On the State of the Art
A Conversation with ARMA Director John Clements
The following musings on historical fencing were compiled from an
extensive series of candid Q&A email exchanges between ARMA members
and John Clements during the period January
2006 to March 2008.
us on what's new and what you're occupying yourself with nowadays?
"Well, as of 2008 now I am still busy full-time with numerous writing
projects, administering the ARMA organization, editing our various websites,
teaching around North America and also Europe some, as well as locally
out of my studio here west of Atlanta. I am stretched pretty thin with
the number of projects and sheer amount of continuous research along with
the ongoing refining of the ARMA curricula. I have three new books
on Renaissance martial arts I am trying to finish concurrently, and five
more in various stages of completion. I've been working on them almost
8 years now and aim for completion of at least one, possibly two, in 2008.
All I can say is that they'll be ready when they're ready and will definitely
shake things up. I've been sitting on mountains of research and material
for a long time now."
What details can you provide?
"For several years now my primary area of investigation (along with
fighting techniques) has focused specifically and intensely on the matter
of wounds, violence, and death in historical sword combat, and then how
the sources of training for fighting men reflected this through an ethical/spiritual
component. I'm also assisting with a number of other ARMA members who
have books in the works and several have already been contracted for publication.
We have an anthology of major new articles being published in summer 2008.
On top of all this, we finally have a few video projects started for DVD
release that we're very excited about, but I can't say anything more at
this time. Overall, the growth of the ARMA and the demands of my traveling
and writing pretty much take up all my time virtually seven days a week.
And of course, I continue to try to make my personal interest the practice
of longsword, rapier, and sword and dagger. So, I am actually more reclusive
at the moment than I ever have been. Like many people experience today,
as our networks of colleagues and friends grows, there are fewer people
we can talk to daily, then weekly, then monthly, then quarterly, then
annually or less. As one's circle of contacts expands worldwide, the less
contact we actually have with many individuals. Besides friends and family
and business emails, it gets harder to maintain dialogues, especially
given the size of our ARMA membership now and historical fencing community
What's currently going on of interest in the
ARMA universe right now?
"Well, we have some exciting additions to our National Training Program
curricula on the horizon. I've also engineered a very substantial restructuring
of our basic 1.0 seminar in a way that I am very excited about. It presents
the foundational longsword material even more holistically, more integrated
and not compartmentalized, much closer to how it's featured in so much
of our source literature. Meanwhile, we've added several new study groups
and we are continuing to take advantage of new better quality weapons
and training equipment, the endless improving of our understanding and
application of the foundational skills, and our unrelenting emphasis on
We have our next International Gathering already planned for 2009 and
we'll be having several Prize Playings coming up. There are also a few
surprises in the future that we are keeping under wraps for now. The
skill and commitment of our members continues to improve and their level
of scholarship in general is better than it's ever been. We don't
deviate from our mission of raising the credibility and legitimacy of
this craft and promoting higher standards. Finally, the ARMA and IDS will
be seen in three different documentary features in 2008. Although, I should
add we're also way, way behind on so many online pieces and web features.
I imagine by now it sounds like a cliché for me to say this, but, hey,
this is an exciting and unprecedented time to be involved in historical
European martial arts!"
How has having Iron
Door Studio affected your training and research?
"Having such a practice hall, certainly the first of its kind, is obviously
an advantage. I can enter morning, noon, or night any time and work on
anything I want to or need to. In some ways it's a laboratory as much
as a private gym. Grappling can occur on the floor, test cutting can be
done whenever desired, there's a variety of pells and targets to use,
all manner of weaponry and gear, various exercise tools, mirrors, and
everyone can generally be as loud as we want surrounded by key selections
from the historical source teachings."
What can you tell about teaching at Iron Door?
"I am trying to do more small regional workshops here rather than always
traveling to do larger seminars. The advantages here in terms of equipment,
materials, and structure of the content make a huge difference in learning,
I've found. Since ours is a non-profit historical and educational society
and my fencing facility is not a commercial public class, I can afford
to do things differently than typical public fencing classes or martial
arts run as businesses. Currently at IDS I am focusing only on teaching
senior members who travel here, and occasionally giving lessons to a few
select individuals or groups of novice members from the metro area. After
having first taught public classes since 1992, and having taught in Houston
non-stop for some 7 years, I needed a respite if I was ever going to finish
my books. The ARMA has also grown large enough that I can focus more now
on assisting advanced students and leave teaching novices more to other
senior regional members. However, I am always looking for those unique
local persons of enthusiasm and aptitude who want to start serious study."
How is the program there different from your
previous public classes or general ARMA seminars?
"Given my annual travel schedule and writing commitments, as well as because
I don't hold regular weekly classes and my location is somewhat remote,
what I do with newcomers here at IDS is still very much what is mostly
done in the ARMA as a whole. I will meet with potential students to evaluate
their aptitude and temperament then I will give them an introductory session
to establish the credibility and legitimacy of the craft as well as establish
for them the ARMA Study Approach and Training Methodology. Just as our
ARMA curricula and online members resources are intended to educate the
student in how to learn, the main lesson I try to convey is on the
core elements (bio-mechanics) of close-combat that in the long run will
allow a student to teach themselves.
While our ARMA National Training
program represents seminars and workshops as segmented courses, it's personalized
instruction like I do at IDS that provides those subtleties and that you
just can't acquire through a group class. There are aspects to any fighting
art that really have to be passed on individually. This is hard to do
in an event that meets one day or one weekend and must condense things
down into a structure that everyone attending can follow and take back
with them to work on. But in a personal class progress is much more focused
and lessons individualized."
Can you reveal something of the lesson plan
at your school of arms?
"Okay, for instance, we start with the foundational weapon, the longsword,
and include Ringen elements from day one. The student is taught some of
the fundamental core movements to work on, such as wards and motions.
The next time I meet with them I re-evaluate their progress to see how
they are acquiring these fundamentals. This process continues as they
then progress in techniques. The whole while they are learning the foundational
principles and concepts of the Art. In time we move from the double-handed
sword to combination weapons, then eventually see the student specialize
in rapier, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, staff, or some other polearm.
The student is taught a diversity
of our proven drills and exercises as well as engaging in free-play. Each
lesson features the importance of training with proper intent (that
is, realistic energy, speed, and strength in proper range and timing).
Naturally, as with all of the ARMA curricula we stress learning footwork,
closing actions, and proper striking with good energy. All the while
we stress the underlying physicality of the subject, its violence and
its athleticism, placing special attention on the importance of physical
conditioning. Our emphasis on a holistic approach to studying the
historical source literature is explained (that is, focusing on all the
manuals, before narrowing it to any one work in particular), as is the
necessity of combining scholarship with hands-on practice. Our ranking
system, with its certification testing, is also conveyed."
How would you sum up your teaching method?
"Train like you will fight. I don't believe anything different
was done in the historical Schools of Defence. In teaching any combative
system, an instructor can do only three things for a student: he can explain,
then demonstrate, then observe to give feedback on progress. He must
repeat these three things as necessary. But beyond this the rest is up
to the student. Presuming they have the aptitude, the student themselves
must make the necessary effort and show martial spirit. An instructor
can only serve as a guide and help motivate. He can't and shouldn't lead
them by the hand like a child. Some students respond to this challenge
and take to the program with vigor. They meet expectations or even exceed
standards. Others simply fail to meet the demands of the craft. ...And
a few of those will always blame the material or the instructor or the
approach, anything but looking in the mirror for the cause. We all learn
and grow together, but in the end, one's own individual success or
failure in becoming adept in the Art is one's own."
What one thing stands out that you try to get
across to a new student?
"I'd have to choose, how it goes without saying that for serious study
of our martial arts heritage there is no room in any of this for stunt
fencing routines, pretentious costumed pageantry, historical role-playing
fantasy, or imaginary tournament contests. Those things conflate the search
for the visceral truth. It's simple really. Reconstruction of the craft
and training in it is about interpretation and application. We want to
revive and reestablish a genuine fighting tradition, to provide real knowledge,
and to instill in students real skills from real history. This is the
crucial mindset for everything we are trying to do. Ours is after all
the only fighting art that anyone can by virtue of reading a few modern
translations, studying some images, and practicing around with weapons,
begin to declare themselves a serious student - all the more so if they
have any connection to modern fencing or living-history reenactment clubs.
When you think about it though, such a thing is hardly grounds for asserting
respectable martial arts skills in what are long extinct methods of self-defense."
But is there a central lesson
that lies at the heart of this craft?
If you mean, something such as, 'fencing is the Art of hitting without
being hit', then sure, I would say, 'Fencing is a matter of facing an
adversary with the attitude: if you attack me I will strike you;
but if you do not attack me you must still prevent my striking you. Either
way, we strive to always strike the opponent."
What's one of the chief things that you feel
is important for historical fencing practice?
"Discipline... discipline. I will also say what is important is what I
refer to as 'emotional content.' A realistic attitude of forceful
perservence develops true martial spirit."
What modern replica swords can you recommend
"Sword purchase suggestions? Oh man, I never look forward to that question.
It's actually not an easy question to answer. Right off, my reflex is
to say without equivocation, Albion Swords. And I make that recommendation
without any reservations and without either myself or the ARMA having
any professional or business relationship with them. I say it strictly
as a consumer representing a consumer interest group of sword aficionados
as well as an expert in Medieval and Renaissance swords who requires accurate
affordable tools for his profession. Though in the interests of full
disclosure, I will acknowledge that from time to time they have, as have
a few other makers, asked my opinion on prototypes. The problem for me
is, as a 'semi-public' persona, any time I say I prefer one manufacturer
over another I upset someone out there - the credible makers as well as
the charlatans. And the difficulty of offering a recommendation of a particular
sword or particular maker is that I can only comment on the swords that
I have handled at length. Additionally, while I may swear by a certain
model or maker right now, who is to say that six or nine months down the
road that same model might be in some way altered in its geometry or heat-treatment
by the manufacturer so that the identical piece is no longer the same
one I favored? This has happened a lot in this industry. A brand or model
of modern replica sword may be great one day, lousy the next or vice versa.
I have been burned more than once this way. It's not like I am being asked,
'What make and model of this year's new automobiles do I prefer in the
mid-size sport utility category?' Besides, as a martial artist, my needs
and those of my students are for the most realistic weapons possible to
vigorously train with under our curricula while still getting good value
for the money. In other words, quality that is affordable.
I must also add that I always want
to support domestic makers over foriegn sweatshops, as well supporting
the individual swordmakers, even though the small number of weapons they
can produce prevents their providing the volume or varitey of larger makers.
There are a lot of sword makers out there and it's just impossible for
me with my resources to evaluate every model of every manufacturer to
a degree where I feel confident in saying yay or nay to each and every
one as a training weapon. No person should be expected to give such opinions.
Besides, the ARMA does not do official product endorsements (we learned
our lesson in that regard). When it comes to Albion, they are
consistent. Have yet to handle one of their off-the-shelf pieces that
did not feel excellent or perform superbly. I know enough of their design
philosophy, their (current) manufacturing methods, and their quality control,
as well as their mission statement and business practices to trust their
pieces in general. I consider this in relation to the various pieces of
all makes and models I own or have used. When it comes to historically
accurate sharps or blunt-training blades I have no reason at present to
doubt Albion's quality and value. I unfortunately can't make that
kind of statement about other makes and models that I own or have played
with, and certainly not with those I haven't tried out. This is
not to say this won't change a year or so from now. Thus, my hesitation
at making recommendations of commercial swords. There are a lot of qualifiers
to bracket any suggestion I offer. I also have my own personal favorite
styles that might not be suited for someone else's tastes or interests.
That's a reason why there were so many different swords in history after
What problem issues in the study of historical
fencing are at present of most concern to you?
"The biggest problem, one that the study of nearly all fighting-arts faces,
is that theoretical preconceptions of students do not necessarily provide
practical self-defense remedies. In other words, their beliefs about how
things ought to work don't match the reality of what happens in fights.
This is a direct result of ignorance of the inherent bio-mechanics
involved in fighting, inexperience in executing the core movements of
close combat, and inferior physical conditioning. If it were all solely
a matter of pure survival necessity there would be none of this. That
most of this is due to sheer wishful thinking and fantasy-minded desire
for escapist role-play goes without saying. That is the dilemma facing
many modern students of this craft. Study and practice of Renaissance
martial arts is a fun and interesting hobby, primarily a means of martial
recreation, less so physical exercise and personal development. This is
also another reason for what makes the ARMA so distinct, if you see my
But, in my
experience people reading things likes this online don't read very carefully,
so it's easy to take things out of context when they don't pay close attention
and miss half of what was written or how it was said. I assume this
will be no different for some readers."
What led you to that conclusion?
"Several things rather than just any one experience. Even as I first began
exploring these weapons and skills in the early 1980s I noted there were
often things that people habitually did that just didn't work when they
attempted them outside of their comfort zone of whatever sparring guidelines
or tournament rules they had constructed. Countless times since I've encountered
people who have a theory about a particular technique or move and they
will be way, way off with it. They will entirely miss the physicality
of the movement or the functionality of the weapon's application but don't
realize it. They couldn't perform it effectively on a target with a sharp
blade and or couldn't apply it decently in sparring. Why is this? Because
they simply lack good understanding of the inherent biomechanics involved.
Why? Because they don't know enough about fighting. How is this
the case? Because they don't spend enough time using realistic weapons
or practicing moves with proper speed and force and don't try them with
contact in free-play against people who know how to move correctly. So,
they end up with overly-complicated ideas or with timid and soft interpretations.
I see this same thing occurring just as much nowadays.
times in this craft I've witnessed first hand examples of the kind of
cognitive dissonance where someone having been thoroughly outclassed and
bested in open bouting will nonetheless continue to insist that they have
no particular deficiencies in their technical skill or their general understanding
of fighting. Even after repeatedly poor results in sparring against several
opponents, the thought that they should question their method of training
or whatever system of fencing they follow never seems to enter into their
mind. It's bizarre. But it's far from an uncommon phenomena to encounter.
I suspect it's due in part to an overemphasis on the slow speed, low energy,
rote emulation of counter techniques against a cooperating partner kind
of drill (the sort of thing that permeates the practice of so much of
the Asian martial arts nowadays). Such exercise is only a layer of overall
learning and not representative of combat skills. It is a just a tool
on the path of developing real fighting ability, not its expression."
What observations can you offer on the current
state of the Art?
"Where to begin? We've gone from a desert wasteland of nonsense and
ignorance a decade ago to a cluttered jungle of weeds with a few scattered
fruits in between. There is still too much ineptitude, too much mediocrity,
too many pathetic misinterpretations and poor physicality among teachers,
and just way too many bozos with disturbingly inept interpretations. When
you add to the poor grasp of core principles displayed an inability to
appreciate its inherent physicality and violence or the energy and intensity
which it was performed, it's a disaster. This is all part of why we push
our high standards in response.
There now are
many different disparate historical combat groups and small collections
of individuals here and there, and despite the mass of source material
to study from, many still have not outgrown the pretentious costumed role-play
and stunt fencing mentality. For many people, I think the historical source
material is little more than a way of augmenting all that. They reference
the source works and source teachings now but don't train with martial
intent, only half-hearted force in moves, conduct weak sparring with incorrect
guards, poor body mechanics, ineffective basic cuts, and serious misapplication
of core principles. It's constant work to insure that our new students
aren't influenced to emulate such poor standards."
What are some of the things that stand out for
you in the resurgence of authentic Renaissance martial arts?
"Hmmm... One of the more remarkable phenomena that comes to mind is one
I've encountered among longtime practitioners of some Asian martial tradition
expressing their desire to 'supercede the boundaries' of Eastern and Western
fighting arts. Considering that the serious investigation of historical
European martial traditions is in its infancy and that such individuals
have themselves been almost entirely outside its sphere of research, this
is quite an astonishing view to take. This is akin to a chef of Asian
cuisine who has never studied, say, classical Italian or French cuisine
(let alone been trained by an expert in them), nonetheless announcing
that they want to 'transcend' the differences between Chinese and European
cooking. I naturally find such a way of thinking bewildering. Were the
roles reversed, and a modern student of the revival of Medieval and Renaissance
fighting skills to announce they wanted to transcend the limits of extant
Asian fighting styles without benefit of having ever devoted a lifetime
to their exploration, they would be rightly dismissed as a fool.
Maybe I should add here that, after
having spent so long exploring historical European fighting arts and researching
our lost martial heritage, when it comes to the traditional Asian styles,
my estimation of this has evolved since I was a youth.
I am convinced the majority of them today are in fact taught as virtual
dance routines, combat-ineffective martial sports, and even forms of esteem-building
role-play. I have less respect for them than I once did in the past. Many
of them are hyped up, and watered down, yet missing that functional middle.
I can really only speak for the armed arts and weapon training, but very
little of it is anything more than ballet. I was a long time coming to
this conclusion, and was myself surprised by it, until several senior
expert instructors in assorted Asian styles confidentially expressed to
me that they felt the very same way. Seems as a result of MMA and UFC
type events and military self-defense training programs, as well as the
emergence of our field of study, more people see this than ever before.
It has surprised me to discover there is just as much, if not far more,
hype, fraud, farce, and fantasy role-playing within the pursuit of popular
Asian martial arts today than in our craft."
How has the current status of the subject affected
what you do?
"I think every serious martial arts instructor today is faced with questions
from students about what they see others teaching or doing, or they witness
done in film and TV fights, and it's the responsibility of a credible
instructor to address these things with clarity. I try not to spend
much time dwelling on the flawed, terribly flawed, interpretations that
now abound in our subject. There are, as I have long said, an infinite
number of ways to do something wrong in fighting and only a few ways (and
in some cases only one) way of doing it right. You can't spend all
your time telling students how not to do things. That time and energy
is better spent telling them how to do it right and how to exploit opponents
who do it wrong. But as we have wondered, why are there so many flawed
interpretations out there? The reason is simple: core assumptions.
I've written extensively on the matter of core
assumptions, as well as the issue of how motive and objective affects
this activity. These matters are influenced by personal understanding
of the body mechanics of close combat. Misunderstanding of them results
in failure to appreciate the inherent violence and athleticism of the
craft, the handling of weapons with vigor, and the necessity of training
to apply techniques with serious martial intent. These are the essential
things that inform our interpretation and application today of the historical
source teachings. You can't BS with them."
Can you elaborate on that?
"It's a simple matter, really. Without an application component, where
actions are tested adversarially, training is meaningless. ...Interpretation
is meaningless without application. Indeed, no interpretation is worthwhile
without effective application. Reconstruction itself is
interpretation-application. To prove the validity and efficacy
of this craft, it MUST be done with proper skill, it must be demonstrated
with athletic expertise and performed with real effectiveness, not the
lame weak-kneed version some people out there being heralded are doing.
Put it this way, I can have a virtual
novice bring up an issue of how to perform a particular stance or strike
and want to debate it. That's fine, we encourage it. But if they are shown
that their assumptions or viewpoint is flawed, technically self-defeating,
and ambiguous, that should settle the matter. Rather than try to keep
arguing textual possibilities as an intellectual exercise ad nauseum,
they need to get off their chair, pick up their weapons and start training
harder. But, as Marcel Proust once wrote, for some people 'Facts don't
enter a world dominated by our beliefs.' The ultimate absurdity in the
study of any fighting art is to encounter an attitude among a practitioner
that can be summed up essentially as: 'You may have beaten me decisively
in sparring and I may not be able to do the techniques as I suspect it
might have been done, and your version certainly works well enough and,
yes, even closely fits the source evidence, but I am still going to keep
on wondering about my version anyway, not because I have any practical
insight into combat or can demonstrate any particular skill with weapons,
but just because being contrary it gives me something to do.' ...Strange.
That kind of immature attitude is hard to fathom."
Physical fitness is something that most everyone
needs to improve on in our modern society, is it any different when it
comes to this craft?
"The physical conditioning issue and its relation to misunderstanding
and misapplying physical mechanics of Renaissance martial arts are at
the very heart of so much disagreement among practitioners of his craft.
There is an obdurate unwillingness on the part of some to grasp this basic
concept due to their continuing obsession with role-playing that they
are chivalric knights and honorable cavalier duelists. They like to imagine
the immutable laws of personal violence don't apply to them.
You know, the martial arts are often
described as a being like mirror, in that they reflect back honestly only
what is before it, whether it is ugliness or beauty. In your ability and
skill you can fool yourself for a long time but you can't fool an adversary.
Your delusions are eventually exposed. As Matt Larson, the head instructor
of the US Army's Combative Systems Program once stated, 'The demands of
training must mirror the demands of combat. If the two are different,
it is the training standards that are wrong.' This applies also to the
element of stress and emotional content that good training prepares a
warrior for (something you cannot get out of mere drills and exercises,
but only vigorous free-play)."
Isn't the original purpose of the Art to overcome
adversaries that are stronger or have physical advantages?
"Definitely. But, this has never in history precluded the demands of physical
combat or negated the benefits of physical conditioning for the warrior.
Training is a discipline that's supposed to provide skills and conditioning
to aid survival, not excuse poor fitness and laziness (and certainly not
make you pretend you are something you're not in real life). A skilled,
physically fit fighter will defeat a skilled physically unfit fighter
every time. Indeed, to overcome superior conditioning requires substantial
skill. That kind of skill simply can't be acquired without a level of
commitment that itself occurs along with a degree of improved conditioning,
not in spite of it. Make sense?
Some people have no conception of
proper body mechanics as a direct result of their horrendous physical
condition and many times, gross obesity. The lack of understanding of
balance and leverage as a result of poor muscularity and excessive flab
should be stunningly offensive to any serious student of historical fencing.
For example, wrestling or grappling with a large rotund person is entirely
different than facing that person with weapons. Having them grapple through
natural bulk is one thing, but getting them to actively perform armed
fighting techniques in good speed and range is entirely different, let
alone getting them to attempt unarmed moves against weapons. Ask yourself,
how many grossly obese warriors or duelists do you ever encounter in history?
How many among top level athletes, major sports figures, Olympic fencers,
or martial arts champions are terribly out of shape?"
Why do think physical conditioning
is such a problem area for so many enthusiasts and practitioners?
"Well, I'm no expert and not able to address the cause. But, I've written essays
on our website on the topic of fitness in relation to the historical Art.
The historical fact is our fighting ancestors were in good shape
and had to be. Today, by contrast, look at our lifestyles: We almost all
sit constantly. We sit on our commutes to work. We sit most of the day
behind desks while at work. We then go to lunch and sit some more. Then
we sit on the drive home again. When we get there we sit again for dinner
or go out and sit. Then we sit and watch TV or play games, usually
snacking as we do. If we go out again, we do little else than sit in a
theater or a bar. What's the mystery here? We move too little
and eat too much. How does doing this prepare someone for correctly unlocking
the lost methods of serious combat skills?"
You've often stressed in your presentations
and lectures the importance of appreciating this underlying violence,
why is that?
"Definitely. At its heart this craft is about men coming to blows and
surviving the violent use of force. The fighting skills we study were
about violence and war, about men fighting against their enemies, struggling
against adversaries bent on their destruction, trying to avenge or protect
their comrades and loved ones by taking life, not just calmly entering
into single combats on some accepted terms of polite decorum with their
social peers in order to advance their public standing. That is the exception,
not the rule. The general rule was street fighting, sudden assault, drunken
brawl, and battlefield survival. These are the things that greatly
influence my own reconstruction and practice of the craft. This is
also a reason why I am so opinionated on this subject. But I am opinionated
because I am confident. I have had considerable experience, have demonstrated
my skills, produced skilled students, and validated my beliefs with historical
evidence. This doesn't mean that the practice of this Art of Defence
is about being violent, any more than policing means being criminal. But
it is essentially about skills of war, whether used in battle, duel, or
Violence would seem to be the underlying fact
of this whole subject, yet some people seem to want to imagine that's
not the case?
"Oh, yeah... bizarre, that. My next book will come as quite a shock to
them then. LOL. Its entire theme is the gruesome violence and bloody death
surrounding historical close combat and the art of fencing. I've got over
200 pages alone documenting the inherent incessant violence that frame
the heart and soul of our subject. Seriously, though, let's examine it
this way: Medieval and Renaissance fighting men existed in an undeniably
violent world of danger. Unlike the mythology that has been created around
both chivalric feats of arms and the formal duel of honor, the need for
martial skills came about precisely because there were so many armed people
going around in the Medieval and Renaissance eras ready to fight with
swords over the slightest pretense. This is precisely a reason why
they developed certain ethical, social, and spiritual frameworks by which
to act when they were compelled to do violence as fighting men.
Again, to imagine that this craft
can be revised and pursued without appreciation of this reality and without
vigorous application of technique is sadly delusional. When I see some
people trying hard now to imagine that the nature of close combat in the
Medieval and Renaissance eras was not vicious, ruthless, and grisly, I
have to conclude that more than ever we are deeply needed. Battling these
accretions of ignorance means our work of educating is cut out for us."
But the Art itself is not about being violent?
"No. Definitely not. Fighting out of either anger or fear is a central
problem to overcome. Yet, even though the Art itself can be elegant,
and fighting men did on occasion try to kill one another with bloodthirsty
decorum, I am appalled when I see people trying now to imagine that this
Art of combat was not violent, nor brutal, nor gruesome. I am disgusted
when I see any student of this craft trying to inoculate themselves from
the reality by such willful ignorance. The ARMA is a desperately needed
antidote to such fantasy."
Is that reflected in your opinion on the necessity
for free-play or sparring?
"Partially. Real combat was not about showing 'good technique' to spectators
or opponents but about surviving in an encounter of invariably chaotic
violence. Anything else reflects not a concern for combat effectiveness
and historical methods, but for display, performance, and sport play.
Even today, in mock combat if you have 'killed' your opponent, it is because
you have done what was necessary to do so and they could not prevent it.
Rules for mock combat must be about safety first, then about what the
weapons could actually do second, and only lastly be framed with concern
for what was once considered 'proper technique' or even 'good form' or
'proper etiquette' among some social portion of fighting men."
Why do you think some people miss the obvious
nature of this?
"I think some enthusiasts simply project onto it - they project their
own experiences, needs, fantasies; all the emotions that go into thinking
about historical arms and battle regardless of what actual factual evidence
they know about it. Whereas in the ARMA, we have a considerable portion
of our core members who are active duty military or law enforcement, all
people who can appreciate the seriousness of real world violence and some
of whom have experienced it first hand (maybe I should add IT workers
to that list? ...LOL). I think it also makes a tremendous difference that
we don't have as our core base people who were originally attracted this
subject by escapist role-play or theatrical performance or sporting recreation.
Is this any real surprise though?
I bet if you were to ask the average sword enthusiast our there to
honestly compare the number of hours they've spent playing video games,
reading fantasy novels, and watching fantasy films, with the number of
hours spent reading history books or exercising in the gym, I'm confident
the gap would be monumental."
Is a central difficulty one of divergent interpretations
of source teachings or failure to acquire individual skills?
"I'm not sure I understand the question. Follow with me on this observation,
though: I've long noticed something that occurs throughout the modern
practice of martial arts: people will often have theories about a technique
or a move or an element that they can't articulate well and can't physically
demonstrate effective application of, but for which nonetheless they will
assert the validity of and argue endlessly about. (That they also
lack the physical discipline prerequisite for sound theorizing on the
subject in the first place is for some reason a non-issue to them.) This
problem occurs in our field of historical fencing studies more so than
any other combative, I think, because it is so 'theoretical.' It has for
so long been filled with fantasy and nonsense, and there are now so many
available sources over which everyone is puzzling to reconstruct. So,
when the ARMA goes around emphasizing physical application and proven
martial validity through performance with intent, it rubs some people
the wrong way. They would prefer to keep it all comfortably interpretive
as some unchallenged abstract, or else just role-play it with costumes,
contests, and stunts. Naturally this makes real progress difficult."
What can you share of the guiding philosophy
that has shaped your outlook toward reviving historical European martial
"That's a whole subject in itself, I think. But, to give it a crack, from
my years involved in this I think that my philosophy accepts that you
inevitably have to be exclusionary. There are things that just don't work
when they are open to anyone and everyone regardless of differing motives
and goals. You have to accept that in this craft there are things - principles,
values - that we hold to be virtues, and that you arrive at them by excluding
those things that they are not. You exclude for example, escapist role-play
as your motivation, and mediocrity and ineptitude in physical application,
and you exclude an ahistorical focus or ignorance of scholarship in the
source teachings. And by doing this, of course, you exclude those people
who have different objectives and substantially contrary methods. You
then open yourself up to those who, while they may not have consciously
decided to be the antithesis of this philosophy, they are by their actions
and beliefs accepting and promoting very converse values. So, when they
see you as being anti-something they naturally react by attacking. They
will label us arrogant or elitist, but it's just a polemic. The reality
is, you can't seriously go about this subject any other way. I believe
we can't effectuate a viable chivalric Science of Defence through
any other means. The historical Masters certainly don't suggest otherwise."
How does this reflect on a student's day-to-day
concerns about practice and scholarship?
"You know, I could answer that with platitudes of polite politically correct,
'Oh, everyone is just so wonderful and it's such a wonderful happy time
of wondrousness', but you know that is simply not true and saying so would
be insincere. To be acerbic, there all sorts of martial art styles
and teachers of different fighting methods out there, and not all are
created equal and not all are as effective. It's a fact. Some are just
better than others. They each may appeal to certain interests, certain
aptitudes and attitudes among different students, and each presumably
has certain core requirements for credible practice, but that does not
mean they all possess the same martial spirit, let alone the same level
of capacity and credibility. It's no secret that many of them are little
more than doing dance routines and learning useless ballet-like movements,
not fighting skills or legitimate self-defense skills, let alone historical
combat systems. I think the same has always been inevitable with Medieval
and Renaissance fencing, except that in our case we are struggling
to revive and reconstruct our craft in the face of long held distortions
and nonsense misrepresentations.
To put this in context for historical
fencing studies, it's sad to me to see such willful ignorance over such
fundamental issues as self-defense in the face of violence and death.
It's also sad how many of the same old costumed role-playing living-history
reenactors and stunt fencers and sport fencing coaches as they look at
the source literature can now effortlessly adopt the labels and words
of 'martial arts.' It further diminishes the credibility and legitimacy
of our heritage. ...I seriously doubt some of these doughboys and blubbery
buffoons promoting themselves to astoundingly naïve students have any
idea how to perform techniques in earnest, let alone offer credible programs
of martial training. It's about mere posing. It's no surprise you don't
see impressive videos of them in energetic action or of their senior students
performing techniques with appropriate energy and speed."
Does that explain some of the affirmations expressed
throughout the ARMA website?
"Not really. Let me put it this way: a great deal of the Medieval and
Renaissance combat interpretation taking place out there right now is
based on experiences and assumptions that are decades old. We had folk
who wanted to swordfight and so made up systems of doing it safely. They
had to pretty much invent their own rule structure for sparring and such.
They borrowed some from sport or theatrical fencing or from Asian arts
and made the rest up as they went along. For the most part they didn't
have a lot of reliable reference material, they didn't have many (if any)
of the historical source manuals, (and when they did, they didn't have
full or accurate translations) and they didn't even have decent replica
weapons available. In the intervening decades however, we've learned a
tremendous amount on fighting arts in the period and the reality of weapon
use. But, many people continue to follow the same old approaches
that, when you think about it, were founded on ignorance, that were devised
for pretend playing in a way that reflected what they saw in reenactment
clubs and movies or that they acted out in Dungeons
& Dragons campaigns. Over time, this approach took on a life
of its own, and now it's nearly impossible to break some people of the
habits and misconceptions they've inherited. Adherence to rigid systems
of pseudo-historical fencing just won't allow them to incorporate new
insights and new findings without upsetting the whole system. They then
selectively use the historical sources to validate an adolescent need
for identity. It's not about history or martial spirit or research into
real combatives. It's role-play for them. Make sense? Granted, this certainly
doesn't apply to everyone, but it's a formula that does help explain a
lot of people out there, doesn't it?"
Isn't much of what you're expressing a problem
in nearly all martial arts styles today?
"Yeah, as I said. As much as I am trying to stay positive, its regrettable
to observe how for some of the self-proclaimed experts out there the recent
evolution of their 'years of experience' is laughable. They get to retroactively
declare all their past costumed role-playing and martial sports were along
actually de facto 'Martial Arts.' It's a pathetic fraud. They are really
claiming years of experience in Sca-like living-history activities, or
stage combat, or classical/sport fencing titles, now converts to historical
'martial arts' study - regardless of the huge gulf of differences in method,
motive, equipment, methodology, and intent between those activities, not
to mention the complete lack of any substantive advancement in this subject
during all that supposed time of practice. I have to wonder who it is
they think they are fooling with such nonsense assertions? It's pretty
funny that we can look back and find virtually no evidence before the
year 2000 of any of them ever advocating a genuine systematic martial
arts approach to the source literature, or placing any emphasis on grappling
or test-cutting or use of historically accurate training tools, or even
an exclusive concern for the historical source teachings. It's all a recent
development post-2000. It's a welcome change but for many people it is
still just superficial surface icing to justify what they have always
done. I know many people would agree with me that this needs to change.
There is too much that is incongruous with developing a truer appreciation
and authentic understanding of the combative methods of Medieval and Renaissance
Can you be more specific?
"Not in the way I would wish, at the moment. When we look at the historical
fencing community, it's easy to feel conflicted. On the one hand it exists
now when it really didn't a decade ago. On the other hand, most of its
so-called leading representatives are largely pathetically skilled, especially
in contrast to those of the traditional Asian martial arts. There are
some real bozos out there pushing largely unchallenged rubbish. There's
also plenty of good scholarship and research now, certainly, sure, along
with some truly dismal interpretation of it, too. But skill-wise, among
most of the professed leading teachers out there, things are deplorable.
Too many of them simply can't fight. Their biomechanics are pathetic.
From what I experienced first-hand sparring many of them years ago, seeing
them spar others more recently, and in the intervening years witnessing
their application of moves from their videos, as well as what my students
have reported first-hand themselves from their classes, this is without
question. Just reviewing much of the training methods and interpretations
of source teachings now online or published reveals a generally sad state
of affairs. And I make such criticisms reluctantly and with the honest
intention of being constructive. I want our heritage well represented
and our craft to improve across the board."
To what do you attribute this problem?
"Generally? Too many people take a soft and slow low-effort approach,
one that pretends physical conditioning is relatively unimportant, that
real martial arts study is all about pretending to be knight or cavalier,
and that 19th and 20th century fencing styles of pretend dueling equate
to practice of fighting arts. Then they're found bitching like children
when someone challenges them to put up or shut up over the inconsistencies
in and hypocrisy of their views compared with their skills.
I suspect that by banding together
with likeminded others to reinforce their approach they avoid their ideas
and deficiencies being challenged, they get to pretend they are the only
ones in the universe... until their internal divisions and petty personal
politics inevitably interfere. It's sad and the only answer is to respond
by providing a higher caliber instruction and demonstrate superior technical
skills. Their ignorance, pretense, and mediocrity be damned."
Do you believe in the practice of this subject
there is an effective way to help bridge differences in approach or attitude?
"Well, I think either you get it by now or you never will, and if you
don't, it's because you just don't want to. Not to impugn anyone's original
inspiration for following whatever interest in fencing they may have first
found - that is, theatrical fight-performance, sport fencing competition,
or living-history reenactment - but those activities are simply not martial
arts and do not constitute historical systems of self-defense.
I ask: does it help or hinder the credibility of the real craft to see
people calling themselves serious practitioners of Medieval or Renaissance
fencing as they promote shameful habits of light tappy-hits, short pulled
strikes, and horrendous edge on edge whacking so that their sword edges
eventually look like dull chain saws?
To put it in further context, imagine
if someone who had recently earned a mere green belt in judo announced
that they were teaching combat jujitsu based on translations of half a
dozen old manuals they had read. It would be ridiculous for anyone to
then uncritically examine their opinions and skills. I'm convinced
that because this craft is something no one needs any longer for genuine
survival in war or practical protection on the street, a certain portion
of people are always going to do what they want to do regardless of the
historical evidence or even good common sense. ...And if you get a
lot of such self-congratulating people together, with a few books to go
off of, well... there you go: group-think."
Is this what you see as one of the troubling
issues plaguing accurate reconstruction of these skills?
"Sure. For example, one of the chief differences between the practice
of traditional Asian martial arts and that of ours now is they are not
struggling to reconstruct and reestablish themselves. Working traditions
of many Asian combatives exist and their viability is already accepted
as generally proven. Whereas in our case, we are having to work against
great ignorance and distortion at the same time we are all teaching ourselves.
So, I argue there is even more reason for us to strive to display a higher
level of competence and ability and to refuse to tolerate incompetence.
But, just as there are lots of different schools and various styles of
Asian fighting disciplines around today, and people find one style or
another too intense, too demanding, or requiring too much effort, well,
the same thing is occurring right now in our craft even as it's being
revived and recovered, except with the difference here being that we have
to have a higher end example so that lower end ones can be put in perspective.
How do you see what we try to do in the ARMA
as uniquely significant?
"The ARMA has largely avoided some of the problems I've noted here by
staying focused on personal development and public education. Never
forget, the very reason the ARMA came to exist in the first place is because
nothing organized was being seriously done for this subject and no genuine
effort made to restore it as a credible and legitimate discipline.
The martial arts attitude and approach we took made us the pioneers in
reviving these teachings. One can hardly expect those who had their feet
squarely planted in some historical fantasy society, or in classical fencing,
or in stage combat performances, to suddenly become hard-core martial
artists - even if they take up the label. From what we have seen, mostly
they just reinforce each other's prejudices and egos, without considering
that maybe their very method of study is flawed. Just look at the world
of traditional Asian fighting arts, for instance, where 90% or more of
practitioners and schools are a joke with people uselessly dancing and
virtually role-playing that they are samurai, ninja, shaolin monks, what
have you. I've learned to accept that our field is not going to be any
different, especially given what kind of individuals make up the vast
majority of its enthusiasts. There are frauds, buffoons, and inept teachers
around now doing so much combat-ineffective display that we should not
be surprised that our subject has its share too.
But, in this craft, the reality
as we understand it is that, to seriously revive it as a fighting
Art, you need to train seriously to understand how
to fight, or else you delude yourself with illusionary assumptions until
someone who knows better eventually comes along and knocks you down hard.
I know through what we do in the ARMA that our way unquestionably sees
better results and has achieved such accomplishments is because it sets
a higher standard... one that we accept is just not meant for everybody.
Not every one of our members and students matches it, but we have a model
and we encourage each person to strive toward it.
I will also say, that besides the
enormous gulf in their respective cultural contexts, the essential difference
that I see between the pursuit of our discipline and the modern study
of traditional Asian fighting arts is that, while both seek knowledge
of central principles of close combat, we are not concerned with the preservation
of some esoteric aesthetic but understanding of what were once practical
war skills needed for self-defence. Doing this competently demands
a complete rejection of pretense."
Do you or ARMA still experience venom from others
in the historical fencing community?
"Not really. We simply pay little attention to it if it's there. I've
addressed before the bizarre and pathetic enmity directed by some at the
ARMA and myself over the years. When you are over the target is when you
take the most flak. Envy and resentment occurs throughout life in every
field of endeavor. As Joseph Swetnam commented in his 1617 fencing treatise,
'there are some, for want of discretion, will disable others, only to
magnify themselves...' My audience of serious scholars and student members
is large enough. So, my view is, we are not here to impress anyone, seek
anyone's approval or acceptance, or create some consensus. We are here
to achieve something in this craft and make progress in our knowledge
and skill. We want to motivate, to inspire, to help people achieve real
skill and real knowledge, not hinder them with distractions and silliness,
or enable them to delude themselves that they don't have to exert themselves
or make a vigorous effort. We do this by setting a better example, by
proving superior skills and offering a superior way. Ours is a harder
way, to be sure, and one not for everyone certainly. But there is no other
way to achieve greater credibility and legitimacy for this craft. It's
unarguably deplorable that in this martial art there are too many people
who can't perform a solo routine for more than twenty seconds without
getting out of breath, can't perform counters to techniques without flinching,
and can't spar without tripping over themselves, but who will nonetheless
set themselves up as some authority to 'teach' others their 'interpretations.'
So, calling this kind of thing out is an unfortunate necessity.
Of course, some people will hate the message and attack the messenger
no matter what your virtues---especially in the case of problem areas
like the sensitive issue of physical fitness and obesity. So, I'm used
to it. I'm reminded here of how Gandhi noted, 'First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.'"
But isn't your general view of things fairly
critical itself, though?
"Sure. Bitching about attitudes and prejudices and stupidity in the historical
fencing community (which we all do a lot of) is another subject entirely.
Perhaps the two sometimes get mixed up by people listening to both while
not paying close enough attention. But they are separate topics. I know
that in my personal study and the lessons I give, unless a person has
shown disreputable character, the only thing we EVER do is critique ideas
and interpretations, not individuals (even if at times we find their reasoning
exasperating). Indeed, that is the very foundation of the entire ARMA
fighting system and the reason our approach to historical fencing was
created. In all my official writings I have always endeavored to attack
ideas and training habits, pointing out their flaws and errors, and never
personalities. There is no other way to go about being a serious fighter
except by doing this."
How then do you put things in perspective for
novice but serious students?
"Someone asked me once recently why I was so critical so often of various
Medieval and Renaissance combat activities today, and why I seemed so
frustrated with so much of it. I looked at them somewhat stunned, thought
for a second, then quickly retorted: 'Why, aren't you? Have you looked
at the SCA anytime in, oh, the last 35 years? Have you noticed anything
about theatrical combat in like... the past six or seven decades? Have
you been to a renn fair in the past twenty or thirty years? Ever talk
to a typical sport fencing coach about how Medieval arms and armor were
used? Ever observe the arrogance and conceit of commercial Asian martial
arts? Play any historical combat video games lately? Seen a fight scene
in a historical movie or TV show the past 40 years?' Caught a bit off
guard by my answer, he nodded and quietly replied, 'I get your point.'
I told him I thought it was a valid question nonetheless. Again, either
you get it or you don't."
How does that view relate to the value of open
dialogue as a means of refining knowledge?
"It's one thing to interact, compare, contrast, exchange, etc. and
another to encounter absurdity that challenges the very basis of what
constitutes a method of fighting. That kind of thing I feel you simply
have to confront. So, with many people disagreements over fundamental
issues of technique application or elements of style are not frequently
worth the argument. These are things settled easily enough through sparring
or test cutting, not academic battle. Much of the arguments I see over
interpretations of the historical source teachings reminds me of battles
between Bible scholars. One denomination or another will select some line
of the Gospels, highlight it out of proportion, emphasize it out of context
over everything else, consecrate it above all others, and then use it
as the basis of their whole faith. You end up with people handling snakes
and speaking in tongues. They miss the spirit of the meaning behind it
and fail to live by it even as they endlessly argue it. The same thing
is happening now in the reconstruction of Renaissance martial arts with
regard to the historical source teachings. It's absurd. People forget
that this Art of Defense was not about play fencing, it was about warrior
I will add here another observation.
Looking at a particular source teaching in our craft might tell you to
do 'xyz' and, yes, such 'xyz' is something important. But, we have to
keep in mind that 'xyz' concept or action was supposed to be done
in the context of fighting, in the midst of actual lethal encounters,
and must be put in perspective to everything that occurs in combat.
Failure to consider the larger context leads to misassigning a false importance
to 'xyz' while ignoring 'pdq' thereby distorting our overall understanding.
This happens all too frequently."
But isn't open debate of the source material
healthy for this subject?
"Open debate is, yes. Of course. Within certain parameters, though. Why
argue points that you have convincing scholarly evidence for and can perform
a superior practical hands-on demonstration of with someone, when they
have a subjective internal reason for not wanting it to be true? Why especially
argue with people who have vested in it a personal need for the matter
to not be one involving vigorous motion or exertion but instead
something soft and weak that thereby excuses their lack of performing
proper with martial intent? Why argue with those others who want matters
to be reducible merely to issues of competing literary analysis and data
mining rather than practical matters of real people using real tools in
violence? (Personally, I have no doubts that at times martial instinct
can trump academic assumptions, especially with respect to things that
fall within the one's area of expertise, in this case armed fighting.)
I'm reminded of how the economist Thomas Sowell suggested that certain
'evidence is too dangerous - politically, financially, and psychologically
- for some people to allow it to become a threat to their interests or
to their own sense of themselves.' Regrettably, I see this too often among
historical fencing enthusiasts. Me, I just like swordfighting and want
to know all I can.
We all know a lot of sword enthusiasts
today hide behind their keyboards or band together in self-congratulating
cliques where contrary views are ostracized and no challenge is permitted
to the prevailing orthodoxy - which I will remind the reader is exactly
the situation for decades within the approaches to historical combat among
groups like the SCA, the stage combat profession, the sport and classical
fencing community, and especially considerable styles of traditional
Asian martial arts. The in-your-face non-conformists which the ARMA attracts
are too free spirited for that. I mean, when we are going around saying
there needs to be more physical effort going on in fencing and someone
else says there needs to be more conversation going on, what that really
means is don't criticize them and don't demand better performance out
of them, and don't ask others to compare results, just come around to
their version of things. That's not honest 'dialogue.'"
Is the missing element a failure of some enthusiasts
to balance scholarship with practice?
"Perhaps. In the past we had a dearth of one and plenty of the other.
Now the pendulum has reversed. But as I have always stressed, it needs
to properly be in the middle. In my opinion, the historical source
manuals must be used to reexamine preconceptions, not reinforce them.
I was among the very first to stress the joining of the serious academic
scholarship side of this subject with the practical hand skills. Researching
the source texts is wonderful and integral to this subject, and faithfully
demonstrating their teachings and techniques is vital, but the bottom-line
is that this is a FIGHTING art. We need to learn to fight, and to
fight well in our fencing. That is the Art. Not every student or
enthusiast may achieve that, but no one pursuing this craft should delude
themselves that they have it when they don't, nor should they dare resent
and spite those who do."
What's the antidote here as you see it to improving
historical fencing studies?
"I'd love to say it's easy, but it's complicated. I think that when
it comes to fighting arts you could just say to people to either put up
or shut up, and knock off the nonsense. But that's not so when we have
an extinct craft open to interpretation, that serves no real-life combat
function any longer, and which is subject to horrendous forces of fantasy
and escapism. I should add, I believe people can want to pursue historical
fencing in a manner that produces genuine and accurate fighting skills
derived from the source materials, but the consequences of their subjective
approach of doing so objectively hinders such an end. They allow concern
for the 'end' to prevent their using the appropriate 'means' for getting
I have witnessed first-hand
how for some people non-critical acceptance of an invented 'system' of
fighting is more important to them than addressing the lousy outcome of
following that very system. I think many of them also suffer now from
a desperate desire to explain away, deny, revise, trim, or flat-out lie
about all their past statements, beliefs, and claims that brought us the
stagnant status quo in the first place (hence the confabulated résumés
of some of their teachers). The problem is that instead of teaching people
how to actually fight, many historical fencing groups create an artificial
setting of artificial constraints that protects the status quo of how
they decided to go about it. They invent a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies
have been called the enemies of excellence; their goal is not to be 'right'
but to avoid ever being found 'wrong.' The only way to get to the top
of something better then is to go outside the system. Heck, that's what
the ARMA first did and continues to do."
Where do you consider much of the misinformation
about Renaissance martial arts to originate from?
"Besides simplistic Victorian-era prejudices and general ignorance of
military history among people today, I don't imagine there is really much
argument nowadays that responsibility for many of the key misconceptions
of what constitutes accurate Medieval and Renaissance martial arts can
be shared by a number of communities. Stage combat theories and performances,
stylized rules of historical societies and reenactment groups, and fantasy
role-playing games - both live and computerized - as well as the prejudices
of modern sport fencing, however unintentionally, have all contributed
in some way with misrepresentations. They share collective blame in my
opinion. They represent much of the prevailing orthodoxy which the ARMA,
and myself personally, have challenged and continue to try to stand apart
I will add that I've often expressed
how I don't take myself very seriously, but that I sure do take this subject
seriously. I try to encourage that same attitude among my students.
For many other teachers I've met it seems to be exactly the opposite.
Their level of pretense is nauseating as well as inversely proportionate
to their physical skill as impressive fencers."
To a newcomer it can be a shock to discover
all this knowledge has been dormant for so long. How do you explain to
them the process of recovery?
"Good question... Some of that is explained on our website in various
places already. Some of it has also been answered I think in my comments
on how little legitimate work stage-combat and re-creational living history
groups did in terms of re-establishing the true craft. I've also written
before how much of our inspiration also comes from the efforts of Egerton
Castle and Alfred Hutton in the late 19th century. This I think is
worth stressing. With their colleagues, Castle and Hutton were the first
to attempt a serious revival of Renaissance fencing. Castle and Hutton
were military men, officers, interested first and foremost in real history.
They were antiquarian enthusiasts of arms who saw duelling at the time
was becoming a farce but were not moved by the new sport of fencing then
coming into vogue. They were scholars and researchers who valued their
martial heritage. Physical fitness was important to them and they had
no interest in costumed role-play. They also realized that the fencing
teachings of their age were ill suited to the needs of then modern British
soldiers still finding themselves in hand-to-hand encounters. Castle and
Hutton knew there was great ignorance, even among European fencing masters
at the time, about the sophistication of Renaissance combat. They set
out to rediscover and redevelop those fighting skills as something as
effective as they had witnessed in the judo and jujitsu recently brought
to London. In so many ways they were the original pioneers of historical
fencing studies. But sadly, their work faded and all but died out in the
trenches of the First World War. We have so much in common with them today
and I see the ARMA as their descendant."
What do you feel is one of the more important
advances you've witnessed in this subject?
"There are many. It's hard to isolate one above another, given the variety
of weapons and source works we study. But to select one on mind currently,
it would be our new restructured core curricula. It presents some tremendous
insights and new revelations resulting from our intense focus on understanding
the practical aspects of fighting, and its necessary inherent violence,
practical athleticism. I myself am astonished by some of the breakthroughs
we've had that have been under everyone's noses all along. After all,
I have been pursuing this subject almost 3 decades now, been doing it
professionally full-time since 2001, avoiding the whole time the meaningless
distractions and dead ends of stunt fencing and costumed role-play as
much as possible, and increasingly relying exclusively on the historical
sources. So, maybe it's only natural that we would inevitably reach what
we are, given the newly recovered manuals, better translations, and the
level of physical skills we've obtained. I feel we have really made key
findings that unlock the Art - an art which both Master Liechtenauer and
Fiore tell us specifically is simple. Unlike the mystique and hype
pushed on us by so many aficionados of traditional Asian fighting arts
today, and the amateurs who delude themselves with feeble abilities, close-combat
skills are neither complex nor difficult. That is the biggest lesson any
one can learn, I believe.
I'll say again that I hope all these
comments here prove valuable to students, but in my experience people
reading things online don't read carefully. They skim through things while
at work or late at night. They don't pay close attention and miss half
of what's said or the context of how it's said. I expect this interview
will be no different."
Few people in the world still know what the
emerging field of historical European martial arts practice is all about,
so why does there have to be such conflicting issues among different practitioners?
"Yeah... it's a shame. We all love swords and we all want to know and
have fun. But maybe the thing is that deep down it just means very different
things to different people. As I always say, many of us have fundamentally
incompatible motives and objectives as well as different methods and approaches.
Or maybe it's just that we are all fighters at heart and so love a good
confrontation against an 'opponent', even if it's only in words.
I'll take this opportunity to reveal
something here... After years of study I've reached a profound conclusion
about the nature of the martial art of historical fencing. I had the realization
that regardless of any individual practitioner's school or style or personal
method, ultimately any encounter is reduced to single combat of man against
man. Whatever the circumstances, any fight is a matter of each individual
fighter's own skill. It is a struggle between personal ability, no more,
no less. Regardless of the combative system the fighter may represent
or adhere to, that ability is a matter of experience, conditioning and
knowledge. Historically, masters and teachers of different schools were
notorious for disagreeing and disputing one another's theories and systems.
While there are such things as faulty or flawed combative systems, different
approaches are usually only variations of universal principles at work.
Sometimes different methods are both mutually valid. The same is true
today (especially in the realm of popular Asian fighting arts). Enthusiasts
may sometimes find agreement in their interpretations of techniques or
actions within the source manuals, but more often, I believe they will
not. The fact that no one uses these skills and weapons for actual self-defense
in actual life and death encounters only makes it harder to find common
ground. And even if they can agree on the words of a text, the instructions
can often still be employed in quite different ways by different practitioners.
Who can say which analysis is the correct or true one intended by the
historical author? After all, so much of this subject will always remain
tentative and theoretical because no one can 'prove' it or 'test' it for
real under real conditions of 'historical' combat.
This realization came to me when
I began to notice that whatever the evidence provided on some issues,
whatever the information or documentation or personal anecdotes offered
up, some people were never going to be convinced of the truth of even
the most obvious and self-evident things - even as it was literally bashing
them in the head sometimes. It's not a matter of mutual acceptance of
contrary opinions. Most sword enthusiasts, I believe, simply lack not
only the experience of having examined or handled enough authentic antique
swords, and lack the experience of test-cutting on realistic target materials
with accurate replica weapons, but also simply lack the eye-opening experience
of fencing at full speed and force against skilled opponents who refuse
Instead, their experiences
and understanding of historical close combat is less martial and more
sporting, more academic, more re-creational, and often motivated by personal
needs of pretense or escapism. Thus, I have to consider that perhaps the
very nature of our craft is not one of mutual agreement in working academically
toward some objective end truth or well-reasoned shared understanding,
but rather one of disagreement, of contention, of being adversarial, regardless
of consensus. When it comes to a martial art, for one or another practitioner,
things are perhaps circumstantially valid without being objectively true.
Maybe this explains why there are so many disparate fighting systems in
the world when a practical cross-comparison would reveal objectively what
works and what doesn't. I believe that if it were possible to weed
out mediocrity in the modern practice of martial arts today it would have
been done so already. There have been many experts over the past few
decades who attempted to lead the way and set an example and I think they
eventually all came to realize the only thing that can be done is help
that small minority who is willing to make the effort. I don't want it
to sound like I am arguing there is no way to validate any view or invalidate
any other. Because in the martial arts you should always be able to call
someone out to non-lethally cross weapons or to step up and show what
they can do in a vigorous side-by-side comparison."
Any last thoughts to add
regarding the current state of the Art?
"Yes. I feel compelled to reiterate something here. Today there are several
groups and colleagues working in this field that we respect. As I often
say, we are in the beginning of a new 'renaissance' in the study of Renaissance
fighting arts, yes. The state of the
art has definitely improved, but has not gone far enough.
When forming our organization over a decade ago we rejected all the then
existing efforts at historical combat. They weren't something conducted
with proper martial intent, didn't have enough historicity, and didn't
acknowledge the necessary physicality. Despite decades they showed little
success and little results in terms of understanding and recovering actual
historical fighting skills. We on the other hand, have had tremendous
results and success through our efforts in a far shorter period---so much
so that the martial approach to the source teachings we pioneered has
now become the standard for so many in historical fencing studies. And
today, just because many people have adopted the title of 'martial arts'
and finally come to focus on study of the historical source teachings
doesn't mean everything has completely changed. The central people now
doing things invariably always have one foot in the realm of role-play
reenactment, or stage combat, or classical fencing. These things are their
roots and it shows still in their core
assumptions and study approaches (that is, in their motive, objectives,
methods). We consciously chose not to participate or associate with those
activities in the past and maintain that attitude today toward their new
derivatives. It's a matter of simply not sharing the same martial values.
Still, we ourselves have plenty of people in the ARMA
who are not martial artists. But they are not historical role-players
or stunt fencers either. They are scholars or amateur academics, and while
they may not practice intensely, they respect those who do. They don't
spite and resent them or wish them away. It's like, if you enjoy hockey
or basketball but are not a star player, you don't go trashing the NBA
or NHL. Even if you don't participate on the highest level you still concern
yourself with enjoying the games and the teams and knowing rules and statistics.
I think the same should be true of historical fencing studies and the
practice of serious Renaissance martial arts today. One of our mottos
in the ARMA after all is: history, heritage,
camaraderie, exercise, and self-defense.
A friend recently expressed some thoughts on all this
that got me thinking. I believe now that no matter what we do in this
craft we are always going to dis some people. Why? Because there is a
lot of mediocrity and incompetence out there. And any time you call it
what it is somebody is going to get upset. But we can't ignore it. We
have to call it out. Because it hurts this craft not to. Yet even
if we didn't go around pointing that kind of thing out we are still going
to upset some people. By the very fact of setting a contrast and offering
something better you are showing them up. If you just ignore everything
and go about your own business you are always going to have some people
who look at the higher end standard and can't compete. They will resent
and deride what they can't match. You are also always going to have some
people who come to you for validation. When you're unable to reciprocate
the praise and compliments they give, they will feel dissed and then dis
you right back in turn. The lowest common denominator will always feel
inadequate and resent you because you made them feel bad about themselves.
You will be blamed as both message and messenger. Then there will always
be those people who feel you're competing with them and taking what they
deserve so that they're not getting the prestige and attention they feel
they're entitled. So, whether by
action or inaction there will always be people who dis you no matter what.
Given this, I hold the conviction that we can do nothing better than be
true to ourselves in pursuing our own higher standards. In the process
we can not help but improve the state of the art."
drives you to study all this so intensely?
"I love swords and fencing and I love
history. I love to bring people to the same sense of excitement and wonder
and satisfaction I find in its study. The knowledge of our past,
the camaraderie, the healthy exercise, martial spirit, the real life fighting
skills, the cultural connection, all of it is compelling. Interestingly,
I've learned more about human nature (the ugliness and the virtuousness),
and met some of the truly best people in my life, as well as some of the
truly worst, all through this subject. I can fortunately say the good
have far outweighed the bad. For me, and I know for many others, there
is a sense of excitement to this subject which I don't see in any of the
extant martial traditions. There is a profound element of exploration,
a requirement for scholarly investigation, and a rich diversity of arms
and armors to train with from some 500 years of our cultural history.
We have, every one of us, no matter how novice, an opportunity to contribute
in a process of discovery. It's intriguing and challenging to know we
are doing something new that is very old. I'd much rather be putting
my energy into researching and writing than answering questions in this
manner, but I do it in the hope that some readers will find value in it
and because senior students I respect have told me they think it would
be good. But, as they keep telling me: this is part of what this is
all about; to take back our heritage, to rescue it from misunderstanding
and misrepresentation, to revive it in the face of ignorance and nonsense,
and to, as I so often say, reclaim the blade."