Why Fight? The Objectives of Liechtenauer’s Fencing

When we hear how people describe the art of fencing in the Middle Ages, we often hear them say that it was all about fighting to the death, or at least to harm the opponent in a way that he couldn’t continue fighting. Preferably as quickly as possible. Kill him before he kills you, that’s the way to survive. In fact, I personally think that this notion is utter nonsense. There may have been individual duels like that, no doubt, but in my opinion that was not the prime intention of the masters. So let me invite you to dig a bit deeper and explore why people fight and what that might tell us about the arts we practice.

Most HEMA practitioners today can explain quite clearly, why they fight. It is challenging, it is demanding, it is fun. But what was it like back in the day when Liechtenauer’s teachings were written down? What was the actual purpose of a duel in the times of Peter von Danzig or Jude Lew? Why did the duellists risk their physical integrity and what was their aim? I’m convinced that many discussions we have in modern HEMA are actually linked to these questions, and the answers may be controversial.

First of all, let us make no mistake about one crucial thing: humans are social beings and most have a strong sense of empathy. Only a very small minority could kill without remorse – and those individuals, the very rare actual psychopaths, do not display what we call normal human behaviour. Throughout history, societies created their respective moral systems, which all had in common that they penalized the act of killing or inflicting serious harm. We all grew up within such a moral system ourselves and we stick to its rules. So when it comes to the subject of killing in direct hand to hand combat, we have virtually no experience of what we’re actually talking about (and let’s take it for granted that Hollywood won’t be of much help either – rather to the contrary).

So we need to approach violence from a more distant, scientific perspective and learn from those who actually have experienced violence in the real world, and extensively at that. The works of Rory Miller (author of „Meditations on Violence“ and „Facing Violence“) have proven very valuable in this regard. He distinguishes two basic types of violence: social and asocial or predatory violence.

  • Social violence takes place within a social group. It happens among people who have at least some sort of social interaction. It could be domestic violence or the typical bar fight, which according to Miller can be rated as „Monkey Dancing“: fights for dominance and hierarchy. These fights are scripted, actions and escalation follow a specified pattern. They address people personally, their individual role within society is directly connected to the act of violence.
  • Asocial or predatory violence on the other hand is not personal. Examples for this type are crimes like robbery or rape. Aggressors use force – or threaten to use it – to get what they want. Any harm done to the victim is an accepted side effect but usually no benefit in itself. But even criminals have empathy, so they prepare mentally for what they are about to do. They (maybe unconsciously) use techniques to block emotional bonds to their victims and they find excuses and explanations for their acts. If they have a long criminal record, this is part of their daily business and they’re probably good at it.

This differentiation may seem a bit artificial, but it has important implications: if you manage to escape from predatory violence, you have usually solved the problem. Avoiding social violence however, would in many cases be seen as a sign of submission – and if you were a noble ruler in late medieval Europe that would threaten your authority.

Possession of land was linked to the obligation to defend it and defending it meant to be skilled in using weapons. But displaying these skills does not require any killing. What the manuscripts on Liechtenauer’s teachings deal with, are strictly dueling situations. These fights are prepared. The fencers are equipped equally and they know who they are facing. Most probably there will be audience. It is clearly not an act of predatory violence. Building a reputation means that social rules do apply.

Fights for dominance or hierarchy have a long tradition in the evolutionary process we all result from. It’s a common thing among mammals. These fights can be intense and quite bloody, but they are never designed to be lethal or maiming: it wouldn’t make sense, it would deprive the group of its strongest individuals. The same logic works for medieval Europe. If you have to defend your land it’s pointless to encourage people to kill each other in organized duels. The surviving social groups will have agreements against killing – or put a ban on these fights altogether if fatalities exceed the social tolerance (Rory Miller even claims that killing in a dominance fight is against human nature on a genetic level!).

However, even if killing/maiming is not the aim of either participant, the duel is still a dangerous situation. The risk for physical harm is still high and if you fail to show your qualities it could have grave social consequences. Removing the aim to do serious harm does by no means make these encounters „the sporty stuff“. If disabling is against the norm, it gets even more complicated. You would not only be concerned about your own health, you’d want to make sure your opponent isn’t injured too badly either! But remember, you still have to show your dominance. This requires a far greater level of control than hitting without fearing any consequences – which is what we do today, thanks to protective gear and blunt simulators. Just a side note for consideration: blunt weapons would have reduced this dilemma even in the 15th century. We just like to imagine the swords were sharp. In fact, we actually find very little solid evidence for that in the Liechtenauer tradition’s manuscripts. But that’s another topic.

So what do the books actually say? Since we’re dealing with the intentions of the authors, let’s look at some forewords:

Hs. 3227a (Nürnberger Hausbuch, 1389) 44 A 8 (Peter von Danzig, 1452)
JVng Ritter lere / got lip haben / frawen io ere / So wechst dein ere / Vebe ritterschaft vnd lere / Kunst dy dich czyret vnd in krigen sere hofiret / Ringe~s gut fesser / glefney sper swert vnde messer / Menlich bederben / vnde in andñ henden vorterben / Haw dreyn vnd hort dar / rawsche hin trif ader la varn / Das in dy weisen hassen dy man siet preisen / Dor auf dich zoße / alle ding haben limpf lenge vnde moße | Junck ritter lere | Got lieb haben frawen | Jü ere | So wechst dein ere | vbe° ritterschafft vnd lere | kunst die dich zÿret | vnd in kriegen | zu° eren hofieret | Ringe~s gu°t fesser glefen sper swert | vnd messer | Mandleich bederbñ | vnd In anderñ henden verderben | Haw drein | vnd hürtt dar | Rausch hin trif oder la faren | Das in die weysen | hassen die man sicht preÿsen | Dar auff dich fasse | Alle ku~st haben leng | vnd masse
Cod.I.6.4o.3 (Jude Lew, ca. 1450) Mscr. Dresd. C 487 (Sigmund Ringeck, early 16th century?)
Ju°nck ritter lern got lieb hab frawen vnd junckfrawen ere So wechst dein lere Vnd lern dinck das sich zieret Vnd in kriegen ser hofieret Ringens gute fesser Gleuen swert vnd messer Manlichen bederben Vnd In andern henden verderben Hawe drein vnd triffe dar lasse hengen vnd lasse far Das man dein weis Müg maisterlichen preis Jungk ritter lere Got liebhaben fröwen ia ere so wöchse dein are ere Kunst die dich ziert In kriegen zu° ern hoffiertRinges gütt fesset Glefen sper schwert vnd messer / manlich bederben Haw drin hart dar Rausch hin triff ode~ las farñ daß in die wÿsen / hassen den man sicht brÿsen Daruff dich fasse / alle kunst haben lenge vñ masse

I’ll try to translate and summarize them all in one step. They all start with pretty much the same words: „Young knight, learn to love God and honour the women, in that way your honour will grow. [Please note: you should love God and honour the women. Don’t mix it up.] Train knighthood and learn arts that grace you and greatly flatter in wars. Wrestle well, practice glaive, spear, sword and Messer manly and firmly, which are spoiled in other hands.” Observe the verbs used in the very first instructions: learn, love, honour, train and learn again (Ringeck and Lew differ from this slightly). Then they list the required arts and weapons and encourage a strong and manly use to separate from the untrained (only Ringeck skips the last bit).

They continue: „Hit forth and keep safe, rush forward or let go, so that the wise will envy you and you will see them praise. Conclude: all arts have length and measures.“ (in this case, Lew’s version is somewhat shorter than the other three) I’m fully aware that two details here are ambiguous and that you will find different translations elsewhere:

  • The „hort/hürtt/hart dar“ can mean anything from „keep safe“ or „get hard“ to „attack“. In context with „rush forward or let go“ I clearly favour the rather defensive interpretation, because pointing out two opposing options would perfectly support the statement that all arts have their right measures and proportions.
  • „Hassen“ is usually translated as „hate“, which makes me wonder why it should be desirable to be hated by the wise. However, „hassen“ can also mean „chase after / pursue“ or even „envy“ (according to Hennig). To me, that makes a lot more sense.

Regarding this, I see a strong emphasis on learning, training, respecting social values and keeping proportionality. And this would be reasonable. The nobility, the people the fencing masters were addressing, had to be proficient leaders in war and peace. This takes more than brute force. It requires reason, risk handling abilities, diplomatic skills and a profound knowledge of social rules – after all, it was a common thing to settle territorial struggles by marriage…

What could make more sense than training all these skills and putting them all to the test by competing in the art of fencing? I’m convinced that the introductory lines tell us just that. By focusing primarily on hitting, modern HEMA falls short of the actual aims in a knightly duel. I’m not denying that most of master Liechtenauer’s fencing techniques could be used to kill or maim. I’m just pointing out that it is highly disputable if that was their main purpose. We have become very good at perfecting our moves and physiology. We should take some time, think a bit out of the box, and question if we’re marching in the right direction.

In my opinion, the duels in the late Middle Ages had the function to prove that you could perform well in what is asked of you in the introduction. Impress the masters who are watching. Show that you have been trained extensively by a skilled fencer. Be versatile and use different techniques you have exercised. Be safe, try to dominate, but don’t end the fight too quickly or you won’t be able to show all you have in store. Let them see that you can be strong and steadfast or light and agile, depending on the situation.

But above all, prove your knighthood. Don’t get carried away by emotions. Be rational and controlled even under stress. Stand your ground, don’t give in to your fears. What you display in fencing tells a lot about your character. The audience will watch carefully and draw their conclusions. If you don’t play by the rules, if you are weak, cruel or uncivilized, if you fail to show the qualities of a leader, they will not support you in the future. So let there be no doubt that all your arts have length and measure.

I’m convinced that the main reason for the success of Liechtenauer’s system was not its killing efficiency. I think the aspect that made it predominant for centuries was its acceptance as an art in the noble class, its appeal as a social mechanism, its compliance with the knightly codex, and its capability to create a duelling mode that promoted the most competent leaders. There is simply no benefit in disabling the best trained fighters in a test for leadership. Societies cannot afford to lose them. Life, extensively trained life in particular, is a highly valuable resource. Elaborate fencing techniques as we find in the sources would not evolve beyond a certain rate of fatalities.

Current interpretations largely rely on the belief that swords were sharp and killing was the aim. In fact, there is very little evidence in the texts of  Liechtenauer’s tradition to support either assumption. Let us be more open to the view that social considerations had a great influence on fencing masters and students. Let us consider that it was more about the arts than about the harming – and that knighthood was more than just a word.

25 Comments

  1. It is true that many fechtbuch techniques were designed to be non-lethal, particularly if intended to be used in a sportive fechtschul environment. In the early 15th century, Fiore dei Liberi noted that there are two types of fighting, one for sport and the other for matters of life and death. 16th century Portuguese sources describe fencing with sharps (spada blanca) and blunts (spada negra).
    But this is really no news.

    Rory Miller’s excellent analysis of violence in modern Western civilisation is superb and a must-read for anyone interested in the issue, but it cannot be simply confered on other societies like, say, present-day Somalia or, for that matter, the various forms of medieval societies. Evaluating violence in the Middle Ages based on Miller’s text is not a legitimate approach. Compare to according passages in the Icelandic Sagas, for example, that describe feuding, where violence was apparently regarded completely differently. The same was true for late Medieval punishment, warfare and feuds. Any combat art that did not gear you towards quickly killing opponents is likely to have died out with its practitioners in such a context. For an excellent introduction to violence in the medieval period, I recommend Sean McGlynn’s book “By Sword and Fire”.

    The above article disregards the gruesome illustrations of maiming and killing in some fechtbuch plates seen in Talhoffer or Kal and it neither considers according miniatures of judicial combat in the Sachsenspiegel or of deadly duels in the Manesse Codex, leave alone period accounts thereof. Nor does it consider fencing advices from I.33 where the author recommends to “enter with a thrust without mercy”. Admittedly, this manual predates the Liechtenauer corpus of fechtbücher, but it is to be seen in a duelling context. (The MS I.33 certainly is part of the Middle Ages, which the article constantly refers to in too general a fashion, I think.)

    From experience, I would also like to point out that you cannot thrust to the face mechanically correct and safely at the same time, which is why such attacks are the first to be abandoned in a sports context. See Meyer, for example. However, thrusting to the face is omni-present in the bulk of Liechtenauer treatises. Also, knightly duels often included hurling javelins at each other or were fought with pole axes (mordaxt!) or charging each other with horses. I cannot see how one could prevail in such a fight without a mind set and fighting techniques that are prepared and designed to cause maximum damage.

    So I cannot subscribe to Falko’s suggestions at all.

    • I will let Falko respond himself here so I won’t go specifically into your criticism against the article. But I do think we need to keep in mind that the fencing and the surrounding culture was more varied and complex than we sometimes tend to portray it as. Not all duels were fought until death and not even on the battlefields were the death of the opponent the ultimate goal in many cases, especially for the nobles who were quite valuable for ransom. The McGlynn book clearly shows how the atrocities were usually quite logical and done for quite good reasons. Likewise, there are also medieval battles where only 3-4 nobles die and close to 400 noble knights are caught for ransom. Both keeping as many of the opponents alive and killing them all was done for very logical reasons. And this applies to dueling and single combat too, I believe. The rules for judicial dueling and knightly dueling were quite varied and I think it is important that we explore that topic more.

      Conceptually, in the Renaissance, there appears to have been a cultural idea of common soldiers being the Children of Mars, alongside of Robbers and Murderers, while the “knightly” fencers were the Children of the Sun, alongside of Musicians and other Artists. They are both opposing aspects of the same thing, and while one stands for chaos and destruction, the other stands for order and creativity. I think this is a crucial thing to try to understand when studying the culture of the fencers, the guilds and the fechtbücher. The fencing guilds and the nobility were part of a design to create an ordered society.

      The early knightly Hastilude etc were quite brutal affairs quite close to actual war with a problematic number of deaths, but fairly quickly they became much more ordered events which still were quite brutal but not as often involving death and instead more used as a display of skill and courage. I think the fechtschulen are very much tied to this and the concept of dueling until “first blood” to defend your honour, which still prevailed in the French Dueling as late as in the 1960’s and in a way even in today’s Mensuren.

      One final thing. The thrust is a question that keeps returning as a separator between the so called “sports” (btw, I completely disagree that Meyer represents this), and fighting in earnest. But, how do you propose that it was practiced by the earlier masters? With full intent? How, exactly? It seems to me as if it would have been as difficult and dangerous to practice in Kal’s and Talhoffer’s time as it would have been in Meyer’s time. And Meyer actually teaches many, many lethal and maiming techniques too… His style is different, but I am not so sure it is less in “earnest”, really. If anything I think he was part of a tradition that more targeted regular infantry rather than the noble knights.

      Remember that he actually tells us to use the thrust against the common enemy or the foreigners (basically the Italians). He also tells us that in his time, the Germans do not use the sword thrust any more, even on the battlefield and this is actually confirmed by the contemporary Francesco Patrizi who describes the Germans as “crazy” since they do not use the thrust on the battlefield.

      I think there are some quite reasonable explanations for this custom, which I might expand on later.

      • Just for curiosity:

        SOL AND HIS CHILDREN
        Men call me Sol, I am the sun,
        The middle planet, on I run.
        Beneficent and warm and dry,
        By nature my rays fill the sky.
        The Lion’s my house, therein I dwell,
        And brightly shining I do well.
        There I stand, fair and bold,
        Against old Saturn’s bitter cold.
        In the Ram I rule and reign,
        But in the Maid I fail, I wane.
        And through the stars my way to wend,
        Three hundred and sixty-five days I spend.

        Noble and fortunate I am,
        As are all my children.
        Good beards, large foreheads, bodies fair,
        Ruddy lips, of brains their share.
        Happy, kindly, well-born, strong,
        Fond of harps, viols, and song.
        All morning long to God they pray,
        And after noon they laugh and play.
        They wrestle and they fence with swords,
        They throw great stones, and serve great lords.
        Manly exercises are their sports,
        They have good luck in princely courts.

        MARS AND HIS CHILDREN
        I am the third planet, Mars,
        Wrathful, raging through the stars,
        I’m full of hate and hot and dry,
        With my might I magnify
        All who please me, and I will
        Glorify those who war and kill.

        My houses the Scorpion and the Ram.
        If there is conflict, there I am.

        In the Goat I’m lifted high,
        In the Crab lose strength and die.
        The twelve signs I travel through
        Not in one year, but in two.

        All my trueborn children fight,
        Murder, strive and slay with might.
        Angry, haughty, warlike, proud,
        liars, thieves, their boasts are loud.
        Burning, cheating, robbing, hot,
        Their quarrels may be just or not.
        Small teeth, small beards, tall and thin,
        Noses sharp and hard rough skin.
        Butchers of men, killers of swine,
        Smiths and marshals, children mine,
        Captains, gunners doctors good,
        All those who deal in fire and blood.

  2. Roger,

    thanks for the explanations on Meyer – you are the expert here, so thanks for sharing your insights. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts regarding the alleged German 16th century custom of abandoning the thrust on the battlefield. I do not find this overly surprising in battle (as far as blade weapons go) as opposed to duels, but this is a different matter altogether.

    As for training a thrust: Yes, dangerous now and then, even with safety caps on blunts. Alfred Hutton told us how to spot a fencing master: He is wearing an eye patch and misses his front teeth. I guess this already implies the answer, doesn’t it? And there is a reason why techniques need to be practised with full intent (not the same as maximum speed): otherwise the outer structure would be corrupted and the whole technique will ultimately fail. But again, this is another topic, too.

    As for the article: I do not doubt that there was sports, training and many encounters that were not fought to the bitter end. I just think that Falko’s view is one-sided and ignores the sources that do not support his idea of the Liechtenauer system’s prime quality being prevailing in duel without hurting the opponent, an idea that I find debatable at best. I can neither approve of his application of Miller’s texts and his somewhat daring assumptions regarding how medieval society worked.

    • Well I am no expert on Meyer. I just study him a lot. :)

      Your response actually brings up several interesting questions. The concept of not thrusting on the battlefields I will leave for now.

      I am curious about the Hutton quote. Was he referring to contemporary 19th century fencing masters or to Renaissance masters? If the latter what did he base it on?

      Judicial dueling was not always for defending of honour. It was also commonly used to settle disputes of property of land, quite often through the use of Champions. These champions are highly interesting as they made a living out of fighting such duels. These duels could be won through killing or defeating the opponent, but you could also claim yourself to be defeated before you were killed. It seems quite likely that these champions not necessarily would seek to kill their opponent, but instead fight somewhat safer and instead try to exhaust and defeat the opponent. A shared respect between the champions would keep you safer too, meaning you could both continue to make a living as a champion. I think a lot more research needs to be done on this topic.

      Here is an interesting article on the topic: http://www.google.se/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=21&cad=rja&ved=0CCAQFjAAOBQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.peterleeson.com%2FTrial_by_Battle.pdf&ei=g6CJUJDyOoKI4gShnYD4Bg&usg=AFQjCNHWcbxt-_qR46AxAxz7xaGG31TLQw

      What does full intent with a sharp sword and no protection mean? Is this the same as with modern gear and a blunt? I think possibly we are calibrating more and more like the SCA here, going harder than what is needed with sharps in Blossfechten. The gripping of swords and stances often seem much more refined and even delicate compared to what we commonly do today.

      I don’t necessarily agree with everything Falko says, but he brings up several interesting ideas that I think are well worth considering. I have to admit I haven’t read Miller, but the model is interesting to consider at least. There are so many aspects of ritualistic and actual dueling, self-defense, battlefield combat in rural or urban settings and, entertainment, training and tournament fighting, both for the nobles and the burghers. Very complex stuff really and with lots of regulations and purposes that drive them.

      http://www.hyw.com/books/history/Justice_.htm

      We really need to keep them in mind when studying the treatises. Just look at the identification as the Kinder der Sonne for the fencers and musicians and the Kinder der Mars for the common soldiers, murderers, liars and thieves as described above…

  3. Nice article Falko, and thank you Roger for “publishing” it.

    My CV in the research of historical sources is not that big, so I can’t go too deep in that matter.

    Though most historians are agreeing on somethings; man kind didn’t change the last 1000 year. Not in anatomie, nor in IQ. In that respect standing in front of someone with a weapon which is designed , and its mere exsistance is to kill people, normal people will have a emotional negative reaction (they “shit in their pants”) . Everyone who was for one reason or another in a weaponed conflict , nowadays, will confirm this. Only the stupid are “brave”. Even if we/they were trained not to be. Even if media would call us/them “heroes”.

    I believe the media in that time must hav had a clear fonction as well. especially with the force of the Church. To up hold certain standards.

    If we go back to the one-on-one situation. I can’t believe that one would just take the risk to make it a nice fight. No martial art can be based on that. Though side forms will be; the artistic fencing; as Lecküchner described. Just as , as far as I understood, that sword and buckler fencers had a strong connection with the “entertainment industry”.
    However , and there we will agree, it should be possible for everyone who masters a martial art ( no matter which one) to take control over the opponent without killing him.
    One of the principles of Pearlman stands for it; it is not about the victory in a physical sense , but about how much we affect our opponent. If we take over control over our opponent, we can chose what to do with him.

    Again that level of mastering a martial art bring some practical issues.
    *the guy in front of you is not out to show a martial art. He is obsessed by the idea of hitting you. The rules of engagement become “different”. try to sparr with someone who learned swordfighting in his reenactmet club once a month. Or LARP .
    *are we in control, and is my opponent as well?
    *will he notice when I just let the point of my sword dangling in front of his face? Most young , adrenalin forced fencers won’t see it…They want to hit.

    I really like your point of view on the matter, but from a practical point of view, I can’t agree. But since your visit in Toulouse I thought a lot about it.
    Without doubt there must have been a clear separation between the artistic fencing and the martial art. As we have still in the asian martial arts.
    I hope to see you soon to discuss this , and more ( with a beer or two )

    • Well you could also go the Kirosawa “Rashomon” path. We THINK people acted bravely and were quite intent on killing the other guy, but in reality they were scared shitless and just wanted to avoid getting hit themselves… Hitting the other guy was not their primary concern. This is very different to Reenactment, the SCA, HEMA and LARP where we are all quite safe in what we do. Comparing to that is not quite right, I think. Training like they did required supreme control at a level few of us possesses today.

      Also there is a scenario where they didn’t really want to maim or kill their opponent for various reasons. Killing someone without, or with the wrong, witnesses could be quite dangerous as they had to prove that it was in self-defense. This is a time where you could be executed for stealing just a spoon…

      Another scenario is where a judicial duel was fought until first blood after which the loser was executed. In such a scenario it makes sense to be able to make quick, light cuts that were not intended to kill, but just to injure as quickly as possible. Again, remember that much of the treatises we study show such a context, single combat with identical weapons… Possibly some of this lives on in the treatises, as several cuts are clearly not so dangerous, even if we think they were.

      Also, dueling is not solely about hitting your opponent. It is primarily about defending your honour and I do believe this lives on in the Mensur, although in that case it is more a case of proving your valour. With time this came to revolve less and less about fencing and more about showing guts.

      Of course much of the treatises describe techniques that could maim and kill, and I don’t think Falko disputes that. But there were many other possible scenarios and issues to consider which we need to keep in mind when reading the treatises.

      I don’t think we should try to separate between Artistic Fencing and Martial Fencing. The Martial Fencing was an Art, sometimes simple and sometimes quite complex. Knowing more of it made you a better Combat Artist and a better Fighter. Simple as that.

  4. Thank you Roger.

    Most interesting point of view.

    Is HEMA not about the true study of historical european martial arts? Therefore the aim for perfection, within our own personal limits, is needed. No martial art can exsist if there is no need for that goal. Even if we know in advance that we will achieve that goal. As someone, whom I take as an example, should say; train the art for the art.
    There we will agree… for we not talking about “life” or “death” but “art”.

    Starting a duel can be for the reason of honour. Being in one can’t. Emotionally I can’t believe it is possible. IN a duel (in a conflict) you are occupied with one matter; staying alive and getting out out the conflict. If one should run away (without a doubt; a lot would have done this) , the morality would likely pop up again. Even Archilocus had written it, about 650 BC. During the conflict ,staying alive is all that matters. As you said; hitting your opponent will be secondary. But quite fast one can realize that the only way to make someone stop hitting you, is to hit him “harder”.

    Above all…. you are more well read then I will ever be. for which I can’t thank you enough. If there are clear sources how it really was, I will rest my case and just think about the IKEA catalogue 1000 years from now.

    Hope to meet you soon…( In Toulouse would be great… nice wheather, good training group, nice restaurants, nice library…)

    • I completely agree about the purpose and goals of HEMA as you describe them here. However, the context for these treatises is so very complex and we commonly tend to simplify things down to “it is a real martial art and it is designed to kill and maim. If it is not, then it is sport and not the real martial art.” I don’t think there is a distinction between the so called Art and Sport…

      As for the dueling context, it is quite complex as we also need to consider the Trial by Combat used for disputes regarding property of land and the common use of hired Champions for fighting, as described in the response to Roland above. This was quite common up until about the time of the writing of MS I.33 ie ca 1280-90, but lived on well into the 1400s. In fact, monastaries who owned large properties of land are said to have kept stables of such champions to defend their properties in trials by combat.
      In these cases honour was not the issue and the fighters didn’t fight for themselves, but for money. And you could either win the duel by killing or defeating the opponent, but the goal wasn’t to kill the opponent and both of them could actually stop the fight by claiming themselves to be defeated.
      This of course had consequences, both being defeated (which basically got you in trouble with your lord) or giving up, which meant you were outlawed.
      Also, the accused could win by successfully parrying all blows until sundown, without actually defeating the accuser.
      As soon as you raise the level of violence against the opponent (ie lethal levels) then you also have to face the same level of violence directed against you. That way, there might have been a certain mechanism for keeping the lethality down, making the fight more about defeating each other through other means.
      Some of these trials by combat were even intentionally toned down in lethality, for instance with the use of short clubs or sticks or using protective gear. According to the article linked above:

      …death very seldom ensued from these civil combats (Gilchrist 1821: 32). Russell (1980a: 124) has found only a single case in which a champion died in a land dispute tried by battle.” (Leeson: Trial by Battle, p364)

      and

      The legal system minimized this remaining cost by converting part of it into social benefit. It made trials by battle public spectacles—a form of entertainment for medieval citizens. In later judicial combats stands surrounded the lists so that eager spectators could enjoy the justice system in action.

      Evidently trials by battle were popular enough and well-enough attended events to require rules prohibiting the crowd from becoming unruly. Recall the presiding justices’ public pronouncements against spectator noise or interference. Medieval Englishmen derived entertainment value from watching champions fight for property rights. The judicial system capitalized on this by making these fights public events.” (Leeson: Trial by Battle, p366)

      And as the public Trials by Combat more or less dies out in the 14th-15th century, perhaps this is where we see the roots of the public Fechtschule?

      The knightly dueling lived its separate life and the nobles didn’t have to apply formally to hold a duel. This later evolved into the regular civilian dueling which came to be outlawed with the death penalty due to the high number of young nobles who died in the 16-1700s.

      And yes, meeting sometime would be great! Tolouse sounds nice! :)

  5. I keep seeing this idea brought up over and over again that people during this era would not be willing to face death and even die for their honor. I think this is very much a modern western mindset that is blinding us from the reality of the era. These people lived in a time when everyone knew that there was an afterlife and a path to it. The idea of being an atheist didn’t really exist, God was there and you just accepted that. So if you died, how you died was an important part of the question. There are many reasons that death might have been an acceptable possibility, certainly better than running off and facing dishonor.

    Look at the modern era and suicide bombers, or the kamikaze of world war two. There are numerous examples to be found of people putting other things in front of their own lives. If you honestly believe there is an afterlife, and that your personal honor is important to attain the good version of it, would you not be willing to die in an honorable way if it means you will move on to that life? Look at Rogers review of Christian symbolism in the fechbuch, or their fascination with alchemy. These were a people that accepted life after death as a given, and while there would certainly be those that flee rather than die, others would give their life it had to be so. Does this mean that they would be reckless, no, but you shouldn’t put your modern views of life and death on theirs. Remember they were quite comfortable with both aspects.

    • I really don’t see that that is expressed neither by me in my replies nor by Falko in his article here. Of course people died for what they believed in. Religion was a hugely important factor in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But by the same token one of the parties in a duel would not be very eager to rush towards being judged by God in a duel, for fear of dieing and going straight to Hell as they knew they were the one who had committed a grave sin.

      Accepting that you may die in defense of your honour is not the same as willingly dieing for it. Dueling was a common practice all up until the 19th century and issues with the concept was recognized as early as in the Middle Ages, where the rules saw how weaker men were defeated by stronger, thus voiding the value of using the duel as a means of determining God’s wishes. And this was of course also understood by the common man too.

      Furthermore, as described below, not all Trials by Combat were faught for honour. A good percentage were fought in disputes about property of land and then commonly fought by hired champions. In these cases no honour was involved and instead it was a fight about money and ownership. Such fights were public spectacles and although they were brutal, they rarely ended in death. As such they may actually be the precursors of the fechtschule.

      More importantly, society didn’t like random killing and thus put strict regulation on how it was done. The commoners had to apply for a judicial duel and were not always granted it. For the nobles it was simply a matter of issuing a challenge to the opponent, but the opponent didn’t have to accept, at the risk of losing face. Also both parties could hire champions to do the actual fighting for them. The fighting itself had mechanisms for avoiding death, both through not showing up at the duel, through parrying all blows until sundown or through declaring yourself defeated. Some were fought only until first blood, after which either the score was settled or the loser executed.

      All this, we need to keep in mind when studying the fechtbücher.

  6. First off:
    I do not at all promote going harder in HEMA practice at all, never did so, very much the contrary. When I say practise with full intent, I am not advocating flailing but synchronising inner attitude and outer posture to utmost effeciency. This is not the same and a complex topic altogether which I am happy to discuss and explain sword in hand.

    As for Hutton, I do not have the quote at hand, I only remember reading it and understood that it referred to his contemporaries. I am sure the source is easy to find.

    I have not suggested to train thrusts with sharps and full intent in partner practise at proper measure. You cannot do all this at once, otherwise it is not training but fighting. So executing a thrust to the face in practice with proper mechanics and decisiveness requires safety measures to minmize the risk of fatal injuries. There are numerous ways to do so, for instance using protective gear and/or weapon simulators with blunted and eventually padded points or manipulating distance etc.

    Thanks for the information on judicial combat. I am familiar with a number of sources and texts on the subject. If I may, I would like to point out that trial by combat was, in fact, never about honour. It was a legal matter. Honour only gradually replaced the fulfillment of God’s will in 15th century knightly duelling, possibly in order to find a way around the church’s disapprovement and repeated bans of any kind of ordeal. The subjects that could actually lead up to judicial combat in the course of a law suit were reduced to a few capital crimes in the 15th century, as Talhoffer himself notes. In Germany, the last judicial duel was fought in the 16th century.
    I am curious about the source that suggests that monasteries held “stables of champions”, as you say. I am very interested in that matter, so any additional info is welcome.

    I think Ted raises a valid point:
    Modern rationality in evaluating this subject does not do the medieval mindset justice. We have to accept that there are major differences in how they saw the world back then, when science, art and religion were not separate things but all one. This was a time when killing in the name of a peace-loving god could be considered the right thing to do. When kissing a lepard’s wounds and drinking from his washing bowl was considered an admirable act of piety. When professional champions, who were social outsiders, were believed to express the will of god in combat – which the combatants must have believed themselves, too.

    Suggesting that Liechtenauer, who may himself have been a champion, developped a system that was martially sound and thus designed to dominate the opponent, while at the same time striving to avoid harming him, is a conclusion that I fail to see any indication for, neither in the fechtbücher, nor in other period sources. And note that Falko does not refer to sidelines of the tradition or particular weapons or specific contexts, but writes about the Liechtenauer system as a whole. This, I think, is not maintainable.

    Finally, I very much doubt that it is possible to reach a degree of mastery at arms that enables you to prevail in bloßfechten (which Falko does not exclude)and constantly enter fights against apt swordsmen, determined to not fatally injure your adversary. I think that one would be fully absorbed with avoiding being hurt and ending the fight quickly. And this is what a good true combat system would be required to teach.
    Here is what a highly acclaimed swordsman of the time thought about the issue: “I advise my students that it is better to fight three times in the lists in armour, than once without, for without armour in one missed parry lies death.”
    Doesn’t sound like this man thought it was possible to allow oneself the luxury of considering the inviolacy of the opponent over a sharp sword when it was hard enough to defend your own life.

    … but then again, this was Fiore dei Liberi – he probably never shared Liechtenauer’s secret p.c. kung fu!

    • Thank you Roland!
      Again a very good post that raises several interesting ideas.

      Regarding practicing the thrust, I was referring to how it was practiced in the Renaissance, not how we do it today.
      I really didn’t think you promote going harder either. But I think many, not you, make too much of the difference in teaching the thrust in the early vs late Renaissance. In neither of the time periods could you really teach thrusting with full intent to thrust into the opponent’s face. A fencing master would very quickly run out of students and vice versa if they did.

      The Hutton quote is interesting, but if it is about his contemporary British fencing masters, then it doesn’t necessarily say much about the practice in the Renaissance fencing guilds or that of the early fencing masters. However, I am pretty sure they didn’t have all their teeth and did have quite a few scars though… :)

      About the judicial dueling: Honour is probably a bad word for it as there clearly were a very specific set of cases that validated the use of judicial dueling (7 according to Talhoffer, like you mention) and it was different for the Nobels and the Commoners (where it would more and more evolve into honour dueling). Yes, it was a legal matter, but it wasn’t the only system in use and you could actually decline thereby losing the trial. And defending your name and status were certainly part of the reasons for accepting or requesting a duel.

      I’ll see if I can find anything about the monastaries’ champions. I have seen references to it, but I have no idea how valid that claim is. I found it interesting in relation to the author of the I.33 though…

      I too think Ted raises valid points, but at the same time our modern mindset can make us overinterpret the medieval willingness to die for one’s honour. People were quite happy living their earthly lives with all their limbs intact too.

      Personally I wouldn’t go so far as to saying that the whole Liechtenauer tradition is designed to not kill the opponent, and I don’t think that is quite what Falko says either, although he will have to speak for himself. :)

      But I do think most of it is designed so it can be used that way and certain things are not even very lethal, perhaps instead designed for “first blood” in a judicial context. I believe the most important notion raised here is that not everything was designed to kill and that there were a variety of reasons for how different techniques were designed and applied.

      It all boils down to what kind of fighting situation we are talking about. Some were clearly lethal duels or fights on the battlefield. But just as it was common on the battlefield to capture the enemy for ransom, the property-duels appear to seldom have led to death. Such champions certainly faced a risk of death and maiming, but it seems not to have been desired or even common. And even in the deadly duels a simple first cut could end a fight as the injured would be led away to be hanged.

  7. Exactly.
    Context is everything and, as I fully acknowledged in my very first post, there were multiple fencing contexts and a whole number of techniques that were not intended to leave one of the two combatants dead. But this has never been questioned, even before Falko’s article, has it?

    One last word on period training: Apparently, there was no consensus on appropriate methods even in the Renaissance: I was told that Viggiani and another Bolognese master had different ideas regarding training with sharps, which the latter advocated.

    There is, however, agreement between all present day martial arts instructors who I hold in high esteem, that you need perfect body mechanics to correctly execute any given technique. Change or corrupt one detail and the whole thing is doomed to fail. I do not see how one could safely pull off a Liechtenauer hallmark technique like a meisterhau safely with sharp longswords in unarmoured combat.
    Do you?

    • Here we agree, Roland! :)

      But even thrusting safely and with proper intent with a blunt fechtschwert would have been extremely dangerous. I believe that even back in the day, they did this differently to how we do today, using fencing masks and so on. It is just speculating of course, but they obviously considered the thrusting in tournament fighting to be difficult, which was a context that offered as close to proper intent as possible in a training situation.

    • Hello Roland,

      Many thanks for your comments. I really think they triggered a very fruitful discussion. It is certainly not my intention to hold a lecture on how the medieval society worked – I wouldn’t be competent to do so in any way. But I do raise the question if the notion “killing is the main purpose” is a justified assumption (because that’s what it is, in fact).

      I’m not disputing that deadly duels happened. I agree that this is what Talhoffer shows in some of his plates. However, Talhoffer’s books differ significantly from the text sources: they are not instructive but descriptive in character. He does not write “this is what you shall do” but “this is what happened / this is what I witnessed (and I can tell you about it)”. As far as I know, Talhoffer owned two of his books and used them as some sort of catalogue to apply for employment. We also know that he included drawings of war machines he claimed he could construct, but which remained pure fiction as far as we know today. So would it be surprising to find records of exceptionally bloody duels in his books? Could we really conclude that fighting to the death was the norm, just based on his pictures? Those people who did write “this is what you shall do” give no clear indication that killing was their aim.

      If we look at all practice of the art of fencing in the 15th century, I see a range of settings that start with training and end with the duel to the death. The range goes from “pretty safe” to “deadly risk” and from “frequent/daily activity” to “very rare incident”. Talhoffer depicts the top end of this scale. Regarding the text sources, I just can’t be so sure! I don’t believe that only the two ends of the scale existed (plus some “sporty stuff” in the middle, closer to training?). Reality has a tendency to be very complex rather than black and white. I think that the great majority of Liechtenauer’s fencing is located between Fechtschule and deadly duel. Removing the aim to kill does not remove the concept that techniques are done with intent.

      For example, Lecküchner explicitly mentions three different levels of harm in one of his techniques: Fechtschul, light injury and serious injury (Cod. Pal. Germ. 430, 14v-15r): „…so far umb den kopff mit dem messer und haw ym zw dem halz wiltü yn nicht hart wünden so schlag yn auff den armen ist aber daß auff eyner vechtschullz so schlag yn yn den pawch auff seyner lincken seytten grob und pewrisch daß erß wol enpfindt etc.“ Is it too far fetched to suggest that comparable considerations were present in Bloßfechten with the longsword?

      By saying “deadly force is the only aim I accept for my interpretations” you simply ignore a lot of serious research on the psychology involved with killing, which comes to a common conclusion: violence within a social group is very rarely designed to be deadly. Societies wouldn’t benefit if it were. So they establish rules and rituals that limit the rate of fatalities.

      The authors I’m referring to here are Rory Miller (“Meditations on Violence”, “Facing Violence”), John Keegan (“The Face of Battle”, “History of Warfare”), Dave Grossman (“On Killing”), and in addition Sarah Neumann (“Der gerichtliche Zweikampf: Gottesurteil – Wettstreit – Ehrensache”) for a judicial rather than psychological approach. Grossman takes the “fight-or-flight” reaction as a starting point to analyze human behavior in violence:

      ‘This model holds that in the face of danger a series of physiological and psychological processes prepare and support the endangered creature for either fighting or fleeing. The fight-or-flight dichotomy is the appropriate set of choices for any creature faced with danger OTHER than that which comes from its own species. When we examine the responses of creatures confronted with aggression from their own species, the set of options expands to include posturing and submission. […] There is a clear distinction between actual violence and posturing. Oxford social psychologist Peter Marsh notes that this is true in New York street gangs, it is true in “so-called primitive tribesmen and warriors”, and it is true in almost any culture in the world. All have the same “patterns of aggression” and all have “very orchestrated, highly ritualized” patterns of posturing, mock battle, and submission. These rituals restrain and focus the violence on relatively harmless posturing and display. What is created is a “perfect illusion of violence”.’

      I think that much of Liechtenauer’s fencing was actually about posturing (..and the same is true for most other martial arts). Admittedly, it could sometimes cross the line to real fighting. Those are the examples Talhoffer depicted in his most violent plates. But I don’t think that this was the norm for duels in general – not even in Talhoffer’s, by the way: count the plates were he forces the opponent into submission! Being a ruthless killing machine wouldn’t make you a successful leader. Posturing to make your opponent submit to your dominance on the other hand, would.

      In addition, the text sources tell us more than what’s in the contents. First of all, their sheer existence means that the recipient could read or could employ someone who could and who’d be proficient in the Liechtenauer system (the 15th century fencing equivalent of a Harvard graduate). This is the top level of society and they are usually not the ones to get their hand dirty in brutal crimes. The nobility spent huge amounts of money to make a clear distinction to the ordinary people (and that’s the difference I see considering Ted’s posting: in suicide bombings it is not the elite of terror that blasts itself into pieces on public places, and it was not the Japanese high command that crashed their planes into the Pacific).

      If we follow Roger’s line of thinking considering religion, we would see two people facing each other for whom the question of heaven or hell is more important than life or death. In effect, these people might be more afraid of killing than of dying! If they lived humble life and die in a duel, they go to heaven. If they kill they might face the terrors of hell sooner or later (especially if they found a way around the church’s disapprove, as you mention in your other posting).

      So which one of Liechtenauer’s hidden strikes (I prefer to go by the name that’s used in the original sources) is the indisputably deadly one? 1. The Zornhau targets the blade, followed by a thrust. Yes, we do have an issue with thrusting, full agree on that. 2. The Krumphau hits the blade first, followed by a short flick with the short edge to the head. Is that indisputably deadly? The Twerhau can be trained to deliver great impact, but that’s because we deliberately choose to use it that way. Its equivalent in Messer fencing is primarily a tactical move to create openings and close distance. 4. The Schielhau is yet another strike with the short edge that leaves the wrists better aligned for stopping an attack than for executing its offensive effect. 5. The Seitelhau is the least well understood hidden strike I would say, but as far as we know the hands are held comparatively high and it targets the top of the skull, which isn’t the easiest bone to break.

      Please be aware that I’m not claiming that these techniques didn’t harm the opponent! What you say is basically that techniques are either safe or deadly. I’d say they are harming to a socially acceptable degree with an arguable risk to go wrong (in either direction). You also claim that the swords were sharp. However, the sword shown on the two pictures in the 44 A 8 are clearly blunt. Why would you use blunt blades if killing is the aim?

      I think we are still far too much influenced by what we imagine a “real fight” should look like, and that vision blinds us from what’s actually in the sources. I’m convinced that what we’re dealing with is a highly elaborate art of posturing and submission is the true objective. Of course that requires a superior level of control. That’s why fencing is called an art. The perfect illusion of deadly violence – which could cross the line to real deadly violence in its extremes.

      The HEMA scene spent 10 years on improving body mechanics for maximizing impact. Where will we get if we spend the next 10 years on maximizing control? Let me end this reply with a modern quote: “Everything is always impossible before it works.” (Hunt Greene)

      • Sorry, a small correction for the third last paragraph: “arguable risk to go wrong” should be “arguable amount of risk to go wrong” – the risk itself is certainly not arguable. Only its dimension is.

      • Just a minor point, and off topic, Talhofer does not claim anything regarding the war machines shown in the 1459 ms. They are, rather, copied from an older work by Konrad Kyeser, dated ca. 1405. It seems Talhofer was just intrigued by them, just as he was with the Hebrew writing and the Arabic numerals in the same ms. (and he did make up some bizarre explanations for those he did not understand).

        I sympathize with your ideas, yet I also need to accept Roland’s criticism. Perhaps you could rephrase them in a way which I am sure would be also palatable to Roland, maybe along these lines: We all know that our sources show both lethal and showy techniques. But our current-day HEMA tournaments have focussed far too much on implementing the lethal stuff (with proper safety gear of course) and not enough on showing off. But showing off our skills is basically the point of HEMA sparring today, so perhaps the tournament rules should be changed in a way that rewards difficult, showy techniques much more than they do at present, where it is mostly enough to simply hit the other guy to win the match. Imagine a tournament where the score is determined by who applied the most beautiful hits, as opposed to simply the most hits.

  8. … sorry: It was Viggiani who advocated training with sharps, if memory does not betray me.

  9. I’m not saying people were eager to die, just that they had a greater acceptance of death. It was much more a part of their daily lives. Murder was outlawed but accidental death more common and accepted. Likely everyone had seen a dead body, family members if nothing else. Our modern fear of death is not the same as their understanding of it.

    • Sorry Ted if I made it sound like you said that people were eager to die. It is not what I meant. I certainly agree that death was a much more natural part of their lives, and not only that, but also violence and bloodshed in different forms. It is even said that it was a popular “sport” in the Middle Ages for young men to nail a cat to a wall or a tree and then compete against each other in trying to headbutt the cat to death. A medieval form of Basketball, if you will…

      Still, there are many complex issues with honour, death and religion. You only went to heaven if you were a humble man, even as a warrior. A cruel soldier fighting for the right reasons wouldn’t necessary go to heaven. And likewise a passive man who did nothing to honour God could very well go to hell. There was no free ticket and Hell was just as real as Heaven, which is very different to today. And who was going where is not something you yourself would know for sure. That would only be known only to you after you died and were judged.

      At the same time, there appears to have been a good number of fairly arrogant and nihilistic people even back in the Middle Ages who pretty much did what they liked, without care for God. I wonder if there weren’t proper Atheists even back then… In Scandinavia some warriors actually expressed that it was foolish to maintain a faith in Gods and make sacrifices, and that one instead should rely in one’s own strength. And people were certainly accused of atheism as early as in the 1500s… But it was a negative thing in Society’s eyes, of course.

      • Yes, ‘atheist’ meant something different back then. And this thread reminded me of this article I read recently.

        For example, Hobbes – the philosopher who wrote “Leviathan”, and who lived from 1588 to 1679 – was almost universally regarded as an atheist. And yet he believed in God.

        The problem is “for most of history an “atheist” was a man who worshipped the wrong God, not no God at all; a physical God, as imagined by Hobbes, was not really God.”[1]

        He was anathema due to his extreme (for the day) scientific materialism – he regarded nature as a machine, going so far maintain that absolutely everything is physical, even God, and man’s immortality begins with the resurrection of his body (i.e. there are no disembodied immaterial spirits). So he was an atheist to practically every one of his contemporaries.

        [1] From The Economist, review of critical edition of Leviathan.

  10. Dear Falko,

    thanks for your long and painstaking reply. It contains a lot that I can easily subscribe to.
    You are absolutely right to say that fechtbücher and historical practice of swordsmanship are not exclusively about killing the opponent. There is a large repertoire of show techniques, disarms and other non-lethal combat techniques and many forms of according contexts and application that suggest anything between friendly play at arms, fechtschul tournaments and deadly combat. But this is, as I have pointed out in my very first post, no new insight and I cannot think of anyone with some competence who seriously doubts that.

    I am solely criticising the conclusions that you draw.
    You suggest that the main aim of Liechtenauer fencing was to provide skills for its pratitioners which enabled them to partake in the quest for finding the most apt individuals of the elite: In single combat they would show that they not only possessed martial prowess and could defeat the adversary but on top of that were able to, due to superior skills, avoid killing this other valuable individual that medieval society ccould not risk to lose. According to your reasoning a medieval nobleman who in contrast was ruthlessly willing to kill his adversary would have been considered unworthy and inferior and would thus be denied support.
    I am sorry, but I think this idea can only spring from a modern mind and is totally ignorant of the reality of historical power politics.

    If your idea holds any water, you should be able to support it by examples from history. But here you would be hard-pressed to find a number or even a single successful ruler who lived up to what we consider chivalric virtues, because, even if you confine your search to the fifteenth century, the truth is that period power politics were savage, bloody and ruthless whenever other less violent means like bribing or intimidation failed to succeed.

    Even where the ruler was elected by an assempbly of noblemen like in the German empire, moral considerations were pretty far down the list of the churfürsten. Strong Renaissance rulers like the Medici did not remain in power because they insisted on not harming their opponents, rather the contrary. Study any power conflict of the time like the so called War of the Roses to find a multitude of examples for the ruthless determination of political rivals. Considering them valuable members of society apparently did not occur to contemporaries who stuffed a red hot poker up a king’s bottom or to those members of the ruling elite who had their defeated opponents publicly castrated, disembowled and burnt. This was not the gruesome exception but the rule when it came to dealing with defeated enemies of medieval rulers.

    It is interesting to note that, even at their time, those who were actually renowned for being chivalric role models did, in fact, have a good share of ruthlessness at their disposal when they fought against, say, their father or brothers or when they had thousands of defenseless civilians executed, like the arch icon of chivalry, Richard the Lionheart.
    While we are at it:
    When William Marshall, then in the service of Richard’s father, Henry II, came up against the king’s rebelling son in battle and only killed the prince’s mount but spared Richard’s life, this was indeed considered an act of utmost chivalry and admirable martial skill. Later William served under Richard when the latter had been made king. But it doesn’t seem that it occured to anybody to make William king instead of Richard because the former was apparently less reckless yet superior in single combat.

    What made a successful Renaissance ruler is described in detail in Macchiavelli’s “Il Principe”. There it says that a ruler should strive to be both loved and feared. But if he could acquire only one the both, it would be better to be feared than loved. Needless to say that Medieval and Renaissance princes were pretty good at inspiring fear as a means to stabilize their rule.

    Secondly, your idea of a contest for domination does not work martially:
    It is indeed possible to dominate a less skilled opponent without fatally harming him. But I claim that in a life and death situation of two equally versed combatants – one reckless, the other concerned not to inflict harm – the latter enters the fight with a clear disadvantage. His resistance to harm or kill naturally limits his options which will in most cases lead to his defeat.
    I fail to see that any medieval or Renaissance nobleman would be interested in training a martial art that puts him in a disadvantageous position from the start. He may still have mercy with a defeated but surviving opponent. But he would want to be trained to win, which, in my opinion, excludes the constant consideration for the intactness of the opponent in true, non-sportive combat.
    Because as Fiore said: “… without armour in one missed parry lies death.”

    If, however, in single combat killing is expressedly not the aim or even prohibited and victory supposed to be acquired by not harming the opponent, then this would be rules that render the encounter a sportive competition, even if the danger of wounds persists. And, yes, these forms of combat and competition had there place, too. Just like historical knightly competitions that were indeed designed to demonstrate martial competence and defeating an opponent without the intention of killing him:
    Namely jousting and related elite sports. (Note that the victor of a tournament only won the kingdom and the princess in fairy tales.)

    So I say that your initial thesis that the success of the whole Liechtenauer tradition lies in its virtue to dominate and overcome an opponent in knightly duel without the intention to harm him, in order to qualify for leadership by displaying mastery at arms and chivalry, and, as a side effect, assist society by not killing one of its most valuable members cannot be supported by historical data and furthermore is a martial daydream. The universal application of your idea to the whole Liechtenauer tradition is an illegitimate generalisation or, to use your very own words from your initial post, utter nonsense.

    Regarding the actual use of sharps for fencing:
    Of course blunts were used for e.g. training and tournaments (as I have written in this discussion before) just as sharps were used for other purposes. Fiore dei Liberi tells us that he was challenged to fight five times “with sharp swords” and with nothing but arming doublets and chamois gloves “in foreign lands and with none but God, the art and my sword” and “for my honour I say that I have come away unharmed”. Now whether he killed his opponents or not we don’t know, but a) these were likely illicit duels, and thus he wouldn’t say and b) note that they were indeed sharp swords. (Note also that he thought that his honour would be raised by the fact that HE had come away unharmed!)

    The final comment of your last post on the goals of modern HEMA is another generalisation.
    I, like a good number of my valued colleagues, have been most concerned with increasing precision these past years rather than hitting hard, simply because it is the appropriate thing to do when it comes to combat with swords.
    And finally, while you are absolutely correct to point out that control is paramount in any respect in martial arts, not only for training safety but also for martial effeciency, anyone who has received serious martial education heard this on day one.
    But thanks for reminding us anyway.

    • Hi Roland!

      Wonderful replies by both you and Falko I think! And I actually agree with both of you but I think perhaps you somewhat misread who Falko directs himself towards and what he is responding to with his article.

      I believe Falko targets other readers than readers of your knowledge level, Roland. And perhaps this is in part a response to the developing modern tournament fighting where striking is done harder and harder in the “belief” that you had to strike as hard as possible even with a sharp sword. This is very much the general opinion in the SCA too and it seems to spread in HEMA too now, perhaps with some influence from Eastern Europe. It might not even be a conscious or intentional thing, but rather a part of growing athleticism and little or no experience in using sharp swords.

      I am actually quite convinced that longsword strikes with the point with a typical tapering Talhoffer-type longsword would do little harm when struck to the cranium. Point cuts work the best against soft tissue and have a hard time cutting through thicker bone. This is why we see much more effect shown with the 2nd cut, cutting with the middle of the blade. I think these men were very aware of where to target the body with different parts of the blade and I have been planning an article on the topic for some time… :)

      “Contest of domination” works fine if both parties strive for the same goals and fight under a shared understanding. This is similar to laws of war. The level of violence is naturally balanced in any conflict. A fight has a certain initial level of violence that can be maintained. If one party raises the level somehow, then the other will respond with the same or more. We see this for instance at the Falklands Wars where the Argentinians faked death and attacked the Brits in the back when they had passed the “dead” which lead to the Brits killing all the injured and assumed dead just to be sure. There are many examples like this. There is even an expression for it. Roughly translated from Swedish it goes “He who enters the game will have to stand up to it”. This idea is common in many cultures.

      So, basically I think Falko’s intent here was to show the general HEMA-community that the contexts surrounding the fencing Art was more complex and varied than just killing the opponent as quickly as possible. That idea I think we can all subscribe to, no matter how much we debate the rest.

Submit a Comment