The state of the Art

The strongest lessons learned during my six-some years of pursuing the arts of swordsmanship have been about seeing, and what to look for. The present state of my skills and knowledge have never been as important as the ability to establish a good direction for the future. A topic worth a book-length analysis in itself, this ability lends not only to self-assessment but also to the skill of teaching and ultimately to swordplay itself: without seeing and knowing what to look for there is not much hope for overcoming the adversary. For those wondering, I tend to use the expression *to see *interchangeably with the expression to feel. Instead of being about myself (there’s bound to be enough if not too much about me in this blog anyway) this post is about the study of swordsmanship in general, about its current state and future horizons. Still, it will just be my take on it, my current position and therefore just as much about me as anything else, and as we will see, I have only seen so much, literally felt so much – but there is a lot more I feel about it – the way I have been taught has instilled in me a picture, or rather a feeling, of how things should be, and boy is that far from what I see everyday in myself and in others. But this is not necessarily to be taken as a rant or anything negative – as it is this particular contrast that drives me and probably others as well forward. If it wasn’t for this feeling, how could we find a direction and measure progress?

For some what I write may be stating the obvious (or they may disagree), but I wish that every mind would run a check on their honesty, leaving aside all ego, all anticipations, all that they have to lose. In an art which will never be brought to its purest form of expression there will eventually be a lot frustration. Big words, strong arguments, distorted theaters to put people in order of ability all only serve to distance us from what we are actually trying to accomplish. I am here taking a position of authority in defining what our goals are as a community, but if you find yourself in disagreement, please read it as my own approach instead – I know there are different goals and motivations and these don’t necessarily compare in any level. I have no wish to offend anyone.

There has lately been quite a lot of talk about core assumptions. How I see it, the only core assumption we should make is that what we read in the sources is to be initially taken as true, and something we are trying to understand and be able to reproduce. Not only interpretations of the techniques, but also to understand the process of creating the treatises, so that from our own understanding we could reproduce similar texts, and understand why we would make the same choices the original authors did, and also why we would differ should we wish to.

Everything outside this goal is more modern, more private to us. I have seen good scholars interested in the texts but with less value in their own skills. I have seen good scholars who – more than anything else – strive to be good swordsmen. They look to find out what being a swordsman entails, and they often find answers from the source texts. I have also seen those who want to be good swordfighters, and while they often (encouragingly) find it useful to follow what is said in the sources, they sometimes end up concentrating primarily in looking for a context in which to prove their ability to themselves and often others as well. This leads to the tournaments, of which I will write later.

For me, the truest context has always been teaching, and the sources also tell us how they greatly valued this skill as well, as did their ancient authorities. This leaves the question open about what exactly is it that is being taught, but at the same time it offers the greatest venue for openly approaching all ways of looking at the arts. One can refine their skill in teaching regardless of the state of the art itself, and the personal goal for development can always be pursued even if the understanding of the art itself underwent drastic changes.

Some of the feed-back, or the lack of it, regarding the recent discussions on the concepts of Italian swordplay has been interesting. The most positive feedback received has come from people who have both a very deep (in comparison) understanding of the arts as well as personality to humbly acknowledge how much there is that they don’t yet know. Not saying that it could not be all understood, but taking no shortcuts because of thinking that they had to know more. The other side of this is, that I get the feeling that there actually are only a handful of people out there who are able to discuss something like Italian swordplay with any sort of true attempt to use the original concepts, the terminology and so on.

Now the big thing is, that it is OK. Perfectly so. There is no rush – but tell me if I’m wrong – how many are there? I often expect others to know better than I do, I often overstate my case in humility, but I believe I am starting to get a better feeling of the real situation out there. Now I’ll be the first to admit that my own abilities are not of an admirable rate in any aspect of this study. Every now and then people tell me otherwise, but when I compare myself to the feeling of how it should be, and how much more I know there is to understand (and be able to physically execute) there is an endless amount of work to do… I don’t even read Italian fluently to begin with, if we start from the more ‘academical’ end of this pursuit.

Coming back to the topic, is the situation any different on other fronts? Regarding the Italian front, there has been a fantastic deal of advances in the study of Fiore dei Liberi, for example, but even there it seems as if the deeper we get with his texts the more we start to see evidence of what was the state of the art in his time. How big of a part does Fiore show of this art? How much is there to understand of those parts that Fiore leaves blank, perhaps only giving us tools and some key points to guide us through a life-long study to gain this understanding, which in the end will only be our own and the original text will only be there to support our views, not to conclusively prove anything. Who can go through a 17th century text and even start to speculate why the plays therein are what they are, in that order and written the way they are… Regarding the Bolognese, how many can even list the names of the surviving works that we have of the tradition? And who can say having read these texts (anyone saying so without mentioning that a lot of the material is like reading a catalog of fencing actions is subject to suspicion). What about all the texts that are often called “transitional”? Transitional between what? Me personally, no matter what some say, I haven’t read a fraction of all these, and at this time it is important that there’d be a lot of people with breadth in knowledge, before delving into too much depth.

I won’t even start to speak of the German sources, as I am even more ignorant on them than I am regarding the Italian material. But I can’t help myself, where are those people discussing and referring to Paulus Hector Mair on a daily basis? Surely there should be those, as his work is absolutely massive, covering most all of the weapon styles ever practiced in Europe up until the time of its writing. I know there are people working with it in Europe as well as in the States and elsewhere, there is a translation (hopefully) seeing its final proof-reading as a write, but so far I have never read or heard anyone go through the work explaining why it was written, what is covered in the text, what is the style of instruction, what are the moments depicted in the pictures and is there reason to question Mair as a source for being a reproduction or interpretation of older texts, or does it carry true value as a source for practice – and if so – what is the context it was composed for?

When there is a discussion (often) that leads into more specific nature of the texts, it often dies out – I understand how writing and following those threads is hard work – but why is this? Why is it, that very rarely do the discussion take us to the acknowledgement that we don’t know, and into suggestions on what to look for next? Sometimes I hear, that it is not worthwhile to take part in these discussions, but for those who might have something to add or share, how can they take such a position? Can they, even on their specific field of study, answer the type of questions I proposed above? If not they should not take such position. Of course, time is expensive, but I still think that more effort in educating anyone willing to listen (and everyone should be willing to listen) as the time invested just might bring something useful in return.

I promised to come to the topic of tournaments. Right now there is a lot of discussion on regarding them, people looking for the perfect ruleset, people discussing how the audience should behave and all sorts of topics. In many of the events I go to (WMAW being an exception) the tournament(s) are sort of the highlight. For me, the highlight and the reason of going to the events is that something little I might get from lectures, private correspondence or workshops (where it often relates to the art of teaching), that furthers the feeling I have of the whole. Sometimes I have experienced this during free fencing, and often when free fencing with a more experienced person, who, as we fence is actually teaching me. It is never about myself, really. I prefer to run a workshop when I travel to an event, which is of course excellent experience for myself, but just as much I am aware that I have put more than the average practitioner in the pursue of this art, and I am willing to share everything I know, give it to others for whatever it may be worth to them.

Never have I personally got anything from participating a tournament. I am not against tournaments, they are often done for a good cause, and those who love fencing in a competitive setting should be given a venue for doing so. It can (but might not) be good publicity. It can be fun. But regardless I find it funny how much effort is put into it, and how much value is given to the results. But I guess it is an easy way to answer some questions, even fundamental ones. Who succeeds in competition is best (but best in what exactly?). What works in competition, is proven to work (but to work in exactly which context?). This leads me to two other points, which I have emphasized before as well. Firstly, many groups who don’t have access to experienced teaching, emphasize free fencing. The reason is that they lack material to practice. Secondly, competitive swordplay is historical and just as valid as any other form of swordplay. The word play keeps repeating itself, and so for a reason. The question however, like with everything else, is how did they do it? And for what purposes?

Without a careful study of the sources in the light of play and competition the competitions will remain modern and divided from the original art without question. We have evidence that the play was different from the use of the weapons in earnest for the masters of old, yet today the context is often blurry and there is little evidence of any level of understanding about what it is that is actually done. One is playing tag-hit, while his opponent dreams of being in a duel but simulating it with no intent of injuring the opponent. No matter how much you may want to excel and show your skill, the fact is, that there is still work to do. Competitive HEMA, as some call it, can drop the “H” out of it unless there is any attempt to reconstruct the way it was done competitively back then. I know there are studies being made towards this end, but the state of the art is shown by one group concluding that, an original period ruleset was impossible to use and made no sense whatsoever. Either it was not used, or we don’t understand it. Either way, there’s a question for you, which could possibly be further answered by more research. Likewise, why are there no thrusts in Joachim Meyer’s longsword? How could this effect competition, in case that Meyer was speaking of competitive longsword (which, even for him, would actually be “competitive HEMA”)? How does this relate to the recent discussions on largo and stretto? Why are the largo guards, in the Bolognese tradition, most often used with the spada da gioco and not with the spada da filo?

Get fit, train hard, but also read as much as you can, and understand, that to truly be involved in the art of swordsmanship today, it is not simply about waving swords about – as discussed on a forum thread not long ago – the “H” in the art comes from the sources we have, the ones written and illustrated, from the surviving weapons (whose nature is still often sadly misunderstood, and just how far apart are they from nylon), period descriptions of armed encounters and so forth. After that comes, what I called for in the previous post, experience – which we still need more of.

My final point regarding tournaments is, that no matter how historical they are they derive from the use of the sword in earnest. The sword was not devised for play or competition. The play was derived from the need to learn how to wield it, and once again walk in the footsteps of Galen when I say, that the competitive nature of its use was twisted and never necessary for the proper development of ones character or the skill of using the weapon in war.

For the swordsmen of past time, they had to use the weapons in earnest, so they had no necessity to prove their skill in competition nor did they need an artificial venue to express their art. The fact that they still chose to do so and engage in all manner of competition tells us of their society, as there must’ve been a social and cultural call for the behavior, and in some cases, the need to settle something with maybe a bit of bloodshed but no need for anyone to enter the coffin. Again this is something that I don’t know much about, but those interested in the competitive side must look at things in their search for the way in which to run the tournaments. Everything from this to what happened during the 16th century when these chivalric arts descended into reach of the emerging merchant class. Likewise, how was the reformation of the dueling culture to effect competitive swordplay? How long had there been those, who, for a lack of anything better went about challenging others to fight with swords, and was this to be considered competitive swordplay in all its lethal gruesomeness? Was it organized? And when we play with swords in tournaments today are we to represent the chivalric class propping up their social status by means of a display of their courage and valor, or are we to represent those prostituting themselves to satisfy the blood-thirsty common folk for a crust of bread – or are we to engage in a representation of a judicial duel done in all seriousness brought by the institution, even all the way up to damaging one’s honor, save for bodily injure and death?

There is no need to side with me or disagree too strongly – I enjoy every moment and every new development in the community regardless of its direction. But consider with me for a moment: what is my goal? What is my context? Am I placing emphasis where it should be placed? Answer honestly. As it becomes more relevant in the near future (because of my own projects), I will be reflecting back to this – however unlikely it may seem, I actually do have interest in the competitive side as well, but with a strong emphasis on the word historical.

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