Thursday, February 17, 2011

Defining "System" in the Martial Arts

Before I begin the article proper, a brief fore note: I recently realized that it bears mentioning to the Chivalric Arts practitioners at large that many of my articles, this one included, though original, do not consist of altogether “made up” material, nor are they somehow the charting of entirely new ground, but the elaboration upon well and long-established principles, which in the Chivalric Arts are all too often rediscovered, at best, rather than recognized. But, such is the importance of a formal and professional martial education.
As a consequence, I have not heard most of it applied to the Chivalric Arts.

As always, we should begin by defining the terms of the subject in question. Nomenclature and terminology is always a difficult area in the martial arts, particularly within the Chivalric Arts, where differing backgrounds merge, and more often than not, a lack of background comes into play and muddles things up all the worse.

Looking at martial arts as actual systems can clarify one’s point of view and give a new perspective on the subject, bringing more order to it.

Firstly, in the martial arts, a System is defined as “The unification of related concepts, truths, and basic elements of a particular school of the martial arts.”1 The term “Style” is often a misnomer erroneously used in its place, and is actually defined quite differently. A Style is the way in which an individual practitioner performs his art. “System is the method, whereas Style is the application, or execution, of the method.”1 If “Systems” were actually “Styles,” it would certainly imply a rather haphazard and random approach, rather than a unified training methodology toward a given objective.

Therefore, in regards to the Chivalric Arts, though we can get a firm grasp on most of the systems of the time, our feel for the styles of the masters who left us any given treatise will always be tentative and arguable.

Secondly, to illustrate just how the term applies, here are a few different wordings of the common usage of System. It is worth contemplating their bearing on the martial arts:

-A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.
-An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.
-A set of detailed methods, procedures, and routines established or formulated to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem.
-A whole compounded of several parts or members. A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

Thusly, we can see how any given martial art can be termed a system. They are all organized in a certain way, they all contain certain elements, and those elements all work together toward certain goals. Both inclusive and exclusive arts, combat arts and sport arts are all systems. Some (mostly modern) systems were engineered. Some were mainly formed organically over centuries (such as the Chivalric Arts). But they are systems none the less, and were further made into unique systems in any given school or by any given master.
As I have said before, inclusive arts do not exclude motion or elements that have use. The Chivalric Art of Defense proper is such an Art. In its day, motion that could have proven useful would have been added to the whole of the system, rather than excluded. An exclusive Art is usually so due to concerns of sport. They exclude elements that work against the rules or that do not produce positive results within the rules. Examples of such Arts are Western boxing under the Queensbury rules, and Brazilian Jiujutsu under the rules of MMA sports. Such Arts may be narrow by comparison, but they are still very much systems. I.e. whether a system is a full-fledged martial art, or a simple fighting methodology, and whether a person studies it in whole or in part, it is still a system, regardless of any other terminology it may be classified by (see my other article; Martial Arts?).

So, my main point here is that a complete system is not made so by any particular elements of which it is composed. A system can be made up exclusively of the use of a particular weapon or group of weapons, or exclusively on some type of unarmed fighting skills, and still be termed a system, even a complete system of x, though not necessarily a Martial Art. However, with certain systems, one could make the judgment that some are or are not well rounded. In the Chivalric Arts, for example, there are many elements to the system. So many, in fact, that one could scarcely study them all. So, one could choose a certain array of weapons to study in order to call their personal study of the system “well-rounded.”

The Chivalric Arts, however, as an inclusive martial art of a vast culture that spanned centuries with little change, is a much larger system than most modern or sport systems with very narrow concerns and foci. I have pointed out conclusively that the perfect study of the Art, its pillar, root and foundation, as with most, is the study of unarmed skills. This part of the whole of the larger system of the Chivalric Arts is a system in itself, as are all the other elements. They are not independent systems, however. To make an analogy, the circulatory system is a subsystem of the human body. It is its own system, but inseperable from the greater system. Just so is the longsword to the Chivalric Arts; unarmed core skills in particular. This brings us to another facet of the systems concept of martial arts.

Definition: A subsystem is a set of elements, which is a system itself, and a component of a larger system.

Since we know that unarmed skills and concepts form the base of any given system, as we have for eons, and are in fact often systems in and of themselves, armed elements to these systems are, though based upon unarmed combat, dissimilar enough that they have many independent elements and nuances, and thusly their own systems form around them. But as they are inseparable from the whole and base of the system, this makes them subsystems. To reference my last article (Is Swordsmanship a Martial Art?), this is another perspective on why swordsmanship, for example, is not a martial art per se, but a peripheral to a martial art. The Art of the Longsword, for example, is a subsystem of the Chivalric Arts. Thusly, an example of someone’s well-rounded practice of the Chivalric Arts might include, aside from the unarmed core training, the study of the Longsword, Spear, Poll-axe, Messer and Dagger.

It follows that there exists the concept of sub-subsystems. This applies to subsystems as subsystems apply to systems. This concept, when we apply it to the martial arts, applies particularly to the Chivalric Arts. The Chivalric Arts are so vast, and include the use of so many weapons, that the sub-subsystem concept has particular use.

When one achieves a certain mastery over unarmed skills and a variety of other weapons, one reaches a point where one can pick up any implement of artifice, and in short order, assess its strengths and weaknesses and nuances, use it, and devise a system that applies to it. Such things can be viewed as sub-subsystems, and though this concept was not used explicitly in the Arts heyday, the principle most assuredly was.

As any student of the CMA knows, certain weapons that were commonly used were generally not taught by the masters of the time, in the schools, nor in the technical references. This is due to their simplistic and derivative nature as sub-subsystems, and include the short mace, war-hammer, battle-axe, godendag, variants of more foundational weapons, etc. These weapons were not uncommon, but so simplistic and specialized in nature that their use was quickly based off the use of more sophisticated, Master Key weapons/unarmed skills that were taught. Therefore they qualify as sub-subsystems of greater systems and subsystems.

Thusly, in the Chivalric Arts, we have three levels to the system that could be well-charted as a pyramid. In orders of importance and numbers, unarmed skills rank at the apex (despite their foundational nature). The primary and most sophisticated weapons of the system form the middle, and the numerous simple weapons and variants form the base of the diagram. A regular food pyramid of death.

What subsystem a sub-subsystem weapon is derived from is not a cut and dried tree, however. Due to the interrelated nature of principles and motion, any subsystem and sub-subsystem will share myriad elements with any other (all being founded on the primary system to begin with), often having their only basis as whatever the practitioner is previously skilled in. So stylistically (refer back to the definition of Style) one practitioner may use a sub-subsystem weapon in a very different manner than another, having based their use off of differing skill-sets. However, charting a tree of what weapon is based off of what other weapon is arguably very unimportant. Most practitioners consider anything below a subsystem to be a waste of time to actually train with, as opposed to training with primary systems and subsystems, and them applying them ad hoc to sub-subsystems, using what they already know, when the need arises.

To make a final example of something else with which I am familiar, an example of the system/subsystem/sub-subsystem concept applied to the Art of American Kenpo Karate could include the knife, club, and staff as subsystems because they are common peripherals to the core of that particular system. Were a practitioner of this system to pick up a pencil in self-defense, it could be considered a sub-subsystem of the knife (if not of unarmed skills). It is far less versatile and deadly than the knife, but it is a short piercing weapon and more closely follows the use of the knife than any other weapon. System= American Kenpo (unarmed core system). Subsystem= Knife. Sub-subsystem= Pencil.

To make a similar example of the Chivalric Arts, say you want to use a short mace. Like the pencil, aside from the mace being a weapon by definition, its use is not explicitly instructed in the system. However, you’re versed in the Art of the Messer (a subsystem). The mace is far simpler and less versatile than the messer, though it can be used in virtually the same way. Therefore you make it a subsystem of the messer (sub-subsystem of the Chivalric Arts).
System= Chivalric Arts of Defense (unarmed core, ringen or whatever you want to call it). Subsystem= Messer. Sub-subsystem= Mace.

I hope these perspectives and definitions can aid you in your pursuit of excellence.

1. The Encyclopedia of Kenpo, Ed Parker.
2. To my knowledge, I am the only person who has thus far applied the subsystem/sub-subsystem concept to the martial arts.


Copyright 17 Feb. 2011


JH said...

Perhaps then an acceptable translation for "Zettel" (as found amid the Liechtenauer lore) would be not only "Summary" or "Total" (the latter being its linguistic cognate) but perhaps instead "System". That certainly seems more accurate than some definitions thereof (e.g. "Charter").

errantliberal said...

A very informative article, thank you.

I have a question on methodology, because I've been invited to be an assistant instructor to help with the new guys at my school, and there's noise being made about me opening a study group up closer to where I live.

Specifically, what order of instruction do you consider best for learning CMA as you term it? Is it Fiore's system of beginning with Abrazare and then moving up incrementally through weapons?

Obviously there's strong merit to this process, but there is the obvious canard that comes with the CMA - people join because they want to fight with weapons, so getting a weapon into their hand the first day is almost required, mentally speaking.

B & C said...

I know exactly what you mean, and schools that enforce a certain prerequisite learning process before allowing the students handle swords are small, few, hardcore, and usually Japanese. But you know, in the old days,in any country, students handled weapons from day one, because if they didn't, they could be killed by someone who did.
I recommend dividing the time somewhat evenly. Make the priorities clear to the students, and for example, devote an hour to unarmed skills, and then an hour to the longsword in a two hour class. This should keep them interested, even if they're only really interested in the sword, but will provide them with essential skills that will only make them better swordsmen, even if they don't realise it. Once the students have eventually achieved an appreciable skill level in each, start introducing other weapons central to your chosen system/s, but always keep the core hour of study. Just a suggestion.