The Conversation of the Blades

It is one of the most famous passages in medieval intellectual history, Peter Abelard’s description of his decision to abandon knightly combat for philosophy.

As Abelard explained at the outset of his autobiographical History of My Calamities:
For my part, the more I went forward in the study of letters, and ever more easily, the greater became the ardour of my devotion to them, until in truth I was so enthralled by my passion for learning that, gladly leaving to my brothers the pomp of glory in arms, the right of heritage and all the honours that should have been mine as the eldest born, I fled utterly from the court of Mars that I might win learning in the bosom of Minerva. And—since I found the armory of logical reasoning more to my liking than the other forms of philosophy, I exchanged all other weapons for these, and to the prizes of victory in war I preferred the battle of minds in disputation. 
This passage has been much on my mind these past several months, as I have found myself in intellectual combat with members of my own field of medieval history.

What kind of combat are we in?

It isn’t real. This is academia after all.

So it could be theater.

Or it could be sport.

Sic et non?

In theater, the purpose of combat is to look exciting. It is more of a dance than a duel. The movements of each “combatant” need to be large and obvious so that the audience can see them. There is nothing subtle about making the blades clash and sing. Nobody is trying actually to hit the other person, everything is a sham.

I know, I know, skilled stage fighters can make it look real—but only to non-fencers.

To fencers, the whole thing is a fake.

A beautifully choreographed fake, but a fake nevertheless. Even in the stage fights choreographed by masters like Bob Anderson. Yes, even in that famous fencing scene in The Princess Bride, when Westley (“The Man in Black”) catches up with Inigo Montoya, who has been training his whole life for the duel.

It’s true. The footwork may be beautiful, the repartee the stuff of every fencer’s dream (“Why are you smiling?” “Because I know something you don’t know!” “And what is that?” “I am not left-handed!”). But the whole scene is a fake.

The parries are not parries, just a clashing of blades. And the only time one of them—the Man in Black—makes an actual attack—when they are up on the top of the stairs—he doesn’t even aim at the target, but to one side of Inigo’s knee.

Real fencing bouts are much more boring—a.k.a. difficult—to watch. I know, I know, we are supposed to pretend that we can make fencing a spectator sport, and certainly the senior men’s foil team looks much more amazing than, say, us Veteran women.


You all know what it is like watching a fencing bout at a tournament. The bewildering way the fencers move back and forth on the strip, apparently doing nothing but holding their blades. The almost total absence of blade contact, compared with what you have seen in the movies. The gasps from the audience when someone makes an attack—only for the referee to award the touch to the other fencer and you have no idea why.

This is the whole point about sport fencing: you are trying to trick your opponent, who is watching your every move. Nothing you do should be obvious, especially to your opponent, never mind to those watching.

And yet, unlike with stage combat, it is all real.

Okay, not real real. Not like, you know, trying to kill somebody. But real in the sense that one of you is out to defeat the other for real in the terms of the game. Which, let me tell you, your emotions understand even if your reason knows it is all just for—ahem—fun.

Your attacks need to be real attacks, intended to get past your opponent’s defenses. Your parries need to be real parries, intended to keep your opponent from hitting you. You do not offer your blade because you want your opponent to hit it so as to make a pretty sound. You offer it to make your opponent think you are going to attack one way while you disengage to attack another.

Sounds violent, doesn’t it? Here’s the thing: it’s not.

Not violent. Not aggressive. Not even remotely.

Because if it is, you lose.

Which means, in an important way, it is fake, too.

We academics like thinking of ourselves as tough. Out there in the lists like Abelard, fighting for knowledge and prestige. But when it comes right down to it, we are as much performers as we are athletes, as much stage fighters as fencers.

Not knights. Scholars. Which is easy to forget when we are in the midst of the bout.

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