Is Swordsmanship a Martial Art?

Is Swordsmanship a Martial Art?

bradakThis 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.

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