Qualities of a Master

As our fencing club grows we find ourselves discussing what requirements a member will have to meet in order to run practices, and as part of that we’ve been looking at what some of the historical sources have to say on who is qualified to teach fencing. In Part One, Book One of Regole della scherma Marcelli devotes an entire chapter to the subject.

Chapter II

Qualities the master must have

How difficult it is to be a Master of Fencing! Though not for those who at the time of the Emperor Honorius were exiled from the Kingdom because, subverting the rules, they taught men to kill each other like brutes without guidance or study of Rule or art.1When the monk Telemachus was stoned to death by a crowd of spectators after trying to stop a gladiator match the Western Roman Emperor Honorius abolished gladiatorial games. (Theoderetus 1843, 326-327)

To be a Master it is necessary to consider with the name its qualities, although here the use of that desirable custom of the Ancients is abandoned, who anytime someone aspired to teach examined him in a public Senate of Excellent Masters. Becoming approved after the exam, they declared him worthy of that rank with public patents at the cost of their own acquired virtue, as Achille Marozzo refers to in Book 2 at Folio 472“At the present there are some Masters who teach no such virtue or art because they are endowed with little science, for they teach more by practice than anything else. Of this I am certain because I know that many set themselves to teach, convincing themselves they understand and not understanding. This happens because there are no more authenticated Masters like there used to be in ancient times. If those were not first privileged by the other Masters with patents they could not take students. Now everyone is a Master and takes students, and no one cares.” (Marozzo 1536, 47r)
The original text cites Folio 27.
and Giovanni dall’Aggocchie on Folio 7 of his First Book.3“Some Masters of this art direct it to a poor end due to not understanding that Theory and practice are different, and before they possess a little practice set themselves to teach. This only happens because that ancient custom of the creation of Masters has gone into oblivion. Know that not very long ago, just like someone needing to be advanced to the excellent degree of doctorate, first a diligent examination test was done, and then as he was judged sufficient, so he is given the privilege. This was also observed by the Masters of fencing. Therefore, first they examined those that wished to teach others and whether they understood the Theory of fencing and all the other things necessary to it. Then they placed a student facing them, making him throw blows poorly and place himself badly in the Guards in order to learn if they recognized in what ways the student erred. After this they tested with different good students. With this, as he was sufficiently successful, he was privileged by the other Masters and with his patents could open a school. These were authenticated Masters.” (Dall’Aggocchie 1572, 7v)
The original text cites Folio 8.
Narváez states in his First Book on the true skill that it was in use in his time (and at the present) in Madrid,4(Narváez 1600, 25) and we know by certain tradition that it is employed at our time in France. Regardless, it is necessary to be a Master in the present without being envious of the past.

In order to understand the difficulties that are encountered in order to reach so excellent a rank, at this point an examination of the qualities that are sought in the subject is begun. From the understanding of these the clarity of those will arise.

In Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s First Book on Folio 6, when describing a good professor he deems one must be equipped with Reason, Daring, Strength, Dexterity, Science, Judgement, and Practice.5(Dall’Aggocchie 1572, 6r) Requiring Reason and Daring in taking up the sword, he seeks to not degrade himself in endeavours. Strength serves to make him superior in gains. Dexterity, on the contrary, serves to defend from these. Science is understood through theory – that is, the fundamental operation of everything with its reason, so that sciat rem per causam.6“A thing is known by its cause”
Marcelli is paraphrasing Aristotle. (Aristotle 1901, 103)
Judgement must then serve for the recognition of Tempi, Measures, Lines, and Angles. By practice he means continuous exercise, by means of which after having studied the lessons a person practises his assaults and puts into action what his master taught him. The aforementioned Bolognese expresses very well the quality of a good Fencer who must at present work for himself, but the Master who must teach others needs to possess other competencies which evaluate to make him worthy of possession of this title.

Therefore, before every other thing added to the Master: Skill in Communication, which must be clear and easy in teaching his disciple in order to explain without confusion what he wants him to do, needing to avoid both entanglements that cause too much chatter as well as shrieking in advising him, which would deafen and confuse rather than inform him. Set aside the imitation of those that peddle to experts and literati, spitting out certain sentences and some terms that one would have to be a member of the Accademia della Crusca7The Accademia della Crusca is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Italian language, founded in 1583 in Florence, Italy. The first edition of their dictionary of the Italian language, Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, was printed in 1612. (Accademia della Crusca 2011) or always carrying the Calepino8Ambrogio Calepino wrote a Latin dictionary in 1502 which had been massively enlarged and reprinted many times when Marcelli wrote his book. (Allan, 512-514) A surviving copy of a 1613 edition held in the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies Rare Book Collection in Toronto weighs in at over a thousand pages. (Calepino 1613) in one’s pocket to understand clearly. Make use of those more used in this profession, which are upheld for our use by the Ancients and the confirmation of the Moderns. If there is desire to introduce new names to ears accustomed to the previous it would be nothing more than an annoyance to them without profit, a change without benefit.

It will never be possible for a Professor to be very clear in his explanations if he does not join every rule with its foundation – that is, the reason for which it is done and on which it is based. It will be hard work to teach the reasons if he is not knowledgeable, and for that reason he must be to such a degree an expert that with little difficulty he can create understanding and demonstrate all that rests on the base of the reason. He will be exempt from the stain in which people are buried who act as Fencing Masters, understand nothing, and freely operate at random without understanding the cause. It is necessary that these experience what occurred to a Master of this sort, who when asked by me what the reasoning was on which an action was based, the method of which we disputed, promptly answered, “Lelio, my Master does it so.” An answer worthy of an ignoramus, which he was. Now what virtue will this man seek to teach to others if he knows nothing of the Science and little more than nothing of the practice? How will the miserable disciple add to the perfection of his laborious study if he learns from a Master that himself knows and understands nothing? I am of the opinion that he directs himself blindly, never able to develop his wits from the tangled hedge that crosses his path in traveling such a disastrous road, when in encounters and guiding himself with a merest flicker of reason he would be led straight there.

Secondly, adding the Practice, which is just as necessary to the good Fencing Master. Before someone with this title begins to teach I believe that he will be well-exercised in playing with diverse Fencers, and being exercised, practised sufficiently in very diverse play with others. This is so that in teaching its actions they are always accompanied by different rules and considerations concerning the defence of those that others perform. The occasion arising that some disciple of his ends up offended by a sudden action of another, or instead becomes confused by some different play from his enemy, he can easily relieve him with his rules and understand how to teach him the way with which another time the aforesaid can be defended with them. This will not be possible if he does not through his own practice first make himself familiar with the different ways of Fencing of others. It will occur to them for the reason equally strange as it is miserable, that it is customary for people never trained elsewhere as disciples to already be made Masters by the same, not heeding that most beautifully said by the poet Menander: Someone who is made General and was never Captain, someone who is made Captain and was never a soldier, when he enters with the army in battle Hecatomben hostibus adducit.9“He leads out a hecatomb to offer to the foe” (Menander 1921, 515)
A hecatomb was a traditional Greek or Roman sacrifice, usually of a hundred oxen. Used figuratively to refer to a great loss of life. (The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, s.v. “hecatomb”)
Menander was a Greek poet and playwright. (Menander 1921, xii-xv)
He leads as many bulls to the sacrifice as soldiers to battle. So it is with Masters of Fencing who reached the rank of Master without scaling the stairs, the stairs being the lessons, and without having reached there due to sweat and blood. With a leap of superb presumption they pinned it upon their chests, prepared a school with a handful of bank rags, have already become Masters, and hecatomben hostibus adducunt.10“They lead out a hecatomb to offer to the foe” They teach as many disciples Fencing as they lead to death. The same in their schools then, presiding with the seriousness that so excellent a title carries, when they see someone play differently or observe some action that they do not know practised by others, it is almost as if they see something marvellous and never seen, ecstatic and insensate with their mouths open, not breathing, since Stultis omnis videtur nova rerum, & inopinata facies: magna pars est apud imperitos mali novitas. Seneca, Epistle 76.11“To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives ‘comes in a new and sudden form,’ and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty.” (Seneca 1920, 2:166-177)

The Master, possessing all these components and needing to teach to everyone, before all else should judiciously procure the ability and disposition of [the disciple] so that it is possible to introduce him according to the aspects he is inclined to. At the beginning of study he must commit him to the path that he recognizes as more appropriate to his inclination and easier for his disposition in order to direct him to profit. Teaching him with this understanding he should always move at a slow pace in the lessons, without jumping from one to another before he recognizes that his disciple begins to possess and habituate himself well to the first, in order to then pass in a controlled way to the second. This is because doing the opposite it will occur that, deciding hurriedly to teach his disciple everything in one day, the aforesaid will learn nothing that day. From jumping in a hurry from one lesson to another it arises that after much time of study he is either at the beginning or further from it than when he began. Like a planet in retrograde, as much as he goes forward he returns backward more.

The disciple directed so, having laboured for much time in the lessons, the Master must always be mindful of the profit to him in that from day to day he improves, so that then at his time he can initiate him in the assaults, which will finish solidifying the lessons. With a warning, however, that in the beginning of assaulting he must not test himself against others than the same [Master], where it is possible to instruct him in all other circumstances and observations that are required in Assaults, and to give him those warnings that are necessary to him. While he is actually assaulting with his disciple he must prudently take care to offer him opportunities from time to time in order to help his mind know how to recognize them, and at the same time teach him how to make use of them. Along with their rules he will instruct him in the way of observing the measures, and how he must advance himself in acquiring them. Then, making their tempi for him he will train him to recognize them, and recognized, in what manner he must perform his against those which are shown to him by his Master in the guise of the enemy, or in other words, how they are performed in contratempi to strike the adversary. In the act of assaults he must explain to him in the same way the qualities of the Guards, Motions, Lines, Postures, and Angles that can be performed by the aforesaid. From these he gives advice to his disciple regarding how to make the counterguards in a way that the Lines are removed, and how one wounds on the Angles.

Further, I see it is necessary advice for the Master to remember to guide his disciple in a way that he knows how to refrain from furies, moderate himself in resolutions, and rouse himself from fear, keeping his spirit calm and his Body obedient to the signals of his will, ready to perform the actions in the circumstances and tempi that the enemy will have proposed to him, guiding him in assaults with this studious and profitable manner until he knows he is able to be assured in comparison with others and so that he becomes a perfect Fencer, which I believe must happen over a long course of years.

Works Cited

  1. Allan, Keith, ed. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics. Oxford University Press. https://books.google.ca/books?id=BzfRFmlN2ZAC.
  2. Aristotle. 1901. Posterior Analytics. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/aristotle-posterior-analytics.
  3. Calepino, Ambrogio. 1613. F. Ambrosij Calepini Bergomensis Ord. Erem. S. Augustini Dictionarium Septem Linguarum: Hebraicae, Graecae, Latinae, Italicae, Germanicae, Hispanicae, & Gallicae Cum Paul Manutij Additamentis Suo Cuique Proprio Nomini Insertis : Accesserunt Etiam Henrici . Venice: Ioannem Guerilium.
  4. Dall’Agocchie, Giovanni. 1572. Dell’arte Di Scrimia Libri Tre. Venice: Giulio Tamborino. https://books.google.ca/books?id=70dbAAAAcAAJ.
  5. Knowles, Elizabeth, ed. 2006. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Oxford_Dictionary_of_Phrase_and_Fabl/Urg3hNc4tu0C.
  6. Marcelli, Francesco Antonio. 1686. Regole Della Scherma Insegnate Da Lelio e Titta Marcelli. Rome: Dominicus Antonius Hercules. https://archive.org/details/regoledellascher00marc.
  7. Marozzo, Achille. 1536. Opera Nova. Modena. http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/0002/bsb00024290/images/index.html.
  8. Menander. 1921. Menander, the Principal Fragments. London: William Heinemann. https://archive.org/details/menanderprincipa00menauoft/.
  9. Narváez, Luis Pacheco de. 1600. Libro de Las Grandezas de La Espada. Madrid: The Heirs of Juan Iniguez. https://books.google.ca/books?id=Dn48AAAAcAAJ.
  10. Seneca. 1920. Epistles. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. https://www.loebclassics.com/view/LCL075/1917/volume.xml.
  11. “Storia Dell’Accademia.” 2011. Accademia Della Crusca. 2011. http://www.accademiadellacrusca.it/it/laccademia/storia.
  12. Theoderetus. 1843. Ecclesiastical History. London: Samual Bagster and Sons. https://books.google.ca/books?id=q_54qEMqFVsC.