ARMA Editorial - Fall 2003
The Source Manuals: Some Thoughts on the Problems of Interpretation and Application

jcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)By J. Clements
ARMA Director

As I write this I’ve been thinking about the study of Renaissance martial arts literature a lot more than usual lately.  A problem with modern interpretation of techniques in the source texts is that you can have five different readers get five very different things out of it.  On top of this, you can have some of them show their moves and clearly see they just wouldn’t work in a fight. You end up saying something to the effect of, “Well, that may be what you think the master is saying, and indeed your movements appear even to fit his description”. But you still disagree because it’s not martially sound.  In other words, you have to say to them go ahead and try to make it work on me; try to hit me with that move or try to do that action with speed and force while I’m really trying to hit you.  The point is, how can we really know who is right or wrong when we each “interpret”.   There is an element of personal subjectivity to this subject that is impossible to escape.  Once you interpret,  you have to then work at applying it effectively.

Besides, and this is the real clincher here, if you don’t have a proper understanding of the mechanics and handling of these weapons and their principles of fighting in their first place, your interpretation is going to suffer tremendously.  If you don't have a solid foundation in how sharp steel performs and what the human body can do in violent confrontation, your analysis is very likely going to be flawed or at least imperfect. A good many practitioners I think get hung up today on defending their “interpretations” of a reading rather than trying to continually revise and amend their personal “understanding” by improving their physical skills. Make sense? 

In ARMA for example, for a long time we’ve been doing a large number of techniques and actions that we’ve seen nowhere else among our colleagues (although some of them we happily note are now finally being discovered by our fellows).  As well, we’re constantly discerning new elements from the source manuals that continually amaze us.   So, when we hear someone say, “This is what Master ‘X’ in his book meant for you to do …”, we have to say, “Well, maybe.”  And then we ask, “Does it really work?”  You’ve got to keep your hypothesis broad when studying the manuals and not obsess with an overly technical approach that tries to meet every letter literally of a historical text.  Our efforts as practitioners and students have to be on comparing techniques in free-play, not arguing over lines of text.  As Dr. Anglo showed in his Renaissance martial arts book, writing descriptive instructions on fighting is extremely difficult and the historical masters were not always successful in their efforts to do so.  I know, I have done a considerable amount of instructional writing myself and it is very easy for the reader to misunderstand (and that was using modern language and graphics!).  Today, we have no historical masters around to show us what we are doing right or wrong. We have to rely on our own extremely flawed and limited grasp of personal combat with these arms and armors. What’s more, the historical masters themselves didn’t all agree on what method of combat was best to follow, so how can we expect to do so today among ourselves?  On top of all this, another problem is that there are not even definitive translations of the historical manuals at present, let alone reliable transcriptions available of the originals in most cases. 

My experience for example has been that to a skillful modern fighter, a great deal in the Medieval & Renaissance fencing manuals comes across intuitively.  Knowledgeable martial artists can often read between the lines to discern the general principles of fighting at work and an awareness of them by the author.  Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not discounting the vital importance of academic research in any way.  I am only suggesting that for some enthusiasts holding “scholarly” debates is easier than getting off of their chairs and doing some fighting practice.  Their interpretation suffers as a result.  Working with ARMA senior advisor, Dr. Sydney Anglo, the leading scholar of the source manuals, I felt an incredible synergy. He expressed some pleasure at seeing some of his readings of the manuals “come to life”, while I on the other hand felt validation at knowing what had occurred to me or what we all had worked out on our own was actually in these texts. 

For example, my senior ARMA students have been known to look at material from Fiore, Ringeck, Meyer, etc., and say “Oh cool, we do that move, and that one, and that one….”.  And it’s exciting to learn that things we have been practicing on our own were legitimate elements of the real craft and had historical names and descriptions.  It certainly builds our confidence as it expands our understanding.  On the other hand, we have frequently explored techniques with colleagues where their interpretation of a historical technique, while following the letter of the source text, was nonetheless technically unsound by virtue of some minor misunderstanding of timing or inertia on their part.  Thus, since our interpretations change and are continually revised, all that can be counted on is our own individual physical skills in employing the core fundamental universals of fighting: sense of timing, sense of distance or range, perception, etc. From here we develop techniques from experience handling accurate weapons and conducting serious free-play. These then serve as the basis for analysis and interpretation of the source manuals.  It makes sense and it produces results.  

A student, an interpreter, needs core fighting skills. These can’t be learned from any book.  How does a modern student "interpret" an extinct fighting style if their experience is a blank slate? (For that matter, what qualifies them to review and judge someone else's interpretation?)  For instance, no one could read Musashi’s Book of Five Rings then announce they were able to perform skillful cuts and counter-cuts let alone be able to teach a seminar on his style of kenjutsu.  The same is true for European historical fighting texts.  A manual may tell us of a master’s "complete" fighting system, but it surely does not contain his complete fighting system, no book could.  We have to interpret from it. 

hema.jpg (118059 bytes)

What we know of these arts is still only a fraction of the original whole

When it comes to discovering just how these fighters trained there are many questions the source manuals leave unanswered. There is a lot they simply do not tell us about how fighters learned. They do not tell us, for example, at what speed they practiced attacks and counter-attacks, or at what level of force or degree of range was commonly used when doing so.  We have to fill in the blanks based on our own experiences, knowledge, and preconceptions.

What has been lost over time of these fighting arts was “tribal memory”, the group recollection that makes up tradition, the subtleties of how and why things are done the way they are, and how they are transferred from one generation to another. These skills, after all, are perishable, since they deteriorate or become forgotten if not regularly practiced.  That is indeed what happened.

A problem I have pointed out before, is that the manuals are not comprehensive “how to” guidebooks.  They do not cover every contingency or detail everything a neophyte student needs to learn from step one.  That's the nature of fencing literature: you can't put it all into a book, so the author picks the ideas that set up the floor and open the door. We have to fill in the blanks today –and where, we might wonder, do students get the knowledge (their "core assumptions") to fill it in with?  As well, if a source manual includes, for instance, twenty-seven techniques are we to expect the author of the work included everything he knew with these?  Does it preclude our extrapolating another 50 techniques from those he described?  Surely he did not expect the reader to believe these few actions alone to be sufficient? Given the source works the modern student can soundly interpret much of them, but only when they have first been provided the proper tools to analyze with: a firm comprehension of fighting principles and the core concepts of swordsmanship.

In my years of travel researching and teaching this subject, I have come to believe a present weakness of the historical fencing community is that many students simply lack the physical awareness, the physical conditioning, and the basic prerequisite familiarity of handling bladed weapons with energy and realistic intent.  This is not to argue one has to be an athlete to study this subject. Part of this comes perhaps from a role-playing mentality or a theatrical focus or just lack of guidance.  My successes as an instructor I feel has come by first instilling in students an appreciation for the proper body mechanics of moving and striking, before throwing a stack of books at them.  I am thoroughly convinced that our modern efforts at reconstructing these lost fighting skills are hampered by novices picking up a manual and beginning to “interpret” as much as by experienced students rigidly adhering to their own pet analysis of a portion of source text.   Interpretation should be just that: you interpret it by processing it through what you know. Is whatever you find the only way?  The one true way?  No. Just the way you have found....for now.   

When it comes to interpretation of a historical fighting manual, it’s one thing to say, “This is what the master wrote” as opposed to, “This is what I think the master is saying”, and a far different one to then step out and show, “This is what I think he means to do.” Then, it’s yet another thing (and this is my point) to be able to then say, “Here’s how you physically do it and here’s why it really works.”  There is bound to be errors along the way and the need to revise a view.  At every step of the way you should expect your peers to critique things.  It’s not a flawless process and practitioners shouldn’t take review personally (but from what I have seen they often do). After all, we don't have living historical masters to show us.  The source works were written 500 and 600 years ago in most cases (and in metaphor or verse form at that!).

Interpretation is something that is never ending.  It is a continual “path” of holistic study. We should not mistake the goal for the means of getting there. We "interpret" so we can then "apply." The actual theories and systems of the historical masters, then, is what we need to work out: What did they advise? How did they train? What did they call things? Etc.  Preparing yourself physically however, is the beginning…as well as the continual process of learning.

See Also: Core Assumptions

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