Everything we do is based on historical sources, written by fencing masters, describing how to fight with the various weapons of the day. With these pieces of evidence, these important historical documents, we can reconstruct the fencing systems as they were understood and practised in history; and with the advantage of modern equipment, we can train these systems safely and effectively as a modern martial art.
The main focus of our study are the 15th- and 16th-century Germanic Bloßfechten (unarmoured) fencing traditions, often called Kunst des Fechtens (often abbreviated to “KDF”) or the “Art of Fencing”. There were several different fencing traditions (schools of thought, approaches, or methods of practice) at that time in the Holy Roman Empire, many of which bear similarities to each other, although they also exhibit some differences. The most well-known and well-documented tradition was codified in the late 14th or early 15th century and is attributed to Johannes Liechtenauer.
However, as the Liechtenauer tradition was developing in the 15th century, the society of the time began to change, and citizens in important towns and cities (the burgher class) began to take more of an interest in learning to fence. This was only partially for sportive reasons; it had much to do with the growing regulation and requirement of regular citizens to take their place in the city watch, to be able to defend the city in times of need, and to defend themselves and their families within the city against anyone who would seek either to do harm or to impugn their honour. As the practice of fencing became more widespread, the teaching methods changed, and fencing guilds came into being, to support the fencing masters who were able to deliver tuition to the citizens.
This did not lead to a “dumbing down” of the fencing systems, but instead led to a change of emphasis, and different curricula that were more suitable for teaching the relevant skills to a much larger audience than before, within the legal framework of a guild. Around this same time, the medieval way of thinking and teaching was challenged by the Reformation, so that the newer written sources of the late 15th century and early 16th century began to depart from the Scholastic form of the earlier Liechtenauer glosses and began to follow the Humanist methods and view of the world. These sources seem to document a wider sample of the art of fencing, including more of the basics, than the earlier glosses, and so they are more helpful for uncovering the techniques and concepts that were more commonly found in untrained fencers or in those fencers who had received just the elementary stages of tuition. These behaviours were sometimes called Gemeinfechten (common fencing) by the authors of the various 15th-century glosses.
In our club, for more advanced students, Liechtenauer’s Bloßfechten will be the eventual focus of study. However, it is a rather complicated system, and so we will begin our study with some preparatory material, to give a solid grounding in the fundamentals of fencing with a longsword. Therefore, our initial curriculum will focus on 16th-century Gemeinfechten, to prepare students for working with the more advanced Liechtenauer material later in their studies.
Sources for Gemeinfechten, or “common fencing”
There is not much technical information in the source material on the subject of Gemeinfechten, but there are some tantalising hints. Most of our initial curriculum will be drawn from three key sources:
The Kölner Fechtbuch: a small handwritten anonymous manuscript that was held in the Historisches Archiv in Cologne, unfortunately now lost since the collapse of the archive. The longsword treatise shows many similarities with the Liechtenauer tradition of fencing, and many similarities with the syllabus of the Marxbrüder fencing guild, yet also contains some unique and interesting material. More information on the Wiktenauer, and an article by Keith Farrell in the Acta Periodica Duellatorum journal.
The works of Andre Paurenfeindt, who was a 16th-century fencer and a member of the Freifechter fencing guild. His works show strong links to the Liechtenauer tradition, but what makes them so interesting is that he wrote specifically for the audience of beginner fencers, with the intention of teaching the basics of fencing rather than describing the greatest complexities of the art. More information on the Wiktenauer.
The works of Joachim Meyer, who was a 16th-century fencing master and also a member of the Freifechter fencing guild. He wrote one of the most important and most in-depth treatises on the subject of fencing with the longsword, and with several other weapons. His methods show strong links with the Liechtenauer tradition, although they also show significant development and changes, as a result of the ever-changing legal and social context of the day. He describes many important concepts that a beginner can use to understand what to do and what to focus on during fencing practice. More information on the Wiktenauer.
By working with these three sources, as well as some material from Paulus Hector Mair, we can learn and practise many valuable “common fencing” skills, to make it easier when we come to learning the more complicated system attributed to Johannes Liechtenauer.
The Zettel of Johannes Liechtenauer
Our sources tell us that Liechtenauer did not invent the system himself, but that he learned it from many places and many people during his travels. What he did that was clever and apparently unique was to take all the techniques and skills that he had learned and condense them into a comprehensive and cohesive system, and then to codify that system into a poem.
This poem was called the Zettel (which could be translated into modern English as “Schedule” as per a formal specification document, such as a schedule of work, or a schedule of condition prepared by a surveyor) and it consisted of several rhyming couplets (pairs of lines that rhymed). The Zettel is cryptic, and does not make a lot of sense unless you already understand the system that it is explaining. This was a reasonably common way for medieval academics to conduct their studies and debates, and it served mnemonic purposes as well.
Other masters took the cryptic Zettel and prepared glosses (explanations) of the verses. These glosses provide much more information about the techniques and principles of the system, and it is these glosses that are most helpful in the reconstruction of this system.
The main glosses of value to the reconstruction of 15th-century fencing according to Liechtenauer are as follows:
Codex Hs.3227a: a hausbuch (house book, or general household notebook) held in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. It contains a gloss by an anonymous author who was most likely a student of a master who taught Liechtenauer’s method. The date is unknown, but the book was probably compiled between 1380 and 1425, more likely towards the end of that range than earlier. It does not explain how to perform techniques very well, but it gives a superb overview of the system and its principles, and it does contain some very interesting and specific pieces of advice that are not seen in many other sources. More information on the Wiktenauer.
Codex 44.A.8: a manuscript containing several fencing treatises by different masters, held in the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome, dated 1452. Of greatest relevance to this club is an anonymous gloss of Liechtenauer’s Bloßfechten, which provides significantly more technical information about the performance of different techniques and the decision-making rationale behind them. More information on the Wiktenauer.
MS Dresd.C.487: a manuscript containing several fencing treatises by different masters, held in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden, most likely dating to around 1504-1519. Of greatest relevance to this club is a gloss of Liechtenauer’s Bloßfechten, attributed to Sigmund ain Ringeck. This gloss is very similar to the anonymous gloss in the Codex 44.A.8, although it diverges in some places, and Ringeck also adds some of his own unique material at the end. More information on the Wiktenauer.
These are the main three sources that we use to reconstruct the 15th-century Bloßfechten system attributed to Liechtenauer, although we also supplement by referring to works by Jud Lew, Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, Peter Falkner, and Jörg Wilhalm Hutter.
German Longsword Study Guide
For more information about where we get our information about reconstructing the practice of longsword fencing, the AHA German Longsword Study Guide is a helpful little book, co-authored by the instructor! It is available to purchase through the club.