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Much Ado about Bugger All

Despite my reasonable and gently-worded objections, the USFCA have gone ahead with their plans to create a pedagogical certification system for historical swordsmanship. I am clearly not alone in my feeling that this is a bad idea, as it has created something of a shit-storm on social media, including a series of vicious ad hominem attacks on the character of Dr. Ken Mondschein, who is largely credited as the architect of the certification system, and is the only person in the USFCA who is known to the HEMA community.

Ken’s work over the last decade or so includes a quality translation of Agrippa, a work on the two handed sword material of Alfieri (which I haven’t read yet, so can’t comment on), and a brief but pretty overview of Fiore’s life and work. He has been teaching swordsmanship for a long time now, and whatever differences of interpretation and approach we may have, I don’t doubt for one second his sincerity in serving the Art. He is also not in control of the program. There is a committee…

It does not help matters that the committee in charge includes one Mr Green, who seems to have black belts in every system that give them away free with a cup of coffee. I may be woefully wrong on this (they may be quite expensive), but check out his wall of certificates. I am frankly astonished that an academic of Ken’s standing (PhD, Fulbright scholar, multiple publications) would keep such company. To have a certification system in the hands of someone with so many dodgy certificates is irony indeed.

The central objection on FB seems to be that this program is creating masters. As if that title is somehow important. Now to be fair, the HEMA world was badly burned a decade and more ago by some false masters who used their self-appointed status to try to acquire control. One of them even said to me long ago “only a classically trained fencing master is qualified to read the treatises.” Yes, really. These people actively stood between students and the sources, which is profoundly abhorrent to me. But this is a different situation: at least here the process and qualifications seem to be reasonably transparent. Given the level of response, though, one would imagine that the USFCA “masters of historical swordsmanship” were stating that their “mastery” entitled them to screw your spouse and sell your children into slavery. (They are not, at least as far as I know.) It is also deeply inconsistent: Why no outrage over all the other masters out there? Massimo Malipiero, who produced the first ever publication of the Getty MS, was appointed a “Maestro di scherma antica” by the (Italian) Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in 1999. Where was the explosion of rage? And his group appointed  Andrea Rudatis a Magistro Medievale & Rinascimentale. Why the hell shouldn’t they? It’s their group. But why no character assassinations on Facebook? Alberto Bomprezzi was appointed a maestro by his students. Who had every right to do so. But why no great mockery from the twitterati? And my students in Singapore presented me with a Master at Arms rank in their organisation in 2006. Which is valid within their group. And nobody has had a go at me about it either. Why not? Perhaps because nobody felt threatened. Yes chaps, I think we have a bunch of very frightened people out there, because the big bad USFCA is coming for them. Only… they ain't.

Titles are currency, and have precisely the value we accord to them. I give no value to “Doctor” Gillian McKeith’s “PhD”. It comes from an unaccredited college. The fabulous Ben Goldacre got a qualification for his dead cat from the same source! I give much credit to my doctor’s qualifications, or I wouldn’t let him poke and prod me. I have no respect at all for the qualifications in historical swordsmanship that the USFCA may see fit to bestow, but I respect their right to call their members Il Gran Maestro di Maestri if they so choose.

Should the USFCA try to tell anyone outside their organisation that they cannot teach, then I will be first on the barricades, and lead the charge to have them taken down a peg or two and given six of the best with the swishiest cane we can find. Yes, we must be careful not to let the sports organisations take control of our art. But these unfair and utterly unfounded attacks on Ken’s character serve no useful purpose, and will achieve nothing. I think in the end Ken will come to regret his association with the historical fencing masters project, not least as he has far less control over it than most people seem to think, and so it will likely never produce much in the way of good teachers of the art. But an error of judgement does not make one a villain, and I think Ken is trying to use his position with the program to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Good luck with that.

I do not recognise the qualifications offered by the USFCA. They have no currency with me or my school. But Ken himself is always welcome, to train or teach.

Further reading:

Ken has written an open letter about this kerfuffle, which you can read here:

Roger Norling makes several excellent points here:

I would also recommend you read all of these posts from Randy Packer at BoxWrestleFence.

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

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