Being so resolutely involved with study and
practice of both Medieval German and Italian manuals, ARMA is proud to present the
following article on Medieval fencing. Fellow colleague and sword scholar Matt Galas
presents invaluable and much needed commentary. In simple tone he flatly obliterates the
persistent, long-held myths and prejudices fostered by 19th century writers and
continually perpetuated by so many sport and classical fencers today: namely the ludicrous
notion that the world of Western swords arts only really begins with rapiers and ends with
modern foil, epee, and saber. Without even venturing into the Renaissance cut &
thrust sword methods, Galas gives us an excellent brief overview of material from a
forthcoming book on the Medieval Fechtmiesters.
Setting The Record
The Art of the Sword in Medieval Europe
S. Matthew Galas, Esq.
For the past century or so, the common assumption among fencing
historians has been that disciplined, systematic swordsmanship did not begin until the
advent of the rapier in the mid-16th century. To back up this argument, adherents of this
view have typically pointed to the proliferation of rapier manuals in Renaissance Italy.
Victorian writers, in particular, focused their attention on the works of Italians such as
Achille Marozzo, Camillo Agrippa, Giacomo Di Grassi, and Vincentio Saviolo, portraying
these masters as the founders of modern swordsmanship.
More than any other author, Egerton Castle contributed to this paradigm of fencing
history. His classic work, Schools and Masters of Fence, was first published in
1884; it has been the standard reference on historical swordsmanship ever since. In his
work, Castle perpetuated a view of fencing history as a march of progress from the
"rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages" to the precise, refined exercises
of the 19th century fencing master. In his words, this was a "chain of...development,
from the pancratium of the fifteenth century, in which wrestling and leaping
were of more avail than aught else, to the courteous and academic assault of
modern days, where elegance and precision of movements are more highly considered - or
ought to be - than the mere superiority in the number of hits." Castle was so
confident of his eras place in that chain of development that he could boldly assert
that "the theory of fencing has reached all but absolute perfection in our
Most modern authors have simply followed in Castles footsteps. Their unquestioning
acceptance of the opinions of Castle and other Victorian authors has perpetuated the myth
that Renaissance Italy was the birthplace of systematic swordsmanship. However, simply
repeating a falsehood over and over does not make it true. Greater access to historical
sources and a more critical examination of Castles claims have led recent scholars
and researchers to reject his thesis as biased and inaccurate.
In the years since Castles work was published, it has come to light that scores of
fencing manuals survive from medieval times. The contents of these works make clear that
Western swordsmanship had developed to a high level of sophistication long before the
Renaissance. Furthermore, the majority of the surviving manuals originated in Germany,
rather than Italy.
The earliest surviving manual of swordsmanship is an anonymous manuscript in the
collection of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England. Known as Manuscript I.33, this work
dates from around 1300, and deals entirely with the use of the sword and buckler. The
illustrations depict pairs of unarmored fencers in a variety of stances, executing
techniques that include cuts, thrusts, parries, and disarming maneuvers. Beneath each
illustration is an explanatory text in Latin, although many of the technical terms are in
German. The author appears to have been a German cleric, since the text makes reference to
a Sacerdos (priest) who instructs the Scholaris (student) in the art of
the sword. This impression is reinforced by the illustrations, in which one of the fencers
is always shown with the shaved head (tonsure) common to medieval clerics.
The next surviving manual of fence, dating from 1389, is also of German origin. Consisting
entirely of text with no illustrations, this work was written by a priest named Hanko
Doebringer. Doebringer appears to have studied under the great master Johannes
Liechtenauer, whose teachings dominated German swordsmanship for the next 250 years. His
writings, which are largely theoretical in nature, lay out the aggressive combat
philosophy espoused by Master Liechtenauer. Unfortunately, Doebringer never completed his
work; the technical sections which cover the use of the long sword, the falchion, the
sword and buckler, and the staff all remain unfinished.
Despite his failure to complete his work, Doebringer manages to convey the theoretical
basis for the German art, which is surprisingly modern in tone. Concentrating on the
importance of seizing the initiative, on maintaining the offensive, and evading the
opponents attempts to find the blade, Doebringer at times sounds like a modern epee
coach. In another section, Doebringer discusses the time advantage of the thrust over the
cut a theoretical concept usually ascribed to the Italian rapier masters. In
addition, Doebringer describes how Liechtenauer divided the opponents body into four
target areas - a division still used in modern fencing. Finally, dispelling the
misconception that medieval swordsmen relied on strength alone, Doebringer states that a
weakling using Liechtenauers art would be as likely to win as a strong man. In sum,
Hanko Doebringers observations make clear that medieval fencing masters - at least
in Germany had developed their art to a much higher degree of sophistication than
they have previously been given credit for.
In contrast to these two German manuals, the first surviving manual of Italian origin
dates from 1410. This work, known as the Flos Duellatorum (Flower of Battle), was
written by Master Fiore dei Liberi. Master Liberi came from the northern Italian village
of Premariacco. In the prologue to his manual, he states that he studied both the Italian
and the German doctrine of arms. Although Liberi claims to have studied under a variety of
masters, the only one whom he singles out as worthy of mention is a German he names only
as "Master Johannes, called the Swabian." Since Liberis home province of
Friuli sits at the foot of the Alps, it should come as no surprise that the maestro would
be exposed to the teachings of German masters.
The existence of these three manuals - Manuscript I.33 at Leeds, Doebringers text,
and the Flos Duellatorum - show that both Germany and Italy had flourishing
schools of fence for centuries before the advent of the rapier in the mid-1500s. If we
were to judge simply by the existence of fencing manuals alone (which should not be the
case), the German school would obviously seem to predate the Italian school.
However, it would be a mistake to equate the appearance of fencing literature with the
appearance of systematic fencing. The publishing of fencing manuals proves only one thing
- that fencing masters, reflecting trends throughout medieval society, were becoming more
literate. On the contrary, medieval masters ascribed a much greater age to their art.
Hanko Doebringer, writing in 1389, comments that the art of the sword was developed
"a few hundred years ago." A host of documentary references support
Doebringers assertion, making clear that skill at arms was common in Europe long
before even the earliest of the surviving manuals.
The epic poems of Germany, which typically date from the 12th century, make frequent
mention of schirmmaister (fencing masters) and their schirmslac (fencing
blows). Furthermore, civic documents and ordinances from across Europe make reference to
professional fencers and champions; many of these date from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Likewise, the writings of chroniclers and historians often contain references to skill in
the use of weapons. For example, an Italian chronicler, writing about the Battle of
Civitate in 1053, mentions a body of 700 German mercenaries who formed the core of the
papal army. Although they were eventually overwhelmed by the enemy, the author notes how
they "excelled with the sword," often severing the heads of their opponents.
Considering the fact that Europe was governed by a warrior elite from the fall of Rome
until the Renaissance, it would be surprising if the martial arts were not developed to a
high degree of efficiency before the appearance of the first surviving fencing manual
around the year 1300.
The full range of these medieval martial arts is illustrated in Master Liberis Flos
Duellatorum. Unlike Manuscript I.33 at Leeds, Liberis work is not limited to
swordsmanship. Instead, it deals with the entire range of knightly weapons - the spada
(sword), the spadone (great sword), the lancia (spear), the daga
(dagger), and the azza (poleaxe). It also contains sections on wrestling, armored
combat, and mounted combat. In this sense, it is typical of the surviving fencing manuals
of the Middle Ages. Rather than restricting themselves to the narrow realm of
swordsmanship, the masters of the time sought to produce well-rounded warriors who were
expert in all of the weapons commonly used on the battlefield.
The 15th century saw a flood of other fencing manuals. Master Liberis work appears
to have been well-received in Italy, since at least four other copies are known to have
been produced during the 1400s. However, the majority of the surviving works are German in
origin, with over 20 manuals still in existence. These manuals were followed in the 16th
century by more than 30 additional manuals from Germany, 15 of which predate Achille
Marozzos Opera Nova of 1536.
Other evidence points to the importance of Germany in the development of fencing as well.
Often overlooked is the fact that the celebrated Capo Ferro, the master so often credited
with inventing the lunge, may possibly have been of German descent. Note the title page of
his manual of 1610, which proclaims itself the Great Simulacrum of the Use of the
Sword, by Ridolfo Capo Ferro da Cagli, Master of the most excellent German Nation in the
famous City of Sienna. His Italian-sounding surname, Capo Ferro, is most
likely a pseudonym, translating roughly as boss of steel.
While Germans traveled to Italy to study and teach the art of the sword,
Italian swordsmen recognized German expertise by travelling north of the Alps to study
German methods. In fact, the last true Fechtbuch published in Germany, which
covers the use of the long sword, the saber-like Dusack, the rapier, and wrestling
techniques, was written by an author with the obviously Italian name of Theodori Verolini
in 1679. Despite his Italian origins, Verolinis work is little more than a
condensation of Joachim Meyers Fechtbuch of 1570.
Like Liberis manual, the German Fechtbuecher (fencing manuals) cover the
full range of knightly weapons. Most of these manuals contain the teachings of Johannes
Liechtenauer, first laid out in Doebringers work of 1389. Following
Liechtenauers lead, the German masters divided their art into Blossfechten
(unarmored combat), Rossfechten (mounted combat), and Kampffechten
(armored combat on foot). Each of these categories contained its own distinctive
repertoire of techniques.
Central to each of these categories, however, was the use of the long sword. The German
long sword typically measured from 48" to 52" in length. Although the grip was
long enough to allow two-handed use, the German long sword was light enough to wield
one-handed when fighting on horseback. When fighting on foot against an unarmored
opponent, the weapon was used with both hands to cut and thrust; when fighting an armored
foe, the left hand gripped the middle of the blade, enabling it to be used like a short
spear to stab at the joints in the armor. Master Liechtenauers teachings primarily
focus on the long sword, since he felt the principles of its use were applicable to all
other weapons. The masters who followed in his footsteps shared this sentiment, expressing
it frequently in their manuals.
Despite this primary focus on the long sword, the German masters developed detailed
repertoires of techniques for all of the knightly weapons in use, including the Sper
(spear), Messer (falchion), Degen (dagger), Mordaxt (poleaxe),
and Stange (staff). Of course, wrestling and disarming techniques were developed
for use with all these weapons.
One of the best examples of the German fencing manuals of the 15th century is Peter von
Danzigs Fechtbuch, written in 1452. In addition to his own interpretation
of Liechtenauers teachings, Peter von Danzig also includes extensive commentary by a
variety of other masters on the sword and buckler, the dagger, armored combat with the
long sword, mounted combat, and wrestling techniques. This manual contains around 230
pages of densely packed text, along with a limited number of illustrations.
This broad focus on a variety of weapons, along with the integration of wrestling
techniques into the art, seems largely responsible for the mischaracterization of the
medieval fencing schools by Victorian authors. Schooled in the fencing traditions of the
19th century, where the choice of weapons was usually limited to the foil and the
singlestick, and wrestling was strictly prohibited, it is no surprise that Egerton Castle
and his peers viewed the medieval arts as alien, primitive, and brutal.
However, in the wake of the martial arts explosion of the 1960s and 1970s, modern scholars
and researchers are now able to recognize the medieval doctrines of arms for what they
truly were - comprehensive systems of martial arts, having more in common with the Koryu
(traditional schools) of feudal Japan than the sport-fencing salles of 19th century
Europe. Martial arts anthropologists like Donn Draeger and his International Hoplology
Society have shown us that martial arts need not be elegant to be sophisticated. Exposure
to a myriad of Asian martial arts has made possible the realization that skill at arms is
not limited to those clad in fencing whites and carrying foils. Likewise, it has finally
allowed the realization that the martial systems of medieval Europe are just as worthy of
respect - if not more so - than the rapier schools of the Renaissance and the modern sport
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S. Matthew Galas, Esq. is an American
attorney working at the NATO Headquarters in Mons, Belgium. An avid fencer since 1977, Mr.
Galas is proficient in foil, epee, and sabre. In addition, he studied the Japanese sword
arts of kendo and iaido for five years. Mr. Galas has been studying the fencing manuals of
medieval Germany, sword in hand, since 1982. He is currently at work on a book about
Johannes Liechtenauer and the fighting arts of medieval Germany.