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


Joel Norman said...

What do you think about this?: Say a person agrees with you on the point that swordsmanship is merely one of many aspects of the martial art in its entirety. But for personal reasons like time constraints, one might decide to focus more on certain aspects than others. Most of us have to work at something not HEMA-related for a living, so there are only so many hours one can devote to the craft. Many groups over-emphasize the longsword, sometimes for this reason, as given the choice between all the different aspects, longsword is the one the know the best or think is the most fun. In my case, I just happen to like the messer more than most other weapons, so I practice it a lot, certainly much more than I practice with the staff, even while I recognize that it is merely part of a greater whole. (Ringen is the most important part in my opinion, so I try to give that one a lot of attention too.)
So what I'm asking is: is there room for specialists who recognize that what they do is only an aspect of the entire martial art, yet still choose to focus on one area because of personal preference and/or because they are not able to do the rest of the martial art for the time being? Even if you study the entire martial art, don't most people still have a favorite element of it? I do.

B & C said...

C.'s 'Net access is limited. I'll let him know about your question. ; )


B & C said...

Most martial artists are specialists in one way or another, and every individual will halways have their favorites. That said, there are no real rules to the martial arts. One should not, and indeed, cannot be kept from practicing, dabbling or otherwise working with whatever part of the martial arts that they want to work with. It is their natural right. If those people realize the ideal training methodology, whether they practice it or not, so much the better.
What I speak of is the ideal version. It's the way dedicated martial artists and schools that teach the Art, who should be truly representative of said Art, should go about it. Given that, most individual practitioners, particularly solo practitioners, hobbyists, and study group type formats will do things your way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

IaMaPh said...

All I can say is: "Damn right...". I see this EVERYWHERE, and to be honest, you could say it applies to myself in some ways since I'm mainly a swordsman (longsword, S&B, rapier, messer, etc), but also practice dagger and ringen moderately, but have scarcely practiced any pole-arms or any other weapon system beyond that. So I guess I have yet to become a skilled practitioner in a complete martial system, and thus do not qualify for the title of "martial artist", but instead a "fighter mainly specializing in melee weapons"? Am I getting that right? O_o

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting argument, and I can see it entirely in that light without any disagreement. This is a significant part of why I've begun to study Judo along with the rest of kunst des fechten - to gain access to the whole of the Art.

Brandon, Casper, would you guys be willing to comment on my similar blog post over at HEMAA on Cross Training?



JH said...

It is alright to be some kind on Longsword specialist in Chivalric Arts. What is not alright is for any specialist, other than the Ringen/Abrazare kind, to insist that his specialty is the groundwork for the rest of the martial arts. To do so is kinetically and historically false.

That is why CB's present article serves good purpose of refuting the garbage of that "Centrality of the Longsword" article by the ARMADA dictator. Said centrality article is an attack on the kinetic and historic truth of wrestling / unarmed combatives as the base for everything else; and a rationalisation of said dictator's own admitted weakness at, even fear of, said combatives.

(Incidentally, I must compliment CB for beating me to the punch in regards to doing such a refutation, as I have not been so timely with my own, which I mean to complete in near future.)

Anyway, CB's present article is valuable in multiple other ways, not just in regards to deservedly refuting specious & dubious articles. His analysis of the Silver quotation is helpful, shows (again) Pan-Euro commonalities of martiality and the continued worth of unarmed combatives over time in Europe.

B & C said...


Of course. I'll take a look.


If you study ringen - at all - then I would call you a martial artist.

Fiore called Abrazare (ringen) "the pillars of the Art."

Ringeck was less poetic, but just as direct.


B & C said...

The important thing to take from the article, IMO, is to make the unarmed material THE CORE of your study. If you do that (and study dagger, longsword, and perhaps quartersaff - or spear, or poleaxe - pick your staved weapon, as well) then you're studying something that amounts to a complete system.


B & C said...

Well said, JH!


B & C said...

Thank you for the good commentary gentlemen, and bravo on your efforts.
I disagree with Brandon on some fundamental points here, however. Personally, as I stated in other words in my article, I wouldn't really call someone a martial artist who studied unarmed combat "at all." "At all" does not a pillar make (more like an old toothpick and chewing gum) and by extension, wouldn't make a martial artist. As I said in the article, I've made this point openly enough that a lot of swordsment are nominally studying this pillar (but not more than that). However, I wouldn't entirely disagree that they "do martial arts." The differnce can be profound, however.

And on the other point, this ties into what makes a complete system, on which I also disagree. A complete system of what? This could easily make another article, and I will therefore be reserved here, but a selection of weapons is not what creates a complete system. The "pillar" itself is a complete system. It upholds the Art. It is the Art. Being the pillar, it is simply applied to any given weapon. Weapons thusly applied can be thought of as subsystems (and sub-subsystems). More on that later.