Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in historic European martial arts. Although the active traditions of European hand-to-hand masters largely broke down during the age of gunpowder, centuries of trainers, tacticians, duelists, and other “Masters of Defence” left behind over 100 written works detailing techniques of fighting with sword, dagger, hand, foot, and other weapons. Modern-day enthusiasts studying these tomes and actual period weapons, aided by an Internet that brings together practitioners, translators, historians, and other experts, are re-discovering facts that should have been obvious all along, yet are directly contradicted by mistaken popular notions that are filtered by Hollywood (while reaching back to Victorian times). They’re re-discovering facts like these:
Medieval European weapons were light and deadly-fast, not heavy and slow. Armor, too, balanced both protection and mobility (no winches needed to seat knights on horses, thank you!). Skilled combatants were anything but brawling oafs; they mastered precise techniques of footwork, guards, and attacks. European warriors taught, learned, and used unarmed kicks, strikes, locks, and throws of the sort best known today in Asian martial arts. The fighters also included exotic weapons and “secret” techniques among their tactical arsenals. In short, a trained European knight, duelist, or professional soldier was a true martial artist, in every sense of the word.
This new realization is gradually making itself known in popular culture, including games. An RPG supplement dealing with martial arts is, more than ever, likely to feature Italian rapier fencing, Viking-style axe throwing, Ringen grappling, and knightly half-swording in the same light as karate styles and kung-fu variants. Yet it’s a change that’s still in progress; there are still many misconceptions floating about in gaming, including the too-common assumption that the term “martial arts” itself somehow refers to advanced Asian fighting styles alone, and not to whatever crude hacking must have taken its place in Europe.
The article below by von Loringen expands greatly on this topic, providing a closer look at how the fighting techniques of medieval and Renaissance Europe were true martial arts (and indeed, could not have been otherwise). It focuses on GURPS and offers a few system-specific suggestions, but the bulk of its content applies to any RPG with hand-to-hand combat. Give it a read, and open up a whole new continent of options for the blade-flashing, high-kicking martial artists in your game!
To learn more from modern-day researchers and practitioners, start with these resources:
- ARMA (The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts)
- The HEMA Alliance
- The Chivalric Fighting Arts Association
- Indigenous martial arts evolved in the west as well as the east
European Martial Arts in Role-Playing: Where are they?
Article by von Loringen
GURPS Japan has them. GURPS Swashbucklers has them. GURPS Rome has them. Why doesn’t GURPS Middle Ages? In was the golden era of close-quarters combat in Europe. Kings fought. Some Queens fought. Warriors were the ruling class of society. Legal disputes could be settled by skill at arms. A large portion of the customs of later Europe arose from this eras and its emphasis on personal combat. Duels, concepts about honour, what it meant to be a gentleman, and how that shaped western ideas of government and citizenship. And it revolved around warriors.
Unfortunately, two factors have contributed to a degree of mis-education not found with, say Japanese medieval martial arts, although there are misconceptions there too.
First, in Europe the greater pace of technological development meant that close-quarters combat assumed less and less importance on the battlefield. This tendency became so extreme that in 1745, during the Jacobite Rebellion, the British Army began teaching bayonet fighting for the first time. Prior to this, it was assumed that in the unlikely event soldiers actually had to fight at close quarters, they could get by with improvised skills. This change only occurred because the Highland clansmen armed with broadswords and pole-axes charged in to close combat as their standard battle tactic. Although the Highlanders themselves had long since forgotten the real combat arts of their ancestors, as several clan chiefs lamented, what skill they had, based on contemporary fencing, was more than enough to overawe two government armies as Prestonpans and Falkirk. It was only after British regiments received close combat training that they had the confidence to stand up to a Highland charge. So trained, they were able to smash the highland army at Culloden.
Many European armies took much longer, and the British army long enjoyed a fearsome reputation for its close quarter skills from this date
A related issue was the change in melee weapons themselves. In Asian countries, the traditional weapons remained, whether used with the old battlefield styles, or the new artistic/sport styles. In Europe, a whole new series of civilian weapons were developed, like the rapier and smallsword. Whole new styles came about to supposedly take advantage of these new weapons’ characteristics, an example of this being the excessive emphasis on thrusting attacks which George Silver correctly denounces.
Thus, while someone studying kendo could learn something about how Warring States samurai fought (even if there were large gaps), someone learning modern western sports fencing learns nothing about how a knight would have fought.
This lack of familiarity with medieval European combat leads people to believe that Asian combat styles are just inherently different and special. But this is more or less impossible. The human body only moves and bends in certain ways. Despite some minor height and body type variation amongst different Asian and European nations, the basic design of their bone and muscle structures remain identical. Furthermore, the fashion that they developed these fighting techniques is also identical: trial and error. Fighting their neighbours for centuries taught people what worked and what didn’t. At the same time, professional warriors would sometimes sit down and attempt to codify these lessons in some form, occasionally trading notes with fellow warriors, in order to pass these lessons down to future generations.
The result of all this is that there are far more similarities than differences. Just about every waza in Jujutsu also appears in the European Renaissance fighting manuals. The footwork and basic principles of George Silver’s True Fight, like the “True Times,” are uncannily like those of, for example, Ninjutsu.
So, what can your medieval knight learn? Well, just about the same things a samurai could learn. In fact the emphasises were nearly identical. Old-school Jujutsu, just like European “Ringen” as their unarmed techniques were sometimes called, had strikes, punches and kicks, as well as locks, grapples and throws. But the Judo manoeuvres (Arm and Finger Lock!) were more heavily emphasized, having wider application, especially against armoured foes. In both cases, exotic high kicks were generally eschewed. Being pragmatic battlefield arts, they were designed for conditions of muddy, bloody, icy and uneven ground. Keeping one’s balance was crucial, and such flamboyant and unbalanced moves were not seen as practical.
For similar reasons, Lunges were not used in either land. This is a correction of Martial Arts and Japan. What passes for a “lunge” in this era is nothing more than a GURPS “Step and Attack.” Passes were also used. (Swashbucklers 3e) Esquive, also from Swashbucklers, is the most important and heavily used manoeuvre. Getting off line from the opponent’s attack, even just by a few inches, is the paramount lesson of defence. This was often combined with a Slip to get inside the reach of a longer weapon. Hit Location and Sweep are important. While sports fencing and kendo emphasize legal and illegal body targets, the goal of these combat arts was to win. The secret technique of at least one kenjutsu school is a leg attack. Knocking the opponent down to finish him off while helpless is a standard medieval tactic. The notion of “fighting fair” belongs to the 18th Century, not the Age of Chivalry!
“The Old School” from SB 3e is appropriate for any European medieval warrior. Actually, it is appropriate for a samurai too.
For close combat, Pancratium but using Judo, with Finger Lock and Head Lock added, would be a good basis. Or even Jujustu as is. Or some cross between the two. Any GM with martial arts experience or common sense should allow your sword-based Esquive (a matter of foot and hip movement) to apply to any defence, regardless of what you are wielding.
Contrary to the notions of eternal progress that 18th Century and Victorian historians have foisted upon us, martial arts were at their peak of deadliness in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when people lived or died by the efficiency of their skills. The vast majority of the manoeuvres in MA and Sb will have originated in these eras, and are therefore available.
And don’t forget Pressure Points and Pressure Secrets! The Europeans also knew that certain areas of the body, when struck, could cause temporary paralysis, unconsciousness and nerve damage.
Martial Arts and damage bonuses: Unarmed combat skills are given damage bonuses because the skilled fighter learns to strike in a different manner than the unskilled. Unskilled fighters tend to rely purely upon strength for the force of blows. They will tense themselves up from the very beginning, and throw a punch using their arm and shoulder. Or perhaps they will throw a roundhouse type punch to take advantage of their hips turning into the blow. A trained fighter realizes that there is more force to be found in body motion than in muscles. He will learn to turn his hips for every blow, not just when making wide outside blows. That is the principle technique behind Bruce Lee’s Three Inch Punch, for example. The trained fighter will also know that ideally, the blow should land before the advancing foot is planted, so that the weight of the body adds to the force of the blow. He will make a fist, or whatever striking form is used, at the last instant, so that even the motion of the hand is added to force of impact. While the unskilled fighter will often strike with the whole of the fist, possibly injuring his hand, the skilled fighter will pick a hand form suited to the area being struck, and will usually strike with the smallest part possible, using a part of the hand (or other body part) that is best supported by the bone structure, and least likely to be damaged.
However, most of these lessons apply to a weapon, too. Taking advantage of body motion, rather than relying on brute force is just as important when fighting with hand and foot. The fighter may not be able to alter his weapon “form” the way he can his hand, but he can tailor the angle, motion and type of attack to the target area. And cutting weapons have a whole set of techniques of their own. Cutting with a sword is an art. Making a clean, steady blow that is part chop and part slice takes practice and skill. A suggestion: ALL weapons should have damage bonuses applied for skill. At a minimum, apply skill/10 (or for COSH/Gulliver people, +5% per level over 10) bonuses to all trained crushing and impaling attacks, and the full skill/5 (or +10% per level above 10) bonuses to cutting attacks.
Weapons and weight: Although GURPS is better than many games in this respect, there is still some error in weight of weapons. A two handed sword made for fighting (not the decorative pieces usually weighed) is going to weigh from 3-8 lbs, not 12. A so-called bastard sword is probably more in the 2.5 to 4 range than 5. Same for a katana. And of course, reduce Min ST accordingly. (Automatically, for GLAIVE users.)
A final note: Women warriors in the Middle Ages. It has become increasingly well known that women took part in fighting throughout human history, not just in crisis, but as a choice of lifestyle and profession. However, some have questioned this on the grounds of things like women’s lesser upper body strength, in regard to melee-oriented eras like the Middle Ages. Ideas like this are founded on a series of misconceptions about how much armour and weapons weighed, and how such equipment was used. As noted, weapons were lighter than normally thought; many games have based weapon weights off of reproductions, made by people who have no idea about how the weapons were used, and therefore, no idea how to make them. Another source is museums. Unfortunately, many of the surviving museum pieces were decorative presentation pieces, not made for actual battle, and therefore not made to the exacting demands of battle.
Armour (or Harness in contemporary usage; the term “Armour” dates from the 17th Century) is in the same boat. A normal medieval warrior wore armour of 60lbs or less. Armour was usually of half thickness on the back to save weight. Suits of armour weighing 100-120 lbs. were tournament suits, designed to offer maximum protection in a sporting environment where mobility and fatigue were not crucial factors. This was not war gear.
Finally, using such weapons is not a function of arm and upper body strength. As mentioned when discussing damage bonuses, a properly executed blow relies on the hips, on footwork, on using physics and leverage, much more than muscle. Sure, having a strong upper body doesn’t hurt, and it can be handy when combined with skilled execution. But it isn’t a decisive advantage, and it certainly isn’t necessary to fight effectively. Other areas which favour women, like having a low centre of gravity, are also advantageous. And then again, through most of history, women did as much as, or more, heavy labour than men, especially in agriculture. They often were just as strong anyway.
I hope I have shed some light on the nature of European combat arts and shown that medieval European warriors, rather being practitioners of a crude and vulgar butchery, were scientifically trained martial artists in every sense, on par with their Asian counterparts, and that if anything, far superior in fighting arts to their own descendants, as the pathetic, indecisive duels of the 17th and 18th centuries bore painful witness to. I also hope to have added some much needed colour to the drab and brutish depiction usually made of the Medieval period, and opened up a whole new realm of exciting possibilities and options for customization and character development.
Perhaps it will even spur ambitious GMs and players to do further research into the period and its fighting arts, which couldn’t come at a better time, as such arts are again being actively practised and researched, and many original manuscripts being made available in electronic format for free in the Internet, thanks to generous scholars who wish to see traditional European combat arts revived.