Training skills, acquiring virtues, bodily traits and moral improvement in early printed fencing manuals, 1450-1550

Abstract: German and Italian towns in the 15th and 16th centuries held the notion of a well-armed citizenry in high regard. Citizens were encouraged to exercise themselves in martial disciplines in order to contribute to their town’s defence and create strong masculine virtues. The presentation explores this perceived link between training and moral improvement in the first generation of printed manuals on the art of fighting, contextualizing them with contemporary discourses on the acquisition of virtue.

The capacity to use armed force was a cornerstone of citizenship in the South-German cities of the 15th and 16th century, and features prominently in historiography.[1] Likewise, the use of arms as an element of masculine culture continued to thrive in Italy, even when authorities occasionally tried to curtail it.[2] The contemporary emergence of manuscripts and books on martial disciplines such as fencing and wrestling connected to these cultural ideals. They were praised by some of their authors for helping young men to avoid sinful pastimes and strive to become virtuous instead. The exact link between training the body and training the virtues remains underexplored, however. This presentation analyses how the adjectives and adverbs used by these authors for describing the body and its actions connect with contemporary ideas on bodily grace and moral character. This will shed more light on the ways in which martial skill equalled social distinction in the late medieval town.


[1] B.A. Tlusty, The Martial Culture of Early Modern Germany, Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 6-7.

[2] Peter Blastenbrei, “Violence, arms and criminal justice in papal Rome, 1560-1600,” Renaissance Studies 20, no. 1 (2006): 84.

Watch the video of the presentation:

Acknowledgement: This poster was presented in the panel: Burghers and Fighters: Social mobility and urban martial culture, during the conference Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1550), at the University of Bern (11-13 November, 2021)

Cite this article as: Miente Pietersma, "Training skills, acquiring virtues, bodily traits and moral improvement in early printed fencing manuals, 1450-1550," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 12/11/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1449.

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Miente Pietersma

Miente Pietersma (MA) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Groningen and affiliated with the University of Bern. His dissertation asks whether and how we can read the first generation of printed fencing manuals as guidebooks for experimentation, mediating between learning by reading and learning by doing.

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