The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Unbroken and unchanged

Having followed a few discussions lately on styles that may go back to the "past", mention was made of whether these might have an unbroken lineage of teaching going back to time "X".

This started me thinking. When we talk about unbroken traditions what do we really mean? Even if a tradition or style has survived with an unbroken line of teachers, generation to generation, perhaps what is more important is whether it is unaltered or unchanged.

Looking at any system that has been survived and been passed down over the years, it will have changed even if only superficially as the people, or rather the mindset, context and goals of those that practice the art change. Once something changes beyond a certain point it is arguably no longer what it was and therefore is something new and different having broken away from the original. At this point is the line broken, changed or both?

In Japan the oldest Bujutsu Ryu have survived many generations in unbroken lines going back to the 15th and 16th Centuries. However some have changed a great deal in that time, things have been added and other thing removed. While others have changed very little or what changes have taken place have not altered the Principles of the whole. In the same time other Ryu have died out.

Any system or method, is primarily a way of passing on information to the next generation. They are a way to gain understanding of the Principles of combat that were viewed as important by the founder of that system. Once the balance of the system shifts to different Principles or goals then the system is changed and flow of the original teaching is broken, even if the actual lineage of teacher to teacher continues.

What does all this mean? That one should consider the way that one asses different sources of information.

Looking at Talhoffer for example we see the images unchanged as they were when first drawn, though of course our interpretation of what they mean is what really matters. Of course interpretation is key in learning any skill, that is as true today as in the past. Of course most of the manuals were record of systems meant for those already initiated in methods of that system, or else were advertisement brochures intended to obtain patronage. However the information we see is itself unaltered.

I could also have a teacher who instructs me in Talhoffer methods who come from an unbroken line of teachers going back 500 years, but how much has the teaching changed in that time? The previously made point, that information changes as it is passed on intentionally or not; rather like in a game of Chinese whispers, comes into play. In this hypothetical situation, we can’t say for sure how much of what is being passed on to me by my teacher is true to what Talhoffer taught.

It should not be forgotten that people like the idea of things that go back a long way into the past. It adds weight and credibility. Of course this is a valid point. However there is also a temptation to misuse it. Consider how many Asian martial arts claim or at least imply lineage going back hundreds of years, even when the actual evidence is only traceable back a century or even less. Or that certain techniques or methods can be traced back to some distant time in the past to give them credibility. Someone I knew who was practising a Chinese art that practised high kicks of various types. They told me that while they recognised that doing these high kicks was not a good idea in a modern context, that they were practised in that system because they had been developed hundreds of years ago; to use against mounted opponents! There are many points this raises which lie outside of this current piece, though it serves as an illustration

None of this is intended to be an answer or suggest what is right and wrong, rather to remember to keep an open and honest mind.

Consider that even where the lineage is real, that does not of itself mean that the system has more worth than something "newer".

Jonathan Waller


  1. here's my 2cents worth...
    I'm a little ambivalent about the subject.
    Aside from being quite hard to clearly catagorize "unbroken" and "unchanged" it's not always going to be a good thing in a martial art.

    I studied Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu, on and off, for several years. In order to maintain any practical applicability as a form of self defence / fighting art, it has needed to change and adapt. (Specifically, the last Sensei I studied under had adopted groundfighting techniques from Brazilian Jujutsu.)
    Does this mean the Ninjutsu style is broken? Changed? Both?
    The ryu can be traced back through 34 grandmasters and I'm certain they must have all added something to it, changed things a little, interpreted / taught techniques differently or otherwise put their own signature into the style. Does that make it changed? Modern Ninjutsu is probably quite different to ancient Ninjutsu but it doesn't make it any less valid.

    That in mind, if a system claims to be unchanged and unbroken for "X" hundreds of years, why hasn't it evolved? is it so perfect that it doesn't need to? if so, why don't every army and police force the world over all use it?
    Obviously, because no system is perfect.
    This would suggest, to me anyway, that a system that claims to be unchanged for hundreds of years is probably best studied more for "art" than "martial" reasons.
    Not that there's anything wrong with that (I'm very keen on longsword martial arts but don't expect to have a sword on my if someone tries to mug me).

    You can always learn something from others. Even if, in some cases, it's what not to do.
    Probably the most effective martial art forms are those which adapt and change and grow constantly.

    Of course it all comes down to why we study.
    We all learn these fighting arts for different reasons.
    For me, the "H" in EHCG is a good example. We're not the European Fighting Guild or the European Self Defence Guild.

    ...but hey, that's just me.


  2. For me what are key to a system are the Principles and Philosophy that are vital, these should not change, that is why they are Principles! maintaining something superficially or changing them to confirm with current fads are IMO dead ends.
    Again it comes down to keeping an open mind and being prepared to reappraise what things are. Growth doesn't always mean change, it often means deeper understanding.

  3. @ Hugh, Just re-reading your post, just wanted to add that if a system is good, why isn't everyone using it?
    Well we just have to look around to see that less effective methods are being used, there are countless modern and ancient circumstances where things get used for many more reason than their effectiveness or worth.

    The interesting question is why didn't the Ninjutsu you study have ground fighting, and for that matter is there no ground fighting in the European historical arts, or in WWII combatives? Then we should ask what is Brazilian Jujitsu?

    I'm not knocking the point you make, or your Sensei who took stuff from BJJ, rather we have to be aware of what and how were changing things, and why?

  4. interesting points.
    I guess many styles have stayed traditional and unchanged out of a sense of consistency or even artistic integrity (i.e becoming more art than martial).
    as for why my sensei adopted some BJJ? I think he had his a** handed to him in a contest by a Gracie Jujutsu student ;-)

    I don't know why the Ninjutu I studied previously lacked groundfighting techniques. perhaps again, becoming more art, less martial. Or perhaps it had some but they were not that good (or relied on sneaky ninja weapons and hidden gadgets which you are unlikely to have in a modern self defence setting)
    BJJ is, as far as i know, very competition oriented so is optimized for one on one combat.
    One on one groundfighting certainly leaves you vulnerable to other opponents.

    As for little or no ground techniques in HEMA or WWII combatives.... maybe there's an assumption that if it goes to ground, then it's all over? Or your allies will help you out? Again, perhaps a vulnerability issue?
    I don't know but it's food for thought.

  5. Interesting the he got done in a competition by a BJJ guy and then added BJJ, of course in a competition situation of UFC style, BJJ has huge advantages, also when it first appeared it was something new so people didn't know how to deal with it, now everyone who wants to those kind of competitions have to have a ground fighting element.

    The reason why combative systems don't go to the ground is because in a martial context, you are neutralising the opponent, throws are meant to smash or drive the opponent into the ground as hard as possible, preferable getting them face down and finishing them off.
    So in fact as the system becomes more Art/competitive the less combative elements become emphasised.
    Martial means neutralising the opponent in as short a time as possible as simply as possible, sportive adds elements to increase the competition, art to add variety and form


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