Swords and Culture

· 924 words · about 5 minutes

The sword is a universal symbol of the warrior class. Samurai, European knights, Cossacks... the sword has a special place in martial cultures around the world. Some aspects may be romanticised, or the stuff of myth and legend, but nonetheless each culture has developed sword methods that reflect their needs. In some cases those methods change over time, such as the move in Europe from broadsword to rapier for example. Of course technology has an impact too – with the advent of firearms, older weapons were reduced to more of a ceremonial role (with some exceptions of course – even the longbow was used at least once in WW2!)

While each culture has its own sword methods, it is also fair to say that there are universal principles governing sword use. After all, a sword is either an edge or a point and there are only so many ways to stab or slash. If we strip away cultural aspects we are left with a tool like any other. If we accept this is the case, then can we use Systema to learn something about using a sword?

I think we can – but it rather depends on how we view and approach Systema. If we see it as a collection of techniques, cool moves or basic combatives, then maybe not. However I think that misses the big picture. If we instead view Systema as an “operating system” or as a method of behavioural training, it becomes much easier to see how we can use a sword, or any other tool or weapon come to that.

This was the premise of a workshop we ran on sword training a while back. We were fortunate to have experienced practitioners of different sword styles present, so were able to explore various Eastern And Western approaches to the sword . We then worked on some of the basic principles common to all via our Systema training... body movement, angles, breathing and posture, footwork, developing precision, becoming comfortable handling the sword and so on. Everyone got the chance to work with different types of sword and we finished the day with some cutting and sparring drills in order to test skills – and have some fun!

Does this mean that after the workshop we could take on and beat an experienced Samurai warrior? No, probably not – but it does mean people have at least a working familiarity with the blade and the ground is laid for any future development.

I understand that some people may not like this approach – particularly if they have a strong interest in a particular culture. Let me make it clear that I value the positive aspects of all cultures and think we are fortunate to live in a time when we have access to so much cultural information. There are numerous groups either keeping old traditions alive, or re-discovering and recreating them where there is a broken lineage. I remember some years back taking Sergei Ozhereliev to the Leeds Armoury (thanks to the late John Dovey). We were taken behind the scenes and given some great displays of mediaeval sword fighting from the experts there – very interesting and I recommend a visit if you get the chance.

However I also have my own cultural background and, in terms of nuts and bolts self defence, operate in the time and place I am in now. As such I feel it is important to learn how to operate outside of cultural restrictions from another time and place. I realise the appeal of the “exotic” of course and, in the past, have seen how people can sometimes get a bit carried away with their interests - talking with an acquired accent for example – but it is all good as long as things are kept in perspective.

I remember, when I was first promoting Systema in the UK, being asked to remove a post about Russian martial arts from a forum run by senior English exponent of traditional Japanese styles. He said he wanted it removed because of “what the Soviets did in the Czech uprising” and other places. Fair enough, I complied in order to be polite, it was his forum after all. I did wonder though if I should recount to him a family member’s experience as a Japanese POW, or the experiences of my wife’s family when the Japanese overran Singapore? You see it’s all relative and every culture has its “dark side”.

I also remember my old pal Dave Nicholson saying once... “Great Britain is a small island that had the largest Empire ever seen, arguably the finest professional army and arguably the “best” football hooligans...and everyone wants to come here to teach us how to fight!” Of course culture, ethnicity, background are no guarantee or skill or understanding, particularly in areas that are universal.

Back to Systema though – I believe if you train correctly, you should be able to turn your hand to almost anything, with a bit of time and training. The core fundamentals of our training are universal. Barriers to learning can often be psychological as much as physical. The only limits to what and how you train are your own creativity, legal/moral issues and logistics. Why not give yourself a chance to explore something different, you may find it unlocks another area of study and you will also find any new skills acquired feed back into your “regular” work – and if you ever need protecting from large plastic bottles filled with water...you know who to call....

Sword Workshop download available now