Core Assumptions and the Exploration of Historical Fencing

By J. Clements
ARMA Director


In the past, an adolescent would grow up in a community that would have exposed him to considerable violence. The nature of personal armed combat would not have been unfamiliar. As he matured a young man would have acquired a certain intuitive understanding of it. By contrast, youths today grow up largely ignorant of anything to do with the physical reality of such fighting. Instead, they are informed by the imaginary conceptions of video games, educated in the fantasy assumptions of popular entertainment, and influenced through countless delusions commonly fostered by many commercialized Asian fighting arts and martial sports. Though often overlooked today, in historical swordplay there was a simple truth at work: When people are actually trying to kill you, things are evaluated differently.  Trying to make ourselves better aware of these differences is part of our task...

As anyone now involved in the serious study of extinct European martial arts analyzes the historical source literature that make up the foundation of our subject, they do so based upon a set of core assumptions: assumptions about how real swords and weaponry work, about what wounds they could cause, about how people responded psychologically to personal violence and how they reacted to physical injury, about how armor functioned, and about how the human body performed physically in close-combat.

These are all major suppositions and we must ask just what do we base them on and from where do we first get our core assumptions? Chivalric tales and historical chronicles? Modern reenactment performances and stunt fighting displays? Sport fencing? Asian martial art teachings? Stage combat? Fantasy role-playing games? Our own insights and notions? To be sure, the various sources for core assumptions differ among students and scholars. These central sources themselves also differ widely in the value they offer to our understanding of the subject (and some have surely provided more confusion than enlightenment). But one central source from which we surprisingly get very little of the crucial information for our core assumptions is the very martial literature of the subject itself. The limitations of narrative sources (i.e., tales and study guides) from the era are easily identifiable. Therefore, a good portion of our initial knowledge of combatives must first come from outside the source literature.

More importantly, we must consider what are the results on our understanding of proceeding from faulty core assumptions? What effect and influence do they then have on our attempts at understanding historical fencing methods (and our training to be strong, quick, and fluid in our techniques)? We must try to be aware of this as we continually seek to improve the accuracy of our core assumptions and our comprehension of their impact. This requires educating ourselves not only about the content of the source literature but also about how historical weapons handle and how human beings in close-combat move and behave. Failure to first develop a sufficient holistic understanding of the core workings of combatives (i.e., how people physically perform in violent encounters) cannot help but result in unnecessary misinterpretations of fighting techniques.

The exploration and reconstruction of lost fighting skills requires both the interpretation of source teachings and a commensurate functional application of their methods. Both interpretation and application together obviously rely upon, as well as demand, a certain minimal prerequisite physicality. Initial interpretations, let alone experimental application, of a historical combative should not proceed without an understanding of the inherent body mechanics of personal armed combat and the physical athleticism of historical warriors (and the handling of their tools). Unfortunately, it is all too easy today to observe among enthusiastic students and researchers of the subject that this frequently is not the case (which sadly, often results unnecessary disagreement among differing practitioners and researchers).

In the course of investigating these skills, as well as constructing a modern curriculum of practice, we invariably must question core pre-assumptions whenever they’re encountered. In doing so, we may then find occasion to critique existing training habits or practice methods that appear lacking or flawed (and interpretations derived from them). We may justly find theories and ideas faulty, but not sincere individuals. Thus, training habits and practice methods that are determined to be deficient for the study of a reputably combat effective martial art may also then make us skeptical of interpretations—especially when the modality of their physical application is lacking. When a new, unfamiliar or seemingly questionable technique is effectively demonstrated with speed and energy under adversarial conditions (using historically accurate equipment), its efficacy is much harder to question than when it is merely explained as a theoretical interpretation or performed only with a soft and slow example (simply going through the motions rather than executing with speed and intent).

Combat is a haphazard, chaotic and physically intense affair charged with violent emotions. Medieval and Renaissance martial arts texts are reflective of the incontrovertible fact that the men who developed and refined these combatives for self-defense in violent personal encounters (regardless of occasional non-lethal use) did so by training to be strong, quick, unpredictable and fluid in the application of their fighting techniques. The historical source works we study were not tournament manuals or choreography manuals. These were combat arts. They were devised primarily for causing injury and death. Therefore, in our present exploration we must reasonably emulate as much as possible their physicality and their mindset. If doing otherwise we must recognize that it significantly alters our perspective. For, logically, those with more detailed and ever improving core assumptions are going to better adapt and process information from the source literature.

Our central objective in the study of Renaissance martial arts is to reconstruct and understand these historical methods or systems of self-defense as described and presented in the source teachings. During our exploration of the sources we build a certain “model” of the underlying concepts based on empirical evidence (as best as can be determined from non-lethal application) collected through experimental practice. This model of how fighting principles and techniques work is refined as we learn more about physical application of core elements. However, this process of hypotheses, experiment, and analysis is extremely susceptible to considerable subjective factors: methodology of approach and intensity of effort, core assumptions about function and nature of weapons and personal violence, physical conditioning and athleticism, the intentions and motives of the practitioners, equipment choices, etc. These factors, which can differ significantly from individual to individual or group to group, will decidedly color expectations let alone conclusions reached and accomplishments attained.

In this effort there are "fighters" and there are "researchers", and then there are those who to one degree or another do both. It is the degree of difference between them which sometimes creates miscommunication or disagreements about application; but being a martial art, in terms of our activities, the "fighting" aspect does, and rightly should, take more precedence over the research (even though both are crucial). After all, in the end the results of research that leads to interpretations are only about understanding and demonstrating combat effective applications—and that requires physical skills. The craft is not about just talking over or explaining techniques, but about trying them out against someone who isn’t going to willingly cooperate. These skills were fighting arts and, logically, in any exploration should be approached as fighting arts.

Compiling a set of core assumptions thus requires you first develop a perspective sense of where we are historically, theoretically, and practically in the study of fencing. Ours is a young field of investigation still finding its way. There is plenty of time ahead of us for everyone involved to learn about the real teachings of the historical sources and gain real martial ability in effectively demonstrating them. The result of doing so will be more refined and more substantial core assumptions.

See also: Doing Things the ARMA Way
& Problems of Interpretation and Application



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