Interview with ARMA Director John Clements: Renaissance Martial Arts and HEMA

John Clements began his journey into historical European martial arts to rediscover the historical basis of techniques and move sets found in Western fencing. In 1995, he took the helm of Hank Reinhardt’s Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA) and then, in 2000, reconceived it into the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) and helped spearhead the growing HEMA movement. Today, Clements talked to Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow about the beginnings of the HEMA movement, ARMA, and where the future will take both. All images provided by John Clements.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome! Thank you for joining us for this conversation!

John Clements: Thank you. I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: You began training historical fencing in 1980, the beginning of a high popularity point in Asian martial arts. What aspect of historical fencing, and later HEMA, drew you to begin your journey instead of an Asian martial art?

JC: I got tired of being told that the “West” had no “martial arts” and I lost patience with fencing coaches (and stage combat authorities) who could not explain the origins of modern sport fencing, nor describe why arms and armor had changed over the centuries. I found the pomposity and pseudo-etiquette in both reenactment societies and Asian martial arts unappealing and their weapon skills unimpressive compared to what I was already learning to do with a sword and shield or a foil and saber. After discovering Egerton Castle’s 1885 book on schools and masters of defence, it led me to pursue my own answers and develop my own prowess that quickly proved effective against Asian stylists, reenactors, and sport fencers alike. But just as with everyone else, I had no real idea what I was doing up until around 1995.

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first started? Was it an instructor teaching from a treatise or were there already competent instructors that could teach from several treatises? In your opinion, how has training evolved or adapted since you began HEMA?

John Clements.

JC: There really weren’t any instructors. That’s why I eventually became my own. Back then, virtually no one — individual or group — was relying on the source teachings of the historical masters of defence as their primary subject. People were really only doing living-history reenactment, costumed role-play, some classical fencing, and of course choreographed stunt fight performances. They were not systematically studying the subject as a true martial art nor were they focused on reconstructing and recovering it in an organized way as a modern curricula using accurate weapons or simulators. The ARMA was the first to ever make this our sole purpose and stated goal — even with just a handful of sources to study. Since then, the amount and quality of equipment available has improved tremendously and the number of reliably translated sources has gone from a tiny handful to dozens upon dozens.

MAYTT: In the larger HEMA community, there is emphasis in conducting and publishing research, which you have done for most of your career. What inspired you to take up the scholarship aspect of HEMA and how closely are training and scholarship tied? How does each aspect influence the other?

JC: When I first started publishing articles and did some books, it was really just meant as a way of shouting to the public “this is real, pay attention to it.” I did not originally think of my writing as “research” or “scholarship” at first. I had to be “educated” into the academic side. Having been a reader of Asian martial arts literature, wherein there is virtually no academic standards, reliance on primary sources, or rules of provenance and documentation at work, it colored my own approach to writing and hindered my early work. And because I am not a translator but an “interpreter,” I had to draw on several less than reliable individuals for material. I was influenced at first though by Christoph Amberger, Matt Gallas, and later Dr. Sydney Anglo, into making sure anything that I discovered or interpreted included a properly cited reference or historical source. Over the years since, I’ve collected and sat on far more material than I’ve yet to publish.

I have become something of a fanatical advocate for “arma et litterae” — or the inseparable connection between arms and letters. Scholarship and hands-on practice are a symbiotic necessity in this field.

MAYTT: I can see how such an endeavor would need a “two-pronged” plan. In 1995, you gained permission from Hank Reinhardt to take over the Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA) and refocus it into what would become the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA). How did you feel assuming a leadership role in the isolated HEMA community? Was there an enormous pressure on you to make something that the majority of HEMA practitioners would feel comfortable joining and participating in the discourse of historical treatises?

JC: It has to be understood there really was no “HEMA community” in the mid-90s. I was one of the very first to just start using the phrase “historical fencing” for our subject both in print and at academic conferences (I believe I was the first to actually coin the phrase “historical European fighting arts” because I abhorred the emerging term “Western Martial Arts” (WMA)). Regardless, my main targets were the ubiquitous nonsense being perpetuated by the “Society of Creative Anachronism” (SCA) and by sport fencing and stage combat professionals. Neither knew a thing about these martial arts nor had done anything to reclaim or redevelop them as legitimate self-defense systems — that includes Reinhardt who was only interested in playing with weapons and coming up with sparring rules. He was never a student of the historical sources and even belittled them — which is why we eventually parted ways un-amicably.

As for myself, I have always had my loyalty to my constituent members and students first, and then the goal to educate the larger public about our subject. I don’t owe anything to anyone else. In order to set standards and provide a curriculum, it’s not going to be done by a committee of amateurs, but by someone with demonstrable expertise stepping up and working at it in person. Doing so will always rub some people the wrong way. Besides, any sense of being a “leader” in a “community” was ruined by the near constant theft of my original interpretations and lesson plans, plagiarism of my discoveries and online materials without recognition or acknowledgement, the underhanded cloning of our organization by would-be competitors, and the deceit by certain people who went on to proclaim themselves “community leaders” without admitting my personal instruction and my contributions given to them. The final straw was certain unscrupulous business persons who did not get the endorsements and recommendations from us that they wanted for their commercial products and efforts at creating sporting events. Facing this leaves you with the choice of either standing up for principle or standing aside.

MAYTT: In addition to refocusing and repurposing HACA to ARMA, the organization became a “leading force in the revival of Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills,” mainly as an online resource. How did you accomplish such a feat in the late 1990s? How has ARMA retained such a status in the HEMA community during a time where the Internet has allowed for multiple avenues to the same types of resources?

JC: This was really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. My career in the mid-90s gave me the opportunity to set things up online with a few colleagues. I saw right away that following the model originally conceived by Egerton Castle and Alfred Hutton in the 1890s, the sharing of this material and trying to get more and more of it was the only way to prove the legitimacy of our subject and ensure it had the credibility and authenticity it deserved. We wanted to destroy the fantasy and misconceptions surrounding Medieval and Renaissance fencing. We were tired of everything about it being only the theatrical “external accoutrements” and not genuine pragmatic “internal skills.” The idea that there should be no role-play, no sport, and no choreography, but only research and experiment seemed obvious, yet virtually no one was taking this approach. It wasn’t cheap though, to get sources, digitize them, and keep them online back then. So, we went behind a paywall in order to fund the site and keep our private study material while developing our in-house program. A lot of people at the time were annoyed by this because they could no longer just borrow what we were doing and call it their own anymore. Both traditional Asian martial arts dojos as well as most Renaissance schools of arms, each made it standard practice to keep their training material private, so we can hardly be criticized for doing much the same ourselves.

Clements teaching a class at his Iron Door School of Arms.

In the decades since, I have continued to keep our membership small by screening applicants, refusing commercial advertising of any kind, and maintaining the majority of our influential training program behind a paywall — even as a good portion of it continues to be plagiarized. Having a member funded site and offering a sound testing system of proven standards is how I’ve been able to make this subject into my profession. Nowadays, a handful of teenagers can throw up a website, print some logo T-shirts, read some books, buy some feders and the next thing you know they’re putting up YouTube videos telling you how to fight like Fiore dei Liberi. I don’t blame them, but it’s kind of absurd, really. [Laughs] They certainly don’t have the vacuum of source material that we had to deal with, but they definitely still lack basic understanding of personal combat principles.

MAYTT: Within Asian martial arts, organizations play a dual role of keeping schools and instructors in contact with one another and to provide an avenue back to the art’s roots in the country of origin. With HEMA, the respective arts’ roots are present in the treatises available. As the leader of ARMA, what role do organizations play within the HEMA community?

JC: If I understand the question, then I can say that the study group concept I pioneered allows each individual — whether as a solo practitioner or with a local class — to work within our training program’s curricula and if they wish it, towards public testing in our ranking system (Prize Playing). “Real world skills from real history” is what we are all about. All I do is set and enforce those standards of testing along with our ARMA Credo (code of conduct). Without such a code, then, there is no ethical dimension and personal character improvement that true martial arts historically have always had. Otherwise, I stay out of all local politics within the membership and do not allow even the slightest politics to interfere internally with our content or goals.

A lot of martial arts federations and associations are really just about franchising and paying out credentials rather than seriously upholding standards. This is why today there are so many tens of thousands of bad martial arts schools and inept teachers out there who continually splinter off from one another. Our model is that of the fighting guilds of the Renaissance, not modern sport fencing clubs or modern Asian martial arts federations. This means no “committees” contriving regulations or reducing things to the lowest common denominator or promoting their personal agendas for profit and status. If this makes outsiders call us exclusionary or elitist, then I wear that badge with honor.

MAYTT: That clarifies the differences between Asian martial art organizations and ARMA. A few HEMA websites and timelines terms the events occurring in the 2009/2010 timeframe as the “Great Schism,” mentioning a Kevin Maurer as a catalyst for the overall event. Could you describe some of the factors leading up to the event and what occurred in its aftermath?

JC: My understanding is that this Kevin Maurer, whom I’m pretty sure I only met briefly on one occasion and don’t even remember making any impression, had a public emotional breakdown over his private life prior to sending a bizarre email to me threatening to physically harm myself and my family and promising to “destroy the ARMA.” That did not go over very well with me personally, to say the least, nor with a large contingent of our members. His threat was forwarded to authorities. However, a contingent of some two dozen or so members — largely belonging to a Utah-centered segment of the Mormon Church (LDS) — morally failed not only to condemn his threat but disputed his rightful expulsion. They used the opportunity instead to try to assert their prominence in our club’s structure and change it. When this failed, they moved to set themselves up in competition because I was not enabling senior members to earn monetary compensation for teaching the skill sets I had taught them through my program. There was no mechanism in place at the time for senior ARMA members to become commercially professional in a manner similar to what I have been doing (the subject is just still too immature for that to happen). Everything else about this is distracting online bullshit, “he said, they said” personality politics garbage. But I’m the one with the gigabytes of these folk making statements on videos, podcasts, thousands of email correspondences, private forum posts, and even postal letters, all revealing their hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and deceit. I and those that matter hold the evidence. In the end, anyone who would defend someone that psychotically made the threats this disturbed man did — entirely out of the blue — only strengthened our determination to screen members for character.

But, as one professional martial arts instructor friend of mine told me at the time, “John, if you’ve never had a schism in your school, you’re not a real martial art style.” [Laughs] Okay, check mark that.

MAYTT: Outside of yourself, as someone who has accomplished much within the HEMA subject and growing awareness around the European fighting arts, who would you consider as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?

JC: Other than recognizing the obvious significance of Dr. Sydney Anglo’s seminal book in 2000, I honestly cannot answer that. Because in my circle, in my fighting guild, in my private school of defense, in the ARMA training program, we haven’t felt or noticed any particular person that we would describe as “instrumental” or “crucial” in the USA, as you put it. If we look at it in terms of “impact” or “influence on what we do,” well, we’re not really feeling it in our curriculum or testing standards. Everyone has their limitations, their particular area of specialty, their narrow focus, such that it typically can help as much as hinder any given practitioner from their work. Besides, whether they’re teaching classes, posting videos, running a blog, authoring books, or selling products, how do you single out one person? And I don’t think someone essentially being a translator of sources is enough — especially if the translator colors his presentation of the original teachings with flawed interpretations and abysmal biomechanics. There’s a number of individuals that off the top of my head come to mind as having provided invaluable research material however, such as Jeff Forgen, Daniel Jacquet, Dierk Hagedorn, and there are plenty of folk out there that I think have shown impressive physical aptitude or done some particular invaluable research. But at the same time, I may disagree with fundamental aspects of their study approach or their training methodology or point out limitations about their perspectives. So, either way, anyone I might mention or fail to mention in an answer results in someone or another getting snubbed. Sorry.

MAYTT: I understand. HEMA’s popularity has grown since the inception of the modern revival movement, though it is not as popular as other martial arts or physical activities. What factors do you feel currently hinder HEMA to achieve that type of popularity and notoriety and are there plans within both ARMA and the community to tackle such factors?

JC: If comparing it to the popularity of traditional Asian fighting arts, well, understand they have built-in interest groups and lobbyist blocks within entire nations. They have whole government agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in countries that proudly promote and sponsor their styles as matters of indigenous cultural heritage. And their practice in the West has been commercialized for some sixty to seventy years now. They not only commonly have children and youth programs, all manner of sporting events and competitive versions, and display-oriented performance and ritual styles, but practical modern self-defence classes on top of all that. We simply cannot compare that advantage to our young subject which in contrast has a built-in level of pop culture misrepresentation and fantasy distortion going back to the 19th century!

What we do is still associated with either the spectacle of knightly tournaments, silly Renaissance festival shows, or confused with the artificialities of modern Olympic/collegiate fencing. For another matter, whether you are focused on one particular era from the Middle Ages or one region in the Renaissance, you not only need a credible extant pedagogy of proven drills and exercises to follow, you need the gear to go with it. Not only this, but our craft is largely weapon-based. And studying it requires a range of safety procedures along with specialized equipment that is not cheap. Since we don’t have the legacy of schools and lineage of teachers, we are, to use an analogy, having to rebuild the car while simultaneously trying to learn to drive it.

So, if “popularity” is the goal, then inevitably what you’re seeking is to water things down for the lowest common denominator in order to increase quantity over quality. I for one don’t believe the craft was ever intended for that nor do I wish to see it become that even as it’s still being carefully re-discovered and reconstituted. Additionally, the fact that, unlike the popular Asian styles, our subject requires a significant amount of academic study as well as hands-on training in accurate replica weaponry, rather than mere toy versions or sporting equivalents, is a distinction I hold in pride. Increasing awareness of our subject is definitely something to work towards. But when it comes to fighting arts, popularization I would say invariably leads not to refinement, but to alteration, homogenization, and deterioration.

MAYTT: There are many activities and martial arts for the average person to choose from in today’s society. In your experience, what makes HEMA unique compared to other physical activities and weapons-based martial arts?

JC: The study of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe, or Marē as we prefer to call it, has a sense of excitement and discovery, of exploration, research, and experimentation that simply does not exist in the practice of traditional Asian martial arts styles. The Asian martial arts are essentially “done” — they are established and fixed and in only a few instances, cannot be questioned or modified. With few exceptions, I consider them to be largely circus fighting — hyped up and watered down but missing that functional middle. They’re either ossified into what Bruce Lee once called “organized despair” and Musashi labeled “schools of ill repute,” or else they are so modified into amalgamated eclecticism that they no longer hold connection to the original cultural and historical milieus that created them in the first place. Whereas by contrast, we can look at our source literature and heed the direct lessons from the words of a hundred different masters as they were written at the time. Instead of the oral tradition that is inherently prone to change, we can study our craft without the fog of centuries of civilianization, theatricalization, sportification, and hyperbolization that de-martializes them into something they weren’t.

Renaissance martial arts welcomes the individual practitioner’s analysis, interpretation, and dialectic investigation in a manner that no comparable martial art tradition or modern self-defense system can approach. Whether you’re looking at this as the cultural heritage of your forebears or as a larger part of humanity’s global inheritance, it’s simply more exciting, more interesting, and more challenging than study of the now overly familiar authoritarian Asian methods. When the ethical and spiritual dimensions of the Masters of Defence are included, I think its uniqueness is profound. On top of this, the significance of sparring or bouting as a form of mock combat is an inseparable aspect of our craft. Yet, discounting a few sport versions, there are virtually no traditional Asian martial art weapon styles that make adversarial free play with realistic blunt steel weapons (let alone in armor) a major component of their training. They will do virtually everything except allow students to engage in armed contact sparring either one on one or in group skirmish.

Clements demonstrating for a class at his Iron Door School of Arms.

MAYTT: Final question. Barring the current COVID situation, where do you see ARMA going in the next ten years? How will ARMA continue to raise awareness of HEMA and further the overall understanding of European fighting arts?

JC: Well, to begin with, we’re certainly not going to call it “HEMA,” but Marē — because that is what it specifically is. As Dr. Anglo showed, we have but one source work that is arguably “Medieval,” and everything else falls into the historical period that is arguably the Renaissance era. Controversial as the view may sound to some, in terms of its conception, description, expression, and conduct, the study sources for our craft directly lie within that epoch, that geographic region, and that social and military environment. I have done considerable writing on this matter and when someone asks me what my “martial art style” is, I don’t say “historical European martial arts” and I don’t abbreviate it as “HEMA” — a vague, generalized, temporally nondescript acronym that actually describes very little in reference to Medieval and Renaissance combat arts. In one sense, I don’t believe we should even have to qualify our martial art at all with any historical descriptor other than the term “martial art” itself — the Artes of Mars. After all, Asian martial arts don’t have to do anything like this, because their styles use their own proper national names. But, since there is no one single term that was used across the European continent to describe in all languages what are pan-European self-defense methods that varied and evolved over more than a 350 year period, we need an actual name today. Hence, the choice to use the neologism Marē (pronounced as “mar-ee”) to refer to the documented combatives and European fighting systems of approximately 1350-1650. I don’t care if it catches on or not with the public. But our fighting manuals are not ancient Greek or Roman or Celtic or Byzantine or Viking and we are not pursuing Baroque and later methods, just those of the Renaissance. So, we call it what it is.

For where I see ARMA going, all I can say is that it has always been and continues to be an experiment: how to authentically recover and reconstitute extinct combat systems from original sources in a way that avoids turning it into a modernized recreational hobby, performance art, or escapist LARPing. It might be commonplace now, but this approach is still one of our central driving values. We will remain as a fighting-centric alternative to softer, slower programs, competitive-based efforts, and reenactment focused activities. While the popularity of sport versions will unfortunately grow at the expense of earnest self-defense study, ARMA will in the meanwhile continue focusing exclusively on the recovery and reestablishment of these lost teachings as legitimate self-defense styles. We will continue to refine and polish both our curricula and our testing standards through experiment and research. We will keep working toward both effective modern applications as well confident historical understanding. If doing this means we remain a small elite community, then much like monks in the Middle Ages or a noble family in a Renaissance city state, that will be ARMA’s path.

One final comment: having run my own private school defense for some fifteen years now, I have found that as a “laboratory,” my school of arms curriculum and my personal curriculum have merged while my online members-only curricula has diverged. This is big because you really can’t maintain group standards via digital means. It’s got to be in person, one on one. No matter how hard you try through videos and photos and articles and forum discussions, there’s too much static filtering it. I’ve witnessed a growing disparity between what I do in person in a fight school — surrounded by the advantage of an array of weapons, gear, training equipment, and the wisdom of the Masters — compared to what any given members can do with their resources, inevitably grow apart. It’s a puzzling issue I’m still dealing with. It obviously applies even more so to those doing their own efforts outside our program.

To share an anecdote (that may sound a bit funny, but…): I once had breakfast with a samurai. He was a leading iaido master and through his interpreter, I bluntly put a direct question to him: “Given that the samurai of 1250 were not the samurai of 1450 who were not the samurai of 1650 let alone those of 1850, exactly what form then of budo or kenjutsu practice are you ‘preserving?’”  To make a long story short, his answer was the only one I really didn’t expect to hear and the only one that I could respect. After a long pause for thought, he sighed and finally answered, “I have pondered this question considerably over the years. The answer is: All of them and none of them.” Wow. That is precisely how I feel about our Art. We are studying everything from Liechtenauer to Alfieri and anything between — even as we appreciate how the arms and armor and their methods changed substantially over generations such that we can never fully know the complete teachings of any one master or school. Yet, nonetheless, each of us in our own way must continually try.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and providing an interesting conversation!

JC: Thank you. The pleasure was all mine.

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