology if one needs to is vital. The first source I assigned him we’re nearly finished with, and so we’ll start the video meets with the next one. In order to relate the individual texts within the whole we’ll periodically discuss them together, comparing and contrasting them in most every sense, from content to context. In the aggregate his understanding of the body of knowledge not only increases, but importantly how the various branches relate. Putting that knowledge to use in class helps cement it.

Time in the Saddle

Theory, discussion, subject guides, all that is essential, but time spent doing the job, on the job, is the crucible by which the raw iron is converted into steel ingot. My friend has been leading the broadsword pod I initially ran for months now, and from where I sit the transition has been about as smooth as it can go. When I’m there, I’m one of his students. I don’t interfere with his process, I don’t talk over him, try to take over, correct him, or anything else that might undermine him in class. To do any of that adversely affects him and makes me out to be either an ego-maniac or in far worse shape self-worth and public image-wise than I in fact am. Trust your students, trust your colleague to do the job. Chances are good they will not do things your way—the only question the advisor need ask is “is their method effective?” If it is, great; the job becomes helping them make their approach work as effectively as possible. [5]

IF something deserves further discussion that can be managed after class and out of view of students. I ask my friend how he felt it went each week, and then we discuss what went well, what could have gone better. He has his own style and I can happily report that it really works for this group—he combines a passion for the topic with a sincere concern for each person there. He wants them to learn and have fun and it shows in everything he does. There is nothing I can do to improve on that, so, my job is to support him, encourage him to keep doing what’s he doing, and tackle the corpus. The latter will come in time, but the critical thing, his ability to communicate and impart new information to the pod, that he has down. Over time, as he continues to see success with this, his confidence will grow and he’ll be even more at ease than he is now. I’m super proud of him, and I’m happy for him and the pod, because he is proving himself a stellar custodian of the tradition.

What Not to Do

I’ve alluded to some no-nos in teaching already. We never undermine, embarrass, or undercut our colleagues, especially those we are advising. That is a bad example to set—it humiliates them and shames us. Any approach that tears someone down rather than builds them up is likely flawed.

However well-meant we can do more harm correcting something at the wrong time, and so we must remember that we’re dealing with a peer, a fellow-instructor, and that our task is to pull them up as we ourselves were or wish to be. Effective teaching requires a step of faith on the part of students. If they don’t believe one can teach them, they will find another place to learn. Thus, to call into question another instructor’s ability in class—outside inappropriate or dangerous behavior—is easily one of the worst things we can do. If one is advising or teaching other teachers then cover any such issue privately.

Mr. Garvey, from “Key and Peele”

Egos there are and plenty in historical fencing circles, but since we lack an official certifying organization our legitimacy derives from other sources—one part of that, for me, is how we treat others, how we treat students and how we treat our fellow teachers. Do we build them up (appropriately) or do we tear them down? There is a correlation between true skill, knowledge, and how one acts; we learn a lot about a person in the goals they set for themselves and their students, and in how they treat rivals and peers. The best teachers focus on the student, not on how the “success” of the student reflects upon them. Most of the evils I see in “HEMA” relate to failures in knowledge, respect for others, or both.

All for One, One for All

Learning is something we start in infancy, and unless something goes wrong it’s something we continue to do until we journey into the great question. Traditionally fencing is taught very top-down, and that’s okay—what makes the difference is how we define “top” and “down.” Top should mean “has sufficient skill, knowledge, and know-how to share the topic,” not some sad sense of superiority. Down here ought to refer to sharing that topic with someone who doesn’t have as much of it. It’s an exchange, because in truth the best maestri and instructors learn from their students too—they refine their sense of the Art, their approach to teaching, all of that by interacting with different students.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me or who might chance to read the material on this site that I am a serious fan of collaborative learning. For me, teaching another teacher is something I do because I want to help my friends and because I have enough background to do so (I also know my limitations). I want them to grow in the Art and in themselves. It’s why we’re here, well, one reason anyway. No one learns easily or well in a hostile environment, and so to the degree possible we remove those things likely to create any hostility or impediment. Very often it is our own emotional or psychic needs that create the problems, so the best thing we can do is take ourselves out of the picture—teaching or advising a colleague or a new fencer is not about me, but about them. What I have is a little knowledge and some skill and I’m sharing all of it with them. I’m a conduit, a means to an end, and the reward is sharing all the excitement, fun, and history of fencing with another. [6] There are so few of us, really, and we are in a very real sense in this together. The sense of comradeship, the idea of unity one sees between a certain Gascon and his fellow musket-bearing soldiers need not be confined to the pages of literature. It’s a goal to which we can all aspire, as teacher, as student, as fencer.

NOTES:

[1] For the German text, see chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?pdfurl=https%3A%2F%2Fresources.warburg.sas.ac.uk%2Fpdf%2Feeh1470b2248436A.pdf&clen=24544708&chunk=true ; for an English version, see Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Early and Miscellaneous Letters of J. W. Goethe: Including Letters to His Mother. With Notes and a Short Biography, Edward Bell, ed., London: G. Bell & Sons, 1884.

[2] There are a number of places one can go for this exchange, but an easy one is the Medieval Sourcebook, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/ambrose-sym.asp . Halsall and co. used the venerable version from the series Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, New York: 1896).

[3] Traditional programs back in the day could churn out instructors in less time, but that was a very different context. Military fencing instructors, for example, spent nearly every day for that year or two before being examined. Few of us can study that way today.

[4] The ability to teach well may correlate with exceptional fighting ability, but outside of movies, sorry to say, they’re less often paired than one might think—some are Achilles, some Chiron, few are Scatha.

[5] This is where experience teaching matters most. It’s easy to get hung up with how one imparts an idea, but if one truly understands the idea itself, then it’s easier to separate it from how its delivered. The guiding principle should be faithful transmission of the idea, topic, skill, etc., and whether or not the delivery was effective, not the style of delivery unless it impedes that transmission.

[6] The rewards in teaching are, as most know, few and small. When I was teaching college and confronted with the tired question from some business person at dinner about “why” I worked in such a tragically non-profitable field I took to saying “are you kidding? For the money and women.” It was a lot funnier to me than to them, but truth is they likely wouldn’t understand why people teach knowing that their paychecks and public respect will be low.

Tool or Technique?

The excellent Carlo Parisi, whom I only recently met while in the Czech Republic, is well-known for his intriguing videos. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not he gets one thinking, gets people talking, and asks a lot of the questions that need to be asked. In his latest post he tackles the issue of s2000 sabre blades and historical fencing—does using the Olympic weight weapon adversely affect one’s practice?

https://youtu.be/jtCLbMRElEI

What it comes down to is technique, to how we use that stick or in this case Olympic sabre (an extremely light, flexible stick). It’s not that there aren’t problems with the s2000, because there are, but in some important ways these can be mitigated through technique. For cons, the blade is way too light and flexible, and allows one to perform actions either impossible or unwise with a blade of suitable historical weight. Worse, it is an easy tool to manipulate for favorable scoring—the example I cite most often is whip-over. The FIE never dealt with this properly and never will. Too many careers have been made via these dubious maneuvers.

The pros, however, are worth considering. I use s2000s myself and have found them useful for historical practice. For one, they are inexpensive compared to trainers designed for period fencing. Where one will spend $200 or more (usually more) for the offerings of Hanwei, Coldsteel, Kvetun, Regenyei, Blackfencer, Darkwood, or Castille, an Olympic sabre can be had for less than $50. Their weight makes them a decent choice for children, especially with a shorter blade, and for those not yet used to the heft of weapons 650g or more (Olympic sabres cannot be more than 500g and these days are never in danger of passing 400). The cost and weight make them ideal for introductory classes.

Carlo’s conclusion, much like my own, is that it doesn’t have to. One can practice “HEMA” just fine with the s2000, just as one can with a stick, synthetic, or some ersatz trainer. After all, in many parts of the world, from Poland to Algeria, from the Georgian highlands to England’s heaths, sticks in one form or another have often served as training tools. Egyptian paintings reveal some of the earliest depictions, though the use of the stick as trainer and weapon obviously predates their tenure. [1]

Form or Substance

Substance, the tool, can matter, and eventually the historical fencer should spend some time with appropriate weapons for the system they study. [2] This said, if one lacks historically inspired tools there is plenty one can do with the s2000 until they acquire one. Critical in this is source material, the body of texts, because unless one is working from a living tradition or an offshoot of one, the surviving printed word is all we have to guide us. Fencing is more than the weapon one has in hand—it’s the sum of how one moves, thinks, acts, reacts, and manipulates the weapon in time and space. This is an old concept and universal. We see it in the thought of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410 CE) as well as in many East Asian systems to name only two examples. By definition historical fencing means focus on the sources in some fashion.

For a real-world example I can cite one of my students. He’s a teenager and has worked with me for about three years now. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have used s2000s. The system we spend the most time on is Radaellian sabre which uses the elbow as axis for the rotation of cuts. One doesn’t need to use the elbow to move this weapon, but we do. The s2000 is not weighted properly for it, we’re not trying to avoid our mount or the trooper next to us, and we’re not trying to cut through the shakos or woolen coats of retreating infantrymen. But, this system uses the elbow so we do.

Occasionally I have him try a technique, action, or set of actions with curved sabres copied from original blades, a 16mm weighing 704 and a 20mm of 745g. As he grows stronger we will use these more and more until they are as comfortable for him as the s2000. Significantly, while stamina using heavier weapons is an issue, his technique is not—he doesn’t change what he’s doing, and, he doesn’t have to. This doesn’t mean that the blades move the same way, they don’t, but because his technique is correct the more forward weight of the 16 and 20mm doesn’t trouble him. When he first held one, he noticed the difference, asked about it, and I told him that he will cut the same way. A few minutes of a partner drill with molinelli and he had adjusted.

Practice as You are Able

Carlo’s demonstration in this video highlights the importance of technique. In many of his videos he also shows ingenious ways to work with what one has to hand. What he shows may not work for you, but the creativity, drive, and commitment to study, drill, and practice is something we should all aspire to. If you have Olympic tools and want to work on historical material, grab sources and go for it. Focus on technique, get help if you need it, and have fun.

NOTES:

[1] Polish youths used wooden trainers in a game called palcaty (cf. https://hroarr.com/article/the-sabers-many-travels-the-origins-of-the-cross-cutting-art/); tahtib and Maghrebi stick fighting in North African nations reflects centuries of similar games or dances meant to impart practical skills; there are photos, accounts, and oral histories that indicate that boys in Khevsureti and other highland areas of Georgia used wooden trainers, for both pari (buckler) and kmali (the longer sword); and well-known in “HEMA” circles English singlestick, once a pastime and popular method of prize-fighting, continues to find many fans.

[2] In an earlier post, “Piste and Page (Part I)” [15 Jan., 2021] I related the experiments, arguments, and attempts my comrade Jon Tarantino and I made to convince fellow fencers and coaches that a heavier, slightly stiffer, more closely related to historical blades was the answer to the problems plaguing Olympic sabre in the mid-1990s. As we learned then, and as most historical fencers know, using weapons of period weight and handling provides insights that are sometimes hard to appreciate if one only uses one style of weapon. As much as one can do with the s2000, it doesn’t give one a feel for the more forward weight of cavalry sabres or the more back-weighted heft of an Insular broadswords.

_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!