Importance of Studying Fechtbücher
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
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.
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 Castles
and Huttons 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the lower classes were looked down upon, which is confirmed
by many various quotations, for example in Vadi:
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,
because this was the way in which an unskilled peasant would
attack. Similarly Liechtenauers 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 Mairs treatise
which contains a section on the combat with a sickle and
a flail, which at first were peasants tools.
both the costs of creating the treatises and common illiteracy
were one of the main reasons why during the Middle Ages
there didnt 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 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.
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 knights 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.
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 doesnt
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.
the end one should add that the Medieval masters fully understood
both the complication of their 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).
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. 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.
romances and chanson de geste should be dealt
with separately. Some details of using various weapons can
be found even in Nordic Sagas.
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.
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 opponents legs often found in the Sagas
and confirmed later on by Medieval archaeological finds.
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.
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.
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.
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 Anglos
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.
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. 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.
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 Liechtenauers
advice on the topic, and the French Le Jeu De La Hache,
which describes the way to fight with a pole-axe. Lecküchners
treatise on messer seems to contain the widest
spectrum of the techniques with this weapon. Hans Talhoffer,
although containing the Otts 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.
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
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 Silvers 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
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. 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 Liechtenauers
Kunst des langen Schwertes
(Art of the Long-Sword).
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.
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.
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.
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
- The author used the translation of
selected parts of Hanko Döbringer's treatise by Grzegorz Zabinski.
- The translation of "Le Jeu De La Hache" by Dr. Sydney
- The translation of Fiore dei
Liberi's "Flos Duellatorum" by Royal Armouries in Leeds.
- The translation of Filipo Vadi's
treatise prologue by Luca Porzio.
- The translation of selected pieces
of Peter von Danzig by Grzegorz Zabinsky.
- See eg. Chaucer description of the
- 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".
- 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".
- Anglo Sydney, "Martial Arts
in the Renaissance Europe", pp. 18-20
- Oakeshott Ewartt,
"Archaeology of Weapons"
- see eg. Chanson de Roland.
- For the possible mistakes one can
make while interpreting manuscripts without their cultural context see Christopher
Amberger's article "Playing by the Rules".
- Master Johannes Liechtenauer used
this term to denote swordsmen who deal only with shows, not the real swordfighting.
- 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
- Galas S. Matthew Kindred Spirits.
The art of the sword in Germany and Japan, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, VI (1997), pp.
Anglo Sydney, Martial Arts of the Renaissance
Amberger Christopher, The Secret History of the
- Anonymous, Chanson de Roland
- Chaucer Geoffrey, Canterburry Tales
- Clements John, Medieval Swordsmanship
- Clements John, Renaissance Swordsmanship
- Cvet David, The Art of the Long Sword Combat
- Hils Hans-Peter, Meister Johann Liechtenauers
Kunst des langen Schwertes
- Oakeshott Ewartt, Archaeology of Weapons
- Wierschin Martin, Meister Johann Liechtenauers
Kunst des Fechtens
WWW Sites of Interest:
- Academy of European Medieval Martial
- The Association for Renaissance Martial
- Chicago Swordplay Guild
- The Exiles CMMA
- Secret History of the Sword