For those who know me personally, in addition to my martial arts endeavors I am a living historian as well as Civil War reenactor. My love of history is what has driven me throughout my training, and is the reason I spend many sleepless nights researching everything I can on numerous systems. That's what coffee is for, right? So when I heard about the chance to study HEMA, of which many systems actually pre-date Japanese koryu arts, I was totally geeked. But something's not right.
The problem, in my opinion, is that as the practice of HEMA starts to grow there will obviously be those with more experience leading various groups. You can even argue that they're teaching the art to others. But without a direct lineage, or even a unified governing body for a particular art, how can anyone claim any rank or title? From what it seems, there isn't even a unified practice studying the same art. What I mean is that, from what I can tell and I may be completely wrong, there are numerous independent study groups each carrying on by themselves. Sometimes there is a small organization that oversees them, but hardly do all practitioners of Fiori dei Liberi's manual (as an example) adhere to a single authority.
From my understanding, there are five ranks in HEMA: recruit, scholler, free scholler, provost and maestro. But if there is no direct line, and no recognized headquarters of an art, how does anyone have the authority to award official ranks and titles, especially something as profound as maestro/master?
Now, I will concede that the longer someone practices any endeavor the greater the degree of separation of skill and understanding will grow between practitioners. Therefore, you have very skilled and technical people teaching others around the world - people like Matt Easton, Scott Brown and numerous others who have made a name for themselves as some of the foremost authorities on HEMA. Surely no one can argue that they are more than qualified to teach.
Maybe I'm unfairly looking at this through the traditional lense of Asian martial arts, where titles such as master have very strict requirements and can only be awarded by those who hold similar rank and title themselves from an established authority or organization. But it just seems there's something wrong with people going around calling themselves masters, in anything, without really having any legitimate means to acquire such recognition.
Entire schools have popped up teaching the art, establishing a hierarchy within Natori Ryu that really has no basis. And of course, you can't study Samurai era military strategy without some understanding of the bugei juhappan (18 skills of war). These are not arts that can be glanced over and condensed into a "combat basics" manual without legitimate instruction in the proper use of the various weapons and empty handed fighting arts.
Now, please don't let me persuade anyone from studying HEMA or Natori Ryu. If that's what you are interested in, don't let anyone talk you out of it. We all have our own journeys and in fact, I personally have an interest in learning sword and buckler so you may see me out there as well. There definitely is an abundance of quality information being put out on all fronts. My concern is more about the organizational structure of the practitioners. Should any other martial artist proclaim themselves a master, they would surely be torn apart and rightfully so. Why do these groups get a pass?