From Battlefield to Gym: Martial Arts History

It’s a sad truth about that human condition that we always fight. There’s no part of the world that has not at some point been subject to violence, war and bloodshed. In the 18th century, during the Enlightenment there were Western thinkers who romanticised native populations in what they called the New World, giving them the rather offensive name of ‘noble savage’ and ignored their histories and cultures, which were as peaceful and as violent and as deep as any cultures found in Europe or elsewhere. But it remains a fact that war has been present in all parts of the world that has been inhabited by humans. Of course that means that there has been warriors and armies and with that methods of training soldiers to fight.
Collectively, we call these the martial arts and they range from hand-to-hand combat like karate to sword fighting a la fencing to the equestrian arts. In fact, it’s difficult to look at any sport known today and not be able to see traces of ancient warfare. But how did these soldierly practices move from the battlefield to the gym?
Since combat and war are far older than any records we have it’s almost impossible to say how any martial art — from anywhere in the world — began. We do have records from much more recent times of how martial arts were codified in various ways, often adopting philosophies that justified the practices or allowed for an intellectual framework to be developed alongside the ways of war.
One of the more interesting titbits of martial arts is that they are often not confined to regions, beliefs or bellicose practice but rather human physiology. This means that cultures that historically had no contact with one another were able to develop analogous, if not facsimile, approaches to martial arts.
One can see across the world that specific martial arts ebb and flow in their popularity over the years as the need for armies and trained soldiers increases or decreases to the meet the demands of peaceful or warlike society. When a society perceives an external threat it’s most likely to develop more elaborate and detailed types of martial arts. In times of prolonged peace, these otherwise tools of war are developed into spectator sports complete with competitions and betting on the outcome in order to remember the more warlike past.
It becomes clearer that it is essentially peace that moves martial arts from the military to the gym, from soldiers to civilians. We can see how developments in technology make obsolete various forms — sword fighting for example is the exclusive purview of sport nowadays, whereas krav maga was developed in the 20th century to meet the demands of a newly formed Israeli army.
Regardless of where one is in the world and in what time one finds one’s self, combat is a fact of the human condition. But for now, with so many martial arts in gyms and not uses for violence, we can count ourselves lucky!