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Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: mastery

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!

Happy Mothers' day, from sunny Finland!

And what could be more motherly than a spot of medieval combat?

It is very hard to defend yourself against a fully-committed attack with a dagger. To be honest, it’s not something we focus on all that much; we tend to prefer sword fights. But a couple of weeks ago I ran a class on dealing with committed dagger attacks. It went like this:

First we ran a diagnostic; did everyone present have a reasonably complete knowledge of the dagger curriculum? The answer came back “yes”. There were no obvious gaps in knowledge (distinguishing carefully between knowledge and skill). Then I polled them; how many felt confident of defending themselves with a sword against a sword attack? All hands went up. Unarmed against a dagger? No hands went up.

The next step was to analyse our drills from the point of view of my “bullshit” theory. Where is the bullshit?

The attacks they were used to from basic classes were a) done with a training dagger, not the real thing; b) done singly; just one blow, or maybe two. No flurries of strikes; c) done without a great deal of force; and d) done usually in a set pattern of some kind, allowing them to predict what the sequence would be, so what techniques were likely to work.

We began with speed: the attacker had to make multiple fast strikes. This quickly overwhelmed the defender. Clearly there was no point being competitive about this, so using my rule of ‘c’s (which is there in the “how to spot the bullshit” post), we had the attacker coach the defender by easing off the speed to the level where the defender was successful most, but not all, of the time.

Then strength; instead of lots of fast blows, the attack was to be done as a single blow, but with maximum force. This generated slower, but more forceful actions. Again, the attacker had to coach the defender; modifying the force to what they could only just handle. All the students agreed that a single hard blow was much easier to deal with than multiple fast ones.

Speed and strength had been trained against using rubber or wooden daggers; it’s easy to be brave against a dummy weapon. So the students were given the option to train with or without masks, and with sharp daggers. Some chose no mask with sharps; some chose masks with sharps; some chose no mask with blunts; some chose masks and blunts. But all of them went more slowly, and more gently. Funny that. It is hard to be bold against lethal force.

It was actually at this stage in the class that I noticed that we were actually working through Fiore’s four virtues (celeritas, forteza, ardimento, avvisamento) one at a time. So I thought for a minute about how to train for avvisamento, foresight. And I came up with responsiveness drills, in which the attacker varies his response to the defender’s initial defence, and the defender has to adapt; they do not know what is coming in advance.

Of course, at each stage of this class, we were working on just one thing. We never did full speed, full force, highly variable attacks with a sharp weapon against an unprotected face, because someone would have died. But by breaking the problem down into its component challenges, we could address each area of bullshit in turn.

Readers of my Seven Principles of Mastery booklet will have recognised the principles at work here: we trained with no injuries, we differentiated between knowledge and skill, we ran a diagnostic, and we worked on the 20% of technique that make up 80% of what you’re likely to use (though we didn’t actually address the range of techniques available except to establish at the start that all the students in class had a sufficiently broad knowledge base). The practice was mindful, and the students were sufficiently challenged that they spent most of the time in a state of flow. The one thing we didn't really go into was adopting useful beliefs; perhaps that should be the subject of another post?


Memory is the key component of mastery. Being able to effortlessly recall and recombine elements held in long term memory is the essence of creativity and expertise. This is why I have deliberately crafted my School’s syllabus to be a memory palace. It is obvious when reading Fiore that his system has been organised for memorisation, which is especially apparent in his use of numbers: the 4 guards of abrazare; the “8 things you should know” for abrazare; the four blows of the dagger, and the “five things you should know” to do against the dagger… five plus four is nine, so is it any wonder that there are nine remedy masters of the dagger?

The basic level classes in Helsinki have been focussing on these aspects of the system for the last couple of weeks. Just as Fiore loves us and wants us to be happy, and so provides an answer to every sword-related problem, so too do I love my students, and want them to be happy, so have created all sorts of devices to help them remember the things they wish to learn. Among these efforts are a set of memory verses, published in 2010 as The Armizare Vade Mecum.
By way of a wishing you all a merry Christmas, here is the verse on the nine masters of the dagger. The full text is below the video.
See you next year!

Here we are, Nine masters we,
Teach you all to remedy,
Safe defence for any threat,
We have ne’er been beaten yet!

When the blows come from above,
From right or left, or with a shove,
Left hand, crossed hands, right hand then
Both hands high we win again!
When he comes to collar grab,
Fifth will cover any stab!
Dagger high, it’s sixth you see,
Disarm, stab him, done with glee!
Seventh has the dagger crossed
In armour he has never lost,
Dagger low, eighth of course,
Also done hands joined for force.
Then both hands down for number nine:
See that player wince and whine!

But watchful for the counters thus:
See he comes to elbow push,
Or trap your wrist, or feint you see,
Or see it not! Then one two three!
When he wants to give you strife,
Go fast against his dang’rous knife!
Hands arms and elbows, all must play
And surely you will win the day.

O scholar you must heed our call
Arms crossed armour; never fall;
Make your cover, make your strike,
Then to break him as you like.
The five things all go together:
Like sword and dagger, steel and leather:
Disarm locks breaks throw him down,
Strike to win the master’s crown!

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.


The essential cognitive skill behind the application of swordsmanship is to see what is really there, not what you think is there. This is a profound and difficult skill to master, as we are all subject to all sorts of cognitive illusions and biases. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow  is perhaps the best single resource on the subject.

For us, in practice, we have to pay attention to what the opponent is doing, all the time- but refrain from telling ourselves stories about what we see. “His sword is coming towards me” is meaningful. But “he is attacking” is not: it prevents us from realising his action may be a feint. Ascribing motives to his motions is to be avoided. Likewise, we must not tell ourselves stories about what we are doing. “I am parrying that attack” is a lie. Because you don’t know whether the parry will work, or whether the attack is real, or anything. “I am moving to intercept his motion” is better, because the movement is real, and its intention is clear, and if the interception fails to occur, there is nothing in that statement to prevent the motion changing to find his weapon.

If we are telling ourselves a story, and the action changes, rewriting the story to fit the new data is hard. So we tend to ignore the data that doesn’t fit- we prioritise the story over the facts. This is normal. But will get you hit. I don’t think we can truly prevent the story-writing process, but we can cast the story in terms that permit endless easy rewrites as the situation changes.

Of course, the fight happens faster than conscious thought can keep up. Which makes story-telling that much worse, as the data is not just incomplete, it’s out of date. Better then to give yourself a set of instructions that fit the goals of the bout, such as “control his sword and hit him”, and let your training do all the hard work of actually issuing specific commands to the sword.

My own solution to the distractions of the conscious mind when fencing is I quietly sing a little song to myself. That keeps my conscious story-telling mind gently occupied, leaving my adaptive unconscious relatively unfettered, and able to see what is happening. It also freaks the hell out of my opponent if they get close enough to hear it. A win-win situation.


I am typing this very slowly, without looking at the keyboard (much). This may seem trivial to those of you that learned to touch-type young, but I have twenty years of bad habits to overcome: five published books and God knows how many thousand emails, all written by poke and pray. I got pretty quick with my bad habits. But a chance exchange on Facebook lead me to think that time spent now learning to type properly might be a good investment.


As you can see, Martin (a professional writer, swordsman, and long-time good friend) put me on to the BBC Schools typing course. And if you can see past the dancing hippos with questionable Middle Eastern accents, it is brilliant. The course starts at the very beginning, with the home row:

asdf jkl;

And adds one pair of keys at a time: first g and h; then r and u; building up over 12 levels until the whole keyboard is covered (sans the numbers, tabs etc.). Most importantly, every step is clearly taught, and every error is apparent but not dwelled on; you just can’t get to the celebratory turtle dance until the right keys have been hit. The way the authors have structured the course is an essay in perfect pedagogy. Every new level begins with revision of the previous material, and there is constant praise and encouragement. I applied the same sort of discipline that I use for learning other skills, such as, oh, I don’t know, swordfighting perhaps? and worked through the levels at my own pace, repeating most of them several times before moving on, and going back often to repeat previous ones. In under a week, I can find any key without looking, though my current pace is a dilatory 12 words per minute with a mere 97% accuracy rate.

It is costing me ALL my self-discipline not to switch back, as right now this is WAY slower, and VERY frustrating. But all the evidence suggests that in the end, this dip in speed will be as a run-up to hitherto undreamed heights of productivity, if I can just stick with it. (I just deleted a correct letter because I used the wrong finger to type it.)

This is of course an excellent analogue for the perils of too much freeplay or sparring, too early. One gets into terrible habits that, while they work for a while, set a lower cap on ultimate performance, and make it harder to attain deep competence because going back to basics and getting it right entails a temporary but frustrating drop in performance.

Mastery of any skill is largely a process of taking a rational construct, product of the slow conscious mind (Kahneman’s System 2), and installing it in the super-fast adaptive unconscious (Kahneman’s System 1). This inevitably leads to a period of adjustment, where the techniques and theories of the art in question get in the way of the artist’s natural expression. And this leads us to a moment of choice: do we truly believe in this art?

If we do, then we accept a short-term dip in ability for a hoped-for long-term increase in skill. If we do not, then we should maintain our current skills. The artist, one who follows the art, should find dips in performance heartening. They suggest an improvement is coming.

One of the pitfalls of evolution in nature is that once an organism is adapted for its niche, it cannot accept a dip in reproductive success for the sake of a long-term gain. Adaptations that convey disadvantage in the short term are ruthlessly selected against. So we have slugs, masters of their tiny leafy pinnacle, genetically oblivious to the possibilities of scaling further evolutionary heights. Only human beings, artists, can deliberately seek higher ground via a descent into an abyss.

So, in terms of your training, are you an artist or a slug?

I don’t believe in innate talent. I’ve never seen it in a student, and I have noticed no correlation between early successes in training and long-term achievement. But you can draw a linear relationship between hours spent in class and acknowledged skill. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is my sort-of-ex-student (in that he has gone on to set up his own independent school) Ilkka Hartikainen. Round about the time he was developing an international reputation for his Bolognese research, we co-incidentally did a review of attendance data. Turns out that my star student had 50% more class time logged than the next-keenest student. A clear indication that his effort, not some genetic predisposition to historical swordsmanship, was the underlying cause of his success, as I'm sure he'd agree. This is as it should be. I see no point in engaging in any sort of activity where genetic factors are the prime determinant of success. And everybody now knows (or should do!) about the 10,000 hour rule, which indicates that ten thousand hours of dedicated practice (not just going through the motions), is needed for mastery in any complex field. A major component of my job is to ensure that the time students spend in class is actually dedicated practice, not just swinging a sword about.

This always begs the question though, of what is complexity? In what areas does this rule apply, and where does it not? In one lecture I gave on this subject, someone who clearly felt threatened by the idea that it’s effort, not talent, that generates expertise, asked me if it took 10,000 hours to master blinking. The best definition I have so far come across for complexity in this context is in Matthew Syed’s Bounce, the subtitle of which is bang on the money: the myth of talent and the power of practice. He says (on p48 of the 2011 Fourth Estate paperback edition):

“…complexity… describes those tasks characterised by combinatorial explosion; tasks where success is determined, first and foremost, by superiority in software (pattern recognition and sophisticated motor programs) rather than hardware (simple speed or strength).

The usual example of a pursuit characterised by combinatorial explosion is chess. 32 men on 64 squares leads to more possible game permutations than there are atoms in the universe. But from our perspective, chess is simple! It doesn’t matter how you place your knight on the board, just where. Slam it down or place it silently, makes no difference. Likewise, there is only one desired result: checkmate. There are no nuances or degrees. You can win, lose, or draw. We can learn much from the paths to mastery that top chess players have used (e.g. Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning), but in terms of breadth, chess is sadly lacking. In addition to the complexities of tactics that chess players use, we can add depth and breadth of research, skills of motor execution (not smashing up cars, performing the physical movements of the art), levels of control allowing a choice of outcomes (kill, wound, capture, evade etc.) and so on. Even if someone suffers from severe physical disability, there is nothing stopping them from mastering an area of this art to a degree that puts them at the top of their part of this giant field.

There are many insights in Syed’s book that will no doubt make their way into this blog at some point (he has a lovely section on double-think, for instance, and another on the necessity of consistent execution of basic actions, for another instance), but I’ll leave you with this thought: The only thing that stands between you and mastery of the art of arms is the amount of dedicated practice you are willing to put into it.


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