ARMA Editorial - Sept. 2010
The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Martial Traditions

By John Clements

Something interesting occurs to me when I consider the larger picture of  reclaiming and recovering our Renaissance martial heritage.

The martial arts of Renaissance Europe (which we might conveniently abbreviate as “MARE”) are a subject that has to be reconstituted and restored by holistic study of its surviving teachings. Experts from the 14th to 17th centuries left behind for us unmatched historical documentation for their personal combat methods covering the reality of self-defense in battle, duel, and street encounter. This vast technical literature represents time-capsules of authenticity for us, in that they are undiluted and unpolluted by the civilianizing de-martialization that later occurs as generation after generation no longer has need to practice such integrated combat skills. 

A heritage is something that’s inherited. That is, it is knowledge preserved from the past for the future. Our source material on MARE is undeniably something that was very much retained in written and illustrated form. This instructional literature, surviving among voluminous treatises and collected works, is therefore something that as a community of students we have very much inherited. Despite being extinct and little known, this material is unequaled in its technical and iconographic detail. It arguably represents the most well documented martial arts teachings in history—even more so than any extant Asian equivalent. In this regard, it is certainly a powerful (albeit broken) “tradition”—far more so than something recently invented out of a known Asian-style restructured and reformatted for para-military or competitive application. While it’s recorded teachings were not saved as any pedagogic tradition (certainly not among modern or classical fencing instructors who focused only on gentlemanly dueling and sport), its study reveals an indigenous science of defense—self-defense systems and fighting methodologies based on established principles of close combat. The means by which these skills were once acquired may be what is now missing to us, but the methods themselves were preserved. As we uncover, recover, and reproduce these forgotten combative disciplines, we are not reinventing today, but rather, preserving them once again.

While we may never know with full confidence how our craft was authentically performed or practiced by the historical Masters of Defence, our source teachings don’t suffer from being commercialized, sportified, idealized, or mythologized.  Thus, we have come to know -- with great depth -- their theories, principles, concepts, techniques, and philosophy of self-defense. To be able at this point to say these were highly sophisticated and systematic close-combat methods almost sounds like a cliché, since virtually every fighting discipline on the planet regularly assumes such a label now.

I have come to see ironic in how I grew being told by so many people that the “West” had no martial arts only to become a champion pioneering the revival of their genuine teachings.  I have seen the shock (even cognitive dissonance) such voices experience when they now encounter just how truly diverse and rich this very same subject is.  All the more because it seems every culture and society now makes claim to having some version of their own "arts of Mars" – somehow suitably retained or preserved so as to now be passed along as a viable "tradition."

It’s no secret to observe that not all martial art traditions can be equally substantiated.  But in past decades I witnessed first hand attempts to practice Medieval and Renaissance fencing skills that were little more than regurgitated stage combat cliché’s mixed with sport fencing and Asian swordplay. So, having rediscovered so much genuine material perhaps I find myself more sensitive to assertions of "historical" fighting styles that seem to me less representative of a martial cultural than an eclectic mix of exposure to popular contemporary styles. If I compare the depth of our authentic instructional material to some “vernacular” fighting styles that were ostensibly "preserved" -- despite their having long ago lost the necessity of being utilized in lethal situations or taught with formalized curricula -- the result leaves me feeling personally quite confident about the re-development of our craft. My own skill set convinces me the rest of the way.

When you think about it, while a traditional established or extant martial art may proclaim that what they do is something extant or "living" -- having been "passed down" or transmitted person to person in an ostensibly unbroken process -- that in no way insures it has been immune to change or subject to inaccuracies over time.  Like the old children’s game of "telephone," both external forces and internal subjectivity can have influence on the supposed immutability of any “unchanging” tradition.

By contrast, our lost martial “tradition” is being revived and reconstituted from the very technical instructions of the actual fighting masters of the age as presented in the unrivaled collective material of their own words and images. We have at our disposal documented sources covering a host of authentic teachings from over four centuries of sophisticated combatives. What we study is also a largely repertoire of specific techniques from specific sources, along with underlying principles and concepts formulated into systems or methods -- what we might, dare I say, call styles. We also understand the cultural and social context in which this Noble Science was practiced and employed, with its associated chivalric and humanist values.  All of this means, in my opinion, our craft is arguably more documented and verifiable in its authenticity because it has been subject to far less distortion and contamination over time. 

Yes, we do have a continual task of research and ongoing analysis facing us -- even as we gain increasing confidence in understanding the totality of their teachings -- but such interpretation and subsequent experimental application is a necessary aspect of its revival.  After all, the real richness of any martial tradition is in its physical movement and lessons on applying core principles, the things learned in person from those who know.  The work involved certainly produces a sense of investigation and exploration that makes our discipline dynamic and once again living.  They are not fixed and "completed" arts that go are unquestioned and unexamined as to their efficacy and viability by virtue of an authority claiming ownership of a pedagogical lineage.  The real difficulty for us in seeking accurate approximation of extinct fighting methods today is far less in mis-interpretation or avoiding orthodoxy. The danger we face instead lies in avoiding the role-playing reenactment and costumed escapism mentality that still plagues so much interest in historical combat and which, at the least, invariably leads to sportification and the underperformance of mediocrity.

So, when I hear about, say, traditional Eskimo martial arts, it’s proponents may contend some justifiable restoration from a vernacular source to then set up a modern program with its own unique name.  Maybe it’s genuine; maybe not.  I can't help but think that nearly everyone in every ethnic group, geographic region, and society today has seen enough martial arts books and movies that they can adapt some techniques, invent some routines, put on some indigenous garb, and use some arcane terminology until -- poof! – they’ve authoritatively reconstituted an "art" and a "tradition" (one that "somebody’s family in the old country kept secret until now").  But, a mere 50 or 100 years ago (coincidentally before pop culture exported Bruce Lee and related material to the world) no one documented it as having sustained and preserved a fighting art -- if it ever existed as a methodology. Go figure. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for sophisticated "Cro-Magnon martial arts" to soon be "re-discovered."



 
 

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