Musings on Authority in HEMA and the need for personal study.

I was reading the excellent HEMA Digest blog and an article on Authority in HEMA really caught my eye. The article talks about what makes an authority and how we recognise them. In this article I want to look at the concept as it has been on my mind for a while.

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I have been considering my relationship to authority for a long time, since my angst-ridden teenage years, if I am honest, and I have developed a studied wariness of the whole idea. We are conditioned by the modern world to seek out authorities in the many facets of our lives and ask them what we should do and how we should do it. For example, we rarely build our own homes any more, we get an ‘authority’ (in this case the building contractors) to do it for us, to tell us what we need in our homes and we accept their recommendations as gospel; same for plumbing, electrics and car mechanics. All well and good you mights say. But we should consider the knock on effect of always deferring to these experts.

Someone once said that the point of being human was to take the material of the world, mix with it our human genius and solve the challenges we face, fulfilling our needs and wants as we go. Not doing so alienates us from what it really means to be human. I think it was Groucho* or one of the others, maybe I am paraphrasing, I’m not sure…

Constant reliance on authorities to solve our challenges alienates us from the experience of life and reduces the satisfaction and enjoyment we get from it. Sure it’s easier to let the experts do the hard work for us, but is ease the point of life? Do we have a better quality of life when we are disengaged from the reality of the world? I would answer no and I would like to convince others if I can.

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By this stage you are probably wondering (as I am, frankly) what has all this got to do with HEMA?

In HEMA we set ourselves the challenge of recreating the martial skills of times past. There are many ways to do it and many resources to draw upon. I am a big fan of actual classes, in a hall with an instructor who has taken the time to interpret the sources, design a curriculum  and deliver the material. There are YouTube videos of those same people (and more) giving virtual classes. There are even modern study guides and glosses. Basically there are many ‘authorities’ to refer to.

Useful and excellent as they may  be (or not), I would suggest that they are no substitute for getting hold of a book and studying direct from the source. I realise that there is the inherent need for translation and therefore interpretation at the base level, but we just have to set that aside for now. I’m willing to compromise here rather than learn 1500s Italian/Latin/German in order to read a book! It is far, far harder to learn to do the HEMA this way, you will be in constant doubt of your abilities to understand what you are reading let alone whether you are able to carry out the instructions. You will be wishing for an expert before you make it past the foreword BUT, BUT! If you persevere, accept that you will make mistakes and have your interpretations not only questioned but destroyed in sparring and actually try to learn something independently, the feeling when it does work (and it will, believe me it will) is incredible.

You have studied this, you have understood this, you have embodied the skills through your own hard work and you have a grasp of them that is simply not available any other way. Not only will you now be fully engaged with the skills you are learning, you will also have developed the understanding that will allow you to critically engage with the authorities. You will be able to identify who is a true authority and worth listening to and who is just an internet windbag whose only studied skill is a)sounding like an authority and b)putting down others in order to defend their illusory position of expertise.

In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure.

Mikhail Bakunin “What is Authority” (1882)

Now, I’m not a mad fan of Bakunin, he had some weirdly elitist ideas about secret societies, but his point on authority makes an important distinction. We tend to look to authorities on a given subject for guidance and sometimes outright instruction in those matters. Nothing wrong with that. Some people are better at some stuff than others. The problem comes when we start to accept what the authority says simply because they say it. We give up our critical faculties when we take this easy way out.

We all need to build a base level of understanding before we can distinguish between false and true authorities. I find that if that base layer is handed to me then I am always going to doubt myself, it is the direct study and understanding that lets us realise that we can get by with less support from ‘authorities’. In HEMA we are lucky that we can access the materials fairly freely (I mean largely without restriction rather than without cost) that will empower us to do just that. Grab a book, grab an appropriately shaped sword and get to studying!

It’s not often that I get to combine my twin passions of Historical Fencing and anti-authoritarian politics; but when I can I do! As always I hope you have enjoyed my ranting, please feel encouraged to share this post with all and sundry! If you want to contact me you can use the comments section below or the Wrathful Peasants page on FB.

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*it was actually Karl –  Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts(1844) in Karl Marx, Early Writings (New york: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 329, and I am paraphrasing to make my point.

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