What Makes A "Master"?

by John Clementsjcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)
ARMA Director

It is necessary to distinguish between bravados and Masters: bravados show their knowledge as a mere exhibition, and they receive the clap of the masses; on the other side, Masters teach fencing and lots of tips, but they always hide their best. There is a third category: theoretical Masters; these ones do not teach by doing but by speech. A real Master must join together both categories: theoretical and practical.

- Alvaro Guerra de la Vega, 1681

To one degree or another in the pursuit of medieval & renaissance swordsmanship as martial arts all students of the sword are amateurs. In my 1998 book on Medieval Swordsmanship, I maintained that no one can be a true "master" in these historical weapon skills unless he or she has been taught by another maste rof these skills or if not, then actually fought and killed with a real sword. For someone to claim "mastery" himself without a truly authoritative historical teacher or guide (of which there no longer are any) to qualify them is a sham. Equally, to call someone teaching you "Master" of a fighting skill when you are even less qualified to know the difference than they are is a hollow label. Thus, in a very true sense there can be no "masters of medieval or renaissance swords or fighting arts" today --at least not in the same manner as there are for many Asian martial arts.

So, while those seeking mastery of the sword in any of its particular forms may be called swordsmen, to be "masters" of medieval or renaissance weaponry requires more than just studying a method of fencing. Otherwise it is like a student of the modern sport of judo claiming as an aftereffect expertise in classical bujutsu (ancient armed fighting arts).

After all, while not as varied as Medieval arms, Renaissance weaponry was diverse. On the whole they included far more than just daggers, cut & thrust swords, and rapiers. Personal weapons in the Renaissance also consist of the large two-handed sword, the falchion, the targe, the quarterstaff, the pike, the dusack, the bill, and the morris-pike. There were even German, Italian, and English teachers who expressed that no could be considered a master swordsman without understanding these many different implements --whether they were for military or civilian use. They also recognized that a certain knowledge of grappling was also a prerequisite. In traditional Japanese swordsmanship there is the idea that one cannot truly understand the sword without knowing the spear (i.e., pole-arms). This is true, and in a Western context we can also add that you must also understand the shield (in all its many types).

Similarly, those today who’s expertise lies in epee/foil/saber and stage-combat are often met with disdain and doubt if they suggest their qualifications by default somehow carry over to all that encompasses Renaissance weaponry or any other historical fighting arts. Despite what those with a romantic attachment for 18th century dueling often like to imply, sword skills whether medieval or renaissance have never existed in their own private little world without regard for other weaponry. Indeed, in swordsmanship it is the very act of "dissimilar training", that is, of practicing against different weapons and other sword forms that its very value is fully understood.

There are, however, within both the sport form of modern Olympic/Collegiate fencing and the stage combat community (which have a symbiosis of sorts), those who are quite properly titled master, maestro, maitre, or what have you. These titles refer entirely to expertise in teaching sport foil, epee, and saber. These men and women are for the most part accomplished coaches and instructors of the three sport weapons. Additionally, there are those among them who do some theatrical choreography and those who have some prior tutelage from older masters in what is now being called classical fencing. Essentially, this is the more martial style of 18th and 19th century dueling epee and small-sword, although it is sometimes presented as much more.

First, let’s establish some general facts: Modern fencing is a wonderful sport and a fun, athletic game, but it’s not a martial art in the true sense. Additionally, stage-combat and theatrical choreography, though a time-honored craft, is also not a martial art. It’s an illusion and simply not intended to prepare anyone for fighting or grant him or her the requisite understanding. Classical fencing itself on the other hand dates back to roots in the late renaissance and surely offers a more martial understanding. But its poised, refined elements hardly relate to the sophisticated, brutal, vicious methods of the street-level duel and battlefield weaponry of earlier medieval & renaissance schools.

Not everything in the universe of Western swordsmanship revolves around epees and small-swords or the writings of 18th century salon maestros, and few things in stage combat have application to true antagonistic sword fighting. Not realizing this, some people are using Internet newsgroups to praise sport/classical-fencing instructors as unequivocal sources of master knowledge on medieval & renaissance fighting arts. By what authority, we must ask, by what experience, can the expertise of so many be asserted? We say if it’s true, demonstrate it. If it’s inaccurate, then these individuals have the responsibility to reject the claims.

So, there are certainly individual fencing professionals today who hold great interest in medieval swords or in early renaissance swords and the later rapier and dagger. They may also be fight directors, choreographers, and even have backgrounds in some Asian martial arts. But do their fencing or stage combat qualifications also make them "masters" in medieval & renaissance fighting arts? Hardly. Yet, this is indeed what is being fostered upon us. Currently there are a few of these fencing instructors who state so or have indirectly allowed themselves to be labeled as such by their students. We in ARMA think its hype.

One thing is certainly true. When we encounter someone with credentials in stage-combat or classical and sport fencing, rather then pay some automatic homage to them, we instead feel that they are both sources of discourse and subjects of debate. It is by their very knowledge level of these things that we CAN then consider them worthy to be argued with rather than simply deferred to. This naturally strikes them purely as "professional" disrespect and disregard. In a way it is. After all, when you think about it according to OUR methods and values they have yet to really impress us with anything.

When the experience of fencing instructors are directly questioned only in regard to medieval & and renaissance fighting arts, we are offered extensive biographies and resumes of sport fencing instruction and stage experiences, renaissance fairs performances, and even a little SCA. As if these practices alone confer the necessary mastery skill in question. These responses stand in stark contrast to the thousands of serious students out there struggling to practice with replica medieval and renaissance arms and armor and doing all sorts of sparring with steel, rattan, padded contact-weapons, and yes, to a small degree even shinai and boffers.

Do they seriously expect us to accept that they are "masters" in medieval & renaissance fighting? By whose reckoning? By what authority? By what MARTIAL accomplishments? Years of doing things along lines that have little or nothing to do with a true martial art? According to their own criteria they certainly wouldn't consider any of us who don’t do classical fencing as "masters". Can they really expect us to admire their "mutual back-patting society of fencing "coaches" when they practice in manners wholly different from what many of us value or consider worthwhile?

How, we must ask, can they assert --or even imply --that by virtue of years of sport/classical fencing, with some occasional experimentation, they hold a superior position by which to judge understanding of medieval and renaissance weapons and fighting methods the very weapons and methods we work with and train in full-time? Why is it they have such difficulty seeing that we’re doing something completely outside of their activities and scope with far different results? Is it likely because they rest comfortably on their laurels and have never had occasion to face in free-sparring a truly skilled opponent with these weapons, someone who wasn’t just another novice or sport fencer or stage-performer? No offence to their fencing accomplishments or their efforts at studying the historical methods, but many of us suspect this is precisely the case. At the very least, it has already been demonstrated how their methods and style have strayed further and further away from the crucial close-in "entering" techniques employed in grasping the opponent’s arm, wrist, or weapon prior to striking.

Unless you can show substantial skill in free-sparring against skilled opponents using various swords and spears as well as shields, axes, daggers, and the rest, by what right does anyone have to accept the title "expert source" for instruction in medieval & renaissance weaponry? To assume such titles in this way is an insult to all those out there who have spent years training in earnest with weapons and doing thousands of hours of full-contact sparring and test-cutting with shield and sword, and long-swords, great-swords, and with rapiers, bucklers, staffs, glaives, halberds, and all the rest --both in and out of armor.

The indignation these sport/classical-fencers feel at the lack of deference they may encounter in the historical reenactment and recreation communities is reminiscent of those Chinese traditionalists who felt offended by the late Bruce Lee. In demonstrating superior skill and innovative training he rightly stepped on their toes and symbolically slapped the faces of the old grand masters who claimed sole authority in kung fu. Such is the way when the establishment encounters a non-conformist who threatens cherished illusions and positions of false authority. Like Bruce Lee, when we in ARMA hear similar claims of medieval or renaissance weapon prowess, we insist on a display of skill or we insist on the opportunity to challenge them with our methods under our approach. We don’t tolerate anything different from ourselves.

The last thing anyone practicing swordsmanship or historical weaponry should do is blindly defer to others who happen to be either senior fencing instructors (classical or sport) or theatrical/stage choreographers. At the risk of over-generalizing, these individuals on the whole don’t seem to understand that we’re just not impressed and even consider some of their very practices a detriment to higher skill. For this reason, they can’t really be expected to hold us in much esteem either. They’re shocked to be questioned or doubted…and they don’t like it. Several have personally let me know of their displeasure and indignation. They just don’t grasp the fact that there are people out there who virtually from day one have learned the use of medieval and renaissance swords and weapons without reference to the form and technique of small-swords and epees or the irrelevant theories stage-combat --and have learned well.

None of us seriously practicing and training in historical fighting arts should sit idly by while others make assertions or claims of special ability in regard to our Western martial heritage without the willingness to back it up with a public display of skill in bouting. Nothing less can earn recognition and respect in such arts. Nor should anyone quietly accept claims of "master" and "master" from performers or sport/classical-fencers based solely on the merits of their accomplishments and experience with epees, foils, and sabers combined with occasions of "handling other weapons". We should not refrain from refuting any assertions that sport/classical-fencing instruction is somehow the key to redeveloping skill in earlier fighting methods. It takes years of hard training and serious sparring to develop true skill with any weapon.

HACA founder Hank Reinhardt, perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern Western sword master today if there ever was one, doesn’t even consider himself a "master." He likes to point out that there is a culture clash between those that have long studied and taught traditional fencing and those now seriously pursing exclusively the historical forms of Western swordsmanship. The fencing masters wonder why their experience is being mostly ignored and their opinions are not being received with the respect they believe they’ve earned. The reason is that many practitioners and enthusiasts pursuing medieval & renaissance fighting arts consider sport fencing and its recent rediscovery of classical fencing to be the part of problem, not the solution. After all, in a way it is this generation of sport/classical masters and their own elder masters dating back to the last century that helped create the very form of sport fencing that so many of us find boring and non-martial (and their branching out to embrace "classical fencing" movement suggests that they agree). For them to then turn around and wish to be held up as masters with various medieval & renaissance weapons by those of us dedicatedly sparring and training is ridiculous.

Personally, I’ve confirmed a long harbored suspicion that many of these sport/classical fencing maestros quietly (and not so quietly) hold the sad attitude that unless someone is a devoted disciple of a sport/classical maestro they can't possibly can't know anything about using Western swords. To all of us having earnestly trained in medieval and renaissance weaponry for so long, just the opposite is clearly the situation. The gulf won’t be breached without physical demonstration. Rather than think of themselves as another art with different weapons and conditions, they feel that through their sport/classical background, stage directing, and ancillary activities they have "earned" special knowledge of medieval & renaissance swords --the very weapons and fighting methods to which we have exclusively dedicated ourselves.

I am a traditionally trained fencer myself, yet HACA mentor Hank Reinhardt has never taken a fencing lesson in his life. At 67 he’s still "one fierce SOB with any weapon", as he likes to say. In the last year alone I’ve had more than 100 students go through my various sword classes. I had several who were skilled epee fencers with more than twenty years experience between them. Yet, they have all expressed the same thing: their fencing habits are a distraction and, until now, they never before understood how to sword "fight", not just "fence". We hear nearly identical statements from students trained in stage-combat theories --not to mention easily outfighting them. Similar anecdotes abound from many others regarding endless encounters with sport fencers and stage combat performers. Why? Because of our martial attitude, because of our reliance on historical sources, because of our use of real weapons, and because of our inclusion of body-contact and emphasis on fighting techniques, not role-playing, not acting, and not learning a sport.

In ARMA (just as with a few other groups), we don't do our medieval & renaissance weapon training and our free-sparring as incidental to some sporting form or as a sideshow for arranging staged fights. We do it as a primary and totally dedicated focus. This is THE difference and it shows in our skill and our knowledge and our attitude. Praising sport/classical maestros (whose expertise involves in epees/foils/sabers and small-swords) as all-knowing sources is an elitism we find offensive. We feel it deflects from the accurate reconstruction and replication of historical Western martial arts. This is exactly why I personally feel so strongly when confronted with well-meaning but misconceived opinions about fighting from some fencers and from stage combat performers.

The fact is, we need to show respect not to resumes nor to the adulation of neophyte students, but to those who show genuine martial ability --in other words, to those who step through the door and cross swords. What exactly, we might ask, has the community of sport/classical fencing masters contributed to our understanding of medieval & renaissance weaponry or fighting arts? Is there anything they do with medieval and renaissance weaponry that is exceptional or unique to justify any claims of mastery? Have they published significant writings on them or documented techniques or presented their own theories? Have they made efforts to translate and share the historical manuals? Have they pushed for more realistic sparring methods and for more accurate replica weapons? Do they free-spar full-contact to whole-body using dissimilar weapons? Have they actively sought to seek out anyone willing to cross swords and test their skill? Or have they instead simply appropriated the titles expert and master of medieval and renaissance arms for themselves --as well as allowing others with little or no knowledge to declare it for them?

I for one am so far convinced that few sport/classical-fencing maestros have ever encountered anyone with substantial martial skill in following the methods described in historical fighting manuals. This much is clear from our understanding of the nature of medieval and renaissance weaponry and through my own and numerous colleagues’ substantial knowledge of historical texts combined with hands-on experience. I base my conviction on how easily they dismiss others who practice and train outside of their sport/classical-based interpretations (and I don’t just mean SCA and boffer fighters). It also seems obvious from their own writings and how often we are bombarded with ludicrous comments from them about the value of practicing epee/foil and the inclusion of choreography somehow as a martial talent. Yet, until we cross swords with them under some free-sparring conditions, we can’t be sure can we? Still, the burden of proof is on those making the assertions or alleging these titles.

So, how do you demonstrate any of this to these self-proclaimed masters (even stunt coordinators are using the term "swordmaster" these days)? How do you show them? Well, without a big tournament using our guidelines they will likely never understand. Similar conditions exist for many schools and styles of Asian martial arts, which maintain they are more practical, technically superior, or tactically more effective than others --others which do refuse cross-system tournaments and public challenges. In Elizabethan times, the London Masters of Defence use to have public testing of their masters, and in Feudal Japan a skilled samurai might become a shugyosha, travelling to improve his skill by challenging other schools and masters. None of this is so today but we’d like to change it, to add a little quality control and "consumer advocacy". We are all certainly still learning, no doubt about it, but we know enough to know that a lot of others simply don’t have a clue. To borrow a phrase, "Some kung fu IS better than other kung fu." That's why they are so willing to get up and prove it. We are no different.

Now understand, none of this is to say that sport/classical fencers cannot or do not in some way practice medieval & renaissance weaponry on their own or that they may not have some insights of their own. Nor is any of this questioning their foil/epee/saber experience. What it is saying is that occasionally playing around with these weapons as secondary activities or as theatrical props does NOT qualify one for expert/master status in their function and use. How could it possibly? They’ve got to prove it the same way they earned their rank for sport fencing: prove it against those who are already highly skilled with the same weapons. Despite commonalties in principles and action an epee is not a small-sword, a small-sword is not a rapier, and a rapier is not a long-sword, and a long-sword is not a sword & shield. Thus, claims by these maestros of having been given a few rapier & dagger lessons here and there or having worked with stage combat "broadswords" and played around with the SCA a few times is hardly equivalent to those who are studying the weapons as a martial art and have done so for years.

Modern fencing is bound by rules and artificial conventions that constrain any deep martial application or understanding. The practice of theatrical swordplay is about acting, not fighting. You can’t spend a lifetime doing either and then claim that you also possess expert martial understanding and true skill in using the weapons for real because you occasionally study it that way. At least, you can’t and not expect to have disputed by those who train and practice these things along very different lines.

Just as it was during the Middle Ages and the renaissance period, there are certainly many different ways of training, of teaching, of practicing, and of learning. There is no "one true way" of pursuing this subject. But, as Hammerterz Forum publisher J. Christoph Amberger is fond of pointing out, fencers disagreeing vociferously is a tradition in itself and different schools and instructors arguing is one of the few things we all do that is in keeping with being historically accurate. Perhaps so, but when it comes to this subject there is a bit more at issue.

HACA mentor Hank Reinhardt has in his way established our policy of challenging and calling out anyone who asserts "mastery" of medieval and renaissance fighting arts. Reinhardt likes to say you can call yourself Sultan if you want but you better be one bad SOB ready to step out and prove it against someone good, otherwise its meaningless. In being true to the spirit of the ARMA approach, I make no secret that I will personally demonstrate the formidable practice of medieval and renaissance fighting skills by facing or any modern fencing "maestro", "maitre", "master", coach, (or any Asian martial stylist) who wants, in safe, full-contact sparring bouts --without the confines of sporting rules --using long-sword, sword & shield, sword & dagger, sword & buckler, spear, and rapier & dagger (grappling and disarms included). In such an offer I can care less how greatly senior an opponent is in years or without the physical conditioning that youth provides. Real skill transcends and real techniques hold.

Perhaps then, rather than true "Masters", really all there can be now are students and scholars of Western martial culture who study and train in historical-fencing until they seriously accept for themselves the title swordsman. Even then they must continually demonstrate and amend their knowledge.

John Clements
ARMA Director, Houston


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