"All of Them and None of Them"

The Recovery and Study of Extinct Martial Disciplines

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Iron Door Schoolof Arms finalI will often relate the anecdote of how, on an occasion traveling in Asia, I had the enjoyable opportunity to take a meal with a noted elderly iaido master and bujutsu practitioner where, through his interpreter, I put a poignant question directly to him. I prefaced my question by stating how, given that the samurai of 1250 were not the samurai of 1450, who were not the samurai of 1650, who were certainly not the samurai of 1750 or even 1850, so then what exact version of Budo was it he was preserving and practicing?

To make a longer and more interesting story short and concise, I will simply relate that after expressing how my question was a profound one that he himself had often pondered, his answer was essentially: "All of them and none of them." I found this a rather surprising answer and tremendously satisfying, and I had to tell him I particularly appreciated it. Not only did I not at all expect to hear such an answer, it was the only answer I could really accept. I had long expressed the very same sentiment towards study of my own martial discipline.

Someone might for example ask me, John, what authentic longsword fencing is it that you and your association profess to having recovered or reconstituted? Is it from the teachings of Liechtenauer of 1389 or of Master Fiore from circa 1400, or is it from Talhoffer of the 1430s, or Ringeck from the 1440s, or Von Danzig from the same period? Or perhaps it's those of Master Vadi out of the 1470s? Is it that of some of the anonymous source works of the late 15th century or those of the early 16th century? Is it the teachings of the longsword of Marozzo from the 1520s or perhaps Di Grassi from the 1560s? Is it from Mair's enormous compendia of the 1550s or one of Meyer's superb treatises? Or does it include later material such as Silver's from the 1590s or even Alfieri in the early 1600s? (I should note that the decades I cite for these works refer not to their actual publication dates, but rather the prior years in which their authors mastered the methods that they would later go on to write about.) My answer then to the question of which "Art" I profess to have relearned and reconstituted is, in a manner of speaking, all of them and yet none of them.

Iron Door Schoolof Arms finalI have for many years said that I study "all of them" because I rely on every one of the original sources I can find, and I endeavor to understand as much of them as possible regardless of the weapon or content they cover. I don't limit my focus to a few works nor exclude any one source. I read and re-read them and even cross-compare translations. I include as much Medieval and Renaissance source material applicable to both my personal training and any lessons or courses I may give as possible. (I even examine 18th and 19th century sources to see what changed and what was lost.) But, I have also long admitted that, in a sense, I practice "none of them" --because no one can never truly be 100% confident that in our interpretations of the historical teachings we have correctly or fully understood their writings and illustrations. The old Masters are not here for us to ask clarifying questions, and their works unfortunately do not include the convenience of video clips displaying their actions in motion. (This is why I have always counseled every practitioner and enthusiast of this subject to keep their hypotheses broad and not rigidly lock onto any one popular translation or interpretation as some unchangeable gospel.) On top of this, we must freely acknowledge that, unlike our forebears, our study today is not pursued out of necessity for life and death survival on the battlefield or the earnest single combat of a private duel, but only as a challenging physical and mental discipline suited to our modern lifestyles.

Iron Door Schoolof Arms finalIronically, the famed iconoclast samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, himself noticed and critiqued this when, in his work on swordsmanship of 1645, he commented that the art was in his opinion already becoming decadent and dying and how schools were "concerned, only with sword fencing, and limit their training to flourishing the long sword and carriage of the body" declaring that this was not the essence of the way. (Harris, p.85) Similarly, the foreword of the respected work on samurai swordsmanship by Chozan Shissai, written in 1728, states: "many have strayed from the proper course, and there may be a few left, indeed, who do not strive for mastery of technique, but practice the art of educating the heart as well." It then declares that the samurai author of the work, Chozan Shissai, "laments that those who study swordsmanship as it is practiced throughout the world have lost sight of the essence of the art, have become preoccupied with trivialities, misunderstood its principle, rejected its technique, and have, without exception, strayed from the correct principle of swordsmanship." (Kammer, p.41)  Again, we have to wonder: If this was yet another famed Japanese swordsman's view of the state of things at that time (well before either modern variations or a sport form developed), did it decline or improve in the next century? Or the one after that? ...Or the one after that?

Iron Door Schoolof Arms final
My view has therefore long been that because much of this material overlaps, and I argue none of it directly contradicts another, they are complementary and build upon each other. There is continuity and a consistency in Western European martial art teachings from the early 15th to mid-17th centuries that are now available to us. This is hardly surprising given that, regardless of the particular self-defense theories any one author espoused, the core fundamental principles at work within their methods were readily recognized among them. After all, for centuries fighting men wielded almost the very same arms and armor across Christendom, traveled to each other's cities and villages, fought in each other's armies, participated in each other's tournaments, attended each other's universities, and encountered each other in war, duel, and trial by combat.

This was the case even as over generations there was a cultural and social shift from traditional knightly combat toward cavalier fighting; from a military focus to a civilian dueling one. In swordsmanship alone there was a change from longswords for facing plate armor to longswords more suited to pike formations. There was a transition from arming swords suited for use against heavier armor and shields to ones more adept for light cavalry and unarmored urban street fight. And all this is only to touch upon the diversity of swords and other specialized weapons which the source teachings address in depth all the way to the eventual development (and eventual abandonment) of the rapier.

So, in both celebrating this heritage and developing my own personal prowess, I have always sought to take a broad view of the subject and draw upon the largest possible pool of Renaissance martial literature available. Just as my Japanese counterpart, when asked which Art I am endeavoring to practice and promulgate, my answer is: all of them and none of them.

Harris, Victor. A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy. Overlook press, NY, 1982.

Reinhard, Kammer. The Way of the Sword: The Tengu-geijutsu-ron of Chozan Shissai. Arkana, 1986.



Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.