John ClementsEditorial
Reconstructing Renaissance Martial Arts: Two Analogies to Consider

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Consider an analogy for a moment: Let’s say you want to play ice hockey. But real ice hockey has been extinct for some time. The new version you are doing is now played on a different surface, using sticks that don’t weigh the same as the originals nor have the same balance. Your puck is also a different size and shape. Plus, the goal posts are not in quite the same location as they were in the past. Even your skates are different than the originals. You know that your new version is just an approximation of the original, and you know that these differences have produced certain idiosyncrasies and nuances that affect how you now go about it. You skate differently than they did in the old days and you don’t guard or swipe or even check in the same way. Having accepted such necessary allowances you believe you've worked hard to become skillful within these boundaries. You further realize that some time ago your enjoyable new hockey ceased being a way to explore the original and has grown instead into its own distinct pursuit with its own unique parameters.

A question therefore arises: At what point do you stop looking at the original hockey —how its players moved and performed with their equipment under their conditions— as your primary source of authority and inspiration? At what point do you acknowledge that your current understanding of “original hockey” has itself become profoundly colored by the skill-set particular to your new version —a version that is at best incongruous and at worst incompatible with how its was once played?

In the end, one could say that although your new hockey uses a completely different scoring method, along with different equipment and different techniques on a different surface, it at least provides better insight into the original than does say, playing baseball. But the case can be made that some of this “insight” may very well be as much distortion as it is understanding. And for some, that then defeats the very purpose for now doing it that way.

Consider a second analogy: If you’re going to take your great grandmother’s old family recipe for chicken stew and switch out some ingredients and change up the seasonings and then prepare it in a somewhat different manner, well, as inspired as it might be from her original dish, you’re making something entirely different now. You really can’t call it your “grandmother’s famous country chicken stew" any longer. You may have learned to make a tasty stew perfect for a quick night’s meal, but you haven’t preserved the recipe, you haven’t revised a forgotten dish, and you haven’t gained insight into her old-school cooking style. If your attitude is, “I don’t really care how they cooked in the past; I just want a good chicken stew today”, then referencing grandma’s recipes hardly matters since you’re not restoring but rather inventing. In which case, you cannot possibly make any legitimate claim to either knowledge of, or expertise in, culinary history.

As these two analogies convey, the important topic of reconstruction and revival continues to surface as more material is discovered and analyzed about the nature of (primarily) 16th century European fight-school exhibitions. Many questions have been raised about them and many have still yet to be satisfyingly answered. Such public events, consisting of unarmored bouts with non-lethal weapons capable of drawing blood and leaving tell-tale marks, were surely a major component of acquiring and testing skill. But to what degree were such bloody recreations displays of masculine valor, rights of passage, useful training opportunities, divergences from class-room free-play, or genuinely regulated sports?

Swordplay Symposium International Clements 2000 keynote address Houston HACA ARMABack in the early 2000s, I had a friendly debate with several professional Medievalists at academic conferences over the issue of "knightly tourneys". They were uniformly of the accepted opinion that such events were “preparation for war”. That is, knights engaged in tourneys on horseback as practice for real fighting. The same reasoning also applied to foot combat tournaments. I challenged this view by asking them, then what was their practice for these events? When and how did they train for combat on foot? The question caught all of them off guard —no pun intended. I suggested that no knight would possibly go into such an event without having first prepared himself ahead of time through serious training. We agreed that was a logical assumption. Hence, I pointed out the contradiction in the view that while a tourney or tournament did offer good martial experience, it was not the source for learning fighting techniques. Such practical self-defence skill had to come from some other means of instruction that was then supplemented by these pageant-filled recreational spectacles. I then argued that, in particular, no knight entering a foot tournament would’ve done so without undergoing some considerable martial arts lessons beforehand. Further, I proposed such lessons would have surely been the result of veterans who had engaged in real combat, not just tourneys and tournaments. There should not have been anything controversial about this view and my opinion should not have been an outlier. (It was certainly supported by already documented evidence from 14th and 15th century fight book literature.) But, being myself a practicing martial artist and explorer of Medieval and Renaissance combat disciplines, I came to the subject with a very different conception than did the pure academics.

Agonistic mock combat activities, whether or not to some degree ritualized or sportified, have always been a component of warrior training. It provides critical adversarial practice. But historical warriors existed in a world where the violent reality of actual combat was a constant reminder of what elements of personal combat were most important. Classroom bouting, prize-playings, chivalric tournaments, adjudicated duels of honor, friendly street rencounters, Klopfechter displays, and the 17th century English "gladiatorial" matches were all distinct forms of mock combat with their own peculiarities. Though they may overlap in areas, each has its own purpose, structure, equipment, approved participants, and target audience. This is a critical area of interest for those of us trying today to understand —and accurately recover— authentic Medieval and Renaissance self-defence methods.

Self-defence skills are always situational and contextual and they must be examined with consideration to the milieu within they were developed and used. Many times before I’ve addressed how this relates to our study and practice: The approach you take to historical weapon practice —the equipment you choose, the motives you follow, the objective you seek, and the method you employ— colors and influences what you will achieve from it.

A noticeable phenomenon is occurring now with youth who have entered into this subject having had nearly their entire experience of medieval and Renaissance martial arts based around competitive models that are arguably reinvented versions of "modern sport fencing" —but with double handed longs-swords or sword and buckler. Scoring points by using moves that the rules of the refereed game prescribe, and not rediscovery of historical self-defense methods, is how they approach the craft. Their mindset is primarily directed to artificial recreational contests not merely with blunt weapons but equipment often modified for scoring. Sadly, this takes precedent over reference and deference to the reality of how genuine combatants once employed real arms and armor in real self-defence.

As suggested by the two analogies above, that this utterly alters their perspective and interpretation of both the source teachings and historical fight-school events, as well as completely changes their own skill set, doesn’t seem to matter to some. In this regard, how it compromises the original material is no different than what any other modern competitive martial sport necessarily does as it deviates from its historical fountainhead.

Thus, as both student and teacher I’ve long watched the phenomenon of sportification of Medieval and Renaissance fencing (and even as far back as 2001 prognosticated it’s eventual rise within our craft). It will be interesting to see if my predictions of where it will lead and what its ultimate effect will be continues to holds true. The obvious question is how does an artificial focus on modern competition affect the practitioner today trying to accurately re-constitute these lost disciplines as a modern curriculum? ...A significant question indeed. In the meantime, those of us concerned with authenticity and historicity in recovering lost martial disciplines can only continue to follow our own paths.



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