European Martial Arts and Their Cultural Significance

When one thinks of martial arts, they are typically hit with flashes of Bruce Lee, and esoteric east Asian pantomiming. Cryptic slogans and claims of how it is totally possible to kill a man with a five-finger-heart-dim-mak dominated the public perception of martial arts for decades. This interpretation of fighting was brought about by a western sphere that had romanticized the exotic feel of the east; and also forgotten its own warrior culture.

While there are martial arts from non-European countries that are effective, many of these styles of “fighting,” have been debunked over the years with the rise of Mixed Martial Arts. Even so, there is still a great deal of tomfoolery, and cultism regarding martial arts that can be seen without having to look too hard. It can be seen from many of the western practitioners of these arts that they are trying to bargain with reality. They want to do the least amount of work, while reaping the maximum reward. For this reason, they pay thousands of dollars, and waste years of their lives studying ineffective techniques; that claim to be able to stop a man with a strong enough yell, or by poking the right spot. One needs only to look up a style versus style match to see what happens when these people get into a fight. Xu Xiaodong is a great example of what happens when practitioners of these arts step into a ring with someone who actually knows how to fight.

One will also turn to these arts in a bid to find some form of culture in a nation which has forgotten, and demonized its own. When one has nothing to live for they will search high, and low for a substitute. They turn another culture into a fetish, much in the way weeaboos do with Japan. They do not understand that culture, however since many have never been taught about their own; they feel that they must embrace it in order to belong, or be interesting. Some of these people may even be unaware that martial arts are not exclusive to Asia.

The warrior culture in Europe and America is alive and well, in ways that the average person may not recognize. While it has been suppressed, it will never truly be broken down; unless it is allowed to be by its descendants. In addition to this, it is being rebuilt by those who have embraced the fighting history of their people.

         Martial History in Europe Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is a broad phrase used to describe the revival, and practice of the martial traditions which once dominated the European sphere. If one is only tangentially familiar with it, they may think of sword fighting by men who spend their time at renaissance fairs. While swordplay is a staple of HEMA, it is actually a very robust tree of martial arts; which branches out as far as combat has for the many thousands of years man has walked through Europe. For decades people have been reconstructing authentic combat with many different forms of weapons and tactics using manuals, and common sense. They will test their theories out with each other, and find the best way to execute the knowledge in a fight.

Every civilization has had warriors. The Cossacks, Celts, Legionaries, and Vikings are some of the most well known from Europe. These cultures had to fight for their place in history, and needed to become acquainted with combat to do so. These cultures developed their own weapons, tactics, and fighting styles in a bid to carve out their claim. While the civilizations may not exist anymore, their legends and martial traditions are still known. The sons and daughters of Europe, be them in the continent or in America,all have a warrior culture to go along with their last name. There are few better ways to embrace that culture than to learn by what means it became well known to the world.

There are many forms of combat which have been put to the side as technology, and tactics have advanced. In addition to the domestication of European children, there is less need for extensive knowledge of swordplay; as firearms become more effective, and efficient. With the advancement of technology, there has been less emphasis on the pouring of oneself into the craft of martial tradition; which has only cheapened one’s ties to their ancestors. The practice of cultural forms of combat is extremely important in fostering a healthy mindset, and body. One will learn about the reality of the world, as well as them self in a metaphysical sense. They will learn the power behind the body they have been given.

         Brutal Pragmatism One thing someone may notice from watching the videos that accompany this article is that these arts are not full of fluff. They are not esoteric in nature. There is no secretive, or special aspect of them which instructors swear allows the practitioner to win a fight with thirty opponents. These were not created for the purpose of play, or to lie to students. They were created to work on a battlefield; where one would be killed if they did not exert force over another person. These arts are direct, efficient, and effective. They were created in an environment where survival of the fittest was championed. If two men had a different take on a technique, there would be no pointless arguing about whose was better.

Often times what can be observed in eastern martial arts is a tit for tat debate about certain arts and techniques. One man may say “I would do this move to you!” and the other one retorts “oh yeah? Well if you did that to me, I would do this to you!” Neither of them will actually test out their techniques on resisting opponents, and they will both walk away thinking they are correct. They will teach their students untested techniques which the students will have an unwavering faith, and loyalty for simply because their esoteric, mystical “master” told them that it will definitely work all of the time. There was never any room for that kind of behavior in historical Europe, because if two men had a disagreement about a technique they would simply fight. If they did not fight, then they would test their mettle in battle. If two men who were arguing left to fight in a battle to defend, or spread their culture, and only one returned alive; then it was obvious who was correct.

In addition to this, European martial arts have always adapted as new knowledge, and techniques were dreamt up. Pugilism, which is better known by its sporting counterpart boxing, is a perfect example of how the old is not grasped tightly as to hinder the warrior in battle. Punching in the form we see in both Pugilism, and boxing are two techniques that are semi-unique to Europe. Other non-European arts with punches tend to have a different approach, or were heavily influenced by European travelers/conquerors. If one is to compare classical Pugilism to its more modern counterpart the differences are stark. Quick, snappy punches have been replaced by slightly slower, yet more powerful ones. After it was demonstrated that the modern technique of punching was much more effective than the old, most warriors embraced it. Those who did not were left behind; which in a fight means they lost, and on the battlefield they died.

Taking a look at the non-European arts which developed hand techniques of their own yields sometimes bizarre, and often less effective punches. While some warriors embraced newer techniques, it typically was at the expense of their reputation among their peers. They consider the art, and the person who created the art to be sacred. Any attempt to deviate from the teachings of the first master is sacrilege. For this reason, practitioners cling to the ineffective movements of the past no matter how often they are proven to be at a disadvantage.

         Looking to Learn One may wonder about where they can find Historical European Martial Arts, as they are not as widespread as other forms of fighting. The accessibility of HEMA can be a bit of an issue, however there are forms of it that are less historical than one may think. The three most popular forms of wrestling worldwide (Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman) are all based on historical counterparts. Folkstyle wrestling is one of the most easily accessible, as it is practiced by high schools, and colleges across America. If one is of school age, or has children that are in school it is wise to take advantage of the cheap, and possibly even free training that their local school provides. It may even be a route to college, in which one can choose a major that will help them to live a more prosperous life. In addition to this, the military has martial arts programs in which one can learn to wrestle.

Many of the top UFC fighters are vocal about their success being based off of having a strong wrestling base. It is hard to go wrong with knowing how to wrestle. In addition to this, there are forms of submission wrestling, also known as catch wrestling- which are good for those who wish to learn how to apply chokes, and joint locks to opponents. Wrestling is such a strong base, that Kano borrowed heavily from European forms of wrestling when he was developing the groundwork for Judo.

In addition to grappling, one can find striking in any local boxing gym. Boxing has received the reputation of a “ghetto” sport in recent years, however with the return of bare knuckle boxing to Europe and America in recent years, the true nature of the sport is returning as well. Boxing is a sport that is about finishing your opponent. It is about giving one’s all through the pain of receiving all of what someone else has to offer. While the prancing, and point scoring of many fighters of recent times is a great show of athleticism; it is not what boxing was meant to be.To find examples of what boxing truly is, look up Jack Dempsey, and read his book Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense. 

Pugilism, which is the greater art from which boxing sprouted, was always meant to be a form of self defense. One does not defend them self from an assailant by scoring points. They defend them self by doing damage that stops the attacker, or sends them running. Pugilism is an interesting art that is harder to come by, however if one can find a gym which teaches boxing, and wrestling, they may be combined in order to get as close to the real thing as possible. While any martial art that is practical is a benefit to learn; one may find they are best suited for an art that they have cultural ties to. It can be difficult to find the motivation to train in and of itself, however; the added knowledge of partaking in something that was once a way of life for one’s people may be the spur needed to get up off of the couch. Losing oneself within the traditions of the past is not something to feel shame for, or to reject. A strong sense of identity is needed for a healthy body, mind, and soul. There are many places, and people who offer some form of training all over the world. One should search around, and find them while they still exist.


By Sean Perth and Revolt Through Tradition

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