Emus & Fences

Approached correctly every bout, win or lose, is a lesson. What we get out of it depends on our awareness, experience, and humility. However poetically one might view it ultimately there’s a direct correlation between what we learn and honest self-awareness. If the latter is lacking the lesson is likely lost. It’s the same with disagreements.

The minor furor over a post on this site (“‛Silver’ as Trigger-word in HEMA” 12-30-20) has had me pondering its lessons. Much of that exchange, sadly, proves the wisdom of both La Rochefoucauld, who said “we hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us,” and Thomas Paine who remarked “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason… is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” [1] Witnessing such a deep degree of intractability after the presentation of proof debunking a theory is painful, but with widespread examples of similar cognitive dissonance—“Q-anon,” anti-vaxers, the ancient aliens crowd, etc.—it should probably be less of a surprise if no less a disappointment.

It’s unfitting and small to celebrate anyone’s humiliation, especially when it’s public, obvious to all but them, and as divisive as it is amongst common associates. Just as one doesn’t deride and mock an opponent they’ve soundly beaten, so too should one refrain from crowing over another person’s embarrassment. The tired and pointless debate over George Silver’s “true times” etc. will persist as long as there are those who don’t understand what he said and how it conforms to the same bloody principles fencing masters with half a brain have espoused for centuries. To kick someone who has failed to grasp that is akin to scolding a child for not understanding calculus when they haven’t completed a basic study of algebra. It’s not nice and it’s counterproductive. In this case, and following the same analogy, too many children apparently skipped algebra and dove into calculus before they were ready. Called on it, they cross their arms, pout, and retort that math is stupid and so are we not only for pointing it out, but also for trying to help.

This issue with Silver isn’t a case of opinion, but of demonstrable fact, and yet no piece of evidence, no argument, nothing made the slightest impression. Research is difficult, more so than most people realize, and it’s easy to fall into one of the myriad pitfalls that await the unwary. These are pitfalls one must navigate or pull oneself out of in learning how to practice history—significantly, this is training that one never really completes, because the pitfalls remain. There are always pitfalls to avoid. As a professional researcher (among other jobs) I thought I might be able to help my wayward colleague. He had no interest in my help, called my ability into question, and then kindly offered to help me if I ever get “serious” about the topic. Not much one can do in such cases but Gallic shrug.

Fish Slapping Dance, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

I can’t explain why someone would staunchly defend a position so thoroughly undermined, but I worry about it because this problem goes beyond one hapless researcher. There are numerous examples of research gone wrong in most facets of “HEMA” study. Some would be relatively easy errors to correct, but as so often happens what should be about the material is really about ego. For example, there’s a glaring translation error, one that should have been obvious from the title page, in a smallsword text that came out in 2019. The mistranslation suggests the use of translation software, which is bad enough, but also of failure to have anyone expert in French review the finished product. Readers who asked about it were shut down by the “translator.” How the translator and his pals reconcile themselves to de St. Martin’s advice in using a “swordfish” instead of a sabre I don’t know—if I had to guess maybe they believe the French called sabres swordfish. Regardless, it’s it’s a poor translation. [2] This by itself reveals that the transcriber’s background is probably insufficiently deep to tackle this project. Few seem troubled by it, but it matters because he isn’t the only one producing shoddy translations.

Questionable translations tend to lead to questionable interpretations. At the very least the former call into question both translator’s skill and reader’s sense. In multiple cases I’ve witnessed a translator double down on their mistake, publicly—this reveals an attitude toward scholarship that defies reason. They either don’t know that they should be embarrassed or are incapable of feeling it. Quintilian supposedly remarked that “There is no one who would not rather appear to know than to be taught,” and in HEMA this apparently proves to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s a problem. From these shoddy translations to the misapplication of cutting mechanics borrowed from various Japanese sword-related ryū, from blind faith in images to a lack of familiarity with elementary fundamentals in fencing, HEMA scholarship is a patchwork composed of the finest linen and the most threadbare fabric. Bad as this is, the deeper concern is that too few people care, and that those with a stake in things, who enjoy their status, are quick to denounce any detractors however sensible their objections are.

Any parallel drawn between inferior HEMA research and a well-known parable by a famous Attic lover of wisdom concerning a cavern is likely to upset a lot of people, but it’s an easy parallel to draw. Less familiar, but far more succinct, are the words of another sage:

τί πρῶτόν ἐστιν ἔργον τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος; ἀποβαλεῖν οἴησιν: ἀμήχανον γάρ, ἅ τις εἰδέναι οἴεται, ταῦτα ἄρξασθαι μανθάνειν.

What is the first business of him who philosophizes? To throw away self-conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows. [Epictetus,  Διατριβαί‎ /Discourses, II.17] [3]

This is, I think, the major stumbling block in “HEMA,” too much unfounded belief in one’s own ability, be it knowledge, skill, or both. Second only to this is the collective failure in giving the floor to those so deluded. Unchallenged it’s hard to see that the shadows one takes for reality are illusory—after all, so many people make the same mistake. They go hand in hand and reinforce one another. As a community’s members begin to self-identify and are viewed as “those in the know” it becomes all the harder to see the problem or take criticism. When someone does eventually question them it goes poorly, because in so many ways it’s not about the subject, but about how they view themselves and how they believe others see them. External validation is powerful, but it’s dangerous. Acclaim can exist on falsehood just as much as truth. For HEMA, it has become more important to be seen as an expert than in fact to be one.

Authority & HEMA

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! George Silver Theater!!! Ok, clearly quarantine has gotten to me too…

In an endeavor as multifaceted as ours, as broad in subject and timespan, there is no one expert, but a diverse collection of different experts. Authority, such as it is, should derive from informed consensus, not merely what is popular or because some swordy celebrity said so. That same authority should make logical sense, should be based upon the best each category of expert can supply in light of the evidence, and should be demonstrable to the degree possible. This demands an acceptance for what is logically sound and what is and what is not decent evidence or argument. If the recent episode of George Silver Theater is any guide our community can’t agree on the most elementary facts and struggles to apply the most basic reason—not much point in discussing anything when that’s the case.

We have multiple sources for authority in historical fencing. Many of them are worthy sources too. One of the strengths our community has is that so many skilled points of view inform it. We are less hidebound as a result, more open, and this is a good thing. The motley collection of artifacts (e.g. period weapons and armor), manuals and treatises, anecdotal evidence (e.g. accounts of duels and battles), legal proceedings, commentary (e.g. Brantôme or Gelli), artistic depictions, and fragmentary miscellanea of all kinds present us with a giant puzzle missing numerous pieces. We can get a general idea of what the image would be upon completion, but we can never assemble the whole. [4]

In light of this having different perspectives is vital. A sword-maker like Gus Trim has insights into more than the geometry necessary for balance, impact, and effectiveness in swords, but also perception into use because of those insights (not to mention long experience in Chinese swordsmanship). Kaja Sadowski of Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly assists police in learning how to handle attackers—real-life experience as a martial arts instructor adds something to Kaja’s examination of rapier that most of us lack. The images produced by Roland Warzecha, a trained illustrator and artist, capture details that many of us miss. Examples are too many to count, and from most conceivable fields—archaeology, art history, dance, data analysis, engineering (of all sorts), equitation, history, linguistics, military experience, teaching, writing, and a wide variety of skilled trades. Most of all, there is passion for the topic, a love of swords, and much as we disagree this unites us. It should anyway.

Fencing Competition diploma, Milan

However, in assigning any one of these voices authority we must be careful—are they, in their field, up to the task? What qualifies them as an authority? Sometimes it’s easy to determine. Fencing masters who are certified to teach, who know the languages necessary, and who—importantly—have studied fencing history are one example. There are many who have proven their ability within the historical community, maestri such as David and Dori Coblentz, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, Giovanni Rapisardi, and Gerard Six to name only a few. Certifications are not everything, but they are a measure, and so it follows that those possessing them might have some insights by virtue of that specialized study.

At other times, credibility is less obvious, and this is where we tend to get into trouble. Training, good sense, and demonstrated ability as defined by a person’s field seem good places to start when considering credibility, but this requires us to have some familiarity with the specific discipline. How much knowledge is enough to do that adequately? At a minimum we need to know to whom to go for help, and in a community with as many talented people as ours someone we know is bound to know the right people if we don’t. It’s important to ask the obvious questions too–if, for example, someone has put forth an edited version of an old master’s work, then we should look into their suitability for the task. What training have they had? How are they qualified beyond interest and self-confidence? Who backs their project, if anyone, and what are their qualiifications?

With respect to fencing we have to consider any training they’ve had, not only in terms of how long they’ve studied, but also the quality of that training. We must consider their strengths and weaknesses within this background—one may be a fabulous teacher, but a mediocre competitor or vice versa. There is a difference in training, most of the time, between someone who studied with a maestro for a decade and someone who worked with an instructor who has one year more experience than the student. If nothing else it is depth of material and established pedagogy; a maestro, by virtue of the process of certification and teaching, typically draws from a deeper pool than the amateur who has memorized all of Henry Angelo’s Infantry Sword Exercise or who has attempted to wrestle with “Die Zettel” and associated glosses.

In terms of scholarship, someone like Jeffrey Forgeng, who has both the academic credentials and demonstrated ability to handle historical fencing sources well, is a good guide. Not everyone need be as skilled as he is, but he’s an excellent role model, and if one is going to attempt something beyond a short essay, then examining carefully how Forgeng treats evidence, builds an argument, and supports that argument will be valuable. There is no shame, incidentally, in realizing that a project is beyond our skill. However, when one attempts an academic paper and proves that they have no idea what they’re doing those who do are likely to find issues with it. In that case, the sensible thing to do is put ego aside, listen, consider what they have to say, and see if it can improve the project. If something is more complex, find help, contact a scholar—there are a lot active in HEMA—and see if they might be interested in collaborating. [5]

ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ—Know Thyself

The most difficult part of this process is assessing ourselves. We must know our limitations. This doesn’t mean we settle for them, but that we’re aware that we don’t know everything, we don’t have all the answers, and that none of us has a monopoly on skill. We should strive to improve always. It’s far easier to start the long road to improvement when we take honest stock of where we are now. We need to do so without censure or pride or we skew that assessment. This means that there will be times when we’re not good at something. Everyone is a beginner at some point—have the courage to be a beginner or at least to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

At the same time, we need to have the strength of character to recognize another person’s gifts. If we’re smart, we’ll lean on them and their expertise. This doesn’t mean playing the sycophant or using people, but doing what we do unconsciously all the time when we seek a new doctor, tattoo artist, or vacuum repair shop. Expertise, in most cases, includes an unending, continuing education—any credible expert knows that. Likewise, credible experts know that they make mistakes too, but the better ones acknowledge and correct them.

Cultural bias to the contrary, skilled researchers normally spend years acquiring the tools of their trade, not just those of analysis but also familiarity with the discipline and its scholarship. [6] A violinist, by analogy, must learn the instrument, how to produce vibrato and slide as well as familiarize themselves with the corpus of music they wish to pursue. This same violinist, if they work at it, may be able to play both the Capriccio No. 23 of Locatelli and “The Longford Tinker,” but it will require a great deal of work and not everyone has the discipline, time, and degree of talent necessary to achieve such virtuosity.

If we’re honest with ourselves it’s a lot easier to be honest with others, and, to appreciate their gifts. It will fall hard on some ears and hopes, but the truth is that the branches of the Art we study—with few exceptions—are extinct, so no one can master them. “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” [7] I don’t wish to go into the issues around the idea of “mastery” or the specific meaning that goes with maestro d’armi, but if the historical record is incomplete then any study of it is too. We are all apprentices when it comes to historical fencing. We cannot be otherwise.

NOTES:

[The title of this post is a nod to a fact my first-grade teacher, Ms. May, shared with us from her time in Australia. She related that emus, when they want to get through a fence, have been known to keep butting it with their heads until the fence gives or they do. I leave it to Aussie colleagues to verify that, but it’s a good metaphor for how nonsensical HEMA’s approach to research can be]

[1] See reflection #347, La Rouchefoucauld, Reflections, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9105/9105-h/9105-h.htm. For the French, “Nous ne trouvons guère de gens de bon sens, que ceux qui sont de notre avis,” see http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14913/pg14913.html

Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” V. March 21, 1778; (the series of pamphlets ran from 1776-1783, cf. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_307972); see also https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3741/3741-h/3741-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

There is a difference between building a case on limited evidence that is sound and one that mishandles that evidence or ignores it. Roman historians who study Julius Caesar rely on the same set of sources, but draw different conclusions based on them, especially with regard to Caesar’s goals in pushing change in the government. We cannot know absolutely what he meant to do, but we can devise reasonable possibilities. The question is important, even when our answers are imperfect, and we learn something of value even when a theory is incorrect but well-built.

[2] There are times, especially with older works, where the current, first option in a dictionary isn’t correct. Translations programs tend to provide the most common, current definition. So, when presented with espadon in French, and the work in question is from 1804, it’s smart to look beyond the first entry. My edition of the Petit Larousse (1961), provides the following:

ESPADON n., m. (ital. spadone, grande épée): Grande et large épée qu’on tenait à deux mains (Xve – XVIIe s.). Zool.  Poisson des mers chaudes et tempérées, atteignant 4 m de long et dont la mâchoire supérieure est allongée comme une lame d’épée (p. 398).

Helpful as this is, we can be sure that de St. Martin wasn’t talking about long- or great-swords, so, we keep looking. Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) likewise defines espadon as a “short two-handed sword,” so it too is little help, though he includes espade which he defines as “a broad short sword” which gets us a little closer (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/397.html). The University of Chicago has an excellent, searchable database that looks to several period French dictionaries. In Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, Sixième Édition, 1835, there is a definition that makes more sense in re de St. Martin’s usage. It reads:

ESPADON. s. m. Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Sixième Édition. T.1 [1835]

ESPADON. s. m. ESPADON. s. m. Grande et large épée qu’ on tenait à deux mains. Jouer de l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en termes d’ Escrime, Du sabre dont on apprend à se servir. Maître d’ espadon. Apprendre l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en Histoire naturelle, d’ Une espèce de grand poisson dont le museau est armé d’ un os plat et allongé comme un glaive.

[https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/publicdicos/query?report=bibliography&head=espadon]

The second definition refers to the usage of espadon with regard to fencing where it means “sabre.” The 5th edition of this lexicon, published in 1798, six years before de St. Martin’s work came out, does not provide this definition. Like my Petit Larousse it offers only the late period two-handed weapon and the fish as suggestions. Significantly, the Academy dictionary at least as early as 1694 included the term sabre as we typically think of it. Any translator faced with a less common word must thus move beyond a dictionary and see how other contemporary writers used the same term; if that comes up short, then one must go by context. The images in de St. Martin’s treatise clearly depict a sabre, not a fish, and so one would be safe translated his espadon as sabre.

For de St. Martin, the safest source to use is the original, a copy of which can be found via Google books. Cf. M. J. de St. Martin, L’art de faire des armes, réduit a ses vrais principes (Vienne: de l’imprimerie de Janne Schrämble, 1804). In addition to the “translation” mentioned above, there is one that has been put out by P. T. Crawley and Victor Markland, The Art of Fencing Reduced to True Principles, Lulu Press, 2014).

[3] Perseus at Tufts University has a good translation, as well as the Greek text, on site: see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0236%3Atext%3Ddisc%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D17 . The English text they provide, and quoted above, is Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, with the Encheridion and Fragments, trans. George Long (London: George Bell and Sons, 1890). See also Epictetus, Discourses, Books 1-2, Translated by W. A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library 131 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).

[4] For Pierre de Brantôme (d. 1614), see Duelling Stories of the Sixteenth Century from the French of Brantôme, George Herbert Powell, Ed., London: A. H. Bullen, 1904 (available on Google Books); J. Sambix, ed., Mémoires de Messire Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, contenans les anecdotes de la cour de France, sous les rois Henry II, François II , Henry III et IV, touchant les duels, 1722.

For Jacopo Gelli (d. 1935), see his Bibliografia generale della scherma. Con note critiche, biografiche e storiche, Firenze, L. Niccolai, Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890.

[5] Jeffrey Forgeng, in addition to non-HEMA related topics, has produced excellent editions of both Ms. I 33 The Walpurgis Manuscript and of Meyer’s system. Russ Mitchell, author of Hungarian Hussar Sabre and Fokos Fencing (2019) and translator of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (1906), is another excellent example of how one might approach difficult sources effectively. His Hussar Sabre is particularly well-designed for HEMA.

[6] Historians in my field, for example, spend considerable time on secondary literature and the most recent evaluations of the topic because things change, we find new evidence or fault with older theories. Sometimes those changes are dramatic (we know far more about Stonehenge now than we did even ten years ago), and sometimes they’re slow (medieval historians in recent decades have realized there’s not only evidence for once neglected segments of the population, such as the poor or women, but also good reason to study them).

[7] Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years, is a collection of articles from the Toronto Star collected by Gene Z. Hanrahan in 1962 after the writer’s suicide. It was published in New York by Dell Publishing Co. At least one scholar believes this collection was put together to capitalize on popular feeling concerning Hemingway’s death. See Frank Stewart, “Hemingway Scholarship and the Critical Canon in American Literature,” 広島修大論集/Studies in the Humanities and Sciences 41: 1 (2) (2000): 305-345.

Arguments Argentine

If you’ve followed the comments for the post “’Silver’as Trigger-Word” then you may have seen this, but if not I wish to share it here. Stephen Hand kindly reminded me that his response–far better to read than anything I might have to say–is free to view on his site:

https://stephen-hand.selz.com/

Thank you Mr. Hand.

I have read this paper–it’s very good–but neglected to link it–mea culpa! If you enjoy the ongoing saga over HEMA’s favorite Bogey man, The-Englishman-What-Shouldna-be-Nam-ed, then give this a read.

NB: As I explained in my comment yesterday my stake in this is general, more concerned with how research is conducted in historical fencing, the state of it, than with Silver per se. One does not have to be a card-carrying academic to do research; in fact I think our discipline would suffer were that the case. We’re stronger for a variety of views, but the value of this multifaceted view is only strong as the rigor we apply to this research. Like it or not, agree or not, there are standards in most research one ignores at one’s peril, least if they wish to be taken seriously.

Much of my career I’ve spent as a teacher and that tends to come out in situations like this–if my criticism appeared harsh that is unfortunate, but I stand by it. I do my best to express any criticism compassionately, and believe it or not that was my goal yesterday as well. I bear Mr. Winslow no ill will (we’ve never met) and sincerely hope he will continue to dive into the material–no one puts in as much time into a project as he clearly did unless they love it. This said, the rules that apply to anyone writing a research paper apply to him too. If we lack tools, we can acquire them and/or enlist the aid of someone who possesses them. There was, at last check, at least one fb page populated by various scholars who work on topics in historical fencing. That might be a good place to start.

“Silver” as Trigger-word

A few weeks ago the excellent Paul Wagner (Stoccata School of Defense, Australia) posted a video as his answer to a… paper that attempted to reimagine the fight system of George Silver (ca. 1599). [1] I read the paper when it came out, promptly wrote a response, and decided not to do anything with it–to do so would suggest that the paper in question was worth the time and effort of a point-by-point response. It’s not. Save yourself the trouble and just watch Paul’s video.

The authors had asked for Paul’s response, so with his usual step by step process and humor he did, at least the main point of it. To address all the issues would take far too long, and what is more would be an utter waste of time. Here is a link to Paul’s video:

From what friends still braving facebook tell me Silver has once again worked his magic as HEMA’s favorite “trigger-word” in the aftermath of Paul’s review. There are the people who understand universal fight principles backing Paul, and then those who are quick to rush to the defense of their Dunning-Kruger demagogues. The sadness in this is that the latter are fighting an unnecessary fight–the only people likely to lose respect for them in taking the time to learn something of the universals, to acquire basic, fundamental understanding of fencing, are fools.

Like Paul, I don’t want to waste time–mine or anyone else’s–giving the red pen treatment to the paper, but it’s only right I share why I found it lacking. I don’t know the authors of the paper, and from what I’ve seen of them online, in video, and in this paper, I doubt they’d give two figs for what anyone outside their bubble thinks. But when my own students used to see me about a paper that was sure to fail or earn them a D I did all I could to help them, and so on the very off chance that they’d see this and/or care here are a few of the major red flags.

Sources Analysis

The chief criticism is that the authors drew selectively from Silver (and others) in order to support their thesis. One rule of research is that if you set out to find something, you will, meaning that it’s easy to find only what you’re looking for and leave out those aspects that fail to meet that goal. All the evidence must be addressed, especially any evidence that undercuts your thesis. Think of the “Ancient Aliens” crowd–they focus on superficial similarities and ignore evidence or logic against them. In a similar way both what this paper looks at and how affects the outcome. It’s best, hard as it is to do, to let a theory arise from the evidence, and if an old theory, say Hand’s in this case, doesn’t hold up to a reader, then they have some work to do, because the entire argument in this paper rests on some convoluted English that, once broken down, is pretty clear in what it says. Hand has explained it well and more in line with how the text reads. This is to say that it’s clear if you understand universal principles in fencing the way they’re normally imparted and used in fencing sources anyway. To put it bluntly, this paper wrestles with a concept that any first day foil student learns, to wit, that the weapon and hand proceed the feet.

In fairness, M&C think they have done this, and they tried to some degree. Rightly, they contacted Stephen Hand to make sure they understood him correctly. That is to be applauded. There are, however, some underlying assumptions even there that they didn’t address. Hand’s theory has changed over time with his continued study, and in my experience not one person working Silver has advocated this “slow hand” idea they attribute to him [see https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/29/note-concerning-george-silver-and-the-notion-of-a-slow-hand/ for the updated discussion about this]. This idea of the hand moving first and then slowing down, for example, is not a notion I’ve heard from anyone, Hand included. Maestro Sean Hayes, among others, doesn’t see it that way, and he’s a fan of the “True Times” model; it holds up just fine with the Italian iteration. Nathan Barnett likewise did not teach it that way the last time I took his class (first year at SwordSquatch, 2016). So, while including Hand’s supposed old theory, which they needed to do, they also needed to examine and consult more current devotees/theories of Silver. Paul Wagner and Nathan Barnett are only two they might have consulted. I’ve not had a chance to see Hand’s 2006 English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver as yet, so I’m not sure if he actually included the “slow hand” idea or not. No where in his videos on Youtube does Hand say anything of the kind.

Time, Tempo, and Tangents

Second, they introduce a discussion on timing that would be better as a stand-alone paper. They attempt to show the Italian position on timing etc. in Silver’s era, but examine works not necessarily representative of the Italian school or those branches of the Italian school most applicable. Some of the texts were written by Italians, sure, but do they represent some monolithic Italian position or that one author’s view of these ideas? Since the Italian masters disagreed with one another on points large and small, a monolithic “Italian” position isn’t tenable.

For the masters they do mention, the period between 1570 and 1600 is arguably as much “sidesword” as it is rapier so Fabris and Capo Ferro aren’t great examples. Both wrote after Silver–Fabris published in 1606, Capo Ferro in 1610, and while both discuss cutting the core of their systems was the thrust. That’s important to note since Silver, while he employs the thrust, cannot be said to typify a thrust-oriented school. “Downright blows” are his bread and butter. Thrusts are faster than cuts, something Silver tried (and failed) to disprove, so one can compare the two sides as it were in a general way, but one has to realize too that there are significant differences there, just as there are between an onager/catapult and a howitzer. There were contextual differences too.

There is not, oddly, a single mention of Marozzo or anyone else in the Bolognese tradition/Dardi School, easily the closest thing out of Italy to Silver. There is, likewise, no mention of contemporary French authors who treat cut-and-thrust fencing such as St. Didier (1573) and Peloquin (late 16th cen.). The authors also seem to have issues with the Italian school generally; it almost appears in their paper as it does for Silver, as a bugbear, and while I think the goal of gaining a better appreciation for “native” English ideas is a fair one, between mishandling Silver and misrepresenting the Italians they don’t succeed. [2] Some grappling with the fact that Silver includes guards with Italian names might be worth consideration too.

Beyond what Silver’s texts tell us of time, which is precious little save as applied to a fight, we must be careful. Silver’s concern was not an explication of Aristotelian ideas of time, nor that of anyone else, but how to fight according to his principles (in contrast to Thibault, who does discuss Aristotelian time in his 1626 Academy of the Sword, and Camillo Agrippa, Treatise on the Science of Arms, 1559, who spends several chapters discussing time–this last, being Italian and only preceding Silver by 40 years, might have been worth examining too on this specific topic…). [3] Silver doesn’t define time in his work, but uses the word in reference to when one does X or Y. I’m all for examining prevailing theories of time and how that might have influenced his work, but there’s not enough in his texts to do more than suggest what was likely in the big picture. As valuable as understanding the worldview is for understanding Silver’s time, the discussion about concepts of time adds little to the discussion and does even less to illuminate Silver’s use of the word. It throws in big names which sound impressive but have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Fight Universals

Third, while the Italians and to a lesser extent the French distilled the concepts of measure, timing, and judgment most succinctly, the concepts they so well explained are universal to all fighting. This is to say that whether discussing boxing or using a pole axe, a katana or kris, these factors apply. These ideas aren’t ethnic in and of themselves. To suggest that is akin to saying Newton’s three laws only pertain to physics in England. Maybe that wasn’t their intention, but if so that sort of language needs to be tightened up to make it clear they’re not saying that. This is to say that while there’s a difference in how these concepts (tempo, measure, judgment, speed, etc.) are expressed, that any version will nonetheless reflect these universals. M&C ostensibly accept this since they bring in Japanese swordsmanship briefly as support.

Their treatment of Silver with regard to what moves first, and the “True Times,” illustrate these problems well. They talk around the universals, I think to avoid “Italian” ideas, but again these are not purely Italian. The idea of moving into attack distance is just stating the obvious—you can’t hit someone from 10m away. Every system has ways of navigating that. In this case, the Italians used both passing steps, as did Silver, as well as movement that in time became the advance and retreat of more recent fencing. The salient part, indeed the only part perhaps worth addressing, is which moves first, the hand/weapon or foot. To me, it’s not shocking that they don’t understand this well, since in most areas of US HEMA students lack the benefit provided in even short-term formal study of traditional or Olympic fencing. The general disdain if not outright hatred of both tends to mean that proverbial babies get thrown out with the bath-water, one effect of which we see here, failure to understand elementary fundamentals of distance/measure in fencing.

But, do we mean “first” getting into distance, or, “first” when in distance to strike? Do they believe that Silver’s rivals were advocating sticking the sword out there from forever away and then walking in? That’s hard to believe, especially as not one Italian source advocates throwing the point out half a mile from the opponent before starting to get close. The advance and the attack are not the same thing, though they may coincide. They prove nothing in suggesting one needs to be in distance; of course one does. Water is wet.

So, one passage in question they discuss, here taken directly from Jackson’s Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, p. 582/Silver’s p. 82-83 of his Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense, Ch. 1, reads thus:

The reason wherof these 4 grownds or prnciples be the syrst and cheefest, are the followinge, because through Judgment, yō kepe yor dystance, through Distance yō take yō Tyme, through Tyme yō safly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adursarie, the Place beinge woon or gayned yō haue tyme safly eyther to stryke, thrust, ward, cloze, grype, slyp or go backe, in the wch tyme yor enemye is disapoynted to hurt yō, or to defend himself, by reason that he hath lost his true Place, the reason yt he hath lost his True place is by the length of tyme through the numbg of his feet, to wch he is of necessytie Dryven to yt wilbe Agent.

In modern English:

The reason why these four grounds or principles are the surest and chiefest, are the following, because through Judgment, you keep your distance, through Distance you take your Time, through Time you safely win or gain the Place of your adversary, the Place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in the which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his true Place, the reason that he has lost his True place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is of necessity Driven to that will be Agent.

[I checked my take on this via Nathan B’s site https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html and an older one by Greg Lindhal http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/brief.html; I also double-checked their use of “yt,” an abbreviation for “that,” and “wilbe,” a way of saying “will be,” and both check out]

Borrowing from Nathan Barnett’s page, here is the next section:


The 4 governors are those that follow

1. The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

2. The second governor is Measure. Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemy.

3. The third and forth governors is a twofold mind when you press in on your enemy, for as you have a mind to go forward, so you must have at that instant a mind to fly backwards upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary.

[https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html, ch. 2]

Theories to the contrary, there is no great mystery in these passages in terms of movement, or, what comes first, weapon or foot. In short, all that Silver says in the Brief Instructions distills down into manipulating distance cautiously and at the right moment. No specific instructions on how to move are provided there, only general guidelines. The “Place” that M&C make such hay about is just Silver’s equivalent of what today we normally refer to as being “in distance,” that is, where either opponent might hit one another. It’s merely his wording for the same idea that other authors mention too. In this instance it means that so long as one does this right, one will be so situated as to take advantage of that fact, of the ability to strike first. The English is Early Modern and a mouthful, and that last sentence is a mess, but that’s what this section amounts to. Are there nuances within that depending on what an opponent is doing? Sure, but nothing Silver advocates is so divorced from his contemporaries as to comprise a wholly separate theory of fight.

M&C also quote from Silver’s polemical Paradoxes of Defense, section 14:

Of the difference between the true fight & the false. Wherein consists (the Principles being had with the direction of the four Governors) the whole perfection of fight with all manner of weapons.

14

The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefor that fight is false.

[http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html]

Silver’s line from the Paradoxes is no different from anything the Italians or others said. He says the “true fight” (i.e. the one that wins) is that wherein the fencer extends the weapon first. Again, a day-one foilist learns this. The false fight, in contrast, is to tie the hand to the actions of the feet, because they’re slower. Thus, assuming both opponents are in range to strike, the one who extends the weapon first, will hit first; the one who moves his hand with his feet is less likely to strike first. It may be somewhat difficult to read, but to suggest that this passage means the opposite or that the feet should precede the hand or even move with the hand are incorrect. One’s opponent may make these mistakes, so Silver provides suggestions for how to exploit them.

Due Diligence

Important in all this is the fact that Paradoxes was published in 1599, but the Brief Instructions, so far as we know, was not published until 1898 when G.R. Matthey found it in the British Museum. [4] As far as we know no one at the time read this work. M&C do not mention this. On this note, the “Additional Notes” they consult, found on the Wiktenauer selection for Silver, appear to have been added by a person named “Thornborow,” but it’s not certain when these were added or how. Are they present in the 1599 edition of Paradoxes? The 1606? The Leuven transcription (1800?) listed on Wiktenauer? [5] As Wiktenauer explains, unless someone can see the placement on the actual manuscript we’re not even sure to which work the “Additional Notes” pertain, Paradoxes or the Brief Instructions. That’s an important point, especially if one is building an argument using them–even a note that one is aware of the issue is important, because it shows one has been as thorough as one can without a trip to the British Museum. Had M&C’s paper been an academic one, it would be prudent sans such a trip to contact the BM and ask for help.

For all the discussion of the Brief Instructions, and important as they are in understanding Silver’s method, since it wasn’t published at the time we can’t be sure how widespread or representative of “native English fencing” it may have been. As a window into Silver, it’s great, but as a window into English fencing we need to be a bit more cautious. In a similar way, Paradoxes of Defense was a polemic written by a guy who was sort of the MAGA dude of his day, an Englishman upset about losing business to people he saw as upstart foreigners (the fear of it anyway). One can sympathize easily with Silver’s disgust with the duel (a portion worth reading), and, with the fact that there was a connection between the practice and Italy, but in large degree his book was a litany of personal woe and attempts to prove his rivals false; it was a proverbial case of sour grapes.

The success of Italian teachers in England no doubt did help popularize the blight of dueling, but few systems last long in any society that fail to work. However good Silver’s fight might be, there was something to be said for di Grassi, Saviolo, and other Italian masters or people would not have joined their ranks. After all, we are talking self-defense systems of that time, how to preserve one’s life, a very different context to our own where the sword is a sport/hobby/research past-time. We can approach the sword as a martial artist, and many of us think we all should, but the mindset, the need to know how to use one, all of that is so removed from our context that we must be careful not to apply our own situation to that of the past. [6]

NOTES:

[1] The paper in question is by Cory Winslow and Michael Edelson, “An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver,” April 13th, 2020, available on a website entitled historicalfencer[dot]com. CAVEAT: you should know that this page, so far as I can tell, is hosted by a known right-wing nationalist/apologist. Make of that what you will, but it does little to bolster the authors’ credibility, at least among anyone of sense or ethics.

[2] I have often wondered if much of the anti-Italian sentiment in HEMA is on account of the importance of Italy in the creation of modern fencing. Were those who take issue with the Italian school to read any of its sources, from Fiore (ca. 1410) down to Pessina-Pignotti (1972) or even Gaugler (2000), they’d see this bias is misplaced. Issues with the modern sport aside, it’s self-defeating to reject such a rich corpus of work because of excesses that really only took deep root in the 1990s.

[3] M&C do bring in Capo Ferro in their “Universality of Theory” portion, but not in CF’s discussion of time. Moreover, they mistake Italian ideas of contra-tempo for basic defense–they’re different.

[4] Matthey’s version is available via Google Books, and is worth a look for what he says about the Ms. history, its discovery in the BM in 1890, and the role Alfred Hutton played in verifying it as having been written by Silver.

[5] Wiktenauer, under the entry for Leuven Transcription, suggests the Brief Instructions were written ca. 1605, but I have not attempted to verify that and the editor of the page does not cite a source. Cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Bref_instructions_upon_my_Paradoxes_of_defence_(MS_1086)

[6] The idea of weapon-hand-then-feet is not mine, but a widely accepted and well-demonstrated and accepted theory concerning universals in using a sword, from the Walpurgis Ms. and Fiore on down to late 19th, early 20th century military manuals. It’s in pretty much every work on fencing, but we see it in Asian martial arts, boxing, etc. These universal principles of fight are elements that are always there, but which are expressed in different ways according to need, situation, context, time, ability, mindset, and purpose.

It’s also worth noting that the duel was relatively short-lived in England. The practice thrived longer in Ireland, but there too died out before it did on the Continent. France and Italy retained the duel far longer, one reason for the number of works on fencing produced in those two languages, and so it is little wonder that so much of what became the sport was influenced by the two nations where a fight between two opponents to first blood or death was still a possibility into the 20th century.

“I Only Read it for the Pictures”—Images & Interpretation in Historical Fencing

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article that treats an issue I seem to return to again and again—the challenge of using images in interpreting historical fencing sources. If this amounts to the proverbial flogging of deceased equines, then in my defense this particular horse is a zombie. It just won’t die. The deeper into this current project I dive, the more I see the ways that we can go wrong in interpretation. It’s tricky work. It’s one reason that professional scholars and researchers spend so many years acquiring the skills, contextual knowledge, and tools required to do this sort of work.

No one is immune or safe from a poor interpretation. It’s not an accident that scholars worthy of the name also learn to remain open to new evidence and interpretations better than their own. No one enjoys discovering that their conclusions have turned out to be incorrect or missing something important, but sometimes it happens and the best response is to meet the news with a becoming grace. Thank them for their insight and for alerting you to it, then revise and cite their contribution.

For those of us working with and from treatises with images we must always be careful. Modern life is awash in imagery and most of it we see without noticing it, from billboards to commercials on tele. We apply, again without conscious thought much of the time, an impressive array of reading skills as we encounter ads, instructions, news articles, and street signs. We are good at this. However, our relationship to images is often different from the ways people approached them in the past. We have to be aware of our assumptions and how we assign meaning to what we read.

IKEA’s wee question man

To approach a period treatise on fencing the way we do furniture instructions from IKEA is often unwise. With the exception of the abstract figure with the speech bubble and question mark, the instructions for assembling your new cabinet are intended to be as simple and realistic as possible. No matter what language one speaks or reads those images should make sense. They need to 99% of the time if that product is going to be successful. In contrast, while it is possible that the author (or artist they hired to illustrate a fencing manual) desired a one-to-one relationship between image and reality, we shouldn’t assume that.

Capo Ferro’s lunge, p. 49 in _Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing_ (1610)

As a case in point the famous image of the lunge in Capo Ferro’s Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing (1610), Plate 4, page 49, has been subject to debate as to how one lands on the front foot.

Looking at this image alone, what do we see? Is the figure in motion? Is this a snapshot of one action? How do we answer that?

From the image alone it’s not clear. This is a two-dimensional figure. The use of perspective is lovely, but while it informs us the figure is in the foreground, it doesn’t helps us much as to whether we are seeing a moment within a series of movements or a static pose. Is this a guard? The conclusion of an attack? To a fencer this looks to be a lunge, specifically, the conclusion of a lunge (to modern eyes the placement of the front knee would inspire a grumble). Taken alone we have little to go on, so, since we have text for this image it’s best to turn to that next.

Capo Ferro supplies capital letters in this image to help us “unpack” it.

A The left shoulder while in guard
B The left knee while in guard
C The sole of the left foot while in guard
D The regular stance while in guard
E The sole of the right foot while in guard
F The thigh and sloping leg while in guard
G The right hand while in guard
H The extension of the arm (equal to its length)
I The extension of the right knee (almost equal to your stance)
K The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length)
L The extension of the left foot and the turn it makes
M The extension of the left knee (equal to half your stance) [1]

Two things emerge from the list even before we look to see the placement of these letters in the image. First, A-G denote various positions of the limbs and body while in guard, H-M the various positions of the limbs and body after one has lunged. Second, we know that this image captures both a static moment (the conclusion of the lunge) and serves as a short hand to express movement from guard, through space, and into the lunge.

Even armed with this information we need more information. Capo Ferro, unlike most modern authors, explains movement in various places within his treatise. In the caption to this plate he says “Figure that shows the guard, as shown in our art, & the incredible increase of the long blow, compared to the limbs, which all move to wound.” [2]

The botta longa, often translated merely as “lunge,” here requires us to read more than the image and its accompanying legend. For example, in Chapter 13, section 11, Capo Ferro discusses walking. He says one must keep the right shoulder forward, and that one should step naturally, but that moving left or right (compassing) to move the left foot first, and in a straight line that one foot should follow the other. In discussing Plate 14 (p. 67) the master tells us that Fencer D, having gained the inside line, faces a disengage (cavando, i.e. cavazione) from C to his (D’s face). So, D drops the body and steps forward with the right leg wounding C in contratempo without parrying.

Plate 14, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’uso

Here as before we see a static image, but one that serves to illustrate movement–none of that comes across without reading the accompanying text.

Reading period manuals can be difficult. Even an experienced modern fencer will struggle because the vocabulary is often unfamiliar or used in a way different than they are accustomed to. To illustrate just how powerful this can be there are fencers within the historical community who refuse to call an obvious lunge a “lunge” simply because the word they expect, that defines the motion for them, is absent. It doesn’t matter that the treatise explains the exact same action, though it should. To expect each author, in different lands, at different times, to use a single term assumes a unity of fencing practice that did not exist until the 20th century. It also ignores what the author explicitly states. That’s a problem.

Our interpretations of these manuals mean little if we ignore what they say, what they describe and advise. It is worth the time and often painful effort to figure out what a master is saying. We may get it wrong, but that’s okay. We try again. We ask people who have sat with the text longer. We keep at it. Just as we should not assume people of the 17th century or any other had the exact same understanding of visual media we do, so too should we not assume that these texts are simple or easy to understand. Most often they’re not. The authors make assumptions about their readers then that do not hold for us now. So, we are translating more than just words and images, but a world-view too.

Returning to Plate 5, the lunge, and how the front foot lands, we have to go to the text. The foot is flat in the image. If Capo Ferro, who describes stepping “naturally” is to be taken at his word–a reasonable approach given that he is the author…–then the safest conclusion is that he wanted us to step as we normally do. From this figure that step is small, the distance between E and K (or if it helps think of this as KE = D or The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length) – The sole of the right foot while in guard = The regular stance while in guard). There is no reason to conclude that one must step in any other way. Next, we try it out–can we make a short lunge with the heel first, barely lifting it? Yep. Can we be 110% sure that Capo Ferro, for some reason, desired us to tippy-toe? No, but it is far from likely too, and given that he is specific about so much but felt no need to describe what a “natural” step is, we’re on firmer ground (pardon the pun) if we don’t second-guess him.

Post Script: I’ve delivered a few lectures on this topic, i.e. historical fencing and how we use images, the transcripts of which can be found here: https://saladellatrespade.com/instructors/research/

Notes:

[1] Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, Siena, IT: 1610, p. 48-19 [cf. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Gran_simulacro_dell_arte_e_dell_vso_dell/aT1qFVBHD0QC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=ridolfo+capoferro+gran+simulacro&printsec=frontcover ]; translation of A-M, Tom Leoni, Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Press, 2011, page 32.

[2] Text, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, 48. This is my loose translation, but I checked it against Tom Leoni’s and while less eloquent it captures the sense.

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.

What to Look for (and Avoid) in HEMA Instructors

early hema

In the world of sword-arts, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) occupies a unique place as it is, by and large, an amateur pursuit. “Amateur” here is not a put-down, just the appropriate word to use, because apart from the few accredited fencing maestri out there who represent living traditions and work on the older stuff, most everyone else comes to HEMA as an interested enthusiast. Many if not most of us started in sport or classical fencing or other martial arts (e.g. Asian martial arts), but unless you’re young and a more recent student of historical fencing, chances are good that you learned from someone who has just been working on something longer than you have. That is okay, it’s just how it is, but not all instructors are equal and it pays to do your homework.

This is an important consideration as there are increasingly more people setting themselves up as instructors and without a viable certification program how is one to know if they’re worth visiting? While in time some qualification process might be in place, and as nice as a certification program might be, it would still be wise to have some guidelines for judging potential teachers as even some qualified instructors, no matter the field of study, can be stinkers. [1] One needs to have some measure by which to evaluate them as well as a handy list of red-flags.

The following check-list is a place to start—you may have individual concerns to add to the basic list. However, if a person or school fails most of this list, I’d recommend you keep looking:

School/Group Culture: The general feel of a place can tell you a lot about the person or people running a school. How open and friendly are they? When you call, email, or visit them, how quick are they to respond and how openly? How inclusive is the school—are there women there, younger students, older students, people in different states of fitness? What is the school’s focus? Does it tend toward the scholarly (source-driven, play oriented); is it purely tourney centered, is it a mix?

A lot comes down to what you want. If your interest is to fight in tourneys, then you should look for a school that does that and an instructor who has that as one goal for their program. There’s no wrong answer in terms of what you want—some people just want to fight, some people want to build a more complete skill set and understanding regardless of tourneys, and still others want the SCA without all the rules. Find the culture that appeals to you. This said, any version of these schools is probably going to be a better fit if they’re friendly and open to a diversity of students.

Personality: Tied to culture, the instructor’s personality has a lot to do with a school’s culture—people gravitate to people they relate to. Whatever an instructor’s focus within HEMA there are some things to look for and not surprisingly they’re tied pretty closely to the same openness, friendliness, and sense of community mentioned above. Is the instructor arrogant? Do they build students up or tear them down? Do they praise and encourage when making corrections or embarrass students? How do they respond to questions? You’re spending time and money, and unless being abused is your thing it’s probably best to keep looking.

Forgeng I 33

Experience/Qualifications: This is one of the hardest things to assess and because of the diversity of sources, not to mention instructor experience, it will vary. A lot. This said, there are again some general guidelines. Some instructors may know a lot, but be poor teachers; others may be good fighters, but know little of the source material; still others might be a decent mix of both. Many think they know a lot or have a lot of skill, but are really little more than attribute fencers with deep ego needs. If you can find a healthy balance of knowledge and skill, great, but you may need to compromise and that is okay. It may take a few visits to see what sort of person you’re working with too.

If you have no previous background in fencing or related arts, it can be extremely difficult to judge an instructor’s knowledge and skill. But there are some tells—any instructor who has spent serious time studying martial arts will have a degree of humility and will acknowledge the skill of his or her peers. Generally, they are cautious and tentative in presenting new material—all HEMA is interpretation and some interpretations are better than others.  Anyone telling you “no, this is how they did it” without decent evidence is someone to avoid.[2] Likewise avoid anyone pretending to have learned something in secret–more often than not this is going to be pure bull-shido.

If you find someone who is at constant pains to brag while putting down their peers, that’s not a good sign. A good instructor will be able to explain where something comes from, say a particular move, why we do it, and how. They’re open to questions and different points of view. They should be able to point to the sources they use too. A good instructor will also admit when they don’t know something; even better instructors will then help you find an answer. A good instructor will push you to improve, but will be supportive and encouraging in doing so. This stuff is hard enough without some jerk making you feel bad about it.

Akademia Szermierz still
Some of the crew from Akademia Szermierz, Poland–they clearly approach Fiore dei Liberi’s _armizare_ as a martial art. See http://www.akademia-szermierzy.pl/

Approach: Since we’re talking HEMA, there should be a fairly large emphasis on the H and the MA side of the acronym. Ostensibly any instructor in HEMA is looking at the sources—if not, I’m not really sure what they’re doing.

We know the little we know and we build our interpretations of past combat arts from surviving sources.

The martial arts aspect is important too—the goal should be “don’t get hit” followed by “hit and don’t be hit.” If either of these is missing, you’re in the wrong place.

Remuneration: Different schools and instructors have different rates. Comparative shopping is important. Most schools struggle to stay open, so what you pay generally goes to rent and gear. Few people make a living teaching historical fencing.

Look at their pay structure against what they teach. Do they have options for payment? HEMA is expensive, make no mistake, and many instructors will work with you to find a way to make dues less onerous. Floor fees are common, but many schools will also give you a first visit or two free. That can be a good indication of what to expect. If someone offers individual lessons, ask them how they run their lessons, what they generally teach, and how much they ask.

Safety: Better instructors will have a culture of safety and enforce it; they will seek to prevent injury, not encourage it. There’s a fair amount of macho, HEMA-bro-culture out there, sadly, so if you’re into that nonsense, go for it. It won’t be hard to find. It seems silly to have to list this, but given the general machismo when it comes to safety it needs to be said: find someplace safe. Does your instructor require the basic safety equipment? Do you see people fencing without it? How well do they take care of the masks, gloves, jackets, etc.? How courteous are fencers with one another? How courteous is the instructor?  Are they using insufficient equipment for the weapons they train, and if so, do they have protocols for how to do that safely? [3] Do they have insurance? Have you signed a waiver?

Everyone wants to get fighting as quickly as possible, but jumping in, full bore, on the first day is not wise. Learning how to fight with swords takes time, drill, patience, and dedication—you don’t make progress over night, but over years. Be wary of any program ready to throw you into the mix with no to very little training. The truth is that any fencing school must consider the lowest common denominator when it comes to safety, not the best case scenario.

In summary, here are the basic red-flags. If you see any of these, walk. Your time, money, and safety are worth more.

Common Red-flags:

  • arrogance
  • poor ability to take criticism or correction
  • narrow-minded, bigoted, or predatory
  • lack of qualifications (this includes appeals to secret knowledge or training or connections to dubious “experts”)
  • incapable of or unwilling to work with others
  • incapable of or unwilling to appreciate student ability/gifts/credentials/questions
  • problem child in larger community
  • dangerous and unconcerned with safety
  • discomfort with students visiting other schools or instructors; cultish possessiveness

To be honest, sometimes you can’t see all the red flags right away, especially if you’re an occasional visitor and/or if the problem instructor is good at hiding it, but it will out. The community, wherever you are, generally has a decent notion of where not to go.

All of this assumes you want to learn swordplay in earnest and well. It’s a long, difficult path to proficiency, and you have to be willing to put in the time. Find an instructor who can not only impart technique and passion for this complex field of study, but also one who will be there to help you and keep you going when you’re ready to quit. Any such instructor is, by definition, not going to have a lot of these foibles.

Notes:

[1] The HEMA Alliance has such a program, but not everyone in HEMA is part of the alliance and their program is not universally accepted. See https://www.hemaalliance.com/instructor-certification

[update 10-4-19: There are some organizations I forgot about and share here. One is AIMA (Associazione Italiana Maestri d’Arme) and the other is one branch of the sport org AIMS (Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma), which has certified a number of Maesti di Scherma Storica (historical fencing).

[2] There’s a difference between “this is how we interpret this passage” and “because I say so.” Context is everything, and some sources are much more difficult to work with, and thus, force us to be more tentative.

[3] Most clubs use normal fencing masks. They’re the most available, most affordable option, but they’re not designed for anything heavier than epee most of the time. So, if your interest is longsword, overly heavy sabre (i.e. trooper weight meant for use in the saddle), pole-arms, etc., be sure to ask how the school mixes these weapons with fencing masks. It can be done more safely, but any mask can fail. One of my favorite examples of just how easily a fencing mask can be crunched is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1Imv7yHig

Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps

fencer-delmar-calvert from west coast fencing archive
Maitre Delmar Calvert, 1924-2019; photo from Westcoast Fencing Archive

This past weekend I attended the memorial for one of my instructors, Matire Delmar Calvert, and among the many thoughts that assailed me while there was a realization that despite the fact I was surrounded by mostly Olympic fencers I was with “family.” I didn’t expect that. These are all people I like, but I’ll be honest, I often have felt like I don’t belong with them.

More often than not I’ve felt like an outsider in fencing. When I stopped competing, many of my fellow fencers thought I was over-reacting or was just full of sour grapes, and when I started doing research into fencing, technique, etc. the kindest thing I was called was “nerd.” When I started trying to find and use more historically appropriate blades a fair number of people thought I was crazy (the historical community as we know it didn’t exist then). Working from books was bad enough. It didn’t get better.

1801366_10203266909176461_1837749499_o (1)
Jon Tarantino and I doing a photo-shoot, Oaks Park, Santa Barbara, for a friend in 1997–aside from schlager blades, these crappy Indian-made repro cavalry blades were all we had, and yes, they were rubbish.

I left the competitive world in 1996—I was disgusted with the band-aid vs. cure approach of the FIE/USFA to the issues in electric sabre. It just wasn’t fun anymore, not for me, and so I left. I began pursuing “Classical” or “Traditional” fencing, but understand that in saying that I don’t mean the artful dance variety—I wanted to return to sabre pre-electric, and that led me further and further back, ultimately to the core texts that created what I knew as sabre. Labeled “too sporty” and failing to pay homage to what has become the established “Classical” community, there was no welcome there either. It’s just as cliquish as the Olympic world, maybe more so for being smaller, though I’m happy to say that in more recent months I’ve had the pleasure to get to know more people within that community and hope it’s a sign that we’ll communicate more.

Time in historical fencing has proved just as difficult, if in different ways. The first historical club I attended, off and on, I entered at a difficult time for me and my family. I needed an out, something that wasn’t standing uselessly next to a pregnant spouse undergoing treatment for cancer and trying to keep a four-year old’s world as normal as possible. I should’ve done more research. I knew of Maestro Hayes’ school in Eugene, but with my schedule at the time I couldn’t make that drive. I did what anyone might do instead—I saw the need at the club I was in and decided I’d try to help. It was an utter and complete failure—fragile egos too often see help as a threat. This proved the case at this school.

abject failure of a seminar
Alex Spreier of High Desert Armizare, vs. Velah Gilbert (Military and Classical Sabre page, FB), with Christopher Bigelow (Northwest Fencing Academy) in green and Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare) in blue, both in the background, 2015, at the ill-fated seminar on Angelo’s sabre and broadsword I put together

My last event there, one I put together to help them, but which ended up being micromanaged by the guy in charge of sabre there (first by planting his student in the seminar to keep an eye on me, and then, at the last minute, by showing up himself and taking over the seminar), was the last straw. After sharing my thoughts about it with him, I left and never looked back, though happily and ironically, became the best of friends with his student, and, met two people better connected with the larger historical community. I visited one of their schools, one super close to my house as it turns out, and was there for several years.

IMG_4385
Swordsquatch 2017, class I co-taught with a friend, covering Parise’s “On the Ground”

Having spent time in each camp’s turf, having fought side by side with each gang, hearing what they have to say about one another, themselves, all that, is illuminating. More than ever I think that despite the differences there’s more that we have in common that we think. This is a hard sell—group identity, misunderstanding, envy, ignorance, all work together to prevent more interaction. We are all the sorrier for it.

1-fencing-at-dickels-academy-frederic-remington
Fencing at- Dickels Academy, by Frederic-Remington

One of my goals with Sala delle Tre Spade is, to the degree possible, to bridge these divides. ALL fencers, whatever gang affiliation, are welcome—our turf is their turf. We are all united by study of the sword, and, we might learn a lot from one another. It makes me happy to know that in our tiny group we have historical, classical, and Olympic fencers; some have been or are in the SCA; some pursue several “styles” of fencing at different times in the week. We’re a small school, and so have very little influence in the larger fencing world, any of those worlds, but it’s a worthy goal trying to get people together to share what they know, because it builds ties and expands the parameters for what we might learn. We’re the richer for it, and while it’s anyone’s guess how long we’ll last, I know in a way that I know few things that it will have been worth it. We’ll all keep fencing regardless.

Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery

With our tourney coming up—an invitational sabre match—I’m always conscious of how difficult these things are to do. I’ve either fenced in or judged a lot of tournaments, both Olympic and HEMA, and with each new historical tourney I’m struck by a disturbing fact—pound for pound, a tournament in HEMA and one in Olympic circles are not so very different. In both, too many fighters are playing the system, and worse, too many have zero regard for being hit. In both tournament worlds there is also a tendency to take medaling as the litmus test for excellence. Placing well can correlate with skill, but it’s not a sure thing. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Everyone likes to win. Emerging the victor in a bout, or better still a tournament, is a nice feeling. It’s validating. It is important, however, to put any such victory in context and remember that however well one does, victory on its own does not mean mastery. There are several reasons for this and if you’re serious about your development as a fencer you need to know this. You ignore it at your peril, at the risk of further improvement, and it can easily lead to a false sense of ability with all the ego problems that creates.

There is always someone out there better than you are. This is just true. Theoretically, out there somewhere, there is one fencer who truly is better than everyone else, but see point two 😉  A prime example of this is a close friend of mine—we’ll call him “Dennis.” He’s a beautiful fencer, tactically brilliant, graceful, powerful, the kind of fighter who makes you look even better than you are when you fight him and he’s destroying you. Yes, that good. In the early 00’s, he entered an epee event open only to fencers ranked B or higher; most everyone there was an A-rated fencer. As this was epee, that ranking actually meant something too–epee is the only weapon of the three to have retained much of its martial ethos. No one there knew Dennis, and they expected to clean the floor with him. He beat every single one of them, badly, and they were really ticked when they realized that this was just something he did for fun, that he wasn’t a “normal” tournament guy; he fenced enough to keep his rating, but otherwise he’d just as soon be working on other hobbies. Dennis is a good example of the unknown ego-check, of the truly gifted fencer out there who is, quite literally, better than you or me.

Great fencers have bad days; poor fencers good days. No matter how good someone might be, even the best fencers have an off day. If this day happens to be on a tournament day, chances are good they may not clear the pools. In like guise, the poorest noob may end up taking the day. It just depends. Maybe they just had more fire and the better fencers either underestimated them or misapplied their skill. Maybe the directing was crap. Maybe it was a combination. One can’t take anything for granted.

Tournament victory is only as good as the quality of the pools. Not all gold medals are the same. Medaling in a minor tournament with twenty fencers of basic skill is not the same as medaling in a tournament where half or more of the fifty competitors are truly skilled. Herein is one major problem for WMA—what defines skill? Many people equate tournament victory with it, but that’s a false equivalency, one only embraced by people who don’t know better or who benefit from the fallacy. This is hard to combat because the same egos that benefit from this, who derive their value from it, are quick to say any naysayer is suffering sour grapes. Sort of makes discussing and fixing that, demonstrating the problem, difficult.

Skill vs. Attribute Fencing One of the elephants in the ring is the issue of attribute fencing versus a more comprehensive skill-set well-applied. To be fair, most attribute-fencers have skill, but often this is a specific set of skills that exploit their reach, speed, etc. to the exclusion of a more comprehensive game. The thing is it works. If you’re fast, if you have reach, if you hit harder and intimidate people, it will take you pretty far. People medal and win tournaments all the time armed only with a few tricks that they have optimized. The confidence that comes with that cannot be underestimated. The test though, for those fencers, is what happens when they run into someone whose skill-set is broader, whose experience is deeper, and who knows how to nullify the advantages their opponent’s attributes offer. If attribute fencers are lucky, they’ll meet that opponent; if they’re smart, they’ll learn something from it.

Gaming the Tourney is another major issue. This isn’t new and it’s not confined to WMA, but a major problem for Olympic fencing as well other sports. There are advantages to winning, and so, some people are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. For just a few examples, be wary of anyone hosting a tournament that only enlists directors and/or judges from their school or who stack staffing in their favor.[i]

Related tactics include attempting to intimidate officials and other competitors, arguing for rule changes that favor one’s approach and fencers, and hard-hitting. These kids don’t play with others, and worse, can give a tournament, even a region, a bad rep. You don’t want that.

I’m not saying don’t fence in tourneys—you should if you want, they’re fun, but, you should go into them with your eyes open and for the right reasons. Not to wax too Miyagi, but primarily a tourney is a place to test, in real-time, your skills and tactics; it’s a lesson, a chance to learn, an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. It should also be fun. The illusion of mastery, and especially of tourney gold as evidence of it, is a problem for any fencer who truly wishes to improve. Mastery is less a destination than it is a goal which pushes our training, which keeps us honest, which keeps us striving.[ii]

This doesn’t mean don’t do your best, that you’re not trying to win—you can’t test what you know if you’re going through the motions. The pressure, the chance to think on your feet, to adapt, and all within seconds is a fantastic way to see how well we apply what we’ve learned. If it all works, and you grab that trophy, great! It is healthy, maybe after celebratory beers, to reflect on the nature of the competition, to weight that against the heft of the medal around your neck. That awareness shouldn’t detract from victory, but merely inform it, and, better prepare you for the next one.


[i] This isn’t universally true of course. In small tournaments, especially where there is no one else to staff, one has little choice but to use who is on hand. Whenever possible, SdTS tries to enlist friends from other salas to help direct–our judges are pulled from the competitors.

[ii] A black belt in TKD, for example, has demonstrated that they are now ready to begin to study in earnest; a fencing master, in a slightly different way, isn’t necessary the best fighter, but a teacher, someone who has command of a particular pedagogical approach and is capable of teaching other teachers.