Let’s face it. Fencing is a dead activity. At no time in my life will I ever be called upon to fight a duel, let alone a duel with swords. As a combat art, fencing is a technique without a purpose. So, other than to be pretentious (which is an end in itself) why do I learn, study and practice the fighting styles of a bunch of dead white dudes?
I’m going to discuss this problem through an analogy to languages (another passion of mine, by the way). In this way, I hope to diffuse some of the emotion that seems to gather around this topic and hopefully make my argument a little more clear.
Dead languages such as Latin are called so because they are no longer spoken in the general course of life. They are no longer dynamic, living entities capable of change, development and growth. Living languages, on the other hand, are in a continual process of evolution as their speakers interact with each other to negotiate meaning and understanding. New concepts are adopted from outside the language and new forms are invented to adapt to changing conditions.
Context is the key difference. In what sets of circumstances is the language practiced? What alternatives communication strategies or other languages are applicable to these contexts?
Latin under the Roman Republic and Empire was a dynamic, evolving beast. Even during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it maintained itself as the language of education, science and religion. New words, phrases and manners of expression in the language were invented to accommodate changes in social and political thought and the sciences. Only with the devlopement of popular media such as the mass printing of books and newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and radio and television in the twentieth was Latin toppled from its pedestal in favour of the vernacular.
The first group aim produces study groups who are concerned with the proper and correct (real or perceived) form of the language. Using the language can become entirely secondary to “understanding” it. At the end of a life time of study, you can stand tall and say proudly something along the lines of “I understand 100% correctly how Cicero spoke.” Good for you. To the outside world, you have achieved nothing other than becoming a hermit.
The second group aim to give the language a living context, a reason for existance and, more importantly, a way of attracting new blood into the fold of those who want to learn Latin. For the purists, usage of the language may not always conform to that of the great writers of Antiquity. It may destroy many of the features which the purists find most attractive. In the end, you may claim that you have introduced the language to many more people than the purist and that through your actions others have gained appreciation of Latin impossible without immediate contact with the language.
What does this mean for historical swordplay?
In brief, unless we can find a living context which we can wrap around historical fencing, it is dead. Studying the Masters and doing no more is nothing but navel-gazing. Even the annual displays of technical prowess so common at medieval and renaissance fairs do nothing to answer the fundamental question asked by the public: “Why do you do it?”
To my mind, competition is the obvious response. I kind-a hope it’s not the only answer but I can’t imagine another at this point (becauase I am a navel-gazer by inclination). Competition makes learning swordplay a dynamic and purposeful activity. It takes the teachings and techniques of the Masters and puts them to the test in a similar way to how they would have been tested during the period.
In this way, we answer the public’s question. Why? So we can use the techniques we study in a vital and living context.
More importantly, we have something to offer in return. It is only by showing others that what we do has value can we hope to inspire our passion into the next generation.