MHthumb1.JPG (22369 bytes)How to tell if your Fencing is a Martial Art or a Combat Sport

With Knightly joy, as you will note,
The art of fencing I did promote
With axe and halberd, staff and sword,
As it did please my royal Lord;
All done by rule and properly
So the true basis you may see.
-  Hans Hollywars, 15th century

Just as within the traditional Asian martial arts, the emerging Western martial arts community today is often debating the meaning of “Martial Art” as opposed to "martial sport”.  The issue is clearest with regard to Medieval and Renaissance combative systems –without question the main focus of historical European martial arts.  On the one hand, as these weapons and skills were originally intended for battlefield, judicial combats, and earnest self-defence, they are clearly fighting arts.  Yet, in their study and practice today these concerns are far from their purpose.  The distinction then between art and sport can be a blurry one; especially since historically, ritualistic combat sports and non-lethal mock-combat competitions were long a part of European martial culture. The general difference between the two today however can be distinguished by examining them with regard to a few specific concerns.

Fencing…was the Art of the Sword, or as Medieval and Renaissance schools more appropriately considered it, the art of using weapons, particularly swords. But, over time the sword lost its value as a weapon of war and as older hand-weapons and arms faded before the challenge of ballistics, fencing was narrowed. With only a few exceptions among the military, mainly cavalry, swords became almost the sole proclivity of the aristocracy and fencing became synonymous with preparation for the gentlemanly duel of single sword alone. The older elements of battlefield combat and sudden street-fighting faded from concern, replaced exclusively by that of private affair of honor. Eventually, fencing became sport and pastime, a refined, athletic game of set rules and etiquette. Finally, over time myths arose that fencing had somehow reached its zenith only after it stopped using real weapons in real fighting.

In contrast, the study of historical methods of European fencing is now becoming increasingly popular. A variety of earlier combative systems are being reconstructed and interpreted along historical lines from historical sources. The question therefore arises as to whether these practices represent the earnest skills of a martial art, or constitute those of a stylized combat sport?  For that matter, how do you objectively determine if what you are studying, or what you are being taught, is a legitimate historical fighting skill, or merely re-packaged modern or classical fencing or even theatrical fighting? Is your craft display oriented or results oriented? Is it about effectively ending fights quickly or artificially prolonging them for entertainment value?  How can these issues be evaluated?  The answer depends upon the approach, the attitude, and the intention of your study and the tools it employs in its method.  

Here then are some ways to consider if your own form of fencing practice is a martial art or a combat sport:

1. Is it practiced as a method of self-defense?

What this means is, is your system of fighting focused on scoring and winning competitions or on staying alive? Does it understand the distinction? Does it teach you to do whatever works or what the rules of a game allow? Are you rehearsing moves as lethal killing actions applicable in real fighting, or as only those movements allowed under pretend tournaments? Do you ever stop to recognize and comprehend the difference? Do you train in your fencing art as "preparation" for combat –even though you know it will never occur –or just play it as a game?

2. Is it a tool of learning or an end in itself?

Does your fencing concern itself with how to win a bout by scoring, or with the effects of what the weapon would actually do? Do you conduct mock fighting to get good at mock fighting, or do you conduct mock fighting to get good at the core elements of the craft itself? Does your fencing even consist of anything other than a mock fighting game?

4. Does it rely for its basis on historically accurate replica weapons?

What this means is, are your swords reproductions of real historical tools with the equivalent dimensions, weight, length, and balance of actual blades? Or are they modern simulators with features that authentic pieces do not have (e.g., extreme flexibility, light-weight, rubber points, padding, special handles, modern materials, etc.). Real weapons handle one way and special training weapons another. The more realistic your weapon, the more realistic your technique and your understanding of fundamental principles and concepts. Each digression from this causes a degree of misinterpretation of the methods developed by and for real weapons in real combat. Do you ever work with real weapons or just simulators? Unless you also train strenuously with real weapons how else can you be cognizant of the differences imposed by using approximations?

5. Does it include the widest range of techniques possible?

Are you able to practice and execute actions and moves that would have been reasonably used in historical combat in a manner by which people really fought, or are you limited and restricted to a belief as to what is sporting, chivalric, or gentlemanly fair? Does your concern for safety in mock fighting mean that more lethal and dangerous techniques are never explored or learned at any time under any conditions of training? Are you learning to prevent disarms, seizures and takedowns performed against you, or even to safely fall and roll?

6. Does it let you use both arms naturally?

Are you able to utilize your second-hand in defense, for parrying, grasping, trapping, and disarming? Does your fencing prepare you for countering an opponent trained to use both his hands in grabbing or seizing your arm, clothing, hilt, or weapon? Or following styles of court fencing and later smallsword duelling, are you forced by convention and tradition to pretend you and your opponent only have one arm?

7. Does it make multiple opponents a consideration?

Personal combat was not only about one-on-one duels. The dynamic of one fighting against many is very different than one against another solo. Does your fencing ever incorporate practice at facing more than one antagonist or combating groups of attackers from any direction? Or is it instead always just about dueling a single opponent with a single weapon?

8. Does it only take place in standardized clothing?

Historically, combat could occur at any time at any place, not just when two parties formally agreed to it. Are the effects of wearing historical garments such as leathers, thick wool, baggy pants and shirts, heavy boots, or maile armor taken into consideration? Or is all your fencing conducted in the same uniform with participants imagined to only be identically clad duelists exclusively in shirtsleeves or bare chests?

9. Does practice occur on diverse terrain?

Historically, combat could occur under any conditions and on any type of flooring or ground. Do you always fence on the same general type of surface, or do you make an effort to experience the effects of moving on broken earth, gravel, mud, sand, high grass, knee-deep water, rocky footing, etc.?

10. Does it consider secondary or companion weapons?

Historically, fencing was about the use of all hand weapons, not just swords, and not just the single sword among certain gentleman or the aristocracy (at least, not until the late 17th century). Swordsmanship at one time would not be considered complete without skill in effectively facing shields, pole-arms, and daggers. Is your fencing solely that of the single sword, or does it take into account the possibility of successfully encountering diverse and dissimilar weapons with your sword?

11. Are close-in actions ever taken into account?

What happens when each fighter comes against the other body to body (corps--corps)? Is all fencing stopped, or is some minimal amount of bumping and jostling permitted? What about what really could happen in a fight, where grabbing and pulling of clothes occurred as well as tripping, face knocking, arm locking, wrist twisting, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, biting, hilt-striking, etc.? Is this all ignored or are fencers at least instructed in how to safely engage in or prevent their being grabbed, pushed, tripped, or caught in a head-lock? Are all these things merely assumed to be universally negated by the application of "proper" fencing skill with the single sword, or is the unpleasant reality considered?

12. Is grappling and wrestling ever taken into account?

Historical accounts of both grappling and wrestling in Renaissance-era sword combats and duels abound. These skills were common among fencers of all classes into the 17th century and beyond. But such skills were dropped from later forms of private combat within the code duello. In your fencing, if two combatants do close upon one another does all action then cease? Or if a seizure or disarm should be employed, does action again cease or are the fencers able to explore the counter-techniques of grappling and wrestling as a defense against an armed adversary? What happens if you are disarmed or drop your blade? Would you know how to continue with any chance of success?

13. Are dissimilar tools utilized?

Except in arranged duels of honor, seldom were weapons carefully compared before fighting to ensure uniformity of length, weight, sharpness, balance, or other quality. Does all your fencing occur between two equally-paired weapons, or do you appreciate the experience of facing a shorter or longer blade, a lighter or heavier blade, a wider or thinner blade? What about weapons of different hilt styles, such as those that can aid in parrying and trapping?

14. Is there any recognition of the difference between the effects of attacks upon different parts of human anatomy?

Wounds to the limbs do not produce the same results as those to the head or body, and those to the face are not the same as those to the torso. Does your simulation recognize the effects of wounds to different portions of the body? Does your fencing take this into account and teach appropriate tactics or does it treat all hits as causing the same degree of "incapacitation"? Does it even allow for targeting of the whole body in the first place, or does it impose artificial restrictions upon the freedom to strike at any vulnerable part of an opponent’s anatomy?  Further, does your fencing always cease action after a single hit, or are the combatants ever allowed to continue on to make successive hits within an exchange of actions?

15. Does it encourage or rely on the exercise of test-cutting?

It is easy to make claims about what different sword forms could or would do without ever actually trying it out. It is also easy to misinterpret the different degrees of "cut" that can be made with different techniques of assorted blade types on a person. Whether foyning-fence or cut-and-thrust fence, can you really make assumptions without personal experience in using sharp blades on test targets? Does your fencing incorporate the practice of hitting with a true edge using the correct physical mechanics to actually cause maximum results? Are different swords and different target materials utilized for cutting practice? Or is cutting with a real sword considered something "obvious" and "easy" that requires no real effort?

16. Does it teach you to draw your weapon?

Fighting with swords was not always about facing-off with an opponent until a third party verbally started things with an official instruction. Being able to unsheathe your weapon in a quick and efficient manner (as well as possibly stifling the opponent’s) was at one time a skill to learn. Does your fencing take into account the drawing of a weapon or of even wearing a belt and hanger, or does it all occur only after blades are drawn and combatants face off at a set distance? Combat did not all occur as formal duels but more often as sudden ambushes and violent assaults. Do you ever even practice attacking from different distances and even from a running attack or is it always started from the same standardized range?

17. Is mock-combat approached as if it were real?
In reality we only have one life to risk and there are no "points" to "score" in earnest fights for survival. To serve its true purpose of preparation for real encounters, mock-combat must be conducted with an attitude that appreciates the inherent danger and consequences of fighting. Do you approach it with the understanding that the penalty for failing to defend is your death, or just the loss of a match? Is there a realistic degree of hesitation or apprehension in fighting because you are aware of the lethality of techniques as well as the need for actions to be performed safely in order to prevent accidental injury to your partner? Or in contrast, is your fencing so safe and so focused on scoring that you are free to attempt any attack on an "opponent" regardless of how exposed or vulnerable it would leave you in real combat with sharp weapons?

These questions above show there can be far more to fencing than the duel of single sword against single sword.  Modern fencing, like many other combat sports today, is approached as a "non-lethal combative." Quite obviously, there are techniques a fighter, as opposed to a sportsman, wants in his arsenal that the other does not, and vice-versa. The former seeks skill for theoretical real life and death encounters, the latter, for winning within the agreed rules of a game.

Between a martial art and a combat sport, even when each is pursued as a “non-lethal combative”, there are differences in the tools and their application, in the conditions, the environment, training exercises, practice drills, equipment, clothing, and range of activities and actions, as well as general intent. Each may be about self-expression and form as well as function.  But a martial sport is concerned with a sense of sportsmanship and the thrill of fair competition. It is about winning or losing a fun game. A martial art in contrast, can be said to be about theoretical life or death survival in a violent encounter or contest. 

We might further consider that whenever historical fighting methods –that were devised for real weapons to actually kill and maim –are applied for purposes of sporting play, there is a significant and profound change that must occur as a result. The ancient goal of training to learn to defeat real opponents with martial efficiency and deadliness is replaced with the idea of scoring points by following agreed upon rule restrictions.  This surely leads to a misunderstanding and misapplication of the overall method for properly handling a weapon lethally, in favor of what works in the sport. When practitioners have to study the instructions of the old masters in light of what they are “allowed” to do “under the rules”, it changes the entire outlook of how and why they practice their swordplay in the first place. When you practice with a true martial spirit, handling weapons and moving as if to kill or be killed, it changes your outlook and your understanding.  It is profoundly different than practicing to win a game –even when such games are hard-fought emotionally charged athletic contests. The significance of this difference within the modern reconstruction of historical European martial arts cannot be understated.

These same criteria above can also be applied to determining whether or not your fencing is a martial art or a performance art, in other words, whether it is either display oriented or combat oriented. Does it have as it goal the execution of a ballet-like series of choreographic movement patterns or the development of spontaneous execution of techniques with adversarial-counter timing? Is it applicable only to the conditions of solo presentation routines, or can it be applied effectively against an opponent in free-play?

These questions address concerns relevant to historical fencing study. Considering these questions helps to approach the subject of historical fencing from the context of a true martial art, an earnest combat skill –its original purpose. In conclusion, it is clear there is much to consider that is simply outside the purview of traditional (i.e., classical or modern) fencing study and this reflects the perspective the ARMA takes toward the subject in its own practice. One of the best questions to consider in your fencing then, is: If you had to fight a real duel in say, three months, would you train differently than you do now?  If so, why not train that way already?

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