Introducing Historical Fencing to Children

La Leçon d'escrime - Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (1850-1928)
“La Leçon d’escrime,” by Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (d.1928)

Children are one of many populations yet to make much appearance in historical fencing. There are a lot of reasons. Lacking decades of tradition few programs have developed specific versions suitable for kids. In a similar way there are fewer resources, from age-appropriate translations to gear that is child-sized; this makes it all the more difficult. In fairness, many clubs aren’t interested in working with kids and of course that’s okay.

Some avenues into the community are arguably safer and more approachable for children than others—sabre and smallsword for example, have workable trainers in terms of size and weight in ways that longsword does not. This said there are options for other systems that are worth considering. [1] Young people are an untapped market, and generally far more curious and excited about fencing, of any kind, than most adults. Working with kids can be great fun too. Their curiosity, enthusiasm, and ability to learn so well through play can make them good students.

There’s much to consider, however, when working with children. Here, I will cover some big-picture considerations that generally follow any activity with kids, and a few suggestions for how to start a kids’ program.

It’s about more than Sport or Recreation—Remember, You’re a Role Model

In a previous post (Oct. 18th, 2019) I briefly discussed a few ways in which instructors are role models. This is particularly true with regard to children, and so everything we do, say, and how we say and do things, must be beyond reproach. We have to be sensitive to the dangers children face, not just in terms of physical danger or harm, but psychologically too. One bad coach can affect a child’s ability and interest in a sport or hobby for the rest of their lives.

Given the delicate nature of working with young people there are a lot of other factors to consider apart from gear. We must consider their safety, our transparency in working with them, and the short- and long-term goals we’re helping them reach. While I have mostly taught adults, I’ve also taught children off and on for years, and in the last two years I’m teaching more and more of them. A number of things have come up for me in the process that might assist others interested in sharing the Art with young people.

Various Aspects of Safety

Safety is one of the top priorities—it should be for adults too, but it is just as much if not more of a concern with children since they are less effective at self-regulation. First, parents tend to need reassurance that their kids aren’t going to be hurt. Second, children, being less focused and more prone to horseplay, sometimes take longer to acculturate to traditional safety protocols. Lastly, there are most often legal issues around working with children that you ignore to your peril.

Safety & Horseplay

450px-Tom_Brown_6th_ed-p35
Single-stick match from Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, 1857

  Keeping kids safe comes down to several things. As the instructor you set the tone, so with kids it’s important to hit safety hard day one and reinforce it each practice. This can be just simple reminders to carry weapons point down, but quizzing them periodically is a good idea too. All gear must be sized correctly, in good repair, and actually worn. While boring, spending time from the off on safety, on some basic rules, establishes how things will be each class and provides a baseline to return to as needed. I break my approach down into an easy to remember abbreviation/acronym PET:    

P protocols and awareness

E equipment

T technique

Many children have pets and help take care of them, so when I introduce this idea that is the analogy I use. Protocols include not fencing without gear, holding weapons point down, and being aware of one’s place in space as well as that of one’s neighbors, expensive mirrors, etc. With equipment, I teach them to inspect their masks, jackets, and weapons for basic issues, such as large dents in the mask mesh, bad zippers or Velcro on jackets that don’t work, and loose weapon parts or blade burrs. Technique is, after our protocols, the most important—good technique helps ensure safety. Masks, jackets, all that stuff, is there for when our technique fails, or, when we’re playing good partner and allowing our partners to strike us. Each of these elements we constantly apply, regulate, and reinforce.

Horseplay is natural with kids, but potentially hazardous, so it is vital to nip it in the bud, kindly, as it happens. I tend to adopt a light, if firm tone with my students. With horseplay, for example, I might say, with a conspiratorial smile, something like “hey, I don’t remember saying we could start you two…—I love that you’re ready to start the drill, but let me finish explaining it, okay? That will make it easier and I want to be sure you all get it right.” One can’t give children swords and expect them not to swing them about, make cool sounds, etc., so giving them plenty of drills where they can do that helps.

Transparency

Allied to safety, when teaching children it’s best for all concerned if everything you do is transparent and public. It’s sad to have to say this, but because of the problems with crimes against children, even in places where they should be safe, it’s imperative to do all one can to make it clear that one is not a creep. The first step is to make allies of parents, not in word only, but in action. I encourage and remind parents each practice that they are welcome to stay and watch. To be honest, I want them there, for while I know I’m safe, they don’t and if they’re present there is never any question. Think about it—even if you don’t have kids of your own, how comfortable would you be dropping them off with some strange man who plays with swords? Transparency keeps kids safe and removes any remaining suspicions parents might have. I’m a parent myself and no way would I leave my kids in any situation I wasn’t 110% sure about.

Free Fencing Lessons
NOT a good way to advertise…

I teach children either in public venues, such as parks and covered play-grounds, or, in classrooms where there are other adults present. Teaching in back rooms solo is the fencing equivalent of a beat-up old van with “free candy” painted on the side (forgive my hastily produced creepster-van memethis demanded a visual 😉 ). Don’t do that. There is no reason to. Public lessons are free advertising too, and if kids and parents see other kids doing this fun stuff, more than one will approach and ask you about what you’re doing. This can lead to additional work, new people to share the Art with, so it’s an important consideration.

Having parents there and clearly welcome says a lot. There are other benefits too. If children need help getting suited up or down, parents are the perfect choice. Also, parents listen, and more than once I’ve had parents help reinforce basics—one mother told me after practice that she had been on her child to keep his front foot oriented correctly. If you’re really lucky, parents may become interested too, and then you may have an entire family training with you.

Depending on how you’re teaching there are additional steps you’ll either need to take or should to be on the up and up. Many organizations require, rightly, background checks. There are also oversight bodies like Safe Sport and Sport Safety International that have great resources. [2] If you’re male, then I encourage you to check out and get certified with Safe Sport. It’s good information for you to have and being certified with them will only lend more legitimacy to you. It’s not a guarantee of appropriate behavior, I know, but if you work with kids, especially young women, your job as role model not to perpetuate the toxic crap young women face from men is important. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Goals—They Vary

FUN!

With kids, I make the number one priority fun. Fencing is fun. However, it’s a lot more fun if you know what you’re doing, so finding the right balance, the appropriate amount of what to teach them is vital. Some kids want to put on all the gear and just start wailing, but naturally that is not what we want them to do, so, making lessons fun will make the work seem less like work. Distance and footwork drills, for example, are ideal ways to have them expel all that excited energy, work on fundamentals, and play games. “Glove Tag” and “Foil/Mask Push” tend to be favorites. With group classes turning footwork up and down the floor into “Red Light/Green Light” with various types of footwork, e.g. advances up on green, retreats on red, or, lunges on green, recovery on red, tends to be a crowd pleaser too.

Most children you teach may take a class or two and then move onto something else. You should expect that and not take it personally. This stuff is hard, it’s not for everyone, but even exposure to fencing is valuable. Maybe they tell their friends about the “cool sword” class they took and some other kid signs up, or, maybe they just have a better appreciation for what they see in the next pirate movie. Making it fun is a worthy goal on its own—play is a vital part of being human.

Sharing the Art

One goal, obviously, is to impart some amount of the Art to them. With children start small, focus on fundamentals, not the fancy stuff. When they ask, and they will, remind them that we have to do the basics to do anything advanced. One analogy I use that normally works are building things with Legos—no one builds a giant castle, race car, or space ship right away: they start with a few pieces, follow the instructions, and in time build the super cool creation they want. It’s the same with fencing.

Looking Ahead
Some students will get hooked. This always makes me super happy, but I also realize that it’s important to check in with them periodically about their goals, about what they want out of it. One of my current students only wants to focus on the historical material, so that is what we do. Another, however, is interested in competition and so we’re talking about how that might work. There are fewer historical/classical tournaments than Olympic, so it may be that I introduce him to colleagues on that side. It really comes down to where his interest takes him. I don’t teach the modern game and am smart enough not to try, but I know people who do and my goal as instructor is to guide students as far as I can.

Ultimately, we have to accept that some students may stick around, some may move on, and that this is okay. Even if we are one stop on a much longer journey that’s important. We do our part. Some take this personally, but unless there is a good reason to I don’t see why that should be. The experience we have not only provides them with the tools of the Art, but also with ways to approach, understand, and pursue that Art as they grow. Discussions about their goals from time to time helps both instructor and student—it helps us design training, and, it helps the student develop because they set way-points to reach.

Historical Fencing for Kids—a Primer

In future posts I plan to share more detailed course ideas for kids—sabre, foil, some Armizare, backsword, etc. In addition to foil and sabre, I’ve helped teach some of Fiore’s Armizare to kids before and it’s great fun, but here I’ll provide a few general ideas to aid a seminar or series of short classes. Even if all you have is an hour—the two places I teach now only have that much time for us—you can do a lot. Keep the kids moving, change things up, and focus on fundamentals.

Safety Gear: this is one of the hardest parts. Naturally most people don’t own fencing gear, and it’s not like local sports stores carry it either. To run a decent class you need at the very least masks. Ebay, Craigslist, Fb Marketplace sometimes have gear, but you must be careful. Do your best to discover what shape the masks are in. Jackets are nice, but a stout jacket or sweatshirt can work too provided you emphasize control and not hard-hitting. Smaller work gloves, available in most garden shops, will work too and are relatively inexpensive.

Trainers: Olympic weight weapons, especially sizes 0-4 will work fine for smallsword (foils) and sabre. They can be had for about $30 or so each, so it adds up. The plastic Aramis brand foils and sabres are not bad, but can be harder to find now and will cost about as much.

In a pinch, two to three foot staves of rattan or dowels can work. For point work you’ll need to add a little padding—pool noodles and duct-tape work well. Boffers are another option, and can be made with a little pvc pipe, foam or pool noodles, and tape. My kids have played with these and even when they get rough there is less danger with boffers. They’re not ideal for edge-alignment, but with a little work you can shape a boffer to produce a suitable if not ideal edge.

Classes: Keep it simple, keep it fun. Depending on where you teach you will have to adjust. For parks and rec at present I teach a six week class that meets twice a week; at one area middle school I’m teaching a four week class that meets once a week. In each case I have one hour, which makes it hard to do much more than introduce some fundamentals.

Age is another consideration—younger kids, say 7-10, may not grasp concepts as fast as teenagers, so you may need to adjust your pace up or down. Attention spans are likewise variable, so with kids classes much longer than an hour are not a good idea. Most individual lessons are much shorter.

Drills: Drills as games are your bread and butter. Varying the drills per practice, introducing or removing time constraints, and providing short breaks all help. I rotate distance drills, for example, and switch from called footwork to timed footwork. Here are a few examples:

Distance Drills:

Glove Tag—  each fencer, armed with a glove, tries to attack the wrist or chest with the glove; each is also trying to stay just out of distance to avoid being hit, but not so far that they can’t strike in their turn; in systems using passing steps, which better allow for exploring space, the entire class can take turns: one or two students are “it” and must use proper footwork to “tag” others who then are “it” and chase still other students. [4]

Foil/Mask Push—   suspending a mask or weapon between two fencers, they change the distance between them and can’t drop the mask or weapon

Rope Drill— holding a rope approximately 5ft in length, the fencers hold it with their weapon hands with about 3ft between them; one fencer leads the footwork back and forth, the other must only use their feet to maintain the same bit of slack in the rope (they shouldn’t be using their arms to do this)

Footwork Drills:

Red Light/Green Light—   as mentioned above, on “green” they advance or lunge; on “red” they retreat or recover; or however you want to do it; it can work for forward passing steps, retreating passing steps, side to side movement, etc.

Shuttle Run—   like the old elementary school exercise, fencers line up on one side of the room and “race” to the other side and back; I sometimes have the kids on the waiting side hold a glove for the active fencers to grab and return with; then the other side goes. Rather than timed, this can also work with using particular types of footwork in turn

Timed Footwork—  I normally set the stop-watch for about 30 sec. to 1 min.; in that time, they go up and back with advances and retreats, or lunges and reverse lunges, or advance lunges and jump backs, etc.

Variable Footwork Drill— I use inexpensive sports cones, like one uses for soccer, and set up several lines; at each line students switch footwork. They might start with advances, then lunges when they reach the first cone, then advance lunges when they reach the second; on the way back do the opposite of each one

All of these can be adapted for whatever footwork your system uses.

Other Resources:

One of the best resources you have are your fellow instructors. If they work with kids and you haven’t, ask them for tips, for what they’ve found to work, for any advice they have. Visit an Olympic fencing class for kids—sport clubs are one of the best places you can go as they have a long tradition of working with kids. Moreover, many popular works on fencing include sections on drills that you can adapt.

Vintage-Art-Postcard-Children-Sword-Fight-Fencing-Battle


Working with children demands a lot of preparation as well as flexibility, but it can be very rewarding. There is growing interest in historical fencing among younger people thanks to the usual sources like movies, but as renaissance faires, living history groups, the SCA, and organizations like LARP become more popular,  more children are bumping into historical fencing if only obliquely. If you’re interested in sharing the Art with kids, don’t wait for the need—create it. A seminar, a visit to your local parks & recreation organization, to schools, the scouts, anyone who might have potential interest, could turn into an opportunity to share the Art with enthusiastic people normally left out. It can be great fun too.

———-

Notes:

[1]

There are some decent foam longswords out there with edge enough to make true and false edge made sense. My friend Mike Cherba and I used one version of these to teach some plays from Fiore to kids a few summers ago at the Oregon Renaissance Faire and they worked super well. The Armory Replicas Training Medieval Rampant Lion Practice sword is one example: https://www.amazon.com/Training-Medieval-Rampant-Practice-Longsword/dp/B015YN4LU2/ref=sr_1_12?dchild=1&keywords=toy+foam+longsword&qid=1571431225&sr=8-12

Mike is also the key researcher outside the Republic of Georgia for Lashkroba, a highland folk martial art out of the Khevsureti and neighboring regions, one aspect of which is sword and buckler. We’ve used wooden bucklers and rattan sticks with success. They require a mask, but are still cost effective. Mike is launching a new website for all things Lashkroba and Parikaoba (the more sportive version of the system)–soon as that is up I’ll share the link!

[2]       

Safe Sport https://usagym.org/pages/education/safesport/
Sport Safety International https://sportsafety.com/

[3]       

I must credit and thank my friend and Radaellian sabre mentor Chris Holzman, Sword School Wichita, for his suggestion to try starting with the glide in third for foil rather than the more typical direct thrust. In brief, while a slightly more difficult technique, the glide has a few benefits that in the long run are worth the extra effort. It is easier to thrust with a guide, so in sliding along the opposing steel to target students are less likely to try to “aim” the point to target—gliding along the opposing steel they extend rather than aim. They are introduced to and experience the idea of engagement better, ditto sentiment du fer, and from the glide it’s a little easier to understand the cavazione/disengage. Moreover, I’ve found that students make smaller disengages from the glide than they do fencing in absence. The traditional way still works—it’s how I was taught—but I’ve tried this and find it really useful, so much so that I’ve revamped my beginning foil curriculum.

For the molinelli, I focus on proper structure, and introduce first the descending molinello from the engagement in prima to the head, the rising molinello from fourth to flank, and the descending molinello from fifth to the left cheek. These are easier to do than the molinelli say form third or second, each of which I introduce later with initial preparatory actions.

[4] Mike Cherba’s Armizare classes, which are mostly adults, enjoy this too. Least I do 😉 Mike’s school is one of several here in Oregon that band together during faire season as “The Hawkwood Troope.” They do demos, answer questions, and put several hundred adults and kids through classes over two weekends. Some of my students first discovered historical fencing through this very process.

Conan the Barbarian, Sir Percival Blakeney, and the Cult of Machismo in Historical Fencing

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There are times when our lives in and outside the sala intersect. Recently I experienced this with regard to advocacy for women’s rights, equality, and representation. Whatever one’s politics—mine are apparently less clear than I thought—this is an issue not only as an instructor and fencer, but as a human being, especially one living in the topsy-turvy world of the United States in 2019. There’s no middle-ground—either you believe in equality and fight for it, or, you don’t. There’s no fence-sitting, because by definition—in this case—inaction is tantamount to action: it is to be complicit in those customs, laws, and attitudes that are prejudicial. As a middle-aged white male, though, it’s often difficult to appear to be an advocate; I look like “the enemy,” after all, and though I do my best to support anyone really who’s not an a-hole, only continuous action might convince those who think otherwise.

In fairness, our attempts to advocate for others can fail, we can be taken for what we’re not, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. It’s all the more important to me as an instructor, because in my own, small way I have a chance to make a difference. The adults who train with me are, not surprisingly, on much the same page.[1] Preaching to the chorus is affirming, but it’s work already accomplished. With my younger students, however, I can do a lot of good, or, a lot of harm. I have an opportunity to make a difference, but I also feel I have a duty to make that difference, to create a safe, encouraging, and supportive spot for everyone. This I try my best to do. In part this is a carry-over from parenting—my wife and I are keen to raise our boys to be part of the solution, not the problem—but it also comes of seeing the damage bad coaches can do over a life-time of watching it happen.

From the adults, feedback is constant, and I’m thankful for that. At present we have one adult woman who regularly attends and happily she’s a good gauge for how well we’re doing, how well I’m doing, to create a safe spot. She has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of men in fencing, from disregard to the actual threat of violence, and it’s a testimony to her strength and passion that she didn’t just quit. A long-time friend, she has been a good guide for me, not only from what I’ve picked up in trying to help her through so much b.s., but also in the fact the she has shared her ideas, experiences, and feedback. She speaks her mind; she will call me on poor choices and then it is up to me to be a large enough human to consider what she says. My younger students, most of whom are between the ages of 9 and 16, are less forthcoming with feedback, less capable of that insight as yet, and so I have to do the heavy-lifting for them.

Conan and Sir Percy

Sir Percy
Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy in the 1982 “Scarlet Pimpernel”

Anyone who spends much time in historical fencing is going to run into the Janus-faced Macho “HEMA Bruh.” He isn’t confined to our community; wherever there are combat-related past-times you’ll find this guy.[2] On the one hand he exemplifies the most facile, shallow notions of western masculinity—one sees this in the focus on victory above all, physical strength and size, his romanticism of violence, and a misplaced sense of his own ability. On the other hand, the second face is often more subtle. It’s homophobia expressed in humorous attempts to belittle other fencers. The math here, such as it is, reads like this: smaller sword = weak, “gay,” lesser, etc. If HEMA Bruh is Conan the Barbarian, then as far as Bruh is concerned smaller men, especially if they fail the big-sword test, are all the public persona of Sir Percy Blankeney-as-dandy, i.e. cowardly snobs who hide their weakness behind fancy dress and witticisms, or in this case, avoid “real” sword-fighting by using less scary weapons.[3] Wimps like that, so Conan thinks, have as much business pursuing “MAN” activities as women do. The 1950s middle-school nature of this thinking is sad, but they’re telling too coming from grown men. For those of us teaching later aspects of the Art, for example, the fact we don’t wrestle or use big swords makes us easy marks. Teach foil or smallsword in HEMA-land and you’ll see what I mean. Among adults it’s easy to see this and avoid such people, but what about for kids?

Instructor as Role Model

Like it or not, if you coach younger people you’re a role model; not the most important one in most cases, but one example of an authority figure that can have significant influence on a young person’s development. Acting the part of Conan the Barbarian, even making room for the HEMA Bruh or similar clowns, are all detrimental to any training program—the best such programs create are future HEMA Bros and considerably more people turned off to the Art. That is a net loss for everyone. I’ve watched this happen. [4]

Instructors must be ever mindful of how they act, what they say and how they say it, of the example they set. One of the ways this is made easier in fencing (of any kind) are the niceties and cult of manners inherent in the tradition. We salute in and out of class, we address people politely, we comport ourselves in the sala with self-respect and respect for others. All these things help but on their own are not enough. Just as old as the salute are double-standards, and though these are less evident today than they once were, they’re still around. For example, there are still instructors out there that either believe or unwittingly apply double-standards to female fencers, who think they can’t or shouldn’t do X. Claptrap. They can do whatever they want, and like anyone who applies themselves, do well.

Is Conan Really so Bad?

Arnie as Conan (1982)

How is the Cult of He-Man detrimental? Starting with the less pernicious effects, focus on facile notions of masculinity—strength, aggression, dominance, power, fame, victory, etc.—undermines the value of these concepts and removes them from what they should be.

  • Strength one develops for health and to practice the Art
  • Aggression, in a sportive context, is better developed as appropriate offensive strategy
  • Dominance of self outweighs any other version
  • Power should be a measure of control over the weapon and ourselves, so modulating not only one’s strikes, but oneself
  • Fame, like anything that serves ego alone, takes one’s attention away from the Art—if you bump into it, fine, enjoy it, but keep it in check
  • Victory is a diagnostic tool for measuring growth, tactics, and identifying areas for work.

I’m not trying to take the joy out of a win or suggest we all meditate in the ring or on the piste rather than fight. I’m suggesting that we get far more out of the Art, out of all our hours and training and hard work, if we look deeper.

Another issue is that these same He-Man values favor only one type of fencer—the larger, stronger, brutal fighter. Is there room for him? [5] Yes, but only if that same fencer is keen to grow beyond what nature provided him. He will be a liability otherwise. The instructor’s job with this fencer is to impart more of the Art to him, to round the corners off him, and teach him to harness and make the best use of those natural gifts (if he’s up for it). This is, in essence, what the instructor should be doing with each student, but that’s easier to do if one’s values extend beyond the physical. Focus on the big guy as a way to gain tourney gold and reputation at the expense of also putting in as much time with smaller, less powerful fencers might bring short-term gains, but at great cost.

To name one current example from one of my kids’ classes, there are two elementary school girls who are picking up technique quickly, but also who understand what they’re doing and why. Will they continue to fence? I don’t know, but my job is to give them all I can to help them find out, to encourage them, improve what they do well, and help them build those parts of the game they are struggling with. I also have a male middle-schooler in that class as tall as I am, and while strong that asset is little use to him in foil. With him my job is to help him channel his size and strength into more effective uses, in this case reach and stamina. Whatever size they are, whatever sex or gender, they’re my students and my task is to share the Art with them, to help them grow.

Put short, whatever a student’s gifts, whatever their challenges, we work with them—we do not favor one type over another. To do so limits us, limits the students, and sets a poor example. The motto of my school is Vis enim vincitur Arte, “For strength is conquered by Art,” because the Art can aid the powerful, but it can make the weak fencer overcome the powerful one.

How I treat them individually, but also as a class, is important too. I’m an adult teaching them something very complicated and difficult to do–that is challenge enough without inane ideas about boys being better at this, girls better at that. To me they’re potential fencers, fellow students only younger, and I must strive to set the best example I can for them.

The Truth about Attribute Fencers

The truth is that one can go far embracing the Conan the Barbarian approach—not everyone responds to them well and they can easily overwhelm many opponents. That doesn’t mean one is successfully expressing the Art, however, and while that can correlate with skill, they’re not one in the same. This is to say just because one is fast and powerful doesn’t mean one has good technique or understanding—you can win through intimidation and power too.

The half-life with this approach is short. If injury doesn’t take one out of things, burn-out will. Some experience that burn-out as frustration when they reach an opponent who’s a better Conan than themselves. Others quit at whatever it is they consider the top of their game convinced there is no one left to beat. The first can be fixed, the second is a sign of deeper problems. This same type of fencer is demoralized or becomes convinced things are rigged if a smaller, but more skilled opponent beats them. This is much the instructor’s failure as the fencer’s, more so for it shows the instructor failed to teach them one of the more important lessons we learn in the study of arms—how to lose with grace and use that loss to improve.

Attribute fencers often do well, for a time, but the longer they stay in the game the more they’ll discover that reliance on their speed or strength is limiting. Skill will win out in the end. One doesn’t stay strong and fast forever. This will sound funny to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but if you face an opponent over 70 you’re in trouble—no matter how fast you are, how strong, etc., if that person is still fencing at that age then they know something, a lot of somethings, and you’re going to have your work cut out for you. The best losses I’ve experienced were to opponents over 70—they were great lessons. He would be 106 now if he is still alive, but being bagled 5-0 by the then 80 year old Fred Razor in 1993’s Hack und Slasch tournament in Victorville, California, was an indelible lesson for me.

The Deeper Danger of Conan

Robert Mark Kamen as “Johnny” from Cobra Kai in the 1984 “Karate Kid”

The real evil in this Cult of MAN is that it fosters unhealthy attitudes and beliefs. It provides an arena for those to grow. When this happens, people get hurt, but more than that, the same fragile notions of masculinity carry over into other areas of life. If the example we set for younger fencers is that might makes right, that our genitals determine our success or suitability for X, and that the gifts of nature in terms of size or strength outweigh the hard road of study, then we do more than create Cobra Kai fencers—we help shape, even if in small ways, the same monsters who plague our society at large. This is as true if we ignore it–it’s tacit approval.

This is not just “liberal propaganda” either—there is science here (nb: science, contrary to public opinion, is not a liberal conspiracy). Reinforcing pernicious social mores across activities, locations, and populations helps solidify those ideas. With fewer areas of life demonstrating competing views it is easier, especially for the very young, to accept those ideas as normal. Each of us in our own way, to the degree that we can, is responsible for the world we live in; we have a choice in how we engage others, what we accept and reject, and if we truly believe that equality matters, that respect for others and ourselves is worth cultivating, and that these values make for a better society, then everything we do, from how we vote to how we approach a sabre lesson echoes. This isn’t to say a fencing instructor makes or breaks things, but it is to say that it matters—if the Art is more than a body of technique and tactics, if it does relate to our growth as individuals, then it matters. [6]

I’m not an enemy of big dudes–some of my closest friends are big dudes. I also value the role that wrestling and grappling have played in the Art; more than that, I like to dabble in longsword too, and if the chance came up to take a class on spadone/montante, I would. Interest and pursuit of these is fine, perfectly awesome really, but like anything it is how we go about it, how we treat others, and all of these aspects of the Art can be approached sans Conan’s fur speedo.

———–

Notes:

*Photo of Dodgers player Kiké Hernandez and reporter Kelli Tennant. This photo was widely shared and the subject of a popular meme. It’s been cited as classic example of “fragile masculinity,” but there is evidence–in this case–to suggest that Kiké, a notorious prankster, might have been up to something else. At the very least he shared the same photo himself in 2017 as a short-person joke.   For the initial photo–see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/07/13/a-baseball-player-stood-on-a-bucket-and-sparked-an-online-debate-about-masculinity/

See also, https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/heidi-stevens/ct-life-stevens-tuesday-kike-hernandez-bucket-masulinity-0710-story.html

[1] I’m lucky to work with good people. Among the many civic and socially minded examples of their excellence, one even serves as an escort/guard for any woman fearful of protestors wishing to go to Planned Parenthood.

[2] “Bro” culture is rife in sports as it is in most places. Historical fencing, because it has larger weapons, because so many of the traditions dealt with war as well as the duel, and because physical size can make more of a difference in grappling is perhaps more prone to this sort of machismo where other branches of fencing—saving perhaps Bohurt—are less likely to see it.

[3] For those unfamiliar with the character, Sir Percy is the hero of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a wonderful tale of an English aristocrat who hides his heroic rescue of the French noblesse from the guillotine behind the mask of a dandy among other personas. There are a number of film versions of the book as well (my favorite remains the portrayal by Leslie Howard’s from 1934). There was, it seems, a popular trope in swashbuckling literature of the inept, questionably hetero hero who adopts this persona to hide his more “manly” heroics. The other classic example being Zorro. It is telling that in 1981 “Zorro the Gay Blade” made this suggestion overt. Conan the Barbarian was the creation of Robert E. Howard whose series of stories first appeared in 1932. The most famous film version, recently remade, is the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwartzenegger. Both big-bad-ass-barbarian and sly-dandy films reflected, and helped cement, ideas about masculinity, sexual orientation, and what was and wasn’t acceptable: modern audiences (hopefully) will experience these older movies differently.

[4] It can be easy to forget how long childhood extends. Teens can look older, present older, but are nonetheless kids; even those in their early twenties have brains still in development. In the few instances where I’ve seen adults forget this, I’ve tried to help both the child and the coach, but sometimes the issues those adults face can blind them to the reality of the situation—kids, even 17 or 18 year olds, do not think or act like adults, so expecting from them what one does from a 30 year old is misguided at best.

There are also schools, some infamous in the States, for encouraging “Bruh” culture, but not so surprisingly they’ve run into more and more trouble. If you don’t play nice, people won’t want to play with you. Guess they never learned that.

[5] Yes, “him.” I try to use gender/sex neutral language as much as possible, but in my experience to date the worst offenders of macho-man syndrome have been male. Naturally there are fencers who identify in other ways that may be just as annoying to deal with.

[6] One standout example of a fencer’s moral choice during trying times is Nedo Nadi who repeatedly refused to join, represent, or work with Mussolini’s fascist regime. See Richard Cohen, By the Sword, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 326 ff.

NB: My friend, and a gracious Big-Dude, Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, is using this post in class, so I have edited some of it, mostly removing excess words, repetition, and trying to tighten up the sentences a bit. What, I’m long-winded, I like long sentences…. I blame Latin. [4-8-2020]

What’s New at SdTS?

Chehalem Parks & Recreation, Introduction to Fencing, completed its second week of youth classes. Teaching children 9-15 presents a number of exciting challenges, but few groups are as fun, enthusiastic, and eager to improve. We have four more weeks in this session, then the next begins and several of the children have asked about future classes beyond these. Making converts 😉

Trackers Forest School—tomorrow begins the first class in several weeks of classes for eighth graders at Portland’s outdoor school! Thanks to the hard work of parents we have a roof too (the rain has arrived and it makes fencing outdoors less pleasant)!

Fencing, Martial Arts, and Self-Improvement

Αισχύλον Εύφορίωνος Άθηναιον τόδε κεύθει μνήμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας· άλκήν δ’ εύδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον άλσος αν εϊποι και βαθυχαιτήεις Μήδος έπιστάμενος.

This tomb in grain-bearing Gela covers an Athenian, Aeschylus son of Euphorion, who died here. The famous grove of Marathon could tell of his courage and the longhaired Mede knew it well. [1]

Herma_of_Aeschylus

The Greek playwright Aeschylus (d. 456 or 455 BCE), one of the luminaries of Athenian drama, is remembered today for his poetry, sophisticated plots, and stage-craft. His “Oresteia,” to name one example, has been standard reading in many college literature and classics classes for decades. However, his epitaph says nothing of these accomplishments, achievements for which he was celebrated even in his own lifetime, but for his participation in the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). Either the poet himself or his family wished for him to be remembered for his military service, not his contributions to world literature. There is a lesson in this for us fencers, for any martial artist.

For many fencers the Art is a game, a sport, and in certain iterations that’s absolutely true. I think it is, potentially, much more than that. As a caveat I should say that my first exposure to martial arts was Asian—my father, who had been stationed in Korea, took up Tang Soo Do while there and began teaching me as a child. In late elementary school I started formal training in Tae Kwon Do. Later, as an adult, I studied Kendo, Gumdo, and Tai Chi (including some sword forms), all after long exposure to western fencing. In short, much if not most of my thinking about the value and purpose of martial arts, any martial art, is “Eastern,” which is to say heavily influenced by Buddhist notions of ego-annihilation, humility, and self-improvement. These values will not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay, but they’ve shaped much of my path as a student and I’ve found them useful even outside of philosophical considerations.

For example, focus on improvement versus more easily-met ego needs, like trophies and rankings, is one such way that this more “Eastern” approach is beneficial. This isn’t to knock those successes, but to see them in their proper light. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but appreciate the realities of competition too. What worked? What didn’t? What areas should you work on? What did you learn from your opponents? Too much concern about medaling, fame, all that distracts from study; it’s easy to take these nice things too far and rest on your laurels. When people believe that trophies and notoriety are the best proofs of skill and worth they often start thinking they’re superior fighters and have nothing left to learn. There’s always more to learn, always ways to improve.

Another benefit of cultivating humility is that it makes it easier to work with others, to share information without one-ups-man-ship, and collaborate. For those who think they have it all figured out, others are either dead wrong or mostly wrong; they’re far more quick to criticize what another is doing than consider that there may be lessons there. This is particularly odd in historical fencing, because by its nature reconstruction is tentative. In so many cases there is no proof one way or another, just the best case to be made from the evidence, any product of which might be overturned should new evidence be found. That should engender more excitement than dread, and generally does unless one has a lot riding on a particular interpretation.

Lastly, what is fencing if not a form of self-improvement, a constant process of refinement in action and thinking? The plateaus and peaks we spend so much time on are a lot less rocky knowing that the path goes on, sometimes through rough terrain, sometimes on grass. That one action we believe we do well is always something we can make even better. The sensei with whom I studied kendo briefly told this story—each year he joins his master at a Zen retreat in New York. They train, meditate, train, meditate. Each year his master fixes something “basic” such as his grip on the shinai or boken. In sharing that story Yan Sensei wasn’t complaining, but making a point. We can always do what we do well, better.

If this seems completely foreign, e.g. “non-Western,” it might be worth considering some of the western sources we have on the role that the study of arms plays in developing a person. There are a number of medieval and later works that treat this. The works on chivalry that we have, chivalry as a code of ethics, an approach to life, while they don’t lay out tenets the way some Asian manuals do, nonetheless make a connection between the study and practice of arms and virtue. Why? Was it merely ecclesiastical and royal concern about public violence? Was it just a way to fancy up what was, in essence, the truly bloody business of what today we’d call organized, state-sponsored murder? I don’t think so, not to read Lull, Gower, de Charny, Loyola, and others. It was more than that to them. Some, like de Charny, not only lived by this code, but famously died by it. [2]

Cortegiano.tif

Medieval notions of chivalry in time combined with more urbane concerns about court life, political involvement, and a shift in the way in which some authors, especially renaissance humanists, viewed humanity. Few works exemplify this like Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier). Published in 1528, Castiglione contributed to the idea of the “renaissance man,” that is, a polished, educated, multi-talented individual who was at once self-reliant and a dutiful, skilled courtier. In discussing martial arts, he famously wrote:

 But to come to some details, I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. And he will win a reputation for these good   qualities by exercising them at all times and in all places, since one may never fail in this without severest censure. And just as among women, their fair fame once sullied never recovers its first lustre, so the reputation of a gentleman who bears arms, if once it be in the least tarnished with cowardice or other disgrace,  remains forever infamous before the world and full of ignominy. Therefore the more our Courtier excels in this art, the more he will be worthy of praise; and yet I do not deem essential in him that perfect knowledge of things and those other  qualities that befit a commander; since this would be too wide a sea, let us be content, as we have said, with perfect loyalty and unconquered courage, and that he be always seen to possess them.[3]

There is much of interest in this short passage, but for our purposes the emphasis on the study of arms being the “principal” and “true profession” of the courtier is instructive. Here, Castiglione has one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the “Renaissance,” the combined stance of which shaped the idea of the gentleman in western thought for centuries afterward. In some circles today it still does. But what to make of it? If arms are the occupation, how does it relate to a person’s experience of other arts, of knowledge of literature, skill in music, their devotion to a prince and excellence as a servant? What is it that the Art provides that is so important? The more obvious answers, outside the physical benefits, are discipline, tenacity, and focus. Done right, pursuing the Art can do much to improve how we interact with others, from how we assess them and ourselves to fostering respect and a sense of fair play. Cultivating these qualities can extend beyond the ring or piste.


Castiglione discusses this too. He goes on to describe some of the virtues of the study of arms, but of note with balance. Significantly, he doesn’t favor braggarts or thugs:


Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them. [4]

Though he doesn’t spell it out in 12 convenient steps, Castiglione suggests that even in the study of arms, as elsewhere, the goal is self-control, balance, and a keen sense of what is appropriate when. In other words: self-improvement.

Yamamoto_Tsunetomo

I’ll confess that The Book of the Courtier is a favorite book, one with great meaning to me, but beyond that there are lessons there that are on par with the best out of Asia. Castiglione would no doubt have found much to like, and dislike, in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, but I think he would have understood it well, not only the courtly aspects, but also the emphasis on self-control, humility, and service. [5]

Fencing should be fun, it should provide a work-out for your body and your mind, but it can also be a path to self-improvement. Can be, doesn’t have to be. In historical fencing we’re often worried about “contamination” from other traditions, even other western traditions, and that’s fair. One reason I’m laying this out as I am is to own up to at least one way I commit that sin. However, to my mind there is precedent generally within martial arts, and even specifically within the western tradition, that allows for if it doesn’t outright encourage the study of arms as a way to improve ourselves. Put to it, one can find examples from Greece, not only for the idea of moderation in all things, but also for the place of physical activity, especially martial training, in cultivating the self.

As fencers, we are not warriors, but enthusiasts; serious as we may be we play at fighting. There is value in doing so, value that goes beyond practical skills, beyond historical insight and appreciation, beyond enjoyment. We can find ourselves, test ourselves, and hone the way we approach challenges, other people, and our world. As the example of Aeschylus demonstrates, while to focus solely on martial arts, especially those with less practical utility today, would leave out the other arts, other avenues for growth, we should nonetheless remember, as he did, that there is virtue in the study of arms, something worthy enough for an epitaph.

———-

[1] There is debate about whether Aeschylus or his surviving relatives chose his epitaph, but linguistic studies indicate that the language hails from his time, not the later Hellenistic era as some have suggested. Among other sources, see Todd M. Compton, “Aeschylus: Little Ugly One,” in Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History, Hellenic Studies Series 11., Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006, avail. online at https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/4923.part-i-greece-12-aeschylus-little-ugly-one#n.4 Regardless, it’s telling that for all his fame that this is what he or his family emphasized as his legacy.

[2] See on this site “Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion,” August 30, 2019, n. 5.

[3] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, I. 17, trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdyke, New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, p. 24-25, avail. online at https://archive.org/stream/bookofcourtier00castuoft/bookofcourtier00castuoft_djvu.txt

[4] Ibid, p. 25.

[5] See Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, trans. buy William Scott Wilson, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983.

Using Period Manuals in Historical Fencing

IMG_8563
George Silver study group, 2015, Reed College, Portland

Perhaps the greatest difference between historical and Olympic fencing is our reliance on sources. Lacking a living tradition in most cases we’re dependent upon the happy accident of surviving works on fencing. Sabre and spada, being more recent developments historically speaking, have a larger corpus covering them than say those for pole-axe or medieval single-hand sword. Still, there are hurdles even with those works produced since the printing press, laid out in familiar ways, and with easy to read, regular typeface.

Living as we do in an age of literacy we take a lot about reading for granted. There are, however, facts we need to be aware of in reading most of these historical fight manuals. A few key ones to start this discussion are:

  • Translation
  • Historical & Social Context (including the purpose of the work)
  • Intended Audience [1]

To this we should add the perennial challenge of reading (or writing) any work that attempts to describe via the written word something that is performed physically. Unlike musical notes, themselves signs relating to finger, hand, or mouth placement on an object, fencing texts can explain an idea or action but have a less direct, one-to-one relationship to the activity. An open G on a violin requires the ability to recognize the sign on a page and where the corresponding string is. To perform an engagement from third in sabre, however, assumes a lot more than those four or five words suggest.

Translation

The topic of translation is a large one so here we’ll only look at some basics. Unless the texts you’re working with are in your native language or one you know super-well, chances are good you’re working from a translation. I work mostly within the Italian and to a slightly lesser extent French traditions, and while I have a working knowledge of both for reading, I am not fluent in either; in fact, I can’t read much outside of my historical field or fencing works (I’m useless with a menu and would likely struggle to find a bathroom in either language, though I can order beer. Yeah, potential problems there 😉 ). This means I rely heavily on translations, and even though I can set them side by side and get a decent sense of how good that translation is, I still defer to those I know who know those languages better than I do if I’m unsure about something. This is, by the way, a standard practice in research—we want to get things right, so, we do due diligence in assessing how correct a translation is. Even when I make translations in languages I work in all the time I have people check it.

Why is this important? It’s important because not all translations are the same. Some are better than others. So, how do we tell if a translation is decent? First step, check out the translator—

  • How are they qualified?
  • What else have they translated? How has it been received?
  • What, if anything, do other translators make of their work (if you can find that out)?
  • If they include a note or preface to their translations, what do they tell you about their process? If they don’t, that is important.
  • To what extent do they understand the context they’re working in?

Marcelli ex

Someone can be fluent in Italian today and yet mistranslate a word because the meaning of that word has changed. Quick example from English, the word “doom.” We use this today to mean one’s fate often with a connotation that is negative. We might say “oh he’s doomed!” and mean that guy is in trouble—rarely do we use the same word when a friend gets a sweet new job and pay increase . Originally, however, Old English/Anglo-Saxon dōm, “doom” meant “judgment,” both in the sense of law and later, by extension, in a religious context of the Last Judgment, i.e. “Doomsday.” It is the nature of language to change, and while we might chafe at that, we need to know it when working with translations, especially of older works.

There are also different ways to translate something, and depending on how well it’s done, both can work. Some translators opt for as literal a translation as they can; others prefer a looser, but easier to read version. What you gravitate toward is up to you, but in either case make informed choices. It’s possible to make something work in English better and remain faithful to the original tongue, but it’s also possible to obscure meaning and confuse things if this is done poorly. A literal translation must be readable, which can be a challenge, but if too literal it fails— one “can” render sentence structure in some languages exactly as is, but if word-order runs counter to your own language’s word-order it’s a mess. There are values to each approach. If you’re lucky, you may find a literal and a looser translation of a single work. It means a lot of comparison, but you’re potentially getting a richer sense of what the original author intended (again provided the translators are good).

Historical & Social Context (any Applicable Context)

We ignore context at our peril. In historical fencing this is absolutely vital and too often ignored. I’ve touched on this before, so I’ll be brief here, but not all fencing works are equal. If your goal is to study Dutch maritime cutlass, then Roger Crosnier’s work on sabre and Roworth’s manual for broadsword are not the best place for you to go. [2] If you’re fighting on foot, you can learn a lot from a cavalry manual, but by definition sword meant for the saddle was stripped down to essentials, and armed only with that you will have trouble fencing those who’ve spent time on manuals for fighting on foot. This seems obvious, right? It isn’t. There are a lot of people in historical fencing using weapons too heavy for what they think they’re doing or misapplying other traditions to their favorite. It matters if the H in “HEMA” means anything to you.

Context invariably means having to read and study beyond the manual itself. This can be work, true, but it can be interesting work if you approach it right. It also pays to read the right stuff. There is a lot out there, and most bookstores carry what sells, not necessarily the latest word on subject X; libraries are similarly hobbled by finances and space. TV and the internet are a mixed bag—you’re more likely to find crap about Martians or Freemasons and “secret” knowledge than anything actually useful. So, be cautious, do a little homework, and apply the same basic detective questions to your outside reading: how credible is the author/researcher? What is their training? How well do they document their study? Do they provide examples, citations, and use decent research? Because we’re largely an amateur (again in the best sense) pursuit, we have a lot of people writing all sorts of things—not all of it is equally good, not all of it is well-reviewed or fact-checked before it’s shared.

Joinville 2

Intended Audience

Is your chosen manual one meant for the military or civilians? What if anything does the author say about the purpose in writing it? A drill manual for infantry or cavalry will often have less detail than those written by the instructors training those same soldiers or troopers. Specific audiences often mean specialized vocabulary too. This can be difficult enough in one’s native language, so such jargon translated can be extra tricky. The titles of government officials are just one issue; often these authors assume their intended readers know the context, purpose, and lingo. Their original audience might have, but we don’t always know.

Even civilian works on fencing for civilians can assume  knowledge of fencing fundamentals that many within historical circles lack. Even for seasoned Olympic fencers some terms and ideas disappeared, so while they may know what a bind in foil is, they might not have heard the term croisé. One good example of this is the excellent The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899; 1936) by Luigi Barbasetti—it’s clear he assumes the reader has at least a working knowledge of foil. Your author might too.

Other Issues

There is much that goes into assessing the value of a text. One issue we face with later fencing manuals, even some early ones, are editions of the same work. Some may be just a second print run, some may have changes. This is especially true with more popular works. For example, Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre was published in 1798, but so too was the second edition, and, with changes. There were later publications in 1804 and in 1824. The third edition (1804) has differences in the plates. So, if you are looking for “Roworth’s manual,” be aware that the copy made in New York in 1824 was a copy of the 1804, which is a little different from the first and second editions from 1798. [3] A more thorough student will want to see all four to see how they differ; they may want to read a bit about Roworth and his contemporaries, and his audience or audiences.

Ways of Reading

If you’re familiar with John Berger’s now somewhat dated Ways of Seeing (my edition, London: BBC/Penguin, 1982), you will understand this subtitle. We read in different ways, all the time, but are not always conscious we are doing it. Some works we read for retention, which requires one way of reading. Others we consult as we prepare a meal, fix a sink, or fence. Still others we read for the pleasure of reading, be it the art of language as expressed in poetry or the imaginative worlds in fiction. Some reading we chew, some we digest.

You can read a fencing manual like a novel, but you’re not likely to get much out of it in terms of its intended use. I read most of them cover to cover because it gives me a general sense of how the author organizes the topic, how they make sense of it, and I get a better sense not only of their views, but how their work fits into the big picture. That can be valuable. However, in preparing drills, or consulting a work to figure out all I can about a specific maneuver or action, I read it with more focus. Normally this means rereading the same passage several times. I might read several manuals for the same thing and compare them—this is easier for me as the Italian tradition has a lot of sabre manuals from ca. 1850 onward, but it may be possible for your tradition too.

What steps can help?

  • Read the page, passage, or line several times
  • Read it slowly
  • Read it again
  • List and look-up any terms that you don’t know or have questions about
  • Ask other fencers and researchers for help (if you’re stuck, message me and I’ll try to point you to helpful people)
  • If there are illustrations, compare what you read against them [4]
  • Try out what you read in space—if your weapon is close, great, if not, a pencil can work until you find a partner; be prepared to revise

MdHS

While this can be hard work, it gets easier; it’s worth the effort. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even the most experienced fencers stumble on some texts or some lines, and that’s okay—it can be a great opportunity to chat with knowledgeable people. If your interpretation doesn’t work, try again. If you’re still stuck, get help; with the internet this is a lot easier than it used to be.

Not all authors in the past were great writers (another issue, by the way, in translating), but even if the text is clear that doesn’t mean the topic is easy. Fencing is a highly technical art; there are a lot of moving pieces; and even the simplest thing, like moving forward, can be hard to describe or “unpack” from a particular author’s prose. Word-choice alone can change everything—witness for one example the battles over an “extended” vs. “extending” arm in foil during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Practice in reading closely, slowly, and weighing the sentence, even individual words, can do a lot to assist you in making sense of your chosen texts. It can improve your knowledge of the work, deepen your appreciation for that branch of the Art, and help you improve. Each fencer is a student, and students need books. Fiore dei Liberi, in discussing his student Galeazzo de Mantova’s notion of the relationship between books and the Art wrote “without books, nobody can truly be a Master or student in this art. I, Fiore, agree with this: there is so much to this art that even the man with the keenest memory in the world will be unable to learn more than a fourth of it without books.” [5]

———-

[1] For brevity I’m only focusing on these three basic issues facing the reader. There are more. I’ve not prepared it yet, but I gave a talk last March covering some of these issues as regards medieval fight texts and will post that in time.

[2] A more general knowledge of the weapon and the variety of its use will do a lot to help you make sense of more specific, focused texts. Yes, this includes those written for “sport.” For Roworth, see note 4; for Crosnier, Fencing with the Sabre: Instruction and Technique, New York, NY: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1955.

[3] For a nice copy of the second edition, and a useful introduction to the text and its basic history, see Nick Thomas’s arrangement of the second edition; http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Art-of-Defence-on-Foot-Second-Edition.pdf

[4] Illustrations, just like the text, must be interpreted; there can be a one-to-one correspondence, but artistic conventions, style, skill, and a host of other factors can be at play as well.

[5] Fiore dei Liberi, Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, MS Getty Ludwig XV 13, translated by Tom Leoni, Rev. 4, Alexandria, VA: Lulu Press, 2009, 8.

Sabre with Rules, and, Without

Fencing Master (as Morgan Sheppard) 2
Morgan Sheppard, sword-master in “The Duellists”

There is this excellent scene in “The Duellists” (Ridley Scott, 1977) where the sword master, played by Morgan Sheppard, rushes upon the unprepared d’Hubert (played by Keith Carradine) during practice and says “On the watch, sir! Always on the watch… they don’t all fight like fine gentlemen.” A sword master like William Hobbs, who advised and choreographed the various duels in the film, no doubt knew well the reality of the duel—even with rules some people cheat. I’ve always loved this bit scene, because it reveals the reality behind what it takes to fight well (training), and, because it contains so much wisdom. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also packed with historical practice, e.g. duelists working out pre-duel with a master, an officer taking private instruction, a regimental master from the ranks as expert. The truth is that in fencing one must always be on the watch, can trust nothing, and assume nothing. We’re always safer assuming we face a superior opponent whether they prove so or not.

The traditional approach to teaching fencing, be it foil, spada, or sabre, assumes the duel, a battle between two people, on fixed ground, fought within the confines of rules. Even most longsword is taught this way at least as far as normally it’s approached one on one. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember, because off the dueling ground the experience could be quite different. In studying historical sabre, a weapon that draws greatly from military sources, we see a lot of overlap, but behind the fundamentals of footwork, attacks, parries, and drills is a context much different from that in most dueling codes. Sometimes we’re lucky and see glimpses of this in sources—Henry Angelo mentions several “grips” in the 1845 Infantry Sword Exercise; Rosaroll and Grisetti in the Science of Fencing (1803) list a number of similar maneuvers and their counters; Hutton too in his book The Swordsman explores those that Angelo must have read and that so far as I know go back at least as far as George Silver’s Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense (1599).[i] A fencing instructor can teach technique; they can impart tactical reasoning and advice; but one thing they cannot do well is create the context of a fight outside of the duel.

Gladitoria MS_Germ.Quart.16_09v
Gladitoria, MS_Germ. Quart.16 09v

This is important. In historical circles more often than not fencers view the duel as somehow less worthy than a fight on a battlefield, despite the fact that most people actually train as if for a duel. In fairness, this bias really only affects the traditional three weapons and of those only sabre—no one says of Fiore, the Gladitoria, or works on rapier that the lists and Renaissance duels were less important. Why is that? Largely it’s bias against modern fencing—anything too “sporty” is immediately suspect. This is unfortunate, not only because so much of historical fencing pedagogy is borrowed from an Olympic context, but also because as far as competition is concerned, both “HEMA” and “Sport” fencing have more in common than either side is comfortable admitting. There is a lot of throwing out babies with bath-water when it comes to fencing tribalism.

Another, major factor is how difficult it is to create a battlefield scenario. Even small-squad tactics, fun as they are to play around with, often lack the surprises, set-backs, terrain, and chaos that so often attend such engagements historically. Being an agonistic vs. antagonistic endeavor we also lack fear. So, while we can train techniques, learn plays, and study tactics, we do so at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to how all these might have played out in the field. Many of the current venues that attempt this miss the mark—bohurt, for example, is plenty dangerous, but so far as I know no one is really trying to kill anyone or take and hold a position. I don’t wish to upset anyone, but as strong as these fighters are one sees less art than might.

I’ve argued elsewhere that one reason I think that the Italian military sources contain as much as they do was in a part because of the very real possibility that those reading it might be involved in a duel.[ii] Thus, officers needed to know more than what they’d likely need in actual combat. These manuals, however, had to work for rank and file, trooper as well as lieutenant, and so much of what we read there must have had practical applications on the battlefield too. While a solider might not find himself lunging a thrust or cut as he did in the sala or parade ground, what he acquired in learning to lunge were principles he could adapt to differences in terrain and situation. We do have some hints that regimental sword masters provided additional instruction too, often from their own practical experience.[iii] The surviving infantry manuals we have don’t often show one solider pitted against many, but we know they sometimes did; for example, Giuseppe Bolognini touches on this in his Sul Maneggio della Sciabola (1850).

Examining what is more appropriate for the dueling ground or battlefield within these manuals also begs the question—what isn’t gentlemanly? What is more appropriate or acceptable in war? Without rules one isn’t restricted, so pretty much anything you can imagine, like punching or shoving, as well as all the dirty tricks you can think of, from using terrain wisely to throwing dirt in their eyes, were possible. The grips, weapon-seizures, pommel strikes, punches with the bell-guard, and kicks while anathema in most duels were likely not only perfectly acceptable but preferable in war. This being the case, if we wish to train with these options how do we do so safely? Can we?

I believe we can, but with the caveat that safety must come first. By definition we are thus incompletely using the historical repertoire, but that’s okay. It’s important to appreciate this side of sabre, but being combat, life and death maneuvers, it makes sense we hold back. Students of Fiore dei Liberi, for example, are similarly hobbled—to use all that Fiore suggests we use in a fight would leave us without partners and very likely jail time. Even gaining minimal understanding of the options soldiers had will increase our appreciation for the weapon and its use.

The key to practicing these actions is to mix safety and control. Safety means an awareness that what we’re doing is dangerous and could hurt someone. Control means proceeding in such a way that we limit as much as possible the chance of injury. Not everyone has the control required to do this. If you’re sharing this with the inexperienced, I recommend moving at a snail’s pace. When I teach weapon seizures or the grips we start at slow speed, just going through the motions; there are only a few I typically teach and these have proved safe enough to do provided everyone behaves (and I work hard to ensure that). We speed the drill up as we go to instill a flavor of how these might have worked.

MS_Ludwig_XV_13_10r-b
MS Ludwig XV 13 10r-b (a.k.a. The Getty)

For those familiar with grappling from older works, especially medieval fight manuals, wrestling was the foundation for most everything. It makes sense—even disarmed one needs to be able to fight. My friends and colleagues locally who train Armizare and KdF are good examples for how to approach these potentially dangerous actions. The ligadure (It. “binds”) of Fiore, for example, could easily lead to a broken arm, elbow, or dislocated shoulder, so instructors like Mike Cherba and Alex Spreier take students through these moves slowly; even at “speed” the students slow down once the blades have made contact. Focus is on technique and timing. Because this is a partner drill the person turned into a pretzel is compliant; certainly this makes it easier but proficiency is gained through repetition, attention to detail, and making the maneuver, in time, as naturally as possible, not from fully performing the action as written. We do not have the “on the job training” that Fiore and his students did—in their case, this stuff either worked or they were hurt or killed. A lifetime of successful combat, especially against opponents less well-trained no doubt made skilled fighters formidable.

As an example for sabre, I’ll cover the “first grip” as shared by George Silver, Henry Angelo, and Alfred Hutton. Of note, this same maneuver is recommended in a number of bayonet texts. In this action, the attacker makes an attack at the left side of the opponent. Parrying in prima, the defender reaches under their own weapon and seizes the guard or wrist of the attacker and pulls them down and to the left—from here one can deliver a pommel strike, punch, and then cut or stab them after that.[iv] It’s a difficult maneuver to perform at speed, and from experience the seizure can become more of a check to the hand, but so long as one is quick with the follow-up blow it works pretty well.

Blengini, Trattato teorico-pratico di spada e sciabola e varie parate di quest’ultima contro la baionetta e la lancia

The first step I have them do is to practice oblique cuts at the left side of the head while the other parries in prima. Then they switch. Next, they take this move one step further—they parry the blow, step forward with the left-leg, passing the right as they reach under the parry to grab the guard or wrist. When they’re comfortable, I then have them deliver a tap to the mask as pommel strike (some stop short of the tap, which is fine). Lastly, they add a cut or thrust, e.g. a cut down the body from the attacker’s right shoulder to the left hip, and with the back edge of the sabre tip cut the back of the knee on the way back from that initial cut. Another option, if you have mats, is to take them to the floor after the pommel strike. We then go through the defense and grip for the right side (two versions), and follow up with the “Turkish disarm” or similar.

While no one is really punching, kicking, pommeling, or throwing dirt in anyone’s eyes, just moving through the grips can provide students a sense of sabre’s more rough and tumble side. This is usually material wholly unfamiliar to many students, and, it’s fun to learn! A further advantage to these exercises is that some, like that first grip, show up in a number of ways, not only for sword but as defense against bayonet. For students of “military” sabre some experience with the uglier side of the weapon can impart a deeper appreciation for the role the weapon played, for its use in the thick of things, but also for the ways in which traditional technique and combat intersected. Lacking as we do ideal sources for just how these formal techniques were adapted for war, such as a regimental sword master’s diary, we have to work with what we have, and, extrapolate the rest.[v] Any such experiment of course can, at best, reach what was possible, not necessarily what was actually done. This is unfortunate, but even in exploring what was possible we learn, sometimes ruling things out, but sometimes gaining insights we didn’t have before and so it’s worth it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun research to do either!


[i] See Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), 36ff; Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Milano: 1803, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018, pages 219-236; Alfred Hutton, The Swordsman: A Manual of Fence and the Defense against an Uncivilized Enemy (1898), reprint by The Naval and Military Press in Association with the Royal Armouries, Leeds, 2009, 127ff; George Silver, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Ch. 6, “The mannr of Certaine gryps & Closes to be used at yr single short sword fight Etc,” in James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, New York: Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972, 601ff.

[ii] See on this site, “‘Dueling’ or ‘Military’ Sabre?” May 16, 2019.

[iii] By the late 19th cen. sword combat outside colonial contexts was increasingly restricted to cavalry engagements. By its nature mounted sabre is more rudimentary; protecting one’s mount, delivering most attacks to right or left or just to either side of the horse’s head, and simple parries that might work best against sabre, lance, or bayonet require ample practice but much less technical know-how than the more complicated actions one might need on foot. It is also telling that regimental sword masters, some of whom must have been seasoned veterans, were responsible for teaching soldiers and troopers any additional “tricks” and skills they might need. See for just two examples Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), page 37, last paragraph; see also the Italian Ministry of War’s 1873 Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018,  70; 100.

[iv] See for example Cesare Alberto Blengini, Trattato della Modenra Scherma Italiana, Bolonga: Tipi Fava e Garagnani al Progresso, 1864, 78ff. Against rifle and bayonet this is a slightly easier grip to achieve.

[v] There are some anecdotal accounts that help inform us too. For one valuable collection of these J. Christoph Amberger’s The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, 1998, contains several such recollections, cf. “Battle Scenes from Balaclava” (p. 21) and “The Seduction of Art: Cut vs. Thrust in Military Swordplay” (33) contains several anecdotal snippets. This book can now be found online here [https://fencingclassics.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/the-secret-history-of-the-sword.pdf].

Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion

72c2504e8d67b5bd79789f71b6b6e1ea

While not universal, there’s a general tendency toward inclusion in historical fencing, and where I live—the Pacific Northwest—it’s become a key part of our fencing culture. It will surprise no one that I value inclusion—hard to favor collaborative teaching and learning if one doesn’t. Now more than ever perhaps it’s important to know where one stands—in the US, beset as it is with the reemergence of public racism among other evils, the lines are increasingly drawn in sharper contrast. This may help delineate the various positions well, but as someone trying to support, encourage, and create a safe place for people to train, I worry about this, because there is inclusion, and, then there’s the semblance of inclusion.

One reason I think about this is that as a middle-aged white hetero male I can rest in my privilege or use it for good. I’d like to do the latter. Lip-service to a position or cause is not enough. We have to live it, be the example, take the sometimes unpopular step and suffer whatever eye-rolling, insults, or worse come our way. To do this well, to “show up” as it were, means we need to be self-aware and mindful about what we’re doing. It’s easy enough to post a nicely-worded “we like everyone” mission statement, but in terms of the day-to-day operation of a sala, what does that look like? How do we actually do that? I don’t have all the answers, and will happily direct people to those I know, even obliquely, who have more answers than I do, but the instances in which this has come up for me have been instructive and might resonate with others.[1] Even asking the question honestly “am I doing this right? Could I be doing it better?” can be useful.

This came up for me in a powerful way this week. If you follow historical fencing in any of its guises via social media you may have seen a letter several mid-west schools put together announcing their disassociation with a former member. I am close friends with people who know some of the principals and have details that many people do not, but, between the integrity of these friends and the fact that so many schools took the time to produce this document it’s difficult to see this as some species of personal blacklisting. Their concerns appear legitimate. To this I would add that several women have come forward—they have nothing to gain in doing so.

I help manage a facebook page where the head admin posted the letter in question.[2] It generated some good discussion. One politely expressed response asked if this was fair, if it wasn’t breaking the notion of innocent until proven guilty. Both the head admin and myself responded, each of us in our own way explaining why we shared the letter. We’ve worked hard to make that page, the largest on fb for historical and classical sabre, a safe place and to date it has been a relatively fireworks free zone. That’s something to brag about in historical fencing circles: with over 3,000 people and as many opinions and ideas, only creating a safe place prevents the blow-ups, so often ill-handled, we see on a lot of other pages. Okay, self-congratulations aside, this is important—the point is that we do much to create our culture. A fb page is not a court of law—we don’t decide whether the guy accused of numerous inappropriate actions is guilty or not—but we have a responsibility to our members to keep them safe. We have a lot of women on that page, and if ONE woman is spared having to suffer the creepy stuff this guy has reportedly done, then it was worth posting. You may not agree, and that’s fine, but if you don’t my guess is that you’re most likely male.

This incident also got me thinking about the ways we “show up” as allies day to day. A lot of people are quick to say we should be supportive, even more people are quicker to tell us how they think we’re failing at it, but few people are giving out practical advice. I’m stumbling my way toward advocacy and being a good ally, so I don’t have a ton of advice, but I have some, and the one important piece is to consider the ways we silently, unintentionally undermine underrepresented groups in our clubs. Here I will focus on women, but this same question pertains to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other underrepresented people.

Women in Historical Fencing

Hoosier State Chronicles women fencers

Though much has changed in the Olympic world, traditionally it’s been less inclusive to women, and I’ve been fencing long enough I’ve watched some of these changes myself. There was no women’s sabre when I started fencing; there is now. My college team, even our division, didn’t have options other than foil for women until the mid- to late-1990s. Historical fencing, on the other hand, is a movement that has, from the start, had skilled female martial artists in its ranks. I’ve had the good fortune to work with, take classes from, meet, and bout some of these fencers. Looking around most of my fellow students accept this as natural. There are exceptions, and even in the PNW, despite its rep, I’ve witnessed some hullabaloo particularly where LGBT fencers are concerned.

Aww, ain’t she Cute with her Little Sword?

I cannot speak for women, but I can relate what I’ve seen and heard, and share how we’ve handled it. One major way I think we fail at inclusion with women is that we too often fail to recognize that letting them in the door, having them in the class, doesn’t automatically mean we’re being inclusive. Many male instructors don’t take women as seriously, or, without realizing it marginalize them in a way they don’t their male students. Some of this is latent “little lady syndrome,” and often the men don’t even know they’re doing it. More often than not the men I’ve seen do this are fierce proponents of equality and women’s rights. They’re good people. We are, however, all products of the society we live in, and it will out at times, good and bad.

Little-lady Syndrome takes different forms.[3] One of the most common expressions of it is treating younger women serious about the Art as somehow “cute,” not in the physical attractiveness sense, but in the sense of “Aww, isn’t it cute that this little thing is playing swords,” as if it is unnatural that a woman should find fighting or weapons appealing. What example are we setting in treating a young woman in such a way? If we belittle her time, effort, and passion for the Art, how are we helping her achieve, build confidence, how are we helping her grow? I’d argue that we’re not only failing to help her grow treating her this way, but we’re normalizing, reinforcing an old, nasty patriarchal form of condescension.

Another expression, more often aimed at older women, is to treat them like Nanny McFee. Sure, maybe they’re mothers, maybe they’re good at managing a bunch of people, but she is there to fence, not babysit. If either of these examples makes you smirk, then ask yourself how often you hear or see similar things directed at either younger men or older men. No one asks the Stay-at-home-Dad to play den mother; no one looks at the awkward teen boy and thinks “aww, he and his sword are so cute!”


Hey Baby, Nice Sabre

1912

Another, often easier to spot failure is the ways in which some male instructors cross personal boundaries. The most egregious is what we called the “foil lesson” in college where a jackass would “help” a new fencer adjust her hips, be effusive in support, all of that, and yet it was obvious his intentions had less to do with fencing. That isn’t okay. But there are more subtle ways this can happen too. As a general rule, if you are the instructor, maintain a level, unisex professionalism with everyone. Always ask permission to touch someone, even if it is “only” adjusting someone’s arm. If hip or leg alignment is off, explain it, demonstrate it, and have them imitate you until they get it right. Some instructors use a stick or rebated weapon like a foil to point out similar issues, but for my part I’d rather take the time talking about corrections and fine-tuning than poking or pointing at people.

Just as one never touches another without permission, and then only as relevant to training, there are also things we just don’t say. It’s okay to notice someone’s attractiveness, of course, but there are guidelines for what and how we express it. The best way is don’t—you’re there to teach, not hook up. This doesn’t mean you have to be cold and unfriendly, just appropriate. If a fencer has a new pair of knickers, “hey cool, new stuff!” is arguably better than “damn… those look good on you.” If in doubt, let them bring it up first, “hey, I got new knickers, what do you think?” Asking about fit, comfort, or where they bought them are usually safe. Not bringing it up at all is perfectly acceptable too, and in my opinion, preferable. If one of your fencers brings up new knickers, fine, respond appropriately, but best not to initiate that. Focus on the Art.

Sometimes a student may be flirtatious with an instructor, and here especially it is vital to maintain your professionalism. Don’t take the bait, don’t bite; and if there’s mutual attraction then that is something to handle outside the sala. It’s a slippery slope, though, and the best advice is to avoid, always, student/teacher romance. If the cheesy B-movie examples on the Lifetime channel or mugshots of high-school teachers gone wrong shared in newspapers aren’t enough deterrent, then consider the health and longevity of your school. It might not seem like a big deal, but sometimes when these relationships end it’s messy, like lose your community, friends, reputation, and sanity messy. [4]

It goes without saying, but in no circumstances is it ever, ever okay to flirt with or in any other way act inappropriately with a minor. The lowest circle of hell is reserved for such people.

The Golden Rule as Applied to Inclusion

The best thing we can do before acting or saying anything is think about it. Be mindful. Before you ask that mother of three to “mind the kids” reflect—would you ask a man to do that? Before you offer an “attagirl” to the teenager who just made a sweet move, reflect—what’s the best way to compliment her choice of action? How would I phrase the same question to a boy her age? If you find that your response is different, pause, and then rethink your words.

I try to use neutral language as much as possible, both here (when I use they/them rather that third person singular pronouns), and, in class. There are many ways to correct, compliment, encourage, and explain things without resorting to language that can alienate. It isn’t hard either; it’s an easy thing to do and honors the diversity around us while reducing the chance of hurting someone’s feelings. No, I don’t step on egg-shells, but I’ve been approached, in confidence, a few times by people, young and old, too uncomfortable to talk to an instructor on their own. Even the most well-meaning humor or attention can sometimes misfire. I’ve always encouraged those same people to talk with their instructor, I’ve even offered to go with them, and in most cases I’ve tried, quietly, subtly, behind the scenes to help (and yes, that was a failure most of the time). If you are having problems with an instructor, be direct and polite, but let them know. Any instructor worth the name will be horrified they’ve upset you and will seek to make it right.

Integrity as Instructors

800px-Baldassare_Castiglione,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio ca 1514-1515
Baldassare Castiglione, portrait by Raphael ca. 1514-1515

We all mess up. We’re human, it will happen, but what you do, how you handle that mistake is everything. Own it. Make it right. Sometimes, and I speak from experience, trying to do the right things will not fix much; sometimes it can make things even worse, but it’s still the right thing to do. We talk a lot about honor, integrity, fair play, largesse, chivalry, and a host of other lofty virtues in historical martial arts. There is value in these ideals; they can guide us to our better selves, and, make us better teachers. So far as I know none of our authorities, not Lull, Gower, de Charny, nor Castiglione ever suggested these were easy values to observe or practice; most things worth pursing aren’t easy.[5]

Our job as instructors goes beyond imparting technique and tactics; we are there to build people up, to help them improve in a skill-set they enjoy. In a way, we are doing our own tiny part to help them be who they want to be. We don’t want to do anything, wittingly or unwittingly, that undermines that. To minimize the chances that we do, we must be mindful, we must consider our behavior, our words, our actions. We lead by example, set the tone, and determine the safety of our salas, so, do it right.


NOTES:

[1] The good folk at Valkyrie WMAA are one such resource (see “Accessibility” under the About Us menu option: http://boxwrestlefence.com/valkyriewmaa/

[2] Military and Classical Sabre–there are currently almost 3500 people following the page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1454534811515787/

[3] There are few places, alas, I’ve not seen this, but some of it comes down to age breakdowns. In fairness to my own age cadre some of the worst offenders are elderly instructors who have a different sense of propriety. I’m not excusing it, merely stating it. There are, however, plenty of men much younger that make this mistake too.

[4] Our culture can be dangerously wishy-washy about this. Some of the best advice I received was when I was student teaching in university–during office hours, always leave the door open; don’t date students in your class; etc. This might seem obvious, but… there were problem children in my department. As the instructor you have a duty to teach; mixing that with romance is a very bad idea. Don’t do it. 

[5] For more on the authors mentioned:

Ramón Lull/Raymond Lull (d. 1316), was a polymath and the author of The Book of the Order of Chivalry (ca. 1276), a widely disseminated work on the history and ethics of knighthood.

Geoffroi de Charny (d. 1356) was a French knight and the author of several works on Chivalry, probably the most well-known being The Book of Chivalry. He died in defense of the French standard at the Battle of Poitiers.

John Gower (d. ca. 1408), English poet, covered aspects of chivalry in his Confessio Amantis and Vox Clamantis.

Baldassare Castiglione (d. 1529), held many offices in his lifetime, first with the Dukes of Urbino, and later with the Vatican. His brilliant Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, has long been cited as one of the key works for the idea of the “renaissance man.”

Historical Fencing Pedagogy, a Few Guiding Principles

IMG_6222 (2)In watching several recent historical fencing events friends and I got to chatting about effective (and ineffective) teaching methods, and, of the difficulties that tentative endeavors such as interpreting extinct fight-systems presents any instructor. In so many ways we lack a blueprint for how to teach some of these past arts. Many of us draw from the venerable advice and time-tested techniques of established fencing programs, such as the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Roma [Military Fencing Masters School of Rome] and its North American Counterpart or the USFCA.[i] We consult other instructors, our own or colleagues, and between the collective wisdom of the schools, other instructors, and our own experience we can do a lot. We also mine the pages of works like László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master and adapt ideas and drills to our own context. Happily, this is a problem all of us share, and increasing the issue of pedagogy is coming more into the larger dialogue.[ii] There’s a small, but growing corpus of literature about pedagogy making the rounds in historical fencing circles too.[iii] These are important conversations for us to have, and as the community grows we can expect discussions of pedagogy to garner more attention. That’s a good thing.

There are a few principles that I want to share here, ideas we discussed post-event, but also some which I’ve learned as a professional teacher. I don’t claim to be novel, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel (the ones we have work fine), but these principles might be handy to others pondering the place of pedagogy in historical fencing. What follows might be a solid collection of discussion topics if not a nice primer on some simple ideas every teacher should embrace.[iv] Some I’ve covered before, many others have treated far better, but for any set of drills, exercises, and the other elements of a successful curriculum attitude about them, about teaching, is everything.

Humility

Victory of Humility over Pride from Jungfrauenspiegel ca 1200
Victory of Humility over Pride, from _Jungfrauenspiegel_, ca. 1200

No one can learn anything who lacks humility. Those who believe they have it all figured out are fooling themselves; don’t let them fool you. The texts we work with are often difficult to interpret, no one has all the answers, and that’s okay. It’s the fact that we do not know, but wish to that drives us to study.

Historical fencing is unique in that there’s no official certification program, not yet anyway, for creating a master and this means a number of things. Given the nature of the evidence, the fact that most extinct arts have no surviving tradition, it’s highly probable that the nature of any such program will be different than say a fencing master’s schooling when we finally develop such a certification. Until then, and arguably after then, even the best interpretation will only stand until a better one comes along, so, take heart, be honest, and do your best. Don’t worry about mastery—that isn’t really a concern here in the conventional sense. We’re going to get things wrong, and a humble person will more easily handle that and change.

Collaboration & Sharing

This seems like a no-brainer, but it isn’t; not everyone wants to play nicely with the other kids. Sometimes this unwillingness stems from fear—perhaps one is working on a beloved project and doesn’t want anyone else beating them to the punch in publishing. Sometimes this fear stems from insecurity about one’s approach, interpretation, ability, or effectiveness in teaching (imposter syndrome is a common issue for many instructors). Whatever might stop you from reaching out, make the effort—there’s no shame in learning from others, in asking for help, from working together.

At the event that first sparked this conversation about pedagogy there was an impressive assembly of talent, from those working in the medieval Italian and German traditions, to classical Italian, to eastern martial arts, to everything in between. Such opportunities are ideal for exploration, for presenting what one’s been working on and getting valuable feedback from people as jazzed as you are about the topic. Working together benefits everyone. Also, it’s fun—how often at work or in other social settings can you discuss the finer points of a parry? How often do you get to take swords in hand and work out some play? Talk, share, make friends—it will only help. Don’t make the mistake of working in isolation.

55a4eae5a90f78e4a119c3531a75aa77--fencing-lessons-fencing-gearCultivate a Willingness to admit “I don’t know”

Not having all the answers is okay. No one in their right mind will ever assume you do. Not knowing is what spurs us to learn. Saying “I don’t know” is never the wrong answer, however terrifying it is to say, and once said puts you on the path to changing an “I don’t know” to an “I’m going to find out to be best of my ability.”

I offer the following somewhat humorous and embarrassing example. In the oral portion of my doctoral exams, one professor, a stand-in for the Greek expert my school never seemed to be able to keep (allusions to Spinal Tap’s drummer have often been made…), turned out to be one of the two types of examiners one will face in such exams, in this case, the person who wants to see what you don’t know. His first question, of a sort, was to shoot a clay tablet to me across the table and ask “what is that?” I looked at it, replied that the clay was modern, that the script looked to be Linear B but that I wasn’t completely sure (I spent far more time on Latin and Celtic). I thought crap, this is going to be some everyone-knows-this-inscription and I’m screwed. He said it was the first line from Homer’s “Iliad.” I raised an eyebrow in disbelief, said that was impossible as Homer post-dates the Mycenaeans by a good stretch, and waited for the hammer to fall. Satisfied, he then proceeded over the next half hour to ask me random questions about Greek history from Troy to the fall of Greece to the Romans. I cannot tell you how many times I said “I don’t know.” If I seemed to know anything, he quickly changed the topic. I left feeling that I’d failed, that I was washed up, that I’d embarrassed myself, shamed my advisor, and should find a nice heavy rock to crawl under. Despite this emeritus jackanapes’ glee in stymying me, I passed, and only passed his section because what I could answer I answered well, AND, and this is the important part, because I was smart enough not to bullshit, but to admit “I don’t know.” That’s hard to do under pressure—I know, believe me—but it’s sometimes the only answer you can and should give.

Cultivate a Willingness to Remain a Student

I used to teach college courses, mostly working adults in community colleges, and it’s seriously one of the most dynamic arenas in which to learn or teach. Where a room of 18 year olds will have some decent conversation and insight, a room of 16 to 75 years olds, many of whom have acquired expertise and experience in fields from mining to combat, from factory floors to homemaking, is so full of knowledge and experience that discussions are usually richer, more full of insight, debate, and fun.

I firmly believe that the best teachers never stop being students. Good teachers learn from their students, from other teachers, and from anyone whose line of work involves instructing others, be they foremen, former drill sergeants, mothers of six kids, or farmers. My students make me a better teacher, yours will too if you listen.

Own your Expertise

József Keresztessy, around 1892
József Keresztessy, around 1892

This can be a tough one, least it is for me, and it’s because it must jive with humility. No one wants to be that insufferable know-it-all or be taken for one. If you’re teaching then chances are good that you have enough experience to do so, are the only option, or are spear-heading a study group and by default have to lead. Maybe you have more formal training, and/or certification via accredited fencing programs. If you’ve earned it, own it.

We can err the other way and undermine ourselves too. If you’re too quick to point out shortcomings, things you don’t know, then that is what people will hear—people are more likely to question you if you question yourself. It can be a fine line. I learned this lesson as a first-time college teacher. I was teaching on an army post and decided not to list my name as “dr” or “name, PhD” on the board, and at the end of the first term an older man, a sergeant, approached and asked me about it. I told him something to the effect of wanting to create an open room where they felt free to talk, to disagree with me, etc. His reply was awesome and a powerful: “Sir, this is an army post—everyone has a rank. You earned those credentials, you earned your rank—don’t be afraid to share that. Whether people feel free to chat or not doesn’t depend on your rank, but how you use it and how you show respect to them. There is room for both command and respect.”

Own your expertise, but do not wave it in people’s faces; share it with them through appropriate means, through scholarship, through teaching, and by living the example. If you are out there reading this Sgt. Bond, again, thank you.

Be Open to Revision as Necessary

With an endeavor as tentative as research into historical martial arts one must be willing to revise any interpretation, no matter how good, should new evidence come to light or a more logical interpretation enter the picture. There’s no shame in ceding place to a better interpretation, only in pig-headingly holding on to one that’s been superseded.

This should drive all of us to work even harder at drawing conclusions that follow from the texts and which make sense logically, in terms of body-mechanics, and fit the historical context. None of this work is wasted. So your conclusions about Fiore have been bested by a new theory, don’t fret—scholarship doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it may be that Jane Schmoe relied on your work to devise her own interpretation (if Jane is a good scholar she will admit that too).

Give Credit where it is Due

Following closely on the last point, always cite your source, and, always give proper credit to the scholars, researchers, and fencers whose hard work, dedication, and passion have helped your own path of study. This goes beyond leaving a paper trail or protecting oneself from plagiarism—it’s just the right thing, dare I say it the chivalric thing, to do. Everyone gets a kick out of seeing their name in a footnote, dedication, acknowledgements, or Facebook post. It honors them, and, in honoring them you honor yourself for you demonstrate that you’re a team-player, an ally, someone who is working to provide the best research, teaching, and interpretation of these martial arts as you can. Stay chivalrous my friends.

Have FunMarozzo (2)

Why do we pursue historical fencing? Why do we spend so much time pouring over the often cryptic passages in old fight manuals? We do this because it’s fun, it makes us happy, and fun is good for us. Don’t lose sight of the value of play—historical fencing exercises your mind and body, and done right, can give your spirit a workout too.

NOTES:

[i] See http://www.fencingmastersprogram.com/about.html

[ii] László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997; see also, among many others, Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005; Ziemowit Wojciechowski, Theory, Methods and Exercises in Fencing, Datchet, Berkshire, UK: Amateur Fencing Association, 1993.

[iii] For a good place to start (in fact, just read this, it’s fantastic ) see Roger Norling, “HEMA Pedagogics Part 1: The Pedagogics Pioneers & The Role of a HEMA teacher,” at HROARR, November 21st, 2014, http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-1-the-pedagogics-pioneers-the-role-of-a-hema-teacher/ (part 2 is here http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-2-the-implications/ , part 3 here http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-3-how-to-create-a-good-learning-environment/ ); see also a breakdown of a typical practice at The Phoenix Society for Historical Swordsmanship in “How we Train” by Richard Marsden, http://phoenixsocietyofhistoricalswordsmanship.webs.com/apps/blog/show/31776335-how-we-train-by-richard-marsden .

[iv] Pedagogy is a giant subject—here I will discuss some general ideas, but in the next installment on this I will discuss some real-time strategies for teaching.

What to Look for (and Avoid) in HEMA Instructors

early hema

In the world of sword-arts, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) occupies a unique place as it is, by and large, an amateur pursuit. “Amateur” here is not a put-down, just the appropriate word to use, because apart from the few accredited fencing maestri out there who represent living traditions and work on the older stuff, most everyone else comes to HEMA as an interested enthusiast. Many if not most of us started in sport or classical fencing or other martial arts (e.g. Asian martial arts), but unless you’re young and a more recent student of historical fencing, chances are good that you learned from someone who has just been working on something longer than you have. That is okay, it’s just how it is, but not all instructors are equal and it pays to do your homework.

This is an important consideration as there are increasingly more people setting themselves up as instructors and without a viable certification program how is one to know if they’re worth visiting? While in time some qualification process might be in place, and as nice as a certification program might be, it would still be wise to have some guidelines for judging potential teachers as even some qualified instructors, no matter the field of study, can be stinkers. [1] One needs to have some measure by which to evaluate them as well as a handy list of red-flags.

The following check-list is a place to start—you may have individual concerns to add to the basic list. However, if a person or school fails most of this list, I’d recommend you keep looking:

School/Group Culture: The general feel of a place can tell you a lot about the person or people running a school. How open and friendly are they? When you call, email, or visit them, how quick are they to respond and how openly? How inclusive is the school—are there women there, younger students, older students, people in different states of fitness? What is the school’s focus? Does it tend toward the scholarly (source-driven, play oriented); is it purely tourney centered, is it a mix?

A lot comes down to what you want. If your interest is to fight in tourneys, then you should look for a school that does that and an instructor who has that as one goal for their program. There’s no wrong answer in terms of what you want—some people just want to fight, some people want to build a more complete skill set and understanding regardless of tourneys, and still others want the SCA without all the rules. Find the culture that appeals to you. This said, any version of these schools is probably going to be a better fit if they’re friendly and open to a diversity of students.

Personality: Tied to culture, the instructor’s personality has a lot to do with a school’s culture—people gravitate to people they relate to. Whatever an instructor’s focus within HEMA there are some things to look for and not surprisingly they’re tied pretty closely to the same openness, friendliness, and sense of community mentioned above. Is the instructor arrogant? Do they build students up or tear them down? Do they praise and encourage when making corrections or embarrass students? How do they respond to questions? You’re spending time and money, and unless being abused is your thing it’s probably best to keep looking.

Forgeng I 33

Experience/Qualifications: This is one of the hardest things to assess and because of the diversity of sources, not to mention instructor experience, it will vary. A lot. This said, there are again some general guidelines. Some instructors may know a lot, but be poor teachers; others may be good fighters, but know little of the source material; still others might be a decent mix of both. Many think they know a lot or have a lot of skill, but are really little more than attribute fencers with deep ego needs. If you can find a healthy balance of knowledge and skill, great, but you may need to compromise and that is okay. It may take a few visits to see what sort of person you’re working with too.

If you have no previous background in fencing or related arts, it can be extremely difficult to judge an instructor’s knowledge and skill. But there are some tells—any instructor who has spent serious time studying martial arts will have a degree of humility and will acknowledge the skill of his or her peers. Generally, they are cautious and tentative in presenting new material—all HEMA is interpretation and some interpretations are better than others.  Anyone telling you “no, this is how they did it” without decent evidence is someone to avoid.[2] Likewise avoid anyone pretending to have learned something in secret–more often than not this is going to be pure bull-shido.

If you find someone who is at constant pains to brag while putting down their peers, that’s not a good sign. A good instructor will be able to explain where something comes from, say a particular move, why we do it, and how. They’re open to questions and different points of view. They should be able to point to the sources they use too. A good instructor will also admit when they don’t know something; even better instructors will then help you find an answer. A good instructor will push you to improve, but will be supportive and encouraging in doing so. This stuff is hard enough without some jerk making you feel bad about it.

Akademia Szermierz still
Some of the crew from Akademia Szermierz, Poland–they clearly approach Fiore dei Liberi’s _armizare_ as a martial art. See http://www.akademia-szermierzy.pl/

Approach: Since we’re talking HEMA, there should be a fairly large emphasis on the H and the MA side of the acronym. Ostensibly any instructor in HEMA is looking at the sources—if not, I’m not really sure what they’re doing.

We know the little we know and we build our interpretations of past combat arts from surviving sources.

The martial arts aspect is important too—the goal should be “don’t get hit” followed by “hit and don’t be hit.” If either of these is missing, you’re in the wrong place.

Remuneration: Different schools and instructors have different rates. Comparative shopping is important. Most schools struggle to stay open, so what you pay generally goes to rent and gear. Few people make a living teaching historical fencing.

Look at their pay structure against what they teach. Do they have options for payment? HEMA is expensive, make no mistake, and many instructors will work with you to find a way to make dues less onerous. Floor fees are common, but many schools will also give you a first visit or two free. That can be a good indication of what to expect. If someone offers individual lessons, ask them how they run their lessons, what they generally teach, and how much they ask.

Safety: Better instructors will have a culture of safety and enforce it; they will seek to prevent injury, not encourage it. There’s a fair amount of macho, HEMA-bro-culture out there, sadly, so if you’re into that nonsense, go for it. It won’t be hard to find. It seems silly to have to list this, but given the general machismo when it comes to safety it needs to be said: find someplace safe. Does your instructor require the basic safety equipment? Do you see people fencing without it? How well do they take care of the masks, gloves, jackets, etc.? How courteous are fencers with one another? How courteous is the instructor?  Are they using insufficient equipment for the weapons they train, and if so, do they have protocols for how to do that safely? [3] Do they have insurance? Have you signed a waiver?

Everyone wants to get fighting as quickly as possible, but jumping in, full bore, on the first day is not wise. Learning how to fight with swords takes time, drill, patience, and dedication—you don’t make progress over night, but over years. Be wary of any program ready to throw you into the mix with no to very little training. The truth is that any fencing school must consider the lowest common denominator when it comes to safety, not the best case scenario.

In summary, here are the basic red-flags. If you see any of these, walk. Your time, money, and safety are worth more.

Common Red-flags:

  • arrogance
  • poor ability to take criticism or correction
  • narrow-minded, bigoted, or predatory
  • lack of qualifications (this includes appeals to secret knowledge or training or connections to dubious “experts”)
  • incapable of or unwilling to work with others
  • incapable of or unwilling to appreciate student ability/gifts/credentials/questions
  • problem child in larger community
  • dangerous and unconcerned with safety
  • discomfort with students visiting other schools or instructors; cultish possessiveness

To be honest, sometimes you can’t see all the red flags right away, especially if you’re an occasional visitor and/or if the problem instructor is good at hiding it, but it will out. The community, wherever you are, generally has a decent notion of where not to go.

All of this assumes you want to learn swordplay in earnest and well. It’s a long, difficult path to proficiency, and you have to be willing to put in the time. Find an instructor who can not only impart technique and passion for this complex field of study, but also one who will be there to help you and keep you going when you’re ready to quit. Any such instructor is, by definition, not going to have a lot of these foibles.

Notes:

[1] The HEMA Alliance has such a program, but not everyone in HEMA is part of the alliance and their program is not universally accepted. See https://www.hemaalliance.com/instructor-certification

[update 10-4-19: There are some organizations I forgot about and share here. One is AIMA (Associazione Italiana Maestri d’Arme) and the other is one branch of the sport org AIMS (Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma), which has certified a number of Maesti di Scherma Storica (historical fencing).

[2] There’s a difference between “this is how we interpret this passage” and “because I say so.” Context is everything, and some sources are much more difficult to work with, and thus, force us to be more tentative.

[3] Most clubs use normal fencing masks. They’re the most available, most affordable option, but they’re not designed for anything heavier than epee most of the time. So, if your interest is longsword, overly heavy sabre (i.e. trooper weight meant for use in the saddle), pole-arms, etc., be sure to ask how the school mixes these weapons with fencing masks. It can be done more safely, but any mask can fail. One of my favorite examples of just how easily a fencing mask can be crunched is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1Imv7yHig

The Art above All Else—Collaboration and Fencing Instruction

Fencing books

It’s taken me years to learn this, but with fencing I’m at my best, at my most pure when my focus is the Art–the sources, the body of technique, history, movement, theory, and, in sharing all that with other people. I started out as most people do. The masters with whom I studied took a traditional approach—I worked one on one with them, sometimes with their assistants, then drilled with more advanced students and my peers. I was encouraged always to seek out better fencers and bout with them. To most, this approach seems very top-down, that is, information comes from master to student, from senior fencer to junior, and that’s not wrong, but… it is also, by its nature, collaborative. The instructor works with a student, not just at them. In working with senior students, with better fencers, one is also collaborating. So, for me, fencing is not a one way exchange, but a dialogue. This seems obvious to me, and maybe it is to you too, but that said it isn’t to everyone.

When something’s near and dear to us, when it’s a part of us, we often fail to see how it’s not obvious to others. We go about our way, acting on the assumption others are in line with us when they’re not. Sometimes this can be taken for a lack of concern, or worse, as something threatening. To others we may simply seem naïve. For my part, I try to act in a way that makes my position clear, but intentions and results don’t always match up, and when it comes to collaborative approaches to an historically individual endeavor like fencing instruction what I’ve learned is that actions on their own aren’t enough. One must be explicit, verbal, and reassuring. One must expect the raised eyebrow from some, the head shake of disbelief from another, and even the sly smile of the ambitious who think they sense a sucker. This said, I still think it’s worthwhile to try to find ways to work together.

Regardless of what sort of fencing one teaches—Olympic, Classical, or Historical—more often than not one does so solo. A master may have a provost or two or some other assistant, but a master working with another master, any instructor working with another, is less common. There are some good reasons for this. As I mentioned in my last entry, the individual, one-on-one lesson is the norm. An instructor teaches a student. Historically, even in the days when one had more reason to learn to fence, instructors vied for students; they were in competition with one another. Today, when fencing is normally a pastime, students fewer in number compared to football/soccer or similar sports, competition can be fierce. Fewer resources and a low profit margin can make anything pretty cut-throat, and fencing is no exception.

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It may run counter to established practice, tradition, even reason, but off the piste I do not care for competition. I understand it, but I don’t like it. In part I think some of this is a carry-over from teaching college classes. In the trenches adjuncts like me occupied working together could mean job security. At my last teaching job, for example, I was—by default—the “pre-modern” professor, so I was teaching not only things I spent years studying in order to teach, but courses in different if congruent areas of history. There are a lot of ways to do this, but my way, being scared to do it poorly, was to contact the people in those fields I know and get help. They’d send me their syllabi, textbook recommendations, articles, thematic breakdowns, everything I needed to produce a decent (not perfect) survey course in classes outside my area. All I had to do was read, interpret, and admit when I didn’t know something. Then, I would either work with students to figure it out, or, tell them that I’d look into it and get back to them. In short, I looked to my peers, and in turn, they looked to me for help teaching courses where I could help them. I’ve taken this same approach to fencing history and instruction—there are people out there, many of them, smarter, more experienced, and knowledgeable than I am, so why not politely ask for their help? I’ve made some good friends out of this too, an added bonus.

In step with the “habit” of working with others, I also realize that with something as vast as the Art, the art of defense, especially within an historical fencing context, there is simply too much to know. This is part of its appeal, and, something we have to keep in mind because we are, each of us, limited by its totality. This is humbling in the best sense—faced with such a mountain of information we have the privilege of being eternal students, forced to engage the material again and again, and with hard work hopefully grow. By extension, knowing that others have more information, or different information or perspectives, it makes sense to work with them. I learn, true, but so too do my students, and as an instructor that is my purpose—teaching. No one ever said we had to do that 100% on our own. Maybe we often do, but even then… someone, normally several someones taught us, and so really we are all the products of shared learning, of a collaborative system, whether we like to think so or not.

From a business perspective it’s easy to see flaws with this. If I send people to a colleague; if I promote another instructor’s seminar; if I do anything to advance them am I not hurting myself? Am I not potentially sending students that might be mine to them? Yes. I am potentially doing that, but it’s a question of values, of goals, and, a recognition that I’m not the only student of the Art, not the only instructor. If I truly believe—and I do—that most students benefit from learning with multiple teachers, in having problems to work out presented in different ways, then I put it to you how can I not involve my colleagues? Do I not do my students a disservice by trying to hoard their time and energy? That’s self-serving in the worst sense, and can undermine the very goals I purport to have. If my goal is sharing the Art, in igniting a fire to study it in all its variety, depth, and beauty, then other concerns are secondary–not unimportant (I have to pay rent)–but secondary.

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It’s not naiveté, a lack of business sense, or even a secret plot to undermine colleagues that I promote their classes, seminars, ideas, or anything else. I do so intentionally, and yes, in full awareness that it could (and often does) affect the number of people attending my classes, and even more so individual lessons. I also recognize, in truth with some sadness, that not all will return the favor. I persist though, I continue to do so because the Art comes before all else; it comes before me, before profit. To the degree that I have any business teaching, then I must do so in accordance with what I value, in what I think the Art has to teach us, and for all the mayhem and murder one learns in the study of arms, one learns far, far more than that—one can learn civility, generosity, largesse, respect, and humility. The best friends I’ve made I’ve made fencing; much of what I learned in competition or in lessons or the assault has had parallels in my life outside the sala; some of the most severe crises in my life have occurred either within this context or were partially mitigated via fencing; I even met my wife fencing. The Art has given me so much, introduced me to so much, and continues to do so whether my own classes are a success or not. Moreover, the Art doesn’t belong to me, but to us all, and it is best shared.

I believe that working together is better. I believe fair play, honest exchange, and mutual promotion ultimately helps us all and furthers the Art. You don’t have to agree, of course, but I’ll say this—if I promote your class, your seminar, anything you’re doing, then it means I recognize in you a fellow student, a fellow disciple of the Art; you’re someone I like, respect, and want the best for; you are someone I know I can learn with and from; you’re the sort of people I like to know and talk to; I recognize you as one of my tribe. I don’t care what ethnicity you are, what sex or gender you are, if you’re young or old, if you’ve got two legs or one, if you’re gay or straight, what religion you follow or don’t follow—only that we share a love of the Art (this said, note well: I do discriminate against bigots, fascists, and others who seek to harm others in thought, word, or deed. If such lowlifes read this and say “but I’m a student of the Art too,” my reply is no you’re not—if you were you wouldn’t be as ignorant as you are).

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In some respects it comes down to how we define success, in what our goals are. Sure, like anyone I want my school to thrive, to stay open to introduce people to this wonderful Art, but it’s not the only way to teach. Even if all I do is act as one stepping-stone on a much longer path, that stepping-stone is important too, and the path is long and winding. So, whatever happens business-wise, or with the other irons I have in the fire; however crippled I may become; however busy; I will, so long as I can, continue to study, train, and learn about the Art we love, in all its colorful expressions, and, I will continue to support you as you do so too.


Photos:
–Fencing Books

–Seminar on Maghreb Sabre with Da’Mon Stith, July 2018 at Northwest Armizare [Da’Mon Stith is one of the finest martial artists and teachers I’ve ever had the honor meet]

–Mike Cherba’s Introduction to Lashkroba class, Swordsquatch 2016 [I was Mike’s pell/cut dummy 😉 ]

–Introduction to Italian Sabre, class presented at Grit City HEMA, Tacoma, WA, August 2016 [Will Richmond and I taught this class together]