For most people, martial arts are inexplicably tied to the Far East. However, as special guest author John Clements of the Association For Renaissance Martial Arts details below, a sophisticated science of self-defense was prevalent in the west during Medieval and Renaissance times:
With the evolution of the armored knight as the consummate professional lone warrior, an indigenous art of personal combat developed to an exceptional degree in Western Europe. Once guarded as secret skills, from the early-1300s to mid-1600s these long forgotten chivalric fighting traditions were practiced as a highly effective and systematic “science of defence.”
For generations, the art of fighting was known variously as the “Noble Science,” the Arte Gladiatoria, Kunst des Fechten, the Doctrina Armarium, and the arte del’Armi, among others. Described at the time as a science, or scienta, based on principia and geometry, these were largely transnational teachings taught both privately and publicly across the continent by professional experts and commercial schools. The Ars Martialis — the “Arts of Mars” or martial arts — were also recognized by early humanist educators as but one side of a coin; the other being the liberal arts, considered the proper area of study for free armed men, the goal of which was to produce an ideal citizen.
This lost knowledge survives documented in the form of over one hundred detailed technical treatises and illustrated manuals produced during the age by fencing guilds and masters of arms. Their compiled teachings reveal a brutally efficient and pragmatic approach to martial arts. There are no “clumsy knights in heavy armor” crudely bashing one another nor the artless brawling of “swashbuckling musketeers” –as notoriously misrepresented in popular culture for well over a century. Instead, these were methodical combative disciplines covering all aspects of personal survival for battlefield, street-fight, trial-by-combat, and private duel of honor. From Portugal to Sweden, Switzerland to Poland, Italy to Serbia, the Netherlands to Bavaria, Britain to Hungary, all manner of men-at-arms fought, taught, and dueled by these teachings. Whether for fighting on foot or mounted on horse, in ritual single combat, sudden encounter, or the field of war, for centuries this craft met the needs of knights and cavaliers across Europe, as well as their ventures into Asian Minor, the New World, the Indian Ocean and beyond.
At the time, individual martial prowess, particularly in swordsmanship, was highly prized. Special focus was placed upon the personal use of the double-handed longsword, the pointed dagger, and the single-edged short sword each employed with vicious ingenuity. It was only after the widespread adoption of more advanced firearms and cannon in the 1500s that the decline of versatile hand-weapons and diverse armors accelerated. This change also produced the penultimate dueling weapon for unarmored single-combat, the slender thrusting blade called the rapier. As the older fighting methods declined in utility, this distinctive thrusting sword eventually came to represent nearly the whole Art of fencing and influence it down to the present day.
But the instructional manuscripts and published handbooks on self-defense produced in Renaissance Europe were no mere theoretical texts. They were holistic guides authored by respected veterans who had proven their mastery and skill. Frequently written in great detail and extending to hundreds of pages in length, they presented close-combat systems based on proven concepts and hard-earned experience. Often lavishly illustrated and described through narrative discourse, many of them codified and built upon earlier works as well as pioneered new innovations. Emphasizing close-in actions and grappling, they followed a pragmatic approach of skill overcoming strength. Far from arguing from authority or ancient precedent to explain their teachings, the Masters variously taught by calling upon geometry, citing Aristotle and Euclid, employing the art of rhetoric, following the concept of sic et non, and discoursing through dialectic. Rational, empirical, and wholly without metaphysical assertions, their content display unequalled accomplishment in the technical description and representation of violent human movement. In this, these little known treatises are unmatched by any other martial arts writings anywhere in the world.
The self-defense systems practiced in this age have remained all but unknown and differ substantially from the distortions first created by Victorian-era writers and continually misrepresented in modern pop culture. The authentic fighting styles and martial expertise of Medieval and Renaissance fighting men are also virtually nothing like the simplistic misconceptions widely seen today among stunt fencers, costumed role-players, and “living history re-enactors.” Unduly influenced by post-Baroque fencing styles and traditional Asian fighting arts, such efforts notoriously mis-portray the authentic use of European arms and armor.
Though historically concealed from those deemed unworthy, these teachings were once commonplace in Western Europe until the coming of reliable firearms transformed methods of warfare and personal self-defense. In a few generations, the “Noble Science” atrophied and faded only to then eventually be civilianized and sportified beyond recognition. By contrast, modern Western fencing sports are now only vestigial forms of a once far richer, but wholly abandoned, tradition. Though long ignored by modern fencers and overlooked by historians, this rich and unrivaled material has only recently begun to be seriously studied in an effort to restore the craft. Only a handful of knowledgeable experts in this subject have so far emerged to combine scholarship with demonstrable hands-on skill in recovering it. But with each passing year knowledge of this forgotten lore grows.
Learn more at the Association For Renaissance Martial Arts.