This blog post is the lecture given by Alan Spaenjaers founder and chief instructor at Sint-Michielsgilde Gouda. It was given during Mortfest 2023, a Historical Fencing event organized by the Flemish HEMA club Arte Mortiferum.
During this lecture, he explores the relationship between philosophy, spirituality and the practice of European martial arts.
I would like to start with a very old story of truth.
In his younger days, Heracles, son of Zeus, found himself at a fork in the road. He sat down on this lonely spot and contemplated the path he should follow. At this moment of doubt, two divine women appeared. Each of them came from a different road. The first, named Kakia ( Vice), was a beautiful presence, clad in seductive clothes and other adornments. She introduced herself firstly and than lay down comfortably along the left part of the fork. This beautiful goddess offered Heracles every temptation he could imagine. She promised him a comfortable life. She vowed that he would never taste any lack, misfortune, fear or pain. Follow me, she said, and all your desires will be fulfilled. She said her friends would call her by the name of Happiness. Those who hated her, however, called her Vice.
On the other road stood a sterner looking lady, Areté (Excellence) in a simple pure white robe. She showed modesty in appearance and demeanour, and according with her appearance she made a more calmer appeal to Heracles. She promised no rewards other than those achieved through hard work. It will be a long journey, she said. There will be sacrifices. There will be scary moments. But it will be a journey for a god. It will make him the person his ancestors intended him to be.
Did this really happen? You can argue that it is just a legend, so does it really matter?
of course, because this story is about us. It's about you and me! It is about our dilemmas. About our own intersections and obstacles. And about the choices we make every day.
It should be obvious which path Heracles chose. He chose for her, the stern goddess Areté, for excellence, and virtue. At this point in Heracles' youthful life before his immortal fame, before the 12 works, before he changed the world , there was this moment of crisis. A life-changing event , as real as we as well experience it. We all face this choice. Like Heracles, we are faced with this choice between vice and virtue, temperance and intemperance, the easy way and the hard way, the well-trodden path and the less trodden path.
Talking about martial virtue seems anachronistic in our contemporary society. Yet I believe it is the other way around. Martial virtue , free from any ego-coloured veil of brutality, reminds us of the highest human virtue: fidelity, self-control, courage and wisdom. Excellence both in mind and body.
It was suggested to me by Joris to guide you through the connections that I oberve between spirituality, philosophy and the practice of European martial arts.
What exactly do I have in mind with this lecture? After this introduction, I want to guide you through my views on chivalry and its resurrection. At First, I will formulate a blueprint of my opinion and definition of chivalry.
To support my views, I must mention the deeper motives of our revived guild. We have taken Chivalry as a central idea within our organisation , which I will use as a stepping stone to what chivalry can mean and how to realise it.
Why do we practice Historical European Martial Arts? Because we carry our sword every moment for a potential duel?
Of course, historical fencing is interesting, contributes to our health, is relaxing and creates friendly bonds.
But in our view, the martial arts possess an incredible inherent power that is perhaps insufficiently highlighted in the current rebirth of martial arts; namely the Art. It has the potential to appeal to the mental and even the spiritual level, making fencing valuable for everyone and at all times. Whether you like competition or not, Whether you are young or old, whether you are in the fencing hall, at home or at work; the martial art always has its value.
In this resurrection of historical fencing art to which we all contribute, we should perhaps consider HEMA not as a mere hobby, but as a method: a way of life or even art of living.
The traditional chain of teaching which passes from master to apprentice has been broken, as we know. The masters have perished into dust, letter or spirit. This Noble Way of yore is like an overgrown path for us, but never completely lost. There are plenty of guides to move us in the right direction. It is up to us especially to dare walk the path. Determinedly. In earnest. With dedication. So that we can gradually recover the Way out of the dark forest of ignorance and pass it on as a noble science.
When you open the book "A Thorough Description of the Free chivalric , and Noble Art of Fencing, "by Joachim Meyer at its preface, the term chivalry is used several times already. We know that Meyer himself was not of noble birth, but a commoner just like you and me. Chivalry, and the linked chivalric art, was an honourable path, which unfortunately came to decline, Meyer said. Nevertheless, in his view, a revival of chivalric art was necessary. Not only in terms of martial skill but also at the mental and spiritual aspect. According to Meyer, practising martial arts led to virtue, manliness and an honourable life.
He was not unique in his view, Codex 44 A 8 writes : "Here begin the zedel of the knightly art of fencing, which were composed and made by Johannes Liechtenauer, who was a high master in the arts, and on whom God may have mercy." and also: " Young knight, learn to love God and honour women, so grows your honour; practice chivalry and learn art which adorns you and will glorify you in battle."
One of the authors of Manuscirpt 3227a. speaks of chivalry "This is right for a brave man, But let all listen clearly, and without danger say, that he is called a brave man who can stand equally against his injury, him I want to praise at all times. Chivalrous and without any misdeeds and without complaints and courageously free, he is a true fighter.”
In Baldassar Castiglione's work "The book of the courtier" (which is not a work on the art of fencing), it is cited that the practice of martial arts is necessary for a chivalrous and noble person.
Ann Tlusty's extensive study directs us to the huge symbolic, ethical and social dimension that was directly related to the practice of martial arts. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of chivalric art was considered synonymous with good citizenship. The martial art cultivated character, created brotherhood and expressed a martial ethic with high ideals.
In re-establishing our guild, I wanted to account for this knowledge.
We strive to continue the 15th and 16th century martial tradition which was practiced within the armed guilds in a meaningful way. Where training in martial sport, guild traditions and brotherhood forms the connection of the organisation, and it is not merely about the study of manuscripts for the sake of the sporting element. We want to dive deeper, rediscover and experience and thus re-address the timeless dimension; reviving this Old tradition.
The guild has formed itself as a answer to questionable phenomena of the modern world: intemperance, atomisation of society (individualisation), consumerism, ethical relativism, nihilism, rampant globalisation, uprooting, the non-committal nature of human relationships, rampant economisation, etc.
In response, the guild focuses on connecting people with each other across generations, with the local, with our own heritage, but also with that which transcends us all. As a guild, we want to create a space where people can feel confident, gain self knowledge in relation to others.
But what does chivalry actually mean? Let me first state that I do not want to be dogmatic. I believe that this Way is different for everyone and that my plea is merely a knock at the gate. In the Arthurian tales, for instance, we read that the knights of the round table set off on a joint adventure, but each of them chooses their own entrance to the forest. This display of individual perception of chivalry is also exemplified by Wolfram von Eschenbach's novel Parzival , where Parzival embodies the spiritual aspect of chivalry and Gawein the more worldly one.
I regard chivalry as a philosophy in the traditional sense. It is an art of living, or as Pierre Hadot puts it: a skill ( savoir-faire) and an affability (savoir-vivre). Chivalry is a general attitude and exercise in life that brings direction, without completely filling in how you should live your life. It invites you to find your own way to perfection. This searching creates meaning.
As a sidenote, so I am certainly not defending nostalgic romanticism.
Nevertheless, chivalric martial art is not just mere fighting, but encompasses a whole culture. To illustrate this ideal of Chivalry , I refer to its materialization in legends, symbols and rituals that form the body of it. Historical European Martial Arts can thus be a form of cultural transmission, through which the essence of the Art can be preserved.
I consider struggle and nobility as hallmarks of chivalry.
Looking at the etymological meanings of Chevalier or Ritter, both refer to horseman. In which the horse symbolises the body, and is associated with energies and emotions, while the knight symbolises the aspect of the Higher Self: the best and noblest aspect of our “I”. The knight is not perfect, but is on a path to perfection. When we look at old knightly novels, failure is a common component. Especially in relation to finding the Grail. Sometimes new opportunities present themselves and succeed partially or completely.
It acts on a belief that the human being is perfectible;
and its destiny is the development of the Higher aspect of our Self. As the poet Cirlot says "Chivalry should be seen, as a superior form of pedagogy that aids in the transmutation of the natural man into the spiritual man.".
This pursuit of nobility is not one of blood, but of spiritual nobility according the 14th century mystic Johannes van Ruusbroec in his "vanden Blincenden steen". Nobility is a personal distinction and not a hereditary title. The nobility of character means mastery over our lower aspect to the higher ones. Again it emphasises: the importance of not yielding to basic impulses, but always striving for the Good. In this sense, nobility is not just a product of the European Middle Ages, but a universal ethical vision.
In the contemporary times we are fortunate ithat information is everywhere, including about our European martial tradition. We can compile a cultural canon over a span of centuries. That consists of rituals, symbols, teachings, philosophy, artistic expressions, rules of conduct, etc. This canon should be non-limiting, as was the chivalric debate on what chivalry meant and how to shape it.
I also refrain from romanticising the past, but I do recognise the ideal of the Old Civilisation: the pursuit of a Higher Human existence. In my view, this is the key to a life in of honour, glory, and excellence on every level.
I believe we can best think of chivalry as a mediatrix, a mediator between the earthly and the heavenly. As it was between the clergy and the common people. Chivalric philosophy is a constant endeavour to bring harmony to extremes: between the eternal and the temporal, inner and outer, contemplation and action, war and peace.
These (apparent) opposites can be observed in several martial philosophies from west to east. This again indicates the universal dimension. It expresses itself in Japanese Bushido as it developed in Edo period or Islamic Futuwwah.
Three principles serve as initiators to bring this harmony about: , these are Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. These form essential beacons on the path. Every defining text on chivalry expresses the importance of these principles to train oneself in mastery over life. These principles give birth to the virtues that guide the way.
These virtues are crucial stuff for the good life.
As Ramon Lull states, "therefore the knight who practices these things that pertain to the order of chivalry with respect to the body but does not practise those virtues that pertain to chivalry with respect to the soul is not a friend of the order of chivalry". Here he points out that virtues ( the inner struggle with our desires and temptations) are more important than physical prowess.
Courage, faithfulness, justice, Truth, etc. are there to orient our minds towards the ideal, to protect us from distraction. They are like inner weapons, for which we need to train our minds to be able to wield them.
How this is done is by consciously always for choosing virtue; the Good. Only then does it form a guideline for an honourable and steadfast life in thought and action, and than we can integrate this as part of our personality. Only then do we become what we believe. This does not happen when we sporadically approach virtue as an object merely to be studied. Virtue prompts us to act from the Heart. This is Arete's message: hard work, and sacrifice of the ego.
The virtues are inseparable, yet each virtue is distinct from the others. Temperance is central to all virtues. Temperance is also found within the virtues. Thus, there is always harmony without excessive emphasis on any single aspect. Doing the right thing almost always requires courage, just as discipline is impossible without the wisdom to know what is worth choosing for. What good is courage if we don't use it for justice? What good is wisdom if it does not make us more humble?
Nobleness and struggle, as hallmarks of chivalry, go hand in hand. Nobility is both an aspiration and a anchor to embrace life with all its struggles. Life on itself is a learningschool in chivalry.
Militia est vita hominis supra terram. "Man's life is a martial service on earth," we read in the Bible book of Job. In the same sense, Marcus Aurelius wrote: "Life is more like wrestling than dancing".
Whatever time you live in, life is a path that always presupposes some degree of struggle and conflict. Be it inner struggles or conflicts with the outside world. In this, both Job and Aurelius always sought the Good. Life is full of obstacles, but it is also a means of developing a distinct and admirable character. After all, in order how to deal with suffering, one must have experienced it.
In the knightly novels, the path of life is symbolised by the quest. Legendary knights like Parzival, Gawein, Lancelot, ... all yearn for adventure. The word aventure, in Old French means "that which happens", "that which accomplishes itself "or Fate. Adventure is life itself, which calls for brave action every single time. When we live carelessly and embrace adventure, every challenge is an encounter with ourselves. It is a mirror held up to us everytime time. Even if it is confronting, this struggle is a form of self-reflection. So life itself is a constant exercise.
Chivalry calls for a combative attitude towards life in which one does not shy away from danger and difficulties, but faces everything spirited, with enthusiasm. . It brings the discipline to persevere, in a pursuit for a honourable life where one is dedicated to striving for something higher than the mundane. Therefore, it is important to train ourselves in a certain indifference, which makes us stop trying to swim against the current and instead accept unchanging things as they are and embrace fate.
Although combat has a negative connotation, it is essentially a fertile dynamic that can bring out the best in us. The Greeks praised this in the guise of the Goddess Agon. So this form of combat is about an amicable struggle where people try to push their abilities, in which they engage in healthy competition with themselves and encourage each other.
Chivalry is characterised by deeds. So how how can we realise the revival of chivalry in the modern training context ?
Obviously, it requires an openness and positive attitude form the point of the organisation and that of its members. It is a consideration as an organisation to get closer to the Good, the Fairness and the Truth and for which the art is used as a tool.
While our Martial Sport in the present context does not prepare us for actual combat, it always keeps the essence of warfare. A potentially dangerous situation where respect is a keyword.
Chivalry creates communities and chivalry needs a community. Such is called a "honour group" which maintains intimate, face-to-face relationships is a requirement, according to anthropologist Derk Brewer.
A shared honour code and the reliance on mutual respect to enforce it can bind a community together more strongly than even laws, rules and regulations. Honour forces us to think about what is best for the group, and not necessarily what is best for our individual needs. It forces us to solve problems together. Which sometimes causes social friction. While this can certainly be uncomfortable, it strengthens social bonds. For establishing such a code, the martial tradition is rich enough.
Since martial arts involves a lifelong practice, a loyal and open-minded group is important to support each other in learning. After all, you need each other as partners on the path.
In the oldest guilds, we see an important ritual; namely, the communal meal. In this everyday act, we can all recognise the unifying effect.
Guild brothers underwent a common initiation ritual, which emphasized the important transition from the individual to brotherhood. With this ritual, they also agreed to the code of honour.
They had shared symbols, and wore uniform clothing that conveyed this message. It can come across as an outward show, but it expresses the message: We belong together, we are one in action and thought.
We should not underestimate the positive psychological effects this van have on a group and on the individual.
Integration in training:
The transformative power of the Art lies in the acting. This requires a devotion to the Art. Only by living the knightly art of fencing we can access its power of transformation. This can profoundly change an individual.
Taking up weapons and entering the dueling field is the true school. From this virtue arises, the requirement for the Art.
I share with you a selection of elements from our training, which I link to the ideas we have formed about chivalry.
We always start the training with lining up, after announcing the order of the day we start with a moment of silence, or meditation. This has several reasons. Firstly, it creates a distinction between daily life and what's to come. Through this focus one becomes an observer of one's thoughts. This way we try to find a basis of calm to avoid being overwhelmed by emotions and thoughts. These meditations vary in order to create an observant and mindful mind. These states of conscientious should be used over and over again during training as stabilisation of the mind. For example a student who goes to hard during a workout and wants to give up. It is then good to go back to that stillness for a moment. Evaluate the situation and from there move on.
I remember a moment during a test, when a student with ADHD stiffened completely due to stress. After just a few minutes of meditation, she was able to regain her calm.
It also contributes to our state of mind during a fight. Many fencers have moments when they stiffen up after a few actions because they no longer know what to do. They think too much about all the things the opponent could possibly do. And without even realising it, a hit is made.
Meditation has become a habit for many, allowing them to avoid being carried away by thoughts and emotions. It pays to the importance of the present moment, and inhibits the scattering caused by our own thoughts.
The absolute pursuit of perfection of chivalry is reflected in the practice of the sport. Movements and actions are gradually taught to a degree of excellence in relation to the principles of fencing. By this I mean the thoroughness of training; the need for repetition. Sometimes ad nauseam. We desire to master every step even before moving on to the next. There is no room for volatility. Students must learn to be critical of themselves. They need to derive joy from the process and not from results in the distant future. It is important as a teacher to point out that every step, however small it may be, is important, and must be recognised. Performing a successful technique for one can be a victory as a tournament victory for another.
Building on this, we prioritise process over outcome.
We do not give priority to competition, and focus on acting for the sake of acting. It is your duty to fight for the sake of the Art. Not for the sake of winning or losing. With this method, we were able to activate a lot of timid fighters which always tried to avoid the competitive environment of sparring. Therefore, during free fencing, we avoid keeping scores or discussions about valid hits as much as possible. There is no room for Ego in the fencing hall. Just fight. That is the goal. If that goes well, you will automatically win.
We find that many members struggle with fear of failure. This often arises because a student sets unrealistically high expectations for themselves. With the right guidance, setting gradual smaller goals and the necessary courage, this fear can be broken. Students often desire a quick fix but forget that the struggle of training is the actual goal, which requires discipline and patience.
We practise the idea of apathea in chivalry as Amor Fati;a love of fate. This is formulated in a more slogansque way in our internal regulations as: "no whining, no complaining and no excuses". With this attitude, we challenge our students to reflect on their complaining and sighing during training. Is the whining justified? Why am I complaining? We see this for example a lot during these summer months. Where indeed fencing in our protective clothing can be physically very unpleasant. The conversation is then quickly turned to the subject of the hot weather. Is that really true? If it is too hot, why is this so? Can we change it? No. So we have to learn how to deal with it. A joke has arisen in our mids, that even in the most crappy situations, we thank these conditions and collectively chant "Amor Fati ".
The Chivalric Art of fencing requires a mind conditioned to endure discomfort. And if necessary, to uphold honor and remain resilient until the end. Again regardless whether we win or lose.
Intense workouts, create purification. Discomfort speak directly to the lower self, which longs for an easy, comfortable life. Be brave in these moments. Be the rider of the horse and don't let physical sensations throw you off balance. Make the choice for excellence and seek a working harmony between the body and mind. This bravery that embraces rather than repels the situation, leads to great inner discipline; the warrior mentality. If you can achieve this in training, it can carry over to everyday life. Whenever we face unpleasant situations.
With this way of working, I have seen beautiful transformations over the past few years. Where timid students transcended themselves and became confident and where boastful students learnt humility.
I have been given permission to speak about the process of a member of our guild, and close friend, who struggled with addiction and thoughts of suicide but now keeps telling that the discipline of martial arts has given his life back it’s meaning. Not just through fencing, but the mindset has given him back control over his existence. Meanwhile, he quit everything that clouded his mind to escape suffering and instead has chosen to fight his inner demons.
In saying this, I do not mean to claim that we hold the absolute truth. We are not heroes. We are strivers, driven, but not perfect. Always searching on our adventure. Perhaps this is not the ideal path for everyone. But take it into consideration every time you take up your sword.
Not just once, because Heracles' crossroads was not a one-off event. The way of chivalry is not a daily challenge that we face every now and then, but constantly, every day.
Are we going to be selfish or selfless? Courageous or fearful? Strong or weak? Wise or foolish? Are we going to acquire a good habit or a bad one? Courage or cowardice? The bliss of ignorance or the challenge of a new horizon?
Stay the same...or choose for growth?
The easy way or the right way?
It is the most important decision of your life. Your destiny depends on it.