Progressive Drills & Building Comfort with the Phrase

from _Istruzioni per la sciabola di sciabola_ [_ (Instructions for Sabre Fencing_], by Arnoldo Ranzatto, first published in 1885, Venice; this is from the third edition, 1889.

Like most of my posts nothing I’m writing in this one is earth-shattering or new. Any reader familiar with individual lessons will recognize quickly what I’m talking about and why. Readers on the historical side, however, who often have little experience with this or who less often have a chance for individual lessons, may find this helpful. Regardless, discussing methods for increasing a student’s comfort and improving their ability to see actions and make decisions in real-time is valuable.

Generally, traditional individual lessons employ the same basic structure. A coach’s focus, personality, time-constraints, and student ages and experience weigh into this too, but normally it’s more a question of altering or augmenting the basic structure rather than adopting a completely different approach.

warm-up –> drill or new material –> cool down

Using sabre as an example, we usually start with a warm-up, such as a series of thrusts to the inside line from standing, then via the lunge; or a simple parry-riposte drill up and down the strip; or the “wood-chop” drill or similar. [1] This may be followed by drilling fundamentals—thrust and lunge, add disengage, or cuts to major targets, stop-cut drills, beats, feints—or by the introduction of a new technique or maneuver. To close there is usually a cool-down, often much like the warm-up (parry-riposte exercises, stop-cut drills, wood-chop drill, etc.).

In a sala where students are in class several days a week it’s possible to use the lesson to introduce new material and then have them drill with more advanced students. Assuming an appropriate degree of dedication this can be an effective strategy. If, however, one sees a student once a week, and especially if that student lacks others with whom to practice, it’s more difficult. Instructors are normally the first “foe” one faces, but improvement in fencing comes via meeting and overcoming new challenges, new challengers, not via habit and the familiar movements and tactics of one opponent.

Ideally, that lone student finds a way, either with you or another club, to find opponents and partners with whom to drill. This is always to be preferred, but until that happens what can one do to help them along, especially in terms of increasing their comfort with movement and the phrase? How can we speed them along, in a sense, when they have fewer opportunities to use what they’re learning? How can we get them to move beyond the one-two nature of so many drills?

Beyond the Play

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r2 (“The Getty”)

One of the challenges in historical fencing is deriving a useful curriculum from the sources. It’s especially difficult with older sources where more is assumed, the method of expression unusual, and where details we’d expect today are lacking. In Fiore’s corpus, for example, there are illustrations and descriptions, but a lot left unsaid too. Students working on the first master of the longsword wide plays, for example, have an illustration of the master and student crossed at punta spada (the top third of the sword or foible), another of the second option from this crossing, and an explanation:

 Here begins the Gioco Largo (Wide Plays) of the sword in two hands. This Master who is crossed at the point of his sword with this player says: “When  I am crossed at the points, I quickly switch my sword to the other side, and strike him from that side with a downward blow to his head or his arms. Alternatively, I can place a thrust into his face, as the next picture will show.”

Fiore dei Liberi, 1409

After the second image the Master continues:

 “I have placed a thrust into his face, as the previous Master said. Also, I could have done what he told you, that is, when my sword was crossed on the right I could have quickly switched sides to the left, striking his head or arms with a downward blow.” [2]

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r3 (“The Getty”)

There’s a lot here to work with, and the images help considerably, but it’s clear that Fiore assumes substantial knowledge on the part of the reader. Notice what is not there: there is no mention of how one gets to this crossing; we’re not told how the scholar might defend himself; while we know this is “wide play” there are no details about ideal distance or tempo; we’re not provided any indication as to which option to choose when, just that there are two. We have, thus, little context for this play, and not surprisingly when many of us learn it we do so as a set-drill. There are more and less effective ways to do this, but one hurtle many students must overcome is how to recognize that they’re in this situation within a bout, and, be prepared for what can happen after one of these options has been exercised. [3]

A similar conundrum faces students working on more recent material. One of my sabre students, for example, asked me how he might improve beyond the initial actions of a particular attack. In this case, he had no trouble making a feint-cut to right cheek, cavazione/disengage with a thrust from second, but if the attack was parried he found he tended to stop. He added that he often felt that way—there was the initial set-to, then he wasn’t sure what to do.

As we drill so we fight

In order to help him, we did the following:

Stage 1: from the engagement of second, cut right cheek (10x)

Stage 2: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest (10X) [4]

Stage 3: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest, BUT this time I parry the thrust and riposte

The first two stages are set-drills. Stage 1, which focuses on the attack the feint will simulate, is intended to prime the fencer to make as realistic a feint as possible. In Stage 2 they make the same action, this time as a feint, and finish the maneuver with a thrust. So far, the student is the “agent” as older English sources would term it, the instructor the “patient” or receiver. As is, these stages exercise the techniques which comprise this compound attack, but apart from working distance (potentially), they don’t situate the actions within the context of a bout. It’s a set-play focused on technique, distance, and tempo, but all on its own, isolated.

In Stage 3, we add just a little context. The instructor reacts rather than just receive the touch. When I employ this method I make sure that the first few parry/ripostes are consistent and the same, e.g. a half-step back, retake second, thrust, or I take fourth and riposte to the right cheek. After a few rounds of this, I then tell the student that I will vary the target on the riposte. This does a few important things. First, it alerts and prepares them to watch what I’m doing; they can’t just anticipate the same response. Second, it mimics what they’ll have to do in bouts when their opponent doesn’t call their shots. Lastly, they’re primed to continue fencing and not just stop after their attack, a common problem many fencers face starting out. Depending upon their skill level we may take it further with additional actions, especially if focusing on not stopping after the first three stages.

In the next exercise, we turn it around—I make the same attack (the one we’ve been drilling) and they practice the defense. Here too we start small and progressively add more actions. Depending on the student they can vary their defense too.

Approached well this takes a drill into what is, more or less, a bout in miniature. It situates a specific action or drill in context. It adds more movement. Because it’s a drill there is slightly less pressure for some students than a bout. Put another way, rather than face the giant question mark that is all the possibilities they might face in a bout, they face the smaller question mark of what to do following something they know, that they’ve been drilling the whole time. In the example just above, watching to see if I parry second and or fourth is much easier because it’s explicit, it’s limited to one of two responses, but it still trains the eye to watch the response and not anticipate or react blindly. This introduces a level of psychological comfort necessary for learning at the same time that it’s helping them grow accustomed to incorporating new actions into real time and honing observation skills.

from Sir William Hope’s _New Method_ (2nd Ed., 1714)

There are other benefits to this approach. Placing the drill within a more combative context can serve as a pressure-cooker for testing more than how well they’re picking up a technique. If for example the student hesitates after the first few ripostes, encouraging them not to let up is important—if they have the advantage they should never stop before the halt. This said if they persist in the attack when it has failed, and up to that point neither person has been hit, encouraging them to take distance and reset is an acceptable goal. [5] Building confidence with a set of actions makes it that much easier for a student to incorporate them into their repertoire when they’re in the assault.

Progressive Drills in a Group Setting

Progressive drills can work in a group setting too. When I use this approach within a class setting I am careful to explain it at each stage, and check each pair of fencers frequently. This style of drill works best, however, with intermediate and advanced students. These students can help newer ones, but should have sufficient background to be able to notice basic trouble spots. Depending on the size of the class some amount of self-policing is necessary, another reason that it works better with more experienced fencers.

My more advanced students are quick to ask whenever they’re unsure about anything, and these discussions become opportunities to trouble-shoot, explain finer details, and explore variations on that particular drill. Time is often at a premium for many of us—we have barely two hours Sundays—but time taken to explain why we do something is important and isn’t wasted.

For beginners, I only use the progressive approach one on one, because the level of detail and attention required by both student and instructor is so much greater. One can make fewer assumptions, and sometimes we have to dial-back the complexity, something far easier to spot and correct one on one than in a group setting.

Progressive Drills & Curriculum Building

There is potential for this style of drill with our earlier works on the Art too. Returning to Fiore’s first master of the sword in two hands, wide play, the two options the master suggests could be Stage 1. Each partner would take turns attacking to work the two options. Stage 2 could introduce a defensive response—for the thrust, perhaps the defender counters with posta breve or frontale and cuts in turn or with the scambiar de punta (“The Exchange of the Thrust”). For the cut to the left side, one response might be posta fenestra followed by a thrust or a cut-around (or through) of the defender’s own. Stage 3, then, would allow the original attacker a chance to parry riposte, or, perhaps employ a move from the gioco stretto or close plays.

In the case of Fiore, whose exquisitely brutal system seems to have been intended to end a fight in two or three moves, there’s probably less need for long, extended plays (naturally proper safety gear is a must). This said there is value is situating his plays and exploring effective responses to them. Instructors in modern fencing will put students through drills with multiple actions within a lesson—something we rarely if ever need in an assault—because learning to work those multiple actions makes simple actions better. 

For instructors struggling to get their students beyond drill and into effective use of what they’re learning, to move them beyond set plays, progressive drills offer one potentially rich source. For students working without an instructor, say in a study group, this can also be an effective method of practice. It might be especially helpful for those small historical fencing study groups looking for ways to expand their practice and build curriculum.

NOTES:

[1] Wood-chop or Around the Horn Drill: this drill primarily works target placement and the fingers. With a mask as target, either hanging up or on a partner, the fencer makes a cut to the right cheek with a double tap of the fingers, then to the top of the mask, then a single bandolier cut to the bib, and either repeats the sequence or goes through various parry/ripostes before continuing the sequence.

[2]    Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

This example is taken from the Getty, but a quick look at the three other known mss. adds little additional information. The Morgan is almost verbatim what the Getty offers and the Paris/Florius and Pisani-Dossi contain much less explanation.

[3]  Drilling First Master: researchers approach it differently, but one of the most sound I’ve seen is that employed by Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare, Sherwood, OR) and Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), both of whom first studied with Maestro Sean Hayes (Northwest Fencing Academy, Eugene, OR). Mike, for example, will have students start at punta spada, or start of out measure and meet there; if there is pressure against the agent’s sword, they cut around; if there’s not, they thrust through. Though first master of gioco largo doesn’t necessarily require pressure to work, the advantage here is that it provides one possible framework for the play and trains the student’s sentiment du fer.

[4] A look at most 19th cen. and many early 20th cen. Italian works on sabre will demonstrate the importance of having the hand about chin high on     the thrust. With the hand in second position (thumb to the left, knuckles up) or in first in second position a la Barbasetti, the top of the arm is covered by the guard, the hand high enough to prevent an unexpected shot to the face, and the arm is poised to make the parries of first, second, or fifth quickly.

[5]  If defense is the goal, if the goal is not to be hit, it’s better to break off than risk a counter attack or attack into tempo. The longer a phrase continues the more likely one might be hit.

Dealing with Criticism

FENCING published in Harper's Weekly June 1890

It’s a commonplace that criticism is one of the hardest things we face. No one enjoys it, but shared correctly and viewed appropriately criticism is a powerful tool. For the fencer it can help to “unpack” criticism as it applies to us as student. This is as true for the researcher. Just as important as these two situations is an instructor’s ability to offer criticism well.  In each role we approach this differently, experience it a little differently, but in each case—as student, teacher, researcher—we’re in an endeavor that by definition includes correction. So, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ways we give and receive such evaluation.

Despite its etymology “criticism” generally connotes something negative. [1] There are probably multiple reasons for this, but one reason must be that so often people don’t offer these observations well, either in terms of kindness or effectiveness. It’s easy to take criticism personally, as an attack on our character, and when criticism is offered poorly it’s small wonder. One of my instructors many years ago—and since he’s still active I’ll not share his name—was notorious for his meanness in lessons. More than one student left a lesson in tears. He was less liked than he was feared, and while many of us did well, many more of us might have had he been more amiable. For me, having grown up within military culture, it was a little easier to deal with some of what he said (while my father was not draconian, I certainly heard a lot of orders given elsewhere that were brusque). I didn’t take it personally, not that it was easy sometimes. Two of the more memorable comments he made to me were “you move like a bovine,” during a lesson, and in coaching piste-side at one tournament “Grow a pair and hit that guy—my grandmother could do this.” Hardly inspiring.

In comparison to my other instructors, all of whom were task masters in their way, this one sharp-tongued coach stood out. He’s not unique. A friend of mine here in Portland was so scarred by a foil coach as a teenager than he left fencing all together until discovering HEMA. Hopefully your instructor isn’t like this—if so, I encourage finding a better one if that’s possible. If you’re stuck with a lemon, or, if you struggle with criticism generally, there are a few things to keep in mind that might help.

As Student
Looking first at proper criticism, i.e. the constructive, meant-to-help sort, the most important thing to remember is that learning includes getting things wrong. Correction is thus part of the learning process. We make mistakes, we mishear, we struggle, we forget, etc. and a good teacher points these out and helps us get them right. Usually our problem is less being corrected than how we are corrected. This is as true in fencing as it is at school or at work.

This said, even the kindest criticism can be hard to swallow. This is all the more true when we feel like we’re doing our best. We expect results from hard work, and that’s not wrong, but as a working hypothesis it needs refinement. Hard work on its own does little—it needs to be consistent, it needs to focus on the correct things, and hardest of all it takes time. Fencing is difficult. It is a highly technical art. If you’re going to assume anything—and assumptions are generally a bad idea—then assume years of constant, persistent practice. Be kind to yourself and give yourself room to mess up.

No one masters this stuff right away. Being armed with more realistic expectations helps a lot. Knowing that what you’re studying is difficult and time-consuming should temper the impact of criticism. When you expect it, it feels less about you and more about the process. Just keep at it. However dressed the critical assessment of your skill is at that moment looks less awful seen against the backdrop of long-term development. It’s a moment of time—you will learn to do X, and then find some new challenge. All of this requires that your ego is in check, that you’re less concerned with how you look in front of your peers, and that too takes work. Focus on the Art, not the perception others may have of you.

If your instructor is like that one I describe above, then you’ll need to separate out the emotional chaff from the constructive grain. This means ignoring any comment that touches on feelings and focusing instead on those that treat substantive issues. In the case where my instructor referred to my movement as “bovine,” he went on to have me do footwork for the rest of the lesson. I was plodding, not advancing, and so I spent a lot of time trying to make my front and back foot land at the same time (back foot to floor as front toes land). [2] I ignored his nasty comment and just focused on the skill. Easier said than done, true, but with practice and a good attitude it’s possible.


As Instructor

Photos-1858-Victorian-fencer

It’s in our own best interest to be kind when offering advice or criticism. Kind doesn’t mean talking around an issue or walking on egg-shells; it means sharing your evaluation in a way more likely to reach that student. Often the best policy, a la the Golden Rule, is to mix whatever analysis you have for them with encouragement. We know this stuff is difficult, we know it takes time, because we were at the same stage of development once—this should make us sympathetic.

Like anyone we can get frustrated. Maybe you’ve had a bad day, maybe the student doesn’t seem to be trying. Your job is to recognize that emotion, put it in place, and proceed without expressing whatever vexation you’re experiencing (if you are). It doesn’t help your student, and more than likely will only stymie them. As important as criticism is, so too are compliments were appropriate. Initially you may only compliment their effort or an aspect of one action, but with encouragement students are far more likely to press on, because they know you believe they can do it. This support is especially critical as they start—many new fencers quit not because they don’t like what they’re doing, but because it feels impossible. No coach should reinforce that idea. Your own training is proof it isn’t impossible, and with that insight your support is not empty, but informed.

Expect to repeat yourself, a lot, especially with younger students. Expect to repeat the same lesson often. Expect to work at new ways to explain the same thing. Patience is worth cultivating, and, it will help you and your students. Our enthusiasm, patience, our can-do attitude is everything, and it’s not a race: if it takes student X longer to master a specific technique, then it does.

Returning to my gruff former instructor, how else might he have addressed my poor footwork? Here is one approach, least it is close to the sort of thing I have found useful:

Halt! Okay, now when you advance listen to the sound. Good—you’re making a single advance, right? How many steps did you hear? Not sure? Okay, do it again. How about now? Two! Did you feel like you were smooth or sort of    bopping up and down? Correct, kinda bobbing, right? This time try to coordinate  the landing of the back foot with the front toes as they touch the floor. Watch me—I lift the toes, I glide just over the floor, and as my front toes lands so does my back foot. How many steps did you hear? One. And I wasn’t bobbing, right? Now your turn.”

In this example there were no ad homines; no questions as to the student’s simian ancestry, relation to barnyard animals, or quips about the student’s masculinity or femininity. This example focuses on the skill-set, on the specific actions, and explains them. The instructor demonstrates it, and then encourages the student to try again.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but whatever words you choose it’s best to build up, not tear down.

As Researcher

If you’re a researcher or translator you’re going to run into critics. There are different sorts, and happily many you can ignore. The ubiquitous internet “troll,” for example, the dolt who just has to pick something apart or disagree, isn’t worth your time. There are a lot of people in the historical fencing community with over-inflated notions of their own brilliance and/or importance, so chances are good if one of them attempts to heckle you that you’ve somehow put them in touch with their own insecurities. Not your problem. Be above that and avoid the intellectual squalor to be found in the fetid fen of the comments section. [3]

The only criticism worth troubling yourself about is proper, subject-driven, constructive criticism by credible people. You may disagree, or, have information that your reader doesn’t, and the situation may or may not warrant a rebuttal, but if you put your work out there you should expect that some aren’t going to like it or agree with your conclusions. For a quick example, an article I wrote for my graduate advisor’s Festschrift received some decent criticism. Now, the reviewer, since they didn’t deal with the editor of this book, couldn’t know what I did, namely, that the stuff the reviewer wanted to see in my article had been there, but had been excised for length. I wasn’t happy about that, but as the first academic article I had in print I didn’t know to push back, or, time-allowing, edit it so that all that could be there. The reviewer’s point is a good one, and my article would’ve been better with that information still there. We learn.

600px-Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods_Figure_5

The public nature of this criticism makes it all the harder to take. Where even a decade or two ago a review might only be read by those with subscriptions or access to the periodical that published it, today a quick search of your name and a title on Google allows the entire world to find it. Add social media sharing and that many more eyes are likely to see it.

How we react to criticism says a lot about us, so it’s worth reflecting, even preparing for various scenarios. Good criticism is always nice, and being gracious about it is important. However, dignity, grace, and measured reactions to a bad review or criticism are as important, maybe more so since people are far more likely to notice and remember fireworks than a thank-you. If the evaluation is accurate and fair, if the criticism leveled at your work stands up, then it behooves you to make changes and re-share the work. Own it—there is no shame in admitting we’re wrong when we actually are. If it’s not possible to fix or reshare the work, then you can write something else and discuss it there. I’ve had to do this, even preemptively, when I’ve noticed an issue in my own work. [4] Allowing poor work or a mistake to stand or worse digging-in and trying to justify it are unwise. Maybe you have supporters, maybe you don’t, but if an error you’ve made has been demonstrated sufficiently, the better part of valor (and scholarship) is to own it, then fix it. [5]

Knowing what is fair criticism or not, what is accurate or not, can be difficult. To state the truth not all professional reviewers are as balanced, fair, or objective as they should be. Some have their own agenda and their criticism, as such, is more “you didn’t do what I would have done” than anything substantive about what you actually produced. It’s not fair, but nothing is fair. In cases like these it can sometimes be important to write a rebuttal. One must be careful to separate personal embarrassment in making errors from chagrin with one of these critics. Each situation is handled differently.

Understood, accepted, and used as a tool for growth effective criticism can be valuable. It helps when that criticism focuses on the task, not our character, and when it is shared in a supportive fashion. If you fence, and it doesn’t matter what style, you will have to find ways to handle being evaluated. The good news is that it does get easier over time. With practice it’s far easier to focus on what they’re attempting to help us do than anything else. Pick your instructor well, realize that they’re doing what your hired them to do (teach), and remember that there is “no growth without assistance.” [6]

———-

NOTES:

[1] Our word “critic” derives from Latin criticus, itself a loan from Greek kritikos, “capable of judging.” Context is everything, but as a general rule, for most American speakers of English anyway, “criticism” is a word that most interpret negatively without further clarification.

[2] This is a very useful pedagogical tool. Students tend to make smaller steps, tend to coordinate their feet better, and in time improve their advance as well as retreat. In practice, during a bout, one doesn’t necessarily move as nicely as this, but one will move better for having worked so hard at it.

[3] I’d rather not name the people, one in particular, that seem to make an effort to disagree or undermine anything I say or post on social media or elsewhere, but they’re good examples of insecure people with ego needs that outweigh their ability to reason or play nicely. Unless there is a reason to correct them, I ignore them. Arguing with the village idiot, as the old saying goes, only creates two idiots.

[4] A fun example, and one hard for me not to enjoy given the irony of my interest in historical fencing, is a line that was misprinted in Artifacts from Medieval Europe (2015). On page 32 the line “Like the sword discussed here, they were still broad enough to cut, but also had a strong, rigid diamond shape that enabled the sword to punch through plate like an awl.” The word “plate” should have been mail, for while it is possible to pierce armor with poor heat-treat—a friend of mine has done this with a dull spear-head—swords in the age of plate weren’t used against armor, and when they were, they were used like a pole-arm to stab into those sections not as well-armored, generally of cloth and/or mail.

[5] A good example of this problem is the debate, such as it is, between two translators of the same rapier text. One of these translations, made by a well-respected scholar, is certainly freer in expression in some places, but is far and away a better version than the other. The author of the less successful translation has attacked his rival on a number of occasions, but to little effect outside of his little collection of supporters. I’ve read through the criticism of his work and the complaints hold up. Even when called on it he refused to accept it. Don’t be that guy.

[6] So says the character Li Mu Bai in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiuQNFiEmMs

IMAGES:
First — scene entitled “Fencing,” in Harper’s Weekly, June 1890.

Second — “Victorian Fencer, 1858,” https://www.leonpaul.com/wordpress/fencing-history-fencing-in-the-19th-century/

Third– modified image of a print, by J.C. Woudanus, 1610, of shelves in library of the University of Leiden: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods

Gauging Improvement in Fencing

Most of us tend to carry simplistic notions of progress and improvement. This is as true when we talk of societal “progress” as it is a particular skill-set such as fencing. [1] In broad outline the idea of progressive improvement is not “wrong,” assuming that the topic is subject to the idea of progress (here defined as an increase in skill, knowledge, and ability over time), but on a day-to-day, functional level it wants for a lot. How we view progress, especially our own improvement in something, depends greatly on our attitude toward it. Happily we have considerable control in shaping that. I don’t mean this in some sort of pie-in-the-sky Professor Pangloss way, but in the sense that there are considerations, methods, and approaches to the idea of improvement that we have control over and that can do much to make the process much less painful. [2] This doesn’t mean free from aggravation. Frustration is a part of learning, not just at the beginning of acquiring new skill, but later too, and how we manage that is as much about how we think about it as anything else. How and what we think affects how we learn as well as our enjoyment of the subject.

A Conventional View of Progress

This is just a chart I made, inexpertly, using Word and Paint, but it illustrates an attitude toward improvement that many of us have. We often don’t even realize we’re applying it:

Usual View of Mastery
One Typical Way of Viewing Progress

Looks so simple, right? In this view, beginners start at the bottom, and through hard work, discipline, and time, increase their knowledge, skill, and ability, until they reach mastery. It’s a straight line up a steep slope. Length of climb depends on the gifts of the student, the talent of the coach, and access to practice. It’s deceiving. The slope is steep and long, but the way looks smooth. It isn’t.

Were this an impressionist painting this view is the one that we’d get from perhaps mid-gallery. We see the whole work. Beginners start with no experience, spend time and effort, usually with help, and in time and assuming good coaching, discipline, etc. they master the new skills. As we get closer to the painting, however, we see more detail, we see the brush strokes, the ways in which different colors mix, and up close it’s harder to see how all this chaos leads to the attractive image we see. It’s not as pretty, but, it’s important, for without all those details there is no painting. It’s these less attractive details and how they relate that produce the pleasant whole. We need to step closer to the painting, or in this case the chart, and examine in closely to appreciate it fully.

Plateaus of Progress

What follows is a closer look at the painting. Rather than view this as above, as a nice isosceles triangle with a smooth slope to success, we’ll look at it as if it were a stepped-pyramid or ziggurat consisting of uneven blocks. The way forward, in truth, isn’t easy, straight, or made in regular stages, but in moments of insight and break-through, in long plateaus of stasis, followed by another jump in ability. [3]

Plateau Final hopefully
Plateaus of Progress, a.k.a. the Ziggurat of Improvement

Like the first chart, the beginner [B] starts at the bottom, but improvement is illustrated in a slightly different way. Initially, the climb is vertical, long, and improvement is marked by sharp contrast as we hit the first plateaus in learning (the sharp, 90 degree corners). Over time, as we grow, those edges round off a bit (steps farther up have rounded edges): adding new skills is a little less difficult because we have a better sense of the geography. In time, some plateaus are shorter, we spend less time on them; we grow a little faster. It may take us a while to incorporate the new skills as they grow in complexity, but we spend less time between them (steps are taller, but distance between one step and the next is shorter). “Mastery” here is a guide, not a goal; the concept of it helps us strive to improve and add to our ability, but the more we learn the more we realize that there’s always more to learn, and, ways to deepen what we already know. There’s no top to the ziggurat—in Babel fashion it just reaches into infinite heights.

Looked at this way, with full recognition that the path of improvement is not straight, should make harder aspects of the process less painful. Some sections of the path are easier than others, some take longer to travel than others. It’s all part of it. We will struggle sometimes, we’ll make mistakes, we won’t understand, we’ll feel like we’ve added one skill only to lose another, and we will sometimes feel as if we’ll never get it. Knowing that this is to be expected, that there’s nothing wrong with you, that it’s not a question of talent, but of dedication, can help us get through the rough patches.

We Control Attitude

Attitude is thought. Whatever native self-confidence or self-worth issues we might have, however much we might struggle with imposter syndrome, whatever sense of grace or clumsiness we possess, whatever setbacks we have or identify as setbacks, how we think about it all makes a difference. It can take an “I’m no good at this” or “I can’t do this” and change it to “I’m still learning this” and “I can’t do this yet” (or better, “I’ll be able to do this soon”). Fencing, no matter what sort you’re pursuing, is difficult; it’s a complex way of thinking with movement. It takes time.

Bob Ross, the famous television painter, said “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do,” and he was right. [4] That fencer that you see whom you find gifted, who makes it all look easy, whose movement and tactics inspire, got where they are through hard work. Maybe they were precocious physically, but they too had to learn; they too made mistakes; they too struggled. They got to where they are because they didn’t give up. The best fencers recognize that the learning never stops.

An attitude that takes into account the mileposts, not just the destination, and realizes and accepts that parts of the path are bumpy, parts steep, parts easy, that some stretches are longer than others, will suffer less and get more out of the trip. Approached this way, it can be easier to focus on where you are now, on the new skill you’re working on, and not how much farther you have to go and all that you haven’t mastered. With practice, it’s possible not only to be present in the moment, focused on the task in front of you at this specific time, but enjoy it too. 

Theory and Practice

Theoretical approaches to pedagogy are informative, but how does one apply all this to the actual practice of fencing? There are two chief ways.

Macro Level

What I’ve shared above about a more useful way to consider improvement is the macro level. It’s the big picture. The whole painting seen from a distance. Put another way, it’s your life as a fencer from open to final curtain. When we hit a plateau in learning, when we feel like we’re not getting where we want to go as fast as we think we should, this is when a more realistic look at the big picture can help. It puts the present moment in context. We see that our current struggle is necessary, a key part of the journey, and importantly, that we’ll get past it and then work on another one.

Micro Level

This same ziggurat of improvement can help us with individual techniques, tactics, and maneuvers too. Just as our entire fencing life can be examined against this notion of improvement, so too can the acquisition of new skills. As an example, consider the simple cavazione/disengage in foil. When we first learn how to perform this, our actions are large and clumsy; our arms might not be extended. We pick the wrong time and distance to use it. Over time, with practice, we make smaller evasions; the action is tighter; our arms are more extended; we use thumb and forefinger more than arm. We start to select the right moment (where time and distance converge with judgment) to use it. The technique, the cavazione here, is now part of our repertoire.

Setting Expectations

This idea of plateaus of improvement assists us in setting realistic expectations and goals. Our expectations affect our performance, so developing a pattern that preempts the downside of frustration only helps us. Used on the macro and micro levels it helps us manage long- and short-term learning goals. It is also a kinder way to appreciate our improvement, because it’s easier to see each stage in context, as part of a much larger whole. Both student and instructor can benefit from this perspective [5].

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” (ca. 1818), by Caspar David Friedrich [6]

Recognition of the reality of the road of improvement won’t erase frustration, but it can mitigate it. If nothing else one can look back over the climb they’ve made to date, realize how far they’ve come, how hard they’ve worked, and that today’s tough plateau is just one step in a series of plateaus we’ve already conquered and those yet to come. There’s an odd mix of satisfaction and determination in such moments. It builds confidence. It can be the one thing on a tough day that helps us with make the next leg of the journey. 


Macro & Micro Expectations

  • Expect learning new things to take time
  • Expect to improve with practice
  • Expect certain maneuvers to make more sense later
  • Expect to make mistakes & that it’s part of the process
  • Know that you have all you need to succeed
  • Know that you will improve
  • Know that your benchmark is not others, but yourself yesterday

Addendum, 10-24-19:

A fellow local fencer, and a chap who also teaches, shared some feedback with me about this piece. I want to share it in full here as it will speak more to those with experience than my attempt to reach a wider audience does. Most of the comment only restates, in more technical language, the point I was making, but he shares an idea there that I think is worth adding. Thank you Will P. for your feedback =)

“A very approachable explanation of a non-intuitive and important topic, thanks for writing it, Jim BT Emmons, and to Mike Cherba for sharing. Some feedback, though. As a preface, It’s a given that any concept involving humans is going to be complex enough that one has to strike a compromise between detail and actually getting something written, but there are two concepts that I think are fundamental enough to be worth knowing even in an overview. First, improvement comes in the complementary forms of expanding understanding and skill building. Skill-building follows an exponential decay pattern while understanding follows a step pattern (like in your diagram). And they inter-relate in that skill-building is capped by understanding while gains in understanding often require a certain threshold of skill in order to be meaningful. Putting the two together, and you get something like a ziggurat with heavily rounded corners, where the upwards movement is skill-building that gradually slows down until a new insight occurs that allows it to speed up again. Second, and more important for beginners to understand, is that progress (as can be seen externally) can be very different from the experience of progress, where the latter looks a more like the Dunning-Kruger curve: one feels like one is improving rapidly as a mysterious thing becomes comprehensible, followed by a period where one feels like one is getting worse (as the full scope of the skill becomes apparent), followed by a slow build (as one’s perception finally starts to align with reality). ” [source, NW Armizare, fb page, 10-23-19]

Will’s second point here, that experience of progress in oneself very often looks much different than that of a coach or other fencers, is important. Perspective changes with experience, and for newer fencers it can be easy to believe that one is doing technique X well when in fact one is only doing it marginally better than yesterday. This isn’t bad, but knowing that our own estimation of where we are, especially at the beginning, is important. I can attest to this well myself, though the example (one of many alas) is a little embarrassing. In my first year of competition, as the third string sabreur on my college squad, I left one bout of however many I fought that day convinced I’d won. Everything seemed to go well, better than well, and yet… I kept losing the touch. In this particular bout I think I managed 1-5. In discussion later, my coach at the time remarked that I had made some of the actions well, better than before, but at the wrong time or in the wrong context. Looking back on that now, some 30 years later, I know far better what he meant. Anyway, be kind to yourself, give yourself room to screw up, and keep fencing!

—————

NOTES:

[1] There’s not room enough to discuss the idea of “progress” or its failings, but if you’re curious the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a decent summary: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/progress/

[2] Pangloss, a caricature of the philosopher Gottfried W. Leibniz, is the ever-optimistic tutor of Candide in Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph (1759).

[3] In the process of editing this, and looking for typical charts for fencing improvement, I found a very similar idea if, in my opinion, less well spelled out 😉 [the link here has issues, so look up academyoffencingmasters, blog, and small-steps-big-progress and you should find it.

[4] Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, “Meadow Lake” (Season 2, Episode 1).

[5] My plan for the next essay is on dealing with criticism/assessment of skill as fencer, instructor, and researcher.

[6] Photo obtained from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog#/media/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog.jpg

Intro. to Sabre at Trackers Forest School

I have had the great pleasure to work with some of the 8th graders at Trackers Forest School in Portland. These are shots, taken by parents (and used with permission), of one of the classes. The kids are smart, enthusiastic, ask great questions, and are keen to learn. I’ve really enjoyed working with them!

This course is a four week introduction to see if the kids like it, if it might be a viable extension of their program. Most of their class time is spent out of doors, but with the rain here we’ve had to adapt and thanks to the very hard work of one of the parents, we found a great spot to keep gear dry.

IMG_0600
Discussing the invitation/guard/parry of terza/third

Logo Trackers Forest School is part of the Trackers program in Portland. For more information see: https://trackerspdx.com/forest-school

 

With an introductory class like this, and limited space, we’ve spent most of our time on fundamentals of movement and basic blade-work. I note this because whenever I have students targeting more than the head, they are in jackets. Only three weeks in, we’ve focused on the dynamics of the cut, both direct and by molinello, and I’ve restricted that to the mask (top of the head, left and right cheek). Safety is paramount and I want to make it clear that what you see here is not oversight or neglect, but by design.

IMG_0603
The young man in black, a regular student of mine, assists one of his classmates.

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

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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].