Anonymous late 16th Century German Fighting Guide - Codex Guelf 83. (c.1591)

ARMA Exclusive
The German Art of Fencing in the 16th Century (second half)

By Prof. Dr. B. Panconcelli-Calzia.
Translation by Eli Combs, 2003.

Specialized German literature has some valuable manuscripts and books which provide an insight into the past of the German fencing arts since the 14th century. Recently, out of the vast amounts of text, a practical example came to me from the 16th century. It…shows beautiful hand-painted works and the great diversity of the subject. …I was able to wrest this gem from its sanctuary and release some of the enclosed paintings, resplendent in their original colors, for the first time.

Let us…put ourselves on a 16th century fencing grounds. The manuscript will be our historical guide.

An old man with a long beard and a martial look about him is the Master. He leans against a staff and observes the fencers; they are simple, vigorous, and agile people. Two boys get weapons. We don't believe our eyes… they have barely laid both hands on the handles of the mighty swords, and already they attack each other. There is no exchange of greetings, nor did the one opponent wait until the other had taken his position. The boys do not even wear masks! That is daring! … Let's settle ourselves! The weapons are blunt, and the boys withstand a hearty blow. They must get used to that, if they are not already, for they will have to endure altogether different blows on the battlefield or during prize- and showfighting, which will have to be parried with sharp weapons. How the boys dexterously wield their two-handers! But they fence differently than we do today! They do not wait until the opponent has executed his "action" before parrying and only then answering, instead most parry a strike with a counterstrike, as the boy on the left has just shown us. His opponent planned a diagonal-strike to the torso, but he countered with his weapon such that he not only parried the strike, but at the same time would hit the opponents arm. But they already know about feinting as we use it today!

The boy here on the right makes as if to hit his opponent on the head; he had barely raised his sword when he received a mighty blow to the side; it was a strike made with crossed arms. That must hurt, seeing as the weapon is heavy and the blow was executed with full force by powerful arms. The one that was hit cries out in rage at the deed, places his left foot forward and lays his sword over the right shoulder, the blade hanging down behind him. He wants to execute the so-called "Wrath Strike" [Zornheib], which owes its' name to the emotional state of the fencer. Should the blow land, it will cause much pain, for it comes with a shattering force, but in reality it is not so dangerous, because it must be held too far back and therefore easily allows for an intermediate action! The boy, at whom such a strike is aimed, is indeed on his guard: he escapes the wrath strike through a simple, deep bow and ducking at the stomach. The heavy two-hander finds no resistance, rushes further through the air, and pulls the fencer with it in a large arc; quickly the defender lets a mighty blow fall upon the back of his opponent. Now a wild chase develops! The boy that was hit jumps sideways here and there, bends deeply until he almost touches the floor, then like a feather pops back up, scrapes the opponent, makes an amazing amount of unbelievably fast feints and attempts strikes, which - if they achieved their goal - would be no pleasant touches for the opponent. But the young lad has a sharp eye … and still we suddenly see him fall on his back. What happened? His furious opponent was finally able to beat the opposing sword with such force, that it was flung to the side. Quickly he threw down his weapon, closed on his adversary in one leap and bent in a flash, grabbed him behind the knees and threw him backwards to the ground.

Now we think, the fallen is lost, because the long weapon, which he is still holding in his hand, would only hinder him in close-quarters combat [Nahkampf]. We err, for the early German fencers were so proficient at grappling, that most of the time they show the same good performance as in fencing. It was, however, not a Greco-Roman fight, but a grappling, in which all holds were allowed without exception. In time, this style of grappling fell into oblivion in Germany. Only at the beginning of this century as it was introduced to Germany under the exotic name of jujitsu, did it come again, like many other originally local things, to be honored. - Our attention will now be claimed by another pair of fencers, who are fighting with short and characteristically curved weapons. These are dusacks made of wood. But what do we see? The one fencer parries with the left hand and at the same time hits his opponent on the head! That is completely consistent with the rules. Until the beginning of the 19th century the left hand was always used, regardless if one fenced in the German or Latinic style. In Romantic countries, and especially in Italy, in the 16th century one even held a dagger or a cloak in the left hand. Approximately 70 centimeters long and weighing one pound, the wooden dusack allowed for a relatively fast moving match, also the strikes and parries were extremely varied.

Let us turn now to that part of the fencing-grounds where it is going notably quiet and still. Aren't those boys each holding a dagger? Yes, and they want to fence with them. There is no position taken, no greeting exchanged - such formalities were completely unheard of until the middle of the 17th century - there are no overly lively or unnecessary movements made. Each boy stalks and keenly observes his opponent every moment; it depends on whether the man goes "high or low" at the other … "If he goes high / you are allowed to get yourself nothing / and want the parts / so you have in mind / freely take / But if he goes low / so have yours in good wariness" ... says Master [Fabian von] Auerswald. A movement from one of the fencers, to hit the opponent from above! Quickly, he grabs the antagonist's right wrist, twists his arm around, so he loses his senses, and stabs him in the thigh. Should the one fencer lose his dagger or is surprised by an enemy while unarmed, he is then exclusively dependent on the tricks of grappling. The second pair of dagger-fighters have just shown a magnificent moment of this seemingly unfair fight; the unarmed fighter grabbed the weapon-arm of his opponent with his right hand, instantly bent it and through lifting his opponent's right leg to the side, caused him to fall.
But what kind of noisy activity is in the neighboring yard next to the fencing grounds? There is also fencing going on here. These young men can only practice outside, because their weapons are much too long. The long staves, with which our lads in the yard fence, are the practice weapons for learning the use of the long lance. In war, the men-at-arms also used shorter weapons and they prepared themselves for these through the so-called half-staff. Next to the boys with the half-staves stand others with halberds, which because of their axe-blades - with which the enemy can be hooked - and their points, were to be feared more in close-quarters combat than the excessively long lance.

Jumping forward, backward, and to the side, stalking the opponent, feinting, parrying with the left hand, disarming the opponent through beating or grabbing and holding the blade, all this was known to the German fencers of the 16th century. That this is how people fenced in Germany in the past, is known by only a few today. With time, came changes. The perfection of firearms on the one side, and the flourishing of the art of fencing in the romantic countries, especially in Italy, exerted a profound influence even in Germany. Long, heavy weapons could not prevail against a relatively light weapon like the rapier. Rapier fencing quickly conquered the field and maintained it. Already at the time from which [this] manuscript stems, was Latinic rapier fencing quite common in Germany. German students also settled their disputes of honor with the rapier from the middle of the 17th century until about the [1830's]. Also, the historical view brings the proof, that the "old" Germans did not fence exclusively in open spaces, without stalking and did not only utilize strikes.

It would be joyously welcomed, when next to the new [sport] weapons also the use of the old would be snatched from the past and again cultivated. Systematic attempts to revive the earlier German fencing arts were already started in 1924 by the author of these lines. The demonstrations, which always supplement the scientific lectures, were acclaimed by the audience, regardless if they were fencers or amateurs. If the fencing of the earlier Germans were to again gain respect and these fencing techniques properly cultivated, then could someone, for whom the modern sport-weapons show no promise, perhaps use two-handers, especially if he is stocky and strong, another, who is lighter and more agile, would probably decide on the dusack, etc. This should stay isolated not only for reasons relating to sports, but also for cultural history, for the cultivation and revival of old practices requires becoming acquainted with past cultural assets and so contributes to a deeper appreciation of the history of a people.

ARMA will feature more on this unique manuscript soon!


From Velhagen und Klasings Monatshefte, Jg. Berlin, 1926. Translation Copyrighted 2003 by Eli Combs. All righst reserved.


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