Bad Ideas and Worse Responses: Regarding the USFCA “Master of Historical Fencing” Program

by Gregory Mele, CSG Founder and Curriculum Director

In the 14 years since the Chicago Swordplay Guild was founded, I’ve sought to keep martial arts politics off of its website, even when I’ve been in the thick of things myself. When we redesigned the website to include a blog, we’ve focused on event notifications, reviews, demos and training material. But the broo-ha-ha in the last two weeks over the creation of an Historical Fencing Master program by the United States Fencing Association (USFCA) is sadly killing that 14 year streak.

The short strokes are simple: after an on-again, off-again attempt by the USFCA to create a program for certifying teachers of historical swordsmanship, led by Maitres des Escrime Walter Green (for those not in the know, MdE is the title given to modern fencing masters), Dr. Ken Mondschein approached the USFCA about joining the project.  Ken has explained his rationale in an open letter, best summarized as:

It has long been my belief that to grow and flourish, the study of Historical European Martial Arts needs both greater professionalism and recognition from established organizations. Being an academic, I live in a world where credentials are very necessary. Many others have seen how such recognition would be beneficial to their own efforts.

Now, before I say one more word – I personally think that while Ken’s role was a well-intentioned, but misguided effort, I don’t think the program was viable, I don’t think the USFCA were the people to do this, and I don’t think their motives are particularly pure. Further, at this point, the likelihood of anything good coming from it is probably somewhat less likely than using an alembic to turn lead into gold.

OTOH, if the USFCA was going to attempt this, Ken’s qualifications were good ones:

  • He has been a student of classical and modern fencing for about 20 years, having already achieved both a moniteur (instructor) and prevôt (senior instructor) license from the USFCA;
  • He is a student of la canne and grand batôn, one of the other surviving weapon arts of Europe;
  • He has been a student of French smallsword, Italian rapier and Italian longsword for nearly as long as he has fenced, trains and fights in armour and is learning to joust.
  • He is a PhD in Medieval studies and Fulbright Scholar, who discovered the fourth Fiore text and paid with own grant money to have it photographed;
  • He reads French, Latin and Italian in their modern and medieval forms;
  • He has published three works on historical swordsmanship and has two more in the works;
  • He has organized and presented papers and sessions on HEMA at the premier medievalist conference in the United States.
  • He has taught classes on applying classical fencing pedagogy and interpretive classes on rapier, smallsword and longsword at various HEMA events in the United States.

In short, he’s not a hack, this isn’t a passing fad with him, and there is very, very little reason to suspect his agenda was anything more than what he claims it was. I can add that he approached a number of HEMA folks in the US to participate in the program, and was soundly refused. (I will explain why in a later post.) Last year, several American and European swordsmen found out about the program and decide to launch a series of accusations on that most serious of academic fora – Facebook – upset that they weren’t consulted. All I can say to that is “Boys, get your knickers out of a twist and consider that in some cases a) you aren’t in the US – so the USFCA frankly wasn’t interested in what you had to say, anymore than the FIS in Italy or AAI in France cares what I have to say, b)maybe Ken doesn’t know you, or maybe your street cred isn’t as good as you thought, c) he was one triad of a committee and the junior member at that.”


Regardless of how it got there, now the program is live, and as the USFCA usually does things, they made a hash of it. Besides Ken, the other two members on the committee are not well-known in HEMA circles. One is Jerry Benson, a fencing coach of some reputation who has students deeply involved in HEMA practice – I do not know if he saw this as a way to work with his students to create something better or if they approached him, but he does not deserve to be called “Jerry the Salesman” because he had the gall to give a lecture on how to develop successful fencing programs; anyone who has to pay rent to keep a studio open for a large club, rather than train with four buddies in the park gets that reality.

Sadly, the third member is more problematic – another sport-fencing master who has a “pedigree” of credentials that set off every Bad Budo warning buzzer, from mail-order ninjutsu, to an 8th dan in a system of his own devising. I am sure he got his USFCA credentials legitimately, but his centrality to the program at least shows the organization’s lack of understanding of martial arts, and martial arts politics. (Go figure, they train teachers in an Olympic sport.)

To have had any hope of legitimacy with the “community” they were hoping to attract, the program’s first candidates should have had to publicly go through all three certification stages themselves, publicly. Instead, the USFCA chose to promote the three members of the committee directly to Maitres des Escrimes Historiques, thereby giving them the authority to run the program. Their choice, but an incredibly stupid one.

So in the end, Ken’s idea was laudable but dead-on-arrival in my opinion (I will explain why in a separate post) even before politics got involved, but once they emerged there was no hope whatsoever.

And so we have the digital gnashing of teeth, the tearing of breasts, and the prophesized end of civilization as we know it, as legions of electric foil-wielding fencers line up in order of their tournment seeding to plug in their longswords and lead us down the brimstone path to martial arts hell….

(Sorry, I got lost in my own hyperbole for a moment there – the discussions about tournament seeding and electric longswords came from within the HEMA community! )

But you would think that was precisely what would happen as various corners of the HEMA world exploded in rage over a certification by the Sideshow Bob of American Fencing, calling Ken Mondschein the self-crowned Napoleon of historical fencing, a liar and all sorts of the charming things oft cited by emboldened, digital warriors. I am not sure that a debate about gay marriage between Bill Mahr and Rush Limbaugh on Pierce Morgan’s show could have more shamelessly played for the low blow. (Sigh… sure, I got my licks in there, too. The flesh is weak.)

While Jerry is now the traveling snake-oil peddler,  Ken is the traitorous cuckoo in the nest, and apparently, all good Dead Fechtmeister-Fearing Men must roast him and tear his flesh, because he “was warned” – by no less than the Godfather of HEMA himself, who said “thou shalt have false Masters before Me “. He also vowed to never adopt such a title himself, which seems noble and bold, until you realize that as it is a teaching title, and he has neither a school nor students, that isn’t saying much.

(About this point you might be wondering why it is morally wrong to try and create a certification program that no one is compelled to join, but OK to personally attack someone because they defied your wishes , when you are not their teacher, nor the head of any certifying body, nor even a researcher with a substantial published body of work. If you are wondering that, it is probably because your parents probably raised you right. But I digress.)

What is fascinating, and disheartening, to me, is that while these men in their 40s and 50s engage in what is little more than internet hazing and bullying they seem to ignore the obvious:

  • some of these same folks were victimized by rumor-mongering, innuendo outright lies and similar attacks by John Clements, the ARMA director, directly leading to the formation of their own clubs and organizations;
  • another subset of these folks have thought it in poor taste to call out those problems with the ARMA director, and felt that as Europeans “that is the Americans’ problem”;
  • some of these same folks criticized myself and others when we revealed that Andrea Lupo, the founder of both the Federazione Italiana Scherma Antiqa e Storica (FISAS) and the International Master at Arms Federation (IMAF) was a fraud who had made up his entire martial pedigree,  and most of his personal background, inventing the name of one master and claimed false credentials from another, because it was “no one’s business but the Italians” – even though Mr. Lupo had been trading on those credentials at seminars in the USA, Canada and UK as well.
  • some of these same folks thought it was shameful and “bad for the art” to “publicly air dirty laundry” when it was revealed that the owner of the now-defunct Chivalry Bookshelf had defrauded his authors of their intellectual property and their royalties to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, now see no problem in spending hours publicly ridiculing, personally attacking and mocking a man who never did them a lick of personal harm – and whom they never once tried to talk to privately.
  • at the same time that they were lambasting the USFCA for appointing its first masters with a lack of transparency, some of them were instituting a certification program in which the first instructor was certified out of the public eye.

Now, so as not to paint with too broad a brush, there are also legitimate concerns being raised with measured thought, polite language and an honest attempt to present the position without crucifying anyone. The best summary of this is Roger Norling’s blog post. If you’ve cared enough about this subject to read my post, you should read his for counterpoint.

At the center of the more reasoned arguments is a fear of the size of the USFCA and its creating an immediate cadre of “sport historical fencers” who will outnumber the rest of us. I have heard the argument, and I encourage you to read Roger’s concerns, rather than my paraphrase. All I can say is that I think these concerns are born from a misunderstanding of what a genderless, toothless entity the USFCA really is. It’s not going to happen, and the reasons are simple:

  •  Most fencers could care less about martial arts of any stripe – they are engaged in a sport;
  • The USFCA has no authority over the USFA and little influence;
  • The USFCA failed to even take over classical fencing in America, which at least ostensibly is related to modern fencing;
  • The certification, even if successful, has no unilateral curriculum attached to it, and thus still does not impact what people teach;
  • There are hosts of fencing coaches – modern fencing coaches – today who are not certified by the USFCA, and the USFCA has had no ability to prevent them doing what they do.

Beyond the fear of a domino effect, the other problem is apparently using the tile of “Master”, probably the most over-discussed and over-valued word in our community. We know that this was a title used by trade guilds to mean someone qualified to teach his art to others, under his own auspices and no more. We even have the qualifications used in Germany, England, Spain and the New World, and frankly, at least the German qualifications to that vaunted titled are not all that impressive once you read them. Yet the idea persists that somehow the Master at Arms profession degenerated in the 18th and 19th century, whereas their 15th and 16th century counterparts were living engines of death and destruction. As such, certainly no one would ever use that term today….

Or maybe, as most HEMA folks seem to have become involved in the activity in the last decade, they just don’t know their history. You see, we have plenty of modern masters of HEMA:

  • Terry Brown reconstituted in the Company of Maisters of Defence in the 1990s, teaching a strictly English curriculum of martial arts, and requiring his students to go through the traditional grades of Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Master, with the required years spent in each.  Terry has long said that you can’t create a provost without a master, so when recreating the Guild, he listed his research and accomplishments and played the prize against all of his other students, stating that this was done “for want of other Masters to play against”;
  • Alberto Bomprezzi received instruction from a variety of sources, including the aforementioned Andrea Lupo, but adopted the title based on his accomplishments in establishing the Asociación Española de Esgrima Antigua, a federation of schools throughout Spain teaching a single, unified curriculum and including some of the leading lights of research into Iberian swordplay. He is a regular teacher at British and continental European HEMA events;
  • Although he does not use it externally, Devon Boorman’s title with Academie Duello is Maestro d’Arme. Devon runs the largest HEMA school in the world, with a comprehensive curriculum, an weekly video lessons for students who are training alone or with one or two friends, and has traveled around the world teaching and fighting.
  • Maestro Francesco Loda also was taught by Andrea Lupo, before going his own way, developing his own curriculum and heading the well-regarded Academia Romana d’Armi, which has since become affiliated with the Italian Fencing Federation (FIS). Maestro Loda is also apparently welcome at European historical fencing events.
  • Maestro Massimo Malipiero was made a Magistro Re and Maestro di Scherma Antiqa by the Italian Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in 1999, as was Giovanni Rapisardi, and the program has gone one to create several other masters or submasters – “Magistri”.

I only have met the first three men on this list in person, but what all of them have in common is that:

  • they use the title because that is what they do: they are teachers of martial arts, trained fighters, and teachers who have developed a method to teach other teachers;
  • none of them seem neurotic or even particularly concerned about the title, usually going by their first names;
  • all of them can do in practice what they show in class, and research, fight and teach at a high level of effectiveness.

Consequently, to my mind, they are welcome to call themselves Masters at Arms, because they fulfill that function and they have proven their abilities to fight and to teach – even when self-taught or when some of their own teachers were dicey. But they are still using the sacrosanct title of Master at Arms, so why aren’t swordsmen gathering in the streets, longsword feders and torches in hand? Why do those most upset about the USFCA also seem to grant them a pass? This has been explained to me that the USFCA case is “different”, because the USFCA is a major sports body (one might ask, major relative to what) and therefore could easily “appropriate HEMA” in the USA and create a chain reaction

Unfortunately, global warming is real and will probably alter life on this planet radically in the next century. Fortunately, whether or not there is credible Historical European Martial Arts still on the planet when that happens will probably have less to do with the USFCA then it does climate change. You see, fencing in the USA is not governed by the USFCA, but by the United States Fencing Association (USFA) – the actual American branch of the Federation International Escrime (FIE). The USFCA can’t dictate what the USFA does and the two organizations don’t get along terribly well. OK, I am being kind: remember I said that the USFCA was toothless and neutered? Well, most sport fencers who are even aware that it exists consider it something of a joke. On the other hand, the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma is the Italian equivalent to the Coache’s Association and much more closely aligned with the Federazione Italiana Scherma (FIS)which  is the Italian USFA equivalent.

And guess what?

No, they aren’t going to follow the USFCA’s lead and create an historical fencing program, because they already have a Maestro di Scherma Antiqa program, with multiple ranks –  founded under Giovanni Rapisardi and Massimo Malipiero in the 1990s. And just like the USFCA program, you pay for certification and certification training, with set course books and specific required reading, which just happen to be editions of the core texts (Fiore, Marozzo, Capoferro, Scorza e Grisetti and Parise) created by Rapisardi and Malipiero.

The first Maestro rank was granted in 1999 and I lived through the hue and cry. “Oh no, the Naples Fencing Academy is now licensing historical fencing, and they are part of the FIE – this is the end of historical martial arts in Italy. Then France will follow, and Germany, and …”. I would point out that somehow the Accademia Nazionale now  also licenses kendo in Italy, so if anyone was going to make a power grab, this would have been the guys to do it. And yet, fourteen years later,while there are probably far more people licensed by FIS’s historical fencing program then the USFCA will ever see, FIS isn’t even close to owning historical fencing in Italy. Sala d’Arme Achille Marozzo is clearly larger, so is Nova Scrimia, and ironically, so is FISAS – an organization founded by Andrea Lupo – the man who made up a mythical master and his entire martial arts biography, which is far beyond any of Walter Green’s mail-in certificates.

Where’s the outrage? There is none, because a) this all happened 15 years ago, when most of those so upset didn’t know about HEMA and b) it has had zero influence on anything – HEMA has grown vigorously and in a variety of directions, including in Italy itself. In fact, some of the folks in Europe most terrified and outraged by the USFCA program on Facebook have those FIS salles listed on their “likes” page.

So perhaps the problem is that Ken and Jerry have the wrong friends, or perhaps the real issue is that all of these other masters have been engaged in Italian, Iberian or English swordsmanship, whereas the bulk of the HEMA community crowds around the Liechtenauer tradition. But since the USFCA program is tradition agnostic and separated from Europe by 5000 miles, now someone might get that diploma and call themselves a….Fechtmeister!  Quick, save the Fatherland…er…even though we’re American, Belgian, Dutch, English, Swedish, French, or…

Maybe that is why I don’t care about this – there have been people claiming the title of master at arms in my given focus for over a decade and a half – some rightly so, at least in my opinion, and some laughably so. But neither good nor bad has had a lick of impact on what I do, how I do it, or who I do it with. Fiore dei Liberi wrote:

I, Fiore, know how to read, write and draw, and have books on our subject, a subject that I have studied for over forty years. Yet, I don’t consider myself to be a perfect Master of it, although I am held to be such by some of the great lords whom I taught. Let me just say that if I had spent the same forty years studying law, jurisprudence or medicine as assiduously as I have studied the art of arms, I would be a Doctor in each of these three disciplines. And I have undergone great pain, labor and expenses in being a good student.

That’s the most I can do, and accept that the path to mastering an art is just that – a path – that was never mean to end with a title, merely acknowledge that you could initiate others on that journey.

Despite my honest disgust at how Ken has been treated, and despite my ribbing here of some of my friends who study German martial arts, I cannot recommend, endorse or anyway accept the qualification or the program offered by the USFCA, and I truly wish that my friend Ken had not wasted his time, efforts or own hard-won credentials on a program that really could never do what it needs to do, even in a perfect world. Respect is earned, so someone being a USFCA “Master of Historical Fencing” means as much or as little to me as how they behave on the mat, and what they bring to the classroom. Ken’s motives were honest, his behavior consistent, and while I declined to be involved and continue to believe the effort was misplaced, he is a friend, a fellow-worker in the mines, and an honest member of the community. I cannot say the same about some of his most vocal critics, who have accomplished less, produced less and yelled the loudest, using personal attack, mockery and invective as a diversion from the obvious question of “and your authority to speak ex cathedra or sit in judgment comes from….?”

By their fruits shall ye know them. A lot of plants have been planted in the last few weeks and we’ll be seeing some misshapen bulbs for some time to come. But I know this much, when Ken wrote:

First, it has been my hope that the USFCA certification could establish both an impartial credential and an invitation into a collegial community outside the politics and divisions that so plague HEMA.

The last two weeks have just shown him what a charming delusion that was.

As the tempest swirls in its teapot, the curious might want to see a few other points of view:

Guy Windsor’s blog discusses both the controversy and why the program was flawed from the onset.

In an effort to create something good out of the madness, Jens Kligman has created the Marxbruder Facebook group to humorously – and yet seriously – discuss the old German fencing guild, its testing requirements and to debate how the Guild could be recreated in the modern day.

As the lightning rod for the debate, Ken Mondschein has tried to explain his position in an open letter.

While most of the debate has swirled about Facebook and other social media, as I said Roger Norling has tried to present the other side’s arguments sans diatribe or personal attack on his blog. He and I agree about the program’s flaws, not the threat it represents, but his positions are worth reading and considering.