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Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!


There has been a lot of hoo-ha on the electronical interweb regarding the USFCA (the American sport fencing coaching body) introducing instructor training and certification for “Historical Fencing”. One the one hand, there is no doubt that they, or any other body concerned with teaching the art of teaching, may have much in the way of pedagogical experience and a systematic approach that might be very useful for any historical fencing teacher. On the other, it is frankly a joke to imagine that a sport fencing body has any business pronouncing on who may or may not be fit to lead a historical fencing class.

Before I sail off on a thoroughly enjoyable rant, let me first point out that I offer instructor training and certification in my school, and I expect everyone within my school to acknowledge the certification, and nobody outside my school to give a monkey’s regarding who is or is not qualified to teach my syllabus. I would hope that eventually the trickle of trained instructors my school is producing will lead to a general feeling in the community at large that if you have a certificate from my school, you deserve the benefit of the doubt and can be hired unseen, but that’s as far as it goes.

In my view, before you can have a teaching qualification, you must first have a discrete body of knowledge that that qualification refers to. i.e. an established syllabus. Otherwise you have no basis for judging competence. A scuba-diving instructor’s qualification should not land you a job as a tennis coach. But, extensive experience in training scuba divers may make you a great teacher of practical skills, which you can then apply to your new-found interest in generating the next Roger Federer.

I happen to have a pretty extensive sport fencing background, having fenced regularly and at a respectable if not desperately elevated level between 1987 and 1994. This meant that when I went off on a foil coaching course, I knew the basic syllabus well enough to take part in the course. It would be very handy if all historical fencing coaches happened to have a sport fencing background and could do likewise. But there is no sense in studying foil for a few years before taking up medieval martial arts. It’s not an efficient route to success. There is a fundamental difference between taking a sport fencing coaches’ course and applying their coaching system to my own historical swordsmanship syllabus, and expecting a sport fencing body to be able to offer any kind of certification in historical systems.

A quick look at the USFCA certification document reveals all:

Paragraph 12. Traditions, Systems, and Terminology: Examinations are not intended to examine one particular tradition (for example, the German or Italian Longsword traditions) or system (for example, Saviolo’s Rapier play). Candidates either trained in a specific system or tradition or in a generic approach to a weapon should be able to teach a lesson consistent with their training within the themes specified. The Historical Fencing Committee will develop and make available a standard list of terminology for fencing actions; candidates should be able to explain the actions taught using these terms if requested by the examiners.

If there is one thing that the last decade has taught the historical martial arts community, it ought to be this: there is NO SUCH THING as a generic approach to a weapon that has the slightest merit. Generic approaches in systems for which we have adequate source material are invariably a smokescreen for inferior researchers to hide behind. And the idea of a standard list of terminology is so staggeringly offensive I don’t know where to start. All that makes historical swordsmanship historical is brushed aside in favour of a standard language. Do they imagine that language does not affect culture? That the structures of the Italian language, for example, don’t affect Italian thought? That there is any such thing as a generic “parry”? Fiore’s rebattere is not Capoferro’s Parare is not Mcbane’s Parade. Yes, I occasionally find it useful to employ classical fencing terminology to explain a certain point, but then I also use classical music terminology, Newtonian physics, popular film references, and bad language to do the same.

And from Paragraph 13:

The use of period costume for examinations is not permitted – period protective equipment, if appropriate, can be allowed.

I’m sorry, WTF? Clothing affects movement. Period clothing is an indispensible part of the research process, and in some schools (not mine, as it happens) all training is done in period kit. So what? Does that make them unmartial? No, it makes them clearly not following the sport fencing paradigm. If you are professionally presented (I DO agree with the USFCA’s policy regarding neatness and cleanliness), I can think of no unsinister reason for this clause.

And from point b of the same paragraph:

Fencing techniques which involve a transition to grappling must stop at the establishment of the basic grip and position, and not continue to full contact grappling.

Why not? If you can’t teach basic falling you have no business whatever teaching any medieval system I have ever come across. The ONLY reason for this is that the average sport fencer is utterly untrained and incompetent to judge grappling. Perhaps they think it’s dangerous? (Which is why judo is universally banned from all competitions…oh, wait, hang on, maybe it’s not…)

And some of the questions on the “exam”, oh my dear Lord, what are they thinking?

The guard positions undergo a fundamental change through the evolution from Medieval fencing to modern fencing. This change can be described as:

a. modern fencing is much more concerned with maintaining the weapon in a position so that the point (and cutting edge in sabre) pose a threat to the opponent.

b. guard positions in Medieval and Renaissance fencing were almost entirely defensive, with a gradual evolution to the more offensive intent of the guard through the Enlightenment and into the classical and modern periods.

c. guard positions in Medieval fencing were transitory with movement through the position to another action; the guard evolved into the modern concept of a place to stay in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Where do I start? With evolution suggesting a gradual improvement? I’ll take my longsword against the reigning world champion epeeist, and you know what? In a stand up fight I’d kill him. Because I can take any number of little pokes if it means I can chop his arm off, or his sword in half… Longswords are better for killing people with than epees. Fact.

Or perhaps with the fact that options a through c are all wrong? A because there are point in line guards in every system. B because the author appears not to have read Viggiani. Or any other historical treatise. C because, while the best of the bunch, it is incomplete: does not Fiore have us wait in tutta porta di ferro? Yes he does. If every action is done from guard to guard, as it is, and you have read your Aristotle, you know that there must be a tempo of rest in each guard… Aaaaaaaaaarghhhhhhhh! I know Ken Mondschein is a highly qualified historian and an experienced historical fencer, but did he actually let this drivel through?

General theory, question 1: What are the parts of a typical historical sword?

I’m sorry? WTF is a typical historical sword? Fiore seems to divide the blade into three parts, Thibault into 12, smallswords often have no crossguard but longswords always do, need I go on? This arrogant, godawful disregard for the fundamentals of historicity are making my blood boil. I want to hit something, and hard.

**** (I have so far excised 6 “fuck”s from the text)

Right, that’s better. Now for the next lot of drivel

4. Distance is generally recognized in Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment fencing as falling into:

A. 5 areas – out of distance, long distance, medium distance, short distance, and infighting distance

B. 4 areas – out of distance, two step distance, lunge distance, and stabbing distance

C. 3 areas – footwork distance, arm distance, and grappling or disarming distance

NONE of the above, you ignoramus. Distance per se is not discussed at all in medieval manuals. Renaissance manuals tend to favour, IIRC and I’m not going to check, out of measure, measure of the pass, measure of the lunge, and measure of the hand or arm, but don’t treat of it quite like that. Enlightenment fencing, well, smallsword really, IIRC from my last reading of Angelo, he doesn’t define different measures at all, but tends to have actions done either with a lunge or without one.

There follows this egregious excrescence of an exam a “draft curriculum which can be used for the training of fencing coaches in the techniques, theory, and teaching of one historic weapon, the Medieval Longsword”. This has many, many, utterly absurd generalities, such as under “Body position and footwork”: “If you are right handed left foot forward, reverse for left handers”, a woefully inept misunderstanding of the guard positions we see in all the medieval MSs. As a fool can plainly see, you have whichever foot forwards you want, depending on what you want to do. I could write a book on it (oops, I have). There follows a ghastly mishmash of Italianish stuff mixed up with Germanish stuff, which would leave any poor sod being taught this utter crap at a point significantly behind our average community standard of 2002.

With this document the USFCA have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that they are utterly and completely unqualified to examine anyone in historical fencing, still less historical European martial arts of any kind.

I agree with my esteemed colleague Randy Packer that this move on their part is dangerous in that once a certification is available, perfectly competent but uncertified instructors may find themselves unable to get insurance or use public spaces without submitting to this farcical exam process. This is deeply worrying.

But the worst of this is that it places the USFCA in the enemy camp, when really they do have a lot of useful stuff to teach us, about transmitting skills. Indeed, some parts of this document are exemplary, where the USFCA stick to their competence, such as in what to do if someone refuses to adhere to your school’s safety standards, or in structuring a group lesson. You may note that while I did attend an absolutely excellent sport fencing coaching course, I confined myself to sport fencing actions and theory while there, and did not take the exam at the end. As I explained to the teachers there, I have no need for the qualification, as it has no currency in my field. The training: useful, vital even. The qualification it lead to: irrelevant.

For those of a stout and hardy disposition who want to see this document themselves, it’s here. Be warned, you may need many push-ups or strikes on the pell to recover your sang-froid.







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6 Responses

  1. Ah… to be circling the drain of generalisation while being poked at continuously by annoying little facts…. ;P Is that not the very definition of a politicised entity?

    Very enjoyable rant. I’m in aggreance.

    Why would they bother with this now? Are they losing public interest in sport fencing due to the growing popularity of HES? This smacks of a childish attempt to control something that they worry will threaten the very basis of sport fencing marketing… “Why do you want to learn fencing?’ “Well, I’ve always been interested in swords…”

  2. Hey! I just realised that they put your book in the bibliography… right after Brian Price and John Clements! 😉

    Ooooh.. That’s gonna cost me some pushups. 😛

  3. Could some kind chap send me a copy?

    The link in the article now appears to be dead.

    The last thing I read on the USFCA site was the minute from 2010 when they decided not to pursue historical stuff.

  4. Pingback: Doctor Who?

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