With all due respect to those who have opposing views regarding the new USFCA Master title, and to Ken Mondschein, Jerry Benson, Walter Green of of Salle Green and Jeff Lord, Tom and John Farmer of the Knoxville Academy of the Blade, and Mark Logan of Salle Green - and feel free to correct any errors or misunderstandings.
I sincerely believe the USFCA program for certifying instructors for historical fencing has been a very badly managed affair which could have ended up much more positively and constructively through a reasonable degree of transparency and inclusiveness and with some other vital decisions made in the process.
Our "community" may be split into many smaller subcommunities, but we are united by ultimately having similar goals, despite us using different methods and approaches and focusing on different aspects of HEMA. Handled wisely, we could have seen a great collaboration between the USFCA and HEMA. As it is, we now run serious risk of having this blocking any such future attempts for quite some time.
This has been discussed for about a year and a half, although not in any official capacity, and was seemingly only reluctantly presented on a few forums, then as something quite different than what we now see. Now we are presented with something that to us is even more controversial than when first described. The originally suggested first level of "Initiateur d'Escrime Historique" has for some reason been changed to the title of "Maitre d'Armes Historique" and a whole setup of licensed USFCA HEMA Moniteurs and Maîtres has replaced the presented goal of educating sports fencer in historical fencing and providing a means for HEMA instructors to learn from the USFCA's greater experience in pedagogics and training methodology.
Additionally these first USFCA HEMA masters were licensed by a sports fencing organisation that has no properly proven knowledge on the topic, without actual testing of the aspiring masters, and awarding the very persons who basically designed it all, at the same time as the title currently appears to be locked for others, giving these monopoly on the title. This goes against the very policies of the USFCA where the Certified Examiners and Examination Board Policies say:
Examining boards for Prevot and Master cannot contain any relationship that has a conflict of interest such as: a coach, employer, close relative, spouse, co-owner of a club, etc., of the candidate.
It is yet unclear however if it was the council or the Certified Examiners and Examination Board that elected these masters.
To make it worse, one of these "masters", Walter Green, claims to have studied historical fencing for 40 years and to possess a whopping NINE black belts, or the equivalents thereof, as well as a Master level in several of these, and being a Bujinkan, Ninja Weapons Specialist at advanced level and a Doctor of Philosophy in Budo Education. All of them taken in 2009-11. This alongside of teaching as a Maître d'Armes in sports, classical and historical fencing at his Salle, and while preparing for this USFCA project, a project that now has added Maître d'Armes Historique to his diplomas.
Of course this appears provocative to many and deciding and accepting this by those involved is a serious lapse of judgement.
Adding to this, these USFCA masters now sell a book, which is currently the only way to find any information on all of this, and arranges weekend courses for lowest level USFCA HEMA instructors at 150USD per head, targeting both sports fencing coaches and HEMA fencers. Furthermore, this licensing will be using tests that from what we have thus far seen are of quite low standard with the USFCA Moniteur testing being so easy, that reportedly you don't even have to do fencing to be able to succeed in taking it.
The USFCA HEMA Moniteur certification is done through, as it seems, a fairly simple 2 hour (which can be doubled if you ask for it), completely unsupervised online test and through displaying teaching skills before either 2 USFCA Prevôts or 1 Maitre. It is currently unclear if these even need to know HEMA, and if that is the case, then there are currently only three USFCA Maitres d'Armes Historique; Walter Green, Jerry Benson and Ken Mondschein (and four licensed Moniteurs d'Escrime Historique; Tom & John Farmer, Jeff Lord and Mark Logan). Regardless, achieving the level of Moniteur appears to be a fairly simple process.
Finally the title Maître d'Armes Historiques then. With a community that collectively, with some rare exceptions, have agreed to stay away from using the title master until a later stage in the development of HEMA, with respect for our predecessors and the historical tradition, we suddenly see an outside organization certifying masters in something we have dedicated decades and our lives to. While the recognition of the USFCA is positive, awarding and accepting such a title is a blatant error of judgement that completely fails to recognize or acknowledge this unspoken agreement within the community, or the core difference of a complete and clearly defined sport like sports fencing versus the quickly changing HEMA that keeps on adapting to new revelations and findings, resulting from research, hard sparring and experimentation in various arenas. The knowledge and skill within HEMA is raised exponentially each year, which makes claimed mastership more an exercise in hunting status and false prestige at this stage.
All this is just perfectly set up to cause conflict and quite a few people on all sides of the various fences in the HEMA community find this quite insensitively handled and even offensive. And despite having quite clearly signalled this over the last few years none of it appears to have been listened to, in fact quite the opposite. This may well have been done with the best of intents, but it is hard to imagine any worse way to arrange all of this.
To sum the issues up so far, we have:
- The council for this project invites the HEMA community, but then rejects just about all their suggestions, working basically only with the people who are then given the Maitre titles. - The council claims that they never received any requests to help, but several HEMA people say they did.
- The presented project of licensing instructors, called "initiateurs", to educate sports fencer in historical fencing and to let HEMA gain access to the great experience in teaching of the USFCA is changed to licensing three maîtres, and then moniteurs, focusing primarily on giving sports fencing coaches the opportunity to add historical fencing to their diplomas, and associated courses in their clubs.
- The council licenses their chairman to be one of the first three masters and at least one of the instrumental designers of it to another.
- The council locks the title for anyone else, for now.
- The council publishes no information on requirements, process or regulations in any free form, but the chairman sells a book describing the process and how to succeed in taking the test.
- The new maîtres now sell courses in their clubs for this licensing at 65USD per head and day.
- The online Moniteur testing is unsupervised and reportedly so easy that you don't even need to know fencing to be able to complete it.
- The testing appears to have rather questionable answers to questions testing the candidates.
And then we haven't even touched upon the possible future larger implications of all of this. It might just be "politics" to some, but it is something that risks affecting not just the US HEMA scene, but all of us in the end, as the USFCA is part of the Academie d'Armes Internationale, (AAI), the world organization of fencing masters with more than 20 member nations. And even if we consider it to be only an American affair, keep in mind that the US makes up a considerable percentage of the international HEMA community, but even more importantly has a sports fencing scene roughly a 100 times larger than the HEMA scene.
Keep in mind that it wouldn't take a very large percentage of all sports fencing instructors, adding a Moniteur d'Escrime Historique diploma and deciding to teach a few students, for us to find ourselves in a community smaller than the USFCA version of HEMA, with considerably less financial resources or "political" power behind us, having practically no tradition or recognition to speak of among other sports or government agencies etc.
We ALREADY have three Maitres and four Moniteurs. What is the likelihood of more people joining this and getting their Moniteur license in the next 5 years? I know several people who are already planning on getting these licenses. Some of them with feet in both camps. See, they will actually be full members of the USFCA and be actual Prevots and Maitres of the USFCA too, counted as any other member, more and more legitimizing the program. And then we have the stage fencers which are another specified target group.
All of these coaches don't have to run their own clubs though. They just need to have permission to teach historical fencing in a club. We already have 7 people there or on their way, with several more ready to sign up. From the students of these prevots and maitres we can certainly expect to see some who will see it as a natural thing to continue and join the program and then the snowball is rolling. So again, how likely is this to happen with in the next five years?
If you believe all this to be unlikely, then keep in mind that the USFCA doesn't, which is likely why they saw reason to launch this program. HEMA is growing quickly and attracts especially the young, while sports fencing, like most sports today, is bit-by-bit losing ground. There is business in all of this, business that is growing quickly each year.
And note carefully that one of the new "maîtres", Jerry Benson, a member of the board that gave him his new title is not just anyone. He was the vice president of USA Fencing (with more than 20.000 members) between 2008-2012. The USAF site now lists him as At-Large Director and on the board of directors and the Audit Committee and the Clubs Committee as well as the Divisions and Sections Resource Group. And he was on the Executive Committee. Clearly he is an important and quite active person in the USAF. So when people say the USFCA has NOTHING to do with or any influence over the USAF, keep the above in mind.
He has also held many lectures for several years on the topic of "The Business of Fencing” at the USA Fencing Coaches College. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it is a different mindset to what is common and generally encouraged in the HEMA community, something which in a way is also a weakness of ours. Jerry Benson's club now offers classes in historical fencing with rapier and longsword for 60USD a month, including four 1 hour lessons. Three such classes are on the schedule. Many American fencing clubs charge 900-950USD per year from their students, so more members mean quite a bit of more money.
This isn't something harmless or that will just disappear by itself, and it doesn't compare to other people calling themselves masters or masters of living traditions. It DOES require our attention and a response, or we stand a very serious risk of seeing ourselves marginalized and outmanouvered by the many times larger world of sports fencing, with them being the only ones having licensed instructors that the public recognizes and instantly trusts due to familiarity with sports fencing in general.
There are constructive ways out of this mess, but it takes humility and willingness to work together openmindedly from all sides.