The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Aggression, violence, martial arts and what they are for.

This is part of an ongoing series of pieces about what martial arts are about, what they try to be, and how we as people think about and train them. They will look at how we can find ways to make sure that we are honest in our assumptions and expectations so that we maximise what we get from our training and our interest. All these pieces are short and in no way comprehensive, all encompassing studies. Firstly the subjects are too large and varied to be able to cover in a series of large books let alone a blog or website. Secondly I don’t claim to have the knowledge to go in to the depth that parts of the subject deserve. However I put them here to hopefully start people thinking.


Violence and aggression, two of the things that drive and have driven the development or Martial arts in all it various forms in different cultures and throughout history. Violence and aggression are hugely complex areas to try to understand. They come in many different forms and cover a wide range of situations and levels of intensity and threat.
Although they are often linked there are differences between violence and aggression.
Similarly Martial arts come in many different forms and are and have been used for many different reasons.

Any one studying or considering studying a martial art today should understand what it is they want to get from a martial art, and then consider what the various arts offer so that they get out of their training what they need.

What should those of us who are studying historical martial arts do?
Firstly we should consider what the historical martial arts we are studying were designed to do. We should also consider what we personally want from our study of the past, and then consider how we go about achieving it.

We must be careful that we don’t start trying to fit a round peg in to a square hole and start manipulating what we study or how we study it to achieve the wrong goal and we must be honest so that we do not lead ourselves to artificial conclusions.

Let us look at violence briefly. It can be broadly and perhaps crudely divided in to two categories. There is Inter-species violence. This is the basis of the Fight or flight response, a predator threatens you, or you are the predator. Your options are to get away, to kill or be killed. Commonly know as fight or flight. We then have Intra-species violence; this is violence between members of the same species. This is a far less black and white situation, here violence and aggression is used to achieve a goal, to gain something, generally relating to status. Status in the group, maintaining your status against someone whom has challenged you or your perceived self worth or position in your group or society.

Humans like most animals have in built inhibitions that generally prevent Intra-species violence going too far. This does not always work but generally it does. These inhibitions are there because it is counterproductive to kill off members of your own species, and also because uncontrolled violence, while allowing you to kill a rival, can leave you seriously wounded or maimed. This is why in most species the males use ritualised violence to gain or maintain status, and that generally these contests end before either party is badly injured. It is also why most species do not act violently towards the female of the species, or if they do that the violence is controlled.
Humans have this ritual violence. To quote Rory Miller, who uses the term “Monkey Dance”, because of its in built and instinctive nature from our ape ancestors.
The problem with humans is that we have invented numerous implements and tools to give us an edge and which in effect short-circuit our biological inhibitions. After all one good punch is likely to finish a conflict between two humans but is also likely to leave both relatively uninjured, however, put a club, knife, sword into that swinging hand and the out come is likely to be very different.

We have also, on occasion, managed to control the mindset we can apply to violence in certain situations. We can consciously or otherwise turn on the hunter predatory mind set, that allows us to view opponents not as other humans but as prey, and this allows a different set of rules to be applied. Alongside the above two developments, we have also developed systems to allow us to maximise the physical skills and mind set for the kind of violence we are going to undertake, martial arts, for lack of a more encompassing phrase.

I will not go into an in depth discussion of the physiological and psychological, biological and evolutionary drives and processes that have governed and shaped human aggression and violence, but hopefully this gives a broad outline.

Historically people had a different mindset and attitude to violence than we do today, or at lest some of them did. Yet we must also remember that we are not all that different, the majority of the changes are superficial and are to do with whom we were brought up and the norms of the society we were brought up in.
People used violence and the skills of violence for many reasons and many not that different from how violence is used today.

Self defence –
This is dealing with either stupidity or bad luck. It is primarily about recovery, recovery from the surprise of being on the receiving end of a bad situation that you weren’t expecting. Some manuals deal with this, specifically on occasion, more often in a general way.

Duelling –
This is something that was in general, forced upon the individual, by the expectations and standards of the society to which they belonged or on how they perceived themselves to fit in to that society. In effect this is a type of Monkey dance, in that the goal is to maintain or regain status. Generally governed by rules and expectations of behaviour. Many manuals deal with this, and the teaching of the master’s focuses toward people preparing for this.

Sport –
Different to a duel in that the participants have chosen to engage in the activity, there are also rules and officials to control how far things go. Again something that was if not explicitly stated in the works of many masters, the preparation for fighting in Tournaments or at the barriers, was a not uncommon feature of the fighting classes.

Combat –
Here we are referring to battle. Warfare is consciously or subconsciously a ritualised affair. The optimal approach is obedience and teamwork, rather than individual skill. The skills needed, though linked to what is seen in some manuals, are often quite different.

Assault –
This is a predatory mindset; the aggressor in a self-defence situation is likely to approach the situation in this way. In a modern context this is the approach and mindset of Elite Military units, hostage rescue teams and SWAT. Here the goal is to maximise your advantages and minimise theirs. Here there are generally no rules, other than use force to achieve your goal with as little risk or cost to yourself. Perhaps in a historical context we could look at the Vikings, raiding vulnerable targets and using hit and run tactics to gain advantage and achieve the best result for themselves, when they did engage in combat it was generally when they had the best chances of winning.

Fitness –
Keeping fit, training and learning skills your body and in some ways your mind fit and healthy. Many manuals talk the physical benefits of training in the martial skills

Entertainment –
Here the skills are used for the enjoyment and possibly education of others. Show fighters of the past, often berated by “real” fencing masters. Of course a tournmanet could be entertaining, but the goal in the tournament was not the entertainment as such. Of course there as overlaps, but basicallym we are looking at "show" fights

Spiritual growth –
Some people have used and still used martial skills for this. Ultimately this is rather a dead end. Training for an engaging in life and death situations would teach you something about yourself, and one could argue that the “warrior” mind set has a strong spiritual element, for one the acceptance of death and or sever injury. However one perhaps emphasise that this is part of the development, not an end in itself.

These are obviously broad categories. However they do help us to start thinking about the focus of the violence and martial skills of the past. Then we can address where our own field of study, masters work, manual, or tradition of interest lies and then begin to put it in context and think about it appropriately. We of course will find situations where one or more categories apply, or the master of the past was advocating that the skills he taught could be used in a variety of situations.
The important things is that the truth is, that despite what may be thought commonly or suggested on occasion, is that no one martial skill can do everything, each has its on demands, requirements, mindset and skills. Also no training method or framework of interpretation or reconstruction can fully cover all the different demands of the different skills. We need to understand what we want to study and tailor our approach accordingly.


In following pieces I will look at ways we can go about starting to achieve it.

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