Development of the Fencing Arts in the 15th and 16th Centuries

An introduction by Gustav Hergsell, captain of the NorthEast Regional Forces, Royal Fencing Master to the State of Prague, writing in the year 1887.

"The true friend, the trusty sword, is worth in times of need nearly its weight in Gold" said Master Freidank, expressing a thought which was common throughout the Middle Ages.

The sword was the most important fighting weapon from ancient times on. The Germanic Heroic Sagas take us back to a time when a sword was an extremely precious heirloom; a hereditary prize given to a noble ancestor by a God, the hallmark of the hero. When we hear echoes of such revered legendary swords as Siegfried's Balmung, of the Eckesachs, and of Miming, we can reason that the reverence for the sword shown in the Sagas was also known in real life.

On reaching adulthood, the oldest son would take in advance a single object from his inheritance - his father's sword. The young man would wear this sword at the local folk assembly as a symbol of his readiness to bear arms and a sign of adulthood. Thus, with his sword, the father bestowed the symbols of rank and respect by which his son would be recognized. This was the "Swordly" ceremony and it was on this very weapon that a man's legal oaths would be sworn.

It is easy to think that this respect for the weapon is evidence of the availability of masterful training in the art of sword fighting that must have existed in the heroic ages.

There's a small problem with this assumption, the legendary sword was indeed often wielded but the heroic master was determined not by conditioning and technique, but by strength. The old Germanic sagas tell of terrible blows on helm and shield; they extoll the strength of their heros, given by the gods or implying their own godliness; but regarding technique, they report nothing.

The combat descriptions in the poem "Waltharius " are snapshots from the 10th century: the hero broke his sword over Hagen's helm and in annoyance throws it away by the grip. This motion fools his "smart" opponent, and cuts his hand off. After the heroic (dark) ages, the Waltharians continued to carry swords as a matter of right and defended their rights with their swords. (Note: the author is describing a free warrior culture which valued strength of arms over learned skill and settled disputes with the trial by arms).

Starting first in France and spreading east to lands subject to French influence, reverence for strength was counter-balanced by the ideal of courtesy which accompanied manorialism. As this transformed into a chivalric system used by the nobility to regulate all aspects of daily life, the ideal of the warrior transformed from the unskilled raw form into a more refined form where delicacy and skill became effective: the fighting arts were founded in the form of the knight.

    With practise the weak man can too learn to fight far better,
    otherwise the state of swordsmanship, as an art, may not have achieved this level of skill.
    Here was the union of skill and strength"
           - Hartmann von Aue, (Iwein 7000).

We musn't set our expectations too high and deceive ourselves again. Based on the information available to us from period sources, there is much to contradict the notion of highly developed and skillful sword fighting arts. (During much of the feudal period).

What is the reason for this? The answer lies with the single minded maintenance of the joust: Running with the lance was fraught with so much difficulty, it required great skill to lower the lance into correct position while in full gallop and then bear the strong impact of the opponent at the same time, that the information on the knightly arts are highly focused on the joust and little else.

When the folk hero Parzival (Percival) went to Thorenweise, the master Gurnemanz taught him the joust and thus completed his training in the knightly arts. (Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival 174)

Swordfighting remained, on the whole, as an afterthought.

One did not fence in tournament; Dueling with swords was practiced solely by the Slavs before they, in turn, adopted the romantic ideals of knighthood.

Thus "Biter Rolf" said the Boehmen (Slavs?) were unaquainted with the tournament fight, but their broad flat swords emptied many saddles.

For the manorial knights, fencing with swords came at the conclusion of a fight. If both opponents had been de-horsed with the impact of the lance they then proceeded to the swords; but even if both lances were splintered, the horses still served. Thus it reads in Iwein:

    "no horse will they wear wrong
    their own life depends on it."

The first blows went to the Shield: on the same page of Iwein it reads:

    "You both think the same,
    I know not what use this striving for so long a time is
    If it's only to shoot to the shield."

Good fighters were capable regarding shield and sword, i.e.: they knew how to parry and preserve their harness as this was their only protection against projectiles.

If the shield is fully "overhewn," it is then thrown away and the fight continues without it. Strong knights then apparently siezed the sword in both hands and let the blows fall on their opponent. "Chivalrous" fighters would observe the rule to strike no blow below the knees.

This fight with swords could result in opponents killed or made defenseless through many small wounds or splitting of the helm:

    "The helms were hewn
    and enormous forceful blows were landed there;
    the harness soaked as the blood began,
    as it ran much from wounds, dripping richly down."
           - (Iwein, 7230)

The capture of the opponent's sword could also occur, forcing the opponent to resort to grappling.

This fighting style persisted into the 14th and 15th centuries; it is clear that fencing with the two-handed longsword evolved from this style, a style which originated with the throwing away of the shield and the continuance of the fight with the sword wielded with both hands.

In the fencing schools, which transformed from knightly schools to civil ones, these traditional styles were practised and developed into the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the origin of our own fechtbuch.

In particular, the judicial duel offered a special unleashing of the polarizing element of the fencing art; it still required a shadow of the Saxon hero in that the combatants would engage in the duel without the protection of armour.

As it became desireable to learn the art of parrying with the sword at these schools, we hear that resolutions governing the judicial duel in regard to the period between the challenge and the fight became included in fechtbuch based instruction.

Fencing soon became a popular undertaking maintained by the guilds, like all occupations with civil status. With much pomp and ceremony, fencing schools were opened, normally under an acknowledged Master, in which one could take up the study of any weapon. These did not fully reduce the count of bloody heads, bad luck was still known to occur, but did create an educated guild of fencers overseen by the "Marx Brotherhood" in Frankfurt along with the most famous group, the "Feathered Brotherhood of Fencers" with their seat in Prague. These enjoyed many imperial privileges in the 15th and 16th centuries and on into the 17th - the Master of both groups was accorded the same rank as a lawyer and representative in the imperial court.

In the 15th century, after the certification of the fechtbuchs, we find rules for the duel with various weapons. These were: the longsword wielded with two hands, the rapier for cut and thrust, dagger, short sword, Dusack/Tresack/Dysack - a single edged sword, short, without grip or handle, with only a grasp hole for the hand which wields the weapon, furthermore war hammer, axe, staff, and sword and shield; about which different forms for the fight were covered such as offensive versus defensive stances and the basic rules for fighting.

Together with the study of fighting with these individual weapons, the study of the simultaneous handling of two rapiers, or the rapier in the right hand and a dagger in the left, as well as the attack of any one of these weapons against the defense of any other was also taught. In addition, the appropriate use of a cloak or coat as well as the proper behaviour of an unarmed combatant against an armed one were explored.

The art of fencing stood in its most primitive form as the use of any of these weapons. Even so, the certification of a number of illustrated manuscripts describing the fighting arts and teaching the techniques would have lent early fencing a reputation as an artful skill.

This "way of the fight" and all of these weapons based fighting styles, which often finished with fist fighting and grappling, were taught in all fencing schools and were included in the lessons illustrated in the fechtbuchs. The only value these hold for us today is historical in nature in that they exerted little influence on the further development of fencing as a fighting art.

Talhoffer's illustrated manuscript, one of the oldest German fighting manuscripts, represents many of the different types of fighting then common in Germany, combining description and illustration to familiarize us with the subjects of the artwork.

As a source for amplification and development, these illustrated works give us the oldest printed German fencing manuals. Several of these are well known, such as:

Going further, these can be considered together with some smaller fencing manuals published anonymously between 1530 and 1560. Examples are: The following can also be considered:

Joachim Meyer, Free Fencer of Strasbourg, 1570: "Thorough descriptions of the knightly and noble art of fencing are often found containing many beautiful and informative illustrated figures which are most useful and well received." and  "With Roman Imperial freedoms as they are, in ten years time we will no longer be in a position to ignore these works." There is also the strange fechtbuch with the title page "Hanns Goerg Deckinger, I am known around my native land by my beloved handicraft, as a Master and Free Fencer, and an instructor of the manful and knightly free art of fencing to my fellow citizens and inhabitants of the great city of Munich." Even consider this quote from the fechtbuch at Augsburg, dated 1600: "Hope to God and don't lose faith, and the luck will come with every day." This fechtbuch covers the subject in five chapters where the various forms of fighting on foot are explored.

Meyer was one of the more successful old German masters, his works, along with those of Lebkhommer and Sutor whose works expanded from his, were the most important  fencing manuals to appear in Germany. Meyer created with his efforts a well thought out original work which made us familiar with the various forms of fencing then common in Germany. These fighting methods took root and developed in the German schools in the 16th and 17th centuries. We can still find the same style of illustrated combat techniques in the fechtbuch just mentioned.

Jacob Sutor in his "New Illustrated Fechtbuch" gives detailed descriptions of the noble and knightly art of fighting using varous weapons, such as longsword, sword, dusack, rapier, pole weapons, and techniques for the fight with these weapons. With its definitive lessons, much can be learned from the illustrations, even in a short time, based on its informative and skillful instructions and its quite useful and delicately drawn figures. Now, to serious fencing students, this fechtbuch in particular provides the immersion medium which would be practiced each and every day in order to advance their skills in the free fencing style of Jacob Sutor of Baden. (Frankfurt, 1612)

In addition, as will be examined later, the Italian fencing arts had advanced by the 16th century to a rather developed level and had begun to influence fencing in Germany by the end of the same century. As is evident in all fencing books from that time, the long sword wielded with both hands was then considered the main combat weapon and only later did the cut and thrust rapier assert itself. Following Sutor, fencing with the longsword was practiced with "Starting, Middle and End" phases.

The starting phase is proto-fencing, appropriate to any man whether or not he has fenced before. Proto-fencing is basically the fight opening moves following the lead of the basic strikes which can be executed from the primary guards. Thus are the leading strikes and following strikes undertaken.


The translator pauses, rubs his eyes, and stops here as he has returned the German copy of the fechtbuch to its rightful owner. All additional work with Talhoffer's 1467 fechtbuch is with the tafels themselves and is dealt with separately.

The studies continue with other manuscripts, at the time of this writing, Goliath is being examined.

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