ARMA Editorial
One Student - A Yearling's Perspective

By Erich Wagner

Intro
I've now been involved with ARMA in Houston for a little over a year so I thought it might be interesting to write down what, for me, have been the highlights of my training and association with ARMA. It's amazing the amount of stuff that can be experienced in just one year. I started with basically nothing except misconceptions about Western martial arts. Now as I look back over the past year I feel I know just enough to be almost overwhelmed by the amount of information available. It makes me regret waiting so long to find an organization like ARMA and discovering the rich heritage that is historical European martial arts (HEMA). Now that I'm here though I feel extremely comfortable and I'm looking forward to a lifetime of exploration and discovery.

Background
I have always been interested in swords. When we were kids I used to make my younger brother "practice" with me using wooden dowels or broom sticks. I'd make up various techniques largely based on what I'd seen in movies. In my early teens I entered the world of the Asian martial arts. For the last 25 years I've studied various Eastern styles, competed in them, and have earned some fairly high rankings in several of them. Until a little over a year ago I was one of the many that was convinced that the Eastern fighting arts represented the pinnacle of sophistication, that the Japanese katana was the best edged weapon on Earth, and the warriors of my own ancestry were made up of brutish, smelly clods who swung around swords weighing 10 lbs or more.

Now I also happen to really enjoy going to Renaissance festivals. I even dress up for it. One of the problems I've always had was that I never want to wear a weapon that I don't know how to use. If you go to Renaissance fairs you'll no doubt notice that there are a class of participants who show up wearing blue jeans, a black t-shirt, and a katana stuck through their belt. I never wanted to be that guy so, even if I were wearing "period" clothing, I wouldn't wear a sword. I was talking to a coworker once about this and he suggested that I take a look at "HACA" (it hadn't changed names yet). He was a sport fencer so I figured he knew what he was talking about and I took his advice. I visited the ARMA web site, emailed John Clements a couple of times, and bought his books. A couple of months later I was in the class and watching everything I thought I knew get torn apart.

Preconceptions
Like I mentioned, there were a few things that I thought were common knowledge about the people inhabiting the Medieval and Renaissance periods of Europe. I guess the main one (that seems to be almost universal) was that these people relied almost entirely on brute strength when using their weapons. I had heard the stories about knights barely able to lift their swords. They'd swing them once, clang against the opponent's sword, then march off to straighten it out, rinse and repeat. Of course the sword was so heavy because they had to hit someone wearing armor and we all know you can't cut through that. You just have to hit it with something really heavy until you've turned its contents into jelly. The poor guys in armor also had it bad because they could barely move wearing the hundreds of pounds of metal that made up those suits. They had to be lifted onto their horses with cranes and if they happened to fall over during a battle, they would stay there because there was no way to get back up.

On the flip side were the "magical" samurai. They trained from birth to follow the code of Bushido and every gesture they made with the indestructible katana was lethal. They moved with a flowing grace that makes ballet dancers envious. The swords they used were made out of steel folded millions of times and this gave it qualities vastly superior to anything else on the planet. The samurai were also masters of unarmed combat, horsemanship, archery, and a myriad of other arts that made them clearly superior to anything the West could produce.

Just for the record let me state that this essay is not about East vs. West. This is about the things that had been drilled into my head, not only by popular entertainment, but also to a large extent by the people who were teaching the arts I was learning. I just want to be clear about my mindset coming into the study of HEMA.

First Impressions
During the first or second class of a new session, one of the things John will typically do is get all the new people together and give an overview of what ARMA is about. He also brings a number of replica weapons that are passed around so that everyone can handle them and feel what they're like first hand. The very first thing that struck me when I first attended this was that a long sword is very light. Keep in mind that up to this point I was convinced that these things weighed 10 lbs. or more. I read the books that said they weighed 3 lbs. or so but it really didn't register until I picked it up. Then I saw what a skilled person could do with one. John did a flourish that blew me away. Again, I had always imagined these things being handled more like a baseball bat than what I was seeing. John was moving around with obvious speed and intent. There was absolutely nothing false about this performance. Every move was calculated to do some amount of damage to an opponent. What also impressed me was the number of options a person wielding a long sword had at their disposal. John went through true and false edge cuts from every direction, half-swording, springing, wheeling, everything. I had truly never seen anything like this before. I think at that moment I was hooked.

Over the next couple of months I practiced the stances and the basic cuts for the longsword. Then we started working on half-swording and disarming. This was when the biggest epiphany of the art came to me. At first glance the long sword seems like a very simple implement (and it is). But in its simplicity lives such an incredible diversity of function that, when it became clear to me, I was literally stunned. Obviously the blade is there for a purpose. What I didn't initially realize was that every single aspect of the weapon has a purpose, both offensive and defensive. The combinations implied by the use of quillons, pommel, handle, tip, flat, and edges came crashing down and made it very clear that, to truly know this weapon, I was going to be involved with this art for a very long time. Suddenly the place I had given the katana as the "ultimate" weapon disappeared. I didn't necessarily replace the katana with the long sword as holder of that rank. Rather I realized that both were tools created for a particular purpose. What did change was my appreciation for the long sword and an enhanced respect for those people who used it long ago.

One other thing that has really impressed me is the staggering amount of knowledge held by the members of this organization. Up until my association with ARMA, the closest thing I had seen to historcial European martial arts was the occasional demonstration at the local Renn fair by the SCA. It doesn't take a long time of accessing the forum or members mailing list to see that there are some world-class scholars and practitioners among us. This was extremely refreshing to me as I thought that I would probably be getting into a group of role-player types more involved with creating a really cool make believe identity than learning about how to use these weapons. I have never been more pleased to be wrong.

International Event
The highlight of the summer of 2003 for me was the first annual ARMA International Gathering event. Seeing the amount of knowledge and talent on display was almost overwhelming. As much as I enjoyed the various presentations, I think my favorite experience was taking part in the Senior Free-Scholar prize playings of Tim Sheetz and Jake Norwood. A few weeks earlier I was able to take part in Stacy Clifford's prize playing in Houston, so I had some idea of the intense ordeal that was coming up for Tim and Jake. Watching all three of these guys fight (and fighting against them) was a pleasure and made it very clear just how far I had to go in my studies. Up until this point I was feeling pretty good about my abilities, but getting pounded by well executed combination attacks made it very clear for me exactly where I stood.

The Dark Side
As much as I enjoyed the international event, there were aspects about it that were not so good, the details of which I will not go into here. Afterwards, I started paying more attention to other forums and discovered that there are people out there that really don't like us. I must admit that I initially found this to be very disturbing. My personality type is such that when I join something, be it a company or an organization, I tend to be extremely loyal to it unless something happens that proves to me that my loyalty has been misplaced. The things I read disparaging both ARMA and John Clements really took me by surprise and I spent a fair amount of time slogging through archives or asking John directly what had happened to make certain people so upset. What I discovered happening was something I had seen happen in my career in Asian martial arts, namely, people have a hard time dealing with someone who is passionate and uncompromising about the things they believe in. ARMA has been built up with that attitude in mind. These same people don't like it when they are told without ambiguity that something they are saying or doing does not make sense, even worse if it is demonstrated to them in front of an audience. Instead of really analyzing what they're doing, they get their feelings hurt and instead feel it's better to make little of what they have been shown and belittle the object of their embarrassment. I'll never understand how people like that can generate any following but they do and most likely always will.

Where I Am
So, after a year where does this leave me? In general, I feel I'm a better martial artist for my association with ARMA. I came into it a little ahead of the curve by virtue of my understanding of body mechanics and movement garnered through my studies of Asian martial arts. Being involved with ARMA has made me much more critical of what it is I'm doing. I'm no longer just learning a technique, I'm analyzing how effective it will be and when it should be used from the outset. Obviously I think I'm a better swordsman seeing as I wasn't one a year ago. At this point I think I'm comfortable enough with a longsword to really start learning how to use it. As for the scholastic parts of our method, I'm somewhat familiar with a couple of texts but I haven't really even begun studying them. There is so much there it's hard to buckle down and really start picking a manual apart. I view this as an exercise in self-discipline, something every martial artist should have.

At this point I'm looking forward to next year when I can compare what I know then to what I know now. I can't imagine it being any less exciting than the past year has been.

 
 

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