Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What is a Master?

Let’s shatter some modern cultural assumptions, shall we? In this country we have a certain idea about the word “master” that doesn’t translate well to the medieval mindset. Raised on bad kung-fu movies (and my, but isn’t that redundant!), many Americans associate the word master with a wizened little Asian man capable of leaping tall buildings while kicking down trees, all the while uttering clumsily cryptic nonsense with a sage expression on his face. A master seems to be someone who has spent a lifetime learning his art and who’s ability is so far beyond other practitioners that it seems magical.

Since this blog is about western martial arts I won’t get into why that use of the word doesn’t really apply to Asian martial artists the same way (Shihan means Shihan; the word we associate with it isn’t a good definition if the connotation is unjustified). Instead, let’s look at what the word “master” meant in medieval Europe.

In Europe a child destined for a skilled trade would leave his parents at a very young age (often his early teens) to be apprenticed to a craftsman. He would spend several years as an apprentice, learning the trade while doing labor to pay for his keep. When the apprentice had learned enough to really be of use to his master in the craft he was studying he would be called a “journeyman”, and would spend several more years working at that level. Finally, when he was ready to go out on his own, he would prepare a “masterwork”—an example of his work that would demonstrate to the guild in which he worked that he was ready to take the next step.

Incidentally, this is another way we’ve ruined our own language: Today, we use the word “masterwork” to refer to an object that represents the apex of a long life of dedicated work and study; we see a “masterwork” as an example of the very highest skill that can exist in a craft. Michaelangelo’s David is often called a “masterwork.” Nonsense. If that was the standard called for to achieve the rank of master in a craft guild then almost no masters would ever have existed. The very basis of how we think about words has been corrupted.

Going back to our young journeyman, he would prepare a masterwork to be judged by a council of guild masters. Think of it like a final exam, if you will. If they judged his work to be acceptable (not exceptional—acceptable) they would confer upon the young man the rank of master and he’d happily go off to set up his own shop. Thus, we can see that in medieval Europe a “master” was someone just getting started on his own in a craft or trade—nothing at all like we think of the word today.

While we don’t have information on rank structure among fencers from medieval Germany—our primary focus here, of course—we do have some from Renaissance England. A student of the sword in late-period England was called a schollar. After some period of training (probably a couple of years, but my sources aren’t specific meaning it probably varied considerably) a schollar would be tested in practice bouts and if he passed he’d become a provost—the lowest rank that was allowed to teach. After some time as a provost he would fight more practice bouts against other provosts in front of “ancient masters” (presumably high-ranking guild officers) and, if he did well enough (he didn’t need to win all his bouts, just demonstrate an acceptable level of proficiency), he would be granted the rank of master. One source, at least, says that you had to be a provost for seven years before attempting to test for master, but there are records of men doing it in far fewer. (Wagner, P., Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver, Paladin Press, 2003, pp. 11-12) Note that: The bouts fought were against other provosts, not high-ranking masters, and the prospective master didn’t need to win all of his bouts. This clearly shows how skewed the modern notion of a master being a godlike killing machine really is.

This system still exists today in some crafts: The art of falconry is still practiced in the United States today; it is one of the most carefully-regulated arts extant, with very precise rules about who may do what and when. When someone starts to learn falconry he must spend two years as an apprentice under the direct supervision of a more experienced (but not necessarily master-level) falconer called the “sponsor.” After that, if the sponsor agrees he’s done well enough the falconer becomes a “general falconer”, a rank which he holds for five years. At the end of five years the general falconer automatically becomes a master falconer. I’ve heard many master falconers say they may be masters but that they haven’t yet “mastered” their craft; here we see a different use of the root word, and this use is perfectly valid: master is a rank, and not a very high one, but mastery is something few masters obtain but for which all should strive. Ignorance of this lexicological distinction is one of the main reasons why people today don’t understand the correct use of the word.

While we’re on this subject, let’s consider the word “Fechtmeister”: The word means “fight master” or “fencing master”, and is a job title, not a claim to rank. It is analogous to a “choir master” or “dance master.” Someone fresh out of school with a still-damp degree in music might be hired at a church, for example, as a choir master without a lifetime of practice and experience. A Fechtmeister is the same thing: He is someone who runs a school that teaches German martial arts, nothing more. Too many of the people who teach der Kunst des Fechtens are afraid to use the title Fechtmeister today for fear of ridicule, but that merely shows they are deserving of ridicule for not understanding the structure of what they do. If you aren’t skilled enough to teach don’t open a school; if you are and you do then you’re a Fechtmeister. People need to get over their misunderstanding.

In conclusion, those who decline the title of master out of some misplaced sense of false modesty need to set aside their ignorance and learn to use the word in its medieval sense. Those who laugh at them for doing so merely bray out their own ignorance.


Ian said...


Michelangelo sculpted David, not Davinci. Same time period and area.

Hugh Knight said...

Duly noted; just a slip of the "pen." Thank you for pointing it out.

Ian said...

Kinda sad that I seem to be the only one commenting, as infrequently as I do. And when I do it to point out random errors that in no way seriously detract from your message.
And I highly doubt more than a handful of modern Americans in my age bracket would have noticed.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Ian,

Oh, lots of people make comments on their private discussion lists--friends point them out to me all the time. They don't post comments here, however, because then they'd have to actually substantiate their vapid responses with facts rather than just saying I'm stupid or blind because I tell them things they don't want to hear. I can't tell you how many idiots posted comments about my test-cutting essay on other lists that amounted to "Well, Hugh just doesn't know what he's talking about--we don't do test cutting wrong! Besides, it's fun, doesn't he know that? If he was a *real* swordsman he'd do test cutting!" I am saddened to think the level of intelligence in this country has fallen so far that people believe that to be a substantive response. What they're really saying is that can't refute what I write, but they're not going to change what they do because they like it--and, apparently, for many people, that's a valid argument. :::sigh:::

Ian said...

This is America in the feel good, instant gratification generation.

Bob-kat said...

Hi. I practice Western Martial Arts too adn belong to a group in the UK. I agree with your view on this completely. So many people seem to ave a big issue with this but I think it's becasue of the influence of Eastern Martial Arts movies and a lack of research on their part.

I also agree with your comment about vapid responses... I was once told that I knew nothing about sabres and that the other person was right because they were @polish'. Ididn't know knowledge like this was genetic! LOL!

I don't post about WMA much but I do from time to time adn I will be putting some pics on my photo blog soon (ish).