"Seek to thoroughly understand..."

By John Clements
ARMA Director

"Seek to thoroughly understand this art and learn to apply a true honorable earnestness"

...So wrote the Master Joachim Meyer when advising the reader in his great German martial arts treatise of 1570.

This is one of my all-time favorite quotes from the source teachings of our subject.

In considering it, two question arise as to what it means.

Firstly, what did it mean for its intended audience at the time it was written?

Secondly, what does it mean now for us as modern students and practitioners working to become skillful, even as we struggle to recover and rebuild these forgotten disciplines?

The first question is harder to answer, being a matter of historical, cultural, social, and even linguistic debate, so I will address my immediate thoughts toward the second.

To be sure we do not take the quote out of context, we must examine it in the original full paragraph. The following is from page 42 of the excellent Forgeng translation (Greenhill 2006):

“Therefore I hope that even if my writing is little heeded by some, yet many honest fellows and young fighters will come forth and…seek to thoroughly understand this art, and to learn to apply a true honorable earnestness, to purge themselves of useless peasants’ brawling, and to be diligent in all manliness, discipline, and breeding, so that when they have truly and fully learnt this art, and lead an honorable life, then they may be thought able to direct others, and particularly the youth, and thereby to be of service.”

Clearly, Meyer is connecting his desire to teach and educate through martial arts as a deliberate means of improving character. Indeed, later he even declares: “if you will learn to fight artfully, you should attend these verses with diligence. A combatant shall conduct himself properly... All virtue, honor and manliness, you shall cultivate at all times...” This is a classic Renaissance humanist view familiar to any student of the period, and something expressed in several other martial arts treatises by leading Masters of Defence. The Master Filippo Vadi in his treatise of c.1482, for instance, similarly expressed a concern for his reader to “Brandish manfully the sword” and “match it with a gallant heart.”

What then can we make of Meyer’s direction for his student-reader to seek to thoroughly understand the art and learn to apply a true honorable earnestness?

To Seek?

Without meaning to over-analyze, the command "to seek" directly implies an endeavor, to find knowledge that must be sought out by work and discipline.  In other words, it's a process, a path, a journey, a continual quest. (As the master Joseph Swetnam similarly wrote in 1617, “never leave studying and practicing till you come to the ground and until you have sounded into the depth of your Art.”)

The counsel to "thoroughly understand" seems simple enough. But that's the whole trick isn't it?  The key word here is "thoroughly."  It should be self-evident that this craft is not to be approached ad hoc, haphazardly, shallowly or superficially.

But when do you know you understand it thoroughly? I don't think we ever truly do, which is why the "seek" part implies a continuous effort and never ending process. An open-ended approach to life-long study whereby ongoing effort without regard to any point of culmination is a familiar aspect to the pursuit of most all arts. (We might recall here the wisdom of Augustine of Hippo who declared, "If thou should say, 'It is enough, I have reached perfection,' all is lost. For it is the function of perfection to make one know one's imperfection.")  Again, heeding the advice of Master Joseph Swetnam in 1617:  “Be not wise in thine own conceit, in thinking that thou hast learned all the skill which is to be learned already, far deceived are thou if thou thinks so...”

This "Art"

The subject "Art" here is our own focus on self-development in a systematic methodology of Renaissance era self defense teachings. That is, the study of an authentic combative discipline supported by Master Meyer's own instructional treatise and the entirety of Renaissance martial arts literature. There is no questioning the depth of wisdom and sophistication of fighting knowledge contained within the craft. It's there for us to explore.

What consideration can we then make of the words "learn to apply" in the context of the next part, "a true and honorable earnestness"? In its simplest expression, learning application of the Art consists of acquiring prowess in the techniques and concepts of close combat by internalizing the underlying core principles of fighting. This learning occurs through drills and exercises whereby we perform repetitions of key movements alone or with a partner and then engage in mock combat practice. Even though we may never employ actions in earnest violence, by working as if to prepare ourselves to fight for real, we thereby obtain abilities to securely execute quick, coordinated, powerful, untelegraphed actions in safe play and classroom demonstration. In this way, the point of training to acquire skill ultimately becomes an end in itself.


Finally, it is the last portion wherein Master Meyer writes of the context of our learning to use this martial knowledge that I find to be the most profound.  Apply it with a "true and honorable earnestness."  What is it that is "true" about the Art? Its practical physical validity? Its martial soundness and self defense utility?  There is no question as to the pragmatic value of the Art of Defence at the time (even as many a master, including Meyer, went out of the way to emphasize its viability).

But we can surmise and infer that what is true here is that the student finds that proper study requires sincerity of self and appreciation of one's own capacity.  It's long been an axiom of military science and martial arts that wisdom begins with an honest evaluation of strength and weakness. There is nothing to gain by self-deception and self-delusion when it comes to gauging our capabilities and vulnerabilities.

Earnest honor?

Lastly, what then do we make of an "honorable earnestness?"

I will leave addressing what was "honorable" in 16th century Germanic society to better authorities on the subject. Suffice it to say, we no longer live in an honor culture in Western Civilization, and the concept is largely a caricature at best and, sadly, something unfortunately mocked and discredited at worst .

However, to do something in "earnest" can mean to do it for real, which would be perfectly reasonable for learning self defense skills in a violent age where dueling, street fighting, judicial challenge, all manner of personal armed conflict and battlefield close combat was commonplace.  It would be self evident that Meyer’s martial arts treatise is about developing real skills to deal with real danger. But, the intent of this passage is such that it is almost implicitly about something other than fighting prowess.

Can it honestly be argued that this means anything other than proceeding without duplicity, deception, and deceit, or that it consists of anything other than approaching study without excuses or blaming others for our own incapacities and inadequacies?

There is little question that Meyer's words speak to what is a matter of character, of scruples and ethics --something which plagues all human endeavors and all social interactions in all societies in all cultures at all times.  That a martial arts student should deal with their teacher and their fellows with some personal integrity, respect, and loyalty was a given in the fighting guilds of Meyer's age.  Civility, decorum, courtesy, manners... call it what you will, in Meyer's time they didn't much tolerate people ignoring these things in their personal discourse (even as nowadays it doesn't exist much in public or private, much less on the Internet). Asking whether these values are given much consideration in our subject today is something I personally don't even think even needs to be asked.  Just look around and you will surely answer it for yourself.

Context and consideration

This brings us to one simple final consideration: In the study of Renaissance martial arts today, is anyone seriously going to assert that they don't follow this advice? Is anyone going to say they aren't interested in being thorough in their understanding, that they are unconcerned with being true or honorable in their learning, and that earnestness is not what they believe in? If they did, would you want to practice with or teach them? Of course not. Thus, as the answer to both of these is obvious, it then begs the question as to how we can accurately consider anyone's sincerity and commitment. That there are today practitioners of every style of martial art who are disingenuous in their efforts and dishonest in their traits is undeniable.  Fortunately they are not the majority.

An essential part of our efforts to recover and rebuild this subject has been to stress how at the time masters and schools of defence didn't pursue the Art in a moral vacuum --and it shouldn't be any different today either.  And this doesn't mean some pretentious chivalric role playing or adopting fictional swashbuckling personas.

Again, I defer the reader to elements expressed in the ARMA Credo of our modern fighting guild: Sincerity of Effort, Respect for History and Heritage, and Cultivation of Martial Discipline.  This leaves no room for things that diminish and disrespect the craft -- i.e., role play, escapist cosplay, delusional theatricalization, standardless performance, and reductionist sportification of play fighting contests.

In contrast, I like to think that Master Meyer's advice, "Seek to thoroughly understand this art and learn to apply a true honorable earnestness," is encapsulated by our official ARMA motto: "Real world skills from real world history."  Genuine ability obtained from authentic sources by committed individual effort.

In the mean time, "to seek thoroughly" is what I have long argued rediscovery and revival of this craft must be all about -- continuous physical exploration and academic investigation via research and practice.  How can it be otherwise?

January 2014


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