ARMA Editorial – March 2009
Interrelatedness within the Martial Arts
of Renaissance Europe


No one nationality or ethnic group can own the Art

By John Clements
ARMA Directorlo

The interrelatedness of indigenous fighting arts in Renaissance Europe is a fact. Throughout the period of the 14th to 17th centuries Masters of Defence traveled throughout the regions of Latin Christendom teaching and sharing their craft. Arms, armor, and associated fighting methods were traded, copied, and employed across lands and countries. Mercenaries from many regions fought all over Western Europe for different kingdoms and princes, and traveling knights engaged in tournament events held at courts throughout the continent and the British Isles.  The source teachings of Renaissance martial arts were also preserved written and illustrated works that at the time were brought all over Europe and studied by different schools and teachers in many cities and regions. Despite their many differences, the lands comprising Western Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance period were linked by many factors. Kingdoms and regions were interconnected by geography, by religion, by commerce and sea travel, by a common Greco-Roman and Germanic heritage, by blood ties between nobility, and by common enemies.

Fighting men of the Medieval and Renaissance eras perceived and understood matters of personal violence and self-defense according to ways specific to their own time, place, and culture. They also had somewhat different conceptions of war and combat within their cultures. Fencing in the Renaissance was therefore never homogenous or done in only one mutually exclusive way. There were a variety of related styles, approaches, methods, and schools, yet each with a common core. Master Joachim Meyer in his martial arts treatise of 1570 rightly observed that, “For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.”

We know that many masters produced their own works because they disagreed with the teachings of others, or were dissatisfied with previous attempts to expound on the craft, or else had never before read what they considered to properly express the true Art. The German sources tells us the great Johannes Liechtenauer in the late 1300s was the one true master who perfected, but did not himself invent, the Art. In 1410, the master Fiore dei Liberi, who wrote there were few true masters in the world among the many who claimed it, tells us he studied with teachers in Swabia and elsewhere before devising his own method—the value of which several times he had to prove. Fiore never claims his authority and expertise is the result of having his been “a pupil of the great master X” or having “graduated form the great fighting school of Y.” Rather, like so many Renaissance Masters of Defence, his is a personal approach that is an amalgam of all those places and people he studied with. Like so many others, it relies on universal principle of close combat while simultaneously being suited to the conditions he faced at the time.

In his, Book of the Art of Combat, from the 1480s, master Filippo Vadi tells us that he too “acquired good knowledge from the practical experience and doctrine of many masters of arms in different countries, well versed in their art.”  Vadi later restates how he “practiced this art from the years of my youth, having searched and traveled many different countries and lands, castles and cities to learn from many masters perfect in the art, and having by Grace of God, acquired a good part of learning...” This is hardly a man then who can claim a distinct regional method or ethnological “style.”  Similarly, the Italian master Vincentio Saviolo, who taught in London, writes in his 1594 book:  “I must tell you, that I have seen many brave sufficient men teach with great diversity and diverse sorts and fashions of play: and I myself have had many teachers, and found them all to differ one from the other.” 

Given the historical interrelatedness of Renaissance martial arts practice, it is therefore very difficult today for any one nationality or ethnic grouping to make claims of ownership or privileged position over the newly emerging study of historical European combat teachings from the Renaissance era. Except in certain instances, when referring to the writings of regional masters and authors from the Renaissance it is not possible to any large degree to consider modern people in any modern nation-states the caretakers or repositories for any of these lost teachings. The succeeding generations of cultural and ethnic changes have rendered most of the people very different than who they were five or six centuries ago when these forgotten skills were actively taught and practiced. Some modern nations as we now know them did not even exist as political entities at the time. Modern nationalism and nation states did not emerge until after the period of the Renaissance—when its traditional fighting methods and military technology had already drastically changed.

In almost all cases, the people or ethnic group that once resided on a portion of land or in a city where a now lost fighting method was at one time practiced or a historical master of arms once lived are long gone. They have changed appreciably during the intervening centuries. The migrations, the interbreeding, the upheavals, wars, plagues, and religious conflicts have heaped massive change on nearly all of them. Some of the original source teachings under study today even come from regions or kingdoms or ethnic groupings that no longer exist because the turmoil of centuries have since changed the old borders and original populations many times over.  For example, the old Holy-Roman Empire, under which most of these arts flourished, no longer exists. The inhabitants who now happen to be living on a spot of land or speaking a certain language today are not necessarily descended from the same ones as those who were there 500 or 700 years earlier.  The martial arts formerly associated with their distant ancestors were not retained or preserved as part of any national tradition or local custom.

This fact alone makes impossible any assertion of special cultural insight into these martial arts by right of modern nationality or ethnicity. It is also precisely why people in many widespread locations now work at rediscovering these lost combat teachings. Further, it highlights the international heritage these teachings represent and the greater need for collective work by a neutral body to aid in recovering and preserving them.

Study of the enormous surviving instructional material on the vanished martial arts of Renaissance Europe presents no real cultural barriers to understanding the self-defense ideas and combative elements it contains. Thus, for example, it hardly matters that a particular master’s manuscript or book was produced in Venice in 1580, or that a fight instructor in 1540 was a Lombard commoner, or was a Swiss German nobleman in a region of Bologna ruled by the Spanish monarchy, or was a Milanese residing in London.  Our ability to study and reconstruct this material can neither be credited nor discredited because of who our forebears once were or where we now live. There is no such thing as “genetic knowledge” when it comes to cultural traditions.

Given that these are extinct cultural practices that were not exclusively linked to any one national identity, efforts to study them now must identify with the Art rather the geographic source of the teachings. Therefore, no current nation or country can claim a special connection to reviving and reconstructing a lost tradition by mere right of the literature being in their root language or having once been taught and practiced in the same region. This is even more so if the craft was never preserved intact nor in any meaningful way retained in the locality. 

To argue otherwise is akin to imagine what if Shakespeare’s plays had only recently been rediscovered and had not been performed in centuries, then claiming that because a person today speaks English and lives in Stratford-upon-Avon they are somehow inherently more adept than anyone else at being a Shakespearean scholar or a Shakespearean actor.  It doesn’t work that way. Would someone today be so idiotic as to suggest you can't be an Egyptologist without being from modern Egypt now?  Or, consider that while ancient geometry texts are now open source works in the public domain, understanding of them is ultimately a matter of each individual's own capacity for learning and aptitude for mathematics. Modern Greeks are not privy to special insight or access into them by virtue of their being indirect descendants and cultural heirs of the authors. Rather, skill in knowing geometry is most accessible to those who today have the better method of educational training and better means of learning its practical application. The same is true of the literature on Renaissance combat skills. 

While particular historical combat teachings can be attributed to an author of a particular city or region, it ultimately represents one example of the diverse combat arts from an entire historical epoch. The surviving source works are the embodiment of the combat teachings of an era, not a single nationalized ethnically-based tradition (if there even was such a thing in the Renaissance).

An ethnocentric or nationalistic approach to practicing the craft today is therefore not really feasible. This also helps explain why over the past 150 years no fencing masters from any modern European nation have been able to recover their lost Renaissance martial arts heritage as their own. The reason they failed was not racial or language deficiencies, but lack of understanding about the proper biomechanics of self-defense in the era combined with inexperience in the core principles using the arms and armor widespread in the age. They approached the subject much too narrowly and from a contemporary martial culture too far removed from the original. (One might even make the argument that in particular countries modern peoples have a far stronger connection with the world of 19th century fencing masters than they do to the milieu of Medieval and Renaissance fighting men.  Yet, those very same Victorian masters revealed their huge cultural gap with these antique traditions of close combat when they repeatedly expressed a profound ignorance and naiveté over the nature of earlier teachings.)

Ultimately, we have only a few dozen major sources on Renaissance martial arts that we must all study. These materials are almost entirely 14th and 15th century German, and 15th and 16th century Italian and German, along with some 16th and 17th century English and Spanish works.  Everyone relies on these same sources for their knowledge. There are no other instructional resources that survived or were retained in any other way. It is therefore highly problematic for any single group, association, coalition, or federation in a particular country today to be able to promote itself as any authoritative representative of some ethnic “national tradition” on what are, in fact, extinct customs. 

For example, in what is now modern Germany and Italy, just as for everywhere else, there are no surviving traditions for teaching or practicing this craft as an authentic martial discipline. Instead, it is all a new process of discovery for everyone involved no matter where they are located. No single community has the authority or expertise to make claim as the sole representative of extinct teachings that only in the last ten years have started being seriously exploring as a legitimate martial art. (And for many enthusiasts, doing it as something more than just costumed reenactment and theatrical display is itself a recent phenomenon.)  So, a line of reasoning cannot be offered that only members of a particular cultural, ethnographic, or geographic region have a connection now to these forgotten traditions—ones which for centuries were practiced by fighting schools and fencing teachers across Europe.

We can also note that both modern sport fencing associations and traditional Asian martial arts styles each have histories of rivalry and bickering over who has authority over lineage and tradition within their own respective circles. So, it should be even easier to understand the impossibility of any authority being in sole charge of studying any aspect of the lost historical fighting arts of the Renaissance.  And yet, if a particular European town had a unique connection to an actual historical Fechtschule or Master of Defence, and had archeological evidence of its physical existence and actual practices, it could be an interesting matter. This would require a group of organized practitioners in the same historical location following original indigenous sources, using a sound approach and methodology of study, and being officially recognized by their own government as pursuing the goal of resurrecting a local custom as a national tradition. Then in time they could make a case for their having some authority in their effort at cultural reconstruction and revival. Whether or not they could achieve any respectable martial skill or insight is another matter entirely.  At the very least, such an endeavor would be a new and bold experiment in historical fencing studies. (Provided, that is, they could keep up martial standards and suffer through the state’s interference in turning efforts into just another Klopfechter tourist show. Avoiding the bureaucratic temptation toward diminishing effects of sportification and popularization is no easy task.)

As an emerging field of study, Renaissance martial arts has only recently started being seriously explored by all manner of groups and individuals from a wide spectrum—none of which can make an ethnological or nationalistic claim to some aspect of this study by virtue of geography or custom. There are dozens of efforts now underway in a dozen or more countries all relying on the same materials, but very often viewing them with quite different attitudes and approaches, as well as studying it with disparate motives, goals, and methods. Often this results in wildly divergent opinions on key elements such as basic footwork and postures amid other essential factors.

This then begs the question; by what argument could anyone make the assertion that they are a worthy to authoritatively represent a fighting discipline of which we are all students and all collective inheritors?  What we work toward recovering and preserving is, in effect, an intangible cultural heritage.  Given that this is a craft which has not been in existence for centuries the logical conclusion that must be reached is this that subject is open to nearly anyone who puts in the combination of physical demonstration and academic effort—the pairing of martial skill with scholarly research. And that is solely how credibility should be judged.

 
 

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