Historical Martial Arts’ Influence on Scientific Thought

By Ian Terry

Martial systems developed between 1000 AD and 1600 AD are a direct result of Aristotelian thought and helped to make the scientific classification methods into what they are today. This is a bold statement and would only be possible if martial systems- particularly sword combat systems- were important enough to the learned class and general population to create a bridge between the two classes of society. This topic will be explored in order to demonstrate a substantial link for martial systems to have an impact on society as a whole. In addition to this, for martial systems to be given credit for the system of classification utilized in science it must be shown that prior to these martial forms the system of classification was not used in the way it is used today, and that these martial forms introduced this style of thinking into a widely used field. And lastly, it can be shown that due to these two things being true, 1) society valuing combat and, 2) these classification systems being used as indispensable tools in these martial forms. That they are wholly responsible for the transformation of society from a mostly experiential one to one where knowledge could be passed on categorically with intention and evidence for its effectiveness, as is required for modern scientific thought. This paper will attempt to prove the concept that the modern scientific classification method is a direct offspring of classification systems implemented by martial arts instructors in the medieval era, allowing knowledge to be passed on in a classified, codified manner, rather than the experiential manner of previous eras.

The sword has always been seen in a special light by humankind, it can even be seen that today the sword still holds special significance for modern people. Movies, stories, entire festivals dedicated around medieval existence have been constructed. Tales are still retold directly linked to “swords of legend” such as Excalibur in the west and tales of swords imbued with evil or good in the east. Swords appear on Coat of Arms throughout all of medieval history, and the meaning of the sword on the is a combination of justice, military honor, and unshakeable unwavering faith in God

This connection drawn between the shape of the sword and the embodiment of the Christian Cross is one that came about in the later part of the Holy Roman Empire, gaining real traction when Constantine’s sword was intentionally designed to look like the crucifix. This clearly indicates just how important the sword was to the medieval person, both of lower and higher standing. As Christianity’s influence spread across the western world the incorporation of its symbolism into the tools of survival and defense of king and country cannot be understated for just how important these tools were. Therefore, the transformations within the world of swords and their uses can be seen to have immense impacts on societal belief and understanding.

The aforementioned swords of legend, such as Excalibur, also give us amazing insight into the psychology of the masses in this time period. Every one of the stories of an incredible sword, whether it be eastern or western in its origin, tell a tale of a sword that can imbue its wielder with incredible skill, and fill them with nobility or cruelty. This indicates that to the general population the skills required to wield swords in truly efficient ways was viewed as almost as awe inspiring as it is viewed today. Nobody except the knights and fighters themselves understood the dedication and training that it took to correctly and efficiently wield these weapons of war, and instead believed there was some sort of supernatural influence at play when someone was truly skilled with these weapons.

Knowledge of how one would win a swordfight was a closely guarded secret that was only taught to nobleman and only traveled between countries and cities in written form, so only the learned would be able to glean its meaning (Fiore, 1409). Systems of combat were individual to specific teachers, such as Liechtenauer, and the majority more closely resembled an art than a science.

All of this can be combined to see that the general population had very little understanding of the use of swords, but had such a great admiration for them that each and every person had a desire to be able to master its use in order to truly be able to feel safe while traveling. The use of the sword was a matter of esoteric knowledge that could directly ensure that your children would survive the next attack on the road between towns, or the next major war to engulf your country. The usefulness and importance of this field could be compared to the modern-day idea of continuing education or getting lofty degrees: it was a way of personal survival and ensuring a greater chance of survival for your family for generations to come.

This idea that knowledge of swords could change one’s station is referred to repeatedly by the sword masters of the middle ages. Many of them such as Fiore Dei Liberi would intentionally find and kill any “peasant” who had dared to attempt to learn the system of swordsmanship that was becoming more of a scientific system of classification that would allow someone with even less than average physical attributes to be able to beat another combatant simply by knowing the proper responses and classification for each type of attack and defense.

This line of discussion leads directly to the idea of how Fiore transformed the landscape of swordsmanship at the beginning of the 15th century by introducing a system of classification for the first time into medieval martial forms. Fiore was a noble, born in the city of Premariacco, Italy in the province of Udine in 1350. He states in his Flower of Battle (Il Fior Di Battaglia) that he traveled the world for most of his life learning swordsmanship from masters around present day Italy, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and France. He shows up in several historical records as being made captain of city defenses during times of war and training several nobles who were to partake in judicial duels so they would be able to survive these duels with almost no previous training in swordsmanship. He himself is stated to have been in several wars, and to have participated in 8 duels to the death, unarmored, and to have survived all of these encounters without a single wound. This is the exact sort of extraordinary story of swordsmanship and prowess that created legends such as Lancelot and others; and would have seemed to be almost unnatural to people who came into combat with him or his students. Fiore left behind a series of treatise’s on combat with weapons of all kinds but focused most heavily on the sword.

“I am the sword and I am lethal against any weapon; lances, axes and dagger are worthless against me. I can become extended or withdrawn; when I get near the opponent I can enter into close play, perform disarms and abrazare. My art is to turn and to bind; I am expert in defense and offense, and always strive to finish in those. Come against me and feel the pain. I am Royal, enforce justice, propagate goodness and destroy evil. Look at me as a cross, and I will give you fame and a name in the art of arms.” –Il Fior di Battaglia, folio 25r, Fiore dei Liberi, 1410

In Fiore’s treatise he lays out a series of what are referred to as “plays” using different masters which indicate different crossings of the swords. And this is where the idea of his classification system begins to unfold. Fiore’s has 3 major categories, Master of the sword in one hand, Zogho Largo, and Zogho Stretto. Within each of these categories are different ways that the sword can cross, or classifications of binds, and within each of the classification of binds there are classifications of amount of force being put into the blade. After all of these criteria have been met there is a perfect response indicated that will inherently defeat your opponent. So, in order of classification: Master > Crossing > Position > Force > Play; much like the understanding of Linnaean Classification System: Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species. Previous classification systems had existed, but never before had they been used in a system so widely interacted with as war and swordsmanship. By placing swordplay into a classification system, Fiore inadvertently moved a type of Aristotelian thought out of the realm of only Clerical and high learning into the world of the common man. Fiore’s works were still only intended for the nobleman and learned, however, the application of his works had direct impact on the lives of the commoner and of course these two communities did not exist in complete isolation from one another. Over the following few hundred years subsequent fencing masters such as Ridalpho Capoferro and George Silver used these same terms and classifications to create schools of fencing that eventually evolved into modern day sports fencing, and these systems become more and more accepted to be taught to commoners and nobles alike.

Fiore’s system of classification breaks down each category into a set of criteria and gets more specific as you move down the categories, as does the Linnaean classification system. The Masters are the general idea of where you are: is your sword in one hand? Are you immediately threatened by your opponent’s sword (Zogho Stretto)? Or are you able to move freely without immediate threat to life (Zogho Largo)? The crossings are where the blades have met each other in a bind: Are they crossed tip to tip (Foible to Foible)? Are they crossed at the middles (Meza to Meza)? Are they crossed at the bases (forte to forte)? Or are they crossed at some combination of the two (Forte to foible, mezza to forte, foible to mezza)? The position is where each combatants’ feet are positioned and the closeness of the bodies: Can you reach the opponents wrist or arms? Is their body open towards you, or is their shoulder towards you? The force indicates how much pressure is being put into the blades: If you moved your sword away from theirs would theirs remain where it is, or would it push along with your retreating sword? Can you push through their sword or is there too much pressure coming back towards you? And once all of these categories have been sorted and met you are left with the category of play, the precise, perfect response to all of these previous conditions that will guarantee your opponent will either not be able to respond, or the only response they have is to reset the combat to even ground- and are not able to strike you.

It is also interesting to note that modern culture has taken quite a few phrases from swords that refer to one’s personal ability or merit. Foible are referred to as a weakness to someone’s character, the word foible in terms of medieval swordsmanship means the tip, and the tip of a sword is weak and cannot resist pressure. On the other end discussion of ones forte- or a thing at which someone is excellent- and the forte on a sword is the strongest place to bind an opponent, it is your strongest position. These words coming into even modern parlance can help to show the degree to which classification of swords became a part of societal thinking and terminology and helped to govern one’s ideas of the world around.

The reason that these ideas took hold in society wholesale is entirely due to the same reason why having a college education has taken such hold in society as an almost necessity. If by learning and practicing a simple system of classification you could almost guarantee, or at least massively increase the odds, that you or your loved one would return from war or a judicial duel you would readily accept that type of thinking and thought process (Mele, 2014). And once you began thinking that way about one aspect of your life, it is easy to see how this type of thinking would become more and more common place in general population and in general thought. One began to classify thought and survived because of it. So, it was the natural next step to teach others how to classify combat, farming, building, and thinking on the whole. Naturally leading in a stepping stone fashion to the Linnaean Classification systems birth for biological sciences in 1735, approximately 325 years after Fiore had classified his combat system.

The rapid transition from Aristotelian thought being kept in the hands of the elite, to it being prevalent enough to transform most areas of the world within 300 years, after the concepts being around for nearly 1500 years is an astounding and rapid change. The period after Fiore’s introduction of classification into martial forms is classically known as the Enlightenment era and is a period of massive expansion and scientific development.  This is not a coincidence, Fiore’s addition of classification to something that swept across the western world in the following centuries sparked the beginning of the scientific revolution as it codified something useful to the general population. While classification systems had only previously been applied to things of importance to nobleman previously, such as taxes and governance. Before this moment, peasants and common folk had seen classification and scientific thought as something that was used to keep them down, and to treat them as if they were stupid; and here with the introduction of classification to a system of self-defense and self-actualization Fiore had inadvertently given them a way to break free of previously impenetrable class dynamics. Fiore himself helped to overthrow the sitting powers in the Aquileian War of Succession in 1381. And in the two following centuries non-nobility began to comprise more and more of countries standing armies. The knight class of noble-born fell apart as the secret of martial prowess on the medieval battlefield had been released from its cage by the brilliance of Master Fiore Furlano de Cividale d’austria, delli Liberi da Premariacco.

In conclusion, Fiore and his contemporaries created a system of classification to be used in life-and-death situations. Because of the effectiveness of this system and the seemingly supernatural ability it imparted on its practitioners it overtook all other thought styles when looking at combat and war. Human’s will only adopt something when it is truly advantageous for them to do so, and this system proved its merit over and over. This type of thought became so common in combatants, and so much of the population learned how to defend themselves using these classification system that within 300 years the thought process had spread to all corners of the western world and all types of occupations, that Carolus Linnaeus used the exact same concept to outlay the biological classification system now known as Linnaean Classification. Due to this amazing expansion of Fiore’s system, he and his martial form contemporaries can be considered the fathers of the modern scientific movement, spawned from Aristotle’s thinking systems developed over 1000 years earlier. Due to all of this, it can absolutely be seen how these medieval instructors put together the first widely used system of classification that spread amongst the general population due to the importance of combat in the medieval era and spawned the thought processes we see that lead to modern scientific classification systems.