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Hippeis Happenings

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What is an expert?

It is all very fashionable to denigrate experts. We’re all equal, I’m sure. Certainly, as a sometime instructor of historical swordsmanship and the various knightly fighting arts, I’m endlessly less than amused by the desire of various people to tell me that their opinion about a technique or a form is worth listening to.

In the past two weeks, I had the pleasure of attending WMAW, a western martial arts symposium (and tournament) in Racine Wisconsin. There, instructors from all over the world allowed students of the arts to sample techniques in rapier, sidesword, longsword, spear, poleaxe, and even the Italian folding knife of the nineteenth century.

And then, after all that, I got to host Guy Windsor, of the School of European Swordsmanship. Guy is the most expert swordsman I know–and I know several hundred very competent swordsmen. He is, in fact, an expert.

He’s an expert–like Leo Todeschini at Tod’s Stuff and Jiri Klipac at The Armoury of Jiri Klipac and Tasha Dandelion Kelly at cotte simple because he can not only perform all of the techniques of historical swordsmanship, he can explain the bio-mechanics of the actions and he can teach students of the meanest understanding–to paraphrase Patrick O’Brian. Tod understands blades–not just how they feel and what they look like, but how they are worn, suspended, drawn and used. Jiri understands armour–how it looks, and how it works, and how it fits in three dimensions. How to make the curves fit your body and still retain the aesthetic of the period, rather than a modern aesthetic. Tasha understands the intimacies of cut and construction and the techniques by which those intimacies are achieved–a level of expertise far beyond mere ‘costuming.’

I’m quite fond of experts, myself, but to get the most out of them–to get anything at all out of them–requires an effort of humility. Perhaps that’s what we find hard. Sometimes I do, too. It can be very hard to say “I’ve studied this for years, but compared to you, I really don’t know anything.’ That’s antithetical to our societies take on information and info acquisition. Information, after all, should be free. And our abilities should be equal. But–they are not. Sometimes I argue with experts, and mostly, I find myself saying ‘I know something, too!’ when I should be listening.

The dedicated men and women who are truly expert preserve something precious. They are–at least, all four of the experts I have named–preserving skills that would otherwise be lost to us, and to history.

And of course–history matters!