When Fencers and Wrestlers were the Children of the Sun


A quick investigation of fifteenth century fight books shows in certain books a potpourri of subjects mixing fencing, alchemy, astrology and onomancy. Without pretending to be comprehensive, at least four German manuscripts include this mix of subjects. For example, the manuscript ms 3227a de Nuremberg [M14] contains intercalated passages on magic, alchemy, fencing and a treatise on medicine.[1] The manuscript from Talhoffer composed in 1448 [M13] integrates at its end a text of onomancy aiming to choose the appropriate day of the fight according to the name of one’s opponent in order to facilitate a victorious outcome. The manuscript of the Erlangen-Nuremberg university library also contains pages dealing with astrology and probably with onomancy.[2]  Finally, the manuscript Thott.290.2º from Copenhagen is composed of a military section, an illustrated fencing section and finally an astrological treatise.[3] This is not specific to German language document since the first sheets of the English manuscript MS Harley 3542 of the British Library [M16] also consist of an alchemical treatise before a few pages dedicated to fencing.

Looking more closely at folio 280v from [M11], it contains a small medallion located under a large crowned knight personifying the sun. In this medallion are two wrestlers and a stone thrower in front of an audience. A handwritten note accompanies this medallion: “Also thun der Sonnen kindt”, “so do the children of the sun”.

Children of the Sun in their medallion, M11, fol. 280v.

Children of the planets

The theme of the children of the planets is established during the Middle Ages around an older substrate, deriving from Antiquity and Arab scholars. This theme really belongs in the realm of astrology, the planets in question are the stellar bodies visible to the naked eye (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the moon) which come to influence beings depending on the time of their birth, in association with the calendar (zodiac calendar, date in the week etc). This influence can vary from affecting physical characteristic (big feet, pale complexion), to temperament (angry, melancholic) and to the affinity for particular trades or activities. An important feature of this theme is the common association of text and images, but also a fluctuation in the symbolism attached to each of these planets.

Among these fluctuations, a particular tradition associates the Children of the Sun with wrestling and throwing stones. It seems to settle in the first third of the 15th century, when a poem in German associated each sphere with a fairly precise and consistent symbolism. The poem was modified from one document to another, but was essentially supplemented or shortened rather than distorted. In the same way the associated illustrations maintain a great coherence in the symbolism and the depicted activities from one source to another. However, no specific name is attached to this tradition, which nevertheless clearly stands out within the broad theme of the Children of the Planets.[4]

If we dwell on the representations of the Children of the Sun in the manuscripts and incunabula of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is particularly astonishing to note the frequent representation of wrestlers, stone throwers, and to a lesser extent acrobats and fencers.[5] In this context, the relationship between these activities and the sun is not obvious, at least for the use of weapons for which one would have expected to associate it with planet Mars. However, this is not the case, but the case of the Children of Mars will be discussed later.

This representation seems to be a direct illustration of the associated poem; the children of the sun would naturally be noble, happy and beautiful (“geluglich edeln und feyn”), pious (“vor mytterntag sie dynert gote vil”) but also would devote themselves to the throwing of stone, fencing and wrestling (“Dornoch sie leben wy man wil / Steynstoßen schyrmen ringen”).[6]

These activities were popular body exercises in Germanic spaces, at least if we associate them to finds from literary traditions.[7] When, for example, Hans Waldmann’s brother won prizes in crossbow shooting, wrestling and stone throwing, tests supposed to have taken place in Strasbourg around 1460, there is reason to doubt the reality of this episode, or in any case to see it as the manifestation of exceptional physical aptitudes, in what resembles initiation tests.[8]  Some texts complete this list of activities with acrobatics and strength exercises (“Der sunnen lewt sint springer starcklewt, stainwerffer ringer”).[9]  In any case, the expression “sie leben wy man wil” should be understood as an opposition to labour, to work.

UB Heidelberg Cod.Pal.Germ.438 fol. 150r [M2], fol. 150r, vers 1445, (CC-BY-SA).
UB Heidelberg Cod.Pal.Germ.832 fol. 100 [M10] fol. 100r. In the right it is possible to see the poem mentioning “Stainstossen schirmen ringen” without these activities being represented (CC-BY-SA).
[M6] Engraving by Baccio Baldini from 1460, which takes up the symbolism of the German tradition in two series of engravings from 1460 and 1465, Source: gallica.bnf.fr.

The illustrations therefore echo these passages from the poem, representing the Children of the Sun in their natural activities, alongside a personification of the sun, either in the same illustration or in two separate illustrations. The sun is personified by a man wearing a tiara or a crown, often holding a sceptre and a book, standing or sitting in a cart, and associated with a lion, this one recalling the sign of the zodiac with which the sun is associated. In the section concerning the Children of the Sun, there is often a seated crown prince or king who seems to be witnessing various lively and peaceful games. Physical activities seem to be a reminder of the training of nobility, but also the expression of activities to develop beautiful bodies. Close to the crowned prince musicians can often be found, including generally a harpist, as well as people praying in front of an altar, stone throwers, wrestlers, fencers and acrobats.[10]  It is interesting and curious that several illustrations include a stick carrier appearing to want to use his stick to jump with it but rarely to throw it. Some illustrations also represent crossbowmen or javelin throwers without ever appearing in the texts. Notably, the people represented are almost always men, with only one exception in all documents consulted.

From one illustration to another, not all of these activities are always represented. The table below presents a small inventory of occurrences of the common lineaments from 12 manuscripts or incunabula consulted relating to this cycle.

Legend: X presence of the pattern, X+ wrestlers having weapon on the ground, P presence of the poem, P- only a partial version, P+ poem extended with the mention of acrobats.

These representations of fencers and wrestlers as stereotypes of the children of the sun is a strong symbol, and obviously quite widespread in Germany. Its repetition in different media (illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, engravings) over more than a century shows an undeniable permanence and reception by the society of the time. They symbolize bodies in movement in what they are beautiful and pleasant, and this certainly for some time: it is thus possible to locate in the Manessische Liederhandschrit, an illuminated manuscript from the early fourteenth century,  two representations of swordsmen with sword and buckler and a stone thrower, alongside other activities of the court (music, hunting, tournament), showing the proper integration of these practices with those of courtly activities, at least on a representational level.[11] Moreover, the association of the sun and gold with healthy activity, cheerfulness, power, pleasure is a shift in values associated more broadly with the colour yellow. This change took place during in the Middle Ages, leaving only to gold the positive symbolic associations of yellow, a colour that essentially maintained only the negative symbolic values at the beginning of the Renaissance.[12]

The representation is clearly positive, in favour of these practices and we should question the influence of this symbolism on the thought and mentalities of the time, particularly to what extent did this positive vision of wrestlers and fencers can have an influence on the production of fight books.

Regarding the representation system, it is possible to note that the wrestlers are all represented standing and generally entwined, with arms around the body of the opponent, with the exception of the Splendor Solis where the postures differ: grasping in the hollows arms for the first wrestling couple and seizure of the leg for the other wrestling couple.

Fencers are more rarely represented, and when they are, it is usually with two-handed swords, in one case with staves [M9] and another with sword and buckler [M7]. In the absence of representation of fencers, weapons are often represented at their feet, essentially two-handed swords accompanied in a single case with shields [M4]: no dagger, even less armour or horse. The stereotype is clear: the practice of the two-handed sword without armour almost alone symbolizes the fencing of that time, accompanied in a minor way by the stick and the sword and buckler.

In many cases, a person holding a stick stands alone, away from the wrestlers. Rather than being interpreted as an acrobat, he can be perceived a single fencer performing tricks with his stick. In the case of the Italian illustrations [M7 and M8], the stick bearer acts as a referee. On the other hand, in the Splendor Solis [M12], the meaning may have been lost because the character holds his stick as if he is about to throw it.

Curiously at the Italian engraver Boldoni’s work [M6], a character seems behind the scene trying to bend his sword, giving it a curved shape. This depiction may have been distorted in the Splendor Solis [M12] where a second couple of fencers are shown behind, holding curved weapons in their hands, in a guard stance similar to those found in fight books.

The Children of Mars

The text associated with this planet in [M11] indicates “I thrust, I cut, I hit and fence, hence do also all my heirs (“Ich steche, ich schlahe, ich streit vnd fechte. Also thut auch allern mein geschlechte”). It seems to associate the fighter’s values with this planet. But the text of the poem of the cycle of the children of the planets differs and shows children of Mars overheated, quarrelsome, angry, thieves, plunderers and quick to war.[13]  And in fact the scenes representing the children of Mars are scenes of massacre, destruction, pillage. The separation of the games of wrestling and fencing, linked to the positive values of the sun, and war, at least in this system of values is by no means trivial. It is in itself an answer to the question on the link between fight books and war: German culture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries visibly distinguished between fencing and fighting in battle. In fact, in any case according to the values translated in the cycle of the Children of the Planets, it is on the contrary important to keep well separate the arts of war from those of wrestling or fencing. By further pushing this distinction, it is possible to say that the first destroys, and the second flourishes. However, it is not so simple to establish this division because other value systems exist.

Other traditions of the Children of the Planets

It was mentioned earlier that the specific tradition of the Children of the Planets which is the subject of this study made up only part of the complete cycles dealing with this theme.

German sources thus have other traditions existing at the same time. For example, the ms. Thott 290.2° offers a system of values associated with the planets which is fairly close in general terms: the sun makes men well in their bodies, with a blood temperament, that is to say, gay, active, or angry, in all cases, an active temperament.[14]  This source, however, does not take up the poem from the main tradition of the children of the planets, nor does it offer any illustration to accompany its text.

A manuscript from Salzburg also offers insights to another tradition, keeping the principle of large illustrations filled with symbols. But here the planets are associated with the ages of life: for instance here the sun is associated with adolescence.[15]  The activities illustrated seem to mainly take up stereotypes from these ages of life and therefore leave the register of the main tradition

Outside German spaces, the first large text on the cycle of the Children of the Planets appears in a work by Christine de Pizan, the epistle of Othea, of which there are illustrated copies throughout the fifteenth century, in which the representation of Children of Planets differs greatly from the main German tradition. By taking up a manuscript from the very beginning of the century, the sun, or Phebus, sheds light on troubled things and personifies itself in scholars, but absolutely not in the physical games of learning of the nobles. And in parallel, the sons of Mars are depicted in a more positive manner: they are knights accomplished in chivalry that obtain fame and value (“any knight who loves or follows weapons and make chivalry and renown of value can be called sons of Mars”).[16]  Note that in this cultural space, it is possible to find favourable relationships between blood humour and physical activity, as in a French text of 1451: blood is inclined by its good comprehension and its implication in the physical activities (“The blood […] has a good subtle sense and inclination for bodily operations”).[17]

I have already mentioned the advantage that the discipline of fencing could derive from such a reputation made for its practice: it is seen in a positive, healthy and favorable way for the bodies and dissociated a priori from excessive violence. The dissemination of this thesis, in part thanks to this astrological tradition, may have contributed to the ultimately late development of the Fechtschulen. I do not bring any argument but note in any case that the auspicious period of production of beautiful manuscripts taking up the cycle of the Children of the Planets, between 1450 and 1480 corresponds to the beginnings of these public fencing shows, of which we have not really a trace before 1480. These shows would require the authorization of the authorities, but also the enthusiasm of the public: they could only benefit from a favorable opinion.

Possible influences of the Children of the Planets cycle on the world of fencing

The association of the sun with fencers probably did not stop at the favourable influence in public opinion. It is also possible that the fencers themselves adopted and integrated this symbolic heritage: the zodiac sign of the lion and the crown. The first is found associated indirectly with the German fencers in 1487 because the first brotherhood of the masters of the sword, created in Holy German Empire, chose the patronage of Saint-Mark, symbolized by its winged lion. The crown is another symbol of the sun is a regularly repeated symbol in the form of laurel wreath, given to the winner, and taken up in numerous engravings of the sixteenth century, up to the crown surrounding dussacks and rapiers at the frontispiece of the cover page of the book by Joachim Meyer printed in 1570: on the only upper banner on this page we can distinguish two laurel wreaths, the crown with swords, and two bushels of arms surmounted by shields and under which two lion heads spit foliage, all symbols related to the sun.

Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (Strasbourg: Thiebolt Berger, 1570), frontpiece detail.


The estimated influence of concepts from astrology in German Renaissance culture has not been addressed in depth in this present article. However, it is impressive to observe what is now called martial arts and physical activities appear as allegories of children of the sun and thereby represent physical activities favourable to the body. Likewise it is important to note the consistency with which the sons of Mars are devalued, quarrelsome, and go to war.

It would be interesting to investigate how this tradition spread in Europe. The examples already show at least two important Italian sources [M6 and M7] which share the same symbolism but without the written tradition. It is clear in any case that this symbolism was widely picked up from the second half of the sixteenth century by Dutch art, both in engravings and tapestries.[18]

It would be interesting for future studies to focus closely to the parallels in the form of alchemical discourse and compare it with that of fight books. This will be the subject of a second article.


Manuscripts and primary sources

[M1] Heidelberg ms. Cod. Pal. germ. 438, about 1440, fol. 149v-150r <https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.236>

[M2] Berlin Staatsbilbiothek ms. germ. fol. 244, fols. 181r-183v, about 1445, <http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht/?PPN=PPN785884734>

[M3] Kassel, University Library, 2° Ms. astron. 1, about 1445, fols. 69r-70r, <https://orka.bibliothek.uni-kassel.de/viewer/image/1300793634809/142/>

[M4] Zurich, Central library, Ms. C 101, fol. 11v, about 1453-70, <10.5076/e-codices-zbz-C0101>

[M5] Munich, BSB Cgm 312, vers 1450-1473, fols. 54v-55r, <http://mdz-nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00093677-8>

[M9] Mittelalterisches Hausbuch, Schloss Wolffegg, about 1480, <https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Mittelalterliches_Hausbuch>

[M6] Baldini engraving from 1460, <https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10022694r>

[M7] Este, University Library, alfa.x.2.14, Sphaerae coelestis et planetarum descriptio, about 1460-70, <http://bibliotecaestense.beniculturali.it/info/img/mss/i-mo-beu-alfa.x.2.14.pdf>

[M8] Munich BSB Clm 4394, about 1477, fol. 69r <http://mdz-nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00110794-5>

[M10] Heidelberg, University Library, Cod. Pal. Germ 832, about 1491, <https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg832>

[M11] Erlangen-Nuremberg MS.B 26 University Library, fol. 280v, <https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bvb:29-bv040674061-7>

[M12] Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, Nr. 78 D 3, 1532.

[M13] Erfurt/Gotha, University Library, ms. Chart.A.558. <https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:urmel-d010e5c0-48e3-4c36-afdb-ee09b55d647d6>

[M14] Nuremberg Ms 3227a, <http://dlib.gnm.de/item/Hs3227a/1>

[M15] Copenhagen, Royal Library, ms. Thott.290.2º, <http://www.kb.dk/manus/vmanus/2011/dec/ha/object23662/da/>

[M16] London, British Library, MS Harley 3542 <http://searcharchives.bl.uk/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?docId=IAMS040-002049374&fn=permalink&vid=IAMS_VU2>

[M17] UB Salzburg MIII36 <http://www.ubs.sbg.ac.at/sosa/handschriften/MIII36.htm>

[M18] UB Heidelberg Cod Pal. Germ. 848, <https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.2222>

[M19] BNF fr. 606,

Secondary sources

Blume Dieter, ‘Children of the Planets: the Popularization of Astrology in the 15th Century’, in Micrologus. Natura, scienze e società medievali. Nature, Sciences and Medieval Societies. Rivista della Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medio Evo Latino, vol. 12 (2004), pp. 549-84.

Ciboule Robert, ‘Le Livre de saincte meditacion en congnoissance de soy, ed. by André Combes’, in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge, vol. 8 (1933), pp. 176-224.

Füssli Hans Heinrich, Johann Waldmann, Ritter, Bürgermeister der Stadt Zürich (Zurich: Orell, Gessner, Füssli et al. 1780).

Klingner Annett, Die Macht der Sterne. Planetenkinder: ein astrologisches Bildmotiv in Spätmittelalter und Renaissance,  Dissertation zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades doctor philosophiae, Humbolt Universtity of Berlin, 2017. <https://edoc.hu-berlin.de/bitstream/handle/18452/19957/dissertation_klingner_annett.pdf >

Kotelmann Ludwig, Gesundheitspflege im Mittelalter. Kulturgeschichtliche Studien nach Predigten des 13., 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts (Salzwasser Verlag, 1890).

Pastoureau Michel, Jaune, histoire d’une couleur (Paris : Seuil, 2019).

Schmitz-von Ledebur Katja, Die Planeten und ihre Kinder. Eine Brüsseler Tapisserienserie des 16. Jahrhunderts aus der Sammlung Herzog Albrechts V. in München (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009).

[1] To ease of reading, each manuscript or incunabula is referenced by an Mxx-type code referring to its full description in the bibliography.

[2] M11, fols. 280r-82v and fols. 283r-84v.

[3] M15, fols. 140r-50v.

[4] Blume Dieter, Children of the Planets. Klingner, Die Macht der Sterne, especially pp. 55-56.

[5] The article « The Rose and the Pentagram » from Roger Norling does not deal directly with the subject of the Children of the Planets, but offers a large number of illustrations of the Children of the Sun from the studied tradition, enough to give you a good overview: https://hroarr.com/article/the-rose-and-the-pentagram/

[6] Complete text in Klingner, p. 298.

[7] Kotelmann, Gesundheitspflege im Mittelalter, pp. 184-85.

[8] Füssli, Johann Waldmann, pp. 2-3.

[9] Klingner, p. 310.

[10] Klingner, Die Macht der Sterne, pp. 22, 130 and 192-228.

[11] M18, fols. 115r, 190v and 204r.

[12] Pastoureau, Jaune, pp. 38-45 and 84-109.

[13] Klingner, Die Macht der Sterne, p. 21.

[14] M15, fols. 145v-146r.

[15] M17, fols. 236r-239r.

[16] M19, fols. 7v-7r.

[17] Ciboule, Le livre de saincte meditacion, p. 218.

[18] For the engravings, see Klingner, Die Macht der Sterne, pp. 219-26. For the tapestry see Schmitz-von Ledebur, Die Planeten und ihre Kinder.

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