ARMA Editorial
History and Heritage

By J. Clements

What does the lack of a continuity of tradition and lineage of instruction mean for the study of Renaissance martial arts?

As I have been preaching since the mid-nineties, there is one overriding fact in the modern interpretation and reconstruction of Medieval and Renaissance fencing methods: The historical source manuals are our only means of direct knowledge of these fighting arts. Everything else of our present understanding—exploration of period literature and art, investigation of arms and armor, intuitive insight and physical exercise—is all important, but is still secondary.

No one living today has first-hand knowledge of these lost arts and no surviving schools or traditions of instruction in Medieval and Renaissance combative systems have survived.  The vestiges within modern fencing styles that still retain some connection to the old ways are mere atrophied shadows that barely qualify as a martial art of swordsmanship. So then, what does this lack of any continuity of tradition and lineage of instruction mean for our present study of Renaissance martial arts?

That’s a good question. Yet the question itself may stem be something of a false premise. Within Japanese and many other extant Asian martial arts for example, pedigree, continuity, and tradition of transmission are often of great concern. For us however, without "living traditions" or any "surviving lineage" for the teachings we follow, and having to reconstruct and recover extinct combative systems, we can focus in exploring Renaissance martial arts exclusively on understanding how and why they did what they did.

For this we are fortunate not to be distracted by centuries of peacetime classroom alteration and civilianization watering things down. We can rely instead on dozens of highly detailed technical volumes (often highly illustrated…in color no less) on proven principles, concepts, and techniques. We have study guides and instructional texts by fighting men who actually fought and killed during the age. These Masters of Defence tell us in their own words essentially, “Here is how you do it” and “This is how to study when I am not around to teach you.” Therein is our preserved knowledge. Therein lays our authenticity. This is why the incredible richness of our Western martial heritage is so impressive and so many coming to the subject are now astonished at its efficacy, simplicity, and sophistication.

This reliance on extra-somatic information (i.e., “book learning”) is, by the way, itself a part of our very “tradition” in Western Civilization (and our source literature even declares its importance for martial arts study). Of course, the problem and challenge for us, then, is in the area of translation and interpretation, followed by accurate understanding of application. This is itself a problematic area.

It should also be pointed out that Renaissance martial arts are approached from a different cultural context than are its Asian equivalents (and I might note, one that is far less alien to Western civilization). What’s really exciting is that it’s not that hard. Renaissance martial arts does not suffer form any obsession with aesthetics and hierarchy or accumulation of titles and rankings (at least not as we pursue it in ARMA). Instead it follows an empirical dialectic. It doesn't involve mysticism and doesn’t take decades of esoteric effort under secret masters and hidden schools to learn the effectiveness of legitimate combat techniques (again, at least not with the ARMA approach). It’s not something spoon fed only to an enlightened and worthy few, but presented as a whole to be considered at length.

Additionally, we certainly don’t have the continuity problem experienced by that old children’s game of “Rumor” where one child whispers a short sentence in another’s ear and that child then whispers in the next and so on and so on down the line until the last child in the class stands up to speaks aloud the last whisper whereby everyone then laughs at how much it changed from the one they heard and the original. The same thing occurs over the generations with fighting arts that are removed from the necessity of survival to be taught in safe civilian classrooms or “preserved” by families and secret societies who have not used then in earnest for centuries. As I often explain in my historical fencing seminars, the same thing can be witnessed in showing a dance routine to someone, then having them take someone else out and show it to them and so on and so on. With each passing transmission there is minute change and personalization no matter how hard they try to keep it consistent. It’s the nature of verbal information and movement patterns that they don’t remain constant. They evolve. The farther they move from the exigency of the original environment that necessitated their development, the less such teachings reflects the realities of survival in combat. As any anthropologist will tell you, this is the nature of the oral tradition. Everything not documented and recorded in detail and studied from books is subject to change over time---dances, songs, poems…and martial arts. But, when our sources are descriptive documents and technical manuals, we largely avoid that problem.  After all, no one alive today knows exactly how warriors from the 13th to 17th centuries (whether European or Asian) truly fought like say, on foot, in armor, against sword and spear and dagger.  We must all to a degree merely theorize. We must speculate and extrapolate and adjust our physical exercise accordingly.  One thing we can’t do is cling to false preconceptions or practices from other disciplines.

Yet, it seems a phenomenon began sometime after the year 2000, where most every stage-combat troupe, stunt-fencing show, choreographed fighting club, classical fencing teacher, and reenactment / historical role-playing group out there jumped on the "Western martial arts" bandwagon. That’s a good thing of course, except that all most of them seemed really to do was change the terminology they use and give more lip service to the texts of the Masters, offering homage to the images while missing the spirit and intent of their works.  But apparently not much else changed in their attitude or activities. No true commitment to athletic physical training and fitness, or to the objective of real combat effectiveness and martial soundness. Just the usual play and display approach, albeit more legitimized by more historical references.  But real quality and skill?  Examining the videos and photos on the Net from groups and traveling around to various events demonstrates it’s rare. Most everyone now says they are “studying” some master or manual. Some are more sincere than others about this. But when engaged on the issue and how it affects their activities it frequently becomes clear that they can’t discuss the subject with depth nor demonstrate techniques with impressive skill. The concern exclusively for combat effectiveness and martial spirit in recovering these teachings just isn’t there (yet).  As I have often said, there are only a handful of practitioners of this craft today that would stand a chance going up against top-level expert Asian martial art stylists---whether in sparring or demonstration. 

This clash of values is the hidden underlying friction present today between the ARMA and others in the emerging historical European martial arts community. ARMA’s unwavering no-nonsense emphasis in this subject on earnest fighting skills combined with rejection of the “play and display” approach, and our dismissal of the “one true lineage” claims of some classical sport fencers, conflicts with the way some others pursue things. Our attitude about serious martial arts practice is not just pretend but a real commitment and some enthusiast claiming to do the same thing know they can’t match it or compete with it yet don’t want to be held to the same level of comparison.  Commercial and ego rivalries aside, this is why ARMA is so repugnant to some of those busy role-playing knightly tournament games by sparring on their knees or sport fencers preening they are 19th century maestros of the duel. Not only that, but try disagreeing with an obese 300-pound “Highlander” couch-potato at the renn faire fight show when he declares what you and he do are the same equivalent degree of “martial art” and you will make an enemy for life. You will likely receive the same result when you discuss with a historical reenactment group how the steel blades they use for armored combat have inaccurate geometries that affect the performance and handling characteristics of the weapons, and thus the execution of authentic fighting techniques. Such is human nature, unfortunately.

It's no sin to acknowledge that the role-play / reenactment crowd as well as classical fencers, busy with their own pursuits, essentially did nothing for decades about reconstructing genuine European martial arts in an organized manner (this fact is one reason why the ARMA came into being). For many of them still, all these historical source texts are not really anything more than just another means to extend their fantasy escapism. It's not about cultural heritage or authenticity or self-defense, but just another mechanism by which to help them pretend they are someone else in some other time and place (which explains why some are so emotional over disputes of "interpretation", because it disturbs their fantasy world view and by result, their very self-identity). For others, clutching titles earned in, and derived from, a sporting version of 19th century dueling is in their minds the penultimate martial achievement somehow. To be sure, much the same kind of problems have existed in the Asian martial arts community for sometime. But the Asian martial arts off course don't real suffer from this to anywhere near the same degree. We don't run across people putting on fight-shows while role-playing that they are Shaolin monks or Samurai at a local "Oriental Culture festival" for instance. Our subject has the far worse share, since in ours there are whole organizations built from the ground up on role-playing, display performance, or competitive contests. While those things are certainly fine pursuits, they are really not the function of historical European martial arts study. Without meaning to offend in the slightest, it's worth asking, how much do they work toward bringing legitimacy and credibility to this subject?

In a very real sense, trying to simply make up modern incarnations of fencing with Medieval and Renaissance arms on our own without grounding in the real physicality and body mechanics of close personal violence, is like taking up antique musical instruments and attempting to invent original versions of Medieval and Renaissance music without regard to the actual compositions and musical theories of the age. Even when we attempt to rely on and return to the historical methods, the endeavor is made all the more difficult because, unlike musicians, fencers in later generations changed instruments as well as compositions and theories. 

There is no question the more a combative system digresses from its originating historical conditions, which compelled its martial utility, the less “martial” it becomes. As students of both combatives and history, we must recognize the limitation that, despite the sincerest attempts, any modern civilianized (even sportified) martial art practiced for recreation and health is not the same as one historically practiced for survival. Few would assert today that Medieval or Renaissance styles of close-combat have been preserved anywhere exactly as they once were with the same level of intensity, expertise, and motivation. Nor are the best modern reconstructions of historical fencing teachings identical in all respects to the versions once practiced hundreds of years past in a very different society and culture. What is required then for objective consideration of any traditional fighting style (or historical fighting literature) is a willingness to look at the subject more as students of history, rather than as emotionally invested adherents of a belief system.

The pursuit of historical fencing studies the manner ARMA advocates as the logical and necessary way is unquestionably heuristic. As much as possible today we learn by doing. It is essentially autodidactic. But the continual uncertainty is exactly how authentic is this “doing” we pursue. The process of studying historical fencing texts does not itself confer axiomatic authenticity on the physical movements thereby deduced. To test the veracity of our techniques we must practice fight in a manner that is as realistic as possible without injuring one another. Where applicable we must also practice our strikes with sharp blades on historically appropriate materials to learn further about their function and effects.  In totality, this is a dynamic process of interpretation-practice-application-reinterpretation, which allows us to evaluate and refine our understanding of the historical teachings.

So, knowing all this, we must try to approach this subject with the same mindset and concern that our historical source texts describe. Is our craft complete? No, its investigation is really in its infancy. It’s continually being rediscovered and reclaimed this very moment even as you read this. In a way, that act is itself part of carrying on and preserving a tradition.


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