What is a Martial Art?
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Not an expert

What is a Martial Art?

A display of wicker shields, helmets and face-masks, bows in bowcases, and sabres on a whitewashed wall
Captured Turkish arms from the 2. Rustkammer, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, July 2013

Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.

Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.

We shall divide this sermon into six parts.

  1. Martial art: Martial is the domain of Mars, a warlike god amongst the Latins. As Tom Leoni explained, skill at an art combines rules and judgment. It is not enough to know and obey the rules (that would be a science) but nor is it a simple matter of innate ability (which would be fortune). Other arts are poetry, rhetoric, tactics, and medicine.
  2. Subset of all the possible ways of moving: Martial arts are systems of movement, and there are infinite ways of stepping, striking, and parrying. Trying to learn all of them is merely confusing (although it can be dangerously alluring to the new student, who feels like they are learning new things). So the designer of a martial art chooses some to focus on, just like a blacksmith does not focus on bronze-casting or inlay or etching.
  3. Effectively in combat: A martial art which is not effective in combat becomes a dance. It is a classic development that in a closed community, whether hundreds of thousands of Olympic fencers or three buddies in a park, martial arts collapse into something which will fail against anyone who takes a different approach.
  4. Work well together: Of those infinite ways of striking, stepping, and parrying, many are contradictory. If you try to keep at a distance, wrestling techniques will be less useful; if you rely on circular movement, you can’t simultaneously rely on linear; if you rely on low stretta guards, you can’t cut as quickly and effectively as someone in a high larga guard. Thus a martial art chooses things which compliment one another rather than conflicting. This is another thing which can confuse the new student, who finds skilled fencers pushing contradictory programs with equal certainty. For some reason, good fencers often say “you should always try to take the initiative” or “you should always lead with your weapon” rather than “in this art the goal is to act vor” or “closing the line as you come into measure is safer.” Perhaps convincing themself that their approach is the only valid approach helps them get over the hump where their trained responses are less effective than opponents’ instinctive ones?
  5. Sufficient: It would be possible to practice nothing but kicking, or stepping, or parrying a forehand blow, but that is not a martial art. Someone who jogs or lifts weights or chops wood will become a better fighter, but that is not a martial art.
  6. To solve a martial problem: Different kinds of violence require different training. An elderly woman worried about assault and robbery needs different skills than a teenaged infantryman. A kickboxer needs different skills than a patrol cop. It is the martial nature of the problem which separates martial arts from logging or dancing, but not all problems are the same. To horribly generalize, traditional (pre-20th-century) martial arts are oriented around duelling, and skills for duelling have very little in common with skills for surviving an assault.

I am confused when sport fencers talk about learning a weapon (or even worse, a specific subtype: thinking a manual teaches “rondel dagger” not “dagger” because the pictures show one form). Give any competent fighter any reasonable weapon, and they should be able to put it to use. Martial arts often chose wrestling, a one-handed weapon, a pair of weapons, a two-handed weapon and a staff weapon as the ideal balance. Put a Song dynasty jian or an eighteenth-century German hanger in the hand of a student of Fabris, Sainct Didier, and Thibault and they will all use it effectively but differently. If you just want to learn to fight, there is no reason to study any martial art before the late 19th century (Matt Easton said the quiet part loud when he suggested that a book written in British Columbia in 1911 is the best sabre and broadsword manual in English, but Maestro William Gaugler’s students could have worked anyone through the argument back when I was in the historical fencing community). As I said, a martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat. It is not a user’s manual for a spada da cavalo, Milanese, Modello 1411 or a Messer, Langes Kampf-, Konstruktion 1532 and it is not an encyclopedia of everything you could possibly do in a fight. When two fighters take different approaches, their skill determines who can bring about a situation where one approach has the advantage. It is a poor worker who blames their tools, and a poor fighter who tries to find the ultimate fighting art instead of putting in the hours so that their weapon and their body move on command. Doing something quickly and vigorously is better than spending a second dithering about what is best.

I think it says something about me that after I travelled physically and spiritually to meet so many weird and wonderful people, and worked hard to understand their ideas, I tweaked this definition rather than change it.

Further Reading:

The problem is, he (19th century fencing enthusiast Alfred Hutton) was a dilettante, and at least at the point where he wrote Cold Steel, it was very clear that he didn’t understand what a martial arts system was. It may have been the case when he submitted his bayonet manual to the army and had it thrown out for being quote unquote “too theoretical”. A martial arts system is a system of movements that is designed to then be expressed as a vocabulary to solve problems. What Cold Steel is, is a kitchen sink of stuff that doesn’t blend well together and in many cases doesn’t understand the difference between foil and sabre. They’re inherently different.

Russ Mitchell, “Friends don’t let friends fence “Cold Steel” Piped YouTube timestamp 0:46

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Edit 2020-06-03:: s/published/written; s/1912/1911;

Edit 2022-09-03: converted to block editor, added quote from Russ Mitchell

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4 thoughts on “What is a Martial Art?

  1. russell1200 says:

    Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence – Rory Miller

    The guy is a specialist who deals with “problems” in correctional facilities. As there are weapons of some sort in our prison system, we are not dealing strictly with unarmed combat either.

    One (of many) interesting items he noted is the factor of surprise. There is surprise when an attack is sudden and unexpected. However, in alluding to your point about which system to use, there is also surprise when you are attacked by a method that you are unfamiliar with. He notes as an example that the fan-techniques of some martial arts likely had much of their value in that people would have not have seen this technique, and would freeze at the unexpected situation.

    Given how fast people move in an unopposed situation, freezing is a really bad think to do in up-close combat.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      The modern self-defense and emergency medicine folks also have some interesting things to say about how knife attacks happen which can help sort out what the medieval and renaissance manuals had in mind. I have a post coming up on an article by a trauma surgeon who asks “Vegetius says that a stab two inches deep is invariably fatal. Do renaissance casebooks or modern casebooks agree?”

  2. stevemarlind says:

    Great article. I think martial arts is changed then its origin. Techniques has developed.

  3. Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals | Book and Sword says:

    […] and a matter of judgment. There are many different good ways of doing anything in a fight, and a good martial art picks a few. Learning one way of move well in combat is much more important than arguing and […]

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