|ARMA Editorial - Fall 2002
At the Edge of Accepted Knowledge
in Western Martial Arts
By Gene Tausk, Esq.
"Extraordinary claims require
To all practitioners and researchers in Western Martial Arts (WMA): I have the proverbial good news and bad news. The good news is that I am wholly convinced that WMA are now well on their way to firm acceptance as a reality by the general public at large. We will soon reach the point where we will no longer have to convince the public that sophisticated, effective, and highly developed WMA existed and continue to exist; it will be accepted at face value just as arts such as karate and jujutsu are accepted now. The bad news is that one of the reasons I am convinced of the veracity of the preceding statement is because we now have a crop of mystics who are peddling their wares through the guise of WMA. It seems to be a sad fact of life that when a martial art is successful, the fringe elements also come out to play.
Just as there is all sort of pseudo-science and nonsense-mongering in Eastern Martial Arts (EMA), we can now find much of the same in our corner of the field. Those who doubt otherwise are not, unfortunately, looking very hard. There is now a growing industry of individuals who are using the flourishing world of WMA to promote ideas and philosophies which are questionable in nature, and further, have little to do with combat. The purpose of this essay is to address some of the claims which are somewhat unique to Western arts. I view these claims as challenges to the generally empirically accepted worldview, and have addressed them as such.
I. The Challenge of Direct Transmission
WMA are unique from EMA in many ways, yet one of the more obvious is that Western arts do not have a direct lineage to the past. Unlike some EMA, which can trace their history back centuries, sometimes millennia, WMA cannot. Their are many reasons for this. Western societies began a process of change and rebirth beginning in the 16th century which completely overturned the ideas of personal combat. Western technological development altered forever the strategy and tactics of the battlefield, making hand-to-hand combat in a mass setting a relic of the past. Western societies have changed time and again; by way of example, the Roman Empire, which once ruled Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia Minor, is now dead forever. In its place are several different and unique cultures which are united only by geography. Many Eastern societies, however, kept their structures and traditions intact for centuries, once again, sometimes millennia. In other words, many of the social and historical forces that allowed Eastern societies to keep their cultures intact simply did not exist in the Western world (of course, the forces which caused such dynamic change in the West did not take hold in the East).
These changing societies and societal forces meant that WMA were altered, and finally abandoned. The swordplay and martial arts of the Roman Empire died soon after the collapse of the Western Empire, most notably the gladiator schools of combat. The schools of martial arts in the Europe of the Middle Ages, with its emphasis on sword combat gave way to the slender swords and thrusting swordplay of the Renaissance. The close entering techniques of Medieval masters faded as the need for armored fighting diminished. Finally, with improvements in gunpowder and firearms and the Industrial Revolution, martial arts, both armed and unarmed, became less important and finally were except by a very few, generally forgotten or discarded. By the 1700s, guns became the primary tools of both battlefield combat and civilian self-defense.
This is not to say, of course, that all forms of Western armed and unarmed combat were discarded. They did, however, assume new forms that were far removed from their martial origins to be played in the sporting arena. Two of the best examples aside from gentlemanly fencing, are fencing and boxing. The rules of the Marquis of Queensbury removed the more combat-oriented elements from Western boxing, and created a standardized system of rules so that a fight could be judged by impartial referees. As the need for the urban combat diminished the civilian self-defense necessity of the rapier developed into the refined and restrictive duels of the smallsword. This, in turn, led to further restrictions in swordplay to avoid the probability of a deadly outcome. Eventually, sporting tools replaced the real weapons. Fencing became a glorified game of blood "tag" which allowed for martial-like movement with very few possibilities for injury.
There are other reasons for the decline and extinction of Western forms of combat. This very brief sketch, however, demonstrates that the social and historical forces which developed in Western Europe and North America completely changed the way of warfare and personal defense. It is worth noting, incidentally, that many other traditions in Western culture also vanished as societies and cultures changed, such as weapon-smithing, armor-making, and various forms of woodworking.
It therefore is somewhat strange when one hears today that a practitioner of WMA has learned the "secrets of the masters" from some hermit or recluse who has passed on a mysterious fighting skill. What the person who espouses this view is saying, in other words, is that he or she has run across an individual or group that somehow has eluded the social forces very much at work in the Western world over the past five centuries and kept alive (clandestinely) a martial tradition which has declined in practical value.
By way of example: swordsmanship. I personally believe that authentic Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship is an outstanding martial art which may have modern combat applications. However, it is not useful in battlefield combat involving rapidly-firing guns nor is it a skill which anyone would have needed to stay alive since perhaps the late 1600s. So, anyone who claims to have "inherited" a form of swordsmanship is saying that an individual or group kept alive a practice for several centuries despite having no military or self-defense incentive to do so, and no practical expereince using it in actual life-and death encounters. A counter-argument, of course, is that the Japanese kept their swordsmanship (kenjutsu) alive and there are also various forms of Chinese wushu and Filipino and Indonesian arts that still use swords. However, to go back again, these societies have been until early in the last century essentially static and unchanging. It was not until the 19th century, when foreigners began to take apart China, that it became clear that the Chinese were no match for advanced Western technology. Japan was completely isolated from the early 1600s until 1854, and even after modernization, the government made an active effort to save culturally unique Japanese forms of combat. And, in all of these societies, ballistic weapons were not nearly as readily available as they were in the West, which gave individuals an impetus to keep these arts alive for self-defense.
A person who argues, therefore, that he or she has inherited WMA from a line of previous practitioners has to go a lot further than a practitioner of EMA for proof. A reputable EMA can demonstrate its lineage through historical documentation. WMA, for reasons already stated, do not have this luxury. Those who make the claim of direct transmission must not only show from where this skill came, but also provide an explanation as to how this skill managed to stay alive despite centuries of change which made the skill obsolete. In other words, they must provide the evidence.
I had a personal experience where someone told me that they had learned the ancient fighting skills of the Roman gladiators from the last known practitioner of gladiator fighting arts. Lets stop and think here for a minute. The gladiators died out more than 1500 years ago. The weapons they used (the gladius sword, the trident, the sica, etc.) have not been made for millennia. The armor used by the Romans of this time period was obsolete by 1000 ACE. Further, the impetus for gladiators in the first place (violent shows for public amusement) died out with the changing social mores of Rome even before the fall of the Western Empire. So, somehow a group or persons kept alive the fighting traditions of the gladiators, using the original weapons and tactics designed for them, while all around them arms, armaments, armor, unarmed combat, all were changing. Not just for centuries, for millennia. They did this while the rest of Roman culture art, law, music, medicine, and even language fell out of common use and public consciousness? This seemed too incredible to believe.
It became even more incredible when the person described the techniques to me....in
English. I responded that certainly he must know the original Latin names for the
techniques, since they came from the Romans. Surely if a group had kept alive the ancient
traditions, they had also kept alive the original vocabulary (This is not uncommon in
traditional EMA. Arts that have survived for centuries will use older or obsolete words in
the original language while modern EMA will not). He looked at me in wonderment. What was
I remain skeptical of anyone who claims direct transmission of WMA. It flies in the face of reality and common sense. One of the very reasons that WMA died out in the first place is because Westerners are, by their very nature, pragmatic. As the nature of warfare and personal defense changed, the impetus for using cold steel weapons died out. Westerners moved on. And, of course, to repeat once again, Western societies have changed in ways that Eastern societies have not.
Another example are the obscure forms of "Norse" or "Viking martial arts" currently being perpetrated. Typically this is done by individuals who, coincidentally have formal Japanese martial arts training, and wouldnt you know it, their "Viking style" looks a lot like kenjutsu. Yet, they persist in the claim that this secret style, complete with mystical metaphysical components invoking runes and Scandinavian mythology, somehow is not only authentic, but survived since the 8th or 9th centuries since in total obscurity. It was never evolved or developed further in the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Age of Enlightenment, or even the 19th century and seemingly never showed itself again until only very recently. How curious. It also seems to have escaped mention in any of the Viking sagas, Viking historical accounts, or records of Viking culture which survive. Quite a secret art indeed. Try to pursue the sources that would give credit to these alleged historical Norse "fighting systems" and you get even more elaborate stories of how they "escaped" notice, "hid themselves", or retreated into "hibernation" all this time. Interestingly, these Viking arts fail to include in their curriculum the primary weapons of the Viking: the spear and the round shield.
Yes, it seems if you can't claim some mysterious person taught you some special training of the "old stuff" thats good enough for some people to jump on your wagon. Just transfer whatever title or credential you have in any fencing over to include Roman, Viking, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Victorian, whatever you want to. This is the classic, "Dead Grandfather school" of fencing, i.e., someone had a grandpa somewhere who was the "last" to do it the "old way" and just before he died he passed on his "legacy", bequeathed his title, or gave a deathbed declaration of masterhood one which naturally have no supporting evidence outside of the persons claim. For that matter if someone says they have been doing a lost WMA for 25 or 30 years, well where is there any record of it? Where are their students from 15 years back or 10 years or 5? Did they cross weapons with anyone a decade or more ago who can vouch for their expertise and skills with the historical style over the years? Or is their new title of "Masterhood" a recent announcement to the world? For that matter, did they acquire all their masters secret knowledge intact or have added to it on their own with "recent research"?
For some reason it never occurs to people that at some point in recent history all these Western fencing masters stopped actually teaching how to fight and kill with real weapons and instead started teaching how to score points with light, flexible, rubber-tip practice ones. Not only that, but even earlier than this occurred, they had all ceased fighting and dueling as they had in earlier generations and stopped learning those methods of swordplay. Now, there may be continual transmission of underlying ideas, principles, and concepts, for sure, but its a big difference between fighting with a back-sword or a long rapier in a dark alley, and playing touch-touch with your colleague down at the Y. A duel in 1910 is not the same kind duel in 1710 let alone 1610. No matter how many maitres and maestros may arguably "connect" a school or style back to the Renaissance for instance, you just cant learn rapier from foil and epee fencing, it aint gonna happen, you can't do it now, and you couldnt do in 1870 either. The case is even stronger for say, trying to learn the way they fought in 1530 by using here in 2001 a method developed from one of 1830 which itself was refined from one of 1750! But today, we increasingly see the claim made that if you are a modern fencing master, you can claim you really do the "older, classical" stuff, not the modern sport, and so by default must be privy to special insight about Medieval & Renaissance martial arts the rest of poor saps don't never mind they have yet to demonstrate it or prove it, and never mind the dozens of books by their own old masters over the past 200 or more years fail to even mention anything Medieval & Renaissance martial arts! Yes, secret traditions are secret after all.
I therefore offer a series of tests for anyone who claims direct transmission of a historical European fighting art. Like my gladiator friend, I expect the person to be able to tell me about the techniques in the vernacular in existence when the weapons in question were in general use. Now, for someone from Iceland, this would be fairly easy, since their language has not changed in a millennium, but someone able to quote techniques in 14th century Plattdeutch will go a long way in proving their point. This test should be done in front of a linguist who specializes in the language at hand (despite the lack of employment, these people are surprisingly easy to find). I find it incredible that for someone who practices a system that supposedly has survived eons, the best way to describe the techniques of the art is through the hip-hop retro-English vocab of the 21st century (1).
Then, of course, they should be able to demonstrate how the weapons were used against
the armor of the day. After all, one of the points of arms in the first place was to get
past the armor. Next, demonstrate proficiency against both current WMA and EMA experts.
Hopefully it should be no difficult task to find willing combatants. After all, if you are
a master, you have to be master of some sort of fighting skills other than what anyone can
regularly pick up in a sport fencing class or stage combat troupe or familiar Asian style.
Mastery of a historical fighting art is more than just being able to talk about manuals
and techniques, you gotta be able to do walk the walk and that means do it with
speed, and energy, grace, and power. Finally, they should be able to trace a historic
outline of their combat system which fits in with the generally accepted theories of
history. Once again, this should be verified by academics recognized the field. Also, as
mentioned earlier, they need to provide evidence of the teacher of this art and explain
the reasons for its remaining hidden. Then, show how it was taught and passed on
unbroken while retained in secret all this time.
II. The Challenge of Psychic Powers
There is, fortunately, very little that needs to be said about this. There is no scientific evidence for psychic powers. Period. X-Files fans please withhold your hate-mail. There is, of course, plenty plenty of second-hand information, anecdotal evidence, tests for psychic powers done by individuals unqualified to make such tests, and "newspapers" such as the Weekly World News. In other words, not much.
Leading historical fencing instructor John Clements describes how he occasionally will here certain advanced techniques he does resemble those of aikido or combat tai chi (arts he has never practiced or studied). John says that at times hes even been told in executing techniques he is in fact "really using" his "ki" and "chi" but just didnt realize it! Johns response to these suggestions is that, since historical European martial arts do not include any metaphysical components, is: "Well, if they are having to use ki and chi to do these kinds of things all I can say is they are going about it the hard way!".
James "The Amazing" Randi, a well-known debunker of psychic frauds and the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has a standing offer of $1 million US to anyone who can demonstrate, under a controlled, scientific setting, psychic or otherwordly powers. Randi is well-qualified to make such a test himself. He is a professional magician who demonstrated a few years back that the supposed psychic abilities of (self-proclaimed Israeli "psychic") Uri Geller were actually nothing more than parlor tricks, unworthy of even a moderately capable practitioner of stage magic.
The money for the offer has been authenticated and corroborated, and over the years
many have tried to lay claim to it by submitting their "powers" to his tests.
Those interested in this should examine the website for the James Randi Educational Foundation at http://www.randi.org/index.html. It is a relaxing breath of lucid thinking against some of the misinformation which is all-to available over the web
Still, this leads to an even larger question for those practitioners of WMA who lay claim to psychic powers: so what?
Do these powers aid in a fight? Do they help a person handle a longsword or
sword-and-shield combination better? Do they help in throwing a punch or getting someone
in an armlock? In other words, what do they have to do with fighting? What do they have to
do with martial arts?
Oh, for those who believe they have psychic powers, I also offer the Randi website (wanna make an easy million with your chi, ki, or Darkside of the Force? Go give it a try). Hey, if these powers are for real, the person who has them could be $1 million richer. Just remember me when you get all that money.
III. The Challenge of Re-Defining History
This challenge is, unfortunately, almost all-too exclusive in WMA (although not unheard of in EMA). This is the practice of an individual or group, attempting to justify the country of origin for a particular martial art, by attempting to redefine history. Specifically, this is when the group will attempt to either change the historical facts or try to gloss over important historical events because it does not fit into the worldview of the group practicing the martial art in question.
Another personal encounter. I had an individual tell me that they know of a lost Jewish martial art which was practiced in ancient times. This art was supposedly devastating (arent they all? you never hear about a mediocre martial art). When asked by me what happened to this great system of combat, I was told it died out after the Roman invasion of Judea and the subsequent Diaspora of the Jews. This, of course, brought up the next logical question: if the art was so great, why were the Jews not able to use it to defeat the Romans? The answer, which caught me off-guard, was that the Jews actually did defeat the Romans, using this incredible fighting style, but were sold out by fellow Jews. Roman historians covered up the defeat because they were ashamed to lose.
Ignoring for a moment the complete lack of logic, common sense, or historical foundation for this answer, it also means that somehow the Jews were able to defeat the Romans, but lost out anyway? It also insults the memories of the many thousands of Jews who died defending their homeland two millennia ago. It goes without saying, of course, that this runs against any historical research I have come across.and Ive looked, believe me.
Yet, unfortunately, I have heard other, similar arguments for other types of fighting. indigenous Celtic martial arts, English, French, Italian, German, Russian, Lithuanian, Scandinavian, Spanish, Irish: all have their unbeatable techniques, incredible masters, and secret histories (there has been a "Afrogenesis" theory that the Greeks "stole" all their martial traditions from Africans ). They also have a similar pattern: when faced with a lost battle or complete defeat, their was either some "other" force at work or the soldiers on the line were not skilled in the "real" martial arts of the masters. Some have even told me, as in the above example, that the loss was actually a victory.
This is more or less the "ethnocentric view" of WMA, i.e., the politically correct personal identification with a nation or historical people above all others to the extent where motivation for it blinds reality: "Im of Corsican heritage, so all Corsican warriors were historically the ultimate fighters and I intend to promote and advance the great lost and mistreated Corsican martial tradition! regardless of whether or not I can actually find any real evidence there was such a thing" (no offense to any Corsicans out there).
It must be said at this point that such a view is held by a very small minority. Most practitioners of WMA are martial-arts students and scholars first and only, and are not interested in pumping up the histories of the countries their own ancestors came from or where the techniques of their style originated. However, there always seems to be a minority on the fringe who feel that if a martial art is worth studying, it must come from a country that was "never really defeated".
There is not a country on this planet that has not suffered a major defeat in battle or lost a war. The English were trounced by the French and vice versa, the French by the Germans and vice versa, and at one time or another the Poles by the Russians, the Irish by the English, the Spaniards by the English, the Italians by the Spaniards, the English by the Americans, the Americans to one extent by the Vietnamese, the Chinese by the Japanese, the Russians by the Mongols (well most everyone was trounced by the Mongols so I guess that doesnt count)...and the list goes on. Countries win wars, countries lose wars. That is why war and battles are so dangerous one never knows the outcome. Losing is always a possibility (3).
No one country has a stranglehold on martial techniques. Anyone who argues otherwise, especially in this day and age, is risking his or her reputation. There are, of course, indigenous martial techniques which are native to one country or another, but that is a different story. There is no history of a country continuously winning all of the wars and battles throughout its history. Trying to invent a history to justify a particular martial art only leads reasonable people to question the authenticity of the material the person is trying to study.
For those who have a different interpretation of history, bring the arguments forward before professional historians. They provide the generally accepted methodology to discuss and debate history and historical theories. Claiming that the Phoenicians discovered America in 1000 BCE is fine, but Semitic letters in North Carolina scratched on a rock which have been scientifically dated to three thousand years ago will go a long way in convincing the skeptical. After all, anything other than documentation in historical studies is not evidence just supposition, conjecture, and speculation, and it has all the weight of anecdote and argument form internal conviction in other wards, none.
The three challenges outlined above are, unfortunately, being found more and more often at present. It is a sad commentary on just how certain individuals and groups try to distort reality for their own ends. Imagined histories, inflated credentials, psychic powers, and an unproven direct transmission are already seen and discussed in WMA as if they were real. As practitioners and researchers of WMA, we have the chance to nip this in the bud. It is a cancer that will work against all our efforts at legitimacy.
To all those who may read this essay, I offer these final words. I do not doubt the possibility that their may exist a direct transmission of a Medieval or Renaissance martial arts to the present day. I do not doubt the possibility that psychic or otherwordly powers exist. I do not make any claim to have a complete knowledge of history and stand perfectly willing to be corrected on what I believe to be accurate knowledge. However, for those making claims to the above, the burden is on the person making the claim to provide the evidence. Many believe the reverse is true, that their theories must be disproven by the skeptical, but this is not how the advancement of knowledge works. Its not how the rules of evidence work. If a claim is made, just as if a hypothesis is forwarded, one must provide the evidence to back it up and allow this evidence to be examined before individuals and groups qualified to examine the evidence. To do otherwise is to allow intellectual sloppiness fester and grow for the next generations of practitioners.
(1) Can you imagine a warrior from the Middle Ages saying, "Yo, dude! Lets rock and roll!" or, in the vernacular of Keannu Reaves, "I know pankration!"?
(3) In the words of the immortal Captain Kirk, "Yes, war is dangerous! Thats what makes it a thing to be avoided!" From the episode A Taste of Armageddon. Its nice to know that a starship captain actually can do something else besides take to bed every female life-form in the galaxy.
Houston ARMA Free-Scolar Gene Tausk has taught and lectured at several historical fencing events, and is a former instructor of Ship Pal Gi Taekwondo/Kung Fu. He has written for the Martial Arts of the World Encyclopedia, lectured on Roman fighting arts at the 2000 Swordplay Symposium International. Genes experience also includes Greco-Roman wrestling and Sombo. He formerly worked at the US Embassy in Moscow lived in the Former Soviet Union for four years where he was also able to observe native Slavic, Caucasian, and Turkic fighting arts, including: traditional Siberian wrestling, Georgian and Azeri jacket wrestling, Yagli, the ROSS system, and Cossack fighting. He is an attorney-at-law in Houston, TX and also volunteers his time as a Russian translator for new immigrants.