Fencing lessons and competitions are an urban phenomenon, documented as early as from the fifteenth century in Switzerland. Since these activities carried out potential risks for urban peace, early traces of attempts to regulate these activities by town authorities can be (sometimes) found in archives.
Fencing was a needed skill for citizens who had to carry out (potential) military duties for their town, but also to prove to their peers that they were trustworthy and able to fight and defend their community. Therefore, displays of martial skills, such as fencing competitions, were needed for the town inhabitants that were willing to show that they adhered to what Ann Tlusty coined as “martial ethic”. Different forms of regulation exist because such practices were usually not institutionalised before the second half of the sixteenth century or even later. However, town authorities developed different policies regarding fencing activities happening within their walls. For example, petitions of fencing masters willing to hold fencing schools can be found in town council minutes, as can expenses due to fencing activities sanctioned by the town council. But, for most of the cases, fencing activities were organised by local or pan-urban networks of fencing experts gathered in associations (corporations such as guilds or brotherhoods). For France, Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire, several of these corporations are known, and they received privileges from town authorities or even the highest princes such as the King or the Emperor. On a more local level, several cities edicted fencing ordinances, or delivered patents and certificates to fencing masters. Such is the case for the document presented here from the mid-sixteenth century in the county of Neuchâtel.
This document is actually a draft for the preparation of letters of a notary, full of erased words and lines, revisions on margins or in between lines, and with spaces left blank. Most of the original patents have not survived, since they were handed over to the individuals. This collection of drafts and copies of documents delivered by several notaries is dated to 1558, but the date of the fencing patent is 1546. It would have been signed by the notary, under the authority of the mayor of the small town of Les Verrières, located near the border of modern-day Switzerland and France.
The county of Neuchâtel was under the suzerainty of the Valois, and after that of the Habsburgs. Close to the Duchy of Burgundy through the Châlons with the Franche-Comté (Free-County) as a border, the county formed a network of ties through treaties of combourgeoisie with Swiss towns such as Fribourg (1209), Bern (1308) and Solothurn (1369). It only became part of the Swiss Confederation in 1814. The particular place where the fencing patent originated is les Verrières, a small town in the north eastern valley leading to the castle of Joux. The city was under the rule of the Counts of Neuchâtel. The mayor of the town was at the time Claude Lambelet (mentioned in the document). It must be noted that he was part of the same family as the certified master Nicolas Lambelet.
Nous […] establÿssons [Nÿcolas Lambelet le Jeusne des dites Verrieres de Neufchastel] maistre dudict jeulx de ladicte grande / espee; pour en jouer a pris et dehors pris / en tous lieux et par devant toutes gens de / quelque estatz ou quallitez qu’ilz soyent; et encontre / tous ceulx quilz luÿ plaira […]
Nicolas Lambelet is certified “master of the play of the great sword” (maistre dudict jeulx de la dicte grande espee). Fencing activities include several disciplines. The mastery of the different disciplines is carefully noted in such documents, here only with the two-handed sword. He can therefore “play with or without prize” (this specifies participating is fencing competitions) wherever he wants and in front of audiences of any status, against whoever he wants.
aÿanz le / serement aux dict jeulx de ladicte grande espee [added in margins: et aux ordonnances d’icelluÿ], et qu’ilz / ha desja [added in margins: par cÿ devant] estez passez en ses deffences par les maistres / du dict jeulx
It is mentioned that he pledged an oath and that he passed the final test against other masters, which is called “passing in defence” (passez en ses deffences). It consists of standardised fencing bouts where the applicant is evaluated. More interestingly, there is a mention added in margins about the “ordinances” in relation to the oath he pledged. Several fencing ordinances are known in France, the earliest in Mazan (1501). We do not know to which ordinances the document is referring to, but the closest known was the one of Dijon in 1520. If Neuchâtel edicted a fencing ordinance, there is not a single mention to it in documents surviving in archives. No fencing ordinances are known from this period in Swiss towns, but several documents and petitions of fencing masters offer sporadic details about legal and illegal fencing activities.
En luÿ baillant et concedissant par ces dictes presentes / toute puissance, auctorité et faculté de tenir escolle / et escolliers par dessoubz luÿ en tous lieux ou / il luÿ plaira, et de havoir et recepvoir tous escolliers / qui ledict jeulx vouldront apprendre et recorder, et / de faire et constituyr ung lieuteuant ou plusieurs / soit en escolle, pris ou jeulx, pour par le dict / ou lesdictz lieutenantz leurs aprendre ledict jeulx, comme / sÿ luÿ mesure le dict maistre ÿ estoit present, le tout / en la forme, mode et maniere quil se doit jouer / et que par cÿ devant du temps passez en ha estez jouez / et user [rajout en marge : et de passer escolliers en leurs deffences]
Lambelet received the right and authority to organise fencing competitions and deliver fencing lessons (faculté de tenir escolle et escollier par dessoubz luÿ). He can also name “lieutenants”, which is a rank like “provost”, also mentioned earlier in the document. This technical terminology is widespread and can also be found in fight books (such as the one on the cover image of the blog post, from the fight book of Henry de Sainct Didier published in 1573). It is also mentioned that he can do so (name a lieutenant) in different contexts, that is fencing school, prize fights, or competitions (escolle, pris ou jeulx).
A previous (partially erroneous and incomplete) transcription of this document has been published by Nicolas Piaget in 1922 in the local journal Musée Neuchâtelois (vol. 9, pp. 207-8) with a brief introductory comment. We would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing this reference; Anne-Caroline and Dominique LeCoultre who also have studied and reviewed the original document; and Jacob Deacon who participated in the new analysis of it.
 Ann B. Tlusty, B. Ann, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).
 For France and for information about neighbouring spaces see Olivier Dupuis, “Organization and Regulation of Fencing in the Realm of France in the Renaissance”, Acta Periodica Duellatorum (3), 2015, pp. 233-54.
 See Jaquet, Daniel, ‘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, 2015), pp. 243–58