ARMA Editorial
The Death of a Martial Art?

By Shane Smith
ARMA Virginia Beach

In the Medieval and Renaissance eras, the effectiveness of the personal combat skills employed by those that were fighting for the lives of themselves and their families were literally a matter of life and death. A man simply did what he had to do to kill his opponent while himself surviving to see another sunrise. Such is the true foundation of what is today called a "martial art" (literally "Art of War").

Over time, these basic battlefield survival skills were examined and codified into comprehensive collections of techniques well suited to taking the life of another while preserving ones own. The Medieval martial arts as a discipline had taken form and as the techniques and concepts of swordsmanship were passed on from generation to generation, the countless battles and armed clashes recorded by the passing of time led to an ever increasing breadth and depth of the understanding of the realities of combat. That is as it should be, for you see, barring bad fortune, the superior fighter would survive to pass on his teachings to the next generation, whereas the apparently flawed methods of his defeated opponent died with him. Thus the combat worthiness of the martial arts of Medieval Europe as well as the lives of the men skilled therein were preserved together...

...But then something devastating happened. Easily manipulated weapons that could pierce armor and kill at a long distance came into being. In the latter days of the Medieval period, firearms were beginning to be exploited as wondrous new weapons that in stark contrast to the longbow (and to a lesser degree, the crossbow), required little skill to use effectively and could defeat armor under the proper circumstances (and from beyond arms length at that!). To those knights and swordsmen facing these armaments, they were more than new forms of weaponry, they were the harbinger of doom. The meekest of peasants could now stand clothed in rags against a knight in full plate with nothing other than a loaded iron tube and a "match" and have a good chance of prevailing. Times were certainly changing…

Now that the use of pole-arms, the axe, and the sword were no longer the be-all and end-all of close-combat on the battlefield, the skills for them that had been passed down from antiquity were becoming ever less relevant to the fighting men of the day. Only a relative few Masters still taught the "old ways" of combat, but even then, they were beginning to teach these arts to soldiers and civilians. Increasingly the teachings were no longer geared exclusively for use on the battlefield so much as for use by two gentlemen with an axe to grind with one another in personal duel regardless of their military affiliations (or lack thereof). Nobles also vied in tournament combats bounded by rules to prevent injury. So even at this early date, traditional martial arts as they were being taught had already arguably taken one small step away from the martial truth of the earliest Masters of the European battlefields, many of whose names are lost to history.

In effect, the very real and substantive threat of being challenged to a civilian duel on almost any given day because of some real or imagined breach of honor against another kept the training at this somewhat removed (yet still highly effective) level of martial utility for quite some time, but eventually as the age of the Renaissance pressed on, the Masters of the day began to market their teachings to a more sophisticated and less martial clientele and here we see the beginnings of stylized, more civilianized teachings.

By the 1530s, many in the Western world were exposed for the first time to the changing theories and fashions in swordsmanship such as with the coming of Achille Marozzo's Opera Nova in 1536. In this fighting manual we see the early rumblings of a new emphasis which stressed the the thrust over the cut in civilian self-defense. Trouble was brewing once again for the earlier medieval methods as the art of the rapier was rapidly developing from these new theories.

Among the complaints of George Silver in his Paradoxes of Defence, circa 1598, we find illustrated in startling clarity the waning of the older style of swordplay in the face of the foyning play of the civilian rapier. The controversy was apparently so heated at the time that Silver spends almost two-thirds of his manual denigrating the rapier and its utility as well as those who came under its spell. In Silver's work we find a bridge (perhaps a burned bridge?) between the days of the Medieval-style cutting (or perhaps more properly, the cut-and-thrust) swords and the more calculating thrusting blades that would largely supplant them.

Looking ahead to 1610 and the influential teachings of Master Capo Ferro, we see that the sturdy slashing and cleaving sword is all but forgotten and in its place, we have the slender, elegant rapier. We also begin to see the widespread acceptance of the new concepts of fencing for duel and urban self-defense. We have the more sideways stance so much preferred for fencing with a thrusting weapon, yet so less effective with a wider cutting blade, as well as a largely new way of stepping and moving (as opposed to the basic gathered , passing and traversing steps that sufficed before). Once again, European swordsmanship moved a step farther away from the battlefield necessity of earlier times.

From the mid 17th century onward, most of the focus is on the dueling rapier over any slashing military blade. We primarily have regurgitations of the works of those that had come before (especially those of the revolutionary Salvatore Fabris in 1606 and the previously mentioned Capo Ferro). Many of these later authors ("Masters" of the new fencing) do offer passing commentaries on the weapons and techniques of their "less sophisticated" Medieval warrior ancestors but as their personal understanding of the subject matter was apparently far-removed and lacking, their works in the area of earlier fencing methods are arguably of limited value.

The last gasp for the battlefield combat- effective methods of European swordsmanship came in the late 19th century with their limited application among cavalry and in the guise of the purely modern "sport" of fencing. How could this happen you say? Simply put, repeating firearms had advanced to such a degree by this time that the sword was no longer considered a viable weapon on the modern battlefield nor was it any longer seen as a practical instrument to deal or dispel death. When the "martial" in "martial art" was thus swept aside, the "sporting" and the "ritual" took its place. Regretfully, the older methods were forgotten, or perhaps even worse, falsely portrayed as no more than brutish hacking and slashing devoid of any subtlety or true art. The death of Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship had arrived at last and it was final...

...or was it? After centuries of decline, seemingly unto death, the historical arts of the European battlefields of old are making a comeback. Through the efforts of ARMA and a few other like-minded organizations and individuals, the warrior spirit is alive once more and indeed there are true Renaissance swordsmen walking among us. Many have come to know and appreciate the feel of their hand firmly at the hilt and have attuned their minds to the ways and times of old, the times when a man's sword was the protector of his life and not the winner of a fencing trophy for his mantle. The works of Liechtenauer, Fiore, Talhoffer, Ringeck, Leckuechner and many others are now being studied and restored and what was once lost to complacency and obsolescence is being renewed with determination...Do you hear that sound? That's the ringing of steel as 300+ ARMA scholars engage in earnest practice in accordance with the teachings set forth by the early Masters...a sound that has not been heard for perhaps some 400 years. I'm proud to be a part of this "New Renaissance" and it is indeed a privilege to take part in an endeavor so worthwhile.


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