Considerations for Female Practitioners
in Renaissance Martial Arts?

By J. Clements
ARMA Director

I was recently asked [once again] for my view on the subject of what, if any, considerations there might be for female practitioners of Renaissance martial arts –a historically masculine activity, as women had better things to do than killing each other. Since over the decades I have had, and currently do have, female students, I present here some thoughts on the topic.

In my teaching philosophy, anyone who picks up a weapon becomes a fighter and a target –regardless of their physical nature. Weapons are the great equalizer. Among archaic arms this is perhaps no more evident than with the sword. It matters not your build or athleticism when you are struck with a sharp edge or point in the face, the throat or hand or knee or foot. Prowess is what transcends.

As to general training and exercises, I make no distinctions between the sexes, except during certain drills (such as the “touch” and “press” ones) where for safety and courtesy I instruct not to touch/strike to the chest.  Generally, in the same manner that I recommend a cup for males, for any contact sparring I strongly recommend to female practitioners a chest protector such as used in some Asian martial arts.

Additionally, I typically suggest a tapering “bastard sword” for my novice female students. For acquisition of fundamental motions and core principles it’s lighter, more agile, and more adept at thrusting, yet does not require the upper body strength for powerful cutting blows and counter-strikes as do more robust long-swords and great-swords. The weapon is more finely balanced for using closer and tighter movements rather than wider cutting arcs. I find it better suits female students and that they enjoy its versatility more than learning with other styles of double-hand war-sword. The same moves must still be learned as for somewhat heavier and wider blades, but in my experience the tapered weapon is generally found to be better adapted to the natural inclinations of most female students (i.e., counter-thrusting in time as opposed to breaking counter-cuts or initiating powerful combination blows).  However, each person must always choose the tool they feel best fits their disposition as a fighter.

For similar reasons to learning with a bastard sword, I also find my female students enjoy study of the spear or long staff, it being an equalizing weapon which requires more precision than strength. Its length and agility permit the novice practitioner to focus more readily on the tactical rather than on the direct physical in application of techniques. Further, I’ve observed that in general female students often take to learning the rapier more easily than do most of the male colleagues. As it is a foyning weapon of grace and finesse, its initial learning requires elegant repetition of core motions much more than strenuous physical exertion (indeed, it's been said before that female students are at first often more technically proficient in the rapier than males of equal ability).

One question often asked is about the obvious advantage male combatants have over females in terms of muscularity, bone density, and body mass.  Does physical strength play a role in Renaissance martial arts? Yes, certainly, as it does in any highly physical activity. Obviously, a stronger build can also wear more armor —though at the price of less mobility. However, the historical source teachings are more than clear that skill transcends strength alone and skill is a matter of several blending factors that are independent of gender. Physical size and strength is certainly an advantage in close combat just as is audacity. Yet, as the great Master Liechtenauer taught in the late 14th century, the Art must go before strength, for the whole point of the Art is to overcome an opponent who is stronger than you. Or, as the the 15th century Master Vadi stated, cunning defeats any strength.

The major modern problem faced by many female practitioners of this craft in my experience is one faced equally by many males today: the need for physical fitness. A degree of conditioning is requisite for higher learning and progress in the art.  Besides this persistent issue, another is differences in physical toughness between the sexes in the realm of how easily each bruises and heals. Occasional muscular bruising and minor injuries are an inherent part of any strenuous close-combat weapon training. For biological and psychological/cultural reasons, males are generally more inured to this, but females in my opinion can more than aptly compensate by an appropriate mental toughness, thereby reducing it as a potential impediment to learning.

The example I often give of the affect of “nature’s design protocols” on fighting ability is, if you were to hypothetically jab the average female and male students equally hard in the chest with a stick, the male is invariably going to recover use of any disruption to his pectorals at a noticeably faster rate than his female peer. The same is true for a blow the lower abdomen or on the deltoid and bicep. The objective then for any student, is to learn to avoid getting hit altogether while sufficiently hitting back.

Unquestionably, temperament varies among all fighters. Psychologically of course, most males are arguably brought up participating more often in aggressive sports and aggressive play-fighting (even mock swordplay) from childhood. Overwhelmingly without hesitation they take instinctively to the entire dynamic of "hurting someone" with a weapon while "trying to keep from being injured" in turn.  Female practitioners, I note with respect, are naturally more nurturing and empathetic, and so must often be “taught” the concept of the necessary “martial mindset” for training in adversarial skills that traditionally were a brutal affair of gruesome violence.

In order to attain the proper bearing essential for approaching the subject as something more than just a pastime or game, appreciation for the warrior ethos is crucial.  This is a matter of effort on behalf of the individual practitioner. It is up to each student of this Art to endeavor to challenge themselves to both know and overcome whatever inadequacies or inefficiencies they may have. As the master Hanko Doebringer so aptly advised in 1389, those are brave who fight their own weaknesses. In my opinion, there is absolutely no reason this cannot exist regardless of a practitioner’s biological sex. When this aspect is absent, it is an element which as, a martial arts teacher, I find the most challenging to instill in any student.

A practitioner must always judge themselves following the same criteria they would judge any opponent — their reach, stride, speed, strength, center of gravity, aggression, attitude, and any idiosyncrasies. But these should be always considered with concerns to protocols of safe training —experience, physical fitness, athletic capacity, physical size, etc. These apply across the board to every fighter regardless of differences between them.

The strengths and weaknesses of the student must be assessed and their aptitude to the demands of the craft evaluated. How a teacher approaches those demands and how they present them differs. For myself, I follow the keen wisdom of Master Francois Dancie who in the early 17th century wrote that a good fight master must adapt the Art to the particular needs and capacity of every student. The individual’s aptitude for the craft derives from their inherent physical gifts, from their natural talent, their physical fitness, and from their martial spirit. Thus, when it comes to "considerations" for female practitioners, we must defer to the wisdom of Master Joachim Meyer from his 1570 treatise in declaring of all practitioners:

    “everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat.”    

    “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.”
    “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.”

This article was originally posted in 2004 and updated in 2020


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