For at least 15 or 20 years, people who attend the right events and drink with the right people have known that much of the fencing jargon in later fencing manuals first appears in French chivalric literature of the 12th and 13th century. In 2015 Olivier Dupuis published an article in Acta Periodica Duellatorum so the evidence is available to everyone. But he overlooked one important source, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. This was written in German but inspired by a “welsh (Romance-language) book” brought to Austria by one of the hostages for Richard the Lion-Heart named Hugh de Morville. Ulrich was so impressed by it that he translated it into German. We don’t have any one manuscript in French or Norman or Occitan which tells the exact same story. Translating a romance could be a creative process in the middle ages, and ancient and medieval writers loved to disguise fiction as “a translation of a manuscript in a foreign language which I discovered.” But in terms of content Lanzelet is very much a romance of the late 12th century, with strong parallels to Welsh and Irish stories. Fencing appears in three or four stories in this romance.
The first story comes from Lancelot’s education by his guardians in the Otherworld. There were no soldiers or horsemen there and he was still a child so he learned other skills:
At the youth’s request the lady did a wise thing, for he seemed to her a lively boy: she sent for mermen (merwunder) and had them teach him to fence (lêren schirmen: 279). In this exercise he would never give up before he had to. He had also to play prisoners’ base, to jump extraordinary distances, to wrestle strenuously (starclîche ringen: 284), to hurl stones, both big and little, a good distance, to throw darts (he was never wearied by any of his instruction), to still-hunt, to hawk, to chase with the full pack, and to shoot with the bow. The men who came from the sea gave him skill. In all ways was he wise and manly, but about knightly horsemanship (ritterschaft) he knew nothing whatsoever, for he never mounted a horse, and he was ignorant of armour (harnasch). And so he grew to be fifteen years old in that land.
– lines 275-301 of the Bibliotheca Augusta transcription based on W. Spiewok’s edition from 1997. I have adapted the translation in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet: A Romance of Lancelot, tr. Kenneth G. T. Webster, ann. Roger Sherman Loomis (Columbia University Press: New York, 1951) pp. 28-29
Ulrich makes fun of his hero when he first gets on a horse and takes a spear in his hand.
The second story comes from one of Lancelot’s indiscretions with his host’s daughter or wife (this time it is his daughter, there are signs that she was his wife in an earlier version of the story like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). They take great pleasure in each other for the night, but dawn is coming:
As this hero lay couched so softly, the unwished day appeared and the sweet night was over. Then their resolute host pounded angrily at the door. The guests were terrified because he carried two sharp knives (scharpfiu mezzer), pointed and very long, and two bucklers (buggelaere). His heart was troubled. The knives were double-edged. He spoke (it would have been better if he had not done so): “I am going either to lose my life or to present the morning gift, for which no one will ever thank me; it is sadness and sorrow and everlasting rue, for you have forfeited your loyalty and your honour. Never since I was born have I treated a man better than you: what has that profited me? I was so disposed then: but now, all lie still, as you value your lives, and tell me who has the woman, my child, the faithless baggage?”
The girl concealed herself under her lover, the youthful champion, and would gladly have lain dead there. Her father, perceiving it, ran thither swiftly and savagely threatened them. “Whoever robs me of my honour,” he said, “will not enjoy it much! I will challenge you to a game (ein spil ich iu teilen wil: 1148). Take this shield (nemet disen schirm) in your hand and stay here by this wall (1150), and I will go to the other side; and I will give you your choice. One of us must throw first. Whoever hits the mark, he wins the game; the other bears the loss.”
The youth approved the plan: “Since I am on the defensive, it seems to me proper that you should throw before I do. May God give you bad luck, my hateful opponent! Please God you miss me!”
Then he relied on his own skill, and kept a sharp eye on his father-in-law, always holding his shield (schirm) in front of him. For this game no board was needed! (si spilten noetlîch âne bret: 1167) … The host played first and hurled his knife with full force through the young warrior’s sleeve into the wall. He fleshed him a little, so that he made the blood flow. Then the wounded one considered how he could make up for his injury. Instead of throwing and hurling, he rushed upon the wretch and gave him a frightful stab with his knife, so that he fell on the floor and never spoke again.
lines 1113-1183 pp. 40, 41
Throwing spears was very important in early Medieval warfare, but not fashionable in 12th century courtly circles, so our editor and translator wonders if throwing the knives is an archaism … but our poet enjoyed the gambling imagery in this scene. Throwing knives might have reminded him of dice, like the wooden bucklers reminded him of backgammon or chess boards.
In the third story, a squire is describing a forthcoming tourney:
Then they asked the courtly youth to inform them when the tournament (turnei) was to be. He replied: “Mark what I say. Three weeks from next Monday the tourney is arranged on the Judgement Field by the new town of Dyoflê (2670). I will tell you about this meadow. A man can find a mate there for whatever he wants to do, in earnest or in play (beidiu ze ernst und ze spil: 2674); fighting (vehten), horse-racing, jumping, foot-racing, fencing (schirmen), wrestling (ringen), playing at draughts (zabeln), and bowling (kugelspil); plenty of zither, fiddle, and harp playing; and merchandise of every kind from all over the world- that sort of thing you can find there any day better than elsewhere. Therefore the tourney is held at that place. Every sort of courtly activity (hübscheit) will be there, and the field is broad and level. Many a good knight will come for the sake of praise and in the hope of luck. Since I have found my lord Walwein I am well content. I am vexed that it took me so long to recognize him, for there was never knight born so steadfast in honour or so prone to good deeds.”
lines 2662-2745 pp. 61, 62
Line 4039 says that a particular lady was so well behaved and carefully spoken that nobody could accuse her of anything that she needed to hide: good fortune (gelücke) was her schirmschilt “fencing shield.”
For now, I want to leave you with two things to think about. We see a lot of familiar terms, including schirmen “to fence with the buckler,” schirm “defense, shield,” play “to fence,” earnest / play as two types of fencing, and buggelaere “buckler.” This had already been borrowed into German by around 1193 if it was not invented in German in the first place (schirm- seems to have a Germanic root). Fencing jargon is part of a wider world of craft and trade jargon; you can’t understand every word by just studying fencing manuals, any more than you can understand a word in a medieval language by studying just that language. Medieval people generally knew several languages, words passed fluidly between them, and we just don’t have enough examples of use in any one language from any one period to solve the really tricky problems.
In addition, this very early source says some things about the context of fencing. It is something which brings joy, like other play, and which a boy can learn from skilled teachers before he is ready to learn horsemanship and armed combat. Could that have to do with the way that fencing is often a very different kind of movement than the shield-splintering, spark-striking, mail-rending movement of armoured combat in the same poem? Or the worries of city fathers about boys and young men wandering around with swords and bucklers, spending time in low company, getting into fights and intimidating their elders and betters? Or why the Merkverse attributed to Johannes Liechtenauer is so keen to link fencing with other ritterlich activities, and why Fiore wants his aristocratic patron to know that he will teach the sword in one hand but not the buckler? Somewhere between duelling, play, and civic associations are the answers to some big questions about what these arts were created for and how the ones in surviving manuals relate to what most young men or soldiers did in their free time.
2020-08-30: Corrected small typos in the citations and added a link to Jacob and Willhelm Grimm’s dictionary entry for wälsch “Romance, French, Italian …” (it has the same etymology as Walloon and Welsh)
Edit 2020-09-08: On Facebook, Roland Warzecha points out that the verb schirmen does not really appear in I.33 or the German Fechtbücher, even though its common in other kinds of texts describing people who have friendly fights or teach how to fight from the 12th century onwards (Unsere Hauptquelle in der Dimicator Schola, das Manuskript Royal Armouries Record 0033 (oder, wie zuvor, MS I.33), benutzt zwar einige deutsche Fachbegriffe in seinem ansonsten lateinischen Text, stellt aber keinen offensichtlichen Bezug z. B. zum “Schirmen” her. Selbst dieser eine deutsche Begriff, der etymologisch mit den Wörtern für “fechten” in romanischen Sprachen verwandt ist (frz. escrime, ital. scherma, span. esgrima etc.), kommt im Fechtbuch als solcher nicht vor). So when we use what seems like a neutral term like “fencing” or collect evidence of people with swords and buckler or called “le Skirmisour,” we might be including people who the authors of our manuals would tell us were doing something different than what they did.
Edit 2021-03-13: A merman with sword and buckler is depicted on a 15th century pewter charm holder from the Netherlands: van Beuningen, H. J. E., and A. M. Koldeweij, Heilig en Profaan . Cothen: Stichting Middeleeuwse religieuze en profane insignes, 1993. No. 601 (c/o Billy & Charlie)
Further Reading: Oliver Dupuis, “The Roots of Fencing from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries in the French Language Area,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 3.1 (2015) pp. 37-62 doi: 10.1515/apd-2015-0002
Edit 2022-02-20: fixed formatting wrecked when WordPress introduced the block editor