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 Straight:
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 era’s place in that chain of development that he could boldly assert that "the theory of fencing has reached all but absolute perfection in our days...."

Most modern authors have simply followed in Castle’s 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 Castle’s claims have led recent scholars and researchers to reject his thesis as biased and inaccurate.

In the years since Castle’s 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 opponent’s 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 opponent’s 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 Liechtenauer’s art would be as likely to win as a strong man. In sum, Hanko Doebringer’s 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 Liberi’s 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, Doebringer’s 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 Doebringer’s 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 Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum. Unlike Manuscript I.33 at Leeds, Liberi’s 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 Liberi’s 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 Marozzo’s 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, Verolini’s work is little more than a condensation of Joachim Meyer’s Fechtbuch of 1570.

Like Liberi’s 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 Doebringer’s work of 1389. Following Liechtenauer’s 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 Liechtenauer’s 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 Danzig’s Fechtbuch, written in 1452. In addition to his own interpretation of Liechtenauer’s 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 of fencing.

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.


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