Renaissance Man - Jan ‘03

A quarterly column by Gene Tausk


Antique Stanleys and Historical Fencing

One of the basic questions for practitioners of Historical Fencing (or Historical European Martial Arts or whatever you prefer...) is why?  A distant relative of mine asked me this not too long ago.  (For comparison purposes, I point out that the person who asked me this question enjoys collecting antique Stanley tools.  Go figure.)  Source notwithstanding, however, it is a decent question.  Especially since my relative was thinking, "what a waste of time."  (Funny, I was thinking the same about his pursuit...)

The most common comment I get when I tell people, interested or otherwise, about my pursuit is why don’t you study a real martial art?  By “real,” they of course mean Asian.  Karate, jujustsu, taekwondo, etc., these are “real;” everything else belongs at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire next to the guys selling “authentic” swords (...but that is another article).  My standard answer is that I did study an Asian system for a great number of years, achieved my instructor status and went on to teach.  So, I can state with no little authority that I do have an experienced perspective on the world of Asian martial arts.  I just find the study of European ones more interesting.

Also, in my pursuit of historical European Swordsmanship, I also discovered that the essence of all combat is to be found in the study of armed combat.  This should not seem so great a surprise in retrospect.  When warriors from Miyamoto Musashi to Hans Talhoffer, not to mention those that came before them, stated the importance of learning swordsmanship, this should be a big clue as to just how valuable it was to learn and practice this art.  However, many contemporary Asian martial arts focus on a narrow series of skills (hitting, kicking, grappling, etc.) because they were developed for relevant civilian self-defense use or as sports.  It is not surprising therefore, that an important component of warrior development; namely, learning to use weapons and the timing, distance, footwork and body-mechanics that go with such learning and which can be applied to weaponless situations, is absent from such narrow systems.  The same is true for narrow Western sport pursuits such as boxing and wrestling.  However, these pursuits, as effective as they may be, do not seem to have the cultural mystique often attached to Asian arts and therefore often are not included in such discussions.   

It can be argued, consequently, that the study of Historical Fencing is indeed a “real” martial art.  It will just take some effort to demonstrate to the uninitiated just how effective such arts are.

There are also other benefits of which I told my relative.  A good session of Historical Fencing practice is an intensive workout that is both aerobic and anaerobic.  Sparring sessions, although conducted safely and with protective equipment, contain an element of danger which sharpens reaction time, perception, and is good for an adrenaline “rush.”  In other words, Historical Fencing is a fun, effective workout.

There is also the matter, all smugness aside, of proving the experts wrong.  For years, it was commonly assumed that Europeans had no true martial arts of which to speak, that Medieval weapons were so heavy that only the clumsiest movements were possible, that European armor was so heavy only people like The Rock or Schwarzeneggar could wear such outfits and that European societies dominated the globe due to gunpowder because European soldiers were helpless without this technology.  Thanks to the concerted efforts of groups such as the ARMA, these ideas are being discarded.

However, there is another factor which also influenced my decision to study and practice Historical Fencing and that continues with me today.  We often encounter the phrase “reclaiming our heritage” as practitioners of Historical Fencing.  European martial arts are a lost part of Western heritage.  The ability to reclaim these skills and techniques brings practitioners in touch with Western history.  In other words, practice makes swordsmanship a living history.  Historical Fencing becomes Fencing, which is a word derived from “defense.”  We are learning the old arts of military and civilian defense, in other words, learning a martial art.  Through practice and earnest commitment, we take our discarded martial history and make it a living martial art.

And that is something at least as important as antique tools.  Although it should be said, in defense of my relative's hobby, I am unlikely to get a good deal on a sword through a garage sale, which is something collectors of Stanley tools live for...



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