ARMA Editorial - Spring 2003
Content & Character – Historical Fencing Information on the Web
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By J. Clements

It has been said that, ultimately, the practice of a martial art is about building character on the part of the practitioner. As a long-time teacher of this subject as well as researcher and practitioner, this issue is one of real and genuine importance to me.

As more and more new material on more and more European masters of arms and Masters of Defence becomes available, it is my sincerest hope that the larger community of historical fencing students becomes more aware and learned. I say this because, as has been expressed so often in recent years, the power of the Internet to educate and inform is an absolutely tremendous tool. However, this happy tool has a contrary side: it also allows for misinformation and nonsense to spread with far more efficiency than ever before. It gives an equal voice to the lowest common denominator as it does to the accomplished.

As we all should know by now, on numerous forums, archives, e-lists and bulletin boards there is a rich environment for all sorts of sword-pundits to flourish. Some of these are benign and harmless, some helpful and sincere, others not. I therefore would like to caution all enthusiasts of historical European fighting arts to be more aware of what information and references are now becoming accessible, whether through sites like ARMA’s or in particular, important new books such as Sydney Anglo’s "The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe".

The more students read and become familiar with the major resources that form our knowledge base, the harder it will be for the would-be experts of cyberspace to go around the Net name dropping a few lines (often from some source they only learned of mere hours before) to show off how "expert " they are. Having a pretty website, a title from some ad hoc organization, and a few years of boffer, rattan, or foil practice with a group or two does not create an "authority" to blindly trust. Yet, the Internet is becoming ubiquitous with such cyber-experts.

Now, repeating what you have read or learned elsewhere is perfectly fine, it’s natural and helpful...but misrepresenting what you actually know and misleading as to where it was acquired from is something else. New enthusiasts and less-well read students are often easily put off by quick-posting fast-typing cyber-authorities who "reveal" what seem to be little-known obscure facts on weapons and their use. We find them all over the Net making insincere announcements to their fellows like, "Well, if you’ve read Manciolino..." or "I happen to know that Liechtenauer said....", or "from my own study of Vadi...", etc., when in reality they themselves only just found out about it elsewhere a day or two before –and they haven’t a clue how to integrate these concepts into a training curricula let alone competently instruct in their practice (not that this stops them from giving the impression they do). Indeed, when they read essays like this very one they are often the very first rushing to post their "I agree, well said" and "Yes, let me just add..." to it in the attempt to mask and conceal the snugly fitting shoe they’re wearing.

It is one thing to promote honest dialogue by asking honest questions, presenting new material, admitting ignorance, or expressing confusion to peers and fellows. It is quite another to disingenuously mislead about how much information you actually have and where it actually came from. Rather than elevate their peers, inform their fellow enthusiasts, or help lift the general knowledge of the subject, the cyber-authority is more concerned with amassing personal prestige points and a reputation for infallibility, and especially in bringing down others, than in genuinely sharing and educating. It reveals a sad shallowness when genuine and sincere interest in promoting and advancing our subject takes a back seat to a facade of hollow self-importance. It’s a shame, yes; it’s waste of time, yes; but it’s human nature. And I feel strongly new students need to be taught to be wary of it. What’s truly pathetic is when those with even less ability (or credibility) will "reliably" bless these cyberspace sword-adepts as "leading authorities" --while hypocritically declaring fellow online students (whom they hardly even know) to be mere "wannabe’s".

The solution to combating the self-centered cyber-expert then is, I feel, to educate yourself on your own.  The task is for each individual to concern themselves only with what they can learn and want they can understand, to not ever be afraid to stop and say, "I don’t know", or "I haven’t found that out yet". In this way our own sincere contribution will be far more relevant and valuable than some of the would-be experts regurgitating tidbits they’ve scavenged from others in the effort to imply they know far more than they actually do about whatever happens to be the historical fencing topic at the moment --regardless of their lack of demonstrable expert physical skills or any actual contributions of noticeable merit. How sad it must be for them to pretend to themselves that they’ve known some new fact "all along" or cannot admit that something is excitingly unfamiliar. Maybe this kind of disingenuous insincerity is very self-satisfying to them, maybe it fulfills some personal insecurity, but it does a disservice to the rest of us out there. It’s not our place to reason upon the psychology of all this, only to make ourselves aware of it.

In this way, the subject will be far more approachable to and less intimidating to new students of every level and as a result more honest learning and sharing can prosper. The more familiar each of us becomes with what information is now readily out there, the harder it will be for less sincere characters to impress, intimidate, and bully their fellows into seeing them as far wiser and far more knowledgeable than they actually are (I’m often discouraged by how many excited students never bother to actually read any of the titles on our Top-10 Recommend Reading List). As a martial arts edcucator as well as continual student myself, I know full well that novices, newcomers, and inexperienced students need to feel comfortable in asking their questions --even if they are the same rudimentary questions we hear over and over, they still need to be answered with clarity and patience.

If I sound somewhat cryptic here, it’s because I’ve been involved with this subject most of my life and I’ve seen a lot of good developments too long in coming, so I wish to be positive in order to help educate. I’m trying desperately to be delicate and not criticize. There are so many "pontificators" out there now exercising their right to offer their opinions and advice. But then there are also those with even less information pronouncing them "people to listen to". It causes me concern for those novices honestly trying to learn. I’m not just saying the obvious, that "there is a lot of charlatans in the martial arts" or "read the stuff yourself then make your own informed decisions".  The absolute bottom line is, take the content & characters you encounter on the Net with a healthy amount of skepticism and keep in mind that hype, ego, self-promotion, resentment, and plain old-fashioned b*llshit have a long tradition in virtually all martial arts study. Finally, whether this subject is just a relaxing past-time for you or an earnest hobby, don’t just surf, study; don’t just read, research; don’t just play, practice.

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