Who was the intended audience for Liechtenauer’s art? What was the intended purpose of the Zedel as written? These are questions that are quite often posed and answered in one way or another – during training, at the pub, at events, and online through social media.
Often, the answers are very short and closed, probably not entirely true, and therefore not very helpful. At best, a short answer suitable for any of these environments (anything that isn’t a proper piece of published scholarship, really) is going to be an overly-simplified answer.
What I would like to do with this article is to share the idea that there might be multiple answers that are all true simultaneously. While perhaps not as satisfying as an answer that says “this was the one true intended purpose and audience”, it is probably somewhat closer to the truth of the matter.
The Gest of Robin Hood
Recently, I have been reading my way through Crime in Medieval Europe by Trevor Dean, which is an excellent discussion about the way that different crimes were perceived and dealt with in Europe during the medieval period. It touches on armed crime as well as social norms, which makes it quite relevant to a study of historical fencing, as it helps to set the scene so that we understand better the communities and societies in which our fencing sources were written.
Near the end of the book, there is a fascinating paragraph about interpreting the 15th century story of the Gest of Robin Hood, that struck me for its parallels with many of the discussions that we hear today about the intended audience and purpose of Liechtenauer’s art. I shall quote the paragraph below (I had added some additional line breaks, to help it display more legibly on a website), so that it serves as a useful springboard for discussion:
Much of the discussion of the early ballads of Robin Hood has concentrated on attempts to determine the social character of the ‘original’ audience. Again, in order to solve this problem, certain elements of the ballads are aligned with the interests or activities of social groups.
Thus, in one reading, the fact that the outlaws poach with bows and arrows, not dogs, suggest that the ballads voice the interests of the peasantry.
Conversely, in another reading, the topics of the Gest – the redemption of a mortgage, hospitality, and so forth – are taken as ‘knightly’.
In a third reading, the urban elements of the ballads are used to argue for an audience among the mobile urban population of wage-labourers and servants.
However, as has recently been argued, we do not have to choose between these interpretations. Once we understand the composite nature of the text of the Gest, it is suggested, we can see that its constituent tales addressed different audiences. There was no single, original audience. Robin Hood, as he first appears to us, was already a hero for all classes.Trevor Dean. Crime in Medieval Europe. Pearson Education, 2001. Pages 147-148.
The intended audience for Liechtenauer’s art
So, who would be the intended audience for Liechtenauer’s Zedel and the glosses that explain it?
Often, people like to suggest that the art was intended for people who already knew how to fight, because the Zedel and the glosses don’t explain how to do basic things like footwork or precisely how to cut. Therefore, the suggestion goes, the glosses assumed that this knowledge was already in place, because the readers would already know how to fight.
Other people might like to suggest that the art was aimed at the nobility, because the Zedel begins with the line “young knight, learn” and also includes lines such as “learn knightly skills”.
Yet others might like to suggest that the art was aimed at people preparing for a judicial duel, because some of the Fechtbücher also discuss the different methods of judicial duels and how to fight in those situations.
It could also be possible to argue that the art was intended for peasants, because wandering fencing masters taught anyone who wanted or needed to learn, and Talhoffer’s writings tell of the process for how a common person might prepare for trial by combat.
It could also be argued that Liechtenauer’s art was intended for people of leisure, who could spend the time and money on fencing for fun and for personal development rather than for any crucial upcoming event.
What if they were all true, to at least some extent? What if the intended audience was just anyone who wanted or needed to learn how to fight, or how to fight better? Maybe it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
The intended purpose of Liechtenauer’s art
In a similar fashion, people often say that “Liechtenauer’s art was for” a particular purpose, including judicial duels, duels for honour, battlefield fighting, recreation, whatever. Again, I think such statements are probably missing the point, because the art could easily have been intended for all of these purposes, plus perhaps others such as general physical development, health, and cultivating knowledge and skills and graces that were seen as desirable.
What if Liechtenauer’s art was nothing more than a systematic way to help people learn and improve their fighting skills, and to organise and clarify what to do during a fight? The Zedel would then be the mnemonic memory aid to help record and transmit such a system of fighting, and the glosses would be other people’s understanding of this system (as was common in medieval book culture). This is much simpler and more believable than suggesting that the art was intended for any single specific purpose.
In my experience, surprisingly few people tend to consider Liechtenauer’s art as a discrete methodology both for fighting and for learning how to fight. The temptation always seems to be to assign it some purpose and audience that then limits the usefulness of the art in terms of both historical context and modern performance according to these instructions.
In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, documents could be written with several different audiences in mind, and with several different purposes. The author could then be satisfied if anyone from any of these audiences accessed the information and learned something useful to achieve any of these purposes.
The intended purpose of this article today is to help you reconsider some of your thoughts about Liechtenauer’s art. If you revise your thoughts as a result of reading, or if the article sparks new thoughts for you, then I will consider this a success.
Finally, I have prepared a select bibliography if you would like to read a little more about some of the ideas related to this article. There could be so many other items listed in the bibliography, but this should serve to give a reasonable overview and to inform a more in-depth investigation into the issue.
Select bibliography for further reading
Daniel Jaquet, Claus Frederik Sørensen, and Fabrice Cognot. “Historical European Martial Art: a crossroad between academic research, martial heritage re-creation, and martial sport practices.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol 3 no 1, 2015. https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/article/view/6977/9867
Dierk Hagedorn. German Fechtbücher from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In: Daniel Jaquet, Karin Verelst, and Timothy Dawson (eds.). Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries). Brill, 2016.
Eric Burkart. “Limits of Understanding in the Study of Lost Martial ArtsEpistemological Reflections on the Mediality of Historical Records of Technique and the Status of Modern (Re-)Constructions.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Conference proceedings of HEMA studies at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 2016. https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/article/view/6987/9876
Jamie Acutt. Swords, Science, and Society. Fallen Rook Publishing, 2019. (can be purchased from Fallen Rook Publishing)
Jens Peter Kleinau. “Visualised Motion: Iconography of Medieval and Renaissance Fencing Books.” In: Daniel Jaquet, Karin Verelst, and Timothy Dawson (eds.). Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries). Brill, 2016.
Jürg Gassmann. “Honour and Fighting: Social Advancement in the Early Modern Age.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol 3 no 1, 2015. https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/article/view/6981/9871
Pierre-Henry Bas. “The true edge: a comparison between self-defense fighting from German “fight-books” (Fechtbücher) and the reality of judicial sources (1400-1550).” Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol 1 no 1, 2013. https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/article/view/7625/10609
Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski (eds.). The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Matthias Johannes Bauer. “Teaching How to Fight with Encrypted Words: Linguistic Aspects of German Fencing and Wrestling Treatises of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times.” In: Daniel Jaquet, Karin Verelst, and Timothy Dawson (eds.). Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries). Brill, 2016.
Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen. The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Trevor Dean. Crime in Medieval Europe. Pearson Education, 2001.
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.