Monday, November 30, 2009

Hand to Hand: The Unarmed Arts of Europe

A Commentary

Their Current State in the States

Although a weaker grappler in earnest combat can be equal to a stronger opponent if he has previously leaned agility and range, combat techniques and striking techniques, in friendly wrestling strength has always the advantage. Despite this, the Art is praised by men-at-arms and knights over all things.

From the Codex Wallerstein as forward to the first ringen chapter (translation mine). It would imply that the warrior elite of the day praised skill in the art of unarmed combat the most highly.

It seems to me very odd that the current revival of the medieval and Renaissance martial arts came into being directly as an exploration into the Art of the Sword, rather than that of fundamental, readily applicable self defense. The Victorian revival was one of fencers and fighting men, and it would seem only natural that their interest in the Art was focused on the sword, and to a lesser extent, other weapons, in their day and age. But now, in the early 21st century, we’ve had more than a century long deluge of primarily unarmed fighting arts, not to mention a common demonization of weapons, obsolete or otherwise. One would think that dedicated martial artists, interested in their own martial heritage, would have stumbled upon the med./Ren. manuals during their investigations, and naturally, started their study of these once lost arts and built them up from their logical and practical foundations: the Unarmed Arts. After all, it seems only natural and rational that one would take Master Ringeck, for one, at his word when he said that all the Art comes from a foundational knowledge of the unarmed Arts. I believe things could have been brought to a speedy head if this were the case.

Naturally, anyone alive in such a day and age would have had recourse to his natural weapons before he ever picked up a sword or wore a dagger. And a martial society without television certainly made growing up with a foundation of unarmed skills commonplace. All things considered, it seems blasphemous to me that any nominal instructor or leader of a martial arts group would be utterly unqualified to teach anyone to defend themselves with anything but a four-foot stick in their hands, at best.

But then again, perhaps it isn’t so odd that the current revival is that of “sword-fighting.” It is not surprising because the revival wasn’t started by martial artists of any sort; they only joined in. Unfortunately, the current revival seems to have been begun by various choreographers, role-players, and re-enactors who have since turned into so many baseless martial Pharisees, preaching from straw pillars, some of which are still content to continue in their ignorance of the unarmed arts and continue to sword-fight, though some are apparently playing catch-up. The structure and curricula of their organizations reflect this.

To many martial artist’s loss and shame, most of them simply didn’t look for the arts of their own ancestry. Content with what they had, and either never stopping to think of something else, or in actuality believing contentedly there was no such thing. Some, such as myself, were in the actual process of searching for and uncovering these arts but found what we were looking for only after those previously mentioned had already found a bit more, and had already begun to build up organizational curricula around “sword-fighting” early on (though in hindsight it was nothing significant, at the time it was something, and people like myself joined in. Path of least resistance, I suppose).

The Unarmed Arts could have been developed to full effectiveness far more quickly than the sword arts (in the right hands) because, in one form or another, in one place or another, they never actually died out. Qualified individuals could have interpreted them. This would have produced a strong foundation for the armed arts from the start; It would have quickly brought the Art to viable modern usage, and it would have quickly brought the Art into equal standing with other fighting arts in the public eye due to their self defense accessibility and the current proclivity of unarmed arts. The armed arts could then be taken more seriously as they would have martial artists practicing them and they would have fundamentally practical value. In short, they would be taken seriously.

Where They Could and Should Be

There is no question that the unarmed arts of medieval and Renaissance Europe are an ancient, expansive and effective system. The writings of the Masters not only include entire works exclusively elucidating unarmed techniques and principles, but most surviving books include chapters on unarmed skills that comprise nearly half their work, or are commonly the largest single chapter in any given tome.

As I mentioned previously, in one way or another, the unarmed skills in our source material has never truly gone extinct, despite its ebb and flow, and they are the longest-lived aspect of our effective martial heritage, unlike the weaponed arts (this is what floors me as to why they were and are so underdeveloped among the “sword-fighters” out there). To clarify, a “sword-fighter” is just that; a man playing with swords, if he lacks the proper foundation (as opposed to a man fighting, with swords involved). When I first saw these ancient books, I was profoundly impressed at the multitude of techniques contained within them that I had already devoted myself to learning in the school. They were all readily recognizable. Their very fundamentality to all combat, their undying usefulness, and their efficacy in all cultures is why the Unarmed Art has never gone extinct. This is why there is such an abundance of potentially qualified instructors and practitioners of this aspect out there. And as a true fighting art, a practitioner’s stylistic influence does not often “flaw” the technique; It does not render it ineffective. “Interpretation” is in most cases moot. There is no “interpretation,” there is only wrong or right; effective or ineffective. Despite popular opinion, these unarmed arts are no lesser, in any respect, to any other in the world. They are the trailing aspect in that regard because of the backwardness of the revival of the Art in favor of putting the peak on the pyramid before the foundation has been laid.

I have heard it said that the medieval/Renaissance arts of combat are first and foremost, for better or worse, inextricably tied to “sword-fighting.” This is absolute nonsense. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, there is no reason whatsoever that Renaissance European unarmed combatives cannot be taught as the prime focus of any real school of martial arts (as opposed to back-yard sword-fighting).

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying in any way whatsoever to remove traditional weaponry from the equation of the Art. It is all tied together, which is the entire point of this piece, but it must be tied together the right way. I think it is quite obvious that the Art got off, embarrassingly, on the wrong foot. Given that the Art is already well on its way, I, for one, will bring it onto the right track when I represent it; in my school, and in all ways.


Copyright Nov. 2009, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak

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