What is a martial art… historically that is


What is a martial art…

Historically that is

The question comes back again and again and is, of course, the subject of passionate debates among martial artists. Where does the mythical “martial” aspect begins and ends? Is an art about aesthetics or simply a set of skills? Can a combat sport be a martial art as well? There are probably as many definitions today as there are different martial arts, and if you are looking to settle the issue once and for all… this article won’t really give you the answer you crave. Instead, what I wish to do here is to examine where (and when) the term originates and how it came to hold the meaning it has today.


Was there “a” martial art?

It might come as a shock to some (outside of HEMA), but although many popular dictionaries today define martial arts as being by nature Asian, the origin of the term martial art as very little to do with Asia; as would be evident to anyone with a knowledge of Roman mythology. That said, the term itself isn’t quite as old as Antiquity.

Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact origin, it appears that it began to be used in the Renaissance, but not quite with the same intent. In fact, the arts of Mars were not only the domain of individual combat but rather a category which contained all the arts that a warrior should know and practice such as strategy, riding or fencing. For example, while Pallas Armata in 1639 talks of “that famous Martial art of fencing”[1], Francis Malthus uses it to talk about artillery in 1646:” les règles et les méthodes par lesquelles les hommes studieux en cet art martial peuvent maintenant manier toutes ces machines merveilleuses.” (the rules and methods by how the men studious in this martial art can now handle all these wonderful machines).[2]

Another example, this time, was taken from The evening telegraph., May 05, 1866.

A letter scrap of Donizetti, written in a rapid and inky chirography, nicely stroked and dotted, the name of the master easily legible, contrasting curiously with the neat score of Bellini. These autographs were each sold for $1-25. The military lines of writings, sometimes as strategic and puzzling as any lover of the martial art could wish, extend from the simple sign-manual of Colonel Ethan Allen up to Washington, and back to Prince Eugene, Frederick the Great, Wallenstein, Tilley, Charles the Twelfth, and Gustavus Adolphus.

The article itself discusses the collecting of autographs. In this example, it is clear that what is referred to as the martial art is not individual fighting, but military strategy. These three examples show us a variety of uses for a term which does not appear that popular. Pallas Armata is probably one of the only martial art treatise that actually uses it – which should tell us a lot – while most other instances are found in poems.

The word “art” here bears no connection to notions of aesthetics, which seems to be a common point of confusion when discussing martial arts today, as many practitioners think that it relates to a certain ideal of beauty or grace. It is the art defined as a learned and highly applied technique or skill, not as a purely creative expression. Etymologically, “art” comes from the Latin ars meaning ability, craft or technical knowledge. It was used in old French (10th century) before being introduced into the English language around the 13th century. Its association with the creative arts only begins in the 1600s and fine arts in the mid-1700s.[3]

As for “martial”, it appears around the late 14th century coming either from French or Latin martialis and is of course connected to Mars and war, but was the connection to the Roman god always so obvious?[6]


The arts of Mars… or is it Sol?

Interestingly the association with Mars was not always a popular one. For many Mars was the god of destructive and savage warfare and the god who was commonly presented as its opposite was Sol Invictus, patron of soldiers, who also represented the fencers and wrestlers. So Medieval and Renaissance fencers might not have necessarily appreciated being associated with the god of war as much as is common today, but perhaps more to his now forgotten cousin.

The Seven Planets Children of Mars, by Baccio Baldini 1464

Mars here represents all that is despicable in warfare: pillage, murder, rape. It is the chaotic and destructive war. From The Seven Planets, Children of Mars by Baccio Baldini 1467

The Seven Planets Children of the Sun, 1464

While Sol represents the arts of war in a much more favorable light, that of the pious and noble. The wrestlers and fencers show their skill but do not use it for destruction. Representations such as these were very popular until the late Renaissance. From The Seven Planets, Children of the Sun by Baccio Baldini 1467


Translating the arts of war

The term continued to be used in this general fashion, although very sporadically, until the 20th century when the West discovered the fighting arts of Asia. The first to use the term in this way is usually thought to be by Ernest John Harrison, a British writer and judoka, in his 1912 publication  The Fighting Spirit of Japan and Other Studies.[4] It is not clear if Harrison intended to give a new narrower meaning to this term, or if he simply wanted to translate bujutsu – roughly translated as art, science or technique of war and which itself included many different arts – but his book proved to be one of the first widely available references in the field and continued to be popular for many decades, which possibly helped in launching the use of the term.


E.J. Harrison is commonly regarded as the first author to have used “martial art” in its modern sense, although it appears that other journalists were already using it to refer to Judo for example

Other authors began to use the term, mostly in academic journals and specialized volumes until the 1960s. The rise in popularity of Chinese and Japanese cinema created a demand for more publications on Asian martial arts, and it is probably through the Black Belt magazine that”martial art” finally entered the larger public’s consciousness. I wasn’t able to find the content of the first Black Belt issue, but the second one published in 1962 made ample use of the expression; although it still used it in a more general sense, and even in relation to Europe as a comparative article on European knights and Japanese samurais attests.[5] It is unclear at this moment when it came to be associated exclusively with the arts of Asia, but it clearly was not intended at that time.

Following this, the mentions of “martial art” in literature grew steadily, but according to  Ngram research it is in 1973 that it truly exploded. A possible explanation lies not in literature this time but in cinema. In 1972, the Kung Fu TV series oppened, and in 1973 Bruce Lee had passed away while his movie Enter the Dragon opened up to a massive box office success, paving the way to a martial art fad and industry which has been growing ever since.


Although far from being completely reliable (being limited in part by what Google has available), this Ngram graph shows how mentions of “martial art” in publications rose around 1960 and jumped in 1973

So while the term martial art truly has its roots in European culture, it is through the introduction of the Asian traditions to the West that it really took on the meaning that is popularly used today. Still it is important to consider the origin of the term when considering both its historical and present use.


Bruce Lee and his movie Enter the Dragon truly cemented the idea of martial art in popular imagination

[1] G.A. (1639). Pallas armata. The gentlemans armorie: Wherein the right and genuine use of the rapier and of the sword, as well against the right handed as against the left handed man is displayed. Printed at London: By I. D[awson] for Iohn Williams, at the Signe of the Crane in S. Pauls Church-yard.

[2] Malthus, F. (1646). Pratique de la guerre, contenant l’usage de l’artillerie, bombes et mortiers, feux artificiels et pétards, sappes et mines, ponts et pontons, tranchées et travaux, avec l’ordre des assauts aux brèches et à la fin les feux de joie, par le sieur Malthus. Paris: I. Guillemot.

[3] Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2016, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=art

[4] Harrison, E. (1913). The fighting spirit of Japan and other studies,. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons;.

[5] (1962). Black Belt: The Magazine of Self Defense. Jan, No.2.

[6] Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2016, from


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