On HEMA and Mastery

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet -- Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II


There’s been a lot said about the title of "Master" and how it is or isn’t applicable to the modern state of HEMA in the last few days by a variety of practitioners. Many of the people talking about this are folks I've known for years and had the privilege to take classes or seminars with during that time. No small portion of them have made significant contributions to the community both before and during the time I've known them. This is a debate I've seen over and over within the community since long before it was commonly called HEMA (the term I recall hearing the most often back in the late 90s was Western Martial Arts). Most often we have seen that claims to Mastery of various styles of HEMA have been shouted down, rightfully, by the community at large. Why should this time be any different? But "What’s past is prologue" as Shakespeare also said, so by all means, let us address this.


So who am I to talk about this? I mean, I run a tiny little club (17 members) which is one of five HEMA clubs in and around a moderately sized city in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. What can I add to this conversation that hasn’t already been said? Well, first, the one thing I think that we all mostly agree on. If these arts are to grow, we do need more and better teachers, regardless of what title we grant them. The skills required to teach are often very different than those required to compete in tourney, or even to practice as a student or solo practitioner.


In today’s HEMA world, to teach well, one must combine the skills of a practicing martial artist with those of a university academic. The teacher needs an encyclopedic knowledge of the full breadth of the art that isn't necessary for a competitor. A competitor can concentrate on perfecting the techniques that work well for their body and fighting style, where the teacher must be able to show the correct execution of every play in a system. After all, you can hardly assume anything about the physical and mental characteristics of new students of the art, nor is HEMA so large yet that we can afford to restrict who we'll teach to on a physical basis. (if that is ever the right thing to do) If you don't know all the techniques and what situations they are meant for you can't know which are the best ones for any specific student to focus on and apply in a given situation.


As a competitor, to be successful one must focus on different qualities. Speed, strength and fitness obviously play a large role. As do some highly technical matters such as measure and timing. But equally, a large portion of competitive success lies in knowing the rules of competitions and how to best take advantage of them, and what techniques work for you the most and how to implement them. In addition, as a competitor, you are free to borrow techniques from across multiple styles, where a teacher needs to be aware of those and how to combat them WITHIN the style they teach.


But the single most critical difference between a practitioner and a teacher is this. While it is sufficient for a Practitioner to be able to perform a technique and utilize as Mike Chidester put it, "a wealth of physical wisdom, for lack of a better term, that a living martial art possesses" for the teacher that is NOT enough. As a teacher you must make the subconscious conscious, and strive to be AWARE of all those little things in order to more effectively communicate them to your students. In my experience, this is often harder than learning to perform the techniques the correct way in the first place.


Both Practitioners and Teachers can be researchers and work to expand the scope of our knowledge of HEMA and reconstruct the arts they study, but a practitioner is working first and foremost to improve themselves, and a teacher to improve those who study with or alongside them.


So, Is a Master simply a teacher? Historically this was pretty much the case. A Master was an accredited teacher. They knew their stuff and could prove it. Either they had papers from some licensing body, or simply enough acclaim and respect to take the title and hold onto it. Even back in the day we see a great deal of controversy over the title of Master and between people so titled by different folks. As a student and instructor in the tradition of Armizare I’ll go back to Fiore here since his is the art with which I’m most familiar. Fiore himself tells us (and I use the Wiktenauer translation here since that is what is publicly available)


And by the grace of God I also acquired so much knowledge at the courts of noblemen, princes, dukes, marquises, counts, knights and squires, that increasingly I was myself asked to teach. My services were requested many times by noblemen, knights and their squires, who wanted me to teach them the art of armed combat both for fighting at the barrier and for mortal combat. And so I taught this art to many Italians and Germans and other noblemen who were obliged to fight at the barrier, as well as to numerous noblemen who did not actually compete.




More than anyone else I was careful around other Masters of Arms and their students. And some of these Masters who were envious of me challenged me to fight with sharp edged and pointed swords wearing only a padded jacket, and without any other armor except for a pair of leather gloves; and this happened because I refused to practice with them or teach them anything of my art.


And I was obliged to fight five times in this way. And five times, for my honor, I had to fight in unfamiliar places without relatives and without friends to support me, not trusting anyone but God, my art, myself, and my sword. And by the grace of God, I acquitted myself honorably and without injury to myself.




Now I, Fiore, although I can read and write and draw, and although I have books about this art, and have studied it for 40 years and more, do not myself claim to be a perfect Master in this art, (although I am considered so by some of the fine noblemen who have been my students). But I will say this: if, instead of studying the Art of Armed Combat for 40 years, I had spent 40 years studying law, papal decrees, and medicine, then I would be ranked a Doctor in all three of these disciplines. And you should also know that in order to study the science of arms I have endured great hardship, expended great effort and incurred great expense, all so as to be a perfect student of this art.


It’s my opinion that in this art there are few men in the world who can really call themselves Masters, and it is my goal to be remembered as one of them. To that end I have created this book all about this martial art and the things related to it, including weapons, their applications, and other aspects too.


So, honestly, even Fiore says in essence I’m a master because other people decided I was and sought out my teaching. Other folks were jealous of my pretending to this title since they hadn’t seen me teach or fight and I had to fight them to prove that I knew my shit because I wouldn't share things with them. From what I've read in his texts, he also believed that back in his own day there were very few people who really could call themselves masters. Maybe he just had an unrealistic standard, but perhaps not, and if few people could really claim the qualifications of Maestro back then, who are we today to grant that title to anyone?


Now, I’m not qualified to speak to what Devon and his crew up in Vancouver are trying to do. For them I can only say this, I'm had good experiences with the classes and seminars of theirs I've attended. Devon himself is once of the better fighters I've crossed blades with over the years, and his students likewise tend to perform well and be able to explain why what they do works. I can only say that I think the publicly stated goals of that group to produce more and better instructors and spread that knowledge outside of their own core student body is laudable. As for the title of Master, well who cares what they call it internally, those who come through the program will be judged by the community on the basis of what they can do and how well they teach no matter what anyone else calls them.


As for the International Armizare Society, as a long time student of Sean Hayes and being fairly familiar with the work of both Greg Mele and Jason Smith, I was very excited when I stumbled across an early version of the website for this organization some months prior to it being announced. In fact the initial message that I sent to them back in April of 2015 was this: Gentlemen, I’m loving what you guys are starting over at Armizare.org. Please tell me what I need to do to get my little group, NW Armizare on board and active! Back then things were very much in a partially developed state, and I was, as you can see from that message, eager to participate.


Since then, my group has become an IAS affiliate. We have done this not for any love of the ranking or titles within the organization, but simply because I loved the idea of a place for Fioreists to come and share research dedicated specifically to Armizare, and to build a library of data for students. Do I have reservations about what this organization could become both in success and in failure, yes. Many of those have been articulated in detail by people more eloquent and in a better position to be listened to within the community than myself. Am I still curious and confused about how and why certain groups were included and others excluded, yes. But I’ve known the principles for a long time and trust them, so we're joining in in the hopes that this proves to be a net positive to the greater community of Fiore researchers.


But this brings us back round from our digressions to the original topic. What about the title of Master and its use (or non-use) in HEMA circles. Well, while the community HAS some excellent instructors and excellent fighters, what we really can’t have are Masters in the manner which Fiore himself used the term. Modern HEMA is a reconstructionist art. What we practice has Martial Value, I have to believe that or I wouldn't practice it the way I do, but it is, at its core, reconstructed from texts with copious amounts of frog DNA from other living arts. This is done by many people, who test their interpretations daily, in practice, in instructional videos and posts that get argued over copiously, in tournament, and simply by observing students or working and reworking our understandings of the text. None of us can claim to perform any art completely, in the style of the long dead Masters and their students who wrote the texts we rely on. Nor is it likely that those self same writers would recognize anyone today as being worthy of that title. After all, none of our modern aspiring masters have (I hope!) stood across from another fighter bearing live steel with the understanding that the other person was about to try and do them grievous bodily harm if they did not use their skill and art to prevent it.


So what of the argument that the title should be broadly applied to any instructor of a group as put forth by Jason Smith recently. Perhaps, as a courtesy title this applies, but for myself, I’ve never found it necessary. Being called Master by ones students doesn’t make the lesson plans easier to write, or grant some knowledge that wasn’t there already. Further; The title of Master isn’t needed for someone to be an excellent researcher and teacher. And is further still less needed for someone to be an excellent fighter.


For my part, If someone wants to call themselves Maestro, let them. Learn what you can from them and laugh under your breath if you must. I can only speak for myself here, but I started studying HEMA so many years ago because I loved the weapons and the history. So long as I am able to continue to study this art and learn and progress how does someone else’s title affect me? How does it affect any of us?


In a sense, this whole argument all falls back on a cult of personality question. Who gets to be the big name with the big title and who doesn’t? To which I can only say this. Go ahead and waste your time arguing over something that doesn't matter. We’ll be training!