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.


[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.