ARMA Editorial - February, 2006
On the Threshold

A fighter may take to a softer approach in his practice because he feels himself to be insufficient, but then become all the more fully insufficient because he takes to a softer approach...

By John Clements

Disagreements among students of Medieval and Renaissance fencing today are not always a matter of “differing interpretations” of source material, though such will always occur and at times there will seemingly be equally valid readings. Disagreements may also not even be about the application of techniques. Instead, disputes may be over the manner of practice or training in the source teachings—a vital area in which they provide us little guidance. The significance of this kind of disagreement cannot be minimized. We cannot retreat from discussion and debate of divergent viewpoints. 

Ten modern fighters, for instance, might have ten different ways of throwing a side-kick or delivering a straight punch. But when some of them will say its okay to practice kicks or punches slowly and softly at empty air and others will say just doing that will get you a distorted understanding of what striking in a real fight is all about, then there is a serious problem. Kicks and punches, after all, have to be practiced full-force against a target bag at some time or a fighter will never really perform them properly.  Their understanding of the forceful application of such techniques in earnest will suffer considerably—and they'll be in a sorry state if suddenly called upon to use them. One does not improve their sense of timing or their perception of range, let alone the coordination in delivering quick and strong techniques, by only practicing slowly and softly. It just doesn't work that way.

It’s similar with the techniques for historical weapons.  Yet, current arguments against training with realistic “martial intent” tend to revolve around the idea that nothing in our study of historical fencing today can ever really be “proved” because none of us will ever fight for “real.” Since we are not fighting “for real” then apparently we don’t need to practice “for real.”  But then, why bother to rely on real source teachings, train in real techniques, use realistic weapons and armor, or even concern ourselves with real history? Such reasoning presupposes this subject is more about the meaning of the source material itself not the approach to studying the sources. It reminds me of Bible study, where even though different denominations essentially all agree on the central message of Christianity, despite sometimes arguing over certain passages, it is the manner of worship that separates them the most. The same is now true I think for the method or manner of physical practice within historical fencing studies.

The argument that in studying historical close-combat skills one does not really have to “practice martially” or with special intensity is flawed. Historically, the Medieval and Renaissance fighting men who practiced these skills did so in safety yet with due seriousness. I say we now can do the same in our efforts to approximate their teachings. While our subject still remains inchoate, I do not believe and I reject the notion that there was a special way they practiced which we can’t comprehend or emulate today. 

It can be said that modern students who do not practice as earnestly (i.e., as “martially” or “with intent”) can nonetheless still have insight and knowledge of the craft. This is certainly true.  No one should dispute this.  But, I do not accept the argument that they will have the same insights or equivalent ability as that achieved by practicing with greater intensity or “martialness.” Such an assertion would certainly have to be demonstrated somehow.  Nor could one argue from this that there is then no need at all to practice “martially” with much “intent.” That doesn't make sense.  If it were true, then Medieval and Renaissance fighting men would themselves have acquired insight and ability by not practicing very intensely or doing so with the least necessary effort. But there is no historical evidence they didn’t train hard and vigorusly, in fact, if anything quite the opposite.

For that matter, whether for self-defense or military application there is a minimum necessary physicality for competently learning an effective fighting art.  So how much is not martial enough?   What level of exertion is just too soft or too slow?  Obviously there is some threshold.    But how do we determine exactly what that threshold is?  For that matter, would not working beyond such a minimum surely produce greater results?

While this minimum effort phenomena kind of thing is fairly common in the practice of Asian martial arts today, we don’t see it in the world of martial sports, like boxing, kickboxing, judo, wrestling, or competitive fencing.  Athletes in such activities will freely admit that another trained harder or trained better so that they obviously performed better.

So, why then do some enthusiasts appear to want to excuse this minimal effort approach in the exploration of historical European martial arts now?[1]  Is it simply because our activity involves a strong component of historical research and scholarship?  Is it excusable because none of us will ever use these skills “for real” in “real combat” so that any study will always remain in the realm of the purely theoretical? Is it the role-playing effect of fantasy escape that participating in “historical reenactment” sometimes produces?

What is certain is that one cannot argue that, on the one hand, these combat skills are being resurrected now as a “true martial art” of real fighting techniques, and then, on the other hand, say, “Oh, but you can do it without having a martial mindset or being very physical about it.” Such an attitude is a cop-out. It is an excuse for being lazy and frail and virtually an admission of insecurity in one’s capacity and potential. It is exactly the kind of self-deluding insincerity so commonplace in the practice of Asian martial arts today—especially among weapon study.  No serious student of historical fencing should let it become accepted as standard within Renaissance martial arts without vocally and continuously objecting to it.

Physical intensity with a martial attitude is the very origin and historical function of this craft. So much of the art becomes clear only when it is approached sincerely as a genuine fighting skill. This means using realistic physical energy that does not violate the spirit of the craft, rather than merely asserting actions are being done “by the book” as we go through the motions. Since when is any skill for genuine self-defense merely about “going through the motions”?

Yet, it is too easy to see enthusiasts playing at techniques in a way that would surely get them killed in real combat and easily beaten in mock-combat sparring. Their moves and their form lack physical intensity simply because they never do it with sufficient energy necessary to fully grasp the true application of actions—the leverage, the balance, the pressure, the speed, etc. It’s no surprise then that their understanding of the source teachings is flawed. The key to understanding this is by simply fencing with proper martial intent. None of this is secret. It’s all right there in concepts from the source literature. A dedicated student can teach themselves and train to learn to execute actions correctly by using a few key elements that unlock the craft.

In the study of historical European martial arts it is important to place the subject within its proper context, to understand what it was they were doing at the time and not modify it to be palatable to modern tastes or temperament.

The whole argument that you don’t have to practice a fighting art very intensely or athletically sounds like just a way for some folk to say: “I’m skilled too.  I still know things even if I don’t apply as great an effort as others. I contribute and I’m just as good as others!”  Isn’t that what motivates some of this reasoning?  I don’t believe that one can deny the element of human envy and resentment sometimes at work in the resurrection of this craft. I have come to believe that what we interpret from the source literature can be affected by subjective factors: our motives, our objectives, our physical fitness and conditioning, and even our temperament. Thus, those who confidently go about their investigation of this craft in a “harder” manner will not surprisingly earn the contempt of some among those who do it more “softly.”

That all study of historical fencing is really just supposition and conjecture because we will never apply it in earnest is, in my opinion, an insufficient argument to sustain a legitimate reconstructive-interpretation of extinct fighting arts as being historically viable forms of self-defense. Our heritage deserves better.

As has been said, action does not act by itself, and reconstructing systems based on action requires action, not imitation of action. Interpretive analysis of armed or unarmed historical fighting skills flows from the fact that martial application is a talent—a skill acquired, as such physical skills are, by years of practice sustained by intense interest.  But if fencing skills rely upon (and demand) a certain minimal prerequisite physicality, then any credible interpretation, let alone application, cannot even begin without a sound understanding of the inherent body mechanics of personal armed combat.

While historical European martial arts may be studied today for self-defense value, for historical or cultural significance, and for personal development, it is fair to say that most people pursue it for the sheer fun of the craft. Reasonably, the more serious one pursues the physical dimension of study, the more serious will be one’s understanding of the subject. Otherwise, it will not be possible to fully realize how these skills and techniques were historically employed in violent personal conflict.

A fencer learns the basic actions of fighting by exercising in repetitive movements and partnered routines of attack and counter-attack. But skill in the art is not acquired just by doing drills and exercises. The more effective and better-prepared fighter will be the one whose practice comes to reflect the energy and tempo of real close-combat. They will also obtain greater understanding of the craft—and this is the is crux of the issue.

Consider who is going to be better equipped to grasp the true nature of these violent historical combat arts: the more athletic who approaches it as a vicious physical skill requiring proportionate effort, or the inquisitive reenactor enjoying it as entertaining diversion?

Quite frequently, I will witness my students or some respected colleague performing with violent force and speed all manner of attacks and counterattacks discerned from the historical source literature. From my years of experience in mock-combat sparring and test-cutting with sharp blades I have no doubt their techniques would be lethal in real fighting. More novice students who will observe such exercises with training weapons see it not as an unnecessary or impossible standard, but rather a positive example of something convincing to work toward and to strive for.  When I am further told by colleagues and students how they have seen me safely perform moves with considerable force that they have so far not seen duplicated elsewhere by any others, I think it’s not due to some innate talent of my own, but the manner in which I’ve tried to practice and teach this craft.

We may constantly amend our understanding, correct our interpretations, and refine our techniques as we continually improve our skills and our knowledge today. But we should not doubt the process by which we learn or the method by which we study if we attempt to follow that of the very historical fighting men who originated or refined these teachings. Theirs were not theoretical works but practical guides of proven effectiveness.

The bottom line consideration is that we can ignore neither the “martial” in Martial Art nor the “science” of the Noble Science. Therein lies our sense of the threshold for martial practice.

See also: Sense and Pretense

[1] One wonders if perhaps it is not only the “soft” or so-called “internal” styles of some Asian martial arts that mislead as to the nature of Medieval and Renaissance close-combat skills, but perhaps also the subtle influence of modern sport fencing with its featherweight weapons and adroit techniques that preclude any significant physical force like that required by real historical weapons in earnest fighting?


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