SSS Durham uses a rank system based European tradition. We are not excessively concerned about rank, and do not push anyone into pursuing it. However, it does serve as a useful guide to when the ‘beginner’ stage is over.
The only indicator of rank we use in the class is the entitlement of instructors to wear a black jacket rather than a white one. To become an instructor at SSS Durham, a candidate needs to have passed anIL1 assessment on a course run by the BFHS, and must be accepted by the chapter as an instructor. Qualifications form elsewhere, e.g. a martial arts black belt or sport fencing instructorship will impress us but cannot be considered sufficient for instructor status.
Decisions affecting the chapter are made by simple vote, with each full member having one vote regardless of rank. A full member is someone who has joined the chapter and is paying the chapter fees; those on a free trial are not voting members though we do listen and try to accommodate their wishes as far as possible.
For students there are four possible ranks: Novice, Scholar, Adept and Provost. The progression from novice to Scholar is an important one as it opens up a range of new possibilities for the student who has proven him (or her)self to be safe to continue. Higher ranks are available for those who want to pursue them but are optional.
All ranks other than Novice require an examination (grading if you prefer) by the chapter’s instructors, who make the decision to promote any given individual based on knowledge, skill and the ability to fence in a historically authentic manner. No matter how many bouts an individual ‘wins’ by desperate flailing, it is skill we are measuring rather than the accrual of points by any means.
Anyone who joins the chapter starts as a novice, no matter what experience they have from elsewhere. We are of course respectful of previous experience and it does permit rapid advancement to Scholar and beyond, until we have seen for ourselves that an individual is safe and competent we assume that they are a novice.
There are restrictions placed on Novices, mainly for safety and insurance reasons. Novices are not permitted to freeplay until their main instructor gives permission, and even then novice freeplay must either be closely supervised by an instructor or be against an Adept or Provost who can ensure safe and ‘useful’ freeplay.
Novices are taught a basic course in Military Sabre, which takes only a few sessions to complete. They are then coached in matters such as safety and etiquette in freeplay. Once a Novice has acquired a basic competence with the sabre and has shown they understand the principles that underlie any study of swordsmanship they can progress to Scholar.
Progressing to Scholar indicates that an individual has reached the point where they can really start to learn about historical fencing. Armed with a reasonable level of skill and a solid knowledge of the underlying principles, the student can make informed choices about what to pursue. Most students pick one or two weapons and study them to a high level, usually with one of the instructors. However, Scholars are free to make other choices, such as studying primary source material and creating their own interpretation of it.
Scholars enjoy significantly more freedom of choice than Novices, though all activities are subject to instructor veto if they are deemed dangerous, beyond the remit of the SSS or significantly more weird than the rest of what we do.
An Adept raises the overall standard of the group in some manner. Typically, this means being able to fence to a very high standard with one or more weapons. A highly skilled opponent forces everyone to raise their game, ensuring that there are new challenges and a general progress towards excellence.
Adept status can be earned other ways, however. It is always required that the Adept be skilled and knowledgeable, but the chapter recognises that some people have talents in other areas. Historical knowledge is as important to us as skill with weapons, so an Adept who does not fence much but is an expert on the source material is entirely possible.
All Adepts are expected to be sufficiently skilled and responsible that they can be paired up with beginners to assist them through the early stages of learning.
A Provost is an all-but-instructor, capable of fencing to a very high level and displaying extensive subject knowledge. The criteria for Provost status are slightly different to those for Scholar or Adept; there is more to being a Provost than fencing ability.