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ARMA Editorial
- May 2004
The "Politically Correct" Study of European Martial Arts?

Sometimes a "sword fight" really is just a sword fight.

By J. Clements
ARMA Director

While they never seem to attempt such toward traditional Asian fighting arts, some academics today seem intent on applying an absurd post-modern deconstructionist gender-studies model to the investigation of historical European martial arts—a subject arguably still in its infancy.

On several occasions I've discoursed with Professor Sydney Anglo, without question the leading researcher of historical fencing texts. The issue arose of why this subject has for so long been so notoriously overlooked by historians and academic researchers. This traditional lack of interest in the old masters and their manuals among Medieval and Renaissance scholars, and the attitude of much of academia toward Western martial culture as a subject in general, is something he addresses to a degree in his new book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press, 2000). Dr. Anglo hopes his new book will help change this disinterest and neglect and make more historians aware of these incredible works, realize their importance, as well as see them as genuinely worthy greater study.

The topics of my conversations with Dr. Anglo are something that a few of us in ARMA have also discussed ourselves. Historical fencing manuals and European martial arts in general, have been overlooked, ignored, and bypassed by art historians and military historians, arms experts, and even fencing historians. Excepting for a handful of fencing historians (concerned far more with where modern sport fencing came from) and the rest of us historical sword enthusiasts/students, there is no real interest in this from trained academia. One need only look at the subject matter that concerns current Medieval & Renaissance Studies programs to see this. The focus is not on pure history or personalities, institutions, and events, but more often on establishing things in to a revisionist context of modern "politically correct" views. A brief survey of the subject matters of major Medieval & Renaissance Studies organizations, societies, and conferences reveals a plethora of the most laughable topics if not for the fact they are dead serious. For the most part they seem really obsessed with gender, race, racism, sexuality, homosexuality, the "evils" of capitalism and Christianity, and the "patriarchy and misogyny" of Western civilization in general. Every modern political, social, metaphysical, leftist, fringe, or pop idea seems to be represented among them –all that is, except a genuine interest in historical European martial arts.

Why is that? Good question. The answer perhaps has to do with the nature at present of much of Western academia, and I am writing only from second hand impressions and anecdote (don’t take my word for it, you can find about all this easily enough if you dig around on the net. I learned about it all quite by accident and conversation.).

Unfortunately, Medievalist and Renaissance scholars today (and historians in general) are notorious for being dry, boring, passionless, and willfully tedious. They exist in obscurity talking to each other rather than generating interest and excitement over the subject and what it means for the rest of us in the modern world. Their careers, as my acadmeic friends and colleagures explained (and this is an observation not a criticism) are efforts at survival --at getting published, at winning fiercely competed for grants, at acquiring tenure, at closely guarding the minutia of their research and at finding a new "angle" to some insignificantly obscure aspect of some triviality of historical life. For some reason though, Medievalist and Renaissance scholars will become ecstatic at discovering some long forgotten paragraph in Latin that is merely some guy’s 600 year old "grocery list" and they’ll make a whole career working on it. Give them a 2-page diary excerpt of a 15th century guy walking his dog and twelve of them will publish 492-page dissertations about it, delving into the most detailed speculation irrelevant of how it relates to any substantial facet of Medieval or Renaissance culture and society. Formal papers will be issued and in the years that follow whole conferences will be held where scholars and academics will spend tremendous energies protecting their turf and reputations as well as disputing and condemning their colleague’s findings. Rivalries and back-room politics will enter in and endless cliques will form backing one or another interpretation...welcome to the world of modern academia. 

So, how does this affect students of historical European fighting arts? How will Dr. Anglo's findings and revelations be treated by his fellows in today's climate we wonder? From our point of view, for our interest of gaining greater knowledge about the contents of historical fighting texts, in a sense this will be like throwing wild dogs a few bones and expecting them to end up offering us a juicy steak. You see, all the major important work was done in Medieval & Renaissance studies decades ago. It’s not a real exciting time at present for Medieval & Renaissance studies. Nowadays they appear mostly to just regurgitate discussions over the tiniest details, or in revisionist style, fit things to current "politically correct" ideologies.  Yet, and this is where it’s frustrating for historical fencing enthusiasts, give most any one of then Die Liberi or Vadi or Marozzo and they shrug. Good luck trying to interest them in Agrippa or Silver or Swetnam.  If there isn’t a clear way to further position or prestige, many of them are going to find it hard for any of this stuff to hold their interest. After all, the common view is that if it was "important", it would have already been studied by now. All our material is just "old fencing"" to them, just "sword-play". Boring stuff. It isn't "real" literature. They have no idea how wrong that view is.

Prof. Anglo may be the first to break through this wall of ignorance and stubbornness. If so, it may not release the "flood" of insight an information we all would like to see. While there is no doubt that these old books and manuscripts contain a wealth of insights into society, culture, class, daily life, war, economics, relationships, chivalry, knighthood, etc. from the times, any great observations or information on fighting and weapon use is likely going to come from within our own community, not outside it.  Sadly, a number of us have already directly experienced resisstance, reluctance, rebuff, and even reprimand in trying to gain assistance in our martial studies from scholarly Medieval & Renissance organizations.

So, we can expect that eventually the fighting manuals will be dissected, by larger academia, but perhaps not in the manner we would hope. What typically seems to concern them is pretty clearly not what concerns us or even the general public or the rest of the planet. To generalize, they are really in their own little world. Now, I’m not criticizing anyone here or addresing any political philosophies or doctrines, just pointing out that we should not expect a whole lot of great martial knowledge about the manuals and masters to come pouring our way any time soon. Unlike the good Dr. Anglo, they will be looking for insights into aspects of culture, mindset, zeitgeist, etc., etc. We can expect something along the lines more of, say:

  • "Modes of Meta-Linguistic Textual Expression Dualities in 15th Italian Fencing Schools".
  • "Gender-bias in Talhoffer’s Judicial Duels, or Why Isn’t The Woman In The Hole?"
  • "Ethnic Inequality and Racism of the Fechtschulen: The Significance of the Lone Negro in Talhoffer" (or…"Was Ringeck a Redneck?")
  • The Long-Sword vs. Small-sword: Phallic Imagery Obsession of European Masters of Arms"
  • "Was Capo Ferro Gay? The Homo-Eroticism of Thrusting Nude Males in Renaissance Fencing Art"
  • "Marxist-Lenninist Underpinnings Within the Company of Masters: Or Why "Sir" George Silver Was not a Member"

Now, all this is very funny, but I am quite serious. Subjects such as these, pretentious and absurd as they may seem (to some of us), are the bread and butter and heart and soul or much of today’s Medieval & Renaissance scholars. It almost makes one appreciate the simple Victorian bias of Egerton Castle (and value a modern man like Dr. Anglo all the more).

It’s understandable that an academic might choose to see other subjects only through the prism of their own discipline narrow. Yet, for serious students and practitioners of Renaissance martial arts today, approaches that avoid exploring our heritage in order to enlighten and enrich can be considered an insulting waste.

The matter is that martial arts are simply not subjects concerned a whit about gender, race, class, or sexual orientation---the post-modernist obsession nowadays of much of the politically-correct brand of Medieval and Reniassance studies. So, in the coming years when we hear of new exposť’s by academia on the works of the old fencing masters, just remember to open them with caution, you’ve been forewarned.


Note 1: Since first writing this article late in the year 2000, many academics have come to realize that the approaches to the problem of how men historically defended themselves and the processes by which they constructed and conveyed these ideas are worthy of careful study. After a century of negligence in ignoring the subject for in favor of every other minutia from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, mainstream academia has finally begun to take more serious notice of it. No doubt thanks largely to the seminal work of Dr. Sydney Anglo, and in no small part the effort of the ARMA, many professional scholars within higher education are now changing their views of its significance. In the process they are recognizing its historic, artistic, social, and cultural importance within European culture and society. The martial arts of Latin Europe reflect not just personal and military combat skills, but aspects of the values and intellect of the people who produced and practiced them. But in whatever academic study attempted, their nature must be understood from the context of their pragmatic role and function.

Note 2: As of the first writing of this editorial in 2000, it appears as of 2005 to have been prescient. One new source of misinformation about historical European martial arts comes now from academics writing about matters of sword combat or historical fighting skills from well outside their area of special expertise, approaching the subject as neither martial artists nor military historians but from perspectives focused on post-modern deconstructionist social theories. This inevitably leads to cherry picking what elements of the subject they find useful for their personal theories of gender issues while ignoring the central nature of the subject (e.g., “the duel represents an attempt by the patriarchy to express its sense of masculine spatial identity through external body manifestation of homoerotic representation validating the conceptual sense of gender and class.”). The desire to see any thing in the martial arts other than things actually having to do with either “martial” or “art,” results in their missing the forest for the leaves. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a “sword fight” really is just a “sword fight.”

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