Martial Truths: Can Art Overcome Strength?

This is sort of an addendum to the female-only tournament discussion — however I didn’t want it to overshadow the main point in that post which is if you want more diversity in WMA, safe spaces for minorities can help because they address feelings of inclusivity, self-esteem, etc. That goes double for instructors who are female, persons of colour, trans, etc.

Anyway… in the female-only tournament debate the “Art vs. Strength” discussion has been used a few times. The WMA canon is in love with the idea that Art will always overcome Strength. Strength certainly much less important than Art — as this recent article by Claire Ryan argues.

The physiological differences between men and women have been used as a talking point in the female-only tournament debate. Here two slightly different points are being conflated:

  1. Whether being bigger and stronger is an advantage (i.e. the sword is “an equaliser”)
  2. Whether people of widely different size, strength etc. should train and bout together.

In the second point, I would say of course they should train together. To do otherwise isn’t “martial”, as Guy Windsor puts it:

our tournaments are not segregated in any way. If you are smaller or weaker, or taller, or stronger, you are expected to deal with it as best you can and learn from the experience. That’s it. Weapons do not discriminate and neither should we.

But what is strength, and is it an advantage? Part of the problem is what we mean by “strength” and the way it’s conflated with other attributes like being physically big. Strength is context dependent: a dancer is strong, a rock-climber is strong, a long-jumper is strong.

Fewtrell writes about the constituents of a complete boxer in his 1790 treatise Boxing Reviewed:

I have given first place in the list to Strength, not because it is superior to Art, but because it is impossible to display Art in a proper manner without Strength.

Of course the context of boxing is not the same as for fencing. Still, developing the correct strength matters, and more strength never hurts — as long as it isn’t a crutch for poor practice.

This quote from Liechtenauer was used by Herbert to refute the idea that strength matters at all:

Because when it is strong against strong, the stronger one will always win. That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?

However I don’t think this is what Liechtenauer means. This is not an absolute, art-trumps-strength argument — it’s just a vindication of the science of defence that it can be used to succeed where there’s a deficit of strength.

Silver talks at length about how the “tall man hath the vantage against men of mean stature” in cap. 45 of his Paradoxes of Defence.


At first glance it seems the master is saying no matter what, someone who is taller than you will have the advantage. But there are caveats:

  1. The advantage of the taller man is only preserved if their fight is perfect. If the man of mean stature has a perfect fight and the taller man is imperfect, all bets are off.
  2. The defender (“patient agent”) may still preserve their life by virtue of their true actions in defence being faster to execute than the motions needed for the Tall Man to come to the Place. Or as an instructor once told us, “your first step back will be faster than their first step forward”.
  3. When the “man of mean stature” wishes to offend their taller adversary they are always obliged to “come guarded under his wards” in offence.

The sub-text of the last point is this: while coming in may present a risk for a smaller agent against taller one, there are strategies and techniques which may be developed to mitigate those risks. Again, art may be devised to overcome strength (just as tactics may be employed to overcome a disadvantage, &c).

This is what a decent coach does. They recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their students, train out the weaknesses that can be trained out and offer alternative ways to overcome those that cannot. If, for example, the student cannot resist the furious battery of their huge opponent on their weapon, the instructor can offer alternatives involving slipping, traversing, or even stop-hits (in the case of egregious false times from large opponents).

Final Remarks

I’m not keen on examples such as Inigo Montoya vs The Mountain that proclaim victory for Inigo every time (q.v. Claire Ryan’s article). Not because I don’t want Inigo to win (as is right), and not because they’re implausible, but because they require very specific circumstances to be true. The Mountain is almost certainly as accomplished an artist as Inigo, and Inigo will lose if he plays the game according to The Mountain’s rules. But then part of Inigo’s expertise comes from knowing how not to play the opponent’s game.

What a student needs to learn is how to create those circumstances where they have advantage and minimise disadvantage, and that’s what a true art does. But the “art” isn’t just blade action, swiftness of feet or accuracy; it’s tactical reasoning and judgement. These things may be trained, regardless of size and strength. And to be honest this is where a diversity of instructors benefits everyone, because we’re not reliant on a particular body type or mindset to accomplish the art as written by our forebears.