Whew! Glad I got that out of my system.
Actual growth happens in a repeated pattern of massive growth and seemingly never-ending plateaus. You have these glorious "AHA!" moments of understanding, where another piece of the puzzle clicks right into place, then....nothing. Days, months, years of hard work with no noticeable increase in understanding or skill. Then you have another "AHA!" moment. This is then followed by another period of wondering why you are wasting everyone's time trying to learn this stuff.
Understanding that this is how growth occurs lets you give yourself some grace; allow yourself to wallow in the plateaus a bit because you know a spike is coming.
What happens to these spikes and plateaus as your understanding of your art progresses? Follow my thoughts here as we look at the three major stages of studying an art.
You know nothing, Jon SnowWhen you first begin studying an art, any art, you spend all of your mental faculties on learning the basics. Just like being a baby again, you need to learn gross motor movements before the fine motor movements begin to click. As the fine motor movements begin to click, you can start stringing movements together to create movement patterns. You are fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, beginning to see the picture, but you still have to spend mental effort to figure out if/where a piece fits. But you only really think about the art while actively practicing it.
Mountains are no longer mountainsAs you move on in your study of your art, you eventually feel you have a solid handle on the basics. You may even acknowledge that you have mastered them. This doesn't mean you stop practicing them - oh gods no! - just simply that you have moved beyond needing to think about each individual movement pattern before using it. When the instructions say to cut a fendente while stepping off the line you can do it without needing to break it down into individual pieces. Instead of individual puzzle pieces, you have an entire chunk of the puzzle. Moving beyond the basics sets you up for on the biggest jumps in studying martial arts - beginning to understand the underlying principles of your art. Not just what the text/instructor says to do in a particular situation, but WHY that is the answer. You are no longer going through the motions of learning an art - you are living the art. It is probably in your thoughts quite often outside of practice. You might even begin to notice those newfound principles of yours affecting your way of viewing the world. Personal example: Fiore being a fan of moving into a strike before it has a chance to really develop power has translated in my life into recognizing oncoming issues and positioning myself in order to limit it's effects.
This is the place a lot of people get to and stay. That is fine. That is their path. But what if I told you there was another step?
Go West young man!
Understanding the principles of your art sets you up for the final frontier of studying a martial art - Synthesis. Universal applications. Not just of the art you study but YOUR Art. All the little ways you've adapted the art to fit your style of movement. Those minor little nuances that you've added over the years.
There are two sub-steps in synthesis: Universal application and Universal Understanding.
Universal Application is your ability to apply your Art - it's principles and movement patterns - without regard for specific weaponry or specific setups. Can you apply your longsword principles when defending yourself with a hardback book? Can you use that nifty collar choke when you are standing (as opposed to being in guard on the ground)? Can you get dropped into a mythical gladiatorial arena, handed a random weapon of some bygone age or alien civilization, and be able to defend yourself? That's Universal Applicability. When I was a kid I remember Black Belt magazine being filled with books and tapes on learning improvised weapons. There was an instructional method, it seemed, for each individual thing you could pick up - pens were volume 1 while a rolled up newspaper was volume 3. That's just silly (not from a money making standpoint though. Perhaps that's what I'm doing wrong...). Once the principles of your Art become as much a part of you as that mole on your left butt cheek, anything can be used according to those principles.
Universal Understanding is a bit murkier. You start with this question: What don't your principles cover? What's missing from my Art? This can be a big request for the Ego in all of us. We've spent decades learning this martial art and now I'm telling you that it's missing things! Every martial art on this planet is a product of it's dominant culture at the time of it's creation. There are assumptions made by the founders of the art that are unique to that time and place. For example, Fiore does not discuss slashing attacks made with a knife because in his context a man at arms would be carrying a dagger optimized for stabbing. Slashing knife attacks just weren't a huge concern for him. One of my old instructors, Maestro Hayes, would tell a story about talking with a modern knife fighting teacher (I think it was Bram Frank) and he admitted that he taught very different defensive moves based on where he was teaching. In colder climates he would teach more blocks with the forearms because the assumption is there would be clothing over the top. In warmer climates there was a lot more evasion rather than blocking. Context is king.
So one question to ask yourself - What doesn't my Art cover and why? Going back to contextual discussions, Fiore tells us about strikes in two places in the Getty manuscript: in the Introduction he gives us a list of targets to strike and in the dagger section he tells us what to use to "go after" someone attacking us with a dagger. In addition, "strikes" and "striking" appear both in Fiore's list of 8 things you need to know and in his list of what to do against a dagger attack. We are told what to use and where to hit but we aren't given instructions on HOW. Looking at the imagery is faulty in medieval manuscripts as the images are not supposed to be photo-realistic but they do give hints. We see arms raised in hammerfists, we see arm positions that could be straight punches, and we see what could be uppsercuts. We see low kicks and even knee strikes. But there is still a gap in our knowledge here. There is the contextual issue of wearing armour, but in the Introduction Fiore specifically mentions that the strikes are to be done against someone NOT wearing armour. So how do we fill this gap? Much digital and real ink has been spilled debating the validity of "frog-DNA". I am all for it; I just make sure (as should any instructor) to be explicitly clear about where my information comes from.
The follow up question to what is missing is then one of focus - do I care? There are many fine people doing great work with medieval martial arts and Fiore's Armizare in particular who know what's lacking and that's fine by them. Their goal is to recreate the martial art as it would have been practiced by Fiore.
I've been feeling the pull to go beyond that. I don't just want to recreate Armizare as it was practiced in it's heyday. I want to bring it back into the world of living martial arts. I will often navel-gaze and wonder "What if these medieval combat systems (Armizare specifically to me) hadn't died out due to societal restructuring and changes in warfare? After all, elsewhere in the world martial arts were able to survive the transition from a system of war to a system of practice. Assuming an unbroken lineage of teachers, what would Armizare look like today? How can Armizare handle modern situations where martial arts are needed?
Following on from Fiore's career preferences and comparing the techniques & principles to modern systems, I think Armizare would have developed in such a way that it would look and behave similar to many World War 2 era combatives. The primary weapon (excluding firearms - I simply haven't figured that out yet) for teaching the system would most likely have switched to the stick, similar to Filipino martial arts, and more specifically the collapsible and non-collapsible batons seen in law enforcement today.
My Struggles with SynthesisThis idea of synthesis is not freaking easy. It has been on my mind for at least 5 years now, but I've only been able to articulate it within, honestly, the writing of this post. My struggles with synthesis fall into two categories: betrayal and hubris.
The idea of changing, of adapting Fiore's art has caused me to question whether what I am doing really counts as HEMA or WMA. By adapting, by adding in other pieces from other arts, am I destroying the H in HEMA? Am I ignoring the idea of history that seems so essential to the study of these arts?
Another betrayal that rattles in my brain is the idea that by adding in snippets from other arts, by focusing on them rather than Armizare, I am betraying both my first instructor and somehow Fiore himself. I don't know where these worries about betrayal come from but they are real. They have held me back from fully pursuing training in other arts. They have legit kept me up at night. I know that Fiore himself studied under other masters and synthesized their ideas & teachings with his own. But...
I also struggle, in choosing to add and adapt and shape my practice of Armizare, with hubris. Every now and again I will stop because I get this overwhelming sense of "Just who do I think I am...?" After all, there are plenty of perfectly good "modern" martial arts to study so why drag Armizare into this? I'm not some Bruce Lee figure - creating a new expression of martial arts out of the pieces of others.
All I am doing is trying to take the principles laid out in Armizare to their fullest potential. To play around. And where those principles or I fail, that is a place of learning. A data point; a chance to see if adding this one thing will help.
In the end, we are all just trying to make our art our Art.
"It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it become rigid and stale." ~ Uncle Iroh, "Avatar: The Last Airbender"