Observations on Traditional Fencing Pedagogy in Relation to the Modern Study and Practice
of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts
By J. Clements
When students of traditional fencing (whether modern or sport or the self-defined
"classical") now offer up their intructors as "masters" of Medieval or
Renaissance martial skills by virtue of their credentials in foil, epee, and saber, we are
astounded. Following their reasoning and observing the recent evolution of this
subject, it's not hard to imagine these claims to such "expertise" might come
about as a result of a dialogue a little something like the following:
A Merry Dialogue between Master and Scholar
"Maestro, I hear of those who study in ways not of our gentlemanly
They train in unfamiliar techniques and speak of arms & armor and instruments unknown
"Come hither young fencer and share of your concerns."
"Goodly Sir, have ye ever in friendly bouting faced adversaries skilled in use of the
"Nay, young student.
Yet, I feel no distress for am I not an expert with both classical and sporting
"Maestro, have ye in friendly bouting with sword & dagger ever faced opponents
skilled in handling said weapons?
"Nay, young student. Yet, I feel no distress
for am I not an expert with both classical and sporting epee?"
"Maestro, have ye in friendly bouting with replica rapier ever faced opponents
skilled in handling said weapon?
"In answer, see ye my previous utterance"
"Maestro, what of having bouted another with spear or staff?
Are these not unfamiliar and formidable to our teachings?"
"Nay, again I say unto ye young student, once more I feel no distress,
for am I not an expert with both classical and sporting epee?"
"Maestro, what of shields and bucklers and the like?
Are these not also traditional tools difficult to face?"
"Mere distractions to our one true craft."
"Maestro, may I know of what ye hast done with the important fight
of single dagger against sword alone?"
"Worry not young student. Such tools offer us no distress
for do we not practice with both classical and sporting epee?"
"What of the fight with great-sword and even bare-handed?
Have ye faced such implements in these many years of fence? Should we not explore
the use of grapples, disarms, and the like in our duelling as was once the way?"
"But nay, having faced none than others of my own ilk with the three traditional
weapons of epee,
foil, and saber, I attest to such other implements and notions as hindrances to our
learning and unworthy of our lineage."
"I am curious still, Master. Do not others say the true "three
of the art of historical Western arts are spear, sword, and dagger?"
"O' naive youth, know that I have seen many films and copious television
that doth depict such arms and know well from these the handling of such that they pose us
no distress and we need dispense with their like."
"But master, should not before we call ourselves masters prove "mastery in
using these many historical weapons? Should not mastery mean being able to perform and
demonstrate at a master level? How have we ever so far done this?"
young one, these matters are hardly important in the larger scheme of
presenting a proper image to the larger audience. We may speak many words of our present
fencing which others have no knowledge of, and as we see fit we may refers these words to
these older weapons."
"Forgive my ignorance in asking, oh venerable teacher, but what about those who say
we should at the least develop expert skill with handling these weapons at speed, in real
range, and with strength before we dare to declare others around us masters as well?
Should we not to some degree be expected to prove our martial ability by crossing weapons
with others as they did in earlier ages?"
"Again, my na´ve youth, my credentials in fencing speak for themselves, for have I
not already declared my title as master of fence? There is only "one" fencing
after all. Thus I need prove nothing, least of all to those below my credentials and
outside of my esteem."
"I try so to adhere to your wisdom great teacher, and I apologize for my incompetence
in grasping our logic, but is it not true that the style of fencing from which we derive
our authority has little to do with that of earlier ages and was even in its day
acknowledged to be far removed?"
"Know this oh youth, that you stand in the presence of that rarity or rarity, a
teacher who has been privy to secret teachings and the last of the true classical
teaching, given to me alone by my own master upon his passing, for only I learned the
secret, secret teaching that was always hidden and never written down.
This alone give me alone the special uniqueness to teach these arts --should I choose, or
merely to interpret the old techniques in private."
"Teacher, I must surely be wrong for I erringly thought that recent masters of
fencing had pronounced the modern art of foil, epee, and sabre more evolved, more
advanced, and more refined that the crude and primitive systems of long ago? Why then are
so many others endeavoring to resurrect, to reconstitute, to reconstruct, to revive if
these arts were not lost and abandoned by our own predecessors?"
.........I'm sorry, did you say something? ...Never mind.
Let's us go forth. What others concerns may I ease of your young mind?
"Where then, may I humbly ask great sir, is our lineage teacher, if our recent
master-fencers forebears ceased, if they stopped, if they failed to continue the older
ways as true fighting skills?"
"Be warned inexperienced youth, that you should concerned thyself only with the goal
and reward I set before you, not such petty details and trivialities as you now
"I see. Thank you, Maestro, I accept your expertise! Now I know why we
alone are so better than others who merely analyze the old texts and practcie in earnest
with reprodcution weapons. For they are mere shadows of our special glory and unique
vantage point. Tis right and virtuous that we should forver dismiss them as beneath us.
Now I can go upon yon Internet to proclaim thy great knowledge and skills to all."
"Yes, go forth my student, thy training is complete in all matters
...and beware of false masters of fence!"
Yes...astounding. But not far off from what is now happening in the historical
fencing community. For more than a century now there has been the myth that the version of
modern fencing is the greatest, most awesome, "highly evolved" form of
Western swordsmanship ever. Now we have something being defined as "classical
fencing", the "real thing" this time, not all the modern
trappings...excepting that some proponents are merely disguising the older dueling sport
form of the last 150 years or so with a few new rules and a few old anachronisms to call
it "historical". This way those who have almost exclusively practiced
foil, epee, and saber won't be thought of as irrelevant to the reconstruction of
historical swordsmanship occurring all over. While modern sport fencing (still a fun
game) has indeed degnerated terribly from its roots, and "clascial fencing" is
hard to define precisely, there is no question that geunine experts in the forms of 19th
century duelling and epee are few and far between and differ greatly from those trained
only in the sporting form. Even then, mastery of 19th century dueling sports does
not grant expertise in combative systems of martial art from 400 and 500 years earlier.
It's pretty darn silly that when you read through all the fencing books written by
fencing masters in the last 200 years, they are dismissive, condescending, and
ezxceedingly ignorant toward the sophisticated and brutaly effective fighting methods of
Medieval and Rrenaissance combat systems. Yet, some people now want us to believe
that the end product all this time of moving further and farther away from battlefield
effectiveness and street level lethality (resulting in the today's "traditional"
fencing) is going to help us really understand things. Others want us to belive that
"secret" teaching and "special" knowledge was somehow privately
retained and passed along to a select few who have now come forward after all these years.
Nonsense. The assertion that they have some de facto authority over or exclusive
insight into skills they have little to no practical experience in, and have yet to
demonstrate martial prowess with, obscures any real value they might actually offer.
If someone does't seriously train in the weapons, the armor, and the martial methods
they're commenting on, or agree to prove their skills against others, how can anyone then
possibly demand respect for their views?
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