Martial Arts: Exercise in Truth?

A phrase I regularly hear is ‘true to the art’, which I assume to mean being somehow correct or at least loyal to the spirit of a historical martial art. Art is a difficult concept to describe, especially in a martial sense, as it is an expression of something emotive; in other words it should provoke an emotional response. Martial arts can be therefore an expression of martial technique, but I very much doubt that many of us are interested in artistic form alone (or some at all). Of course, there are many arguments as to what art is, but I will expand my definition of martial art to say it should include an expression of skill. Given that learned weapon fighting develops along geometric forms (whether expressed in a treatise or not), I would also add that it is also a science and that at times we have an art expressed through a science, or a science that reveals itself in art.

I’ve heard the term ‘art’ mocked in some circles, by those who feel the artists concerned are too preoccupied with academic interpretation rather than practical and athletic application. The stereotypical unfit armchair-warrior. There are elements of truth in this, but I consider this to be more a reflection of polarisation and personalities on several sides. This is hardly new in any discipline. What I’m interested in discussing here is what we consider to be ‘our’ art or arts and what constitutes being true.

I believe the vast majority of us come to historical martial arts because of a love of the spectacular: the performance, the daring-do that appeals to us from whatever media we derive pleasure. However, we face the trouble that, if we decide to pursue this as something historically ‘real’, we have to consult old sources to understand the tools we wish to use, or we rely on our teachers being informed and imparting that knowledge. If we were simply interested in history as a passing fancy we would stick to generalised reading. But we want to be involved and the books that can tell us the how are often opaque and foreign in language and time. This is our passion and is not derived from necessity, be it social or practical as our forebears so needed. For most of us, HEMA is about fencing with some form of martial technique, and, predominantly, attempt to apply those techniques against an opponent. So it’s the application of skill, preferably against skill. If we are not attempting to re-enact the past, then we should recognise that there is a limit to how close we will be to the author, but not necessarily limited on accessing an understanding, if not the actual practice, of the art.

I suppose the crux is do we want to fight or fence martially as close to the ‘sources’ as possible or derive something that is ‘modern’. This gives me some problems on both counts, if we assume one is divorced from the other. For a start, I feel we tend to have a ‘cherry-picking’ approach to the past. We’re lifting the part that, for us, is cool rather than taking a broad approach to history. Essentially, we’re looking at a very specific area and what most people really want is a field manual on how to perform in combat or in an engagement, rather than studying in depth what those things meant to the authors and their associates. For a start, the sources are reflective of what was then an up-to-date skill set, a retelling of lessons learned that, for the (then) reader, could have direct application. It was a necessary part of life for a large section of society, interweaving into social life as well as having practical application for defence. Much of these ‘necessities’ do not exist for us today: our social life in HEMA has arisen from the interest, but it is not necessary for us within wider society and – regardless of whatever superhero / highlander / post-apocalyptic fantasies in which we care to revel – it is not necessary for survival. No, I don’t think I could be happy without it, as it is a core passion (and, at times, bane) of my life. But, I do recognise that its import in my life is very different to the individuals who used those skills.

A word on ‘honour’, a term often bandied about today. Like most other concepts, our modern view is different to that of the past. For my period, the Renaissance, honour was a commodity, explicitly connected with wealth and birth (and implicitly with ethnicity, gender and religion), and could be acquired or removed through aggression. I fear one should be careful when lifting quotes about from the past and applying it in our context. That is not to dismiss the term, but I feel that today its usage in modern martial arts, where positive, has more to do with ‘decency’.

So, maybe we can never hope to be exactly like our forebears, but does that mean we can never hope to fight like them? That everything we do is false? Well, take a moment to consider what we’re trying to do. Being proficient with a sword arguably does not require a deep understanding of the historical sources. It’s not an option I like, but if one considers that a tool of certain proportions requires particular mechanics, then one only needs to understand the best method of operation. However, this overlooks the fact that our best operating manuals were produced x hundred years ago. Given how little has been translated into varying languages or indeed disseminated, one is face with the probability (I’d say actuality) that we’ve not gained the depth of the treatises or expressed the full range of techniques. We have therefore not encompassed everything from the user manuals. And the wealth of information is vast and goes to a gorgeous depth. What is more, modern literacy means these manuals are accessible to a huge audience, the majority of which probably do not fit the profile of the author’s original intended audience.

However, we are also faced with the fact that many manuals have assumed knowledge. Many manuals (for example Thibault D’Anvers) have what we term ‘assumed knowledge’, i.e. basics that are not explicit and therefore require some form of ‘frog DNA’ to make up the shortfall. In addition, I’ve argued elsewhere that certain limited sources are often given too much deference, so that teachings have been transformed into dogma rather than philosophy. I still, regularly, meet individuals who will argue the nuance of a passage and yet cannot demonstrate basic mechanics, do something different in sparring, or indeed cannot fence. I question whether adherence to the (interpreted) letter of the treatise actually reflects the spirit and, indeed, the art originally intended.

Ah yes, you say, but what about extensive sources, like Marozzo, which has ‘everything’ in it? Yes it does for some things, but that does not lead directly into understanding and knowledge to be true to the art. As I’ve already suggested, our understanding of the truth is markedly differently from someone living nearly 500 years ago. We can read the movements from the sources and attempt to understand the principles, but we have to lift those into our modern world. Wearing leather shoes may change fencing, but they’re being used on modern, mass produced floor surfaces. And before you start arguing about fighting on grass (modern, selectively bred), dirt or whatever, you’re on the internet. Your whole life is different and that affects your interpretation.

Interpretation is hard and one can become too embroiled. Fencing is a physical display as well as cerebral and, in the end, most just want to play with swords or similar. I note with interest that the term EMA is becoming common, with the H falling behind the more practical elements. For me this is sad, because I am a historian and I want to try and understand what martial arts meant to the practitioner of the past. However, I must re-emphasise that, for that distant practitioner, the art was modern and I question whether being true to the art actually means extension of the forms we are attempting to bring back to life.

I confess I take a iterative approach, using sources, but also taking elements of physical mechanics from other weapon forms and applying it to my ‘style’ to search for information and inspiration. I then return to relevant sources for comparison and contradiction and also to highlight my omissions. Then I repeat and refine. This method has pros and cons. I cannot say that I am re-enacting the entire art as I have to omit certain elements for practical reasons in a modern world. But what I can do is try to be close to what the sources describe and attempt to field test them.

In the end then, can we be true to the art? Well I argue that’s too closed a question and it requires a nuanced answer. I think we can be true provided we understand that we are limited in what we can do. We need to accept that our lives, outlook and the people with whom we associate are vastly different from those experienced by the writers of those sources we seek to emulate. We should recognise that, while we can reproduce many aspects of the physical form as described in the treatise, we can never be sure that our interpretations of those descriptions match those that the writer intended. This does not mean that what we do is fully correct or incorrect. I feel that modern HEMA, provided that it consistently theorises, tests and refines, can be an interpretation and extension of certain aspects of what the historical author originally expressed. We have, I suppose, spliced ourselves onto specific parts of history, and should recognise that we are seeking a different evolution.


My thanks to Keith Farrell, Ilkka Hartikainen and Hans Jörnlind for sharing their thoughts on this article with me.

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