The Importance of Studying Fechtbücher 

bart1.jpg (5070 bytes)By Bartholomew Walczak,
BEN, ARMA Cracow

 

The subject of historical European martial arts as been so far addressed only marginally. These traditions disappeared and in contrast to Eastern Martial Arts, and with the sole exception of wrestling, they cannot be recreated on the base of any present combatitive sport. The Fechtschulen (fight schools) and Fechtmeisteren (fight masters) no longer exist, and we do not have anyone like the Eastern sensei who could teach us how to fight with a sword, cutlass, or halberd. The only reasonable option for the reconstruction of historical European martial arts is the study of old Fechtbücher – fighting treatises – and applying the knowledge contained therein in modern practice.  

162.jpg (16855 bytes)Background

Historical European martial arts reconstruction has its roots in the 19th century interest in the ideas of knighthood and nobility. Historic books by famous authors (among them Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) had inspired the English nobles to organise a tournament in Eglinton in the year 1839, where the participants could try their skills in combat. The re-enactment groups who mainly deal with the romantic aspects of knighthood have recently undergone another renaissance. However instead of the academic sources they very often rely on the stereotypes of their own visions of the Middle Ages and the ways of wielding these weapons. Their cause is noble but the lack of availability of the sources and mostly playful attitude often lead them to a dead-end as far as the martial arts are concerned. 

Apparently the first attempts of the reconstruction has been made as early as 1890s when Sir Egerton Castle and Sir Captain Alfred Hutton (among others) presented their analyses of “ancient weapons” to the general public. We do not possess the exact account of the events in question, yet from both Castle’s and Hutton’s works we can tell that the “first steps” in the HEMA reconstruction were full of errors and misconceptions. The events were described in more detail in articles by John Clements “Historical Fencing Studies - The British Legacy” and Tony Wolf “The Grand Assault at Arms” (available at http://ejmas.com/jmanly/).

The interest in HEMA has existed for over a century, yet in fact it was the Internet which brought the researchers (both scholars and hobbyists) together. Before that the separate groups or “reconstructors”, historians and archaeologists were virtually unknown and worked on their own. Nowadays the groups like the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, Chicago Swordplay Guild, Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts, the Exiles and many others have many active members and communicate with each other. The reconstruction has became a goal for many researchers, both hobbyists and scholars. Many groups have approached the subject from different angles and mostly independently until the advent of the internet. The mutual contact among so many resulted in the application of more academic methods and a real possibility for the reconstruction of European martial arts. 

Problems of Reconstruction

166.jpg (25280 bytes)Generally there are two accepted methods used for the reconstruction of the tools and the ways of using them. The first is to analyse the available sources and to try to reconstruct the subject, as it was the case with historical instruments, among which no piece has survived that could be played with. The other one is to use a surviving piece in the environment which is as close to the original one as possible. This kind of method was used, for example, to check the power of an arrow shot with the use of a long bow. 

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, which should be discussed in the context of historical European martial arts. The source analysis gives us a theoretical knowledge on how the weapon could have been used in the past. However, after sources are analysed, we are still left with many questions and then the experimental method comes into play. Similar to historical dancing manuals, with martial arts one should try to apply knowledge in practice. The most extreme variant of this method is when one has no sources, and has to analyse the tool in order to guess its possible usage. Afterwards is the time for a testing phase, where one should remember to create an environment as closely resembling the original one as possible. 

As far as the martial arts are concerned, this condition is almost impossible to fulfill. The weapons were used to maim and kill well-skilled opponents in a life-threatening situation. For obvious reasons the experimental method will only be an approximation, which has an impact on the results. The lack of sources is the reason for a natural tendency among researchers to look for analogies in using tools among other similar and well-known objects. This leads to many misunderstandings and to the cardinal error often made by amateur researchers: adapting the tool to the method. Most of the errors committed in the early stages of reconstruction fall into this category. It is a truism to say that such analysis can hardly lead to the right conclusions. 

Along with the amount of knowledge acquired, there grows an awareness of the way of using certain tools. One can check various techniques, and slowly gain comprehension of the way in which it was done before. By using original surviving tools or close replicas of them one can find answers not given in the sources (for example, fundamental information like the speed and force of a sword cut). Only by joining the two methods: analysis and experiment, can one learn about the whole of martial arts. 

Drawbacks of Treatises

192.jpg (27312 bytes)The historical combat treatises were addressed mainly towards the nobility, and later on, along with the increasing importance of the city statesmen, also to some important officials. Johannes Liechtenauer leaves no doubt as to whom he speaks to, beginning his verses with: “Young knight learn to love the God and honour the ladies and your fame will grow.”[1] Similarly, the anonymous author of the French Le Jeu De La Hache writes: “And for this, let every man, noble of body and courage, naturally desire to exercise […] principally in the noble feat of arms.”[2] Fiore dei Liberi in the prologue mentions that he would not like his art to be spread among the people who “would not use it properly.”[3] His follower, Filippo Vadi, takes it even further: “…never, by no means, this art and doctrine should fall in the hands of unrefined and low born men.”[4] 

This elitism is the main argument against the treatises, but there are many facts which stand against it: the masters possessed the awareness of the existence both of the lower classes and their own ways of fighting. Fiore mentions: “[…] Kings, Princes, Counts, generals, earls and clergy people are qualified for the duels.” Vadi says: “For this reason I rightly tell you that they [the low born men] are in every way alien to this science, while the opposite is true, in my opinion, for anybody of perspicacious talent and lovely limbs, as are courtesans, scholars, barons, princes, dukes and kings.”  The author of Le Jeu De La Hache adds: “[…] the Axe-play is honourable and profitable for the preservation of a body noble or non-noble.”  

Surely, the lower classes were looked down upon, which is confirmed by many various quotations, for example in Vadi: “…Heaven did not generate these men [low born], unrefined and without wit or skill, and without any agility, but they were rather generated as unreasonable animals, only able to bear burdens and to do vile and unrefined works.” or in von Danzig calling the Zornhaw “a bad peasant blow”[5], because this was the way in which an unskilled peasant would attack. Similarly Liechtenauer’s scorn for the masters of lower standing (and lesser skill) can be seen in him calling them Leychmeistere – the dance masters. However it can be sure that the lower classes practised their own forms of the martial arts, perhaps more sport-like than the upper classes. Interestingly both in the literature and in the chronicles one can find remarks about the commoners beating the knights in wrestling, although sometimes it is clearly just a rhetorical figure, symbol or a metaphor. The existence of the martial arts similar to the Eastern kabudo also can be confirmed in Paulus Hector Mair’s treatise which contains a section on the combat with a sickle and a flail, which at first were peasant’s tools. 

Undoubtedly both the costs of creating the treatises and common illiteracy were one of the main reasons why during the Middle Ages there didn’t exist books aimed at the lower classes. During that time the oral tradition fulfilled a very important role, so we can suspect that the lower classes gained their knowledge in a practical manner. It does not mean that the people who took part in battles were unskilled. Certainly even the Leychmeisteren could teach something to the commoners, and as we can learn from many other sources, sword and buckler was quite a popular weapon also of the lower classes.[6] 

The lower classes rarely duelled, they were rather called to arms for bigger skirmishes and battles, and in combat with many opponents the tactics are much more important than the number of known techniques. Most probably in the process of teaching to fight, the number of techniques had less importance than the ability to use them in the real combat[7]. 

Another drawback of the treatises is that there are only 2 surviving pieces from the 14th century, and none earlier. If one wants to reconstruct the 11th or 12th century sword and shield combat, he needs to extrapolate from the sources as late as the Renaissance. Most interestingly, Medieval treatises do not deal with sword and shield at all (only the buckler and the large German duelling shields or thin knight’s shields used mainly for duelling). Dr. Sydney Anglo proposes that the medieval Fechtbücher should in fact be treated as the advent of the Renaissance. However one should note that the techniques contained therein were used during the 14th and 15th centuries therefore calling them “Renaissance Martial Arts” is maybe a little bit off. However the distinction between the Martial Arts of Middle Ages and those of Renaissance can be hard at best since most of the schools continued and evolved through the 15th-16th centuries.  

The next problem with treatises is of another kind. Every master describes the techniques in his own way. For example even the pupils of Johannes Liechtenauer give us different interpretations of his verses, as it can be seen in treatises by Hanko Döbringer, Peter von Danzig and Sigmund Ringeck. When one adds to it possible errors of the scribe (like switching the descriptions of pictures in the Codex Wallerstein or adding verses on the margins as in Döbringer), artwork which sometimes doesn’t fit the text, new vocabulary, sometimes vague and even cryptic descriptions (Talhoffer), quite illegible handwriting (Paulus Hector Mair), lack of the rules of orthography, the state of some surviving pieces (the so-called “Solothurner Fechtbuch”), and finally the notion that most of them were never intended as manuals but a form of self-presentation or discussion, one can see that the deciphering of the treatise becomes a very hard task. 

At the end one should add that the Medieval masters fully understood both the complication of their art: “…this art is so complicated that it can hardly be remembered without the help of books or treatises…” (says Fiore dei Liberi), and the limitations of the books: “A man cannot explain combat as clearly by speaking and writing as he can teach and show with the hands.” (concludes Döbringer). 

Other Possible Sources 

Triumphzug1]Stang.JPG (22033 bytes)Among other sources one could count the chronicles. However the accurateness of the narrative sources was very much criticised by Sydney Anglo in his book “Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe”. He quoted the descriptions of two fights: the duel between Anthony Woodville and Bastard of Burgundy (1467) given by four various witnesses, and another duel between Bayard and Alonzo de Sotomayore (1503) described by three various people[8]. The differences between the actual relations show that we cannot depend on the chronicles as the primary sources in the reconstruction of the European Medieval Martial Arts. 

The romances and chanson de geste should be dealt with separately. Some details of using various weapons can be found even in Nordic Sagas[9]. The descriptions of feats of arms however are much too exaggerated and heroic. The blows given by combatants can cut a man in half along with his horse[10]. The descriptions often lack any details about the exact ways of fighting. The author of a romance was usually interested in the effect inflicted upon the reader than the exact depictions of combats. However sometimes a few correct conclusions could be made when compared to other sources – like cutting at opponent’s legs often found in the Sagas and confirmed later on by Medieval archaeological finds. 

Up until recently (and unfortunately sometimes even still) the significance of contemporary illuminations and artwork has been very much underrated. The prevailing opinion that the art lacked realism hopefully is losing its ground. It turns out that very often those depictions seem very similar to the ones found in the treatises. Closer examination of these sources – very numerous and often ignored – can help us to place the martial arts in the proper social and cultural context. 

The last possible source could be the forensics from the excavations of the battlefields such as Towton and Wisby. They can give us very interesting information about the injuries from the contemporary weapons and in connection with the analysis of treatises they can be very helpful in the reconstruction of the actual combat. They only drawbacks are that they can show us only the bone injuries and we can never be sure of the actual situation of when and how the wounds were received. The main example could be the skull which was three times shot with a crossbow bolt which brought a lot of speculations. Also such rich finds as Wisby and Towton are quite rare.  

As one can see, we cannot rely solely on the secondary sources. They supply us with the social and cultural context but not the exact ways of handling the weapons. What is found in the texts, illustrations and excavations we must consider in the context of the treatises. The opposite is also true – we must look at the Fechtbücher in the proper cultural context and not draw incorrect conclusions[11]. 

Available Treatises

jm4.jpg (47819 bytes)The direct instructions in the form of fighting treatises started to appear at the end of the 13th century. The oldest known surviving piece is the I.33 Manuscript held in Royal Armouries in Leeds, which describes the combat with sword and buckler. The work of brothers Del Serpente, which has still not been found, dates at the same period of time however Dr Anglo’s investigation casts doubt on its existence. It seems that those two books are somewhat unique in their own time, because the next surviving manuscript is dated at 1389 and was written by a priest, Hanko Döbringer, a pupil to Johannes Liechtenauer and is mainly a discussion between the author and leychmeistere[12].  

The end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries are the times of the masters who systematised the martial arts: Johannes Liechtenauer (a long sword and wrestling), Andrew Legnitzer (a spear), Ott Jud (wrestling) and Fiore dei Liberi (a complete fighting system). From among them Liechtenauer seems to be especially important, since from him comes the German tradition of the long sword combat widely copied almost without changes and developed in the 15th century treatises of Peter von Danzig, Sigmund Ringeck, and in the later anonymous “Goliath” and Jörg Wilhalm, finishing at Joachim Meyer who however changed it considerably. This tradition has been described in detail in a few academic works[13]. Fiore dei Liberi seems to be a father of the Italian tradition which starts with his “Flos Duellatorum” (3 different editions) and is continued by Filippo Vadi and later on by Achille Marozzo (“Opera Nova”) and Manciolino. This tradition awaits more detailed examination. 

I.33 is interesting because of its uniqueness (as one of the few which teaches how to fight with the sword and buckler). Worth noticing among the 15th century sources are also “Gladiatoria” which deals with armoured combat, possibly containing Liechtenauer’s advice on the topic, and the French “Le Jeu De La Hache”, which describes the way to fight with a pole-axe. Lecküchner’s treatise on messer seems to contain the widest spectrum of the techniques with this weapon. Hans Talhoffer, although containing the Ott’s wrestling and interesting pole-axe and dagger sections seems to be much overrated, being very cryptic and containing little practical advice. Unfortunately this treatise is the most exploited one and often used as a sole source which leads to many misunderstandings in HEMA reconstruction.  

Other sources include: Codex Wallerstein, Hans Czynner, Paulus Kal (rival to Talhoffer), and Sigmund Schinning (contains unorthodox Liechtenauer glosa). There exist also some French sources which have not yet been fully investigated. Also two English manuscripts: Harleian MS 3542 and Additional MS 39564 prove to be very hard to translate into Modern English and to interpret. Recently there has been found a new short German manuscript which seems not to follow Liechtenauer’s tradition. 

From among the Renaissance manuscripts the continuation of Medieval traditions can be found in “Goliath”, Jörg Wilhalm, Achille Marozzo and Manciolino as mentioned earlier. According to Dr. Anglo, Pietro Monte (the very end of the 15th century), a Spanish master, described medieval techniques. Also George Silver’s Brief Instruction on my Paradoxes of Defence of 1599 contains some valuable advice and its sword and buckler has distinctive connections to the I.33. Albrecht Dürer – a famous painter from the early 1500s– deals with medieval combat too. Worth noticing is the 1200 pages long compilation made by Paulus Hector Mair, a burgher obsessed with the martial arts.  

Those works up until today comprise most of the Medieval Martial Arts sources available to us. A wider description of medieval fighting treatises can be found in the articles by S. Matthew Galas “Setting the Record Straight: The Art of the Sword in Medieval Europe” (available through www.theARMA.org) and “Kindred Spirits”[14].  See also the piece on “Renaissance Martial Arts Literature” (also at www.theARMA.org). German treatises were described in detail by Hans-Peter Hils in his work “Meister Johann Liechtenauer’s Kunst des langen Schwertes (“Art of the Long-Sword”). 

As one can see, the number of sources is vast. Some of them teach from the start (Liberi) and others contain only some selection of the techniques (Codex Wallerstein). Each of them should be looked at in detail and interpreted in order to better understand the way of handling weapons.

Closing Remarks

daggerfight.jpg (219262 bytes)The ideal to which each serious student of historical European martial arts should strive is to read and comprehend at least a few of the most important treatises, handle original surviving pieces, fight with various partners using excellent replica weapons, and take part in bigger mock combat skirmishes. So far the sources are mostly hard to obtain, written in Latin, Old German or Old French, which are rather unknown to people not dealing with the history or philology. This situation hopefully changes for the better, because of the growing interest in the manuscripts and awareness of the existence of Western Martial Arts. There appear to be more interpretations and translations. However the weapon replicas often are still nowhere near the quality of the originals and handling the originals is restricted. 

The reconstruction is a very hard task which demands a lot of time and work. Not many can devote so much. However the lack of time should not be an excuse to dismiss the sources in favour of the “pure” experimental method. By our present knowledge we can tell that without the sources this method rarely succeeds. Regardless of their drawbacks (true or suspected elitism, limited number of techniques, possible randomness of the surviving pieces), the treatises are the only plausible source, what Sydney Anglo strongly emphasizes in his book. The historical European martial arts were so complex and diverse that there is no real serious alternative to the studying of the Fechtbücher. 

In time, maybe there will appear modern schools of European martial arts, and people attending there will learn the techniques from the “second hand”, although the teacher (or “master”) should legitimize himself with the deep knowledge of the subject. Only then we will be able to speak about the true historical European martial arts. Before that though we have a long way ahead of us. 


About the author: Bartlomiej Walczak, one of the founders of Brotherhood of the Eagle's Nests ARMA Study Group, has been a HEMA practitioner since 1998. He started with a simple reenactment, and the day he discovered the Fechtbücher was his real enlightenment. Passing through various stages of misinterpreting the sources he has only recently “started touching the truth” and he hopes to carry on with more serious research.


Footnotes

  1. The author used the translation of selected parts of Hanko Döbringer's treatise by Grzegorz Zabinski.
  2. The translation of "Le Jeu De La Hache" by Dr. Sydney Anglo.
  3. The translation of Fiore dei Liberi's "Flos Duellatorum" by Royal Armouries in Leeds.
  4. The translation of Filipo Vadi's treatise prologue by Luca Porzio.
  5. The translation of selected pieces of Peter von Danzig by Grzegorz Zabinsky.
  6. See eg. Chaucer description of the Miller.
  7. This subject has been addressed in a wider scope by J. Clements in his article "One against many", and Mark Bertrand in his article "Tactical Swordsmanship".
  8. The subject of other possible sources for reconstruction of Medieval Martial Arts has been dealt in detail in the book by Dr Sydney Anglo "Martial Arts in the Renaissance Europe".
  9. Anglo Sydney, "Martial Arts in the Renaissance Europe", pp. 18-20
  10. Oakeshott Ewartt, "Archaeology of Weapons"
  11. see eg. Chanson de Roland.
  12. For the possible mistakes one can make while interpreting manuscripts without their cultural context see Christopher Amberger's article "Playing by the Rules".
  13. Master Johannes Liechtenauer used this term to denote swordsmen who deal only with shows, not the real swordfighting.
  14. Among them the most important ones include Hans-Peter Hils "Meister Johann Liechtenauers Kunst des langen Schwertes" and Martin Wierschin "Meister Johann Liechtenauers Kunst des Fechtens".
  15. Galas S. Matthew Kindred Spirits. The art of the sword in Germany and Japan, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, VI (1997), pp. 20-46.

Bibliography

1.       Anglo Sydney, Martial Arts of the Renaissance Europe

2.       Amberger Christopher, The Secret History of the Sword

  1. Anonymous, Chanson de Roland
  1. Chaucer Geoffrey, Canterburry Tales
  1. Clements John, Medieval Swordsmanship
  1. Clements John, Renaissance Swordsmanship
  1. Cvet David, The Art of the Long Sword Combat
  1. Hils Hans-Peter, Meister Johann Liechtenauers Kunst des langen Schwertes
  1. Oakeshott Ewartt, Archaeology of Weapons
  1. Wierschin Martin, Meister Johann Liechtenauers Kunst des Fechtens

WWW Sites of Interest:

  1. Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
  2. The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
  3. Chicago Swordplay Guild
  4. Chronique
  5. The Exiles CMMA
  6. Secret History of the Sword
 
 

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