Artikel Clements

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The Influence of Spanish Renaissance Swordsmanship on Filipino Martial Arts”
by John Clements

Although it is not often recognized or acknowledged, the various Filipino
martial arts such as Escrima/Arnis are said to contain many elements of
Spanish Renaissance swordsmanship. Frequently, when this is acknowledged, it
is often done in a misconceived manner that apparently allows followers of
modern Filipino weapon arts to dismiss this influence as either
inconsequential or even irrelevant. If there is influence from Spanish
Renaissance swordsmanship, it would likely be from methods of military cut
& thrust swords, not the style of civilian thrusting rapiers. Just what
these technqiues might be, and how they are known to be 16th century Spanish
in origin (and not something introduced from 19th century epee fencing)
would certainly be interesting for today's student of Reniassance martil
arts to discover.
In a work put out some years back entitled "Filipino Martial Arts" (which
received mixed reviews among the Filipino martial arts community), one of
the very first chapters labeled "Historical Background", display in its
final paragraphs typical misconceptions about Renaissance swordsmanship and
Western fighting arts. This particular author (by no means atypical) made
the usual points concenring Filipino cultural pride (not that there's
anything wrong with that) and stated that in 1521 the great explorer
Ferdinand Magellan, first one to circumnavigate the globe (almost), died in
battle off of a small island he had attacked in order to gain favor with
another local ruler. In this famous battle of Filipino history, Magellan's
49 men with pikes, swords, halberds, a little armor, and a few firearms,
were attacked by the now legendary warrior king Lapu Lapu and over 1100
fellow islanders. Magellan's force was outnumbered on the beach by more than
twenty to one. So, not surprisingly hedied in the waves amid a hail of
arrows and spears (note plural, not singular).
What the author fails to mention, is that the very reason we know of the
battle's outcome is because Magellan's ship actually escapes (surely not the
most decisive victory on the part of the locals). Anyway, the book cites
this incident of local historical pride to emphasize how formidable the
native fighting skills were/are. But wait. The very next statement is how in
1571, another Spanish explorer under orders to colonize, attacks a native
force on another island and faces the "even more formidable" Kali warriors
with their (and this is not being made up) fire-hardened rattan sticks. It
also says (to quote) that "the native fighting skills far exceeded those of
the Spanish". Indeed?
Of course, this author then acknowledges that the Spanish/Portuguese
actually go on to win the battle, but suggests that this was "due to their
firearms." However, a few light-calibre shipboard cannon and inaccurate,
slow firing arquebuses in a tropical climate are not about to win a battle
over overwhelming odds (back in Europe at the time, they had a lot more guns
and still they had to rely on massed pikes and cavalry).
Notice also how no credit is given the Spanish/Portuguese's clear military
superiority in training, discipline, armaments, tactics, organization,
leadership, morale, etc.? The very fact they had high-carbon steel tipped
halberds and carefuly tempered chest plates was in itself a big factor, a
very formidable one (in fact a generation earlier, Spanish sword & buckler
men were trashing the vaunted Swiss pikemen all up and down Europe's
battlefields and over-running Italy). What is more remarkable is how a few
hundred sailors and men (not even first class Renaissance soldiers in their
prime), thousands of miles from their homes and families, continually
outfought supposedly "superior" warriors in a hostile and unfamiliar land.
The most astounding thing in this revisionist-like view of military history
lies in the final paragraph of this particular work. Immediately after all
this it goes on to say that "following the Spanish conquest of the islands"
(did we miss something here?) and after many skirmishes with (quoting again)
"Spanish fencing exponents", the native fighting arts were found wanting.
Notice how the Spanish are not called "swordsmen" or even referred to as
"warriors" (and certainly not skilled Masters of Arms), but merely
"exponents" of "fencing". It's as if they were just going around on the
lecture circuit suggesting everyone consider their opinions, rather than
defeating native opponents outright. Not surprisingly, this is a good
example of the attitude toward historical European martial culture that can
be found in many areas of the Asian martial arts community today.
The work then goes on to say the native Filipino fighting arts adopted many
techniques and dropped others. Excuse me? Now then, we must ask, if the
native fighting arts were so formidable, and the Spanish won by merely
having firearms, why then were their techniques seen as so useful and
effective as to be incorporated? What was suposedly deficient within native
fighting talents (especialy seeing as how developed they are)? What exactly
were these Spanish "skills" they were borrowing from? They certainly could
not have had anything to do with firearms.
As with others like it, not only did the book miss all this, but it went on
to make the inaccurate and misleading statement that "the Spanish rapier and
dagger system of fighting has had a great influence on Filipino arts".
Sorry, wrong. The Spanish at the time of Magellan and even later, would not
have been fighting with civilian rapiers. The rapier, as we know was a
personal weapon of urban self-defense, not a battlefield one. The
Spanish/Portuguese sailors and soldiers would have been using military "cut
& thrust" swords and fighting in the well-documented style of the Spanish
and Italian Masters of the time such as Manciolino, Marozzo, Altoni,
Agrippa, and Di Grassi, as well as the highly regarded styles of the Spanish
Master Carranza and de Narvaez. The later civilian rapier style simply had
not progressed to the point yet where it would likely have been common in
the Philippine Islands even during the 1570's let alone earlier.
Additionally, for the Spanish/Portuguese the rapier was very much a weapon
of the upper classes, not the common men and sailors who would have been the
vast majority of fighters the natives would have encountered. These men
would have trusted in the sturdier, quick slashing cut & thrust blades which
were far better suited for shipboard fighting than the lighter, thrusting
rapier would ever have been (Hollywood pirate movies notwithstanding).
Additionaly, swords were not the favored or most common weapon of such
Renaissance warriors, that would have been left to spears, halberds,
falchions and long-knves (an interesting thought...).
Apparently though, rather than do accurate research when it comes to
European weaponry and fighting arts, the author relied instead on familiar
myth and observations of irrelevant epee and foil fencing. Sadly, what many
Asian martial-art stylists apparently know of European swordsmanship seems
invariably to come from Hollywood films, modern sport fencing, and
Renaissance-fair stage shows. So, you can't really blame them completely.
Anyway, the material makes the usual mistake that many proponents of
admirable Filipino arts seemingly do. It assumes it was the rapier, instead
of the Renaissance cut & thrust sword, that had influence on their arts
(without really knowing exactly what either weapon is or how they're
actually used). Not only this, but the obvious techniques of Filipino stick
fighting utilize little thrusting comparitive to the rapier and instead rely
predominately on shorter, close-in strikes. These are clearly techniques
completely inappropriate for the extra long, virtually edgeless rapier
favored by the Spanish. Thus, Filipino techniques are not reminiscent of the
vicious and elegant European rapier, but only perhaps of the sophisticated
and highly effective Renaissance sword & dagger form. Just what any of this
influence may be has yet to be substantially identified or documented by
anyone. However, that there were leading proponents of Filipino who arts
in the early 20th century did study modern sport fencing is a fact. What
effect this sport exposure may have had on their methods of teahcing is
another matter for speculation, but certainly it is no evidence of
"Renaissance" skills. After all, modern sport fencing (i.e., foil, epee,
sabre) is far removed from its martial origins in Renissance swordplay and
for more than 150 years has not been about self-defense or been taught as a
killing art.
Anyway, this is the kind of historical inaccuracy and ignorance of Western
martial history that permeates much of the prejudice found in a great deal
of the practice of Asian martial arts today. For some Filipinos it has now
become a matter of cultural pride to explain why they were colonized, their
weapons confiscated, and their native fighting skills forced to hide under
the disguise of presumably harmless stick dances (not that there's anything
wrong with that). It would seem they have had the final laugh though.
Westerners are victims of our own military success (and excess). For it is
the splendid Asian traditional fighting arts that have survived and
prospered while we struggle to reconstruct and interpret what documented
information survives of ours.
But for too long a good many false assumptions and assertions made by
promoters of Asian styles in regard to our Western martial heritage have
gone unchallenged. In this age of cultural sensitivity, renewed ethnic
pride, and political correctness, we must give credit whenever it's do and
clear up misconceptions when possible. Not to cause offense, but we must
treat historical facts as facts even if they make us uncomfortable or damage
our pride.
The Spanish essentially conquered much of the Philippines islands
militarily, and to a lesser extent culturaly. They did not do it through
shady deals and corporate take-overs of "noble savages" who were somehow
their martial superiors. The very reason the Filipino martial arts today
primarily utilize sticks is essentially because of both their ancestors'
lack of a widespread advanced metallurgical technology and because their
Spanish overlords, as an occupying force, confiscated their weapons as
victorious powers have been known to do (not that there's anything wrong
with that). Plus, its just far wiser to practice fighting techniques with
safe sticks than with metal blades.
The diverse Filipino martial arts are very adaptive and pragmatic. They are
said to contain elements of many cultures which had contact with them over
centuries; Chinese, Indian, Malay, etc. So likely, there is some European
in there as well. But if any influence that elements of Filipino arts owe
to Renaissance Spanish sword forms is going to be determined and
acknowledged, then it demands that exactly what such Western forms and
weapons were, and what practitioners today are capable of still, also be
correctly understood. For today's practitioners of Medieval & Renaissance
fighting systems who are familiar and experienced with the technological and
martial significance of group combat and armored battle, including shields,
bucklers, spears, bills, pikes, and longbows, the naivete of most comments
regarding European arts is astounding. Further, if one wants to argue the
validity or effectiveness of modern Arnis/Escrima (or any Asian sword form,
for that matter) against a sword & buckler or a rapier & dagger, then they
very much need to arrange some serious cross-training and friendly sparring
sessions with qualified proponents. Otherwise, everything else is myth and
useless conjecture.