Friday, 25 March 2011

Peasant weapons

The above image is from Paulus Hector Mair's sixteenth-century encyclopedia of German martial arts. (A number of such Fechtbücher were produced during the late middle ages and early Renaissance). As well as including instructions for knightly techniques, Mair's encyclopedia discusses peasant weapons such as scythes, sickles and cudgels (pictured above).

For scans of the first two volumes see:

There are youtube clips of reconstructions of some of the techniques described by Mair for European peasant weaponry at:

In the Chinese martial arts, there are also, of course, a number of weapons that derive not from military use, but from peasant tools: scythes, spades, staffs, knives, hoes, rakes, and, of course, rice flails – the iconic nunchaku of Bruce Lee derives from the Okinawan version of this last tool, and as M.T. Kato points out in From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalisation, Revolution and Popular Culture (New York: SUNY Press, 2007), the development of the nunchaku as a weapon harks back to the ban on the native population carrying bladed weapons under Japan's occupation of Okinawa during the seventeenth century (pp.42-3).

Such weapons, then, were adaptations used for village self-defence, and speak of an 'other' martial art, aside from that created by the military. Kato even goes as far as to argue for two opposing categories: the officially-instituted, drilled, imperialist martial arts of order and discipline such as judo or the samurai sword on the one hand, and a more improvisatory and informal decolonising martial arts of resistance or revolt on the other – 'martial arts from below' as it were. (Of course, such an opposition seems to beg for deconstruction or dialecticisation...)

Monkey: What is that thing?

Pigsy: This? It was made for me by Lao Tzu.

Monkey: The Venerable Lao?!

Pigsy: It was to comepensate me for this incarnation. It's my muck rake...

Braudel on revolt in the late European middle ages

The following passage is from Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, vol. 2:

Yves-Marie Bercé has found evidence of five hundred revolts among the peasants of Aquitaine alone, between 1590 and 1715. Records relating to a hundred or so German towns from 1301 to 1550 reveal 200 clashes with authority, some accompanied by bloodshed. In Lyons, in the 357 years between 1173 and 1530, 126 were marked by disturbances (rather more than one year in three). We may call these incidents or disturbances – though some of them were so powerful and violent that only the word revolution really does justice to them. On a European scale, during the five centuries covered by this book, there were tens of thousands of incidents – not all of them classified properly and some still lying hidden in the archives. The research so far undertaken does however make it possible to draw some conclusions – some with confidence in the case of peasant revolts, but with much greater risk of error in the case of workers' risings, which were essentially an urban phenomenon.

A great deal of work has been done on peasant revolts in France, following Boris Porchenev's revolutionary book. But it is obvious that France was not alone in this respect, even if the attention it has attracted from historians makes the French case exemplary. From the material so far assembled at any rate, an unmistakeable picture emerges: the peasant community was in perpetual conflict with its oppressors: the state, the landlord, external circumstances, hard times, armed troops, and anything that threatened or even impeded the village community which was the condition of its liberty. And in peasant eyes, all these foes were combined. When in 1530, a local nobleman sent his pigs to root in the common woodland, a little village of the Neapolitan county of Nolise rose up in defence of its grazing rights with the cry 'Viva il popolo et mora il signore' ('Long live the people and death to the master!'). Hence the uninterrupted series of incidents revealing the traditional mentality and special conditions of peasant life, right down to the nineteenth century. If, as Ingmar Bog has remarked, one is looking for an illustration of 'the long term' with its repetitions, its revivals and monotonous patterns, the history of peasants provides any number of perfect examples.

A first reading of this massive literature leaves one with the impression that all this agitation, while never dying down, rarely achieved anything. To rebel was 'to spit in the sky': the jacquerie of 1358 in the Ile-de-France; the English Peasant's revolt of 1381; the Bauernkrieg of 1525; the salt-tax rebellion by the communes of Guyenne in 1584; the violent Bolotnikov rising in Russsia in 1614; the great peasant war that shook Naples in 1647 – all these furious outbursts regularly failed. So too did the minor rebellions which unwaryingly relayed each other. The established order could not tolerate peasant disorder which, in view of the predominance of agriculture, might undermine the very foundations of society and economy. State, nobles, bourgeois property owners, even the Church and certainly the towns were almost constantly in league against the peasant. Flames were nonetheless smouldering under the ashes.

The failures were not [...] as complete as they appeared. The peasant was always rudely brought to heel it is true, but more than once progress was made as a result of rebellion. The 'Jacques' of 1358 did after all secure the liberty of the peasantry in the Paris region. The desertion, then repopulation of this key region cannot entirely explain the process whereby this liberty was won, recaptured and maintained. Was the Bauernkrieg of 1525 a total failure? Not necessarily. The peasant rebels between the Elbe and the Rhine did not, like their brothers beyond the Elbe, become new serfs: they preserved their liberties and ancient rites.(494-6)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

In lieu of an introduction

I've tried to sit down and write an introduction to this blog a few times. However, each time, it becomes long and unweildy – and I can not imagine an internet reader ploughing their way through what I have written.

So this is written in lieu of an introduction. I'll have to carry out this full task elsewhere, probably in a series of posts, and I'll mark them as a "thread" – with a name like "starting points." The problem is that for me, there are just too many starting points for this project to get to grips with all at once. It's origins spread out like the root of a tree.

However, basically, the project perhaps starts with a kind of a problem, rather than an answer. it's a research project in search of a question, if you like.

It started for me with a collision of two things.

First, I was reading Fernand Braudel's trilogy of books Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800. This is a magisterial reading of the early history of capitalism, before its modern-day industrial manifestations. Braudel charts capitalism's slow growth, and its transformation of everyday ways of life. One thing (amongst many) that struck me was Braudel's description of the countryside and towns of the European middle ages and early modernity as heaving with perpetual unrest harbouring uprisings at a rate that perhaps even puts the twentieth-century in the shade. This contrasted with a "common-sense" understanding that I had – one which is supported in such accounts as Thompson's famous Making of the Working Class – that it was only the with the industrial revolution and its experiences of labour that a "revolutionary" political consciousness of class, exploitation, and of ordinary people's abilities to change their fate and the composition of their society developed.

At the same time as reading Braudel, I was watching quite a few kung fu movies – these have become, for me, something of a passion! The motif of revolting peasants from Braudel seemed to resonate with what I saw on screen. Revolt is a key theme within the kung fu genre, as is the problem, generally, of resisting tyranny and exploitation. The settings of kung fu films often involve a (fantasised) past – like Westerns, they obsess on that moment of transition between the modern and a world before modernity has fully arrived. They are primarily rural in setting, and so what we see so often in them are peasants in revolt.

This juxtaposition is more beset with problems than with any immediate solution – so many problems that in this introduction I can hardly even start to sketch out their outline, so will save this for later posts, too.

However, around the meeting of a Braudellian history of the longue durée of capitalism and martial arts cinema a number of fascinating issues/questions seem to intersect:

1. Does this collision help think traditions of revolution and revolt as stretching back into the (pre-industrial) past, and stretching forward into our own (post-industrial) present and its future?

2. Might popular culture (in spite of its highly Spectacularised and ideological nature) harbour cultural memories of such traditions, and are there resources in it for (future) popular movements?

3. What would kung fu films have to add to our thinking of the questions of revolutionary – or for that matter imperialist/capitalist/authoritarian/etc. – violence? (such questions of the ethical and practical nature of violence in revolt have been very much in the air in left-wing circles of late, for example in the writings of Badiou or Zizek; such debates seem to me, intuitively, to have much to do with the strange and double-edged histories of martial arts as on the one had military technologies of domination, and on the other a matter of traditional forms of popular defence and struggle...)

4. I'm also interested in the theme of work/labour, which is, of course, at the heart of Marxist analyses of capitalism and of its forms of exploitation. It's also, I think, an important and little-discussed theme in kung fu films. This is, however, probably something – like much I've said here – that remains, necessarily at this stage, at the level of suggestion rather than argument: it is something that the unfolding research of which this blog is a part will have to persuade people...