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Tag: certification

The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.
The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.

It is an exciting time to be a Fiore scholar; the Getty recently released hi-res scans of the treatise, Michael Chidester of Wiktenauer fame has just released his concordance of the techniques in the four version of the manuscript that survive, and Freelance Academy Press has announced it is bringing out a scholarly edition of the manuscripts (which they've posted about on Facebook, but I can't find it on their website or I'd link to it). This all in addition to my latest scribblings.

And now, we have the International Armizare Society, an organisation that, to quote from its mission statement exists to:

…maintain and pass down canonical Armizare as recorded and left to posterity by the Founder, Fiore dei Liberi, and the work of successors determined to be within his tradition. In furtherance of this, the IAS also seeks the “preservation and promotion of Armizare as a complete, traditional, but living and functional martial art”.

In furtherance of these goals, the association is to provide a common set of curricular and performance objectives such that inter-school rank recognition by signatories is facilitated. As a result, the IAS will also form a testing body and formal testing regimen for instructor certification to ensure transmission and proper preservation of the dei Liberi Tradition, as the IAS sees it.

Their website went live last week, and I have been fielding questions about it ever since. I found out about it perhaps 24 hours before it went live, thanks to an email list I’m on, so it’s taken me some time to assemble my thoughts on the subject. Here they are:

This society has the potential to be a hugely beneficial force in the HEMA world, and a hugely important step in the long-term study of Fiore’s art. It may also end up petering out into nothing, or acting as net drag on progress if it becomes calcified into a “cult of one truth” (which is unlikely given the current membership).

The people involved, (Sean Hayes, Greg Mele, and Jason Smith) are all first-rate researchers and practitioners, who have long track records of distinguished service to the Art of Arms. I have high hopes that this organisation that they have put together will be able to accomplish its stated mission; to provide a certification program for Armizare (Art of Arms) instructors.

It’s worth reading its charter in its entirety, because it has clearly been thought out and worked up in detail.

They have assembled a dream team of advisors, divided into the Research Council, peopled by Bob Charrette, Tom Leoni, Daniel Jacquet, and Marco Quarta (the last two being professional academics); and the Martial Council, peopled by Devon Boorman, Puck Curtis, Roberto Gotti, Roberto Laura, Marco Quarta (again!) and Orazio Barbagallo (the only person on this list I don’t know). These are all names to conjure with.

Very sensibly, they went live only after assembling an impressive and useful set of resources: blog posts, articles and videos. This bodes well for their website becoming one of the more useful armizare resources out there, regardless of whether one chooses to join them or not. As any qualifying body must, the IAS has its own curriculum based on the founders’ interpretations of Fiore’s surviving books. This is necessary, of course, but runs the risk of becoming monolithic. All institutions tend to institutionalise; I guess that the function of the research committee is to make sure that there is a mechanism by which changes to the interpretation and thus the curriculum can be made. Let’s hope it works that way in practice.

It’s impossible to know at this stage what the tangible benefits of joining would be; the curriculum seems well thought out in broad strokes, but it’s not published (yet?) so I haven’t been able to look at any of their actual drills. I imagine that there would be some kind of mentorship of long-distance students, who would have access to the details of drills, techniques and so on that the curriculum must contain.  It is also impossible to know how compatible that curriculum would be with those of other Fiore-based schools. But I have had Greg, Sean, and Jason’s students in my classes many times, and crossed swords with many of them outside of class, so I know that they are more than capable of training excellent swordsmen.

My concerns:

At the moment, the Society is an idea with a website. It has no legal standing, as far as I can tell; it’s not a registered charity, or a business, or any other legal thing. This worries me, because without that kind of legal framework, I think it may be especially difficult to attain the goals that the organisation has set for itself.

Given how spread out geographically the current membership is, and how part of their mission is to organise events (which Greg Mele, at least, as the force behind WMAW and other events, knows far more about than I do), the annual 20 dollar membership fee seems totally inadequate. It would make more sense to me if it was closer to 50/month, to create a fund to help with things like subsidising the cost of exams (flying examiners in, for instance), subsidising the events they want to create, and so on.

The testing requirements look good, and with Sean and Puck both being qualified fencing masters, modelling the examining structure on their classical example makes a lot of sense and should work very well. But until a body of masters has been built up, organising exams will be very very challenging. And until their curriculum is made public, it’s impossible to know what the qualifications they offer actually mean. I’ve written here about certification, and here about mastery.

As one would expect, the organisation is currently completely controlled by its founders, and fair enough. Organisations or people who choose to join it will have no voting rights until they are qualified at the highest level of the organisation, magister. Which again is fair enough. But it does mean that for at least five years (the minimum time that you must be a member before testing at the magister level), the organisation is effectively completely dependent on the guidance and energy of its three founders.

Most organisations die in the first 5 years. Most of those that survive, die in the next five years. So I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful, that in ten years time we will see a mature and functional Society that is supremely capable of ensuring the long-term viability of Fiore’s Art. We are witnessing the birth of a new School; it is only fair to judge a school by the quality of the students it attracts and produces. I look forward to seeing the first IAS-qualified instructors in action!

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.

There has been a lot of hoo-ha on the electronical interweb regarding the USFCA (the American sport fencing coaching body) introducing instructor training and certification for “Historical Fencing”. One the one hand, there is no doubt that they, or any other body concerned with teaching the art of teaching, may have much in the way of pedagogical experience and a systematic approach that might be very useful for any historical fencing teacher. On the other, it is frankly a joke to imagine that a sport fencing body has any business pronouncing on who may or may not be fit to lead a historical fencing class.

Before I sail off on a thoroughly enjoyable rant, let me first point out that I offer instructor training and certification in my school, and I expect everyone within my school to acknowledge the certification, and nobody outside my school to give a monkey’s regarding who is or is not qualified to teach my syllabus. I would hope that eventually the trickle of trained instructors my school is producing will lead to a general feeling in the community at large that if you have a certificate from my school, you deserve the benefit of the doubt and can be hired unseen, but that’s as far as it goes.

In my view, before you can have a teaching qualification, you must first have a discrete body of knowledge that that qualification refers to. i.e. an established syllabus. Otherwise you have no basis for judging competence. A scuba-diving instructor’s qualification should not land you a job as a tennis coach. But, extensive experience in training scuba divers may make you a great teacher of practical skills, which you can then apply to your new-found interest in generating the next Roger Federer.

I happen to have a pretty extensive sport fencing background, having fenced regularly and at a respectable if not desperately elevated level between 1987 and 1994. This meant that when I went off on a foil coaching course, I knew the basic syllabus well enough to take part in the course. It would be very handy if all historical fencing coaches happened to have a sport fencing background and could do likewise. But there is no sense in studying foil for a few years before taking up medieval martial arts. It’s not an efficient route to success. There is a fundamental difference between taking a sport fencing coaches’ course and applying their coaching system to my own historical swordsmanship syllabus, and expecting a sport fencing body to be able to offer any kind of certification in historical systems.

A quick look at the USFCA certification document reveals all:

Paragraph 12. Traditions, Systems, and Terminology: Examinations are not intended to examine one particular tradition (for example, the German or Italian Longsword traditions) or system (for example, Saviolo’s Rapier play). Candidates either trained in a specific system or tradition or in a generic approach to a weapon should be able to teach a lesson consistent with their training within the themes specified. The Historical Fencing Committee will develop and make available a standard list of terminology for fencing actions; candidates should be able to explain the actions taught using these terms if requested by the examiners.

If there is one thing that the last decade has taught the historical martial arts community, it ought to be this: there is NO SUCH THING as a generic approach to a weapon that has the slightest merit. Generic approaches in systems for which we have adequate source material are invariably a smokescreen for inferior researchers to hide behind. And the idea of a standard list of terminology is so staggeringly offensive I don’t know where to start. All that makes historical swordsmanship historical is brushed aside in favour of a standard language. Do they imagine that language does not affect culture? That the structures of the Italian language, for example, don’t affect Italian thought? That there is any such thing as a generic “parry”? Fiore’s rebattere is not Capoferro’s Parare is not Mcbane’s Parade. Yes, I occasionally find it useful to employ classical fencing terminology to explain a certain point, but then I also use classical music terminology, Newtonian physics, popular film references, and bad language to do the same.

And from Paragraph 13:

The use of period costume for examinations is not permitted – period protective equipment, if appropriate, can be allowed.

I’m sorry, WTF? Clothing affects movement. Period clothing is an indispensible part of the research process, and in some schools (not mine, as it happens) all training is done in period kit. So what? Does that make them unmartial? No, it makes them clearly not following the sport fencing paradigm. If you are professionally presented (I DO agree with the USFCA’s policy regarding neatness and cleanliness), I can think of no unsinister reason for this clause.

And from point b of the same paragraph:

Fencing techniques which involve a transition to grappling must stop at the establishment of the basic grip and position, and not continue to full contact grappling.

Why not? If you can’t teach basic falling you have no business whatever teaching any medieval system I have ever come across. The ONLY reason for this is that the average sport fencer is utterly untrained and incompetent to judge grappling. Perhaps they think it’s dangerous? (Which is why judo is universally banned from all competitions…oh, wait, hang on, maybe it’s not…)

And some of the questions on the “exam”, oh my dear Lord, what are they thinking?

The guard positions undergo a fundamental change through the evolution from Medieval fencing to modern fencing. This change can be described as:

a. modern fencing is much more concerned with maintaining the weapon in a position so that the point (and cutting edge in sabre) pose a threat to the opponent.

b. guard positions in Medieval and Renaissance fencing were almost entirely defensive, with a gradual evolution to the more offensive intent of the guard through the Enlightenment and into the classical and modern periods.

c. guard positions in Medieval fencing were transitory with movement through the position to another action; the guard evolved into the modern concept of a place to stay in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Where do I start? With evolution suggesting a gradual improvement? I’ll take my longsword against the reigning world champion epeeist, and you know what? In a stand up fight I’d kill him. Because I can take any number of little pokes if it means I can chop his arm off, or his sword in half… Longswords are better for killing people with than epees. Fact.

Or perhaps with the fact that options a through c are all wrong? A because there are point in line guards in every system. B because the author appears not to have read Viggiani. Or any other historical treatise. C because, while the best of the bunch, it is incomplete: does not Fiore have us wait in tutta porta di ferro? Yes he does. If every action is done from guard to guard, as it is, and you have read your Aristotle, you know that there must be a tempo of rest in each guard… Aaaaaaaaaarghhhhhhhh! I know Ken Mondschein is a highly qualified historian and an experienced historical fencer, but did he actually let this drivel through?

General theory, question 1: What are the parts of a typical historical sword?

I’m sorry? WTF is a typical historical sword? Fiore seems to divide the blade into three parts, Thibault into 12, smallswords often have no crossguard but longswords always do, need I go on? This arrogant, godawful disregard for the fundamentals of historicity are making my blood boil. I want to hit something, and hard.

**** (I have so far excised 6 “fuck”s from the text)

Right, that’s better. Now for the next lot of drivel

4. Distance is generally recognized in Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment fencing as falling into:

A. 5 areas – out of distance, long distance, medium distance, short distance, and infighting distance

B. 4 areas – out of distance, two step distance, lunge distance, and stabbing distance

C. 3 areas – footwork distance, arm distance, and grappling or disarming distance

NONE of the above, you ignoramus. Distance per se is not discussed at all in medieval manuals. Renaissance manuals tend to favour, IIRC and I’m not going to check, out of measure, measure of the pass, measure of the lunge, and measure of the hand or arm, but don’t treat of it quite like that. Enlightenment fencing, well, smallsword really, IIRC from my last reading of Angelo, he doesn’t define different measures at all, but tends to have actions done either with a lunge or without one.

There follows this egregious excrescence of an exam a “draft curriculum which can be used for the training of fencing coaches in the techniques, theory, and teaching of one historic weapon, the Medieval Longsword”. This has many, many, utterly absurd generalities, such as under “Body position and footwork”: “If you are right handed left foot forward, reverse for left handers”, a woefully inept misunderstanding of the guard positions we see in all the medieval MSs. As a fool can plainly see, you have whichever foot forwards you want, depending on what you want to do. I could write a book on it (oops, I have). There follows a ghastly mishmash of Italianish stuff mixed up with Germanish stuff, which would leave any poor sod being taught this utter crap at a point significantly behind our average community standard of 2002.

With this document the USFCA have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that they are utterly and completely unqualified to examine anyone in historical fencing, still less historical European martial arts of any kind.

I agree with my esteemed colleague Randy Packer that this move on their part is dangerous in that once a certification is available, perfectly competent but uncertified instructors may find themselves unable to get insurance or use public spaces without submitting to this farcical exam process. This is deeply worrying.

But the worst of this is that it places the USFCA in the enemy camp, when really they do have a lot of useful stuff to teach us, about transmitting skills. Indeed, some parts of this document are exemplary, where the USFCA stick to their competence, such as in what to do if someone refuses to adhere to your school’s safety standards, or in structuring a group lesson. You may note that while I did attend an absolutely excellent sport fencing coaching course, I confined myself to sport fencing actions and theory while there, and did not take the exam at the end. As I explained to the teachers there, I have no need for the qualification, as it has no currency in my field. The training: useful, vital even. The qualification it lead to: irrelevant.

For those of a stout and hardy disposition who want to see this document themselves, it’s here. Be warned, you may need many push-ups or strikes on the pell to recover your sang-froid.







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