ARMA Editorial - October 2013
Reflection and Personal Growth in Renaissance Martial Arts Study

By John Clements

Around the time I was 20-years-old or so, my best friends and I were getting into kickboxing.  We all had a mass of books and VHS tapes on the subject and had done a ton of sparring and cross-training with all sorts of different people. We bought all manner of training gear, as if the more we had the better it made us. Eventually, we went to get some professional instruction, trying out assorted local classes and coaches, but seldom long enough to warrant any educated opinion. Adept at virtually nothing and without any real program to follow we still imagined ourselves competent and knowledgeable.  When I look back on this now, I realize just how much youthful enthusiasm and energy carried us along more so than any real learning. Only now do I grasp just how much was oblivious to us even as we regularly critiqued professional coaches and fight trainers who'd been practicing longer than we'd even been alive.

Problem was, we didn't know what we didn't know. Hell, we hardly knew what we did know. We just weren't experienced or mature enough to appreciate what was being taught to us, or for that matter, what wasn't being taught to us (which can be almost as significant). We just weren't qualified really to evaluate most any of what we were shown one way or another. We simply hadn't put in the years of work or the depth of effort (physically or mentally). Yet, none of this stopped us from endlessly spouting off our opinions on every aspect of martial arts wherever and whenever we saw it.  Even when we did encounter real masters and experts that impressed us, we always seemed to find some reason or other for rejecting their advice in favor of our own notions.  It was so easy to make lazy excuses for our limited skill sets or our own still unpolished amateur abilities. Outgrowing this didn't come easy.  (And keep in mind, I'm am referring here to the pursuit of widely-known Asian martial art styles with readily accessible traditions, not extinct combatives still being rediscovered!)

Decades would past before I came to understand what process was at work and how few ever get beyond it.  I cringe now when I imagine how we must have looked at the time to our seniors and elders. We had the admirable passion of the naive, certainly. And in the realm of martial disciplines, sometimes when there is extraordinary aptitude, it aspires to something commendable. But more often than not, regardless of how unique or how well-read we believe we are, it ultimately just ends up being exposed for what it is: untutored ignorance.

I recognize this same thing today among the younger Internet generation spewing judgements about historical martial arts matters for which they personally have no great capacity and within which they have achieved no admirable accomplishment. A twenty-something of no particular athleticism, not especially gifted, and not even of remarkable physical conditioning, will nonetheless imagine that his opinions on using historical arms and his views on little-known self-defense methods of which he only recently encountered, should hold some particular value for the world. It's lunacy.

In my youth, my friends and I were at least smart enough to recognize when others were far better and far wiser about matters of fighting than we. We understood when they had training regimens and practice routines that put ours to shame. We conceded that their seniority, their experience, their conditioning all meant something, even if we weren't quite sure what.  We held them in esteem as role-models to emulate and even dream of surpassing, whether we personally meshed with them or not. We even admitted to ourselves that there was a much larger world out there beyond our limited judgement and understanding. I don't see that among the Net generation. Every adolescent thought, every insipid opinion, every ineptitude, every uninformed notion and flippant expression of foolish inexperience gets embarrassingly enshrined in a blog, video, social-media post, or tweet.  Call it the archiving of stupidity.

As a professional fight instructor, as a pioneer in historical combat studies, and as a veteran of more than thirty-years of fencing and martial arts, I now have very little patience for such self-deluding ineptitude. It tarnishes our heritage and certainly offers little to improve my students or aid my constituent membership.

Today, the craft of learning Renaissance martial arts contains a strong autodidactic component, in that, not being able to call upon extant teaching lineages of surviving pedagogical traditions, many of us are by necessity self-taught. We came to our skills by virtue of whatever level of physical work we put into developing our understanding of the craft. However, martial arts are heuristic only to a small degree. Each new generation doesn't really come to the subject with "new ideas and fresh views" because every novice student must first learn key biomechanical lessons about the nature of combatives and about dealing with personal violence --lessons slowly accumulated over generations by fighting men down through the ages. Martial knowledge is acquired only through will and adversity. It is paid for by pain and sweat and blood. Yet, today we don't do this with our subject. We have instead play versions and pretend fights that for the vast majority are what motivate and instruct (and obscure).

In my youth, what was always strange to me was how back then some of my friends who were the least physically gifted and least capable practitioners were among the ones who had the deepest delusions about their own skill and potential while being least able to recognize or acknowledge excellence in others. They never did ever grow much as martial artists, either. They never came to understood the process or the journey. They never moved beyond their own adolescent envies and inadequacies even as adults. If anything, they became worse as their youth faded. The fact is, not all martial artists are made equal. Some people just don't have any real talent for it and never will. Problem is, they often delude themselves into imagining the level they practice it on is the "real thing."

Today, as an experienced instructor, as a successful program manager, I see this same kind of resentment and vitriol on the Net all the time. Haters gonna' hate, after all. Being an instructor, I long ago discovered ways of dealing with such ignorance in person. It's not uncommon to find it in many combat sports, martial disciplines, or any other serious physical skill. Inept people tend to weed themselves out of higher standards and avoid the challenge to better themselves. But today, in the realm of historical fighting arts on the Internet, they can readily reinforce their mutual delusions because, after all, these are skills that will never get tested, never get strenuously challenged, and never get put to the test (artificial sporting contests notwithstanding). They will instead always remain safely in the convenient realm of speculative possibility and hypothetical theory. Thus, mediocrity tends to flourish.

Now, this isn't the say that everyone no matter how untrained or inexperienced a novice can't contribute in their own way to the exploration of this subject or have useful insights into its investigation. This aspect is something that I have myself specifically advocated for years. (In fact, it is a central message of the ARMA's recovery and reconstruction efforts.) But there is also no denying there are two sides to this. To come across some pudgy trash-talking adolescent imagining he now understands a fighting method that hasn't been practiced in centuries all because he's cut some plastic water bottles, or read some 25-year-old's "definitive" interpretation of a 15th-century close-combat source "deciphered" because he's won some pretend bouts with plastic swords, is astonishingly absurd.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: while it would be ridiculous for people with virtually no experience in self-defense training, no lengthy history of exercising in the source teachings or in handling weaponry, and no noticeable athleticism or physical aptitude for combatives, to nevertheless imagine that they could reconstruct some forgotten styles of jujitsu or kung fu after spending just a couple years playing at it while surfing the net from their parents' basement. Just read some books, play with some weapons, and --poof! --you're now qualified to go online to "interpret." And don't forget to opine and complain bitterly over techniques that you yourself are incapable of properly doing.

Yet, if we are honest, this is in effect what has emerged now when it comes to the study of the lost martial arts Renaissance Europe: A huge net community of amateur enthusiasts playing at it while inventing modern sword-sports congregate to mutually reinforce a lowest common denominator status quo of performance. The only ones denying this phenomenon are those neck deep in celebrating it.  It's certainly not a problem exclusive to our discipline or subject and there's also nothing that can be done about it --except to offer an alternative based on excellence.

When it came to historical fencing, in my youth there were no credible authorities or expert know-how available. There were only Sca bozos and stage-combat klopfechters (of which not much has changed). There were few resources to draw from, virtually no good equipment, and everyone was more or less only just beginning to piece together that there even was something real to reconstruct. Now by contrast, there are tremendous resources to call on and significant examples to follow. It'd be wonderful to think this would automatically transfer to personal growth in the practice of authentic Renaissance fighting arts. Alas, this is not the case. Not every fighting method or practitioner is created equal. And not every style or class or teacher will meet the needs and personality of every student. No matter what someone's always going to be left disgruntled in some way over something.  But, however defined, it is aptitude and attitude combined with good training habits cultivated by self-discipline that determines a successful martial artist.

In 1389, the Master Hanko Doebringer challenged that there are none today who can conceive of any technique or strike that was not already explained by the teachings of the Grand-Master  Johannes Liechtenauer. He complained that the show-fighters produced things that belonged not to real fencing but only to "school fencing and the exercises for their own sake."  To this we might add a modern corollary, that there are none now who can claim knowledge of this Art without being able to competently demonstrate the teachings of Liechtenauer.  Think about this the next time you catch a YouTube clip of some adolescent with weak posture and abysmal balance standing at improper distance to slowly chop at plastic bottles. Who is there to tell them of their ineptitude?

The author back in early 2000

I think back to a night, circa 1986, with my friends and I gathered in a theater parking lot after watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, standing around trash-talking the action star --making fun of him, deriding him, mimicking him. This went on for more than an hour as I grew increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, I spoke up to say stop and listen to ourselves. I called them out saying how not one of us was in that man's league, not one of us had done a fraction of what he had with our own lives, not one of us were not as fit as he was, as talented as he was, as successful or skilled or popular, and on top of this we had just paid to see his movie. Yet, there we were ragging on him when we knew damn well we wouldn't dare say any of these things in person to his face, and that there wasn't one of us who wouldn't happily trade places with him or jump at the chance to meet him in person given the choice.

Strangely enough, there was no question every one of us fed off this critical hostility to his movies; using it to motivate our own feeble training. I remember feeling ashamed at the pathetic shallowness of my friends and my words stunned them into silence. They knew it was all true. I taught myself a lesson on human nature that night --and it's one I've since come to have a good deal of personal experience with. I'm confident that Jean-Claude didn't care about what others had to say about him back then anymore than I do now with my own hate-filled critics.

At least in the case of the bumbling overconfident incapacity I recall from of my own youthful kickboxing days, it wasn't on display for the whole world. Now, by contrast, the self-documented folly of modern youth is being enshrined on steroids. I'm embarrassed for them. As someone recently wrote about the psychological profile evident among the worst of the Millennials: they're “overconfident and under-skilled, over-impressed with themselves and under-achieving.” This is witnessed within every martial art today, but especially in the practice of historical European fighting arts now.

Even the famed non-conformist loner samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, complained in his, Go Rin No Sho, that:  “The field of martial arts is particularly rife with flamboyant showmanship, with commercial popularization and profiteering on the part of both those who teach the science and those who study it.  The result of this must be, as someone said, that ‘amateurish martial arts are a source of serious wounds.’” And to think he was making such a criticism in 1634—a mere generation after the warring states period in feudal Japan had just ended!  It’s not hard to imagine how much truer this statement has become in the intervening centuries.  To this we can add the words of Sir William Hope from his 1687, The Scots Fencing Master: “There are but few good Sword Men to be found, and many get the name of Artists who are really but Ignorants; For a Man hath been but a few months or six weeks at a Fencing School, presently he is said to understand this Art…”

The author in 2003

Writing in his 1809 book, The Amateur of Fencing, Joseph Roland keenly observed: “That there are persons of mistaken ideas in almost every Art or Science, is what few will deny. Yet I am inclined to believe there are more erroneous opinions entertained with regard to the Art of using the Sword than on most other subjects.”  He declared this at a time at which, although the old martial arts had almost entirely faded, duelling was still commonplace and the transition of fencing into the modern sporting style had not taken hold.  In the astute words of the French smallsword master, Monsieur L'Abbat, from 1734:

    "Though there are People of a bad Taste in every Art or Science, there are more in that of Fencing than in others, as well by Reason of little Understanding of some Teachers, as of the little Practice of some Learners, who not acting upon a good Foundation, or long enough, to have a good idea of it, argue so weakly on this Exercise…"

Now, should the reader of this editorial take offense at my writings here then for the record let me declare I have long heeded the words of Master Joseph Swetnam when he rightly declared: “into a School of Defence there commeth, as well bad players, as good, and he which is the good player ought not, nor it is not a thing usual to mock or scoff at him which is the bad player.”  This is advice to surely follow. But let’s also acknowledge the wisdom of Master Meyer when he so forthrightly declared: “the Art depends upon the person, so that a poor technique will be executed by an ingenious mindful person much more usefully in the action, than the best one will be executed by a fool.”

I will conclude with a recommendation to heed the wisdom of master Girard Thibault from his 1626 rapier treatise:

    “it will be entirely different for those ignorant and foolhardy would-be swordsmen who rashly imitate everything they have seen practiced three or four times by a man who is adroit and well trained.  From this they will gain nothing but shame and confusion; when it comes to making proofs, they will find themselves frustrated in their intentions at every moment, because they do not understand the breadth of this science, nor how difficult it is, the time which it requires and deserves to be learned, nor the study which must be brought to bear on the subtlety of its demonstrations. Presumptuous and ridiculous people, who have learned no more than two or three small points, convince themselves that they lack nothing, being certain that the little that they know can be made to serve on all occasions, without considering the great extent, nay, the infinity of variations, which present themselves every day in practice, of which each one has its proper manner of use differing from the others, and indeed, which change themselves by the hour, the minute, and the instant.”

The author in 2013


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