Student - A Yearling's Perspective
By Erich Wagner
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.