Guy's Blog

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On Mastery

Master you are, hmmm? image from
Master you are, hmmm?
image from

One interesting aspect of the recent kerfuffle regarding the USFCA certifying “historical fencing masters” is the debate about the meaning of the word “master”. It can mean simply “teacher”, or “one who has completely absorbed a system of information”, or “one who is in control of something else”. For our purposes I think perhaps “expert teacher” is the best compromise. Historically, it was primarily used as a qualification by Universities, and within the guilds. The standard guild process included usually 7 years as an apprentice, then another 7 as a journeyman, then the candidate (or his “masterpiece”) would be examined, and he would be promoted (or not). Being a “master” allowed you to set up shop independently, and take on apprentices of your own. It in no way suggested that you were a prodigy of nature, king of all you surveyed. It was a simple professional qualification. Guilds had and enforced monopolies, so the process, at an economic level, served to raise the barriers to entry, reducing competition and thus increasing profits.

One thing that to my mind has not been sufficiently addressed by anyone is the fact that the swordsmanship masters of old, whose systems we are trying to recreate, were not teachers of “historical” swordsmanship. Their stuff was state-of-the-art. They would certainly fail the academic aspect that any historical fencing masters programme must include, as they were none of them engaged in recreating the art from the sources. (I have no doubt they would ace the practical portion.) There is a fundamental distinction to be made between being able to swordfight, being able to teach swordfighting, and being able to recreate historical swordfighting systems. I for one have never had a sword fight. Nobody has ever tried to kill me with a sharp sword. I do think though that any “master” level teacher in any art should have high-level practical skills relative to his or her students and peers. Especially because when giving an individual lesson the “master” should be able to control the fencing environment to the point that only the desired actions on the part of the student will succeed. (Please refer to my earlier post on giving individual lessons for more details on that.)

Regarding the level required, let’s take my Master of Arts degree in English literature as an example. To complete the degree I was not required to have read every single English book ever written, nor was I expected to be perfectly fluent in every single style of literary criticism. But there were prerequisites to getting onto the course, and certain standards to be met at every annual examination. Within the structure of the degree, there were required courses (Shakespeare, literary theory, and others) and optional courses which included things like “Portrayal of character in 17th-century literature” and “14th century poetry of pilgrimage”. By the end of the degree I was judged, through a process of examination, on whether I was competent to read closely, and argue effectively to support the conclusions of my close reading. So in other words, I had the tools of literary criticism available to me, at a specified level of competence, in this case, “master”.

But compare my “mastery” of literary criticism, for which I have a certificate from a highly respected university (and indeed the oldest department of arts and belles lettres in the world, a fact that was impressed on us when we arrived as freshers), with a Ph.D in the subject. And compare a newly-minted Ph.D with a tenured professor. Suddenly my “mastery” doesn’t seem all that impressive.

The process of historical swordsmanship is vastly more complex than literary criticism, because it includes literary criticism but is not limited to it.* It includes physical execution of complex actions, the ability to teach, and a whole host of other skills that have nothing to do with critical reading. To my mind, someone who has mastered the discipline of “historical swordsmanship”, whether we call them “master”, “Maestro”, “maitre”, “Uber Jedi”, or even just “teacher”, should be able to take any historical swordsmanship source in a language that he or she can read, and come up with a mechanically, tactically, and academically sound and supportable interpretation of that source, develop that interpretation into a syllabus, and produce students who can fight within that system. I think that any program that offers master-level certification should require the candidate to publish a book-length analysis of a specific source, and create and publish a syllabus to develop the necessary skills (these can be combined, of course). The program should also evaluate  the students that the candidate has trained in that syllabus, and include a public examination of the proposed master’s technical skills: teaching a class, teaching individual lessons, and fencing on equal terms with his or her peers. The process must be transparent, public, easily checked. So whatever the standard required by the examining body, it is abundantly clear to anyone interested exactly what level is required, and so what the qualification actually means.

To put it another way: Can they read? Can they do? And can they teach? And then: at what level can they do all three?

Even after all that, in a stand-up fight with a master of old, or even one of his junior students, I think most modern practitioners, myself most definitely included, would be slaughtered. We are unlikely ever to approach the fighting competence of our forebears, as they were immersed in life-or-death swordsmanship in a way that just does not happen in our culture.

When my father was teaching me to drive, he told me that you really learn to drive after passing your driving test. In other words, there is no substitute for experience. I vividly remember my fencing coach at Edinburgh University, Prof Bert Bracewell, encouraging us to get lessons from his colleague, “a young master learning his trade”. This coach was a fully qualified fencing master. But as he had only qualified recently, he was now, in Prof Bracewell’s opinion, setting about “learning his trade”. From the perspective of a beginner, this coach was astonishingly skilled, and vastly experienced. From the perspective of someone who had been teaching professionally for about 30 years by this point (and actively trying to support this master’s career by sending students to him, so absolutely no disrespect implied) he was “learning his trade”.

*For non-specialists: “literary criticism” has nothing necessarily to do with criticising books the way you might criticise the morals of a politician. It simply refers to a non-naive, hence “critical”, reading of literature, digging deeper into the text than a simple superficial reading may. Every serious researcher into historical swordsmanship, whether they think of it this way or not, is engaged in a form of literary criticism.


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