Thursday, May 13, 2021

Of (School/Guild) Ranks


Some schools have a formal ranking structure, some don't. All schools have ranking structures whether they realise it or not. This post talks about both formal ranking structures and also less formal ranking structures which result from the relationships that inevitably occur. It compares and contrasts these relationships and demonstrates how one gives people a step-by-step method of attaining a particular position, whereas the other is more fluid. Neither structure is better than the other, they simply just are. One may suit some better than others, it is just the way things are.

I will be examining a structure used by the London Masters of Defence which formally operated in England in at least the sixteenth-century, and possibly further. This structure has been adopted by various schools of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) around the world as it provides a structure by which a student can observe their increase in learning and skill. Others have modified this structure to add steps within it, or previous steps to it to ease students into it. I will address the ranks in general terms, examining the meaning of the ranks, some of the meaning of the words and how this affects the ranks themselves.

Formal Ranks

The London Masters of Defence had four ranks: Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Master. Some schools in our current era have sandwiched in a rank between Free Scholar and Provost, others have added ranks before Free Scholar, but the essential structure has remained the same. Then, of course there is the contention, which I have mentioned previously about the word "Master". You can find my discussion on that topic here. In the discussion of these ranks, I will be examining what these words mean, and some of the implications of their meaning based on their position in the learning process.


The Scholar is the lowest rank on the tree, and is the one where the individual, like the indicated "scholar" is learning about the Art of Defence. At this stage, the individual is likely being taught by another, being given information, and direction for their study. At this rank, the individual learns the proper form and theory of the Art which they have chosen to practice. The fundamentals should be present at their weapon in any individual who wishes to examine for this rank, should there be an examination for such. 

The individual really is at the "monkey see, monkey do" stage of development. Those who teach a student at this rank need to be especially careful as what they teach can decide the difference between the student progressing with an understanding of the true foundations of the Art, or floundering in ignorance. It is not only the practical aspects of the Art which are taught, but also respect for the Art, and respect for their fellow individuals who are progressing along the same path. The actions of the teacher will be reflected in the student, especially if actions of a negative fashion are not caught early. It is at this stage that the seeds of the swordsman or duellist are established.

Free Scholar

In some schools this rank is an entry-level, or beginning stage. By the nature of the two words put together, this should not be the case. The Scholar who was under the tutelage of some individual, making the decisions for them, deciding what they should learn, should be now freed. Free to do what though? Free to make decisions as to where they want to go. Free to learn what they want to learn. Free to study the texts that they want to study. The teacher now becomes a person who guides the Free Scholar in particular directions in their study and attempts to keep them focused on the task at hand. The Free Scholar should even be encouraged to take their first (supervised) steps in teaching, especially if their goal is to go further.


In every case where I have written about the Provost I have at some stage referred to them as an assistant teacher. They are there to pick up the slack where the Master cannot handle the numbers or needs another teacher to handle another aspect. In other cases, it is at this rank that an individual is given permission by the Master to open their own school. It means that the Provost must have skills as a teacher an not just be skilled with their weapons. They must also be well-read and have presented evidence of such reading to demonstrate their reading. Their must be some foundation upon which a school could be based. The Provost must demonstrate clear knowledge of the principles and theories of the Art of Defence and be able to demonstrate these. Becoming a Provost is no easy task, nor is it an easy path to follow, especially if the same individual aspires to the rank of Master.


What is a Master? If nothing else a Master is a skilled teacher. The Master is well-read in the Art of Defence and has internalised the knowledge they have discovered over their time teaching and practicing. The Master demonstrates clear skill, not only in regard to the practical aspects of the sword, but also concerning the teaching of students, and the theories and concepts which surround the Art of Defence. The Master has the skills to teach and open a school, should they wish, and produce students of a respectable calibre. The rank of Master is one not easily attained and may take a lifetime's worth of work. Most continue to work, discovering new information that the Art presents as their life progresses. 

These formal ranks are not the only ones that can exist in schools and not the only ones that do exist in schools. Indeed, informal ranks can, and do, exist side-by-side the formal ranks. The Japanese call it the senpai - kohai relationship, the more experienced to the lesser experienced student. Each person is a student in the path of swordsmanship, it is just a matter of experience in particular aspects.

Informal Ranks

There are also informal ranks which result when one begins to learn from another. Here there is the teacher and the student. Often, this relationship and these ranks are disregarded. Anyone who teaches is a teacher, and anyone who learns is a student. This is regardless of what other rank they might hold. In this way, where the lowly Scholar discovers some interesting aspect, even the Master can be the student again (and this is a good thing as you should always be learning). These are the two essential ranks that all schools, or teaching situations of any kind have.


The teacher is a person who teaches. They are the person who imparts knowledge to another person. In most formal situations the teacher will have more knowledge than the student on the particular subject that is being taught. This is really a role that a person plays rather than a kind of rank, though it is often assumed to be, hence it was placed under the heading of such. Teachers can be found in all sorts of places. In the case of those who have formal positions in schools there are some more specific things that need to be said.

I have previously discussed the difference between a teacher and an instructor, you can find that discussion here. There is a preference for a teacher because there is a two-way flow of information. Questions can be asked, and answered. A teacher should always be willing to answer any question a student may have, regardless of how "stupid" it might seem. There are no "stupid" questions. If the teacher does not know the answer, not only should they admit it, they should go and find the answer and come back to the student with it, and not expect the student to go find it. The teacher should always be expanding their knowledge. Even better would be if both teacher and student went and investigated  the question so they could compare their findings, then both get to share their learning experience when they make their comparison.

The teacher should always have a regard for the health and future of the student, this not only includes their safety, but also how the student will be perceived. Lessons on etiquette and other social concerns should be part of standard training practices. In the same way the teacher should be aware that the student will learn everything from them, even things you do not expect.


The student is the one who learns (this means that a really good teacher is also a student). They are the one who receives knowledge from another person. In a formal situation, the student will likely have less knowledge than the teacher on the particular subject that is being taught. Again, this is a role that is being played rather than a rank. The role of the student and teacher can be swapped in certain circumstances where the student has knowledge about their movement or their perspective. The student has their role to play.

The student has a role to play to be a good student. The prime job is to learn what the teacher is teaching. This means being attentive in class. Listening to what the teacher has to say, and even if you disagree with it, taking it in to see where it has value. All information has some sort of value to it. The student should not be disruptive as it distracts other students. They should also follow drills as they are laid out, there is a reason that the drill is presented in this fashion. If you do not understand what that is, ask. They should also ask questions in a respectful manner and at an appropriate time. The role of the student is as important as that of the teacher as without them there would be no teacher, but likewise the reverse is true. A student can leave a class, but a teacher can also do the same.

Why is it important?

It is important to acknowledge that the ranks exist whether we realise that they are present or not. Some have formal ranks, some do not. In any case, there is always the presence of the informal ranks, the teacher and the student. The formal ranks are easier to define, so they were. Then some information about the each rank and what it means was presented. This information was designed to elucidate what it means to be at these ranks, and some of what is required to attain them as well. Regardless of how a particular school, guild or other structure uses the terms and ranks it is useful to address each one of them and understand what they mean. These are my interpretations of their meanings.

For the informal ranks there was some information about how to get the best out of the situation and what the role of each person was. There can be good teachers and bad teachers, but there can also be good students and bad students. Both can make for a good or poor learning environment. Both must do their part.

Who is important? Each student and each teacher is as important as the other as they exist in a symbiotic relationship. The one does not exist without the other. Sure there will be teachers who are not so good, likewise there will be students who are not so good. We will experience both in our path and through our travels. The vital thing for our personal growth is that we strive, as individuals, to be good students and teachers, to ensure that we are doing the best we can to make the best learning environment that we can. This is not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of others.



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