Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals

reprints of four early European fencing manuals on an ironing board covered with a colourful cotton print

Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.

So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century.

  1. The “Walpurgis Fechtbuch,” Tower of London MS I.33 (c. 1320)

    The oldest surviving book teaching individual fighting techniques in the world, well-known in 16th-century Germany then forgotten until the 1990s! Sword and buckler fencing was the most common kind in 12th and 13th century Europe, and was very popular in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

  2. Fiore dei Liberi, Fior di Battaglia (c. 1410)

    Fiore wrote the oldest known surviving fencing manual from Italy, and the best book on the ‘knightly’ weapons and armoured combat.

  3. Any of the German manuscripts with a gloss on all three parts of the Liechtenauer Zettel and Andreas Lignitzer‘s sword and buckler plays.

    These were one of the main kinds of book on fencing in the 15th and early 16th century north of the Alps: commentaries on a cryptic poem or Zettel attributed to “Master Liechtenauer” and short lists of techniques and tips on other topics. Andreas Lignitzer‘s one page of text was the most copied German text on the sword and buckler despite defining none of its terms.

  4. Any of the German manuscripts with more pictures than words such as Paulus Kal or Peter Falkner.

    The other major tradition north of the Alps in the 15th and early 16th century. Cross-referencing the books with lots of words and few pictures and the books with lots of pictures and few words is hard, but people reconstructing early German martial arts need all the sources they can find.

  5. ?Johannes Lecküchner, Kunst und Zettel zum Messer (d. 1482)

    Johannes Lecküchner took the portion of the Zettel describing unarmoured combat on foot, adapted it slightly (new names for the guards, six rather than five master cuts) and applied it to the falchion (Messer) in a massive illustrated manuscript.  The result is a bit undigestable but very thorough, including a famous group of techniques to lock your opponent’s sword arm and dump him head first into a sack held by two cronies in the audience.

  6. Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (1570)

    Joachim Meyer wrote the best printed book in the German tradition, one which was lavishly published with high-quality prints and includes explicit advice on how to teach and learn. His book covers a wide range of weapons and shows its debts to the manuscript tradition without being enslaved to it; he introduced Italian ideas like defining most of his technical terms in a way someone who does not already know them can understand. He also begins by teaching longsword for friendly play (for very rough values of ‘friendly’) where thrusts are forbidden and strikes are normally with the flat of the sword. If you want a German manual which we can interpret with confidence, read Meyer.

  7. ?George Silver, Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense (after 1599)

    George Silver was a xenophobic blowhard who mixes some sense in with the bombast. In the 2000s, his manual was very influential because it was in English and discusses theoretical issues which other treatises do not discuss directly; it was also one of the very few manuscripts published by the first historical martial arts movement before WW I.

  8. Any of the four main Bolognese manuals: Antonio Manciolino (1533), Achille Marozzo (1536), the anonymous manuscript in Ravenna, and Giovanni dall’Agocchie (1572)

    These teachers from Bologna had a distinctive pedagogy and tactical theory which they applied to using all kinds of weapons. They make many of the same points, although specialists have to cross-reference the different treatises because each explains some things which the others forget to talk about.  Manciolino and Marozzo also teach different approaches for friendly fighting and fighting with sharps, where the first involves bigger motions and a wider range of techniques and the latter is more conservative and less flamboyant.

  9. Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’Arme (1570, Englished 1594)

    di Grassi has the clearest discussion of footwork in 16th century Italy, and has thoughtful advice on the best way to use specific weapons which other masters don’t say out loud. It was also the first book on individual fighting skills to be translated into English, and one of the very few to be reprinted in the 20th century.

  10. One of the fencers who called their art la Verdadera Destreza ‘the true skill’ (Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza or Luis Pacheco de Narváez)

    This tradition dominated polite fencing in Spain and its colonies from the late 16th century to the early 19th. It hides a core insight (if your sword has good hand protection, and you keep your sword arm and point extended towards your opponent’s face, they will find it very difficult to strike you) and a practical Aristotelean theory behind a mass of fluffy words. It is also a good example of one martial art defining itself as not like another: the gentlemen who taught their art gave it a new name, and made sure everyone knew that what they taught was wise and geometrical and not like what vulgar ‘fencers’ did.

  11. One of the Iberian montante (greatsword) manuals such as Diogo Gomes de Figueyredo or Domingo Luis Godinho

    These manuals for the two-handed sword have a distinctive pedagogy, based on ‘rules’ or solo forms named after specific scenarios such as escorting someone through a hostile crowd or defeating two men with shields. They also give an impression of what Iberian fencing outside the Destreza tradition looked like.

  12. Nicolo Giganti (1606), Salvator Fabris (1608), Ridolfo Capoferro (1610), or Francesco Fernando Alferi (1640)

    The tradition described in the four ‘classical rapier’ manuals came to dominate polite fencing in 17th century Europe and via the French smallsword of the 18th century lies behind today’s Olympic fencing. From this period on, staff weapons, shields, mounted combat, and the demands of armour are marginalized in the main tradition of fencing books, and the positions, weapons, and tactical approach look alien to my Iron Age and 14th century eyes. (Piermarco Terminello has a great essay on how whenever masters after the year 1550 talk about fighting in the field or against multiple opponents, they recommend an approach much more like what earlier masters recommend; he added one more source, Giovanni Alberto Cassani, in 2019).

two wrestlers, one behind the other and locking the other's right arm behind his back with his left
Fiore dei Liberi’s Under Bind (ligadura de sotto) or Strong Key, Lecküchner’s Nameless (der ungenandt). Different martial arts select many of the same movements and body mechanics, but they are not all the same in any academically useful sense. Getty Museum, Malibu CA, MS. Ludwig XV 13 fol. 14r-c. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

This is a long list, but twelve is a good number to begin with (I.33, four Germans, four Italians, two Iberians and one Englishman). Lecküchner covers much of the same ground as the other German manuscripts (just in more detail and by a person we can place in space and time and society) and George Silver seems to have just been a man with a hobby, so I can see a case for trimming the list down to ten which is also a proper number. But the English tradition of fencing books is the fourth most important in Europe, so it deserves a place in the list.

As enough material on any one tradition became available, many people stopped reading outside it. If you can answer most of your questions by reading treatises in your favourite tradition (or by asking your teacher and accepting their authority) you are less likely to take the time to read books that might answer your questions but will certainly question your answers. Even now, its hard to study Destreza unless you read 16th century Spanish and Portuguese. But if I think if more of us committed to knowing something about all of these traditions, we would find it easier to talk to each other, and to agree about the difference between a universal principle and a matter of judgment. There are many different good ways of doing anything in a fight, and a good martial art picks a few. Learning one way to move well in combat is much more important than arguing and philosophizing about which way is ‘best.’

And one day, I would like to read a broad book on early European fencing by a fighter who is scholarly to balance Sydney Anglo’s beautiful academic Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe from 2000. If that is too ambitious, a book on North Italian fencing from Fiore to Fabris would be a great start.

What about my gentle readers? Would you suggest a different list, or take some of my twelve out and put others in to replace them?

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