Opining On the State of the Art
A Conversation with ARMA Director John Clements

The following musings on historical fencing were compiled from an extensive series of candid Q&A email exchanges between ARMA members and John Clements during the period January 2006 to March 2008.

Update us on what's new and what you're occupying yourself with nowadays?
"Well, as of 2008 now I am still busy full-time with numerous writing projects, administering the ARMA organization, editing our various websites, teaching around North America and also Europe some, as well as locally out of my studio here west of Atlanta. I am stretched pretty thin with the number of projects and sheer amount of continuous research along with the ongoing refining of the ARMA curricula. I have three new books on Renaissance martial arts I am trying to finish concurrently, and five more in various stages of completion. I've been working on them almost 8 years now and aim for completion of at least one, possibly two, in 2008. All I can say is that they'll be ready when they're ready and will definitely shake things up. I've been sitting on mountains of research and material for a long time now."

What details can you provide?
 "For several years now my primary area of investigation (along with fighting techniques) has focused specifically and intensely on the matter of wounds, violence, and death in historical sword combat, and then how the sources of training for fighting men reflected this through an ethical/spiritual component. I'm also assisting with a number of other ARMA members who have books in the works and several have already been contracted for publication. We have an anthology of major new articles being published in summer 2008. On top of all this, we finally have a few video projects started for DVD release that we're very excited about, but I can't say anything more at this time. Overall, the growth of the ARMA and the demands of my traveling and writing pretty much take up all my time virtually seven days a week. And of course, I continue to try to make my personal interest the practice of longsword, rapier, and sword and dagger. So, I am actually more reclusive at the moment than I ever have been. Like many people experience today, as our networks of colleagues and friends grows, there are fewer people we can talk to daily, then weekly, then monthly, then quarterly, then annually or less. As one's circle of contacts expands worldwide, the less contact we actually have with many individuals. Besides friends and family and business emails, it gets harder to maintain dialogues, especially given the size of our ARMA membership now and historical fencing community in general."

What's currently going on of interest in the ARMA universe right now?
"Well, we have some exciting additions to our National Training Program curricula on the horizon. I've also engineered a very substantial restructuring of our basic 1.0 seminar in a way that I am very excited about. It presents the foundational longsword material even more holistically, more integrated and not compartmentalized, much closer to how it's featured in so much of our source literature. Meanwhile, we've added several new study groups and we are continuing to take advantage of new better quality weapons and training equipment, the endless improving of our understanding and application of the foundational skills, and our unrelenting emphasis on core assumptions. We have our next International Gathering already planned for 2009 and we'll be having several Prize Playings coming up. There are also a few surprises in the future that we are keeping under wraps for now. The skill and commitment of our members continues to improve and their level of scholarship in general is better than it's ever been. We don't deviate from our mission of raising the credibility and legitimacy of this craft and promoting higher standards. Finally, the ARMA and IDS will be seen in three different documentary features in 2008. Although, I should add we're also way, way behind on so many online pieces and web features. I imagine by now it sounds like a cliché for me to say this, but, hey, this is an exciting and unprecedented time to be involved in historical European martial arts!"

How has having Iron Door Studio affected your training and research?
"Having such a practice hall, certainly the first of its kind, is obviously an advantage. I can enter morning, noon, or night any time and work on anything I want to or need to. In some ways it's a laboratory as much as a private gym. Grappling can occur on the floor, test cutting can be done whenever desired, there's a variety of pells and targets to use, all manner of weaponry and gear, various exercise tools, mirrors, and everyone can generally be as loud as we want surrounded by key selections from the historical source teachings."

What can you tell about teaching at Iron Door?
"I am trying to do more small regional workshops here rather than always traveling to do larger seminars. The advantages here in terms of equipment, materials, and structure of the content make a huge difference in learning, I've found. Since ours is a non-profit historical and educational society and my fencing facility is not a commercial public class, I can afford to do things differently than typical public fencing classes or martial arts run as businesses. Currently at IDS I am focusing only on teaching senior members who travel here, and occasionally giving lessons to a few select individuals or groups of novice members from the metro area. After having first taught public classes since 1992, and having taught in Houston non-stop for some 7 years, I needed a respite if I was ever going to finish my books. The ARMA has also grown large enough that I can focus more now on assisting advanced students and leave teaching novices more to other senior regional members. However, I am always looking for those unique local persons of enthusiasm and aptitude who want to start serious study."

How is the program there different from your previous public classes or general ARMA seminars?
"Given my annual travel schedule and writing commitments, as well as because I don't hold regular weekly classes and my location is somewhat remote, what I do with newcomers here at IDS is still very much what is mostly done in the ARMA as a whole. I will meet with potential students to evaluate their aptitude and temperament then I will give them an introductory session to establish the credibility and legitimacy of the craft as well as establish for them the ARMA Study Approach and Training Methodology. Just as our ARMA curricula and online members resources are intended to educate the student in how to learn, the main lesson I try to convey is on the core elements (bio-mechanics) of close-combat that in the long run will allow a student to teach themselves.
        While our ARMA National Training program represents seminars and workshops as segmented courses, it's personalized instruction like I do at IDS that provides those subtleties and that you just can't acquire through a group class. There are aspects to any fighting art that really have to be passed on individually. This is hard to do in an event that meets one day or one weekend and must condense things down into a structure that everyone attending can follow and take back with them to work on. But in a personal class progress is much more focused and lessons individualized."

Can you reveal something of the lesson plan at your school of arms?
"Okay, for instance, we start with the foundational weapon, the longsword, and include Ringen elements from day one. The student is taught some of the fundamental core movements to work on, such as wards and motions. The next time I meet with them I re-evaluate their progress to see how they are acquiring these fundamentals. This process continues as they then progress in techniques. The whole while they are learning the foundational principles and concepts of the Art. In time we move from the double-handed sword to combination weapons, then eventually see the student specialize in rapier, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, staff, or some other polearm.
        The student is taught a diversity of our proven drills and exercises as well as engaging in free-play. Each lesson features the importance of training with proper intent (that is, realistic energy, speed, and strength in proper range and timing). Naturally, as with all of the ARMA curricula we stress learning footwork, closing actions, and proper striking with good energy. All the while we stress the underlying physicality of the subject, its violence and its athleticism, placing special attention on the importance of physical conditioning. Our emphasis on a holistic approach to studying the historical source literature is explained (that is, focusing on all the manuals, before narrowing it to any one work in particular), as is the necessity of combining scholarship with hands-on practice. Our ranking system, with its certification testing, is also conveyed."

How would you sum up your teaching method?
"Train like you will fight. I don't believe anything different was done in the historical Schools of Defence. In teaching any combative system, an instructor can do only three things for a student: he can explain, then demonstrate, then observe to give feedback on progress. He must repeat these three things as necessary. But beyond this the rest is up to the student. Presuming they have the aptitude, the student themselves must make the necessary effort and show martial spirit. An instructor can only serve as a guide and help motivate. He can't and shouldn't lead them by the hand like a child. Some students respond to this challenge and take to the program with vigor. They meet expectations or even exceed standards. Others simply fail to meet the demands of the craft. ...And a few of those will always blame the material or the instructor or the approach, anything but looking in the mirror for the cause. We all learn and grow together, but in the end, one's own individual success or failure in becoming adept in the Art is one's own."

What one thing stands out that you try to get across to a new student?
"I'd have to choose, how it goes without saying that for serious study of our martial arts heritage there is no room in any of this for stunt fencing routines, pretentious costumed pageantry, historical role-playing fantasy, or imaginary tournament contests. Those things conflate the search for the visceral truth. It's simple really. Reconstruction of the craft and training in it is about interpretation and application. We want to revive and reestablish a genuine fighting tradition, to provide real knowledge, and to instill in students real skills from real history. This is the crucial mindset for everything we are trying to do. Ours is after all the only fighting art that anyone can by virtue of reading a few modern translations, studying some images, and practicing around with weapons, begin to declare themselves a serious student - all the more so if they have any connection to modern fencing or living-history reenactment clubs. When you think about it though, such a thing is hardly grounds for asserting respectable martial arts skills in what are long extinct methods of self-defense."

But is there a central lesson that lies at the heart of this craft?
If you mean, something such as, 'fencing is the Art of hitting without being hit', then sure, I would say, 'Fencing is a matter of facing an adversary with the attitude: if you attack me I will strike you; but if you do not attack me you must still prevent my striking you. Either way, we strive to always strike the opponent."

What's one of the chief things that you feel is important for historical fencing practice?
"Discipline... discipline. I will also say what is important is what I refer to as 'emotional content.' A realistic attitude of forceful perservence develops true martial spirit."

What modern replica swords can you recommend to people?
"Sword purchase suggestions? Oh man, I never look forward to that question. It's actually not an easy question to answer. Right off, my reflex is to say without equivocation, Albion Swords. And I make that recommendation without any reservations and without either myself or the ARMA having any professional or business relationship with them. I say it strictly as a consumer representing a consumer interest group of sword aficionados as well as an expert in Medieval and Renaissance swords who requires accurate affordable tools for his profession. Though in the interests of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that from time to time they have, as have a few other makers, asked my opinion on prototypes. The problem for me is, as a 'semi-public' persona, any time I say I prefer one manufacturer over another I upset someone out there - the credible makers as well as the charlatans. And the difficulty of offering a recommendation of a particular sword or particular maker is that I can only comment on the swords that I have handled at length. Additionally, while I may swear by a certain model or maker right now, who is to say that six or nine months down the road that same model might be in some way altered in its geometry or heat-treatment by the manufacturer so that the identical piece is no longer the same one I favored? This has happened a lot in this industry. A brand or model of modern replica sword may be great one day, lousy the next or vice versa. I have been burned more than once this way. It's not like I am being asked, 'What make and model of this year's new automobiles do I prefer in the mid-size sport utility category?' Besides, as a martial artist, my needs and those of my students are for the most realistic weapons possible to vigorously train with under our curricula while still getting good value for the money. In other words, quality that is affordable.
            I must also add that I always want to support domestic makers over foriegn sweatshops, as well supporting the individual swordmakers, even though the small number of weapons they can produce prevents their providing the volume or varitey of larger makers. There are a lot of sword makers out there and it's just impossible for me with my resources to evaluate every model of every manufacturer to a degree where I feel confident in saying yay or nay to each and every one as a training weapon. No person should be expected to give such opinions. Besides, the ARMA does not do official product endorsements (we learned our lesson in that regard). When it comes to Albion, they are consistent. Have yet to handle one of their off-the-shelf pieces that did not feel excellent or perform superbly. I know enough of their design philosophy, their (current) manufacturing methods, and their quality control, as well as their mission statement and business practices to trust their pieces in general. I consider this in relation to the various pieces of all makes and models I own or have used. When it comes to historically accurate sharps or blunt-training blades I have no reason at present to doubt Albion's quality and value. I unfortunately can't make that kind of statement about other makes and models that I own or have played with, and certainly not with those I haven't tried out. This is not to say this won't change a year or so from now. Thus, my hesitation at making recommendations of commercial swords. There are a lot of qualifiers to bracket any suggestion I offer. I also have my own personal favorite styles that might not be suited for someone else's tastes or interests. That's a reason why there were so many different swords in history after all."

What problem issues in the study of historical fencing are at present of most concern to you?
"The biggest problem, one that the study of nearly all fighting-arts faces, is that theoretical preconceptions of students do not necessarily provide practical self-defense remedies. In other words, their beliefs about how things ought to work don't match the reality of what happens in fights. This is a direct result of ignorance of the inherent bio-mechanics involved in fighting, inexperience in executing the core movements of close combat, and inferior physical conditioning. If it were all solely a matter of pure survival necessity there would be none of this. That most of this is due to sheer wishful thinking and fantasy-minded desire for escapist role-play goes without saying. That is the dilemma facing many modern students of this craft. Study and practice of Renaissance martial arts is a fun and interesting hobby, primarily a means of martial recreation, less so physical exercise and personal development. This is also another reason for what makes the ARMA so distinct, if you see my meaning.
            But, in my experience people reading things likes this online don't read very carefully, so it's easy to take things out of context when they don't pay close attention and miss half of what was written or how it was said. I assume this will be no different for some readers."

What led you to that conclusion?
"Several things rather than just any one experience. Even as I first began exploring these weapons and skills in the early 1980s I noted there were often things that people habitually did that just didn't work when they attempted them outside of their comfort zone of whatever sparring guidelines or tournament rules they had constructed. Countless times since I've encountered people who have a theory about a particular technique or move and they will be way, way off with it. They will entirely miss the physicality of the movement or the functionality of the weapon's application but don't realize it. They couldn't perform it effectively on a target with a sharp blade and or couldn't apply it decently in sparring. Why is this? Because they simply lack good understanding of the inherent biomechanics involved. Why? Because they don't know enough about fighting. How is this the case? Because they don't spend enough time using realistic weapons or practicing moves with proper speed and force and don't try them with contact in free-play against people who know how to move correctly. So, they end up with overly-complicated ideas or with timid and soft interpretations. I see this same thing occurring just as much nowadays.
            Similarly, many times in this craft I've witnessed first hand examples of the kind of cognitive dissonance where someone having been thoroughly outclassed and bested in open bouting will nonetheless continue to insist that they have no particular deficiencies in their technical skill or their general understanding of fighting. Even after repeatedly poor results in sparring against several opponents, the thought that they should question their method of training or whatever system of fencing they follow never seems to enter into their mind. It's bizarre. But it's far from an uncommon phenomena to encounter. I suspect it's due in part to an overemphasis on the slow speed, low energy, rote emulation of counter techniques against a cooperating partner kind of drill (the sort of thing that permeates the practice of so much of the Asian martial arts nowadays). Such exercise is only a layer of overall learning and not representative of combat skills. It is a just a tool on the path of developing real fighting ability, not its expression."

What observations can you offer on the current state of the Art?
"Where to begin? We've gone from a desert wasteland of nonsense and ignorance a decade ago to a cluttered jungle of weeds with a few scattered fruits in between. There is still too much ineptitude, too much mediocrity, too many pathetic misinterpretations and poor physicality among teachers, and just way too many bozos with disturbingly inept interpretations. When you add to the poor grasp of core principles displayed an inability to appreciate its inherent physicality and violence or the energy and intensity which it was performed, it's a disaster. This is all part of why we push our high standards in response.
            There now are many different disparate historical combat groups and small collections of individuals here and there, and despite the mass of source material to study from, many still have not outgrown the pretentious costumed role-play and stunt fencing mentality. For many people, I think the historical source material is little more than a way of augmenting all that. They reference the source works and source teachings now but don't train with martial intent, only half-hearted force in moves, conduct weak sparring with incorrect guards, poor body mechanics, ineffective basic cuts, and serious misapplication of core principles. It's constant work to insure that our new students aren't influenced to emulate such poor standards."

What are some of the things that stand out for you in the resurgence of authentic Renaissance martial arts?
"Hmmm... One of the more remarkable phenomena that comes to mind is one I've encountered among longtime practitioners of some Asian martial tradition expressing their desire to 'supercede the boundaries' of Eastern and Western fighting arts. Considering that the serious investigation of historical European martial traditions is in its infancy and that such individuals have themselves been almost entirely outside its sphere of research, this is quite an astonishing view to take. This is akin to a chef of Asian cuisine who has never studied, say, classical Italian or French cuisine (let alone been trained by an expert in them), nonetheless announcing that they want to 'transcend' the differences between Chinese and European cooking. I naturally find such a way of thinking bewildering. Were the roles reversed, and a modern student of the revival of Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills to announce they wanted to transcend the limits of extant Asian fighting styles without benefit of having ever devoted a lifetime to their exploration, they would be rightly dismissed as a fool.
        Maybe I should add here that, after having spent so long exploring historical European fighting arts and researching our lost martial heritage, when it comes to the traditional Asian styles, my estimation of this has evolved since I was a youth. I am convinced the majority of them today are in fact taught as virtual dance routines, combat-ineffective martial sports, and even forms of esteem-building role-play. I have less respect for them than I once did in the past. Many of them are hyped up, and watered down, yet missing that functional middle. I can really only speak for the armed arts and weapon training, but very little of it is anything more than ballet. I was a long time coming to this conclusion, and was myself surprised by it, until several senior expert instructors in assorted Asian styles confidentially expressed to me that they felt the very same way. Seems as a result of MMA and UFC type events and military self-defense training programs, as well as the emergence of our field of study, more people see this than ever before. It has surprised me to discover there is just as much, if not far more, hype, fraud, farce, and fantasy role-playing within the pursuit of popular Asian martial arts today than in our craft."

How has the current status of the subject affected what you do?
"I think every serious martial arts instructor today is faced with questions from students about what they see others teaching or doing, or they witness done in film and TV fights, and it's the responsibility of a credible instructor to address these things with clarity. I try not to spend much time dwelling on the flawed, terribly flawed, interpretations that now abound in our subject. There are, as I have long said, an infinite number of ways to do something wrong in fighting and only a few ways (and in some cases only one) way of doing it right. You can't spend all your time telling students how not to do things. That time and energy is better spent telling them how to do it right and how to exploit opponents who do it wrong. But as we have wondered, why are there so many flawed interpretations out there? The reason is simple: core assumptions. I've written extensively on the matter of core assumptions, as well as the issue of how motive and objective affects this activity. These matters are influenced by personal understanding of the body mechanics of close combat. Misunderstanding of them results in failure to appreciate the inherent violence and athleticism of the craft, the handling of weapons with vigor, and the necessity of training to apply techniques with serious martial intent. These are the essential things that inform our interpretation and application today of the historical source teachings. You can't BS with them."

Can you elaborate on that?
"It's a simple matter, really. Without an application component, where actions are tested adversarially, training is meaningless. ...Interpretation is meaningless without application. Indeed, no interpretation is worthwhile without effective application. Reconstruction itself is interpretation-application. To prove the validity and efficacy of this craft, it MUST be done with proper skill, it must be demonstrated with athletic expertise and performed with real effectiveness, not the lame weak-kneed version some people out there being heralded are doing.
        Put it this way, I can have a virtual novice bring up an issue of how to perform a particular stance or strike and want to debate it. That's fine, we encourage it. But if they are shown that their assumptions or viewpoint is flawed, technically self-defeating, and ambiguous, that should settle the matter. Rather than try to keep arguing textual possibilities as an intellectual exercise ad nauseum, they need to get off their chair, pick up their weapons and start training harder. But, as Marcel Proust once wrote, for some people 'Facts don't enter a world dominated by our beliefs.' The ultimate absurdity in the study of any fighting art is to encounter an attitude among a practitioner that can be summed up essentially as: 'You may have beaten me decisively in sparring and I may not be able to do the techniques as I suspect it might have been done, and your version certainly works well enough and, yes, even closely fits the source evidence, but I am still going to keep on wondering about my version anyway, not because I have any practical insight into combat or can demonstrate any particular skill with weapons, but just because being contrary it gives me something to do.' ...Strange. That kind of immature attitude is hard to fathom."

Physical fitness is something that most everyone needs to improve on in our modern society, is it any different when it comes to this craft?
"The physical conditioning issue and its relation to misunderstanding and misapplying physical mechanics of Renaissance martial arts are at the very heart of so much disagreement among practitioners of his craft. There is an obdurate unwillingness on the part of some to grasp this basic concept due to their continuing obsession with role-playing that they are chivalric knights and honorable cavalier duelists. They like to imagine the immutable laws of personal violence don't apply to them.
        You know, the martial arts are often described as a being like mirror, in that they reflect back honestly only what is before it, whether it is ugliness or beauty. In your ability and skill you can fool yourself for a long time but you can't fool an adversary. Your delusions are eventually exposed. As Matt Larson, the head instructor of the US Army's Combative Systems Program once stated, 'The demands of training must mirror the demands of combat. If the two are different, it is the training standards that are wrong.' This applies also to the element of stress and emotional content that good training prepares a warrior for (something you cannot get out of mere drills and exercises, but only vigorous free-play)."

Isn't the original purpose of the Art to overcome adversaries that are stronger or have physical advantages?
"Definitely. But, this has never in history precluded the demands of physical combat or negated the benefits of physical conditioning for the warrior. Training is a discipline that's supposed to provide skills and conditioning to aid survival, not excuse poor fitness and laziness (and certainly not make you pretend you are something you're not in real life). A skilled, physically fit fighter will defeat a skilled physically unfit fighter every time. Indeed, to overcome superior conditioning requires substantial skill. That kind of skill simply can't be acquired without a level of commitment that itself occurs along with a degree of improved conditioning, not in spite of it. Make sense?
        Some people have no conception of proper body mechanics as a direct result of their horrendous physical condition and many times, gross obesity. The lack of understanding of balance and leverage as a result of poor muscularity and excessive flab should be stunningly offensive to any serious student of historical fencing. For example, wrestling or grappling with a large rotund person is entirely different than facing that person with weapons. Having them grapple through natural bulk is one thing, but getting them to actively perform armed fighting techniques in good speed and range is entirely different, let alone getting them to attempt unarmed moves against weapons. Ask yourself, how many grossly obese warriors or duelists do you ever encounter in history? How many among top level athletes, major sports figures, Olympic fencers, or martial arts champions are terribly out of shape?"

Why do think physical conditioning is such a problem area for so many enthusiasts and practitioners?
"Well, I'm no expert and not able to address the cause. But, I've written essays on our website on the topic of fitness in relation to the historical Art. The historical fact is our fighting ancestors were in good shape and had to be. Today, by contrast, look at our lifestyles: We almost all sit constantly. We sit on our commutes to work. We sit most of the day behind desks while at work. We then go to lunch and sit some more. Then we sit on the drive home again. When we get there we sit again for dinner or go out and sit. Then we sit and watch TV or play games, usually snacking as we do. If we go out again, we do little else than sit in a theater or a bar.  What's the mystery here?  We move too little and eat too much. How does doing this prepare someone for correctly unlocking the lost methods of serious combat skills?"

You've often stressed in your presentations and lectures the importance of appreciating this underlying violence, why is that?
"Definitely. At its heart this craft is about men coming to blows and surviving the violent use of force. The fighting skills we study were about violence and war, about men fighting against their enemies, struggling against adversaries bent on their destruction, trying to avenge or protect their comrades and loved ones by taking life, not just calmly entering into single combats on some accepted terms of polite decorum with their social peers in order to advance their public standing. That is the exception, not the rule. The general rule was street fighting, sudden assault, drunken brawl, and battlefield survival. These are the things that greatly influence my own reconstruction and practice of the craft. This is also a reason why I am so opinionated on this subject. But I am opinionated because I am confident. I have had considerable experience, have demonstrated my skills, produced skilled students, and validated my beliefs with historical evidence. This doesn't mean that the practice of this Art of Defence is about being violent, any more than policing means being criminal. But it is essentially about skills of war, whether used in battle, duel, or street."

Violence would seem to be the underlying fact of this whole subject, yet some people seem to want to imagine that's not the case?
"Oh, yeah... bizarre, that. My next book will come as quite a shock to them then. LOL. Its entire theme is the gruesome violence and bloody death surrounding historical close combat and the art of fencing. I've got over 200 pages alone documenting the inherent incessant violence that frame the heart and soul of our subject. Seriously, though, let's examine it this way: Medieval and Renaissance fighting men existed in an undeniably violent world of danger. Unlike the mythology that has been created around both chivalric feats of arms and the formal duel of honor, the need for martial skills came about precisely because there were so many armed people going around in the Medieval and Renaissance eras ready to fight with swords over the slightest pretense. This is precisely a reason why they developed certain ethical, social, and spiritual frameworks by which to act when they were compelled to do violence as fighting men.
        Again, to imagine that this craft can be revised and pursued without appreciation of this reality and without vigorous application of technique is sadly delusional. When I see some people trying hard now to imagine that the nature of close combat in the Medieval and Renaissance eras was not vicious, ruthless, and grisly, I have to conclude that more than ever we are deeply needed. Battling these accretions of ignorance means our work of educating is cut out for us."

But the Art itself is not about being violent?
"No. Definitely not. Fighting out of either anger or fear is a central problem to overcome. Yet, even though the Art itself can be elegant, and fighting men did on occasion try to kill one another with bloodthirsty decorum, I am appalled when I see people trying now to imagine that this Art of combat was not violent, nor brutal, nor gruesome. I am disgusted when I see any student of this craft trying to inoculate themselves from the reality by such willful ignorance. The ARMA is a desperately needed antidote to such fantasy."

Is that reflected in your opinion on the necessity for free-play or sparring?
"Partially. Real combat was not about showing 'good technique' to spectators or opponents but about surviving in an encounter of invariably chaotic violence. Anything else reflects not a concern for combat effectiveness and historical methods, but for display, performance, and sport play. Even today, in mock combat if you have 'killed' your opponent, it is because you have done what was necessary to do so and they could not prevent it. Rules for mock combat must be about safety first, then about what the weapons could actually do second, and only lastly be framed with concern for what was once considered 'proper technique' or even 'good form' or 'proper etiquette' among some social portion of fighting men."

Why do you think some people miss the obvious nature of this?
"I think some enthusiasts simply project onto it - they project their own experiences, needs, fantasies; all the emotions that go into thinking about historical arms and battle regardless of what actual factual evidence they know about it. Whereas in the ARMA, we have a considerable portion of our core members who are active duty military or law enforcement, all people who can appreciate the seriousness of real world violence and some of whom have experienced it first hand (maybe I should add IT workers to that list? ...LOL). I think it also makes a tremendous difference that we don't have as our core base people who were originally attracted this subject by escapist role-play or theatrical performance or sporting recreation.
        Is this any real surprise though? I bet if you were to ask the average sword enthusiast our there to honestly compare the number of hours they've spent playing video games, reading fantasy novels, and watching fantasy films, with the number of hours spent reading history books or exercising in the gym, I'm confident the gap would be monumental."

Is a central difficulty one of divergent interpretations of source teachings or failure to acquire individual skills?
"I'm not sure I understand the question. Follow with me on this observation, though: I've long noticed something that occurs throughout the modern practice of martial arts: people will often have theories about a technique or a move or an element that they can't articulate well and can't physically demonstrate effective application of, but for which nonetheless they will assert the validity of and argue endlessly about. (That they also lack the physical discipline prerequisite for sound theorizing on the subject in the first place is for some reason a non-issue to them.) This problem occurs in our field of historical fencing studies more so than any other combative, I think, because it is so 'theoretical.' It has for so long been filled with fantasy and nonsense, and there are now so many available sources over which everyone is puzzling to reconstruct. So, when the ARMA goes around emphasizing physical application and proven martial validity through performance with intent, it rubs some people the wrong way. They would prefer to keep it all comfortably interpretive as some unchallenged abstract, or else just role-play it with costumes, contests, and stunts. Naturally this makes real progress difficult."

What can you share of the guiding philosophy that has shaped your outlook toward reviving historical European martial arts?
"That's a whole subject in itself, I think. But, to give it a crack, from my years involved in this I think that my philosophy accepts that you inevitably have to be exclusionary. There are things that just don't work when they are open to anyone and everyone regardless of differing motives and goals. You have to accept that in this craft there are things - principles, values - that we hold to be virtues, and that you arrive at them by excluding those things that they are not. You exclude for example, escapist role-play as your motivation, and mediocrity and ineptitude in physical application, and you exclude an ahistorical focus or ignorance of scholarship in the source teachings. And by doing this, of course, you exclude those people who have different objectives and substantially contrary methods. You then open yourself up to those who, while they may not have consciously decided to be the antithesis of this philosophy, they are by their actions and beliefs accepting and promoting very converse values. So, when they see you as being anti-something they naturally react by attacking. They will label us arrogant or elitist, but it's just a polemic. The reality is, you can't seriously go about this subject any other way. I believe we can't effectuate a viable chivalric Science of Defence through any other means. The historical Masters certainly don't suggest otherwise."

How does this reflect on a student's day-to-day concerns about practice and scholarship?
"You know, I could answer that with platitudes of polite politically correct, 'Oh, everyone is just so wonderful and it's such a wonderful happy time of wondrousness', but you know that is simply not true and saying so would be insincere. To be acerbic, there all sorts of martial art styles and teachers of different fighting methods out there, and not all are created equal and not all are as effective. It's a fact. Some are just better than others. They each may appeal to certain interests, certain aptitudes and attitudes among different students, and each presumably has certain core requirements for credible practice, but that does not mean they all possess the same martial spirit, let alone the same level of capacity and credibility. It's no secret that many of them are little more than doing dance routines and learning useless ballet-like movements, not fighting skills or legitimate self-defense skills, let alone historical combat systems. I think the same has always been inevitable with Medieval and Renaissance fencing, except that in our case we are struggling to revive and reconstruct our craft in the face of long held distortions and nonsense misrepresentations.
        To put this in context for historical fencing studies, it's sad to me to see such willful ignorance over such fundamental issues as self-defense in the face of violence and death. It's also sad how many of the same old costumed role-playing living-history reenactors and stunt fencers and sport fencing coaches as they look at the source literature can now effortlessly adopt the labels and words of 'martial arts.' It further diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of our heritage. ...I seriously doubt some of these doughboys and blubbery buffoons promoting themselves to astoundingly naïve students have any idea how to perform techniques in earnest, let alone offer credible programs of martial training. It's about mere posing. It's no surprise you don't see impressive videos of them in energetic action or of their senior students performing techniques with appropriate energy and speed."

Does that explain some of the affirmations expressed throughout the ARMA website?
"Not really. Let me put it this way: a great deal of the Medieval and Renaissance combat interpretation taking place out there right now is based on experiences and assumptions that are decades old. We had folk who wanted to swordfight and so made up systems of doing it safely. They had to pretty much invent their own rule structure for sparring and such. They borrowed some from sport or theatrical fencing or from Asian arts and made the rest up as they went along. For the most part they didn't have a lot of reliable reference material, they didn't have many (if any) of the historical source manuals, (and when they did, they didn't have full or accurate translations) and they didn't even have decent replica weapons available. In the intervening decades however, we've learned a tremendous amount on fighting arts in the period and the reality of weapon use. But, many people continue to follow the same old approaches that, when you think about it, were founded on ignorance, that were devised for pretend playing in a way that reflected what they saw in reenactment clubs and movies or that  they acted out in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Over time, this approach took on a life of its own, and now it's nearly impossible to break some people of the habits and misconceptions they've inherited. Adherence to rigid systems of pseudo-historical fencing just won't allow them to incorporate new insights and new findings without upsetting the whole system. They then selectively use the historical sources to validate an adolescent need for identity. It's not about history or martial spirit or research into real combatives. It's role-play for them. Make sense? Granted, this certainly doesn't apply to everyone, but it's a formula that does help explain a lot of people out there, doesn't it?"

Isn't much of what you're expressing a problem in nearly all martial arts styles today?
"Yeah, as I said. As much as I am trying to stay positive, its regrettable to observe how for some of the self-proclaimed experts out there the recent evolution of their 'years of experience' is laughable. They get to retroactively declare all their past costumed role-playing and martial sports were along actually de facto 'Martial Arts.' It's a pathetic fraud. They are really claiming years of experience in Sca-like living-history activities, or stage combat, or classical/sport fencing titles, now converts to historical 'martial arts' study - regardless of the huge gulf of differences in method, motive, equipment, methodology, and intent between those activities, not to mention the complete lack of any substantive advancement in this subject during all that supposed time of practice. I have to wonder who it is they think they are fooling with such nonsense assertions? It's pretty funny that we can look back and find virtually no evidence before the year 2000 of any of them ever advocating a genuine systematic martial arts approach to the source literature, or placing any emphasis on grappling or test-cutting or use of historically accurate training tools, or even an exclusive concern for the historical source teachings. It's all a recent development post-2000. It's a welcome change but for many people it is still just superficial surface icing to justify what they have always done. I know many people would agree with me that this needs to change. There is too much that is incongruous with developing a truer appreciation and authentic understanding of the combative methods of Medieval and Renaissance fighting men."

Can you be more specific?
"Not in the way I would wish, at the moment. When we look at the historical fencing community, it's easy to feel conflicted. On the one hand it exists now when it really didn't a decade ago. On the other hand, most of its so-called leading representatives are largely pathetically skilled, especially in contrast to those of the traditional Asian martial arts. There are some real bozos out there pushing largely unchallenged rubbish. There's also plenty of good scholarship and research now, certainly, sure, along with some truly dismal interpretation of it, too. But skill-wise, among most of the professed leading teachers out there, things are deplorable. Too many of them simply can't fight. Their biomechanics are pathetic. From what I experienced first-hand sparring many of them years ago, seeing them spar others more recently, and in the intervening years witnessing their application of moves from their videos, as well as what my students have reported first-hand themselves from their classes, this is without question. Just reviewing much of the training methods and interpretations of source teachings now online or published reveals a generally sad state of affairs. And I make such criticisms reluctantly and with the honest intention of being constructive. I want our heritage well represented and our craft to improve across the board."

To what do you attribute this problem?
"Generally? Too many people take a soft and slow low-effort approach, one that pretends physical conditioning is relatively unimportant, that real martial arts study is all about pretending to be knight or cavalier, and that 19th and 20th century fencing styles of pretend dueling equate to practice of fighting arts. Then they're found bitching like children when someone challenges them to put up or shut up over the inconsistencies in and hypocrisy of their views compared with their skills.
        I suspect that by banding together with likeminded others to reinforce their approach they avoid their ideas and deficiencies being challenged, they get to pretend they are the only ones in the universe... until their internal divisions and petty personal politics inevitably interfere. It's sad and the only answer is to respond by providing a higher caliber instruction and demonstrate superior technical skills. Their ignorance, pretense, and mediocrity be damned."

Do you believe in the practice of this subject there is an effective way to help bridge differences in approach or attitude?
"Well, I think either you get it by now or you never will, and if you don't, it's because you just don't want to. Not to impugn anyone's original inspiration for following whatever interest in fencing they may have first found - that is, theatrical fight-performance, sport fencing competition, or living-history reenactment - but those activities are simply not martial arts and do not constitute historical systems of self-defense. I ask: does it help or hinder the credibility of the real craft to see people calling themselves serious practitioners of Medieval or Renaissance fencing as they promote shameful habits of light tappy-hits, short pulled strikes, and horrendous edge on edge whacking so that their sword edges eventually look like dull chain saws?
        To put it in further context, imagine if someone who had recently earned a mere green belt in judo announced that they were teaching combat jujitsu based on translations of half a dozen old manuals they had read. It would be ridiculous for anyone to then uncritically examine their opinions and skills. I'm convinced that because this craft is something no one needs any longer for genuine survival in war or practical protection on the street, a certain portion of people are always going to do what they want to do regardless of the historical evidence or even good common sense. ...And if you get a lot of such self-congratulating people together, with a few books to go off of, well... there you go: group-think."

Is this what you see as one of the troubling issues plaguing accurate reconstruction of these skills?
"Sure. For example, one of the chief differences between the practice of traditional Asian martial arts and that of ours now is they are not struggling to reconstruct and reestablish themselves. Working traditions of many Asian combatives exist and their viability is already accepted as generally proven. Whereas in our case, we are having to work against great ignorance and distortion at the same time we are all teaching ourselves. So, I argue there is even more reason for us to strive to display a higher level of competence and ability and to refuse to tolerate incompetence. But, just as there are lots of different schools and various styles of Asian fighting disciplines around today, and people find one style or another too intense, too demanding, or requiring too much effort, well, the same thing is occurring right now in our craft even as it's being revived and recovered, except with the difference here being that we have to have a higher end example so that lower end ones can be put in perspective. Make sense?"

How do you see what we try to do in the ARMA as uniquely significant?
"The ARMA has largely avoided some of the problems I've noted here by staying focused on personal development and public education. Never forget, the very reason the ARMA came to exist in the first place is because nothing organized was being seriously done for this subject and no genuine effort made to restore it as a credible and legitimate discipline. The martial arts attitude and approach we took made us the pioneers in reviving these teachings. One can hardly expect those who had their feet squarely planted in some historical fantasy society, or in classical fencing, or in stage combat performances, to suddenly become hard-core martial artists - even if they take up the label. From what we have seen, mostly they just reinforce each other's prejudices and egos, without considering that maybe their very method of study is flawed. Just look at the world of traditional Asian fighting arts, for instance, where 90% or more of practitioners and schools are a joke with people uselessly dancing and virtually role-playing that they are samurai, ninja, shaolin monks, what have you. I've learned to accept that our field is not going to be any different, especially given what kind of individuals make up the vast majority of its enthusiasts. There are frauds, buffoons, and inept teachers around now doing so much combat-ineffective display that we should not be surprised that our subject has its share too.
        But, in this craft, the reality as we understand it is that, to seriously revive it as a fighting Art, you need to train seriously to understand how to fight, or else you delude yourself with illusionary assumptions until someone who knows better eventually comes along and knocks you down hard. I know through what we do in the ARMA that our way unquestionably sees better results and has achieved such accomplishments is because it sets a higher standard... one that we accept is just not meant for everybody. Not every one of our members and students matches it, but we have a model and we encourage each person to strive toward it.
        I will also say, that besides the enormous gulf in their respective cultural contexts, the essential difference that I see between the pursuit of our discipline and the modern study of traditional Asian fighting arts is that, while both seek knowledge of central principles of close combat, we are not concerned with the preservation of some esoteric aesthetic but understanding of what were once practical war skills needed for self-defence.  Doing this competently demands a complete rejection of pretense."

Do you or ARMA still experience venom from others in the historical fencing community?
"Not really. We simply pay little attention to it if it's there. I've addressed before the bizarre and pathetic enmity directed by some at the ARMA and myself over the years. When you are over the target is when you take the most flak. Envy and resentment occurs throughout life in every field of endeavor. As Joseph Swetnam commented in his 1617 fencing treatise, 'there are some, for want of discretion, will disable others, only to magnify themselves...' My audience of serious scholars and student members is large enough. So, my view is, we are not here to impress anyone, seek anyone's approval or acceptance, or create some consensus. We are here to achieve something in this craft and make progress in our knowledge and skill. We want to motivate, to inspire, to help people achieve real skill and real knowledge, not hinder them with distractions and silliness, or enable them to delude themselves that they don't have to exert themselves or make a vigorous effort. We do this by setting a better example, by proving superior skills and offering a superior way. Ours is a harder way, to be sure, and one not for everyone certainly. But there is no other way to achieve greater credibility and legitimacy for this craft. It's unarguably deplorable that in this martial art there are too many people who can't perform a solo routine for more than twenty seconds without getting out of breath, can't perform counters to techniques without flinching, and can't spar without tripping over themselves, but who will nonetheless set themselves up as some authority to 'teach' others their 'interpretations.' So, calling this kind of thing out is an unfortunate necessity.  Of course, some people will hate the message and attack the messenger no matter what your virtues---especially in the case of problem areas like the sensitive issue of physical fitness and obesity. So, I'm used to it. I'm reminded here of how Gandhi noted, 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.'"

But isn't your general view of things fairly critical itself, though?
"Sure. Bitching about attitudes and prejudices and stupidity in the historical fencing community (which we all do a lot of) is another subject entirely. Perhaps the two sometimes get mixed up by people listening to both while not paying close enough attention. But they are separate topics. I know that in my personal study and the lessons I give, unless a person has shown disreputable character, the only thing we EVER do is critique ideas and interpretations, not individuals (even if at times we find their reasoning exasperating). Indeed, that is the very foundation of the entire ARMA fighting system and the reason our approach to historical fencing was created. In all my official writings I have always endeavored to attack ideas and training habits, pointing out their flaws and errors, and never personalities. There is no other way to go about being a serious fighter except by doing this."

How then do you put things in perspective for novice but serious students?
"Someone asked me once recently why I was so critical so often of various Medieval and Renaissance combat activities today, and why I seemed so frustrated with so much of it. I looked at them somewhat stunned, thought for a second, then quickly retorted: 'Why, aren't you? Have you looked at the SCA anytime in, oh, the last 35 years? Have you noticed anything about theatrical combat in like... the past six or seven decades? Have you been to a renn fair in the past twenty or thirty years? Ever talk to a typical sport fencing coach about how Medieval arms and armor were used? Ever observe the arrogance and conceit of commercial Asian martial arts? Play any historical combat video games lately? Seen a fight scene in a historical movie or TV show the past 40 years?' Caught a bit off guard by my answer, he nodded and quietly replied, 'I get your point.' I told him I thought it was a valid question nonetheless. Again, either you get it or you don't."

How does that view relate to the value of open dialogue as a means of refining knowledge?
"It's one thing to interact, compare, contrast, exchange, etc. and another to encounter absurdity that challenges the very basis of what constitutes a method of fighting. That kind of thing I feel you simply have to confront. So, with many people disagreements over fundamental issues of technique application or elements of style are not frequently worth the argument. These are things settled easily enough through sparring or test cutting, not academic battle. Much of the arguments I see over interpretations of the historical source teachings reminds me of battles between Bible scholars. One denomination or another will select some line of the Gospels, highlight it out of proportion, emphasize it out of context over everything else, consecrate it above all others, and then use it as the basis of their whole faith. You end up with people handling snakes and speaking in tongues. They miss the spirit of the meaning behind it and fail to live by it even as they endlessly argue it. The same thing is happening now in the reconstruction of Renaissance martial arts with regard to the historical source teachings. It's absurd. People forget that this Art of Defense was not about play fencing, it was about warrior skills.
        I will add here another observation. Looking at a particular source teaching in our craft might tell you to do 'xyz' and, yes, such 'xyz' is something important. But, we have to keep in mind that 'xyz' concept or action was supposed to be done in the context of fighting, in the midst of actual lethal encounters, and must be put in perspective to everything that occurs in combat. Failure to consider the larger context leads to misassigning a false importance to 'xyz' while ignoring 'pdq' thereby distorting our overall understanding. This happens all too frequently."

But isn't open debate of the source material healthy for this subject?
"Open debate is, yes. Of course. Within certain parameters, though. Why argue points that you have convincing scholarly evidence for and can perform a superior practical hands-on demonstration of with someone, when they have a subjective internal reason for not wanting it to be true? Why especially argue with people who have vested in it a personal need for the matter to not be one involving vigorous motion or exertion but instead something soft and weak that thereby excuses their lack of performing proper with martial intent? Why argue with those others who want matters to be reducible merely to issues of competing literary analysis and data mining rather than practical matters of real people using real tools in violence? (Personally, I have no doubts that at times martial instinct can trump academic assumptions, especially with respect to things that fall within the one's area of expertise, in this case armed fighting.) I'm reminded of how the economist Thomas Sowell suggested that certain 'evidence is too dangerous - politically, financially, and psychologically - for some people to allow it to become a threat to their interests or to their own sense of themselves.' Regrettably, I see this too often among historical fencing enthusiasts. Me, I just like swordfighting and want to know all I can.
        We all know a lot of sword enthusiasts today hide behind their keyboards or band together in self-congratulating cliques where contrary views are ostracized and no challenge is permitted to the prevailing orthodoxy - which I will remind the reader is exactly the situation for decades within the approaches to historical combat among groups like the SCA, the stage combat profession, the sport and classical fencing community, and especially considerable styles of traditional Asian martial arts. The in-your-face non-conformists which the ARMA attracts are too free spirited for that. I mean, when we are going around saying there needs to be more physical effort going on in fencing and someone else says there needs to be more conversation going on, what that really means is don't criticize them and don't demand better performance out of them, and don't ask others to compare results, just come around to their version of things. That's not honest 'dialogue.'"

Is the missing element a failure of some enthusiasts to balance scholarship with practice?
"Perhaps. In the past we had a dearth of one and plenty of the other. Now the pendulum has reversed. But as I have always stressed, it needs to properly be in the middle. In my opinion, the historical source manuals must be used to reexamine preconceptions, not reinforce them. I was among the very first to stress the joining of the serious academic scholarship side of this subject with the practical hand skills. Researching the source texts is wonderful and integral to this subject, and faithfully demonstrating their teachings and techniques is vital, but the bottom-line is that this is a FIGHTING art. We need to learn to fight, and to fight well in our fencing. That is the Art. Not every student or enthusiast may achieve that, but no one pursuing this craft should delude themselves that they have it when they don't, nor should they dare resent and spite those who do."

What's the antidote here as you see it to improving historical fencing studies?
"I'd love to say it's easy, but it's complicated. I think that when it comes to fighting arts you could just say to people to either put up or shut up, and knock off the nonsense. But that's not so when we have an extinct craft open to interpretation, that serves no real-life combat function any longer, and which is subject to horrendous forces of fantasy and escapism. I should add, I believe people can want to pursue historical fencing in a manner that produces genuine and accurate fighting skills derived from the source materials, but the consequences of their subjective approach of doing so objectively hinders such an end. They allow concern for the 'end' to prevent their using the appropriate 'means' for getting there." 
         I have witnessed first-hand how for some people non-critical acceptance of an invented 'system' of fighting is more important to them than addressing the lousy outcome of following that very system. I think many of them also suffer now from a desperate desire to explain away, deny, revise, trim, or flat-out lie about all their past statements, beliefs, and claims that brought us the stagnant status quo in the first place (hence the confabulated résumés of some of their teachers). The problem is that instead of teaching people how to actually fight, many historical fencing groups create an artificial setting of artificial constraints that protects the status quo of how they decided to go about it. They invent a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies have been called the enemies of excellence; their goal is not to be 'right' but to avoid ever being found 'wrong.' The only way to get to the top of something better then is to go outside the system. Heck, that's what the ARMA first did and continues to do."

Where do you consider much of the misinformation about Renaissance martial arts to originate from?
"Besides simplistic Victorian-era prejudices and general ignorance of military history among people today, I don't imagine there is really much argument nowadays that responsibility for many of the key misconceptions of what constitutes accurate Medieval and Renaissance martial arts can be shared by a number of communities. Stage combat theories and performances, stylized rules of historical societies and reenactment groups, and fantasy role-playing games - both live and computerized - as well as the prejudices of modern sport fencing, however unintentionally, have all contributed in some way with misrepresentations. They share collective blame in my opinion. They represent much of the prevailing orthodoxy which the ARMA, and myself personally, have challenged and continue to try to stand apart from.
        I will add that I've often expressed how I don't take myself very seriously, but that I sure do take this subject seriously. I try to encourage that same attitude among my students. For many other teachers I've met it seems to be exactly the opposite. Their level of pretense is nauseating as well as inversely proportionate to their physical skill as impressive fencers."

To a newcomer it can be a shock to discover all this knowledge has been dormant for so long. How do you explain to them the process of recovery?
"Good question... Some of that is explained on our website in various places already. Some of it has also been answered I think in my comments on how little legitimate work stage-combat and re-creational living history groups did in terms of re-establishing the true craft. I've also written before how much of our inspiration also comes from the efforts of Egerton Castle and Alfred Hutton in the late 19th century. This I think is worth stressing. With their colleagues, Castle and Hutton were the first to attempt a serious revival of Renaissance fencing. Castle and Hutton were military men, officers, interested first and foremost in real history. They were antiquarian enthusiasts of arms who saw duelling at the time was becoming a farce but were not moved by the new sport of fencing then coming into vogue. They were scholars and researchers who valued their martial heritage. Physical fitness was important to them and they had no interest in costumed role-play. They also realized that the fencing teachings of their age were ill suited to the needs of then modern British soldiers still finding themselves in hand-to-hand encounters. Castle and Hutton knew there was great ignorance, even among European fencing masters at the time, about the sophistication of Renaissance combat. They set out to rediscover and redevelop those fighting skills as something as effective as they had witnessed in the judo and jujitsu recently brought to London. In so many ways they were the original pioneers of historical fencing studies. But sadly, their work faded and all but died out in the trenches of the First World War. We have so much in common with them today and I see the ARMA as their descendant."

What do you feel is one of the more important advances you've witnessed in this subject?
"There are many. It's hard to isolate one above another, given the variety of weapons and source works we study. But to select one on mind currently, it would be our new restructured core curricula. It presents some tremendous insights and new revelations resulting from our intense focus on understanding the practical aspects of fighting, and its necessary inherent violence, practical athleticism. I myself am astonished by some of the breakthroughs we've had that have been under everyone's noses all along. After all, I have been pursuing this subject almost 3 decades now, been doing it professionally full-time since 2001, avoiding the whole time the meaningless distractions and dead ends of stunt fencing and costumed role-play as much as possible, and increasingly relying exclusively on the historical sources. So, maybe it's only natural that we would inevitably reach what we are, given the newly recovered manuals, better translations, and the level of physical skills we've obtained. I feel we have really made key findings that unlock the Art - an art which both Master Liechtenauer and Fiore tell us specifically is simple. Unlike the mystique and hype pushed on us by so many aficionados of traditional Asian fighting arts today, and the amateurs who delude themselves with feeble abilities, close-combat skills are neither complex nor difficult. That is the biggest lesson any one can learn, I believe.   
        I'll say again that I hope all these comments here prove valuable to students, but in my experience people reading things online don't read carefully. They skim through things while at work or late at night. They don't pay close attention and miss half of what's said or the context of how it's said. I expect this interview will be no different."

Few people in the world still know what the emerging field of historical European martial arts practice is all about, so why does there have to be such conflicting issues among different practitioners?
"Yeah... it's a shame. We all love swords and we all want to know and have fun. But maybe the thing is that deep down it just means very different things to different people. As I always say, many of us have fundamentally incompatible motives and objectives as well as different methods and approaches. Or maybe it's just that we are all fighters at heart and so love a good confrontation against an 'opponent', even if it's only in words.
        I'll take this opportunity to reveal something here... After years of study I've reached a profound conclusion about the nature of the martial art of historical fencing. I had the realization that regardless of any individual practitioner's school or style or personal method, ultimately any encounter is reduced to single combat of man against man. Whatever the circumstances, any fight is a matter of each individual fighter's own skill. It is a struggle between personal ability, no more, no less. Regardless of the combative system the fighter may represent or adhere to, that ability is a matter of experience, conditioning and knowledge. Historically, masters and teachers of different schools were notorious for disagreeing and disputing one another's theories and systems. While there are such things as faulty or flawed combative systems, different approaches are usually only variations of universal principles at work. Sometimes different methods are both mutually valid. The same is true today (especially in the realm of popular Asian fighting arts). Enthusiasts may sometimes find agreement in their interpretations of techniques or actions within the source manuals, but more often, I believe they will not. The fact that no one uses these skills and weapons for actual self-defense in actual life and death encounters only makes it harder to find common ground. And even if they can agree on the words of a text, the instructions can often still be employed in quite different ways by different practitioners. Who can say which analysis is the correct or true one intended by the historical author? After all, so much of this subject will always remain tentative and theoretical because no one can 'prove' it or 'test' it for real under real conditions of 'historical' combat.
        This realization came to me when I began to notice that whatever the evidence provided on some issues, whatever the information or documentation or personal anecdotes offered up, some people were never going to be convinced of the truth of even the most obvious and self-evident things - even as it was literally bashing them in the head sometimes. It's not a matter of mutual acceptance of contrary opinions. Most sword enthusiasts, I believe, simply lack not only the experience of having examined or handled enough authentic antique swords, and lack the experience of test-cutting on realistic target materials with accurate replica weapons, but also simply lack the eye-opening experience of fencing at full speed and force against skilled opponents who refuse to cooperate.    
           Instead, their experiences and understanding of historical close combat is less martial and more sporting, more academic, more re-creational, and often motivated by personal needs of pretense or escapism. Thus, I have to consider that perhaps the very nature of our craft is not one of mutual agreement in working academically toward some objective end truth or well-reasoned shared understanding, but rather one of disagreement, of contention, of being adversarial, regardless of consensus. When it comes to a martial art, for one or another practitioner, things are perhaps circumstantially valid without being objectively true. Maybe this explains why there are so many disparate fighting systems in the world when a practical cross-comparison would reveal objectively what works and what doesn't. I believe that if it were possible to weed out mediocrity in the modern practice of martial arts today it would have been done so already. There have been many experts over the past few decades who attempted to lead the way and set an example and I think they eventually all came to realize the only thing that can be done is help that small minority who is willing to make the effort. I don't want it to sound like I am arguing there is no way to validate any view or invalidate any other. Because in the martial arts you should always be able to call someone out to non-lethally cross weapons or to step up and show what they can do in a vigorous side-by-side comparison."

Any last thoughts to add regarding the current state of the Art?
"Yes. I feel compelled to reiterate something here. Today there are several groups and colleagues working in this field that we respect. As I often say, we are in the beginning of a new 'renaissance' in the study of Renaissance fighting arts, yes. The state of the art has definitely improved, but has not gone far enough.  When forming our organization over a decade ago we rejected all the then existing efforts at historical combat. They weren't something conducted with proper martial intent, didn't have enough historicity, and didn't acknowledge the necessary physicality. Despite decades they showed little success and little results in terms of understanding and recovering actual historical fighting skills. We on the other hand, have had tremendous results and success through our efforts in a far shorter period---so much so that the martial approach to the source teachings we pioneered has now become the standard for so many in historical fencing studies. And today, just because many people have adopted the title of 'martial arts' and finally come to focus on study of the historical source teachings doesn't mean everything has completely changed. The central people now doing things invariably always have one foot in the realm of role-play reenactment, or stage combat, or classical fencing. These things are their roots and it shows still in their core assumptions and study approaches (that is, in their motive, objectives, methods). We consciously chose not to participate or associate with those activities in the past and maintain that attitude today toward their new derivatives. It's a matter of simply not sharing the same martial values.
    Still, we ourselves have plenty of people in the ARMA who are not martial artists. But they are not historical role-players or stunt fencers either. They are scholars or amateur academics, and while they may not practice intensely, they respect those who do. They don't spite and resent them or wish them away. It's like, if you enjoy hockey or basketball but are not a star player, you don't go trashing the NBA or NHL. Even if you don't participate on the highest level you still concern yourself with enjoying the games and the teams and knowing rules and statistics. I think the same should be true of historical fencing studies and the practice of serious Renaissance martial arts today. One of our mottos in the ARMA after all is: history, heritage, camaraderie, exercise, and self-defense.
    A friend recently expressed some thoughts on all this that got me thinking. I believe now that no matter what we do in this craft we are always going to dis some people. Why? Because there is a lot of mediocrity and incompetence out there. And any time you call it what it is somebody is going to get upset. But we can't ignore it. We have to call it out. Because it hurts this craft not to. Yet even if we didn't go around pointing that kind of thing out we are still going to upset some people. By the very fact of setting a contrast and offering something better you are showing them up. If you just ignore everything and go about your own business you are always going to have some people who look at the higher end standard and can't compete. They will resent and deride what they can't match. You are also always going to have some people who come to you for validation. When you're unable to reciprocate the praise and compliments they give, they will feel dissed and then dis you right back in turn. The lowest common denominator will always feel inadequate and resent you because you made them feel bad about themselves. You will be blamed as both message and messenger. Then there will always be those people who feel you're competing with them and taking what they deserve so that they're not getting the prestige and attention they feel they're entitled.  So, whether by action or inaction there will always be people who dis you no matter what. Given this, I hold the conviction that we can do nothing better than be true to ourselves in pursuing our own higher standards. In the process we can not help but improve the state of the art."

What drives you to study all this so intensely?
"I love swords and fencing and I love history. I love to bring people to the same sense of excitement and wonder and satisfaction I find in its study. The knowledge of our past, the camaraderie, the healthy exercise, martial spirit, the real life fighting skills, the cultural connection, all of it is compelling. Interestingly, I've learned more about human nature (the ugliness and the virtuousness), and met some of the truly best people in my life, as well as some of the truly worst, all through this subject. I can fortunately say the good have far outweighed the bad. For me, and I know for many others, there is a sense of excitement to this subject which I don't see in any of the extant martial traditions. There is a profound element of exploration, a requirement for scholarly investigation, and a rich diversity of arms and armors to train with from some 500 years of our cultural history. We have, every one of us, no matter how novice, an opportunity to contribute in a process of discovery. It's intriguing and challenging to know we are doing something new that is very old.  I'd much rather be putting my energy into researching and writing than answering questions in this manner, but I do it in the hope that some readers will find value in it and because senior students I respect have told me they think it would be good. But, as they keep telling me: this is part of what this is all about; to take back our heritage, to rescue it from misunderstanding and misrepresentation, to revive it in the face of ignorance and nonsense, and to, as I so often say, reclaim the blade."

End

 
 

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