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Looking outside the HMA box: Pros, Schmos and Hos.

As our community grows, it seems to be following the completely normal progression of human tribes: what began as a couple of hundred folk who were so overwhelmed with joy to find other people who really like swords that most other considerations just fell by the wayside, has now grown like a bacterial culture: groups split, and the separate pieces then grow, and split, and grow, and so on. This can develop into either a beautiful mature cheese, or raging gangrene. One of the major differences between us and bacteria, of course, is that one person’s foetid mass of corruption is another’s glorious gorgonzola.

There are some harmless natural divisions within the community. If you are mad about 14th century armoured combat, and I’m nuts for smallsword, then we are unlikely to have a great deal in common. So long as there are no penis-measuring contests, or foolish ‘who would win’ arguments, we can all get along. Likewise, a Hungarian sabre club looking for people to cross-train with are more likely to get along with a Meyer Dusack club half an hour’s drive away, than they are to fence with a sabre club on the other side of the globe. And similarly, a club that focusses on precise historical recreation of Fabris’ rapier method is going to have more in common with a living history group trying to re-enact Landsknecht military life than they are with a club focussing on winning the next open rapier tournament. I hope it’s obvious that one person, and indeed one group, can be part of all of the activities I’ve mentioned. Just because I like smallsword doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate your Thibault rapier skills, or indeed train in that system too.

But there is a scale limit to human interactions. Most people can’t really handle more than about 150-200 relationships at once. Robert Dunbar’s research in the 1990s has established this to a reasonable degree (which is why the limit is known as “Dunbar’s number”). This is why large organisations tend to be split up into separate departments, at the cost of lack of internal communications. This is also why it can be so powerful when you find yourself of one mind with a truly enormous group. Crowds at a football game, or a rock concert, suddenly find themselves part of a gigantic tribe. But it’s not a sustainable state, and as soon as those fans start organising themselves, sure enough the organisations have infighting, schisms, and the very people you were cheering along with last week are suddenly just the worst. 

We are not the first community to experience this scale problem. I’d argue that it has always existed in every human group. And so, as historians, it makes sense I think to consider how other groups have handled it in the recent past, and with what level of success. 

Our community dresses up in funny clothes so we can whack each other with specific objects. At least, that’s what it looks like to the average outsider. And we constantly run the risk of having our activities criminalised, because we are hitting people outside of a nationally recognised combat sport. So it’s not such a stretch to think we might find some useful ideas in the BDSM community. They have had to figure out informed consent, safe practice of dangerous activities, dealing with public bafflement, and many other problems we face too. Here’s one article that struck me as immediately useful. Laura Antoniou’s speech “Ho’s, Pro’s and Schmo’s” presented at the Leather Leadership Conference (damn these folk are organised- will there ever be a HEMA leadership conference?) on April 21st, 2007. 

She identifies three key types of person with her community. “Ho’s are by nature attention getters”, the people who with charisma and drive kickstart the community. Schmo’s are “the people who show up, pay the entrance fee, sign the petition, take your class, listen to your music, eat your erotic cookies, read my books”; the people who show up. Without them, the ho’s are just crazy people. But with the support of the schmo’s, the ho’s start to look like visionaries.

Finally, the pro’s “make their livelihood in the community”. It is a sign of the community maturing that it can support people working full time for its benefit. Anyone who remembers how very hard it was to find a decent rapier or training longsword in 1995, versus the plethora of companies and individual craftsmen now providing all the different kinds of gear you can imagine, can see how the community has grown. My first plastron for rapier fencing was cobbled together out of carpet. We used to cannibalise parts from fencing catalogues, and cheered when we found 40 inch schlager blades to fit into stage-combat rapier hilts (to produce a not very good rapier-like object). By the early 2000’s, I would stock up on swords for my students on every trip to America, because that’s where all the sword makers were (Darkwood Armory, Arms and Armor, Albion). On the way home from my first trip (ISMAC 2001, the event that is now Combat Con), the airline lost my bag with 5000 dollars of other people’s swords in, for three very long days… Now, you can just go online and buy whatever you want, because there are pros out there making it for us.

Antoniou makes many good points in her article. One that resonated with me particularly was this:

In a world of small groups of limited scope and influence, the early paid professionals are always scorned. I can remember the angry and completely unjustified accusations that anyone who actually wanted to get paid for their work was a profiteer who wanted to make money ON the community, not IN it. Among volunteers of any sort, there is a suspicion of someone who gets paid to do what you think you have been doing yourself for free, for love, for adoration, for applause, for snacks, for chicks.

Indeed, I remember the early days when I was living on approximately 8,000 dollars a year in a capital European city, when 60 percent of my turnover went on the rent on my salle, and yet some people being offended that I would want to be paid for my teaching services. 

In line with what I was saying about how one person can take part in many different activities within the broader HEMA world, so indeed one person can be Ho, Schmo, and Pro, and can switch between them. When I started my school, I was technically a pro, but really a ho. I was saved by a whole load of schmos turning up. When I show up to a friend’s class, or buy another sword,  I’m a schmo. These days I’m a pro, at least most of the time.

What are you?

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

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this. Important reminders that the sword community can learn from others and intolerance and judgments are not helping us internally or externally.

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