Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Art of the Longsword

By David Lindholm

In the first half of the 15th century Sigmund Ringeck compiled a book with comments on the fencing teachings from Johannes Liechtenauer's verses from c.1389. It contains no illustrations and is a handwritten document originally inscribed on loose sheets of paper. The handwriting is typical of the early years of the 15th century. The manual is of great importance due to its clear and precise instruction on long sword, wrestling, sword and buckler, armoured combat, and mounted combat.

In the history of the martial arts of Western Europe there are a few individuals whose contributions have been instrumental in shaping the generations that followed them. Sigmund Ringeck turned out to be such a person. Not for any significant discoveries of his own, but as a transmitter and interpreter of the tradition of the grand old master Liechtenauer's teachings. His long sword teachings would constitute the German long sword school up to the 17th century. And if we place Sigmund Ringeck's text next to Jacob Sutor's, almost 200 years later in 1612, we find many of the same names and techniques, some with only small changes.

Ringeck's great contribution was that he wrote down comments or Glosa on the very obscure verses of Liechtenauer's teachings, and it is because of these contemporary interpretations that we today can understand Lichtenauer's teachings. Other Masters also played important parts in transmitting the tradition, for example Hanko Doebringer who in 1389 was the first known recorder of the Glosa explaining Liechtenauer's verse. Later, the author of the Codex Wallerstein and the Fechtmeister Peter von Danzig each wrote down, transmitted, and preserved older teachings alongside their own unique additions to the art.

Ringeck's (here meaning the words of Ringeck but based on Liechtenauer) longsword style is very simple and yet elegant in its approach. It is based on efficiency and simplicity. While many of the Medieval fighting manuals primarily show counter-techniques and tricks of every kind, Ringeck's greatness is that he starts with the basics and then step-by-step teaches the student the secrets of the longsword. Ringeck offers clear and precise instructions in the actual handling of the sword and how to use it in order to win a fight. And herein lies Ringeck's claim to value to posterity: he gives instruction in the true understanding of the long sword as a weapon. This foundation becomes important when we look at later masters in the German tradition such as Joachim Meyer in the late 16th century.

There is almost certainly a degree of continuity in the system of fencing from Liechtenauer, who lived in the mid 14th century, up to early 17th century masters. Woven into this is a lot more; it included wrestling, daggers, polearms, and mounted techniques. It was an integrated system of fighting, and Ringeck's lucid teachings in everything from the basics to the finesse is essential in order for us to be able to gradually understand how they thought and what they taught. In that sense, the manual of Ringeck is a key or a blueprint by which we can interpret later material, which often included illustrations but little straight forward advice on basics and technique. This is especially true in late 15th and early 16th century fencing manuals. Later toward the end of the 16th century, manuals became better illustrated and with more comments on technique. But we must look back to the end of the 14th century and those who lived and fought therein in order to understand Medieval fighting skills. This was the time when these weapons were still used in earnest for real. The art was not yet 'sportified' and the martial difference between Masters such as Ringeck and Meyer is distinct in spite of all their likeness.

The foundation of Ringeck's system consists of the four primary guards, the five Meisterhaw (master strikes), Mutieren (to change), Duplieren (to double) and Winden (to turn). These are the core and what carries his teachings. What comes through as the central idea of strategy in Ringeck is that it is a bad idea to wait for the opponent to act. Initiative is paramount and if it is lost it must be regained at all costs. However this does not mean that you must always move first, an important distinction. It may be to your advantage to lure the opponent to attack and then counter --though by this you still have the initiative. This also goes some way to explain the counter strikes against an opponent's blade that we find in the German manuals, which are very prominent in Ringeck's work. The initiative is regained by aggressively striking the opponent's weapon before a second attack is then launched at the opponent's body. The art of fencing is also divided into the "three wonders": the cut, the slice, and the thrust. The cut is usually done from the Zufechten (prior to binding the swords and at a greater distance), the slice from the bind, and the thrust from the Winden or Hengen (hanging) maneuvers. These attacks can then be used as defenses as well by countering the opponent to out time him, or by changing the angle of attack with the Durchwechseln.

In his longsword teachings Ringeck also included a lot of material on wrestling attacks. These again show useful techniques, but their real value is that they illustrate Medieval concepts of moving and fighting with the body as the primary tool. These wrestling techniques are usually done from the bind, or by "running through" (Durchlauffen), that is, stepping in if he comes in with his weapon high or wide to the side. Apart from this there are several additional key concepts that are not part of the core teachings, but nevertheless of great importance. Examples of these are the Abzetsen, Sprechfenster, and Schrankhut to name but a few. Footwork is not mentioned to any great extent in Ringeck's manual however, and there can be a lot of reasons for this. But practice has shown that good footwork is essential for the techniques to work. And central is that you try to change the angle of attack and avoid the straight line as much as possible.

There is much more that can be said about Sigmund Ringeck and his work, but this brief online article at least places him at the forefront of the German school for fencing for today's student of the art.

David Lindholm has an MA in Medieval archaeology and history from the University of Lund. He works as a researcher and teacher in Malmoe, Sweden and is the director of the Malmo ARMA Study Group. His book, Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Art of the Longsword, the first in a series on Medieval martial arts, is available from Paladin Press.


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