Why a Fellowship?

Every student of the martial arts must live with the real consequences of how they train, and with whom they train, not the good intentions of either.

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Brotherhood of ArmsAny collection of people, virtual or actual, can be called a community. But what unites and bonds them? Is it just a common interest in or similar attraction to martial arts? Or does what and how much you share depend on whom and under what terms you share it?

What brings a student of historical fighting arts together with others? Historically, this discipline, this craft, this noble science, was never practiced as a vain leisure activity nor solely for individual glory, but with recognition that as a warrior the fighting man was part of a class, a caste, a brotherhood of arms. Whether as some order of feudal knight or gentleman courtier, as scholar in a school of defence or fellow in a fighting guild, learning and practicing the art of arms demanded solidarity among practitioners. They were elites.

Though modern enthusiasts frequently like to imagine they can train alone in their own “solo art,” it’s just not so. But, in the same way that fighting skills are not practiced in a psychological vacuum but with the need for mental and emotional control, a martial discipline is not practiced in social isolation independent from the need to train with (and exercise against) others. Indeed, many leading humanist educators of the Renaissance stressed the martial arts as part of their curricula specifically because they valued its capacity to help make a better citizen.

There is no question that, ultimately, self-defense is a highly personal matter largely of self-effort — whether on the battlefield or the street, in judicial combat or private duel of honor. But the knightly art of arms was never really something to be practiced remotely in seclusion or for some singular occasion, but with one's fellows—and not just any fellows, but those whose honor was demonstrated and whose respect had been earned. And among elites it can’t be any other way. Every school had its rankings, every teacher his pupils, every knight his retainers, every courtier his trusted band, every free man his militia. There was no selfish “lone warrior” myth nor much truth to the knight errant, and even the duel of honor was itself chiefly a matter of public reputation among one's social peers. The Art as expressed in the Renaissance source teachings, was taught with the recognition it was intended only for those who were deemed worthy, those trustworthy to receive it. However much this was followed in practice we can never really know. But those who associated together to train under the same guild or teacher shared fidelity with one other. In this way they could teach and demonstrate, instilling in others a desire to learn the craft and a sense of accomplishment in doing so.

Yet, there can be no question that not all martial arts (nor artists) are created equal. They simply don’t all have equivalent understanding of the innate biomechanics or the same repertoire of effective techniques. They have their own “personalities” —entirely independent from utility or effectiveness—and not every discipline is right for every person. Today, different styles and different practitioners can each have markedly different motives, objectives, and methods, as well as distinct core assumptions about fighting. Each individual and group today can vary widely in degree of “settled order of learning” (to quote the late-15th century maestro Pietro Monte). Their focus may be on different source works or masters, different primary weapons, different historical periods, different degrees of athleticism or physicality, and very different levels of effort and martial spirit, not to mention dissimilar training standards and regulations. Which is why we catch people saying insipid things like, “Even though I can’t make it work, my interpretation of that technique is more accurate.”

People today often complain about the commercialization of martial arts as a commodity, or its pretense and insincerity, while at the same time they will decry the impersonal nature of much of modern life. And yet, here we have with this craft a legacy that at once celebrates individual achievement and awards personal effort while it simultaneously acknowledges our shared connection to a renewed heritage. But somehow reviving its traditional dedication to principle and honor gets either ridiculed or trivialized.

Unselfishness is not a feature that immediately springs to mind in regard to either historical research or the practice of a martial discipline. But it is an aspect of cultural renewal and preservation of heritage. So it is worth asking if your interest in the martial arts of Renaissance Europe is a desire to share with others, or just the need to use them for your own needs? Is not working to reconstruct and revive these lost fighting systems far more than the meagerness of just finding someone to practice with? Why even seek out others who share our passion if it is not because of something more than just the mundane commonality of collective curiosity? What does loose affiliation with strangers really offer without commitment to a larger effort or greater ideas, let alone any agreed method and standards?

HEMA Martial FellowsshipWhen you think about it, just because a group of loosely organized practitioners says, “we are interested in X, we study Y and practice Z,” this really doesn't give you a clue as to their agenda or who they really are at heart. You may know their interest in the subject, but what’s their interest in you or in one another? Join the typical established dojo or other equivalent and you have essentially have one of two models to follow: either be indoctrinated into revering another cultural tradition with allegiance to its hierarchical order, albeit one packaged for modern Western customers, or else casually embrace an informal structure that asks no more loyalty than you would expect out of a college course on accounting. Join up with a generic historical fencing group, on the other hand, and you may have no idea what you are getting into or the character and values of those you are getting in with.

What advantage is found without a deeper connection or meaningful responsibility to one another through something more than informal ad hoc relationships? Or do we reduce this reclaimed art to just trivial interest in a “mutual activity,” like a hobby of stamp collecting or a generic sport of cycling? When everyone is left to their own devices doing their own separate thing in whatever way they imagine without a mutual direction or reciprocal commitment, how then can that be considered a honest "community?"

That this craft is about self-improvement as well as mutual education means it needs a genuine community—not the hollow networking of social media or the self-centered shill of online banter, nor the pretentious role-play of imaginary nobility, but an organized assemblage with real principles and sincere values they work to realize together. There has never been a great martial artist produced by committee. As a self-defense art, this discipline is perhaps self-centered, and certainly self-preserving and self-realizing. But it was never pursued selfishly or by deceiving and exploiting one's fellows. It is through identification with the real historical masters and fighting guilds that can we improve the craft and ourselves. All of this is why petty politicking and commercialism is shunned within our guild. 

Today, just as in the Renaissance era, those who seek others to train with or a teacher to learn from must do so with a sense of camaraderie, loyalty, ethics, and trust. Anything less disrespects our heritage and works against the very ideals the Masters upheld. …History, heritage, self-defense, and camaraderie. Who could argue with that?

See also: 
The ARMA Credo


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