I teach several workshops each year on the subject of 16th century Germanic common fencing, because I find it an incredibly interesting subject, and people who attend my lessons seem to find it interesting too. It can be a fun point for comparison with other 15th or 16th century disciplines that people already practise!
Sometimes, after one of these workshops, people will ask me how they can start studying this sort of thing themselves. What are the sources? How to start? My purpose with this article is to offer a stepping stone to help people begin studying what I consider to be the common fencing of this particular time and place.
It would probably be helpful to have an idea of how the various traditions fit together.
Most people who might be interested in Germanic common fencing will probably have heard of Johannes Liechtenauer, who wrote a Zedel of verses describing the use of the longsword in an unarmoured context (Blossfechten), the use of a variety of weapons while mounted on a horse (Rossfechten), and the use of weapons on foot while wearing armour (Kampffechten).
The earliest versions of this Zedel could perhaps be dated to the first quarter of the 1400s (the Nuremberg Hausbuch, and potentially also the Beringer Fechtlehre).
Many books included a copy of the Zedel and also a gloss to explain it. These glosses are relatively common in the 15th century. However, in the 1480s, the Marxbrüder were given official recognition by the Emperor, and became an official guild of fencers. This meant that the activity and skill of fencing started to become more widely known amongst the burghers in the towns, and became less the preserve of the rich and noble. Other fencing guilds (including the Freifechter) followed in the 16th century.
Due to the change in audience, and doubtless in what the guilds were trying to achieve in their lessons and curricula, the fencing methods and techniques (and maybe even the swords) began to change. The Liechtenauer Zedel was still being preserved and glossed into the 16th century, so it would be wrong to say that it disappeared or was lost. Rather, the guilds seem to have taught a somewhat modified version of the art of fencing with a longsword (or with other weapons) without armour, and we could call this a separate tradition that ran alongside the Liechtenauer tradition – different, although similar in many ways, but with some quite important differences in the system.
Before the Zedel, however, there must have been some method of fighting. The Nuremberg Hausbuch states that Liechtenauer travelled widely and learned from many masters, and that he did not invent the art of fencing but pieced things together to form the ideal system. If he did not actually invent anything, but merely took what already existed and improved the structure and/or pedagogy, then all the techniques and guards and ideas must already have existed in the late 14th century and early 15th century. We could consider the fencing that was commonly practised to be the “common fencing” of that era, because it involved training the fencing skills that were commonly known. There are no written sources about such common fencing methods before the Zedel, unfortunately, so we cannot really investigate 14th century common fencing.
The fencing methods that were common in the 15th century – in other words, the common fencing of the 15th century – could perhaps be extrapolated from some of the 15th century sources where they diverge from the Liechtenauer tradition. We could perhaps look at the additional material of the Nuremberg Hausbuch, at the works of Martin Syber and Hans Talhoffer, and suggest differences between what they describe and what the Liechtenauer tradition would advise.
By the time of the 16th century and the fencing guilds, there are in fact a number of written sources that seem to describe the common fencing methods of that century. We might be able to say that some of these sources exemplify the “guild fencing” tradition, but perhaps other sources have no explicit connections with a fencing guild. These are interesting sources, because they perhaps shed some light on the fencing methods that were commonplace in this century.
You will probably have noticed that I have hedged my statements in almost every paragraph in this description! For a simple description, unsupported by several tens of footnotes and references to cite my sources, I think it is best to offer some vague suggestions to establish the groundwork for what will follow in this article. I hope to publish some proper scholarship on the subject of common fencing at some point in the future (keep an eye on the books published through Fallen Rook Publishing!), but for now I think it is best to hedge my bets and make sure that you understand why I am hesitant to state things any more concretely than this.
I said that there are a number of sources that could describe 16th century common fencing. In this section, I will introduce a few of them, in an order that I think is quite helpful, and will provide links for you to explore them further.
At the end of the day, trying to recreate 16th century common fencing is still a form of HEMA, and therefore we need to do it properly, with due respect for the ‘H’ and the historical evidence. Otherwise, we are just making stuff up, and it is no longer historical fencing!
Jobst von Württemberg
The first surviving version of the treatise by Jobst von Württemberg is found in the Erhart manuscript, dated to 1533.
It is a relatively short treatise on the use of the longsword, just a single paragraph. There are also treatises on the messer and the dagger, but it is the longsword treatise that is worth considering – mainly because it is so different from the Liechtenauer methods!
It begins by introducing the Five Cuts, but they are all done with the short edge, including the Zornhaw. Immediately, we see that this is another method that is quite different from what Liechtenauer wrote about! It is difficult to come to any meaningful understanding of this treatise, especially at first, so its main value to your study at this point is just to illustrate that there are other methods and other ways of thinking about things, and that you cannot be dogmatic about applying what you think you know from Liechtenauer.
Das Ander Theil Des Newen Kůnstreichen Fechtbůches
This is a delightful book with plenty of colour, lots of violence, and many spurts of blood.
Dated to 1591, Das Ander Theil Des Newen Kůnstreichen Fechtbůches seems to be totally unique, in that it does not seem to follow any particular tradition, and instead seems to be just a compilation of pretty simple techniques. (I would say that there is more to the book and its system than this, but it is a pretty good place to start in terms of looking at simple techniques, well-explained and well-illustrated.)
Spend some time on the longsword section and the dussack section. Try to recreate the stances, the leans, and the general athleticism of the various positions – it will be an excellent physical work-out for you if you approach it in this fashion, and it will set you up nicely for the next few sources. If you don’t try to recreate the stances and leanings and athleticism, that is your call, but I would suggest that you are missing out and that you need to try to shed your preconceptions in order to embrace this properly.
In 1516, Andre Paurenfeindt published his printed (and therefore mass-produced) book aimed at teaching fencing to beginners. It starts off very simply, and sounds very similar to much of the gemeinlehre (general lessons) at the beginning of the Liechtenauer glosses – but then it takes quite a different turn!
Paurenfeindt describes several sequences, with each sequence given a name. It does not follow the stimulus-then-response kind of pedagogy found in the Zedel and its glosses, but instead it tells you to do this and then this and then this, or alternatively to do that and then that and then that other thing.
Since this book is aimed at beginners, it is quite interesting to see what sort of material the beginners would have been exposed to in the cities at the start of the 16th century! This book probably sits squarely within the “guild tradition” of the Marxbrüder and Freifechter.
The Kölner Fechtbuch is an anonymous, handwritten manuscript, that I would date to the 1520s, or at least around that time. It is very similar to Paurenfeindt’s book in many ways, so it can work very well as a companion resource. It explains a few of the same techniques a little differently, but the overall gist and impression seems to be pretty similar.
I might upset some people by suggesting that Joachim Meyer should be studied as part of a common fencing curriculum, but I do think that his 1570 book contains many important pieces of advice to help us understand fencing in the 16th century.
I would suggest that Meyer stands firmly in both the guild tradition (where he learned his fencing from his own masters) and the Liechtenauer tradition (which he learned by reading glosses from that tradition). His methods, as described in his book, are neither entirely one nor the other, but are his own system informed by these two traditions.
Nonetheless, he talks about many items of theory that are missing from all the other treatises, and this is invaluable. Furthermore, he defines and describes how to perform a number of techniques that are named and called for in other sources without any description beside them. At the very least, this is a good reason to add Meyer to your reading list, since he makes many of the other 16th century sources more accessible.
In the 1540s, Paulus Mair commissioned some incredibly lavish and expensive manuscripts. His personal mission was to record the traditional and common fighting methods so that they would not be lost to history. He accomplished his task, even though he was not a fencing master himself (rather, an enthusiast), and there are many interesting and valuable ideas and statements in his books.
His longsword treatise is LONG. There are 136 sequences, each with about 20 or so techniques, and this is rather daunting to begin studying! However, if you even just read his work, you will observe many recurring themes and consistent ideas. You will gain an idea of what people in the middle of the 16th century thought the traditional, common fighting methods were.
By this stage, if you have read the various sources described above, you will notice that many of the sequences read more like “do this and this and this, and then this other thing, and then some more of this”, and a bit less like “if he does this, you do this thing; instead, if, he does that, you do that thing”. The pedagogical methods are quite different between these common fencing sources and the Liechtenauer glosses.
Since there are more sequences, the instructions often seem to call for performing several attacks in a single flow, it can be beneficial to consider “flourishes” for practice. “Flourishes” is a name given to sequences that you can practise by yourself to get used to using a sword in those combinations; perhaps, they could be likened to the kata or forms of some eastern martial arts.
There are not many recorded flourishes within the Germanic material, but they can be useful exercises for yourself as solo drills or for a club as a group exercise.
In the additional material at the end of the Nuremberg Hausbuch, there are instructions for a flourish that is supposed to be useful for fencing both in earnest and in play. I taught a lesson on this flourish at HEMAC Dijon a number of years ago, and while I might do a few things differently now, the video of the lesson can still be a useful resource.
The longsword treatise of the Kölner Fechtbuch begins with what could be treated as a flourish to train the basic strikes of the system. Again, I have taught lessons on this flourish, and while I might do things differently now, approaching the use of solo forms from a different perspective can be a valuable experience.
The Anonymous Unicum within the so-called Dürer Fechtbuch seems to be composed entirely of flourishes. Jake Norwood has offered a translation of this source, I have a translation underway that is almost finished (and really just needs me to format it and put it online!), and I would like to see more people begin to work with these flourishes as part of their training.
This has been a long article. Even so, it has been very light on detail, and there are no footnotes or citations for my various assertions. In the future, I would like to publish something much more extensive, with considerably more evidence to back it up, but for the purpose of this article, I think brevity is key.
I have introduced the idea that there may have been a number of Germanic longsword fencing traditions coexisting with each other, perhaps overlapping with each other in terms of their timeline. I think this is a topic worthy of further research and discussion, but it is important to approach it by discarding your preconceptions.
I have offered links to a number of sources that might be useful if you mean to start studying the 16th century Germanic common fencing methods. There are other sources as well, but these are a good set to use to begin your studies.
If you do begin studying common fencing, please drop me a message and let me know! I would love to see more people take up a genuine study of this subject area, and would be happy to share ideas – I would love to hear your ideas and use them to jump-start further ideas of my own.
Finally, if you would be interested in having me teach a workshop on common fencing at your club, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.