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)

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.

Book review – Miriam Vogelaar, The Mokken Collection: Books and manuscripts on fencing before 1800

(MMIT Publishing, 2020) 208 pp. Price: € 75
ISBN: 978-94-93166-19-6

The book is a laborious and significant contribution to the history of fencing, martial arts and European martial culture. The focus of the book is the fight book collection of Wiebe Mokken, honorary member and former chairman of the Royal Dutch Fencing Association (KNAS). The collection, as presented in this publication, is undoubtedly one of the most important of its kind. Previous catalogues and bibliographical works on fencing, namely by Jacopo Gelli (1895) and Carl Thimm (1896) were published more than a century ago; therefore, Vogelaar’s contribution to this field of study is a welcomed modern scientific update. The author makes one of the largest collections of its kind accessible to the public in the form of a comprehensive lavish catalogue. The book allows a glimpse into a unique treasure that highlights the wealth and depth of material regarding martial culture. By exploring fight books, tangible records of intangible martial traditions, the reader is immersed in the information that these unique objects provide regarding martial cultures, particularly in social-civic environments and not from the usually discussed military perspective.

The structure of the book is straightforward. Wiebe Mokken has provided an emotional preface in English and French, which allows some insight to the psyche of a passionate collector and fencing aficionado. Remarks on the catalogue entries by the author act as a key, an explanation and a de facto clarification on the systematic cataloguing and presentation that follows. The entries, that construct the vast majority of the publication, are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the author. Each entry includes exhaustive technical details on the discussed publication, followed by analytical comments deriving from research on the author or the publication. Finally, bibliographical notes and references to the works used for the bulk of the text are displayed on the end of each entry. One of the most invaluable and unique characteristics of this publication are Vogelaar’s comments in each entry regarding technical observations on the discussed entry as an object such as restoration, watermarks, stains. These additions separate this publication from every else of its kind and highlights the importance of considering the insights of a book expert. After the entries, a supplementary timeline of the books discussed helps contextualize them by placing them in chronological order with a visual snippet of each entry. Besides the aforementioned contextualization, this assists in the instantaneous observation of the changing and fluctuating visual trends of the genre. The publication is completed with a bibliography and with an index of authors, editors and compilers. 

The book comes in a large format (27×21), which certainly benefits a publication that relies on the reader observing detailed images. The hardback format and the linen bound spine facilitate reading the book in full spread without the fear of damaging it. All images are presented in full colour and excellent quality. Two reading ribbons further add to the premium presentation. The technical characteristics of the book complement the content and overall make for an impressive publication.

Perhaps the most notable drawback of the book is its bibliography, which is primarily focused on publications regarding other catalogues and bibliographies. Some modern scholarship on the literary genre of fight books is also included. Whereas the first type of publication is exhaustively included in this part, research on fight books is only fragmentarily represented. This is largely due to the lack of the contextual discussion of the presented publications and because each entry focuses solely on a very strict discussion on each object. An expanded recommended bibliography for further research would benefit readers and would link this catalogue to the current scholarship on the subject of fight books. The publication would also benefit from supporting essays on fight books and their evolving social contexts that created the necessity for their production. Of course, each bibliographical entry is accompanied by the aforementioned dedicated description and discussion, but besides the beautiful and sentimental preface by Wiebe Mokken, there is not body of text that discusses the overall cultural or historical context of the genre. This context is also absent in the book timeline, which presents in chronological order only the material from the collection. However, this is more of a wish from a scholarly perspective rather than a criticism regarding quality, and the exclusion of such essays does not diminish the value of the work as a catalogue. Both of the aforementioned issues stem from the nature of the book as a specialized publication focusing on a single specific and incredibly rich trove of books and manuscripts.

These minor critiques aside, Vogelaar’s book on the Mokken Collection is arguably the best reference work on the subject of the history of fight books. It is a great tool for the book and martial arts scholar, providing quick access to precise bibliographical information and concentrated key details for each entry. Furthermore, it can be a remarkable stimulus for professionals from adjacent disciplines and subjects, as well as for fencing enthusiasts in order to understand better the history of European martial arts and the bibliographical context and wealth of source material available. Vogelaar’s book can ignite interest on the subject for students in an academic context as well as for those practicing in the fencing hall, and it will most certainly assist future librarians and professionals working in the art industry. It is a comprehensive and informative catalogue of the highest quality in both content and production, and it elucidates the cultural production of recorded European martial arts for over three centuries.

Valour and Art: The two facets of the technique of the pike

Pike, the most noble staff weapon

The works comprising the historical genre of pragmatic literature for disseminating fighting technique are now generally known as fight books.[1] Similar content may be found in tournament books and more general works on military matters. Late medieval and early modern fight book literature generally deals with single combat, whether playful (schimpf) or serious (ernst), and not the activities of combatants on the battlefield. The weapons depicted, however, are not exclusively sporting or duelling weapons, which is most apparent in the case of the pike.

The pike, or the long infantry spear, was the main weapon of European armies from the late medieval period onwards. This was a period marked by changes taking place in the battlefield, as the dominance of heavy cavalry was superceded by infantry armed with staff weapons.[2] The earliest pikes were slightly over three metres (ca. ten feet), later averaging at four to four-and-a-half metres (13–15 feet). Pikes were used in co-ordination with firearms until they were superceded by the bayonet in the early eighteenth century. Single combat with pikes was featured in fencing competitions and fighting at the barriers; generally, pikes would be found in early modern German households for military and guard duties.[3]

This article discusses the contrasts in the use of the pike in the military and non-military domains, drawing from fight book literature. The designation “pike” will be used in the general sense to refer to “long” spears used on foot. This choice perhaps requires some justification.

By any other name

Identifying weapons in historical sources has its share of challenges. Whereas illustrations may be satisfactory in depicting weapon types attested in material finds, the words used in written sources may be more difficult to connect to their intended referents, since the words are not necessarily used in their modern antiquarian senses. For example, the Latin words pilum, gladius, and scutum are now usually used to refer to specific types of Roman javelins, oblong shields, and short swords, but in the late medieval Royal Armouries manuscript I.33 scutum is used of the buckler (a small round shield) and gladius of the archetypical one-handed medieval sword.

Similar considerations apply to the concept and designation of “pike”. One of the earliest attestations of the English word, in the plural form picas, can be found in the eleventh-century Old English marginalia of BL, Add MS 32246, where it is used to gloss the Latin word dolones, defined in the text as gladii in baculis positi qui in manu geruntur [‘swords put on shafts, which are used in hand’] .[4] According to Servius’ commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid (7.664), the Latin word pilum covers both the Roman military javelin and the Macedonian sarissa, the equivalent of the pike in antiquity, but he also relates Varro’s view of dolo being an ingens contus cum ferro brevissimo [‘a huge spear with a short tip’]. It is, however, difficult to say what exactly the English glossator has had in mind.

As for fight book sources, in his fifteenh-century manuscript book, Paulus Kal depicts the use of a moderately sized lance on horseback and on foot, referring to it as both spere (5v) and spies (8v, 10v, 11v), ostensibly using the qualified expressions “half-spear” (halber spies) and “long spear” (langer spies) in the sense of two-handed or one-handed couched grip, respectively (7v–8r).[5]

Curiously, Kal refers to (apparently) the same weapon on foot, held with two hands, as lannger spieß (20r). Later this term is reserved for the distinctly longer type of spear, the length being a decisive factor when considering its practicality for different uses. The soldiers in a pike formation do not engage individual duels in an open space, and the focus of training is in manoeuvring as a formation, accomplished through drill.

Drill and technique

The unquestionable classic of military pike drill is the corpus of illustrations by Jacob de Gheyn, first published in Dutch in The Hague in 1607. [6]This drill manual, however, only deals with movements up to and including ‘charging’ the pike against infantry or cavalry. The details of using it for offence and defence are not addressed.

As expected, the relevant entries in Thimm’s bibliography (1896) start with Jacob de Gheyn, covering derivative and other similar works.[7] Francesco Alfieri (1641) also deals with drill, but the pike plays of Johann Georg Pascha (1657, 1673; fig. 1) and Antonio Vezzani (1688) are more akin to dancing than combat.[8]

Fight book authors not mentioned by Thimm in this context, who nevertheless discuss the pike in their printed books, are Pietro Monte (1509), Achille Marozzo (1536), Joachim Meyer (1570), and Giacomo di Grassi (1570).[9] George Silver delves into technique in detail only in his manuscript Brief instructions.[10] Paul Hector Mair, whose encyclopedic work is preserved in three two-volume manuscript books, incorporates twelve Stend or ‘stances’ for the pike. These sources elucidate technique for single combat in the urban environment of a Fechtschule (fencing school) and, to some extent, for combat.

Francesco Fernando Alfieri, La Picca (Padova: Sebastiano Sardi, 1641), Plate 9.

“Nel giuoco, e nella guerra”

The most salient quality of the pike, which is also brought up by military authors, is its length. Cesare d’Evoli notes from the outset that pikes should be at least fifteen feet long, the longer the better.[11] Monte, too, suggests longer pikes against those of the Germans.[12] It has been said that a pike could only be used for short forward thrusts, which is true to some extent of the longest kinds, if wielded from near the butt.[13] Excessive length, of course, will make the weapon less manoeuvrable, but this is of little consequence in a dense pike formation.

Di Grassi explicitly notes that he is not discussing using the pike for war, therefore treating its various urban martial uses. Accordingly, for ease of handling, he suggests gripping it at an arm’s length from the butt. Both Mair and Meyer depict the rear hand gripping the butt of the pike, but the pikes in the illustrations seem to be no more than three meters (ten feet) long.

A shorter pike would certainly accommodate the technically and physically demanding one-handed grip first mentioned by Monte.[14] Meyer details the use of the tail of the pike for parrying, followed by swinging the tip up for a riposte, all done with the right hand alone. In addition, his very first technical example employs a one-handed thrust, shown in an illustration not referred to in the text, also mentioned by Monte. Meyer’s one-handed recovery from losing control of one’s pike seems to be connected to this thrust.

In combat, the pike may be ‘charged’ against infantry or cavalry. Meyer refers to the former position as a variation of the middle or straight guard: in this ‘field guard’ (feldhut) the butt of the pike is pulled further back than the flank, perhaps to accommodate the length of the military pike. Paulus Hector Mair seems to refer to a similar position as a ‘free stance’ (freystand): this appellation might stem from the rough military stance not being dictated by the precepts of art. Di Grassi notes that two opposing straight guards will only result in mutual impalement.[15]

Despite the differences, the motoric basis of the more ludic pike play can be traced to the simple and straight-forward military technique. The turns and grip-changes of Meyer’s einlaufen (‘running in’) are similar to charging the pike backwards from the shouldered position, and even exercising one’s skill in one-handed play can be derived from picking up the pike from the ground. Added pompa and leggiadria would only have meaning if there was an audience to appreciate ‘pomp’ and ‘elegance’, be it fellow guildsmen or just curious townsfolk watching a competition.

Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme (Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1570), p. 112.

Concluding notes

A distinctly military weapon like the pike finding its way to the relatively peaceful context of urban pike play is perhaps not unlike the development of the tournament into harmless pageantry of the nobility. At the same time when the significance of cavalry charging with couched lances diminished, the military significance and practice with the pike coexisted with the development of a more playful culture of its use.

City-dwellers are known to have made better infantry men than their more rustic counterparts due to their communal cohesion, first noticeable in northern Italy in the twelfth century.[16] Interestingly, some traces of a distinctly urban identity may be seen in Italian fifteenth-century fight books of Fiore dei Liberi and Filippo Vadi, who wish that their teachings should not fall in the hands of the rurales or homini rusticali.[17]

The fight book authors active in the era of the pike were well aware of the distinction between war and play. The topic is addressed by Alfieri , and before him, Meyer spares a few words to discuss pike technique for the battlefield.[18] Here the repertoire is distinctly less complex, employing only beating the opponents pike to the side and going around it. Meyer notes that a pikeman must not only be strong, but also besonnen and use his pike fürsichtlich .[19] This emphasis on ‘caution’ echoes Di Grassi’s giuditio, and may be read as an advertisement of the military benefits of his instruction: to wield a pike, one needs caution to complement strength and valour, caution being something fencing masters have to offer through their art. Considering the technical repertoire of the bayonet systems employed by the military later on, including the one-handed Fangstoß (‘throw point’), this attitude seems to have gained some ground.

[1] For a thorough introduction to the topic, see Frank Fürbeth, ‘Fechtbücher.’ In Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon: Das Mittelalter, vol. 6, ed. by Wolfgang Achnitz (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 648–653; Sergio Boffa,  Les manuels de combat (Fechtbücher et Ringbücher). Typologie des sources de Moyen Âge occidental 87. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), pp23-36; Daniel Jaquet, Combattre au Moyen Age: une histoire des arts martiaux en Occident, XIVe-XVIe. (Paris: Arkhê, 2017), pp. 55-100.

[2] J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Second revised edition, translated by Sumner Willard & R. W. Southern. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997), pp. 111-12, pp. 182-90.

[3] Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 169; Ann B. Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the RIght of Arms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 214, pp.135-8.

[4] London, BL, Add MS 32246, fol. 12v.

[5] Munich, BSB, cgm 1507.

[6] Jacob de Gheyn, Wapenhandelinghe von Roers Musquetten ende Spiessen (The Hague: Robert de Baudouz, 1607).

[7] Carl Thimm, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling (London: Bodley Head, 1896).

[8] Francesco Fernando Alfieri, La Picca (Padova: Sebastiano Sardi, 1641); Johann Georg Pascha, Kurze Unterrichtung belangend die Pique, die Fahne, den Jägerstock, das Voltesiren, das Ringen, das Fechten auf den Stoß und Hieb, und endlich das Trincieren verferrtigts. (Wittenberg: Melchior Oelschlegels, 1657, repr. 1659); Johann Georg Pascha, Deutliche Beschreibung Unterschiedener Fahnen-Lectionen In Acht Spiel eingetheilet, Nebst dem Piquen-Spiel, Pertuisan und halben Piquen/ oder Jägerstock (Hall in Sachsen: Melchior Oelschlegel, 1673); Antonio Vezzani, Esercizio accademico de picca. (Parma: Stamperia Ducale, 1688).

[9] Pietro Monte, Exercitiorum, atque artis militaris collectanea (Milan: Giovani Angelo Scinzenzler, 1509); Achille Marozzo, Opera nova (Modena: D. Antonio Bergola, 1536); Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der freyen Ritterlichen unnd Adelichen kunst des Fechtens (Strasbourg: Thiebolt Berger, 1570); Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme (Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1570).

[10] George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence (London: Edward Blount, 1599); Cyril G. R. Matthey ed., The Works of George Silver (London: George Bell, 1898), pp. 124-27.

[11] Cesare d’Evoli, Delle ordinanze et battaglie (Rome: Tito & Paulo Diani, 1586), p. 1.

[12] Monte, G8r.

[13] John Waldman, Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons Between 1200 and 1650 (Boston: Brill, 2005), p. 7.

[14] Monte, D1v.

[15] di Grassi, p. 116.

[16] Verbruggen, pp. 144-63.

[17] Francesco Novati,  Il Fior di Battaglia di maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco. (Bergamo: Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1902), p. 194; Carlo Bascetta,, 1978. Sport e giuochi: trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo (Milan: Edizioni il Polifilo, 1978), p. 152.

[18] Alfieri, pp. 11-13.

[19] Meyer, 3.66v.

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