Building an Historical Fencing Community

This is a puzzle that occupies more and more of my time. What sort of community should we build? What approach should we use? What does the future look like?

To my mind, an historical fencing community must be able to handle every style of sword use from I.33 (written in 1295) to smallsword (ending roughly 1850). That’s more than 550 years of the evolution of personal armed combat. The basic problem is how can – and indeed should – one community represent this diverse a group of fencing techniques.

There are three basic approaches that existing groups have come up with to meet their needs. From what I see, most groups mix all three approaches with differing degrees of emphasis.

  1. Reconstruction: Understanding how weapons were used in a period and understanding how weapon usage changed within and between periods. A combination of textual analysis and experiment. Reconstruction is necessary now but has a limited future. Once we have reconstructed an historical style, we know it and there’s is only refinement to be achieved.
  2. Drill/Progression/Kata Perfection: Takes from the reconstruction a series of set movements to be performed with precision, like Tai-Chi with western weapons. Progression perfection, with its emphasis on precise movement patterns, is a go-er but will likely never be big or main stream (although I have been wrong before now).
  3. Combat Sport: Takes from reconstruction the rules for weapon use and gives them a competitive framework. As we saw with the rise to dominance of MMA, the competition feeds back into the reconstruction efforts. Combat sport has an obvious future. It’s how eastern martial arts have survived.

We haven’t mentioned sport fencing or re-enactment.

What about sport fencing? At the risk of offending every sports fencer in the world, I reckon it shows the path to be avoided at all costs: electronic scoring, double hits ignore the first rule of combat (ie: “don’t get hit”), a complex and abstract rule structure completely divorced from the realities of personal combat. Classical fencing may be an exception to this. I don’t understand it well enough to say.

Where does re-enactment fit it? While costumes and feasts are cool in themselves, historical fencing must maintain its focus on the fighting arts. Re-enactment concentrates on a whole-of-life understanding of a period in history, not just its combat. However, the fact that most historical fencers started and continue as re-factors mean that they will always be on the edge of whatever community we build.

Whatever the community looks like or develops into, it’s either got to cover a lot of ground or fragment into smaller groups with a more narrow focus.