Modern "Masters"?

By John Clements
ARMA Director


"I have seen one hundred men who would call themselves Masters
yet if you took all their skills added together,
you would not have the makings of three good students,
let alone one Master…of this art there are few Masters in the world"
- Master Fiore dei Liberi, Flos Duellatorum, 1410

It is a historical fact that there are not now, nor have there been for several centuries, any "Masters" of Medieval or Renaissance fighting arts. No one alive today represents any tradition or line of teachers of any school or lineage of actual Medieval or Renaissance fighting arts. Such martial teachings and fencing skills narrowed and specialized over the ages as they evolved to meet the changing demands of newer military and self-defense environments. As a result, wisdom and experience in the older methods and weaponry faded, atrophied, and was abandoned. Medieval and Renaissance styles were lost and forgotten. No branch of modern European fencing retained or preserved a historical curriculum of Medieval and Renaissance combatives and does not represent (nor can now claim) any authority over its study. The modern styles of fencing (with foil, epée, sabre, and cane) some centuries ago gave up instruction and practice in the core elements central to all Medieval and Renaissance close-combat: grappling/wrestling, double-hand blades, two-weapon combinations, polearms, the dagger, use of shields and armors, facing multiple opponents, seizures and disarms, etc.

Knowledge of these skills styles now lies entirely outside the teachings of modern fencing and its modern masters are neither the inheritors nor repositories of these vanished customs. This state of affairs was recognized among respected fencers starting in the mid-19th century. No one today by virtue of credentials or titles in any modern sword style—from classical and Olympic fencing masters-at-arms to theatrical fight-masters—has attained expertise in genuine Medieval or Renaissance combat skills or mastery of their techniques. Nor are they qualified by their area of specialty to bestow or certify proficiency in weapons and fighting methods outside of their sporting and display-based pursuits.

No one living today was trained in the Art by any historical (i.e., Medieval or Renaissance) Master of Defence, or even by anyone who were themselves indirectly trained by one. They have not existed for centuries. Time has severed the links. No one living today even has personal experience of earnestly fighting for their life against others trying to kill them with Medieval or Renaissance weapons, let alone in using these archaic teachings in real violence. Any claims of an "unbroken line" of transmission or genuine tradition are actually irrelevant if at present nothing combat effective can be demonstrated as having been acquired as a direct result of some preserved teachings passed along through some retained pedagogy of instruction.  (It's even less relevant when others working directly from reconstruction of the source teachings can readily demonstrate more expert application, let alone more sound martial interpretation than those alleging privilege to some special knowledge.) 

There is a complete absence of any passed-on tradition, unbroken instructional lineage, or accrediting historical authority for the practice of authentic Renaissance martial arts. Such an acknowledged truth has been unquestioned by fencing historians for generations now. This fact is the very reason why the craft now has to be revived and reconstructed from the source literature in the first place. This present situation, combined with the availability of historical study material now, is why it is also easy today for virtually anyone studying the subject to assert some "expertise" in, or even claim (embarrassingly) to be a "master" of, these extinct combatives. One part of serious study and exploration into these diverse fighting systems from the Medieval and Renaissance eras thus consists of educating enthusiasts on the reality of this state of affairs.

In the Renaissance, being a "fencing master," that is, a teacher of the Noble Science of Defence, meant more than acquiring an instructional rank. It was also more than founding or continuing a school by adding new material to an existing tradition because you had acquired the practice of a fighting system. The historical sources tell us titles were awarded for fighting—for demonstrating you could fight, not talk, not theorize, not pose and dance, not even just teach, but expertly fight. If you could prove you knew your stuff and could hold your own against, or even best, your seniors then you obviously knew what you were doing, and knowing it you could pass it along to others you trained. The whole point was to display that your prowess in these survival skills was functionaly suited to real self-defense. Though there were surely some teachers and schools better than others, it is difficult to imagine anyone in the Renaissance was awarded the rank of "Master" who was not to some degree a "masterful fighter." (The two are not always synonymous today within modern schools of popular martial arts or combat sports, though the title itself would seem to imply it and it's accepted that others readily infer it).

So, we can ask just who is qualified today to declare anyone a "master" of the craft? How do you even display "mastery" of skills that few if any involved today can agree on what constitute the skills in the first place? This is an issue worth pondering if we are to avoid the misrepresentation that prevents this subject from acquiring its due creditability and legitimacy—or allowing its standards of practice to rise. It immensely foolish for anyone now to claim to be "master" of lost historical teachings that even the best explorers today are still struggling to reconstruct and relearn. Considering the current immaturity of the subject of Medieval and Renaissance fencing practice, every enthusiast should be far more concerned with being considered a serious student of the craft than with being called "masters" of it.

"Then he is not worthie to be called a Maister of Defence, which cannot defend himselfe at all weapons...hee which cannot defend himselfe, cannot teach others to defend themselves, nor is he worthy to be called a Maister of Defence."
- Master Joseph Swetnam, 1617

“It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles"
– Machiavelli, 1513


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