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.

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