Defining (Redefining?) a Successful Club

I’ve hesitated about posting this entry, but since it relates to a common problem many historical fencing instructors face, and since increasingly my chief role seems to be advising others like myself, I decided to chuck caution to Zephiros. I’ll not lie though: moving forward with this piece feels a lot like leaving a perfectly good guard position, dropping my weapon, and pointing to my chest so an opponent has only to extend to hit me.

Any group of people, however small, introduces complexity that should have one considering “success” on multiple levels, but here I mean in the usual sense behind this word in the United States. Success in this sense connotes “viable,” thriving, active; potential growing and improving. By implication stasis may be viewed as “less” successful, though most people would likely agree that stable trumps shrinking numbers. When most folks Stateside speak of a “successful club” they mean a certain thing—generally, they mean a club is large-ish, active, and popular. Logically, this is both valid and true given the premises most American historical fencers, if not others, assume in assessing these things, but the logic left out is as important. A club, group, or school can be successful if it doesn’t meet these qualifications. Popular doesn’t mean success on all fronts, and too often, not where it’s most important. Combating the normal attitude, however, is fighting uphill against greater numbers.

The problem is that being the common conception of success, if one’s school is smaller, less well-known, or uninterested in the usual pursuits, one still has to contend with the definition at large, with how others value and define everything. Well-meaning people will still seek out Club X because it’s popular. New to historical fencing, people do not necessarily have the tools to evaluate quality—big has to mean better, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

To demonstrate how extensive a problem this is, I have received advice—unsolicited—from both those who run other clubs and people completely unacquainted with fencing groups. Both have sometimes given me the advice that I might consider “redefining success.” I’ve balked every time for two reasons. First, I don’t share their definition of success, so there is no reason to redefine it. Second, even assuming I buy into the same definition, how, I ask myself, is this not a cop-out? How is it not really “relabeling failure?”

Debate over the relative merits of either position could occupy more time and space than necessary, but in brief here is a quick distillation. On the one hand, success should, in some if not most respects, relate to and reflect a collective definition of what constitutes achievement (key here is what we mean by “collective”). Without some degree of consensus, what denotes success becomes purely relative and ceases to mean much beyond the individual and their definition. On the other hand, widely held definitions of success can easily be outdated, myopic, or biased, and so, awareness at the very least of these potential pitfalls in assessing one’s own success seems prudent. The answer is to determine what success means to us and those in our circle and frame questions about it in light of that definition, not that of someone else. Sounds obvious, but it’s not.

It’s possible if not all too common to misapply a definition of success, even in a related field. For example, if the only rubric of success in historical fencing is increased understanding of the source material, but one’s interest is winning tournaments, then applying the former to the latter doesn’t make sense. There may be overlap, true, but neither tournament wins nor the ability to explicate a source require the other to be successful. It’s entirely possible to win a bout never having read a single word from a treatise. This said, any understanding of a treatise requires solid familiarity with the weapon and experience using it; theoretically, the more experience, the better the understanding, but then defining “experience” is just as prone to abuse. [1] It’s possible to gain understanding of a fencing text, in some degree, never having picked up a weapon, but far less possible to understand it well without some training. By this I mean not only a grasp of technique, but of theory, historical context, and the place of the text in situ. [2]

Apples and Oranges

How we define success, what it means to us, should determine much of what we do. Any such examination should consider one’s goals first. What is it that one wishes to accomplish in the study of historical fencing? There is no “right” or single answer. People jump into medieval, renaissance, and early modern martial arts for a variety of reasons. While I maintain there are better and worse ways to pursue most any avenue, the fact is that the choice of avenue is entirely up to the individual. [3]

There are many different “HEMA”s and thus there’s something for everyone. This said, how one defines progress and success should follow from one’s chosen path within those HEMAs, not necessarily the popular notion or that touted by folks with a different focus. Instructors most of all need to give thought to their purpose—it just makes sense: teachers need and want students, and students are easier to attract if one is explicit about what it is one teaches. Clubs doesn’t exist without students. An instructor on their own is just a practitioner—for those of us working with fewer people there will be, alas, times when we aren’t technically instructors.

The hard part for instructors who have students stick with their program beyond a Groupon is that invariably the question of how well one is doing will rear its ugly mug. This is where caution is important, and, where many of us go wrong. We look across the street, see Club X doing “well” (again by the standard definition), and think we’re failing. Unless we’re trying to do exactly what Club X does, that’s probably not true. We have to consider our goals, how those in our track specifically envision “success,” and evaluate our progress against that. Club heads, like any other individual fencer, can mix things up. The backyard brawler whose “cool tricks” beat fellow members of their fight-club should not assume that this means he is Leichtenauer reborn. The armchair historian who has never fenced but knows Capo Ferro in and out is not likely to find great success at the International Rapier Seminar. The SPES-clad tourney jock with a gold medal should assume neither that they’re Leichtenaur reborn nor that that their success at the IRS means they exemplify what Capo Ferro intended. If the instructor is making the same mistakes, not only will they be miserable, forever questioning their success, but also they’re likely to lose people. People do all this stuff for fun, and one-act plays featuring a teacher with ennui are not fun.

Instatwitterfacechat and False Reality

When we step back and think about this, we see how obvious this is, but that’s part of the problem: it’s hard to step back when so many arenas suggest everything is the same. Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, all of them, present a funneled version of reality, one no more as safe for historical fencing as it is for understanding politics. As presented, HEMA is mostly longsword, with some nods to rapier and the watered down world of infantry sabre. Tourney news makes headlines in a way that an article on Perinat will not. Name recognition is created more by flooding social media and “likes” than anything else. Authority, such as it is, follows suit, and yet most people wouldn’t use the same logic to find a surgeon or plumber. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is probably a better source of authority than these HEMA equivalents of swiping right on some dating app.

If one isn’t careful, one will assume that whatever they’re doing must conform to this pastiche of HEMAs, because everywhere one looks seemingly presents the same truth. Youtube, facebook, Instagram, none of these present reality, just specially tailored packages meant to convey what the creator desires and wants others to believe. These things are fine so long as one sees them for what they are, but no instructor, no fencer, should use them as a basis for comparison without first recognizing what they are and assessing whether or not it makes sense to use the media this way. [4]

Each of us, in conjunction with those on the same track, should decide what our goals are going to be, not the herd or those following paths going in different directions. If we’re lucky enough to find like-minded folk, people with similar goals, then they’re probably a lot safer to listen to than those who don’t share either our values or our reason for pursuing the Art. These are the people, not HEMA at large, who might help one define goals more appropriately.

NOTES:

[1] Experience means a lot of different things. Time in the saddle means nothing if that time wasn’t spent well. Over several decades I’ve watched many passionate fencers and fighters waste their time in programs which won’t help them improve. Saddest of all is watching a person like that try better schools, but leave because it’s either harder or because they feel less bad-ass. Serious students have to have the courage to be a beginner even when they’ve studied a long time. This doesn’t apply to the part-time folks just there to acquire enough skill and play for fun, but to those people who wish to grow in the Art.

[2] We have to consider, among other things, how was such a text used at the time. We need to ask… How were works on fencing understood? Why were they written and for what audience?

We often talk about the corpus of works as if it were homogenous, but it is anything but that save in broad outline—we have notes, lesson plans, fragments of larger works, government publications, poems, illustrations, treatises written for other teachers, popular works, and works meant to showcase a particular master’s approach for their patron.

[3] If the H and/or MA of “HEMA” are missing I’m not sure what separates what one is doing from Olympic save choice of weapon and a less viable, motley collection of pedagogical approaches.

[4] For example, I might suggest to a new rapier or smallsword fencer to look up Levi Fontaine or David Pascal’s bouts on Youtube, but this is so that they see what is possible, not because I’m expecting them to show up next week and move and fight as well as they do. New students shouldn’t compare themselves to people with so much more training, but, seeing beautiful fencing can inspire us. It also beats having them bump into the garbage out there that will only hurt their progress.

E.g.

Russ Mitchel on Textual Criticism vs. Ad Hominems

Long experience has taught me that external validation is chimerical, distracting, and no replacement for appropriate confidence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to encounter. Finding this response to another fencer’s rebuttal of Russ’ take on Alfred Hutton’s unfortunate Cold Steel (1889) was like finding a good pastry to go with coffee this morning.

Of particular note, Russ explains probably better than I’ve heard it anywhere else (and certainly better than I ever have) that textual criticism, including analysis of a researcher’s position, is not the same thing as a personal attack. Yes, the two can mix, and sometimes do, but Russ doesn’t do that–more than once, and this is in any number of his videos, Russ has not only given Hutton credit where due, but also recommended a superior text by the same author, The Swordsman (1891).

Despite the number of people who have finished secondary school and/or college this is, surprisingly, an extremely common mistake. For the handful of people who read my posts here a prime example would be the response several fencers had to my critique of the 2020 paper that attempted to reinterpret George Silver’s system. Cults of personality being what they are, no matter how well-made a critique is the chances of it winning out against devotion to those personalities are slim, especially if that critique is coming from someone outside that clique. Name recognition tends to win out against analysis in “HEMA.”

In this case, however, Russ is not only a trained academic, but also someone well-known in historical fencing’s research circles if not in the wider, “HEMA” tournament scene. This video is important to watch for several reasons, but among them is the fact that Russ’ measured, information-driven rebuttal provides a great template for the community.

Russ Mitchell, response to Pope in re Hutton

Who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?

She ordered Charles to have the horses put to. Holst understood this, which was said in French, and begged her for the love of God not to set out; he had orders not to let her depart. “You,” said she, in a somewhat haughty tone, “who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?” He said he had no written order, but by word of mouth, and that his governor would soon arrive…

From Memoirs of Leonora Christina, Daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, Written during her Imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen, 1663-1685, translated by F. E. Bunnett, London, UK: Henry S. King & Co., 1872) [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38128/38128.txt]

Last week I had a chance to discuss the Radaellian school of sabre with a distant colleague in Germany, Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, on his channel Razmafzar TV. There is one topic we didn’t discuss in detail, and which in part I dreaded despite its importance, but which I shall try to address more fully here. This is the place of Italian sabre in “HEMA” and one of the major challenges within it. [1] Late period Italian “HEMA” is an archipelago of tiny islands scattered so widely that they are a related island chain in theory only.

There are several reasons for this. On the surface, and understandable, is the fact of geography. When pockets of interest are separated by miles, countries, and oceans naturally it’s hard for the inhabitants of these islands to visit one another. Beyond that, however, there is a less obvious reasons for division. There is an unfortunate cliquishness born of both a lack of familiarity with other, related groups, and some variance in concepts of authority.

When possible I prefer to build rather than burn bridges, and because I’ve met few of the people in the field in person, I can’t know how they will react. How one appears online is not a sure guide. The internet is notorious for skewing intent and meaning. It is not my wish to call anyone out or set fire to yet another bridge, but only to call out the elephant in the room. My sense, knowing what I do know about the inhabitants of some of these islands, is that they may take umbrage with someone they consider an unknown, an upstart daring to discuss topics which they believe belong only to them. If any do, then they do, and I can only hope they reach out to me to discuss it.

Cliques writ Large

“Mean Girls,” 2004

People, being social (least most of them—we introverts unite, separately, in our homes…), tend to congregate around those they identify with, who share their interests, and in some degree who provide some measure of external validation. These benefits of association are intensified when the group in question, for whatever reason, is actively under siege or feels as if they are. How one responds to attack, or the perception of one, varies. Some seek to adapt in hopes of crossing whatever barrier exists between themselves and the clique. Others seek to undermine that clique, to besiege the besiegers as it were. Still others solidify their own position and contend with their rivals as best they can. Some leave the contest all together.

Cliques writ Small

For my part, I lament the reality of the cliques I see within the conglomeration of Italian schools. We’re few enough as it is. No one in HEMA balks at mention of Fiore, Marozzo, or Giganti—to name only three popular Italian masters studied in historical fencing—but bring up Radaelli, Masiello, or Pecoraro and Pessina and suddenly one is categorized as “other.” The kinder sort relegate one to “classical” fencing (never well-defined); the nastier sort lump one in with the modern sport, HEMA’s favorite bugbear. I recognize, thanks to age and experience, the ways in which some of this is natural, but as a life-long student what I notice most acutely is that all of us lose more than we gain in maintaining these boundaries. Sad as it is to be the red-headed step-child in the larger community, it’s sadder that those who should be natural allies, our fellow late-Italian enthusiasts, should follow suit and treat their family members as poorly.

Outside geography and isolation, the hard lines seem to fall along the fault-lines of notions of authority and recognition. For example, those who have worked hard to obtain certifications sometimes believe that anyone who has not is, by definition, unqualified or certainly less qualified than they are to expound upon that subject. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it needs adjustment: in “HEMA” certifications within modern traditions, while valuable, do not grant automatic authority for past systems, not even to those extinct branches which created one’s own.

While definitions of authority are often shared between cliques, there are often operating differences that work to demarcate one group from another. Credibility is important, but it doesn’t belong exclusively to the provosts and masters. This is an especially important fact for anyone believing that they themselves are an authority, because one of the unwritten rules of expertise is responsibility to manage it appropriately, and, to recognize just what “authority” entails. What is it, specifically, that grants authority? Is it the organization that grants it? The piece of paper declaring it? Is it the internal ability and knowledge? Some combination?

Just as important, however, and far, far more difficult for many established or certified individuals, is recognizing expertise or skill outside such certification. It takes more than memorizing rules, definitions, and regurgitating them to recognize and honor other capable folks. There are people within the Italian orbit who have done significant, important work, and yet don’t warrant an invite to major conferences, teaching seminars, or invitational tournaments (no, I do not mean me). Why is this? It’s not lack of skill, because in print, video, and in person they have demonstrated not only their grasp of the pedagogical tradition, but also proven their ability to teach it and fight it. Professional jealousy and fear, both outgrowths of ego, likely explain this “ghosting.” If one has worked hard to obtain a certification, but has done so without the proper sense of humility such a course should entail, it’s easy to fear the person outside that system that might show one up.

To be fair, comparatively speaking there are many masters and provosts in the Italian branch of “HEMA,” both from and in Italy as well as outside it, who are keen to work with lots of people, not just other masters. There are, however, some notable exceptions in North America who appear not to want to work with others save on their own terms. However much they believe they are guarding their sacred, occult tradition, the inability or unwillingness to provide more than that when it is readily available is a sure-fire way to sink a program. It leads to stagnation, cultic adherence to received learning as one learned it, and unless students of that program can hold their own against others, as fencers, teachers, or scholars, that program is going to atrophy. Certification programs should include the necessarily flexibility to adapt and adopt new ideas and approaches when those novel ideas might improve the course.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938–in this scene Little John beats Robin and worries that the famous outlaw will be upset. Robin replies “On the contrary, I love a man who can best me.”

True confidence, true ability, recognizes that students can benefit from such experts, even if they are not card-carrying maestri. Not to enlist the aid of such people when the goal is learning and improvement is horribly short-sighted and limits one’s own program. It’s narrow-minded, the worst sort of conceit. It takes a degree of mental toughness to acknowledge an expert, let alone invite one in, but if one’s goal is learning, then this is the way it should be done. My model for this is the old-school model I learned as a graduate student in history: one doesn’t go to a school because it’s a “name school,” but instead applies to a person, to the people most qualified to guide one in one’s study. If they’re worth their repute, they will encourage one to see other experts too. That person might be at Turnpike Tech, not necessarily Oxford or the Sorbonne.

In an arena as varied and complex as historical martial arts it’s perhaps best to conceive of authority in the plural, as authorities, and recognize that while a master’s cert indicates significant training, that it’s not the only path. Patrick Bratton, in one of our chats, provided a few rubrics by which we might measure authority or credibility:

–can they teach effectively?

–are they a competent fencer in the system they are teaching?

–do they know the history/context and theory, AND can they effectively convey it to others?

Within these three broad categories are subsets of questions important to ask. In terms of teaching effectiveness, are they able to explain each technique, idea, or tactic in its most elemental specificity, from the position of the hand to the pressure exerted by control fingers, from the placement of the arm to the timing with which the technique is made in relation to the feet? Can they then incorporate that level of detail and build up? If they can, do they? There is a LOT of video out there, and so much of it is shared without any hint as to why. Teaching vids are some of the worst offenders in this regard. If one is sharing a teaching video, at least include what it is one is doing and why. With regard to fencing competency in the system in which they were certified, how adept are they? How often do they exercise and test this skill? Do they do so only with friends, or, do they venture out? When it comes to history and theory, how well do they know it, and, do they avail themselves of available resources?

Certification—What is it?

What the modern schools are supposed to teach is the current body of knowledge as handed down, and depending on rank, how to teach it. [2] This is as true of the USFCA as it is the Sonoma program. Masters emerging from either program should be able to teach anyone, at any level, and most importantly help train new teachers. What history they study, if they do, is generally minimal and/or tailored to the specific needs of their program. The USFCA, for example, is focused on the sport, not its development; the Sonoma program, which does cover some history, does so only within the confines of the work of their founder, Maestro William Gaugler. [3] What either program should provide is first an understanding of the universal principles in fencing, what Matire Robert Handelman refers to as “the elements of fencing.” [4] Second, they should impart technique and tactics, the first in fine-grained specificity, the second following logically from what it is possible to do with those techniques oneself, and, what one does when they’re used against one. Needless to say that all of the above must reflect the elements or universal principles. For the maestri, provosts, etc. who do study past systems, what gives them an edge is the fact that they are armed with a solid foundation in the application of the universals, technique, and tactics. It’s a lot easier to look at historical versions of this if one has a firm grasp on today’s systems.

Nothing in the purpose of modern fencing certification equates to expertise in historical fight systems. In fact, possession of the lanista’s rudis is not the only way, and in fact, might not be the best way. It depends on the person. There are other paths by which one may accrue both knowledge and skill. I will argue whenever I have the chance that everyone should take at least a year of foil or sabre, preferably in as traditional/classical as one can, before diving into HEMA, but beyond that I think it’s important to separate what one learns in becoming a provost or master today from what some certified teachers purport or suggest their sheepskin means.

A Challenge

For my colleagues within the late Italian sphere of fencing, especially those with the certifications of master or provost, I challenge you to reach beyond your clique; I challenge you to embrace discomfort and seek out those individuals who can best aid your students. Why pass up a good chance to improve your program? I challenge you to look beyond your certs and at what these individuals have to offer, humbly, without recourse to ego, fear, or envy. Put those aside, put what is best for your students first. It will be good for you too.

As a student myself, I seek out the best teachers I can, because I want to improve. My skill is never good enough for me; sure, it may be fair enough to impart basics to someone new, but for me myself the climb is eternal, the journey the point; it’s what I learn along the way more than it is any trophy, award, gift, or certification. The benchmarks we reach, such as certifications, signify key moments in study and growth, but are not destinations in and of themselves, least they ought not to be. [5] These honor my effort, and I appreciate them deeply, but I want to work with those who can best help me grow, certification or not.

NOTES:

[1] This is a topic I covered briefly in an earlier post, 22 March, 2021 “Italian Sabre & HEMA” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/22/italian-sabre-hema/

[2] Ideally, any certification program, moniteur to master, is teaching one how to teach. This goes beyond watching and emulating, but down to actual discussion, instruction, and on-the-job training.

[3] Maestro Gaugler established a military masters’ program in San Jose, California, under the auspices of Italian programs like the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples and The Fencing Masters’ Preparatory Course at the National Institute of Physical Education, Rome. His works, A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology (1997), The History of Fencing (1998), and The Science of Fencing (1997), perhaps with the addition of his articles, comprise the course reading at the program’s new home at Sonoma State University. Gaugler’s books are important additions, late ones, to a venerable corpus, but no replacement for the original sources or classics like Szabo’s Fencing and the Master.

[4] See for example Maitre Rob Handleman and Maitre Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014, 308-312; see also Fencing Sabre: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, 2010. The epee course I took in 2021, which is available in full via Fencing Metrics, takes the place of his book on epee. I’ve had the honor to take two courses with Maitre Handelman and he emphasizes over and over that everything we do, anything we teach, must emerge from the elements. The old masters would agree.

[5] My eldest son, when he completed his black belt, did so at a do jang with the right attitude. There is a poster hanging in the school that sums up what the students are meant to learn in acquiring that well-known symbol: a black belt means that they are now ready to start learning. I would suggest that our fencing certifications might be best viewed in a similar light.

Mastery, Revisited

Mastery. It’s a word that conjures a variety of emotions and images. In fencing the word means different things depending on context. For most Olympic fencers the word refers primarily to a teaching position, that of “master,” and second, in a more abstract sense, to a high degree of skill. Often these are considered to go hand in hand. Outside the Olympic fencing world, however, it’s more difficult to define. On the one hand, because there are certified masters who dabble or contribute considerably to historical fencing and martial arts, we do have some masters in our midst, but on the other there is no single governing body within the historical community itself with the power to confer the title. [1] I’ve discussed this before (cf. post “Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery” May 24, 2019), and will try not to rehash the points I made there, but instead will focus on the topic from a different angle, one that comes up frequently. What is “mastery” in historical fencing? Does it even make sense to discuss “mastery” in historical fencing? Is it possible to have “masters” in our corner of the fencing world? [2] 

Master Ken

Though the topic of mastery can be a red herring, there are important lessons to be learned from examining the notion sans dreams of grandeur or aggressive McDojo-style marketing. It can help to unpack what “master” and “mastery” mean, because we use these words in different ways and they can mislead us if we aren’t careful.

“Master” as Occupational Title 

There are ample resources that discuss master-as-instructor, so I’ll only briefly state here what that means in terms of a maestro di scherma or maître d’armes. [3] Fencing masters, with some variance by accrediting body, generally have demonstrated to other masters that they possess a thorough understanding of theory, a command of both fundamentals and advanced skills, ample grounding in tactics, and some degree of skill in execution: at the very least they must be able to impart their knowledge and skill to students correctly. They must demonstrate not only knowledge and skill, but an ability to teach, and much of their training from moniteur to master consists of OJT. This means something. It doesn’t mean everything, but variance by person notwithstanding that training has worked for close to two-hundred years if not longer. Masters are first and foremost teachers, concerned with fencing education. In most ways this is not new. For all the famous masters named in the history of dueling or competition there were ten times the number of them quietly working in the background. 

Maestro Barbasetti

Some masters (extremely few) may know more history, but for the most part their focus has been the competitive sport and running a business. Historically, maestri were of humble station—a marquis or colonel might employ them, but they were not social equals. It wasn’t really until the modern Olympics and the birth of national competition that much of that changed. [4] Outside of world, national, and collegiate competition many maestri struggle to stay afloat. It is not an easy career path, and it’s not uncommon for fencing masters to hold down other jobs. [5] 

What separates a certified master from others is the fact they have undergone and succeeded in a program managed by those who did so before them. In truth, anyone who puts in the time, and has good teachers, might learn as much and develop the necessary skill level, but without the approval of certified peers they will never be a master, not in terms of professional title anyway. In a recent lecture by Dr. John Sullins online at Sala della Spada, the maestro explained that there are people who are masters in all but name; the example he cited was a fellow student he knew in the Italian program whose knowledge, ability, and teaching were excellent, but who never took his master’s certs. In this case, that student was recognized by his peers as equivalent to a master, but he isn’t in terms of accreditation. This doesn’t mean that the title is meaningless or that anyone can do the same thing, but to say that from time to time there are people out there who can and sometimes do the same job as a maestro. Hopefully they have the decency to avoid the title not having earned it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t learn from them. 

Historical Fencing & the Master 

Maestro Alfieri (fl. 1640)

For the most part the term “master” within historical fencing refers to an ancient title and job description. We speak of Master Fiore, the Bolognese Masters, Master Girard, Master Santelli, etc. Ideally, we recognize that while all these fencers may have shared this title that the title itself, the responsibilities that went with it, varied over time and by context. It’s a convenient term for “past experts.” Outside of modern, accredited masters working within historical fencing the idea of master as expert from the past is the safest, least problematic use of the title. This is true even when we use the term for experts who didn’t hold a certification as we normally think of it. 

Periodically the question of creating modern masters of historical fencing pops up, normally within the confines of social media, YouTube, and like ilk. There is something of the how many angels to a pinhead about this question—it’s decent navel-gazing, philosophical fodder, but functionally tends more to distract than inform. Our time would be better spent doing footwork drills. Where “master” as ancient title causes few issues, the discussion of creating modern masters of dead arts is a minefield. Opinion varies a lot as to the answer; here are my two cents. 

Master of a Dead Art vs. Master of Historical Fencing 

First, I’d make a distinction between master of a past art, say the Liechtenauer tradition or the Dardi School, and a master as it were of historical fencing. It may disappoint some of my associates, but I believe creating a master along the lines of the first definition is impossible. These are dead arts; the line was broken and in most cases a long, long time ago. Not only do we lack critical information about these past systems, but also our context is entirely removed from those of 15th century Germany or 16th century Bologna. It’s hubris to think we can do anything more than create a version of those arts, and, a version extremely modern and lacking much of what underpinned these ancient systems in their heyday. To name one example, the International Armizare Society (IAS) might create a neo-Armizare, but they cannot revive Armizare as Fiore taught it. Thus, they cannot create masters of Armizare per se, only masters of a modern take on Fiore’s teachings. [6] 

A master of historical fencing, theoretically, might be possible to create, but this title or position would be akin to earning a master’s degree in the history of medicine versus earning the MD and becoming a practicing physician. The requirements would demand command of the universal principles underlying all hand-to-hand combat, at least a working knowledge of several areas of historical fencing, demonstrated skill across those areas, and sufficient understanding of fencing pedagogy to teach effectively. The board reviewing this would consist of those fencing masters who work on historical topics, historians or similar experts who work on the regions and periods under question, and a few carefully selected people from the historical fencing community whose ability and insight would temper both the perspective of maestri created in modern programs and historians who more than likely have never held a sword. I have often thought about what such a panel might look like, even down to course of study and whom I would pick for the committee, but in truth the wide divisions within the community, communities really, suggest that if such a program were to arrive it won’t be any time soon. 

For now, I would suggest that the closest one can get to being a master of historical fencing is either to study formally the period in question and obtain training as a fencing instructor, or, become a fencing master and focus on the source tradition. This would mean attending an accredited program with ample attention paid to traditional technique.  There are already maestri doing this. [7] Some of these masters may be associated with “HEMA,” but in the US this is less often the case—here the hoi polloi in “HEMA” shun sport or traditional fencing. The few masters I know who work on things historical by and large work in small cohorts independent from mainstream HEMA. The scarlet “M.d.S/E.” applied to their plastrons isn’t lost on them; it makes little sense to waste time on a community where one is unwelcome.  

This is less a problem in Europe—fencing is venerable there where it has remained novel and exceptional State-side. To name only two examples, Maestro Francesco Loda, who also holds two PhDs in history, can navigate between historical and Olympic fencing easily. There is less of a stigma attached to the latter in Italy. Likewise, in Prague, Czechia, the Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895 school actively works with maestri from Club Riegel. Prevot Michael Kňažko, who runs this program, has a classical focus intimately connected to the Radaellian tradition as expressed by Luigi Barbasetti, but works with fencers from a variety of backgrounds too, everything from historical to Olympic to actors working their way through The Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) in Prague. Leonid Křížek and Michael Šolc, maestri at Riegel, also work with Barbasetti Military Sabre and I’ve seen how effective the combination of traditional pedagogy and attention to the sources is firsthand. [8]

HEMA & the Masters of the MiniVerse 

“I said no grappling HEMA-man!”

As often as the topic comes up, and as badly as some obviously wish to be considered masters, the chance of a viable accreditation program in “HEMA” worth anything is slim. At present the likely outcome of any such effort would be a self-promoting society of vanity-degree holders. Even collectively, from every branch of the community, there is likely neither enough aggregate ability or agreement as to what this would look like or how to evaluate candidates. There is generally a poor understanding of theory where it’s not outright rejected, a shallow level of source knowledge except sometimes in the case of one’s particular focus, and by and large the average level of skill is mediocre.[9] Most importantly of all, there is no dedicated work toward improving teaching, and worse, even less interest in enlisting the help of people best situated to help correct, trained fencing maestri. 

There are other issues around creating “masters” in HEMA. Outside the community would this certification mean much? Would traditional maestri consider them as well-trained as themselves? I don’t have an answer, but I think it would be a hard sell if the only actual teachers in the field weren’t involved in some respect. We can ruminate as to what qualifications such a “master” ought to have, but while perhaps a fun exercise no amount of boxes checked would likely make Person X a master in the eyes of most people. 

Masters by Popular Acclaim 
Another possibility, one rife with issues, is the potential to become a master by acclaim. How this wouldn’t descend into trouble is hard to imagine: there would be the big fish in small ponds who are the best in their pond, but unremarkable outside it; there would be those desperate to be seen as masters and angle for it, but who aren’t remotely qualified or interested in the actual job; there are also people of sense who, if named, would wisely say thanks but no thanks. Off the top of my head I can think of two people right now, both less connected to HEMA but involved in historical fencing, who to me embody the best aspects of mastery—they’re truly skilled, but they’re also dynamite teachers. Neither I think would be comfortable with the title, honored though they might be, and it’s hard not to blame them. [No, I’m not one of the two—one lives in Kansas, the other in Texas, and that’s as much as I’m willing to say 😉] 

Mastery—Goal or Approach? 

Master Pai Mei, “Kill Bill” Vol. 2 (2004)

Leaving aside the traditional notion of a person capable of passing on a body of knowledge effectively, especially to other instructors, what about the concept of “mastery” itself? Most people mistakenly supply the idea of a superior fighter to the label. A master in this sense is more akin to the white-haired, long-bearded kung fu master in B movies, wise somehow and utterly capable of humiliating any foe. It’s a lovely fantasy. The reality is that some masters died fighting, others never had to fight—it was not their job. They were primarily teachers. 

We’re conditioned to view a master through the lens of fiction and cinema. The scenes of challenge in films like Bruce Lee’s “The Chinese Connection/Fists of Fury” (1972) or its updated version “Fist of Legend” with Jet Li, where school rivalries lead to murder and additional challenges in vengeance, we unwittingly apply not only to Asian martial arts but others too. It’s present in the western canon of film as well—Prince Humperdink, remember, as he surveys the ground where Inigo and the Man in Black fought, concludes that they were both “masters.” I’ve yet to meet a master, of any kind, who has had to live or had any wish to live the life of Mister Miyagi; and while I’ve met more than one John Kreese of Cobra Kai, they stand out and in time bully themselves out of a job. “The Karate Kid” (1984; 2010) is not reality; it’s just a good story. 

It is true that many western masters, from Fiore to Pini, fought duels. Many more did not. Many also lost. One examination of Talhoffer, for example, suggests that he lost to another fighter. [10] This was likely more common than we think. The context of these duels is important too, especially since we have nothing remotely related to them today. Competition between masters has often been more about attracting students and staying in business than beating rivals; how they do that today is just different. Where Fiore had to fight, sometimes without armor no less, because he might lose his following otherwise, today’s masters fight it out with sale memberships, ad campaigns, and hopefully offering the best program they can. For masters in Italy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, professional rivalries might spill out onto the dueling ground, but not all the duels these masters fought were over teaching turf. 

Masteries 

Ron Burgundy, “Anchorman,” (2004)—I’ve seen too much of this attitude in “HEMA”

We define “mastery” different ways in fencing because in truth there are different aspects of it one can attempt to chase. Some fencers, probably most, look at mastery as a goal, as something they can attain by being the “best” fighter out there. Others, might focus on the most accurate knowledge and demonstration of technique. Still others might aim to possess near bardic knowledge of the sources. Then, there are the fencers who wish to possess all three. There are pros and cons to each of these, but the focus on “mastery” as a goal, as something we can work to achieve often leads us to the wrong places if not bad ones.  
 
This is not to say that one shouldn’t strive to do one’s best. Nor is it to say that one shouldn’t try to win bouts, develop gorgeous technique, or an impressive knowledge of the sources, but it is to say that mastery is perhaps best used as a carrot. After all, “best” is a relative concept—the “best” fencer in Bigcity USA may lose to the “best” fighter in Pigsty Village. This is another area I’ve said far too much about, but it’s true. One adage to keep in mind in re the question of superiority is the anecdotal remark that the finest fencer in France doesn’t fear the second best, they fear the worst. The second will, as soon as they take guard, reveal the fact that they’ve been trained if the fact wasn’t widely known; the worst fencer, however, is unpredictable and therefore in many ways far more dangerous. 

Tae Kwon Douglas, “Disjointed” (2017-2018)

Excellence, one’s best, is a good goal to work towards, but we do that work best when we realize that the concept of mastery itself is relative at best, chimerical at worst. Mastery, in many ways, is perhaps better viewed as more of a journey, an approach, than a destination or attainable goal. We can strive to improve, grow, and become better fencers and fighters, and with luck, better people. This focus does much to help rid of us the usual suspects that affect our growth and improvement. If our fiercest competition is ourselves; if the person we most want to beat is ourselves yesterday, then we’re more likely to see our fellow fencers as fellow travelers on the same journey. We will be more likely to view them as our partners, as our fellow guides. While we strive to beat them in bouts, we do so recognizing that ultimately they are helping us overcome ourselves and grow as fighters and people. [11] 

Take Aways 

I believe historical fencing would benefit from having something akin to a master of historical fencing program, but it’s hard to see that working out to the satisfaction of the majority. Perhaps one day we might see such a thing materialize. Until then, it behooves us to give credit to what today’s masters have to teach us. In like vein, I’d urge the masters, and especially the accreditation programs, to include more of the source material that informs today’s fencing than they do. Even the Italian program State-side doesn’t avail itself of the rich corpus that created it. [12] 

For us as individual fencers, if we focus on mastery as something to reach for, but which we can never attain we’re more likely to focus on what we should and improve. The line between the urge to grow and the ambition to be seen a certain way can be a slippery slope; it’s far easier to seek public acclaim because our culture idolizes fame, even fame where a handful of people comprise the audience. The Art is difficult, it is demanding, and distractions that pander to our egos rather than support our practice we should avoid. 

NOTES

[1] There is an option in the USFCA for focus in historical fencing, but I’m not sure if this is a dead letter. Some unfortunate political ugliness entered the picture and so far as I know no additional fencers have been so certified. 

[2] Facebook has been one platform of discussion, see especially Jay Mass, post Dec. 19, 2018; and Da’Mon Stith, post/video, July 10th, 2020. 

[3] In short, masters are custodians of the tradition, not only as instructors in their own right, but as those who certify new instructors. Provosts/Prévôts do much the same work as masters, but focus more on training fencers vs. other teachers. Moniteurs are able to teach all the fundamental actions and techniques and some tactics. Among treatments of the occupation, see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956); though dated and requiring caution, Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Defense (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003), originally published in 1885, remains useful; Richard Cohen, By the Sword (New York, NY: Random House, 2002); Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334; William H. Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998); Jacopo Gelli, Bibliografia Generale della Scherma con note Critiche, Biografiche, e Storiche, Testo Italiano e Francese (Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890);  Michael Julian Kirby, “From Piste to Podium—A Qualitative Exploration of the Development of Fencing Coaching in Britain,” MPhil, Universty of Birmingham, UK, 2014. 

[4] The social position of maestri historically was relatively low. In the Middle Ages fight-masters might be men of some degree of rank or an experienced commoner. Depending on where one was and when, some military training for young aristocrats might be obtained from extended family, friends of the family, or in some cases acquired living abroad. Local masters might be hired as well. Patronage was important and remained so into the 19th century. As the aristocracy increasingly transformed into the officer class, and as their time opened up for other pursuits, fencing started to become a “class” pursuit as well as important training. In time, fencing, like dancing, equitation, and good manners were considered proper elements of education, and this helped elevate those teaching these young people. Some, like Domenico Angelo, became minor celebrities, but for each Angelo there were just as many masters whom we only know by name or who had to rely on other avenues to stay afloat. James Figg, for example, a well-known instructor in early 18th century England is best remembered as a prize-fighter. 

[5] Many of the masters I know or have worked with hold a “day job” in addition to teaching fencing. We used to joke that as formidable as Maestro Couturier was as a fencer and coach, the fact that he worked for the IRS made him twice as scary. 

[6] As of this date the section on certification is under construction, but cf. https://armizare.org/  

[7] There are a number of certified maestri working in historical fencing—to name only a few there are David and Dori Coblentz, Adam Crown, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Leonid Křížek, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, and Giovanni Rapisardi. 

[8] The quality of teaching at Barbasetti Military Sabre is extremely high. There is a direct correlation between the fact that the instructors are all well-trained in fencing as well as in other branches of martial arts. They recently lost a dear friend and maestro, Jan Kostka—though he has passed on I didn’t want to mention the instructors at the school without mentioning his important place and contribution to their program. 

[9] Experience is a relative concept and has to be viewed against several other important considerations. One might spend a lifetime fencing and have little to show for it; one might spend a few years and become a paragon of technique and application. However, these tend to be exceptions, poles of the spectrum, and most people fall somewhere in the middle. So, the HEMA player with five years’ experience in say KdF may know a bit about “The Zettel” and even more about Meyer, but will have little reason to weigh in on things Olympic and vice versa unless they’ve spent suitable time on them. 

[10] See for example: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/1444-two-fencing-masters-in-rothenburg/ 

[11] For the cinematically inclined, the discussion about tea/martial arts in “Fearless” 2006) provides a nice example of the idea that “through the competition we can discover and get to know one’s true self” https://youtu.be/ZVkI0vbHcz4 

[12] I have great respect for the Fencing Master’s Certificate program at Sonoma State University, California, but at last check they were using only the works penned by Maestro William Gaugler. It was Gaugler who brought the program to the US and established it in San Jose. Given the talent there, I’m unsure why they would limit themselves to Gaugler’s works when there are so many more, and many better, than those of the late maestro. Since the focus of the program, as I have understood it anyway, is both traditional and focused on pedagogy, it’s puzzling that they don’t rely on László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master or avail themselves of the translations made by Chris Holzman. 

All for One, One for All: Teaching other Teachers

Lehr tuht viel, aber Aufmunterung tuht alles.

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

Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

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

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

Teaching other Teachers

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

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

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

Learning Styles

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

Experience

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

Acquiring what They Need

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

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

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

Time in the Saddle

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

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

What Not to Do

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

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

Mr. Garvey, from “Key and Peele”

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

All for One, One for All

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vis enim vincitur arte

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 090/94 verso, (from UCalgary, Canada, digital collections, Gawain Ms)

In most any quest one is more likely to find Tech Duinn than Tir n mBan or Kêr Iz. Only in stories is anyone, normally a hero, able to win a prize, earn a skill, or achieve much without effort. Even there the best efforts can fail—for every Gawain there is a Connla. [1] Not all effort is the same. Not everything is up to us. We can direct energy in the wrong direction, and so it’s worth pondering how we can best apply ourselves so that we don’t waste time or energy (all other factors notwithstanding). The importance of this goes beyond how we train and into how we lead our lives, into what battles we choose to fight, what company we choose to keep, and in what pursuits we direct our efforts. Everything.

I took as the motto for this school a line from F.A. Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), vis enim vincitur arte, “For force is conquered by art,” not because power doesn’t have its place, but because without art power only does so much. One may be a powerful speaker, but without some skill in rhetoric any speech will suffer no matter how passionately one delivers it. In the same section, Marcelli shared a Latin rendering of the first two lines in Hippocrates’ Aphorismi, Ars longa, vita brevis, that is, “the Art is long, life short.” [2] The cipher I adopted for myself (see image just below) I made from two bits of clipart (one must be mindful of intellectual property rights)—a skull argent, affronté, crowned, trisected by spada, sabre, and foil—and is meant to capture this notion, that is, that the Art is eternal and we are not. It plays well with the usual memento mori aspects of this specific charge. I noticed another fencer adopt it, a chap in Italy I believe, and if it speaks to him too, great.

Memento Mori

For me, there is a lot that this cipher encapsulates. We only have so much time, so we should use it well. We should face the Great Question as bravely as we face an opponent: eyes forward, devoid of emotion, and ready. Whatever the weapon (the three stand for all) we should be ruled by the Art and the respect and discipline it teaches. If we want what we do to matter, if it is to matter, then we must embrace that journey without simplistic expectations about the outcome or too much concern about how it will be received—we focus on the work instead. We focus on the Art, less so our experience of it. This is easy to say, but much harder to carry out; so, mindful that death wins in the end, that nothing comes without struggle, and that we should consider how we want to be remembered, we press on despite setbacks, criticism, or failure. Failure, after all, is just another teacher.

It’s difficult sometimes, and natural to ask, whether we’re wasting our time or effort. We should ask this frequently. We can’t always know when we are wasting our time, especially without a skilled coach or similar insight, but there are a few areas this tends to go wrong and that are worth monitoring. Unqualified to give anyone life advice—not like I’ve figured my own out yet—what follows focuses on a few aspects of the Art where we tend to go wrong.

Attribute vs. Technique Fencing

One area we see misplaced effort is in forcing through an action. It’s not that this didn’t happen—we can be pretty sure it did—but in and of itself relying on one’s strength, or speed, or reach only brings short-term benefits. Two caveats. One is that competitive “HEMA,” like it’s sibling Olympic competition, will sustain an attribute fighter or fencer a long time. At present it will serve one longer in HEMA, because there are fewer truly skilled fencers who compete. [3] I am not against tournaments—they’re fun—but they have garnered more weight than they should have. I’m not the only person who believes this; as Matt Easton and Mark from the Exiles recently commented, the goals, training, and attitude toward the Art differ across the historical fencing spectrum. As unpleasant as this may sound, success in competition may correlate with a high degree of skill, but it doesn’t have to; in fact, in general all one needs is the need to do well and a deep degree of commitment to each fight, each blow. Olympic is no exception. [4]

Second, there are situations, particularly in mixed-weapon settings, where differences in weapons tell. A recent example of my own was fighting with a friend, Josh Campbell; he was armed with a 3+lb (1.36kg) baskethilt; mine, a later period model, weighs in at 2.36 lbs (1.072 kg). One head parry I took I didn’t take at the right distance and the mass of the other weapon easily defeated my defense. I only bout full-tilt with people of appropriate skill and control—I can’t afford to be injured—and this man, strong as he is, is able to stop a blow on a dime. The touch was his—yes, I had “parried,” but insufficiently, and had the fight been in earnest that blow would likely have ended it right there. Using one’s natural abilities is not wrong, but the best fencers combine those gifts of heredity with technique and understanding. This is true regardless of the person. In the example above, Josh could push through most any blow he wants, but he doesn’t—he knows that he needs to let the sword do its job, he knows to use its weight to save him effort, and in situations where the mass of that weapon will overwhelm he has the control to moderate force.

As another example, height and reach can be a boon, but so too can the lack of it. A good coach will help each fencer develop those inborn abilities in conjunction with the technical repertoire both learn. When I am teaching a shorter fencer, even at the outset we discuss things that are not going to work against a much taller opponent. If fencer A is 4’ 5” and B is 6’ 4,” and B launches a head-cut, A can use parry 5, but will likely need better measure to create an angle that keeps them safe. Moreover, A probably shouldn’t riposte to the head—they’re at a disadvantage there. The lower lines are a safer bet as they’re closer to A and harder, generally, for B to cover as quickly. B, on the other hand, can more easily target the high lines and extended target—going for a leg shot against A, which is daft for a variety of reasons, is more so given the height difference. [5]

Drilling

The famous line attributed to Bruce Lee about kicks, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times,” highlights the importance of meaningful drill. If we practice something unimportant or incorrect 10,000 times, all we do is hone a skill we don’t need or which we should be using differently. One of the arguments for a capable instructor or sensible study group is that it’s so easy to go wrong and guidance can help prevent that. There are, sad to say, people out there who have been at all this a very long time, and yet have extremely little to show for it. It’s hard not to feel pity for people in that plight, especially when it’s public. To have devoted so much time, energy, and passion for so long and to have so little to show for is unfortunate. It is, however, fixable.

For historical fencers, any drill or exercise beyond typical warm-ups or well-known conditioning routines should rely heavily on whatever source or sources one is using. Those drills connected to using measure, footwork, tempo, or other universals should be in play, but may differ by weapon. One uses different footwork for longsword than smallsword, but both require one to be able to move in any direction; both employ different categories of measure; and both exploit tempo. If your group or coach isn’t having you work on universals, that’s a problem. So too are any of the “bullshido” sorts of drills. What are these? One example, for footwork, I experienced myself. In one class I tried (but left), the instructor insisted that one land demi-pointe in the lunge. Nothing in the corpus supports this idea—no lie, I’ve looked—and when questioned he just got angry. [6] Other common examples include too much focus on speed, hardness of a blow, and drills that train actions that run counter to universal principles and/or one’s source.

Another common problem, but not strictly bullshido in nature, is the type of drill that comes from a source but which is a dead-end. Another example from the same instructor was his use of the stick drill in Henry Angelo’s Infantry Manual (1845). It makes sense as a reminder of the author’s numbers for cuts and guards, and as a warm-up perhaps, but I never saw him go beyond that save to one other set-drill. In all the times I visited that group over a year the only thing they ever covered in their two hours of class consisted of those two drills. Every practice… Fencing instruction is progressive, not static. If you are still doing the exact same drill the same way a year later, and that is all you’re doing, that’s worth examining.

Yachts in Kiddie Pools

HEMA is riddled with people who shouldn’t be teaching. There is a difference between the most experienced person running a study group in some isolated place and the person with a few years’ experience who just decides they are good enough to teach. It can be subtle. The former teaches because it’s the only option; the latter teaches because their self-worth needs dictate that they must teach to feel legitimate and/or be seen as such. There is grey area in all this too.

Selecting an instructor is difficult sometimes. Personality fit, distance, and time conflicts are one thing, but among the trickier issues is assessing what experience means. Like effort, not all experience is the same—seven years of this class or that, some tourney wins, and a big head do not an instructor make. They “can,” but it all comes down to how those years were spent, the quality of that experience. Because HEMA at large lacks sufficient time in the saddle, because the average level of understanding and ability is so mediocre, not only do we see more run of the mill fencers attempting to coach, but also a concurrent disdain for actual training. Not everyone can manage being shown up, and since many of HEMA’s popular darlings enjoy the modicum of fame they’ve run into, anything that might chip away at it is unwelcome.

If you want to teach, if you’re drawn to it, great, but do it right. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to work with an established, well-respected, and viable program. I’m happy to suggest a few. If these options are unavailable for some reason, then reach out to a teacher of recognized skill. What does “recognized” mean? Good question. Assuming someone is out there teaching what you want to pursue, a few ways to assess them include

  • their relative experience (how long have they been fencing or studying that topic?)
  • their training (what training have they had? Where did they obtain it? How is it regarded outside its own circle?)
  • the quality of their research if they’ve conducted any (did an academic journal publish it or a personal website? Was it peer-reviewed, and if so, who are those peers? How does it read? How solid is their support? Their thesis?)
  • teaching experience (where and whom have they taught? Have they been asked back? Have they taught both beginners and advanced fencers? What do other teachers think of them?)
  • are there reports of inappropriate behavior or red flags as teachers (condescending, dismissive, abusive, etc.) [7]

These are general categories, so general that depending on how one assesses each of these even some of the worst instructors will likely make the cut. Popular doesn’t necessarily equal excellent. I don’t care to name names, and won’t, but I know some teachers who are hands down the best in their field who do not travel widely, do not have an entourage, or post a billion videos of themselves; they are people any one of us should hope to work with at least once. Some names are easy—if I ever have a chance to take a class with Chris Holzman, Dave Rawlings, Francesco Loda, Christian Tobler, Jess Finley, Tom Puey, Kaja Sadowski, Manouchehr Khorasani, or Da’Mon Stith (again) I will jump at the chance. Whatever it is, I will learn something, I’ll be challenged, and with luck grow. As a final consideration, the best teachers I’ve known may have known they were good, but not one was a braggart; in fact, I know a number of gifted teachers that constantly question their ability. Painful as that is for them, it indicates that they take the job seriously and want to do it right. The feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with teaching.

Research

I’ve covered this often and thus will be brief. There is good research, and there is poor research. Some practitioner’s Youtube video is likely going to have less weight than an article vetted by a peer-reviewed panel, an established historical authority or fencing master, or a well-respected translation of a key source. If that practitioner happens to be a maestro; if it’s a trained historian, archaeologist, or museum curator; if it is one of the handful of long-time historical fencers who have earned the authority that these others assign to them, then you’re on firmer ground. Naturally there are exceptions.

Anyone can be on Youtube; anyone can print a book; anyone can claim any number of things, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worth considering. Lucky as we are to enjoy a period like that initial boom after Gutenberg with our on-demand and self-publishing, we get all the downsides too. For every Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550) we also get far too many Nostradamus’ Les Phrophéties (1555)… It pays to be cautious.

All this Time Wasted—now What?!

What do we do if we realize we’re on the wrong track? What if one realizes one day that their coach only knows the first two pages of a manual or that they’re teaching something counter to all received knowledge? What if we realize we’ve used a bad translation? The good news is that when we realize we’ve wasted our time, on anything, we can stop and reorient. Jump off the wrong track and find the right one.

It’s become a commonplace to quote Edison about lightbulbs, but it holds: the years one may have spent pursing the Art in less effective ways are not wasted, not if one uses them. They amount to firsthand knowledge of what doesn’t work, and that becomes armor against future missteps. Even the awareness that it’s possible to land with a dud of a coach or use a bad interpretation affords some protection: it makes us more careful.

Wipeout!

This discovery can be traumatic, deeply upsetting, and disorienting. Sometimes we need to sit with that disappointment for a while. To use a west coast analogy, it’s like being hit by a wave while surfing: one is knocked off the board, dragged underwater, and yet one doesn’t fight the wave; one lets it pass and then comes up, pulls in the board, and starts over. If one loves surfing, then one doesn’t quit, but tries again. It’s the same with fencing, with the Art. We will meet disappointment in many forms; that doesn’t mean we have to like it or quit. These are just moments of clarity, punctuated instances where we can actually see progress, funny as that might sound. These are the segues between levels of understanding, between jumps in skill, at least they can be if we use them as such.

NOTES:

[1] Tech Duinn, the House of Donn, is one of the Irish “Otherworld” locations, but has strong associations with death, Donn being the ruler of the dead in some accounts. Dursey Island, off the Beare peninsula, County Cork, Ireland, has often been linked to Donn’s House. Tir n mBan (“Land of Women”) or Kêr Iz (Breton, “City of Ys”) both refer to other popular versions of the Celtic Otherworld, the first in voyage tales like Imram Curaig Maíle Duín (The Voyage of Máel Dúin), the second in several Breton sources. Gawain, one of the knights of Camelot, is famous as the opponent of Bertilak, the Green Knight, and Connla, a son of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and Aife, one of the two masters who trained the hero in Scotland. Connla dies fighting his father who only too late realizes that the conditions he left with Aife for the boy led to the child’s death.

[2] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, The Rule of Fencing, Book 2, Ch. 1, 55-56 in Holzman’s translation. More and more this book is one of my absolute favorites.

[3] I’ve discussed the issues around tourneys a lot. I do so because a) I actually like tourneys and b) hate seeing them conducted poorly and/or misinterpreted as the litmus test for skill.

[4] The drive to win, the self-worth need for it, will sustain a person a long time. I’ve observed this so many times in both TKD and in fencing (of all sorts). Our mental state in a fight will more often determine success than skill, because skill doesn’t work on its own—it requires a brain to make it work, and the calmer, more determined that brain, the better that skill presents. This is why at high levels of competition, where both skill and mental fortitude are stronger, skill can play out in ways that we do not see with beginner or intermediate fighters. This said, even skilled competitors can and do resort to theatrics to win when they arguably should not (e.g. certain bouts in women’s sabre, Athens, Summer Olympics, 2004).

[5] Yes, attacks to the leg are present in historical sources, but usually taken out of context and over-used. They make very little sense in the setting of a duel save where the height between the two opponents is so great that the shorter fencer might strike the legs more safely.

[6] The demi-pointe lunge, as I call it, has been the subject of my research this past year. I’ve spent probably way, way too much time on it, but with luck it will put the kibosh on this ahistorical practice.

[7] I’ve not been specific here to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness with those sections of the community who put their faith in the very people I’m saying one should avoid. The greatest hurdle in assessing any teacher by these rubrics is that each one can mean something different to someone else. What I think constitutes solid research is different than someone who hasn’t had my training; it’s why I believe in vaccines, it’s why I see racism as a current rather than historical problem, and my I lament the rise of the ancient-aliens method of [cough] “thinking.”

The training I think makes a good fighter has a proven track-record, an established and venerable pedagogy, and reams of supporting literature. This is why five years spent with a qualified epee coach means more to me than five years one has spent with JoJo the Knee-Hammer whose school mantra is the HEMA equivalent of Cobra Kai—the former will teach one universals that can be applied across weapons and periods. JoJo might stumble into some universals, but JoJo also doesn’t care about universals. JoJo thinks that wimpy sporty stuff is for dorks.

My idea of a good teacher is one who seeks to help one grow and actually has the ability to make it happen. A good teacher knows their own limitations and when to send a student onto someone more skilled or appropriate. They support, push, encourage, and set an example to follow. A good teacher doesn’t put down a student, doesn’t embarrass them, and doesn’t beat them up. A great teacher seeks to create students that surpass them. Generally, that teacher has some legitimate teaching; they’re not just the “best” fighter in their little mix of merry men, a mix they are careful not to leave lest their status be called into question. Good instructors remain students, remain open to growth and improvement, because they recognize that there is always more to learn, things to improve or fix, and that no one ever, ever masters it all. A good teacher also supports other teachers, helps them, and accepts help from them, and is willing to lose students to them if that student would be better served by another.

[NB: there are plenty of well-trained teachers who are duds too, I know, and I’ve worked with a few myself, but that fact doesn’t negate the value of solid training]

“HEMA,” Elitism, and all That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces

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

Culture & Tunnel Vision

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

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

Too “Historical” for Olympic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sword-bridges & the Time between Times

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research & Criticism

In the last few weeks I’ve had frequent occasion to ponder the role criticism plays in research. I take it for granted that criticism is a part of research, start to finish, but this is something I’m finding I need to be more aware of when engaging those who are coming to research from other paths. No one likes being told that their hard work needs attention or revision, but it’s as necessary to effective research as having sources.

Evaluating a position is built in—it has to be if research is to work. We are fallible, all of us, no matter how much training we’ve had. We will make mistakes. Good researchers, good students, take those and use those mistakes to improve their work. Sometimes that means accepting the hard fact that a line of reasoning we’ve been working on is flawed and should be abandoned. It sucks when this happens. But, this is the way. It’s how we reach a vaccine that works instead of one poisoning us or having no effect whatsoever; it’s how we know the Egyptians built their own pyramids and not some fanciful space visitor; it’s how we know that Fiore, de Saint-Didier, and Aldo Nadi followed the same universal principles of fence.

Giving criticism is difficult, receiving it even harder, but it’s part of the process and so it makes sense to talk about it in more depth. [1] A decent analogy for the process is to consider refining an iron ingot to make steel. The smith heats then hammers it, reheats it and hammers again. In the process the dross drops to the floor and one ends up with steel suitable for work. Fire burns, hammer strokes hit hard, but they’re necessary. The smith doesn’t use fire or the hammer out of hatred for iron, but to improve it. It’s the same with “constructive criticism,” least it should be.

Elements of Research

Framing the Question

To conduct research well requires sufficient grounding in the topic. A student new to a subject is often given a question to answer or issue to explore. This is what teachers do in secondary school and college. With those new to Roman history, for example I used to give them a prompt because I couldn’t expect them to have command of the events, people, and issues of the time. When we covered one of Rome’s most lasting contributions, naturalized citizenship, I selected relevant works for them to read, and then gave them a question that had them use those selections to answer it. For freshmen, this might be relatively straight-forward, but for upper-division students I could take this one step deeper, such as focusing on one text or an aspect of the larger issue. For a graduate student this goes deeper still—they might read Tacitus, portions at least in Latin, and then familiarize themselves with the relevant scholarship about Tactius’ stance on Roman citizenship. Some upper-division students might do this too depending on ability, major, etc. It’s important we meet students where they are and then push them, gently, to the next step—sometimes we meet them at the door, sometimes sitting at the table in a large room. Assessing ability is part of the job, and, it’s something that test scores are next to useless in helping us do. Teaching someone new to sabre, for a different example, one starts with the most basic material, how to stand, move, and extend the arm, not with second intention attacks, compound parry-ripostes, and advanced tactical use of tempo.

Evaluating the Argument

Once that paper is drafted, or more usually now just turned in, the teacher evaluates it. Did the student answer the question? Did they support that answer using evidence, and, did they do so appropriately? Did they show me how that evidence supports their conclusion or merely state that it does? If they used any theoretical frameworks did they do so accurately? Are there logical fallacies or other errors in reasoning? A major portion of this, and easily the most disliked by students, is simultaneously assessing their grammar and syntax. Clarity is the goal, so extra verbiage, three-dollar words sprinkled for effect, and other distractions are important to excise. Just as we correct a fencing student to use only what they will need in a bout, so too do we correct excesses in writing that undermine a researcher’s thesis.

HOW we make this assessment, however, is everything. Effective editing with kindness is, in my view, one of the most difficult skills to learn. With sentences that are awkward, for example, writing the abbreviation “Awk” in red pen next to the offending line isn’t very helpful. Instead, I resort to “Perhaps rephrase? Maybe something like this: ….,” and now I do this even with seasoned writers. This is a gentler way of pointing out a problem area, but it also helps steer them toward what they need to do to fix it. When one of my fencing students moves their foot before the weapon, I don’t shout them down, but point it out and have them do it again. If the student is sensitive, I remind them that this stuff is really hard to do, that they don’t move like this 99.9% of the time, that we all go through this, and have them do it again, and again, until they get it right.

Term Paper vs. Research Article

The way one evaluates a peer’s research paper is similar to the process that one uses with a student paper, but more rigorous and approached with the assumption that the author has learned how to take criticism. This is a dangerous assumption, however, when working with amateur researchers (“amateur” here meaning not professional scholars). It is likely that an amateur scholar is not used to the process. This is one lesson I have learned painfully this year.

I do a fair amount of editing for colleagues, some professional, some amateur, both generally researchers of skill that know that I’m not blasting them for mistakes, but only trying to help them make their work stronger. It’s part of the job. We assist one another. In a talk I’m delivering this very week I have asked the host and a trusted researcher I know to go over my slides and notes. Each has given me useful feedback that will only help me. Now, I could feel bad or embarrassed that I didn’t think of some of these things, but why? This is why I sent them my work. Research, never mind sharing it, is hard! There is no shame in getting help—that goes for any stage of expertise. They are helping me increase the chances that my talk is a success. I am grateful to them for that. I will also be sure to announce their contribution.

Research Reserved is like a Broken Rapier

Research, if it is to have any meaning, must be shared. Even when I was teaching college courses and trying to publish on the side I embraced this idea. It’s one reason that teaching at junior colleges was important to me; it’s also why most of my publishing to date is what too many of my colleagues consider “soft publishing.” [2] It’s why I took the most important part of my dissertation and shared it for free on academia.edu: more people will see it via google than will read it as a monograph collecting dust on the handful of libraries that might buy it. All this work is useless and self-serving if the only people who benefit from it are other academics.

Scene of Hy Brasil sinking in “Erik the Viking” (1989)–an image that often comes to mind watching academia eat its own.

Of course, this is also one reason I don’t have a tenure-track position or why I am not writing reference works at the moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, because this example is more exalted than my own, but when Prometheus shared fire with humanity the gods felt that he had broken the rules. For those academics whose response to attack has been to hole up in the ivory tower and look down on the supposed rubes assailing them, those of us actively passing out research (or worse trying to teach people how to do it better without collecting a cent) are turn-coats. There’s not much they can do but keep us out of the mix and insult us from afar. Dying industries tend to entrench.

Donning the Big-Kid Pants

In sharing research, however, one must be prepared for criticism. If any prospect of that is repellent, then don’t write and share your work. Forget your friends and/or fans, forget the colleagues miles away who are likely to agree with you—they’re easy; consider only the person who wants to see you fail, because sad to say they sometimes exist. Normally it’s not personal, but it will feel that way. If you’re prepared for that clown, one you’re unlikely to meet, then you can handle anything. There was, in the 1990s, a notorious academic in medieval history, who delighted in shredding graduate students at the Huntington. His work is good, and I’m guessing his classes were, but fellow graduate students who delivered papers at that conference dreaded his responses. He took perverse delight in tearing them down, the way a deranged boxer might in punching a toddler. I never had to deal with him, lucky for me (and him—I was a different person in the 90s sad to say), but I ran into his type more than once. [3] Navigating failed humans like that guy, which no one should suffer, will toughen those up who survive it. Today, were I to deliver a paper and receive grief from this loser I’d be only too happy to engage–he attacks because he is weak.

Research & Responsibility

I can only speak for myself, though I think it holds for many people, but the longer one spends in research the harder it is to embrace arrogance or denigrate others who do this too. There is more out there to explore than we have life to live; producing an argument and then sharing it, globally, is not for the faint of heart. We gain nothing in being mean or beating on someone. However, when an argument is weak, flawed, or in some other way deficient it’s not only proper to say so but also to point it out how. Research may be conducted individually, but done right the product is collective—conclusions, right or wrong, affect the whole. They affect us all. By implication this means we have a shared responsibility, to ourselves, to one another, and to those who read us to do our best work. It’s a collaborative process, really.

It is best not to take it personally; after all, it’s rarely personal. More often that not we do not know or barely know others in the field when it comes to “HEMA.” Social media, unfortunately, has proved an ideal vehicle for “trolls,” half-wits, and those who having been bullied at some point feel they can retaliate anonymously and somehow get their own back. It shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference between a troll and someone pointing out a potential issue with our work. Some people are blunt, a personality aspect hard to detect in writing or online, but well-meaning; some are so apologetic they never get to the point; some are kind and just list the issue, and if we’re lucky, provide some help; and then there are the trolls. Analyzing the comments on your paper, blog, Youtube video, etc. will help you figure out who is who, and, whom it is worth listening to. To be honest, on social media and Youtube disabling comments is the best bet–legitimate critics can contact you in other ways.

Just as there are many ways to give a critique, there are many ways to respond. I’ve witnessed most in this context, and while many are acceptable, the best combines listening humbly and responding graciously. If it helps, fake it; pretend. Imagine that Capt. Red-pen is one of your friends just eager to help you improve your argument. In fairness, criticism, where it isn’t a case of right and wrong, sometimes comes down to style and preference. One editor may not like fancier turns of phrase; one may love it. It’s important to distinguish between substantive issues, which we should always consider, and stylistic ones, which we can examine and then decide if it merits further attention. For example, outside of the US there are countries where use of the “historical present” is acceptable if not normal. This is where the author writes about past events as if happening now, e.g. “Colum Cille visits Brude. They talk. The Pictish king is unconvinced, but polite” versus “Colum Cille visited Brude. They discuss various matters, but the Pictish king, while polite, was unconvinced by the missionary’s message.” If the paper you’re editing or reviewing is written this way ask your writer who the audience is and where they plan to publish it. If they are aiming at a North American market, suggest they revise and use a past tense; if for a journal in Europe suggest they check with the editor of that serial as it may be perfectly okay. For a more common example, some writers enjoy a good turn of phrase, some do not. You can suggest that the paragraph-long sentence might be broken up, but the writer doesn’t necessarily have to change a thing—that may just be the way they write. If they’re publishing, then the editor will have better call to make a case for brevity.

If however, your reader points out a misreading, a missing piece of evidence, an important article you haven’t referenced that should be there, or a misstep in reasoning, then set your ego aside and reread your work. Look at it plainly, as if reading someone else’s work, and see if they’re correct. If they are, thank them and revise; if not, and there is a back and forth, explain it. They may not agree, but at least you’ve had the conversation. There are times when we will make the wrong call, put our work out there, and realize that we should have revised. It happens. [4] It can also be avoided, and it gets easier too, especially if you’ve made that mistake and learned the lesson. Some people have to fall before they realize they can get back up. Some, however, will refuse to stand up, remain prone and fight to the death that they were correct when they’re not. [5] People are people.

A Figurative Glove cast in the Hazard

The excellent Maestro Giovanni Rapisardi (photo via fb)–his approach to historical fencing has much to recommend it

Do your best work. If someone with appropriate training comments on work you’ve shared publicly, have the good sense to consider it—thank them even if you decide to ignore it. You lose no face in being gracious and it will indicate that you are someone who knows how to play nicely with the other kids. A poor defensive response reads a certain way to professional researchers, and if you are going to play their game, then it behooves you to know the rules. They’ll hold you to them whether you like it or not.

I tell my fencing students that they should never, ever underestimate any opponent: treat each one as the most dangerous person that they’ll ever face. We practice, we drill, we train so that under pressure, when it counts, our technique and tactics will be effective. This often means working far more complicated actions in practice—that effort helps refine our game so that when we use the typical, less complicated maneuvers that we do in a bout they are that much crisper.

The same principle works in research—anticipate potential issues and correct them as best you can before sharing your work; read, reread, and verify; share your draft with people trained to evaluate both the material and process. Consider any suggestions. Once that paper is in print or posted online, it is exposed to the world and by extension, so are you. Be prepared for a variety of responses, some great, many more a near silent “meh,” and then a few that seem tailor-made to make you feel as small as possible. Answer each with calm, grace, and confidence—ignore fools, but cultivate a response to legitimate criticism that is measured and open-minded. A lot of researchers fail, some through fraud, some through hubris, some through just being too stupid to listen, and some because they quit when they get a bad review. Every successful scholar abides the dictates of the methodology of research and knows how to take criticism—they use the latter to make their position stronger. You should too.

Notes:

[1] See entry on this site entitled “Dealing with Criticism” 28 Oct. 2019.

[2] Academia is a brutal place. The rewards are few and small, so those lucky enough to find a position or who lick enough boots to land one tend to guard those hard-won prerogatives tenaciously. As with any organization composed of rigid hierarchies, there is a sense that those at the top deserve it, and that those who work below decks, as adjuncts, lecturers, and at junior colleges are where they are because they lack the genius and gifts their tenured peers must possess. It’s bullshit, but between poor pay and the fact that Americans dislike intellectuals their arrogance is unsurprising. What goes for teaching goes for publishing, and even now a monograph and second book are considered “real” work where publishing for the masses is considered less rigorous.

[3] I’ll not name this buffoon, but will say that his two volume medieval reader and work on the Merovingians remains popular. Smart as he might be, important as his work might be, he’s the perfect example of someone who believes their own painful path to full-time teaching entitles him to be abusive. I was far luckier—most of my PhD committee were older scholars, well-respected in their fields, and far too kind and intelligent to indulge in such behavior. The one exception was the guy who tested me on Greek history during my oral exams. It was disgusting enough to prompt my Celtic professor, the wonderful Jószi Nagy (then at UCLA), to ask me the next time I was down there for a class “So, what gives with the macho Greek professor?” He shared the story with the rest of the small class and they were horrified, and this was at UCLA where t.a.s received more comments about how they dress on student evaluations than anything else. Classes with Jószi were some of best I ever took; it didn’t hurt that he is Hungarian and I love sabre either 😉

[4] For a personal example, I contributed to my graduate advisor’s Festschrift, a collection of articles by students and colleagues celebrating his career and contributions to the field. My friend, the late Tom Sizgorich and I, were sort of outliers—Tom focused on early Islam, I focused on early Ireland—but if anything we serve as good examples of just how nimble our advisor, Hal Drake, can be. My submission was on the blending of Mediterranean and Irish narrative motives in the vita of the saint I worked on the most and whose life I translated in my dissertation, St. Áed mac Bricc. The editor requested that I remove the Latin portions of the quotations I used from my notes, and excise some of the examples I used for the nods to Celtic ideas of the “Otherworld” in the paper. I did. The review that came out in Bryn Mawr Classical Review was kind enough, but mentioned in re my paper that more examples from Irish texts would have helped. He wasn’t wrong. Nowadays I would have politely disagreed with the editor and left them in, but we live and learn.

[5] I’d rather not use an example from HEMA here, not after the most recent encounter with this, so I’ll stick to another academic topic. There’s a scholar in my field, a nice enough guy, and well-trained, but whose analysis tends to suffer from a propensity to make tenuous connections. I’ve seen him do this with both linguistics and historical topics. For the latter, he delivered a paper at one conference that would make a decent movie, but which was poor history. Taking three attestations of the name “Patricius,” instances separated geographically and in some degree temporally, he posited that each referred to the same man. Responses were polite, as they usually are at Celtic conferences (it’s a really small field), but they were to the point too. One of the audience asked “—-, a simpler explanation is that these three pieces of evidence refer to three, perhaps two different people, right? Is it likely that the one Patrick we all know traveled this extensively, and, had time and inclination to put his name on a brick?”

Academic Rigor, Accountability, and “Gate-keeping” in Historical Fencing

Disagreement makes most people uncomfortable—it forces even the most narcissistic to pause, if only briefly, and confront where they stand. If there is an audience, it’s even more painful. There are good and bad ways to handle this. Whether criticizing or receiving the critique compassion should temper the message. Well-intentioned criticism is important, from politics to dealing with fencers who disagree with us, but of late—in the U.S. anyway—holding people accountable has become taboo. Even when warranted, even when it can literally affect lives, the American response is “ain’t no one tells me what to do!” followed closely by “who the hell does his a-hole think they are?!” One doesn’t have to be Dr. Fauci to appreciate this.

In historical fencing anyone critical of the errors we make as a community is at best considered a clown, at worst a “gate-keeper.” Regardless they’re considered a pain in the ass. The nail that tells you this was a bad place to sit, however, is just a nail, and assuming one looks where one plans to sit that same nail is easily avoided. In the rush to sit, however, our collective bottom has planted itself on a number of nails and now, in pain and bleeding, we ignore it. Worse, some maintain that there are no nails, and anyone who says so is a meanie or deluded.

I have no interest in gatekeeping in the sense one can find in the august lexicon that is the Urban Dictionary, e.g.

Top Definition: When someone is an asshole enough to tell you that you don’t have enough qualities to like what you want to like or be what you want to be, solely based on their opinions and experiences, even if  they don’t know as much about what said person aspires to like / be.

or

2

Gatekeeper

1) One who devalues other’s opinions on something by claiming they’re not entitled to the opinion because they’re not qualified, the rightful decision-maker, a part of a particular group, etc. [https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gatekeeper]

In re the top definition, to dress someone down for what they like is stupid. People like what they like. Similarly, to tell someone that they lack the qualities to become something is, on its own, stupid. If it is additional training, then they can get that. The second definition, the one I think applies in most of the cases in which I’ve heard it, is more problematic. There are times this applies, and times when it doesn’t. What do we do when someone qualified attempts to point out something they’re actually qualified to point out? If HEMA is any guide, they get roasted on social media—middle schoolers can’t bully half as well.

We do not like expertise (again, mostly referencing my own nation here), but we apply this hatred unequally. Few people I know would be okay visiting a dentist who picked up the practice for fun and who had not been to school, but when it comes to many other fields, we tend to be more circumspect. The number of times as a teacher I had to refute pseudo-history that a student had learned on the “History Channel” (aliens and giants loom large) made it clear that my training mattered far less to them than what some asshat t.v. personality like the “Naked Archaeologist” (who is not an archaeologist by the way) said. I see the same issues in our community.

In historical fencing there is functionally no difference between a well-supported argument and opinion. But these are different. I can’t stand mushrooms in any form; my opinion is that dung flowers are best left out of meals. That’s an opinion. I cannot back that up with evidence apart from my own sense of revulsion and taste buds. Most people I know love mushrooms, so lucky them, they get mine should I have the misfortune to see them on a plate. I don’t judge them for it, though I may tease them, and they me. Conversely, the statement”vaccines save lives” is not an opinion—this is something we have hard data to back up, a lot of it, and that goes double for the staying power of the special species of idiocy that thinks they cause autism.

Returning to “HEMA,” the phrase “I love Messer, it’s the best!” is an opinion. That person enjoys it more than anything else, and there is nothing wrong with that. Cool, Messer person, do Messer. However, saying “one never retreats in the Liechtenauer tradition” is an argument that one can evaluate by an examination of the available evidence. In cases where there is a paucity of evidence one might be able to argue either pro or con; unless more evidence comes to light, we may be unable to say for certain. In such cases we follow the interpretation that makes the most sense to us given the evidence, and since this isn’t vaccine formulation or designing car brakes that’s okay. Historians still argue over Alexander of Macedon’s ultimate plan for his conquests.

One of the greatest assets within HEMA, as well as its greatest pitfall, is that we are an amateur-driven community. On the plus side, we get a multitude of views, skill sets, and experience helping drive our research. This is good. On the negative side, the amateurs who have made names for themselves are often less inclined to listen to experts, less because those experts might help than the fear they might steal the limelight. We need to remain an amateur pursuit. If academics overran HEMA it would become fossilized, prey to the same b.s. that has long stymied academia and helped make it the supposed den of baddies most people believe it to be. What we need, and don’t have, is better cooperation between amateurs and experts. A middle way.

To some degree we see this collaboration, but it is cliquish, not universal. This past year I meandered into an old, tired debate (lesson fucking learned there) that highlights this powerfully. The battle lines in this particular debate are revealing—on the one side is a group of ambitious up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves, and on the other is a collection of people who in one way or another have been at this a lot, lot longer. Since I’m not a principle in the debate, just a bystander, it’s easier for me to see some things. This doesn’t mean I don’t get things wrong, I do, a lot, but if the various pieces I’ve read by both sides are any guide there is a gulf in understanding with the up-and-comers, paramount of which is how they approach both information and those whose profession it is, in whatever guise, to analyze that information.

The problem is that nothing is automatic. In this contest, for example, the long-time researcher under attack remembers the first iteration of this particular debate, but the fact that his own side emerged the victor in it apparently means nothing to those who weren’t there twenty years ago. Were this almost anything else but fencing research it’s hard not to conclude that the current group attacking a well-proven position would have either avoided the mistake or conceded defeat when it inevitably lost again. Getting them to see this, however, hasn’t worked, because their basis for authority is different. It’s a painful analogy to use, but apt—like Plato’s people in the cave mistaking shadows for reality, these fencers are either unable or unwilling to see how feeble some of these theories are and how unqualified in some instances those devising those theories are. They don’t see it, because if they do then the illusion of authority is brought into question—if one’s experience in HEMA is based off the view of that authority, it raises uncomfortable questions. No one enjoys being in the wrong or realizing that they have approached something with a faulty interpretation. It isn’t fatal, but can feel like it. Once we realize it, we set about trying to do it better; with something like reconstructing extinct fighting arts we are going to get it wrong sometimes. That experience, however, doesn’t need to have been a waste—we learn a lot through mistakes.

I have to wonder if this isn’t so much about research or a quest for the best interpretation, but about making a name for oneself by any means necessary, even at the cost of credibility outside their claque, that drives some of this. This is, anyway, how it looks to those of us trained to conduct research. When faced with damning evidence that defeats a cherished theory, we have but two recourses—quit, which is sometimes the best thing to do, or take that criticism and improve our position if we can. But if we can’t recognize damning evidence as such, then what?

I don’t have an answer to that. Nor do I see any viable solution, because the requirement is humility and that is in short supply in historical fencing. It’s apparently harder to acknowledge another’s training, skill, time in, or anything else unless that person somehow passes whatever the litmus test is for popularity and acceptability. Watching a recognized authority within the community face such deep disregard is both heart-breaking and embarrassing. It should be to everyone.

Should things continue along the same lines within HEMA’s research side it is only a matter of time before a split similar to the one that took place in Olympic fencing occurs. It likely has already. By the time it is obvious it is usually too late.