ARMA Editorial – Feb 2007
Making Better Sense

There are good fighters and there are bad fighters; good training and bad training, useful advice and flawed advice. How then to make sense out of it?

By John Clements

For both personal and technical reasons this is the hardest editorial that I have yet written for ARMA members.  I hope after a careful reading that the meaning of my thoughts comes through without distortion.

In our revival of Renaissance martial arts the understanding each student should have is that the process is more important than the result—if, that is, the process is about mastering the core principles and concepts of historical fighting not just mimicking particular techniques of the source teachings. The desired results will come about only through a suitable process.

There are many problems of interpretation and reconstruction in the exploration of Renaissance martial arts today. So much so that for some time I have made examination of these issues a focus of a significant portion of my personal work in this field (as well as my future publications). As one of the top most experienced practitioner-instructors of historical fencing today, as well as full-time writer and historian of it, an administrator of the largest and oldest organization dedicated exclusively to it, and one of the busiest and widely traveled researchers, I’ve notice an increasing problem in regard to the approach taken by some novice students.

Of new students coming to me for first-time instruction or those beginners that I encounter in various places, many are increasingly not just without any training, or influence by different training, they have instead been exposed to significantly flawed training.

Rather than the familiar situation in the recent past where new students would just have misunderstanding about armed close-combat gleaned from movies and television or stunt fencing performances, and besides just the usual false assumptions about sword combat derived from popular Asian martial arts or historical role-play & reenactment societies, another phenomena entirely is at work: students having instead acquired habits from assorted new books, videos, and websites a great deal of whom misinterpret historical teachings in a manner that is historically debatable at best, but martially unsound and tactically unwise at worst. Some of it flies in the very face of our commitment to open-ended inquiry emphasizing the inherent violence and athleticism of the historical craft.

When with fairly simple reasoning or physical examination new students are shown the errors of this they are (without exception) perplexed and astonished to learn the foundation of what they have been practicing out of these sources is demonstrably wrong.

How does this problem come about? What is the origin of faulty instruction? I think it’s easy enough to understand: narrow experience leads to narrow interpretation that produces limited understanding.  This dynamic may or may not be colored by the personal motives and objectives of the scholar, but is certainly by their manner of physical practice.

Follow this reasoning: Investigating say, for instance, a 15th century Italian or German source for four or five years and then playing at it with other novices can surely lead to general insights, and perhaps even some vital discoveries. But this is insufficient and inappropriate experience by which to credibly reconstruct key aspects of what are extinct combatives. A few years background dabbling in some modern civilianized Asian martial art, or sport fencing, or participating in some reenactment society or, worse yet, stage-fighting, is in my opinion just not going to be enough to gain an appreciation for the requisite body-mechanics of personal armed combat let alone the genuine handling characteristics of actual historical weapons employed with true violence. Having long struggled in my own effort to redevelop these fighting arts leads me to the belief that there are many ways to easily mistake things and become mislead.

While a translation of any particular source text of our subject may for example be interpreted to offer up eight or ten core elements, with perhaps six or seven of these being self-evident enough to grasp, there might be three or four other vital elements that can easily be overlooked, or worse, mistakenly taken as literal, to thereby collapse any genuine effectiveness. From a single misinterpretation of a fighting posture or other key element of some historical teaching, the vital fundamentals are going to be very difficult to properly acquire and master. Additionally, any prior mistake compounds with each new element added in—making reassessment of earlier assumptions even more difficult.

Interpretation of reconstructed fighting skills is really about application, and application requires we understand the real content of these teachings as they were developed and energetically employed with real weapons in real violence. This then is the central problem we face in reconstructing these arts today.  But, since we have no control-mechanism at our disposal whereby we can ever apply real techniques in real combat, explaining and proving the erroneousness of certain interpretations of historical fighting components is going to be quite a challenge.  As I have often said, much of this subject will always remain tentative and unverifiable.

Everything may seem sound and reasonable enough when performed with like-minded fellows in controlled classroom practice under mutual training guidelines or mock-combat rules. But then it falls apart when attempted against more experienced, athletic, and aggressive fighters who do not subscribe to the same theories or interpretations, and perhaps do a few thing entirely different. We have witnessed this kind of thing occur all the time in the historical fencing community (and long within that of popular East Asian martial arts) as we encounter inferior and less sophisticated skill sets embraced by those with less rigorous approaches or less demanding standards of practice than those we try to advance in our efforts within the ARMA.

When it comes to practicing this craft there are things, which, in one regard, may make sense, but with further thought may not make sense in several other ways.  There are things that may have one advantage when interpreted in one way but can be shown decisively to have far more disadvantage in another. Often none of this becomes clear until you broaden your exposure to those who think and move quite differently.

There is a real stubbornness among some investigating this subject that refuse to address the possibility of mis-translation, let alone mis-interpretation and even mis-application (particularly if it suggests fault with their base study approach or core method of training). Instead, whether they can even perform it effectively or not, in order to validate some personal need they respond, “Nope, this is what it MUST say, and this is what it MUST mean.” A proprietary subjectivity tends to take precedent over a real search for “the truth” (i.e., the combat survival skills the sources recorded and tried to pass on). Personally, I can’t fathom that kind of pig-headedness.

It’s one thing to confidently advocate a view based on convictions backed by evidence and reasoning and practical argument. However, to me it is improper for any enthusiast or practitioner in this subject, no matter what their experience or inexperience, to now say about some debatable element of a source work: “No, no, this IS what the teachings say, and this IS what it MEANS.”  Such obstinate overconfidence is a mistake in a historian or researcher. But for martial artists, it’s a sin.

Then there is the associated problem involved of the practitioner/instructor-interpreter (and their students) having a personal stake in their own interpretations so that promoting them becomes a matter of ego and pride.  No one likes to be shown up, made to realize they’ve been in error, or forced to admit they have been wrong. Certainly no one likes to see their belief system utterly fail when confronted with something that clearly works better and makes more sense.  This applies especially to the realm of such an adversarial physical activity as the martial arts where some one can call you out and fight circles around you.

I first wrote about and spoke publicly on this matter back in the year 2000, pointing out that the foreseeable problem to come for historical fencing studies would not be the lack of source material or even viable translations, but of the coming misinterpretations of their teachings. I warned the historical fencing community of one or more views becoming ossified by the lowest common denominator into a new orthodoxy resulting in profound (and often subtle) misunderstanding and misrepresentation. As I once prognosticated, I now see this phenomenon well under way among some circles and I lament the momentum it has gained in the exploration of these diverse and sophisticated combatives.

On the one hand, when I see this sort of thing my feelings are to just focus introspectively on the practice partners and senior students within our own club. But on the other, I think our heritage deserves far better than what it is currently getting and my desire to educate the public compels me to take action. So again, I caution every student of this subject to not assume that after less than a decade of trying to professionally reconstitute the treatises anyone out there has the definitive understanding of any single historical source work or mastery of any teachings. Rather, all of this must be seen as speculative and open to continued revision and refinement pending investigation. This continuous process must involve vigorous physical practice and hands-on exploration, combined with credible academic research.

Could we imagine for a moment someone discovering a four or six-hundred-year old lost manual on some unknown and forgotten fighting art called “kung fu” or “karate” and then, never having seen or heard of the craft before, nonetheless after a mere three or four years playing at it with some youths, then coming out to announce that—without actual expertise in the historical language, or impressive credentials in unarmed fighting—they have written a book all about it and are now ready to confidently teach its “secrets”? How they might imagine that any credible interpretation of source manuals can be formed from such a position, let alone a reliable and martially sound reconstruction of extinct methods, is a mystery to me.  I can only attribute it to ignorance and wishful thinking combined with some sincere need for accomplishment. I know people out there are hungry for material and guidance and that study is ever an ongoing process, so we can’t blame anyone for trying. I once did something of the same myself. But, as we uncover the richness of the historical source teachings we need to be realistic in what we think we know and have learned and can confidently convey.

In a sense, that is where we are still at with regard to Renaissance combatives. So, I am at least satisfied that in the ARMA we try to remain ready to reconsider our preconceptions, alter our assumptions and not become locked into one interpretation (i.e., physical manner of application)—especially over issues of profound importance such as fighting stances and core strikes. What else can anyone do when there are differences of opinion now about source teachings that start out with the innocuous, “I think the text is saying this, and means that” but then ends with a practitioner doing something detrimental (or entirely loony) that prevents their effectively defending themselves?

I personally know that what I now know is not what I knew a mere five or six years ago and five or six years ago it was not what I knew and practiced 10 or 12 years ago, let alone over 25 years ago when I seriously started.  The insights I have had and the materials that have become available and the results I have uncovered, continue to surprise me. So, I fully understand and appreciate that what I will be doing in five years will be different still. I keep this as a conscious point of mind in my studies.  I also try to remind everyone to do the same.

So, while I hardly presume to know all there is, so much of my instruction time with beginners now is spent correcting erroneous habits and mistaken assumptions derived from other interpretations developed by enthusiasts who do not necessarily share our standards of performance. It’s no problem to point out the flaws and weaknesses of them, but it consumes a great deal of time and energy. It takes away from better the use of lessons for impressing on them what works. It makes teaching correct fighting skills all the harder—especially since there are an infinite number of ways to do something wrong and only a few ways to do it right.

In the recent past students either didn’t know or were unsure, but now people are filled with passages of text and select images combined with questionable theories and useless lessons gleaned from all over. But the core elements of what violent personal combat is all about—perception, range, timing, leverage, pressure, speed, force, balance, etc.—presents a huge void in their knowledge that has to be filled (I’ve always said I’d rather have five neophyte students with nothing to unlearn than a single “experienced” one with a head full of nonsense habits that has to be corrected by continued beatings).

In the past you could show someone through energetic drill or serious free-play that what they were doing just didn't make sense or didn't really work. But often now, even when you do that they will nonetheless continue to argue, “But that’s what 'so and so' says the text says” or “That’s how 'so and so' is showing such and such means to do.”  Even when you continually reveal the simplicity of things in person, and they seemingly agree it makes better sense, for some reason they cling to a need to believe something other than their own eyes. It’s as if for some people relying on someone else as the “authority” excuses them from still actually having to seriously evaluate it themselves or perform it live against some skeptical adversary. Because they can always fall back on the assertion that someone else already determined it was sound there is no need for them to put in the effort to test and validate it themselves. We don’t work things that way in the ARMA.

I have seen a good deal of this kind of sloppy laziness in the general practice of the martial arts and it is truly pathetic. It fails efforts to vivify this craft while simultaneously serving as a disincentive toward becoming genuinely proficient in it.

Let’s try to be honest here for a moment (…a sensitive action in any social or business endeavor but in my experience even more so for some reason when it comes to discussing the modern study of the martial arts): Some enthusiasts today, after only a handful of years exploring the historical source teachings, are already confidently offering their own training method for the study of Medieval or Renaissance fighting skills. That they do this without having first established any real demonstrable results as to the worth or the method is somewhat astounding. Some of these individuals lack any substantial experience at grappling, test cutting, serious free-play, or the handling of authentic arms and armor. They are largely without any significant skill set, impressive examples or athletic accomplishments of martial prowess. Yet, they will presume to suggest to those with even less knowledge and experience a means of study made up of largely arbitrary drills and abstract exercises the effectiveness of which they themselves are not yet qualified to evaluate. They have put forth as evidence no examples of impressive technical understanding or physical performance through their interpretations, have not shown any particularly remarkable fighting ability in the craft, and lack any sample of senior students to which to point to in support of noteworthy martial ability that may be acquired as result of following their recommended method of practice. Essentially, such individuals are just theorizing while asking the public to trust their ideas as to a reasonable set of drills and exercises.

Since knowledge in this subject remains uncertain and open to interpretation, all that can be said to the student of historical fencing is to take caution and remain highly skeptical of such offerings.

All these problems are not a matter of different people simply having differences of opinion or disagreements over evidence for reconstructive interpretations. Advocates have to be able to demonstrate viable physical application and show how it would credibly apply with real weapons under real world conditions. Yet, unlike in science, when it comes to safely practicing a lethal fighting art this is problematic and portions of it, as I have written many times before, are always going to remain somewhat conjectural.

We could pause here and consider the oft-suggested notion that some things “work” in sparring or free-play but would not “in real combat.”  This again raises the issue of realism and intent. I’ve known virtually countless practitioners who swore for years that some odd move or peculiar stance “worked”—that is, right up until they tried doing it against me. That is, outside their small circle of opponents or outside the rules of their own group, and against someone who just didn’t bother with it, but instead did something very different. The same thing goes for trying moves with sharp blades on test targets at full-speed and full-force, as opposed to only using moves with padded or round sticks in exercise and friendly bouts.  Things don’t always equate. And you can suddenly realize you have been seriously mistaken about something fundamental. 

Having experienced so much of all this during my more than two and a half decades of practice now is why I am so confident of things that I can apply and of interpretations that match my instincts. It’s all about “interpretation-application.”  If something works in solo drill, partnered exercise, test-cutting with sharps, and intense contact-sparring, then that’s a good indicator what you are doing is legit. All the more so when you can back it up with a historical source reference.

But perhaps there is some psychological phenomena at work when you can consistently defeat someone in free-play who is using a faulty interpretation, yet no matter how decisively they are beaten and how clearly you show them the weakness or flaw in their application of a technique or concept, they refuse to consider anything is wrong (or that any factor is involved other than you simply being a better or faster fighter). What do you do when the other person simply doesn't appreciate that the determining factor is a matter of the inferior body-mechanics they are using as a result of a flawed understanding stemming from an erroneous interpretation of source teachings? (For that matter, what do you do when afterwards they resent and despise you for your effort at trying to show them the right way?)

But for another matter, let’s face it, we all know there are those pursuing this subject today who, to satisfy their need for escapism and sense of identity, would like for nothing more than for this craft to be “easy,” to be something that doesn’t require considerable effort and energetic exercise to credibly develop. They want it to be something that gives them a sense of accomplishment not something that demands real accomplishment. They want it to be “non-judgmental” and devoid of any competitiveness (…something which is another editorial in itself). If you hold different values and motives about Renaissance martial arts you will find interacting with such people in a sincere manner quite difficult at times. In time you will also come to find that because of the process they follow a large part of their abilities are understandably wanting. Since such pretense doesn’t make sense, though it sometimes seems to, all you can do is focus on what makes better sense. And that means following a process of study that encourages mastery of the core elements.

See also: Sense & Pretense



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