Renaissance Martial Arts Literature

"Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play.
But if you are fearful, then you should not learn to fence.
Because a despondent heart will always be defeated, regardless of all skill."
- Fechtmeister Sigmund Ringeck, 1440

 “So from this art comes all sorts of good, with arms cities are subdued
and all the crowds restrained; and in itself has such dignity,
that often it brings joy to the heart, and always drives out cowardice
…If you will be renowned in the art, you’ll never be poor,
in any place.  This virtue is so glorious that,
if even once poverty would show you his cards,
then wealth will embrace you thanks to your art.”
- Maestro Filippo Vadi, Liber de Arte  Gladiatoria Dimicandi, c.1482

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The little known surviving treatises and guidebooks of fighting skills produced by European authors are numerous and diverse.  Books and manuscripts on personal combat skills flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The oldest known European fighting text is an anonymous German sword and buckler manual (MS I.33) produced around c. 1295. Its watercolor pages feature a series of images of a monk and his partner performing various attacks and counter attacks and has recently come to be more appreciated as a source for study of historical European martial arts.  The writings of the great Swabian master Johannes Liechtenauer in the 1380s were highly influential among German masters for the next two centuries. His teachings, as chronicled by by the priest and master-at-arms, Hanko Doebringer, were expanded and written on by many others throughout the 1400s and early 1500s including Paulus Kal, Peter Falkner, Hans von Speyer, Ludwig Von Eyb, Gregor Erhart, Sigmund Schining, Andre Pauernfeindt, and others. A major one of these commentators was that of Sigmund Ringeck in the 1450s and Peter Von Danzig in the 1450s. Among their teachings, these Fechtbuchs (“fight books” or “fencing books”) present a consistent emphasis on unarmored foot-combat with long-swords that incorporate grappling techniques.   

With the development of printmaking in Europe during the 1400s, there also came a revival of science and classical humanism. Both prints and drawings were integral in the effort to communicate rediscoveries as well as new ideas.

MaxColor.JPG (46062 bytes)In 1410 the Bolognese master Fiore dei Liberi produced a systematic work, Flos Duellatorium in Armis, which represents the major Italian contribution to 15th century martial arts literature. Three different editions of Fiore’s work survive and have become major resources for modern students.  The Fechtbuch of Hans Talhoffer covering among other things, swordplay, judicial combat, dagger fighting and wrestling was also influential. It was produced in several versions from the 1440s to 1460s. Other important fighting texts surviving from the 15th century include works such as the Codex Wallerstein, the anonymous “Gladiatorie” and “Goliath” manuscripts, as well as the Solothurner Fechtbuch. There is also an anonymous 15th century work on the use of the medieval pole-axe, Le Jeu de la Hache. The King of Portugal, Dom Duarte, produced several training texts in the 1420s.  While two obscure 15th century works on swordplay from England also survive (the MS 3542 and MS 39564 documents). Fabian von Auerswald also produced a detailed wrestling manuscript about 1462, of which a well-illustrated later edition still exists. 

PVD1449.JPG (56515 bytes)Fillipo Vadi in the 1480s produced another major Italian work on fighting from the period, which was highly influenced by Fiore’s. The Hispano-Italian knight Pietro Monte produced several tittles on fighting and combat skills during the 1480s and ‘90s, including the first published wrestling book. Hans Czynner produced an illustrated color work of armored combat on the techniques of “half-swording” and dagger fighting in armor. Hanns Wurm’s colorfully inked manual, Das Ringersbuch, of c. 1500 features a range of illustrated wrestling moves and is characteristic of unarmed texts of the period.   Around 1512 the artist Albrecht DŸrer produced a beautifully and realistically drawn work illustrating sword and wrestling techniques.  Several versions of Jšrg Wilhalm’s work survive including a large hand-written color 1523 edition featuring an array of unarmored and armored long sword techniques.  About 1540 Paulus Hector Mair compiled an immense and a well-illustrated tome on weapon arts including swords, staffs, daggers, and other weapons.  

wpe2A4.jpg (22940 bytes)Di Antonio Manciolino’s work of 1531 is the first known printed Italian fencing manual. One of the more significant masters of the 1500s was the Bolognese teacher Achille Marrozo. His Opera Nova of 1536 is considered the first text to emphasize the use of the thrust as well as the cut in using a slender tapering single-hand blade. His work however still covered the traditional military weapons of the age. 

In 1548 the Spanish knight Juan Quixada de Reayo produced a little known text on mounted combat that reflects traditional 15th century methods.   In 1550 the Florentine master and contemporary of Marozzo, Francesco Altoni, wrote his own fencing text that disputed some ideas of Marozzo.  Often attributed to the 1570s, Angelo Viggianni's significant work of 1551, Lo Schermo, also focused on the use of a long, slender, tapering single-hand sword.  Camillo Agrippa’s treatise on the science of arms from 1553 was one of the first to focus on use of the thrust over the cut in civilian swordplay. Considered another one of the more significant Italian fencing works of the 1500s, Agrippa’s treatise also represents the transition from military to civilian swordplay and the use of even more narrow swords.  

MR46.jpg (47197 bytes)The Dutch artist Martinus Heemskreck in 1552 illustrated a text, Fechten & Ringen, with several woodcuts of short sword, two-handed sword, and wrestling.  The German master Joachim Meyer in 1570 produced a large and extremely well illustrated training manual that represents one of the high points of 16th century works.  The work covered a host of assorted swords and weapons and combined some Italian and German elements. Meyer included material on classroom play as well as earnest self-defence.   Jacob Sutor later produced a fighting manual in 1612 that was mostly an updated version of Meyer’s earlier work.  

In 1570, Giacomo Di Grassi produced, His True Arte of Defense, a major work on fencing from the period that reveals elements of the changing nature of civilian self-defense concerns and the development of slender duelling swords. An English version was first translated in 1594.  The Italian Girolamo Cavalcabo’s work of c.1580, concerned primarily with sword and dagger, was translated into German and French several times over the coming decades.  In 1595 Vincentio Saviolo produced, His Practice in Two Books, one of the more influential (and today popular) of late Renaissance manuals.  Saviolo’s method reflects the changing form of civilian blade in use.   An English version of the text was influential at the time.

MVHflatparry.jpg (45105 bytes)Giovanni Antonio Lovino in 1580 produced a large and elaborate fencing treatise on rapier as well as other swords and weapons. Until recently, only limited portions of Lovino’s work were previously known.  Other important Italian fencing works of the late Renaissance include those by the masters Giovanni Dell’Agochie in 1572, Camillo Palladini from c. 1580, Alfonso Fallopia in 1584, Nicoletto Giganti in 1606, Salvator Fabris also in 1606, and later Francesco Alfieri in 1640.  Nearly all these works reflect the transition from military swords to the civilian duelling rapiers.  In 1610, the Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s, Gran Simulacro, was first published.  Considered the great Italian master of the rapier and father of modern fencing, his work codified much of civilian foyning fence for the duel. These Italian fencing texts offer some of the best of illustrated examples of rapier fencing.  

DiGrassi.jpg (52802 bytes)The master Jeronimo De Carranza wrote his influential tome on Spanish fencing, De La Philosophia de las Armas, in 1569. It was to become one of two major Spanish fencing manuals that formed the heart of the Spanish school for later centuries.  The other great Spanish master of the age was Don Luis P. de Narvaez, who’s 1599, Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada (“Book of the Grandeur of the Sword”) presented rapier material somewhat different than his master Carranza's. Narvaez’s book is the other of only two major Spanish fencing manuals from the time. Several Spanish masters during the 1600s produced fencing books rewriting the teachings of Carranza or Narvaez and favouring one or the other.  In 1640, Mendes de Carmona, a fencing master from Seville, produced his, Libro de la destreza berdadera de las armas, an unpublished manuscript recently discovered.   

Agrippa.JPG (53346 bytes)The young Italian soldier and swordsman, Frederico Ghisliero, in 1587 produced an unpublished work, the Regole, revealing connections to Spanish styles. About 1600 Don Pedro de Heredia produced his, TraitŽ des Armes, an illustrated color manuscript on rapier that included grappling techniques. Heredia was a master-of-arms, cavalry captain and member of the war council of the king of Spain. His work represents a pragmatic Spanish style not wrapped in the geometrical ideas of Carranza and Narvaez. Heredia’s manual is evidence the Spanish school was neither uniform nor monolithic.  Mendes de Carmona’s, Libro de la destreza berdadera de las armas, an unpublished manuscript of 1640 has also recently been rediscovered. Carmona was a fencing master in Seville, who previously wrote a work on Carranza’s method. His previously unknown work is a substantial manuscript covering the principles and fundamentals of fencing and tactics to use in specific situations. The most elaborate and lavishly illustrated Renaissance fencing text was that of Girard Thibault d’Anvers', Academie De L'Espee (c. 1630), written in French by a Flemish master teaching a version of the Spanish rapier.  The only truly French fencing texts known from the Renaissance are that of Henry de Sainct Didier in 1573, Tracicte’ contenan les ecrets du premier livre de l’espee seule, and Francois Dancie wrote his L’espŽe de Combat, in Tulle, in 1623.  The next known is Charles Besnard’s later, Le Maitre d’arme Liberal, of 1653.  

The master George Silver published his Paradoxes of Defense defending traditional English swordplay in 1599. He wrote his, Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence, a year later. His work is the primary source for information on English methods of martial arts from the Renaissance and is a favorite study source for modern students of historical fencing.  Silver, a critic of the rapier, pragmatically described the use of short sword or back-sword, buckler, staff, and dagger.  In 1614, George Hale wrote, The Private Schoole of Defence, commenting on English fighting schools of the day as well as recommendations on the rapier method.  In 1617 Joseph Swetnam wrote a rapier and back sword treatise entitled, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence and in 1639 one “G. A.” published a book on swordsmanship, Pallas Armata - The Gentleman's Armory.  It has been suggested that the author was one, Gideon Ashwell. By 1650 the Marquise of Newcastle wrote his own short treatise, The Truthe off the Sorde, a little-known work based on the Spanish School. 

wpe21.jpg (13604 bytes)This description of Renaissance martial arts literature is far from complete. Many other fighting manuals were certainly produced in the 16th and 17th centuries by a host of other masters and writers.  In 1620 for example, Hans Wilhelm Schšffer fashioned an enormous work, Fechtkunst, that contained 672 crude rapier illustrations each one fully described and annotated.   Other German fencing teachers in the early 1600s were rewriting Italian texts.  

counter43.jpg (53695 bytes)The Dutchman, Johannes Georgius Pascha, in 1657 offered a rapier text that included substantial material on the pike and unarmed combat.  Fencing works besides those focused on swords or wrestling were also written during the Renaissance. For example, Andres Legnitzer wrote on the spear in the early 1400s, while Ott Jud did the same on wrestling and Hans LeckŸchner also made a treatise on the Langen Messer (“large-knife”).  In 1603, the Italian, Lelio de Tedeschi, produced a manual on the art of disarming while in 1616 the Spaniard Atanasio de Ayala wrote a short text dealing with staff weapons and Bonaventura Pistofilo’s Il Torneo, Bologna 1627, was on the use of the polaxe. Antonio Quintino’s 1613, “Jewels of Wisdom.” included 16 pages of grappling and wrestling in swordplay as well as material on animal fighting.  Before 1620 Giovan' Battista Gaiani had also written two books on swordsmanship for horseback.   

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The teachings of these masters do not appear to reflect a set "style" or a "Way" so much as a systematic tradition of using proven and efficient techniques within a sophisticated understanding of general fighting principles. Much of what we know of these many guidebooks and fighting treatises is changing and expanding.  Although just beginning, serious modern study and interpretation of Renaissance martial arts literature is now well underway.  In addition to those described here, many other martial arts manuals were known to have been produced, but existing copies have yet to be found.  Previously unexamined collections that have recently become available and should soon open up will inevitably bring to light even more source manuals.  It is an exciting time for research as the hunt for further Renaissance martial arts literature continues.  

View our original web documentary series on
the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe here:

See also Introduction to Historical European Martial Arts 

and Online Source Manuals

The Top Myths of the MARE


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