Tool or Technique?

The excellent Carlo Parisi, whom I only recently met while in the Czech Republic, is well-known for his intriguing videos. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not he gets one thinking, gets people talking, and asks a lot of the questions that need to be asked. In his latest post he tackles the issue of s2000 sabre blades and historical fencing—does using the Olympic weight weapon adversely affect one’s practice?

https://youtu.be/jtCLbMRElEI

What it comes down to is technique, to how we use that stick or in this case Olympic sabre (an extremely light, flexible stick). It’s not that there aren’t problems with the s2000, because there are, but in some important ways these can be mitigated through technique. For cons, the blade is way too light and flexible, and allows one to perform actions either impossible or unwise with a blade of suitable historical weight. Worse, it is an easy tool to manipulate for favorable scoring—the example I cite most often is whip-over. The FIE never dealt with this properly and never will. Too many careers have been made via these dubious maneuvers.

The pros, however, are worth considering. I use s2000s myself and have found them useful for historical practice. For one, they are inexpensive compared to trainers designed for period fencing. Where one will spend $200 or more (usually more) for the offerings of Hanwei, Coldsteel, Kvetun, Regenyei, Blackfencer, Darkwood, or Castille, an Olympic sabre can be had for less than $50. Their weight makes them a decent choice for children, especially with a shorter blade, and for those not yet used to the heft of weapons 650g or more (Olympic sabres cannot be more than 500g and these days are never in danger of passing 400). The cost and weight make them ideal for introductory classes.

Carlo’s conclusion, much like my own, is that it doesn’t have to. One can practice “HEMA” just fine with the s2000, just as one can with a stick, synthetic, or some ersatz trainer. After all, in many parts of the world, from Poland to Algeria, from the Georgian highlands to England’s heaths, sticks in one form or another have often served as training tools. Egyptian paintings reveal some of the earliest depictions, though the use of the stick as trainer and weapon obviously predates their tenure. [1]

Form or Substance

Substance, the tool, can matter, and eventually the historical fencer should spend some time with appropriate weapons for the system they study. [2] This said, if one lacks historically inspired tools there is plenty one can do with the s2000 until they acquire one. Critical in this is source material, the body of texts, because unless one is working from a living tradition or an offshoot of one, the surviving printed word is all we have to guide us. Fencing is more than the weapon one has in hand—it’s the sum of how one moves, thinks, acts, reacts, and manipulates the weapon in time and space. This is an old concept and universal. We see it in the thought of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410 CE) as well as in many East Asian systems to name only two examples. By definition historical fencing means focus on the sources in some fashion.

For a real-world example I can cite one of my students. He’s a teenager and has worked with me for about three years now. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have used s2000s. The system we spend the most time on is Radaellian sabre which uses the elbow as axis for the rotation of cuts. One doesn’t need to use the elbow to move this weapon, but we do. The s2000 is not weighted properly for it, we’re not trying to avoid our mount or the trooper next to us, and we’re not trying to cut through the shakos or woolen coats of retreating infantrymen. But, this system uses the elbow so we do.

Occasionally I have him try a technique, action, or set of actions with curved sabres copied from original blades, a 16mm weighing 704 and a 20mm of 745g. As he grows stronger we will use these more and more until they are as comfortable for him as the s2000. Significantly, while stamina using heavier weapons is an issue, his technique is not—he doesn’t change what he’s doing, and, he doesn’t have to. This doesn’t mean that the blades move the same way, they don’t, but because his technique is correct the more forward weight of the 16 and 20mm doesn’t trouble him. When he first held one, he noticed the difference, asked about it, and I told him that he will cut the same way. A few minutes of a partner drill with molinelli and he had adjusted.

Practice as You are Able

Carlo’s demonstration in this video highlights the importance of technique. In many of his videos he also shows ingenious ways to work with what one has to hand. What he shows may not work for you, but the creativity, drive, and commitment to study, drill, and practice is something we should all aspire to. If you have Olympic tools and want to work on historical material, grab sources and go for it. Focus on technique, get help if you need it, and have fun.

NOTES:

[1] Polish youths used wooden trainers in a game called palcaty (cf. https://hroarr.com/article/the-sabers-many-travels-the-origins-of-the-cross-cutting-art/); tahtib and Maghrebi stick fighting in North African nations reflects centuries of similar games or dances meant to impart practical skills; there are photos, accounts, and oral histories that indicate that boys in Khevsureti and other highland areas of Georgia used wooden trainers, for both pari (buckler) and kmali (the longer sword); and well-known in “HEMA” circles English singlestick, once a pastime and popular method of prize-fighting, continues to find many fans.

[2] In an earlier post, “Piste and Page (Part I)” [15 Jan., 2021] I related the experiments, arguments, and attempts my comrade Jon Tarantino and I made to convince fellow fencers and coaches that a heavier, slightly stiffer, more closely related to historical blades was the answer to the problems plaguing Olympic sabre in the mid-1990s. As we learned then, and as most historical fencers know, using weapons of period weight and handling provides insights that are sometimes hard to appreciate if one only uses one style of weapon. As much as one can do with the s2000, it doesn’t give one a feel for the more forward weight of cavalry sabres or the more back-weighted heft of an Insular broadswords.

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]

That’s… Wylde

Two close friends, Alex and Sean, of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR), have been working through Zachary Wylde’s The English Master of Defence OR, The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (1711). [1] This treatise is, like others from about the same time (e.g. Hope and McBane), typically unpopular with people trained in traditional fencing. The suggested guard, the variety of terms in non-standard spelling, and the tacit if not explicit issue that these works take with then traditional fencing is off-putting. [2] However, as someone who was skeptical at first, time spent with this book and blade in hand will reveal that it’s no joke. Wylde provides a viable system, one not just for smallsword, but broadsword and quarterstaff as well.

Alex and Sean took a look at his section on the flannconade and variations, and, shot video:

http://www.highdesertarmizare.com/2021/08/22/wyldes-flancanade/

NOTES:
[1] Cf. http://www.the-exiles.org/Manual%20Zach%20Wylde.htm

[2] Wylde’s vocabulary underscores the fact that English did not have a standard, authoritative dictionary as yet. Even before Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), itself derived from other word lists, England had had lexica of different sorts, mostly for other languages, e.g. the Latin-English The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knyght (1538) and an Italian-English dictionary I still use once in a while, John Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598). There were a number of dictionaries produced in England in the 17th century, even specialized ones for slang, but it wasn’t until after Wylde’s time that any dictionary came to command spelling conventions and definitions for the language. Students of Wylde may find James Orchard Halliwell-Philipps’ A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, 2 Vols. (London: John Russell Smith, 1881) useful.

Meet them Where they Are

Last night I finished up the penultimate summer intro-to-fencing camp. These short courses are always challenging—they pack a lot (too much) into a handful of days, and the shorter the run the longer each individual class. Managing all that and keeping kids between 12 and 15 engaged is not for everyone. I like the challenge of it, and seeing children enjoy the class, and hopefully learn something in the process of it, makes it worthwhile.

One thing working with kids will demonstrate powerfully is that people learn in different ways. They also have different comfort levels. Being sensitive to these facts is vital. I always have a plan for class, but built into it is a degree of flexibility because once through the door it can all change. It usually does. However well planned, a lesson plan doesn’t determine how a class goes; the class does. It’s not just the class in toto, but individual students, sometimes both, that can mean leaning into that flexibility.

In the last two courses I’ve taught I’ve had a student in each hesitate to join. When it’s clear to me that they aren’t struggling with the oddities of fencing jackets or distracted by gym traffic, but hesitant for some other reason I find a way to get things going and then check in with them. One thing that makes that easier is letting students know from the off that if they need a break, they take it; if they have a question, they should ask. I do all I can to make it a safe environment. No one learns much, or has fun, if they don’t feel safe.

This past week, once the rest of the class was starting footwork drills, I checked in with this student. Just getting them talking can be hard—they don’t know me, they’re in a new class (and often with kids they don’t know), and however interested they might be all of that, not to mention other factors, can weigh into how present they are. The past school year’s stress, the mix of isolation and virtual life, all of that has taken a toll on children. It can be hard to snap back.

A parent had told me that before quarantine this child had advanced pretty far in Tae Kwon Do, so I figured their hesitation was less likely physical. Often a student just wants to get a feel for what we’re doing, so after asking them if they were okay and if I might help them with anything I told them that they could join, watch, or think about it, that there was no wrong answer. Over the course of the week this student mostly watched—each day I checked in with them before as well as a few times during class. The other students were curious, but followed my lead—I told them some people learn by watching, some by doing, etc., and that people join when they feel like it. That was enough for them.

I did my best to meet this student where they were. Having been in classes, having worked with instructors, and having spent so many years teaching I know that it doesn’t always go that way. Just as people learn differently, so too do they teach differently. No matter how hard we try, there will be people we can’t reach, people who just don’t take to us. That is part of teaching. However, we increase the chances of reaching more of them if we are sensitive to the fact that a student’s comfort level and/or learning style may vary.

This doesn’t mean we cater to each student. We can’t teach much of anything that way. I more or less stick to my lesson plan—the difference is that I don’t force students to conform to it as one might in boot camp. It’s an intro class, one designed to give the some sense of what fencing can be, and, for fun. If they take more classes, if they get serious, the necessary discipline will develop.

Listening to Nestor: Injury, Age, and Pursuing the Art

Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon; Attic red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400–380 BCE): photo from wikicommons, © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In Book 1 of “The Iliad,” when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a question of honor, one of the first to attempt to speak reason is the aged warrior, Nestor. Though shown some deference, neither party is keen to accept Nestor’s wisdom–one almost gets the sense that they’re humoring him as they do often later in the poem. [1] To be fair, Nestor can go on a bit, and is quick to throw his age and associated experience at his junior colleagues. The thing is, Nestor was right–had Achilles and Agamemnon listened to him the problem would have been solved. Of course we wouldn’t have the poem either. In fencing we have a wide variety of Nestors. Sometimes it is a gimpy limb clamoring via pain to remind one that it might be best to stop a drill or sit out the next bout. Sometimes it is an elder fencer or an even older master. If we’re really unlucky, Nestor may take the form of one’s physician.

Achilles chose glory and a short life over less fame and a long one, and many fencers are the same. In one’s teens, twenties, even thirties one can still do many things one maybe shouldn’t, but since recovery time is relatively fast, since one is still nimble, strong, etc. it’s easier to go for broke and relegate any worry to later. I’m a good example. As a younger person, say 17-35, I could fence for hours; I fenced several days a week; any injury was normally minor and healed quickly; and I took chances that only those without larger responsibilities take, such as fencing with 3-4lb sabres and only a brass stirrup guard to protect the hand (or fail to protect it as I found out once). [2] There is no round-trip ticket to yesterday, so hindsight is as useless as it can be painful. However, like a Nestor, meaning I realize that neither Achilles nor Agamemnon are likely to listen, I feel compelled to encourage anyone keen to fence into their dotage to be mindful of their choices and take care of themselves. Cultivating sense at a younger age is tough, but ideal–the sooner we take care of ourselves, the longer we’re likely going to be able to fence.

Conditioning, Stretching, and Rest

We’re less likely to be injured if our over-all health is decent. If we eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain decent cardio everything is easier. For those keen to lift weights, fine, but for fencing you don’t need to be a body-builder or circus strongman. It’s better to build useful, appropriate strength than attempt to be yet another six-pack clad wanna-be model. [3] There are a number of resources for diet and exercise–if all else fails ask your doctor.

Stretching before and after fencing is important. Normally we warm up a bit, then stretch. None of this needs to be strenuous, just enough to keep you limber and less likely to pull or tear anything. Here too, it’s unnecessary to do the splits–don’t push anything, even a stretch, too far.

Equally important is recovery time. Our bodies need rest after exercise, and if we push past rest we only increase the chances of injury. This could mean tearing your ACL or striking an opponent too hard. Take breaks. It’s a fencing class, not boot camp, and no instructor should push anyone beyond reason. Likewise, no instructor should ever shame anyone for taking that break, being unable to do a particular exercise, or anything else. There are usually alternatives to many stretches and a decent instructor will suggest one of those if possible.

Injury and Recovery

If you end up with an injury take care of it. Happily, injuries are normally few and far between in fencing provided one isn’t a knucklehead. Wear your protective gear, observe the safety rules of the sala, and look out for one another. Most injuries occur because people fail to heed safety precautions, or they’re mucking about, or they purposefully disdain safety protocols out of some he-man notion of toughness.

For anything beyond the occasional bruise it’s often wise to see a medical professional. A deep cut, a stab wound, a potential concussion, a broken bone, a torn or pulled muscle or ligament, anything like this could have serious consequences. See a doctor, and see a proper one, one with MD behind their name, not one of the many purveyors of pseudo-science. [4]

Give yourself time to heal. I once sprained my ankle the night before a tournament, but being 21 just wrapped it tightly and fenced anyway. That wasn’t smart. If we start training before an injury heals we run the risk of making it worse, but sometimes we also ensure that we keep that injury for the rest of our lives. Most of the joints on my right side are compromised in some degree, and some of these injuries, such as tennis-elbow, could have been alleviated by dealing with them properly at the time.

Age: It just plain SUCKS

Goals 😉

Age in some degree is relative, but as a general rule the older we get the longer it takes to heal, the more recovery time we need, and much as we might hate it we slow down. It sucks. I know because I’ve fenced for over three decades. IF we want to keep fencing until we literally cannot, then we have to be cognizant of our choices early on.

Somethings, alas, are just a younger person’s game. Longsword, for example, one “can” do as an older person, but one probably shouldn’t. It’s one thing to dabble with another old codger or take the occasional seminar, but it’s less wise to enter tourneys at a certain age. They can be rough, and tough as some old people are the simple fact is that they break more easily. No 20 or 30 something is going to take it easy on you, and if they did, you’d only be insulted.

This can be super hard to accept when we really love something. In the past year or so I’ve realized that the clock is ticking for me and using appropriately weighted historical sabres. I “can” fence with them, and still do, but not as often as I did, because much as I miss it if I continue to use them all the time I won’t be fencing any sabre down the road. When this happens we have to make some difficult choices. I teach more than I fight now, I often use lighter sabres (such as the S2000 Olympic with kids), and I focus on other weapons I enjoy.

For example, though I’ve always read up on and dabbled in smallsword, it’s increasingly becoming one of my chief studies. [5] The others are largely related to it, such as late period rapier and smallsword’s 19th century descendent, epee. They don’t have the flash and fire of sabre, and I miss that, but they share the same intellectual aspects, rely on similar strategies, and even include, epee excepted, some of the more physical options in sabre and broadsword. Weapons seizures, for example, add a bit of spice.

The Take Away

Fence, and fence hard, but be smart. To me, the best approach is a middle-way, something between Sterne’s health miser and Blake’s supposed palace of wisdom. This is to say that we don’t want to be so careful that we’re bored and learn nothing–the Art is about fighting and thus must be practiced–but nor do we want to fight like our lives depended on it each and every time. Moderation will serve most of the time.

Whatever one fences, it pays to be aware of the wear and tear on your body, because it is a pain delayed. We pay for the fun of our 20s in our 40s, and it’s all downhill after that. If you don’t plan to fence into your 90s, cool, then go nuts. If you do think you might enjoy fencing until you drop, and you’d prefer not to do it from a wheelchair or from behind a walker, then maintain your health, fence responsibly, and let that ligament heal no matter how long it takes.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. “The Iliad,” Book 1, ll. 318ff

[2] In the age before better gloves, a guard that turned in a sweaty grip or broke could mean a trip to the ER. Pinky nails, btw, do grow back, but it takes months.

[3] I know a lot of people keen to lift, and some may be unhappy with this statement, but I stand by it. Unless one intends to wrestle a fair amount, where size and power mean more, any weight-training for fencing shouldn’t focus on bulk.

[4] This may also offend, but chiropractors, some massage outfits, and others are not doctors. In the PNW I have found that a lot of people go to chiropractors–I’m not sure why. While I’m sure there are some who provide what is probably decent massage, the “science” behind their practice is dubious. See for example:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1556349913601667?via%3Dihub

https://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/S0885-3924(07)00783-X/fulltext

[5] The first work on fencing I ever bought was a facsimile copy of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763; 1787); I found it at a used book store in 1986.

Steel Bouquet, or, The Advantages of Multi-Weapon and Multi-Text Study

The title might make a decent band name, but no, I’m not starting a band. It’s meant to capture the common photo of an instructor grasping either their favored weapon or multiple arms. [1] Normally they’re clad in the jacket or gambeson that accompanies those tools best. Fancier shots have black backgrounds highlighting vaguely period expressions with a tinge of hipster coolness. Not knocking them, they can be nice, but it’s beyond whatever emotional depth or panache they’re meant to express which I wish to touch on here.

Many if not most fencers in the Olympic orbit become single-weapon fencers. It’s often true in historical circles too. They specialize. Historically, one started out in foil and then perhaps explored sabre or epee. The “three-weapon” fencer actually deserving of the name was, when I was starting out and even when competing, something of a special case. For context, I mean NCAA and USFA fencers between say 18 and 25. Many might dabble in the other weapons, but the fencer who could actually fence each as intended was less common. In my college club there was one fencer who was truly a three-weapon fencer, Dennis.

A close friend, and now one of my oldest, Dennis has more than once been a mentor to me. He will always be. When I was struggling with something new in sabre, for example, he would drill with me until I got it. When I destroyed my right arm in an auto accident, it was Dennis who agreed to train me as a lefty. Even now, Dennis has helped me as he could with an epee coaching class, playing the advanced student for me in video homework. A number of years ago when I was still working on competitive issues in Olympic fencing it was Dennis who ended up co-authoring a paper on difficulties in judging foil. He is versatile. He can help with all these things, and more, because of it.

Beyond the obvious perks to versatility, there is a still more important reason that it’s a goal worth pursuing: depth of understanding. It’s an analogy I’ve used a lot, but studying a different weapon or tradition is like learning a new language, one that helps you understand your own that much better. Over the past year, when most of us have been unable to meet up to fence, I’ve watched and/or advised people working in isolation. Some had partners to train with, many more did not. But what I noticed in each case was the more that these students included disciplines and weapons they didn’t normally study the better they got at their primary focus. More than that, their understanding of the universal principles underlaying all fencing increased. It was akin to watching what I imagine Dennis’ first few years fencing were like.

It can be daunting trying something new. At a certain point in training, however, it can be the catalyst one requires for growth. This raises an important question—when should one start dabbling in other weapons and forms? Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), in a short thought-piece I shared here a while back (“Alex Spreier on Universals,” 2 May 2021), summed it up well:

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

The idea of dedicated, formal study of one system or weapon for years goes against common practice in “HEMA,” but it is nonetheless the best path to improvement. As Alex explains, what this focused time does is impart the necessary skills to acquire new ones later; at the same time, it builds an intellectual framework and vocabulary that assists pattern recognition and retention in learning.

On an app that serves as the virtual lounge for the “collective” of schools that work together in this part of the PNW, we have had several ongoing discussions; in depth, evidence-driven conversations about key principles, ideas, or techniques that we have less information for than we’d like. One in particular highlights the importance of cross-training and text-diving.

Ex. Mezzo Tempo & Counter-time

The example in question was put forth by one of the instructors, Andy Playmate (Northwest Armizare), who has been running the longsword pod. In looking at tempo in longsword, and what a few different interpretations/translations say, he asked about Vadi’s notion of mezzo tempo or half-tempo and how it relates to counter time, attacks in preparation, etc. A rapier fencer as well, he asked questions related to both weapons: “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” Great questions and ones which underscore how difficult it can be to unravel key concepts even armed with good training and vocabulary.

Starting with Philippo Vadi (fl. 1480), what does he say?

I do not have a copy of Vadi handy, so here I will rely on Guy Windsor’s translation available at Wiktenauer:

Chapter XIIII. Theory of the half tempo of the sword

I cannot show you in writing

The theory and way of the half tempo

Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike

Reside in the wrist. [2]

The half tempo is just one turn

Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,

It can rarely fail

When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,

One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:[44]

Often the quick flight from one side to another

Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,

Because in one go it strikes and parries.

Oh what a valuable thing, To practice it according to the good principles,

It will let you carry the banner of the Art.[45] [3]

In my reading of Vadi, mezzo-tempo here suggests an action that blocks and cuts/thrusts at the same time. For once, Florio’s glossary [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/] may be helpful here. He defines mezzo a few ways, but while it can mean “half,” it can also mean “a mediator, or intercessor. As a space or interveall of time or place” (313). Mezzo here may mean more “middle” as an action that either splits the difference or occurs during the “middle” of an opponent’s attack; mid-tempo. I can’t say that for sure, but given what Vadi says here—and going by Windsor’s translation—that makes sense to me. One way to illustrate this is to image that Fencer A throws a cut, a mandritto fendente, and B selects the time in which that cut is still developing to intercept it with a cut of their own, likely with a step somewhat to the side (to the right assuming two right-handers) that at once blocks and stops the incoming attack and that strikes at the same time. A close out like this, something later rapier masters saw as ideal, might be defined as a type of counter-attack, but perhaps the most accurate term would be an attack into preparation or an attack into tempo, that is, where one attacks as the opponent initiates their attack. Certainly what Vadi describes here is in line with later masters. [4]

Looking at what other masters say about mezzo tempo makes sense as we try to figure out Vadi. For Italy, the next generation of masters, especially the Bolognese school, is a logical next step. The Bolognese masters also employ the term, but don’t agree amongst themselves as to definition. The Anonimo and Viggiani, to name two, both use mezzo tempo but define it slightly differently. Viggiani, for example, wrote:

Sometimes one attacks with a half blow, in mezzo tempo. It is true that the majority of attacking is in mezzo tempo, since, when there are two who are well schooled in the art, he who wishes to attack will deceive his companion in such a fashion that, when his adversary is about to perform a blow, he enters with dexterity and speed and strikes in the middle of the adversary’s blow with a half blow

In the Anonimo, mezzo tempo is an attack into preparation, and contra tempo is what we see in Vadi, an attack into tempo that closes out the opposing steel and strikes simultaneously. The author of the Anonimo uses more ink to explain that there is no such thing as a half tempo, but that since one can make a “half attack,” that is, one that stops at stretto distance and is made more quickly, that they refer to it as “half” tempo (as an aside, this is a lovely example of a fencing text differentiating tempo and speed). Again, “mid-tempo” might be a better translation. Regardless, the Anonimo offers less detail about mezzo tempo. As to counter time, we read “Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless, while you simultaneously make one that strikes him.”

Dal’Aggochie, as Mike Cherba pointed out, was probably the clearest. For him, mezzo tempo is “A half tempo, the final one,… when you attack while the enemy is throwing his blow.” [5]

Um, they don’t Agree, so… what now?

So, what is the student to do with all this? How does one reconcile these disparate definitions? Vadi, Viggiani, the Anonimo, and Dal’Aggochie all include mezzo tempo, but don’t agree. It can help to group them together and see how they differ. All include an attack that interrupts that of the opponent. Vadi and Viggiani call this mezzo tempo; the Anonimo calls the same thing contra tempo. Dal’Aggochie may refer to the same thing; his half tempo sounds much the same as the others, but being less specific as to when exactly one attacks the enemy it’s less clear. Is the attack made as they are preparing (an attack in prep), as they are mid-strike (half-tempo), or is it in response to a counter attack (contra tempo)?

This is where looking at the modern definition, one derived from this tradition, can be helpful. It may not be the same, that is always a possibility, but it’s a place to start. Counter-time, sometimes referred to as contretemps (Fr.) or contra-tempo (It.), is different from the early notion of mezzo tempo. It’s usually a technique for more advanced fencers. Not each master in the past defined it quite the same way, though most tend to suggest the definition that survives today, that is, “a planned action made against an opponent’s stop-thrust or stop-cut. First draw out the stop hit, and then parry it and hit the opponent in a lunge.” [6] Other definitions are similar.

Here is one from the wiki at Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada: “this is the opportunity to strike during an opponent’s offensive action with a shorter attack of your own that closes the line.” [7]

Masaniello Parise (1884), discussing counter time for sabre, not surprisingly is more in line with current definitions. This action is made “with veracity, advancing a step and immediately defending with a circular or opposition parry against the opponent’s action in tempo [i.e. counter-attack], and secure in defense, and ripostes without delay.” [8]

There are, however, exceptions. On one page of an old site at the University of Northern Arizona, guessing one of William Wilson’s, the editor quotes the Pallas Armata (1639) and defines contratempo as “a thrust in the same line that your adversary thrusts in (Pallas Armata, p. 6).” [9]

With the exception of this last definition, all describe a counter-offensive action made against someone making a counter-attack. It’s not specific to weapon, only the tempo in which a weapon, any hand-to-hand weapon, might be used. The distance required by such a maneuver is critical as is the speed and accuracy with which one strikes. Tempo, distance, speed, judgment, initiative, these are all universals, the elements underpinning all fencing.

Returning to Andy’s question, “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” what can we say after reviewing some of the literature?

My answer would be that a stop thrust, if it closes the line as it lands, might be an example of mezzo tempo. Certainly that seems to fit the majority of the definitions we just examined. A stop cut might too, but these often do not close out the line—they are cuts made against an open line, but always followed by a parry and riposte in case the stop cut fails. Since it’s not usually the final blow, a stop cut doesn’t fit Dal’Aggochie’s definition well either; it’s a counter-attack followed by a defensive action. Stop-cuts, like stop-thrusts, are attacks of opportunity, but less likely performed with a close out. I’ve not touched the second question, but attacks against the forward target are reflected in more than one medieval source—for a graphic example the hands lopped off and flying in Talhoffer (ca. 1467) might serve. While the stop cut we use in sabre may derive from something native to cutting weapons, it’s not impossible that the later stop-hit/stop-thrust derived from the rapier iteration of mezzo-tempo. I’m not sure what work has been done on this if any, but it might be fun to explore.

So what?

What I’ve hoped to show with this example is two-fold. First, time spent (at the appropriate stage) working on additional weapons or systems increases our understanding. The fencers asking these questions arrived at them thanks to cross-training. They’re making connections, seeing parallels as well as key differences.

Second, the increase in awareness and understanding, in seeing yet again how the same universal principles apply, makes it that much easier to “unpack” the next new system or weapon. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, just easier. In the aggregate our knowledge and skill should grow and improve.

Importantly, one must be cautious not to misapply modern understanding, or worse—exceptions, onto the past. The more one knows of the universals across time, across masters and texts and periods, the less likely this is a danger. Many members of the historical community make the mistake of assuming anyone referencing modern works is, by definition, guilty of anachronism. That is not true, but it can look that way to someone unarmed with that knowledge and understanding. Since they cannot distinguish between excesses that help one gain points in a sport, and the universal principles that most fencers learn before they try on the silly stuff, they have trouble seeing how anything past 1500 can have any relevance. Modern discussion of the universal principles did not pop out of a cereal box on the 1 of January, 1900 or 2000; they derive from the corpus of works we read in historical fencing. Time spent with solid modern works, like time spent with another weapon, so long as approached responsibly, will help more than hinder.

NOTES:

[1] A quick google search using the terms “fencing instructor portrait” will bring up some decent examples.

[2] “Wrist” here makes more sense than “knot,” though polso is the modern Italian for “wrist.” Nodo, here, can mean knot, but it can mean junction, crux, etc., and my guess is that the other translators may have used Florio’s 1611 Dictionary (p. 333; cf. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/), where he stipulates that Nódo can mean “also the joint of any cane.” By context Vadi clearly means turning the hands so that one simultaneously blocks and strikes. “Of all the art this is the jewel” certainly makes sense in light of that idea.

[3] For Vadi, https://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/Philippo_di_Vadi#Introduction  

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686), I.I. Ch. IV., 23 in Holzman’s translation.

[5] For Viggiani, see W. Jherek Swanger, The Fencing Method of Angelo Viggiani: Lo Schermo, 64r; p. 7 of the pdf; for The Anonimo, see Stephen Fratus, trans., With Malice and Cunning: Anonymous 16th Century Manuscript on Bolognese Swordsmanship, Lulu Press, 2020, 64 (see also p. 49); for Dal’Aggochie, see The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation, trans. Jherek Swanger, Lulu Press, 2018, 29v.

[6] Rob Handelman, and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes (San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014),441.

[7] http://wmawiki.org/index.php?title=Academie_Duello_Glossary

[8] See Christopher A. Holzman, ed., The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015, 272-273.

[9] https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing/terms.html

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.

More Fun with From Page to Practice, or, How to Use your Sources

It’s easy to point out examples where we go wrong in using historical fencing sources. It’s also important if we care about producing the best interpretations we can, but on it’s own pointing out a problem isn’t the same as providing possible solutions. From time to time I like to take a passage from a source I use and share my approach. The one caveat is this: I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first to admit that. What I do have, however, is extensive training in language, source analysis, and fencing theory, not only theory as it is taught now, but theory as it developed over the past 500 years. Taken together these can be valuable tools for making sense of sources.

Start with the Source

For historical fencers our primary authority is the page. This can be tricky. We are removed in time and culture, explanations vary in depth, and we often face an incomplete record. Each of these factors alone or together affect how much of that authority we can access, and thus, how much we can interpret with any surety. The more information we have for a system, the better, but this depends too on the nature of that information. We have, for example, far more detailed description for rapier across languages and time, but have far less for medieval sword and buckler.

Most people, in my experience, look to an instructor for help; the burden for doing this work is then more or less shifted to that club and its instructor. Assuming one’s instructor is doing an effective job at interpretation, then there’s arguably less to worry about. However, a good instructor will be able to explain their work, methodology, and approach. In ideal cases they share that information day one. This is one opportunity where we can assess an instructor’s ability.

If you don’t have access to an instructor, if you like to read on your own, or if your instructor is giving you homework, then it helps to have some help. Let’s say you are one of my students and I’ve given you this passage from a key Radaellian sabre manual, Settimo Del Frate’s Instructions for Fencing with the Sabe and Sword:

56. Molinelli Alternating with Parries

When the student has learned the execution of the various molinelli and parries, he must become competent in their execution by repeating the same molinillo many more times, alternating between the various molinelli, and alternating and mixing them with various parries. He will also do this exercise while moving. This practice must be performed with proper progression to be worthwhile, giving the student nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre, which he can easily put into use. He will also learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm. The exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction.

            This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount. When the various molinelli are executed at the same time, the commands are given for the execution of the molinelli and parries, only having to modify the preparatory command to the exercises that the students are to execute.

            For example:

            Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

            Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—

            A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

            The exercise is easily varied, and it will be necessary for you to adhere to a reasoned and complete progression, in order to obtain from this important practice the greatest possible benefit.

[Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Ca. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 39-40]

56. MOLINELLI ALTERNATI CON PARATE

L’allievo che ha appreso l’esecuzione dei diversi mo linelli e parate, è esercitato nella loro esecuzione, sia ripetendo più volte lo stesso molinello, sia alternando i diversi molinelli tra loro, sia alternandoli frapponendovi le diverse parate ed anche le diverse marcie. Quest’esercitazione fatta a dovere e con giusta pro gressione varrà a dare all’allievo quella scioltezza e faci lità nel maneggio della sciabola per cui potrà mettere in pratica più facilmente e sentire i vantaggi di muovere e ruotare la sciabola ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno per movimento d’avambraccio, e varrà inoltre a chiarire nella sua mente la ragionata progressione dell’insegna mento ed i suoi vantaggi. Per questa lezione di molinelli alternati e misti con parate, si avrà solo da insegnare, come cosa nuova, il modo ed il tempo di girare il filo con giusta gradazione, quando si devono eseguire più molinelli dalla stessa parte; per il rimanente valgono le norme date per l’ese cuzione dei molinelli e parate, fatti separatamente, avendo solo l’avvertenza di modificare il comando ana logamente agli esercizi che si fanno eseguire.

Per esempio:

Due molinelli di testa, il primo da sinistra il secondo da destra –parata di 5a e molinelto di figura da destra – oppure:

Due molinelli di figura da destra –parata di 6a, e molinello di montante da sinistra – oppure:

Un molinello di figura da sinistra –parata di 1a, mo linello di testa da sinistra — cavazione (o coupé) e guardia di terza, ecc., ecc.

Gli esercizi come si vede facilmente, ponno essere mol tissimi e svariati, e sarà necessario l’attenersi ad una progressione ragionata e completa, onde ottenere da questa importante esercitazione il maggior frutto possibile.

[S. Del Frate, Istruzione per la Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada, Milano: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 49-50.]

If you have some Italian and a copy of the original work, then it’s a good idea to place it side by side your translation. In this case, Chris Holzman is one of the best translators working on the Italian corpus: he has a number of native speakers—who are also experienced fencers or maestri—read over his work. This is a vital process in any translator’s work. It’s due diligence. Even with an excellent translation it is helpful to look at the original provided you possess some ability with the language. Reading them side by side will reveal a translator’s choices, but it will also reveal nuances that translation sometimes has trouble capturing.

Now, what do you do with this passage? First, read it more than once, and as you do so isolate key ideas. Right away one knows from the subheading that the number “56” suggests that this is deep within the text. The author, Del Frate, was adamant about the logical progression of lessons, so if anything here is unfamiliar then rereading earlier sections will help. If for example you don’t remember the difference between a molinillo to the head from the left and one to the face, go back and read that first. Or maybe you don’t recall exactly which parries are which. Go back and review. Once you feel more certain with these, then reread the passage again. Then read again and take it line by line.

The first line informs us that this exercise builds on previous lessons, so review can be useful. It also tells us that what this section provides is a way of mixing the molinelli with parries. In review you recall that Del Frate introduces the concept of the molinelli first (§8, 10 Holzman; §8, 16-17 Del Frate), then covers each molinelli in turn through Chapters VIII -X (§42-55, 339, Holzman; 39-49 Del Frate), and finally he offers a few different exercises with the molinelli, such as the one covered here, as well as with a lunge (§57, 41, Holzman; 50-51 Del Frate) and against attempts at engagement (§58, 41-42; 51 Del Frate). If the idea of mixing molinelli and parries is odd at first, then be sure to read each of these sections in succession first.

Del Frate’s method, Radaelli’s, is progressive. We first learn the molinelli as an exercise and way to foster strength, flexibility, and edge alignment. As we improve, we see that each of the molinelli not only cover the major lines of attack, but travel through each of the parries as well. From standing we add movement, first with a bit of lean, then with the feet, the lunge, and then all of it together. So, since this mix of parries and molinelli is near the close of the section for sabre and just before the synoptic tables, it figures that the author assumed some facility first. In the cavalry this was, of course, a lot easier to establish as the troopers had regular drill under military sword masters.

The next few sentences establish additional reasons for the drill:

  • it will impart “nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre”
  • the student will “learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm” [1]
  • and “the exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction”

These are handy to keep in mind as you work through the drill—they’re the reasons we bother doing it. We also learn that this exercise teaches us one new thing:

This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount.

Now, assuming you’ve had experience with molinelli and can perform them pretty well, how do you incorporate this section of the text?

Important to note, Del Frate is addressing an instructor here, thus the reminder that in giving commands the only change is what commands the instructor gives. To explain this Del Frate provides three examples. These are a fantastic place to start.

  • Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
  • Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—
  • A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

Each of these can be performed solo or with a partner. If you’re mining this section for pell-work, then start with these three and when you’re comfortable mix and match with other parries and molinelli. If you have a partner, it will help to write out just how this will work, and then when you meet go through it a few times slowly, e.g.

Del Frate, “Mixing Parries and Molinelli” [cf. Holzman, 39-40; DF 49-50]

1. Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

Drill as Is:

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 2nd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left to the right; B receives touch

Fencer A makes molinillo to the right to left; B receives touch

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

Drill as Partner Drill*

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 3rd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left; B parries 5th, cuts head

Fencer A parries 5th, makes molinillo to the right; B parries prima, ripostes to head

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

*This adds an additional parry for A, and more realistic responses from B. Everything we do should have real application, especially in partner drills. An instructor can take the part of B in the first instance, because part of an instructor’s job is to provide a target. We can assess what a student is doing well in this way and make corrections. As we add complexity, the instructor’s role takes on more realistic behavior.

Starting with a drill as written is best. This can be surprisingly difficult at times. In Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee, for example, his description of the rising cut from the right is dense.[2] It’s not impossible to figure out, but it’s not the clearest description either. So, take your time, and if needed take one portion, one move of a drill at a time.

As an instructor I use this differently than I do as one of a pair of fencers just working out. If neither you or your partner is the instructor, then the second option above is going to do more for you, because it more closely mimics what we actually do in a bout. While we might make two cuts in succession, more often than not our opponent will react to the first one, so mixing in more for Fencer B makes sense. It’s still important to go slow before going fast, and to keep it simple at first. Even if that is just for warm-up, it will help. It’s practice seeing the lines, gauging the time to respond, all of that. Doing the drill as-is is fine too.

For the instructor sharing a drill like Del Frate’s molinelli with parries, focus on proper technique, placement, and flow with newer students. It’s a good place to start with multiple action drills. It will take time to perfect, but early encouragement and praise of what they are doing well is vital. As they become more familiar with the drill the instructor can shape the clay as it were more directly; students tend to be more accepting of criticism when they have a better grasp of the task and when they don’t hear a litany of complaints the entire lesson. This stuff is difficult, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—an instructor should never forget that.

If an instructor is working with more advanced students not only can one mix and match molinelli and parries, but also the tempo. The second drill, for example, where there are two cuts made to the face from the right, then a parry of 6th, and a molinillo from that parry to the flank, one can have the student start out making each portion in regular succession, then change it up so that say the second cut arrives faster, or the parry-riposte is made faster (so slow, fast, slow, slow; slow slow, fast-fast).

Adding movement to this is another option. Traditionally this is how fencing lessons often go—it’s how I learned and it’s what masters are still teaching instructors. Have the students start out standing in close measure; each will go through the exercise 5-10 times. Next, have them move one step out and advance/step in to target. Then, have them take a little more distance so that they’re in critical distance or about tip to tip/top third of the blades; from here have them perform the drill with a lunge.[3] Lastly, have them advance in and lunge. With the advance lunge it’s possible to play with tempo via the feet too.

If in doubt or if you want more perspective, reach out to other fencers working in the same tradition. If you don’t know them well, then it pays to start your message or email politely. That should be obvious. You may find not only help, but new ideas to share with your students or group. There is no reason to go it alone, not when there are people who have been working on the same material for a long time.[4]


NOTES:

[1] If one only looks at the image and description of the grip where the the thumb is placed on the backstrap, etc., then it is easy to miss that in use the hand’s position changes fairly often. One thing the molinelli teach us well is how this works, and, how to make those minor adjustments with control.

[2] Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899/1936), 24:

20. Molinello to the Abdomen

This molinillo is composed of two movements:

1. Starting from the final position of the molinillo to the head (Fig. 10), describe backwards with the point half a circle, until your forearm is in a horizontal position (Fig. 13).

2. Continue this movement, hollowing the small of your back, raising the elbow as much as possible, in order to describe forward with your blade another half a circle and deliver a horizontal cut to the abdomen of your opponent (Figs. 8 and 14).

And for comparison, the 1899 text in German (46-47):

20. Schwingung auf den Bauch.

Sie wird auch in zwei Theilbewegungen zerlegt:

1. Man gehe von der Schlussstellung der Schwingung auf den Kopf aus (Fig. 10), führe die Klingenspitze mittelst eines lothrechten Halbkreises in der Richtung des Klingenrückens so nach rückwärts, dass der Vorderarm mit dem etwas erhobenen Ellbogen wagrecht liegt (Fig. 13).

2. Nun setze man die Bewegung durch Kreuz hohl unterstützt, halte den Ellbogen so hoch als möglich und führe die Spitze, einen Halbkreis beschreibend, direct nach vorne, so dass die Klinge den Bauch des Gegners durch einen nach links ansteigenden Querschnitt träfe (Fig. 14).

Of note, in step 2, there are some differences in language that are significant. The word Kreuz, for example, here means “small of the back,” not “cross,” the primary definition. As a native speaker of English (American), this definition works better for me than “hollow,” which is perfectly correct, but less specific. Conversely, Querschnitt, “cross-section,” doesn’t explain the action as well as “horizontal” does. However, ansteigenden, from ansteigen, “rise,” would be helpful in English. Classically, the rising cut from the right is less horizontal than it is diagonal, and it is, for me at least, the least easy to perform.

[3] Critical distance is where a fencer can lunge to target. This is relative given height, reach, etc., but a good place to start is where the blades would cross at the top third or tip. If too close or too far, one can adjust. I often refer to this concept merely as being “in distance.” Most of our attacks in sabre are delivered via lunge, so figuring this out is important not only in lessons, but in partner drills, and in a bout.

[4] In the “links” on this site, near the bottom, I’ve listed a few resources for those working in the late Italian tradition.

Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

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

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

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

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

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

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


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

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

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

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

_Semper Anticus_: The Importance of Continuing Education

Resilience and creativity may not be the most lauded skills in fencing, but they probably deserve to be included among the virtues traditionally associated with it. Despite Covid-19, storms, fires, political upheaval, and much more, fencers have still found ways to study and train. The pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to pursue the Art, from sharing solo drill footage to various online meetings. In a sense it’s an ideal time to work on self-improvement because most of us can’t congregate yet. We have time to expand our knowledge, increase our skill-base, and hone ability. It can help to have goals with this–this past week I started an extended course via the USFCA (the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association), online, and though we’ve only met once it’s clear to me just how valuable this class is going to be.

One thing I have always told students, be it in college courses or during fencing lessons, is that we never stop learning (we shouldn’t anyway). A teacher is first a student and if they’re smart they remain one. I have probably expressed this different ways, ad nauseum, in most settings, but it’s because I believe it’s true. Even if we have something down well and have taught it umpteenth times someone else may know a way to improve our approach. There’s always more to learn or new ways to do what we already do well. Every instructor should take time to continue their education–it’s important.

Interacting with new people, and especially a new maestro, can be difficult for many people, but for those of us farther along the introvert spectrum it can be down-right daunting. Luckily, a good friend alerted me to this course and is taking it himself–it turns out that two other people I know are as well, one a local coach, the other a master in California. I was nervous going into the class, partly because of the social interaction (something quarantine has done little to help), partly because despite using a lot of technology I tend to struggle with these online meeting platforms, and partly because as someone who has focused on historical fencing, who has had a challenging relationship with competitive fencing, it’s easy to feel out of place. Turns out there’s a lot that can tag along with that last one.

One Art, Many Paths

Like many people, I started teaching fencing when assigned the task by a maestro. The last two masters I studied with, both of whom I spent a fair amount of time with, asked me to help newer students or assist their more advanced fencers prep for an event. Dutiful and honored I did my best. I enjoy teaching and the chance to do so was fun, but teaching is also critical in improving our own ability and knowledge. Having to teach something goes beyond being able to do it–we have to understand it. I didn’t want to disappoint my maestri or steer my fellow students the wrong way. They trusted me to do a good job or they wouldn’t have asked me, but that doesn’t mean I felt up to the task every time.

My approach to teaching is, more or less, what I saw my own teachers do. This goes for everything: the sections of a lesson, the types of drills, the various cues–verbal and physical–we use, everything. In time, we develop our own style, we tweak this or that perhaps, but this method is by definition often informal, organic, and implicit rather than explicit. Feedback from those same masters helped, as does time in the saddle, but just how different this is from formal instruction in how to teach hit me hard last week.

This course is the first “how to teach” course in fencing I’ve taken. The maitre d’armes teaching it, a highly-respected, published, and extremely well-trained instructor, hit the ground running day one. He put names to things, gave explanations, and explained a lot of what we do as fencing instructors, things I have done but never really thought about. If that class had been the only one in the series it would still would have been extremely valuable, but to know that I have weeks and weeks of similar instruction coming is exciting. It’s also intimidating.

The course in question is on epee/spada, the weapon of the modern three I’ve had the least training in, but which I have fought quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about it, both in terms of its development as a distinct weapon and with regard to modern tactics. In addition to improving my teaching I hope to gain further insight into the weapon. Often tackling the hardest aspect of a challenge first makes sense, so epee being the least familiar to me, it’s a good place to start.

Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8

The cosmos, if we’re paying attention, has a funny way of ensuring that we stay humble. Of the various gaffs in the universe’s comedic toolbox one of the most painful (if sometimes amusing) has to be self-sabotage. We can be our own worst enemies, and moreover, in different ways. In my case, the first homework assignment for the epee course put the spotlight on a prime example of this, and for spice, on multiple levels.

It may seem odd to share this, but to date I have found that sharing tales of failure as well as success isn’t just honest, but sometimes helpful. How, for example, is a student going to know it’s okay to make a mistake if we can’t admit our own? Maybe they will learn to harness failure or missteps without our help, but it sure might save them some pain if they have a model for how one might do that. As teachers we don’t expect or look for perfection, just improvement. Part of our role, I think, is making it okay to mess up, to fail, or as common parlance has it, “to suck.” We need to be able to be bad at something first if we wish to get better at it. I don’t think this is a one time deal either, but a reoccurring process we experience at various plateau moments in learning. I am not one to boast and it makes me uncomfortable when others do it–the culture I grew up in considered such behavior ugly–but I will say that I’ve been fencing a long time, teaching a long time, and I make mistakes too. I will make more. It’s part of learning. So, while the following story may read as more humiliating than illuminating, that’s okay–if it makes it even slightly less painful for anyone else to mess up, then great. Sharing this example also sticks it to my own ego, the root of the problem, and that is healthy as well.

In my own most recent example, I was intrigued but puzzled by the maestro’s homework assignment. I understood it, I thought, and it struck me as odd, but I assumed I more or less knew what he wanted so didn’t follow up with him. I should have. I always tell students to ask questions, and, that no question is stupid in class. Better to ask than not.

He had asked us to make a video where we coaches devise two responses against the student as the student recovers from the lunge. It will likely be immediately obvious to many reading this that after having shared these two options one would have the student demonstrate counters to them. I mean, that is what we do each time we teach, right?, we take them from this action to the next, sometimes building complexity, or changes of tempo, or working distance and the student eventually makes the touch. [1] Even with Covid I teach three times a week and never make this mistake. Well… I took the instructions rather literally.

Why? I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few days to think about it and I think I’ve figured it out. First, in the past when a maestro has given me an instruction I have carried it out, and, normally without question. If they said “okay, now do x, but in this tempo…” I did it; if they said “Help Sarah with transports,” I did it. In silent lessons they wouldn’t say anything and I had to figure it out from physical cues, precedent, or deduction based on principles. This may sound rather military in obedience or thoughtless, but it isn’t really. Two of the masters I worked with were retired military officers, and having grown up in that culture it’s comfortable if not natural to me, but one reason I didn’t join the military was because I actually don’t take orders well. [2] It’s also part of traditional fencing culture–there is a time and place to ask the maestro about something, but normally one doesn’t when the sala is full, the maestro busy, and there is work to do. If the master pauses a lesson and calls to us, we answer, especially when they are asking for us to help.

The other issue, the critical one, was over-thinking. On the one hand, I tend to feel like I wear a scarlet “H” on my jacket when I’m around many Olympic fencers. If you’ve read any of the previous posts here that will make sense, but if you haven’t in summary leaving the competitive world for the historical doesn’t earn one a joyous send-off at the pub, but the finger and all too often a loss of respect. The three other people I know in the class, all with experience in a variety of branches of fencing, also have more formal training in teaching fencing. [3] When we feel like the odd one out our brains can go crazy places–in this case, I focused too much on what the assignment said and not what we were supposed to get out of it. I was more worried about what the instructor would think of me, that I might earn a larger letter “H,” than just demonstrating via that homework what I’d do in that instance. That rabbit hole leads to crazy town and interior monologues such as “Maybe it’s a test of sorts to see what we know or how we think? If so, then it’s okay to focus on that alone… or is it…” repeat. It’s a horrible place to be. The solution was simple, but I was too worried to think of it: it’s a class on teaching, so, if I gave a student A and B, what might they do with them?

More wisdom from “Blackadder II” BBC

Coming up with two options as the student recovered was not the problem, but in worrying more about getting it right I neglected the most important aspect–why do it at all, so what, why does this matter? The most important question was to consider why the maestro assigned this, what it was meant to impart. Even in the midst of feeling bad about it that irony wasn’t lost on me.

Part of the assignment was to take video of these actions. My eldest son, a wiz at all this technology stuff, helped me, as did my spouse, and I put together option one and option two. This is where another layer popped up–trusting our gut. It felt like a really weird place to stop: if it’s just me showing the option, then the student is hit, and well, that’s not really what we do. We set things up for the student to make the touch properly. I was afraid to trust myself, reassured myself that this is what he asked for, and submitted it. But, the rest of the afternoon I just kept thinking about it. It bothered me.

Later, in chatting with a friend in the class, he showed me what he and his student had done. It was all there. He shared his two options, and significantly, what his student might do to counter them. I knew it! Panic set in. Every scenario blitzed through my head, and in each one I was hounded out of class, the look of polite disgust of my fellow students blatant in their zoom boxes, the maestro shaking his head slowly, the mean jailor from “Games of Thrones” pointing at me and saying slowly “shame…. shame….”

What could I do? Maybe nothing this time, but I needed to do something to change my mindset. I asked my son if he’d be willing to add an additional move; he was; so, we made another short video and I explained in it that I’d left out the most important part, where the student defeats those two options. The maestro saw it, and in discussion about it was kind, generous, and full of helpful feedback.

Teacher, Teach Thyself and Be Taught

I’d broken my own rule, the one by which I do most everything now, which was to leave ego out of it. I was so worried that I’d put it a poor showing, that I would mess up, that I would look stupid, etc., that I fulfilled the fear or at least felt that I did. Anyone who has weathered disappointment or failure ideally is better able to handle them the next time, and while it took a while to shake off the feeling of embarrassment, of letting myself down, and all the rest, when I could finally see it objectively I was glad it had happened. Having screwed up, what could I learn from it?

Too much concern over how we’ll be received or viewed, of what others will think, not only can taint an experience, but also prevent an experience from happening. Fear of censure or failure, worry about making a mistake or looking stupid, all of that can prevent us from doing the things we need to do, things we like to do, things we should do. Not the karmic burden I would have picked, but it’s hardly unique to me. Many if not all of us suffer this at one time or another.

We need to give ourselves, and sometimes be reminded…, that it’s okay to be new to something, to mess up, to be vulnerable. If we stumble, we get back up; if we fall again, we get back up. Ever forward.

If there is one thing more I learned it’s that being in this class, learning new things, and well… re-learning some of these same lessons again…, is precisely where I’m probably supposed to be. I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ll learn more, and really, that’s the point.

NOTES:

[1] The exception to allowing the touch is when a student performs the action incorrectly; in this case the attack may fail or we ensure that it does, and then examine why. All of that is geared toward helping them perform the correct action the right way and gain the touch.

[2] It’s a long story and not particularly interesting, but I had all but completed the initial ROTC courses at my first college and the commander met with me to figure out the next step. When I told him my major, he paused then said “Huh… well… um… let’s put down ‘undecided’ for now” and I realized then and there I was going to be a poor fit.

[3] These are three people I respect a great deal and whose friendship I value. The master in California is equally at home in Olympic, HEMA, and the SCA, and a super cool chap on top of it all; the local instructor, an old friend I’ve fenced with off and on for over a decade, and I were going to start on our certs together, but things happen and he started last year; and last, a good friend of mine and fellow devotee of Italian fencing is the one who told me about this class–he has taken a variety of courses, at Sonoma, in the USFCA, and in Europe.