The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer

Two posts ago [31 Ja. 2022 “Further Tales in Continuing Education”] I outlined a few ways the historical fencer might benefit from Olympic fencing’s pedagogy, terminology, and their well-established use of the universals in most aspects of their approach. Here, I’d like to do the same for the Olympic fencer and suggest a few ways they might take advantage of the historical approach. [1]

This post will read differently from the previous one. It’s not that there’s nothing the Olympic fencer can learn from historical fencing, but that what they might learn is more theoretical than practical or tied to specific applications useful in their game. This isn’t to say that time spent on (the better) historical interpretations won’t improve an Olympic fencer’s understanding of technique, even their fencing, but to say that where modern understanding can help “unpack” the sources, the knowledge and practice that emerge from the sources will not help one earn ratings or trophies. The contexts are too different: the rules that govern the sport, while still tied in some ways to the logic of the sharp point, are divorced enough from the original purpose that between the rules and electrical scoring apparatus fighting “historically” will only lose one points. This is something I’ve covered often, too often probably, so for brevity this time I leave that discussion in a note. [2]

Historical Fencing’s Value for the Sport: The Short Answer

More than anything else the modern fencer spending time in historical fencing should gain increased appreciation for the sport. I say “should” because if the Olympic fencer spends time on “bad HEMA,” then they’ll likely experience the same revulsion they normally do. So, assuming they find decent interpretations sans tin-foil hat thinking they should return to the piste with more awareness of their own game. It’s genealogy in a way. It’s time spent looking through a family tree, seeing connections, and ultimately how one’s own story fits into the larger one.

Few modern fencers need be told how complex and sophisticated the Art is, how difficult to acquire and how much more difficult to use effectively (never mind gracefully). On the other hand, most may not fully appreciate how much more to fencing there has been historically, how varied the tools were, or how nimbly people developed weapons and systems for unique contexts. They may also learn how the three modern weapons happened to be the three that “survived” to form the modern sport. It’s easy to assume no other outcome was possible, but even within more recent history there are examples that remind us of this rich past and that modern foil, epee, and sabre might have included other, now extinct branches. [3]

There are also, under the umbrella of appreciation, more specific benefits the modern fencer might acquire as well.

Increased Insight into the Hows and Whys of Technique

Olympic fencers, more so than their cousins in historical, pay careful attention to technique, to the proper use of and positioning that makes an attack or parry succeed. From the first day of instruction this awareness is inculcated; it’s a key aspect of teaching one how to fence. A day-one fencer learns why the sword and hand move first, why the lead foot points straight ahead, and how far the blade needs to move to defend against attacks in various lines. Everything, from the distance the elbow should be from the body on guard to where the knee should be over the foot, is taught as a matter of course. Depending on the club, an instructor may not have much time to explain each aspect in depth, but they rarely teach without this high degree of specificity. Typically students receive instruction, work on it with the maestro or instructor, and then drill it with other students. The average fencer doesn’t need to know how a technique developed, only how to perform and use it effectively. That is the goal, after all, movement streamlined to achieve a specific goal. It’s really only if those students get into teaching that some sense of the development of technique is important, but even here the goal is not history but effective transmission of what students need now.

Del Frate, 1876

To illustrate this one can look at a modern method of taking parry five, the head parry, in sabre. Few students are taught sixth, seventh, or first as alternatives, only fifth. Of note, the blade is turned out toward the opponent, not up, the reason being that so turned one’s parry is more easily taken farther out and has a better chance of defeating whip-over. [4] The mid-century method I learned was closer to what it was at 1900, that is, the thumbnail faces down, the blade is angled up, and then turned slightly forward and out. Earlier Italian practice was farther out even than this.

The Olympic fencer doesn’t need to know why they take 5th the way they do, but if they take the time to examine how the head parry has developed over time they will come away with greater insight, not only into what they are learning, but also into the changes demanded by different weights and balances of weapons and how rulesets affect technique. As I often remind students, there is no Platonic ideal of a parry—we have a starting place, but exactly where we take that parry in a given bout can vary in actual practice. [5]

Improved Appreciation for the Role the Universals Play

ROW (“right of way”) revolves around universal principles of fight. As I’ve mentioned before, ROW assumes the same logic we apply in historical fencing, which is to say that the attack takes precedence. If a sharp blade is racing toward us we had best defend. The application across schools, styles, and forms of hand-to-hand fighting may vary, but this principle is always in play. The difference in Olympic is that so long as one has ROW nothing else matters (save in epee where there is no ROW). This means that being hit at nearly the same time or just after, or off-target in foil and sabre, doesn’t mean much. It’s not that the rules don’t govern these incidents too, because they do, but that one is not concerned about being hit, only that one hits with priority.

What historical fencing offers the Olympic fencer is a stricter view of this principle. Our rule is “don’t get hit.” Ever. Whether defending or, importantly in this instance, on the attack, the goal is not to be struck. It’s not enough to hit first or start first; one must land the attack and not get hit while doing so. This doctrinaire approach to universal principles is useful. The reason the weapon and arm move first, also necessary for establishing ROW, is that when the swords were sharp this was primary: we are safest behind that sharp point and threaten best when it moves first. This way the dangerous bits reach target faster and are more likely to get a reaction from the opponent. It’s efficient motion—none of it is superfluous. One benefit of weapon-first is reducing the degree we telegraph an action. Add nerves in the mix and efficiency becomes all the more important; it’s one reason why we drill simple actions over and over again.

The historical approach, because it doesn’t have ROW or off-target, means that it’s unforgiving. A hit is a hit unless passé or flat. Like it or not, much of competitive fencing is performance; sure skill and tactics are vital, but the most successful competitors also know how to play to the director, judges, and audience. It’s as true in “HEMA.” If an Olympic fencer applied the same logic we do in historical, imagine how much more strongly that drama might read. [6] Few things send a clear message to director and opponent like stop-cutting the opposition and then parrying and striking them a second time. Whipover aside it reads a certain way—it implies control, calm, confidence. If anything, given the horrific issue of whipover even to achieve such a close-out once is significant and worthy of note.

Greater Understanding of the Origins and Development of the Sport

Returning to the genealogy of fencing, the Olympic fencer spending time in the average HEMA group will likely feel incredibly grateful for all that the sport has to offer. I don’t wish to rail against the historical community, but it’s a patchwork of clubs, groups, and schools of varying quality, and only a handful of which are able to offer much in terms of solid teaching. Most Olympic fencers will find the “fight club” nature of HEMA off-putting, the lack of drill foreign, the misuse of sources bizarre, and the inconsistency in pedagogy rightly concerning. Most ills in HEMA derive from these problems.

The Olympic fencer seeing the positive aspects of historical fencing will view their own training with new appreciation and awareness. It’s that learning a second language vantage point. With luck—and I confess this is a selfish wish—that fencer may also come to see their ruleset with new eyes. There are logical inconsistencies that make zero sense, which might be solved easily, and which vested interest and inertia ignore. My favorite example is the fact one can score with the flat of the sabre—the Olympic fencer, concerned with ROW, seeks to get the steel on target with little thought to which part of the blade. Needless to say with a live blade striking flat isn’t going to do much and certainly isn’t going to render one’s opponent hors de combat. We have blades now that could easily solve this problem, something a few of us were advocating twenty years ago but lacked decent tools for, and the investment would be worth it. Castille’s 16mm, Darkwood’s sabre blade (provided Scott increases the width and thickness of the tip), and a few others are all light enough that they don’t require a body-builder to wield, are flexible enough to be safe in the thrust provided the usual safety equipment and control, and still allow for complex actions. The net gain is worth the risk or trying something new that is, actually, old 😉 [7]

Case Study: Circa 1900 sabre at 755g vs. Olympic Sabre at 325g

Ferdinando Masiello, 1887

For a specific example of this awareness, a modern sabreur who picks up a sabre with the weight and balance of period originals will find it heavy. Of the three surviving weapons sabre, oddly enough, is the lightest of the three. [8] If they attempt to play the game they do today with yesterday’s weapon they will quickly appreciate how much has changed.

Luigi Barbasetti, 1899/1936

Direct cuts are made much the same with either weight of weapon, but some of the ripostes will initially feel slow, large, and dangerous. The molinello we make from the head parries of 5th or 6th, to name one example, requires more elbow. Weight affects distance too. The feint thrust to the inside line, disengage and thrust or cut to the other line, is slightly slower with a heavier blade, so where one starts that feint must be correct; moving the weapon faster in a pinch won’t work like it does with the s2000. Weight and balance affect speed. A beat made from third, for instance, may displace the point from the line, but it might be easier for the opponent to replace that line too—this defeats the purpose of the beat and can make this maneuver dangerous. This is rarely an issue with the s2000.

Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

The nature of the blade changes things too. The fact one must hit with a cutting or stabbing portion of the blade with each blow will likely make an Olympic sabre fencer pause when trying to make a banderole cut the current way (flat). As nonsensical as it is with the s2000, seeing the wider flat of a 16 or 20mm sabre on target highlights how silly an idea it is. This same fencer will find the curve on copies of period sabres foreign too—modern sabre blades are all straight. This affects how one makes a point in line, how one targets a thrust, and how one makes certain actions on the blade.

Joseph Vince, 1940

Moreover, weapons built along historical lines can immediately explain some of the vestigial artifacts that survived into 20th century if not modern sabre. One reason we turn the hand out slightly in parrying third, which is still taught, is that it puts the edge out to receive the incoming steel. We have the elbow about a fist away from the body in Hungarian third/Italian terza bassa (low third) too. Why? The blade is best supported with one’s thumb behind it, and the forte on sabres wasn’t sharp—it was meant to block. So positioned, if the parry collapses, and depending on the weapon one is facing it can, then the arm is pushed directly into the body, but in a straight line and one that still, if all goes right, keeps one safe and keeps the edge aligned to riposte. A panic-parry made close to the body is possible with an historical blade; with the s2000 chances are high there will be whipover and one will receive a touch.

And, Lastly

Using copies of the weapons which originally informed the system one fences is fun. That’s reason enough to try it out and see how they play. Paired with a decent historical source—I list some on the site in both the “About Us” and “FAQ” pages—makes it all the more rewarding. It’s can be a slippery slope, though, so be warned. You might find you like it, and some of the best fencers I know have a one foot in Olympic, one in historical. It just means more fencing and when is that ever bad?

NOTES:

[1] As quick reminder, I use the term “Olympic” and less often “sport” as short-hand; I do not mean them pejoratively. These are descriptive terms and serve only to delineate their branch of the tree from historical. I’ve long been on record for the issues I have with the FIE’s handling of certain problems, and I stand by those complaints, but it’s important to clarify that one can take issue with rules and their interpretation and yet still value the culture those rules govern.

[2] The chief difference between Olympic and historical fencing is purpose. Though intimately related, the former seeks to score points, the latter not to be hit. Both, odd as it may seem, prioritize the initial offensive action, but they do so in different ways. In the sport, right of way (ROW for short), dictates that the first fencer to start an offensive action has “priority,” that is, will score unless the opponent successfully defends and ripostes or successfully attacks in tempo. If anyone is hit after that exchange, indeed if one is hit at nearly the same time, it doesn’t matter—the point goes to the person with ROW. This is meant to reflect the reality of the duel, and does in that one respect, but the lack of concern over near simultaneous strikes and “off-target” touches undercuts this reality significantly. Only in epee does a simultaneous attack automatically penalize both fencers.

In historical fencing, the priority of the attack is supposed to reflect the reality of a sharp point: if the point or edge is thrusting or arcing toward one, then prudence dictates one defend oneself lest one be (metaphorically) wounded or killed. Ideally, one makes that attack and is not hit on the way in, or, hit immediately afterward. There is no “off-target” in historical fencing.

On the face of it this understanding should have obvious appeal to the Olympic fencer, but however much it should help them the nature of their equipment is such that it doesn’t translate. For one example, the s2000 blade too easily wraps around defense to score, and while “one-light” touches happen, more often than not who struck first is determined by the box. It’s common for both fencers to be struck, and more likely in sabre since any portion of the blade, even the flat, may score.

[3] Victorian “HEMA,” such as the longsword and rapier work Alfred Hutton experimented with, is one such example (cf. his Old Swordplay: Techniques of the Great Masters, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001; see also Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fencing: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003). The man behind the revival of the Olympic Games, first held in 1896, was a fencer and had written a book on mounted fencing (cf. Baron Pierre de Coubertin et Louis Pascaud, Traite d’escrime equestre, Auxerre, FR: 1906) The 1904 Olympics had single-stick and in 1908 there was “three-cornered sabre,” see Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 213). There were also oddities, such as the like longsword games constructed along the lines of Meyer, practiced by some of the Hitler Youth in World War II (see J. Christoph Amberger’s discussion, page 235ff, in The Secret History of the Sword, Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 1998).

[4] Two posts ago I alluded to some differences in culture between historical and Olympic fencing that came up during a coaching clinic. One such example was the parry of 5th. During an exam, Maestra Connie Handelman asked me to demonstrate and explain 5th, which I did, and this started an interesting conversation about changes in the culture. I do things the old way, partly as an artifact of my own training (which was pre-electric) and partly because of the amount of time I’ve spent in classical/historical fencing with heavier sabres. She explained that the change in 5th had proved better defense against the nature of whipover.

[5] As a newer fencer, I had this mistaken idea that there were Platonic ideals of each parry, that is, a sort of ultimate, perfect example of each. Issues with Plato’s metaphysics aside, the parries as we learn them are a starting place, that spot where we need them most often, but they can and do shift. We see this in the literature, e.g. fourth and low-fourth, but in practice we see it too. We use a low version of prima to protect the inside line of the leg, a higher version to protect the upper body or cheek.

[6] In the 1990s when sabre was electrified in NCAA tournaments one of my coping mechanisms was to obtain the first two points. I didn’t care what happened after that. One of my go-tos was this combination of stop-cut/parry riposte; another was to strike, then cover and strike again. I could not beat the box, however, as the director officially cannot overrule the box, but I felt better for doing something I knew had merit.

[7] A look at earlier sabres used for competition will demonstrate that we have not always used the slight blades we do now.

[8] The official rules for the FIE/USFA (according to the Aug. 2020 version, https://cdn2.sportngin.com/attachments/document/f840-2248253/2020-08_USA_Fencing_Rules.pdf#_ga=2.35042337.1612075356.1646537642-1943816898.1646537641) list weapon weight and length limits:

foil: total weight must be under 500g; maximum total length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

épée: total weight must be less than 770g; total maximum length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

sabre: total weight must be less than 500g; total maximum length is 105cm; maximum length of blade is 88cm

Since smallswords were, on average, between 350-450g, and sabres 680-800g, it’s significant that the modern versions must both be less than 500 and are usually much, much lighter than that. The Olympic sabre I use most often for lessons with kids weights 340g.

Keeping our Fencers Safe

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

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

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

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

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.

(I’ll be Your) Steppin’ Stone

Minor Threat, “Minor Threat,” 1984 (Discord Records, DC)

With apologies to Minor Threat (and ultimately to Paul Revere and the Raiders) there are times when it’s appropriate to act as a stepping-stone. [1] Granted, in a political and social context it’s a condition to avoid, but as a teacher it’s a model I rather like. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone walking over me or anyone else, but in the sense of approaching our particular instruction as just one stop along a longer path. There are a few reasons I prefer this model to the top-down one too often assumed.

Top-Down Teaching

Despite centuries of change our conception of teaching is more or less medieval. The university, for example, was born in the Middle Ages and was, like most of society at the time, hierarchical. It’s not a bad system, and it works for many things, but it has been slow to adapt as societies have changed, as the purposes of education have changed. Other guild systems, particularly in skilled trades, have adapted better. [2] In fencing, as I’ve shared here before, the traditional model of master and student has worked well, and working one on one it’s still the best way to learn (assuming good rapport). I maintain it is still a discussion rather than a lecture, or ought to be, but I’ve worked with masters who definitely saw it as a one-way transfer and still I learned a lot. Group instruction tends to follow the same notion of information transfer.

No one in traditional or historical fencing is unaware of the challenges in teaching groups—it’s just plain harder to do. [3] Attention is divided, skill levels and experience can vary widely, and some systems are harder to teach than others. Seminars, for example, can be great, but we have to be realistic about our goals with them. That holds for students as much as instructors. Typically an instructor runs a class in a short window, from say two hours to a day, and in most cases expects attendees to keep up. Seminars are great for exposing people to something new, but not so great for retention or skill-growth unless the students are relatively advanced and know how to learn. [4] Meeting different needs in different ways is extremely difficult to do, and few top-down models accommodate the flexibility to do any of that well. So, one downside to the top-down model is that it tends to be unadaptive; this is more true in group settings than in individual lessons since an experienced instructor can read a student’s skill level and identify problem areas more easily. With a small group one can move among students and manage more individually, but in cases where one student needs far more help than the others figuring out how much to dial back or press on is a tough call. Finding a happy medium in cases like that is challenging—too often we either leave someone behind or hold everyone else back.

But… but my medals Bruh!

An additional issue with the top-down model centers around expectations. People who seek out a fencing master at a traditional or Olympic school accept that someone will be teaching them, and, that the person in question has information or skills that they themselves do not yet possess. Thus, a maestro, by virtue of training and experience, has built-in authority than no historical fencing instructor without such certification can assume. For the most part, “HEMA” has been more grass-roots, and authority far less obvious or certain. It’s a perennial problem. HEMA is ever at the whim of demagoguery. Popularity spreads via social media and has more weight than most anything else save tournament success. The problems with both should be obvious, but they aren’t. There is no automatic equivalency between fame and skill; they can correlate, sure, but that’s a maybe, not a given. Likewise, tournament performance can mean something, but it doesn’t mean what those who hold it up as the tantamount benchmark think it does. This is one reason that movements like HEMA eventually fracture—no amount of evidence puts the slightest dent in anything driven more by ego than sense, and both popularity and naivete about tournament success are, by and large, inseparable from ego needs and external validation.

In a related way, instructors who favor the top-down model sometimes suffer a strange mix of imposter-syndrome and arrogance. This drive for success is fueled by a wish for recognition from students and fellow instructors and/or a fear that they’re letting their students down. In this version they feel they aren’t doing enough or that their efforts are inadequate, or, that their work is unappreciated. That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. We must be concerned about doing the best work we can do, absolutely, but the responsibility to learn is not the instructor’s alone. Students must carry their burden too. People learn in different ways, at different rates, and try as we might there is only so much a diligent instructor can do. Sometimes no matter what we do, we are just the first to acquaint students with a new idea; this means that often they will not realize it let alone recognize each step or person who helped them. If our goal is sharing the Art more than appreciation then we should be happy with the fact they have that new understanding. If they remember us, great, but they don’t have to.

Allied/Collaborative Teaching

My preferred method of instruction is collective, mutual, because in teaching others we learn and grow too, least we should. However skilled, a teacher is nothing without students—it’s somewhat symbiotic. One of the benefits to this model is that it assumes and incorporates student skill and experience, and thus the burden to “teach” while still on the instructor is a burden in some respects shared. For example, for the last few months I’ve been advising a local branch of a larger club in Insular broadsword. Thanks to Covid, this school, one of the largest in our area, can’t meet en masse, and so they’ve divided in two for the time-being. The head instructor, Mike, is a close friend of mine; I check in with him about my curriculum, our progress, and keep him informed because I’m working with part of his crew. It’s collaborative in the sense that my friend trusts me to give them what they need, and that I’m coaching some of his people, but it goes a step deeper than that.

I rely on the experience and perspective of these students. Most have studied Fiore’s Armizare, some fight in harness, and most have also studied other branches of the Art, from MMA to other schools of fencing. Because they were taught well, they understand the basic, universal principles behind sword-arts, and thus are quick studies. I speak just enough Fiore to help them bridge the differences, say in comparing Roworth or Angelo’s cutting charts, Radaellian molinelli, and Fiore’ segno—all cover the same lines (not an accident), and, all enshrine critical aspects of their respective systems. Working from the familiar they more easily gain the unfamiliar. They ask questions, we break to discuss what they discover during the drills I put them through, and as a result they’re building not just technique, but as importantly, understanding by applying it in problem-solving. [5] Time will tell how many stick with it, but their time will not have been wasted. The knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for the Art will have grown.

Like a well-placed, solid stepping-stone my function is to support them best as I can while they’re with me. Some will continue down this path, a few may follow the same path but with a different instructor, and many more will take another route all together, but if I’ve done my job I’ve given them what they need while their feet stood on the stone I manage. Kahil Gibran (d. 1931) famously wrote that “Your children are not your children/They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./They come through you but not from you,/And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” [6] A less poetic by equally powerful analogy is the unsung hero of any nation, the elementary school teacher. They teach students for a year, teaching them the skills they will need in life and that will enable them to continue learning. They get little respect, next to no pay, yet no one has a more important task than they do. No one. Nothing I teach is as important—people can live with knowing how to feint-cut head or disengage—but like them most fencing instructors are a temporary fixture in a fencer’s life. That’s not always the case, but I think it’s a healthy approach—it keeps us responsible and on task, and helps us avoid concerns over turf, ownership, and other distractions. So, “my” students are mine while they work with me, and in the sense that they may carry on to others what was passed on to me, but their journey with the Art is their own. This doesn’t mean I have no responsibility, quite the opposite, but it does mean that my focus remains on the material, on sharing it effectively, and in helping others learn and enjoy skills difficult to acquire rather than on numbers, reputation, or a legacy. I must make the absolute best use of the time I have with them, and since it’s usually short, I must stay sharp too, reading, drilling, and improving.

Mixed Approach

The collaborative model is more result than method. In truth, when I’m teaching or advising generally it’s because I have the background, education, and training to teach that topic. I won’t teach things I know I’m not qualified or ready to teach (yet another plug for continuing education). One reason people go to me, when they do, is because I know the sources well, and I’ve been fencing and researching it for a very long time. None of it “belongs” to me; it was all devised and written by others, some of which was passed on to me, some of which I have studied, but regardless I’m more a conduit than anything else. A blocked pipe is inefficient, it doesn’t do its job well, so potential clogs, especially those of ego, have no place in teaching. One needs to be confident, but any real confidence is born of ability, not desire, and smart students quickly spot the difference.

In sum, what I want is for them to learn and enjoy the material, not shower me with attention, kudos, or external validation. The top-down model can work, but it more easily facilitates those interested in self-worth generation than the Art. For instructors like that, because they are the font of information, it can be harder to be questioned, less comfortable working with other equally skilled (never mind superior fighters), and easier to worry too much about rep and not enough about the material and the best strategies for sharing it.

An important caveat: all of us have an ego. Most if not all of us struggle with self-worth in some fashion. I’m no exception. The difference is I’ve been lucky, or unlucky depending upon how one views it, to have spent far, far too much time around people driven by ego, and I’ve seen the results both to those same people and those they teach, in fencing and in academia. The fewer the rewards, the more savage the fight over scraps.

Young Kendoka in mokuso, via Pinterest

Having started in Asian martial arts, where Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the ego inform so much, I view the Art, whatever the branch, fencing included, as paths by which to grow. [7] Decades of training, wherever I’ve had it, have only proven to me how important it is to get out of our own way. Li Mu Bai, one of the protagonists in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), said “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up to find yourself again.” This applies to many things, teaching included, and I believe that we do our best work, teach the most effectively, when we recognize the gifts others bring to a class, when we try to meet them in the middle, and when our focus is genuinely on the Art rather than ourselves.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Paul Revere and the Raiders, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” Midnight Ride, 1966, Vinyl; the song was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. I’d heard the original and the cover by the Monkees, but by age and location I always think of this as track by Minor Threat, “Steppin’ Stone,” Minor Threat/First Two Seven Inches, 1984.

[2] There is a lot of literature about medieval education. See for example John W. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 (Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1997); Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th Century (New York, NY: Meridian, 1972) & The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965) are now dated, but classics and worth a read; Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 3rd Ed. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1991);

[3] See especially László Szabó, Fencing and the Master (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997, 11-14; see also Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005), 132139; 182-187; 280.

[4] Advanced students, because they have a solid knowledge of universal principles, can more easily “mine” a class than can new or intermediate students. Newer students still benefit, and as I’ve set things up they intermix with more advanced students for whom broadsword is new too. This brings them all up faster. In the past, this has worked well, and seems to be doing so now. The only hiccups hitorically have been unteachables, i.e. students who believe they already know everything and dismiss what we’re doing because it doesn’t conform to their notion of things. They tend to be disruptive, critical, and keen to put the stupid instructor in their place—happily, they don’t last and leave when they can’t “spar.” Until recently I was keen to try to help them out, convert them as it were, but there is an old saying about arguing with a fool only makes two fools, so…

[5] More and more I’ve been working to adapt some of the approaches we use in individual lessons for groups. My plan for the next post is to explore some of this in more detail.

[6] Kahil Gibran, The Prophet (West Molesey, UK: Senate, 2004), 20.

[7] Lest anyone think that self-improvement via fencing is unique to Asia I’d like to share this short passage from J. Olivier’s smallsword treatise from 1771:

It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the Body, strengthens it, and makes it upright; it is it, that gives a becoming gait, and easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity; it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness; and animates a proper confidence; it is it which, in teaching us to conquer ourselves that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society.

[J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books), xliv-xlvi.]

_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.

Piste & Page (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SoCal NCAA Fencing, 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Flunge” **

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

Disillusionment

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

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

Defection

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

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

Tolle, lege!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Desertum

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you make a Molinello in the Woods…

Masiello, molinello to the head from the left

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

Solo Drill & Isolation

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

“The IT Crowd,” BBC, on sports

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

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

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

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

Scene from “Gaslight,” 1944

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

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

METHOD OF MAKING A TOUCH
t.70

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

Historical Fencing–Definitions & Disparagement

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

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

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

HEMA to Your Standard Olympic Fencer

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

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

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

So, what is “Historical Fencing” then?

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

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

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

HEMA ≠ longsword

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

There is no “HEMA” without Sources

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

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

Combat Art vs. Combat Sport

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

MS Ludwig XV 13 28v-a

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

Historical Fencing & Non-European Systems

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

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

Modern and Ancient

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

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and People

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Covering, or, the Difficulty in Hitting and not being Hit

PART I

ROW and SPORTFor a while now, I’ve been working hard on an issue we talk about all the time, but which we struggle to manifest: coverage. How to hit and not be hit. For historical fencers this is supposedly the guiding principle in how we approach the Art, and, what ostensibly separates us from our cousins in the Olympic world among others. This isn’t to say that the sport ignores proper coverage completely—ROW assumes it—but as often interpreted, taught, and scored “hit and don’t be hit” is less important than who made the touch with right-of-way, regardless of off-target or near simultaneous strikes. Historical fencers, particularly within their own sporting wing, struggle with the exact same issue only under different terminology. Considerable gymnastics form some answers to the problem, from over concern about “after-blows” to peculiar understandings of the angles for “effective” cuts, and to be fair similar gymnastics in rule-sets with point values by target…, so looked at honestly sport-HEMA faces the same challenges the Olympic world does. [1]

What exactly do we mean by “coverage?” In short, to quote Molière, it is “to give and not to receive” when fencing. This maxim derives from a line in a ballet by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière (d. 1673), usually referred to only by his surname. He was a French dramatist whose work captured key social issues of the Ancien Régime. In his 1670 “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” often translated as “The Would-be Gentleman,” Molière explored the ridiculousness of a social climber keen to take on the activities of his social superiors, something obvious to everyone but poor Monsieur Jourdain himself. Among those he employs to better his situation is a fencing master who, in an oft-quoted line in traditional fencing circles, remarks “As I have told you, the entire secret of fencing lies in two things: to give and not to receive.” [1] In the 1990s when “classical” fencing was quickly establishing itself in reaction to the excesses in the sport, this line was often the battle cry.

On its own, it’s a clear, simple, and direct notion—hit your opponent, but in doing so don’t be hit. This is far easier to say than to do. Why is that, and for those of us looking at period manuals, why is it that we still struggle to achieve this? What gets in our way? Does it even matter? [2]

Working backward, it doesn’t have to matter; that depends on one’s goals. Anyone purporting to pursue historical fencing should care, but there’s a spectrum within “HEMA” and naturally not everyone agrees. Assuming that not being spiked or slashed does matter, however, there are probably multiple explanations for why it is so difficult today. This first discussion of coverage will discuss a few of the big picture issues.

Through a Glass Sporty

Much of our way of thinking about “real” swordplay has been framed within a sportive context, so we often unwittingly apply this sportive filter to our look at works from the past. This particular blindness is born of working in a context so divorced from the original environment of the Art. One result of this is that we have nothing against which to compare our interpretations, progress, or effectiveness other than parallels within our context, and all of these are sportive. We can get close to more accurate interpretations, maybe be dead-on in some cases, but much if not most of what we build, especially for older systems, will remain tentative. It’s inescapable since we no longer use swords in war or fight duels. The emphasis many place on tournament bouts doesn’t take into account this filter, but it must—by definition a tourney bout is sportive. This has serious ramifications not only for how we train, but also for the value so much of the community places on medaling.[3]

It is easy to underestimate the importance of this. In the past, when the sword was still an active weapon, final proof of readiness and skill was pass or fail, something one only discovered in combat, in whether or not one survived. Setting aside the issues of infection resulting from wounds or a stray musket ball on a battlefield, one’s skill either effectively dispatched the enemy and saved one’s life or it didn’t. Confidence accrued over time as one continued to survive until one either retired, met one’s match, or was killed by some non-primary assailant. This is a perspective and style of confidence that we cannot really know. Modern military people with combat experience may better appreciate this psychologically, especially if they have experience in hand-to-hand combat, but even for them the nature of warfare is different in significant ways.

The Role of Fear

MartialThe confidence gained in “on the job training” didn’t mean a lack of fear, only the ability to put that fear in check. More than anything else, it is the lack of fear, the lack of dire consequences which most affect our approach. Some historical fencers assume that because the system they study is “martial,” by which I believe they mean either for the battlefield or as a synonym for “effective,” that they are  more or less automatically approaching it the same way as people did in the past. One may move much the same way a treatise suggests, but movement is mechanical however much informed by intent and to move the way a master recommends does not mean the mindset is the same. We can’t even be sure we’re moving the right way much of the time.

This is an old problem, one at least as old as fencing for sport, and there have been many proposed solutions. ROW in Olympic fencing, for example, is meant to reflect the reality of a duel—in short, if one is being attacked, one must defend, or, counter-attack in enough time to have hit the opponent before one is hit. The inclusion of “off-target” and poorly timed touches affect everything. The most important complaint about ROW is the fact that there is not enough emphasis on not being hit at all. If, for example, my opponent attacks me and I decide to attempt a counter-attack, ideally I do that in the correct tempo and cover myself on the retreat. However, by the rules, I just have to strike one tempo before my opponent to nullify their attack—this doesn’t mean that I’m not hit, just that I hit first, in sufficient time, and thus rob them of the touch and score one myself. As Olympic fencing is a sport this is perfectly sensible, but if we’re talking fencing as a martial art then it is a problem.

Rule sets in historical fencing have to make choices too, but for the most part they’re just as artificial. Anytime we game a combat system we introduce artificiality. Some suggest that only certain angles of cut, for example, are sufficient to do any damage and thus only cuts made at those angles count. This flies in the face of actual cutting practice, however, as even a tip cut with a longsword is going to do some serious damage, never mind weapons designed to cut that way. Other rule sets, and I’ve made one myself, try to introduce either benefits or punishments for bad tactical decisions. Some award points to “after-blows” in the belief that one should have covered, others attempt to promote better attention to defense by weighting the initial point more.

None of these are perfect and each have advantages and disadvantages. None, however, solve the problem of mindset. If cuts must be made at certain angles, then cuts that might have damaged someone but aren’t at those angles are ignored—”tippy” cuts to the hands, to name one example, aren’t considered “martial,” but the hands and forearms are common targets in the sources and as I learned from one sabre coach, if you remove the arm’s ability to wield the weapon, the rest of them is a lot easier to hit. The thorny issue of the “after-blow” likewise presents difficult choices—what is more important, responding properly, defensively to that initial attack or cutting into it to lessen its point value despite the fact both opponents are hit? Weighted point-systems set up similar challenges. For example, in my rule set I reasoned that weighting the first touch in a bout would make fencers more cautious and defensive, but the point advantage led more people to attack in hopes of being a point up from the start. These artificial attempts to infuse some species of “fear” and/or better fencing vary in quality, but none does the job super well.

So, if we cannot replicate the context and fear of actual sword combat, what can we do?

Interestingly enough, some dubious individuals have decided that the only way is to fight with sharps; I don’t mean in a drilling sense, but in a bouting sense. However, fighting with sharps “to the bloom” among fringe elements within the community is not the answer. In addition to the legal issues inherent in such idiocy, this activity resembles more some rite within a cult of machismo than anything else. Moreover, some of these groups are known alt-right, white supremacists with mixed up ideas of valor in addition to their ahistorical and unscientific notions of “race,” nationalism, and everything else. Their lack of credibility belies their approach to most things and one must remain suspicious that they even understand what they’re reading (assuming that they can read and do). [4] From the context perspective these dangerous fights are more ritual than a species of duel or battlefield combat. Groups like that in Hamburg do this by choice, with their friends, and while no doubt afraid in some degree, like the older institution of German student dueling at certain universities, this is more social than “martial.” Did I mention it’s stupid?


Cultivating “Fear”

zazenAt the risk of sounding too Pacific Northwest and as crunchy as organic granola, one thing we can do is cultivate a sense of danger, that is, be mindful from the moment we pick up a weapon that it’s a weapon. Blunt, not blunt, treat that sword like it’s dangerous. By analogy anyone who owns firearms knows to treat that rifle, pistol, or shotgun as if it is loaded. Always. Though clearly more critical for gunpowder, the same mind-set can help us approach our drill and bouting with more awareness of what it is, in theory, we’re doing. Employed appropriately our fencing will change. We can become more cautious. We may reconsider how that tip cut to the hand might have ended the fight. We can second guess an attack that puts us at too much risk even though we’re sure we’ll land the touch.

In itself this is not the answer. It’s a useful approach I’ve been trying experimentally, but I’m optimistic about it as a training aid for two reasons. First, the mindset of “all swords are sharp,” if we apply it well, puts us one step further from fencing for points. Second, the more sources I read—irrespective of system or time period—the more I notice the emphasis on avoiding being struck, on attacking wisely and whenever possible with cover, opposition, or room to maneuver away.

 

In the Part II of this discussion I will examine a few sources, from the 14th cen. to the 20th, and how they treat these issues.

 

NOTES:

[1] In the two years we used versions of the rule set I put together it has changed. Most of this change came from the insight and experience of those who competed and officials. Their input improves the rule set far greater than trying to do so on my own can, and it’s long past time for me to reexamine and improve it again. One major change will be taking away the weighted first touch.

[2] Hitting and not being hit includes a lot, from effective parries to attacking from the right measure and in the right tempo. It includes trying whenever possible to thrust with opposition to returning behind the point or under guard on our recover after attack. In Part II I will explore these in more detail.

[3] As another nail in the coffin of tournaments being “martial,” all of them are set up as duels, a fight between two individuals.

[4] For one example, see https://mindhost.tumblr.com/post/143979980172/iamafencer-fencing-to-the-bloom. For an example of the ultra-nationalist variety, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y237mTaexrs. Rumor holds that they’ve had two people die. They also wear clothing directly associated with neo-Nazis. See https://www.reddit.com/r/wma/comments/6xma13/idiots_fight_shirtless_with_sharp_blades/.            

Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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