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)!
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. 
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. 
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.
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. 
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
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. 
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.
 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.
 See on
this site “Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion,” August 30,
2019, n. 5.
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
Historical & Social Context (including the
purpose of the work)
Intended Audience 
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.
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
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?
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).
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.  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.
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
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.
 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 
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
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.” 
 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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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,
See on this site, “‘Dueling’ or ‘Military’ Sabre?” May 16, 2019.
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.
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
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].
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. 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. 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.
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. 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
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. 
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
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.
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.
Cultivate 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
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.
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.
[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.
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.  One needs to have some measure by
which to evaluate them as well as a handy list of red-flags.
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.
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. 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
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?  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.
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.
[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).
 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.
 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
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.
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.
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).
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]
In discussion with a friend and fellow fencer this
morning I was reminded of something most of us on the Olympic or Classical side
take for granted: the individual lesson. In historical circles one can find
this option too, but less often, partly because of the backyard, study-group
heritage of historical fencing, and partly because often there’s no one
available who can, properly, teach the old, interpreted material super well.
This isn’t a dig at my peers, just an observation. The historical community isn’t
as venerable, relies less on precedent (and is often outright hostile to it),
and is so varied in expression, purpose, and equipment that a standard teaching
method, while desirable, is less easy to formulate.[i]
Why is the individual lesson so important? There’s a lot
of literature on this, and much of it written by far wiser heads than mine (so
you should check it out), but in summary the one-on-one lesson with an
instructor is better because of focus, attention, and feedback. We learn a lot
in group classes, but by their nature such classes can only do so much. The
instructor, even with an assistant, must survey everyone, all the time, and
notice what is going well, what not so well, and step in. Rather than helping
one person in a focused way, they notice a problem one student might be having
and make a group announcement. Maybe the student not turning that front foot
straight during footwork drills realizes that the instructor is talking about
them, maybe not. One on one, that student has no question. As students, we
should seek out individual lessons if possible, at least if we truly wish to
improve. The focused attention, the critical eye, the distinct correction for
our specific idiosyncratic movement, all of that is invaluable.
One thing we don’t talk about enough, though, is what it
takes for individual lessons to work well.
The easy things to list are well, easy: a knowledgeable instructor, an
attentive student, clear expression of ideas and techniques with demonstration,
etc. But the single most important thing is personality fit. Not everyone
learns the same way, not every style works for all. Students seeking individual
lessons may need to shop around, and they should. Few things sink a student’s
success like a bad rapport with a teacher—this could mean an outright gruff
instructor to one that for whatever reason just isn’t a good fit. It’s like
Instructors need to realize this too. If they’re in this to make money then it especially behooves them to find a style that will work for most people. Traditional approaches to the individual lesson, as still taught at the Coaches’ College or at the Sonoma program, remain the most effective, tried and true way to teach this material. There’s a reason that lessons are still taught as they are after several centuries of development.[ii] For those of us not in the profit game it’s just as important if we truly want to share this wonderful Art with people. For me, when I realize that a student struggles more with my presentation that the skill-set, if I realize that they need something I can’t give them, I recommend friends of mine or other schools who might. If we truly care about the student, then this is what we do. As an instructor, our goal is for students to grow, hopefully with us, but if not then with someone. We’re a small community, and to my mind we collectively gain by recommending one another, helping one another out, and promoting the Art over ourselves. ———-
For complicated reasons many historical fencers outright reject anything smacking
of “sport” or “classical” fencing, presumably for being
less “martial”—a word over-used and too often poorly—than their more
macho historical style of choice. This does their cousins in those other camps
a disservice, but it also limits their own growth.
In brief, traditional lessons one on one start with a short warm up, say
lunging a direct thrust or cut to the instructor via cues. Next, the instructor
may either introduce a new concept or technique, or, may drill one already
shared. Depending on the student there may be a little of both. Lessons often
end with a cool-down drill, e.g. parry-riposte or stop-cut drills for sabre.
Group lessons often mirror this, but writ large.
This past weekend I attended the memorial for one of my
instructors, Matire Delmar Calvert, and among the many thoughts that assailed
me while there was a realization that despite the fact I was surrounded by
mostly Olympic fencers I was with “family.” I didn’t expect that.
These are all people I like, but I’ll be honest, I often have felt like I don’t
belong with them.
More often than not I’ve felt like an outsider in
fencing. When I stopped competing, many of my fellow fencers thought I was
over-reacting or was just full of sour grapes, and when I started doing
research into fencing, technique, etc. the kindest thing I was called was
“nerd.” When I started trying to find and use more historically
appropriate blades a fair number of people thought I was crazy (the historical
community as we know it didn’t exist then). Working from books was bad enough. It
didn’t get better.
I left the competitive world in 1996—I was disgusted with
the band-aid vs. cure approach of the FIE/USFA to the issues in electric sabre.
It just wasn’t fun anymore, not for me, and so I left. I began pursuing
“Classical” or “Traditional” fencing, but understand that
in saying that I don’t mean the artful dance variety—I wanted to return to
sabre pre-electric, and that led me further and further back, ultimately to the
core texts that created what I knew as sabre. Labeled “too sporty”
and failing to pay homage to what has become the established
“Classical” community, there was no welcome there either. It’s just
as cliquish as the Olympic world, maybe more so for being smaller, though I’m
happy to say that in more recent months I’ve had the pleasure to get to know
more people within that community and hope it’s a sign that we’ll communicate
Time in historical fencing has proved just as difficult, if in different ways. The first historical club I attended, off and on, I entered at a difficult time for me and my family. I needed an out, something that wasn’t standing uselessly next to a pregnant spouse undergoing treatment for cancer and trying to keep a four-year old’s world as normal as possible. I should’ve done more research. I knew of Maestro Hayes’ school in Eugene, but with my schedule at the time I couldn’t make that drive. I did what anyone might do instead—I saw the need at the club I was in and decided I’d try to help. It was an utter and complete failure—fragile egos too often see help as a threat. This proved the case at this school.
My last event there, one I put together to help them, but which ended up being micromanaged by the guy in charge of sabre there (first by planting his student in the seminar to keep an eye on me, and then, at the last minute, by showing up himself and taking over the seminar), was the last straw. After sharing my thoughts about it with him, I left and never looked back, though happily and ironically, became the best of friends with his student, and, met two people better connected with the larger historical community. I visited one of their schools, one super close to my house as it turns out, and was there for several years.
Having spent time in each camp’s turf, having fought side
by side with each gang, hearing what they have to say about one another,
themselves, all that, is illuminating. More than ever I think that despite the
differences there’s more that we have in common that we think. This is a hard
sell—group identity, misunderstanding, envy, ignorance, all work together to
prevent more interaction. We are all the sorrier for it.
One of my goals with Sala delle Tre Spade is, to the degree possible, to bridge these divides. ALL fencers, whatever gang affiliation, are welcome—our turf is their turf. We are all united by study of the sword, and, we might learn a lot from one another. It makes me happy to know that in our tiny group we have historical, classical, and Olympic fencers; some have been or are in the SCA; some pursue several “styles” of fencing at different times in the week. We’re a small school, and so have very little influence in the larger fencing world, any of those worlds, but it’s a worthy goal trying to get people together to share what they know, because it builds ties and expands the parameters for what we might learn. We’re the richer for it, and while it’s anyone’s guess how long we’ll last, I know in a way that I know few things that it will have been worth it. We’ll all keep fencing regardless.