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THE SECOND SMALLEST CONTINENT IN THE WORLD EUROPE contains wealthy and extremely diverse community of cultures. In most peoples’ minds, it is probably not a continent particularly associated with indigenous martial arts. However, Europe has a long and fascinating martial arts history. As power-bases among civilizations came and went—often as a result of violent conflict and large-scale warfare—martial arts developed as a response to the environment in which warriors found themselves.

THE TERM "MARTIAL ART" comes from Latin—it means “the arts of Mars,” after the Roman god of war—and was coined to celebrate the martial prowess Roman gladiators displayed during their bloody and brutal battles in the arena. And although most popular Western indigenous martial-art forms have gone on to become sports—such as fencing and many forms of boxing they really only represent the tip of the iceberg. The European tradition of martial arts is actually as rich and engaging as that found in Asia, and many European art forms offer their practitioners enhanced self-development capabilities.

Mars - Roman God Of War

A founding father
The best-known European martial art is Pankration, an unarmed combat technique. A combination of Greek boxing, wrestling, and grappling, it focused on the use of knees, elbows, kicks, punches, and chopping movements, alongside joint-locks and choke-holds. It was a brutal, competitive sport and, although eye-gouging and biting were forbidden, pretty much anything else was acceptable. The goal of the game was to force an opponent to submit and, in many ways, this 2,000-year-old art bears a striking resemblance to the modern mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting championship movements prevalent in martial arts today.

Pankration was so effective that the young Alexander the Great, on his conquest to dominate the world, trained his troops rigorously in pankration for close-quarter, hand-to-hand battle with the enemy, along with the use of the spear, the shield, and the sword. His conquest of Asia would certainly have led to a cross-fertilization of fighting techniques between the Greek warriors and the indigenous civilizations with whom they came into contact.

Alexander The Great

Martial arts were also popular in ancient Rome, not only as a gladiatorial sport but also among civilians of many different social classes, who would engage in knife-fighting for self-defense. Highly codified fighting systems evolved as a result of this fashion and, as the Roman Empire went into decline, other indigenous martial arts started to prosper: records of Germanic and Celtic warrior practices, for example, show detailed training methods  and a complex repertoire of movements, in addition to alternative philosophical beliefs.

Knights - Jousting Moving with the times
The knights of the Middle Ages were the romanticized ideal and embodiment of martial arts and chivalry. They developed a staggering array of weapons for combat, training, and sport, such as those used in Jousting. Technological advances and improved metal-forging techniques during this period saw drastic improvements in armor, some of which was so well crafted that the United States’ space agency, NASA, still studies medieval plate-armor design when it develops new spacesuits today.

Martial arts and religion
Christian monks have a close connection with European martial-art traditions, much as Buddhist or Daoist monks influenced Asian martial arts. In the 13th century, Germanic monks were well known for practicing martial arts as a sport, a pastime, as a means of improving their fitness, and so that they could defend both their churches and their religious beliefs. Some Western monks were so proficient in unarmed wrestling matches that even knights were often unwilling to challenge them through fear of losing face. If challenged by monks, many knights would only engage them in weapons fighting, as traditionally a knight’s sword skills were second to none.

Literary resources
Many quality publications, dating back centuries, can be found describing the techniques, philosophy, and tactics of ancient European martial arts. Fabian von Auerswald produced a fascinating illustrated manual in the 1500s, which describes, in good detail, joint-locking techniques, throwing methods, and pin holds, alongside ground grappling and other wrestling tactics.

One of the most famous literary sources, the Collecteanea, first published in 1509 by master of arms Pietro Monte, is a body of literature on weapons, mounted fighting, and wrestling. The work outlines the importance of physical fitness in relation to being an effective warrior. The book also describes fighting tactics and the underlying philosophy of exploiting vulnerable areas and openings in the opponent’s guard and attack—similar to the philosophies found in Asian martial arts.

An illustrated guide written by Johann Georg Paschen in 1659, Vollstandiges Ring-Buch, describes martial-art techniques such as parrying, boxinglike punches, arm locks, and finger jabs, along with submission holds, chokes, and techniques for countering and disarming assailants with edged weapons.

Eastern European Martial Arts
Russia has also had a long history of martial-arts practice, both in unarmed wrestling and in weapons-based arts. Some of these arts were so effective that, when Peter the Great assumed power in 1682, one of his first acts of office was to ban stick fighting among the peasants. Banning the practice of martial arts has been a common occurrence throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures and was used as a tactic to thwart any possibility of warrior clans challenging the government or power-base in authority at the time.

Change of direction
The biggest change to the face of European martial arts, however, came during the late 1600s with the advent of firearms. This naturally led to a decline in the practice of unarmed martial arts and those employing edged weapons. This technological advancement quickly swept the world and led to an unprecedented transmutation of combat arts. As a result, the emphasis of martial arts shifted more toward self-defense and self-development, as opposed to the previous, more brutal emphasis on battlefield killing.




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