ARMA Editorial - December, 2005
Sense and Pretense

By John Clements

Writing in 1997 and 1998 on Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship I made the points that much of the popular conceptions of historical armed combat were flawed. I wrote that current ideals and theories of historical fencing enthusiasts needed to be taken as tentative in the expectation that serious investigation into the source literature for these martial arts would increasingly become the central focus of the entire subject. In 2001, I wrote on (and spoke publicly about) the need for broad flexibility in our exploration in order to avoid the danger of misinterpretations of source teachings becoming an intransient orthodoxy. Writing now at the dawn of 2006 it appears my predictions seem accurate and prescient.

In recent years there’s been a virtual revolution in the study of historical European martial arts. This has been almost entirely due to one phenomenon: the advent of digital technology.  Through personal computers and the Internet students, researchers and every manner of aficionado are able now to share digitized manuscript images, translated files, or just communicate instantly around the globe via email, forums, and instant messages.  The ability to share study materials and training videos as well as opinion and insight have changed the very natural of research in this subject. It has opened up a whole new world of exploration for the revival of this forgotten knowledge. It has enabled a wealth of information to be exchanged resulting in a whole new level of understanding having been reached. We are now seeing the fruits of this in more serious investigation of the all but extinct fighting arts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe (and the publication of a wealth of new book titles on what before the year 2000 was a previously ignored subject).

Just ten years ago it was also nearly impossible to find nearly anyone conducting serious organized scholarship into the historical source literature of Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills, let alone systematically vigorously practicing it as a legitimate martial art in a combat effective manner. Instead, living-history reenactments, choreographed performances, and martial sports were arguably the order of the day.  The influences of Asian martial art styles, sport fencing and stunt fighting within pop-culture were pervasive. A fundamental change took over and interpretive-reconstruction efforts are now (no small credit to groups like the ARMA) common as the chosen means of historical fencing study.

The historical European martial arts martial community worldwide is without question at present only a fraction the size of the Asian martial arts community. So its understandable perhaps if the “expertise” it contains is a comparatively small fraction as well.  Just as there are no common standards among the many diverse styles and schools of Asian martial arts so too is there none within the small but growing field of historical fencing either.

Yet, it seems resume revision is also an increasing phenomenon within historical fencing studies so that now nearly everyone involved is apparently a “long-time” practitioner of historical European “martial arts” and “expert” on skills and teachings from material that really so far have only seriously been undergoing credible and substantial analysis for a few years.  As a martial artist swordsman for over two decades, having trained with and against countless others worldwide, my perspective is hardly that of a former historical reenactor, medievalist, or sport fencer turned practitioner, but rather that of an experienced fighter. (Hence, part of the reasoning for my unwavering emphasis on the prime importance of vigorous physical application as the best means for assessing our reconstructive-interpretations).

As a leader in the field since the mid-1990s and as a full-time professional researcher and instructor of the craft, I’ve made it my life’s work to reestablish the credibility and legitimacy of Renaissance martial arts. Part of this involves being a vigorous proponent of the need for greater quality and higher standards of performance in the practice of historical European fighting skills. So, I may perhaps be pardoned for asking, from a “fighter’s perspective,” how are we really to judge true “expertise” in an emerging field of study when everyone is in truth still a “student”? 

For the vast majority of all exploration in historical swords and swordplay our education is self-directed and ad hoc. So, we get all levels of knowledge and skill coming together to teach each other. It is with this in mind, in consideration of the increasing availability of ever more historical sources for authentic methods and techniques, that I thus feel the need to caution the practitioner seeking to develop real skill in Medieval and Renaissance fighting systems today to consider vigorous energetic demonstration of physical application of historical teachings as the truest gauge of knowledge in the craft—a craft undergoing near constant revision and amendment. 

We could not imagine a professional boxer or jujutsu expert today attempting to credibly demonstrate either the efficacy of their art or their own fighting skill solely through soft slow-speed displays with an accommodating partner. The same should be true now for displaying and teaching Renaissance martial arts.  One should endeavor to get information and knowledge of historical fighting skills wherever one can, but, always demand it be presented with proper understanding of the real biomechanics of personal close-combat. (The incidents that come to mind here as cautionary are the embarrassing examples in recent years by experts of so-called “soft” martial art styles breaking down and failing utterly in open-rule full-contact matches or videotaped street-fights.) The lesson stands for historical fencing studies as well. Just as our ancestors did, we should endeavor to practice and train and teach with energy and speed because, when the time came, that’s how you would fight.

Just as we amend and improve our academic research to make it more accurate, our physical skills must be open to continuous refinement. But unless at some time one shows that what ones believes and assumes about methods of historical close-combat is martially valid, that it works and isn’t mere play-fighting pretense, it does no good to “pass it on” in teaching. As Bruce Lee use to complain, and as our modern military has taken note, there are plenty of lousy martial art “masters” and nearly useless fighting “styles” accepted in the world today. And they all get "passed along" to the unfortunate.

As martial artists our subject is about fighting. We must develop legitimate fighting skills and we must continuously test them as much as safely reasonable.  I believe it does us no good to be able to drone on over tentative theories and highly debatable interpretations of extinct fighting traditions we are all pressed to reconstruct if we cannot demonstrate them with realistic force and energy in any combat effective manner outside of soft play-fighting and slow speed demonstration. Graceful and effortless finesse are ends of skillful practice not its means. The same could perhaps be for execution of quick and strong actions. But while the former alone is fine for dancing with weapons the latter is vitally necessary for fighting with them.

If a practitioner can demonstrate the handling of historical weapons with adroit dexterity, speed, and energy, show the historical sources for their acquisition of such actions, and finally successfully convey these techniques to others in the form of practical lessons and acquirable skills, then what more can we ask? There are many different ways to pursue the study of the martial arts and many different reasons why people practice any given martial art today. But arguably when attempting to reconstruct and reestablish extinct ones that are asserted to have been sophisticated and highly effective, then we had best be darn able to present them that way.

Historical fighting men teaching and learning these arts together once had to prove their validity and soundness with one another in safety and confidence. We can do no less now in our own sincere practices, even if we no longer need do so in battle or for genuine self-defense. There was no room for an attitude among fighting men that it didn’t matter if fighting moves were too soft or too slow or would be ineffectual against real violence, so long as they “looked good” or were “properly” executed in theory. Though it may make me unpopular in some circles to stand for the issue, I say our craft deserves no less. Anything else is an insult to the real fighting men who once had the necessity to develop and learn these skills in earnest.

“No fight [is] perfect that is not done in force & true time.”
- George Silver 1599

See also: On the Threshold of Sense


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