The Challenge of Defining a Martial Art

By John Clements

Defining a martial art is often problematic because the term has so many different meanings to so many different people today.

Drawing the line between what was and was not historically a legitimate fighting system is problematic. In a way it is almost like trying to define "obscenity." Everyone "knows it" when they see it but everyone has their own definition of what "it" is. The plethora of martial arts styles and systems today, many with vastly varying degrees of combat utility, only cloud the issue. (Attempting to define what constitutes being a true "martial artist" is something even less meaningful). There is also no question that as they are now pursued some are more "martial" and others more "art." It can be further acknowledged that the historical process of natural selection is largely no longer at work to weed out ineffective approaches or inferior theories.

A martial art, in essence, can be said to be something that originates in skills of war, hence its "martial" or warlike quality. Fighting disciplines range from oral traditions and folkways of tribal self-defense customs, to collected sets of techniques and finally systematic methods with established curricula and ranking hierarchies.  Considerable literature has been produced over the last few decades on the question of what defines a martial art, and there is no need to review these arguments here. We can note, however, that these debates have occurred almost exclusively without regard to, or consideration of, the martial arts of Renaissance Europe. What is frequently agreed upon, though, is that mere fighting techniques alone, whether as self-defense skills for the individual or war skills for groups of armed men, do not constitute an Art of fighting.  Just fighting can make one a fighter, after all, but to be a "martial artist" implies something more is required.

While not addressing the issue, there is debate within martial arts circles today over differences between combat-sports and fighting-arts. Although each activity comes from a common root of war skills for individual defense, neither combat sports nor fighting arts today necessarily have any true self-defense intention as their function. Yet, linguistics aside, the central issue of identifying or labeling any combative mode as a "true martial art" is often an issue of recognizing its function.  That is, is it about defense in combat or not?  Is it directed at individual skills for personal defense through a codified system? Or is it something conveyed by simple folkways or vernacular teachings comprised of group preparation for military action?  For example, Neolithic peoples may very well have instinctively devised optimal ways of holding their pointed sticks and stone clubs, such that they naturally passed on simple notions of striking, warding, and feinting.  Could we describe such a thing as "caveman martial arts"?

A society after all can have effective prowessr in an "Art of fighting" for civilian (personal) or military (group) combat without having a cogent "Art of war" for their armed forces. It might be asked, is military science really just martial arts on a grand scale, or are martial arts in essence military science for the individual?  Arguably, there is a significant difference between preparing clusters of troops to advance and retreat in good order for effectively holding lines in battle, and that of training an individual fighting-man for personal self-defense. There is also a considerable difference between, for example, training a horseman to use a bow in the saddle compared to a member of a warrior caste developing skill in arms on foot for use in armored duel.  While each activity involves overlapping disciplines of learning techniques for wielding weapons and controlling oneself, the former can arguably be said to concern "military skills." Whereas the latter can be said to concern the practice of "fighting arts." 

Merely fighting does not in itself imply having any methodological craft of systematic fighting. Observing children on a playground is evidence enough for this.  Similarly, having a military does not automatically imply a doctrine of military science. Not every one who goes armed is a "warrior" and not every warrior is a martialist let alone professionally trained. We cannot (and indeed, must not) assume that every tribe or people in the world that ever had arms, that ever had warriors and engaged in some form of warfare, necessarily must have had "martial arts." That is, established and transmitted skill sets based upon scientific understanding of the immutable underlying principles and concepts of close-combat (let alone ones that contained a philosophical or ethical/spiritual component).

Indeed, for the most part in history, warriors were merely those who relied on superior physical attributes, superior arms technology, and (invariably) greater brutality. History is filled with examples of bands of armed men, gangs of thugs, and hordes of fighters acting without any underlying combative discipline or operational craft. And history is replete with instances of people given weapons and sent to fight with little to no organized training. The logical observation posed by martial arts historians is that, if a society or culture didn't even have a word for "martial art" its very hard to then argue that they had Martial Arts.  It might be looked at as akin to the difference between simply cooking something in contrast to preparing a cuisine. There is a difference of magnitude, quality, and expertise as well as intention.

But because learning a craft of defense against violence (rather than one of mere athletic display) does not take place in an emotional (or moral) vacuum, the pursuit of a martial discipline itself eventually has an affect upon the psyche of the individual. It goes beyond the simple acquisition of mere technical prowess. It comes to address the mental/emotional challenge for the individual to deal with their own anger and fear during violent conflicts.  While military science deals only with the "how" of armed forces, in contrast, whenever and wherever a Martial Art developed there is present a concern not just with "How" it was to be used by the individual, but "Why."  It is hard to think of an example of a historical fighting system where the ethical value element is absent or to point to a culture where such was ignored in their martial art.  We might even ask, are there examples from history where individual warrior elites pursued an actual combat system of mere technique without developing it into a martial art?

The evidence would imply the very nature of the activity of training to fight effectively requires addressing the emotionality and the psychology of close combat, complete with certain attenuated ethical or spiritual components.  In learning to use skills of violent force, then, the question becomes when and where to apply that knowledge.  Therein lies the context for ethical and spiritual components.  Different cultures may develop different answers to different degrees, but neither proceeds without the other. Perhaps the only reason some students of modern martial arts today may think to see it differently is because they are not using such skills for survival any more nor relying on them as a way of life as their ancestors once did (generations of civilianization and sportification having de-martialized the craft). Their mindset is not on the practicality of simple survival skills. 

In contrast to the practice of warfare, it is focus upon a craft of armed and unarmed personal close-combat (particularly among a warrior elite) that more often than not finds need for a warrior code or system of martial value to guide the individual. Because of this, the idea has been proposed that a different value component is at work within the individual's study of a fighting Art that differs from the unit cohesion or esprit de corps among a mere armed grouping of fighting men or soldiers.

Where then does the element of Art come in to all this? Is it just semantics? There is arguably a certain subjective aspect in a martial art. In the same way that "art" itself is in the eye of the beholder, so too martial arts are sometimes in the hand of the wielder, so to speak.  That is, the activity goes beyond scientific application of effectiveness and into the realm of meeting the individual practitioner's motives and goals that may have little to do with actual self-defense utility.  (For example, it is possible to repeatedly defeat particular opponents in practice fighting yet still have them not acknowledge the undeniable faults or inferiority of their style, system, or method because for them it is just not about credible fighting ability.)

Or is the "art" aspect a matter of the individual creatively acting beyond mere technical application to combine and adapt higher concepts and principles for their personal need within a framework of certain values?  Is a legitimate Martial Art born when mere fighting techniques credible for war or self-defense become an organized method containing a value system?  Many think so. This is not to deny that there can be an aesthetic quality to the flawless execution of movements in mere theoretical practice, rather only to acknowledge that balletic display is not the purpose of war skills. War skills learned and practiced with the intention of fighting require a fighting mindset.

Historically, when it came to war and duel only the toughest and bravest men would enter into close combat on foot (in contrast to firing ranged weapons or maneuvering on horseback from a distance). This required particular fighting skills were honed before hand.  In doing so they had to face the issues of fear and anger that surface when life and limb is violently threatened by physically superior opponents. Preparation for such situations only came by the discipline acquired though training.

Yet, a common element among all true martial arts in history, whether as armed or unarmed methods of self-defense, is that they include the striking of various blows as well as the element of closing-in with an opponent to employ leverage. However, many martial sports today while directly involving closing-in to grab opponents do not employ striking any blows (i.e., judo, Greco-roman-wrestling, etc.). Others employ striking blows but not closing-in to use leverage and pressure (i.e., boxing, kendo, modern fencing). There are also fighting traditions that do not involve either any contact with a partner at all but only the rote repetition of patterned movements and rehearsed routines (i.e., tai chi, iaido). Leaving aside the question of whether or not those activities still constitute combat effective training in historical fighting skills, there is no arguing past the fact that, beyond ritualized and sportified methods, earnest close-combat skills historically demanded both closing-in proficiency with the adept striking of blows. Regardless of the debate, for the subject of historical fencing studies we can also note the integrated combination of both is represented throughout the source literature on Renaissance martial arts teachings.

While fighting techniques readily involve a certain science, in that there are discernable core principles and underlying concepts that can be employed, the nature of personal combat goes beyond this. Because neither our own behavior nor that of others in violent confrontations can be quantified or predicted with certainty, there are other elements that enter into play. These require perception, wisdom, intuition, and resolve on the part of the fighter—all things which do not stem from mere education in physical performance of technique.  This martial spirit (Kampfgeist) ultimately rests in the values the fighting discipline conveys and instills in the practitioner.

The function of fighting techniques is to effectively cause injury or incapacitation to another person so as to end a fight. The purpose of a martial art however can be to improve the individual's capacity when necessary to efficiently and humanely defend themselves by fighting techniques and, when possible, potentially make use of such violent force superfluous. It's the Martial that provides the how, but it's the Art that decides the why. For techniques alone do not hold values, Arts do. It is here where meaning is found for practice to go beyond utility for potential self-defense situations.

If the study of fighting techniques as a self-defense system does not include these factors nor speak to how the individual student of the craft is personally affected—mentally and emotionally—by their acquisition, how then is it a true Art of fighting? 

April 2009




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.