Martial Arts in Historical Fighting – Or Just Wild Battle Thrashing?

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100 thoughts on “Martial Arts in Historical Fighting – Or Just Wild Battle Thrashing?”

  • I think martial arts in modern times is often associated with martial arts tournaments, etc. And that doesn't always translate well to street fighting or to actual combat. But martial arts in this context is training for battle. That's a different sort of thing. That sort of training is very helpful. But if you are a complete wimp and are well trained, you will probably get your ass handed to you regardless. Training doesn't make you good. It makes you better. There has to be something there to work with to begin with for that to matter. Brute force alone can win a fight. Even against a more skilled opponent. But size and strength plus extensive training is the best possible situation.

  • I imagine even with levies you didn't call up an army and leave immediately, it would take several days to gather resources and prepare. If you arm your levies with something simple like a polearm, you can drill them for a couple days in formations and simple techniques.

  • I would think formation discpline is way more important than skill at using a particular weapon. Even with skilled professional armies, you run a real risk of a rout if your men lose formation. Even seeing like a 1/5 of your comrades falter or be pushed back is enough to start a panic. Many if not most historical battles were lost because of battle confusion and formation breaking down. So I would think you would train peasant levies or part-time soldiers formation discipline most of all. If you give them a simple technique and a formation to maintain, a scared peasant will cling on to that bit of knowledge desperately to save himself.

  • before watching the video I would think that the "flailing" would be what war is. It's a bloody mix up and chaos. Actual fighting techniques would be employed in smaller scale battles of 1 or 2 or however many it takes before it becomes senseless mashup of battling soldiers

  • I use to think this, how can some one focus with all that death and noise around them without resorting to flailing around, but when you train so hard to the point that your fight or flight responses are replace with your own training, all that training is etched into your reflexes, where you or I would flinch the knights would parry or dodge or counter.

  • Another thing that would contribute to pre-battle fatigue: illness. IIRC, the US Civil War was the first war where combat fatalities outnumbered deaths by illness amongst the troops. Something about putting a large group of people together in miserable conditions, with high stress and low sanitation.

  • Aerdernix MacDane says:

    From what I have gathered celts did train recreatonally and had to know certain amount of martial arts. There is still a difference between the training of a farmer and a noble warrior (arjos).

  • I never could really wrap my head on how battles were being worked out. Was it more like a series of invidual duels? Or maybe more like two formations poking their spears to the front? Wild flailing and lots of backstabbing?

  • I very reluctantly clicked the video because of the text in the thumbnail. Because I figured that you like many other martial artists would say technique would always triumph over brute force.

  • What about formations limiting what you can do? For example, the Romans would use thrusting a lot of the time in a phalanx because swinging would be more dangerous to your allies and would probably decrease morale, however, I heard the most experienced legionaries were in the back partially to stop a rout.

  • If a battle was all about two opposing forces just hurling 200 pound sacks of flailing meat at each other, no one would ever bother extensively training for months on end.

  • you forgot to mention the point of training given techniques…. they trained the majority of the time so the basic techniques were pretty much instinct more so than just muscle memory…. in some cultures to the point where they don't even have to think about moving or expend much energy to move a given way…. Bruce Lee put it best "when the moment comes…. I do not hit….. it hits all by it's self"

  • Justin Thompson says:

    Before watching: I'd imagine there was a lot of both. A lot of fighting was done by amateurs, but there were huge skill discrepancies.

  • If you're enormously stronger than a more skilled opponent you win.
    If you're slightly stronger than a more skilled opponent you lose.
    If you're as strong as a more skilled opponent you lose.
    If you're weaker than a more skilled opponent don't even show up.

  • When I am think about bigger battles, I think the best comparison are modern riot polices. Okay, they are not supposed to kill but they use a lot of tactics used in those periods. The their equipment is also similar with armor, riot shield, and stick. And you get see how they advance as groups into the situation to reduce casualties. So the combination of tactics and training helps here and I think that it not so far off from the way warriors would have thought.

  • Krimson Phantom says:

    A professional swordsman does not want to fight an untrained person with a sword due to the unpredictably. That's a paraphrase and I'm not sure who is credited with it but it may hold merit.

  • You're a duelist? The Chinese trained their troops in Xingyiquan for WW2, which minimises horizontal cuts. This means they could fight in ranks, or team up on single opponents without changing technique.

    In battle training, the person to your left and right is friendly. The technique is not just to fight, but to fight in groups. Start making horizontal cuts, and you start to interfere with your peers.

    In duelling, you have no neighbours to interfere with, so there's no cost to horizontal cuts. HEMA sabre duels seem to emphasise horizontal cuts to the wrist. Would you want someone doing that to either side of you in your battle rank?

  • Justin Wainwright says:

    Its like comparing a championship caliber boxer to a weight lifter. Yeah the weight lifter is going to be strong, fast and have good stamina but once he gets hit the odds that anger will take over and he will start to throw wild punches with all his strength where as a boxer is TRAINED to conserve stamina and take a fight deep or how to exploit someone who is leaving themselves as open as wild swinging will leave you. That being said, the most dangerous thing on the battlefield is a lucky amature or atleast that's what my drill seargent used to say.

  • Suggesting that soldiers with training just 'flail around' in the battlefield is a bit like saying a person who knows how to swim resorts to doggy paddling and thrashing when he/she falls off the boat.

  • This is actually a fairly well documented phenomenon… Skilled/trained fighters will start off with practiced techniques. However, as fatigue and injuries set it, fighters begin to enter their more primal fight or flight reflexes. They forgo defenses in favor of large, desperate attacks. No matter how well trained you are, that primal survival instinct will take over once your life is in danger.

  • I'd agree that there would be no martial art, when there are no uniformed equipment. But I do not want to believe a unit with standardized equipment like Roman Legionaires not practicing some sort of martial art or army combat technique. What say you?

  • I hate it when they're called "fancy techniques" in the first place, as if anything more complex or difficult than usual isn't realistic. I really doubt any of the "fancy techniques" the masters taught and recorded in manuals were useless, extraneous, or for show. If they didn't work to preserve your life better than brute strength then why bother teaching them? Not to mention most were soldiers themselves at some point in their life. Sure no technique works 100% of the time and they all have to be used in the right situation, but they all would have been useful in combat.

  • The people arguing that professionals just failed around don't understand training, do they? The whole point is to learn the moves to the point where you no longer think of them, you just DO them. I mean, how often do you think about how to walk? It's al earned skill, just like any other, but we've learned it so well that we literally no longer have to think about it. Similarly, professional warriors would train in combat techniques until they no longer had to think about them, they just did them.

    I would also argue that we have specific information supporting your point. Where we find battlefields, the injuries are not randomly distributed the way you'd expect from flailing. People aimed for the places where it would hurt the most–the head, for example. We may not know how the attacker moved in great detail, but we CAN argue that the injuries suggest that the attacks were deliberate, not random flailing.

  • abel rey obedencia says:

    Hi Skall. I'm from the Philippines and there is no HEMA gym/dojo that I could join. There's no one too in proximity that can teach me how to. I would like then to research with books. But I don't know what titles to buy. Can you guide me on titles that would be valuable for me. Especially ones that teaches long swords and rapiers.

  • If a man was expected to respond to a levy, he had to be armed. Virtually all such legal issuances specified that the person had to procure their own arms and armor and could not sell them. Failure to produce the weapons and armor during semiannual inspections would subject the individual to fines and physical punishment.

    In England the kings issued militia requirements in their Assize or Ordinance. It specified the type of armor and weapons by level of economic strength.
    English towns kept rolls of who was expected to show up armed and ready to fight when called, including specific arms and armor. Levies were rarely required of unequipped peasants and in the case of England, such could not be called up by law. However, militia were used throughout Europe and were often based around guild memberships.

    Guilds fielded some of the best infantry in Europe. While the majority of members provided defensive capability, the upper levels of skilled fighters would be deployed offensively either in service of royal command or as mercenaries. Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, reinforced with knights and professional Imperial troops lost the battle of Legnano to Italian militias headed by the Company of Death. In the battle, the Italian nobility fled the battlefield, leaving the militia on their own. The Company of Death did provide its own light cavalry during the combat.

    "Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the humanist and future Pope Pius II, commenting on the state of military preparedness in Germany in 1444, wrote that “not only every noble, but even every burgher in the guilds has an armoury in his house so as to appear equipped at every alarm. The skill of the citizens in the use of weapons is extraordinary.”
    https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57f6449959cc68cbbd3df1c2/t/5848710c1b631beb1bea8d82/1481142557940/APD1%282013%29_Chandler.pdf

  • The way of fighting in a battle depends on the personal psychics and physics of the fighter.
    I did a lot of huskarl fighting in my life and in a one to one situation, everything is fine.
    When you are on a battlefield, it's something absolutely different. I saw good trained fighters which forgot to breath ( no joke ). But, if you "get used" to the situation, you can remind your skills and use them very evitiently.
    So I agree with the opinion that the elite fighters and the veterans did not fight just with brute force…because you can't do that for long and you won't survive because you'll be to slowly!

  • Stirgid Lanathiel says:

    Here's the thing with martial arts: Properly rehearsed techniques require their proper contexts to succeed. Martial arts are a system that relies on the opponent doing a certain thing in a certain way.
    In a fight, all bets are off.

    I'm not saying martial arts add nothing to the fight. An understanding of biomechanics, honing reflexes, and being able to recognize weaknesses to exploit or cover are all trained in martial arts. It's just that relying stubbornly on the 'fancy' or 'proper' techniques that a martial arts teach will get you pummeled by someone who doesnn't care about them.

    Martial arts systems are very useful for training, but at the same time, they are also a crutch that can get you in real trouble if you believe your perfection in performing martial arts techniques will get you through a fight.

  • Daniel Furtado Martino says:

    People are crazy
    MMA = people just fight like animals or use technique?
    Modern soldiers on the battlefield fight like animals or use technique and strategy?
    Martial arts practitioners when fight serious on the streets uses what they learn with the training too
    We have those exemples today, makes no sense thinking people would just be random in the past

  • Oy vey.. I'll just leave his here…. Most scholars agree that some of the most dangerous infantry that ever lived were Alexander's Immortals… The Persians considered them so deadly that they told their troops that if they captured two? They were to be kept at desperate ends of the empire…

    Average age?….. 50 years old
    Size means absolutely shit all when blades are being used, it's just more meat to slice… Speed and skill count for infinitely more than brute strength and size

  • A Lounge Moogle says:

    It would be like the modern soldier not using his training and just spraying bullets wildly over the battlefield. Sure it happens, but it's not common or very effective.

  • Comparing to today. There is a reason why we train. And why spec ops are better than drugged jihadis.

    Teamwork takes training. And we also see this from the art of war.

    In norway a boy learned axe, spear and bow from the age of 4. With lots of competitons from early boyhood.

  • In all armies that I'm aware of, and can be called an army, there are tiers of soldiers. (I am semi-bs'ing this) tier 1: elite. These are life, or at least decades long, warriors that possess remarkable skill, strength, and/or body counts. I would include most samurai, knights, Spartans, any any other soldier who fits the description. T1 is the smallest tier, because of the high bar set, but no soldier of a real army is immortal.
    T2 is your typical soldier; they vary in training and dedication from almost T1 to almost T3. T2 has the greatest number of soldiers.
    T3 is your conscripts/draftees, I estimate that the number of T3 soldiers are between tiers 1 and 2. Their training varies from almost T2 to: "here's a spear." These soldiers likely wouldn't be in the army without being compelled in one way or another.
    So, to quasi-summarize the video. T1, probably favors "fanciness"/skill, but might have to adapt to a real battle. T2 probably keeps it real, with a blend of strength and skill and T3 doesn't typically offer much more than attendance.

  • I think it's easy to compare it to firearms or MMA. With a gun, an amature would would only know to point and pull the trigger. But a competitive shooter, much like a duelist, would know advanced mechanics like proper breathing techniques, how to grip the weapon, how stand, even the mechanics of pulling the trigger can affect performance. But, competition shooters operate in a controlled environment where technique is all they have to worry about. The soldier isn't in a controlled environment, and to varying degrees technique will fly out the window. Sometimes it's more important to take out the enemy than to square your footing.

    It's even more obvious with MMA fighters. Many are trained in formal martial arts, but in the ring they're not running through the choreographed routines.

  • I don't think that it would matter if the fighters got training or not. Training for sure would had made someone better suited for longer encounters and for clearing rooms, like when storming a castel or whatever. But on a battlefield that one on one suited kind of training would had no real value. So probably, even without fancy training, if a group of peasants were already survivors of several fights and had some tactics training to work as a unit better, well that's all what the training they would ever need. Like someone already pointed out spears, your fighters don't really need to dance on the battlefield and break formation as they are stronger as a unit. They need to keep tight and move as one and things like accurate striking, parry your enemy's blow or counterattacking is really pointless and not really doable as too much is happening. That's why the best approach is on not breaking formation even if you lose men, everyone is expendable but the unit. Like limbs on a body.

  • I recall reading about America's first president, General George Washington, complaining about how ineffective malitias were because of their lack of training. And consider this, some crazy maniac with a sword rushes you, he's never wielded a sword before, and you've had years of training. I'm willing to believe that with melee weapons, medieval soldiers probably ignored a great deal of their martial arts training, the fancy miscellaneous things, but the core components such as proper footing, spotting an opening, spotting and reacting to a horribly telegraphed swing, remained a constant. Spotting an opening for example would have become reflex. Those who kept their cool and utilized their training the most, had an advantage over those who panicked.

  • The Mighty Mulqueeny says:

    Why would anyone throw out their training and just start windmilling…

    How many kick boxers get into fights and just start flailing their arms around?

    At that point the techniques become basically instinct.

  • anyone who down voted this is clearly an idiot. skallagrim hits it right on the head. There are historical writings and first hand accounts but unless your in the front lines and were actually there… you don't know shit.

  • Tooclean Slobo says:

    I think it is a common misconception that after marching all day carrying a pack they would be exhausted. I just completed the Appalachian Trail, 2190.3 miles. After the first 100 miles your body gets used to it. Are you tired after hiking all day, absolutely. But would you be so tired that you wouldn't be able to fight effectively if forced to do so, absolutely not. I imagine if they were fighting close to home, an army might have that problem. But if you talk about the Romans, or other groups that went great distances, the whole being tired from doing what they are trained to do all day just isn't right. 🙂

  • I'm curious to hear the opinion of someone in a modern military… we still have battlefields and likely will until the end if humanity. So… military guys… what do you think? Do you fall back on training or instinct. Also, does your training not become second nature?

  • I watch your videos a lot…but wasn't really feeling like it right now. But I'm not gonna lie…I clicked anyway because that sword is so fucking cool.
    Just needed to look at it for a minute haha.

  • I feel like it should be obvious that someone who is trained on how to effectively use their body or weapons even to cause damage and reduce damage in battle is going to have higher chances than a person who isn't trained that to me just seems like common sense

  • let me say this , we can't realy know for a fact what skill was used and what a battle field was like , when men put on armor and wore swords to battle . We don't have film to study , we do have the writings yes but not the detail . We have Alot of guess work ,

  • Fiore refused to train many and made the ones he did train swear oaths of secrecy. Liechtenauer practiced in secret for a reason. I imagine most fought fairly intuitively or received only some basic training (swing, parry, swing, parry). I imagine "fancy" techniques were absolutely utilized, but they were the exception, not the rule.

  • I imagine this would be a lot like fighting in any army. I.e., you don't train rank and file to fight like a champion would in a duel. Instead, everyone trains the same handful of basic moves over and over… and over.

    You all are peasants in my shield wall? Great. I'm going to teach you how to hold your shield, how to thrust over it, and how to thrust under it. Then we'll practice staying in a line together. Then we'll keep practicing those four things, every day, ad infinitum. No place for anything fancier when you're fighting in a formation.

  • I think you’re totally right, Skall. It’s not really hard to understand if you parallel it to martial arts today. If someone that has practiced Krav Maga gets into a fight, they are probably going to be a lot less controlled than they would be while sparring, but that doesn’t mean that the training doesn’t help. Techniques do go out the window sometimes, but the ones that don’t keep you alive. That’s why you train more.

  • I think any battle become us to primitive instinct that is survival no mater how so i think its 50% instinct, 30% exp, and 20% técnic.

  • This is just my opinion, but I think historical questions like these can be answered by remembering that all these people were just like us biologically and mentally- evolution moves MUCH slower than millennia. So, if you had to go into a 1000v1000 man battle, where people were variably skilled, and variably armed with swords, maces, axes, spears and shields, how would you fight? How would you maximise your chance of survival?

    It seems obvious to me. Hit the enemy first, don't get hit yourself. There's 2 ways to do that; overpower, or counterattack. Overpowering; with massive aggression and speed, smash the bloke in the face with your shield, then stab or whack him. This could work well once or twice but leaves you very open to being sniped by his buddy, and would tire you out very quickly. The battle could last all day so this probably was only used by the most inexperienced/stupid fighters, or at the very first charge and entry into the fray.

    That leaves your second option; counterattack. Let the enemy charge and swing at you, then knock his weapon aside, or dodge, and get him first. You basically let opponent after opponent run onto your sword, or at least open their guard up to give a quick stab. Using their momentum and energy against them, and conserving your own. You could be much more relaxed in this stance, and keep more aware of your surroundings to avoid being sniped. It's the safest way to control your opponent's blades; watch and react to them, instead of ignoring them and trying to hulk smash the opponent. If I'm right that that's the safest way, you can be sure that's how people fought. People desperately do not want to be cut open and bleed to death.

    It also fits with historical martial arts' emphasis on guards and thrusts/cuts. So the best martial artists of the day would have had the most confidence and elegance in their block/dodges and counter strikes. If the smash and slash method was preferred on the battlefield, I think there would have been less emphasis on guarding during duels. A battle could almost be seen as a duel marathon.

    Strength and stamina obviously are an advantage in this battle method, as it still takes strength to knock aside blows/charges, and stamina to do it all day. But I think the counterattacking method I've described here is the most efficient way to use those advantages. It also would seem to fit the scale of training; panicky peasants would be most likely to try to overpower (like a cornered animal), whilst better and more experienced fighters would understand the best way to deal with them.

    Edit: I've just noticed right now I have exactly the same hair and beard style as you in this video Skallagrim. Nice one.

  • in self defense training before we even started practicing techniques we would do high intensity "warmup" to exert ourselves and simulate the loss of precision suffered from adrenaline in the real life self defense situation. With some experience (going to class twice a week for a year) I lost basically no precision due to exertion because the techniques were ingrained so deeply. From this I would assume that a properly trained armsman would also perform extremely well even under very harsh circumstances and not just throw everytrhing he learned out of the window in battle

  • A professional soldier is expensive. He needs training, weapons, armor, good food, maybe a trained horse. And you have to replace him pretty often. There have been times and places where pretty much every able-bodied boy or man, and sometimes girl or woman, had at least some training. Among the Sikhs, the Apache, the Druze, and many others kids learned from childhood. And they were feared by people who came up against them.

    Think of boxing. There are plenty of big strong guys who enter tough-guy contests or football players who decide to become pro boxers. What usually happens? They get taken apart when they come up with good trained boxers.

  • Skall that is a gorgeous sword and the fuller is simple superb, what is the maker or that blade. Also your knowledge of ancient warfare if incredibly good, as a student of ancient history I really enjoy your personal opinions and input on weapons and your research into how combat functioned

  • I prefer to immediately break down sobbing and shaking, drop to a knee as if defeated and then quickly stab low with a quick retreat. If the wound drops him, I return to stab, and retreat again as needed.

  • In a historical context the men-at-arms were rotated in and out of the battlefield. They didn't just go into battle and fight for hours on end.

  • Steel King Benjamin says:

    If I were in the middle ages when I was five, I would be like "Father, In certainly enjoy hitting this stone with my stick" and my father would be so proud of me.

  • One of the oldest things ive heard was that highly trained masters could lose to amateurs because the amateur would do some borderline crazy reckless dangerous maneuver that would catch the master off guard because they stopped expecting the sloppy technic. One time (and only one time) i (the noob) was sparring with my friend (much more practiced and studied than i), he kept winning (obliviously), until i sidestepped dropped to my knee and swung up at his thigh under his guard. Because he wasnt expecting it, it worked.

  • In Game of Thrones terms:

    You've got Jamie Lanister and you've got The Hound.
    Professional Soldier and big, immovable object.

    Both are effective.
    Both existed historically.
    Both will kill you.

  • Edward Morley says:

    I think it's generally obvious that a battle isn't the place for martial arts techniques or dueling, or any kind of upper class sparring techniques. It's just too unpredictable, you don't have time to play around with watching your opponents body language, and you can't see everyone you are fighting regardless.

    What you will find is organized in battle, is things like shield walls, pikes vs. cavalry or charging troops, archers vs. infantry, etc… But in battle, on foot, or even horseback , once the battle is joined, it's going to devolve into chaos, and it's going to take hours.

    Reminds me of that other video with the guy who specializes in Norse/viking fighting styles, and has this thing about people tangling shields and tipping their weapons around them in little taps. Sure, it's interesting, and you can fight that way, but you smash 30 people into another 30 people on a field, and that nonsense is going to be completely useless.

    The general assumption there is that people step on a battlefield and just sort of dance around each other for awhile like they're having a dinner party. Not very realistic.

    The reality, is that shield walls and similar tactics were designed to separate sides and keep the battle from devolving into unpredictable chaos, so the warriors on the field would not be surrounded by both sides. The goal there is to keep it controlled and allow the warriors room to maneuver and fight effectively; but it's pretty unlikely that most battles managed to maintain this effectively for long. Cavalry was used specifically to break apart enemy formations for example, creating disorganization and chaos; but it also put the cavalry at risk as they smashed into the enemies ranks and through them.

    Infantry facing infantry however, would quickly become entangled on the fighting line. It would be unavoidable without a solid shield wall and steady line; but the goal of the force facing it is to break it, because there is no effective way to defeat an enemy without joining battle. Two shield walls facing each other could fight for days without many losses, so one side has to break through the other. Chaos is inevitable.

  • i imagine they would just be jabbing the crap out of one another until the others gave up and retreated… kinda like mordhau.

  • Blaire Shadowpaw says:

    It's kinda like modern or relatively recent gun wielding folks. They don't spray and pray. They time and aim their shots. Even in a battlefield scenario. Why would swords be any different? Swing or shoot wildly, and you leave yourself open for someone to stab you (either melee or at range) and you're done.

  • EMPEROR of MANKIND says:

    As far as i know, skilled veterans were fighting in last lines in all times, and newbies get natural selection in first lines. This practice known in roman, scythian, scandinavian armies, and even in american indian armies.

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