On January 23rd 2018 in an office overlooking George Square in Edinburgh, three professors agreed that I ought to have a PhD for my work recreating historical swordsmanship from historical sources.
“How on earth did that happen?” you may very well ask.
What happened was this:
After Veni Vadi Vici came out, my dad read it and exclaimed in some surprise “your work is actually quite academic!”
Yes dad, there’s a modicum of research required.
He continued “You should think about seeing if Edinburgh University will give you a PhD for it”.
I looked into it, and sure enough Edinburgh does occasionally grant a “PhD by Research Publication” for work done outside the University. The conditions of the degree include having at least a 2.1 honours degree from the University, which I got in 1996 in English Literature.
I thought about what to submit for the degree, and as this was 2015, sent in The Medieval Dagger, The Duellist’s Companion, and Veni Vadi Vici. (Medieval Longsword, Swordfighting, and Advanced Longsword hadn’t come out yet). These three books were looked at by the committee that decides such things, and I was permitted to apply. This involved writing a 20 thousand word “Critical Review of the Submitted Works”, and an Abstract. And handing over a sizable chunk of cash (more than my armet, much less than my cuirass). Not speaking fluent academese, I asked my friend Dr. Merja Polvinen for help with the Critical Review; she shredded my first draft, explained what the examiners would be looking for, and I duly wrote a much better second draft.
I submitted these to the examining process, and an internal examiner was found, Prof Greg Walker. It took the University a while to find an external examiner who they felt would be qualified to examine me (it’s something of a niche!), but happened upon Prof. Jeffrey Forgeng, well known in swordsmanship circles for his many excellent published translations (such as Meyer, I.33, and others). The exam was set for Thanksgiving Thursday, November 28th 2015.
I showed up not knowing quite what to expect; there was a non-examining chair (Dr Bob Irvine), the internal examiner Greg Walker, a couple of additional observers (mostly because this is such an unusual degree), and Prof Forgeng on a screen, coming in by Skype.
It did not go well. Our initial discussion of the Dagger book and Duellist's went ok, but Jeffrey tore into Veni Vadi Vici with some vigour, pointing out error after error. It was blindingly obvious that I was about to fail, so I tried to salvage something useful out of the rather expensive and time consuming process and decided on the spot to create a second, corrected, edition, and asked for as much critical feedback as the time would allow for me to use to improve the book for my readers. There was a LOT of feedback.
I left the room so they could deliberate. When I was invited back in, to my great surprise they didn’t fail me outright. Instead, they invited me to make the major corrections and resubmit within two years, and they would then re-examine. (This is actually a not uncommon result for a viva exam.) Jeffrey also kindly volunteered to provide some feedback on the work in progress. So I duly spent a great deal of time rewriting the book from scratch, including an entire re-translation. Unfortunately, Jeffrey had to pull out of the process due to personal issues, and the University found another professor to act as the external examiner: Prof Alessandra Petrina of Padua University. She provide some suggestions in the early stages which materially improved the book, though of course she was seriously constricted by her obligation to remain an impartial examiner. However, many friends stepped up to the plate. Chief among them was Dr Sarah Carpenter, who was my Director of Studies during my original degree, and very kindly went through the penultimate draft of the book with a fine tooth comb. Tom Leoni went through Vadi’s text with me line by line, correcting errors and making suggestions. Rodolfo Tanara (swordmaker, of Malleus Martialis) and Giorgio Sparaccio also gave critical suggestions for difficult passages. Dr Jaakko Tahkokallio (who is in charge of the Special Collections at Helsinki University Library and can be seen cutting a leg of lamb wrapped in clothing material with a sword here) was very helpful in pointing out the un-academic bits of the introduction, and especially improving the section on pricing the manuscript.
In August 2017 I resubmitted the new book, titled The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest, and the updated Critical Review, and the earliest date that we could all get in a room together (I thought this would be best done in person if possible) was this January. My personal goal for the exam (given that I couldn’t actually control the outcome) was to get as much editorial feedback as possible, to make the new book as good as possible. I had a list of questions for Prof Petrina, which she kindly answered, and we had a lively discussion on the practicalities of recreating the duelling arts. And they passed me.
The exam is not the final word; that rests with the examining committee of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, but it is unusual for them to overturn the examiners’ decision. That is also out of my hands, so I’m not worried about it. In the eyes of these professors, my work is up to scratch, and that by itself is profoundly satisfying.
Still more so because by not getting it first time, I can be sure that the examining process actually means something. It’s not just a rubber stamp. I have no doubt they would have failed me if they felt the work didn’t meet the required standard.
I should also point out that there are many people working in this field who have done far more academic work than I have (multiple critical translations, for example), and don’t have a PhD. If that’s you, then you might want to look into the possibility of getting one in a similar way. Pass or fail, the process should produce a lot of useful feedback.
Anyone who has read my rants on certification and mastery could tell you that I firmly believe in transparency in qualifications. Just what exactly my (potential) doctorate means to you is entirely personal, but it should be based on as much information as possible. You are welcome to read the entire Critical Review and the Abstract, as well as the three books (when the new one comes out!), and make up your own mind. This is a little different to a normal PhD, which is usually awarded for a specific thesis that is created as part of a supervised process within the University.
The new book will be out sometime this year, and I will be releasing the complete translation for free (as before) at the same time. Anyone who has bought the first edition (Veni Vadi Vici) in any format will also be able to get the new book in pdf for free; you’re entitled to the corrected version, I think.
And before any of my colleagues point it out for me: I know perfectly well that you can’t parry with a diploma. Well, I could roll it up and use it like a bastoncello or a parrying dagger, but you get my point (ideally slap bang in the middle of your fencing mask). This degree is very specifically an endorsement of my written work, and says nothing whatever about my fencing skills!
Update: Letter from the University: “the College Postgraduate Studies Committee has now ratified the reports of your examiners under the PhD by Publication Examination Regulations. Regulation 23 (a) states that the thesis satisfies the requirements for the award of PhD and the degree ought accordingly to be awarded with no further changes.”