Friday, November 12, 2010

Definitions and Why I Do What I Do

Thanks to Tyson for this topic (and the next few).

What are the "Western Martial Arts"?

   Western Martial Arts are simply that - the martial (militaristic) arts of the West.  "West" being defined as non-Oriental in an attempt to differentiate what we do from the Asian arts that typically spring to mind at the mention of "martial arts".  This includes European (East & West), American (North & South), as well as Near-Eastern arts.  In this I am perhaps taking a more liberal tack than most, but I use WMA as my "big picture" definition - encompassing any martial art developed in the "West" - everything from the images on the Beni Hassan tomb to modern day military combatives (both armed & unarmed).  Most folks tend to set the upper limit of WMA as the 19th century, but I consider modern stuff just as valid in the terms of being martial arts.  Ideally, Western Martial Arts would mean arts that developed in the "West" but are not just based off, or off-shoots, of Asian arts (i.e. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Kenpo, etc.)

Wrestling images from a tomb at Beni Hassan. You can see a larger version by following the link posted above.

Other common terms for what we do are "Historical European Martial Arts" and "Historical European Swordsmanship".  The problem with "Historical European Martial Arts" is that that is just another way of saying Western Martial Arts - just specifying Europe as the point of origin rather than "the West".  So instead, let's look at "Historical European Swordsmanship" - simply sword-based arts developed in Europe.  The "historical" part is kind of a misnomer - any art not developed in the last 20-50 years is technically "historical".  So my definition of "Historical European Swordsmanship" includes everything from I.33, the various longsword traditions, sword & buckler, saber, rapier, classical fencing, & even sport fencing (like I said, I tend to be liberal in these "big picture" definitions).  The term "Historical European Swordsmanship" works quite well if your art focuses on using the sword.  For someone studying an Early Modern (Renaissance) or Modern system of swordplay, this works quite well because, for the most part, the teachings are focused on the sword, or the sword and various off-hand bits.  Even strictly following I.33 falls under "swordsmanship" (get it? I.33? "falls under"? Sometimes I kill myself!).  I don't like using that term for Fiore because Fiore has so much more than "swordsmanship" in it.  If you try to explain what we do to an average person and you start with the term "swordsmanship" you get some real funny looks when you start showing them wrestling and dagger and spear plays. Heck I've even had a training partner complain because we were doing a wrestling action sans sword - his complaint was that the class was called "swordsmanship" so shouldn't we be learning the sword the whole time.  Needless to say, I showed him how this play directly translated into wrestling with the sword, but he still didn't last too long in the class.
   So if "Western Martial Arts" and such are all too broad, then what terms should we be using to describe what we do?  Well, I see two options: first is to use the term "Medieval (or Renaissance or Early English or whatever) martial arts" as a broad definition.  Ideally, you could tell someone you study a "Medieval European martial art based around the use of the sword & buckler".  Try saying that to most people and you get a "Huh?" response.  So something short and sweet like "I study a medieval Italian martial art" is what I usually tell people when they ask.  If they press I come to option two - I name the thing.  For instance, I study the system of Fiore de Liberi, so I call it "Armizare" (It. "Art of Arms").  If I studied the German stuff I'd call it "Kunst des Fechten" (Ger. "Art of Fighting"), etc.  I personally think this is the way we need to go.  After all, nobody says they study a 20th century Japanese wrestling art based off of earlier Japanese wrestling arts - they say "I study Judo" and people know what they're talking about.  Just remember that whatever term you choose to call your art that term is what the public will identify you with.  Call it Armizare, Kunst des Fechten, Sword & Buckler, Italian rapier, or Medieval Art of Death (>.<) - you will just have to live with the consequences of your name.

Like, you know, naming your art after a female horse.  Just sayin'

Why Do I Study Armizare?

    I seem to get this question quite a bit from my wife every time I come home with bruises...or that time we had to go to Urgent Care...  Like most questions asked of me, I have a simple answer and a lengthy in-depth answer.

   In-depth Answer: I study Western Martial Arts, and Armizare specifically, because I enjoy martial arts and history.  Believe it or not, I was a Medievalist before I began studying medieval martial arts - I grew up reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King which I blame for sparking my love of European history.  I study martial arts for the same reasons most folks do: Increased fitness, balance, self-confidence, discipline, as well as the more practical aspects (throwing people, hitting people with objects, etc.)  Well I guess that wasn't such an in-depth answer after all!

Quick Answer: Because swords are freaking cool!
   Come on folks, let's not kid ourselves here - we do this because swords are awesome and we look awesome when we practice.  'Nuff said.

   I'll add to this my story of how I got started studying Armizare - not that it's a long story really.  During my freshman year at the University of Oregon, 2004, I needed one more credit to be a full-time student and therefore receive my full allotment of student aid.  Using the University's online course catalog I searched for 1 credit classes during the times I had open in my schedule and my eye caught on "15th Century Italian Longsword" - a PE class.  I went to the first day, heard Maestro Hayes' lecture (which I can now recite verbatim haha) and then we ran through some very simple drills - mostly learning poste.  Well, the rest is history - I bought my own Purpleheart waster after 3 weeks and proceeded to only miss 3 terms (the UO runs a 3-term schedule Fall, Winter, Spring) during my next 3 years.  I have been training with the Northwest Fencing Academy since that Winter term 2004 and am now an assistant instructor with the school.  My studies focus on Armizare and pollaxe combat, mostly looking at Fiore's axe material and Le Jeu de la Hache.  My primary goal is to teach these arts and continue their progression.

Hopefully I've answered the two questions: What is Western Martial Arts, and why do I practice them?

Clear as mud?


SM said...

Alex, what's the source for the term armizare in the four Fiore MSS? I don't have an Italian text handy since I don't read the language.

I'm partial to the term "Fiore's art" myself.

Alex said...

At work now so I'll get you the exact transcription later this evening but it is the word Fiore uses in the beginning of the Getty that is translated as "art of arms". No, Fiore does not specifically call his art armizare, but it is a nice Italian word for the art.

Alex said...

Here is the transcription from the Malipiero book, followed by Tom Leoni's translation, of the beginning of the Getty prologue.

"Fior Furlan de Civida d'Ostria che fo di misser Benedetto de la nobel casada de li sua çoventù volse inprender ad armiçare et arte combatter in sbarra..."

"In his youth Fiore the Friulan from Cividale d'Austria, son of the late Sir Benedetto of the noble family of Dei Liberi...wanted to learn the arts of arms and of combat in the lists..."

Emphasis mine.

The "ç" in "armiçare" is rendered into more modern Italian as a "z", so armiçare become armizare.

SM said...

Thanks Alex. And I agree that it doesn't particularly matter what we call things, as long as we are consistent and don't arbitrarily rename them.

Damion said...

To get technical, translating armizare as "art of arms" is slightly inaccurate. The Friulan word armiçare by itself translates literally as "arms-bearing", and less literally as just "arms". The "art of arms" in Italian would be l'arte dell'armizare.

Alex said...


True, but it's a heck of a lot easier to say "armizare" than "l'arte dell'armizare" ;-)