ARMA Editorial (June 2009)
Flawed Thesis Disorder: the Current Crisis of our Subject

"He who wants to be able and learned in swordsmanship
should remember how to do and to teach,
and how to avoid mistakes."
– Master Filippo Vadi, c.1482

By John Clements
ARMA Director

When subjective interpretation collides with objective application...

Our craft of historical European martial arts may be extinct, but the process of reviving it is now very much a living one. Anyone can study and bring something to it. New insights and credible ideas are possible from any student.  But this is also a problematic process fraught with peril. This matter goes well beyond mere differences of opinion as to meaning of forgotten lore. 

As has been suggested, because ours is a practical art, not an abstract or an aesthetic one, the question is are there objective standards or can anybody make whatever they want out of it?  As a fighter, I argue there are indeed obvious practical applications that provide us objective ways of evaluating any ideas on what we think the sources are teaching. It goes beyond just theoretical supposition.

Theoretical knowledge alone is obviously insufficient preparation for the earnest study of a practical martial art. I would argue it is of even less value for speculative analysis of extinct martial arts.  Anyone today can assert for instance, "I believe if you did X in a fight then Y would happen."  The efficacy of such a proposition can be reasonably tested or at least evaluated under fairly realistic conditions.  Similarly, within the activity of combative technique it is no difficulty to understand that if someone says P works better than Q, then it is a safely testable hypothesis.  But for some reason if someone in our subject now asserts, "I believe this 15th century source is saying that if you did X in a fight then Y would happen" somehow such a statement is suddenly off-limits to criticism and beyond the realm of credible proof.  This is nonsense. I would suggest such ideas require even greater academic scrutiny and physical examination.  

Exploration by contemplation is a viable means of learning and teaching ourselves.  But in the brief history of efforts at modern reconstruction into these lost teachings there is a troubling phenomenon occurring. Occasionally a student will take on more than they are qualified to analyze. Some enthusiasts will create an interpretation based on a recent and relatively brief dedication to a particular master's teachings or a particular historical source. So, they end up going in a wrong direction, eventually abandoning the very study approach that first attracted them to pursuit of the subject.  

The possibility that the enthusiast lacks the martial skill set and core knowledge base to successfully undertake the task is irrelevant. Rather than proceed with a broader view of what all needs to be understood beforehand (physically or academically) they try too early to concentrate on something they can call their own.  Instead of first acquiring a generalist understanding of our subject and being well-grounded in its underlying history and methodology, they come to obsess over the pursuit of a more narrow aspect (what has been referred to as "pet master syndrome"). The student tends to exclude the more holistic and inclusive study of the larger subject as a result. Taking a paternal and almost proprietary view toward something wrong, but original to themselves, it becomes their entire focus. It's like trying to focus on learning calculus before mastering basic arithmetic, or attempting to specialize in Chaucer before ever completing English Literature 101. 

A flawed but well-meaning thesis or an erroneous interpretation stemming from an incorrect theory of some aspect of the source teachings then results. This happens perhaps because the student advocating a certain idea or viewpoint is practicing in isolation, has begun study from a background or experiences that are an inappropriate basis (i.e., karate, kendo, sport fencing, etc.), or just possesses a certain outlook. The problem is that a thesis or interpretation cultivated in this manner ultimately ends up being non-falsifiable (that is, incapable of ever being disproved). It becomes non-falsifiable in that no one can ever successfully refute it. Any disputation of it on scholarly grounds is countered by the advocate asserting how "no one really knows for sure." Thus, for such a "conjectural" subject as historical combat all interpretations (whatever the veracity of the original transcription or translation) are in a way "equally valid." 

As Joachim Meyer wisely noted in his mid 16th century martial arts treatise: "everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat." Yet, Meyer also keenly observed how, "the Art depends upon the person, so that a poor move will be executed by an ingenious mindful person much more usefully in the action, than the best one will be executed by a fool." The idea being, in other words, that it's very easy to misunderstand things if you don't already know enough about how to fight well in the first place.  

When it is counter-argued that the particular theory or interpretation is not martially sound, that it does not make biomechanical sense, or in fact can be shown to not work, the retort is that this again is not evidence it is wrong.  Here the reasoning goes that despite the advocating practitioner not being able to effectively perform or execute the issue in question at proper speed and force (in earnest free-play, vigorous drill, or test-cutting), this is only because they are not yet adept at it.  Any challenge to it can therefore always fall back on the line of argument that the physical side of the theory has still to be perfected by the advocate. All we do in disputing it through physical encounter then is to show we are "better fighters," not that the matter in question was inherently unsound or did not "work". The advocate can always argue they are just "not yet good enough at it." 

Which means by this reasoning and by these qualifications of proof any and all theories are equal. No idea on any instructional element or concept from the sources can ever be proven superior or inferior to any other. Claiming that you can spin around on your head while whirling your blade like a propeller is valid by this kind of argument, since, you can always say the scholarly interpretation is credible but you are still working out how to actually do it.  By being non-falsifiable in this way, however, it renders the matter in question all but useless for serious consideration. (This is not even to address the separate but no less troubling problem of how whenever this phenomenon occurs individuals in this situation will typically respond with resentment and hostility. They take opposition to their ideas as a personal invalidation.) 

The problem with a (presumably) flawed thesis on some aspect of interpreting a historical combative is that it cannot remain simply disputed and unresolved. It cannot be left to fall back on the line that the practitioner advocating the idea is just not skilful enough at present to demonstrate application in the manner required for legitimate consideration within a martial discipline. And in some cases this in fact may very well be true. There can be no rejecting an idea a priori without first objectively investigating it. 

But, when dissenting views are expressed by others who (subjectively or objectively) have more martial arts experience—in sparring, test-cutting, handling antique weapon specimens, exploring the source methods, training and teaching in the historical fighting techniques, etc., it must count for something. It cannot be simply that they have not disproved some proposed notion but only proved they are better fighters.  Such an attitude will not lead to much progress in the field of historical fencing studies. 

Constructing our own view of what constitutes the Renaissance Art of Defence is only natural. Sometimes doing this by way of theoretical essay or investigative dissertation wherein we pose a question, assert an opinion, or express a hypothesis is a beneficial and healthy activity.  It only becomes ugly when we start to fear we are wrong, may have deviated into delusion, and all our work might be for naught. Then, instead of seeking after knowledge and truth, the goal becomes protecting our efforts from criticism and our "pet theory" from damage. This is the danger. Amateur scholarship sometimes gets pursued as a substitute for martial understanding. 

Sometimes people jump in prematurely without first getting a general holistic view of the craft, accumulating key experience in properly wielding arms and armor, and acquiring a realistic appreciation for the true nature of this kind of fighting (i.e., "core assumptions").  Should not this reasonably be done before going off theorizing in depth about what the sources were actually teaching?  Master Joachim Meyer in 1570 rightly observed that, "For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis." This "basis" he refers to must surely be grasped before we delve into the exciting diversion of pondering our own private conceptualizations of what we imagine the authors might have meant a man to do when in violent personal combat. 

The predicament for many practitioners and enthusiasts now is that while this subject demands a certain academic component, whether as original research or simple required reading, focus on scholarship cannot proceed to the point where it neglects the intrinsic physicality of the craft. Sadly, I have long noticed the unfortunate tendency (intentional or not) among some practitioners (novice and veteran alike) to safely cocoon their disputed notions from any real world testing. They invest so much of their time, energy, and interests in pursuing an idea that after just 30 seconds of crossing weapons with a skilled and experienced fighter might be shown to be faulty.  Some seem intent to avoid at all costs any occasion where they might be challenged to perform proof of their theory, preferring instead the challenge of "proving" its validity academically. 

We may heed here the advice expressed by the master Giacomo Di Grassi who in his treatise of 1570 warned: "judgment without...activity and force, availeth little or nothing...the end and scope of this Art consists not in reasoning, but in doing." Joachim Meyer too in his Forward rightly declared, "this knightly art is grasped with the fist and practiced with the application of the entire body, and so must be learned more through experience than out of books..."  It is a martial art after all.  It requires exercising it.  As the master Joseph Swetnam stated in 1617, skill in the art of fencing could not be attained by reading about it alone but by practicing and then applying it against various opponents: "He that doth but read of the art...yet without practice and by experience in trial, it will be imperfect...therefore it behooveth thee to use practice with sundry men, and so to make use of the diversity of each man's skill..." In other words, it demands engaging with others. 

Taking teachings to heart may seem easy enough, but living them is far harder.  In some ways study Renaissance martial arts source works is akin to entering into study of Biblical scripture. Without good guidance and an educated background in the subject it is very easy to misread or to be mislead. Doubtful interpretations and questionable practices result and soon become an orthodoxy that cannot be questioned by others. This is all the product of another issue within the recent revival of historical European martial arts: Some enthusiasts will simply get things wrong (i.e., the biomechanics of actions or the technical application of principles). But when challenged to prove the legitimacy of propositions or to perform at a higher standard of excellence, they cop an attitude.  Contrast with their approach or their skill reveals irreconcilable assumptions or incompatible theories (e.g., differences in stances, footwork, intent of strikes, mindset, etc.).  This is because, just as in all other endeavors in life, not all martial artists are created equal.

For myself, personally, as a leader in the field of historical fencing studies, I want the subject to have authoritative experts but also be approachable and open to anyone, not dogmatic or orthodox. Progress in this craft will continue to be the result of collaborative collective effort as much as individual achievements. I have also seen notable advancements made by sheer novices. But, at the same time, I feel frustration at seeing fairly-neophyte arrivals to this craft presume they know what they are talking about despite their not having a fraction of the knowledge or physical skills possessed by comparative veterans.  It’s like watching someone pick up a mysterious 500-year old kung fu manual and, not having ever seen any real kung fu but only what’s in video games and fantasy films, suddenly announcing they believe they have correctly interpreted some aspect of its forgotten teachings. It’s pretty unlikely they would actually construct a viable theory of how it works in real fighting. But, when this is kind of thing happens in the merging subject of Renaissance martial arts practice, an individual will take great offense at their “work” being “disrespected.” 

As senior instructor and director of a large private fencing club, I frequently encounter this attitude. Many times myself after considerable effort pursuing something I have had to abandon lines of thought or inquiry because I determined they were inaccurate or mistaken in light of even more compelling evidence I uncovered.  So, I understand the attachment that one can feel towards one’s personal efforts. But this is the nature of the task we take on. One can suppose that the conflict between the theoretical and the practical will always be a problem.  Yet, common sense would tell us that when in self-defence encounters we attempt something that fails, we should reevaluate it, not isolate it from experience.  

Though only a master or a very skilled fighter can check all the faults that a novice is liable to make when learning, if we carefully study the surviving sources, and achieve an understanding of how their weapons were employed, then the concepts and techniques are not impossible (nor even always difficult) for modern students to reconstruct and perform. Yet, when investigating these sources, the modern student must suspend many preconceptions about historical armed combat. He or she must attempt to view each of the source works in its cultural and martial context with reference to its intended function –the violent use of arms. In the end no one alive today knows what Medieval or Renaissance styles really looked liked or how exactly they were passed on, and there are no longer either true masters nor surviving schools. Therefore we can only reach an approximation of the reality of such combat teachings. 

But even as this craft must always remain partially tentative and to some degree always within the realm of the speculative, interpretation ultimately means application—not endless theorizing.  Just because something is “open to interpretation” does not meant it is exempt from responsibility of reasonable testing and validation. When it comes to martial arts, credible ideals, like credible skills, must be demonstrated not simply asserted. This is the current crisis of our subject. 

"Every art has this property of being clear to those trained in it,
so that thence comes this maxim,
'Believe the man who is skilled in his art.'"
Anonymous Parisian theologian, 1398

 “There are but few good Sword Men to be found,
and many get the name of Artists who are really but Ignorants;
For a Man hath been but a few months or six weeks
at a Fencing School, presently he is said to understand this Art…” 
- Sir William Hope, 1687


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