Sword and Buckler in Hebrew Letters: Traces of Early Illuminated German Fight Books in Jewish Manuscripts

Two manuscripts produced in early fourteenth-century German-speaking areas reflect similar iconography of  fighting with sword and buckler; one is the well-known fencing treatise, Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS I. 33, produced ca. 1320,[1] and the other is a Hebrew manuscript of the Bible made in 1304, that will be the focus of this article. Four figures with sword and buckler are portrayed as masorah figurata[2] on the lower margins of the opening page of Hebrew Bible, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France héb. 9, fols 104v-105r (figs. 1-2). All four are wearing gloves with long cuffs, holding swords and bucklers, and have their outer garments rolled up to their waists and tucked into their belts in order to free their legs, and because of this we can see their positioning. I wish to demonstrate in this preliminary research, that the iconography was adapted from German Fechtbücher (fight books), and demonstrate how Hebrew illuminated manuscripts can shed more light on the study of fight books iconography.

Figure 1: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France héb. 9, fols 104v–105r, Germany 1304
Figure 2: Detail. BnF, MS héb. 9, fols 104v–105r

The micrography-forming verses in this manuscript are from Jeremiah 10.22–13.1. Not all the words that make up the image come from Jeremiah 10–13 and most of them are related to Jeremiah 11.22: ‛The young men shall die by the sword, their boys and girls shall die by famine’. Thus, it is clear that the artist’s choice of verses for the micrography was intended to relate not only to the words of Jeremiah, but also to the meaning of the opening page and with a focus on the sword and the danger about which the prophecy speaks. The clothing of the figures discussed here is not typically identified with any particular group or religion; the figures are wearing coifs, which were common among all of the societal strata. Warriors, especially knights, are portrayed in Jewish manuscripts as both Jewish and Christian figures.[3]

Figure 3: Detail. BnF, MS héb. 9, fol. 104v

The figures with the swords, as the texts imply, were designed to arouse fear in the hearts of the viewers, as they might represent the Gentile inhabitants of the urban space, that is, they may reflect a fear of Christian neighbors. The manuscript was produced six years after the 1298 riots known as the Rindfleisch Massacres, so we may find in this micrography an echo of the pogrom’s outcome, especially as the text of Jeremiah and the micrography-forming verses tell of severe judgment and harsh prophecy; the emphasis is on the sword that brings death. As the masorator (the person copying the Masorah text) also created the image, even though someone else might have designed it, we see a tight connection between the text and the image it forms.

Figure 4: Detail. BnF, MS héb. 9, fol. 105r

The portrayal of the fighting men in manuscript BnF, MS héb. 9, fols 104v–105r (figs. 1-4) predates the earliest illuminated fencing manual, Leeds, MS I. 33 (fig. 5). Both manuscripts, which were produced in early the fourteenth-century German lands, reflect similar iconography of the fighting posture as well as of the gloves and garments,[4] as can be seen even in the details of the flared gloves, which are displayed with a line and round decorations along the edge of the cuff. Therefore, we may assume that both were copied from similar sources, perhaps model books for fighting. Of course, one principal difference is that in BnF, MS héb. 9 there is no close combat, as the characters are separated by the four lines of Masorah text between them.

Figure 5: Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS FECHT 1 (previously listed as I. 33), fols. 10v-11r, Germany ca. 1320

Similar iconography does not necessarily mean that one was copied from the other, but rather that a common prototype copy or other manuscripts of fencing treatises might have been circulating in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, especially as we find similar iconography in a Hebrew manuscript from around the same time and place. Such an evidence of an earlier iconographical model can be found in a Jewish prayer book, known as the Michael Mahzor, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Mich. 617, produced in German lands in 1258. An even earlier example is found in the Ambrosian Bible, Milan, Ambrosiana B. 32 Inf., fol. 34v, produced in Germany 1236-1238, displaying two fighting hybrids with sword and buckler. Thus, looking at Jewish illuminated manuscripts may shed more light on earlier models used for portraying fighting with this type of equipment.

[1] Franck Cinato and André Surprenant, Le livre de l’art du combat: Liber de arte dimicatoria (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2015); Jeffrey L.Forgeng, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship Royal Armouries MS I.33 (Leeds: United Kingdom Royal Armouries Museum, 2018).

[2] ‛Micrography, also termed “masorah figurata,” has been adopted as the name for a unique Jewish art that creates the outlines of miniature ornamentation in manuscripts of the Bible and adorns their margins … It is generally fashioned from Masoretic Texts, which are lexical texts that are designed to preserve the biblical text and its precision’. Dalia-Ruth Halperin, ‛Micrography’, Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception 18 (2020), p. 1179.

[3] Sara Offenberg, Up in Arms: Images of Knights and the Divine Chariot in Esoteric Ashkenazi Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2019); Joseph Shatzmiller, ‛Fromme Juden und christlich-höfische Ideale im Mittelalter’, Arye-Maimon-Vortrag an der Universität Trier, 7. November 2007 (Trier: Trier Universität, 2008), 9–29.

[4] I should note that sometimes in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts the iconography is reversed from left to right in a mirror view, so a certain known guard may be flipped in BnF, MS héb. 9.

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