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6 lessons from my favourite mistake

Way back in the dawn of time when I came to Finland to open my school, my research into historical swordsmanship was at a very early stage. But we all have to start somewhere. As I wasn’t sure whether to focus on Vadi or Fiore I included elements of both systems in the material I taught my students. After a couple of years we dropped Vadi to focus on Fiore. It took about nine years to get that system solid enough to build on. So then I returned to Vadi (as most of you will probably know), and instead of a messy hodgepodge of material we have a solid base, and an expansion pack. Mixing the systems is a mistake, but not the one this post is about. To be sure, these days that approach is completely unnecessary and counter-productive, but I don’t think anybody really understood that then.

No, the mistake I made was to take an outlier, an apparent exception to the norm, and simply on the word of a native-speaker, make it part of the core training. Yes, I am referring to the infamous rising fendente blow. A quick look at the segno of blows in Vadi:


might lead one to believe that the rota blows descend, and the fendente blows rise. But you only have to actually read the book to know that the image is misleading, and a quick cross-reference to Fiore, and indeed to every other Italian sword fighting system in the history of the world, will simply put that mistake right. But no, I took the word of a charismatic self-proclaimed “master”, who happened to be a native speaker of Italian, and cheerily taught my trusting students that in Vadi’s system the fendente is a rising blow.

When my first book, the Swordsman’s Companion, was in the editing phase, I had kept this bizarre misreading, and one of the editors picked it up. (Thanks Greg!) Unlike the “masters” of my acquaintance at the time, this editor did not simply say “No Guy, that’s wrong, it’s like this”: he sent me a page of explanation supported by quotations from the actual source to establish why Vadi’s fendente is a descending blow. The truth, the evidence, was incontrovertible.

So then I was faced with the first proper character test of my new career. Half of me thought that if I admitted such a basic mistake to my students, they would quit. The other half thought that this would be an excellent teaching opportunity, to set the example of changing research leading to changing interpretations, and the truth being infinitely more important than ego or embarrassment. But oh, God, it was scary. That same night in class, I candidly admitted my mistake to my students. I don’t think a single person quit in disgust at my making the error. And I know because they have told me that some were actually reassured or impressed that I could admit it so openly. Some of them are still training with me 11 years later; and some even, with enough beer in them, still rib me about it. (This is fraught with peril, so beware!)

So, the lessons learned:

1) Students worth teaching understand that their teacher is human and will make mistakes. What makes a good teacher is not infallibility, but transparency and integrity. How you deal with mistakes is crucial. That you will make them is a given.

2) If a point of interpretation is an outlier, and appears to contradict the normal usage of the term, check it, check it, check it, before relying on it.

3) It is perilous to mix treatises and systems. Study one system deeply and broadly before attempting to blend two potentially incompatible systems. Create a base of one master’s work before adding to it.

4) Always check the whole book. The usage of a given term will tend to be consistent. If it appears to mean something weird in one place, check that it means the same weird thing everywhere else. This is basically point 2 again, but it’s worth repeating!

5) Being a native speaker does not automatically make you an expert. When I was studying at at Edinburgh University, the professor of English Language was German. His speciality was phonology. Although his own pronunciation was decidedly Germanic, he knew more about how English words are created in the mouth than anybody else I have ever met. But finding out that the professor of English Language was German was something of a shock. Yes, there are nuances of understanding a language that only native speakers can attain, but most do not. And I have certainly met non-native speakers of English who use and understand English better than certain native speakers.

6) “Don’t pull that Maestro shit on me”: be very, very wary of anybody expressing an opinion on the research or practice of this Art (or indeed any art) whose authority rests on a title, or who seems to believe that the fact that it is their opinion should be sufficient to convince you. Expect supporting evidence: true experts will always a) have it and b) be happy to supply it. Listen to those who will provide it, and avoid like the plague those who will not.

And in case it isn’t clear: as the great Quiller-Couch once wrote: “Murder your darlings”. He meant that, when writing, be prepared to cut even your favourite sentences, words or phrases. For us involved in the researching our Art, be ready to sacrifice any opinion, way of doing things, or interpretation, if the evidence demands it.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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