Gravitas and the Rainbow

Moving my regular Thursday night sparring class online represented some challenges for me. My preferred style of coaching is not to present a formal lesson plan for students to receive, but rather to look and analyze my students to see how they are progressing towards the ideals of the school, and then give them what tweaks I think will work best for them. That’s not so great when you are looking at a square of students in a video frame, some of whom can move freely about, and others who can barely swing an arm without hitting something.

I adapted by doing something I always wanted to do. I decided to start an ongoing class to work through Marozzo from page one, and one page at a time, cover the whole manual with a group of students. It was a bit rough to start, but lately we’ve hit an awesome collaborative groove. It’s done something I had not expected, which is to re-kindle my love for digging deep into a source and mentally consuming it whole.

And it’s also reminding me of some old angers, and the reasons why I grew to hate the HEMA community, and stopped referring to myself as a teacher of historical swordplay. To be clear, most of those reasons where just part of my own strange personality quirks, but looking back on it now…and comparing to what I see from some modern schools…some of those concerns where valid.

It mostly has to do with how we look back at the old masters.

There is a sort of Orientalism that appears when people study historical arts. The past, and the works of the masters, are held up to be ideal. They are seen as the only legitimate source of martial knowledge on swordplay, as their world was more “real” in that is was closer to the daily practice of swordplay than ours. We are supposed to hold accuracy to their works as the highest standard of correct swordplay. And as an extension of that, we should be looking to those who are able to do the most accurate explanation and transference of their material as our modern ideals of swordplay.

Well, bluntly…fuck that.

It’s an approach that just breeds bullshit. You get this bizarre concept that what makes the works of the masters better than others is that they are somehow more “deadly” than other martial arts…because obviously “real” martial arts are about being killers, right? Life and death at every exchange! Only the strong survive! HEMA is best because sword killers! Horseshit. There is an absolute modern fantasy of looking to the history of Europe and seeing it as only existing of brutality and oppressiveness. A land of warfare that spawned knights, armies, kings, empires, chivalry and world conquest. And learning their sword arts is a way to get a touch of that magic power into your own life.

This sort of reduction of a people into something easily understandable and classifiable is a cancer. It rots the brain into a passive ignorance and acceptance, and is strongly opposed to the questioning curiosity we should approach any vital learning with. When we make this simplification of a culture, we do it to contrast with our understanding of our own culture. Because obviously we cannot be as brutal and deadly as they were in the past, right? We obviously have no true understanding of what combat entails, of what it takes to kill another person up close and personal. Not like “they” did.

This is an understandable process. Martial arts exist in a place that can be hard to define and place in our lives. Most of us start with a bit of a superhero-esque dream of gaining abilities that we can use to make our world better. But as we learn, we see that we are actually doing is becoming a part of practice that exists outside of our day-to-day lives. It runs the risk of becoming selfish. So we start to reach for a reason to justify what we do. It’s not much of a stretch to see how we move from there to leading ourselves to believe we are preserving some sort of lost warrior culture. The only other possibility seems to be accepting that what we are doing is a sport, and thus for some of us means being associated with a while other culture.

We grapple with the past so that we can feel like we are justified in our actions today. To understand how we are a progression of what has come before us, to understand what conditions led to us picking a sword up today, is a good thing. But it behooves us to have an accurate understanding of the past, which means we must have an accurate understanding of today. And we must always understand that what we are currently doing is going to shape our future.

The onus is on us to always keep our focus not on re-creating the past, but to remind ourselves that we are creating a modern martial art with roots in the past. We do not know the past. We can only extrapolate from the evidence left to us, and the process of extrapolation is not an amateur effort. It can be done by amateurs, but most always follow a solid academic model. This means things like multi-disciplinary reviews should be integral to the process. The study of the history of what we do should also be remembered to be a separate discipline from the extrapolation of that history to an actual practice. These are different fields of study and practice. As is the extension forward from all of that to how to bring in correctly into modern practice, and again into how that practice should move forward into the future.

All of these fields of study must work together in balance if we are to create a modern practice with value for the future.

We short ourselves when we try to place excessive gravitas on our practice. When we see what we do as only having value compared to other arts, or other cultures, we tend to forget our own culture. If we blind ourselves to it’s flaws, we blind ourselves to it’s virtues. When we try to fit in what we see from other arts without understand why they are done, we rob ourselves of understanding our own values.

I do not know, and never will know, who Marozzo really was. I can read his works over and over again, I can read his contemporaries and I can read his predecessors works. I can read hundreds of people’s modern opinions of his work, but I will never know what was in his mind when he sat down and wrote his book. There is an uncrossable gulf of centuries between us. And that does not matter.

Because my mission today, with my students, is to create something from us, that has value us and our connected communities. To do so, I must have an honest understanding of what that value will be. We are engaged in an “other” practice, a thing that exists outside of the normal routine of our lives. It takes time and attention from other aspects of our lives, and so it must return honest value. Self-defense and health are as much bullshit as historical preservation. Certainly these aspects exist and are valuable, but there are clearly better and more efficient means.

Our real value lies in that we engage in this activities because we are a unique community. In this small network we make, we learn to balance self-development with community growth. We learn to make ourselves better by skillful challenge against our peers, and we learn to make our peers better by supporting their own efforts. We bond by the uniqueness of our local culture, and we learn to defend that from others that seek to only grow themselves. Our community will grow to meet other like minded groups.

So our Marozzo must be shaped by who we are. We must recognize that are are allowed to shape and interpret our understandings from who we are. We have the right to make our own ideal masters. The past does not live. It is dead. We shape our future. We have the right to work together towards our best understanding of that past, and define for ourselves what it means to us. We have the responsibility to decide for ourselves what our correct approach to understanding historical works should be, to not just accept received wisdom.

We can have a Marozzo who is not a steady, stern bastion of gravitas and lethality, but rather a Marozzo of joy, supreme ability and bravado.

I’m here for the Rainbow Marozzo.

2 thoughts on “Gravitas and the Rainbow

  1. Mike Cherba

    Excellent piece Randy! Best thing I’ve read today. You’ve certainly given me something to think about. This balance is something I’ve struggled to articulate and land how/where I do within our club down here. Coming from a strong classical fencing background, but having been motivated by fantasy as much as history in my own studies . Ironically, this all comes as I’m building up my own Marozzo knowledge to begin bringing that into our club and have been working towards HOW to best arrange that practice and what elements to draw from our past studies of Fiore or Georgian, what from Marozzo’s own words about how to teach, and what from my modern influences in approach, you/Kaja and Da’Mon Stith primary among them.

  2. Andrew Lawrence-King

    Thank you for this post. Your delight in engaging with the historical source, and your questioning of the deep purpose of that engagement resonate with the experience of Historically Informed Performers of music, those of us who work not only with music from Marozzo’s period, but also with sources – in some ways similar to swordplay treatises – that inform us HOW to play.

    In music too, there has been much philosophical and practical questioning of the value and meaning of the entire endeavour. Translated into terms of swordplay, why don’t we just pick up an old sword and wave it around however we want to? Why don’t we take Marozzo’s set pieces and have fun with them, using whatever sword we have? Who is this Marozzo, and why does he matter? How dare you question anything Marozzo wrote? etc, etc. Certainly, in music there is a glorification of famous composers and an idealisation of past musicking that is unhelpful when it comes to actually doing anything, today.

    There is of course a fundamental difference: whereas musicians are expected to perform, historical martial artists hope not to use their sword-skills in the street.

    So one answer is – as you write – that the shared investigation, the work of the community of your Marozzo class and its supporters in the wider community, itself creates a Sharing and an Investigation which are in themselves valid, meaningful and worthwhile.

    And I wonder if there are two more, simple answers that can resolve some of the doubts about the painstaking application of historical detail in a modern context.

    In Early Music, we try to avoid the term ‘authentic’, because it’s obvious that we cannot be 100% authentic, and indeed, we do not want to be. An easy example is that in Marozzo’s time, young boys were castrated to preserve their treble voices into adulthood. We don’t want to go there, today. So the preferred term, Historically Informed Performance places the emphasis not on the unicorn of authenticity, but on the gathering and application of Information, and the making of Informed choices. This seems to have much in sympathy with your Rainbow Marozzo.

    And my personal approach to musical treatises is to respect them, not because those people were “better” than us in some idealised way, but rather because these writers were full-time experts, born into that culture, trained in a specific lineage of musical (for which read ‘martial’) education from an early age, engaged with their particular corner of the Art for their entire careers. Marozzo is THE Marozzo-specialist, one might say.

    That leaves plenty of room open for teaching historical skills by a variety of approaches. But it preserves a basic truth – misunderstanding or flatly contradicting Marozzo himself is a bad idea. If there is a good reason to change something, of course you can change it, but you still need to know what the original source said, and understand why.

    It would be like misunderstanding or wilfully altering the instructions in the Workshop Manual of your beloved old-timer car: you’d better know precisely what you are doing and why, otherwise the thing just won’t work so well. On the other hand, if you are asking that old car to do a different job, perhaps to conform to today’s environmental emission standards, then your modification will be needed. And you’ll also need to be *even better* Informed about the original exhaust system, in order to modify it effectively.

    Contrariwise, changing things because one hasn’t bothered to study the original is a cop-out!


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