Abuse of Arms and Trigger Words in a 16th Century Fechtschule

On the 23rd of July 1546, the city council of Solothurn received a special request from local furrier Hans Tägenscher. An avid fencer, Tägenscher petitioned to hold a so-called fächtschule, or Fechtschule, where he would teach the lobliche manßzucht [laudable masculine virtue] of fighting to those interested and willing to pay.[i] Such an event required the blessing of local authorities, who might fear for disorder. Getting this blessing then depended on Tägenscher’s ability to convince the council his school would be a trouble-free exercise in martial virtue.

            The survival of the Ordnunge des Fächtens halb [Ordinance for the benefit of fencing] in the Kanton Archives of Solothurn is a stroke of fortune. While sources related to Fechtschulen become more common from the sixteenth century onwards, documented viewpoints from their would-be-organisers are rare. Tägenscher indicated which techniques he was to teach, for what price, and at what intervals the schools were to be held.[ii] More than that, however, he listed punishments for a selection of bad behaviour. While ranging from the mundane to the curious, it is reasonable to assume that all these rules were included for good reason. Whether they targeted real risks of disorder or merely disarmed stigmas surrounding martial contests, the rules would have helped Tägenscher to put the council’s mind at ease. To find out how exactly, this post compares a few of his articles with other documents from Solothurn and a set of similar Fechtschulen-regulations from Augsburg. They reveal careful manoeuvres along the complex martial culture of a town like Solothurn, from simply dictating responsible weapons’ usage to preventing lethal conflict.

Fig.1: “Ordnunge des Fächtens halb” (photograph by the author).

First on Tägenscher’s list is a ban on swearing with God’s name (Gottes namen in zornes wyse), for which perpetrators would be fined one Fribourg shilling.[iii] Such a concern with keeping language civilised was not unique for this particular Fechtschule. The late fifteenth-century Fechter Ordnung from Augsburg, for example, mentions how inappropriate words (ungepürliche Reden) would be met with a stern warning from officials.[iv] Nor did Tägenscher’s rule stand isolated from council policies in Solothurn itself. Between 1525 and 1545, the town issued no less than nine ordinances featuring bans on swearing, often also targeting recreational activities such as drinking and games.[v]

Personal insults were granted their own special rule set apart from swearing, although the rule in question only covers one particular example. Those who denounced someone as a liar (den andern heiß liegen) were to pay a fine of one Fribourg shilling.[vi] Again, such a rule was not unique for Solothurn, as the Augsburg document also distinguishes between mere ungepürliche reden and insults. Attendees there were expressly forbidden from calling their fellows rogues (schelm), thieves (dieb) or using similar outrageous attacks (frvuenlichen antaschen).[vii] Failure to respect this rule would not be met with a warning, but would result in the immediate fine of one Rhenish guilder.

At first glance such bans seem oddly specific. The identical fines for both language-based offences in Solothurn raise the question why Tägenscher bothered to list them in two distinct articles. The drastically increasing severity shown to denunciations in Augsburg is equally remarkable. That these insults merited such serious attention was because they held a special significance in urban culture, however. They were fighting words. Being willing to shame an adversary as a rogue, a thief, or a liar was a standard element in early modern masculinity, as was the physical response that often followed.[viii]

Solothurn appears to have been no exception to this rule. The violent culture of shaming that lurked underneath Tägenscher’s regulations is revealed by an ordinance passed about a year before, on 13 October 1545. The council was concerned by the fights and strife (stoß und span) caused by people using force to seek satisfaction for insults (mitt der hande […] vil rechtens zehaben).[ix] This could escalate fast, and slander is mentioned as causing major injury and even cases of manslaughter (zu zytten groß schaden unnd todtschlage vollgen mogen).[x]

While Solothurn had already reconfirmed its law on breaching the peace (Trostungsbruch) in 1491, the city council considered a new law to be necessary.[xi] The old law punished a breach of the peace through a system of progressive fines, depending on whether the incident involved mere words, fists and blades, bloodshed, or manslaughter. The specific insults listed in 1545 were deemed so shameful, however, that the council understood people could turn to violence to satisfy their honour.[xii] As a result, the council would always hold the insulting party liable for the incident whenever such words were used.

Such a rule has also been presented for other German towns. Its justification was that a breach of honour effectively constituted an attack on one’s person, making any response justifiable as self-defence.[xiii] It is telling that the one insult Tägenscher explicitly forbids (den andern heiß liegen) was also first on the list in the ordinance of 1545 (den andern fräffenlich heist liegen). Maybe calling someone a liar was indeed the most common form of sedition in sixteenth-century Solothurn, necessitating a special treatment. Maybe Tägenscher merely used its perceived prominence to represent insults in general. Whatever the case, it was a rule with which he accounted for the potentially volatile combination of aggressive masculine values and weapons’ practice.

Both the regulations that policed language in the Fechtschule therefore seem to represent something more than just a punishment for using certain words. They represent a careful dissociation from the troublesome discourses surrounding pastimes and martial identity in the sixteenth century. Play in general was the subject of recurring legislation, mainly aimed against its blasphemous character. Fechtschulen were not exempt from this suspicion towards recreational gatherings of men, with a sixteenth century Luzern ordinance only allowing them if they involved no form of play whatsoever.[xiv] Moreover, the martial cultures that merited the existence of a Fechtschule also constituted a risk, as men were expected to not only defend their city but their own honour as well.[xv] Rules policing language must then have helped Tägenscher to present his Fechtschule as a serious martial event, rather than a potential source of unrest.

Regulations covering weapons-discipline would also have contributed to such an image. Tägenscher forbade the throwing down or otherwise improper placement of a weapon (gwer), with offenders having to pay the common fine of one shilling. A rule against throwing weapons also features in the 1555 ordinance for the shooting guild in Solothurn.[xvi] While they thus seem related, bans on carelessly throwing and misplacing missile weapons in German towns commonly resulted from a fear for accidental shootings.[xvii] The melee weapons used in the Fechtschule were obviously free from such concerns, and the rule also fails to account for more obvious causes for injuries, such as careless swings. Punishing the abuse of arms in the Fechtschule may then not have been out of concerns for the safety of participants, but rather for the well-being of the equipment itself.

Whether participants were required to bring this equipment themselves or whether it would be supplied by the town is impossible to say for certain. Like any autonomous Swiss or German town, Solothurn expected its citizens to be armed and ready. At the same time, it is unlikely that the weapons mentioned in the numerous Harnischschau-inspections were intended for use in Fechtschulen, for which specialised training swords were used from the late fifteenth century onwards.[xviii] Moreover, references to collective stores of training weapons have been found for other towns, with Strasbourg supplying swords and staves to a fencing tournament in 1470 for example.[xix] In a similar fashion, the Fechtschulen in Augsburg were organised by the local fencing fraternity that possessed its own arms collection for that purpose. The text describing this initially even referred to the town, yet this was struck through later.[xx] As such, it is not impossible altogether that the weapons for the Solothurn Fechtschule were to be supplied by the town’s armoury. The necessity of bringing the equipment back in one piece would then explain Tägenscher’s concern with careful handling.

            The second arms-related rule by Tägenscher seems very vague at first sight. It instructs participants who stopped using a ‘weapon’ (gwer) to let the others be, at least until Tägenscher had finished teaching, after which they could begin with another one.[xxi] Elsewhere, the term gwer refers to weapons in general, individual objects that should be treated with care. This cannot be the case here, however, as it does not explain the sudden difference between one weapon and the others. The term gwer could also be used to describe types of arms and martial disciplines, however. In Augsburg, prospective organizers of Fechtschulen were required to pass a test in at least three disciplines (wöhren); stave, sword and dussack, to demonstrate their merit.[xxii] The same document also uses wöhr to describe ‘any weapon’, with raising or lowering one being the ritual marker for the beginning and end of a match or lesson.[xxiii]

If we accept that the term gwer had a similar dual meaning for Tägenscher, the second arms-related rule starts making sense. If the Fechtschule in Solothurn was to cover multiple arms disciplines, it would have made sense for Tägenscher to emphasise how pupils would only use those weapons pertaining to the lesson taught at a particular point in time. Taken together, both rules on weapons usage then also contributed to representing the Fechtschule as a disciplined martial event, where (the town’s?) equipment would be handled with care and not without proper supervision.

            It is well established that the martial cultures of late medieval and early modern towns possessed many facets that would not always align and would sometimes even clash. What is interesting to see is how competing elements were effectively woven into a small sixteenth century petition. Hidden within vague or odd regulations is a complex martial discourse, revealing the ideals, biases and logistical challenges surrounding a Fechtschule. To uncover more would require careful comparison of other ordinances with related source material on Fechtschulen. This could then trigger a greater understanding of these complex events that combined self-defence, civic duty and recreational fun.


This research was carried out as part of an overarching project on Tägenscher’s Ordnunge des Fächtens halb, involving Dr. Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern), Maciej Talaga (University of Warsaw), and Miente Pietersma (University of Bern – University of Groningen). More results will be published in upcoming scientific events, including a special panel in the 2021 (postponed to 2022) ‘Martial Arts, Tradition and Globalisation’ Conference in Lausanne. The project relates to a planned exhibition on the late medieval martial culture of Solothurn in the latter’s Old Arsenal Museum (Museum altes Zeughaus), an exhibition organised by the Martial Culture in Medieval Towns Research Project at the University of Bern.

[i] “Ordnunge des Fächtens halb,” 23 July 1546, Mandatenbuch 1, pp. 358-359, l. 31. Staatsarchiv Kanton Solothurn. See also the text’s edition in Charles Studer, Rechtsquellen des Kantons Solothurn, Zweiter Band, Mandate, Verordnungen, Satzungen des Standes Solothurn von 1435 bis 1604 (Aarau: Verlag Sauerländer Aarau, 1987), pp. 332-333.

[ii] On these elements see Daniel Jaquet, “Fencing and shooting in the city of the Solothurn during the 15th and 16th century. A closer look into regulations for martial contest.” In Urban Contests of Renaissance Europe, eds. Christian Jaser, Jean-Dominique Delle Luche and Daniel Jaquet. Turnhout: Brepols (forthcoming).

[iii] “Ordnunge,” l. 19-20.

[iv] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” 16th century, Cod.I.6.2º.5, fol. 4v, l. 3-4. Oettingen-Wallersteinische Bibliothek, Universitätsbibliothek Augsburg.

[v] See Mandates numbered 101, 105, 130, 140, 163, 181, 204, 224, and 236 in Stuber.

[vi] “Ordnunge,” l. 23.

[vii] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 4r, l. 25-29.

[viii] B.A. Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany, Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 103.

[ix] Studer, p. 324.

[x] Idem.

[xi] Studer, p. 86-87.

[xii] [5] Aber wär sonst siner eren geschollten würde, der sol darum dhein gwalltige hande bruchen, sonders das rechte zü rettunge derselben siner siner eeren suchen und fürnämmen […] [7]Wan aber einer dem andern flüchtett, mit was flüchen oder schwüren das sin wurde, unnd der annder darüber schlüge, sol dasselb je nach ungeschicklickeytt unnd gestallte der schwüren gehallten und gestrafft werden. Studer, p. 325.

[xiii] Tlusty, p. 66.

[xiv] Walter Schaufelberger, Der Wettkampf in der Alten Eidgenossenschaft: Zur Kulturgeschichte des Sports vom 13. Bis ins 18. Jahrhundert (Bern: Paul Haupt Verlag, 1972), 143.

[xv] Tlusty, p. 63.

[xvi] Stuber, pp. 364-365.

[xvii] Tlusty, p. 80.

[xviii] Mandates numbered 143, 196, 198, 221 and 230 respectively in Stuber.

[xix] Tlusty, p. 214; Olivier Dupuis, “A fifteenth-century fencing tournament in Strasburg,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 10 (2015): p. 72.

[xx] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 5v, l. 5-18.

[xxi] Und so einer in einem gwer vffhörtt, sol er die andern ligen lassen, biß er vßgelertt hatt, alls dann mag er in einem andern wol anfachen. “Ordnunge,” l. 27-28.

[xxii] “Augsburger Fechter Ordnung,” fol. 2r, l. 24-28.

[xxiii] Idem, fol. 3v, l. 15-30.

York: Capital of the North, stronghold against the Scots and Richard III’s retinue

Capital of the North

When we think about the North of England, in contrast with the south, most of us imagine beautiful landscapes, the stunning countryside, industrial cities, and regional accents. However, the vast English North is far more complex and intricate than that. It is filled with culture, political disputes, intrigue, and a spirit of community attached to displays of loyalty for its people. Moreover, it was even more so during the late Middle Ages, which is the focus of this article. The great cities of the North were the centre of the social, political and economic life of the region, and none more so than York. Made prosperous by its production of wool, trade and pilgrimage[1], York and the county of Yorkshire were at the very centre of Richard III’s government and support in the North.

Figure 1: The most famous and fayre Citie Yorke described, John Speed, 1610.
© University of Cambridge Digital Library

            The city of York, a stronghold in the North surrounded by a 4km wall[2], whose foundation was built by the Romans around the 71 A.D. and reinforced from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries with limestone to defend the city, with the addition of four gatehouses or “bars”, as well as three-metre deep ditches surrounding the wall itself. The gates controlled the influx of people, the taxation of goods and tolls, as well as serving as defensive positions in times of war and conflicts, such as was the case in the Wars of the Roses. Like many European cities of the medieval period and more than fifty English ones, the fortress-like construction serves as both a protection and a prison.

            The Micklegate Bar, the most important gateway in the city during the Middle Ages, served as both a commemorative display for kings — since it was traditional for the ruling monarch to enter the city through it — and a warning to rebels and traitors. Their heads were put on pikes and displayed above the gate. Such were the case of Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy and Richard III’s own father, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. Not to mention, York being the centre of the county and one of the military powers of the North was one of the defense line against the Scots. As pointed out by Palliser, “York’s geographical position continued to give it military significance during the intermittent Scottish Wars”.[3]

Figure 2: The southern entrance to York, Micklegate Bar. Photograph taken on 11 April 2006.

Richard III and the City

During the same conflict that killed his father in 1460, the then nine-year-old Richard, who was made Duke of Gloucester in 1461 when his brother Edward ascended the throne as Edward IV, rose to greatness a decade later. Between 1471 and 1483 due to his military prowess against the Scots, his political mind and intellect — chiefly in his administration of the northern territory where he spearheaded the Council of the North as Lord President and de facto Lord of the North — Richard commanded power and authority that no other nobleman in England possessed. His relationship with the city is well documented in the York Civic Records. Volumes of books dedicated to the record of Council meeting, transactions, letters, appointments and events. And in it, precious accounts of Richard’s character and allegiance. As stated by the editor of the first volume, Revered Angelo Raine,

To retain the good will of the City of York was of importance to the rulers of England. Richard III was able to do this, not merely because he was a strong character and a clever man, but also because of his knowledge of the North.[4]

            It was his knowledge of the North, having lived there for most of his life and being a Yorkshireman both in name[5] and birth, Richard was schooled by none other than the Kingmaker himself — the Earl of Warwick — on how to handle and retain the people and the councilmen’s trust and loyalty. That is reflected on the respect the city bestowed upon him as well as the way they remained loyal to him after his death in 1485. In 1480, in one of the Scottish Expeditions, Richard sent a letter to the Councilmen of the city requesting[6] that men of the York be called to arms to aid him against the Scots. In another letter, a month after the battle, Edward IV congratulates the city for its collaboration during the conflict, based on a report given by the Duke of Gloucester. A few years later, once again, the city’s men were called to arms against the Scots and once again, Richard sent a letter on 14 May 1482 thanking the Councilmen for “bearing the change of 80 able men well arrayed and horsed.”[7]

            Therefore, it seems that the Duke’s power and knowledge of the North earned him the respect and obedience of the Councilmen of York as well as some of its citizens. For as Raine also notes on his introduction, “ there is evidence to show that a considerable section distrusted Richard”.[8] Nevertheless, in April 1483 when his brother died and a power vacuum was installed, and during those troubled time, Richard in his capacity as both Duke of Gloucester and the Lord Protector of the Realm, requested the Councilmen for “ as many men as you can make, defensibly arrayed”[9] to come to London in order to aid him against the Queenmother — Elizabeth Woodville — and her family. It was no surprise when the Council readily replied not only in paper, but also in action: two hundred horsemen, properly armed for combat if necessary, joined other northern troops and together marched to London, where they remained for Richard’s accession to kingship and coronation. 

            However, during the event of the Battle of Bosworth, the eighty men who were dispatched to aid Richard against Henry Tudor never made it to the battlefield. It is never explained in the civic records why that happened. To this, Paul Murray Kendall[10] states that the delay was caused by a plague[11] that was prevalent in the City. Nevertheless, the city mourned its king and benefactor — at least on the councilmen’s part — when news of his death reached York on the 23rd of August 1485. So much that even Edward Hall[12], Tudor historian and writer, noted how loved and esteemed Richard had been by the men of the North.

Referenced Bibliography:
Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, Containing the History of England During the Reign of Henry IV and the Succeeding Monarchs to the End of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. by Sir Henry Ellis (London: , 1809).

P.M. Kendall, Richard III (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955).

John M. Theilmann, ‘Sweating Sickness’, in Encyclopedia of pestilence, pandemics and plagues, ed. by Joseph P. Byrne (London: Greenwood Press, 2008).

A History of the County of York: The City of York, ed. by P. M. Tillott (London: Victoria County History, 1961), in , <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york> [accessed 7 February 2021].

‘The West Ridinge of Yorkeshyre with The most famous and fayre Citie Yorke described. 1610’, in The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine presenting an exact geography of the kingdomes of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the iles adioyning: with the shires, hundreds, cities and shire-townes, within ye kingdome of England, divided and described by Iohn Speed.by John Speed,  (London, 1611.). <http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-ATLAS-00002-00061-00001/66> [accessed 7 February 2021].

The Southern Entrance to York, Micklegate Bar, by Darren Wortley, 2006.<https:

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Micklegate_Bar.jpg> [ accessed in 7 February 2021].

York Civic Record Volume I, ed. by Angelo Raine (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co., 1939).

[1]‘The later middle ages: Communications, markets and merchants’. In: P. M Tillot (Ed.) A History of the County of York: the City of York. London,Victoria County History, (1961), 97-106. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp97-106 [accessed 2 February 2021].

[2] What currently remains of the medieval limestone masonry.

[3] D.M. Palliser. “Medieval York. 600-1540.”, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 244.

[4] Angelo Raine, York Civic Records, Vol I. (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co. Limited, 1939), p. vi.

[5] Alluding to the House of York’s heritage through the title of Richard’s father, Duke of York.

[6] Angelo Raine, York Civic Records, Vol I. (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co. Limited, 1939), p. 34-35.

[7] Ibid, p. 55.

[8] Ibid, p. vii.

[9] Ibid, p. 73.

[10] P.M. Kendall, “Richard III”, London, Allen & Unwin, 1955, p. 347-349.

[11] Sweating Sickness as reported by John M. Theilmann, ‘Sweating Sickness’, in Joseph P. Byrne (ed.)

“Encyclopedia of pestilence, pandemics and plagues”, London, Greenwood Press, 2008, p. 686.

[12] Edward Hall, “ Hall’s Chronicle, Containing the History of England During the Reign of Henry IV and the Succeeding Monarchs to the End of the Reign of Henry VIII”, London, 1809, p. 426.

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