Losing Rediscoveries

By John Clements
ARMA Director

In 2022, I had a brief and rather discouraging conversation with a young “HEMA” practitioner in which I merely asked him, "What makes what it is you’re doing 'historical'?" I offered this question because he had labeled it as such to some other onlookers. Yet, everything I observed which he and a few others were doing that afternoon was focused around the new incarnation of modern sport competitions. He didn’t know who I was or what I did, so the question was pretty open ended.

His answer was that it was based upon “sources.” Ignoring this and inquiring a little further, I asked him how what he did is really any different than today’s Olympic-style sport fencing, which is also in its own way “historical” and based on "sources."

He replied that what he was doing was “Medieval.” I then asked why was it “Medieval,” to which he responded because they use a longsword as well as sword and buckler. Again, I pressed him by inquiring, what is it you do with them that’s really all that different from the three weapons of modern sport fencing? He responded that he trains for "tournaments." At this point, I said, well other than using two weapons together or a two-handed weapon then saying it's "Medieval," considering the rules of how you are going about it, I’m not sure I’m understanding in what way what you’re doing is any different than the tournaments that make up the entirety of modern sport fencing. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know, it’s just different. The weapons are different.”

Now, I couldn't fault the youth for failing to give a coherent and convincing answer as to why such distinct weapons handle and perform in such significantly different manners. He wasn’t really cognizant that they rely on such significantly different approaches and core elements. Other than a vague reference to "mastercuts," he had no real appreciation for the "sources" he said his new sport is based upon. Neither did I take issue with his mention of "martial arts" even though everything that I witnessed was unequivocally and decidedly being done solely as a “martial sport.” Nor did I even take issue with the fact that the few historical source teachings he was aware of—and for which he was using what itself was arguably a modern sporting weapon to perform —are unquestionably from the Renaissance, not the Medieval era. But that wasn't what dismayed me.

As with so many others, that the term “martial arts” was part of the very acronym he was using as the label for the "historical European” activity he was pursuing didn’t seem to occur to him. Why? Because training for sport with sport gear and sporting rules is not doing the “historical martial art” that he purports to be practicing. The martial component of the craft means military skills, or more specifically personal self-defense for close combat, and whether employed for battlefield, judicial combat, or private duel, they were for centuries essentially one and the same. Despite the existence of inter-school fighting displays, and the prominence of knightly chivalric tournaments, prize-playings, and friendly recreational bouting as practice, these martial arts were no more focused on sporting contests than was classical Japanese bujitsu of that feudal era.

Instead, what he and so many others are now doing is really “neo-sport-fencing,” just one using earlier weapons styled with a handful of associated techniques taken from older sources. But just like the modern sport version, what he and his fellow competitors are doing is artificial, stylized, and doesn’t qualify as an actual martial art. Its purpose is really not to develop, or recover, the authentic fighting systems. It’s neither being studied or conducted as a self-defense method following the original Renaissance-era —not “Medieval”— source teachings. That what he was practicing for sporting contest was highly modified, limited, and restricted to what referees could determine was a scoreable point didn’t seem to occur to him or really enter his consciousness at all. That wasn't a factor any more than was the tremendous amount of the essential techniques that are completely ignored in his “martial art” precisely because they aren't appropriate for safely making easily visible “points.”

This is the very same mentality that can be found among many modern sport fencers who happily pursue their athletic foil/epee/saber game under the delusion that they are doing exactly what “musketeers” and “gentlemen duelists” once did. If it doesn't work in the tournaments or isn't allowed under the rules, then no attention is paid to it. That this sport approach was exactly the reason why earlier teachings were forgotten and lost never really occurred to them.

Ironically, the very reason this young fellow’s activity currently exists and came to be was because more than three decades ago, people like myself grew sick and tired of the lack of martial character and historical accuracy within modern sport fencing (and the costume role-playing of “living history re-enactment” constructs).

Nobody who's seriously worked to reconstitute these lost fighting disciplines ever did so for the purpose that they could then just be twisted into another contrived tournament game. In fact, the motive behind why there was an entire movement towards the field of historical fencing studies was to rebuild it as an actual martial art and get away from both the sportified version and the invented fantasy.

We also saw that the "classical fencing" movement was almost as ignorant and dismissive of martial art skills, reducing it all down to just “swordplay dueling." We sought to revive the lost combat teachings of the “chivalric art of defense,” reconstruct the wisdom that made up that “noble and worthy science,” and recover the rich diversity of fighting techniques and weaponry that the “Doctrine of Arms” had once consisted of. We wanted it to include all of the arms and armor and the unarmed combat techniques that the authentic source teachings contained. This did not mean either inventing a new sport or reducing all these rediscoveries down to competitive point-scoring.

Some 25 years ago we were starving for access to the authentic fight books and desperate for reliable translations of their content. We worked hard to interpret and reconstruct their legitimate techniques and forgotten wisdom. We struggled to find accurate reproduction swords and training blades. Now we are awash in the original source material and have the nearly best equipment ever. But what are today’s youth seemingly trying to do with all this recovered martial heritage now? What skills are they concerned about? Far too many are saying they don’t care how it was done in the past, they don’t care how real weapons actually perform, they don’t care about the reality of fighting in earnest. All they want to know is how a few bozos are going to judge their “scored points” in a sport competition! They look at the sources and essentially say, “We can’t do that, so why pay attention to it? The rules don’t permit it so why bother to study it in depth? We're not allowed to do certain things with weapons, so we'll use versions that let us do the other things better.”

Never mind that the very reason they are here doing this now is because after decades of nonsense and ignorance, groups of enthusiasts finally said enough with the sport and the role-play and the choreographed routines. We want the real thing from the genuine source teachings. We want the real skills as they were once practiced from the original teachings of the actual historical masters. We want the historical European martial art.

In my youth, just as in my fight school decades later and within the ARMA as a whole, when we wanted to spar we simply sparred. Sparring was a means not an end. It was a way for learning and practicing the Art, not the sole object in itself. We would agree on mutually compatible equipment, permissible targets, and allowable force for safe actions. We didn’t need a third party to intervene to tell us when we hit or got hit.

It was the same way historically, whether in the fight school or the public displays, knightly armored tournaments, feats of arms, and prize playings. And it certainly wasn’t that way when training for judicial combats or private duels. It wasn’t contrived, regulated, or refereed. And above all, it wasn’t commercialized, homogenized, and sportified.

It’s no coincidence that when the regulated sport of fencing came about in the late 19th century, it ceased in being a fighting art of mastering weaponry along with knowledge of unarmed fighting. Yet, sadly, this is where things have largely gone today with this subject, even before fully recovering and reconstructing the vast depth of material within Renaissance fight books.

There’s no denying that historically there was a recreational component to this subject. The same has been true for almost every combative employed by fighting men throughout history. But such did not exist by itself in a vacuum. Rather, it existed only as a part of earnest training to deal with real violence. The Art itself certainly wasn’t preserved by tournaments and display fighting, nor can it be restored by it today either.

The reality that they were founded upon, informed by, and continually guided by is gone, and in its place imaginary constructs have been put up not for purposes of exploring history, heritage, and camaraderie through martial prowess, but to fill the need by some for winning laurels —and by others turning it into a commercial enterprise. All the subtleties and nuances of skill required to wound while avoiding being wounded in un-armored fighting, all the finesse and leveraging, all the controlled action as well as the application of force, is neglected in favor of the abstract idea of mere ‘scoring.’

As I’ve expressed many times in the past: Sparring is a just one tool for learning the larger Art. Focusing on competitive contests to the detriment of deeper practice in larger concepts and broader techniques is like mistaking the paint brush for the image it puts on the canvas. Inventing a modern version of something that you then call "traditional" even as you ignore the rebuilding of the historical is hardly a virtuous achievement. That’s not preserving, that’s discarding; that’s not resurrecting, that’s inventing.

That the young fellow I recently conversed with, so representative of his generation, is oblivious to the magnitude of the self-defence skill set found within the larger martial art he believes he follows is deeply saddening. His admission to me that "We don't really bother with what the tournaments don't allow” said it all. Perhaps he may want to start referring to his activity as SHEMA — “Seems like historical European martial arts?” But, all I can say is, I know what the mission and focus of the ARMA is, and I know it is a far more noble pursuit.

The ARMA: Real World Skills
from Real World History



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.