John ClementsThe Sorry State of Academic Journal Writing on Medieval and Renaissance Combat Arts

Think back to the best and most memorable historical reading you've ever enjoyed or found vital. Was any of it of the pompous, overwrought, jargon-cluttered variety?

By John Clements
ARMA Director

I try to stay current on academic journal papers about the fight books and I am happy to see so much serious scholarly effort being done on them at the graduate level. It's been decades in the making. But, the mind-numbing insistence on ridiculously masking everything in vacuous over-intellectualized "academic jargon" renders it akin to torture. If a conscious effort were made to render their research comically unreadable, they could do little better. Anything worthwhile analyzing the subject material is buried under ponderously overwrought verbiage.

The slavish conformity to the bane known as modern academic writing style doesn't make it at all useful and it doesn't make any of it interesting. It doesn't make anyone want to pay attention and it doesn't make anything they say come across with any conviction that they actually have anything important to share. It does exactly the opposite. Yet they seem to be clueless to this and obediently drone along, religiously conforming to the doctrine that to be taken seriously as a "scholar" they must deliberately say as little as possible in as many words as possible.

Though mercifully there are many wonderful exceptions, the modern academic journal writing style makes virtually all of their product unreadable and excruciatingly dull. It's as if to be able to convince their professors that they have real insight into a real topic, they are forced to take something as exciting and personal as historical self-defense teachings and intentionally mutate it through some sort of fringe postmodern literary criticism. Its pseudo-intellectualized self-referencing blather is a nauseating failure on so many levels. It does nothing to give their papers credibility.

What advantage is there in rewarding scholars for constructing technical literature so as to render it all but useless in terms of reading for either enjoyment or education? More educated persons than myself have complained how this a problem across all academia, so no reason to expect it to be any different for scholarly papers on our subject. But, since I don't focus on other subjects, as an outsider when I see it in my beloved field I'm disgusted. Think back to the best educational history reading you've ever enjoyed. Was any of it of the overwrought, pompous, and jargon-cluttered kind? I bet not.

It's one thing to have a technical vocabulary or terminology specific to a field of study, and another entirely to intentionally bloat writing beyond anything necessary for examination or critical analysis. Dr. Sydney Anglo, and before him, Ewart Oakeshott and David Edge, each showed how we can write about historical combat arts or arms and armor in plain language while still being scholarly, erudite, informative, and eminently useful.

But the orthodox adherence to verbose and pompous wordage is just a game that does nothing to revitalize our efforts at reconstruction of our craft. It's not surprising then that almost none of it offers pertinent insight into how combatants of the past moved and fought, nor helps us better revive and practice their methods today. Rather than communicate clearly and directly, they go out of the way to read as if they are part of an exclusive "elite" community of "insiders" not accessible to the "uninitiated," but instead they just come across as obnoxiously pretentious. After painfully drudging through the typical "HEMA" paper, one usually ends up asking where in all these pages-and obligatory citations of other identically inflated papers-did a single previously unknown fact get presented or an interesting original opinion conveyed? Was there a single substantive experience described? It's all done up with deliberate obfuscation; a humorless game of language camouflage to make it read as something knowledgeable while concealing that there is really nothing there. One can read an entire sentence and not find an intriguing string of verbs and nouns, or digest whole paragraphs and come away realizing they said absolutely nothing. One has to wonder: What target audience relishes the indigestion from reading such self-important noise?

Just use enough wordage in your to insure it comes off as above the layman’s understanding and —poof!— professors can then get away with not really having had to read through and comprehend it. That’s the con. Academia should be both mocked and scorned for coddling this muddling drivel that comes at the real expense of subverting true intellectual rigor. Does doing this aid or hinder the process of peer review in evaluating scholarly methods and conclusions? 

The false formality of the obtuse is a pretense that no one in the real world uses. Plain language that is clear and concise is critical in any field where you actually have to do real work and accomplish things. This is just as true when trying to make the case for a historical argument. It’s even more necessary when teaching self-defense skills. How much more so when the two are combined? If the strength of your findings or the value of your opinion is such that it cannot be communicated directly in ordinary language, then disguising like an over-decorated wedding cake is a dead give away you have nothing worth sharing. What a wasteland of effort.

Research papers shouldn’t be a deliberate word-salad of unreadable obfuscations. It’s supposed to contribute to the net store of human knowledge and in the process provide something useful —even more so in terms of studying pragmatic martial disciplines. Too much of the academic research into our subject makes the mistake of assuming violent self-defence is all reducible to analysis by sociological factors. But no matter how structured or deliberate personal combat is, fighting it is still a violent irrational activity not entirely definable by physical science and material objects alone but by passions and will (or if one prefers, the spiritual). The cultural and psychological elements involving intangibles of human performance are un-quantifiable. They cannot be modeled. Indeed, it is this very thing that makes fighting science an Art.

*In the time since I first wrote  this piece it seems that the problem has only gotten worse. Papers on our subject continue to deliberately couch simple sentences in overwrought paragraphs that are all but indigestible. When we look back at the educational works on Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts or arms & armor that are the most interesting, the most quotable, and the most enjoyable to read —such as those by Castle, Hutton, Alyward, and Anglo— none of them wrote in the inflated jargon of modern academic speak. None of them struggled to embellish their opinions in elaborately structured language and unnecessarily verbose terminology that obfuscates rather clarifies. They lectured, but they did so in a way that made you eagerly pay attention rather than yearn to fall asleep.



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