Short Introduction to
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe
Despite the fact there is a
more than 2,400-year-old military tradition within Western civilization
of close-combat proficiency, few subjects have received as unfortunate
neglect by historians and academics than the martial arts of Western
Europe. But a growing amount of modern research has centered on the
historical methods of using
various types of Medieval and Renaissance swords and weaponry in
historically accurate and martially sound manners. This emerging study
of historical European martial arts involves a fascinating combination of military
history, fencing history, literature, art, language, and archaeology.
Much effort has been given by modern scholars and writers in trying to define what is or isn't a true martial art
(the focus of much of which has revolved around the modern practice of
traditional Asian fighting arts). The historical function of martial
arts within the context of the Medieval and Renaissance eras however
was as combatives—systematic skills or disciplined methods of
close-combat for single-combat and battlefield survival. This craft
always proceeded pragmatically, reflecting the demands of the martial
environment it faced, with its manner of warfare, habits of social
violence, and arms and armor technology. Empirical and concrete, it had
no display or performance art dimension (such was left to the
tap-fighting carnival-masters). Given cultural, social, and athletic
components tying these closely to the warrior class, the art and
science of self-defense often had associated recreational, ritualistic,
and sporting components along side its practical application. With the
changes in military and social conditions of later centuries, their
martial necessity decreased over time and these secondary elements came
eventually to overshadow (and even replace) the craft's original
The history of European arms and armor is
itself one of established continuity marked by sudden developments of necessitated
innovation. As new tools were devised, so too
were new methods for using them. These methods in turn influenced still newer designs. By studying the historical systems for employing
such arms and armor, we come to the best possible understanding for how and why they were
designed as they were. This further leads to a greater appreciation for the little known
martial arts of the age.
While the term “martial arts”
today is typically synonymous with “Asian fighting art”,
for centuries highly sophisticated European martial systems existed.
It is from the Latin that we actually derive the English term, “martial arts” – from “arts of Mars”, the
Roman god of war. The term “martial art” was used in regard to
fighting skills as early as the 1550s and in an English fencing manual
of 1639 referred specifically to the science and art of swordplay. In reference to Medieval and Renaissance combat systems the
terms "fencing" and "martial arts" should thus
be viewed as synonymous. Fencing
was in essence the “exercise of armes” –and arms meant
more than just using a sword.
Prior to the advent
in the mid 1500s of specific civilian weapons for urban dueling, the use of personal
fighting skills in Western Europe were primarily for military purposes rather than private
self-defense, and fencing was therefore by definition a martial (i.e., military)
art. The study of arms in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was for the large part not
exclusively fixed upon either judicial combat or the duel of honor or even on the knightly
chivalric tournament. Yet neither was it intended for battlefield use alone.
about the 12th century, professional instructors of fencing
existed across Europe. Many of these “Masters of Defence”,
or instructors in arms, became highly regarded international experts. Over time they uniquely produced
hundreds of detailed, often well-illustrated, technical manuals on
their fighting methods which reveal their craft to be one of sophisticated
and systematic skill. When studied from within their own cultural
context these little known surviving manuals present a portrait of
highly developed and innovative European martial arts.
Today, dozens of these obscure
manuscripts and printed books provide an unequaled resource for modern
students and practitioners.
popular myth of untutored knights clumsily swinging crude swords while
lumbering around in heavy armor is shredded by the actual evidence.
The unequivocal picture presented by historical sources is
one of trained warriors expertly employing skillfully-designed weapons
with brutal efficiency. Soft,
slow, superfluous movement was antithetical to the necessarily powerful
strikes and fluid, energetic defense necessary for survival in vicious
But these masters were no mere “fencers”.
Theirs were complete fighting systems as suited to armored
as to unarmored combat. They taught integrated martial arts of both
armed and unarmed components. Grappling and wrestling techniques were
vital elements. The weapons
of dagger, staff, and axe were studied as vigorously as pole-weapons,
shields, and especially all manner of swords.
Their methods were specialized for foot or mounted, single
combat or group.
By the early 1500s,
the transformation of warfare by firearms and the breakdown of the old feudal order
limited the avenues for both redress of personal grievance and exhibition of martial
skill. Social and technological changes in
the Renaissance accelerated experimentation in
fighting arts and civilian schools of fence
proliferated. The result was an explosion in the popularity of dueling, first as an
augment of common street fighting and vendetta brawling, and later for private affairs of
reputation and honor. Into this environment the systematic
study of fencing grew into a new “Science of Defence” emphasizing urban
obsession with the formal duel as depicted in period literature as
well as in modern re-creation popular media, and sport fencing has
tended to obscure the larger context of urban combat and the general
armed violence inherent in the age. The romanticized view of gentlemen
defending their reputations and character is dwarfed by accounts of
sudden assaults, vicious ambushes and general street-fighting among
fencing masters were commonly soldiers and scholars as well as accomplished
men of learning. Among their patrons were nobles, princes, and kings
as well as commoners, knights, and soldiers. Geometry, mathematics,
anatomy, and philosophy played major roles in their teachings.
The early Spanish master Pietro Monte was a theologian, mathematician,
scholar and even taught darts to Leonard Da Vinci.
He was a prodigious writer on martial arts, military theory,
theology, and eventually produced volumes on wrestling, health, gymnastics,
ballistics, and swordsmanship.
The fencing author Camillo Agrippa was an engineer, mathematician,
and fencing instructor to the artist Michelangelo. The Frenchmen Girard
Thibault was a painter, architect and even a physician.
Masters systematized and innovated the study of Western fighting skills
into sophisticated, versatile, and highly effective martial arts eventually
culminating in the development of the penultimate weapon of street-fighting
and dueling, the quick and vicious rapier.
Through experiment and observation they discerned that the
thrust traveled in a shorter line than the arc of a cut and against
an unarmored foe would strike sooner and reach farther. The rapier was developed along these
principles. Thrusting was already well known in Medieval combat and
the new style of foyning fence was thus not any “evolution”,
but rather an adaptation to a changed environment. Rather
than for war or battlefield, the slender, deceptive rapier was a personal
weapon for civilian-wear and private quarrels.
It was first designed for the needs of back-alley encounters
and public ambush. Indeed, it was the first
truly civilian weapon for urban self-defence developed in any society.
It rose from practical tool, to popular “gentleman's art”.
Elegant in its lethality, it represents one of the most innovative
and original aspects of Western martial culture and one with no parallel
in other cultures. While never eclipsing cutting swords entirely,
as a specialized weapon for personal single-combat, it was unequaled
for almost 200 years until the widespread adoption of effective and
much of progress in Renaissance learning and science, advances in
self-defense were based on what had already been commonly established
for centuries. They were not able to achieve their progress in a vacuum. There
is an obvious direct and discernible link between the brutal, practical
fighting methods of the Middle Ages and the more sophisticated, elegant
Renaissance fencing systems.
No tradition of fighting or methodology of combat exists by
itself. It comes into being due to environmental
pressure as only a processing or refinement of what existed previously. So it was with the fencing arts of
the Renaissance. They followed a more than 2,000-year-old military tradition within Western civilization of close-combat proficiency.
The techniques developed and
taught by the Masters of Defence were not “tricks” nor merely based only on brute strength.
They were moves they knew worked in combat, that they had discerned,
had named, and had taught to others. But, to fencers in much later centuries,
(bounded by rules of deportment and the etiquette of convention) these
earlier fighting styles (designed to face a range of arms and armors)
would naturally seem less “scientific”. With the disconnection
that occurred between older traditions and the precise sporting swordplay
of later gentlemen duelists, it is reasonable that the earlier, more
dynamic, flexible, and inclusive methods would incorrectly seem to
only be a mix of chaotic gimmicks unconnected by any larger “theory”.
Eventually, due to changing
historical and social forces, the traditional martial skills and teachings
of European Masters of Defence fell out of common use. Little to nothing of their methods actually survive in modern
fencing sports today which, based on conceptions of 18th
century small-sword combat, are far removed from their martial origins
in the Renaissance. Later
centuries in Europe saw only limited and narrow application of swords
and traditional arms, only some of which survived for a time to become
Research & Practice
a sense, our European martial culture is itself something still very
much with us today. But it now bares little resemblance to its Renaissance
heritage. The technological revolution in Western military science which
swept the 18th century left behind the old ideas of an individual,
armored warrior trained in personal hand-to-hand combat. It was replaced
with the new “Western Way of war” utilizing ballistics and
associated organizational concepts.
This very approach itself, emphasizing more and more a technical,
mechanical, and industrial method of armed combat, is the Western martial “tradition” now. Indeed, it is this very martial way that is now the model for
all modern armed forces the world over.
In a sense, to see a modern aircraft carrier, fighter squadron,
or armored battalion is very much the embodiment of a continuing and
ever evolving European martial tradition.
the time of the ancient Greeks onward Western Civilization has always
been a source of uniquely resourceful ideas and specialized innovation.
For better or worse, the same technical ingenuity that was
applied to classical arts and sciences was directed equally towards
the weapons of war and skills of battle. In
short, the Western world's contributions to martial arts are far-ranging
and far-reaching. Modern boxing, wrestling,
and sport fencing are the very blunt and shallow tip of a deep history
which, when explored and developed properly, provides a link to traditions
which are as rich and complex as any to emerge from Asia.
Today, as more and more students of the martial
arts of Renaissance Europe("MARE") earnestly study the subject they
are recovering this heritage and reclaiming it from myth, misconception,
and fantasy. This is not about
costumed role-play or theatrical stunt shows, but scholarly research
combined with genuine martial arts training.
As a result a more realistic
appreciation of our Western martial culture is now emerging full force.
Introduction to Renaissance Martial Arts Literature