Method or Pedagogy? (in which we unravel an apology)

There are curricula and even entire pedagogical systems to model; there are books, contemporary and historical from which to glean technique and definitions; there are teachers and instructors and masters to supplicate to - and far too many who expect you to do so.  At the end, fencing makes sense, it is inherently logical, and must therefore be discoverable and universally true.  This discovery can be on your own (the autodidacts) or shared with others (perhaps even those deserving of your supplications).  While there are pitfalls in store along either route our purpose here is in another direction, viz. how do I train fencers?

My dear friend, and one of my first students, Alexis once observed that as the curriculum of the Classical Fencing Society evolved it followed the Classical Trivium.  While familiar to medievalists and anachronistic educators, it’s origin can be traced to ancient Greece.  Here we remember it in its most familiar form:

Grammar  -  Logic  -  Rhetoric

Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized, Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known, and Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.
— Sister Miriam Joseph (2002)

The Trivium was foundational - necessary information for the student to proceed in their studies.  It was never an end to pursue, but rather the key with which to unlock more knowledge.  Sword science utilizes this sequence effectively.  Grammar becomes for us the Technical information.  What is an attack?  How are attacks developed, executed and defended?  Essentially the ‘what’ of fencing.  Logic becomes for us the Tactical and scenario based information - the conditional clauses that provide context and meaning.  Essentially the ‘why’ of fencing.  Finally, Rhetoric becomes for us actual simulated Combat - free and spontaneous - the true communicative form of our science (essentially how our science becomes art).

As the Trivium is sequential, so too the order of sword training.  Students begin learning a vocabulary - both in English and in body mechanics which expands to include blade actions.  Altogether these movements, carefully constructed and repeated, become the working nuts and bolts with which fencing is built.  Once the student can move and speak with the new vocabulary they need to learn why these nuts and bolts work.  Armed with the logic of fencing the student is empowered to not only understand, but to continue to decipher and more accurately solve new problems which their opponents will attempt to confound them by.  Ultimately, the student must surrender to the stress and uncertainty of combat.  Only in this sacred place will the distillation occur: form subdues formlessness, logic dispels uncertainty, and experience makes action effective and effortless.

For these reasons it is understandable how the characteristic, sang-froid, has been used to describe our antecedent sword bearers.  It is the appeal to reason, rather than emotive power, that the fencer acts and succeeds.

Do not react negatively, rather respond positively.
— Rev. Dr. H. Dale Jackson

Therefore, in answering the question, “How do I train fencers?”, I must say that I do so scientifically and according to the Fencing Trivium, represented as,

Technicals  -  Tacticals  -  Combat

And just as in the medieval schools, this is just the beginning.  Not only is this sequence to repeat itself on occasion, but it also enables the fencer to engage in ongoing conversations about combat theory, non-canonical or auxiliary techniques, risk assessment, and Reading (my fencing equivalent of behavioral observation).  For these reasons my system is more method (in the scientific sense) than pedagogical - as I am not attempting to create, theorize upon nor critique an educational system.  The contemporary Scuola headed by Maestro John Sullins is a pedagogical organization as it specifically studies the educational means to create fencing teachers as it does so.  Method is actionable and its usefulness in sword training is no new discovery,  proven with just a quick sampling of titles from across the centuries:

  • Salvator Fabris, De lo Schermo ovvero Scienza d'Armi - 1606

  • Giuseppe Rosaroll-Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, La Scienza della Scherma - 1803

  • William M. Gaugler "The Science of Fencing. Revised ed." - 2004

As the foundations for science solidified so too were the foundations for swordsmanship.  It was during the 17th century that a method arose,

consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

Swordsmanship is less concerned with possibilities than it is realities, so we simply substitute ‘hypotheses’ with ‘solutions’ - specifically, those that protect us against a known adversary.  Even so, we could consider the development of the aforementioned hypotheses as useful as we consider possible technique and combat scenarios.  Would this alteration of a technique work and why or why not?  How does this scenario manifest itself among random combatants?  The method feeds the inquiry which then feeds back into the method.

More can certainly be said about standards, conventions and choosing the content - material appropriate for the next article.

New Year, Revitalized Mission, New Website

Fencing, online?  My first website was also my first fencing website.  For those of you who know me please pardon that unnecessary truism. Netscape Navigator had just integrated a nifty WYSIWYG HTML editor and since grad school nor new baby girl left much time to actually learn another new language I was happy to "learn" web development in the Duplo Block method.

This original site was named Kabal Fencing and provided not only the practical means to advertise our fencing but also a strangely needed creative outlet.  We had just formalized the newest fencing club in St Louis (1997, Baited Blade) from where I was making my departure to teach my newest group of students at St Louis University full time. 

a group of people united in some close design together, usually to promote their private views or interests in a church, state, or other community, often by intrigue, usually unbeknownst to persons outside their group.
— http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabal

What I envisioned was an online resource to promote the seriousness of our efforts but with a slightly tongue-in-cheek humility.  The initial logo (above) is a medieval depiction of the archangel Michael overcoming satan.  Over the top?  Comically so, but not without a pause to what we were after: effective swordplay.

Photos were taken, words were pixilated and before I knew it we had an online presence.  There weren't many fencing websites prior to 2000 - especially few were those focused on documentation of fencing, rather than text.  The aesthetic I attempted was hindered by resources.  Bandwidth was low - we didn't even consider video - but decent photography was difficult enough.

Saint Louis Ballroom, Busch Memorial Center, circa 1999

Saint Louis Ballroom, Busch Memorial Center, circa 1999

We had many reasons to pursue this documentation.  First, nobody else was doing it.  Most fencing websites of the period were text only and if they had some photos they were often unclear action shots, or worse, the uncomfortable head-shot.  So we focused on a sense of place and on what we were doing.  Second, our fencing was getting better, albeit slowly, and closer to the practical ideal I had in mind.  Looking back on these images now our mistakes are glaring...

You wouldn't believe the harassment I received for that rolling back foot.  "How DARE I call myself Classical?"

You wouldn't believe the harassment I received for that rolling back foot.  "How DARE I call myself Classical?"

Not to mention that the then formed Classical Fencing Society Salle D' Armes at Saint Louis University did not, as a student organization (1998-2007), have its own website hosted by the Uni.  So I was free to continue experimenting.

Sometime around 2003 I lost access to the server hosting Kabal Fencing and tried a modified blog style format, first with Blogger and then later at Wordpress.  This was a particularly uneventful period of online time for our fencing, although we did have a new site development for what was then the larger CFS, namely CFSSDA.  Sadly, I don't have any evidence archived for this period in terms of the website.  Some photographs that were posted include...

Just before the CFS was to celebrate its 10th anniversary we were invited to leave Saint Louis University.  At first this was terribly inconvenient, but then I realized what potential there was in divorcing the fencing school from the Uni.  Sure we'd lose funds and free space and a known, recognizable affiliation - but we'd gain liberty!

Thus began the great reformation from CFS to TDS.  The logos and designs contained on this website were first published on our previous Wordpress account.  Much of the design success is attributable to Patrick Capstick who worked free from hardly any complaints to create the banner-head...

Which also became the inspiration and source material for our tri-fold brochures and flyers.  The previous website was limited by the presentation of services so it underwent a radical departure from what I had done before.  Rather than the relatively dynamic presentation it became a static placard like website.  Which would have worked wonders in 2000, but these days the kids want more.  Deciding how to handle that has been a side project to distraction.  Needless to say, we have a new site, a refined design, and more importantly a renewed vigor with which to promote our fencing.

Semi-regular posts here will archive training in both method and visuals, discussions on theory and application, as well as the occasional review.  Looking back on the evolution of our fencing information online I feel that we're in just the right spot.  All my thanks go to all my students and training partners, past and present.  Without you this would have been yet another windmill in La Mancha.