An interesting discussion that arises from time to time in the HEMA community is how much we can trust what the authors of our source material wrote, when we may in fact have better ideas and can improve upon these methods, and generally: when can we question the masters?
For some people, it seems only reasonable that we should use the source material as inspiration and then create our own systems, without being beholden to some long-dead author. For others, it seems ridiculous that anyone would claim to be in a better position to talk about the realities of swordfighting than the masters who taught it for a living at a time when swords were still in use.
So when can we question the masters? When can we decide that we “know better” and can therefore make a system that will be the equal of one of these HEMA traditions?
For the purpose of this article, the “masters” are simply the individuals who wrote the treatises from which we study. Some did indeed hold the rank or qualification of “master”, others did not hold as high a rank or qualification, and others were enthusiastic amateurs rather than qualified teachers. Nonetheless, each person who wrote a fencing treatise has contributed something important to the collection of modern knowledge about historical fencing practices and methods, and therefore their work may well be studied by modern practitioners and treated as possessing a certain authority.
The definition of “questioning” in this article is not asking a question to one’s instructor, such as “why do we do it like this?”, but rather questioning the authority or correctness of the source. Deciding that a description is incorrect because “oh, this is clearly a scribal error” or “this clearly won’t work in a real fight”, or deciding that “I can improve on this with my own inventions”, and following one’s own ideas instead of what the source says, is what I mean by “questioning the masters”.
My personal feelings
My rule of thumb is that I follow the source material, as written, with no deviations, if I want to recreate that system (such as Liechtenauer’s longsword according to Ringeck).
If I want to broaden the system that I’m trying to recreate (such as 16th century longsword fencing in the Holy Roman Empire), then I may allow a little deviation, but I will still try to work within the parameters set by a group of sources (in this case, Meyer, Mair, Paurenfeindt, and the Kölner Fechtbuch).
If I want to do a lot of invention … well, it’s probably not HEMA that I’m doing anymore, it’s probably just me playing with a certain kind of sword and making stuff up.
Once I follow a system for long enough, without any deviation, I should learn enough about the system to understand the WHY and WHY NOT questions. Why would I do this technique in this situation instead of something else? Why would I not do that type of action? I should also be able to perform the system well enough that anyone watching me fence can recognise what source(s) I use in my studies. At this point in time, when I have learned enough to give a perfect rendition of the system in fencing, then I may start to question the source material.
Until I can give a perfect rendition of the system, however, I am still in the learning process, and am effectively still a student of that system. And students cannot claim to have a better understanding than their master, until they achieve a mastery of the system themselves.
An easy example
A very easy example is the method of fencing with a sword against a bayonet, according to Archibald MacGregor. He says that all the swordsman must do is to turn the sword from tierce to quarte (or quarte to tierce) against the bayonet, and make a normal parry.
If I am trying to recreate MacGregor’s method of dealing with a bayonet thrust, then I can probably get to grips with the entire system (these two parries, left and right) in about ten minutes on a slow day. Thereafter, I can probably speculate about how effective this is.
Furthermore, if I have a broader understanding of the subject than is presented in my source material (for example, having read Mathewson’s advice and Roworth’s advice on dealing with a bayonet thrust), then I may be able to pose quite intelligent questions. For example, I could pose the question: “what if he disengages under your parry and keeps thrusting?” That is exactly why Roworth suggests that the simple parry from inside to outside (or outside to inside) against the bayonet is dangerous, because it lets the attacker disengage and continue his thrust.
So, by having read at least three books on the subject of using a sabre against a bayonet, I have enough understanding of the system to question MacGregor’s advice.
A less easy example
Continuing with the theme of broadsword and sabre, if I want to recreate fencing with the Scottish broadsword, then should I stand with my weight on my front leg, or on my back leg, or split equally in between? The source material from the 18th and early 19th centuries tell me to keep my weight on the back leg, but maybe I have observed that it feels faster to make a lunge if my weight is on the front foot.
This observation is quite common among people who have had some experience with modern fencing, who maybe have difficulty pulling the weight onto the back leg when standing in guard. In my experience of teaching people with a variety of backgrounds, people with modern fencing experience often prefer to have their weight on their front leg because they are used to making fast lunges forward to score points, and rely on their equipment (mainly their fencing mask) to keep them safe from actual harm. The moment that the protective gear comes off, however, and sharp swords are introduced, people suddenly perceive danger and shift their weight away from the opponent, onto their back leg!
So maybe someone has sufficient practice with sabres or broadswords to be able to fence quite well and to score sufficient points in competitions to win bouts and even to win medals. Maybe they feel that this level of practical accomplishment allows them to question the masters with regard to stance and posture. Certainly, if they are getting results with their method, it is hard to disagree with that! However, perhaps they would achieve even better results by following the advice in the source material?
To solve this problem, my best method is to ask my training partner to remove their protective gear, and to face me in guard, as I hold a sharp sword. Invariably, even without performing any techniques, my training partner perceives danger and realises why the forward-weighted stance is not appropriate for trying to recreate a historical fencing system without protective gear and with sharp swords in hand. This then leads to the discovery of WHY the source material gives the advice it does, and the realisation that in fact the understanding was not quite sufficient to be able to answer the WHY and WHY NOT questions to a suitable degree.
However, if someone can fence with the back-weighted stance in a manner that can be recognised as coming straight from Roworth or Angelo, and can achieve good results with this, but can achieve better results by changing their stance and can explain themselves perfectly well, then perhaps that level of performance and understanding entitles the fencer to question the masters.
A more difficult example
For a more difficult example of when it might be appropriate to question the masters, we can look at medieval arts such as longsword, messer, or sword and buckler – there are very few people in the HEMA community today who can fence stylistically in a fashion that can be recognised as coming from a particular source, AND achieve success in sparring and competitions doing it exactly like that, AND can cut with sharp swords without changing anything in the performance, AND can justify their interpretation by pointing to original source material for every statement or motion, AND can explain the reasons why the system was written like that and put together in that fashion with regard to social, legal, and environmental context…
If someone managed to satisfy all of these criteria, and could also give a cogent suggestion for improving the system over what was written in the sources, then maybe they would have the right to question the masters. Personally, I am nowhere near that stage with longsword or with sword and buckler. I can tick some of those boxes, perhaps even most of them on a good day, but I still struggle to achieve sufficient success by performing just that system without changing it. I still class myself as a student of these systems and I am still learning from the source material every time I read it. As a result, I have no interest in questioning Liechtenauer or Ringeck yet, as I’m still busy learning from them.
With very simple systems (such as MacGregor’s method for a swordsman dealing with a bayonet thrust), it may be quite easy to practise the entire system, gain familiarity with other related literature, and begin to make suggestions for improvement.
For more complicated systems, such as Liechtenauer’s longsword, I don’t think anyone known to me in the HEMA community is anywhere near the stage of questioning the masters, and everyone is (should be!) still busy learning from the sources and improving themselves and their own performance.
Therefore, rather than rushing ahead to question the masters, perhaps it would be better to knuckle down and do some more study and some more practice. Maybe when you can give a picture perfect rendition of what is contained in a source, so that other people can recognise it perfectly, then you can question the masters.
 Archibald MacGregor. MacGregor’s Lecture on the Art of Defence. 1791. In: Paul Wagner & Mark Rector (eds.). Highland Broadsword: Five Manuals of Scottish Regimental Swordsmanship. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2004. Page 147.
 Thomas Mathewson. Fencing Familiarized. 1805. In: Paul Wagner & Mark Rector (eds.). Highland Broadsword: Five Manuals of Scottish Regimental Swordsmanship. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2004. Pages 224-249.
 Charles Roworth. The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre. 1st edition. T. Egerton, 1798. Pages 103-104.
 Charles Roworth. The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre. 1st edition. T. Egerton, 1798. Page 11.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.