The average author treats martial arts simply as a collection of techniques to be displayed in fight scenes. But martial arts is more than just techniques: it is a way of life, one that resonates throughout the individual and society. The superior writer recognizes that, and sees opportunities for worldbuilding and characterisation.
Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Arts of Combat is a comprehensive combat manual, covering swordsmanship, spear combat, armored fighting, wrestling and more. An invaluable martial arts treatise, it provides insights into how 15th century knights and men-at-arms would have fought — and, more importantly, how they would have thought.
A basic unarmed Ringen, or wrestling, technique is to rush an enemy, wrap your left hand around his neck and grab his genitals, then twist and pull his sensitive parts. To throw him, jerk upwards with your right hand and pull his head back with your left. Alternatively, you could smash your left arm across his throat instead of wrapping it around from behind.
The translators of my copy (Peter Lindholm and Peter Svärd) added a note: If you want to be truly wicked, drop him but retain your hold on his genitals as he drops.
This technique is designed for crippling and killing. In one stroke, you crush his testicles, strike his throat, and slam his head into the ground.
This technique would never be allowed in a ring today. You’d be hard-pressed to see anyone teach it outside a HEMA re-enactment group. On the other hand, the brutality of the technique reflects the harsh reality of a time and place where warfare was constant and killing was done face-to-face. If you can’t eliminate the enemy quickly, he will do the same to you. Moreover, even if one offensive aspect fails, you’ll still do at least some damage, creating an opportunity for a finisher.
Contrast this mindset with ‘civilian’ self-defense martial arts. Below, you’ll see a video from a Krav Maga instructor showing a rear bear hug defense with the arms free:
The Ringen defense is simpler and far more deadly. Step forward with one leg and slip the other between the threat’s legs. Bend forward, grab his closer leg, then lift it above your head to drop the opponent. Done properly, this will spike the enemy’s head into the ground.
This is a lethal force technique. Most civilian self-defense instructors today won’t teach it, because it is not merely enough to survive an encounter — the defender must be prepared to justify his actions to the police and the courts. Killing a man for grabbing you from behind would be very hard to explain in today’s world.
However, the battlefields of 15th century Europe is a different story. If someone grabs you from behind, he is either pinning you in place so his friend can finish you, or he is about to throw you down so he can stab you. A rear bear hug presents a lethal force threat. You must quickly and decisively end the encounter so you can deal with other threats on the field.
Different contexts lead to different responses to the same threat. This, in turn, leads to different mindsets regarding a specific threat. What, to a modern-day civilian, would be seen as a dangerous but not immediately life-threatening situation would be an emergency to a 15th century knight.
Perusing Ringeck’s manual, you’ll notice a distinct lack of striking techniques. Indeed, the bulk of empty-hand techniques are focused on wrestling. While there are many reasons for this, one of the most important ones is the pervasiveness of armour. Empty-hand blows would be of little use against a knight in full plate armor. As such, unarmed combat training would focus on techniques that would work against an armored man — ergo, wrestling.
The same principles hold true in koryu, the ancient Japanese martial arts. Koryu that originate during the warring states era have extensive grappling curricula, but few striking techniques, for this same reason: samurai trained to fight other samurai in armour.
In addition, samurai began their training at the age of five, and were expected to be battle-ready even in their old age. This influenced the development of footwork, tactics, and techniques, designed to utilize not raw muscle but physics, psychology and biomechanics. Samurai martial arts looks markedly different from martial arts originating from a culture that views war as a young man’s game. You can see this in the following clip of Araki-ryu practitioners:
Notice that the first few kata are essentially assassinations. You pretend to be the perfect host, serve your guest tea, and when he is distracted, you kill him.
Dishonorable? Perhaps. But how better to kill a man who was trained from the age of five to be a human weapon?
The key takeaway from this is that classical martial arts aren’t simply a collection of killing techniques and principles. The reflect the realities of a harsher age, and the strategies and mindsets needed to survive that age. The superior writer doesn’t just toss in martial arts into his work and calls it good; he also considers how the mindset affects the practitioner and society.
Etiquette in A World of Warriors
The more dangerous a world, the more dangerous its inhabitants.
It only makes sense. If a fantasy setting is host to bandits, monsters, demon lords, undead hordes, evil empires and the like, then civilizations and peoples will create and train in martial arts to defend themselves against them. As a corollary, the ways of war would be transmitted across the populace. The more dangerous and commonplace the threat, the more warriors are needed, and so the more pervasive the knowledge of war.
And with martial knowledge comes martial mindset, which in turn colours how everyone in society treats each other. The ancient adage that an armed society is a polite society rings true across the ages, because if you know you would have to back up your words with your life, you would be very careful indeed.
But it’s not something commonly seen in modern fiction.
A standard fantasy trope is for our hero to pop into the nearest adventurer guild, upon which a gang of ne’er-do-wells arrogantly pick a fight with him. Our hero naturally accepts the challenge, then proceeds to beat the stuffing out of them. The purpose of the scene is for our hero to show off his skills, demonstrate his martial superiority, and build his reputation. It’s a stock trope.
But an erroneous one.
An adventurer guild is a meeting place for well-armed sellswords versed in the ways of war. The more violent and dangerous the world, the more likely that these adventurers would be well-equipped, highly-trained and experienced in combat. They would know many ways to break and kill a man in the space between heartbeats.
In such a world, why would a reasonable sane and sober person challenge another adventurer?
It’s one thing for a pompous lunk to bully an obvious weakling. But in a world of monsters and bandits, anyone who openly carries weapons and armour must be viewed as a warrior. He must be treated with respect, no matter what he looks like, for he just might have the skills and training to end your life in an eyeblink.
This is not to say that writers should refrain from using this trope, only that they should put a bit more thought into it. Perhaps the challenger was drunk or is an old enemy of the protagonist. Maybe the protagonist really does look like a weakling and isn’t openly carrying arms and armour, making him look like easy prey. Maybe the protagonist is well-known and the challenger thinks he can improve his social standing by challenging the protagonist. Whichever reason you choose, there must be a deeper purpose to the fight scene beyond making the protagonist look good.
Japan’s famous emphasis on etiquette and proper behaviour stems partially from samurai etiquette. Samurai were men of war, and had to be ready to kill at a moment’s notice. They evolved a complex set of protocols to reassure each other that they were friendly, and an even more complex set of techniques to protect against (or commit) sudden treachery.
A samurai would never allow another samurai he doesn’t know approach within six feet of him — any closer and the other party can draw and cut him down with a single step. A samurai on horseback, when approaching another samurai, would remove his feet from his stirrups to show he was friendly (it is harder to balance yourself and draw a weapon if you don’t use them). Samurai would try to walk with the sun behind them, keep a respectable distance from corners and doors, and keep their hands close to their weapons while in crowds. Samurai were always armed everywhere they went, ready to defend themselves and carry out their duties.
Little touches like these in a fantasy world reinforce the immersion of the setting. In a world of warriors, etiquette and social norms would be shaped by the necessity of war. Warriors would by necessity be polite towards each other — or at least not overtly hostile without good reason — lest they pick a fight they can’t win. Their entire lives would revolve around war, from their dress code to their comportment, rules of behavior to rituals.
And, as a corollary, anyone who deviates from the warrior etiquette could be seen as a threat, to be dispatched immediately. Go back to the Araki-ryu assassination kata. The only true defense against that kind of technique is to stop it before the attacker has a chance to execute. Professional killers are professional paranoid because they know that if an enemy is after them, they have only a heartbeat to react.
Warriors at the highest level would incorporate strategy into everything they do. They would always seek to gain a position of maximum advantage, never uselessly antagonise people, and set themselves up so they can use deception, aggression, surprise and weapons if necessary.
Quantum of Mercy
For all the talk of bloodshed and death, even in the most bloodthirsty arts, there remains a sliver of room for mercy and leniency.
Going back to the Ringen technique described above, it is easy to modify it to become a non-lethal throw. Instead of crushing the groin, the wrestler scoops up the back of his enemy’s knees. Instead of striking the front of the throat, he wraps his arm around the neck and grabs the shirt. Instead of slamming the opponent’s head against the ground, he throws him against the floor.
Why are these modifications necessary? Because it is not always socially appropriate to kill someone.
In cultures that practice revenge and blood feuds — especially warrior societies — a clan or a group might be obliged to repay blood with blood. If a protagonist kills a sufficiently important person, that person’s group will come after him. Defeating an enemy using a non-lethal move, one that doesn’t cause any permanent damage but clearly establishes dominance, is a way to achieve victory without inviting more trouble.
In the real world, this line of thought drove the principles behind some martial arts. Filipino martial arts is famous for the concept of defanging the snake, in which the practitioner strikes the enemy’s weapon hand, thus disarming him. While this is a useful combat technique, it comes into its own in a duel. During a duel, if one party cuts the other’s arm, he can legitimately claim victory without killing his opponent — and thereby avoid calling down the wrath of the authorities and his clan.
Likewise, Malaysian and Indonesian silat is famous for its body strikes. This thinking is rooted in the region’s agrarian economy. If you hit your enemy in the head and knock him out, he’ll come back for revenge when he wakes up. But if you break his ribs, he won’t be able to continue the fight, and he’ll be unable to work the fields for weeks or months, becoming a burden on his family. He and his family will remember the injury and the consequences, and hopefully refrain from further foolishness.
Non-lethal techniques are also a great way to demonstrate a person’s mastery of combat. When confronted with sudden violence, the only way to prevail is to inflict violence at the same or higher level, to overwhelm and destroy the enemy before he does the same unto you. But this logic doesn’t apply to a master who can easily read, predict, and neutralize his enemy’s attacks.
Instead of cutting him down with a single blow, the master can slip out of range, position himself to prevent attacks before they’ve even begun, or just throw his opponent spectacularly but harmlessly over and over again until he finally gives up. This highlights just how superior the master is compared to the other guy, while demonstrating that he is also a man of compassion and mercy — rare virtues in any age.
Other cultures have different views on the appropriate use of violence and weapons. In Imperial Russia, Cossacks did not, for the most part, duel with weapons. They saw all men as brothers, so if two Cossacks wished to resolve personal differences, they were only allowed to fight with their bare hands. Weapons were only for killing and for war. Furthermore, empty-handed duels combined with non-lethal grappling meant both parties were likely to survive the duel, an important consideration among a people who based their lives on horse-mounted warfare and needed as many able-bodied warriors as possible for combat. The sole exception to this rule was a judicial duel in cases of treason. This stands in marked contrast to the fad of armed dueling to first blood enjoyed by the Russian nobility of the time period, who saw these duels as a method to prove their manliness and gain social prestige.
Man may be a wolf to man. But mercy is the privilege — and the prerogative — of the strong.
The Warrior Caste
The more complex a method of war, the more equipment is needed to practice it, the more likely it is the preserve of a warrior elite. The more common combat is in the world, the more likely it is that ordinary people have at least some knowledge of war. What does this spell for a fictitious world? Let’s take a look at history.
Knights and warrior-nobility served as the backbone of historical European militaries for most of the Middle Ages. They were elite warriors, born and bred for battle. At the age of 7, they begun their training as pages. At 15 they graduated to the rank of squire and continued their training in the service of a knight. At 21 they were formally knighted. Knights were usually awarded small fiefs, perhaps a village and a few hundred serfs, who supported the knight.
Japanese samurai followed a similar system. At the age of 5, young samurai began their training for war. When they came of age, they donned the arms and armor of their class. Daimyo paid their samurai retainers a stipend from their central granary, or allowed the samurai to own a small sub-fief within his own domain.
In either case, we see that a large group of peasants supported a warrior who had spent at least one and a half decades solely on training for war. This division between warrior and peasant created social divisions and hierarchies: the peasant was expected to obey and support the warrior, the warrior in turn was expected to protect the peasant. How far this code was actually upheld over the ages is, of course, dependent on the individual and the times.
This social divide also created an uneasy societal dynamic: everywhere the warrior went, he carries in his hands the power of life and death. A specialist in violence, he had trained his entire life for combat, and he was likely well-armed and -armored compared to the average peasant. Being recognized by the nobility, his word is law. He holds monopoly over the legal use of violence.
How would he be treated by peasants? With fear or acclaim? Love or disdain? Does he make the world safer everywhere he goes, or does he bring sorrow and fear in his wake? While that is up to the reader and the characters’ individual personalities, every interaction between a warrior and a peasant in such a society would always have this undercurrent of violence running through it.
On the flip side, what if warriors were common?
In Europe, China and Japan, during the outbreak of large-scale conflicts, nobles and rulers conscripted vast numbers of peasants as soldiers. These conscripts formed the bulk of the military. Their training was simple, their equipment cheap, but their large numbers made them a force to be reckoned with.
A knight or samurai might easily defeat a peasant levy in one-on-one combat. But one-on-many combat was a whole different kettle of fish — and peasant conscripts were trained for massed warfare.
A peasant population accustomed to violence would treat the warrior elite very differently from one that isn’t. They would still be required to be respectful and courteous, yes, but both sides would recognize each other’s capacity for violence, balancing out the dynamic somewhat. A great example of this is in Six Expressions of Death by Mojo Mori, whenever samurai Daikawa Tadashi interacts with commoners. The commoners grant Daikawa the courtesies he is due as a samurai, but they don’t fawn over him — and some even try to bargain with him!
In contrast, samurai of the Edo period, where the nation was at peace and only the warrior class knew war, were treated with greater deference and respect. Peasants had to bow to them on the street and suffer whatever abuse a samurai may fling at them. A samurai could even cut down a peasant for not being sufficiently respectful.
Conversely, what if everyone were warriors?
Judging by the vast number of Filipino martial arts and family styles, we can see that the barriers for entry to be a warrior in the Philippines is relatively low. If you have good enough steel to forge a knife or a sword, if you have a supply of sturdy wood suitable to craft sticks, you can be a fighter. You had to be a fighter, to protect your family and village from raiders, bandits, conquistadores, Americans, and Japanese.
The Philippines had–and, in some respects, still do–have a warrior culture. Personal disputes were settled with duels, and a killing could trigger a blood feud. In a land where everyone has a knife and knows how to use it, starting a feud with a family of warriors would not be conducive to a long and healthy life. Defanging the snake became one way to finish duels without starting wider feuds — which may well explain the prevalence of the technique today.
If a character lives in a society where everyone he meets on the street is a potential killer, it would dramatically alter the way he interacts with people. A cautious person would seek to avoid giving offense; a glory hound would deliberately seek out known masters and challenge them to fights; martial arts masters would spy on each other to learn their secrets.
The Sword, the Soul, the Society
Martial arts isn’t simply a collection of techniques. It is mindset and strategy, influencing both the individual and society. The martial arts practiced by a culture tells you how it views violence and warfare, about the context of combat and its participants, and whether it is an exclusive art for the elite or an art for the masses. Personal behaviours, etiquette, principles of duelling, even dress codes can be influenced by the ways of war practiced in a land.
When the wise author researches martial arts, he shouldn’t just think about which cool techniques to write into the page. He should think about how it affects the whole world.
To see how a society organized around military lines and martial arts styles would look like, check out my novel DUNGEON SAMURAI, featuring isekai’d Japanese samurai who must fight their way through a world-spanning dungeon filled with bloodthirsty monsters.
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