Where's All the Ground Fighting?

Changing our perception of Renaissance unarmed combat

By John Clements
ARMA Director

I am not much of a grappler or wrestler and have always promoted staying away from your opponent and using your weapon (even while emphasizing to close and fight inside). I have, however, for many years prided myself on specializing in disarms and trapping techniques, the skills of "sword-taking" (Schwertnemen). Seizing and takedowns or throws have long been primary in my opinion over wrestling. In pursuit of armed fighting arts I have emphasized these teachings among my personal students. I have never found this approach wanting (I can add that I have a well-earned reputation for being hard to get a grip on).

Recently, while conversing with a respected European expert on combatives and self-defense, currently consulting for the US military, I mentioned how little ground fighting there really was in the Fechtbuchs—despite many people wanting to now think of Kampfringen as modern jujutsu. My colleague said he was not at all surprised by my findings. (Curiously, incidents among US combat personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced some critical controversy over the predominance of teaching ground fighting skills within military combatives programs... Too much emphasis on going to the ground for submissions as athletic exercise. Go figure. I said the same thing years ago.)

Following this discussion I decided to take a more careful look through my extensive collection of unarmed combat images from Medieval and Renaissance artwork, and sure enough... I can say: Show me the ground fighting! Where is it? If ground fighting was particularly valued then it is noticeably under-represented in the very historical examples we rely upon. This realization came to my attention when I recently tried to gather all the ground fighting images from the Fechtbuchs for a presentation to a MMA group, but I could only find a tiny few. I looked through more than a thousand images from our historical source literature (especially the major German and Italian works) and all I can find within the fighting manuals of the 15th and 16th centuries is about a dozen total examples showing unarmed fighters on the ground. (!) In fact, when looking through ancient artwork on Pankration and Roman unarmed combat sports and fighting arts, I could only find a handful of ground fighting depictions there as well.

Although my examination was not an exhaustive search, to be sure, virtually every image of unarmed fighting techniques within Renaissance martial arts source teachings, a combatant is displayed either being thrown down or being held upright. Even then, most of the ground fighting images (as the example collected here reveal) reflect restraining or mounting in place an opponent who has already been taken down. Excluding a few unsurprising images of a prone figure in armor being dispatched by a dagger (such as in the Gladiatoria and Solothurner Fechtbuchs), I have so far found noticeably few exceptions — not counting for repetitions of the same technique appearing again in later editions, such as the various versions of Hans Talhoffer's work. 

As has been pointed out, we do not see in the majority of the images actual ground "fighting" (that is, the fallen opponent successfully defending themselves or wrestling on their back), but rather ground "killing."  

We find only a few ground techniques depicted in the early German works, showing limb locks or pinning holds, but ground fighting is not present in the teachings of major Masters of Defence such as Fiore De Liberi, Filippo Vadi, Achille Marozzo, etc. What does appear makes up a tiny fraction of the art and associated text of unarmed combat. One edition of Hans Talhoffer's Fechtbuch depicts just one out of tens, while two other editions have just three. Two ground fighting images appear in Leckuechner's messer manual, one in the Codex Wallerstein, and three in an anonymous 15th century German work. Paulus Kal's work from the 1470s contains just three. The late 15th century work by Hans Wurm, a whole manuscript on unarmed fighting, shows not a single one. There also appears only one sample plate in the work of Hans Lebkommer (c.1500). Out of more than 80 plates on Ringen moves in Fabian von Auerswald's 1539 book there is only a single solitary image showing both fighters on the ground. Even the largest collection of Ringen teachings, that of Paulus Hector Mair's immense compendia (c.1545), has only two or three ground images out of tens on grappling. None appear in Albrecht Duerer's unarmed techniques either. Not a single image of ground fighting is shown in the many Ringen plates of Joachim Meyer's famous treatise of 1570. The same can be said of the late 17th century unarmed teachings of Nicholaes Petter. 

Sure enough, the whole point of Ringen is to get your opponent down while you remain free and upright so that you can use your weapon on him (which is what a major portion of the illustrated armored combat sequences within the sources ultimately end with). Or else you give yourself the chance to escape. Those times that combatants are illustrated as being lifted or tossed they no doubt will surely end up grounded, but this does not mean you are supposed to then jump on them. No, rather, they are finished as a result of the slam, and if not, then you employ your weapon or flee. So, while the German schools of defence have the concept of Unterhalten("holding down") as a component of wrestling, and one major Italian source expresses a preference not to roll around on the ground but to safely stand up and throw your man. In his fighting treatise, the master Fiore dei Liberi wrote consistently of throwing his man to the ground, but never of joining him there.

We must remember, virtually everyone carried a dagger back then and often you might be facing multiple opponents, or be encumbered by armor. The last thing you wanted to do is grapple while laying prone where your eyes can be gouged, your groin ripped, and the adversary maim you by biting — you know, all the things that occur in life and death combat situations but are omitted and forbidden in the controlled conditions of wrestling sports and MMA. Go figure.

I consulted with a certain former student about this and he too concurred with the obsession for grappling among many modern self-defense methods. As a 14-year police SWAT veteran, he noted how the last thing he wants to do is go to the ground with a suspect where he might then become vulnerable to a hidden weapon, as well as clawing, biting, etc., not to mention having his own firearm taken from him. Why do it when he can instead use his stick or employ a move that takes the person down?

Something I have observed over the last decade's emergence of historical European martial arts study is that practitioners who come from a judo/jujutsu or Greco-Roman wrestling background will in the middle of free-play make a mental decision to stop fencing and start grappling. They fail to connect the skill sets together as simply "fighting." So, they typically get hit in that instant where they are making the mental shift between the two. The same phenomenon occurs notoriously among classical fencers and those who have never practiced any unarmed skills. When you close with them and make body contact they are easily overcome because they're still hopelessly stuck in "swordplay" mode.  Watching my students the past few years who are skilled grapplers learn the difficulty of employing the simplest of unarmed techniques against a skilled swordsman in fencing bouts has been illuminating. 

I've also noticed a tendency whereby too many enthusiasts approach the idea of Ringen as just a wrestling match where they come to the clinch then try to go straight to the ground and roll around until someone submits. The reality of serious combat however is that a fighter should want to avoid entanglements. When you can get the opponent off his feet while you remain upright it's a tremendous advantage. You don't then willingly join him there. We might recall that both Vincentio Saviolo and George Silver each complained in the 1590s that poor rapier fencing led to the fighters going quickly to the ground, which they each considered to be something inferior to effective fighting.

Wrestling is the basis of all fighting, as the grandmaster Liechtenauer and the master Fiore dei Liberi both tell us. But I believe this does not mean its techniques are the heart of the matter, but only its central idea that whether you are armed or not the very core of all combat reduces to closing with and leveraging the opponent. As Dr. Sydney Anglo pointed out in his seminal work on the martial arts of Renaissance Europe, the role of wrestling in knightly martial culture was viewed in contradictory ways during the 14th to 16th centuries. I suspect now the issue might have been one of the difference between Kampfringen — grappling techniques that are about throws, take downs, disarms, and unarmed skill versus weapons—as opposed to wrestling as a sport of going to the ground to achieve a submission hold — something to be avoided in a life and death encounter.

Ground fighting without weapons in our source works is very limited — despite the impression some practitioners now have that it was or is especially important. And when it is present with weapons, it is in the context of finishing off an opponent that has been taken down. That's certainly not the kind of ground fighting people do now in mixed martial arts practice. Thus, while it is not in dispute that there is "some" ground fighting in the source teachings, what I am proposing is that this "some" is actually quite small and really not all that significant. I believe that it was uncommon and not the intended goal of Ringen training. Those who believe differently are certainly free to provide evidence that contradicts this view.

I tell my students do all the grappling and wrestling you like and you will not learn the value of fencing. But do fencing right and you will learn the value of Ringen. For myself, I have never studied wrestling or grappling arts. Instead, my skills and all I know about it, I have learned from my practice of historical fencing — a craft which I approach without any artificial post-Renaissance separation between armed and unarmed teachings.

There is no denying the utility and value of skills in ground fighting as being beneficial for a martial artist. But in combat, standing up when your opponent is on the ground is arguably superior to anything else. All the more so when deadly weapons are involved. I believe our historical source teachings reflect this. The only time this is not true is when you make fighting into an unarmed contest or game where you want to force an opponent to tap out. (If you doubt it, try wrestling sometime against someone carrying a small dagger in their belt. See how quickly things end.)

So, we are left with no choice but to challenge those advocating ground fighting in RMA (Renaissance martial arts) to show us the evidence, textural or iconic, from our source teachings. Where's all the ground fighting?

October 2009


End Note: I think ground-work as a whole is just overrated—a result of the pendulum of modern popular martial arts having excluded grappling in favor of "kick-boxing" styles for so long that when the Brazilians came along and wiped out fighters in the mid-1990s everyone soon realized their deficiencies. Nowadays, things are back where they should be for modern unarmed self-defense: people acknowledge that you need to be able to fight standing up, to throw or block blows when necessary, to face multiple attackers, and more importantly to effect take downs and throws (or prevent them being used on you). When you over emphasize ground-work because it's popular you are a less well-rounded fighter—whether modern or historical, armed or unarmed. I think that historical lesson has been relearned out of our recent military conflicts. In historical fencing studies, the immediate lethality of weapons in close-combat encounters teaches you right away to avoid purposely going to the ground with your opponent. I think our ancestors knew this. And it's even more so when modern firearms are involved.



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