Author: Mike

The Physicality of Knighthood and the Theology of the Body

As part of my studies of the martial arts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, I specifically looked at the history of knights, especially those of the Catholic Military Orders (e.g. The Knights of Saint John/Malta/Hospitaller, Teutonic Knights, etc.). In the course of that reading, I came across an article from Patrick Meehan, published at the Medievalists.net website in 2014. The author writes about the history of knights and how the actions of these historical figures runs the gamut from violent and destructive to the courtesies of courtly life. The author goes on to discuss the happenings in the lives of 3 different knights – an anonymous knight in the Teutonic Knights, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, and Jӧrg von Ehingen. The lives of these three men were distinctly different and spanned 200 years of history, but there was a common thread that linked them together and linked them to us – and the key to understanding that linkage lies in the Theology of the Body.

On the surface it seems rather implausible that the Theology of the Body, written by Saint John Paul II over the course of several years, which deals with sexuality can create a link to men who lived 800 years earlier and who were known for their fighting skills. Love and war? Always interesting topics, regardless of the generation.

In the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II delves into the interpersonal love of spouses and how the one flesh union is a visible sign of God’s love made present in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. God’s love has four components – it must be free, total, faithful, and fruitful. So to, should the love between spouses exhibit these four elements and marriages suffer when they are absent. First is freedom – we must be free to marry our spouse. Which means not only that we are not married to another, but also that we are not forcing our spouse to do something and we are able to forsake relations with all others. Next is total, the love must be total and one spouse should not say “I give you everything, except…” Totality also includes forever, which is why a prenuptial agreement is an impediment to a sacramental marriage as it presupposes failure and you have not committed to give your spouse your entire future. Faithfulness is third on the list and it should be clear, at least on the physical level, of the importance of faithfulness. This also refers to faithfulness in word and in thought – engaging in fantasies about others is unfaithful too. And finally fruitful, which describes how physical relations between spouses need to be open to life, though not necessarily timed to generate a life. This vision of spousal love is a total gift of self to the vocation of marriage – our work, our play, and our faith life are centered on our spouse and any children that arise from this union.

Before we begin looking at the knights, the reader should be aware that there were two different kinds of knighthood. The first was the secular – a man swore his oath of allegiance to a particular king, while the second kind of knighthood was by being a member of a religious Military Order (taking vows similar to a religious brother) – these would include Knights Hospitaller, Knights Templar, etc. These two distinct ways of life in knighthood existed side-by-side during the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Again we might ask – how does this relate to knights, martial arts and sword fighting? While there are obvious differences between marriage and living the life of a warrior (at least we hope so!), the underlying Catholic faith of the knights and the spouses is the same and so the principles which undergird both should be (and are) quite similar. In an analogous way to marriage, the knights had to be free, total, faithful, and fruitful to their vocation too. Knights not only had to freely agree to serve, but they had to be free of impediments that might divide their loyalty (such as a wife and family for the religious Knights). There was a totality of service, especially in the military orders of the Church, whereby knights gave their money to the Order and turned over any property to the Order. As an example of their faithfulness Knights were expected, and often did, sacrifice their bodies in service to the leader or kingdom they swore fealty to. The fruitfulness that a Knight was called to is certainly different than that of the spousal relationship, though also of great value during this period. Knights were expected to be fruitful in their works and in the defense of the subjects of a kingdom or members of the faith (for the religious Knights). Another way that knights fulfilled their call to be fruitful, was to take on boys as pages to be trained, promoted to squires, and finally to become knights in their own right. The process lasted about 14 years and during that time these boys and young men would live with their knight instead of their family.

We are often called to submit our bodies to our vocation – from the pregnant woman, to the spouse who works hours to provide for the family, or the knight who endures the pain of training and battle. Beyond the dedication of one’s sexuality to one’s spouse, there is also the dedication of our bodies to other aspects of our family.

In our current, sex-saturated culture, the ideas embodied in the Theology of the Body are considered both revolutionary and impossible. But to the faithful, the idea of pledging oneself to his or her vocation is nothing new. As Mr. Meehan points out in his article “knights of the Order submitted their bodies to violence,” and though that kind of dedication seems nearly impossible to modern thinking, the corollary thought of dedicating one’s sexuality to their vocation seems totally unthinkable. However, seen through the eyes of faith, this dedication to a mission from God bridges the gap of 1,000 years and ties together the medieval and modern members of the Church founded by Jesus.

Why Fellowship in Faith and Martial Arts?

We all live in community and the attitude of our fellows impact the depth of our faith as well as how we train in the martial arts. Good intentions are not enough – we must practice what we say we believe.

While any collection of people (whether virtual or physical) can be called a community, the strength of the bond between them is the result of the shared interest and each person’s commitment to it. Is it only martial arts and historic studies, or does it include the depth and breadth of the Catholic faith? It is the bonds of faith which are the most lasting, because they anchor our community in a transcendent truth as taught by Jesus and passed on by the Catholic Church throughout the last 2,000 years.

What brings a student of historical fighting arts together with others? If you were to travel back in time, you would see that this craft, sometime called a noble science, was never practiced as a simple leisure activity nor solely for the glory of the person. But rather, with a recognition that as a warrior the fighting man was part of a brotherhood of arms. Whether as some order of Catholic or feudal knight, or gentleman courtier, as scholar in a school of defense or fellow in a fighting guild, learning and practicing the art of arms demanded solidarity among practitioners. Beyond this mere brotherhood of arms, there was also the brotherhood of faith. Belonging to the same faith allowed the men of Catholic knightly orders to share a common point of reference, one that transcended language, kingdom, or even family. The role of faith in the broader context of relationship during this time period is often overlooked by modern practitioners.

One of the offshoots of the concept of the “rugged individual” which is found throughout the culture of the United States, is the idea that we can “go it alone” in everything. Similar to the idea of “me and Jesus”, many modern enthusiasts like to imagine they can train alone in their own “solo art.” It is not true for martial arts practice nor is it true for the faith. We are designed by God to live in community – as it says in Proverbs, “iron sharpens iron,” leading to the logical conclusion that you need the iron of others in your life. In the same way, fighting skills are not practiced in a psychological vacuum but with the need for mental and emotional control. A martial discipline cannot be practiced in social isolation, independent from the need to exercise with and against others. Indeed, many religious found the martial arts a help to understanding the greater spiritual combat that we are called to in our Christian life. Outside of faith, even humanist educators of the Renaissance stressed the martial arts as part of their curricula because of its value to help make a better citizen.

There is no doubt that, ultimately, self-defense is a highly individual matter that consists largely of self-effort — whether engaged on the battlefield in combat, or in the spiritual temptations we are called to fight. However, the knightly art of arms was never really something to be practiced remotely in seclusion or for some singular occasion, but with one’s fellows—and not just any fellows, but those whose honor was demonstrated and whose respect had been earned. Just as the faith was meant, not to be practiced alone, but with those fellows who were earnestly trying to achieve heaven, and whose council could be trusted in matters of faith. There was no selfish “lone warrior” myth nor much truth to the knight errant, any more than you go to Mass alone to receive the Eucharist. The Art as expressed in the Renaissance source teachings, was taught with the recognition it was intended only for those who were deemed worthy, those trustworthy to receive it. Lest you think faith is much different, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:13, “Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.” Our work in pursuit of the faith will be judged and found either worthy or not – we are called to works through our love and faith to prove ourselves just as the Renaissance martial artists judged each other as worthy in a human context. Exactly how much these practices were followed in historical reality, we can never really know. But in striving for best in our faith journey and our martial skills, we teach and demonstrate to others a desire to learn and to strive for mastery of the craft and the faith.

People today often complain about how modern society view the pursuits of life and faith. Modern society tends to over-commercialize many things and trivialize those who seek to live with sincerity, commitment, and deep faith. What drives some to long for the past is seeing how people were able to live an integrated life, where faith and action were equaled teamed to not only teach right and wrong, but created a call to DO right and AVOID wrong. Here we have in this craft a legacy that at once celebrates individual achievement and awards personal effort while it simultaneously acknowledges our shared connection to a Catholic heritage. It has an ability to draw us closer to the men who once defended the faith in a unique way, while also increasing our own understanding of God’s call in our lives. The men in our group strive to live by the traditional dedication to principle and honor.

Although unselfishness is not a feature that immediately springs to mind in regard to either historical research or the practice of a martial discipline, it is a key feature of the Christian life that believers are called to. In pursuit of a restoration of reverence, renewal of a uniquely Catholic sub-culture, and preservation of our heritage the practice of unselfishness is key. So it is worth asking yourself – what is your interest in the martial arts of Renaissance Europe? Are you trying to use them for your own needs? Or do see this as a way to share with others? Or do you see it as even broader – a desire to build the faith, to see more men in relationship with Jesus, to see more people trying to live out His will, and to share your faith and martial skills with others? We work to reconstruct and revive these lost fighting systems, for far more than the history itself. We do it to rebuild and re-energize our Church in a modern age which has thrown off reverence, belief, respect, principle, and honor. Why even seek out others who share our passion if it is not because of something more than just a commonality of collective curiosity? We are much more than a loose affiliation with strangers – we are a community of believers who are committed to a mission.

This craft is about self-improvement and mutual education as a means to rebuild our individual faith as well as he Church as a whole. It is not a group that exists in some virtual social networking media, nor is it defined by shrill online banter, or the pretentious role-play of some imagined nobility, but it is an organized assemblage with real principles and sincere values. As a self-defense art, this discipline can be somewhat centered on the individual, and certainly it is self-preserving and self-realizing. But by pursuing it with the love of neighbor and love of enemy that Jesus called us to, we can engage in our quest in an unselfish manner – neither deceiving nor exploiting one’s fellows. By identifying with the saints and with real historical masters, along with the Church and fighting guilds, we can improve the craft, ourselves, and our larger community. All of this is why petty politicking and commercialism is shunned within our guild.

 

Today, just as in the Renaissance era, those who seek others to train with or a teacher to learn from must do so with a sense of camaraderie, loyalty, morality, and trust. Anything less disrespects our heritage and works against the very ideals the Masters upheld. …Faith, History, Heritage, Self-defense, and Camaraderie. Who could argue with that?

 

 

 

 

 

How Does a Martial Artist Love his Enemies as a Catholic?

Before we get into how a martial arts practitioner combines faith and love with the art, we should talk a bit about what martial arts really are. First, there is a misconception that true martial arts are Asian; however, the truth is that the term “martial arts” is a European term that refers to the “arts of mars” – the Roman god of war. Therefore any system of self-defense is a “martial art”, including one’s which use modern weapons. The Europeans in the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods created a comprehensive system of self-defense that was documented in books – some of those were written by priests and monks, and many others written lay Catholics. As with any other skill, self-defense systems can be used for good or evil depending on the person.

The next question we need to ask before dealing with our main question, is how does the Church define love? Since you, the reader, are English-speaking you realize that English uses “love” to describe many different feelings. For instance, “I love pizza” has a totally different meaning than “I love my wife”, which describes a different feeling from “I love my parent/child/sibling.” In other languages that catch-all word of love, gets translated into separate words to more accurately describe the feeling. In Greek (which is what much of the New Testament was written in) we would use Agape, Phileo, Storge, and Eros in place of the English “love.” You can find good explanations at many places on the internet, so I won’t delve into that here (this article has a short explanation). To sum it up, though, we would say:

  • “God has love (agape) for us”
  • “I love (storge) my grandfather”
  • “I love (phileo) my best friend”

With those two definitions down, we now need to explore the 5th commandment, which is typically expressed in English as “You shall not kill.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 2259-2269 explores exactly what was meant by this commandment. Briefly, in Exodus 2:7, the bible says “The innocent and just person thou shalt not put to death” which is clearly a prohibition against murder and not a wider prohibition killing. The Church has always recognized a right to self-defense (both individually and as a group or country) as well as a moral obligation to protect those in your care.

Though it took some time to build up our background knowledge, we can now apply what we’ve covered to our initial question – “How does a Catholic martial artist love his enemies?” The answer seems to be clear – although we do not show eros, phileo, or storge love to our enemies, we can show agape love. The essence of agape love is an exercise of the will, causing an action where we choose to do something that is in the best interest of another. A practitioner of a martial art who steps in to stop an unjust aggressor from harming an innocent person shows that innocent person agape love. The act of protecting another, while subjecting oneself to possible harm clearly meets that agape definition. If our fictitious doer-of-good-deeds only uses the amount of force necessary to stop the attack (even if that might require deadly force), you could make the argument that agape love was shown to the attacker through restraint. However as a further action, our protector in the story could offer forgiveness to the attacker and pray for his or her conversion (once the danger of aggression has been stopped) and show an even greater example of agape love.

People who train in martial arts are typically motivated by a strong desire to protect – both themselves and others – from unjust aggression. If that desire is linked to the Catholic faith’s teaching on agape love, as well as an application of the saying from Saint Augustine “hate the sin and love the sinner” we can achieve a loving interpretation and implementation of the arts of self-defense.

Getting Started

I have been attending men’s conferences and local parishes recently in order to talk to men about the Order of Lepanto. There is, invariably, a lot of excitement when we show sparring (either live or in videos) and as interest builds the question of equipment and cost comes up. I have prepared this short article to try and answer the question of what is needed, divided into must have, good to have, and nice to have.

 

Must-Have

Our first must have is a uniform – black pants and a white shirt. You are free to purchase cotton or moisture wicking pants and shirt, though we do emphasize that they need to have no logo (or a smallish logo). There is also the option of an historical uniform – any medieval or renaissance swordsman shirt in white or natural would be acceptable. As for historical pants, you can also substitute knee breeches or long pants. Shorts can be worn in hotter climates.

 

Second up is shoes. While there are some excellent options available if you want to be as historic as possible, for the must-have section the requirement would be athletic shoes of any type. The wearing of combat boots or work boots is highly discouraged because they will stop you from being able to perform many of the stepping maneuvers in the art.

Good to Have

First in this section is a fencing mask. We have a dual emphasis on control and safety in the Order of Lepanto, so we train for good control and require some safety devices. The first requirement is that everyone wears a fencing mask while sparring with any kind of weapon. You can get a fencing mask fairly inexpensively ($50) and we have a couple of vendors that we recommend here.

 

 

Next up is gloves. Historically speaking, gloves were not used until the 15th century; however, many practitioners need to have a bit of finger protection because our hands are vital to our jobs. What we want to avoid here is overly padded gloves that distort the handling and feeling of the sword. A set of leather gloves, or the mechanics gloves with the rubber pads work nicely. We require gloves for our transitional squires and first level knights, more experienced knights can opt for “knight’s privilege” (historical training privilege) though it not recommended. ($25)

 

Finally, there is a waster. Wasters are wooden swords that are made of impact grade hickory (anything else would shatter too easily in sparring). Getting the correct length is important to your training and we provide a sizing guide here. There are several good companies to choose from and you can find our recommendations here. While we are trying to have some loaner equipment available at our study groups, it will not always be possible. So check with your local group. ($75 – $100)

If you get all of the items so far, you will be set for your training for quite a while and the total (aside from the uniform) is under $200. The next section covers those items that will become important as your training progresses, but can be delayed for a year or so while you learn the foundations of the art.

 

Nice to have

The first thing we’ll cover in this section is a blunt steel sword. This is first because it is the most visible sign of a more experienced practitioner. There are only a few companies that make good blunt swords for sparring – Albion, Regenyei, Lutel, and Hanwei. Prices range from $200 to $500 for these swords. The best of these are the swords from Albion, while the Hanwei swords are the most affordable. Also, be aware that the Hanwei Tinker-Pearce comes with a square edge that you must file down for safety.

 

 

Next we have additional weapons which will become necessary for advanced ranking in the order. You will need, at some point, to get a dagger simulator (either rondel or main gauche), a single handed sword, a buckler, and a quarter-staff. These items range from $25 – $500 depending on which we are talking about. The swords will come from the same manufacturers list above, dagger simulators are usually available from the waster companies, and steel bucklers are widely available at a good price point.

 

 

 

 

 

Footwear. While any kind of athletic shoe can work at the start of your training, the historical manuals show no shoes with thick soles (a la running shoes), heavy boots, or thick heels. All of the period footwear appear to be thin with flat soles. Therefore, as we attempt to more accurately reproduce what the sword fighters did, we will need to wear shoes similar to theirs in order to more accurately move. So, what do I recommend? Get some wrestling shoes, sport fencing shoes, simple tennis shoes, or even tae kwon do shoes. They are cheap, look decent, and meet all the requirements. But avoid those cheap flimsy kung fu slippers — truly the slipperiest shoes on the planet and just terrible. They offer no protection to your toes or heels and they rapidly deteriorate from use.

Summary

While there is a cost to getting the equipment you need for this activity, the cost fairly low and can be split up over a several months as needed. The faith aspect of our group can be studied without additional expense, as the manual is freely available electronically. You will want to add religious books as you grow in your faith, but that can be spread out over a lifetime!

Sparring Systems of The Order of Lepanto

For many who are involved in Western Martial Arts (WMA), the only goal of practicing historical swordsmanship is to come as close as possible to developing real martial skill in the use of period weapons. Members of The Order of Lepanto also share this goal, but not as a means unto itself: it is a path to enhancing your faith life, preparing for spiritual warfare, and guides you in living out your vocation.

Unlike sixteenth century swordsmen, today’s student of the sword will, most likely, never have the opportunity to put his skill to the ultimate physical test. Even so, we want to develop true martial skill in the art. By then translating the lessons to our spiritual life, we will be more prepared for the real-life tests our faith will have to endure. So the approach we have developed at the Order is true to martial skills, martial heritage, and orthodox Catholic teaching. It is certainly one of the most complex, and it offers something more than what is generally available in Western swordsmanship. Let’s look at what the Order of Lepanto’s method of teaching historical swordsmanship and spiritual growth is all about.

What’s the point?

If you’re serious about learning swordsmanship, then the measure of any system of study is the quality of the education that results. In other words, you expect a working knowledge of how to fight effectively with swords. You also want to acquire the basics within a reasonable amount of time – without the “wax on, wax off” routines that tend to keep beginners from quickly advancing. Ultimately, the system should produce a mature, competent swordsman – a swordsman capable of using real weapons in actual combat.

The farther a system gets from the reality of combat, the less useful it becomes to the student who wants true martial skill. Realistically, all systems involve a certain amount of “distance from combat reality. Simulations are used as an alternative to real fights. Safe sparring systems must be created to meet the demands of modern studies. A reasonable gage of an effective system is to see how closely its sparring system resembles the dynamics of real weapons use. This is an area where The Order of Lepanto and one other group stand out. Our sparring systems are merely a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We do not try to achieve skill at “sparring.” Rather, a number of sparring techniques are used to develop skill at fighting. You can judge the value of a sparring system by measuring how well true fighting principles work in the sparring environment. Ideally, the system should allow you to do what works without letting you get away with what wouldn’t. Target areas and sparring weapon construction are two factors which will figure in this appraisal.

If you’re serious about growing in your faith, then we would measure that system by a different standard: are you becoming more patient, are you learning to love people who are hard to love, are you increasing your knowledge of the faith. Many people today have been left with a teenage understanding of the faith because that is where the traditional religious education program stopped. The Order of Lepanto aims to build an adult understanding of your catholic faith and help you to grow in that faith.

Learning a fighting skill, like WMA, is not an invitation to random violence, as some might suggest. Rather, it is learning to discipline your body and mind to achieve a difficult goal. The building of courage, strength, decisiveness, and confidence are the fruits of the martial arts portion of The Order of Lepanto, while finding out how God wants those skills directed and used are the fruits of the spiritual component of our program. Pursuing both the physical and spiritual with equal gusto are necessary to

Determining the Focal Point

Before proceeding, let’s narrow the focus a bit. The only way to evaluate any training system properly is to first grasp its intended role in the overall goal of a program. Developing martial skill and building a healthy, Catholic faith life is the goal of our system. There are no contests or competitions. Sparring itself provides a workshop in which members can safely practice the martial skills that they’ve learned. Our faith studies then go on to provide a framework to relate that martial skill to the realities of spiritual life for the Church Militant. Comparing what The Order of Lepanto does to what a number of non-martial groups are doing with swords will help bring this point into focus.

First, we will look at sport fencing. In spite of its ancestry, modern fencing is not meant to transmit the art of historical swordsmanship. The foil, epee and saber are no longer stand-ins for weapons but ‘weapons’ themselves. In sport fencing, the value of a technique is not its lethality but its ability to score, and the attitude of the modern fencer is competitive rather than martial (a trend that can be seen in some Eastern martial arts, too). It must be said that modern fencing lays no claims to teach an historical system of swordsmanship – it’s an evolving sport where new innovation takes fencers towards the sport aspect and further from its roots.

However, things you learn from sport fencing instruction can be useful in studying historical swordsmanship. Familiarity with fencing terminology is a plus and practicing fencing is a better preparation for a real sword fight than no practice at all. But the purpose of fencing is not the study of historical swordsmanship, so the merit of the sport has little impact on our present evaluation.

A sub-culture has emerged in the fencing community which is focused on the teaching of eighteenth and nineteenth century swordsmanship. Classical fencing asks the question, “What if our swords were sharp?” Techniques and thinking of the modern fencer are removed, and the classical fencer returns to a more martial use of the dueling epee and the smallsword.

A second practice we will review is the fighting done in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which they classify as “heavy” and “light”. While these forms are practiced as a kind of competitive sport by many, and as a semi-martial practice by some, their intent is not to produce swordsmen skilled in the use of real weapons. As with sport fencing, there may be many benefits afforded by SCA, but these are secondary to the main purpose of the pursuit.

The question of “purpose” or intent is critical, as you can’t fault a system that doesn’t claim to teach real swordsmanship for using a sparring system that doesn’t prepare a student for the realities of combat, much as you cannot fault a secular school for failing to teach the Catholic moral standards. While many people criticize systems like that of the SCA for these reasons, we must understand that SCA combat was never intended to be a martial pursuit.

Stage combat falls into the same category. Many stage combatants use replica weapons, and they create a spectacle which looks convincing to the untrained eye. We must remember that stage combat is about creating an illusion, not a fight. In that pursuit, stage combatants often sacrifice “authenticity” for the purposes of safety or entertainment and we shouldn’t be surprised – or concerned. People study stage combat to learn how to pretend to fight, not how to do it for real.

In summary, the exclusion of these three categories is not intended to disparage their participants or discourage their pursuit. All require skilled participation and can produce impressive results. None of them claims to teach historical swordsmanship, like The Order of Lepanto and a couple of others. But unlike other martial programs, The Order of Lepanto exists not only to preserve and pass on a practical understanding of historical swordsmanship, but to also cultivate a faith life similar to the deep religious belief of the historical swordsman himself.

The obsolescence of the sword

One factor irrevocably separates anything we do today from the historical reality: the obsolescence of the sword. No matter how proficient your skill with the sword, you’ll most likely never use it in a life or death context. Even if the nearest thing at hand when your house is broken into is your trusty longsword, the odds of your intruder also being a swordsman are slim to none.

Because people no longer use swords for real anymore, there is no common knowledge to draw upon in the study of swordsmanship. Nowadays we use guns, and even people with no formal firearms training know enough to operate the weapon. The same was most likely true in the fifteenth century with swords. The process of learning swordsmanship without that common knowledge means not just starting from square one, but moving back to square zero. With historical accuracy as our goal, we must unlearn the things we have learned from TV, movies, fencing, SCA and Eastern martial arts.

To study historical swordsmanship, we have to focus on learning the real techniques preserved in the historical manuals, which reveal themselves through training. And since we’ll never have the chance to try them in combat, we need an effective method of practice and sparring that checks the effectiveness of our technique against a determined opponent.

The need for safety

That’s where safety rears its ugly head. The only way to be confident that a technique works is to use it effectively against a determined, skilled opponent in a life or death struggle. When you try to simulate this reality as closely as possible, you’re essentially weighing safety in one hand and realism in the other. You’ve got to strike a balance as far in the favor of realism as you can without sacrificing safety.

If you begin with real combat as your “ideal,” the first obvious safety measure is to use blunted weapons. The next measure is to use both headgear (fencing mask) and gloves – though there is precedent for “scholar’s privilege” which is an agreement not to thrust to the head, The Order of Lepanto requires both men to have achieved Knight Scholasticus ranking before it can be invoked. But a blunted weapon isn’t necessarily a safe one, which means that participants must also exercise proper control. Strikes must be carried out with enough speed to be effective in a real confrontation and yet contact must also be controlled enough to keep your partner safe.

Simulating the sword

In the medieval and Renaissance period, swords were not mass-produced to some pre-determined standard. Looking back, it is impossible to define the specifications of a longsword versus a cut-and-thrust sword beyond generalities. Therefore, we cannot say for certain that a specific sword accurately simulates the handling of all swords of a similar type.

One of the key issues is that virtually no modern maker has their hand-forged pieces tested for durability in warding off the full force blows of other sharp blades, nor do they go around hitting soft and hard armors full force. So much work and effort has gone into their pieces that they do not want to see them damaged. Further, customers who have spent a lot of money are not about to damage them doing the same either. Most every maker and every consumer does minimal work to evaluate a blade to the point of destruction. They then base their future impressions of other swords upon that small experience.

Another problem is that every sword can be unique. Even ones that match the same general geometry and form can vary considerably. When it comes to replicas, unfortunately, there are just so many different elements to miss and crucial factors to get wrong that the bad samples seem to outnumber the good ones by a good bit. Just getting the general shape and weight correct, then using quality steel that’s been properly tempered isn’t enough.

When you pick up most any sword, you can make an instant decision as to whether or not it “feels” good. However, without manipulating that sword with proper motion and energy, this is a very shallow assessment. There is a combination of factors that go into making a sword really stand out as a real weapon. While these are not evident through holding a piece in your hand or moving it through empty air, they become obvious it’s wielded with the requisite force and energy needed to strike effective blows against a test target combined with practice in warding off forceful strikes. This is where you see whether a weapon holds up and how well it maneuvers for whatever combat actions it was originally designed.

Nevertheless, we know from other examples that simulation can be a valid form of training – police live-fire combat ranges and pilot training programs make similar trade-offs without losing their effectiveness as tools. As long as there is an awareness of the nature of the simulation, and the aspects of combat that the model doesn’t accurately portray, the use of simulation in training is a plus.

 

 

Two Three-Legged Stools

Ironically enough, fighting it out with the real weapons is the most ineffective method of training of all, since only one participant gets the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. To learn historical swordsmanship more effectively, we need a system that uses a “triangulating” approach – combining different aspects into a cohesive system of the sword and faith. Much like the three-legged stool of the Church – Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium – without which the faith cannot stand, the studies of the Order of Lepanto are three-legged as well.

The first leg of our training is structured drills, undertaken with either a wooden “waster” or a blunted steel. These weapons have the weight and appearance of the real thing, and they have some of the same handling characteristics, such as a tapering blade and a discernible edge. They teach precision and finesse. We review drawings and descriptions of the actions in historical documents and then work to understand the motion and dynamics being described. This first takes places at slow speed, before building up to a medium pace, with the overall intent of creating muscle memory of the action so that it can be employed with little thought. Drills in this category include fuhlen (or feeling), where the practitioner learns to feel his opponent’s sword and read his intent, in addition to master stances, master cuts, and counters.

Taken alone, structured drills with blunt replicas is not an effective method for learning the martial aspect of historical swordsmanship. The second leg of our stool is sparring (referred to as “free play” by some). In sparring, we look to deliver solid, forceful blows without injuring an opponent, which allows a full-body target – an essential for realistic combat training. In sparring we put the actions that are practiced in drills to use in an adversarial (yet friendly) situation. The more realistically sparring is conducted, the more it sharpens reflexes, develops perception, teaches adversarial counter-timing, explores spontaneous tactics, conveys the skill of deceiving without being deceived, and lets the student try things that end up with them either getting whacked or not, but in the process not being maimed or killed.

Our third, and final, leg is the Catholic perspective. In this area of our studies, members are actively reading period writings by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, and looking to understand how the martial arts of that period shaped their understanding of the faith. We look to leverage our knowledge of sparring technique and weapons drills towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of spiritual warfare. Sharpened reflexes, detailed perceptions, and being able to respond spontaneously are all skills that are sharpened with martial arts and critical to the spiritual battles everyone will face. We also explore this area though prayer – our groups are required to open and close each practice in group prayer. The act of practicing martial arts servers to bring our members closer together and when combined with the positive spiritual experience shared prayer, we grow towards a closer brotherhood.

Taken as a whole, this system “triangulates” true skill by approaching practice from several different angles. When you add to this our insistence on test cutting (and thrusting) with sharp weapons, you get a fairly complete understanding of both historical swordsmanship as distinct skills and how that skill shaped the faith of the historical swordsman.

Don’t miss the focus

This is not a question of condemning fencing, the SCA, or any other group. You don’t have to look hard to see that there is a difference between what they do and what The Order of Lepanto does. The mistake people make is to look at one or two aspects of what we do and missing the bigger picture. He saw a part of the picture, but not the whole.

The thing that separates what The Order of Lepanto does from sport fencing, groups such as the SCA – and most any other program you compare it to – is that the purpose of our method is to produce skilled combatants. But there is another dimension too – because while there are other groups whose sole focus is historical combat, only The Order of Lepanto looks to grow beyond pure combat and help to build faith-filled Catholic men, who can use their martial skill in the test of spiritual warfare. In that vein, we do not sponsor competitions or anoint kings or put on performances. Our focus is narrow and concerns itself with than the effective use of historical weapons as a martial art and building a strong Catholic faith. You must not look at any aspect of the Order of Lepanto training system as a stand-alone piece or an end unto itself. As our introduction pointed out, no one involved in our group is concerned about learning to fight well with wooden swords or learning to fight well with padded swords. What we are concerned about is learning to fight well with real, sharp swords and with a real prayer life. All of these simulators are tools to help accomplish our goal, and together, they combine to offer a very effective system.

Here are The Order of Lepanto’s guidelines employed as general rules of thumb for sparring:

  • Situational Awareness = Maintaining good edge alignment and targeting
  • Purpose = striking with a degree of force within range to achieve actual contact; must be done in a way that has proper motion to simulate the inertia of a real blow
  • Control = not hitting too hard or too fast to prevent injury, striking the selected target
  • Time-on-Target = connecting with a sufficient interval of time whereby the weapon makes contact in order to simulate the energy that would have impacted or penetrated

The Rosary, Western Martial Arts, and “The Lord of the Rings”

I was reading an article from Br. Joseph Bernard Marie Graziano that was published on Bishop Barron’s excellent Word on Fire blog, titled “Where the Rosary appears in ‘The Lord of the Rings’” which got me to thinking about the how those things relate to what we at the Order of Lepanto are doing. In the article, the author outlines the connection between the phial containing the light of Eärendil, Lady Galadriel’s gift to Frodo, and the Holy Rosary, the Blessed Mother’s gift to us.   Just as the phial provided Frodo and Sam with light and hope, the rosary does the same for us, and both the phial and the rosary are: “terror to evil ones.”

However, the article misses an important point about the Rosary and the light of Eärendil in regards to action through faith. This critical point appears in the Bible in James 2:14-17,

“What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.”

If you are looking for an historical example of this phenomenon, you can study the battle of Lepanto from 1571. While many will write about the power of the Rosary: the Pope had asked all of the faithful to pray the Rosary for intention of victory, the commander of the Catholic forces ordered his men to pray the Rosary on the morning of battle before the fighting began, and finally the men carried their Rosaries into the battle. Indeed, the prayers of the faithful had been heard, but without the “yes” of those men, without their dedication to fighting against evil and for good the prayers could not have been answered. That very Catholic combination of works in faith is what made the victory possible.

Interestingly enough, this point is not overlooked by Tolkien: Frodo’s use of the light of Eärendil to get Shelob to stop her attack is quite similar to prayer, but he must use his elven sword, Sting, together with the light to finally drive the spider away. The combination of faith and works, of martial spirit with prayer is what saves Frodo from this initial attack. When Frodo’s sword is used with the phial it displays “at its edges a blue fire,” symbolizing the amazing strength of prayer and action. The message to us is that the prayers of the Rosary combined with the strength a “yes” to go and physically engage evil creates a force that cannot be withstood. Shelob, though larger and more aggressive than the Hobbit, could not stand up to the incredible mixture of prayer and martial arts, fleeing from Frodo. By extension of the symbolism, Tolkien is trying to communicate to us that the malevolent people in the world cannot stand the combination of prayer and action. What happens next in the story is just as important – once Frodo realized that the immediate danger had passed, he let down his guard. This happens to us too. We turn to God in the dark times, yet as soon as the situation improves we go back to ignoring Him (sometimes not even bothering to say thank you for His help). When we turn from prayer and action too soon, or for too long, the evil that had threatened, returns. In the story Shelob sneaks into a hiding place and sets a trap. Her next attack deprives Frodo of his phial and sword – unable to pray or to defend, he is quickly defeated. How often this occurs to us. We leave our prayer life and our taken by surprise by Satan and sin. Without the protection offered by the spiritual graces, we are quickly subdued and taken. If we are lucky, we have a friend like Samwise Gamgee who will pray for us, defend us, and rescue us when we are in the deepest need.

The mission of Order of Lepanto is to create an active movement of men, who enjoy physical activity and camaraderie in a setting that is faith-building. The decisiveness and audacity required to be a good martial artist is key to getting men prepared to defend their family, the Church, and the society from spiritual threats. When these skills are combined with an active prayer life, men gain the insight and wisdom to lead their families towards God. Our goal is to get men involved and connected with each other and the Church, while building their courage and confidence so as to give glory and honor to God.

Martial Arts helps physically, mentally, AND SPIRITUALLY?

The most obvious short-term benefit of engaging in a martial art is an increased ability to defend oneself if needed. Beyond that benefit, it is fairly common knowledge that a martial arts program can help people in their physical fitness. Some of these benefits are:

  • Strengthen muscles – As a person ages muscles begin to age too, possibly causing the loss of some muscle density and strength. This is why it is important to keep muscles in use and to work on strengthening them. Martial arts activities require a person’s muscles to be in constant use, helping them to stay strong. The desire for better performance in a martial art will often drive people to begin other types of physical conditioning, resulting in a faster increase in benefits. In addition to strength, you also increase your agility, balance and flexibility.
  •  Help you lose weight – Practicing martial arts as an adult requires you to remain active, which will keep you burning the calories and losing weight. Additionally, as previously discussed, you will be building muscle mass, which will also help improve your metabolism and allow your body to burn more calories at a rapid pace.
  • Relieve stress – It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. Between work, kids, and general household duties, it seems like the worries never end. The exercise and concentration involved in the practice of martial arts allows you to be able to blow off some steam and relieve some of life’s stresses in a healthy and efficient manner.

In addition the obvious physical benefits, there are mental benefits too:

  • Improve confidence – There is a definite increase in confidence for people who are comfortable using self-defense techniques from martial arts. If you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation, you will be better able to manage your emotions and not be afraid. Knowing that you have the skills necessary to protect yourself from harm will help you to be confident and act in a more effective manner, even during the most troubling of times.
  • Improve concentration – Martial arts of any kind requires great skill and concentration. Practitioners learn to act fast in order to defend against attacks. This will not only help you to improve your reflexes, but your concentration, as well. You will be required to focus with intensity on details and anticipate your opponent’s next move before they’ve even blinked.

Listed above are the usual benefits anyone can expect from any credible martial arts program, regardless of its focus. However, a well-tailored program that includes a Catholic faith-based perspective has additional benefits to your vocation and your spiritual life:

  • Deepen your faith –Our group reads, studies and discusses writings from saints and other significant, orthodox works from the Medieval and Renaissance. We are learning from the authors and from each in other about spiritual warfare and how to apply the lessons of European martial arts to that spiritual war. We also actively engage in group prayer and stress the importance of personal and family prayer time each day. In combining faith and sparring, we build a bond of brotherhood between the men in our groups. This bond allows us to offer each other fraternal correction and support from a position of trust and respect. We truly help each other to be better men.
  • Be a better husband – As a husband, you are the spiritual leader of your family. Good leadership requires courage, confidence, strength tempered by faith, wisdom, caring, and love. The martial arts that is practiced in the Order of Lepanto requires that men learn not only how to use a sword, but also how to control strikes so as not to injure your partner. The control exhibited in while being influenced by adrenaline, helps you to control yourself in other areas of life and to care about the well-being of others. The study of medieval and renaissance fighting masters and great saints increases your knowledge of the art and your faith; while working on these skills with your fellow practitioners puts that knowledge into action, forming the building blocks of wisdom. Finally, there is a concept of being “in the moment” or as the German fight masters called it “In Des” – this is the ability to take what you have learned and practiced and apply it in the 1 or 2 seconds you have to react in a sparring match (or real combat). Being able to do this will help you to better respond to the needs of your spouse, family, and faith community.
  • Be a better father – The improved physical conditioning of a student of martial arts comes in handy as a father, when pressed into to duty carrying children, their paraphernalia, or both. Your improved health and vitality will be a treasure that you can pass on to your children in habit and by your presence in their lives for as long as possible. As with being a husband the skills of caring while being strong and being able to act in the moment will be a tremendous help to you. Besides, you will love the look on the boy’s face who comes over to date your teenage daughter and you inform him that you are a full-contact sword fighter!

The participation in martial arts, while not for every man, offers great benefits to you in your physical, metal, and spiritual well-being. The Order of Lepanto is on a mission to get men involved and connected with each other and the Church, while building their courage and confidence.

Bishop issues a call to arms!

As many of us are painfully aware, there has been a lack of evangelization directed towards men. Men are not hearing what they need from the pulpit and there have been few resources to help in our faith journey. The good news is that this has been changing in recent times, The Order of Lepanto is one of the resources aiding in the shift along with many other fine Catholic men’s blogs. But for many, the call to arms from the hierarchy of the Church was a missing piece of the puzzle.

Today, I am pleased to share that Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix has started putting that piece into place. This is an amazing letter which I implore all of you to read in its entirety. However, I would also like to present you with a few excerpts:

“Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real.”

“One of the key reasons that the Church is faltering under the attacks of Satan is that many Catholic men have not been willing to “step into the breach” – to fill this gap that lies open and vulnerable to further attack”

This is call many men have been eagerly waiting for.

The Hard Part

The call of Bishop Olmstead is wonderful and timely. It fits what many us believe is the right course of action for re-invigorating Catholic men. But it requires action our part – if this call goes unheeded, it may be a long time until we hear it again. We need to organize local men’s groups, like the Order of Lepanto and others, to help men in this quest.

I find the title, Into the Breach, most interesting since it is of medieval origin and has a direct tie in to the Order of Lepanto. During a battle, siege weapons were used to try and knock holes (breaches) in the protective wall surrounding the castle. If a breach were to occur, the defenders would run to that area and attempt to build a human wall to replace the protection of the missing stones. We find ourselves in a similar situation today: Secular culture has laid siege to the Christian way of life and has managed to blow huge holes in it. We now need men to pour into those breaches to provide cover for our families and our faith. Instead of standing up to arrows and swords, we must now stand up to embarrassment and possible ridicule. Although the risk is great, the rewards are greater.

The priests and bishops need our help, it is time to rush to the wall and stand in the breach!

Deepening your faith through martial arts

Just as the gifts that God bestows on each person are unique, every member of the Church is called to bring those unique gifts and their varied backgrounds to the community for the betterment of all. There are gifted speakers who are engaged in apologetics, writers who excel in bringing distinctive viewpoints to age-old teachings thereby refreshing them for all, there are builders, singers, and countless others. This article, though, is about a passion and skill that does not often get equated with men of faith – martial arts. The practice of specific forms of martial arts, however, is an excellent venue to bring men closer to their faith.

 

Much has been written about a lack of men in the faith. The truth is that many men see Catholicism and Christianity as a feminine pursuit, even those who are believers. The truth, however, is strikingly different. God created masculinity just as much as He created femininity, and both must have a place in the Church. The masculine spirit thrives on challenge, adventure, and truth. We want to hear God’s teaching about the right way to do things and be personally challenged to achieve that lofty goal. The true masculinity that God has called us to is not the one where we watch sports all day on Sunday and drink beers with the guys; it is a vibrant and strong relationship where we strive to live God’s calling as spiritual leader and that of beloved son of the Almighty. While there is nothing inherently wrong with those activities, when they are pursued without regard to faith and family our lives become focused on the wrong goal. Too many men are missing from the pews today, and that is just a visible sign of the deeper problem: Too many men are absent from their roles as spiritual leader of their homes. How can we attract men back to the faith? My proposition is that a strong, faith-based martial arts program is one avenue to accomplishing this.

 

Obviously not every man is interested in martial arts, but many are and they see it as a path to self-discipline, physical fitness, and an ability to protect themselves and others from the darker parts of humanity. While those are all good goals, not every martial arts program is easily integrated with Catholicism. The eastern martial arts (Karate, Tae-kwon do, etc.) are based in eastern mysticism and spirituality which are not entirely compatible with the Christian faith. Many modern people think only of eastern martial arts, but there is a rich history of martial arts in Western Europe, too. The Europeans, with their Catholic faith, created their own martial arts which were (and still are) quite effective. This system covered the use of weapons as well as unarmed confrontations, and many parts were written down so that today, several hundred years later, we can know how many of their techniques worked. Not only are western martial arts effective and compatible with Catholicism, they actually offer the practitioner unique and valuable insights into the spiritual journey and answering the calling of men by God.

 

Effective use of the traditional European longsword bears a striking similarity to spiritual warfare. Also, the way in which we learn western martial arts parallels how we learn about the faith. In regards to learning, think about the foundations of faith in childhood. We learn to memorize our standardized prayers first: Our Father, Hail Mary, Nicene Creed, etc. These foundational prayers are the basic tools of the spiritual life. Once we can recite them from memory, we learn about the richness of their meaning and then combine them with each other to form even more powerful prayers, such as the rosary. In western martial arts, there are foundational stances and cuts that a beginning student learns. After mastering the basic moves, we combine them into drills and finally into unscripted, unique demonstrations of martial skill called flouryshes (pronounced the same as flourish). The flouryshes prepare us for sparring in much the same way that practicing our prayers help us to prepare for the spiritual battles we will all face in our lives.

At the Order of Lepanto, we stress that early and frequent sparring is necessary to building up a man’s martial skills, but it has the added benefit of preparing him for spiritual combat, too. In sparring with a sword, a man learns to face a practice version of a deadly weapon without fear, hesitation, or even blinking. (By the way, the practice version does have the ability to hurt if wielded incorrectly.) Sword fighting requires being “in the moment” or In des as described in the old fighting manuals. In the moment you must combine your skills and knowledge, applying them actively to defend and attack in such a way as to protect yourself and defeat your opponent. This is exactly what spiritual warfare is too – the difference is your opponent cannot be seen, your weapons are faith-based, and stakes are much higher if you fail too often. This defense, spiritual or martial, requires courage as well. Standing up to a sword being swung at you demands the control of fear, and standing up to a culture of death and unbelief demands the courage to face ridicule and embarrassment from the culture. But failure to act in either circumstance is disaster, either getting hit by the sword or losing your country or family to the “wickedness and snares of the devil.”

 

The skills learned in martial arts build a man’s courage, build friendships, emphasize spiritual leadership, and strengthen prayer lives. In short, they make a better Catholic man. There are plenty of excellent programs for men that use the name of Knight or the symbols of Knighthood, but only in the Order of Lepanto do you actually learn the real martial skills of the Catholic Knights.

 

Historic Fencing Definitions

Historic European Martial Arts

How to Define Historical Fencing

There are multiple terms in the modern parlance for referring to the practice of the various forms of “historical fencing” or Western sword play. While we certainly cannot control how different groups refer to themselves, members of the Order of Lepanto are encouraged to use the following definitions to bring a level of clarity to the discussion:

Historical Swordsmanship – refers to the study and practice of Medieval and Renaissance fighting methods as a true martial art. Groups in this category are primarily concerned with the rebuilding a realistic understanding and duplication of historical Western combat skills under adversarial conditions – meaning there are no pre-staged or choreographed movements. This is the primary focus of efforts by The Order of Lepanto and similar organizations. It clearly involves the study of diverse, period armors and weapons beyond the sword, including unarmed fighting techniques.

Classical Fencing – The definitions for just what constitutes “classical fencing” can be highly variable in and of itself. There are people who it is seen as training for personal “duel” with the 19th century epee du combat. While others see it as a “gentleman’s encounter” – more of a ritualistic form of 19th century duel. Finally, some view it as simply fencing using pre-modern, traditional grip foils and epees while following the methods prior to the advent of electric equipment and international competitive rules. The general idea is to return to more of fencing’s gentlemanly dueling intent and martial content to revive the state of modern sport fencing.

Sport Fencing – This is the modern 20th & 21st century competitive sport of Olympic and collegiate foil, epee, and saber, conducted either with electric or “dry” practice equipment. It is an athletic, exciting, quick international game with rules devised early this century and now far removed from its martial origins. This type of fencing is occasionally referred to as “modern fencing” or “traditional fencing” (though the tradition is certainly not a long one).

Theatrical Fencing – This type of fencing is what one sees at a Renaissance Faire, or a dinner-theater set in a medieval time period. Instead of pure fencing, it is a tool of acting intended to create an impressive illusion for use in a performance. It is thoroughly choreographed, based on a foundation of martial techniques and principles, and rehearsed to maximize its entertainment value. It is a respected performance art and can be quite enjoyable; however, it is not a martial art.

Arranged Performance Fighting – This is a distinct activity that can be clearly distinguished from both theatrical fencing and historical swordsmanship. It combines elements of arranged drills and preset routines of techniques for the direct purpose of demonstration and education in general sense, without the end goal of engaging in martial studies (as with historical swordsmanship), or entertainment (as with theatrical fencing). These “historical action” fight sequences are conducted for realistic display by delivering techniques in-range, at speed and with intent, but stopping prior to injury. Some weapon-to-body contact is employed for purposes of illustration as are certain exaggerated movements or assumed reactions/results.

Mock-Fighting & Martial Sports – This category contains a variety of other approaches to historical Western sword play that are not easily classifiable and which do not fit into the above categories. Included in this group are the simulated battle presentations of reenactment or living-history groups, or the play-fighting of live-action role-playing games. Others are concerned with conducting knightly tournament bouts, large-scale fighting scenes, or personal duels of honor. They generally differ considerably in their goals and motivations.