What’s the point of training with a sword these days? Or, more accurately, what’s the point of training in the use of the sword as a martial art. Opposed to say artistic skill display, stage combat, or sport tournament usage. Why on earth would anyone train swordplay with the intent to use a sword in earnest?
I suppose a further question might be why would we chose to study Historical sword arts in their entirety, with an intent to use them for modern martial art or self defense usage? It makes sense to study them for academic understanding, for accurate re-creation in order to further our understanding of the origins of our modern world. That’s not the same thing as learning to use a sword to survive an actual swordfight.
Modern swordfighters tend to use these justifications to explain the pleasure they take in practicing sword in hand. It’s a valid excuse, and honesty more than enough reason to spend a happy and productive lifetime in study.
The unspoken but here for me and others is that we are first and foremost martial artists. Our intention is violence. Our expectation is violence. Our concern is survival in an encounter where the chief concern is not hurt, but injury…avoiding it, and dealing it out. Where does the sword fit into that? We have guns for war, and no one carries or can carry a sword for civilian self-defense.
It helps to define what we are talking about. The phrase “Martial Art” the way we understand it these days is a very modern phrase. I think that taking it as the literal “arts of mars” is inaccurate. I’m very much inspired by Marco Quarta’s posts on NovaScrimia.org and conversations to embrace in my understand of “Martial Arts” the three-part aspects of Mercury, Mars and Apollo. We should have in our training, or at least be aware of, the dark and underground things, the sometimes uncontrolled violence, and the games and higher expressions of ourselves and our interactions with each other.
For some reason the modern swordplay crowd seems to want to argue over whether they should be doing just one aspect. There is sometimes seen to be a desire to separate sport, self-defense and outright combat (not to mention historical accuracy and faithful reproduction) and keep them separate…as if elements of one will pollute the other. To my mind it is only a Martial Art if all elements are combined. I should be clear that I’m still coming to grips with the right way to think about these elements, never mind put them into understandable words, so forgive any weirdness.
And moving on from the “martial” aspect of things we should also understand Habitus. I’ve been using this word a lot lately and people seem to sort of gloss over it thinking they know what it means but it’s really a fairly complex theory I’ve adopted from sociology. Habitus is the collective embodiment of the often-subconscious postural and movement habits we acquire from our teachers, and pass on to our students. It’s the subtle tactics and methods of observing and seeing our opponents, the triggers and ticks of movement and combat that are never explicitly taught and yet are faithfully passed on from generation to generation. True lineage in a martial tradition comes more from the Habitus than from the technical body or work.
So to me a Martial Art is a Habitus that encodes the dirtiest of dirty fighting techniques, control and less-lethal civil techniques, and a competent and enjoyable sport and display aspect.
It’s those first two aspects that seem the oddest with modern sword work.
Given a zombie apocalypse of some sort, sword work is the dirtiest most winning-est way to go, absolutely. But barring that, what does it do for me in a mythical back-alley scramble for life? If it’s taught the right way, swordwork gives me bright eyes to understand what is happening. It will give me a habitus that requires not just quick decision, but instant commitment to follow up on that decision. It teaches me better than any other art to penetrate or cut another human being with practiced intent using a suitable weapon. I’ll know the lines an opponent will want to use to react to what I do, and I will know how to exploit them. Absolutely I’ll need to practice at closer ranges with shorter weapons and without, but that should be part of any martial art as well.
For the civil techniques, I’m not going to use a sword on someone in a less-lethal circumstance. But I understand how to maintain measure, I understand how to dominant and deceive through presence, posture and pressure. And with any suitable object in hand, I am untouchable and capable of putting anyone down. Within reason…I’m getting old and slow. But I have eye and ability and my learned Habitus to carry me through. Any good and well trained martial artist should feel the same.
So when I train with the sword, I am training to develop all of these aspects. I can train them as well in other martial arts, but I certainly lose nothing training with blade in hand. To my mind, I only gain. I can’t see why anyone would train martial arts without a sword in hand, at least some of the time. Every art has it’s own Habitus and technical specializations, but if the elements are all in balance, it will be a good art.
Swordplay is a martial art like any other. And it should be trained as such, and seen as such.