Curriculum Building & Teaching via the Universals

In an earlier post [9 Aug. 2022] I covered recursive cycles of instruction as one approach to curriculum building. Implicit in this schema, and hopefully in any methodology, is the central place of the universal principles, that is, those elements that underpin all hand-to-hand fighting. [1] While many works touch on these vital concepts, it can be difficult to find discussion of them in one place.

This post will attempt to sketch the salient points of one list of universals. [2] Lists vary, but most include the following:

  • measure or distance
  • tempo
  • judgment

To these I’d like to add several that Maitre Robert Handelman includes:

  • speed
  • initiative
  • tradecraft [3]

Measure or distance is the area of play, the space between two fencers. Typically this is divided into pedagogically useful segments. In Fiore’s armizare, and even in many later Italian works (Marcelli for example), the divisions may be largo and stretto, wide and close. Early modern sources down to today tend to divide the space between two fencers into three: out of measure (where neither opponent can hit one another); in measure (where one can lunge to target); and close measure (where either opponent need only extend the arm to reach target). There are variations by master, further refinements, but these three serve well.

Tempo is perhaps best defined as the time of a single simple fencing action. So, an advance, the extension of the arm, a beat, all of these equal one tempo. Simple and compound attacks, for example, are separated by the number of actions and thus the tempi in which they happen. A direct thrust on a lunge is one tempo; a feint-disengage is two tempi (feint + disengage/thrust = 2).*

Judgement, or decision, is the faculty by which we decide when to attack, from where, and how. We develop this through trial and error, over time, and improve as we grow in skill.

Speed is different than tempo, though they’re related. It’s helpful to think of speed as how fast or slow an action is or is made. We often refer to manipulating tempo, such as a compound attack that is slow-slow-fast, or, slow-fast-slow, etc. Strictly speaking, this is manipulating how fast or slow we make an action. It’s subtle, a bit hair-splitting perhaps, but to illustrate this imagine someone making a thrust on an advance, but then as soon as the opponent parries doubling the speed of the disengage and lunge to target. Speed also refers to reaction time, how fast we respond to stimulus. Like measure, we can break speed down into maximum, necessary (what speed is required to make an action), and slow.

Initiative refers to who starts an action, who moves first, and it can be defensive or offensive. In certain types of lessons we also talk about “student initiated” versus “instructor initiated” actions; this much like “Agent” and “Patient” in some historical fencing circles.

Tradecraft refers to the various ways in which we use rules, psychology, and bluster or bluff to outwit opponents, and importantly, officials. The most successful tournament fighters, whatever branch of the Art they pursue, typically “play” to the director and judges as much as anything else. This requires a good grasp of the rule-set and especially how those rules are viewed and enforced.

Historically speaking, tradecraft describes the gathering and exploitation of intelligence gleaned from interacting and/or observing an opponent. Sizing up an opponent, making probing actions to see what they do, how they react, all are part of tradecraft. It can be as simple as the early modern categories some masters used to describe types of fencers, from the reckless to the timid combatant, from the phlegmatic to the composed fencer, from the large, tall fighter to the smaller, shorter one. [4]

The many springs which flow from the font of these universals are too vast to cover, but for one, easy example the extension of the arm and weapon before the body illustrates well how general principles relate specifically to technique and tactics, even position.

  • The common guard that has the lead foot forward, body slightly forward, weapon arm leading attempts a compromise between safety (distance from the opponent) and target (reach to target).
  • The weapon and hand/arm lead the attack because this continues the compromise to the degree possible: the sharp thing races toward the opponent, something they should be thinking very hard about, while exposing as little of the attacker as one can
  • The positioning, method of extending the weapon, all make the best use of distance and tempo (tempo here, again, equally one fencing action)

Why the Universals are Important

Without meaning to court the exciting world of being “canceled,” if one is teaching or fencing without some intentional inclusion of the universals, then one is not really fencing. One might be fighting, sure, and maybe one has some success, but what makes the Art an art is not bravado, enthusiasm, physical attributes, speed, or luck. There is science involved, study, a set of principles and techniques that made this training worth one’s time back when it actually mattered, and, makes us more effective now.

Colpi di Vilano

Lest one think I’m making this up take a look at those sources from Fiore on that discuss fighting the untutored—the better masters knew this was possible if not likely and explained how to use the Art to counter the clod with a weapon. [5] I’ll be the first to admit that the attribute fighter full of confidence will collect a lot of medals, but success in a game is not the same thing as effective self-defense. We should be far more concerned with not being hit at all, and that means when we attack too.

The universals are important for a number of reasons. First, because these principles underpin any hand-to-hand combat system, they provide a vocabulary for understanding the sources and lessons which impart these systems. If your instructor stops you after an action and asks you about the measure just employed, or what action or actions one of you made; if they ask you why you chose a specific tactic over another; if they ask you to break down the action; they are discussing the universals as applied to what you’re learning. The universals, then, are behind every action and technique we tend to make, so it pays to know what they are.

Second, a solid grasp of these principles will “open up” or unpack a lot of sources. One can look at Meyer, Marcelli, Rossi; one can look at Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing; one can watch a lesson at BJJ dojo; one can watch some MMA match on television and analyze any one of them according to the universals. For the historical fencer the value of this knowledge can make all the difference in how effectively they’re using a source.

Lastly, a thorough grounding in the key concepts behind every action and tactic not only make it possible to take a student deeper into the Art, but also and as importantly help the instructor identify problem areas. How can we correct what we don’t understand? Moreover, the universals provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of lesson options.

How to Use the Universals in Lessons

There are different types of lessons, but no matter what type they are they should work from the universals. Warm up, teaching, option, and bouting lessons all work from the core principles. [6] Here I’d like to focus on option lessons, that is, having a student use material they know in different situations and set-ups. Generally, one is not introducing new concepts or techniques in an options lesson, but exploring that which the student already knows and/or does well.

The simplest way to create options for the student is to start with the universals. By varying what we do with these we help the student develop wider and more sophisticated applications of particular actions. As an example, the simple feint mentioned earlier, can be changed in myriad ways:

Ex. 1: Smallsword/Spada/Foil

Simple Feint (feint-thrust, disengage and thrust to target):

Measure:
–in measure (the student can reach target with a lunge
–out of measure (the student must advance or redouble to reach target with a lunge)
–close measure (the student can extend the arm to target)

Speed:
–attack executed at necessary speed
–attack executed with a fast feint, slow disengage/thrust
–attack execute with a slow feint, fast disengage/thrust

Initiative:
–instructor provides cue for student to begin action
–student provides cue for beginning action

Roles:
–instructor is defender, student attacker
–student is defender, instructor attacker
–both I and S can attack, a question of who sees the opportunity first

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           warm-up

direct thrusts from standing; lunging; with an advance; on the march; parry-riposte inside high and low/outside high and low

15-20 min.       OptionL:           working simple feints

Feint direct (inside/outside line)—student lands touch
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feint direct (outside/inside line)—Inst. parries; S p&r
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feints on the March
–Instr. provides cue, e.g. raising weapon from 8 to 6
–S. picks moment to attack (should look for neg. bal.)

Feints with Change of Tempo
–S. uses feet
–S. uses varies weapon’s movement

5-10 min.         Cool Down

Instr. attacks with open line, S makes arrest
–top of arm
–inside of arm
–outside of arm
–under the arm/wrist

This is just a quick sketch of one way to do this. The student and instructor could switch roles; they could each be confined to responses in a particular tempo; the Instr. or S., depending on skill level of the S, might introduce random actions in the midst of the topic. So long as these choices are made with the universal principles in mind, it is hard to go too far wrong.

Ex. 2: Fiore, Sword in Two Hands, from Punta Spada [7]

First Master of Longsword

Measure:
largo [wide]
stretto [close]
–passing steps into measure
–using accrescimenti to advance into measure

Tempo: 
–one tempo [thrust to face]
–two tempi [cut over to head or arms]

Speed:
–necessary speed
–slow-fast [slow step into measure; quick strike]
–fast-slow [quick step into measure; cut-over]

Initiative:        
–Instructor provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords
–Student provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           Warm Up

7 Strikes of Segno; Meyer Square
–solo, in air or against pell
–with partner who adopts opposing posta
–from standing; with passing step

15-20 min.       OptionsL:          Working from the Bind in Longsword

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st master L gioco largo)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S thrusts to face
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st scholar 1st Mstr)
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with cut over to head or arms
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada (2nd master of L g.l.)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S drops sword to cuts hands (1st sch 2nd mstr)
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with thrust to the chest
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S steps in, grabs point and cuts to the face (2nd sch 2nd mstr) [8]        

To make this more dynamic, one can have the student initiate the action; the student could add a defensive response; at close of lesson, the student must select the appropriate action based on sword placement, measure, and pressure on the blade, all of which the instructor changes at random.

Nuts & Bolts

The examples above hopefully illustrate the basic method. Armed with a grasp of the universals, and assuming decent familiarity with the subject, the instructor can select an action, class of actions, or actions and responses to create lessons that explore whatever the topic is beyond its simplest expression. One can scale up or down using the universals to create different permutations, all of which incorporate the basic action, be it a feint, working from a bind, or using the head and tail of a pole-axe. [9] Changing measure, tempo, speed, or initiative allow what is too often a limited action to became far more useful. Because such lessons build up from solid fundamentals, they not only help a student drill those elementary, foundational actions, but also teach them how to expand what is possible with them.

None of this, however, is easy, especially if one wasn’t taught this way. Like anything, though, it’s a question of putting in the time, taking lessons from someone who can impart these concepts, and then going through the sometimes clumsy process of making it all work in class. Each student is different, so flexibility is important too.

Curriculum Considerations & the Universals

Devising a curriculum requires sufficient subject knowledge, teaching skill, and experience enough to know where the progression of lessons should lead. Historical fencing, because it is (ostensibly) source-based and not just learned on-the-job, adds an additional layer of challenge. Often what clubs do is start on page one and proceed through a source start to finish. That can work, and some of our texts are set up to do that, but some are not organized the way we normally organize things now. Mnemonic verse, interleaving actions and options through masters, scholars, and remedy masters as Fiore does; incomplete works, notes, or outlines; difficult language, poor preservation, and obscure analogies or references all work against us. I’ve stated before that modern fencing vocabulary, while dangerous to apply one-to-one to many ancient works, nonetheless gives us a way to talk about these things. For example, I’ve described the action that  Fiore’s first scholar of the first longsword master makes as a cut-over; it is not made the same way one is in smallsword, sabre, or rapier, but if one knows what a cut-over is—moving from one side of the blade or engagement on that blade to the other by bringing the sword over the opposing steel—then it helps one figure out what to do. The differences are crucial—from punta spada I should not make that cut-over if the opponent is not pressing against my blade: I should thrust through and thus maintain opposition reducing the chance I get hit as I attack. In smallsword there are similar considerations, but I’m not worried about a cut, so the mechanics, the angles of a cut-over are different.

From Amazon (not making this shit up)

If new to the universals in a formal way, start small, start slow. Take a simple action or basic play and analyze the ways measure, tempo, or speed play into it. Even changing one thing will add to your student’s toolbox. From experience I know that it gets easier to devise lessons along these lines with practice, and to be candid, with failure. We have to give ourselves room to screw up or we will never advance. I’m not a fan (at. all.) of trite maxims, the sort best left to decorate the walls of some Trimalchian pilates trophy spouse’s home studio—life is hard, often cruel, a constant attempt not to drown in disappointment: the only way through it is to do what we do in a bout, to fight on regardless of the outcome. So, if using the universals doesn’t go well at first, break down what happened, adapt, and try again. It will deepen not only appreciation for the intricacies and beautiful variety within the Art, but also make us better instructors.

NOTES:

[1] With a grand statement like this one might easily take issue, but there is some consensus in the martial arts community’s research side that there are universal principles to hand to hand combat. Humans can only move so many ways, weapons can only be used in so many ways, and given these limitations and the typical contexts in which people fight hand to hand they tend to arrive at similar conclusions. See for example, Wojciech J. Cynarski, Martial Arts & Combat Sports: Towards the General Theory of Fighting Arts, The Lykeion Library Series, Vol. 25, Gdansk, PL: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, 2019.

[2] Many early modern and modern works on fencing discuss theory, variously defined, as well as technique. Where the universal principles are not mentioned, however, they are normally implied. One difficulty is that the community’s understanding and expression of theory has changed over time. The best interpretation of Fiore’s cutting mechanics for longsword I’ve yet seen seeks to project the weapon out quickly, efficiently, and with force—at its simplest, to make a mandritto fendente (downward blow from the right) from posta di donna, one drops the hands to chest height and out to target. Fiore doesn’t explain why—he assumes the reader knows. For a more explicit example, George Silver’s “true times” clearly list the chief considerations around measure, tempo, speed, and initiative and judgment.

[3] See Robert Handelman and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Patinando Press, 2014

[4] For a prime example, seeFrancesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019, 63-79.

[5] Fiore, in the 4th scholar of the Second Master of Longsword, Wide Plays (Getty MS), discusses the Colpi di Villano, “Peasant’s Strike.” Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

[6] This division of lessons types is modern, and not all concern each branch of fencing the same way, but the divisions remain useful for teaching.

[7-8] Unfortunately the most recent editions of Fiore’s surviving copies, published by Freelance Press, are expensive. Eric Miller, whom I met at Mike Cherba’s club (Northwest Armizare), put together a very handy app for Fiore. See http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html [9] I’ve only dabbled in pole-axe, chiefly via Fiore’s corpus and the late 15th century Burgundian work, Le Jeu de la Hache. For the latter, see Olivier Dupuis and Vincent Deluz, “Le Jeu de la Hache,” A Critical edition and dating discussion,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 1 (2017): 3-62. In fact, the very first portion the author of the this work lays out an option lesson for the tour de bras, folio 3r, Rubric 2, Section 4, 2.1 ff.

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

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

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

Whose sala is that? We seek “The Collective”

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

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

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

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

NOTES: 

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

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

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

All for One, One for All: Teaching other Teachers

Lehr tuht viel, aber Aufmunterung tuht alles.

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

Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

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

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

Teaching other Teachers

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

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

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

Learning Styles

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

Experience

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

Acquiring what They Need

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

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

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

Time in the Saddle

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

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

What Not to Do

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

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

Mr. Garvey, from “Key and Peele”

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

All for One, One for All

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

SabreSlash 2021

I will share more once I settle in—the flights home were not conducive to sleep and jetlag is fierce coming back to the US, least it is for me. As a quick preview of just how wonderful Sabre Slash was:

(I’ll be Your) Steppin’ Stone

Minor Threat, “Minor Threat,” 1984 (Discord Records, DC)

With apologies to Minor Threat (and ultimately to Paul Revere and the Raiders) there are times when it’s appropriate to act as a stepping-stone. [1] Granted, in a political and social context it’s a condition to avoid, but as a teacher it’s a model I rather like. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone walking over me or anyone else, but in the sense of approaching our particular instruction as just one stop along a longer path. There are a few reasons I prefer this model to the top-down one too often assumed.

Top-Down Teaching

Despite centuries of change our conception of teaching is more or less medieval. The university, for example, was born in the Middle Ages and was, like most of society at the time, hierarchical. It’s not a bad system, and it works for many things, but it has been slow to adapt as societies have changed, as the purposes of education have changed. Other guild systems, particularly in skilled trades, have adapted better. [2] In fencing, as I’ve shared here before, the traditional model of master and student has worked well, and working one on one it’s still the best way to learn (assuming good rapport). I maintain it is still a discussion rather than a lecture, or ought to be, but I’ve worked with masters who definitely saw it as a one-way transfer and still I learned a lot. Group instruction tends to follow the same notion of information transfer.

No one in traditional or historical fencing is unaware of the challenges in teaching groups—it’s just plain harder to do. [3] Attention is divided, skill levels and experience can vary widely, and some systems are harder to teach than others. Seminars, for example, can be great, but we have to be realistic about our goals with them. That holds for students as much as instructors. Typically an instructor runs a class in a short window, from say two hours to a day, and in most cases expects attendees to keep up. Seminars are great for exposing people to something new, but not so great for retention or skill-growth unless the students are relatively advanced and know how to learn. [4] Meeting different needs in different ways is extremely difficult to do, and few top-down models accommodate the flexibility to do any of that well. So, one downside to the top-down model is that it tends to be unadaptive; this is more true in group settings than in individual lessons since an experienced instructor can read a student’s skill level and identify problem areas more easily. With a small group one can move among students and manage more individually, but in cases where one student needs far more help than the others figuring out how much to dial back or press on is a tough call. Finding a happy medium in cases like that is challenging—too often we either leave someone behind or hold everyone else back.

But… but my medals Bruh!

An additional issue with the top-down model centers around expectations. People who seek out a fencing master at a traditional or Olympic school accept that someone will be teaching them, and, that the person in question has information or skills that they themselves do not yet possess. Thus, a maestro, by virtue of training and experience, has built-in authority than no historical fencing instructor without such certification can assume. For the most part, “HEMA” has been more grass-roots, and authority far less obvious or certain. It’s a perennial problem. HEMA is ever at the whim of demagoguery. Popularity spreads via social media and has more weight than most anything else save tournament success. The problems with both should be obvious, but they aren’t. There is no automatic equivalency between fame and skill; they can correlate, sure, but that’s a maybe, not a given. Likewise, tournament performance can mean something, but it doesn’t mean what those who hold it up as the tantamount benchmark think it does. This is one reason that movements like HEMA eventually fracture—no amount of evidence puts the slightest dent in anything driven more by ego than sense, and both popularity and naivete about tournament success are, by and large, inseparable from ego needs and external validation.

In a related way, instructors who favor the top-down model sometimes suffer a strange mix of imposter-syndrome and arrogance. This drive for success is fueled by a wish for recognition from students and fellow instructors and/or a fear that they’re letting their students down. In this version they feel they aren’t doing enough or that their efforts are inadequate, or, that their work is unappreciated. That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. We must be concerned about doing the best work we can do, absolutely, but the responsibility to learn is not the instructor’s alone. Students must carry their burden too. People learn in different ways, at different rates, and try as we might there is only so much a diligent instructor can do. Sometimes no matter what we do, we are just the first to acquaint students with a new idea; this means that often they will not realize it let alone recognize each step or person who helped them. If our goal is sharing the Art more than appreciation then we should be happy with the fact they have that new understanding. If they remember us, great, but they don’t have to.

Allied/Collaborative Teaching

My preferred method of instruction is collective, mutual, because in teaching others we learn and grow too, least we should. However skilled, a teacher is nothing without students—it’s somewhat symbiotic. One of the benefits to this model is that it assumes and incorporates student skill and experience, and thus the burden to “teach” while still on the instructor is a burden in some respects shared. For example, for the last few months I’ve been advising a local branch of a larger club in Insular broadsword. Thanks to Covid, this school, one of the largest in our area, can’t meet en masse, and so they’ve divided in two for the time-being. The head instructor, Mike, is a close friend of mine; I check in with him about my curriculum, our progress, and keep him informed because I’m working with part of his crew. It’s collaborative in the sense that my friend trusts me to give them what they need, and that I’m coaching some of his people, but it goes a step deeper than that.

I rely on the experience and perspective of these students. Most have studied Fiore’s Armizare, some fight in harness, and most have also studied other branches of the Art, from MMA to other schools of fencing. Because they were taught well, they understand the basic, universal principles behind sword-arts, and thus are quick studies. I speak just enough Fiore to help them bridge the differences, say in comparing Roworth or Angelo’s cutting charts, Radaellian molinelli, and Fiore’ segno—all cover the same lines (not an accident), and, all enshrine critical aspects of their respective systems. Working from the familiar they more easily gain the unfamiliar. They ask questions, we break to discuss what they discover during the drills I put them through, and as a result they’re building not just technique, but as importantly, understanding by applying it in problem-solving. [5] Time will tell how many stick with it, but their time will not have been wasted. The knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for the Art will have grown.

Like a well-placed, solid stepping-stone my function is to support them best as I can while they’re with me. Some will continue down this path, a few may follow the same path but with a different instructor, and many more will take another route all together, but if I’ve done my job I’ve given them what they need while their feet stood on the stone I manage. Kahil Gibran (d. 1931) famously wrote that “Your children are not your children/They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./They come through you but not from you,/And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” [6] A less poetic by equally powerful analogy is the unsung hero of any nation, the elementary school teacher. They teach students for a year, teaching them the skills they will need in life and that will enable them to continue learning. They get little respect, next to no pay, yet no one has a more important task than they do. No one. Nothing I teach is as important—people can live with knowing how to feint-cut head or disengage—but like them most fencing instructors are a temporary fixture in a fencer’s life. That’s not always the case, but I think it’s a healthy approach—it keeps us responsible and on task, and helps us avoid concerns over turf, ownership, and other distractions. So, “my” students are mine while they work with me, and in the sense that they may carry on to others what was passed on to me, but their journey with the Art is their own. This doesn’t mean I have no responsibility, quite the opposite, but it does mean that my focus remains on the material, on sharing it effectively, and in helping others learn and enjoy skills difficult to acquire rather than on numbers, reputation, or a legacy. I must make the absolute best use of the time I have with them, and since it’s usually short, I must stay sharp too, reading, drilling, and improving.

Mixed Approach

The collaborative model is more result than method. In truth, when I’m teaching or advising generally it’s because I have the background, education, and training to teach that topic. I won’t teach things I know I’m not qualified or ready to teach (yet another plug for continuing education). One reason people go to me, when they do, is because I know the sources well, and I’ve been fencing and researching it for a very long time. None of it “belongs” to me; it was all devised and written by others, some of which was passed on to me, some of which I have studied, but regardless I’m more a conduit than anything else. A blocked pipe is inefficient, it doesn’t do its job well, so potential clogs, especially those of ego, have no place in teaching. One needs to be confident, but any real confidence is born of ability, not desire, and smart students quickly spot the difference.

In sum, what I want is for them to learn and enjoy the material, not shower me with attention, kudos, or external validation. The top-down model can work, but it more easily facilitates those interested in self-worth generation than the Art. For instructors like that, because they are the font of information, it can be harder to be questioned, less comfortable working with other equally skilled (never mind superior fighters), and easier to worry too much about rep and not enough about the material and the best strategies for sharing it.

An important caveat: all of us have an ego. Most if not all of us struggle with self-worth in some fashion. I’m no exception. The difference is I’ve been lucky, or unlucky depending upon how one views it, to have spent far, far too much time around people driven by ego, and I’ve seen the results both to those same people and those they teach, in fencing and in academia. The fewer the rewards, the more savage the fight over scraps.

Young Kendoka in mokuso, via Pinterest

Having started in Asian martial arts, where Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the ego inform so much, I view the Art, whatever the branch, fencing included, as paths by which to grow. [7] Decades of training, wherever I’ve had it, have only proven to me how important it is to get out of our own way. Li Mu Bai, one of the protagonists in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), said “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up to find yourself again.” This applies to many things, teaching included, and I believe that we do our best work, teach the most effectively, when we recognize the gifts others bring to a class, when we try to meet them in the middle, and when our focus is genuinely on the Art rather than ourselves.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Paul Revere and the Raiders, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” Midnight Ride, 1966, Vinyl; the song was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. I’d heard the original and the cover by the Monkees, but by age and location I always think of this as track by Minor Threat, “Steppin’ Stone,” Minor Threat/First Two Seven Inches, 1984.

[2] There is a lot of literature about medieval education. See for example John W. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 (Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1997); Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th Century (New York, NY: Meridian, 1972) & The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965) are now dated, but classics and worth a read; Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 3rd Ed. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1991);

[3] See especially László Szabó, Fencing and the Master (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997, 11-14; see also Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005), 132139; 182-187; 280.

[4] Advanced students, because they have a solid knowledge of universal principles, can more easily “mine” a class than can new or intermediate students. Newer students still benefit, and as I’ve set things up they intermix with more advanced students for whom broadsword is new too. This brings them all up faster. In the past, this has worked well, and seems to be doing so now. The only hiccups hitorically have been unteachables, i.e. students who believe they already know everything and dismiss what we’re doing because it doesn’t conform to their notion of things. They tend to be disruptive, critical, and keen to put the stupid instructor in their place—happily, they don’t last and leave when they can’t “spar.” Until recently I was keen to try to help them out, convert them as it were, but there is an old saying about arguing with a fool only makes two fools, so…

[5] More and more I’ve been working to adapt some of the approaches we use in individual lessons for groups. My plan for the next post is to explore some of this in more detail.

[6] Kahil Gibran, The Prophet (West Molesey, UK: Senate, 2004), 20.

[7] Lest anyone think that self-improvement via fencing is unique to Asia I’d like to share this short passage from J. Olivier’s smallsword treatise from 1771:

It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the Body, strengthens it, and makes it upright; it is it, that gives a becoming gait, and easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity; it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness; and animates a proper confidence; it is it which, in teaching us to conquer ourselves that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society.

[J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books), xliv-xlvi.]

Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

Photo by Kalisa Veer, https://unsplash.com/@kalisaveer

We can do most anything when it’s important to us. In the sodden pinelands of the Pacific Northwest the pursuit of most everything entails acceptance of weather if not outright preparation for it. Whatever it is, hiking, sailing, running anyone devoted to these activities does them irrespective of weather. Fencing is normally more or less immune to the elements because usually it’s indoors. Here, because of the damp, we may buy and apply more 3-in-1 oil than others, but fencers everywhere must combat the rust that mixing damp kit and steel fosters. The combination of PNW weather and a pandemic, however, means facing unique challenges. Most fencers at this point have either participated in or know people who have attended online classes, posted footage of drills, or who have even worked out together via zoom or google-meet. Because we can’t congregate inside or in large groups, we’ve had to be creative. Many of us studying the Art have to train; it’s not just the exercise, but that it’s part of who we are, our way of understanding the world, even acting in that world, and so we can’t not, if that makes sense.

The group classes I was teaching either collapsed thanks to Covid or have been put off until it’s once again safe to train indoors. The more fencers with whom I speak the more I hear similar tales of woe. Most of us, if we have a space, pull in just enough to pay rent; moreover, the most affordable insurance demands that we operate as non-profits, so it’s very week by week, skin of the teeth staying open. I wasn’t the only one to lose a space and the people who used it. While easy to take that to heart—and one does at least in part—the truth is that most martial arts studios, of any kind, probably have a shorter half-life than new restaurants. My other classes, conducted through a local parks and recreation organization, will (hopefully) return when we’re in a better place with Covid, but otherwise I imagine what I am doing now will continue.

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

Most of this year I have taught a handful of people, individually, once a week, outside, and masked. Living where I do this means navigating months and months of rain. I’ve found a few places, such as public parks, with sufficient covering to keeps us from being soaked, but at various times these have been closed during quarantine.  So, we’ve used porches, garages, one portion of a barn, my backyard, an empty street, and a local basketball court. Focused on the students, and what they need, as well as how best to supply that, it’s easy to ignore the cold or wet (less so the heat for me). It also strikes me, each practice, how dedicated these fencers are. They meet with me every week, and like ancient Persia’s messengers, “are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” [1] Their zeal in turn keeps me going too; I work harder, prepare more, and do all I can to help them improve. I owe them my best.

There are times, though, when just how weird all this is hits me. Probably my favorite example, so far, was having to stop practice to chase a chicken back into its coop. One of my students lives on a small farm just outside of town, and we often meet in a space next to his barn. We had a good laugh about it once that blasted wee dinosaur was back in its cage, but never did I think managing fowl was something I needed to be prepared for. Ridiculous moments like that help make the difficulties in working out of doors easier. Slipping on mud, wet planks or concrete; walking to practice with a giant garbage bag over my fencing gear (not looking at all suspicious, I’m sure); the strange head-bobbing machinations we make to ensure that face-masks don’t become headbands inside our fencing masks; and competing for covered space with any other group who normally trains indoors (high school dance and cheer teams, kids at play, adults meeting to chat so many feet apart) it’s all become part of the equation. In addition to the sad contributions we make to slapstick comedy, there are other benefits.

This farm I visit once a week, for example, has a little concrete, but is mostly gravel where we practice, and so footwork drills in particular are affected. Working without a decent floor creates a number of hurdles. Concrete is nice and flat, but hard; it can also be slick. Gravel is pure rubbish to fence on, but sometimes the only option, especially as what isn’t mud is more than likely a fen in hiding. Grass is slick, but also hides those covert fens until one steps into them and loses a shoe (NB: shoes fill surprisingly fast with mud. It’s worse than chickens). Wood, such as decking or the planks at certain parks (sitting areas, bridges, etc.) are better, but the latter are normally full of benches, picnic tables, or railing. Somehow, wherever we end up each week, we “make it work” (the excellent Tim Gunn, a fencer by the way, would be proud). One unlooked for benefit from all these odd places is that trying to fence on them helps put some of the observations in the sources about terrain into higher relief. For one example, Monsieur L’Abbat, who wrote about smallsword, not only recommends that the lead foot be lifted slightly and set down “flat and firm,” but also that the rear foot, depending on the ground, not turn over too much onto the edge. [2] It also, I believe, helps us learn to adjust footwork to fit the ground—the importance of proper technique with footwork is all the clearer too: if we don’t do it right there is the very real chance that we’ll twist a knee or ankle or end up cap-a-pie in mud. Terrain also affects measure which can affect tempo, and while certainly not an ideal way to work those all-important universals, what we’re learning would be difficult to do otherwise.

In a similar way, attempting to fence in winter clothing can be illuminating. It’s rarely truly cold here, but the damp makes it feel much colder, and balancing layers with exercise is tricky. Like normal outdoor activities we often start with more on and discard layers as we warm up. No one, however, wants a nice winter coat slashed or poked, and so this often means various layers underneath fencing jackets. Mobility can be affected either way. The days where we conduct lessons without rain and roof mean situating ourselves as best we can to avoid the sun (it can refract nicely on the mesh of the mask); if it starts to drizzle we normally keep going, but rain makes it hard to hear and see, never mind the potential danger in slipping. That’s really not ideal even with practice weapons in hand. While additional clothing, because it’s modern, doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of how fighting in a great coat, justeaucorps, or pelisse was, it nonetheless makes us aware of how clothing can affect technique, and, of what we need to do to ensure we maintain good form.

In recent weeks some of this has been harder to juggle. An ice storm last weekend made homework for the epee course tricky; my other responsibilities and various jobs, vehicle failures, changes in school schedules, everything it seems makes coordinating lessons a little more difficult. But I do it. We do it. Because we can’t not. More than anything else this is the fact that comes up for me most when I stand back at look at the past year.

Salute, from Girard, P. J. F. Traité des armes. France: La Haye, 1740.

It’s an honor to meet these students each week. With all that is going on in the world, in their own lives, with all the shared challenges humanity faces, they make time for fencing. Rain, snow, or shine, they make it. Their level of dedication, depth of passion for the Art, and the discipline it takes to do that each week is truly impressive. As their instructor I’m humbled by that, especially given the loss of a school and students, of major plans that had to be postponed, of all the disappointments, because these woes are out front, visible, and quick to clamor for attention. It would be easy to dwell on what I lost.

When the Art is our life, when what we learn in studying it is the lens through which we understand so much of what we experience, when it is for lack of a better expression a way of life, a creed, then these seemingly small victories appear less small. My students are fencers in a long, difficult bout, and they’re not giving up. Covid, online school, sick friends and relatives, job issues, isolation, all that may have points on them, but they’re not forfeiting; they’re still in the fight. That sort of resilience is perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning each week. It’s proof of fudoshin (Japanese “immovable mind”) and its benefits, of the ability to focus despite calamity, poor weather, or chickens. [3] Sharing this time with my students, handing down the tradition handed to me, and seeing them improve, all while things collapse around us… there’s beauty in all that and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

NOTES:

[1] Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 8.98. See for example Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 4 vols., translated by A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-1925, available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.%208.98&lang=original

[2] Andrew Mahon, who translated L’Abbat’s book into English, makes a piquant observation about the rear foot and the ways in which it might turn onto the edge:

“Monsieur L’Abbat recommends the turning on the Edge of the Left-foot in a Lunge, as may be seen by the Attitudes. This Method indeed was formerly practised by all Masters, and would be very good, if their Scholars had not naturally run into an Error, by turning the Foot so much as to bring the Ancle to the Ground, whereby the Foot became so weak as to make the Recovery difficult… Therefore I would not advise the turning on the Edge of the Foot to any but such as, by long Practice on the Flat, are able to judge of the Strength of their Situation, and consequently, will not turn the Foot more than is consistent therewith.

It may sometimes be necessary to turn on the Edge, on such Ground whereon the Flat would slip, and the Edge would not, if it were properly turned; but even in this Case, by turning it too much it would have no Hold of the Terrace, and therefore would be as dangerous as keeping it on the Flat.

The chief Reason for turning on the Edge, is that the Length of the Lunge is greater by about three Inches, which a Man who is a Judge of Measure need never have recourse to, because he will not push but when he knows he is within Reach.

Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, or the Use of the Small Sword, 1734, ed. Andrew Mahon (Dublin, IRE: James Hort, Gutenberg.org).

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

The Foot should fall firm without lifting it too high, that the Soal of the Sandal, or Pump, may give a smart Sound, which not only looks better and animates more, but also makes the Foot firm, and in a Condition to answer the Swiftness of the Wrist.

Care must be taken not to carry the Point of the Foot inward or outward, because the Knee bending accordingly, as part of the Thigh, goes out of the Line of the Sword, and consequently, of the Line of Defence, besides ‘tis very disagreeable to the Sight.


The Feet sometimes slip in the Lunge, the Right Foot sliding forward, or the Left backward; the first is occasioned by carrying out the Foot before the Knee is bent, whereas when the Knee brings it forward, it must fall flat and firm; the other proceeds from the Want of a sufficient Support on the Left Foot.

Il est bon que le pied frape ferme sans l’élever, que la sandale claque avec éclat, ce qui non seulement paroît & anime advantage, mais encore bonifie le peid & le met en état de suivre la Vitesse du poignet; il faut éviter de porter la pointe en dedans ou en dehors, parce que le genoüil ployant sure cette ligne se fort, & une partie de la cuisse de la ligne de l’epée, & par ce moyen de la défense, outre que cela choque extremement la veüe. Les pieds peuvent encore manquer dans l’alongement le droit glissant en avant & le gauche en arriere; le premier vient de ce qu’on porte le pied avant de ployer le genoüil, au lieu que quand le genoüil le deviance il ne peut se porter qu’à plomb, & par consequent avec fermeté, & l’autre se fait par le manque d’apuy sur la partie gauche.

Jean-Francois le Sieur Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes ou de L’Epee Seule, 1696 (Toulouse, FR: Chez J. Boude, La Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens), Ch. 3, p. 18-19.

[3] 不動心(fudōshin) is a concept in various schools of Japanese swordsmanship. My exposure to this concept, for fencing, was via kendo. There are various resources for those interested in this idea. See for example, Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1982); Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979); Michael Maliszewski, Ph.D., Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1996); Hiroaki Sato, ed., The Sword & The Mind (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986).

Sabre a la Scoil Scairte [1]

I had big plans pre-Pandemic.The Hedge School

Several trips, one international, were in the works to teach, share ideas, build bridges, and learn. I had just added an introductory fencing class for adults at my local parks & rec. I was starting to make some progress on two exciting writing projects. And I was trying to find a way to start work toward obtaining certification as a moniteur d’escrime [2]. That all changed in March.

All the trips have been canceled. My P&R classes, which were two weeks in, abruptly stopped, and how the planned August summer camp will materialize remains uncertain. With no classes at the dance studio each Sunday (which closed for quarantine) money for a space lapsed and with it, insurance to cover that specific space. With quarantine I couldn’t teach individuals either, so the small income from lessons which helped fund us dried up too. When school moved online this spring (it likely will be in fall too) my first duty was to assist my children with the switch, and so time to work on certs, never mind affording it, were nixed too. It feels a bit like having a vehicle stall out, only slightly slower. At so slow a stall one also has time to take in the scenery, and it’s been… revealing.

In light of all these rapid changes, it’s probably understandable to wonder how all this will work out, and where one will be if and when it does. Our situation State-side wouldn’t be so dire had my nation been grown up enough to handle it properly. Being leaderless didn’t help, but if my town is any indication few people could hack three weeks let alone three months of quarantine. So, now in July, we have a rise in cases. Florida had a record 10,000 cases confirmed in a single day this past week and the pressure on hospitals in Texas, to name a second example, is so great that administrators won’t share numbers. People are having “Covid Parties” for fuck’s sake. In a place where some see wearing a mask as an attack on their personal liberty (I know, I know, I don’t understand it either) it’s likely that we will, as a nation, wrestle with the pandemic for a long time. No New Zealand experience for us.

Fencing in the Time of Covid, Revisited

Where does that leave fencers? While obviously not an essential part of the workforce, we’re affected too. Some groups with enough momentum have survived the hiatus pretty well. My friend Mike’s group has been sharing videos of solo training and meeting at normal practice times via google-meet since quarantine started. NWFC, a key Olympic school, has had video classes as well. Even smaller groups, like my friend Matthew’s, have met with success meeting online to discuss their topic (Simon de Frias). Patrick Bratton, who runs Sala della Spada in Carlisle, PA, has had a few outdoor practices, but wisely with montante/spadone instead of the more typical sabre, rapier, and spada. No one bouts with montante, so it’s perfect for enforcing social distance. He has made a lot of videos for his students as well.

With sufficient numbers or at least a highly engaged set of students these are good ways to keep people engaged, and what’s more, dive into material they might not look at normally. I’ve had the honor to sit in on some of these meetings and they’ve been great. In my case it made less sense to follow the same path. The students I teach individually are at different levels of development. I’ve assigned some “homework” for them, mostly footwork and drills against a mask or pell, but meeting in real-time is harder to manage with students of vastly different ages and responsibilities.

Some schools and clubs are talking about starting again, but it’s too early to return to “normal,” especially given what we’ve learned about confined spaces, proximity, and the importance of particulate in spreading the virus. There is some evidence to suggest that severity of illness may be linked to length of exposure, so to return to gyms even with face masks and proceed as we used to seems unwise.

Covid-19 answered much of the question for me—with no building, no funding, and sporadic interest there is no “return.” Instead, it’s back to the hedge, to teaching outside. The old hedge schools may be less illustrious, but they are at least venerable.

The Obstacle is the Way

There are a number of ways to look at this change. On the surface, if I’m being honest, it feels like failure. Another one. To have worked so hard to build a small, but viable program only to see it disappear so quickly hurts. All the doubts one has ever had about credibility, likeability, and interest come calling and more loudly than ever. For someone who has been through this before the disappointment can easily feed the narrative declaring that one’s lot in life is failure. Samuel Beckett’s admonition in re failure from “Worstward Ho!” notwithstanding, it sucks. This time, it actually cuts twice as deep, as part of building SdTS was, for lack of a better term, part of a healing process.

What follows is perhaps the most personal I’ve been in a public forum, and yes, it will circle back to fencing. I share it because it will, I hope, illustrate some important points about fencing, growth, and resilience.

Without going into detail, three years ago I was in the darkest period I’ve yet experienced—genetics and trauma are a good recipe for clinical depression, a condition I only officially addressed 14 years ago. Medication, therapy, a patient spouse all help, but I wasn’t sure what would happen or even if I would survive 2017. Some days I still don’t know. Suffice it to say that surviving personal calamities and wrestling with the cascade of consequences in the aftermath either makes or breaks us. I’m unsure what it will do to me down the road, but I made the choice three years ago to recast myself, lose some of the dross, and in the process I’m all the more certain that doing the right thing—despite the costs (and they’ve been considerable)—is the only way.

Part of my goal with SdTS was to do a job I had done before, only better. There were a number of challenges and obstacles, but as in my personal life the way forward seemed to be via those obstacles, and so, I pressed on. Obstacles are opportunities; they’re lessons we need to learn; we can try going around them, but they will appear again if we do.

Fencing and Self-Improvement

I typically refer to fencing, to martial arts as “The Art,” a borrowing from Fiore (fl. 1410), but I believe it is true too. All arts might offer what the Art does, but where many artistic pursuits may lead to insights over time, the crucible of combat can mean sudden breakthroughs hard to get to any other way. Having to test decisions and plans or change them in nanoseconds can be instructive. Not everyone sees it that way, but those who do will likely agree with this notion. It’s not just a modern sentiment either. Castiglione (d. 1529) not much later than Fiore also said the art of arms was the chief profession a gentleman should possess. I believe he meant this in a deeper sense than service to one’s prince.

There is much one can learn from the Art: dedication, persistence, resilience, generosity, patience, attentiveness, and decisiveness are just a few such examples. Acquiring and perfecting the skills necessary to fence is an inherently frustrating endeavor. If one is up for the challenge and navigating occasional frustration then fencing is a great way to exercise these traits and strengthen them. [3]

I’m also aware of the Zen filter I apply to western fencing—if nothing else stuck from a lifetime spent studying martial arts this did. I see martial arts, ANY martial art, as a potential vehicle to self-improvement. For its faults it’s a healthier approach than the over emphasis on winning, making a name for oneself, or (in those arenas where it happens) on profits from commercial endorsements. Fencing, since it brings so few rewards in the form of fame or cash, makes for a cut-throat endeavor. Back-stabbing is normal however gauche—this is true no matter what camp one belongs to (pardon the puns).

Fencing, A Solitary Pursuit

Returning to fencing was, as it has often been for me, an attempt to work on myself, on those areas I knew needed work. In 2017 I had greater worries than what would happen with fencing beyond my own need. I couldn’t proceed as I had before—mitigating circumstances made that unwise, so rather then return to the club I had been with or join another, I tried to create my own. To use a fitting analogy, a friend of mine in Baltimore, a former heroin addict, related that he was only able to get clean because he left his neighborhood, his job, most of his friends, and make a fresh start. I found myself in a similar situation (minus the substance abuse).

There were many outcomes from 2017 in re fencing and community, but chief of which is that I realized there is no community, least not as I had thought of it. My notion of it was, to put it bluntly, a naïve pie-eyed School House Rock fantasy. I focused on similarities, tried to ignore some differences, and realized in the aftermath of a personal crisis just how shallow a pool I had been in. No minnow in the drowning pool helps another. Each minnow is only concerned with itself—few even realize the water is seeping away. It was also clear that goldfish are not welcome, not that I knew I was a goldfish until things went south.

One thing that no one tells you when you’re trying to put your life back together, is that the more honestly you do it, the more sincere you are, and the healthier you become, you will lose people. Your isolation will increase. People don’t know what to do with honesty—this is especially true if that honesty puts any demand on them to consider their own role, choices, or point of view. In the issue that sparked the crisis in 2017 I decided to own my role and took responsibility for my part; I decided not to focus on others or their choices, only mine, and so threw no one under the proverbial bus. Few times have I seen an outwardly correct thing blow up in my face like that did. It ended up serving me well, in some ways, as one, it freed me up to pursue my own path, two, it forced me to face and deal with some of my shortcomings (which gets easier with practice), and three cushioned me when I once again honest with some friends last October and one of the four decided to make it about her somehow. People don’t like honesty; they don’t like having to consider that maybe they got it wrong. I have dwelled on these examples, and honesty, for a reason.

Honesty is the enemy of ego, and ego is the single-greatest stumbling block we face. Ego is the enemy within, the pernicious source for so many of our poor choices, and as a man in India expressed some 2,500 years ago, a major cause of our suffering. Life is suffering, so learning to manage it well is vital, and it’s not something we Americans do well. Too often we foist responsibility onto others, create convenient scapegoats, or ignore what is uncomfortable. A more honest approach is to embrace the discomfort, lean into it, use it as a stepping-stone to whatever is next. It doesn’t mean we ignore reality, but that we don’t let the reality beat us into submission. We suffer, it is our lot, but that doesn’t mean we should wallow in it. See it, note it, learn from it, and move on.

Am Dún Díthogail

It would be easy to quit. Between bad luck, less interest for what I teach, and less support received than given, quitting might even be wise. But this is where viewing the loss of a space and students another way is beneficial. If we’re honest about ourselves, about our goals, if we see our strengths as well as our limitations, then the people who see that and are supposed to be in our lives will remain. Even one such person is enough for a teacher.

After a lifetime of martial arts, of some thirty-three in fencing, what role I have in the Art is as a teacher. Injury and age mean my fighting days are over. Research, writing, and teaching I can do with the limitations on me at this stage. A teacher is first a student, and a good teacher remains a student. To teach is to learn, if we’re doing it right, because we can never know it all. Teaching forces us to learn more. We never conquer the Art; there is always more to learn, more to correct, to relearn. In the process, if we pay attention, if we’re honest, we learn about ourselves.

Fencing has been a source of joy for me, but it has also been one of the primary paths of self-examination and introspection. When I first started this painfully long piece, I devised a long one-to-one analogy between self-awareness and fencing, but decided it was too much. In short, though, there are lessons we can learn from the tactics we often employ. We learn to lie as fencers, to deceive; if we pay attention to that writ a little larger perhaps we appreciate those subtleties in ourselves a little better. Fooling an opponent to make the touch is part of fencing, but it’s generally a poor approach to other aspects of life, particularly in dealing with others. It’s no better deceiving ourselves.

Scoil Scairte

hedge-school1There is a simplicity, something natural about teaching out of doors. It’s not for everyone. Living in the Pacific Northwest means that one needs to be comfortable with months of rain and grey skies—two of my favorite things—but this means that by definition I’ll see fewer students. Rather than view that as another proof of failure, which it may very well be, I instead choose to see it as weeding out those who shouldn’t be working with me. [4]

This is, next to fencing as a path to growth, what I’ve learned: what I teach is not for everyone and that’s okay. Those who wish to take lessons with me will, and I will happily share all I know. That is my role as an instructor. This may mean that very few will see the value in my approach. That’s okay too.

I know it’s value, I live it every day, and while it has not made me a happier person, I think it is making me a kinder, more compassionate one, and that’s still a win.

 

NOTES

[1] Scoil Scairte, Irish, pron. skole skart, lit. thicket or covert school, usually translated “hedge school;” these began appearing in the 18th century when sanctions against Catholic schools were strictly enforced. Schoolmasters, some more legit than others, began teaching out of doors, often secretly, and even when they left the bothy for a building the name “hedge school” stuck.

 

[2] For more information, the USFCA site is one resource (https://www.usfca.org/); see also the works of Walter Green such as The Moniteur Handbook and his The Moniteur d’Escrime Historique Handbook, both available on his Lulu page (http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?contributorId=1099801). My goal in looking at the initial, official ranking was two-fold; first, it would give me more tools as a teacher, and second might open up teaching opportunities that are closed to those outside the official organizations.

 

[3] There are dangers in studying the Art too. For everyone of us looking to the Art for growth, there are ten thickwits who pursue the Art for the wrong reasons, even evil reasons. The ridiculous Deus Vult types, the minority within Germanic heathendom who embrace right-wing ideas, and those out to victimize opponents to feel good about themselves stand out as some of the worst cases.

 

[4] Having worked hard since 2015 to build up the sabre community in the PNW, there are more options than there were. I’ve tried my best to support these colleagues, tout their programs, hang their shingles next to my own, and in every way possible be an ally instead of a rival. I can’t say I’ve convinced any of them that this is the case, but that doesn’t really matter. Students have more options, and since personality and approach matter so much, more instructors who know what they’re doing is good.

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

The Art above All Else—Collaboration and Fencing Instruction

Fencing books

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

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

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

1F8A8CB8-E8D9-4EF8-AB72-5E9B022B806A beta

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

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

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

IMG_4426

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

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

14103048_10208555503259416_5675796283840380623_o

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


Photos:
–Fencing Books

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

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

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

The First Foe—Instructors and Bouting

Partner Drills 2

There are many things that distinguish Olympic and Classical fencing from historical fencing, but one that’s surprised me is the place of bouting with an instructor. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in Olympic or Classical schools, but it happens differently when it does, and in my experience doesn’t tend to raise the same questions.

I’ve not taken a poll, but I believe it’s common for instructors in historical circles to free fence with students. Not all do, but certainly many, and it’s easy to see why. Most “HEMA” clubs are grass-roots, that is, they start say with one or two people eager to explore extinct art X and they form a backyard study group. They start off, then, fencing one another. Many such clubs are so small that in order to have people to test techniques and plays against an instructor has to fence. That instructor often is only the instructor because they’ve spent more time with a text.

In Olympic and Classical schools normally instructors have been trained within those cultures—with long traditions of pedagogy, with established programs for training teachers, people entering these fencing spheres interact with instructors differently. New students, for example, take lessons from an instructor, but don’t fence them in free bouting. They may in time, but more often than not outside of teaching bouts new fencers fence against more advanced fencers. I’ve worked with four masters so far and only with the last have I enjoyed the privilege of free bouting. I had teaching bouts, sure, where I was restricted to specific things we’d been working on, just using them in real time, but not free bouting. Thus, my perspective as an instructor is largely shaped by these experiences.

The reason I’m exploring this here is that I’m always a bit shocked when someone asks me how they did or if I was holding back on them. These are honest questions, and I’m always happy to provide feedback, but it’s important I think to establish how one should think of any bout with an instructor. The caveat is that this is my view, one not shared by all within the historical community, but so far as the group I run goes this is how I look at it.

An instructor’s first duty is to teach. This should guide everything they do. This pertains not only to overseeing drill, but also to bouting. It’s especially important in bouting, because by its nature a combat between two people, even friendly, is a contest, it is competition, and few places are as prone to ego as this. Everyone likes to win, everyone wants to, but victory, even the small victory that comes in a single bout, isn’t the goal of an instructor in that match: their goal is to use that bout to build up the student. What does that mean?

First, it means that the instructor must balance pushing the student realistically enough that they respond correctly, but not so hard that they overwhelm that student. Second, it means that while the instructor is trying to land the touch, they’re not doing so at any cost—if landing the touch defeats the lesson, don’t land it. Start over, set it up for the student again. Third, it means holding back. This isn’t, by the way, being condescending toward that student, it’s honoring where they are skill-wise in that moment. Hitting them with every tool in your tool box, with all ferocity, is as useless and defeating as it is stupid. The instructor becomes a bully, the student is frustrated, embarrassed, and no one learns anything. The sala is not a place for the instructor to show off what they know, but to teach. If your self-worth requires you to seek these little wins, fine, but there are other venues for that. There is no glory in defeating your own students.

As an instructor, it’s your students who come first, not you. When you bout with them, your goal is to increase their skill; yours will improve in helping them.

It can be easy to get lost in the fun, so you must focus—limit yourself to those maneuvers that allow your students to see opportunities to use what they’ve learned, and set them up to do that. This doesn’t mean you’re handing it to them; one does with brand new fencers, but with more advanced students you need to sell it, make it real, otherwise you’re not helping them. Your job in these cases is to mimic what they’ll see on the strip or in the ring.

Instructors need good bouts too, and this is yet another argument for continuing education. One should never stop being a student. If you need bouts, find them, but go to the appropriate place—seek out better fencers than yourself, enter a decent tourney, go to a master and take lessons. It’s good for you, and, it’s good for your students.