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An ancient art, a long absence
By William Ernoehazy
WMA Illustrated (Summer 2007)
Excerpt: For all its ancient popularity, however, pugilism seems to have disappeared from the Western world with the fall of the Roman Empire. Modern boxing is generally agreed to have re-emerged in England, with prize fights held in the Royal Theatre of London at the end of the 17th century; one James Figg first claimed the title of English boxing champion in 1719.
Some historians hold Nicholaes Petter’s “Clear Education in the Magnificent Art of Wrestling,” written in 1647, to be the first treatise on modern boxing. Though Petter’s title speaks of “wrestling,” the text describes an entirely different manner of fight:
As it is usual, and mainly among the Dutch, where there is any sort of quarrel or discord between people that has risen so high that a physical fight follows, that they punch each other on the chest and use the heavier fist punches later on during the fight, we have decided to start off with the chest punches, those being the actual beginning to start the fight: later we shall discuss all grips in order.
If the currently accepted history of pugilism is correct, how could such a martial art disappear so thoroughly, and then re-emerge hundreds of years later? The popularity of boxing in the ancient world is clearly attested to in classical literature. And once boxing resurfaced at the end of the 17th century, it regained popularity in a remarkably short time.
Boxing is now so thoroughly entrenched in contemporary popular culture that it seems impossible that fist-fighting could have been absent from European history for centuries. Was pugilism truly absent from Europe in the Middle Ages? If so, why?
Until recently, conventional wisdom held that there were no unarmed combat systems in medieval Europe. In fact, it was believed that there was no systematic study of personal combat in the Middle Ages of any sort. The dominance of the mounted knight required weapons designed to batter armor (and the wearer); sword, ax, mace, lance and polearm were the weapons of choice in such a world.