Short Introduction to
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe
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
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.
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.
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. 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
dozens of these obscure manuscripts and printed books provide an unequaled
resource for modern students and practitioners.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Research & Practice
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
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.
Introduction to Renaissance Martial Arts Literature