Believe it or not, some of the best sources we have for early fencing techniques are six-hundred year-old poems.
Poems, you say? For swordfighting? You’re pulling my leg.
No, really. If you lived in the late 14th century, and you wanted to learn how to use a sword, then your teacher might well have asked you to start by learning a poem. Books about fencing were expensive, and not many people could read, but anyone could be taught a poem. Putting all your fencing techniques in a poem was also a great way to make them memorable. Rhyme and meter really help things stick in the mind.
Odd. Was this whole ‘learn to swordfight by memorizing fencing poems’ thing very widespread?
We don’t know. It’s clear that not every late-medieval culture in Europe used poetry in this way, but some did.
In England, for example, one of the only surviving sources for early fencing techniques is a poem called ‘Man yt Wol’ (‘The One Who Will’). This fencing poem survives in just a single manuscript (MS Harley 3542), currently held in the British Library in London.
So do you folks study the sword techniques in this ‘Man yt Wol’, then?
No, we don’t. The Man yt Wol is a very cryptic poem (you can read it here, if you like). Some people have tried to use it as a basis on which to reconstruct early English longsword fencing, but that’s exceedingly speculative – there’s so little solid evidence to go on.
Because of this, at New Haven Historical Fencing we work mainly from German rather than English sources, simply because so much early material survives in German. Having all this material to work with makes us at least moderately confident we’re on something like the right track!
Right! Is there a German swordfighting poem, too?
Yes indeed! Our most important source is a 600 year-old fencing poem called the ‘Zedel’ (which translates as something like the ‘Recital,’ ‘Receipt,’ or ‘Epitome’). The Zedel is said to have been composed by a fencing master named Johannes Liechtenauer. The poem contains advice for fencing with the longsword, for fighting in armor, and for fighting on horseback. At New Haven Historical Fencing we concentrate mainly on the first section of the poem, which teaches unarmored longsword fencing.
We suspect that the Zedel began its life as something to be passed on orally, rather than written down. But luckily for us, it was eventually written down, which is why it survives. It was written down many times, too – so different versions of it survive in quite a few old manuscripts.
Ooh! Old manuscripts are cool. Can I see one of the manuscripts containing this ‘Zedel’?
Certainly! Here is a short section from the Zedel as it appears in a 1452 manuscript known as the Starhemberg Fechtbuch, currently held a library in Rome. (You can see scans of the whole manuscript here, if you like).
Notice the red writing near the top of the page. It’s a section heading, and it reads: ‘Das Ist ein gemaine ler des langen Swerttes’ (‘This is a general lesson about the longsword’). The black text under it is part of the Zedel, and as such, is written in rhyme and meter. This ‘general lesson’ offers all sorts of good advice: it tells you to take a step whenever you strike, so that the blow is true; to strike blows from the right, if you are right handed, and to strike blows from the left, if you are left handed – and a bunch of other important things.
Memorably, the ‘general lesson’ also warns you not to learn fencing at all if you’re a scaredy-cat…
Fun! But this advice seems pretty vague and general. Can you really learn specific historical sword techniques from this?
No, you can’t. If the ‘general lesson’ were all we had, we’d be unable to reconstruct historical longsword fencing.
But lucky for us, this is only a very short excerpt from a much longer poem – and the rest of the poem is much more specific.
Even better, in the century or so after the poem was composed, many fencing masters wrote manuscripts commenting on the poem, line by line. These later fencing masters break the whole poem down into couplets or quatrains, and explain the exact techniques to which each line refers. Sometimes they even provide lavish full-color illustrations of the techniques in action. All of this helps us to understand the techniques described in the poem itself.
That seems much more helpful! Can you show me some of these commentaries?
Sure. Often the commentators write a couplet from the Zedel in red ink, and then comment extensively on it in black ink, before moving on to the next couplet or quatrain. Let’s look at an example.
This is another page from the manuscript we just looked at (the Stahremberg Fechtbuch). Look at the red writing which begins the final paragraph. It’s a rhyming couplet from the Zedel, and it reads ‘Wer die oberhawt zornhau ort dem drawt.’ (Did you notice the rhyme?) Translated, it means something like ‘Whoever strikes you from above, the wrath-strike gets him with the point’).
If you read it by itself, that couplet is pretty cryptic! What the heck is a ‘wrath-strike’? Why does it get the opponent with its ‘point,’ specifically? And why is it especially useful against people who attack you ‘from above’? So many questions!
If this sort of thing were all we had, we wouldn’t be able to reconstruct anything with confidence. But lucky for us, a later fencing master has commented extensively on the couplet, to explain what it means in practice. That’s all the black text underneath. By translating all that black text, we can get a fairly good idea of how to perform this technique properly.
Here is what the commentator says (in Cory Winslow’s translation, lightly adjusted):
Gloss: Mark, the Wrath-strike breaks all strikes from above with the point, and yet it is nothing other than a simple peasant strike, and drive it thus: When you come to him with the pre-fencing, if he then hews at your head from above on his right side, then hew also with him wrathfully from your right side from above, without any parrying, on his sword. If he is then Soft on the sword, then shoot in the long point straight before you and stab him to the face or the breast. So Set-on him.
Now, this commentary is still open to a range of interpretations, but it’s certainly a lot more helpful than just the couplet on its own.
What about these illustrations? You promised us illustrations!
So I did. Sadly the Starhemberg Fechtbuch doesn’t have many illustrations. But because many different fencing masters all wrote commentaries on the same poem, we can cross-reference the commentary in the Starhemberg with other manuscripts which are extensively illustrated.
To see this in action, let’s turn to a different manuscript, and look at an illustration of the exact couplet we were just discussing.
The illustration below is from the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch, created around 1470, and currently held in Munich, Germany. (You can look at scans of the whole manuscript here, if you like.) Here you can see two fencers performing precisely the technique described in the couplet we just read.
How do we know it’s the same technique? Well, look up in the top left corner of this manuscript page. The writing there is a quote from the Zedel. In fact, it’s a version of the second line of the couplet we just read: ‘Zornhau ort dem drawt’ (The wrath-strike gets him with the point’). This is a pretty clear sign that the scribe is illustrating the technique that goes with that particular line of the Zedel.
This image also matches the commentary we looked at a moment ago, which gives us confidence that we’re on the right track. (If you really want to learn how this technique works in practice, come to our classes!)
There are many, many surviving fencing manuals of this kind, all commenting on the same German-language poem. Here are a few illustrations, just to give you an idea:
Since all these manuals are commentaries on the same poem, we can cross-reference them against one another, and check whether our interpretations of specific fencing techniques are correct.
Of course, we also need to test our interpretations in practice! Naturally this involves a lot of sweaty, tiring, extremely fun longsword fencing.
Sometimes a technique that seems plausible on paper simply doesn’t work in reality. When that happens, we go back to the source and check if our interpretation was flawed. Often it turns out that we have misunderstood the poem and its commentary. At other times, it turns out we have understood the poem & commentary quite well, but we just aren’t skilled enough to pull off the technique being described. The solution: more training, so we can test more sophisticated techniques!
Are there any other surviving fencing manuals, beyond the ones we’ve looked at?
Absolutely. And not all of them are based on poems. For those of us who live in New Haven, it’s especially worth mentioning the lavishly illustrated New Haven Gladiatoria (we have a whole page on it here, if you’re interested). The New Haven Gladiatoria is also written in 15th century German, but it seems to be a compilation of techniques from a different fencing tradition, and it makes no mention of the Zedel.
The other main well-attested source for late 14th / early 15th century fencing is the work of an Italian swordmaster named Fiore de’i Liberi. (You can read all about him here, if you like). His major work, Flos Duellatorum (The Flower of Battle), is a comprehensive martial system with techniques for wrestling, dagger, sword, and mounted combat. It survives in only four beautifully illustrated manuscripts, held in the Morgan Library in New York, the Getty Museum in California, the National Library of France in Paris, and the Pisani Dossi Villa in Corbetta, Italy.
One of the Fiore manuscripts – the Pisani Dossi – contains quite a lot of poetry, which is another sign of how strong the connection was between fencing and poetry in this period. Still, the Fiore tradition as a whole doesn’t seem to have a single poem at its core. In this respect it is unlike the Liechtenauer fencing tradition, which is based on the Zedel, and also unlike whatever English fencing tradition is represented by ‘Man yt Wol,’
Right! I get the sense that there are quite a few surviving late-medieval fencing manuscripts. Which ones do you folks actually study at New Haven Historical Fencing?
Here at New Haven Historical Fencing, we spend most of our time studying the Zedel, together with the manuscripts which seem to contain the earliest commentaries on it.
This means that our key sources are the Zedel itself (in its various versions), and four early commentators that the Historical Fencing community has come to know under the names:
- ‘pseudo-Peter von Danzig’
- ‘The anonymous master of ms3227a’
As you can see, when you study old manuscripts, you have to get used to not knowing the name of the author. Lots of writings simply have to be attributed to ‘pseudo-‘ something or ‘anonymous.’
We’re at least mildly confident that most of the material we attribute to ‘Ringeck’ really was written by an identifiable 15th century fencing master named ‘Sigmund ain Ringeck‘ (though the name is sometimes written differently, and in fact he might have called himself Sigmund Ainring, or Amring, or Einring, or Schining…. You can read all about him here, if you like.).
But with the other three, all bets are off! The longsword commentary sometimes known as ‘pseudo-Peter von Danzig’ is only called that only because it was once mistakenly attributed to a fencing master called Peter von Danzig. We now think that this is wrong, and that it almost certainly wasn’t written by von Danzig – but we can’t say with any confidence who actually wrote it. (You can read more about this here)
Similarly, the longsword commentary conventionally attributed to ‘Lew’ may or may not belong to a 15th century fencing master named ‘Lew.’ At present, we just don’t yet have enough evidence to decide. (You can read more about this here.)
And obviously, we currently have no way to identify the ‘anonymous master of ms3227a,’ who acquired that title purely because the manuscript which contains the relevant longsword commentary is filed as ‘ms3227a’ in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany. (You can read more about that here.)
So it’s fair to say we have very little idea of the identity of the people whose work we’re studying! Nevertheless, taken together they form the richest single corpus of late 14th / early 15th century fencing techniques anywhere in the world – so we think that’s worth spending time with.
Of these four commentators the first three (i.e. Ringeck, pseudo-Peter von Danzig, and Lew) have fairly similar approaches to the Zedel, whereas the anonymous master of ms3227a has a rather different approach. This is superbly convenient for us, since it gives us a chance to see the same lines of the Zedel from multiple angles.
The commentaries attributed to Ringeck, ps.-von Danzig, and Lew all also exist in multiple manuscript copies, some of which are different from one another. This gives us even more chances to compare different takes on the same material.
And that’s a basic grounding in our sources!
Thanks for the tour! That was fun, and convinces me that everyone at New Haven Historical Fencing is a brilliant, beautiful genius who is charming, morally admirable, and good in bed.
Oh, you didn’t have to say that! But you make a good point, and we appreciate it. Thanks.
Seriously though, I’m excited about this – where should I go next?
We have three suggestions:
- If any of this interests you, you can read a lot more about it on Wiktenauer, the largest online repository of historical fencing texts. Wiktenauer is a superb resource, available to all, totally free. Thanks, Wiktenauer!
- If you want to get your own copies of some of the fencing texts we work from, check out the resources under the ‘Our Books‘ tab, above.
- If you live in the New Haven area, and you want to try this out in practice, why not come by and take a class with us?
- If you live far away, why not try to find a HEMA club in your area?