What to Call this Martial Art?

By John Clements

We have today a diverse international group effort to reconstitute extinct fighting arts that, historically, were themselves largely transnational and multicultural. That is, we pursue a range of documented Medieval and Renaissance combat methods (the "Art of Defence" from approximately circa 1350-1650). This focus is essentially how the revival of these martial traditions can be called "authentic."

The historical material we study consists largely of a repertoire of specific techniques presented with underlying principles, in some cases formulated into integrated methods or systems -- what we can call an "art" or a "style." What is a martial art "style" after all if not a defined way of moving using given concepts and actions systematically learned and practiced through specific drills and exercises?

Whatever the name of any martial art affiliation you might belong to in this subject, it's independent from the fighting discipline you pursue (for example, the ARMA is who we are, not the name of our style of martial art). To put it another way, qualifiers such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, or Renaissance European, all refer to types of historical martial arts. But they are not proper names for individual disciplines or styles.

We already have many definitions for what it is we study and do. How to describe what we do is not at all the issue at hand. It's not for us a question of "styles" since there was no singular method, teacher, school, or system throughout the Renaissance era, but a plurality of similar teachings based on universal principles. The many historical source teachings we study are certainly not all identical, but they are based on a clear understanding of the same underlying principles that make their teachings more alike than dissimilar. In other words, we accept that we study the Art and not "styles" of the Art.

There is a need for a simple, descriptive, easy to pronounce word for the Doctrina Armarium that covers the gamut of the diversity of Renaissance martial arts regardless of the source work or weapon focused upon. As someone said: we don't study a style we study an Art. But that Art still needs a name. Calling it just "renaissance" is a descriptor, not a name. The word "Renaissance" surely denotes a time, a place, and a culture, but it's still not the name of any actual style.

There is no question that different fight masters and fighting guilds in Europe followed similar and related methods even if they often preferred different techniques or expressed them differently than others. While they employed varied terms and words to refer to martial arts in general or to their own methods in particular, they did not conceptualized a notion of "styles" as it's applied today to distinguish different types of martial arts from one another.

The question then is not at all what to call different historical "styles" within Renaissance sources. In other words, it is not a matter of "style" meaning form or series of movements, but style as in an identifier, a type or kind, -- a synonym for name. We are talking instead about a name for the whole style/art/science/discipline of Renaissance martial arts itself -- a name that is not a multi-word definition.

Just saying, "I study and practice Renaissance martial arts" is a description, not the "name" of the Art. Similarly, saying something like, "my martial art style is the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe" is redundant, as well as being quite a mouthful. While the acronym "WMA" being virtually unpronounceable is also uselessly vague. The generic acronym "HEMA" is equally non-descriptive in specifying chronology, geography, or culture. Besides, "medieval" and "renaissance" are periods of history not names of fighting arts. And trying to answer the question of what your style is called by saying, "my martial art is the 'Art of Defence' or 'the Art Gladiatoria' or Kunst des Fechtens" are all redundant. Even calling it "the Noble Science" - though accurate - is again vague. Historically, fighting men did not have a name for their methods other than simply calling it their fighting art or art of defence. But today we can't just call what we do "martial arts." The reality is we have to qualify it. We have to specify it.

Think about it: if you practiced traditional Chinese martial arts you wouldn't need to explain that to people upfront, you'd just say wushu or kung fu. Or, if you told someone you practiced kenjutsu and they asked what it was, then you would answer feudal-Japanese swordsmanship. But with our subject we have to give the definition first then when asked what the Art or style is called, what do we do? Repeat the definition?

On top of this, fencing itself once meant combatives - the art of all weapons and unarmed skills. But by the late 17th century it came to mean just swordplay and eventually only single blade against single blade. So calling our martial art "historical fencing" is insufficient. It's merely a definition not a name.

Where then does that leave us when we're asked directly: "What is your martial art style?"

Imagine you are reading somewhere a roster or listing of different martial arts, perhaps in an encyclopedia entry or a cultural exhibition. You see: Karate, Kung Fu, Taekgyeon, Arnis, Jujitsu, Sambo, Silat, Renaissance ...Wait! What was that last one again???

See the problem?

We ought to have a word -- one that defines itself as being the credible and legitimate practice of the various historical source teachings as true self-defense disciplines -- thereby standing in contrast to something intended for sport or stunt or otherwise invented from modern supposition.

Personally, I despise having to identify this fighting discipline as a "style," and actually I don't mind saying that my martial arts style is "Renaissance." But if we have to have a convenient term for the martial arts of Renaissance Europe as a whole, then let's by all means please use "MARE" -- and definitely not the awkward WMA or the vague HEMA or even RMA. Yet, if we were to invent our own new modern term we would soon be accused of also inventing our own modern martial art style merely based on the historical sources, as opposed to trying to authentically recover and reclaim the original craft from their extensive surviving materials.

Throughout the Renaissance the sources had differing terms for the same activity (i.e., martial arts). There are numerous words and phrases they used synonymously with meaning the art of defence. Whether we now call those assorted methods "styles" or not is mere semantics. What is of concern is how to give the various fighting disciplines presented in Renaissance source works a collective name. Without that we are burdened with redundantly using the ambiguous and self-referential phrase "Renaissance martial arts."

Unfortunately, their very variety renders it almost impossible for us to select one from one source and apply it to all we do. For example, if you choose to say your style is Kunst des Fechtens then you are excluding Italian and other sources. If you want to call it Ars Gladiatoria or La Scherma then you are equally excluding the German school, etc. One would think that a name for the style of martial arts we define as "Renaissance" would be welcome today. Just inventing a modern acronym like MARE as a convenient abbreviation when writing about this subject may be very useful but it is not at all the same as having an actual name for the collective teachings that make up Renaissance martial arts. Simply put, we cannot use either the word "art" or "martial" twice in the same phrase or term, even if in another language than English. Doing so is redundant while providing no specificity.

If someone were to write generically about how they practice, say, something they were to call "TAMA," meaning traditional Asian martial arts, that's fine. But they are still able to refer to a style with a specific historical name, whether it is Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, or whatever. But our dilemma is that we have a great many diverse sources from many languages and regions extending over several centuries.

Thus, having been recently asked by a group of traditional Asian martial artists (who know full well of our subject) just what our style is actually called, I was at a loss to answer. The term "renaissance" as a one word answer was simply insufficient. Our craft historically had so many names and reflected so many related methods, yet I found I could not pick one as my answer for them. But they still asked how they were to call it? So, I want a name for this style, a real historical word we and everyone else might use (not just one for the ARMA).

When asked what my style is I might just say "Renaissance" but I still haven't named what that Art is called. I would much rather be able to say, I do "Renaissance martial arts" which we now call today… [insert term here]. Even better, I would like to just say [name] which is the martial arts of Renaissance Europe.

We have at our disposal documented sources for a host of authentic teachings from over four centuries of sophisticated combatives. We have so much material, in fact, that isolating one text over another and then reconstructing a whole curriculum around it makes little sense, especially seeing that the various methods are interrelated with one another and were largely transnational at the time. Keep in mind; the question to be considered is not how to describe or define this subject or to list the many individual disciplines and skill sets it incorporates. Nor is the challenge to identify the various historical terms for the Art of Defense used by the sources. The task before us is not to create an acronym to abbreviate having to always write out "Medieval and Renaissance martial Arts" (i.e., MARE, a useful auto-text). Rather, the issue is what one name to give it that distinguishes it in the same manner that any other martial art style can be identified.

If you consider it contextually, we can surmise that in the 15th or 16th centuries a trained fighting man wouldn't be asked: "What is your martial art", but rather, in whatever language they'd just be asked something like, "Are you a student of Fence," or maybe "Do you study the Art of Defence?"  They wouldn't very likely be asked "What is your style?" either, but instead something more like, "With whom do you practice under?"   A man would probably just say they studied "arms" or "fencing." But today we have to clarify what we do with something more specific than just "the art of fighting."

To make this as clear and understandable (and idiot proof) as possible:

We already have considerable definitions and descriptions for what it is we study and practice. We don't need any more for our subject.

We already have numerous historical terms for what the fight masters and fight books called their assorted fighting methods, systems, or (dare we say) "styles." We don't need to rename these.

However, the reason we can't simply use one of these existing terms or phrases to identify the fighting disciplines from the era as a whole is because each is exclusive to a specific source, author, region, time span, or language.

Since the historical sources themselves do not have a common term they universally used, we also don't have an overall name for what we now collectively refer to today as Medieval and Renaissance martial arts.

The reason we can't just call it "martial arts" or the "Arts of Mars" or even just "fencing" or "Art of Defence" is precisely because none of these redundant self-referential phrases specifically identifies itself as meaning pan-European close-combat teachings.

Keep in mind, the generic English phrase "martial art" (originally meaning the art of arms), is already an ambiguous modern term for the broad subject of fighting disciplines. It is not specific temporally, geographically, or culturally to where our sources originate.

Thus, all we really need do then is create a neologism of convenience that can apply to the whole panoply of authentic teachings encompassing the style of fighting we know as the martial arts of Renaissance Europe. We have always had to explain to others what the craft is we study, where we legitimately obtained it from, and how we can go about credibly doing it again. Nothing will change except that we can have a specific recognizable name to use to refer to these teachings regardless of whatever historical source work is studied.


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2016. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.