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European Martial Arts, Part 1

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The second smallest continent in the world, Europe contains a largely 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.

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.

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

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 and swords, 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.

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