What Are Western Martial Arts (WMA)?

While all of us are familiar with the concept of eastern martial arts, few people realise that the west also had a wide variety of martial arts every bit as complex and effective as those developed elsewhere in the world, from pancration, the no-holes-barred jiu-jitsu like unarmed combat of the ancient Greeks, through to the great fencing masters of 19th century Europe. With the invention of gunpowder many of these disciplines ceased to have much practical application on the battlefield, and fell into disuse, either vanishing from memory or transforming into combat sports such as boxing, wrestling, and fencing.

Fortunately, a number of period sources survive that can give us an insight into the way in which ancient weapons were wielded, and over 100 works on “the Art of Defence”, from where derive the word “fencing,” were published before 1620, and many hundreds after that date. The oldest currently known is the “Royal Armouries Fechtbuch I.33”, an anonymous 13th century sword-and-buckler manual apparently written by a German priest. One called Del Serpente was published in Milan in 1295, and another German priest, Hanko Doebringer, summarised the teachings of the great master, Johannes Liechtenauer, in an incomplete but very valuable manuscript in 1389. Although medieval swords are often dismissed as crude weapons of little subtlety, the manuals reveal an intricate and extremely effective system of principles and techniques which place great emphasis on control, footwork, point precision, balance, and the use of holds and throws. These skills were retained and added to through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, with the invention of new weapons and new modes of combat, including the rapier and smallsword, various forms of dagger and knife combat, wreslting and boxing.

Throughout Europe, different nations, regions and peoples developed their own characteristic approach to the “Arts of Mars” (from where we derive the term “martial arts”), and attained notoriety in particular weapons and fencing styles. The medieval Germans produced an impressive tradition of fencing with the two-handed longsword, the Italians and Spanish were renowned for their contrasting styles of rapier, the Poles and Hungarians for their sabre play, and the British for the Backsword and Quarterstaff.