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Surviving Source Material for the Study and Recreation Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts
April, 2000

Greg Mele


I  can’t think of a better piece to lead off this new content with than an overview of the various fighting manuals. Greg Mele, our new KCT editor for the fighting arts, has graciously consented to provide a basic introduction to the fighting books–also known as “fechtbuchs” that have been causing such a stir amongst tournament re-enactment societies recently.

For many years these manuals were the passion of only a few–Steve Hicks and Dr. Sydney Anglo come immediately to mind–but now there are a whole host of scholars, students, martial artists and medieval re-enactors pouring over the admittedly scant but rewarding materials.

It is my hope that this new material will infuse a breadth into various behourd and steel-based fighting systems, and that the result will be stronger fighting in support of chivalric and martial goals. My hat is off to Greg for doing a fine job on this piece and for helping to provide the critical roadmap needed by students hungry for this new source of knoweldge.

–Brian R. Price

If you tell someone today that you study swordplay, they usually assume one of two things: Olympic-style sport fencing, or some form of Asian martial art. If you tell most martial artists today that you study “Western” martial arts, they will either look at you with confusion, skepticism, or incredulity.

Yet, the martial culture of the modern world, is literally that of the Western world, so it seems absurd to believe that the cultures that produced everything from the legions of Rome to the horrors of nuclear warfare, would somehow have been completely ignorant in personal defense. Furthermore, the Medieval and Renaissance periods are as much characterized by the rise and decline of a warrior aristocracy, with their wars of property, position and faith as anything else. Obviously, such a class would have developed sophisticated martial arts to aid them in those wars.Obviously, such a class would have developed sophisticated martial arts to aid them in those wars.

What is the material basis for recreating European swordplay? What manuals exist from the period and, perhaps most importantly, how do you get hold of them?

Certainly, we can assume that almost as soon as a new weapon was developed, systematic training in its use followed. With the rise of a warrior-caste, dedicated to the full-time pursuit of martial skill, a systematic method of pursuing that training was bound to ensue.

Yet when Egerton Castle’s monumental Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century was published in 1884, he maintained that medieval swordplay was unadulterated barbarism, reliant upon strength and raw aggression, rather than “science.” Castle felt that the first true fencing master to leave us an actual method of arms was Achille Marozzo who first published his Opera Nova in 1516. Since Castle, who’s work, admittedly, has yet to be surpassed, author after author of fencing “history” has adhered to this position.

Yet Marozzo was neither the first to publish a manual, nor the originator of a new method of swordplay. In fact, Marozzo’s Opera Nova, while one of the most important surviving texts, is really just one manual in a continuous record of  German and Italian masters, a record that starts back in the 13th century. With typical Victorian assuredness in the idea of a continuous linear “evolution” towards “perfection,” Castle merely looked to the earliest text in which he could see traces of his modern foil and sabre fencing, and assumed anything prior to that was untoutored brawling. Writing little more than a generation later, the Italian fencing master Luigi Barbasetti referred to the works of the 15th century masters as showing a kind of rough pancratium, relying on brutal force and wrestling rather than skill; thereby single-handly doing a serious disservice to both the Medieval masters, and the ancient art of pancratium.

So, if Castle simply stopped when the trail became unfamiliar, how much farther back than 1516 does the path of the ancient masters lead? The answer, thus far, lies two and a half centuries earlier, to Manuscript I.33.
Ms. I.33, also known as the “Tower Fechtbuch” is an anonymous South German manual of sword and buckler play from the late 13th century. In the manuscript a priest (sacerdos) instructs a student (scolare) in the use of the weapon in single combat. I.33 shows us a sophisticated form of sword use, already placing a strong emphasis on single-time counter-attacks, and the use of the point, both of which Castle considered hallmarks of the Renaissance schools.

Yet, if the Tower Fechtbuch is the oldest our texts, anecdotal references clearly show the existence of schools of defences, and professional instructors, as early as the 12th century. The great historian, Saxo Grammaticus, records:

 [Gram] practiced with the most zealous training whatsoever to sharpen and strengthen the bodily powers. Taught by the fencers, he trained himself by sedulous practice in parrying and dealing of blows.

These “fencers” may perhaps be the “champions” Saxo later refers to:

  “…he [the king] decreed that they should assiduously learn from the champions by the way of parrying and dealing blows. Some of these were skilled in a remarkable manner of fighting, and used to smite the eyebrow on the enemy’s forehead with an infallible stroke…”

English legal documents from this time name professional arms instructors and “judicial champions” such as Wilemus Pugilus (1156) and Laurencius Pugil (1176), who hired themselves out to stand as proxies in trials-by-combat. In 1180 AD Herny II  banned the establishment of “fencing schools” in London, and forbade townsfolk to travel about the city with sword and buckler:

And that nobody may hold school of sword and buckler within the city on pain of imprisonment.

One 17th century source further adds:

 “Ye may read in mine annals who that in the year of 1222 the citizens kept games of defence, and wrestlings, near unto the hospital of St. Gile sin the field, where they challenged and had the master of the men in the suburbs and other commoners…The youths of this city also have used on holdy days after evening prayer, at their masters’ doors, to exercise their wasters  and bucklers.”

Around the actual time of I.33 itself, more legal documents, point to professional sword instructors establishing public schools. Based on what these documents claim, we can only assume that the nobility had not warmed to the discipline of arms being an open commodity.  From the reign of King Edward I:

“Foreasmuch as Fools who delight in Mischief, do learn to fence with Buckler, and thereby are the more encouraged to commit their Follies, it is Provided and enjoined that noone shall keep schule or tych the Art of Fencing with the Bouckler, within the City, by Night or by Day, and if any do so, he shall be imprisoned for Forty Days.”

Under Edward’s son, Edward II, Roger le Skirmisour was charged in 1310 or 1311 with keeping a school of arms and “drawing young people together, to the wasting of their property and the injury of their characters”. Roger was jailed. While this was unfortunate for Roger, it did not do much to threaten his profession; from the late 14th century on, we see a steady rise in the occurrence of fencing schools and treatises. Marginalia showing the sword and buckler being used as a training tool for squires in the 14th century Romance of Alexander, depicts guards and stances nearly identical with those of I.33

From I.33 at the end of the 13th century, the Black Death, Hundred Year’s War, Peasants’ Revolt, and a variety of social calamities seems to have aborted the production (or survival) of any further fencing manuscripts for nearly an hundred years. In France, the so-called “cradle of chivalry,”  and her rival, England, almost completely fade from the historical record of schools of defense, or martial arts treatises. The only manuscripts on the use of arms from the late Middle Ages that have survived are La Jeu de la Hache (Axe Play), a Burgundian poll axe fighting manual from 1475, and the Middle English Harlein Manuscript of the early 15th century, a cryptic set of verses on the use of the ‘twa hand sword.’ Other than these two slim works, we do not hear from England or France until the late 16th century.

Johannes Liechtenauer and the Liechtenauer school
The surviving record of European swordplay begins with the German grandmaster, Johannes Liechtenauer. We have little concrete knowledge of Liechtenauer, only hints and shreds left by his students and their descendants. Johannes appears to have born sometime in the 1320s, probably in Liechtenau in Franconia. He traveled through the Holy Roman Empire, Eastern Europe, and Italy, gathering the various techniques of local masters. A much later student of the “Liechtenauer school,” Paulus Kal, lists of few of these masters, now lost to the mists of time: Virgily of Cracow, Lamprecht of Prauge, Andres of Liegnitz . By 1350, the master had settled down and begun to teach, precisely where is unknown, although Swabia or Austria are likely. Here, he gathered a circle of students, from whom nearly the entire German Kunst des Fechtens (Art of Fighting) would descend. These students were sworn to secrecy, until Liechtenauer recognized them as a master, and then they were expected to hold their own students to secrecy, as well.

Liechtenauer wrote down his teachings in a set of cryptic verses, which were designed to intentionally obscure the methods of his art from anyone who had not been trained by the master or his inner circle. We do not have Liechtenauer’s text, only the manuals written by his students. Towards the close of the 14th century, the Liechtenauer circle seems to have determined that lesser masters were corrupting the Art. Breaking the veil of secrecy, the students of Liechtenauer, and then their students, began to write manuals that interpreted the Master’s cryptic verses and explained both the technique, and the philosophy, of his school.

Hanko Doebringer published the first of these manuals in 1389. Although the primary weapon he taught was the longsword, Liechtenauer teachings included nearly all common medieval weapons. Liechtenauer’s style favoured attack over the defense, and counter-attacks over direct blocks or parries. (It is likely that at this point, the old master was dead.)

In the 15th century the new generation of the Liechtenauer tradition began to publish treatise after treatise, and used their works to secure the patronage of the Imperial nobility. Sigmund Ringeck, whose text manual provides some of the clearest insights into the actual underlying body mechanics and thought process to the system, became swordmaster to the dukes of Bavaria; while his contemporary, Hans Talhoffer, enjoyed the patronage of the Swabian nobility, and ultimately produced at least three different color, pen-and-ink illustrated editions of his own manual. Sometime in the early 15th century, Liechtenauer’s students formed a guild known as the Marxbrüder (Brotherhood of Saint Mark) headquartered in Frankfurt am Main. The Marxbrüder were given a monopoly by the Emperor Frederick in 1480.

As the fame of these masters spread, the work of Hans Leckuchner was added to the tradition. Leckuchner adapted Liechtenauer’s method to the use of the messer, a single-edged, falchion like short sword, and further added material on the falchion and buckler.

Throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries a succession of German fencing masters wrote treatises based on the principles laid down by Liechtenauer, but with the invention of the printing press, the era of the fencing manual was truly born. The first printed text on fencing was Andres Paurenfeindt’s manual of 1516, which received such fame that it went into multiple editions, and was eventually translated into French. This tradition continued up until about 1550 when the rapier slowly began to supersede the older styles and entirely replaced them by about 1620.

The Italian School
The earliest extant Italian fencing manual appears to be Fiore dei Libri’s Flos Duellatorum (the Flower of Battle), published in 1410. Fiore dei Liberi of Civitale d’Ostria was born sometime between 1340 and 1350 in Civitale del Friuli, a small town on the river Natisone in Italy. In order to learn the art from the best of his time, he left his village and went to Germany to learn and train in swordsmanship under a variety of masters. The only master he names was “the scholar Johannes Suvenus (a former scholar of Nicolaus von Toblem).” This “Johannes the Swabian” may have been the famous Johannes Liechtenauer whose method is similar, though not identical to Fiore’s.

Under Johannes’ direction, Fiore became a recognized Master-at-Arms, and he began to travel as a weapon-instructor throughout the southern Empire, and northern Italian states. At the beginning of the 1400, when he entered the court of Niccolo il d’Este, Marquise of Ferrara, as the instructor to the Marquise household knights and military advisor. He then began to write the manuscript for the nobility at the Signore di Ferrara request. In 1410 Fiore dedicated his treatise to the marquise, and it is believed that he died some time before 1415. Flos Duellatorum focuses primarily on two-handed sword play, including a comprehensive list of disarms and other dirty tricks, both in and out of armour, but also details techniques of axe, spear and dagger combat.

The next great published Italian treatise we know of is Filipo Vadi, who’s Ars Gladiatoria was published around 1480. Vadi’s work is similar to dei Liberi’s, and some scholars have felt it to be a revision of that work. However, while shorter, Vadi’s text seems to be more systematic, and presents several of the more traditional Italian school concepts that would become famous under masters like Manciolino (1531) and Marozzo (1536)

Recently, through the efforts of Doctor Sydney Anglo, the massive works of the late 15th/early 16th century knight Pietro Monte has come to light. In his Collecteana (1509), Monte provides page after page discussing wrestling traditions throughout Europe, its relationship to weapon arts, use of the longsword, sword and buckler, shield, pollaxe, spear, dagger, and lance, and includes chapters on swordmaking, jousting, and selecting the proper harness to wear in various forms of engagement.  Although it is speculated that Monte was of Spanish origin, he lived and taught in northern Italy, and is considered part of the Italian tradition.

The 16th century became the era of the Italian masters, first with the spadi di lato, (translated: sidesword or cut and thrust sword), a long, slimmer and lighter version of the older, knightly single-handed sword, and later, with the first true civilian sword, the rapier. Marozzo, who most authors raise up as the father of modern fencing, was actually a teacher of this ‘cut-and-thrust’ sword who’s basic tradition can be traced back into the proceding century. His method of sword and buckler play, while utilizing a somewhat different weapon, shows many similarities to that shown in Ms. I.33 and later by the Englishman George Silver in his Brief Instructions on My Paradoxes of Defense (c.1605). Marozzo’s methods continued and were expounded upon by latter masters, such as Dall’Aggochie.

The first recorded manual of rapier play seems to have been Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato di Scienta D’Arme (1553). However,  at this early date, it is difficult to distinguish what is a “sword” and what is a “rapier.” Suffice it to say, that Agrippa’s work emphasized point over edge, and focused on civilian quarrels, two of the hallmarks of rapier fencing.

Many other manuals were published in the century following Agrippa, by a host of Italian masters: Sainct Didier (1573), Di Grassi (1594), Saviolo (1595), Fabris (1606) and Capo Ferro (1610). These are all from the Italian tradition of rapier play, which swept through Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, northern France, and England.

The native English methods of swordplay are best known to us through George Silver (see above) and to some extent, the backsword portions of the treatises of Joseph Swetnam (1617) and the Pallas Armata (1626). Although the cutting sword would remain popular in the British Isles through this entire period, after Silver, English Renaissance masters all include the Italian rapier in their curriculum.

Meanwhile, Spanish teachers were constructing a different system of rapier use, one little practiced, or understood, outside of the Iberian peninsula. This method is said to be the invention of the master Carranza (1553), and was expounded upon by his student Narvaez, and later, the Frenchman, Gerald Thibault. For a hundred years, Italian, Spanish and finally, French schools of rapier play competed and were finally replaced by the transitional rapier and the smallsword.

When looking at the quick, delicate dueling sword, or the refined actions of the foil and epee, fencing scholars may believe their art to have sprung from the mind of Zeus in the early days of the 17th century, but in reality, it is but one branch of a tree of swordsmanship that extends back at least four centuries earlier.

Greg Mele
KCT Editor / Fighting Arts
Director, Swordsmanship Symposium International

Martial Arts Manuals and “Fechtbuchs”
Primary Source Material
Anonymous. Ms. I.33 “The Tower of London Fechtbuch” (1275)
Anonymous. Le Jeu de la Hache (15th Century), translated by Dr. Sydney Anglo. Archaeologia, Vol. 109 (1991), published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, Volume CIX
De Liberi, Fiore: Flos Duellatorum; Italy, 1410 (reprinted Padova, 1902 by Novati, Francesco)
Di Grassi, Giacomo: His True Arte of Defense; London, 1594 (Italian original 1570)
Albrecht Dürer. Fechtbuch, 1512
Marozzo, Achille: Opera Nova; Venice, 1536
Silver, George: Paradoxes of Defense; London, 1599.
Brief Instructions on My Paradoxes of Defense; London, 1602
unpublished until Cyril Mathey’s edition of 1896
Ringeck, Sigumnd. Commentaries on Master Liechtenauer’s Fechtbuch, c.1440
Sutor, Jakob. Kunsliches Fechtbuch, Stuttgart, 1849. (Original edition published  Frankfort-am- Main, 1612
Saviolo, Vincentio. His Practice, In Two Books, London, 1595
Joseph Swetnam, School of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense, London, 1617
Talhoffer: Fechtbuch, (1467 edition) Translated by Mark Rector, 1998.
(A 1998 German reprint of Talhoffer is now available from VS-Books, Carl Schulze & Torsten Verhüllsdonk GbR, 44635 Herne, Germany)
Vadi, Fillipo. De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, 1482

Secondary Source Material
Brown, Terry. English Martial Arts, Anglo-Saxon Books; Norfolk, UK, 1997
Clements, John. Medieval Swordsmanship:Illustrated Methods and Techniques, Paladin Press; Boulder, Colorado, 1998
Renaissance Swordsmanship, Paladin Press; Boulder, Colorado, 1997
Galas, S. Matthew. “Kindred Spirits — The Art of the Sword in Germany & Japan,” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 20 – 47 (1997)
“The Flower of Battle — An Introduction to Fiore dei Liberi’s Sword Techniques,” in Hammerterz Forum, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Winter 1995/96)
Hand, Stephen. The Practical Saviolo, in Hammerterz Forum, (1998)
Hick, Steve. Analysis of “Le Jeu de la Hache”, (unpublished)
Hope, William .The New Short and Easy Method Of Fencing, (1707)
Hutton, Alfred. Cold Steel, London, 1889
Old Swordplay, London, 1992
The Swordsman, London, 1898
Kautz, Peter. Mani Contra il Courtilo, 2000
Petter, Nicholas. Klare Onderrichtinge der Voortreffelijcke Workstel-Konst, Amsterdam, 1674
Singman, Jeffrey. “The Medieval Swordsman: a 13th-century German Fencing Manuscript” in Royal Armouries Yearbook 2 (1997) pp.129-136
Turner, Craig and Soper, Tony. Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay
Burton, Sir Richard. The Book of the Sword, London 1884.
Cole, Michael D. (ed). Swords and Hilt Weapons, Barnes and Noble (reprint), New York 1995
Oakeshott, R. Ewart: The Archaeology of Weapons; Boydell Press, 1994 (reprint)
        The Sword in the Age of Chivalry; Boydell Press, 1994 (reprint)

Fencing History and Bibliographies
Amberger, J. Christoph. The Secret History of the Sword:Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, Multi-Media Books, Burbank, CA, 1999 (3rd edition)
Aylward, J.D. The English Master at Arms from the Twelfth to the Twentieth Centuries, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London 1956.
Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Defense: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, London 1885
Conroy, Tom. “Errors and Oversights in Castle’s Schools and Masters of Defense,” in HOPLOS, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June 1980)
Gaugler, William. The History of Fencing: Foundations of Modern European Swordplay, Laureate Press, Bangor, ME 1998.
Hutton, Alfred. The Sword and the Centuries, London 1901. Barnes & Noble reprint: 1997
Thimm, Carl Albert. A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Dueling, John Lane, 1896. Pelican Publishing Company reprint: 1999
Wise, Arthur. The Art and History of Personal Combat, Hugh Evelyn Ltd., London 1971.


Copyright the author, 2000 A.D.