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Thread: How do we define "excellence" in classical/historical swordsmanship?

  1. #1
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    How do we define "excellence" in classical/historical swordsmanship?

    ...especially since many of us discount the objective arbiter of competitive success?

  2. #2
    "Excellence" probably means something different for classical vs. historical fencing, at least for me... Why lump these together?

    Regards,

  3. #3
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    I think a strong argument can be made that CF is part of HF, so I'm interested in opinions on both.

  4. #4
    Competitive success should be discounted, yes, but not competition with oneself. I'm not trying to come off as sounding like a fortune cookie here, but we as individuals are really our own most challenging opponents. Diligence and earnestness in practice (granted the definitions of both of those are subjective too) go a long way—whether we're talking about a newbie or a teacher who's been at this for years.

    Personally, I'd offer the definition of "excellence" as the endeavor to suck a little less every day That's all I can ask of myself at this point.
    Tristán Zukowski
    Instructor, NYHFA Poughkeepsie Study Group

  5. #5
    Hi Ken,

    I always enjoy your thoughtfulness, and for encouraging ours. Here are some options ... not trying to be definitive or normative here, just making some humble offerings:

    1. Accuracy of historical technique.
    2. Constant improvement.
    3. A 'both/and', rather than 'either/or' approach to the 'physical ability vs scholarship' dichotomy.
    4. Humility.
    5. An ability to bring others into the fold, and along in learning, rather than making divisions and trafficking in one-upmanship.
    6. A patient and generous sharing of knowledge, skill, resources, and time.
    7. An acknowledging and honouring of historical context, while not engaging in romanticism, or totalising/hagiographic accounts. Swordsmanship, to me at least, is following a martial tradition, not living out childhood fantasies.
    8. Martial efficacy. Even if not defined through competition, it's gotta be real. As one WMA pathfinder put it, 'Everything else is just ballroom dancing'.

    Just my buck'o'five ...

    Mark T

  6. #6
    [Double post]

  7. In my observation, reputation in this community is largely based on:

    1- the perceived quality of your research
    2- your qualities as an instructor
    3- a perception that you can do what you teach, in other words you have fighting skills (which doesn't mean you're "the best")

    This already makes sense as a definition of excellence for our purposes.
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  8. #8
    I define it as someone who puts his(or her) heart into it, gives it all he's got and achieves:
    1) Prowess in free fencing (either success in tournaments or just earning the respect of people he/she fights with)
    2) Skill and ability in cutting (as well as an understanding of why they need it and how to go about getting it)
    3) Strong technique (inlcuding understanding of underlying principles and the source material that supports it)

    If someone can achieve 1 to 3 without putting their heart into it, then that person is a slacker because he/she could achieve even more, and therefore is not excellent.

  9. #9
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    Wow Ken, you do like to stir it up, don't you?!

    Anyway, I'm basically with Chris:

    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Thompson View Post
    1- the perceived quality of your research
    2- your qualities as an instructor
    3- a perception that you can do what you teach, in other words you have fighting skills (which doesn't mean you're "the best")
    ...except...

    1) I'd say it's the quality of your research and/or your qualities as an instructor. People can be excellent instructors without having a personally-researched original interpretation, and as time goes on, and we get a clearer and clearer understanding of what we're doing, there will be less and less need or opportunity for original research.

    2) you can fight respectably well, in what is recognisably the style you claim to teach. As Chris says it "doesn't mean you're "the best"" - I think MacGregor put it superbly well when he says:

    "Another erroneous opinion which prevails with many, and I am afraid the greater part is, that if their master be a great swordsman, he can teach them to be swordsmen also. But his likewise is an error. For a man may be a very good swordsman, and yet not be enabled to communicate his art to others; on the contrary, a person may be but a very indifferent swordsman, nevertheless give good directions. ...Therefore I would advise a man to make choice of a master who gives good instructions, even if he should not be such a great fencer himself, but gives solid reasons for what he teaches. For ‘tis not by a man’s master being a swordsman that he is to be one; it is by the master’s prescriptions and his own docility."

    Paul

  10. #10
    Aside from putting dedicated efforts in what you do (which would apply to any and all fields, really), here is roughly how I see it:
    • For living arts, how good you are really is validated by your teacher(s). Excellency is passing on the most of what you got from them, under their control
    • For historical arts, there is no master around to validate that you are doing it right. Excellency, in my opinion, is defined in these arts by how easy you make it to grasp the words of the masters. Methodology, studies of historical contexts, transcriptions, translations all achieve that. Physical performance also achieves some of it of course (because seeing something "in the flesh" makes it far easier to understand). I'm not a fan of starting "living lineages" again, where students would not be encouraged to study the actual sources but would be passing on a modern, digested version of them, that is neither validated by a master nor field-tested


    As I see it today HEMA is more "making it easy to study the sources" than "passing on what you got from the sources". But that is a personal opinion and I don't have a school to run

    Regards,

  11. #11
    Interesting question. I don't really have anything to add except in the realm of teaching. I've been thinking about this for awhile and I really think that to judge the ability of an instructor (as well as the effectiveness of his pedagogy), we should look not to his best students, but to his worst (consistent) students. In most schools, I think the best (i.e. most accomplished) students are often those who would excel in nearly any learning environment. However, it is those students who are not "naturals" and who don't pick things up right away that show an instructor's ability to instill the skills of swordsmanship. Note, however, that by "worst" students, I mean the weakest "dedicated" students: those who show up reliably and ready to practice. An instructor can hardly be judged on the ability of those transient students who show up once a month to "play swords".

    Steve
    Founder of NoVA-Assalto, an affiliate of the HEMA Alliance

  12. #12
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    It's funny how everyone is assuming I'm talking about instructors. So, to be good at this, you perforce have to teach it?

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    It's funny how everyone is assuming I'm talking about instructors. So, to be good at this, you perforce have to teach it?
    I didn't assume that, I only commented on that aspect of it. Clearly, you can be an excellent swordsman and not teach...
    Founder of NoVA-Assalto, an affiliate of the HEMA Alliance

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Reich View Post
    I didn't assume that, I only commented on that aspect of it. Clearly, you can be an excellent swordsman and not teach...
    A lot of the people above are also mentioning teaching, though.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    A lot of the people above are also mentioning teaching, though.
    There are generally two ways that someone is going to respond to this. One is to list a bunch of things that person believes about himself, the other is to list things he is striving for. Either way, the list will be based on that person's beliefs, theories and understanding. Since most people who post here seem to be instructor types, it should not surprise you that teaching skill factors heavily into the answers.

    I find it curious that I did not include anything about teaching in my answer, but I think that's because I assumed you were talking about martial artists in general and not teachers specifically. As to that, as I understand it, when it comes to martial arts there are teachers and there are people who teach. I am a person who teaches, though I hope to one day be a teacher. The difference is that what a true teacher teaches, he can do, and so he teaches it based on that ability and the experience that comes with it. And he knows how to get others to do it. He also understands the value of holding back information until it can be absorbed and rarely shows you everything he can do for the same reason. A person who teaches may strive to do the things he knows he should be able to do and that he is trying to teach you, or he may only think he can.
    Last edited by Michael Edelson; 02-14-2012 at 03:48 PM.

  16. #16
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    Great question, Ken! For me, excellence is achieved by those who deepen our understanding of the art.

    It takes a lot of work to learn the basics, a lot of faith to move beyond that and venture into uncharted territory, and a lot of courage to convey those new discoveries to others. That is excellence, and it can be achieved through academic or physical paths, although usually a mix of both.

    I feel there are a number of folks on this forum who have achieved some degree of excellence. Generally, we know who they are. It's like p0rnography, it may be difficult to define but we all know it when we see it.

    PS: don't spell "p0rnography" without a zero, or the system will deny your post!
    Shay Roberts
    Academy of Arms

    One may not be called perfect in this art, as it is likewise in others, if he does not know how to teach somebody else.
    Antonio Manciolino, 1531

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