A Short Introduction to
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

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vadi-jv3.jpg (31600 bytes)Despite the fact there is a more than 2,400-year-old military tradition within Western civilization of close-combat proficiency, few subjects have received as unfortunate neglect by historians and academics than the martial arts of Western Europe. But a growing amount of modern research has centered on the historical methods of using various types of Medieval and Renaissance swords and weaponry in historically accurate and martially sound manners. This emerging study of historical European martial arts involves a fascinating combination of military history, fencing history, literature, art, language, and archaeology.

Much effort has been given by modern scholars and writers in trying to define what is or isn't a true martial art (the focus of much of which has revolved around the modern practice of traditional Asian fighting arts). The historical function of martial arts within the context of the Medieval and Renaissance eras however was as combatives—systematic skills or disciplined methods of close-combat for single-combat and battlefield survival. This craft always proceeded pragmatically, reflecting the demands of the martial environment it faced, with its manner of warfare, habits of social violence, and arms and armor technology. Empirical and concrete, it had no display or performance art dimension (such was left to the tap-fighting carnival-masters). Given cultural, social, and athletic components tying these closely to the warrior class, the art and science of self-defense often had associated recreational, ritualistic, and sporting components along side its practical application. With the changes in military and social conditions of later centuries, their martial necessity decreased over time and these secondary elements came eventually to overshadow (and even replace) the craft's original function.

talclr1.jpg (17754 bytes)The history of European arms and armor is itself one of established continuity marked by sudden developments of necessitated innovation.  As new tools were devised, so too were new methods for using them. These methods in turn influenced still newer designs.  By studying the historical systems for employing such arms and armor, we come to the best possible understanding for how and why they were designed as they were. This further leads to a greater appreciation for the little known martial arts of the age.

While the term “martial arts” today is typically synonymous with “Asian fighting art”, for centuries highly sophisticated European martial systems existed.  It is from the Latin that we actually derive the English term, “martial arts” – from “arts of Mars”, the Roman god of war. The term “martial art” was used in regard to fighting skills as early as the 1550s and in an English fencing manual of 1639 referred specifically to the science and art of swordplay.  In reference to Medieval and Renaissance combat systems the terms "fencing" and "martial arts" should thus be viewed as synonymous.  Fencing was in essence the “exercise of armes” –and arms meant more than just using a sword.

cw174.jpg (32658 bytes)Prior to the advent in the mid 1500s of specific civilian weapons for urban dueling, the use of personal fighting skills in Western Europe were primarily for military purposes rather than private self-defense, and fencing was therefore by definition a martial (i.e., military) art. The study of arms in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was for the large part not exclusively fixed upon either judicial combat or the duel of honor or even on the knightly chivalric tournament. Yet neither was it intended for battlefield use alone. 

A Medieval Heritage

From about the 12th century, professional instructors of fencing existed across Europe.  Many of these “Masters of Defence”, or instructors in arms, became highly regarded international experts.  glad113.jpg (29965 bytes)Over time they uniquely produced hundreds of detailed, often well-illustrated, technical manuals on their fighting methods which reveal their craft to be one of sophisticated and systematic skill. When studied from within their own cultural context these little known surviving manuals present a portrait of highly developed and innovative European martial arts.   Today, dozens of these obscure manuscripts and printed books provide an unequaled resource for modern students and practitioners.

anon1.jpg (263445 bytes)The popular myth of untutored knights clumsily swinging crude swords while lumbering around in heavy armor is shredded by the actual evidence.  The unequivocal picture presented by historical sources is one of trained warriors expertly employing skillfully-designed weapons with brutal efficiency. Soft, slow, superfluous movement was antithetical to the necessarily powerful strikes and fluid, energetic defense necessary for survival in vicious personal combat.

But these masters were no mere “fencers”.  Theirs were complete fighting systems as suited to armored as to unarmored combat. They taught integrated martial arts of both armed and unarmed components. Grappling and wrestling techniques were vital elements.  The weapons of dagger, staff, and axe were studied as vigorously as pole-weapons, shields, and especially all manner of swords.  Their methods were specialized for foot or mounted, single combat or group.

gol56.jpg (33919 bytes)By the early 1500s, the transformation of warfare by firearms and the breakdown of the old feudal order limited the avenues for both redress of personal grievance and exhibition of martial skill.  Social and technological changes in the Renaissance accelerated experimentation in fighting arts and civilian schools of fence proliferated. The result was an explosion in the popularity of dueling, first as an augment of common street fighting and vendetta brawling, and later for private affairs of reputation and honor. Into this environment the systematic study of fencing grew into a new “Science of Defence” emphasizing urban self-defense.

The modern obsession with the formal duel as depicted in period literature as well as in modern re-creation popular media, and sport fencing has tended to obscure the larger context of urban combat and the general armed violence inherent in the age. The romanticized view of gentlemen defending their reputations and character is dwarfed by accounts of sudden assaults, vicious ambushes and general street-fighting among all classes.  

Renaissance fencing masters were commonly soldiers and scholars as well as accomplished men of learning. Among their patrons were nobles, princes, and kings as well as commoners, knights, and soldiers. Geometry, mathematics, anatomy, and philosophy played major roles in their teachings.  The early Spanish master Pietro Monte was a theologian, mathematician, scholar and even taught darts to Leonard Da Vinci.   He was a prodigious writer on martial arts, military theory, theology, and eventually produced volumes on wrestling, health, gymnastics, ballistics, and swordsmanship.  The fencing author Camillo Agrippa was an engineer, mathematician, and fencing instructor to the artist Michelangelo. The Frenchmen Girard Thibault was a painter, architect and even a physician. 

Renaissance Adaptations

MR107.jpg (37129 bytes)Renaissance Masters systematized and innovated the study of Western fighting skills into sophisticated, versatile, and highly effective martial arts eventually culminating in the development of the penultimate weapon of street-fighting and dueling, the quick and vicious rapier.  Through experiment and observation they discerned that the thrust traveled in a shorter line than the arc of a cut and against an unarmored foe would strike sooner and reach farther.  The rapier was developed along these principles. Thrusting was already well known in Medieval combat and the new style of foyning fence was thus not any “evolution”, but rather an adaptation to a changed environment.  Rather than for war or battlefield, the slender, deceptive rapier was a personal weapon for civilian-wear and private quarrels. It was first designed for the needs of back-alley encounters and public ambush.  Indeed, it was the first truly civilian weapon for urban self-defence developed in any society. It rose from practical tool, to popular “gentleman's art”. Elegant in its lethality, it represents one of the most innovative and original aspects of Western martial culture and one with no parallel in other cultures. While never eclipsing cutting swords entirely, as a specialized weapon for personal single-combat, it was unequaled for almost 200 years until the widespread adoption of effective and reliable handguns.  

p110 .jpg (32866 bytes)Like much of progress in Renaissance learning and science, advances in self-defense were based on what had already been commonly established for centuries.  They were not able to achieve their progress in a vacuum. There is an obvious direct and discernible link between the brutal, practical fighting methods of the Middle Ages and the more sophisticated, elegant Renaissance fencing systems.   No tradition of fighting or methodology of combat exists by itself.  It comes into being due to environmental pressure as only a processing or refinement of what existed previously.  So it was with the fencing arts of the Renaissance.  They followed a more than 2,000-year-old military tradition within Western civilization of close-combat proficiency.

Paschen1667.jpg (75336 bytes)The techniques developed and taught by the Masters of Defence were not “tricks” nor merely based only on brute strength.  They were moves they knew worked in combat, that they had discerned, had named, and had taught to others.  But, to fencers in much later centuries, (bounded by rules of deportment and the etiquette of convention) these earlier fighting styles (designed to face a range of arms and armors) would naturally seem less “scientific”. With the disconnection that occurred between older traditions and the precise sporting swordplay of later gentlemen duelists, it is reasonable that the earlier, more dynamic, flexible, and inclusive methods would incorrectly seem to only be a mix of chaotic gimmicks unconnected by any larger “theory”.

Eventually, due to changing historical and social forces, the traditional martial skills and teachings of European Masters of Defence fell out of common use.  Little to nothing of their methods actually survive in modern fencing sports today which, based on conceptions of 18th century small-sword combat, are far removed from their martial origins in the Renaissance.  Later centuries in Europe saw only limited and narrow application of swords and traditional arms, only some of which survived for a time to become martial sports.

Modern Research & Practice

savvx.gif (31734 bytes)In a sense, our European martial culture is itself something still very much with us today. But it now bares little resemblance to its Renaissance heritage.  The technological revolution in Western military science which swept the 18th century left behind the old ideas of an individual, armored warrior trained in personal hand-to-hand combat. It was replaced with the new “Western Way of war” utilizing ballistics and associated organizational concepts.  This very approach itself, emphasizing more and more a technical, mechanical, and industrial method of armed combat, is the Western martial “tradition” now. Indeed, it is this very martial way that is now the model for all modern armed forces the world over.  In a sense, to see a modern aircraft carrier, fighter squadron, or armored battalion is very much the embodiment of a continuing and ever evolving European martial tradition.  

Cap10.jpg (31530 bytes)From the time of the ancient Greeks onward Western Civilization has always been a source of uniquely resourceful ideas and specialized innovation.  For better or worse, the same technical ingenuity that was applied to classical arts and sciences was directed equally towards the weapons of war and skills of battle.  In short, the Western world's contributions to martial arts are far-ranging and far-reaching.  Modern boxing, wrestling, and sport fencing are the very blunt and shallow tip of a deep history which, when explored and developed properly, provides a link to traditions which are as rich and complex as any to emerge from Asia.   Today, as more and more students of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe ("MARE") earnestly study the subject they are recovering this heritage and reclaiming it from myth, misconception, and fantasy. This is not about costumed role-play or theatrical stunt shows, but scholarly research combined with genuine martial arts training.  As a result a more realistic appreciation of our Western martial culture is now emerging full force. 

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See also
Introduction to Renaissance Martial Arts Literature



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