Swordsman & Geek

A Midsummer Night’s Blog

A Medio between Incompetence and Perfection


There is no point in dreams

There is no point in dreams if they lack some measure of audacity.

It was January of 2000 and the world had survived the millennium bug.  The place was Breckenridge, Colorado and a member of my wife’s family had a cabin near the ski resorts.  There at the top of the mountain I got my first bit of instruction in the ancient art of skiing.


The first and last thing I heard was, “Lean forward,” and so I did.  I began to slide down the mountain gaining speed. I had no way to steer and no idea what I should be doing.  I found myself completely out of control and was headed towards the trees at increasing velocity.  Before I painfully crashed I orchestrated a controlled wipe-out into the snow with poles, skis, and limbs all flying in different directions.  The remainder of the day was a repeat of the same series of leanings forward with various wipe-outs.  I got better instruction and learned how to stop by “snow-plowing”.  By the end of the day I had learned how to turn and stop with the skis parallel.


Sometime ago I became interested in the study of incompetence and how incompetent people generally behave.  Specifically I was interested in the meta-cognition of incompetence as studied by Justin Kruger and David Dunning who found that incompetent people were unable effectively to evaluate their own competence.  This lack of ability to understand personal competence has been called the Dunning–Kruger effect and restated basically it means that incompetent people tend to overestimate their own level of skill.


Link to the study:


(For an academic study, this is riveting material to read especially as a researcher, teacher, or student of martial arts.)


Compare that to Carranza’s statement, “He who knows most doubts most.”  Carranza adds the perfect corollary to the DK effect and uniting the two ideas has given me a basis for moving forward during difficult tasks.  (As an example, when a prairie-born Okie is rolling down a mountain with skis tied to his feet.)


The point isn’t to belittle or slander incompetence; we’re all incompetent in some subjects.  Instead, my goal was to develop strategies to understand and mitigate my own incompetence by reserving a healthy dose of doubt about my own ability and creating a series of tests to validate my own performance.


I am going to add my own rule which I learned in Breckenridge, “Lean forward.”  We can paraphrase Voltaire to arrive at a similar statement, “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  If I had become paralyzed with the fear of the many stumbles, spectacular wipe-outs, and public laughter at my misbegotten antics I might never have learned to ski that day.


We might best understand this as a Medio (or a virtuous mean or balance point as Aristotle and the Destreza authors might describe it).  There is absolute perfection at one extreme.  At the other extreme is complete incompetence.  Between the two extremes is the good work we might do if we just lean forward and accept our imperfection.


We need to teach and practice La Verdadera Destreza to build our skill and to foster a community.  But, we also know not all the work has been translated which should be a warning to us to preserve our doubts.  Previous attempts have stumbled and fallen quite publicly.  Worse, our mistakes may be mocked and picked apart and ridiculed by our peers.


1. Know that your ability to self-evaluate is shaky while you are learning.

2. Preserve a healthy doubt and create meaningful checks to ensure your work is good.

3. Lean forward and be ambitious unto audacity.  Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from producing work.

In Search of the Rudis

Like many of the stories of my life, this one should start with me being a fool.  It was WMAW and assembled there were a collection of instructors trained through Maestro William Gaugler’s fencing program.  The Chicago Swordplay Guild wished us to deliver to Maestro Gaugler a gift.  Resting inside a carved box was a wooden gladius, a Rudis, of the kind which was traditionally presented to a gladiator who had earned his freedom to become a Rudiarius.  Engraved were words expressing their desire that this tradition should persist forever.

Maestro Gaugler

Maestro Gaugler

At the time I thought it was merely a lovely gesture for his years of hard work but this was a young man’s thinking… it was a fool who could not see the message contained therein which we must all face as fencers, teachers, and members of a martial tradition.  What I did not know was that Maestro Gaugler was dying and that his days of servitude to the tradition were ending.


In 1979 Gaugler started the San Jose Fencing Master’s Program which harkened back to an older expression of the tradition in which the inquartata and the passata sotto were still taught.  It was taught as if the weapons had greater mass than the trainers themselves actually possessed.  The parries emphasized defensive power over the quick ripostes favored in sporting competition.  It was a school in which we were required to both percussively strike and then slice in our sabre cuts in order to lay open wounds we would never see.  The sabre cuts circled from the elbow to generate enough force to deliver powerful cuts while withdrawing our forearms from the threatened space created when the weapon left the line of offense.  It was heavily based on Parise’s work which was itself an attempt to protect the Italian tradition.  In order to certify the Fencing Master’s program Gaugler brought masters from Italy to witness the exams and they did so expressing their admiration that he had created so authentically an Italian expression of the art.


Gaugler had created a time capsule waiting for the right moment to be opened.   Outside of Gaugler’s Italian time capsule competitive fencing had moved in a different direction but a new movement lay on the horizon and the historical fencing community arrived at the end of the millennium.  I had been working on historical traditions for over 10 years before I began studying under the masters that Gaugler had trained.  The fencing master’s program was based on a martial system which was well-documented but even more compelling for me was a tradition of teaching which was largely unknown outside the school itself.  As I began to train, my own understanding of the historical texts and my ability to transmit the material to students began to accelerate.  Not only was my own practice getting better but my ability to train an effective historical Italian fencer had begun to blossom.


The Spanish Destreza author Carranza describes the early rudiments of knowledge as trying to write a letter while knowing only ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’.  Having found the Gaugler-trained masters I was awash in a rich language which I had never seen before and I was beginning to write fresh prose as I received the hundreds upon hundreds of touches from my students.  Every lesson I gave changed the world in some small way and I was creating fencers who were both powerful fencers but also mastering a systematic way of approaching their martial tradition.


Gaugler’s insistence that lesson be the mirror of combat, that our classwork artificially preserve the mass of actual weapons, had created a clean bridge from the classical tradition into the earlier rapier work and the results were impressive.   In my younger days I was a competitor in my fencing.  I fought for the love I had of friendly play and the joy of the art itself.  Fencing is so often an art form that lasts but for a brief shining moment which transcends all our human imperfections to create an instant of perfect time.  What a joy it is to be there and to see the light it brings to the world.


Today I more often work on helping others to kindle their own spark.  The day will come when I am held to task for what I did to preserve the traditions in my care.  Did I create new and useful work?  Did I train new fencers and teachers?  Have I done everything in my power to ensure the tradition will persist forever?


I am a thing so well out of his place stumbling and making errors in my work as I strive to rebuild the Iberian traditions and protect the Italian ones.  In that sense, being a fool is one of my strengths for I persist in striving regardless of my mistakes in the hope that I can do better.  Being publicly wrong and taking the bruises required to correct my fumbling is a cost I will pay if it means the traditions endure.  I am a fleeting, temporary thing but I am mindfully working to create a new generation of fencers and teachers who will carry the torch forward.  The measure of my worth is not the adversaries I have defeated with my tradition but rather the students and teachers I have given to my tradition.


On December 10, 2011 William Gaugler died.  Before the doors were closed on his program it had created 18 masters, 31 provosts, and 47 instructors.  His gifted Rudis was a message from a grateful community to the Maestro; it contained a release but also a promise that we would carry his burden going forward so that the art would persist.  Your work is done Rudiarius; rest easy.

Books by M. Gaugler

Books by M. Gaugler

One day in Dijon…

This is Emma Rios practicing Destreza at 2013 in competitive play:

First, posting a video of your fencing is an act of bravery for a fencer or an instructor.  If we are to believe what we read on the forums the internet is filled with super-ninjas who can readily find fault with anyone else’s practice even if they have never gotten out of their own chair to fence themselves.  I don’t put much faith in the armchair-ninja crowd but I do appreciate it when someone practicing in a tradition I study shares their work and for that I thank her and the school she trains with.

I wanted to specifically talk about the Destreza that is working here and how I perceive the tradition in her practice.  Because I have never met Emma, this will be speculative but I hope it will be informed by the primary sources and that my analysis will help someone who is unfamiliar with Destreza understand why her strategy is working and where it comes from.

The First Rule is to Defend

In Italian fencing there exists an imaginary line between two adversaries called the line of direction.  It is the shortest path to the target.

In the True Destreza (LVD) there is the Diameter.  The Diameter of the common circle is defined by the Medio de Proporcion which we might call the defensive medio.  It is the balance point from which we transition to ‘out of distance’ into our first opportunity for offense but with an eye fixed on our defensive place.  Ettenhard also tells us that it is the distance at which we can still safely react in time to form a defense.  You can think of a medio as a beautiful balance point chosen by reason, knowledge, and experience.

The Measure of Proportion defines the Diameter which also defines the Circle.

The Medio de Proporcion defines the Diameter which also defines the Common Circle shared by the two adversaries.

You could also visualize the defensive medio as a bubble around you which defines the area you must keep clear to effectively defend yourself.  Rada calls this sphere required for effective defense the Maximum Orb and the Medio de Proporcion defines the Radius of a personal safety bubble.


Rada's Maximum Orb shows a defensive space

Rada’s Maximum Orb shows a defensive space defined by the Medio de Proporcion.  The Maximum Orb is your personal space.

Consider the video and watch how Emma places her Italian adversary in the center of the fighting space (just as we see in the image above) and then she continually probes and pressures the edges of the adversary’s safe space to threaten. (I want to be very clear that Emma is walking the circumference of the Maximum Orb and not the Common Circle. Walking the Common Circle is akin to suicide without control of the blade or the time because you are closing distance.)

The Italian fencer seems absolutely baffled and doesn’t have an answer for the continuously changing place of the fight. Emma’s control of the place and her ability to gauge distance against a refused blade is key to her success in shutting down the adversary’s offense.  When the attacks arrive, she has the training to receive them and respond with a defense-offense action.  (Atajo and cut typically.)

  • Key Point – Defense by control of the Medio de Proporcion (MdP).
  • Key Point – Force the adversary into your strategy while denying them their own.
  • Key Point – Train to know your distance and how to gauge your adversary’s distance.

Spirals Control Threat-Space

Pacheco tells us that fencers that want to attack the hand will often keep their blade held well back which is what we observe here in Emma’s opponent.  His answer is to circle the adversary and create spirals as if we were executing the General Treta of the Weak Under the Strong (a clockwise spiral) which forms a sort of invitation and time-thrust all executed as a circular blade action.  Circular parries, envelopments, and other blade spirals control regions of space and working from the defensive medio (or just outside it) means that the risk for creating the spirals is reduced.

This appears (to me) to be Emma’s other well-trained strategy for frustrating the adversary.  An Italian wants to find your blade with a gain and then lunge straight.  Emma is refusing to stay on the line, keeps her distance well, and frustrates the attempts to gain (or even find position) by following Pacheco’s advice and creating spirals while circling with her footwork but she never gets so close that she loses the ability to defend.

  • Key Point – The further away from the adversary you are, the less risky it is to move your weapon.
  • Key Point – Spirals control or regain control of space.
  • Key Point – A continuously moving blade is harder to gain.

My personal favorite is the atajo on the outside line and medio tajo at about 35 seconds.  Do I completely agree with every movimiento in the fight?  No, but I don’t need to agree universally to appreciate the training.  The tradition has space for lots of difference, diverse schools, and cultures.  What is important to me is that someone shared their work in a tradition that I feel strongly about and I think the work was good.   If more people were as courageous as Emma and posting their own videos of LVD in action we would create a world community of Destreza practitioners and that would be good for the art and the science.

What is a Maestro?

I’m reposting something here because I think a lot of people are overreacting in graceless ways to my announcement that Ken was granted his teaching certification.

I think this reveals a profound lack of knowledge and experience about what a fencing master actually did historically or does today. There is a bit too much Hollywood baggage in this discussion for my taste because there is nothing particularly glorious or kingly about running a fencing school which is what the title really means. Masters are not little old bearded men trashing ninjas by the hundreds. In fact masters often sacrifice their own competitive edge because they spend the larger portion of their time teaching. (The really good competitive artists in my experience are the younger provosts.)

I am not this guy.

In the classical tradition a master would run the school with a few provosts and a collection of instructors to assist with the workload. It is simply how you run a school and there is nothing weird or supernatural about it. If you are running your own school, you are doing the work of a fencing master.

There will be good fencing masters and bad ones. Fencing masters can and will hiss at each other like cats across the backyard fence just like any other two people enthusiastic about a particular field. Some masters will be lifelong friends and I’ve found that extremely rewarding. Helping guide Kevin Murakoshi through the process of his multiple examinations gave me a great sense of the circular nature of life and teaching. I have ensured that my work doesn’t end with me and I’ve empowered another teacher to go out into the world and make something good.

Now what you should understand is that I know a lot of masters working in the community but I only know a few people who are certified. I think that is a damn shame. I also find the process of examination and certification extremely powerful and rewarding so I’m strongly in favor of that experience for any teacher who runs a school. With that in mind I think schools should consider certifying masters and get beyond the mumbo-jumbo of Hollywood nonsense and restore the title to the work-a-day role that it really occupies which is something akin to a head football coach at your local high-school. Different certifications will produce different levels of talent and I’m comfortable with that provided that the process is public and verifiable.


This is me getting hit with a foil.

This is me getting hit with a foil.

This is me getting hit with a rapier.

This is me getting hit with a rapier.

This is me being hit and disarmed at the same time.  (I obviously suck at my job,)

This is me being hit and disarmed at the same time. (I obviously suck at my job,)

(And, this is me being hit over and over again without ever getting a shot in.)

I earned my certification by being hit thousands upon thousands of times by students. Most fighters won’t know the difference between an in-time cue or an on-command cue.  Amongst fencing teachers we can have thirty minute discussions and arguments on how best to cue a student’s attack. Fighting put me on the path to being a teacher but it wasn’t what was required for me to certify.  Engendering success in the people around me so that they meet their goals is more important to me than my personal win-loss ratio.  Building a historical swordplay community is the real prize that I keep my eyes on.

In order for the community to provide a healthy second and third generation we need lots of schools to experiment with lots of ways of certifying the next generation. That’s dynamic. It has conflicts and feedback and tension and a drive to compete with your sister schools. That is healthy.

In short, don’t panic… “master” is just a normal teaching credential. The USFCA certification is not my thing but I think certifying programs are where the community needs to go generally as we mature. I look forward to the HEMA Alliance program, and the USFCA program (conditional on Ken’s input), and perhaps other programs as well. This gives me a great deal of comfort to know that we’re creating a self-sustaining life-cycle for the art. We need teachers and I want them all to be good. They won’t all be good but I can try to put my finger on the scales when I can to help tip the balance towards quality.


Congratulations Maestro Mondschein

It is my distinct pleasure to announce to the community that Dr. Ken Mondschein has been chosen as one of the USFCA’s first historical fencing masters. It is my opinion that Ken has worked his entire life to become the person who could fulfill this need in our community.

Maitre d'Armes Historique

Maitre d’Armes Historique

  • Maestro Mondschein holds a PhD in medieval history and is a Fulbright scholar which places him within the ranks of the scholastic elite.
  • He is a classically trained fencer with a ready knowledge of western fighting theory. In this field, he has taken multiple public examinations from an accrediting fencing body which provides him knowledge and experience necessary to examine instructors.
  • He is one of the most prolific modern authors for historical martial arts including two translations of primary sources. These works are enriched both by his academic expertise but also grounded in his classical tradition. This combination provides a modern reader with immediate access to the historical material.
  • His knowledge is broad. Maestro Mondschein is equally at home in full harness on horseback as he is on the classical strip. With academic and applied knowledge both broad and deep he embodies a Carrancine spirit of excellence within our community.

It is my opinion that through some miracle of blind luck, the USFCA chose perhaps the most qualified master to begin their program for historical instructor certification. I personally had reservations about the USFCA’s historical instructor certification program but at his core Ken is one of us and he understands what this community is about. No process for certification will be perfect but it gives me a great deal of reassurance to know that he is part of this project. When I think on my concerns, each one is addressed by, “Ken, will fix this.”

My congratulations to Maestro Mondschein for he well deserves this. Likewise my congratulations to the USFCA; I don’t think they yet fully realize the potential of the master they have chosen to start their program but I heartily approve. I don’t expect the USFCA to be the only program to certify instructors but I expect it will be a good one with Maestro Mondschein doing the work.

Master at Arms, Puck Curtis