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When you hear the word ‘martial arts,’ it is normal to immediately reflect on the plethora of hand-to-hand, close quarter combat styles hailing from Asia. For decades, there has been heavy neglect toward martial arts in the Western European world, with the word itself being solely synonymous to Asia alone. However, upon taking a closer look at historical records and studying the way in which weapons were learned, it can be concluded that European martial arts did indeed exist.

European Martial Arts: The Way of the Swordplay

european martial arts Swordplay

From as early as the 1550’s, the word ‘martial art’ derives from Latin meaning ‘the arts of Mars’ (Mars referring to the Roman god of war). While over the years it may have come to be associated to the fighting styles of eastern Asia, the Latin-root term referred to many of combat systems in Europe.

During the Medieval and Renaissance eras, a large component to fighting – before civilian weapons for dueling were introduced – was largely focused on military purposes for self defense. Many men were taught in an almost systematic way in learning to discipline their mind and body for better battlefield survival and combat. In this way, just as the original meaning of the term connotes, the Medieval swordplay was in fact martial-based.

When digging up old manuscripts and manuals pertaining to combat instructions of the Medieval and Renaissance period, it is evident that – like modern martial arts – the way of the sword was taught with a greater level of precision, science, and art behind it. The illustrations within these manuals show that sword-wielding warriors were meant to be expertly trained in efficiently using whatever weapon swiftly and fluidly, rather than what has been depicted over the stream of history in media – armored knights swinging large swords without much grace.

The Rise of the Duel in Swordplay

european martial arts Swordplay

By the time firearms had risen, transforming the way of warfare completely, old Medieval systems fell and with it, there would be a shift in how martial skills were demonstrated. In other words, these pragmatic forms of combat were no longer for the battlefield alone. Such change brought forth a rise in the culture of the duel – where people of all classes would find themselves amidst a brawl in hopes to either uphold their reputation, honor, or sometimes simply, their life.

With this social change and proliferation of the urban combat, more and more people found a necessity to learn more about defending themselves. Streets were no longer as safe as they once were, and studies into the traditional systematic studies of swordplay had become more popular – mainly used as a guide and science of self defense.

Modern Era & Beyond of European Martial Arts

european martial arts Swordplay

The Renaissance advanced European martial arts for the better, as it was during this time, many fencing masters – soldiers, scholars, nobles, princes – applied their existing knowledge into building a greater system for self defense. Even if the culture of the duel had created an outburst of urban brawls across the streets, most skilled fighters were men with a level of learned education. Thus, it was these individuals who helped to innovate and refine the Western fighting skills into something more sophisticated.  

The advent of the technological advancements since the 18th century have only created more change in the way of the sword. The old ways of the armored swordsman have faded with history itself, and been replaced by the way of the gun. What once was the way of the Western world – derived from Medieval and Renaissance heritage – has phased out.

Like everything else in life, times have changed and with it, so have the people and the methods used. It would simply be an inefficient to train rows of soldiers with only swords, when the opposition have missiles and guns that would do a much more effective job in taking out the threat.

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