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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Ars Gladiatoris and Modern Military Combatives

The purpose of this article is to bring to light the sophisticated mixed martial arts heritage of the Western world, from the brutal Greco-Roman combat sport of pankration to the kampfringen––or, battlefield grappling––of Renaissance Germany, and then to examine it alongside modern military combatives.

Despite recent efforts to resurrect these historical systems, particularly the well documented German and Italian schools of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), many mainstream martial artists are still unaware that they exist. Others assume that the techniques with which Old World armies waged near-perpetual war against one another for two thousand years are useless in the modern world or inferior to over-hyped Eastern styles. To the chagrin of the HEMA community, it is not uncommon to hear the same tired myths:

"HEMA seems unsophisticated compared to Kenjutsu or Jiu-Jitsu."
"HEMA has little or no applicability to modern fighting. I mean, who carries a sword around nowadays?"

And so on.

Thanks to the inaccuracies perpetuated ad nauseum by Hollywood films, fantasy societies, sport fencers, video games, and the like, and given that the effort to resurrect HEMA as a viable system began barely a decade ago, such misconceptions are understandably common. And few would argue that a four foot longsword is a practical weapon for self-defense or warfare in the 21st century. But unarmed, there are only so many ways that one human can inflict damage upon another, and thus today's military hand-to-hand combat systems are not far removed from their Renaissance predecessors. In fact, with Western soldiers returning to the use of body armor, the study of kampfringen––especially techniques designed for armored knights––has become increasingly relevant.

This is a difficult notion to accept by some in the mainstream martial arts community, who, after years of indoctrination in the mythology of their respective style, cling to such demonstrably false positions as the following (actual quote):

"[HEMA is] nothing like Ninjitsu or Jiu-Jitsu, which make up the bulk of all Special Forces hand-to-hand training because they are superior to all other martial arts in their brutal effectiveness."

What these stubborn traditionalists do not realize––but what the US Army Combatives School, for example, already knows––is that a brutal system of fighting nearly identical to current Army and Marine Corps combatives was practiced throughout Europe as late as the 16th century, when technological advances in warfare finally rendered close-quarters battles obsolete.

In fact, the United States Combative Arts Association's home page prominently displays an image from Hans Talhoffer's 1467 Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre. This is no coincidence. Sergeant First Class Matt Larson, head of the US Army Combatives Program and developer of the Army Rangers' Close Quarters Combat system (CQC), plainly states that CQC integrates self-defense techniques from across the globe, including "training from... the western martial arts."

Larson, like many in this field, studies the European source material directly. From 3,000-year-old Mycenaean vases to the detailed fechtbucher of Mair and his contemporaries, the historical record abounds with illustrations and detailed explanations of European techniques, both armed and unarmed, that have direct equivalents in modern warfighting.

To best illustrate this point, I have created the following video, which compares images from ancient, medieval and Renaissance sources to images found in the Army's FM 3-25.150 (written by SFC Larson) and the USMC's MCRP 3-02B:


Like modern mixed martial arts, these historical techniques––which 16th century author Paulus Hector Mair dubbed ars gladiatoris, or the art of the fighter––cover all ranges of the fight, from kickboxing to groundfighting. While there may be subtle variations between the figures' positions in each image, the core concepts behind each strike, kick, throw, takedown, choke and joint lock are undeniably the same. What works, works.

Truly, nihil novi sub sole est.

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