Paul Becker

Fechtkunst and Martial Arts?

Die Kinder des Mars
When we discuss the art of fencing (german "Fechtkunst") today, we like to use the term “martial arts” as a synonym or generic term. In an international context, we have a tendency to equate the English term martial arts and the Latin ars martialis. Numerous ads for historical fencing therefore make use of such a “martial” language. The best example of this is probably the currently most used term “Historical European Martial Arts” (HEMA). But is this term correct at all? 

This article is a translation from my german article. Since these are historical German terms, some problems of understanding may arise in the translation. I will translate the german term "Historisches Fechten" as historical fencing for simplicity, although it would not be the correct contemporary translation. The correct historical translation would be historical fighting. 

The terms Kampfkunst, martial arts and ars martialis can cause a lot of confusion when we are in the field of Historisches Fechten. All the more so if we work with German-language sources in the process. The question to be answered here is whether our modern words Kampfkunst and martial art do justice to the historical term Fechtkunst (art of fencing) and its classification at all? And whether this does not result in a misunderstanding, which prevents us from opening up contemporary views?

So this article is in no way an attempt to revise the colloquial development towards Kampfkunst, Kampfsport and martial arts, but rather an aid to trace the development and thus understand the thinking of the authors of the Historical Fencing books.

Modern thinking

For us today, the term Kampfkunst is the standard term when we talk about arts that deal with physical conflict between people. The general assumption here is that the origin is to be found in the Latin term ars martialis, meaning the arts of Mars, the god of war, and then developed into martial arts in English. Here are just a few modern quotes translated from German into English:

 The Kampfkunst is called "ars martialis"  in Latin, the art of the roman god of war Mars. This indicates that in the past Kampfkünste were practiced primarily in preparation for war. However, especially in the Far East, Kampfkünste evolved in such a way that aspects such as philosophy, religion, and even medicine were increasingly incorporated into them and sometimes even gained greater weight... 

(Hilmar Fuchs, Der Tanz des Kranichs, Tai Chi für Gesundheit und Wohlbefinden, 2015, S. XIV)
 Ars Martialis comes from 'Kunst' (lat. 'Ars') and how the god of war Mars, who has his place in Roman mythology, becomes 'martialis', a friendly Latin will surely explain to you. So the 'Ars Martialis' are the Kiregskünste (arts of war) or what is now called in German usage 'Kampfsport' and 'Kampfkunst'. In other languages the root of Ars Martialis is still preserved in the terms, e.g. 'Martial Arts' (engl.) whereas apparently in English also the 'Martial Sports' exist, 'Arts Martiaux' (franz.), 'Artes marciales' (span.) or 'Arti Di Martial' (ital.). 

(Dr. Sportwiss. Ralf Pfeifer, aufgerufen am 07.08.2022)
 Worldwide, the term "Martial Art" is associated with the subject of Kampfkunst. This English term is derived from the Latin expression; "Ars Martialis", which literally means "the art of Mars", and describes the art of war, as Mars was considered the god of war in the Roman Empire, where Latin was spoken. 

(Erdogan Sen, Sen Do - Drei-dimensionale Kampfkunst, 2011, S. 30)

 Let's take a look at how the ancient Romans saw it: For them, "Artes Martialis" was composed of Kunst (ars) or the Künste (artes) and the name of the Roman god of war Mars (Martialis = "of Mars"). In many European languages this designation has kept itself, in English it is called "Martial Arts" and the Romance languages remained anyway closer to the Romans, so e.g. "Arts Martiaux"(French.), "Artes marciales" (Spanish.) or "Arti Di Martial" (Ital.). In the appropriate translation, martial arts would be the part of the serious fight and is therefore the opposite of the sporting competition, i.e. the Kampfsport. 

(Pfeifer Ralf, Ars Martialis, Köln 2014, S.11)

Similar explanations can be found on almost all online platforms that deal with the term Kampfkunst or Kampfsport. Here are more examples:

The list can certainly be extended with further quotes.

So you can see how strongly anchored today is the idea that the Latin ars martialis is to be equated with Kampfkunst (martial arts) or Kampfsport(combat sports) as the competitive variant. And further still it is claimed that this term was used earlier, with reference to antiquity and the Middle Ages. Fechten (fencing) is then usually regarded as a kind of Kampfsport(combat sport) or ars martialis. It is often pointed out that the Latin ars martialis has been preserved in the Romance languages. 


As shown in the quotes above, the supposedly ancient term for the arts of Kämpfen(fighting) is the Latin "ars martialis". According to current literature and online appearances, this refers to the Roman god of war, Mars. The arts of Mars, they say there, are therefore said to be the arts of war. Accordingly, we would find ars martialis in ancient texts also in this context.
Sounds logical, but it is not. After long research and consultation with colleagues in ancient history, such references cannot be found in Roman antiquity. This terminology was not used there.
The Middle Ages can help. The term Middle Ages was created to describe, from the point of view of 16th and 17th century scholars, the period of time between antiquity and their present. Therefore, this epoch was called the middle between the antiquity and the then present, that is, the Middle Ages. And this did not include any valuation for the time being. If we want to understand the connection between ancient and modern language, then the Middle Ages is a great starting point. For we find here a long tradition of copying ancient Latin and increasingly combining vernacular and Latin until finally the vernacular remains.
So the Middle Ages comes close to its original concept and also forms a link between antiquity and modern times.

As a medieval historian, however, I would rather discuss medieval views and developments that ultimately have a greater impact on our view. For the Fechtkunst(art of fencing), which is ultimately what we are concerned with here, can only be related from the late Middle Ages onwards.
If we look for medieval sources that tell us about ars martialis, we look in vain, as we did earlier in ancient sources. The Middle Ages do not know this term any more than antiquity did.
Although the ancient god Mars as god of war finds mention in the 15th century in the numerous planetary teachings and receives references to the living environment, the Latin word mars finds here no reference to the German Krieg(war) or Kampf (combat).

In the late Middle Ages, when the Fechtkunst (art of fencing) was first written down, the most commonly used Latin word for Krieg(war) was bellum. Accordingly, the Kriegskünste(arts of war) are also called ars belli. However, according to the accessible sources, ars belli rather refers to the art of warfare, which is then not infrequently called armatura. Because the manuscripts with this word reference are characterized by the representation and the description of war equipment, such as guns, chariots and fortifications. Very well known to us here are the manuscripts of the group "bellifortes", whose contents are also included in their works by some fencing masters, such as Hans Talhoffer. 

The true art of war, which deals with planning, tactical and strategic issues, is rather associated with "militaris". On the basis of the relatively widespread work on the art of war "Epitoma rei militaris" by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who produced his work in the 4th century, this connection can be shown. In particular, if we look at the German translations of the Latin text in the 15th century. There, "Epitoma rei militaris" is translated as "von Ritterlichen Dingen"(about the knightly arts). And the Latin term for Ritter(knight), in turn, has been "miles" or "milites" since the High Middle Ages. Also in Old French the epitoma rei militaris were translated similarly with "Le livre de la chevalerie" or "Li livres Flave Vegece de la Chose de Chevalerie". Chevalerie is the French word for chivalry or knighthood. Also Pietro Monte writes in his "Collectanea" between 1492 and 1509 at the latest in book 3 "De Arte Militari". Mistakenly this is directly translated with the modern word "military" in "Military Art". Still Wallhausen then connects Ritterkunst (knightly art ) and Kriegskunst(art of war) in his work "Ritterkunst" from 1616, translating "militaris disciplina" e.g. in native language with "Kriegsdisciplin". The transition from the Ritterlich(knightly) to the kriegerisch(warlike) is thus to be placed in the early modern period, probably the late 16th century. 

We have to do with militaris in the Middle Ages therefore with Ritterkunst(knightly art). In terms of content, these works deal with everything that is necessary to know in theory and to be able to practice for the war, which is often referred to as a "Streit"(battle). The Fechtkunst(art of fencing), however, is not mentioned here.
Also the term Krieger(warrior) does not exist in these sources. There are Ritter(knights), Söldner(mercenaries), Knechte(servants), Reisige(mercenaries) and many other terms for the participants in the war. And the Latin terms for these are just miles for knight, and mercenarius for the mercenary/servant. In addition, we learn from Vegetius that already in late antiquity the terms bellum and militaris were predominant and not martialis.
So, although Mars is the ancient god of war, there are no linguistic references to it.
At the mentioned terminology can be summarized here briefly:

Krieg/Streit (war/battle) = bellum.
Ritterlich sein, üben, gebären (being, training knightly) = militari.
Die Kunst der Kriegstechnik (The art of war engineering)  = ars armatura oder ars belli.
Die ritterliche Kunst oder Ritterkunst(The chivalric art or knight art) = ars militaris
Der Ritter (statt Krieger) (knight instead of warrior)= miles.
Der Söldner/Reisige (mercenary) = mercenarius

Thus, for the time being, we find no reference at all in the Middle Ages to the concept of artes martialis. 

True references to Mars in the Middle Ages

References to Mars, the god of war, can be found in the late Middle Ages. Especially in the planetary teachings. These also contain references to the Fechtkunst(art of fencing). Thus, people are classified as "children" according to the planets under which they were born and assigned characteristics accordingly. The children of Mars, for example, are described as follows:

 Mars der dritt Planet vnd stern
Pin ich geheissen vnd tzorn gern
Heiß vnd trucken pin ich vil
Mit meiner crafft mere denn ich wil
Zwey zeichen sein mein hewser schon
Der wider vnd der scorpion
Krig wirt vnd widerwerttige pein
So ich mit crafft dor inne werde sein
Mein erhohung in dem steinpock ist
Im krebs verliß ich crafft vnd list
Die zwelff zeichen ich durch vare
In tzweien iaren ganntz vnd gare.
Alle mein geporn kint
Zornig mager geheling sint
Hitzig krigisch vnd mißhelig
Stelen rauben vnd ligen dick
Bornen morden vnd alletzeit triegen
Stechen slahen in engsten kriegen
Ir antlutz ist prawn rait vnd spitz
Ein scharpf gesicht mit poser witz
Clein zene vnd ein clainen part
Ir leip ist lannck vndf ir hautt hartt
Vnd was mit fewer sol geschehen
Das mussen mein kinder veriehen.  

(Germanisches Nationalmuseum: Mittelalterliches Hausbuch Bilderhandschrift des 15. Jahrhunderts, Leipzig 1866, S. 7) 
Mars and his children, Hausbuch Wolfsegg fol. 13.r. in private property.
The children of Mars are depicted here very negatively they are murderers and thieves, hot-tempered and angry. In pictures they are then also always represented in the war or with robbing, plundering, murdering or in the deadly duel. The attribution of Mars with war is clearly shown here. But we do not find the Fechtkunst(art of fencing) here. Neither in word nor in picture.

On the contrary, the children of the sun. 
 Sol die Sun man mich heissen sol
Der mittelst planet pin ich wol
Warm vnd trucken kan ich sein
Naturlich ganntz mit meinem schein
Der lew hat meins hauß kreiß
Dor inn pin ich vast heiß
Doch ist Saturnus stetiglich
Mit seiner kelt wider mich
Erhohet werd ich in dem wider
In der maget falle ich herwider
In dreyhundert vnd funffundsechtzig tagen
Mag ich mich durch die zeichen tragen.
Ich pin glucklich edel vnd fein
Also sint auch die kinder mein
Gele weißgemengt schon angesicht
Wolgebartt weiß clein hare geslicht
Ein feisten leip mit scharpffen hirn
Mittel augen ein grosse stirn
Seitenspil vnd singen von mund
Wol esszen vnd grosser herren kunt
Vor mittem tag dienent sie got vil
Dar nach leben sie wie man wil
Steinstossen schirmen ringen
In gewalt sie gluckes vill gewynnen. 

(Germanisches Nationalmuseum: Mittelalterliches Hausbuch Bilderhandschrift des 15. Jahrhunderts, Leipzig 1866, S. 7) 

The children of Sun are noble, fine, happy and intelligent ("scharrpfen hirn")(intelligent). They are the opposite of the children of Mars. Instead of waging war, they pursue the fine things in life, such as music, stone-pushing, schirmen(old word for defensively fencing) and Ringen(wrestling). And it is pointed out that these also help in case of threats of violence, that is, they are protectors. The fact that Schirmen and Ringen are mentioned here as part of the Fechtkunst(art of fencing) will also be important later.
In any case, it is shown here that the attributes of Mars are evaluated very negatively. The art of fencing and wrestling on the other hand, here as Schirmen and Ringen, is shown as something positive for body and soul, that one exercises as "Kurzweil" thus hobby or fun but nevertheless in the seriousness is helpful. But it is not attributed to Mars but to the sun. 

KAMPF (battle or combat)

But even the German word Kampf can hardly be associated with ars martialis here. Kampf and Kämpfen clearly appear in the medieval language only in connection with earnest confrontations. As a rule, however, as a word for Zweikampf or Duell(duel). Thus, a Kämpfer(combatant) is in turn a participant in Kampf(combat) and is also called a Kämpfer(combatant). The Latin translation in medieval texts is pugil, pugillator, pugnator, duellator for Kämpfer, duellare, pugillare, as well as pugnare for the verb to kämpfen(fight) and duellum for Kampf(combat).
This is exactly how the terms are found in the legal texts of the High and Late Middle Ages, from the Sachsenspiegel to the Land Laws and City Laws. Kampf can mean both the judicial duel and the honor combat.

The connection to Zweikampf(duel( thus becomes very clear. The word Kampf(combat) is then also found in the fencing books of the 14th and 15th centuries. Thereby the Kampfs is subordinated to the term fencing and also always declared in the context of duel. In the courtly Liechtenauer teachings of the 15th century, the word Kampf is always found in the context of the knightly honor duel in armor on horseback or on foot. 

 ...das ist der text vnd die glos einer gemainen ler zw kampff... 
(Rom, Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana, Cod. 44 A 8 [Cod. 1449] fol. 53 v.) 

 Das ist der text vnd die glos von Ringen zw kampf... 
(Rom, Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana, Cod. 44 A 8 [Cod. 1449] fol. 56 r.) 

 Hie hebt sich an meister lewen
kunst fechtens In harnasch auß
den vier hutten zu fus vnd zu
kampffe etc. 

(Augsburg, Universitätsbibliothek Augsburg, Cod. I 6 4o 3, fol. 54 r.) 

 hie vint man geschriben von dem kempfen

Item wie daz nun sy daz die die decretaleß kempf verbieten, So hat doch die gewonhait herbracht von kaisern und künigen fürsten und hern noch gestatten und kempfen laussen, und darzu glichen schierm gebent, und besunder und umb ettliche sachn und artikeln, alß her nach geschriben staht. Item zu dem ersten maul daz im nymant gern sin Eer laut abschniden mit wortten ainem der sin genoß ist Er wolte Er hebat mit im kempfen wie wol er doch nit recht wol von im kem ob er wolte und darumb so ist kämpfen ain muotwill...

(Kopenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, Thott 290 2o fol. 8 r. f.) 

Especially in the last quotation by Hans Talhoffer from the time around 1459, it becomes clear that dueling was a battleground between ecclesiastical and secular spheres at that time. He distinguishes between honorary duels ("Eer abschniden", "muotwill") and then shows the criminal charges from which judicial duels could be fought. The subject of judicial duels is so extensive that I do not want to elaborate on it here. In any case the text following the quotation in the source corresponds to the formulations in the land laws of Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia. Kampf(combat) therefore clearly means duel in its various forms. And above mentioned Latin terms are used in Latin text versions for Kampf, Kampfer and Kämpfen. 


Fechten(fencing) describes, on the one hand, the activity of physical combat as a whole and the activities that one learns in order to succeed in combat. However, in the Middle Ages Fechten was mainly practiced for amusement, i.e. for the purpose of physical and mental fitness, i.e. as a hobby. However, it is always mentioned that this also prepares one well for possible violent situations. Only a select group of people also learn pieces that are explicitly intended for serious situations and Kampf(combat). Special mention is made of Fechten in the Hofkünste(courtly arts), which are part of the noble-knightly training and, from the 15th century, become increasingly accessible to the urban patrician class. Thus, for example, sons of patricians are educated and trained at noble courts.
Fechten is the generic term and is divided into Schirmen (fencing with (hand)weapons), Ringen (fencing with the body), Reiten(riding), Stechen(kind of jousting), Springen(jumping), Schießen(shooting) and similar "Handwerke"(crafts).
In Latin, fencing is always translated as dimicare. And the art of fencing is the ars dimicandi (and other spellings). Already the oldest fencing book MS I.33, which was probably written around 1300, calls the art by this name. And the root of the word dimic(are) can be traced back to antiquity.
It can therefore be strongly assumed that ars dimicandi and Fechtkunst or die Kunst des Fechtenst(he art of fencing) in the German-speaking world are the oldest terms that can be found for what we call Kampfkunst(martial arts) or Kampfsport(combat sports) today. For Fechtkunst as a generic term for all kinds of fencing and gymnastics from wrestling, boxing, "Gerätfechten" to rifle fencing can still be found in the 19th and 20th centuries, while the terms Kampfkunst, Kampfsport and martial arts only spread in the second half of the 20th century. Even today, for example, in the German Armed Forces it is still called Gefecht and there are commands like "Klar zum Gefecht!" and not "Kampf!" or "Klar zum Kampf!".


Also in the course of the "rediscovery of antiquity" (Renaissance), which began in the Middle Ages, one could now think that possible word creations arose via the new strengthening of Latin. However, even in the Latin works of a Henrich von Gunterrodt and his references to wrestling, boxing and pankration in antiquity, there is no reference to ars martialis, so that one must assume that this word was not used in antiquity, the Middle Ages or the early modern period. Gunterrodt also calls the art ars dimicatoria.

Further research here would have to intensify on the 20th century, since we are probably dealing with a neologism that may be traceable to the increasing international linguistic dominance of English after World War II and then wrongly projected back to past eras.

For example, one theory could be that the international spread of Asian-influenced "martial arts films" since the 1960s are the starting point for the words we use today in the first place. Starting with the international language English, Martial Arts was probably introduced to the film industry, possibly driven by the Asians themselves, who were looking for an English word to describe their arts. From English it was then translated into the other languages. How one came however from martial arts to Kampfkunst, is further a mystery to me, one would have to translate it nevertheless correctly with Kriegskunst(art of war), if one would like to follow the ideas of the "experts" mentioned at the beginning. 


Einen kurzen Ausblick möchte ich noch auf andere europäische Sprachen geben. Denn auch in Italien, Frankreich, den Beneluxstaaten, Dänemark und Skandinavien scheinen die deutschen Begrifflichkeiten den Ursprung für Fechten und teilweise auch Kämpfen zu bilden. Gerade das deutsche Schirmen findet sich im Französischen (l' escrime), Italienischen (scherma) und Spanischen (Esgrima) schon vom Mittelalter bis heute. Im Englischen ist es ebenso interessant, das das englische to fight aus dem einstigen Wortstamm fechten näher an Kämpfen ist und es ein eigenes Wort fencing gibt, was das meint, was im Mittelhochdeutschen mit Schirmen bezeichnete wurde, nämlich das Fechten mit Handwaffen ("fighting with.."). 

Latein - dimicare (Verb)
Französisch - escrime
Spanisch - esgrima
Italienisch - scherma
Niederländisch - schermen
Dänisch - fægte
Englisch - fencing (correctly in the middle ages Fechten=fighting and Schirmen=fencing)

Latein - pugnare (Verb) duellare (Verb)
Französisch - combat
Spanisch - combate(s)
Italienisch - combattimento
Niederländisch - vechten, strijden, worstelingen
Dänisch - kampen
Englisch - fighting/combat

Latein - bellum
Französisch - guerre
Spanisch - guerra
Italienisch - guerra
Niederländisch - strijd
Dänisch - krig
Englisch - war 

It would be very interesting for my research to compare the medieval ways of speaking in relation to Latin using contemporary sources, since modern Latin translators are already modern interpretations without historical reference.

As an example, consider the term Ritter. In medieval Latin texts, the Latin miles is used for Ritter(knight) in Europe. This is equated in French with chevalier in Italian with cavaliere, in Spanish with caballero and in English with knight.
If you enter miles in a modern dictionary and compare it to the languages mentioned, you will find soldat in French, soldato in Italian, soldado in Spanish and soldier in English.


I think it shows well from a historical point of view that in Central and Western Europe they had a very uniform, clear way of speaking about Kämpfen(fighting), Fechten(fencing) and Kriegsführung(warfare) and actually still would have today.
The myth of the Ars Martialis and Martial Arts is probably due to Hollywood and the desire to generate more action by creating a martial connection. It may be the American influence on European linguistic culture that created new terminology here. It has blurred our linguistic roots in this area.

In his book "The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America", Paul Bowmann discusses precisely this linguistic and cultural development several times. He shows that the term martial arts emerged from this Asian-American exchange and that its origin was only to designate the Asian martial arts. He explicitly refers to 3 first works that begin this word creation in 1920, 1933 and 1955. The actual boom of this new word martial arts is to be set between 1968 and 1974, i.e. the start of the "martial arts films" in the USA, which are strongly influenced by the Asian arts. 
The term martial arts is therefore neither ancient, nor medieval, nor Western. It was created to give a name to the Asian fighting arts so that they could be distinguished from the existing ones. The boom of this term, however, has "unfortunately" led to the actual western terms being overlaid by this new term in only a few generations.   
I find the connection to martial in relation to European arts very questionable in several respects. Firstly, as a historian and teacher of historical fencing arts, I see the problem that we are hindering intellectual access to the historical sources and the thinking of contemporaries. The sources work with the European generic terms, many of which had survived into the 20th century.
Furthermore, the martial term is questionable because the connection to an alleged martial background of the arts is simply wrong. And it is quite significant when precisely the "children of Mars" are devalued by contemporary people in the Renaissance of the 15th-16th centuries. Martial not only implies a false image of the arts, which originally and causally until the 20th century served primarily to strengthen the mind and body, i.e. hobby, fun and further development, but often also forms a correspondingly martial ethos. So much so that some even appropriate the word warrior, which has no connection whatsoever. However, anyone who examines the ethos of the arts of fencing since the Middle Ages in a linguistically correct manner will only come to the realisation that these arts always imply an avoidance of unnecessary violence and that the use of violence is always a last resort when others have failed, as in the case of some duels. 

As a small summary
Krieg(war) is bellum.
Kriegsführung(warfare) is militaris.
Die Kunst der Kriegstechnik(the art of war engineering) is ars belli or armatura.
Die Ritterkunst (the knightly art) is ars militaris.
Der Ritter (Krieger)(knight/warrior) is miles
Die Fechtkunst(art if fencing) is ars dimicatoria.
Der Kampf(combat/duel) is duellum or pugnam

More importantly, however, we need to use this knowledge in research around the Fechtkunst (art of fencing). Because for the exchange a uniform technical language is necessary and that the current technical language moves around the terms Kampfkunst(martial art), Kampfsport(combat sport), complicates immensely the access, the understanding and the exchange around the historical arts. Because if the same words have different meanings today and back then, then we have to think about how we want to shape the exchange linguistically.

It starts with the term HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which has no relation to the original language. Because in English it should correctly be called HEFA (Historical European Fighting Arts). And in German it would be Historische Europäische Fechtkünste.
In any case, the connection of the Fechtkünste(fencing arts) with the Kriegskünste (arts of war) can hardly be established. In essence, fencing is not "martial" or warlike, but rather a cultural enrichment, which even then was considered in its main focus as a diverse and extensive method to develop body and mind in many ways. The preparation for actual possible acts of violence was not in the foreground. But it was clear to the people that the fencing arts were nevertheless at any time a good condition to defend oneself in any form.

I hope to be able to stimulate fruitful thoughts with this.   
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