Did arnis/escrima “develop” from Spanish rapier fencing? Often, a little shred of historical fact can be stretched into eye-pleasing tapestries of historicizing fiction: Thoughts on Diffusionism in martial arts history…
This essay appeared in Mark V. Wiley’s book Arnis: History and Development of the Filipino Martial Arts.
by J. Christoph Amberger
While thoroughly debunking the Atlantis Myth in his book Lost Continents, science fiction writer extraordinaire L. Sprague DeCamp took to task the 19th- and 20th-century movement of “Diffusionism”, an intellectual current of mystic pseudo-science hell-bound to derive the origins of New World cultures from the Old World.
One of the mainstays of diffusionists was finding linguistic “relationships” between unrelated languages… frequently by building highly complex assumptions involving continental shifts, sunken cultures, and lost tribes based on a single pseudo-cognate:
“The method is the same as that of those who try to show that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel are the Irish, the Aztecs, or the Burmese. They find a word in one language, and a word with a similar sound and meaning in another language, and conclude that they’re applying the science of linguistics. In this manner, they have ‘proved’ that Aztec is Indo-European; that Chinese is related to Egyptian; that Algongkian is related to Latin; that Kiché is related to Berber, that Carib is related to Hebrew, and so on until they have proved that virtually every language is related to every other.“1
Apart from transcendental theories that connect the Lost Continent of Mu with Aztec, Egyptian, or Atlantean civilizations, the martial arts these days probably provide the richest quarry for diffusionist speculation.
Not long ago, I found a message under the title of “Kosa Quan moves in Talhoffer” posted at one of the Western McMartialist Internet websites. The writer claimed that the Khazars, “Jewish barbarians” steeped in Central Asian martial arts, swept into the wastelands of post-Roman Germany and converted the simpleton Suabian savages to a vastly superior system of close combat. And why not. After all, most serious historians have placed Meister Hans Talhoffer and his late 15th-century manuals or Fechtbücher into the tradition of German wrestling master Ott the Jew.
Oh, pardon me. Make that “Ott the Khazar.”
Of course, as emotionally gratifying as it may be to trace back Central European schools of defence to wild hordes of mounted Goldbergs, these causal chains are all wrong! Because if you believe Afro-centric artist Nijel Binns, all civilization and invention — first and foremost that of his prudently trademarked Nuba Wrestling: The Original Art — originated in Africa, during a period variously resembling Pangea, the Life and Times of the homo erectus, and Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age.2
The Filipino arts of arnis and eskrima have their own specimen of diffusionist theory to show for. One of the most pervasive is the recently publicized assumption that espada y daga and doble baston are not only analogous to the conquistadors’ rapier and dagger, but directly influenced by the Spanish systems.
From a pre-politically correct Western point of view, the uninventiveness of non-Western societies has always been a mainstay of diffusionists and cultural colonialists alike. And in the case of eskrima, there are indeed superficial similarities that would point at Spanish influence:
Both systems involve a longer and a shorter bladed weapon. And the footwork of both the modern eskrima and that of the Spanish rapier schools involve geometric patterns.
But nobody who has been at the receiving end of the rapid double-barreled barrage of cuts, the fleeting yet granite-hard blocks, and explosive disarms of a modern arnis master such as Mark Wiley and then witnessed the nimble-footed, deliberate application of fencing space and time as exhibited by Spanish rapier master Ramon Martinez can shake the impression that when it comes to the Filipino and Spanish systems, we’re looking at two different animals indeed.
A closer look at the combative backgrounds of the two systems points out considerable incongruencies.
For one, neither bolo, itak, nor the rattan stick have much in common with a Spanish rapier. Even the reputed relation of the footwork wears thin fast. Let’s face it. Any system’s footwork, in fact, any honky-tonk line dance can be abstracted into geometric patterns by connecting the dots. Which doesn’t prove that the Electric Slide really is the creative influence behind Phoenix-Eye Kung Fu.
Spheres of combat
The 16th-and 17th-century Spanish conquistadors — with their steel weapons, firearms, cannon, warships, horses, and imported contagious diseases — doubtlessly represented a formidable fighting force, superior to all technologies the Filipino warriors could throw into the fray. In the New World, the combined forces of Castilian steel and Mediterranean germs were powerful enough to allow a force of a few hundred to subject a civilizations of millions. (Just listen to Jared Diamond repeat Guns, Germs and Steel a couple hundred times in an hour..)
The Spanish certainly brought with them plenty of things worth copying from the perspective of the native Filipinos. And it is doubtful that Filipinos wouldn’t have realized the importance of the new technologies for their own survival:
“To judge by the record of our own species, most people are not conservative about adopting more effective methods of killing their foes.”3
But was the Dons’ way of handling their rapiers really among the desirable technologies chief Lapu Lapu’s successors would have tried to assimilate? Wouldn’t the acquisition of firearms, steel armor, or the military drill of pike men organized in tightly-knit squares supported by marksmen, armored cavalry, and the possession of even a single cannon with a few kegs of black powder have enjoyed a vastly higher priority in a country about to resist the establishment of parasitic foreign colonists?
Let’s for a moment consider what a Spanish rapier man practicing his craft must have looked like to a contemporary Filipino martial artist.
We find just such a description in the 1599 Paradoxes of Defence of George Silver, an outspoken English critic of the new-fangled Italian rapier schools that were popping up like mushrooms all over Elizabethan London:
“There is the maner of Spanish fight, they stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow spaced, with their feet continually moving, as if they were in a dance, holding forth their armes and Rapiers verie straight against the face or bodies of their enemies: & this is the only lying to accomplish that kind of fight. And this note, that as long as any man shall lie in that maner with his arme, and point of his Rapier straight, it shall be impossible for his adversarie to hurt him.”4
In Magdeburg, Germany, the illustrious Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine Joachim Köppe(n) indicates in his Newer Discurs von der Rittermeßigen und Weitberümbten Kunst des Fechtens (1642) that to his knowledge, the geometry-based Spanish system was first written up in Amsterdam, Holland. (That would be Thibault.)
However, he adds, “two genteel young fellows, my magnanimous and honored friends” (read: young noblemen with money and inluence!) had told him that this way of fencing “currently enjoyed a great name and reputation in Spain, especially Madrid, and at that place was being practised, taught, and demonstrated by a genteel Spaniard of nobility,5 who reputedly and in detail described, demonstrated, and exemplified his principia according to mathematics and geometry, and out of the fundamental propositions of Euclid.”
Köppe adds: “As far as positions are concerned (…): This nobleman and author advocates to hold the body turned half-way against the opponent in a very straight line from the ground, and with the entire arm, from the shoulder over elbow, hand and point of the rapier, forming a straight line against the enemy, thus turning the man into a right angle, and (…) with another right angle (formed by the arm and blade pointed) against the (body of the ) enemy.”6
Silver — tongue-in-cheek — comments that the technique of maintaining this constant high ward is advisable indeed, since parrying a cut or thrust at the head or body only requires a slight movement of the hand to put by. In fact, he continues, it is just as advisable as keeping a pebble in your mouth to combat sea sickness: As long as you manage to keep it in, you will not vomit. Of course, if you happen to vomit, you’ll not be able to keep the pebble in your mouth…
The Spanish school of the rapier is often scoffed at by the current crop of modern neo-Western martialists who consider them too esoterical and too limited to their restricted combative scenario.
And certainly, a close interpretive analysis of the manuals left by Carranza (earliest edition of many in 1569), Narvaez (nearly a dozen works and editions between 1600 and 1672), or Thibault (1630) require a high level of academic intuition and expertise, not to speak of a firm grasp of Euclidian geometry, to make useful for modern re-enactment.
Much of the combative action did indeed revolve around concentric circles, axes, radii, and diameters dictated by the geometric proportions and interdependencies of the Diestro’s body and weapon. Mastery of this system probably was difficult to achieve unless you belonged to the Spanish “leisure class”…
But in all fairness, manuscript illustrations such as those left by Heredia do document hands-on disarmaments. And their exact counterparts can still be found in the early 1800s, both in Scorza Rosaroll and Pietro Grisetti’s Italian La Scienza della Scherma (1803)7 as well as in Don Manuel Antonio de Brea’s Principios Universales8 (1805) — applied to Italian-style smallsword and the odd-looking Spanish rapier/foil, respectively.
Yet disarmament and locking and grappling techniques that were part of historical Western sword systems (even if true gentlemen did not like to apply them in artful sword combat) are still insufficient to help us over the main problem:
The Spanish rapier is at its core a civilian weapon whose practical use in military actions was controversial at best.
Silver, for one, wonders aloud “what service can a souldier do with a Rapier, a childish toy wherewith a man can do nothing but thrust, nor that neither, by reason of the length, and in every moving when blowes are a dealing, for lacke of a hilt is in danger to have his hand or arme cut off, or his head cloven?”9
The rapier, especially in caste-conscious Spain, was the weapon and emblem of the gentleman. Commoners who appropriated it, were often scoffed at by their peers. (Enemies of the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza once spread the rumor that he had been seen in questionable society — wearing a rapier! But even the most hostile biographer conceded that this wasn’t a plausible story given Spinoza’s overall modest and unpretentious disposition.)
Köppe’s remarks furthermore indicate that the Spanish system was relatively unknown in Central Europe at the time… when Spain’s cultural and political influence still resonnated strongly in the years after their occupation of the Netherlands and its involvement in the Thirty Years War (1618-48).
It also should be considered that the later waves of conquistadors probably included Spaniards as well as Italian, Portuguese, and other European nationals. Outside the duelling ground and fencing school, the rapier and rapier and dagger would only find real-life action in urban brawls and scuffles. While most Southern European aristocrats were learning rapier techniques by the late 1500s, some of the most basic sword and dagger, sword and buckler, and sword and target techniques underlying the systems of Marozzo (1536) and Agrippa (1553) probably still formed the core edged weapons skills of the colonists as they set up Spanish rule in the Philippines during the mid-1500s.
What about sticks?
While dozens of published manuals and scores of manuscripts document the use of the rapier and its accessories for the Spanish, Italian and their subsequent German and other European adaptations, this cannot be said for the use of sticks… let alone double sticks in Europe.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that sticks were not used in practice throughout Europe for centuries before they appear in illustrated books on singlestick, la canne, and Stockfechten10. There are plenty of references to the use of sticks and wasters used both for training purposes and in what appear to be closed sub-systems of stick-fighting throughout European literature. Yet they are missing from most manuals until the late 1700s10.
Their absence from the pictographic evidence in the majority of sources again is explainable by the target market of the books. Printed, illustrated tomes on fencing and other European martial arts were prohibitively expensive luxury items that could only be afforded by the extremely well-off.
(Even a patrician like the Augsburg official and amateur martial arts historian Paulus Hector Mair (born in 1517) was forced to dip into the city coffers to continue buying manuscripts and printed books — a crime for which he was sentenced and hanged as a common thief in 1579!)
After printed manuals began to spread, they tended to focus on the “courtly” strata of the respective arts rather than their most popular and effective applications as arts of raw antagonistic self defence12. Fabris himself only added his segments on dagger disarms only after his sponsor, the hard-drinking, hard-living king of Denmark, expressly requested them!
Artists such as Albrecht Dürer and the Cranachs were frequently commissioned at great expense to create works of intricate beauty and artistic skill that aimed at displaying the wealth and exquisite taste of their buyers just as much as providing detailed instruction. This practically precluded adding vulgar stick techniques into the respective compendia.
Yet despite the dearth of medieval and Renaissance instructional sources focusing on stick techniques, the weapon-immanent similarities between European stick systems — such as early English backswording (later called singlestick), early French predecessors of la canne, and the precursor of the German Schläger and Stock systems — and early forms of arnis and eskrima are relatively obvious. All use rapid moulinets that combine offensive and defensive actions… a far cry from the deliberate use of the thrust in Spanish and Italian rapier.
The problems of forensic martial arts
In trying to find true parallels, however, we still face the crux of palaeo-hoplology, the science of ancient fighting arts. While the Spanish schools of the late 16th and 17th centuries are well documented in illustrated instructional manuals, the reconstruction of an Ur-eskrima, or original eskrima, are not, all claims to patrilinear continuities notwithstanding.
After all, the very nature of any living fighting art is the dynamic process. Progress is not only determined by the weapons du jour and the shifting combative environments, but by the very nature of the master practitioner himself:
Edgar G. Sulite probably puts it best when he writes: “Mastery of the art does not only mean so many years in the art, but the amount of experience using the art, one’s personal evolution within the art and personal dedication and contribution to the art.”
But most importantly: “Grandmasters question the rankings of other grandmasters.”13
Each master contributes his own innovative analytical interpretation, his individual approach to the continual study of the combative environment and development defined by his peers and rivals. Which accordingly leads him to continually devise new techniques, responses, counters and attacks. The resulting discrepancies between chronologically different stages of the same techniques of any given art can be considerable.
Just consider the evolution of Western sports fencing techniques and tactics between the 1890s and the 1970s. Within less than a century, new approaches to changing objectives were formulated, implemented, and spread by innovators like Parise, Barbasetti, the Nadi brothers, Kevey, Lukovich, and Beck… to turn the science and art of fencing into a dynamic and highly athletic competitive sport, sacrificing emphasis on form and function inherent in antagonistic combat systems in favor of achieving the new agonistic objectives by all means.
The same observation holds true for those traditional Asian systems whose sub-branches morphed into competitive sports, such as Judo, modern Karate and Tae Kwon Do. It is even more obvious in Thai kick-boxing, whose current fad incarnation of cardio-kickboxing has subordinated all martial aspects to the objective of keeping the unsightly thighs of suburban American soccer moms from rubbing together.
Even systems and traditions that rightfully claim uninterrupted lineage can produce distinctly different forms within the course of a century. (Stuart Olson14 beautifully illustrates the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) shifts that occurred in the T’ai Chi Thirteen Sword postures as demonstrated by Chen Wei-ming, Hsiung Yang-ho. and T.T. Lian.)
Which, in the case of reconstructing an 16th-century proto-eskrima, leaves us with little more than the knowledge that we’ll never know exactly how Lapu-Lapu’s warriors and their sons trained how to handle sticks in close combat.
The practice of basing assumptions about evolutionary relationships between different martial arts can create ludicrous scenarios indeed. Take the example of German Meister Hans Talhoffer mentioned earlier in this chapter. A technique performed with the Messer (or long knife) included on plate 226 of his Fechtbuch of 146715 illustrates a counter against a head cut:
Here, the fencer on the left “haut frei vom Dach“, cuts freely from above (corresponding to the cut of prime in modern cut systems).
The opposing fencer to your right “hat versetzt mit gewendter hand”, has parried with inverted hand, “und will fürtretten und ryssen” and will close in and “rip” — that is, hook the butt of his sword over the hilt of the opponent’s weapon while closing in and neutralising him by placing his weapon’s cutting edge on the opponent’s neck.
It is worth mentioning that the Messer used by Talhoffer closely corresponds to the Filipino bolo. Yet no serious researcher would go out of his way claiming that modern arnis and eskrima are direct descendants of 15th-century German combat techniques brought to town, maybe, by German mercenaries among the Spanish forces.
After all, diffusionists could argue, the Spanish expansion into the Netherlands would have created ample opportunity for German freelancers to rent their blades out for Far East expeditions…
The analogous techniques we find in Talhoffer and in modern arnis point out that the martial artist’s mind works similar, regardless of cultural or national origin.
Much like natural evolution and adaptation over the millennia produced the similarly streamlined bodies of ichthyosaur, shark, and dolphin, the martial mind’s approach to problems posed by physiology and weapons technology has and will always produce independent yet mechanically analogous solutions.
Magellan’s untimely demise through Lapu Lapu’s spear-wielding warriors may not really yield any more clues to the combat prowess of the Filipinos than Viking explorer Leif Erikson’s death by a native American flint-tipped arrow, or Captain James Cook’s gruesome end on a South Pacific beach. But given the historic evidence there is no reason to believe that the martial mind of the Filipinos was not able to develop eskrima independent of European and particularly Spanish influences.
The independently arrived-at analogous responses to identical problems again go to prove right writer and martial arts expert Herbert Borkland’s trademark saying that martial artists around the globe are “parts of a fraternity of spirit that’s older than the gods.”
*** More essays like this are contained in my book,The Secret History of the Sword.
1. DeCamp, L. Sprague. Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme, New York: Ballantine, 1970; p. 104
2. Binns, Nijel. Nuba Wrestling; The Original Art, Los Angeles: Trans-Continental Network Productions, 1990.
3. DeCamp, L. Sprague. “Range” in deCamp, L. Sprague (ed.) The Blade of Conan; New York: Ace Books, 1979; p. 228
4. Silver, George. Paradoxes of Defence (London: Edward Blount, 1599) Amsterdam, New York: Da Capo Press, 1968; p. 14
5. Neither Thimm nor Castle list Köppe(n)’s 1642 work in their bibliographies, only a 1619 edition. Thus, this reference to the Spanish aristocrat could be interpreted as referring to Carranza. While I have been unable to verify if the 1642 edition is merely a reprint of the earlier work, there are certain indications that the next was written close to the publication date: The reference to Amsterdam in Holland can only point at Thibault’s 1630 work. Accordingly, the Spanish master reffered to could be Luis Pacheo de Narvaez!
6. Köppe(n), Joachim. Newer Discurs von der Rittermeßigen und Weitberümbten Kunst des Fechtens, Magdeburg, 1642; p. Bii.
7. Rosaroll, Scorza and Grisetti, Pietro La Scienza della Scherma, Milano: Stamperia del Giornale Italico, 1803; plates vi-ix
8. Brea, D. Manuel Antonio de Principios Universales y Reglas Generales de la Verdadera Destreza del Espadin (1805), Madrid: Espasa Calpe S.A., 1989
9. Silver; p. 32.
10. One of the few early depictions of single stick combat is a mid-15th-century Franco-Burgundian tapestry titled “Hercules Initiating the Olympic games”, now in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scotland. I have tried to give an analytical combative analysis of this nebulous courtly pastime in the chapter “Medieval Wacky Wackers” in my book The Secret History of the Sword.
11. The most memorable of the exemptions is a lonesome fighter depicted in Vadi, who holds two sticks in what would correspond to the Sinawali “Heaven and Earth” position, and Vadi heavily relies on Fiore dei Liberi. In Germany, Matt Galas once pointed out to me a 16th-century outdoors mural showing a giant or “wilder Mann” combating an armored knight with a tree limb.
12. It should be noted that neither the manuscripts of Talhoffer nor the Dürer adaptations of the Codex Wallerstein were aimed at widespread circulation.
13. Sulite, Edgar G. Masters of Arnis, Kali, and Eskrima, n.p.: Socorro Publications, 1993; p. 2
14. Olson, Stuart. T’ai Chi Thirteen Sword — A Sword Master’s Manual, Burbank: Multi-Media Books, 1998; p. 193 ff.
15. Hergsell, Gustav (ed.) Talhoffers Fechtbuch aus dem Jahre 1467, gerichtliche und andere Zweikämpfe darstellend, Prague: self-published, 1887