Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.

In the town of Metz, the weaver Philippe de Vigneulles (1471-1522) wrote his mémoires. His text is full of anecdotes about “his” world, one of merchants who made their fortune within the walls of the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire. He tells us about the acrobats that he likes to see dancing on ropes in the square of Viller. One of them is “a master above all masters” (maistre par sus tout les aultres maistre), coming from the city of Luca (Lucques) in Italy.

“when the Italian master came to play, he surpassed all the others and did incredible things, that no one could believe without seeing him, on the small rope as well as on the big one. It seemed to touch neither the sky nor the earth, so light was he. And this master was so well dressed that there was no lord in Metz who had a more beautiful dress than he had. He was a master of the sword, the battle-axe, the short dagger and all other weapons and the buckler.”[1]

The city of Luca is known for its martial games.[2] It is also not surprising to read about Italian masters who excel at “playing” with weapons. What is interesting here is the list of his martial expertise, which can be tied to urban fencing competitions, the so-called fencing schools.[3] Such competitions were organised by travelling master-at-arms, some of them belonging to interurban networks, guilds of masters of the sword. The most famous one in the Holy Roman Empire, the brotherhood of Saint Marc, received imperial privileges in 1487. Other masters were not member of such guilds and call themselves “free-fencers”. Other were associated with jugglers, dancers, bear watchmen or other kind of performers, as represented by figure 1. On this illuminated painting of 1480, decorating a house book, one can see a snake charmer, a dagger swallower and a fire eater, next to a pair of wrestlers and a pair of fencers. In between the fencer holding longswords is a master-at-arm holding the staff used to referee a fencing bout. Pairs of long knives, daggers and staffs are lying on the ground at the feet of the fencers. All of these weapons represent known martial disciplines to be found in the corpus of fight books, strongly connected with urban fencing practices at the end of the Middle Ages. The poses can also easily be recognised with fencing “guards” in the technical literature about fencing. In passing, the illuminated painting is attributed to master E.S., who produced other works of art related to fencing and other games, such as playing cards (fig. 1).[4]

Fig. 1: Anonymous, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.

The status of master at arms, or master of the sword, does not correspond to a trade in its own right at the end of the Middle Ages. Apart from a few exceptions such as masters who managed to obtain the protection of a prince in a court, most of the fencing masters mentioned in the archival documents, or authors of the fight books do have another main occupation, most of the time unrelated with fencing. For example, Jorg Wilhalm is a hatter in Augsburg, but he is also specialised in fencing in armour with all weapons. We also find craftsmen such as furriers, candle makers, cutlers, etc, who hold regular fencing schools in Swiss towns as early as 1463.

Those with acrobatic skills who frequent in or accompany travelling people from city to city were keen to play with swords in public. Such is the case of a troupe of foreigners who performed at the city of Estavayer on the shores of the lake of Neuchatel in 1454 and 1459. They are mentioned in an accounting document as ‘poor Sarracens recently made Christians’ (ppovre Sarragin qui se sont fait cristient), who received ‘eight jugs of wine’ for their performance of ‘a play with two-handed swords’ (qui juerent de l’espée à due main).[5] The show was attended by the town council and the wine was drunk from the cellar of a burgher, member of the council. The circumstances of this performance and its specific kind is unclear, as is usual of dry mentions in accounting documents, but it is likely that it was either a competition, or a sword-dance. Sword dance are cultural practices documented in the late Middle Ages in the whole Europe, and tied to either guild practices in cities, or festivals in more rural areas.[6] Such performances can be very elaborated and include competitions as illustrated in fig. 2. On this painted drawing kept in Nuremberg, two fencers cross their swords from a platform made of inter-laced swords held by other performers.

Fig. 2: Sword dance and play of the sword of the cutler’s guild of Nuremberg. Drawing, ca. 1570. (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, HB 2286). Wikimedia Commons.
Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 15/04/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1240.

Acknowledgement: This blog is an expansion of an excerpt of the monograph of Daniel Jaquet, Combattre au Moyen Âge: Une histoire des arts martiaux en Occident (XIVe-XVIe siècles) (Paris: Arkhê, 2017).

Title page image credits: Detail of the children of Luna, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.


[1] quant ledit maistre ytalliens vint à juer, il paissoit tout les aultre de bien juer et faisoit chose incredible et non à croire à gens qui ne l’airoie veu, tent sus la petitte corde laiche comme sus la grosse. Et n’y ait homme qui sceust raiconter les tour qu’il faisoit sus la dite petitte corde, et sambloit qu’il ne touchait ny à_ciel ny à terre de legiereté qui estoit en lui. Et estoit ledit maistre cy bien acoustré qu’il n’y_ait seigneurs en Mets qui eust de plus belle roube qu’il avoit, et estoit maistre jueulx d’espees, de la haiche d’airme, de la courte daigue, de toutte airmes et du bouclier. Paris, BNF, nouv. Acq fr. 67120, edited by Fanny Faltot, Les Mémoires de Philippe de Vigneulles, unpublished PhD thesis, Paris, École des Chartres, 2015, pp. 128-129. I would like to thank the author for kindly sending me her edition.

[2] Alessandra Rizzi, Statuta de ludo: le leggi sul gioco nell’Italia di comune (secoli XIII-XVI) (Roma : Viella, 2012). The author mentions martial games, including shooting, throwing javelins and the so-called battagliole (team game including fencing).

[3] About fencing school see Daniel Jaquet, ’Die Kunst des Fechtens in den Fechtschulen. Der Fall des Peter Schwizer von Bern’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag 2016), 243‑58 and Christian Jaser, ‘Ernst und Schimpf – Fechten als Teil städtlicher Gewalt- und Sportkultur’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2016), 221‑42.

[4] See Stefan Krause and Christoph Kaindel, ‘Das Grosse Kartenspiel des Meister E.S. – Frühe gedruckte Fechtdarstellung’, Zeitschrift für historische Waffen- und Kostümkunde 55/1 (2013): 1‑18. The attribution to Master E.S. is a matter under debate, since these images are part of a relative large cycle. For a discussion about this matter, see Daniel Hess, Meister um das „mittelalterliche Hausbuch“. Studien zur Hausbuchmeisterfrage (Mainz: Von Zabern, 1994).

[5] I would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing his discoveries back in 2013. The text is edited by Barbey (1911), quoted in Daniel Jaquet ‘Fighting in the Fightschools, late 15th – early 16th century’, Acta Periodica Duellatorum 1 (2013), 47-66 (54, note 29).

[6] Stephen D. Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1997).


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