Monday, January 31, 2011

On Martial Arts

There is an ongoing debate (for 30 years now) as to whether or not SCA combat is a martial art. I argued in my book Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages that when Duke Paul first developed the Belatrix snap, SCA combat stopped being a game men played hitting each other with sticks and became a martial art which could be practiced for its own sake. From that time on a major strain of what we do has been devoted to learning, practicing, and advancing fighting technique, much in the same way that others practice WMA or Kung Fu. Paul’s style was initially based on Judo, and other styles were developed based on Boxing, Kendo, and even WMA, and this is also a feature of Martial Arts—different schools promoting different styles and techniques as superior to the others.

Count Gemini Asante argues that what we do is not a martial art but a hobby. This might at first seem surprising, since he teaches SCA combat *as* a martial art, or at least a variety of it, in his salon in Turlock—mostly to local kids to whom it is more interesting than Karate lessons. He’s the only peron I know who fights and trains full time for a living. Gemini insists that what we have now is just a hobby, and that because we have no formal lexicon, no established techniques, and no agreed upon method, SCA combat is not a martial art.

In the same discussion in which Gemini made these assertions, Marc dArundel said that SCA combat is one of the most honest martial arts, because if you couldn't fight, you couldn't advance (to knighthood). He has collected a few black belts, and knows some gusy who have black belts who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag: but if you see an SCA guy with a white belt you know that guy knows how to fight.

So, taking these two positions together, we might as well ask ourselves if it matters if we are a martial art or not. If people can excel in real martial arts and not be able to fight, but in order to excel in what we do being able to fight is the only criteria, isn’t it a sort of “who cares” issue? We, after all, do kick ass.

Korwyn Ariannade insists that what we are is not a martial art but a sport. To him the WMA guys are the true martial artists. He points out that what prompts the WMA guys to do what they do is the very fact that the SCA is a sport. Most WMA practitioners, at least those who lead the movement, started out in the SCA but left because they were not satisfied with the ahistorical sport aspects of SCA combat. Hence WMA grew out of the SCA as a reaction against it. “we are the sport form, but because we exist the Western Martial Arts movement found fertile ground.”

What Gemini was arguing for was a uniformity of language which would, he hoped, lead to some uniformity of technique. He was not suggesting that we abandon styalistic differences. What he wanted was some consistency, so that when somebody came to him and discussed a “snap” they were both talking about the same thing. This project is now underway, and his Majesty Jade will be leading what promises to be an interesting discussion on the topic at March Crown. But while this is a great idea, Maythen warned, bringing it round to Marc’s point, that the point at which Asian martial arts became less practical is when they became more uniform and “teachable”. The movement of karate from the dojos of certain masters who each taught their own techniques, to “styles” that could be taught and judged by many, is the point where it became less martial and more “art”.

It seems to me that Maythen’s point is a good one. If the SCA is a martial art then it is at the stage that Kenjitsu was at the beginning of the Edo period Japan. It was somewhat sport-like because battle field conflicts had given way to duels, and these would give way to a stick combat very much like what the SCA practices, but that too would give way to the more stylaized kendo, with its linear attacks, right of way, and four specific targets, or to the non-combative forms or Iado. But Kendo and Iado are still rightly considered Martial Arts, and Kendo is far more styalized and rules bound than what we do.

Now the SCA has a number of styles that are more or less regional (we had a knight visiting from Atenveldt whom I did not know but I pegged his kingdom right away). Whether or not what we do is a martial art really depends on the approach of the person training the newer fighters. Some people still aproach SCA training by just putting somebody in armor and pushing them onto the field at "bashing practice". But we also have masters (small m), many of whom (but not all) were martial artists before joining the SCA, who have brought a martial arts philosophy to SCA combat. Paul is obviously first among them, and his techniques are probably the most highly developed, but Branos, Dirk, Uther, Gendy, Inman, Baldar, Brand, Mark, and Gemini himself all qualify. In fact, Gemini is doing more to advance the art than anybody right now with his deGrendelus school, and while that is no doubt what prompts him to insist we are not a martial art, it also undermines his position.

SCA combat is a martial art. Gemini himself is proof of that.

5 comments:

tsafa said...

I have looked into a number of martial arts. Some are ridged in form and technique some allow for a lot of improvisation. I do not think that is the defining factor. The defining factor is that in all martial arts there is a concept of Attacking in a Defensive manor.

In WMA with Longswords it is generally accepted that it is nearly impossible impossible to beat a suicidal fighter. The assumption is that both fighters want to leave the fight unharmed. A suicidal fighter will attack low every time you attack high resulting in a double kill. The SCA has developed methods to deal with this, where WMA is bound to follow only what is in print.

The Historical manuals, which I have studied in detail, do not have a solution to many fighting situations. All manuals are incomplete. Longsword, for example does not explain footwork, it does not explain how to fight lefties, it does not explain exactly how to make a cut. The people who study are forced to do a lot of "extrapolation". They use their own experiences in fighting to fill in a lot of the gaps and that is not too different from SCA fighting. Most WMA longsword tournaments do not look too different from SCA fighting except for the lighter calibration which allows them to make a wider range of shots work.


I have had long discussions with my WMA instructor on this issue of what is a Martial Art or not. The term Martial refers to the Roman God of War, Mars. So "martial" mean War-Like. You can corner any WMA person with the argument that what they practice is really not a martial art at all because the historical manuals refer only to Duels, not mass combat. In that respect SCA fighting is more "martial" because we train for the mass combat of war.

There is also the issue that I refereed to earlier that in Tournaments WMA combat is very SCA like in structure. They have rules too... they don't allow for grappling.They also stop after one blow, where a real fight may not stop after just one blow.

There was some common ground that both me and my WMA Instructor were able to agree to. We concluded that the act of drilling, pell work and instruction that is done in both WMA and SCA constitutes a Martial Art. The controlled act of tournament fighting that is done in both WMA and SCA constitutes a Martial Sport for both of them.

stag said...

The term "martial art" is a badly abused term. It rarely means NOW what it meant when the term was coined some thirty years ago. By now, it can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. Any asian martial art that ends in a "do" is a sport version of a very real killing martial art, so they get a bi. Kendo is a sport version of Kenjuitsu, for instance, Judo is a sport version of Juijutsu. But you knew that of course, and I won't waste your time with the obvious exceptions.

Since the term can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean, well sure, you could call the fighting we see in the SCA a martial art. That would allow lawn darts, and chess to qualify I suppose. However, with respect, after twenty odd years of fighting in the SCA, I decided that I had given it all the second and third chances and with increasingly rare exceptions (such as yourself!), it still did not measure up to MY idea of a martial art.
Simply put, the vast majority of SCA fighters are not training to kill their opponents. If they were, then grappling, hitting from behind, lifting their opponents to throw them, poisoning, and advancement by paying mercenaries to do their fighting for them would be appropriate. Thank goodness it is not. SCA fighting is a game...like football or basketball. These are noble sports and the SCA can be proud to include its fighters among them. But no matter how armoured up the football player is, and how thoroughly he or she studies tactics and strategy, and how long and hard they work at the Indian clubs and kettle bells and weights, and how hard they hig their opponents on the field, football, like SCA fighting will forever be a sport, not a martial art.

Your mileage may vary. Some would feel that anything that is actually designed to kill your opponent is not an art, but (for lack of a better term) a science. A martial science would be, say, serving a cannon or trebuchet, or calculating how long the seige could last by how much food is available or re-creating how they did it back then. I think this turns all the definitions upside down, but if it was universally accepted, I might go along with it. WMA or AEMMA for instance with their emphasis on archeology, extant period fight manuals and re-enactment is a fine example of a group which is creating a martial science.

I could go on and on, but I think I have made my point. Its not a fine hair splitting point. It is the essence of what we do.

MAC said...

Ken Mondschein of Historicalfencing.com writes on his website a definition of martial art: "A martial art is a practice that takes the asocial force of violence and enfolds it into the web of culture." This is absolutely what the SCA excels at.

tsafa said...

Stag, consider the Tuchux tournament fought at Pennsic every year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s56IVr0fgLc

I have participated in the last three Tuchux Tournaments tournaments at Pennsic and they allow for full grappling, punching and kicking. In the two hour tournament I would say that only 10% of the fights resulted in grappling. This was the case with Tuchux who participated too and were more experienced in Grappling. The general reason for that is because it is more efficient to kill someone with a weapon... although there were a few matches that were determined by grappling submission. There was an excellent "arm-bar" move that was executed by one of the SCA Knights.

What you see in the video is that the techniques used in SCA fighting can be very easily adopted to be used in grappling scenarios. Put another way... the Rules Can Change... people will adapt what they know. In the SCA we normally encounter mixed weapons forms and different styles... so we are actually better trained to deal with the unexpected then many other martial arts.

In the video you can observe a very interesting improvisation I did at 4:00 (I am wearin blue). I drew a spear and my opponent drew a mace. My opponent closed the distance to neutralize the advantage of my longer weapon. I then grappled with him to neutralize the advantage of his shorter weapon. I wrapped my arms around him helmet and used the leverage to rip him to the ground and rip the helmet off. At that point the match is considered won and over because the next blow in real combat would have been me punching him in the face with a steel gauntlet.

If you watch the video through, you will notice that all the fighters in this tournament have been fighting for a least a few years in the SCA. They are comfortable enough with the concept of swinging a sword that they can think on their feet to and adapt to the Rule Change.

naedyr said...

I think the concept of 'combat sport' is an important one. Ufc and other mma is often referred to as such. The key key similarity with sca heavy combat is that people train and utilise other martial arts techniques to compete in a particular competition, eg an sca tournament. Completely different styles and techniques are used against each other and evolve over time. Different training camps focus on particular styles but learn from each other. As a result both are now gradually moving towards being a martial art in their own right.
Is ufc a martial art? Not yet, but people train in and use a similar set of martial arts within ufc. I think the same applies to sca heavy combat.