Thursday, February 17, 2011

Defining "System" in the Martial Arts

Before I begin the article proper, a brief fore note: I recently realized that it bears mentioning to the Chivalric Arts practitioners at large that many of my articles, this one included, though original, do not consist of altogether “made up” material, nor are they somehow the charting of entirely new ground, but the elaboration upon well and long-established principles, which in the Chivalric Arts are all too often rediscovered, at best, rather than recognized. But, such is the importance of a formal and professional martial education.
As a consequence, I have not heard most of it applied to the Chivalric Arts.

As always, we should begin by defining the terms of the subject in question. Nomenclature and terminology is always a difficult area in the martial arts, particularly within the Chivalric Arts, where differing backgrounds merge, and more often than not, a lack of background comes into play and muddles things up all the worse.

Looking at martial arts as actual systems can clarify one’s point of view and give a new perspective on the subject, bringing more order to it.

Firstly, in the martial arts, a System is defined as “The unification of related concepts, truths, and basic elements of a particular school of the martial arts.”1 The term “Style” is often a misnomer erroneously used in its place, and is actually defined quite differently. A Style is the way in which an individual practitioner performs his art. “System is the method, whereas Style is the application, or execution, of the method.”1 If “Systems” were actually “Styles,” it would certainly imply a rather haphazard and random approach, rather than a unified training methodology toward a given objective.

Therefore, in regards to the Chivalric Arts, though we can get a firm grasp on most of the systems of the time, our feel for the styles of the masters who left us any given treatise will always be tentative and arguable.

Secondly, to illustrate just how the term applies, here are a few different wordings of the common usage of System. It is worth contemplating their bearing on the martial arts:

-A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.
-An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.
-A set of detailed methods, procedures, and routines established or formulated to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem.
-A whole compounded of several parts or members. A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

Thusly, we can see how any given martial art can be termed a system. They are all organized in a certain way, they all contain certain elements, and those elements all work together toward certain goals. Both inclusive and exclusive arts, combat arts and sport arts are all systems. Some (mostly modern) systems were engineered. Some were mainly formed organically over centuries (such as the Chivalric Arts). But they are systems none the less, and were further made into unique systems in any given school or by any given master.
As I have said before, inclusive arts do not exclude motion or elements that have use. The Chivalric Art of Defense proper is such an Art. In its day, motion that could have proven useful would have been added to the whole of the system, rather than excluded. An exclusive Art is usually so due to concerns of sport. They exclude elements that work against the rules or that do not produce positive results within the rules. Examples of such Arts are Western boxing under the Queensbury rules, and Brazilian Jiujutsu under the rules of MMA sports. Such Arts may be narrow by comparison, but they are still very much systems. I.e. whether a system is a full-fledged martial art, or a simple fighting methodology, and whether a person studies it in whole or in part, it is still a system, regardless of any other terminology it may be classified by (see my other article; Martial Arts?).

So, my main point here is that a complete system is not made so by any particular elements of which it is composed. A system can be made up exclusively of the use of a particular weapon or group of weapons, or exclusively on some type of unarmed fighting skills, and still be termed a system, even a complete system of x, though not necessarily a Martial Art. However, with certain systems, one could make the judgment that some are or are not well rounded. In the Chivalric Arts, for example, there are many elements to the system. So many, in fact, that one could scarcely study them all. So, one could choose a certain array of weapons to study in order to call their personal study of the system “well-rounded.”

The Chivalric Arts, however, as an inclusive martial art of a vast culture that spanned centuries with little change, is a much larger system than most modern or sport systems with very narrow concerns and foci. I have pointed out conclusively that the perfect study of the Art, its pillar, root and foundation, as with most, is the study of unarmed skills. This part of the whole of the larger system of the Chivalric Arts is a system in itself, as are all the other elements. They are not independent systems, however. To make an analogy, the circulatory system is a subsystem of the human body. It is its own system, but inseperable from the greater system. Just so is the longsword to the Chivalric Arts; unarmed core skills in particular. This brings us to another facet of the systems concept of martial arts.

Definition: A subsystem is a set of elements, which is a system itself, and a component of a larger system.

Since we know that unarmed skills and concepts form the base of any given system, as we have for eons, and are in fact often systems in and of themselves, armed elements to these systems are, though based upon unarmed combat, dissimilar enough that they have many independent elements and nuances, and thusly their own systems form around them. But as they are inseparable from the whole and base of the system, this makes them subsystems. To reference my last article (Is Swordsmanship a Martial Art?), this is another perspective on why swordsmanship, for example, is not a martial art per se, but a peripheral to a martial art. The Art of the Longsword, for example, is a subsystem of the Chivalric Arts. Thusly, an example of someone’s well-rounded practice of the Chivalric Arts might include, aside from the unarmed core training, the study of the Longsword, Spear, Poll-axe, Messer and Dagger.

It follows that there exists the concept of sub-subsystems. This applies to subsystems as subsystems apply to systems. This concept, when we apply it to the martial arts, applies particularly to the Chivalric Arts. The Chivalric Arts are so vast, and include the use of so many weapons, that the sub-subsystem concept has particular use.

When one achieves a certain mastery over unarmed skills and a variety of other weapons, one reaches a point where one can pick up any implement of artifice, and in short order, assess its strengths and weaknesses and nuances, use it, and devise a system that applies to it. Such things can be viewed as sub-subsystems, and though this concept was not used explicitly in the Arts heyday, the principle most assuredly was.

As any student of the CMA knows, certain weapons that were commonly used were generally not taught by the masters of the time, in the schools, nor in the technical references. This is due to their simplistic and derivative nature as sub-subsystems, and include the short mace, war-hammer, battle-axe, godendag, variants of more foundational weapons, etc. These weapons were not uncommon, but so simplistic and specialized in nature that their use was quickly based off the use of more sophisticated, Master Key weapons/unarmed skills that were taught. Therefore they qualify as sub-subsystems of greater systems and subsystems.

Thusly, in the Chivalric Arts, we have three levels to the system that could be well-charted as a pyramid. In orders of importance and numbers, unarmed skills rank at the apex (despite their foundational nature). The primary and most sophisticated weapons of the system form the middle, and the numerous simple weapons and variants form the base of the diagram. A regular food pyramid of death.

What subsystem a sub-subsystem weapon is derived from is not a cut and dried tree, however. Due to the interrelated nature of principles and motion, any subsystem and sub-subsystem will share myriad elements with any other (all being founded on the primary system to begin with), often having their only basis as whatever the practitioner is previously skilled in. So stylistically (refer back to the definition of Style) one practitioner may use a sub-subsystem weapon in a very different manner than another, having based their use off of differing skill-sets. However, charting a tree of what weapon is based off of what other weapon is arguably very unimportant. Most practitioners consider anything below a subsystem to be a waste of time to actually train with, as opposed to training with primary systems and subsystems, and them applying them ad hoc to sub-subsystems, using what they already know, when the need arises.

To make a final example of something else with which I am familiar, an example of the system/subsystem/sub-subsystem concept applied to the Art of American Kenpo Karate could include the knife, club, and staff as subsystems because they are common peripherals to the core of that particular system. Were a practitioner of this system to pick up a pencil in self-defense, it could be considered a sub-subsystem of the knife (if not of unarmed skills). It is far less versatile and deadly than the knife, but it is a short piercing weapon and more closely follows the use of the knife than any other weapon. System= American Kenpo (unarmed core system). Subsystem= Knife. Sub-subsystem= Pencil.

To make a similar example of the Chivalric Arts, say you want to use a short mace. Like the pencil, aside from the mace being a weapon by definition, its use is not explicitly instructed in the system. However, you’re versed in the Art of the Messer (a subsystem). The mace is far simpler and less versatile than the messer, though it can be used in virtually the same way. Therefore you make it a subsystem of the messer (sub-subsystem of the Chivalric Arts).
System= Chivalric Arts of Defense (unarmed core, ringen or whatever you want to call it). Subsystem= Messer. Sub-subsystem= Mace.

I hope these perspectives and definitions can aid you in your pursuit of excellence.

1. The Encyclopedia of Kenpo, Ed Parker.
2. To my knowledge, I am the only person who has thus far applied the subsystem/sub-subsystem concept to the martial arts.


Copyright 17 Feb. 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is Swordsmanship a Martial Art?

This article, entirely coincidentally, just so happens to indirectly support the martial purist’s view against the tournament as currently being put forth in Brandon’s excellent articles on the subject. Here, we continue to challenge the dogmas of the CMA revival.

But on to the point; Is swordsmahsip a Martial Art?

No. And I’ll tell you why.
Being a “swordsman” does not necessarily a martial artist make. Technicalities and semantics can be argued, but I would no more call someone who solely studies the use of the club, or the knife, or the tonfa, or what-have-you, a martial artist, and a fencer of any nation or style is no different. They practice a martial art aspect, but being a martial artist requires more. Swordsmanship is not “a” martial art, per se. It is not a martial art in and of itself. It truly requires too many other peripheral martial skills that culminate in good swordsmanship, not vice versa; These skills better go toward creating a skilled swordsman than swordsmanship alone goes toward creating one skilled in all those other aspects, particularly as it is not the foundation of this many-pointed pyramid. Now I know that there are entire organizations founded upon the reverse of this concept that would seem to be a given, and I can tell you exactly why that is, but I will not do more than touch upon them in this article.

In brief explanation, the sword was never used as a single means for combat alone prior to its sportification. I.e. the blade alone was never the sole means of contact with an opponent, and even so, would require other skills for the blade alone, numerous other techniques, and backup skills should the sword break or be lost or rendered otherwise impractical; first it requires a foundation in unarmed skills and theory, then to be supplemented by techniques with many other weapons, natural and otherwise, at many different ranges. It requires knowledge of grappling, striking with natural weapons, using parts of the sword other than the blade, feeling (which is not best learned by fencing), etc. As an extension of one’s body, would it not be best to first master the body? The sword was never, and could never, reasonably be used alone. One without a foundational skill in the universal common denominator of combat (one’s self) to build upon with a weapon art is, to my mind, one who only plays at the martial arts without bothering to put in the work to be truly skilled, rounded and knowledgeable. This is endemic in the HEMA --which is now becoming distinguished from the Chivalric Arts proper by such problems-- where there are many who now nominally claim to be martial artists and study the martial arts (plural) but in fact are simply “swordsmen” (for lack of a better term), who, at best, only nominally study more than the sword alone.

Can one learn all of the necessary elements of swordsmanship by studying swordsmanship alone? Not to any high degree. Learning those elements by studying the sword alone invariably amounts to little more than gleaning. Those who would say otherwise are invariably those who have only studied the sword and are therefore ignorant of the depth of its individual defining elements. Most historical fencing organizations, however, are just that, and take this backward approach to skilled swordsmanship, defending it by countering the old masters, both to defend their sole skill-set and to justify the entire structure of their organizations, rank structures and curricula.

However, the requisite peripheral core skills are not only implicit in the medieval and renaissance technical references, by principle and sheer volume if nothing else, but explicitly admonished. Masters Silver, Fiore and Ringeck are all very particular on this point. But as I’ve said in other articles, many take issue when it comes to taking these (or any) masters at their word, and as I’ve lately seen, even making it commonplace to say the master was mistaken or incompetent in some regard should the depicted artwork not mesh with their preconceived notions or understanding of a technique, or their understanding of the text. However, as tedious as it may be to many a practitioner, let us see just what these masters have to say on the matter. Here are a few examples of my point being explicit in the source literature, from three corners of Europe and three time periods. In nearly all others prior to the Art approaching obsolescence, it is, at the very least, strongly implicit in principle.

Master Sir Sigmund Ringek
Alles fechten kompf vom ringen.
This I leave in the original language, because as with many phrases, it does not translate particularly well, but I will endeavor to convey the meaning. Most literally, it means that all fencing comes from unarmed fighting skills. “Ringen” is often translated as “wrestling,” but in the English language, it does not amount to a single word, as in the technical references, it encompasses virtually all unarmed fighting skills. But moving beyond the trivia, a truer meaning behind this apt phrase is that all fighting skills, principles and theory come from a foundation and root of unarmed fighting skills, principles and knowledge. Again, unarmed skills, and more importantly, principles, are the core, the universal common denominator, of any combatant’s repertoire.

Master Fiore de Liberi
(I am primarily referencing from M.S. Getty Ludwig XV 13)
Master Fiore is not nearly as succinct as Master Ringek, but his views are the same. In his treatise, he is very particular about reinforcing what I have explained about Ringek’s phrase by the very layout of his work. As Fiore, unlike most other masters, decidedly attempted to lay out the base of his entire system in one book, he lays out his work in order of importance; in the order in which he deemed it should be learned and taught; he begins with unarmed skills, and proceeds from there, thus setting the format for the rest of his treatise. He spends some time elaborating on basic principle and theory in this regard before moving on to the techniques, something he, tellingly, does not do with any other aspect of his Art. This is because that is all that the other elements of his Art are; aspects that revolve around the common core. His terminology proves this as well; most of his principles used with weapons use the same terms as the unarmed skills they are founded upon.

Master George Silver
Master Silver gives us an explicit short-list of the main elements that go into good combative swordsmanship. Again, none of these elements are well learned as peripherals to the sword, but to be truly effective, must be learned in their own right, and then integrated with the use of the sword. Silver says that swordsmanship with all of these elements integrated is incomparable. As he says, aside from the uses of the blade itself:
their closures and grips (closing distance and range, and disarms), striking with the hilts, daggers, bucklers (use of off-hand weapons, two-weapons systems), wrestlings (grappling skills), striking with the foot or knee in the cods (kicks and proper targeting), and all these are safely defended in learning perfectly of the grips (one can only fight well against them if one has perfect skill with them)…and without this teaching, there shall never scholar be made able, do his uttermost, nor fight safe (without learning all these elements, a practitioner will never be truly skilled, will never achieve his potential skill level, nor be safe from those who have learned these elements properly).
Emphasis mine.
His purpose in this paragraph is obvious.

Swordsmanship alone is imperfect, and will remain so without the inclusion of myriad other elements, which cannot be learned perfectly by treating them as simple add-ons to the sword. The sword is an add-on to the system’s foundational element, and all other weapon-aspects of the Martial Arts combine to form good swordsmanship. NOT the other way around. The sword alone remains imperfect. It is not a true Martial Art if it stands alone.


Copyright Feb. 6, 2010, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak