“End him rightly” – a translation error

MS Germ.Quart.16, folio 7r. Image from the Wiktenauer website.

Since 2014, there has been a certain meme on the internet that really annoys me. I know, I’m a grumpy old man, and memes tend to annoy me anyway, but this particular meme stems from an incorrect translation and an incorrect interpretation. In other words, it is a series of errors, and should be laid to rest along with any other incorrect translations or dysfunctional interpretations.

The meme in question of course the whole “end him rightly” phrase that became popular after a video by Skallagrim in December 2014.[1] To give him his due, he didn’t try to make it a meme, he was simply highlighting an interesting and unusual technique that he found in a translation of a 15th century source.

The meme developed in the comments on the YouTube video. One of the rules I live by is “don’t read the bottom half of the internet”, because the article/video area of a website is where potentially interesting information lives, and the comments area of a website is usually where the dross of the internet collects without adding any useful knowledge to the conversation. Needless to say, what happened here was that rather than following proper scientific method and investigating the technique and its source material, people turned an incorrect transaltion into a simple meme for personal gratification.

So how can we set the story straight?

Translation

The original instruction is found in three of the four known Gladiatoria manuscripts. In the Vienna manuscript, the original text is as follows:

Merkch das zwelifft ab dw wildt reschlach mit ym entt[e]n So nymb deinen spýes vnd swert zw samb an den arm[e] vnd schraw ab den knoph von deinem swert vnd wirff hertikchleich[e]n in in vnd lauff nach dem würff mit im ein vnd nütz[e] swert ader spýes welichs dir eb[e]n sey.[2]

In the Krakow manuscript, the original text is as follows:

Merckch daz zwolffte stuck ob du wilt reschlich mit ym entten So nym deinen spies vnd swert zu sammen an den arm vnd schrawb ab den knopff von deinem swert vnd würff hertigleichen in yn vnd lauff nach dem wurff mit ym ein vnd nütz daz swert oder den spies welchs dir eben sey.[3]

In the New Haven manuscript, the original text is as follows:

Merkch das zwelifft ob dw wildt reschleich mit ym entten So nymb deinen spye[s] vnd swert zw samb an den arm vnd schrawff ab den knöph von deinem swertt vnd wirff hertikchleichñ in in vnd lauff nach dem würff mit ym ein vnd [nym?] swert oder spyes welichs dir ebñ sey.[4]

Clearly, these three passages are saying exactly the same thing, although the words are not always spelled the same. This is quite common in situations like this, where different manuscripts by different scribes contain copies of an earlier gloss.

The draft translation on the Wiktenauer, by Benedict Haefeli, renders the technique into English like so:

Note the twelfth play. If you want to end him quickly, hold your spear and sword together on your arm, unscrew the pommel of your sword and throw it at him vigorously. Close in with the throw and use your sword or spear, whatever suits you best.[5]

The phrase “if you want to end him quickly” is the translation of “ob du wilt reschlich mit ym entten”. Personally, I would translate it as “if you want to finish him quickly”, because I feel that represents the intended sense of the instruction better in modern English without trying to make it sound archaic.

In Hugh Knight’s book, he translates the passage similarly:

Note the twelfth technique: If you want to end quickly with him, take your spear and sword together on your arm and unscrew the pommel of your sword and throw it vigorously at him and run in with him after the throw, and use the sword or the spear – whatever is more suitable for you.[6]

Dierk Hagedorn and Bartłomiej Walczak translate the passage with very similar words:

Note the twelfth [piece]. If you want to finish him quickly, then take your spear and sword together on your arm, unscrew the pommel from your sword, and throw it at him forcefully. Run into him after the throw, and use the sword or the spear whichever you consider appropriate.[7]

The word “reschlich” (and its variations in spelling) means “quickly”, and it is found in other places in the Gladiatoria manuscripts as well, with each occurrence only making sense with the translation as “quickly”. For example, in the Vienna manuscript, we find:

… wann du Jm dartzü pracht hast So la var[e]n die tenkche hant aus deim swert vnd greiff Jm damit reschlich vber den hals …[8]

This is an instruction that once you have moved close to your opponent, you should let go of your sword with your left hand, “and grab his neck quickly” (translation mine), so that you can perform a throw. For another example in the Vienna manuscript, a few pages later:

… wen Jr bayd stecht auserhalb der swertt zu gantzen leib . so la var[e]n dein tenke hant aus deine[m] swertt , vnd küm Jm durch mit deine[m] swert durch seine rechte ügsen und greyf reschlich wider nach deine[m] art vnd heb übersich So nöttestu Jn zu dem vall als du es obenn ge malet sichst.[9]

This technique occurs when both combatants thrust at each other’s body on the outside, then you let go of the sword with your left hand, go with your sword under his right armpit, “and grip your sword quickly” (translation mine) so that you can use the blade as a lever around his shoulder to throw him to the ground. There are yet further examples in the Vienna manuscript, and across the other manuscripts in the Gladiatoria group as well.

Interpretation

If we now return to the original technique for throwing the pommel, that Skallagrim described when the meme began, then we can see that improving the translation gives us a better idea of what the technique is supposed to achieve. Working with a more correct translation always helps interpretation, and incorrect translations can throw up red herrings and send off interpreters on entirely the wrong track. My translation would be as follows:

Note the twelfth technique. If you want to finish with him quickly, take your spear and sword together on your arm, then unscrew the pommel from your sword and throw it at him vigorously. Run in after the throw and use sword or spear, whatever will be best.[10]

Although I am by no means a professional translator, I feel that this translation is reasonably correct and also serves to convey the sense of the original instruction. If you want to get the fight over and done with quickly, then throw your pommel at him, creating a distraction so that you can rush in close and grapple with him or use one of your other weapons to win the fight, in whatever manner turns out to be most suitable.

This is a similar tactic to one seen in Talhoffer’s 1459 manuscript, where a man armed with only a dagger faces an opponent with a spear: he throws his hat at his opponent’s face as a distraction, giving him an opportunity to throw his dagger into his opponent’s chest and thus win the fight.[11] Distraction is a perfectly good technique, although it is just a trick – it is not a critical component part of any system, it just one possibility for ending a fight relatively quickly, if your opponent is unlikely to expect it.

Conclusion

Since the phrase “end him rightly” has no actual basis in the source material, I feel that the ideal resolution to the meme would be to “end it quickly”, and get back to a proper study of HEMA with a focus on working with correct translations.

An excellent source for the study of the Gladiatoria and its techniques is the book Gladiatoria by Dierk Hagedorn and Bartłomiej Walczak,[12] which I recommend thoroughly for anyone who is interested in high quality scholarship, excellent translation, and a sensible overview of the context of these manuscripts.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jETLCm7k3sU

[2] Anonymous. Gladiatoria, MS KK5013, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. C. 1430s. Folio 6r. Transcribed by Carsten Lorbeer.

[3] Anonymous. Gladiatoria, MS Germ.Quart.16, Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Kraków, Poland. C. 1435-1440. Folio 7r. Transcribed by Kristian Babic, Robert Brunner, Marion Freundl, Alexandra Gießl, Barbara Kappelmayr, Julia Lorbeer, Carsten Lorbeer, Andreas Meier, Marita Wiedner.

[4] Anonymous. Gladiatoria, MS U860.F46 1450, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. C. 1440s. Folio 5r. Transcribed by Dierk Hagedorn.

[5] Translation by Benedict Haefeli. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Gladiatoria_group

[6] Hugh Knight. The Gladiatoria Fechtbuch: A Fifteenth-century German Fight Book. Lulu, 2010. Page 13.

[7] Dierk Hagedorn and Bartłomiej Walczak. Gladiatoria. VS-Books, 2015. Page 216.

[8] Anonymous. Gladiatoria, MS KK5013, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. C. 1430s. Folio 13r. Transcribed by Carsten Lorbeer.

[9] Anonymous. Gladiatoria, MS KK5013, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. C. 1430s. Folio 18r. Transcribed by Carsten Lorbeer.

[10] Translation by Keith Farrell, 2017.

[11] Hans Talhoffer. MS Thott.290.2º, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark. 1459. Folio 77r.

[12] Dierk Hagedorn and Bartłomiej Walczak. Gladiatoria. VS-Books, 2015.

KeithFarrell

KeithFarrell

Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.
KeithFarrell

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