ARMA Editorial - July 2004
Understanding the Origins of Misconceptions

By John Clements
ARMA Director

A major reason why there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the reality of sword combat, the actual qualities of historical swords, and the historical methods of sword fighting, is undeniably due to longstanding misrepresentation in popular media. Countless improbable depictions of how swords really handle or people really fight in actual combat from decades of badly choreographed movie and television fight scenes, silly renaissance fair performances, and dinner-theater stunt shows have all contributed to a false impression.

Someone once asked me why it is that so much of this depiction of swords and swordplay is so inaccurate. I responded that it's only "inaccurate" from our point of view. For the past 60, 70, 80 years or so, this kind of show fighting was not seen as being bad (particularly seeing as how leading sport fencers of the past assisted in it). Now however, among practitioners of historical European martial arts much is viewed in hindsight as being "bad" only by virtue of our greater knowledge of genuine fighting techniques and our more sophisticated understanding of how real weapons perform. After all, for decades there was no serious investigation into these skills and no organized attempt to study them from the point of view of true martial arts. It was more or less all seen as just inspiration for theatrical stage-combat and role-play reenactment or as something incidental to the history of the modern fencing sport. Groups like ARMA and professional fight interpreters just weren't around.

The creators of popular fictions of sword fighting didn't know any better and neither did their audiences or fans. Naturally, if you have to fake something the reality of which you have little knowledge in the first place, the results can't be expected to be very good. They just didn't know much about the nature of real weapons and real personal armed combat back then (and as is easy to discover, largely still don't today). When you don't know and have to pretend you do, the outcome is never very impressive. This is not just about unskilled actors or stuntmen being given only a few weeks to train for some scene, but about stunt fighting shows as well as choreographed or animated performances in general. What's more remarkable though is how often, despite so much ignorance, many representations of historical personal combat in popular media have actually been good-creative, dramatic, believable, and entertaining. Much has improved in recent years and to quote an old Beatles' song, "It's getting better all the time."

Still, the blame for much misunderstanding of the subject among enthusiasts as well as the public can be traced back to misconceptions acquired from the visions of popular media (and perhaps to a degree, arguably the 19th century antiquarian romantics who in their own way inspired much of it). One of the worse notions is surely mistakes about the weight and agility of Medieval swords-the ridiculous misrepresentation of swords as heavy, ponderous, clumsy things weighing 10, 15, 20, or more pounds more than they actually do. Another falsehood is the ubiquitous caricature of the rapier featured as handling either like a sharp-edged saber or like a flimsy modern fencing foil (sometimes both simultaneously!) And of course, the Japanese katana in contrast is invariably featured as almost magical in its sharpness and supposed indestructibility.

But the problem has been more than just incorrectly depicting how swords could and would be used with real force and agility. More profoundly, it's also been about distorting the physicality of how humans truly move in personal combat. Knights in heavy armor typically are shown slugging it out clumsily with crude and klutzy moves. Cavalier musketeers, Renaissance duelists, and swashbuckling pirates are characteristically portrayed as fencing with simplistic slapstick techniques devoid of logic or coordination.

Obviously, when you don't know the real art and lack real martial skill, you have to make things up then in the process struggle to keep things safe during the performance. It's understandable, but the phenomenon nonetheless restrains as it restricts tremendously. Regardless of their purpose, such displays give false impressions. When you lack understanding of the characteristics of real weapons, their functionality and versatility, and also lack appreciation of the possibilities for violent physical action using them, there's not much left to work with. Out of this a vicious circle developed as individuals then tried to assess weapons or interpret sources in terms of the experiences they acquired from such efforts-efforts which became a self-referential craft and then finally a performance art profession. Popular media of course is certainly under no obligation to educate or address misconceptions and correct false impressions.

This is of course all perfectly okay in the entertainment sense. But as we struggle to reconstruct the authentic historical methods and acquire genuine skills, martial artists and educators need to be aware in order to put things into context. Certainly we cannot expect a performance Art to be the same as a martial Art, but we should be aware how the former has come to influence the latter. We might add that in the same way popular media has been a large part of the problem, it has the potential to be part of the solution.

So, as we explore the subject of Renaissance martial arts today, as we try to educate others and ourselves, we frequently must address misinformation and correct misconceptions on historical swords and fighting methods. In doing so it's useful to understand the origins of the problem.

About the Author:
Having pursued the craft since 1980, John Clements is one of the world's foremost authorities on Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills. Clements has authored two books and more than a dozen magazine articles on historical swordplay. A leader in historical fencing studies, he has researched swords and sword combat in ten countries and taught seminars on the subject in eight. He has lectured and demonstrated at numerous museums and universities and is a frequent consultant on Medieval and Renaissance combative systems. He works full-time teaching and writing on historical European fighting arts.


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