Steel Bouquet, or, The Advantages of Multi-Weapon and Multi-Text Study

The title might make a decent band name, but no, I’m not starting a band. It’s meant to capture the common photo of an instructor grasping either their favored weapon or multiple arms. [1] Normally they’re clad in the jacket or gambeson that accompanies those tools best. Fancier shots have black backgrounds highlighting vaguely period expressions with a tinge of hipster coolness. Not knocking them, they can be nice, but it’s beyond whatever emotional depth or panache they’re meant to express which I wish to touch on here.

Many if not most fencers in the Olympic orbit become single-weapon fencers. It’s often true in historical circles too. They specialize. Historically, one started out in foil and then perhaps explored sabre or epee. The “three-weapon” fencer actually deserving of the name was, when I was starting out and even when competing, something of a special case. For context, I mean NCAA and USFA fencers between say 18 and 25. Many might dabble in the other weapons, but the fencer who could actually fence each as intended was less common. In my college club there was one fencer who was truly a three-weapon fencer, Dennis.

A close friend, and now one of my oldest, Dennis has more than once been a mentor to me. He will always be. When I was struggling with something new in sabre, for example, he would drill with me until I got it. When I destroyed my right arm in an auto accident, it was Dennis who agreed to train me as a lefty. Even now, Dennis has helped me as he could with an epee coaching class, playing the advanced student for me in video homework. A number of years ago when I was still working on competitive issues in Olympic fencing it was Dennis who ended up co-authoring a paper on difficulties in judging foil. He is versatile. He can help with all these things, and more, because of it.

Beyond the obvious perks to versatility, there is a still more important reason that it’s a goal worth pursuing: depth of understanding. It’s an analogy I’ve used a lot, but studying a different weapon or tradition is like learning a new language, one that helps you understand your own that much better. Over the past year, when most of us have been unable to meet up to fence, I’ve watched and/or advised people working in isolation. Some had partners to train with, many more did not. But what I noticed in each case was the more that these students included disciplines and weapons they didn’t normally study the better they got at their primary focus. More than that, their understanding of the universal principles underlaying all fencing increased. It was akin to watching what I imagine Dennis’ first few years fencing were like.

It can be daunting trying something new. At a certain point in training, however, it can be the catalyst one requires for growth. This raises an important question—when should one start dabbling in other weapons and forms? Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), in a short thought-piece I shared here a while back (“Alex Spreier on Universals,” 2 May 2021), summed it up well:

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

The idea of dedicated, formal study of one system or weapon for years goes against common practice in “HEMA,” but it is nonetheless the best path to improvement. As Alex explains, what this focused time does is impart the necessary skills to acquire new ones later; at the same time, it builds an intellectual framework and vocabulary that assists pattern recognition and retention in learning.

On an app that serves as the virtual lounge for the “collective” of schools that work together in this part of the PNW, we have had several ongoing discussions; in depth, evidence-driven conversations about key principles, ideas, or techniques that we have less information for than we’d like. One in particular highlights the importance of cross-training and text-diving.

Ex. Mezzo Tempo & Counter-time

The example in question was put forth by one of the instructors, Andy Playmate (Northwest Armizare), who has been running the longsword pod. In looking at tempo in longsword, and what a few different interpretations/translations say, he asked about Vadi’s notion of mezzo tempo or half-tempo and how it relates to counter time, attacks in preparation, etc. A rapier fencer as well, he asked questions related to both weapons: “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” Great questions and ones which underscore how difficult it can be to unravel key concepts even armed with good training and vocabulary.

Starting with Philippo Vadi (fl. 1480), what does he say?

I do not have a copy of Vadi handy, so here I will rely on Guy Windsor’s translation available at Wiktenauer:

Chapter XIIII. Theory of the half tempo of the sword

I cannot show you in writing

The theory and way of the half tempo

Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike

Reside in the wrist. [2]

The half tempo is just one turn

Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,

It can rarely fail

When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,

One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:[44]

Often the quick flight from one side to another

Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,

Because in one go it strikes and parries.

Oh what a valuable thing, To practice it according to the good principles,

It will let you carry the banner of the Art.[45] [3]

In my reading of Vadi, mezzo-tempo here suggests an action that blocks and cuts/thrusts at the same time. For once, Florio’s glossary [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/] may be helpful here. He defines mezzo a few ways, but while it can mean “half,” it can also mean “a mediator, or intercessor. As a space or interveall of time or place” (313). Mezzo here may mean more “middle” as an action that either splits the difference or occurs during the “middle” of an opponent’s attack; mid-tempo. I can’t say that for sure, but given what Vadi says here—and going by Windsor’s translation—that makes sense to me. One way to illustrate this is to image that Fencer A throws a cut, a mandritto fendente, and B selects the time in which that cut is still developing to intercept it with a cut of their own, likely with a step somewhat to the side (to the right assuming two right-handers) that at once blocks and stops the incoming attack and that strikes at the same time. A close out like this, something later rapier masters saw as ideal, might be defined as a type of counter-attack, but perhaps the most accurate term would be an attack into preparation or an attack into tempo, that is, where one attacks as the opponent initiates their attack. Certainly what Vadi describes here is in line with later masters. [4]

Looking at what other masters say about mezzo tempo makes sense as we try to figure out Vadi. For Italy, the next generation of masters, especially the Bolognese school, is a logical next step. The Bolognese masters also employ the term, but don’t agree amongst themselves as to definition. The Anonimo and Viggiani, to name two, both use mezzo tempo but define it slightly differently. Viggiani, for example, wrote:

Sometimes one attacks with a half blow, in mezzo tempo. It is true that the majority of attacking is in mezzo tempo, since, when there are two who are well schooled in the art, he who wishes to attack will deceive his companion in such a fashion that, when his adversary is about to perform a blow, he enters with dexterity and speed and strikes in the middle of the adversary’s blow with a half blow

In the Anonimo, mezzo tempo is an attack into preparation, and contra tempo is what we see in Vadi, an attack into tempo that closes out the opposing steel and strikes simultaneously. The author of the Anonimo uses more ink to explain that there is no such thing as a half tempo, but that since one can make a “half attack,” that is, one that stops at stretto distance and is made more quickly, that they refer to it as “half” tempo (as an aside, this is a lovely example of a fencing text differentiating tempo and speed). Again, “mid-tempo” might be a better translation. Regardless, the Anonimo offers less detail about mezzo tempo. As to counter time, we read “Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless, while you simultaneously make one that strikes him.”

Dal’Aggochie, as Mike Cherba pointed out, was probably the clearest. For him, mezzo tempo is “A half tempo, the final one,… when you attack while the enemy is throwing his blow.” [5]

Um, they don’t Agree, so… what now?

So, what is the student to do with all this? How does one reconcile these disparate definitions? Vadi, Viggiani, the Anonimo, and Dal’Aggochie all include mezzo tempo, but don’t agree. It can help to group them together and see how they differ. All include an attack that interrupts that of the opponent. Vadi and Viggiani call this mezzo tempo; the Anonimo calls the same thing contra tempo. Dal’Aggochie may refer to the same thing; his half tempo sounds much the same as the others, but being less specific as to when exactly one attacks the enemy it’s less clear. Is the attack made as they are preparing (an attack in prep), as they are mid-strike (half-tempo), or is it in response to a counter attack (contra tempo)?

This is where looking at the modern definition, one derived from this tradition, can be helpful. It may not be the same, that is always a possibility, but it’s a place to start. Counter-time, sometimes referred to as contretemps (Fr.) or contra-tempo (It.), is different from the early notion of mezzo tempo. It’s usually a technique for more advanced fencers. Not each master in the past defined it quite the same way, though most tend to suggest the definition that survives today, that is, “a planned action made against an opponent’s stop-thrust or stop-cut. First draw out the stop hit, and then parry it and hit the opponent in a lunge.” [6] Other definitions are similar.

Here is one from the wiki at Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada: “this is the opportunity to strike during an opponent’s offensive action with a shorter attack of your own that closes the line.” [7]

Masaniello Parise (1884), discussing counter time for sabre, not surprisingly is more in line with current definitions. This action is made “with veracity, advancing a step and immediately defending with a circular or opposition parry against the opponent’s action in tempo [i.e. counter-attack], and secure in defense, and ripostes without delay.” [8]

There are, however, exceptions. On one page of an old site at the University of Northern Arizona, guessing one of William Wilson’s, the editor quotes the Pallas Armata (1639) and defines contratempo as “a thrust in the same line that your adversary thrusts in (Pallas Armata, p. 6).” [9]

With the exception of this last definition, all describe a counter-offensive action made against someone making a counter-attack. It’s not specific to weapon, only the tempo in which a weapon, any hand-to-hand weapon, might be used. The distance required by such a maneuver is critical as is the speed and accuracy with which one strikes. Tempo, distance, speed, judgment, initiative, these are all universals, the elements underpinning all fencing.

Returning to Andy’s question, “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” what can we say after reviewing some of the literature?

My answer would be that a stop thrust, if it closes the line as it lands, might be an example of mezzo tempo. Certainly that seems to fit the majority of the definitions we just examined. A stop cut might too, but these often do not close out the line—they are cuts made against an open line, but always followed by a parry and riposte in case the stop cut fails. Since it’s not usually the final blow, a stop cut doesn’t fit Dal’Aggochie’s definition well either; it’s a counter-attack followed by a defensive action. Stop-cuts, like stop-thrusts, are attacks of opportunity, but less likely performed with a close out. I’ve not touched the second question, but attacks against the forward target are reflected in more than one medieval source—for a graphic example the hands lopped off and flying in Talhoffer (ca. 1467) might serve. While the stop cut we use in sabre may derive from something native to cutting weapons, it’s not impossible that the later stop-hit/stop-thrust derived from the rapier iteration of mezzo-tempo. I’m not sure what work has been done on this if any, but it might be fun to explore.

So what?

What I’ve hoped to show with this example is two-fold. First, time spent (at the appropriate stage) working on additional weapons or systems increases our understanding. The fencers asking these questions arrived at them thanks to cross-training. They’re making connections, seeing parallels as well as key differences.

Second, the increase in awareness and understanding, in seeing yet again how the same universal principles apply, makes it that much easier to “unpack” the next new system or weapon. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, just easier. In the aggregate our knowledge and skill should grow and improve.

Importantly, one must be cautious not to misapply modern understanding, or worse—exceptions, onto the past. The more one knows of the universals across time, across masters and texts and periods, the less likely this is a danger. Many members of the historical community make the mistake of assuming anyone referencing modern works is, by definition, guilty of anachronism. That is not true, but it can look that way to someone unarmed with that knowledge and understanding. Since they cannot distinguish between excesses that help one gain points in a sport, and the universal principles that most fencers learn before they try on the silly stuff, they have trouble seeing how anything past 1500 can have any relevance. Modern discussion of the universal principles did not pop out of a cereal box on the 1 of January, 1900 or 2000; they derive from the corpus of works we read in historical fencing. Time spent with solid modern works, like time spent with another weapon, so long as approached responsibly, will help more than hinder.

NOTES:

[1] A quick google search using the terms “fencing instructor portrait” will bring up some decent examples.

[2] “Wrist” here makes more sense than “knot,” though polso is the modern Italian for “wrist.” Nodo, here, can mean knot, but it can mean junction, crux, etc., and my guess is that the other translators may have used Florio’s 1611 Dictionary (p. 333; cf. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/), where he stipulates that Nódo can mean “also the joint of any cane.” By context Vadi clearly means turning the hands so that one simultaneously blocks and strikes. “Of all the art this is the jewel” certainly makes sense in light of that idea.

[3] For Vadi, https://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/Philippo_di_Vadi#Introduction  

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686), I.I. Ch. IV., 23 in Holzman’s translation.

[5] For Viggiani, see W. Jherek Swanger, The Fencing Method of Angelo Viggiani: Lo Schermo, 64r; p. 7 of the pdf; for The Anonimo, see Stephen Fratus, trans., With Malice and Cunning: Anonymous 16th Century Manuscript on Bolognese Swordsmanship, Lulu Press, 2020, 64 (see also p. 49); for Dal’Aggochie, see The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation, trans. Jherek Swanger, Lulu Press, 2018, 29v.

[6] Rob Handelman, and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes (San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014),441.

[7] http://wmawiki.org/index.php?title=Academie_Duello_Glossary

[8] See Christopher A. Holzman, ed., The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015, 272-273.

[9] https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing/terms.html

Alex Spreier and Sean Mueller on Razmafzar TV

In another wonderful interview Dr. Khorasani chats with two friends about the Art, Alex Spreier and Sean Mueller of High Desert Armizare, Bend, Oregon. These are two fencers I chat with frequently and fence with whenever possible.

High Desert Armizare, as the name suggests, began as a club working on the corpus of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410). One of the wonderful things about _Armizare_ is that it was comprehensive. We see the tip of the iceberg in the surviving texts, but what we see covers everything from wrestling to mounted combat. Alex, who studied classical Italian foil and _Armizare_ with Maestro Sean Hayes for years, combines that solid training with the insight and intellectual nimbleness of a professional educator. It’s one reason that he is fascinated by the Art in toto, and, able to examine it effectively. Whether it is 15th cen. pole-axe in _Le Jeu de la Hache_, Zachary Wylde’s smallsword, Xing Yi Quan, or sabre, Alex dives in with passion, discipline, and proper rigor.

Sean Mueller, a long time student at HDA, is likewise universal in interest and skill. Like Alex, he’s no stranger to grappling arts—eastern and western—and his study includes everything from Fiore’s system to broadsword, Judo, smallsword, and the _bastone_ of Cerri (his blog on Cerri here on wordpress is excellent—see the “Links” page). A skilled jeweler by trade, Sean’s attention to detail, patience, and precision add to the intellectually responsible method he applies to the Art.

Their skill and passion, the joy really they find in exploring martial arts, is evident in this interview. I learn something whenever I chat with them and you likely will too. Here’s the link:

“HEMA,” Elitism, and all That

In a response to some of the comments on a video by another Youtuber, Matt Easton (Schola Gladitoria) shared some important insights about what HEMA is, and whether or not it is beset by deep elitism, gate-keeping, etc. [1] Much of what he has to say I’ve touched on here before, and Matt’s presentation is more eloquent than mine would be, so it’s best to watch his video for yourself. Here is the link:

However, there is one thing Matt left out that I’d like to address, again, because it can’t be stressed enough, and that is quality of interpretation. What makes HEMA unique is the “H,” the history part. Few people involved in historical fencing lack at least some interest in history, but very few actually have the skills to do it properly when it comes to the research aspect.

To quote Matt, one doesn’t need to do that research–one can learn from someone who has, or from someone who learned from someone who has. Most people, in my experience, fall into that category, and like Matt I think it’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. As I remind myself when people decide to skip class the fact is that most of the adults who work with me are busy people, with families, jobs, other hobbies, and they do this stuff for fun, the same way they might go camping, or run, or see friends for game night. The amount of time I spend on the Art is not the norm.

Where I see the real problem is in the hubris too many in “HEMA” display in believing that cracking a book and offering up an interpretation is as easy as a fourth grade book report. It’s not. Call it gate-keeping if you will, by my history PhD says you’re wrong, and unless you have the same training and can make a better case, it might be worth considering that promoting and defending daft theories not only makes one a fool, but also may potentially mislead people. If that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, perhaps a few analogies will help.

I like science. I read about it, I watch documentaries, and what little news I still follow is mostly science and/or history, art, or archaeology oriented. My spouse was a research scientist, and her family on both sides worked for or works for NASA. As a student I took classes in biology, botany, physics, chemistry, and geology. Despite this interest, you will not see me attempting to write articles on particle physics, Fermat’s theorem, or the latest work in RNA vaccine production. I am not qualified to do so. Even with a bachelor’s of science it would be inappropriate, even dangerous for me to try to speak on a professional level about these things. Outside a book club or circle of fellow-enthusiasts I have no business whatsoever making pronouncements about the latest black hole research. I don’t feel less a person for not having any works listed in PubMed.

One of the most interesting books I ever read was on 18th century medicine. It covered everything from vestigial ideas about the “humors” to surgery, and the illustrations–especially for amputation tools–were as chilling as they were morbidly fascinating. I’ve been to see a doctor countless times, been put under twice so far, had stitches, bones set, and I know a fair number of doctors. I’ve seen them portrayed on t.v., I’ve taken first-aid classes, and having health-care professionals in the family I hear a lot, A LOT, about trends in medicine. Much as I’ve learned, this is another subject that I will not be writing about or teaching, and I certainly won’t be submitting anything to Lancet or offering to perform that triple by-pass for your uncle. I’m not qualified to do any of those things. I know better than to try, and not just because of the jail-time I’d likely face; it would be irresponsible of me to play surgeon or dentist when I’m not one.

In the past, when I’ve made these types of analogies one of the first responses I get is “but those are important–they affect lives or wallets.” True. But, history is no less important, and getting it right is too. Without proper history and professional historians we can get important things wrong. Even now, and outside “HEMA,” we see this–there are the cretins who deny the Holocaust, despite ALL the evidence, and worse, attribute that evidence to some world-wide conspiracy. There are the sad cases that buy the “ancient aliens” bullshit that has made the shareholders of the “History Channel” wealthy. There are people who continue to argue that the Confederacy wasn’t about preserving slavery, but “culture” or “heritage,” ignoring the fact that this “culture” only existed because of slavery and that the “heritage” they celebrate is a slap in the face to citizens of our country whose ancestors were enslaved (and who continue to suffer discrimination).

It’s fair to say that interpreting historical fencing manuals is not on par with cases as severe and important as Holocaust denial. However, there are dangers to poor theories on the Art. On the one hand some interpretations might get one injured. [2] On the other hand, there is a danger in perpetuating the widespread crisis that is ignoring reason and handling evidence responsibly. It takes training to analyze and make sense of evidence effectively and responsibly, and like it or not some people have more of that training than others. That’s not gatekeeping, no more than telling your plumber that he’s not a neurosurgeon or your lawyer that they have no business discussing ethics.

If this sounds angry and disappointed–two things I’ve been accused of for daring to call out the poseurs playing historian–well, it is. Being angry about something doesn’t automatically make one wrong. It’s insulting to those of us who spent years learning to read, analyze, and communicate research to have untrained people attempt to shame us for it and call that training into question. They have no right to do so, and the only shame belongs to them.

Notes:

[1] The video in question was shared by “Skallagrim,” cf. https://youtu.be/DauXo_Hg7l0

I don’t follow this chap, but he’s well-known in HEMA circles.

[2] In the past year, to name one example, one theorist shared video that defies all reason, not just in what it depicts, but in the fact that he shared it as supposed proof for his theory. Does he not see how bad this is to anyone who actually knows anything about fencing?

The section of “HEMA” that buys into this b.s. has been remarkably silent about it–either they now see the b.s. for what it is and shame-faced haven’t recanted, or, they don’t see the problem and think it’s great. I’m not sure which is worse. Just as they don’t care for professional researchers who don’t agree with them, they also care nothing for long-established agreement on the fundamentals of fencing. One example should suffice to illustrate the problem: in the video, Fencer A steps into critical distance (close enough to be hit) without presenting a threat or covering himself; he is then clobbered, and after being hit finally reacts. Amazing and sad. The guy literally steps into be hit before doing anything… and this is a crowd that swallows the equally daft heavy-hitting is manly garbage. Not safe.

Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces

When we occupy any space lacking clear definition it can be both unsettling and liberating. In either case much of what feeds our experience in threshold areas comes down to external reaction to it, our earlier experiences, and our expectations. I’m not sure which is harder to manage; each in its own unique ways can play merry hell with us. Now three quarters through what is easily the best fencing course I’ve ever had the pleasure to take, I’ve had another chance to examine, closely, life-in-the-limen. This class, a twenty-one week exploration of everything one could wish to know about the techniques and teaching of epee, is fantastic, but it has reminded me powerfully that I am too “historical” for my Olympic colleagues, and too “Olympic” for my historical ones. I don’t really belong in either camp, but value both for what each offers. One of many pluses to being stuck in some ill-defined space is that for all the confusion there is clarity too—one is just distant enough to see things more objectively provided one is honest and looking. About a year ago I posted a piece, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps” [22-7-21], that touched on a few aspects of having one’s feet in multiple spots. This post picks up where that one stopped.

Culture & Tunnel Vision

We like to be comfortable, so we seek out and nestle into communities where we suffer less cognitive dissonance. While opinions vary in such communities there’s nonetheless a general acceptance of operating truths that allow for easy interaction, predictable outcomes, and a sense of contentment. We don’t like when someone disrupts the illusion. Sometimes we experience that as mild frustration and bewilderment, at others we become actively hostile. We don’t always pause, step back, and regard the scene with an analytical eye, though we should. This is all the harder to do when we’re used to a degree of conformity; any outlier can be dust in the eye, nothing necessarily fatal but nonetheless annoying. [1]

No one is exempt from the tunnel vision that comes with a culture, any culture, but it’s also true that one’s vision can widen. The more one struggles to see things within a different culture, the wider that perspective can become. It’s one reason that travel and exposure to other ways of life, of thinking, to different values, are so vital—not everyone emerges from those experiences more open-minded and compassionate, but many do. In a way it’s a particular form of learning how to pay attention, even knowing to, and that on its own is reason enough to try.

Too “Historical” for Olympic?

As a caveat, this particular master and I have not chatted about any of this, so what follows is nothing save my musings about a possible interpretation of what I’m seeing. I could be dead wrong. This is something I must be aware of and note: knowing my own mixed history with the competitive world I might be applying a bias where there isn’t one. With this said, there are a few things that have struck me that speak to the gulf in culture.

This class, online thanks to Covid, is taught by a well-known, talented, and excellent master. I’ve come to have a lot of respect for this man—he’s kind, a teacher’s teacher, and inclusive in outlook (e.g. he discusses the differences in teaching children, adults, and veterans [40 years +], and doesn’t just focus on male instructors). But as a long-time maestro in the competitive world he, like any of us, has assumptions when interacting with other fencers. Most of the people in this class, so far as I can tell, belong to more traditional salles, and thus have potential students working in the same way close to hand. A few of us do not. This matters, because teaching a fencer who has decent training in Olympic fencing will read differently than those of us who work with a wide variety of fencers.

A sport fencer understands, among other things, how individual lessons normally proceed. It’s part of their culture. Likewise, there are types of drills, expectations about practice, and attitudes toward new material that make it easier in a class like this to work with like-minded people. In contrast, my students come from very different backgrounds—not one, at present, has ever stepped foot in a typical Olympic salle. Some have never fenced or studied any martial art; others have studied empty-hand traditions, but nothing weapon-oriented; still others have extensive experience in other martial arts and weapons, and most of these I have met through “HEMA.” [2] Thus, when working with one of these students, in most cases they did not come up via the same individual lesson system. Their basis for authority is different, and, unlike most sport fencers they are more likely to question it. [3] One can tell not only by their kit, which is immediately recognizable in most instances from that worn for sport, but in how they move and their responses to particular actions. [4]

Even knowing (or accepting) that there are different types of fencers is not something one can take for granted. I have seen this play out many times, not only in Olympic contexts, but also in historical ones. As I’ve often remarked, on either side most people are familiar only with the excesses—to the degree that anyone is aware of historical fencing, they know it primarily through its least robust if most popular expressions, the sort of thing that makes for good t.v. (this is not a compliment). Olympic fencers see people in black (a color only masters in their world wear), whacking away at one another with little sense of tactics, poor fundamentals, and what appears to be a sad display of might makes right. HEMA players, on the other hand, mock the size of Olympic weapons, the lack of attention to fencing’s past, and that sport’s own celebration of the ridiculous (to cite an easy example the fact that any part of the sabre blade may score). Both camps are correct. Both are incorrect. However, unless one has spent sufficient time in either world that dichotomy will be hard to accept.

Too “Olympic” for Historical?
Bias belongs to all, and having talked about many such examples before I will share one that I hope I’ve not already cited: if I did, my apologies (I searched this site for key words, but it’s not the most fine-tuned search tool). In 2016, at a large event, I had a chance to bout with a well-known HEMA personality. I was struck by how poorly this individual read the room. It’s normal practice to size up other fighters—we can tell a lot from watching them fight, but so too can we glean a lot from their kit. The kit my two friends and I wore should have told him a few things.

Santelli Sabre Mask, old sabre jacket, and three “non-standard” (as an instructor once remarked to me on seeing the one bottom right) sabres

If my age wasn’t something to notice (it should have been), then an old, battered Santelli sabre mask, an even older sabre jacket held together in parts by dental floss sutures, and a mix of weapons that included old AFS parts as equally unavailable as that mask should have said something. [5] That it didn’t told me a lot—this was someone who didn’t recognize that my gear was at least 16 to 20 years old; at my age this gear was likely mine and not an older sibling’s or parent’s, so… by process of elimination I had probably been fencing at least 16-20 years (at that time I had been fencing 29 years). I was polite, because one should be, but amused that this individual then proceeded to explain to me and the others what a “sabre” is, and, that we wouldn’t be using the point as his aluminum tools didn’t flex. His gear—his choice, but that was telling too: he doesn’t fence with people who have sufficient control to work with stiffer weapons.

I was the first to bout with him, and the little bit of intel I had gathered proved reliable. We set-to a few times, and it was eye-opening. Given his popularity I assumed, incorrectly, that this guy must be at least a decent fighter—he’s not. In fairness, I assumed he was likely dealing with some manner of health issue or had recently been ill (he was rather gaunt), something that seemed all the more likely when he stopped after a few passes, out of breath, and replied to my query of whether or not he was okay with “I just didn’t think it would last this long.” One of my two friends fought him next, with similar results, and after that he wouldn’t fence anyone save the friends who came with him. With his reputation I imagine that being schooled by two unknowns was unappealing press: again, very telling. Having been advised always to seek out better fighters by my masters, eastern and western, I would have wanted to chat with my opponent after the bout, maybe see about learning more from them.

As I thought about it that day, and as it has increasingly appeared to me since then, it’s not that my famous opponent hadn’t done his intel, but that he drew the wrong conclusions from it. He saw old Olympic equipment, and in my case, a man slightly older than himself, and assumed easy pickings. After all, what could a former sport fencer possibly know that would be of use in “real” sword-fighting? It’s a bias I’ve run into more often than not in “HEMA” contexts. It’s as erroneous an assumption as concluding that all HEMA is bad. It’s not. Some is great. Much of the tragedy both ways is a lack of ability to separate good and bad fencing. If nothing else during quarantine my interactions with a number of HEMA and Olympic folk have proved how painfully true this is.

Sword-bridges & the Time between Times

Sir Lancelot crossing the sword-bridge; relief from Sainte-Pierre, Caen, Normandy, France, ca. 14th century

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la charrete (The Knight of the Cart), Sir Lancelot must cross a bridge consisting of a sharp sword. Medieval images of the poor knight traversing this pointed symbol were popular, and regardless of what one may know about armor and its effectiveness, upon first viewing what we tend to see is a person trying to get across something dangerous. [6] They’re powerful, vivid images. In like guise, poised between two worlds but belonging to neither of them, is similar in that it often feels like one is walking a knife’s edge. Disaster, in this latter case, is less a danger than discomfort, but I wouldn’t discount that discomfort. It can be surprisingly brutal and difficult to navigate. If nothing else, where is one when the only two communities seemingly the most likely to take one seriously both consider one an oddball?

One thing that makes it easier is finding other oddballs—the handful I know, and I mean “oddball” here as a compliment—are spread out across the globe. They are the only reason I still have fb messenger. Interaction with them, normally virtual, is a lifeline, and sometimes the only medicine against the feeling that maybe we’re completely insane. Another product of not buying either branches’ interpretation in toto is that the confidence that comes with such conviction—however great a mistake—is a stranger to us. No one likes being told that a cherished belief might benefit from further study or reconsideration, but objective looks at both camps quickly demonstrates that neither is perfect. [7] The only antidote to misplaced conviction is to make such questioning habit, and we’re not living at a time when rational inquiry enjoys much popularity.

The uncertainly projected at us can undermine everything we do if we let it. However, it doesn’t have to, because if mythology teaches us anything it’s that liminal spaces are where things happen. Dawn or dusk, the meeting of sea and land, doorways, and similar boundaries are all locations of significance, preserves of magic, of change, of adventure, from Pwyll on the gorsedd to Halloween night. [8] This is to say that occupying a middle ground doesn’t have to be negative; it can be transformative. Following the mythological parallel, this change is rarely comfortable, in fact it is often harrowing, but it’s anything but boring. It’s not an easy place to be; it can be extremely disorienting and lonely. People will not understand it sometimes, they will judge it and us, but there is always a cost to growth. If the goal of martial arts is ultimately personal growth, with all the attendant good that should follow from it, then discomfort is worth it.

So What?

Why does this matter? How might the experience of one obscure fencer affect you? It depends. If you’re a fellow traveller, then you have another oddball in your corner. If you’re in a similar position in re being sort of stuck between two worlds, then maybe this offers some comfort or a way toward it. Maybe it means nothing—that’s okay too. Beyond the personal, though, there are some important ramifications for examining the boundaries we operate within or set up.

There are changes, for example, coming to Olympic fencing in the United States that will likely affect many of us. The official fencing organization, the USFA (United States Fencing Association), which is tied to the Olympic team, and the USFCA, the United States Fencing Coaches Association, which has overseen the training of instructors, will come together to meet the dictates of the US Olympic Committee which mandated that “coaching education be provided by each Olympic/Paralympic sports organization in order to be certified as a governing body in 2021.” [9] It goes beyond space to cover this adequately here, but on the ground this means the creation of even more effective gate-keeping.

I’m all for ensuring qualified coaches and instructors—regardless of one’s camp—but both organizations, especially the USFA, only acknowledge one type of fencer and one type of coach, both competitive. It remains to be seen how this will affect instructors like myself who teach on the local level and who are not sport-oriented. The first question I was asked when I approached my local parks & rec organization about starting a class was about my qualifications. “Time in the saddle” was the most honest answer I could offer along with a resume of experience. Will that work in a few years? I don’t know, but one thing I do know, and am happy to prove is that I can teach your kid basic foil, epee, and sabre. [10]

Maestro Gerevich with students [https://sportmonitor.info/?p=14739]

I don’t pretend to be a maestro, I don’t attempt to teach what I haven’t had sufficient training in, and I am quick to recommend other coaches as appropriate. My goal with the introduction to fencing class is exactly that, an introduction, exposure to the exciting world that is fencing in all its guises. That has value, but not all fencers see it that way, and it seems to me that allowing any hardliner to create and enforce boundaries that affect everyone is a bad idea. Reasoned arguments and rhetoric will not move anyone, but action might, so maybe the best preparation as these changes appear, as others attempt to pigeon-hole us, is to cultivate our inner Aladár Gerevichs. This fencer, at 50, was told by the Hungarian Olympic committee that he was too old to fight, so he challenged the entire team and beat the snot out of all of them. He then went on to win yet more gold medals. He didn’t let the committee define him, and we should let anyone else tell us who to be either.

NOTES:

[1] I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…  I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…

[2] Among my current students are those with no martial arts training whatsoever; a former KdF longsworder, several current students of Fiore (whose works offer an unified approach to wrestling, dagger, sword in one hand, sword in two, polearms, and mounted combat), and a mix of people with some sabre, MMA, Eastern Martial Arts, and wrestling backgrounds.

[3] Authority in Olympic is rarely questioned. One is taught, one uses what is taught, and if it’s not effective (as happens sometimes) the reaction by most is “where did I go wrong with this?” vs. “this must be bunkum.” Authority rests with the body of technique and tactics passed down over centuries and taught by the maestri and their junior instructors. It is not source-based. Most Olympic fencers have little interest in the sources, and to be fair they don’t need them to do well in competition. The early sources approached fencing as martial art, not a sport, and the requirements in each are different however much they share.

[4] Kit differences are most obvious in masks and jackets. HEMA, for some reason, adopted black as its basic color, perhaps as a middle-finger to Olympic. I don’t know. The weapons too are often different. Sabres, for example, tend to be training copies of period weight versions. Responses are different as well. For example, a friend of mine this past weekend agreed to help me with my epee class homework—the assignment was to film a short teaching lesson on parry-riposte. He’s an experienced sabre fencer (ditto Fiore, Georgian, and MMA), so he was a quick study for what we were doing (I opted to work on parry seven)—as we added complexity to the basic p/r, we ended up in infighting distance. Modern epee employs a variety of techniques for this, but not grappling… My partner’s first reaction was a weapon-seizure—very historical. It wasn’t wrong, but wasn’t right for modern epee 😉

[5] Sabre-specific gear disappeared with the demise of Santelli Fencing in 2004. This company, which had been around since 1942, was the only one still making jackets without the cuissard, the section that covers the groin, as well as masks with leather attached to the top. The sabre jacket was outlawed for competition not long after sabre went electric in NCAA competition—sorry, forget which year that was—but if I recall correctly the latter years of the 1990s. Thus, anyone of a certain age still using this sort of gear should stand out, but won’t unless one knows the difference. Zen Warrior Armory/Triplette Competition Arms, makes a “Classical” jacket sans cuissard that many of us accustomed to the older sabre jacket wear. They’re excellent.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, the French author and major figure in producing and spreading Arthurian romance in the Middle Ages, produced some of the most beloved Arthurian stories. Most of his work was penned, probably, between the 1150s and 1190s. In some depictions the knight is bleeding from his crossing, even when clad in armor of the time (mail). This is another reminder that art is tricky to use: clad in mail, and assuming that it would be in contact with the bridge, carefully crawling one’s way would not slice through the armor. For a few examples, and my source for the image above, see:

Crossing the Sword Bridge. Sir Lancelot of the Lake in Medieval Art

[7] Hard-liners either side of the divide often believe that their way and their way alone is best. Support for these assertions is often only gathered within the bubble they occupy. For example, HEMA players are quick to dump on Olympic right-of-way/ROW rules. The fact that both fencers might be hit, but only one scores sits ill with them. I get it. Were the weapons sharp… that would be bad, but no one in Olympic fencing is fighting as if the blades were sharp. They haven’t for a very long time. Instead, they’re playing a game, a sport based on fencing with sharps. It derives from the martial art—it is not the martial art. It’s the same for kendo, competitive TKD, etc.

Olympic fencers, on the other hand, find the lack of consistency in HEMA training abhorrent. Faced with such a wide variety of texts, weapons, and interpretations, quality is all over the map. It’s hard to point to any one place as a rubric by which to measure what they see, and to be fair most of HEMA is an absolute mess. The schlock people take for insightful interpretations would be laughably bad were it not so entrenched and popular. It’s hard to blame any sport fencer who pokes fun at some chump in black stepping into distance first, being brained, and only then making an action. It’s as baffling to them as it is to me that these same fighters then defend whatever the hell it is they think they’re doing. In contrast, traditional pedagogy is venerable and well-documented; it provides an easy check (or should) when a sport fencer sees something off in the sport.

All this said, ROW makes a lot of sense IF one understands it. Likewise, the difficulty in analysing and interpreting period texts would make sport fencers less likely to crow if they tried it themselves. Traditional pedagogy is the single most effective training in unpacking those ancient works, but it’s not automatic—the sport has changed a lot in the past century, in the past twenty to thirty years, so one can’t assume automatic equivalence between even the most basic concepts. They might be the same, but it has to be tested, compared, and verified, and even then unless the master who wrote the work is explicit it remains an interpretation.

[8] The tale of Pywll, Prince of Dyfed (POO-ilk *, Prince of DUH-ved) is one of the four tales in the Mabinogi, a collection of medieval Welsh tales. The gorsedd (GOR-seth), or hill, that he sits upon one morning while hunting, is a common motif in Celtic mythology, cf. Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange, north of Dublin, Ireland, and its associated mythology to name only one example. Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1977) is an excellent edition in English by a noted scholar. The stories were written in Middle Welsh, but there are good Modern Welsh versions too, e.g. Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi: Allan o Lyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, edited by Ifor Williams (Caerdydd, CY: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1996). [*The double “l” in Welsh is hard to render in print, especially for me as I’ve only formally studied Middle Welsh, but this link provides some help: https://youtu.be/hQBGOb7iQZ0%5D

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, etc. was originally the Celtic new year, Samhain (SAH-win), one of four major days marking the year (the others coinciding with the other major events in the agricultural year, though they also correspond more or less to the vernal equinox and the winter and summer solstices). The others are Beltaine (BEL-tinuh), May 1st; Lugnasa (LOO-nussa) Aug. 1st; and Imbolc (IM-bol-eg; there is an epenthetic vowel between “l” and “g”), Feb. 1, though in each case these dates are reckoned by night so that the last days of April, July, and January figure into the dating as well. For those familiar with the Venerable Bede’s account of the Augustinian mission to Britain ca. 600 CE (cf. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.23ff), and especially Pope Greogry the Great’s advice in re adapting whatever might be from native Anglo-Saxon belief, the association between “pagan” festivals and Christian holy days should come as no surprise. Though dated, Rees and Rees Celtic Heritage remains one of the best explorations via myth, folklore, and late observations of certain traditions (Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1990).

[9] Cf. Alternative 2, https://cdn1.sportngin.com/attachments/document/2321-2361357/BOD_Meeting_Agenda_Feb_24_2021.pdf#_ga=2.58283373.695458512.1623795741-742804632.1623795740 The minutes of this meeting, as of 15 June 2021, are no longer accessible.

[10] One reason I am taking the class is to obtain certification that may become necessary down the road. Epee, as the most historical of the three weapons, and as the one in which I’ve received the least amount of training, seemed an ideal place to start. I’m on the fence in re foil and sabre—both have changed so much that I’m not sure the rubber stamp is worth the frustration of having to suffer through explanations for the perversities afflicting the teaching and use of either weapon.

Da’Mon Stith on Razmafzar TV

One of the researchers I most respect and enjoy chatting or bouting with is Da’Mon Stith, one of the driving forces behind HAMAA, the Historical African Martial Arts Association. The challenges faced in studying such a vast collection of arts, so few of which were codified, and which have survived in part via dance, sport, and as elements of later systems present hurdles that require delicate, sophisticated approaches. He does this remarkably well, and in my view sets an excellent example for how one should set about exploring a rich, difficult corpus with appropriate caution, passion, and effectiveness.

I say often that if Da’Mon is teaching anything, take it—you will learn something and have a blast. This is part one of his interview with the equally wonderful Dr. Khorasani.

Georgian Sword & Buckler

My friend Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare, Sherwood, OR, USA) recently shared some basic drills for Georgian sword & buckler with renowned scholar and martial artist Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (Razmafzar Persian martial arts organization;  Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and ISM (International School of Management, Germany). I had the pleasure to serve as Mike’s pell and drill partner for this video, something I’m always happy to do as Mike is doing important work and this fight system is extremely fun to fight.

NB: There is a lot here, so for those interested, start with the first few exercises before moving onto the more intermediate drills.

The link to part one is here:  https://youtu.be/hUVOj_A1Grs

Alex Spreier on Universals

Alex Spreier of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR, USA) is my go-to for any question about universal principles across systems. Trained as I am to recognize and analyze patterns, it’s natural to him and he does it better. The piece below is a short one he shared with me ; I asked if I might share it, because it’s good, to the point, and gives solid reasons for why we should bother looking across systems in our own study of the Art.

Fiore’s segno, ca. 1410

“The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

    To deal straight with the elephant in the room (Hi Gerald!) is that several years of dedicated study is hard. Of course it’s hard. A key part of studying anything is the struggle of learning something new. An often used quote about training from Bruce Lee states “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” This is a great mindset and one I wholeheartedly encourage. However, many folks who use this quote fail to mention that in order to know what is useful, useless, and your own, you need to have a base level of understanding. The most common mistake made by beginners is for them to approach any training with that Bruce Lee quote in mind and neglect/refuse to train certain actions because they are uncomfortable. If a movement is uncomfortable when first training it first of all, ask your instructor what to do about it. Whenever we start training something there will be some discomfort as we learn how to move our bodies in a new way. This discomfort is very different from a movement being “useless” but that can be for another paper.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of analogies so here we go: When you start learning to read you need to develop phonemic awareness; the understanding that specific letters equate to specific sounds. From phonemic awareness you move on to learning how those letters combine into words, then the words combine to become sentences, then paragraphs, etc. This process takes years before you are proficient enough to really read. Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill and without it learning to read is exponentially more difficult; even though it’s something that a skilled reader rarely thinks of anymore. In the same way, when you start learning a martial art you learn basic movements (footwork, attacks, defenses, etc) and these components build up to more complicated movement patterns, which creates your “vocabulary” through which you understand your art. This is your phonemic awareness – you are beginning to equate certain words/phrases with certain movement patterns. You cannot begin to recognize patterns without having an understanding of how your art creates patterns.

“Light,” a Chinese character commonly used as a cutting pattern in Korean Gumdo

    Humans love patterns. We love them so much we will create patterns out of whole-cloth! Because of this predilection towards pattern recognition and creation, anything created by a human mind will have an underlying pattern to it. Martial arts are no different. As you spend your time studying your Art, you will naturally start to recognize patterns in movement built into your art. These patterns are HOW your art works.  If you are struggling to find patterns might I suggest:

  • Footwork – how does your art use footwork to attack? To defend? To evade?
  • Attacks – how does your art attack? Are the attacks from certain angles all built the same? Are there any restrictions on attacks?
  • Defenses – how does your art defend? Different motions than attacks or the same?
  • Set plays – does your art feature any set plays, sets of movement that are repeated in different situations?

    Once you have spent time studying your system and have begun to recognize the patterns in footwork, attack, and defense come the fun part – Play around. If your system has multiple weapons try the techniques for one weapon with a completely different weapon (i.e. think about Fiore says about dagger defenses and use that with a single hand sword). Or grab a weapon from a completely different system and try to apply your techniques, your patterns, your Art. 

    In both cases, whether what you tried worked or did not work, ask yourself the important question – Why? If it worked, why did it work? What about that movement pattern makes it work with a different weapon? If it didn’t work ask yourself the same things. Hopefully you will come to recognize two big things:

One – if a movement pattern works no matter the weapon, that pattern will be repeated in your system and other systems.

Two – if a movement pattern doesn’t work then there is something particular to that weapon/system that makes it unique.

One of the hardest things about Universals is recognizing them in other arts. This is because they may not look like what you’ve trained and internalized. So we need to look beyond the explicit movements and look at what the movements are trying to accomplish. A boxer bobbing to avoid a punch and countering with their own punch, a Khevsureti from Georgia dropping to their knees & thrusting to avoid a blow, a tai chi practitioners slightly twisting their shoulders to avoid a punch, a rapier fencer executing a passata sotto, a wrestler sprawling to avoid a double leg takedown. Despite these motions looking very different from each other, each is an example of a Universal Principle: Evasion is an excellent defense. This is why looking at what the movement accomplishes is so important.

Henry Angelo, Naval Cutlass Exercise

    After all, the movements themselves are the means to an end. This is why it is also important to allow students (and yourself) to make each technique and movement their own – so long as it still accomplishes the goal of the technique. “If it’s dumb and it works it ain’t dumb.”. 

    The major benefit to all of this work of finding principles is that it allows one to become a martial arts translator. If you are able to recognize that a particular movement is a forehand descending blow with a weapon then when teaching you can explain that it is a fendente, or an oberhau, or an Angle 1, or a mandritto, or a kesa giri, you are able to translate what you want to see into what the student already knows. This closes the understanding gap and allows them to practice, in a way, their Art with a new weapon which cuts down on the amount of explanation and talking time and increases the hitting/throwing time we all come for.

    So a practice for this is to watch videos or take classes in another Art and translate what you see into your own Art. If there is not a term for what you see in your Art, how can you define what you saw in your language?

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” – Uncle Iroh

If you keep asking why you eventually end up here – why bother? Why do this at all? Why not just study my system, or several related systems, and just do my thing? You can do that and be very happy and a very accomplished student of the Art. But stretching your boundaries does nothing except deepen your understanding of the Art. You understand what things seem to work in a variety of places and what things are heavily dependent on context. 

Ultimately the wisdom of Iroh rings true (as it almost always does). Understanding how to find principles lets you gain wisdom from many sources. I have never studied Japanese sword arts but by perusing “The Sword and the Mind” (Thanks Jim) I have been able to put into practice some new techniques and gain some new insights all without ever picking up a bokken. Could I do this without my years of training in Armizare? I don’t think so. 

I’ll leave you with a final analogy – the Art is a big color wheel. The principles are the primary colors. The multitude of techniques are what happens when you mix all those primary colors. This is how you create works of art. Of Art.