Art of Swords

1. A weapon consisting typically of a long, straight or slightly curved, pointed blade having one or two cutting edges and set into a hilt.
2. An instrument of death or destruction.

INTERVIEW: John Farthing - Deputy Director at Association for Renaissance Martial Arts

Continuing the interviews, Art of Swords sat down with John Farthing, the Deputy Director at Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) to talk about a subject closely related to swords… martial arts! - Enjoy!

  • Art of Swords: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

There really isn’t too much to tell honestly, I’m John, Deputy Director at Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, just a guy who is obsessed with understanding exactly how my Pan-European forebearers fought and trained to fight during the Mediæval and Renaissance periods. It’s kind of a grim thing when you think about it, in a way, I’m obsessed with violence. It goes deeper than that though, it isn’t just a study of how men fought, but why they fought. It is my passion, as my admission of it as an “obsession” surely denotes.

I’ve dedicated nearly every spare moment for last ten years or more pouring over extant martial treatises, firsthand accounts of duels and violence, anything that can provide another piece of the puzzle and create the most complete picture of how the martial arts of Renaissance Europe were practiced. In addition, I’ve spent exhaustive hours, sword in hand, attempting to test the effectiveness of the techniques described in the historical sources, and I’m not doing it alone, I’m part of the ARMA and we work to revive and resurrect these long lost martial traditions.

  • Art of Swords: What is ARMA?

The short answer? The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts! The ARMA is a collective fellowship with a shared set of values and statement of purpose. We strive to accurately and legitimately revive, resurrect and ultimately preserve the martial culture of Mediæval and Renaissance Europe. It is much, much more too. I could go on ad nauseam about the ARMA and our work, but to spare the reader my endless diatribe, I would simply encourage anyone interested in learning more about us to visit our website at there you can find out all about the ARMA’s efforts to reclaim our lost martial heritage.

  • Art of Swords: What is ARMA’s presence around the world?

We are headquartered in North America, but we have an International membership which includes study group chapters in Greece, Guam, Mexico and South Korea just to name a few. In addition we act as the official representative of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe to the World Martial Arts Union!  

  • Art of Swords: What are the main projects in which ARMA was or is involved?

I am both proud and pleased to say that is a pretty big list! The ARMA is currently pursuing several projects which confidentiality agreements prohibit my speaking about at this time, but I can tell you that there are many exciting things in the works! Past projects include our previously mentioned affiliation with the World Martial Arts Union, as well as, a host of television and film projects.

A few of the more notable of these include the number one iTunes documentary film ‘Reclaiming the Blade’, the recent PBS documentary ‘Secrets of the Viking Sword’, National Geographic’s ‘Medieval Fight Book’ and several programs for the History Channel and other educational networks. We are also frequently involved in multiple forms of media providing historical consultation. 

  • Art of Swords: What is the focus of the ARMA training? Defence or attack?

Excellent question! I would have to say it is a little bit of both. Because we are reviving a historical martial art, it is important that we maintain historical integrity. We cannot allow ourselves to insert our own ideas or simply make things up. Everything we do is therefore based in, and validated by, the historical record. Our primary tool, if you will, is the vast corpus of surviving extant martial arts treatises. We are told in these treatises that offense is defence and this very much forms one of the underlying foundations of our training methodology.

  • Art of Swords: Do you believe that people, in general, consider martial arts a sport, something that it is done at anime, gaming or fantasy conventions, or Medieval or Renaissance fairs?

I’m not sure it’s possible to make any type of generalization like that. I think it is all of these, and they all fulfil specific needs to specific people. Our efforts are geared solely towards the revival of lost arts of defence through the application of serious academic and pragmatic martial methods as documented in the historical record. In short, as our motto suggests; “Real World Skills from Real World History”. There is certainly nothing wrong with fantasy, gaming and other such pursuits, but we believe it is important to know the difference. 

  • Art of Swords: Do people who want to start a course of martial arts need to be in good physical shape or have previous training?

Martial activity is inescapably physical activity, whether it be Mediæval sword fighting or modern MMA. The ARMA has members of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders, but in order to excel it is beneficial to have a modicum of general fitness.

  • Art of Swords: When did you start training and what is your level of martial arts mastery?

I began looking at and studying some of these old fencing manuals perhaps as far back as 1997 or so when I obtained a copy of ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ and ‘Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence’ both by Elizabethan fencing master George Silver, but I don’t really consider my training or serious study to have begun until I discovered the ARMA. I began training with the ARMA in the summer of 2003. As for my individual level of “mastery”, I would like to point out that there are no masters anymore. When these arts died away, so did the last vestiges of mastery.

In terms of how someone today might recognize my particular level of martial prowess, again we turn to the historical example. I am recognized within our organization as a ‘Free Scholar’. This is a historically accurate title that was conveyed upon a fencer who demonstrated in trial by combat against his peers that he was proficient in his chosen weapon. This was done by successfully ‘playing a prize’, wherein the fencer accepted all challenges at an appointed date and time. The whole thing was very formalized. The ARMA was the first organization to resurrect this tradition by publicly holding a ‘prize playing’ in a few hundred years!

  • Art of Swords: Can you say what the average time for a person would be to be able to properly wield a sword, or does it depend solely on how committed someone is?

Our source literature repeatedly stresses that “the art is simple”, experience has proven this to be wholly accurate. The general concepts and principles which form the nucleus of the art can be learned within a few hours. The ability to adroitly perform the technical aspects with the proper skill, speed, intensity, leverage, etcetera can take a lifetime.

  •  Art of Swords: Are there any sword masters, and would you consider yourself a sword master? 

I’m glad you asked this question. I eluded to this briefly above and I am glad to have the opportunity to explain this in more depth. It is important to remember that our efforts are geared towards the Herculean task of reviving an art that went extinct hundreds of years ago. As such, there simply are not any masters.

We have been able to confidently reconstruct a staggering amount of our lost martial heritage and we have been able to validate it through a proven method which is pragmatic and empirical, as well as, supported by the historical record, but as is always the case with history, there will always be elements that we will never know with certainty.

Anyone making the claim of mastery of these historical arts in our modern world is lying; perhaps to you, perhaps to themselves, but without living in that environment under those conditions we can never expect to fully attain the same level of ‘mastery’.

  • Art of Swords: Do you believe it is possible to learn martial arts by yourself, without a trainer or professional guidance?

Not entirely. Allow me to elaborate. While it might be possible to some extent, I think that anyone who takes that approach will most assuredly miss something. Martial Arts are conflictive, that is they are about dealing with opposition. One can certainly learn how to punch or kick powerfully by training on a bag, but ultimately there is a missing component if the objective is to learn to defend oneself.

Without the aid of partners who are willing to challenge you and force you to deal with various attacks, you will always be limited in how much you can fully understand your art. To come full circle I will close with the advice of the sixteenth century German fencing master Joachim Meyer who in 1570 says, “seek to thoroughly understand the art and apply a true earnestness”, and that is exactly what I try to do in my own practice.

Thank you, John!

For more information about the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts check their official website.

Copyright © 2012 - 2013 Art of Swords

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