Context in (historical European) martial arts, why we train and how do we know if we're good at it?

After tonight’s fencing lesson I had a brief discussion with a few students on what it really is that we practice — are we looking for the most efficient way to use a sword (and what kind of sword?), are we merely re-enacting (or interpreting, since we might not be far enough to be able to re-enact it) old fencing books or are we training for a competition? And what is the end-goal, how do we know whether we have progressed and how do we know where we still need to go?

These are things that I have to ponder often because of my role as an instructor. Not only what the answers are for me, but what answers am I trying to provide for those who come to the lessons. And trust me, I’ve gone through almost every imaginable worry, self-doubt and questioning myself. But before analyzing the subject further let me explain where I source energy for my personal struggles.

A personal journey

It was winter, that much I know, but the exact year has blurred into the haze of forgotten history. I remember the wet and thick snowflakes landing on my face while I made my way through the ever-increasing amounts of snow. I was wandering around rather mindlessly, as I sometimes used to do back then, clearing my mind — or defragmenting, as I called it.

I had had my first exposure to the sword and the historical sources, involved was a mixture of Christian Tobler and some secrets of German longsword, Bob Charron and citing obscure Italian fighting-verses out loud and some time spent with a certain Englishman who would become very influential in my life during the following seven or so years. But all of this, as weird it may have sounded back then made a certain sense to me. Sense in a way that I couldn’t explain nor did I need to. Literally, it was a certainty beyond anything I could reason or explain.

So I decided. I decided like I have never decided before nor since, that I would face any hellfire thrown at me but I wouldn’t give up, I would push through every hardship and become a swordsman — without really knowing what the word would entail.

And so I find myself going back to this moment often, or not necessarily often but anytime I feel I like giving up or if things are not going perfectly. And I keep on going. Now things have been really good, and if it really was hellfire that I’ve had to face it certainly wasn’t as much to endure as I had feared. But at the same time, there is a higher goal to aim at and still a lot of work to do.

The point of this story is that I have a very strong inner idea of direction, not so much the destination but I know what the next step is. I know exactly what training needs to be like and who and what I think is good and what isn’t. But I realize that this model is a very personal one and while it can guide me, some reasoning is necessary. My intuition may not always be the best choice.

The context

It never stops to amaze me how much disagreement and fighting comes from simply misunderstanding the context of which someone is speaking. When we talk of HEMA we are talking about a time period of 600 years, roughly a hundred authors and thousands of practitioners today. We can’t really be talking of the same thing, unless we are quite specific.

Arguably the greatest cause for these polemics is the role of competitions in the study of swordsmanship — a subject I have discussed on multiple angles myself many times. The reason for this stems from the competition naturally presenting a ranking of fencers and answering the question of who is the best, which has traditionally been a sort of taboo in historical fencing. Originally many of the practitioners, who pioneered the research and brought out material were more scholars than fighters — making the ranking somehow unfair. While in reality, they never really belonged to such a ranking in the first place so the problem is pointless.

Of course the questions run deeper as well, and the discussion on whether the effect of competition is positive or negative for the development of the research based martial art is valid.

Whatever the case, it seems obvious to me that the art of swordsmanship is far greater than any man or any human activity — its rules and effects are governed by geometry and time, the human element only introducing an amount of randomness to the equation that many strive to mitigate through their rigorous practice. The art of swordsmanship lends itself similarly to self-defence, killing people and competing. It is not validated nor invalidated through any of these activities. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Learning fencing or learning Bolognese fencing

The thought of someone coming to me wanting to learn to fence is an interesting one. It happens all the time, of course, since I am a fencing instructor. But to me the question runs on a deeper level. If someone would want to learn specifically Bolognese fencing, I would be at ease, since regardless of my shortcomings I realize that I am one of the go-to people alive today to talk about and teach the subject. I am always extremely happy to teach the mandritti, roversi and the stoccata, and it gives me great joy to follow dall’Agocchie’s pedagogical structure and to make people go through Marozzo’s assalti. It almost brings tears to my eyes, the experience is that beautiful to me.

But someone wanting to simply learn to fence? I can beg Marozzo to make me his proxy but it is harder to trust him on this. Is following his instructions necessarily the best way? Does the student even want that? Has the student seen me fence and wants to learn what *I *do and not what Marozzo tells us to do?

While my fencing has improved greatly during the last few years and I put some effort into making myself a good, efficient swordfighter regardless of the context, my focus will stay in drawing information from the sources and teaching that to others. Learning to fight is simply a necessary part of this process, but it was never my top priority.

So am I doing a disservice to someone by teaching the Bolognese with focus on the original sources? I don’t think so, since first it is what I do the best and secondly it is fair to start with the premise that the masters knew what they were talking about. They knew better than I do.

This said, in my lessons I striveto be practical. I simply make sure nothing I teach is in gross violation of my chosen source, and then follow my intuition (or, sometimes, a class-plan).

What has helped me in my career as a swordsman the most has been the knowledge of the sources I teach from. The physical training, fighting ability and teaching skill have all been easier for me to acquire than the in-depth understanding I now have. It is more of a special skill.

How to be good at fencing?

To me this is a simple question, but I still find myself explaining my view on this quite often. It all depends on setting your goals and the context you train in/for, but some things are more universal: if you can’t fence you can’t fence. If you can’t win fights, if you never land a hit in friendly sparring, if you can’t use the techniques you train to use while fencing and if nobody thinks you are nice to fence with or pretty to watch when you move you are not doing very good. And I don’t care how good your research is, how good you can cut a mat or how well you can execute a drill with your favorite training partner — you are not a good fencer.

But the above combination is of course an exaggeration. I sure hope no-one has it that bad! But we should all realize how well we can fare with the sword in hand when someone is trying to land a hit on us.

But toning this down even a bit more, to me someone who is a good fencer has at least an above 50% win-rate in scored fights (and if anyone has a real-life-real-sword argument here let me just shut them up by stating that swordsmanship is about skill in the use of sword and if your skill only applies to killing people you have not understood what fencing can really be on a high level), who uses the techniques he knows in his fencing, who looks good when fencing, can express him or herself through fencing and is controlled and able to surprise the opponent ans spectators. If you are interesting to watch and others always look you up for a round of fencing, then you are good in what you do. And if you can teach others what you do, all the better.

If someone doesn’t want to compete, even that is fine with me, as long as the person then makes no claims about competitions and still is happy to cross swords outside the arena.

We should not judge people only by their merits in one give area. A good researcher may not be the best fighter, the best fighter may not be the best teacher and so on. And some can be well-rounded in many areas but not the best in any, and that is a merit to itself too.

To become good in Bolognese fencing you have to first know what Bolognese fencing is, you absolutely need to know the terms and concepts. You need to learn the assalti, at least some of them. In today’s world, if you can execute solid assalti you are automatically considered an expert Bolognese fencer. And given the challenge they pose, chances are at that point you already can fence well too, unless you have practiced the assalti inside a barrel.

Long story short

For me learning the martial art of fencing goes together with studying a source text. But after some time one’s personal style should not be limited by the source — if it becomes limiting instead of enabling it is time to move on (to another source or more practical study). But the sources are the starting point. We owe more than we think to the masters, and so far are only borrowing their material.

The talk of the context is interesting, but we shouldn’t let it hinder our practice. Swordsmanship can exist without context, a potentially decapitating slice need not be violent, a stab through the heart can be just a bent blade and mutual laughter afterwards — but at the same time we should not forget or ridicule the history of this art, tinted red by blood in thousands of encounters throughout the centuries.

The need for competition and testing our skills is to us as natural as breathing. And so it was for the swordsmen of yesterday, but let’s try to make sure not to drive anyone away from the arts because of an overly competitive atmosphere. Outside the arena (to which we descend to win) I propose every fencer to consider him or herself as a teacher to anyone who is less experienced. And those who win only by aggression or otherwise without the counsel of the art, I challenge you to study the historical sources and see how it may alter your fencing.

Finally I would like to remind everybody that this art and the fencing community are greater than any of us alone. What we now have is unique in that it can exist both as a study of the past methods and as a modern, practical (well, maybe not in the context of our everyday life) martial art based on this study. And while we all have our goals and personal struggles let’s try to look at the bigger picture, there is still a huge amount new things to be discovered in the world of historical fencing.

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