Keeping our Fencers Safe

Below is a link to an important piece by Maestro Jen Oldham—it details ways to foster a heathy community and fight abuse. No matter with whom one might work this is a crucial aspect of an instructor’s job, but it is all the more important for those of us working with children.

I’ve written about this before and will again, because creating safe spaces to learn is not a one-and-done event, but a way of working, a way of creating and maintaining a healthy community. An instructor should be above reproach: they should be a role model, an advocate, a guardian, and conduct themselves in as transparent a manner as possible.

There are few crimes or sins lower than hurting children—it’s a triple evil: they cannot defend themselves like an adult, their stage of life hasn’t prepared them to recognize or manage threats as easily making them more vulnerable, and some abused children become abusers in turn. Adults have a collective responsibility to protect children—each of us must do our part. Maestro Oldham’s list below is a nice primer:

https://www.wfencing.org/post/protecting-fencers-from-abuse-and-supporting-victims-of-abuse?postId=b0414af9-a9cf-4551-ab81-7443a6bd416c

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.

Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces

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

Culture & Tunnel Vision

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

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

Too “Historical” for Olympic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sword-bridges & the Time between Times

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piste & Page (Part I)

[I’ve been asked several times how I got into historical fencing, why I’m no longer competing, etc., and figured it would be helpful to me if no one else to spend some time on that. Thirty years of fencing, and forty of martial arts, puts a body through a lot so the easy answer to the competition question is “mileage.” For the literary minded this is a choice between playing Achilles or Nestor—the former’s path may gain one glory, but a shorter career; the latter a longer career, but less glory. I intend to do all I can to fence until I am utterly unable to do so, and so that means focusing more on teaching and research than it does tournaments. Few talk of Nestor, but he made it to Troy and acquitted himself well so while hardly the most exciting character among the Danaans, there are worse role-models 😉 In any event, here is part I of how I landed where I currently am]

A friend of mine, an author working on a new book, asked me why sabre is my favorite weapon. This sparked a longer conversation about how I got involved with historical fencing. I learned a long time ago to develop answers akin to those one uses in academia, that is, to have a soundbite, a two-minute answer, and then a full answer which might take a few minutes, each appropriate for specific instances. Most people, for example, when they find out you’re a professor ask “what do you teach?” and expect a short answer, such as “history.” Going into detail about Libanius’ support of the Emperor Julian or imported narrative tropes in Irish hagiography is usually only of any real interest to me and three other people. Neck-deep in graduate research, working alone for the most part, it’s easy to answer these questions with far more information than people want or need. It can take time to read that in people, least it did for me. They might ask, but they don’t really want to know.

It’s the same with fencing. I replied with a short answer, but my friend wanted more, so I told him that like many people I started in foil, but that the sabre squad at my university needed a fourth member so I volunteered. I had watched the sabreurs fence, and was attracted to the speed, noise, and violence of it. It looked fun!

Our coach at the time, Maestro Edwin “Buzz” Hurst, was strict, appropriately demanding, and quick to dress us down if we got lazy or our attention wavered.[1] This was difficult for many students. An Annapolis grad and retired naval officer, Buzz can summon that stern military demeanor when necessary. I learned a lot from Maestro Hurst, not only in terms of technique but in terms of tactics and strategy. One of the things I admire about him is that he never once refused to answer a question or explain something. I’ve met coaches who have 15-20 min. per student and little patience for questions. Busy as he was, Buzz was happy to answer questions after a lesson or if we happened to join him for lunch.

UCSB Fencing Team 1992–Maestro Hurst is in the middle, rear row; I am on his right as you look at the photo; Phil Ives, our sabre squad captain, is on Buzz’s left; Jason Levin, another sabreur, is just right of me and down slightly.

UCSB’s fencing club was just that, a club, which meant limited resources unlike NCAA supported teams. It was all on us for the most part to bring in additional money, something we did with everything from bake-sales to fencing demonstrations. Our numbers dipped, and about a year or so after Maestro Hurst helped us achieve the division championship (1992)—something a club team had not done in some 25 years—we found we could no longer afford him. [2] This affected the sabre squad perhaps most, but in time we were lucky to contract with another Los Angeles area maestro, Albert Joseph Couturier (d. 2014, aged 91), “Al” to us. Members of our foil squad had been visiting his salle in Culver City, and some of his students and assistants had helped direct our tournaments.

It was a long drive for Al, then in his early 70s, so two students, Larry Dunn and Brian Peña, usually drove up with him and assisted. Brian helped coach foil and epee (though he is a good sabreur too), and Larry assisted Al with sabre. The years I spent studying with Al and Larry, as I look back on it, were the years that shaped most of my game. Buzz had given me a solid foundation, and they helped me build a house on it.

SoCal NCAA Fencing, 1990s

Reputation for laxity and a “duuuuuude, the waves are like sooo killer brah” attitude aside, southern California was and remains a major hub for fencing in the United States.[3] In the early to mid-90s the level of skill in the collegiate division, fed as it was by parallel interest in USFA competition, was high among the top tier of competitors. With so many maestri in town, and post 1984 Olympics (Los Angeles), coaching was not only available, but often of extremely high caliber. It had long been this way. Some names are well-known in American fencing, such as Aldo Nadi and Henri Uyttenhove, but Delmar Calvert, Len Carnighan, Michael d’Asaro Sr., John MacDougall, Torao Mori, Heziburo Okawa, George Piller, Charles Sandberg, Doc O’Brien, Hans Halberstadt, and many others all taught at some point or other in California, and between them and their senior students the talent pool was as broad as it was/is deep. In addition to the masters resident in the area, many world competitors and instructors visited too. Daniel Costin, originally from Romania, directed some of our collegiate bouts, and I had a few lessons with Ferenc Lukacs when he was at Salle Couturier.[4]

When there is such a high level of coaching, so long as one is dedicated and puts in the time one will improve. Like many things, the more we know of something, the more we’re able to do, the more enjoyment we get out of it. Provided with frequent tournaments, in college or via the USFA, we didn’t lack for chances to hone our skills. One reflection of this mix of enjoyment and skill was the fact that after the sabre portion of a tournament was over—we were usually first to finish—a number of the schools in the conference would keep fencing. This was common pre-electric sabre.

Depressions Beach, Isla Vista–yes, yes it is somewhat a miracle that any of us at UCSB ever graduate.*

We came to know many of the fencers at UCLA, USC, CS Fullerton, and others. Our major rivals, however, tended to do their own thing.[5] The chance to fence with some of the best fencers in our area, after the stress of competition, not only made for fun but allowed us to fight better fencers without the pressure. We learn a lot in friendly bouts with those more skilled—the fact that it’s fun helps too. As a much younger person fighting in competitive TKD tournaments I had been encouraged to seek out better fighters—one will face some tough bouts, but what we can learn there is invaluable. It is just as accurate in fencing. D’Artagnan Sr., one may recall, tells his son “Vous êtes jeune, vous devez être brave par deux raisons: la première, c’est que vous êtes Gascon, et la seconde, c’est que vous êtes mon fils. Ne craignez pas les occasions et cherchez les aventures. Je vous ai fait apprendre à manier l’épée; vous avez un jarret de fer, un poignet d’acier; battez-vous à tout propos; battez-vous d’autant plus que les duels sont défendus, et que, par conséquent, il y a deux fois du courage à se battre.” [6] This happy camaraderie changed dramatically with the advent of electric-sabre in collegiate fencing.

Electric Scoring: Sabre’s Charge at Krojanty [7]

Electrical scoring wasn’t new and had been a normal part of foil and epee for decades, but sabre proved far more difficult to convert.[8] Where depressing a button at the tip of the weapon is a fairly simple mechanical process, figuring out how not to make the non-dangerous portions of a sabre blade register as a hit is complicated. To this day no one has done it. It’s one piece of metal, but only the true edge, tip, and last third of the false edge—supposedly—should register a score. That is in keeping with real blades—the flat might smart, the forte might bruise, but neither is sharp. In the days when sabre was fenced dry, where we had a director presiding over the bout and four judges to assist, this was far easier to track. The director had to listen as well as look—if they heard fabric before steel, it was a hit; if steel before fabric, it was parried and the following “thwack!” was whip-over; if the sounds were simultaneous then chances were good it was a malparry or failed parry. The judges, ideally, helped determine this by acknowledging either a hit or miss, or in the event they were unsure or could not see, they could abstain.

Since the judges were pulled from the teams, and since some teams were open to cheating, the judges could and did try to game their role. A good director called them on it, however, and made it clear that such garbage wasn’t going to work. Given this potential problem with judges the appeal of electrical scoring was obvious; but it was introduced too soon. The technology only worked in ideal circumstances, but those with the power to do anything about it didn’t see that.

Whether used with an accelerometer/capteur (as we did initially) or without, electric scoring in sabre only works if everyone is playing according to ROW (right of way), is skilled enough to fence cleanly, and honest enough to acknowledge a fair hit against themselves or deny a poor hit awarded to them. Assuming well-trained fencers who are defense-minded, who aren’t adapting their technique to exploit the scoring system, it “can” work. However, because it was so easy to exploit weaknesses in the system, the lowest common denominator became the path to success. Crappy fencing could and consistently did beat out better fencing. To make matters worse, the rules, then as now, do not allow one to overrule the box. Worse still, the rules soon changed to reflect the new reality.

Almost overnight the problems became obvious. First, from the director’s call of “allez!” both fencers would fleche at one another and double out. In the next exchange, the better tactician might feign a fleche, but instead take distance, make say a beat-attack against the fencer making the fleche, and make the touch, but… lose the point. The reasoning behind this, such as it was, argued that since the attacker’s light went off the other fencer must have failed to make the beat-attack in time. Half the time the director called it a failed parry-riposte—understandable, perhaps, but less so when the fencer making the beat is taking distance and striking either the middle or last third of the blade… Part of a director’s job is to make the call as to who has ROW, the initial attacker or the person who made the counter-attack in tempo, and this was still required, but increasingly the director came to rely on the box versus their eyes and ears.

With both lights signaling, and thus both fencers “hit,” the fencer making a simple attack with a fleche, say a cut to the head, was awarded ROW mostly because their attack was straight-forward. Anything more complicated than hop-and-chop was too easily taken for a failed parry or searching for the blade. The problem with this is that the very same principle of ROW means that an attack into tempo, such as a beat cut–properly made–takes ROW away from that attacker. Relying on the lights rather than one’s senses was a natural mistake, one only encouraged by the director having to bow to the box. Between less focus on what the action actually was and expectations for bad fencing at the collegiate level, directing followed the fencing as it descended into the chimpanzee donnybrook it increasingly became. As for the parry-riposte game, it was gone.

The “Flunge” **

The answer was a band-aid instead of a solution. They outlawed the fleche and any other attack where one crossed one’s legs. Fencers, however, who relied on it began to make a similar, if far more clumsy attack, the “flunge” (more or less a fleche except that the legs don’t cross). The en garde position went from mid-century third, a compromise between offense and defense, to a forward leaning position, one where the hand was held at about hip height, point near the floor, to facilitate a speedy slap at the bottom or side of the bell-guard. [9] These fencers were literally attacking the strongest part of one’s defense and scoring—it didn’t matter that this was whip-over. The light went off. One could take the Platonic ideal of a parry and it meant nothing. The entire ethos of the game changed, and the frustration of some combined with the glee of those getting away with it fostered a bully approach of mask-throwing, simian grunting, and screaming clownishness that has persisted. Had they addressed the one thing that would have fixed it all, the nature of the blade, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble (and no, the s2000 blade did not solve the problem).

Disillusionment

Anyone who spends years dedicated to honing a complex set of sophisticated techniques is going to be a little disappointed that almost overnight they don’t matter. As in so many things, it also didn’t matter that one was right—that the logic of ROW argued against the ridiculousness, that both common sense and history were on one’s side. Nothing. What mattered was winning. The chimp who slaps at your bell-guard and makes a light go off has not proven that they’re the better fencer, only that they’ve learned a game using sabres well. There is a difference.

The lack of concern, even amongst our teammates, was disheartening. The coaches were sympathetic, but on the one hand hamstrung by the rules and on the other were accustomed to a different experience on the piste themselves. There was a short time where high-level competitors, who had been trained properly, could work around the nonsense. Directors too, since they were dealing with A-level competitors expected and looked for more than the hulk-smash blitz of the flunge at the bell-guard. Only later when these fencers started to suffer too did coaching change. In their view, I suspect, bad fencing is just bad fencing, and since they had less trouble, the problem wasn’t the electrical scoring system, just newer or less-experienced fencers than themselves.

Defection

I can’t recall the exact date, but it was during the last two years of my competitive life that I made the break. It wasn’t apparent to me then, in fact it wasn’t for a very long time, but looking back on it the decision to dive into the sources was a turning point. For a long time the sea-change in my imagination was the memory of a comrade and I cracking open two bottles of McEwan’s Export Ale after our last collegiate bout, but in hindsight that was just a sad denouement.

Carl Thimm’s bibliography and other works in the university library were my first stop. I combed bookstores, and the burgeoning internet where among other things I discovered that there were other weirdos like me as well as people like Patri J. Pugliese who had started scanning and sharing long out of print manuals and treatises. I discovered both further conviction for the cause and comfort in works like Barbasetti’s that were so close to what I had learned.

Tolle, lege!

To most historical fencers this will sound pretty normal, i.e., looking at sources, but in Olympic circles it is, or was, less common. There was almost never any reason other than an individual’s curiosity to consult a work on fencing, especially in our region. We all took lessons from masters who had carried on centuries’ old methods, who could answer questions, and while the historical nugget here or there was fun trivia, the focus was improvement to advance and medal. One didn’t need books to do that.

If reading up on fencing, and reading old fencing manuals was odd, even worse were the attempts to create more realistic (yet still safe sabres). With apologies to my friends in the SCA, my teammates back then, viewed the various experiments that my good friend and fellow sabreur Jon Tarantino and I conducted as one step away from puffy shirts and bad Elizabethan accents. It cost us most of our credibility with the club. We were tolerated, but barely. Pity to say that now, some twenty-five years later, the ill-will people bore us remains strong with some former teammates. No amount of explanation, even apologies for souring newer fencers, has made a difference.

Dennis Nedry to Dodgson: “See? Nobody cares.”

One thing I believe to this day was that Jon and I found a simple solution, one we proved worked, and that would have helped alleviate a lot of problems if it didn’t outright fix electric sabre or make it unnecessary: a return to more historically accurate blades. The core issue was whip-over, so logically a slightly stiffer blade would help. This was the path the FIE took and the resulting s2000 blade is stiffer.

However, that was only part of the problem. Fencing with a weapon so light is fast, so fast that it allows one to do things that one cannot do, not safely anyway, with a weapon of period weight. This was less an issue when the lighter blade was invented for the sport because training still reflected the reality of the duel. After all, the duel had not disappeared in Italy yet, nor in France for that matter, and there were still people either issued swords or using them in war as late as World War II.

Stiffness was an easy solve, but adding weight is not something I think anyone official considered. Concerns over legal and safety issues were raised when Jon and I brought it up, but these were weak arguments. Produced correctly, blunted, with proper flex, a blade along late 19th century lines is as safe as anything else. The additional weight becomes negligible quickly after a little practice, and there is no marked increase in force—most of that comes down to training. Good fencers are not hard-hitters.

We sunk a lot of time and money into researching options for such a blade. The problem was no one made them. We went through a lot of crappy Indian-made “cavalry” repro-sabres, any theatrical blade even slightly robust, and at least two really lovely—but totally unsuitable for bouting—“Masiello” sabres made by Oscar Kolombatovich. In most cases we had to alter these weapons significantly to use them safely. With the repro cavalry sabres, for example, we tapped out the peen to remove the blade, ground it down to a more suitable length for use on foot, reground the tang, tapped the tang for a pommel nut, and reassembled the sabre. Even a clipped point that is rounded out by grinding, however, can be dangerous, and while these were fun they were never ideal.

We settled on schlagers, the oval ones still available then, as they had enough flex to thrust safely, were rigid enough not to whip, and were closer in weight to earlier blades. To test our hypothesis, we rigged two schlager blades for electric, accelerometers and all, as these were the closest thing we could then get to say late 19th century practice blades. Most of this was easy—we painted the inside of the bell-guard to insulate it, taped the pommel nut, and added an accelerometer jack into the last two steel guards we owned. These were robust, had a rolled edge, and lasted an impressive amount of time. All that remained was to suit up and try them out.

To say that we demonstrated that they worked well for electric would be too prosaic—it literally solved every issue. Even a panic parry close to the body didn’t incur whip-over. After we beta-tested it, we had one of the coaches try it. They agreed it was better, but sort of shrugged. Suited up as we were, and with tips wide and broad enough for safety, it was less a concern for any danger, I suspect, as it was that they were just too different. Jon and I explained that the increased weight was necessary, that current blades were too light and meant that speed dominated the game over proper technique (still the problem today). We added that it took a few weeks to adjust to the weight, but that it was worth it. For proof, here we were, sharing the fruits of our labor so others can see how easy it was. No amount of enthusiasm, no demonstration of proof of concept, nothing made the slightest dint in anyone’s opinion. Not even having them try it out helped. It didn’t matter to anyone but us. It’s not hard to set out on one’s own after that.

Glad as I am, thrilled as I am, that we have the blades that Castille Armory, Danelli/Balefire, and Darkwood make, it’s hard not to wish they’d been around in the 1990s. Castille’s 16mm sabre blade would have solved most of the issues. It still could. The daffy junk one sees in modern sabre won’t work with a proper blade.

In Desertum

The last half of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium I spent researching, drilling, fencing, and taking lessons whenever possible. Like Bracciolini, everywhere I went I hunted for books, buying whatever I could find that was useful. [10] I also worked on a few papers, one with Jon entitled “Is a Heavier Blade the Answer?” which never saw the light of day. I published another article in Fencer’s Quarterly, edited by Maitre Nick Evangelista, and was hopeful of publishing a second when the magazine folded. [11] I’ve continued to write, mostly for myself or students, ever since.

Eager for allies, I continued to look for them, but the few I found were as beleaguered as Jon and I were. Most had given up and left the competitive world. It was hard to blame them for it, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted fencing to be what it had been, to fix something it ought to be able to do, and, that it could do safely. I wanted to compete again. My interest in classical and/or historical fencing, at the time, was largely geared toward improving Olympic fencing, but it had been clear for a long time, especially with the rise of both “classical” fencing and early historical experiments that this was a waste of time. Whatever I would do with fencing it seemed more and more likely I would be doing it alone until I could find other, like-minded people to fence with again.

NOTES:

[1] Maestro Hurst is an active coach, not only teaching out of his Cabrillo Academy of the Sword, but as a long-time officer, in many capacities, of the USFCA. https://www.cabrillosword.com/instructors

[2] I wasn’t part of club leadership and can’t say much about the decision process that led to us losing Maestro Hurst. Rumors must have been circulating as a chance meeting at my school library with a rival coach proved. The late Carlos Fuertes, a former Pacific Coast Sabre Champion and then a coach for Cal Tech, recognized me when I said hello, and asked if I had a moment. He was in the same tracksuit that I normally saw him in and was even wearing his “dancing bear” t-shirt. That “moment” turned into some 45 minutes of him cross-examining me (he was a lawyer as well) as to the “real” reason Buzz was no longer coaching at UCSB. It’s true that a few of my teammates were unhappy with Buzz and took his sometimes strong criticism personally, but as far as I knew while that might have made it easier for them to make the call, the fact was we were a club team and continually poor. Buzz was my second coach, but the first master I had the privilege to study under and there was no way I was going to feed rumors one of his rivals had heard. Buzz had no special affection for me—I was just one of many students–but he was my maestro, he gave me my start in sabre, and loyalty is important. I would not dishonor that or him. It’s not easy finding articles etc. for this period in California’s fencing history, rich as it is, but the source is the West Coast Fencing Archive, cf. https://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/2015/05/18/san-jose-state-university-unknown-tournament/ . The LA Times archive also has some articles.

[3] Southern California has long boasted a thriving fencing culture. The large number of colleges and the proximity of Hollywood meant that there were always a lot of fencing masters resident in the area. There were also often close relationships between some college teams and public salles, because many collegiate fencers also fenced, outside the academic setting, for those salles. Maestro Couturier was with us long enough that UCSB at the time was a satellite as it were of his school, and the rivalries we had with schools like Cal Tech and its connection then to Salle Grenadier, meant that opponents often had twice the reason to defeat the competition. This was not as Jets and Sharks as it sounds, but as sabre culture soured in the late 90s these additional loyalties definitely played a role. For those interested in Hollywood and fencing, the standout work on the connection between fencing and Hollywood is Jeffrey Richard’s Swordsmen of the Screen (New York, NY: Routledge, 1977).

[4] Ferenc’s lesson was straight-up old-world Hungarian, and the only “t-shirt lesson” I ever had. These tend to stick in one’s mind as outfitted only with a mask and glove any failed parry means that an attack stings more than usual. There was a language barrier, so much of the lesson was carried out by repetition until I made the right correction. The one example burned in memory was that my guard of third was off just enough in one lesson that Ferenc cut at my arm, the whipover of which did a number on the top of my forearm, until I made the correction that prevented it. Though not my way of doing things, I will say it did make my guard and parry of third pretty decent.

[5] CSLB and CalTech were my school’s major, consistent rivals, but much of this varied by squad and over time. UCSB’s sabre squad, pre-electric, tended to meet up with that of UCLA, CS Fullerton, and some of USC’s sabreurs to get in some extra fencing. Reuben, whose surname I forget, from UCLA, and Jason Late of USC were two of the most enjoyable, skilled fencers we had the pleasure of facing, and, were always gracious win or lose. I learned a lot fencing with them.

[6] Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Ch. 1. [“You are young; you must be brave for two reasons: the first is that you are a Gascon, and the second, you are my son. Do not be afraid of opportunities and seek adventure. I have taught you the sword—you have a leg of iron, a wrist of steel; fight about everything, fight all the more since duels are forbidden and therefore there is twice the courage in fighting.”] http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13951/pg13951.html

[7] The Polish cavalry charge against German mechanized infantry is proverbial for famous disastrous last stands. See for example https://worldhistoryproject.org/1939/9/1/charge-at-krojanty

[8] Epee was the earliest of the three to go electric (1931). Foil followed in 1956. The first more or less successful version for sabre saw service in 1986 for one event’s finals pool; the first complete event to feature an entirely electric sabre section was the 1989 World Championship. See Nick Evangelista, The Encyclopedia of the Sword (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), 197-200; E. D. Morton, Fencing A-Z (London, UK: Antler Books LTD, 1988), 57-58; Julius Palffy-Alpar, Sword and Masque (Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis Company, 1967), 117-118.

[9] Stupid as this sounds, slapping at the bell guard was an easy way to take advantage of the modern blade and score. The s2000 blade, ostensibly less flexible and thus less prone to whipover, was an improvement on that particular blade design, but not a solution. It’s just too light, which encourages speed over proper technique. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a technique to making a touch now, but to say that modern technique is at variance with an impressive amount of literary, even video evidence from a time when practice was closer to the real thing. The guard of third, which has become the standard en garde position, is due to Hungarian influence. Italian sabre, which transformed the Hungarian program, has a similar parry, terza bassa or low third, but historically this was a low-line option used in specific circumstances. The guard of choice, and in my view still the best guard, is second. It presents a threat, it puts the point on target and makes a thrust or actions with the point easier, and yet allows for quick parries in the first triangle (first, second, and fifth) as well as setting up various molinelli well.

[10] Like the generation of Italian humanists before him, like Petrarch and Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini stands alone as the finest discoverer of ancient books. As a Papal secretary, Poggio was ideally situated to explore libraries. The Council of Constance (1414-1417), which attempted to rectify the breach in the Church caused by the “Great Schism,” was a key event which allowed for a number of humanists to visit northern libraries. Poggio, for example, visited Cluny in 1415 and brought to light several works by Cicero unknown at the time, including speeches such as the Pro Roscio and Pro Murena. He later visited St. Gall where he uncovered a complete version of Quintilian. While many of the texts they found have since been lost, copies exist which led us back to them and their editions. Tireless, Poggio traveled through France, Germany, and England hunting for ancient manuscripts. Like other humanists, he was not simply a collector, but a scholar who edited copies of those new works that he found and who shared his ideas with other humanists. He even helped popularize a new style of handwriting, one based on the old Carolingian minuscule [this is an adaption of a piece I wrote for ABC CLIO).

[11] See “Fundamentally, we have gone off the track…,” in Fencers Quarterly Magazine 9:3 (Spring 2006), 26-28; a second article, one on the weird book that is Cut and Thrust: The Subtlety of the Sabre by Leon Bertrand (1927), was set to be printed but FQM folded. That piece lives on my academia.edu site, but is dated. The world is no poorer for the fact it wasn’t printed.

*Source: https://www.californiabeaches.com/beach/depressions-beach/

**Flunge photo via (source: https://www.reddit.com/r/Fencing/comments/f2i0p4/my_friend_pulling_off_a_flunge/)

If you make a Molinello in the Woods…

Masiello, molinello to the head from the left

The question asked of sound and trees falling in the woods works for many situations. It’s especially apt as so many of us work alone thanks to the pandemic, but even in the best of times fencing is—be it conducted within a club, school, or team—a solitary pursuit. Our training partners and opponents are instrumental in our growth, and we cannot progress far without them, but the hours of footwork, conditioning, and drill honing technique is a responsibility on the individual fencer. All the flash and fire, all the joy experienced in flow during a bout, little to none of that does one enjoy advancing, retreating, and lunging, doing point-control drills, or performing molinelli against a pell. At its best it can be meditative, but normally, about as good as it gets is merely the awareness that the dull work matters, that one has successfully executed the necessary discipline, and that it’s all important. Unlike bouting, it is not “fun,” though absolutely crucial in our development.

Solo Drill & Isolation

On a another level, however, there is or can be a loneliness in fencing. In most ways it’s a journey we take alone, so that makes sense, but in the deeper waters of the Art and in trying to find other explorers at that depth the isolation, if we’re not aware of it and careful, can be detrimental to our study. With the pandemic, when most of what we can do safely is solo drill, it’s hard enough to find motivation to do the grunt work let alone fight that added sense of isolation if it assails us. Thanks to the internet this is a problem we can alleviate in some degree—few days pass where I don’t chat with the few people I know who are as keen to plumb the Art’s depths, explore texts, and learn as I am. After all, few people in our community, never mind people outside of it, enjoy the deep dive and can discuss the Art for hours on end. I know I’m not the only one who has watched a hapless friend’s eyes glaze over with the unmistakable look of a person that realizes they should never have asked us about fencing. The ability to chat with people far distant is a lifeline we’ve not always had and we should be grateful for it.

“The IT Crowd,” BBC, on sports

On a public level too fencing can be lonely. Like any more or less obscure pursuits fencing is not one of the typical dinner-party topics or likely to come up at a rave, farmer’s market, or appropriately distanced line at a grocery checkout (the six feet rule protects us not only from the virus, but small talk 😉 ). [1] American football, however, or the other sports-ball games, the latest shows on television, etc. are far more likely as topics of conversation. In short, most fencers have no one else to discuss the Art with apart from other fencers, not all of whom devote the same amount of time to it.

Moreover, with all that is going on in the world, with the dire challenges of climate change, Covid-19, social and political turmoil, and every person’s own trials, devoting time to a complicated, obsolete martial art probably seems silly or irresponsible to many people. Even assuming the fears of the conspiracy-minded sorts out there panned out, it would be a long, long time before anyone needed to use a sword again in earnest–in the US alone it will take centuries to run out of bullets–so in terms of the “practical” side to fencing it’s a hard sell. Not impossible–a cane, umbrella, or stick in the hands of a decent fencer is not something anyone should want to experience. So, maybe studying a dead martial art ranks low among the wines and spirits, but the Art can also be a healthy diversion, decent exercise, and intellectual entertainment, which are reasons enough to pursue it. It can be more than that too. The combination of physical and mental stimulation and exertion can be great stress relief.

Of the various perspectives perhaps one of the hardest is the lack of interest or even censure from other fencers. It’s hard enough to feel isolated generally, but when it comes from seemingly like-minded people it is that much harder. Typically this is something, when I’ve experienced it myself, that comes from either Olympic fencers or from similarly narrow-minded sections within “HEMA.” Truth is that everyone filters things through their own experience; reason, evidence, all that has little to do with it.

For example, in the 1990s when some of us defected from Olympic fencing to explore ways to make fencing about swordplay again, there was little support from our comrades. Impassioned appeals were usually met with laughter or hostility. I know my own disappointment and frustration with the poor decisions the FIE was making were made worse by the near complete lack of sympathy from teammates. Our vocal complaints about the system, especially with newer fencers in the mix, were not conducive to group cohesion, but we wanted those newer fencers to know there was a difference between defense-minded approaches and the slap-happy b.s. then in vogue. This is something that typically hits harder as one has more perspective. As it turns out, those of us upset about some of these changes were correct, and this is maybe one reason that to this day some former teammates haven’t forgiven us. [2]

Scene from “Gaslight,” 1944

It is extremely easy to feel gas-lighted in situations like this. I tend to hate terms like “gas-light,” but having had too much experience with it, even in fencing, it’s appropriate. Like many things, there is a spectrum for gas-lighting, but one of the most difficult to manage and overcome is the particular species wherein people believe that you believe something, but do not believe you’re correct and actively do things, wittingly or unwittingly, that make one feel like they’re losing their mind. [3] They offer what seems like positive reinforcement but which really only confuses everything–one comes away under the false assumption that they agree, when they don’t. We discover that the face they present to us is not the one they share with everyone else, the result of which breeds further confusion when in company with shared associates and it becomes clear there is a difference in what they’ve heard.

For fencing, an illuminating example is where people stand with regard to a silly rule that to this day affects Olympic sabre, t. 70 1 & 2, which states:

METHOD OF MAKING A TOUCH
t.70

  1. The sabre is a weapon for thrusting and cutting with the cutting edge, the flat and the
    back of the blade.
  2. All touches made with the cutting edge, the flat or the back of the blade are counted as
    good (cuts and back-cuts).
    [4]

It should be obvious why this is a problem. The decision to allow the flat of the blade to score was the FIE/USFA’s “solution” to the problem of whip-over in sabre. The logic was apparently that an attack made with right-of-way, even if it hit the guard, was valid if the light went off. Since the director cannot overrule the light (see for example t. 73.1), the only arbiter of the validity of a touch is the box, so despite the idiocy of attacking literally the strongest area of defense, one can–and people do–score by slapping the bell-guard. Because competition reflects responses to a rule-set, the nature of fencing and in time instruction (in some areas) changed.

Those of us unhappy about this were ignored, ridiculed, or told to shut up. Of these the response easiest to manage was ridicule–at least that was honest. We mined older works on fencing and photographs and illustrations of sabres with wider blade profiles. At one point, I collaborated with a close friend and fellow sabreur, an engineer, and we rigged up electric sabre kit with the closest thing we could find to period blades, schlager blades, and demonstrated that fixing the problem was as simple as returning to an earlier blade style. Whip-over disappeared. We even had one of our master’s assistant coaches try it, and while he agreed that it was better, he shrugged it off. It didn’t affect him at his level of competition–where training reflected a pre-electric mindset–so he didn’t see the issue. In his mind, the problem with whip-over wasn’t anything other than the fact that most people experiencing it were just “bad fencers.” To those of us trained as he was, but having to fence people increasingly taught to exploit this rule, it was maddening. One either adapted and did the same or quit.

The facts, evidence, the goal of helping the community fix an error meant nothing. A lot of us, myself included, felt abandoned, and it was easy to feel like it was all in one’s head. Rationally we knew the evidence supported us, but it didn’t matter to anyone else. What does one do when that happens? Our solution was to press on, and apparently a lot of other people did too, because now there are multiple companies making blades along earlier lines. There is also the classical/historical community that mushroomed in the wake of the exodus from Olympic competition.

So What?

The take away lesson is this: pursue the Art for you, for the reasons that make sense to you, and close your ears to those who mock, attack, or play Janus with you. If Olympic is your thing, do that; if classical/historical is, do that; if it’s bohurt, LARP, SCA, or anything else, go for it. So long as you’re honest in your study, with yourself, and with everyone else it’s hard to go wrong. Not everyone will see it that way, but the right people will and they are the ones who matter. They are your community even if they live half way around the world. As the pandemic continues, as we are forced to train more or less in isolation, we may as well do that the best way possible, and use this time to examine our study more closely, more honestly, and separate wheat from chaff, not only in terms of the Art, but of those who help or hinder us in our pursuit of it.

NOTES:

[1] Yes, I know, no one is going to raves or anything, but still.

[2] One of the hardest parts about owning one’s own share of the responsibility in a bad situation is that other parties will take advantage of it even so far as to use your admission against you. In this instance, both my close friend and I apologized for “souring” younger sabre fencers, but it did no good. It doesn’t matter that we were correct, it doesn’t matter that we did the right thing in owning our share of things, it changed nothing. It neither fixed that relationship or any other, and arguably it made some worse. This said, it was still the right thing to do.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting

[4] See Fencing Rules (June 2018), USA Fencing, p. 42, section t. 71: 1 & 2, https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2018FENC_USA_Fencing_Rules_20180918.pdf

Historical Fencing–Definitions & Disparagement

In a recent conversation with an old friend and fellow fencer, one on the Olympic side of things, I realized just how poorly understood “historical” fencing is. To be fair, what most people consider to be historical is horribly inaccurate—it takes a part for the whole. This is not completely their fault; it’s mostly a result of what they’ve seen. The most publicized and well-known aspect of it is the black-clad longsword tournament sect, and balk at it though the SPES-donned might, they’re not representative. Much of what falls under the umbrella term of “HEMA” is much older than that; as much rests on better premises as well. [1]

Trying to explain to this friend what historical fencing is (or ought to be) was difficult. It was not only that historical fencing encompasses so much, over so long a time, but also that his preconceived notions were hard to refute given the one example he knows. Reflecting on that conversation I’ve been devising a short list of features to help round out the limited picture my friend and others have of historical fencing.

If you are easily offended it may be best if you stop reading here, for what I am about to say, however true, might upset some people. Happily, my readership is small, more inclined to agree than whine, and realistically what one obscure fencer thinks about HEMA makes no never-mind to those most likely to take umbrage.

HEMA to Your Standard Olympic Fencer

Silly meme made for some others in no-man’s land

Much of competitive longsword is bad. To a trained fencer it looks like apes with sticks whacking away at one another with little regard for art or safety. There are several reasons for this. Too many people begin competing too soon. Coaching is inconsistent and sometimes outright horrible. Rulesets, though they continue to evolve, tend to reveal the state of current opinion in re some pet concern (e.g. the “after-blow”) more than they do the logic of not being hit. Directing and judging, so often staffed by the same new folk, is dicey. Put together, to anyone who has fought within the Olympic world competitive longsword is one codpiece away from LARP and more closely resembles bohurt save that for some reason longsworders detest metal armor.

This is not to say that there are not skilled fencers among competitive longsworders. There definitely are. I know a few and know others by repute from credible witnesses and mutual friends. Likewise, this is not to say that competitive “sport” fencing is devoid of problems—nothing could be farther from the truth. HEMA, as such, would not have grown as it has from the late 1990s on had the Olympic world had its act together. Among the many similarities between competitive “sport” and “historical” fencers is that too many of them either fail or refuse to see the problems within their own camp. It’s a lot easier to point at the flaws in the other and count oneself and one’s view as the correct one.

So, what is “Historical Fencing” then?

Setting aside, for now, the mutual dislike and focusing instead on the easily demonstrable, here is what my Olympic friends tend to miss about historical fencing:

  • it is not just competitive longsword (skilled or apish)
  • it is source-based
  • it attempts to approach the Art as a martial art more than a sport
  • it encompasses sources from the High Middle Ages to the early 20th cen. [2]
  • it increasingly incorporates more than European systems [3]
  • modern fencing would not exist without some of these sources/systems
  • like anything some of it is really good; some of it really bad

This is a short list, but it’s important and contains most of the key details my Olympic friends miss.

HEMA ≠ longsword

This view again mistakes a tree for the forest. While arguably the most popular weapon among those interested in competition, longsword is merely one weapon and maybe the most visible of those systems people tend to see. Many if not most of the surviving sources which cover longsword also cover other weapons, such as spear, pole-axe, sword in one-hand (or single-sword), dagger, wrestling, dussack, Messer (a large, usually single-edged knife), agricultural tools turned weapons (e.g. sickles and scythes), and sword and buckler; some include material for fighting in armor as well as out of it. Many if not most of these have their competitive side too, though with allowances necessary for safety—fighting in armor, for example, and with weapons like poleaxes which greatly multiply force, requires excising those maneuvers intended to end fights. [4]

There is no “HEMA” without Sources

Unlike traditional and competitive fencing, historical fencing—by and large—focuses on extant sources. These can, however, take many forms. Not all are crusty old manuscripts or obscure books. The techniques one sees within any weapon class are—or should be—interpretations of techniques, ideas, and plays found in these sources. Due to the difficulties and vagaries inherent in interpretation there are often differences of opinion about even seemingly simple things. A researcher’s background and training have a significant effect on what they see, and thus in how they interpret what they find. The disdain many Olympic fencers have toward sources is, oddly enough, not uncommon among people in HEMA either, at least as expressed in the wide-spread dislike and distrust of formal academics. [5]

Not everyone in historical fencing reads the source material. Ideally, they would, but to be fair some of it is challenging to read, some poorly written, and much of it dull to modern eyes and ears. To name one example, long expositions on geometry couched as a discussion between a learned master and an eager student tend to be tedious to modern readers. Moreover, not all translations are equal, and there is little formal training or attention paid to teaching students how to separate wheat and chaff. [6] As in most things, politics and cliques often attend one’s choice of translation—it’s ridiculous, but remember while based on sources historical fencing is not populated by scores of trained historians or paleographers. Most people, probably 99%, “do HEMA” as a hobby, for fun; doing homework for a hobby after a long day at school or work doesn’t appeal to most of them. These students look instead to an instructor for guidance, drills, and a chance to try out what they’ve learned with others. This is a major difference from Olympic fencing where an instructor, most often certified, hands down a tradition passed on to them the same way. [7]

Combat Art vs. Combat Sport

Historical fencing is, depending with whom you speak, one or the other, or, both. There is a competitive wing, but being competitive is by definition less combat oriented. This is true however much one desires for it to be “martial.” It’s the nature of the beast. One cannot use, for example, all of Fiore’s Armizare or people would be maimed or killed (Master Fiore really liked breaking joints and thrusting the pommel and cross into people’s faces). This said, for the most part historical fencers try to approach these old fight systems as a martial art. Some attempts are more successful than others. Not everyone competes either, and this is an important point—”HEMA” is far more recreational than it is competitive.

MS Ludwig XV 13 28v-a

In Olympic fencing, just to illustrate the difference a little more clearly, the rules and training reflect a sport based on a former martial art. Off-target touches, some uses and interpretations of ROW (“right of way”), and the weapons themselves all demonstrate this well. There is no off-target in historical fencing—if one is hit, one is hit. [8] Hitting first or with priority—depending on rule-set—tends to take second place to being hit at all. Lastly, the weapons, while blunt, are meant to approximate more closely their historical predecessor. So, rather than foils we use smallswords or spada, which are still light and quick; in sabre we use 16mm wide blades or larger that weigh anywhere from 650g to 1000g. [9] Then there are the weapons that didn’t survive into the modern world, such as rapier, longsword, the knightly sword, the so-called “side-sword” and buckler, and pole-arms.

Historical Fencing & Non-European Systems

Strictly speaking HEMA, as named, refers to “historical European martial arts,” thus the acronym. This is one reason I do not favor this term, but instead use “historical fencing” or “historical martial arts.” As someone who values and incorporates the research that colleagues are producing in the study of various African, Persian, or Asian systems, I prefer a more inclusive term. In addition, as in so many fields, “European” can be and is defined a variety of ways. Most of our extant medieval works are in Latin, early German, French, Italian, or Spanish, so what about those in other languages that are less well-known? What about those from regions that are partly European, but heavily influenced by non-European peoples, such as the Republic of Georgia? [10] Happily, aside from the fools within the community who embrace ultra-nationalist notions, most people are pretty open, even excited to see what students of other regions are discovering.

Even within “HEMA,” however, there is a wide variety of difference in source type and purpose. Some works were hand-made and illustrated where later period ones were printed; some were meant for the aristocratic warrior caste, others for civilians; some were personal gifts to a patron, some mass-produced manuals from a government print house; some cover one weapon and context, some a multitude of weapons for a variety of contexts. We have some complete works, and some that are fragmentary. We have groups that identify a master or school, such as the Mss. that cover aspects of Fiore’s Armizare or the various masters associated with the later Dardi School. There are works written in simple language such as most 18th and 19th century sabre manuals, and then there are those written in purposefully obscure language to protect a master’s ideas from non-students, like “The Zettel.” To these we can add some rather poorly written works as well.

Modern and Ancient

Guard positions, Del Frate 1876; photo by Sarahorsomeone, Deviant Art, from the 2012 Olympics

Like it or not Olympic fencers learn and use a system that was the product of those that came before, especially those from 18th and 19th century Italy and France. Today’s foil and epee look back, each in its own way, to smallsword; sabre to 19th century works. It’s obvious to anyone watching modern fencing that a lot has changed, and not always for the best.

An explanation for how these changes occurred is lengthy and not one we need to dwell on here. In short, the requirements of sport are different than those for the dueling ground or battle field, and that meant changes in the rules, in the very weapons, that allowed for and in some ways created fencing today, good and bad. Competition, especially between nations, meant not only cheating but mutations in technique to exploit vulnerabilities and loopholes in the ruleset. Ridiculous attacks like the “flick” in foil a while back and the still undeniably stupid ability to score with the flat of the sabre blade are two such examples.

I urge anyone I know interested in fencing, really interested, to start with foil. It’s one reason I normally start my own students with foil. A good sport coach will provide any fencer with the fundamentals they need to pursue any other branch of fencing. Foil imparts the universals of swordplay and develops the core principles upon which all hand-to-hand fighting rests, distance/measure, timing, and judgment.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and People

Olympic fencers may look down their noses at some interpretations within historical fencing (historical fencers certainly do), but they should understand that more often than not that smallsword or sabre fencer is working from texts either directly or indirectly related to what they themselves have learned and fence. Not all interpretations are equally good. Some are flat-out bad. This is to say that if some meathead is doing something that seems odd, it may be that meathead and not the system which is at fault. Don’t make the mistake of assuming all historical fencing is bad based on one practitioner or one clip of longsword tourney footage. There are many people who’ve made names for themselves and inspired a following who have some things demonstrably incorrect.

My caution to any fencer, especially my Olympic friends, is to ask questions before passing judgment. This list should help a little—if nothing else one can ask what sources that historical fencer is using and look into their instructor’s background. Unlike “sport” historical fencing is largely an amateur pursuit, in the best sense, which is to say that most instructors are not certified maestri. HEMA has no such program, and the attempts to create them have come to little in part due to the variety of sources and interpretation that make up HEMA and in part because of a lack of leadership. [11] The historical fencing community, as such, is decentralized, fragmented, and outside of a few major events most clubs work in isolation from others.

Just as in the Olympic world the historical community can claim some gifted fencers and some clowns. As someone who has lived in both populations, and currently occupies some strange no-man’s land in between them, I work hard to explain both sides to both branches. To be honest I don’t believe this has been particularly successful either way—the historical fencers who agree with me either have similar backgrounds to my own or some analogous path; those who disagree most likely don’t really care what the other camp does or thinks; they’re content with their own view. It’s the same for Olympic fencers.

Multae Viae, Una Ars
The Art is one, but there are many roads that lead to it. None of this may matter to you. That’s okay. I believe, however, that any true student of the Art will look for wisdom and help wherever it may be found. We have, potentially, a lot we might learn from one another, but it requires humility, curiosity, and a willingness to retain a beginner’s mind.

It means setting aside the concerns of affiliation or what one’s peers think. I hate to say it, but fencers, wherever they are, could give most middle schools a run for the money when it comes to cliques, cattiness, and drama. All that rot just gets in our way. The Art is hard enough to chase without those added pressures. They add little, detract a lot.

I’m due to have another Zoom call with my old comrade from our college fencing team. He may likely fire another shot at me for my “LARPing,” but that’s okay—this time I’m a little better prepared to set him right 😉

NOTES:

[1] Ignoring earlier efforts at recreating historical arts, such as those that took place in the Victorian Age with people like Hutton, much of todays’ “HEMA” derives from two things, the exodus of Olympic fencers in the 90s unhappy with changes in competition and the creation of the internet. HACA, ARMA, etc. all came about in the late 90s and started sharing texts. Those of us already doing that research were thrilled—in what felt like a change overnight many of the works we had read about in Thimm’s bibliography were suddenly available in pdf.

[2] The sources for HEMA are legion. Some are medieval, many renaissance and early modern, and still more produced in the last two or three centuries. Though it must be used with caution, one can gain some sense of this from a visit to Wiktenauer, a wiki attempting to collate and share many past works on martial arts. Some translations shared there are good, others less so. It is popular because it is free, which is great, but the lack of academic rigor means that it’s best used like most wikis, as a place to start.

[3] Two standout, non-European projects include the excellent work of Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, researcher, author, instructor, and the force behind Razmafzar, a world-wide group of practitioners who rely on his work (see for example https://www.moshtaghkhorasani.com/books/persian-archery-and-swordsmanship/). There are also the various projects under HAMAA, the “Historical African Martial Arts Association.” One of the best places to go for current research within HAMAA is its fb page, but Da’Mon Stith’s school site, http://www.silentsword.org/, is also a great resource.

[4] Polearms, because of the physics involved, are dangerous, and any researcher working on them should be quick to say this. Even in harness, never mind within a class where people are in workout clothing, there are risks. Be wary of anyone or any school that doesn’t take these dangers seriously.

[5] Yes, I know, there are many people in “HEMA” who do value the work and contributions from academics. However, this said, if social media is any guide, there is a sizable voice within the community that not only thinks little of academic training, but also dismisses any criticism they don’t agree with, however correct. I’ve encountered this hostility myself from people popular within HEMA’s ranks. To borrow an analogy from “Firefly,” it’s like Patience running her little moon: they’re rather impressed with themselves and do not want anyone from “off-world” meddling in the fantasy. The difference is that unlike a tv show, assuming that they have the same skill as someone who spent a decade learning how to handle and interpret historical sources is as prone to error as it is presumptuous. I’ve watched shows about doctors, read books by them, and have had to use first aid, but I don’t think that qualifies me as a cardiologist. Training matters.

[6] Most students of historical fencing rely on translations or someone else reading translations. Any translator will tell you that the work is as much art as science, and the uncritical too often assume that a translation is good merely because it exists. This isn’t so. To name one example, there are two major translations of Giganti’s rapier text. One is really bad, and the other is Tom Leoni’s. Those who favor the former do so out of misplaced loyalty, not based on rigor or skill. Locally, I’ve worked with Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, who shares this concern about translations, to help people in selecting and using translations. I have transcripts of these lectures, with slides, on my academia.edu site, but will happily share them with anyone if they want them and don’t have access to that one.

[7] HEMA is mostly amateur led, that is to say that most people instructing are people who have spent more time with the material than others rather than certified fencing masters or experts in that time period or source tradition. One reason that HEMA has retained its appeal is because this diversity of expertise is more inclusive than exclusive. Had only a bunch of academics been in charge, fewer people would be working on this stuff and we’d make less progress. We need both, experts and amateurs, and we need them to work together better. In contrast, within the Olympic world there are very few people teaching fencing, at least teaching it well, who have not been to coaching school or who haven’t spent decades learning and teaching.

[8] I’m giving this complex issue short shrift for the sake of brevity, but for those interested there is a sizable collection of articles, books, and diatribes bemoaning or celebrating ROW and the use and abuse of the FIE/USFA rule book. Ping me if you’re interested.

[9] Despite a plethora of historical examples, there is a dedicated section within historical sabre that idolizes ridiculously heavy sabres. Most—not all, just most—meant for use on foot fall into the 650-900g range. Those at the top-end, however, more often than not are weighted for horsemen or systems of combat that were as simple. While one “can” make more sophisticated actions with a 1000g sabre, one cannot do so for long, and so the use of such a weapon for much beyond a sharp club is limited. There is an ever-growing list of extant sabres with specs that Chris Holzman, Kevin Murakoshi, and others maintain that I can share with you if you’re interested. There is also an excellent, but difficult to find article by Christoph Amberger on sabre weights.

[10] This is a shameless plug for my friend Mike’s hard work on a Georgian system that survived, no kidding, into the 1990s. Mike shares his research freely—you can find some of it here:

Site blog: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba/
Article on Elashvili’s text: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba/index.php?controller=post&action=view&id_post=6
Translation of Elashvili’s Parikaoba: http://www.nwarmizare.com/parikaoba-translation-direct.pdf

[11] There are a number of organizations that attempt to organize the community, such as the HEMA Alliance (https://www.hemaalliance.com/), but not everyone follows their lead or accepts their decisions. Fb is one of the best places to look for these groups, but many have webpages too. Some are specific to one area, like IAS, the “International Armizare Society” (www.armizare.org, though as of today the site seems to be down), and for most anyone not interested primarily in competitive longsword it is to these smaller groups that they should probably look to.

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

Fencing, Martial Arts, and Self-Improvement

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

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

Herma_of_Aeschylus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cortegiano.tif

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

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

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


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


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

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

Yamamoto_Tsunetomo

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, p. 25.

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

Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion

72c2504e8d67b5bd79789f71b6b6e1ea

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Historical Fencing

Hoosier State Chronicles women fencers

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

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

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

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

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


Hey Baby, Nice Sabre

1912

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

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

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

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

The Golden Rule as Applied to Inclusion

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

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

Integrity as Instructors

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

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

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


NOTES:

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

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

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

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

[5] For more on the authors mentioned:

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

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

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

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