Talhoffer and Causes for Fighting

by Jeffrey Hull




Fechtmeister Hans Talhoffer tells us what the causes ( sachen ) were for one man to challenge another to fight a judicial duel in 15 th CentAD Germany and Austria .   He does so clearly in his colour-illustrated fight-book of 1459 AD ( Copenhagen - Thott), telling the knights and soldiers of his lord, Herr Leutold von Königsegg , why and how one must go about it lawfully, before a tribunal and thence to any ensuing judicial duel.   The chivalry of what he describes may be reckoned as the rudiments of their warrior ethos.   This is no surprise considering that other European Masters of Defence such as Hans Liechtenauer, Joachim Meyer, Fillpo Vadi, George Silver and many others wrote of warrior ethics.   However disparaging the modernist is of such ethos, it met the need for civil peace in its day – for as even the pragmatic Machiavelli lamented:

There are so many men who are not good.


A complete facsimile of that original fight-book is maintained by stewardship of Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen Denmark, the website of which is at: http://www.kb.dk/


Below are my Middle High German transcription and New English translation of Talhoffer’s ethical directives.   Following that is my analysis, which is meant to make it more comprehensible for today’s reader and to present some differences between past and modern thinking.


Transcription & Translation


(8r) hie vint man geschriben von dem kempfen
tem wie daz nu sy daz die decretaleß kempf
verbieten So hat doch die gewonhait herbracht
von kaisern und künigen fürsten und hern noch
gestatten und kempfen laussen und darzu glichen
schierm gebent und besunder und umb ettliche sachn
und artikeln alß her nach geschriben staut
Item zu dem ersten maul daz im nymant gern
sin Eer laut abschniden mit wortten ainem der
sin genoß ist Er wolte Er hebet mit im kempfen
wie wol er doch mit recht wol von Im kem ob
er wölte und darumb so ist kämpfen ain muot..
will ~
Item der sachen und ardickelen sind siben
Darumb man noch pfligt zu kempfen
Item daz erst ist mortt
Daz ander verräterniß
Das dritt ketzerÿ
Daz vierd wölher an sinem herrn trulos wirt
Daz fünfft um sanckniß in striten oder sunßt
Daz sechst um
val sch
Daz sibent da. ainer junckfrowen oder frowen benotzogt

Item spricht ain man den andern kempflich an
Der sol komen für gericht und sol durch sinen
fürsprechen sin sach für legen Darumb er in
dem an clagt und sol den man nennen mit
dem touff namen und zünamen So ist recht
Daz er in für gericht lad und in der stund beclag
uff dryen gerichten nach ain ander kumpt er denn
nit und uanttwurt sich nach nymant von sinen
wegen so mag er sich fürbaß nit mer veranttwurten.

(8r) Here finds one written of fighting – T hus what now be decreed as forbidden of all fighters.   So by and by, it has become the custom of emperors and kings, princes and lords, to whom one likens himself and emulates, that one is obliged to fight, especially regarding several causes and articles which are written down hereafter.

Yet firstly this – Nobody is happy when one of his comrades cuts up his honour with loud words. He who would have at dueling with such a comrade, indeed he is within his rights and may well-fight him if he would. Thus dueling is wantonness ~

Now those aforesaid causes and articles are seven, wherefor a man has duty to fight:

Thus the first is murder.

The second is treason.

The third is heresy.

The fourth is becoming an urger of disloyalty to one’s lord.

The fifth is betrayal in strife or otherwise.

The sixth is fal sehood.

The seventh is using either a maiden or lady.

That is why one man challenges another to duel.   Such a man shall come before court and shall lay down his case through his own advocacy.   Therefor he who accuses shall name the man by baptized name and surname.   At the appointed hour it is right that he who calls for the tribunal also complains to three tribunes after the accused comes – unless either one comes not and answers for himself.   Yet nobody of one’s ilk may do so, for truly one may answer better for himself.


(8v) Er bewyse dann Ehafte nott alß recht sy so sol
man in verurtailen alß ser in daz sin bott
Und halb landes begriffen haut je dar nach
alß die ansprach ist gegangen Darnach sol
daz urtail ouch gan
Item der da kempflich angesprochen wirt
uff den dryen gerichten und er ainost zuo der
antwort kumpt und legnet Darum man in
an gesprochen hat und sprich er sy des also
unschuldig und der sag uff in daz nit war
sy und daz wöll er widerumb mit kempfen beherte
und uff in daz wysen alß denn recht sy in dem land
DarInn eß sy und forttert dar über mit urtail (!) seine lertag. So werdent Im sechß wochen ertailt
zu sinem lertag und vier tag von dem gericht
werdent Im ouch ertailt Daruff sie kempfen
süllent alß in dem land gewonhait und recht
ist Item versprechent sich zwen man wilkürlich
gen einander ainß kampfig vor gericht den git
man auch sechß wochen lertag und sol in frid (!)
bannen baiden und wolcher under den den frid brech
uber den richter man on den kampf alß recht ist
wie ainerdem andern mit recht gan mag
Item ist daz ain man kempflich angesprochen
wiert von aim der nit alß guot ist alß er dem
mag er mit recht uß gan ob er wil oder ob
ain man echt loß gesagt würde oder worden wer
dem mag man ouch des kampfes absin Item
spricht aber der edler den mindern an zu kempfen
so mag das den minden nit wol absin ~

(8v) Then the accuser proves his need be just and right.   So shall the man under accusation, as much as his accuser, comprehend and likewise this helps the land.   Only after all the testimony is done shall verdict be rendered.

Thus he who was challenged, he comes singularly before the three tribunes to respond and gainsay.   Therefor the man who was challenged, he speaks thus that he be blameless and he repeats that the accusations be not true, and thereover he would honour with struggle upon that knowledge, as then be right for and required by the land wherein this be, and so thereupon is dealt his training-time.   So he is dealt six weeks and four days from this tribunal for his training-time.   Thereupon is also dealt that the men shall struggle as is customary and right in the land.   Thus the two men pledge willingly to go before court and struggle against each other – each also with about six weeks of training-time in peace, during which either or both are banished if someone breaks peace – thus not until when it is agreed upon as right by the judge how one may lawfully meet the other.

Thus is one man challenged to fight by another man. The man said to be not as good by the other – he may with right meet that other, if he will. Or if a man would be said or become spurious, then he may instead disregard the duel. Thus indeed the noble challenge the craven to dueling – so may the craven not well disregard that ~




Talhoffer tells us of fighting – which in context means judicial duel – and what was decreed as forbidden of all fighters, and in turn is cause for fighting.   He says that trial by combat had become the custom of royalty and nobility by his time in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (MRE), at least presumably among those leaders who were most esteemed by their followers, and that the fighter – whether that means a warrior, knight, soldier or fencer – is obliged to take part in such struggles, especially over several causes or articles of serious concern.   This was acceptable to Talhoffer’s Swabia and elsewhere in MRE, as its various cultures were in many ways self-policing by modern standards.


First however, Talhoffer prefaces by stating the obvious – that nobody is glad to endure public calumny against his honour from a comrade, and so a man has the right to fight such a comrade for the transgression, if he wills. Yet in one of the most honest asides in all martial arts literature, Talhoffer then says flatly and grimly that dueling is wantonness.


Talhoffer then names the causes or articles, hence beknown and codified, which were seven crimes or misdeeds that a man must fight:


Murder – This was arguably more narrowly defined in MRE than today, which considered a man more justified to kill in some cases than today.   It suffices to assume that what modern society considers “first degree murder” equaled “murder” back then – the planned willful unwarranted malicious killing of another human.


Treason – Probably trying secretly to overthrow or kill one’s national leader, whether duke, prince, king or emperor, or working against the common weal of one’s homeland.


Heresy – This likely was more broadly defined in MRE than today.   It would have meant specifically dissent from, practice counter to, or denial of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, yet also any outright blasphemy against God, the Saints or Mary.


Becoming an urger of disloyalty to one’s lord – Not much different from treason, except that it seems to mean openly inciting rebellion, and that it may apply more specifically to one’s personal overlord.


Betrayal in strife or otherwise – Again, similar to treason, but indicating any divulgence of knowledge or revealing of secrets, whether witting or unwitting, active or passive, business or martial.   Once more, whether the war or peace, such was not tolerated.


Falsehood – Lying, cheating, oath-breaking, fraud – basically any dishonesty.


Using either a maiden or lady – Certainly any violation of woman such as rape, and perhaps unsanctified intimate relations, or even unwarranted breaking of betrothal.   Such wrongs were regarded by MRE not only as morally loathsome yet practically unwise, since such outrage would assure swift and vengeful retaliation by the offended female’s kinfolk.   Ideally, one would like to think this article applied to all women, whether high or low.


It is interesting to compare Talhoffer’s seven fighting-causes with the Teutonic Order’s “causes for training with fleshly and spiritual weaponry” ( sachin der ûbunge vleischlîcher und geistlicher wâpene ).   Nicolaus von Jeroschin tells us these six causes for training in Krônike von Prûzinlant from 1326-1340 AD:   keeping in practice at arms; readiness for enemy treachery; defensive war; peacekeeping and property protection; regaining lost land and belongings; and deterrence to foes.   Juxtaposing what Talhoffer and Jeroschin each states can help us gain some picture of the broader Germanic mindset regarding both civil and national casus belli within Europe during late Medieval and early Renaissance times.   This differs greatly from the rationale to duel typified by a Restoration thief and pimp like Donald McBane, a rationale so despised by notables like the Elizabethan master Sir George Silver.


So, by inverting those transgressions which Talhoffer considered fighting-causes, we gain a cursory code of chivalry in seven articles:   guarding of human life; support of king and country; faith and piety; loyalty to one’s lord; trustworthiness; truthfulness; and respect for and protection of women.


Then as now, such a code of conduct can create a quandary for the follower.   Situations may arise which put chivalric articles at odds with each another.   What if one’s lord becomes a murderer, liar, and/or degenerate – is it then wrong to become an urger of disloyalty to him?   Consider some notoriously difficult situations of MRE: How about the knights who murdered Becket?   Arguably they were showing verbatim loyalty to their lord – yet Henry II later made corporeal penance implying that he considered his knights’ crime of murder worse than his bishop’s crime of treason.   And how about Luther?   Obviously he was disloyal to his lord – yet Leo X was doubtlessly lacking in faith and piety unlike the monk.   Relevance to modern times most certainly exists – one need look no further that the example of Stauffenberg’s crisis and action during the Third Reich.   Such is the eternal conflict of morality – even when things seem all nicely spelt out, they may still call for personal value-judgements.   It is reasonable to think that the fighter of Talhoffer’s time would improvise a hierarchy of the seven articles when dealing with a bad ethical conundrum.


Thus Talhoffer says such misdeeds are why one man challenges another to duel.   These were things that a worthy master would not have tolerated a student ever to do.   Talhoffer advises that the challenger shall come before court, presumably with judge presiding, thus rather than fouling salon or barracks, or taking it to tavern or streets, and seek to settle his case by his own advocacy, declaring publicly his quarrel, for which a tribunal may take place.   Hence he himself must present the case of allegations against the challenged, which differs from today as skills of public-speaking are ignored or shunned, and men are encouraged or mandated not to do self-lawyering.   Talhoffer says emphatically that the accuser shall name the accused by that man’s first name and last name, in order to make sure that the correct person is involved.   Thus if the judge assents to grant further tribunal, then at the court-appointed hour it is right that the accuser who called for the tribunal also complain then to its three tribunes, but out of fairness, only in the presence of the accused.   Yet if either one or both fail to show, then nobody else, whether kin or friend, may make or answer accusations instead, for as Talhoffer and presumably his culture maintained, one may answer better for oneself .


Talhoffer says the accuser then tries to prove his need is just and right, presenting what he knows to the tribunal for the accused and all the land to know.   Only after all the testimony is done shall verdict be rendered, which of course means that the challenged man rebuts and refutes before the tribunal.


Hence Talhoffer says that if the accused states innocence and denies the accusations, and would struggle against the accuser thereupon, then presumably the three tribunes deliver said verdict ordering the contestants either to duel or not to duel.   If they are to duel, then it is in the manner which the sovereign country deems fit – hence the accused is then dealt his needed time for training.   The time allotted him was forty-six days which, by comparison to other Germanic dueling-law documents, was about average.   Naturally, the accuser also trains during this period.


Talhoffer then says that the men are ordered to duel in the fashion of their given country.   Now, the sorts of duel which took place in Germany and Austria at that time, or the rest of MRE, were manifold, and depended upon the tradition of the sovereign country, the class of each belligerent and/or their gender.


Talhoffer provides examples in his fight-books of 1459 & 1467 AD of a variety of dueling permutations.   Two noble knights or lords may bedeck themselves fully armoured and struggle afoot against each other with longswords and spears, or steel maces and daggers.   Yet two soldiers or two townsmen may fight unarmoured with longswords.   But any of these may choose, or be ordered, to duel with spiked pavises as weaponry, or the pavises along with either swords (Swabian) or clubs (Frankish), all while clothed in harlequin-suits or arming clothes.   However, if it is man versus woman, they may be placed at unequal elevations and issued unlike weaponry.   Talhoffer also indicates in his fight-books both visually and verbally that judicial duels had Christian ritual involved, as the clothing of the fighters or their awaiting coffins may be cross-bedecked, and various parts begin with phrases meaning God help us!


So as Talhoffer continues, if the two men pledge willingly to go before court and struggle against each other, then they each get the same coeval training-time of about six weeks, during which they must keep peace between each other, or risk banishing if broken.   Thus they must not fight until the time appointed and not outside the manner assigned by the chief-tribune or judge, who presumably shall hold court for that deadly contest.


Naturally, the one who wins the duel is the one who wins the ruling.   The logic according to MRE was that God favoured the man who was right and would grant him victory.   Those judging could not help but agree and thus rendered a judgement that was of inherently divine devise.


We may assume that generally the men involved were already highly trained at fighting – so why the need for a court-appointed training-time?   Well, it seems there are three simple reasons for this.   The first is to insure that if the accused is not as skilled as his accuser, then the court at least gives him a semblance of a chance to acquire some sort of skill at arms.   The second is the specialised if not bizarre nature of some of the aforesaid contests which the judge and tradition may prescribe, which were the least typical of contemporary martial endeavor.   The third is that it also gives a man time to settle his affairs while readying his body and mind for what may be the last struggle of his life.


Talhoffer states that the man accused has the right to meet his accuser – hence a man shall not make accusations carelessly, only to think he may pass or go regarding combat thereafter, as the other man may insist upon lethal ordeal.   Likewise, the accused risks destruction of reputation if he disregards a legally sanctioned match to the death.   Such disregard bespeaks contempt for the noblest ways of his society, and as Talhoffer states ominously, the craven may not easily disregard the challenge of the noble.


Thus Talhoffer tells us why one man challenged another man to fight.




Primary Source:


Meister Hans Thalhofer:Alte Armatur und Ringkunst ; Hans Talhoffer (auth) ; Thott 290 2º; Bayern; 1459 ; colour; Det Kongelige Bibliotek; Copenhagen; 2003 ; <www.kb.dk/kb/dept/nbo/ha/index-en.htm>


Secondary Sources:


Das Deutsches Wörterbuch ; Jacob Grimm (auth) & Wilhelm Grimm (auth) ; Universität Trier; 2003 ; <www.dwb.uni-trier.de/index.html>


Di Himels Rote: the Idea of Christian Chivalry in the Chronicles of the Teutonic Order ; Mary Fischer (auth); Kummerle Verlag; Göppingen; 1991


From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272 ; Christopher Brooke (auth); WW Norton; New York ; 1969 (3 rd edit)


Kolbenrecht ; Justus Georg Schottel (auth) ; De singularibus quibusdam & antiquis in Germania Juribus & Observatis oder Kurtzer Tractat Von Vnterschiedlichen Rechten in Teutschland ; Vorlageform des Erscheinungsvermerks: Wolffenbüttel in Verlegung Conradi Bunonis; Gedruckt zu Braunschweig; Johan Heinrich Duncker; 1671


Krônike von Prûzinlant ; Nicolaus von Jeroschin (auth); E Strehlke (edit); Leipzig ; 1861 (from 1326-1340)


Medieval Combat ; Mark Rector (transl & interp) ; Hans Talhoffer (auth); Bayern; 1467; Greenhill Books; London; 2000


Meister Johannes Liechtenauers Kunst des Fechtens ; Didier de Grenier (auth); Arts d’Armes web-site; 2003; <www.ardamhe.free.fr>


The Northern Crusades ; Eric Christiansen (auth); Penguin; London ; 1997 (2 nd edit)


Paradoxes of Defense & Brief Instructions ; George Silver (auth); Steve Hick (transcr); Sloan MS #376; London; 1598; ARMA web-site; 2000; <www.thearma.org/Manuals/GSilver.htm>


Parzival ; Wolfram von Eschenbach (auth) ; AT Hatto (transl); Penguin Books; London; 1980 (from 1210)


The Prince ; Niccolo Machiavelli (auth); Daniel Donno (translat); Bantam Books; New York; 1981 (from 1513)


Ritterlich Kunst ; Sigmund Ringeck (auth) ; Johannes Liechtenauer (auth) ; Stefan Dieke (transcr) ; Mscr. Drsd. C 487; Bayern; 1389 & 1440 ; Sächsische Landesbibliothek-Dresden ; Freifechter web-site; 2001 ; <www.freifechter.org>




About the Author:   Jeffrey Hull has been training in European fighting arts the ARMA way for about five years now.   Previously he trained in Asian martial arts.   He holds a BA in Humanities.


Copyright 2005 byJeffrey Hull



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