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Authenticity is the root of martial arts. It is what gives it value. Every martial art draws its authenticity from one or more of the following: lineage, competition, combat or a written source. This is how we answer the question “how do we know this is correct?” :
• Lineage: authority derives from the teacher. This is the most common model in classical martial arts, and can be easily identified by the way the teacher is presented as being either the founder of the style, or the successor to a line of previous masters. “It’s correct because my teacher says so.”
• Competition: authority derives from success in tournaments. This is why champion competitors who may not be good teachers nonetheless gain many students. This feeds into the first type.“It’s correct because it works in competition.”
• Combat: authority derives from success in combat. This is very rare outside the military and police fields, which are both organised along lineage lines (with a very clear hierarchy). Standard operating procedure is ideally followed because people have survived combat by applying it. “It’s correct because it works in combat.”
• Documentary evidence: authority derives from the book, the source. This is the basis of historical martial arts: if it follows the words and the pictures accurately, it’s probably right. At its best, anyone who has studied the book can challenge the teacher, regardless of physical skill. “It’s correct because it says so in the book.”
It is normal for these to become conflated. My teacher won an olympic gold medal, therefore I do what he says: competition becomes lineage. Five generations ago my lineage founder was a famously successful samurai. Therefore I do what my teacher says. Success in combat becomes lineage.
Lineage tends to be the most prestigious but least reliable of all these models because every generation adapts and changes what they inherit. It is humanly impossible for any art-form to remain truly identical over generations, because people are not digital recording devices. We always interpret the message.
It is important to keep these models separate because otherwise we may be lead into authenticity errors. “It says it in the book” does not mean “it will work in competition” does not mean “it works in combat” does not mean “my teacher says so”. When following a martial path, we must above all do what works for us. For some, finding a great teacher is the best path. For others immersing themselves in competition. Or joining the army. Or following the written word of some long-dead genius.
In my school we are very much “by the book”. Textual authority outranks any teacher. But the average beginner, who has not yet learned how to make sense of (for instance) a medieval manuscript, will naturally revert to the lineage model: I do this because my teacher says so. That is fine and a perfectly normal starting point: but if it ever becomes the be-all-and-end-all of authority, then our authenticity is lost.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

10 Responses

  1. One might also point out that documentary evidence is accepted because of lineage and success in competition/combat. We know Fiore’s stuff works because he was a respected master and his students had success both in competition and combat.

  2. Do you feel that over the coming years there will be a growing division between groups who are focused on ‘the study of swordsmanship’ who view competition purely as a testing ground for interpretations and a bit of fun ‘on the side’, and groups that are developing thier own sport of fencing using historical weapons, studying the treatises purely to pick up ideas that work in tournaments?

    1. In short, yes. I see no need for any animosity though, and I hope there will be extensive cross-pollination between them. But I do see the two activities as fundamentally different.

  3. I’ve always assumed that because the authentic technique was based up experience of real practical effectiveness that will eventually see a converging of technique. I’ve often taken inspiration for interpretation from those with a tournament focus and likewise I’ve often given them inspiration from the treatises. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in the end, I hope that eventually we’ll all end up with something very similar to the treatises.

    1. The danger there is something that Rory Miller points out in [i]Meditations on Violence[/i], but which we can also see from comparing classical fencing or kendo to their ancestor arts. What works best in competition is not the same as what works best in a duel, or on a battlefield, or when ambushed on the back streets of Milan. It cannot be the same, unless each bout leaves maimed and crippled bodies. The least bad approach seems to be triangulation, giving many kinds of training equal weight as evidence for what works, and always remembering that none of them is real.

      Its also not obvious that all our sources were effective at what they claimed to do. Complaints about other teachers’ bullshido begin with Fiore and pseudo-Dobringer and continue ever since. Passionate disagreements about how to fight are also very old.

  4. One dimension to this discussion which has not been mentioned – motivation. Why learn swordplay in the modern day? I am unlikely to ever need to use a sword in any matter of life and death. As far as I can see, there are three basic motivations: a) reconstructing historical technique, b) sporting competition, c) discovering some zen-like inner truth. Eastern martial encompass these in various proportions. To my mind, ony competition has any kind of future.

  5. Over time I have come to realize that the most authentic thing that we all have is the experience of learning the sword itself. The people in the past wrestled with issues just like we do such as
    -how to practice
    -what works better
    -what their masters really said
    -contradictions and disagreements in approaches
    -new ideas and innovations
    -how to practice a deadly art without getting hurt or killed
    -issues of lineage
    -trying to piece together the past

    in the same way that we do except that their lives probably depended on what they were learning more.

    It’s authentic to try to figure out what really works and what does not with whatever means are available. It’s authentic that we really never know. Sometimes I try to imagine myself in a day and age when my life would really depend on my swordsmanship and I ask myself what I would do to practice if that were really the case. I would listen to every opinion and idea, try them all out in a context as close to real fighting as I could make it without getting seriously injured and try to be conscious of compromises that I make in the process. If I ever got into a real fight I would try to learn from the experience. I would discount nothing and try to vett everything through as realistic a practice as I could manage. I would trust battle hardened veterans particularly when they would look at me, shake their heads and tell me I have no idea what its really like. I would recognize the difference between “inside practice” (theoretically driven practices) and “outside practices” (practices based on real battlefield experiences).

    I would let the possibility that one misstep might result in my death or dismemberment quicken me into really waking up and paying attention and I would question everything.

    To never really know if what you are doing will serve you and to nevertheless choose…that’s authentic.

  6. I think that both unarmed and armed combat can be divided into three categories and we always have to keep in mind, which one of them we are training. Self defence is hardly relevant in the case of historical swordsmanship in our modern world, and it differs from the others because you try to avoid situations where you’d have to actually use your skills. Competition requires rules to be safe and to define winner (even the most extreme combat sports have rules), that’s why it differs from the other two. Combat has no rules whatsoever and the aim is to force the opponent to do your bidding, to die or to surrender.

    Historical swordsmanship is a special case because it can be trained as combat (although we know that we would never really get into war or real duel), but it can also be trained just to learn it, for the sake of the art itself. For me the skill with sword and other types of weapons is one part of learning to use weapons correctly to enhance my re-enacting of medieval soldier and one part of reconstructing the historical art with my small contribution of simply doing so. And of course, it’s extremely fascinating and fun.

    Competition? Not for me. I do free play in our practice sessions, that’s essential while learning to fight, but I think too much competition is bad for the art. It might lead us to fight unsafely and unauthenticly. When art becomes sport, there has to be rules and to win, one must act within the rules but bend and stretch them where possible. When we practice art without any desire to “win”, we don’t need complex rules. There are exceptions, but oftentimes in re-enactment battles without “historical winner” usually every hit count, no matter how much you wear armour. That’s because having “hit points” would make the battle competitive and therefore unsafe.

  7. To be authentic, first we need to define the context. Generally, our practice today has a different goal. We could say that for Fiore the primary goal was fighting in a duel, in the lists or in skirmishes of some sort. For us the goal is to recreate the techniques described within his book and only after that has been done to some extent can we think about practicing the skills for some purpose.

    We today have a clear view backwards in time over the history of swordsmanship. In a way we can see a complete story told, and today we are writing a new chapter.

    Winning is an important part of swordsmanship, but its meaning can be different in different contexts. In practice you can take hits and learn from it, but in any context with sharp sword you can not afford it. In the lists (as Fiore says) you can take hits and still be victorious. Manciolino says that if you carry yourself in a fight with skill and grace you will not be deemed loser even if you end up receiving a hit. I don’t think Manciolino spoke of a self-defense context here.

    Competition by itself is not necessarily “bad for the art”, and “too much” is quite subjective. Some of the best longsword fencing I have personally witnessed has been in a competition. Some of the best bouts I have experienced have been in a competition. Some of the technically most advanced fencers I know have done well in competitions, and have been able to do so with comparatively good, authentic technique.

    Practicing the art just for the sake of itself is a phrase I have heard a few times, and while I understand what it means and can appreciate it, I think the art needs to be expressed in an antagonistic context. Otherwise it will be distorted at least equally as much as it will be distorted under the rules of a competition.

    Other thing to keep in mind is that the duel was not self-defense nor was it combat. It was very strictly governed by rules (sometimes very strange ones) and it still involved a high risk of serious injury and death. On a personal level I find understanding the duel difficult. I won’t go deeper into my own motivations and goals in teaching and training now, but they are far from really preparing anyone for a hypothetical duel.

    Also, “sport” or competitive swordsmanship has a history as long as the documented styles we have. Competitive fencing doesn’t necessarily have to mean large international tournaments with strict rules, even your average in-class sparring session should have a competitive aspect to it.

    That said, I strongly think that the only qualifier shouldn’t be who receives a touch on the opponent. Surely that has merit, but it can happen by chance as well. I give a lot of credit to the swordsman who displays great skill and beauty in his actions, and usually these people will not fare all that bad in competitions even if they wouldn’t emerge victorious all the time. I give credit to the fencer who often wins as well, but less so if he wins by trickery and aggression alone. To the fencer who would both effortlessly display skill and consistently win over others I would give even more credit.

    Finally I don’t believe every historical fencer’s quality should be measured by his tournament success alone. Reading and translating books and spending time teaching others is time away from effective, competitive training. Everyone should understand this, and be grateful of the effort these people put into the work. Likewise, those who use this material and concentrate on their personal progress should be valued for different reasons. Neither type (or any combination thereof) should be underrated for their choices.

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