When many imagine the age of chivalry, they think of movies watched, or books read. Stories of knights and ladies. Dragons and trolls. Robin Hood. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or perhaps you envision, as I do, the romantic and epic scenes of Waterhouse paintings depicting courtly love and mystical ladies and brave knights.
Very few realize that during the Medieval and Victorian eras, the European knightly arts were as much a practiced martial art as those of the Samaria or Ninjas of the east. Just as their Asian counterparts, Celtic Christian warrior monks had developed fighting styles and codes of conduct as well. Their non-celibate monastic communes- that stretched across the whole of Europe- served as a crucial dyke against the tsunami of the mighty military invasions of the Moors and Saracens, thereby ensuring the survival of European Christendom.
As far as written and codified martial art forms, Europe actually predates its counterparts in the East. Why then does our modern society know so much of the eastern martial art forms and little to nothing of the western forms?
The answer is that Asian cultures preserved their martial arts into the present day- passed down from generation to generation. Europeans are always all too eager to embrace the modern and advanced and ever willing to abandon the “old ways.” Sadly, therefore, the martial arts of Europe do not enjoy the unbroken line of continuity from antiquity to the present.
Add to this, that there is, for reasons beyond the scope of my intention here, a cultural self-loathing, woven into the fabric of those of European descent. We have an unspoken assumption that we have been more criminal in our history than other cultures of the world. There is an assumption that the ways of any other culture in the world are likely better than our own.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
This cultural assumption is untrue, however. European history and culture has as much to offer in enriching the world, as any other culture. And its colored history is no more, or less tainted with shameful chapters as any other.
While I am on this topic I will address the issue of prejudism. I am told that some are attracted to European martial that bring with them a racist bent. To that I will say that racism is ignorance. But I will say to those who think themselves accepting by ignoring diversity that I believe diversity is something to be celebrated. Not ignored. If I were native American- which I grew up being told I was partially, but later discovered that I was not at all- I would be proud of my native American ancestry. Were I Asian, I would absorb all I could about my rich cultural heritage. Were I of African descent, you’d better believe I would try to discover what region and tribe I descended from and would be able to recite the legends and histories of my people.
I am Celtic (and a bit Scandinavian). We too were a persecuted peoples. And I am proud of my Celtic roots. Having pride in who you are does not mean you are racist. And being inclusive does not mean ignoring differences.
One does not have to loath their own heritage to keep themselves from being perceived as racist.
When I was a young man, I was ordained into a large, predominately black religious fellowship, they would have pride day, where each minister would come dressed in the tribal garbs of their African homelands. I was not offended by this. Rather I offered to participate by dawning my clan tartan and kilt.
The same thing that made Joseph’s coat so beautiful, is what makes the world so beautiful- diversity.
Now that I have addressed that, I will move forward with our main purpose…
I have a great respect for eastern martial art disciplines. I have studied some of them. As a child I took Wado-Ryu for a few years. And then Taekwondo in my early teens. When I joined the US Marines I learned that most of the lethal hand to hand combat training we received, called LINE Combat Training, was heavily influenced by eastern martial arts. Since then I have also taken a year of Muay Thai.
As a Christian, I was very aware of the spiritual side of the Asian martial arts form (being myself a spiritual person). I chose not to engage in those aspects of the eastern martial arts and to make it a purely physical pursuit.
Over the past few years, however, I became aware that there was a movement to reconstruct Medieval or European martial Arts. Using ancient illustrated Fechtbuchs (fight books) translated into modern language, many eastern martial artists began the arduous task of resurrecting these ancient and long neglected western arts.
Since there was no group that practiced HEMA ( Historical European Martial Arts) for hundreds of miles, I ordered a translated book, a German made instructional video and a waster (practice sword) and tried to engage myself in the pursuit. But I learned quickly that I could not really learn the longsword without a partner at least to train with.
Then, as providence would have it, I took a year contract with a company that moved me to Washington DC for a year to do environmental contract work.
I found a group training there in the city, but when I went to a class, I discovered that, while they were a good group, the instruction was not on the level Id need, with my experience.
Thankfully, a friend and HEMA practitioner that lives in California said, “Jonathan, you are near one of the greatest HEMA instructors in the world. Jake Norwood teaches in DC!”
One class with Capital Kunst Des Fechtens (CKDF) and I knew Id found what I had been looking for. All the instructors were disciplined and qualified. Jake Norwood himself was a world class swordsman top international ranked longsword competitor.
I even had the honor of being Norwood’s armor bearer in his tournament and match against Axel Peterson of Norway.
Sadly my time with that great school was short, but it only served to further fuel my passion for the art. But I have since found another great group to train with in my state.
Although I am by no means a master of medieval martial arts- and only a poor practitioner- I am a lifelong student of theology and philosophy. And when I became involved in the HEMA community, it became immediately clear to me that the spiritual, philosophical aspect, so present in the eastern arts, was missing in our own. There were no stated values or principles. There was little custom or tradition.
And the more I meditated on it, the more I realized that it is not because HEMA has no spiritual aspect to it, it is not because there are no moral principles that accompany it, but the spiritual principles that originally accompanied it have not yet been resurrected. That is no fault of anyone. We all have different roles to play. And the desire to apply myself to this as my contribution to the furtherance of HEMA reconstruction has only grown with every passing year.
Martial arts, east and west, originated- not solely for the advancement of the body, or for the defense of one’s hearth and home. Martial arts originated as a means of disciplining the flesh to bring it under subjection to the spirit or so that your spirit could better commune with the Creator. To strengthen the body to achieve a higher connection with the Creator, or to serve the Creator in a higher way. The primary purpose of martial arts was as a method to achieve spiritual growth.
It is said that meditating Shaolin monks would become weak in body, and were easy targets for robbers. Therefore, they trained to defend themselves and keep their bodies fit while they perused spiritual enlightenment. Note here again, martial arts were not the goal, but a tool to achieve something greater.
In European martial arts, knightly chivalry was introduced into a very turbulent and fractured Europe, where by and large, the strongest lord, with the most warriors, ruled with little regard of the wellbeing of others.
The Davidic Ethic- or the biblical notion that the reason God gives one the power to rule is so that he or she can defend the defenseless- was introduced.
And the notion that a strong and mighty warrior might not only abstain from taking advantage of a woman, but to go so far as to submit his prowess as a warrior to a woman’s bidding was introduced. All for the purpose of harnessing and disciplining the art of war, for a higher purpose and calling than one’s own wealth and wellbeing.
As I survey the writings of eastern masters I saw a reoccurring theme. Repeatedly, They would say, you can practice martial arts as a purely physical pursuit if you wish. There is merit in that. But to live a martial art, you must also train your consciousness to merge with the Spirit of Life.
I would go further and argue that, while a martial art may be practiced without the accompanying spiritual virtues, to teach one so, is like offering someone a firearm, without first instructing them on its use and safety. The ability to do harm to others must be accompanied with the ethics of when to and not to use it.
We learn, from the example of the chivalric stories that, though a knight may win a hundred tournaments, it is he who has learned to master his own carnal appetites and desires, that is the most praiseworthy of warriors. For, although Sir Lancelot du Lac was the greatest warrior in King Arthur’s kingdom, he could not sit in the coveted Siege Perilous because that seat was reserved for a Knight that had attained Spiritual purity.
Why are martial disciplines of a warrior such great ladder rungs for developing a spiritual life? Because of the way they force us to confront death.
The old adage has proven itself true time and again. “There are no atheists in the foxhole.”
Death, or the eminence of our own death- forces us to look beyond our physical reality and consider the unseen realm of the eternal spirit. The fight or flight genetic response strips away all our pretenses of self and reveals our true nature. The facades and false vibratos quickly vanish when faced with a life threatening altercation.
Courage is something you really can’t be sure you have, until you need it. In battle for the first time, some men have it, and some men do not.
This is where martial combat and spirituality converge. In their practice- even in simulated combat, we can train our souls to manifest the spiritual truths we have embraced in our heart.
In this since your warrior training is a type of religion? What do I mean by this? The definition of religion is a disciplined approach to developing oneself spiritually.
For example, attending church, praying, reading ones Bible, paying your tithes- these things contribute to ones spirituality, but they are not one’s spirituality. If those practices are all there is to your spiritual walk, there is not spiritual life.
However, those things are needed tools to developing a true Christian spirituality in one’s life. Those things are one’s religion.
The word religion has developed a bad connotation in modern culture. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard those who are unwittingly religious say, “It’s not about religion. It’s about relationship.” And “I don’t want religion, I want relationship!”
I understand that the heart of this statement is true. That religion- or form- without relationship-or function- is useless. We must, of course avoid the trap of “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.”
However, I’d humble submit that both the wine (what is on the inside) and the wine-skin (what contains it- on the outside) are both important. Without the good wine-skin, the wine goes bad. Without the good wine, the outer shell is nothing. We must needs, then, have both, religion as the schoolmaster, to develop our relationship with the Creator.
See, in scriptures, religion does not carry such a negative connotation. Praying regularly, is religion. Attending church is religion. fasting is religion. reading your bible daily, is religion. These are disciplines that are used to develop our spirituality. Regularly caring for the widows and orphans is, according to scripture, religion.
All religions serve, as a primary purpose, to prepare us for death, and to eliminate the fear of death. Every religion I can think of, serves as a primary purpose, to prepare the practitioner for a “good death” or a worshipful death, as the Arthurian legends call it, and for a good afterlife. The Chod Rite of Tibettan monks are initiated by sitting in a graveyard, inviting deamons to come and destroy them, to overcome their fear of darkness and evil.
Buddhism focuses on the brevity of life, as does Islam.
Christianity hits it head-on at the beginning of discipleship. New believers are instructed to become “conformable to the death” and burial of Jesus, by renouncing our old ways and being immersed in water (a symbolic the grave) in the name of him who faced the ultimate death with courage and grace. In this we receive the promise that we too, will raise from the grave, and walk in new life in the last days.
The training of a warrior serves too then as a kind of religion, preparing one to face battle, combat, or any other form of death, “enduring hardship as a good soldier.” If warriors die in combat, that is ok. Because they have fought well, acted bravely nobly, and have secured for themselves praise in this life, and a good standing in the life to come.
I am reminded of the Civil war general Thomas Jonathan Jackson. His men marveled, as hailstorms of bullets flew all about, that their leader sat stoically upon his horse “Like a stonewall.” His men asked, “How can you be so calm in the face of pending death?”
He answered simply that “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.” And so he forever sealed for himself the beloved nickname, Stonewall Jackson.
See, fear of death is the greatest obstacle to a warrior. Freedom from the fear of death releases great power. This is not to say that one should be foolish or careless with the precious gift that is their life. For it is well said that courage lies somewhere between recklessness and cowardice.
This is why I argue that being a warrior can be, if properly approached, a spiritual pursuit. Most people spend their lives, lulling themselves into a false sense of security, thinking they can prolong their lives by insulating themselves from harm. But a simple walk through a graveyard reveals that death is an equal opportunity employer. It comes for the rich and the poor. The young and the old. How dieth the wise man? Even as a fool. But when one is emancipated from fear of death, he is then free to do great feats, feats that will secure for himself a more noble death when death does come, as it surely will.
So what are we hoping to gain through our training and discipline? Inner peace? A closer communion with the Creator? Do these things sound silly and awkward to you?
They will, until you become embattled and you don’t know where to find them.
When a man is embattled, his metal is tested and he discovers his true self, and confronts his true self. Therefore, should all men should prepare themselves. We cannot wait to the day of battle to learn good character. We must be ready, on the day of battle to present good character.
At the outset of this book, I told the Old Testament story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. There was, if you will recall, a moment when the bodies of the warriors were completely reassembled. But the spirit, the life, the breath of the warriors had not yet reentered them.
I told that story becauseI believe we are at that point in the Christian warrior ethos. We have, for hundreds of years, catered to only the mothering and nurturing aspect of our Christian nature. But there is also the fatherly nature of the protector and provider that has gone neglected.
We have seen the martial skills of our spiritual forefathers reconstructed. But there remains something missing- The spirit of our Christian warrior ethic- Davidic ethic, the knightly code of Chivalry.
I realize it is a bold endeavor, but what I seek to do in this book, is to speak to the four winds, if you would. And to see the spirit of the Christian knight, the chivalric code, breathed into the lifeless warrior, so that we may stand again, as the mighty assembly of goodly, knightly, noble and warriors God has called us to be.
I am not so foolish as to believe that there was ever a time whien knights lived as nobly as legend paints. But it was the standard they strove for. And the probability that it was never fully attained in the past, will not keep me from the faith that we cannot manifest it now.