When we choose to study Western Martial Arts how do we decide what material to study? Basically, we have four choices: We can study the teaching of a single master or source if that source is complete enough to be rewarding (e.g., Silver or Meyer, but not Codex 11093); or we can study a closely-related group of masters or sources (e.g., the Liechtenauer Society Masters); or we can mix and match various unrelated and often antithetical sources (e.g., mixing Ringeck and Fiore); or, finally, we can ignore historical sources altogether and simply go play tag with fake swords, making up whatever we want to do and ignoring the masters completely.
Obviously the fourth choice is not a valid option; anyone who has read this blog knows why that is so, so I won’t belabor the point except to continue to remind the folks who do this that there’s no reason in the world to make up a new system of combat—it’s already been done by those far more qualified to do so—and unarmored free play always has and always will change the system being studied: The Kendo Syndrome can not be denied.
Just as obviously the first two choices are perfectly valid. I have often thought of giving up Liechtenauer to study Silver because I find his material to be brilliant, but, alas, my heart is fixed on Harnischfechten and the pollaxe, neither of which Silver addresses. Meyer is, likewise, fascinating, and his books show a rich, and potentially very rewarding system—but, again, no Harnischfechten (as an aside, lately I’ve been accused of being opposed to Meyer or of putting him down because he taught Schulfechten; nonsense! I think he is a great choice for study for those not interested in Harnischfechten).
The second option, studying closely-related sources, is an excellent and perfectly valid choice but is not as perfect as the first option because when you start mixing then you run the risk of making changes. For example, let’s say that you study Liechtenauer through Döbringer, Ringeck, Kal, and von Danzig. Now let’s say that Paulus Kal’s book showed technique A being done one way, and all the other sources described it another. Which way do you choose?
What if, in his day, Kal was considered perfectly conventional in every single thing (he wasn’t, by the way) except technique A, and in that he was considered a radical for breaking with the Liechtenauer tradition. Not knowing that, you practice technique A as Kal showed it because he has a picture to help you understand it while the others do not. Now, if Liechtenauer came back from the dead, he’d look at what you’re doing and say that it was contrary to his way of doing things. No great harm, you say, after all, it’s pretty certain every master changed Liechtenauer’s art in some way. True, very true, but let’s say every one of the masters listed above had a technique like technique A; now you’d be doing techniques B, C, and D, too, and no real school of German combat ever used that combination of techniques. In effect, then, you would have created a new style of combat; one related to and derived from real schools of medieval combat, but still different.
Now I’ll grant that this example is likely a very small thing, and that the overall system you’d be practicing would be close enough to a real style of combat to be perfectly valid today, particularly given how much confusion we have about how a *lot* of techniques are to be done. I’m not trying to imply that four unusual interpretations make for an invalid system of study, not at all. But caution and diligence are required lest we go too far.
Having said that, I like the idea of using multiple sources to approach a single school; as Sydney Anglo wrote in his Renaissance Martial Arts, you can use what he calls a “dossier approach” to compare and contrast multiple sources, each with a slightly different way of expressing any given technique, in order to see the technique several different ways and thus build a much more creditable understanding of the technique being studied. Those studying a single master rarely have that luxury. Besides, no single source represents a complete system; I love Ringeck’s Fechtbuch, but he covers neither dagger nor pollaxe, and I would miss both forms.
But now we come to the troublesome option: Those who want to mix and match different systems with very different approaches to combat to build a system of their own. The most common mixes are Liechtenauer and Fiore, but I also know of one misguided young man who is proud to be mixing English, German (both Ernstfechten and Schulfechten!) and Italian longsword with Silver and goodness only knows what else.
Many who mix unrelated styles argue that all systems are really just the same thing; after all, they claim, there are only so many ways a human being can use a weapon. The young man I mentioned above has even gone so far as to claim, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is only one pan-European school of swordsmanship. If there are only so many ways a man can fight, then why is it I can easily tell the difference between most of the techniques of Ringeck and those of Fiore? How can I instantly recognize the differences between Katori Shinto-ryu and Maniwa Nen-ryu and Eishin ryu? Since there’s only one way to fight shouldn’t all of these systems be the same? And how can I tell the differences between judo, jujutsu and aikido? Again, aren’t there only so many different ways to fight? Sure, there can be overlaps: Both Shotokan Karate-do and Taekwondo use front snap kicks and straight punches, but to any but the most casual viewer the overall effect of watching people from each style will make it clear they’re doing something very different. So saying that both Ringeck and Fiore have a technique in which you bind then thrust from the bind “proves” they’re really the same system is specious nonsense.
I’ve read people who claim that the deeper they study both Liechtenauer and Fiore the more they come to see them as the same thing. Untrue—that’s like saying the more you study apples and oranges the more you see them as the same thing. They may both be fruits, but they’re otherwise quite different, as a truly deep analysis will show. The more I read about Fiore and talk with those who study and teach his art the more I realize how fundamentally—I’m tempted to say “radically”—different his system was from that of Liechtenauer.
So any attempt to mix and match unrelated sources is really bound to create a new system; one never practiced in history. “So what?”, some people ask; didn’t Liechtenauer admit traveling all over Europe studying with different and presumably unrelated masters to develop his system? Yes, he did, and it was perfectly justified in his day, when people really used these skills in real life. But we, today, are supposed to be studying *historical* combat; combat the way it was really done. How can we do that when doing so means we eschew real systems of medieval combat in favor of making up a new one today when we’re not living in an environment where the skills of our art are being used for real? We’re not *qualified* to make a new system. You can’t say that you’re doing the same thing Liechtenauer did because you’re not doing it in the same environment (and, by the way, you’re likely no Liechtenauer!).
The only possible justification for developing a new style of combat is to develop one that’s more effective than the existing styles—one that will let you win more fights, in other words. But we don’t need to win fights today with swords and armor, such things just have no meaning in our modern lives. Only those living in a dungeons and dragons fantasy world argue about being “real swordsmen.” Our only valid reason for studying WMAs is to resurrect real systems that existed in the middle ages; making up new systems should be left to LARPers and their ilk.