Our New "Rosetta Stone"

Advancing Reconstruction of Forgotten European Fighting Arts

By John Clements
ARMA Director

"All the skills of fencing you should consider correctly
...all simply and after its nature.
Fencer, do this and the art will become clear."
- Master Hans Liechtenauer, 1389

Insights and Epiphanies

Since 2006, I have been teaching in my private courses what I consider to be a radical new reinterpretation of the source material of Renaissance martial arts. Based upon the longsword but applying to every weapon and core skill, I have been teaching it publicly at ARMA seminars in North America and Europe since 2007. For the last three years, on both our website and in recent published writings, I have alluded to and hinted at elements of this new curriculum that I've developed.

We believe this new perspective is a pioneering breakthrough and advancement in the reconstruction of Renaissance combatives. It presents the modern era's most sound revival of the historical source teachings yet developed. We have taken a powerful and fundamental change to how we view and how we present the source teachings. No longer is there a lack of overall understanding of the system and method at work as result of there being no living tradition of these extinct fighting methods.

The important discoveries and insights I have made in interpreting the source teachings-staring everyone right in the face all this time-are such that it amounts to almost a "unified field theory" of Renaissance combatives, and at the least for us, a new "Rosetta stone" of understanding that truly unlocks the entire art. It is, I believe, nothing less than a revolutionary understanding. I believe much of it will quickly become the new standard view of the historical sources for anyone who seriously sets out to accurately practice this craft.

The conclusion I have reached, and my students and colleagues have become convinced of, are that these fencing methods cannot be done without inclusion, and specific application, of several key elements.

These include audaciously seeking the bind with feeling and Indes inextricably linked, knowing how to employ the Vaage, strike from the Kron, utilize the true counters (especially the Krumphau), be in constant motion with dynamic footwork, as well as fully incorporating Ringen. Integrated understanding of these key elements has not been correctly understood anywhere by anyone in hundreds of years-certainly not in any online materials or publications on this craft over the past decade.

As an Art of fighting, not merely historical swordplay but a fighting art, our new conception teaches the simplicity of leverage and timing as it connects offensive and defensive actions with motion and striking, displacements, and closing. We can confidently claim this is the most complete and unified presentation of these lost and secret teachings yet offered in modern times. Using proven drills and exercises it progresses the practitioner toward bio-mechanical skill in tactical movements. (The intrinsic fluidity and spontaneity it produces is evidenced in many of our recent videos.) All this results in rapid progress in the skill-set involved. It teaches the Art then lets you go train, not trains you to go find the Art. In other words, the student is made to quickly discover it is about "fighting with swords", not "swordfighting."

When the teachings of the historical Masters instruct us that, for instance, X is the key, or Y is the first tenet, or Z is the basis, or it all comes from P, or never forget Q, or learn to always do K, or B is the greatest skill, and we are to do C every time, well then, we better damn well be heeding them and doing these things.

In this way there can be no excuses and no wishful self-delusions. An opponent cannot be asked to obligingly accommodate our motions so we can play off their stillness to "make it work." Application of fighting actions must be delivered with speed, power, daring, and finesse. Anything less is an embarrassment to our martial heritage, in my opinion.

Regardless of weapon or source teaching, there are a handful of vital components that absolutely must underlie all study, and they cannot be restructured or reformulated away from their holistic origin. Yet, they have been entirely missed and overlooked by those doing this subject for more than a century (!).

These ideas include awareness and understanding that: defending by Baroque-notions of exclusively parry and riposte is antithetical to the sources; that in nearly all actions we should actively seek to cross; that the "crown" is key to striking properly; that nearly every strike and defense should wind from a bind while hanging; that constant movement, and not standing still or holding postures, is vital; that stepping and moving as "a scale" by "turning the key" is a crucial core element; that instance and feeling are integral to each other and can't be separated; and that sensing leverage is integral. These things cannot be employed without robust practice using correct martial spirit and earnest physical intent.

Seeking to bind and cover in the correct way is the only means to come to winding actions whereby one can instantly apply all of the Art just as so many of the sources instruct. This truth is precisely why we have warned so much against "sword tagging" and fencing "softly."

Impact and Influence

The virtues and differences of this new interpretation and resulting curriculum are numerous. Its directness and simplicity disintegrates vacuous "theorizing." Its nature precludes "soft and slow" performance. Its capacity to confirm diverse cognate experiences has been remarkable, to put it mildly. There is neither a "data dump" nor an "inverted pyramid" of progressively complex ever-increasing material to digest.

Our understanding of this historical Art of combat requires the serious practitioner comprehend a new focus on closing and engaging, a new view of standing and stepping, a new view of striking and counter-striking, and a new emphasis on movement-none of which work with false postures or a "parry-riposte" attitude.*

Rather, its holistic approach affirms the Art as being "simple" in that it immediately embraces ideas of instinctive self-defense; it teaches integrated techniques as following logically within a framework of larger understanding (just as is revealed in the methods of the historical Masters). Its virtues are numerous: It permits learning of actions without reformulating, re-systemizing, or compartmentalizing; it allows the fighter to keep initiative throughout while permitting constant responsive motion; it innately teaches footwork and half-swording; it implicitly deemphasizes blocking, it intuitively explains close-in disarming and seizing; and it presents the stances as organic outcomes from their functionality, not as static places to begin actions. With no artificial division into beginner, intermediate, and advanced ideas, the lessons go far beyond conjectural analysis of the source teachings. Style and form derive from function of action, not collections of mere technique, while core principles and concepts are approached holistically, not re-structured into a modern mindset.

In this way, the martial athleticism and disciplined violence of the Renaissance Science of Defense can be learned from the historical sources as it once was-with brutal simplicity and systematic elegance.

We have seen first-hand the dramatic effect of this new curriculum on novice and veteran students alike. Through it the meaning of the key fundamentals within the teachings of the historical Masters becomes ingeniously and wondrously apparent. The simplicity and wisdom of their words and images, the power of their ideas across centuries and regions suddenly becomes deeper and clearer. It is nothing short of awe inspiring.

Holistic Insight—Rather than being unstructured, haphazardly organized, or incomplete, we believe the original source methods are brilliantly presented-and, given their very nature, arguably done in the only way such martial teachings really can be portrayed in words and images: via an intentionally holistic structure. But, the modern post-Enlightenment mindset that we have all been raised on and which makes up so much of our world today has proven incapable of unlocking these forgotten teachings. Instead, a "Renaissance outlook" was required. In this age of affluence and leisure, so much of our modern digital lifestyles today-with its emailing, texting, Web-surfing, Facebooking, Twittering, YouTubing, DVR-ing, XBoxing, LARPing trivialities-inoculates us from the brutal historical conditions of the "hand-made world" that 99.9% of our ancestors faced for their entire existence. The sweat and tears and blood required in preparing oneself physically and mentally for violent close-combat of this kind is something utterly fictional to so many of us. It is no wonder then that properly understanding these self-defense methods requires a fundamental shift in mentality.

As both student and teacher of this subject, this new sense of completeness is something that I truly did not expect to occur for another generation. Yet here it is before us. Its strength and logic, its holistic structure, presents an astonishing illumination of the historical fighting methods we study. Under this interpretation this new appreciation of the source teachings utterly rewrites the present understanding of the nature of these fighting Arts.

This view and understanding of the core tenets, once put into practice, changes how you stand and ward, how you step and move, how you strike and counter-strike, and how and when you close. It also reveals strong connections and consistent ideas among nearly all the historical sources. At present, these ideas are not being expressed or demonstrated as a coherent program within the historical European martial arts community anywhere outside of the ARMA's curriculum. We are confident that by its obvious value and truth this system will rapidly influence any serious interpretation.

It does not downplay their physicality, their un-attenuated violence, and the need for constant motion. Nothing contradicts and everything is unlocked. It is open to anyone who will look with the right eyes. But, we know (and, frankly, do not care) that it will not be palatable to those who are unable to move correctly or who want to avoid contact and still dance around in parry-riposte fashion.

In a sense, I am merely pointing to the words and images of the historical masters (what is now largely open source material), then simply going: "Hey, look at what they tell us and look at what it really is they are showing." The important difference is that my senior students and I can physically demonstrate how it all fits together martially and then readily teach how it makes fighting sense-the key concepts and principles, the core techniques, the essential form. In other words, the functionality of application.

The time when students of this craft had to struggle half-blind to understand 400 and 500-year old pieces of cryptic guidance from extinct self-defense teachings is over. The backward approach of working to decipher mere technique, of reverse engineering scraps of knowledge, instead of accurately embracing larger concepts, can now end. No longer must we try to "regrow dinosaurs" by substituting in some "frog DNA." The "infancy" of historical fencing reconstruction has been out-grown.

Linking Interpretation to Application

It's no secret we have made a point that reconstructing and reviving this craft means understanding how things will always be amended, refined, and improved. We have long acknowledged much of this subject is tentative and frequently changing. We have always resisted stasis and watched out for dogma and orthodoxy, correcting ourselves as we oppose mediocrity and work toward excellence. I have tried to encourage this view in both my students and my peers.

What is my advice to practitioners? Simple: stop playing sword tag, stop standing still, stop the obsession with parry-riposte action , and stop being afraid to close in.

Without any doubt, the reconstruction of lost martial art methods is fraught with problematic challenges. To use an analogy: if you are studying rocket science, it would be baffling to be left with an old blueprint in a room full of spare parts and try to reassemble a working machine. But now, we no longer are digging around trying things out while endlessly speculating. We have the "math" and we know the "physics" and the "chemistry." The rest is actually simple once you understand the "engineering." Well, we have had the blueprints and parts for sometime. Now we can say we know the engineering too. The proof is in how well our "rockets" fly.

Student after student exposed to this has expressed the epiphanies within their own practice as a result of the clarity produced from this re-ordering. Testimonies have been offered as to how this original way of looking at the source teachings has profoundly affected them. I can't deny the pride I personally feel at witnessing the impact it has had.

There are a lot of different martial arts styles in the world. They don't all agree on how one is to defend oneself by even the most basic techniques. Those that come directly from living traditions and established lineages of instruction can't always agree today on what to practice and how to train, either. So, we should not ever expect all students of Medieval and Renaissance combatives to now magically follow the same approach or agree on the same interpretations. It ain't gonna happen. I lose no sleep wishing it otherwise. (There will always be some who cannot meet standards or will make no real effort to try — and always a few who will resist having any standards at all). The great European masters of the 14th to 17th centuries tell us the craft is easy, that it is simple to do, even while being known to only a very few. They also tell us that those who know how to fight will understand the truth of these teachings. This is such a profound statement. It really is self-evident if you grasp its true nature.

When one stops thinking in terms of mere "technique," the deeper principles of this fighting art can be applied to any self-defense situation with any hand-weapon. The Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer, in his martial arts treatise of 1570 wisely noted how "everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat." Master Meyer further observed, "For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis." And yet, he also keenly expressed how, "the Art depends upon the person, so that a poor move 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 have witnessed this phenomenon countless times.

As the writer Reid Buckley recently stated, "We must accept the humbling edict of fate and console ourselves" that "we are all genetically unique and our experiences are also almost always singular. It is virtually impossible for us to sieve any subject through our consciousness without endowing it with a special, even an original, slant." This is so true when reading this technical literature on self-defense and analyzing its forgotten lessons, since not everyone is built the same way nor moves identically.

Personally, in my roles-as student, researcher, instructor, fighter, administrator, pioneer-I have long critiqued what I have seen in this subject as being poor training habits and weak reconstructions (e.g., within living-history reenactment, Sca, stage-combat, etc.). So, it is not my concern here to argue with or engage in debate over what I see as inferior and unsound ideas that fail against bio-mechanically superior ability. No matter who you are, novice or veteran, despite the current quality of academic scholarship all of us must admit how loopy some of the things now being fostered out there really are. When pointing out the reality of historical violence serious martial artists cannot be bothered if they offend costumed role-players and stunt fencers.

Martial Spirit and Martial Intent—Many people look at ARMA free-play or recent online videos and ask us, how is it we can use steel blunts to go about it with such speed and force, making motions that look right out of the fighting manuals, while wearing no helmet or gloves, yet not hurting each other, then on top of all that our blade edges don't get ruined in the process? My answer is that you simply have to practice-but in a way that doesn't follow the parry-riposte ideal of fencing with a "proper parry" to "tag" each other while dancing around and "holding" stances. You can't do it with incorrect postures and lazy footwork or a mistaken way of striking. Instead, we actively seek to bind and wind with leverage, and in an instant of crossing gauge how to strike or counter-strike with good contact. And always this is performed with an understanding that we will apply grappling at any opportunity. Again, it's an attitude of fighting with swords, not sword fighting. Theory is one thing, but actual performance is something else. This is what grants us such innovative insight into the true meaning of these long forgotten methods.

Lost Teachings / Modern Curricula

How then do we follow the core tenets of the craft that tell us: be in frequent movement, strike first, strike last, stay in the Scale, use Winding from the Hangings, understand leverage, learn to Feel, use Indes in all things, know that Indes and Feeling are one, do Masterful techniques on the sword, wrestle well, and fence with all our strength? We can say all day: Scale, Motion, Cover, Bind, Cross, Feel, Wind, Vor and Nach, do it all in the Instant, and be audacious, etc., and it will not all sink right in or be easy to instantly apply. Establishing its validity is easy. Teaching others willing to learn how to study it properly is the real challenge.

This new evaluation of the meaning of major aspects of the historical teachings is not a rejection of past understanding but a refitting and reordering of what we already have known, albeit into a larger and fuller manner that explains more than has previously ever been achieved. It takes the familiar chief tenets and as never before places them together to explain the craft in a more cohesive context, the effectiveness of which is demonstrated with astonishing ease and clarity.

Though we see a holistic nature to these systems this not inconsistent with its basis as an empirical scienta (science) of defense founded upon principia (principles) and geometry.

Of our "new perspective," many ARMA members have expressed the profound change it has brought to their own personal ideas of the meaning of certain key passages or techniques within the source literature. One student wrote about the challenge he experienced in trying "to reconcile the idea of actively looking for the bind" while "aggressively closing in with strikes." He astutely expressed that, "To use this 'new' attitude implies the use of certain amount of movement, closing and dynamics... that precludes sword tagging from a distance." He rightly noted how it commanded the fighter to "attack with decision and effectiveness, closing the distance with intent... a situation where the worst outcome would be the bind, where by the use of proper leverage and timing "we will have the advantage of using the proper technique."

Another veteran student was astonished at the simplicity of how it worked for him, noticing immediately that it, "closed the distance automatically...protected one from the attack as one moves in... dropped the center of gravity automatically... [and] automatically provided needed leverage" to produce "safety while utilizing momentum." This new manner of learning also systematically works on the segno allowing no back and forth trading of blows or passivity. And all of this is exactly consistent with both our reading of the source teachings and what we know of the historical accounts of close-combat.

Revealing a New Perspective

It's odd when describing an activity that involves reclaiming something traditional and reviving something extinct to write of "revolution" and "radical transformation." Yet, this change is nothing less than that. The old conception to overcome is the idea—the belief, the assumption, the notion - that historical fighting or swordplay was ever about a certain dynamic: striking around and blocking while moving in and out, to feint and beat and out time, etc. (an attitude largely post-Renaissance in conception). The interpretation we now envision and articulate is a powerfully different theory. And, in many ways, is directly opposed to this very thing. We are trying to instill an understanding that its nature (and the nature of the methods the sources describe) was instead about the ready application of simple elements. While continually revising our core assumptions we have constantly experimented, updated, and self-critiqued our study. That's why it produces such demonstrable results and stays cutting edge. It supersedes so many simplistic modern notions of swordsmanship and close combat in the Medieval and Renaissance eras.

My process in achieving these insights and discoveries was part epiphany (-more like a series of epiphanies) and part obsessive analysis during training in my private facility, combined with long concentration on looking for central underlying elements. Through the assistance of my apprentice and deputy director, Aaron Pynenberg, who took on the role of guinea-pig, I was able to successfully "experiment" with it on members of our Study Groups in Mexico, Greece, and Poland (who willingly served as test-subjects). It was this dynamic which lead to my reinterpretations and our resulting new curricula. Besides simply working out the key ideas and basic fighting techniques within Medieval and Renaissance self-defense methods, I have always tried to look at where they express commonality rather than contradiction. In doing so, I have centered my understanding of interpersonal violence around an appreciation for the wounds that occurred among fighting men in personal combat. Sword wounds in particular are the primary topic of much of my historical fencing research.

The practice of fighting systems within Medieval and Renaissance Europe was a martial discipline, and, as the historical masters reveal, one that recognized a certain ethical and spiritual component. Trying to practice it today with "playfulness" in an "unwarlike manner" will only cause one to miss the very spirit of the Art.

Looking Forward to the Past

While some aspects of this understanding of the historical material from the source manuals may have been perceived by some practitioners somewhere, demonstration of it whole as a systematic collective theory has not been previously presented within any published books or articles on this subject. Presentation of these elements in this way cannot be found outside of the ARMA any time before 2009.

None of this breakthrough is being presented anywhere with the holistic approach and martial spirit than in the new ARMA curriculum. In that regard, I will accept credit for my original work in rediscovering and re-presenting this aspect of the historical teachings. (Because, if the past is any guide, acknowledgement for this achievement won't be forthcoming from those who missed it and are not likely to admit having done so.)

With all due candor, I will admit it's small consolation to know one is doing things correctly now while feeling too many others—despite their sincerity and enthusiasm—are to one degree or another still doing so many vital things so wrongly, especially since all along we have been well ahead of the game to begin with. The difference we feel now is that we finally know the equation has now been so fully realized. What we are doing from the historical sources is exceptionally solid and the understanding so thorough that there are no major questions left. All the little mysteries have been resolved.

These interpretations and this new perspective is the subject of a forthcoming major new book (and series of videos in preparation) which I have long had underway. In the time ahead the ARMA and I will be revealing more aspects of this material to non-members for the goal of raising the credibility and legitimacy of this craft to the benefit of all students and enthusiasts. I have already begun this through a brief public presentation given in Portugal, in May 2009, and through other venues both online and in person. The significant impact of our findings, of our new "Rosetta stone", will be self-evident. Stay tuned. Things are about to change.

"Arma virumque cano..."

John Clements
July 2009

The Details, Please...?

How does this new and different interpretation unlock so much? Asking this is a bit like asking someone to explain in an online essay how techniques of Brazilian jujutsu differs from the original parent version. It's something you have to experience first-hand through proper instruction and disciplined self-study. Writing about it isn't how its learned or passed along. But one answer I can give is that our system uses a new understanding of stance, of footwork, of engaging, and of leverage, range, and timing, so as to expand yet interconnect the historical teachings. It is an original view that runs contrary to many modern assumptions. Its nature starkly contradicts the conceptions of 18th & 19th century swordplay and its 20th century incarnations. It's also substantially different from the operatic clownfighting nonsense of modern cinematic fencing with its entirely divorced-from-believability theatrics.

None of this should come as much surprise. The modern society we live in surrounds us with false depictions that distort the reality of historical armed combat. After all, no one has used this lost "martial tradition" or its obsolete "culture of war" for real in several centuries. So, it's no wonder so many misconceptions and erroneous core assumptions have grown up around it in the interim. It's simply not possible (or realistic) for every student or every group to be on top of every possible element and idea within this subject. But, there are some issues too major to allow to go ignored.

Back in the year 2000, I made a very public prediction that what would come to hinder this subject is not the dearth of available source materials, but the eventual orthodoxy that would settle in as certain views became ossified as the "approved consensus" (—the very problem which itself had already produced decades of nonsense). I forecasted that the phenomena of enthusiasts being unable to acknowledge erroneous core assumptions and correct inferior practice routines would become the bane of historical fencing studies. The growth and direction of this subject has since proven me prescient. (If anything, I did not go far enough in my prediction.) As I foresaw, the empty desert we once wandered through quickly became a jungle overrun with weeds and thorns that students have to hack their way through.


*That is, the post-Renaissance conception of "proper defense" in all fencing always being made in two actions consisting of a separate "true" parry.  While many fighting techniques can be broken down into more than one action, Renaissance source teachings---even with the 17th century rapier---warn against relying on parrying for defense, and instead emphasize offensive counter-striking. This came to change only with the introduction of the light smallsword specialized for more ritualized civilian dueling. This later came to dominate theory for increasingly limited military fencing methods (i.e., cutlasses, broadswords, and sabers).


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