1597, Fencers’ Ordinance of the Old Town of Prague

On the 28th July 1597 the council of the Old Town of Prague issued the Fencers‘ Ordinance in order to impose discipline at the fencing tournaments (Fechtschule) and settle the affairs of domestic as well as wandering fencers. Holding a fencing tournament in the Old Town had traditionally been in power of the cutlers’ guild, however this custom had probably been in decline ever since the Prague Federfechter guild emerged in the seventies of the 16th century. Members of this brotherhood fenced mainly with rapier and in order to gain the title “master of the long sword” they had to stand a fight against a member of the famous brotherhood of saint Mark (Marxbrüder) seated in Frankfurt, who had been given a monopoly over the distribution of the titles.

The original charter has not survived. However, the text was copied into one of the administrative books of the Old Town office. The book was called Kniha pořádkův [The Book of Ordinances] and incorporated copies of selected charters dated between 1476–1715. The Book of Ordinances was unfortunately burned down during the bombing of Prague on 8th May 1945. The text of the ordinance has survived only as an appendix to the publication Pražští šermíři a mistři šermu [Fencers and fencing masters of Prague] from 1927 by a fencer and a historian of fencing Jaroslav Tuček (1882–ca 1940?).

View of Prague by Václav Hollar in 1636.
Original to be found in the Czech National Gallery in Prague.
Copy from Wikimedia Commons

Selective translation

The council of the Old Town of Prague declares and decides, that:

1) There are lazy people coming to Prague from other places, who intend to organize fencing tournaments and otherwise stay idle, visit inns and wander in the night. This causes many scandals, brawls, wounds and murder.

2) Organising fencing tournaments has always been in power of the cutlers’ guild in order to train bravery and manly fencing.

3) The fencing tournament was established so that the cutlers, who live an honourable and humble life, may improve their fencing skills.

4) The elder fencers elected to govern the fencing society must be either burghers or long term inhabitants of the Old Town of Prague and behave decently.

5) The audience at a fencing tournament must not disturb the fencers.

6) The fencers, who are organising the fencing tournaments and otherwise have only little income, should be given some fair amount of money from the fee collected at the tournament, so that they are more willing to organise it.

7) Every fencer, be it a Federfechter or a Marxbruder, and especially the members of the guilds, who are not lazy idlers, should be enrolled in a special register.

8) Federfechter and Marxbrüder should take turns in organising a fencing tournament every single Sunday and Holiday.

9) Anyone wanting to organise a fencing tournament must ask the elder cutlers in advance, so that they can accompany him and put in a good word for him before the town council.

10) Special attention must be paid to the reputation of the organiser of a fencing tournament, so that he is neither an idler nor a troublemaker but a decent craftsman.

11) Should there be an idler wanting to take part in a fencing tournament, so that he may just show off (“act like a peacock”) and thus make money for living, he should not be permitted to enter it.

12) A fencing tournament requires the usual wooden weapons, such as dusacks, staffs and halberds, as well as the steel weapons, such as swords and rapiers. These weapons must be held ready in sufficient numbers by the cutlers’ guild and they are obliged to lend them to the organiser of a fencing tournament. If a weapon is damaged or broken during the tournament, the cutlers will make a new one.

13) For this reason, anyone organising a fencing tournament should pay the cutlers’ guild the appointed fee of threescore of Meissner groschen. In case a sword or rapier breaks during the tournament, the organiser pays them another thirty kreuzer for making a new sword and twenty for a rapier, however there is no such payment for breaking a wooden weapon.

14) There are usually many good people and honest young men, even noblemen coming to watch the tournament. It is strictly forbidden to any viewer to come among the duelling fencers, because by neglecting this rule many got hurt or were blinded. If anyone breaks this rule, the one able to fence will be forbidden to take part in the tournaments for some time, the one unable to fence will be brought before the town council and punished by them.

15) Some cowardly fencers use elbow-long gloves, which is against the ancient tradition. This shall be forbidden from now on. The fencers should use gloves covering the fist only, so that no one builds his fencing skills on long gloves.

16) No one should be permitted to take part in a tournament, unless he received a proper fencing training.

17) When the duelling fencers close the distance, they
should not jump against each other wrathfully, but they should engage “cleanly and lengthily” according to the tradition, no matter which weapon they wield.

18) Fencing masters and apprentices should act solemnly and respectfully during the tournament, without any foolishness like shaking their head or sticking out their tongue.

19) Fencing masters and apprentices should stand on the side during the tournament, Marxbrüder on one side and Federfechter on the opposite side, so that people recognise them easily. They should neither obstruct nor “stick together like geese” on the duelling ground and thus block the view.

20) Every fencer is obliged to start the duel according to the tradition, unlike a peasant, who runs insanely for a weapon, grabs it and wants to beat with it like a witless ox.

21) No one unauthorized and unable to fence should enter the duelling ground, obstruct the fencers, lecture them nor step between them. Such behaviour will be punished with beating.

22) It also happens that peasants and journeymen whistle and shout at a fencer, as if he was a fool. Such behaviour will be punished by the organiser, either with jail or beating.

23) Some fencers are not willing to fence at the tournament save for a prize money. They tend to shout at noblemen and burghers, urging them to throw down money for which they should fight. However, the tournament was not established as means for making money, but as an exercise for the youth. Any fencer should be from now on punished with a fine for such behaviour.

24) It is however possible to fence for a prize money, assuming that there is someone in the audience freely willing to offer it. Such money should be given to the organiser so that he may award the winner of the duel afterwards. The spectator offering the money may choose the two fencers fighting for the prize himself.

25) These two fencers should not engage with full power like peasants, as if they wanted to finish each other on the spot, but they should act according to the art of the fencing tournament.

26) They should also proceed through all three rounds and not finish the duel after the first hit when the blood appears, so one of them runs away for the money. The other one may succeed in the second round with a “higher hit”, because the higher hit is always more valid than the lower one. They should go through all three rounds without any secret agreement.

27) Anyone fighting for the prize money under secret agreement will be punished with jail and the prize money will be confiscated by the organiser.

28) If one fencer is drunk and the other sober, the drunk one will not be permitted to fence, as fencing drunk causes heavy injuries.

29) No one should be called a fencing master and be permitted to organise a tournament unless he learns to fence properly with each of the weapons. For this reason, any fencing master organising a tournament must withstand one duel to the first blood with each of the weapons.

30) If it rains, the tournament will be postponed so the organiser suffers no loss. The already collected money should be used for common good.

31) If the tournament takes place on Sunday, it must start immediately after the lunch and not later in the afternoon, when many fencers are already drunk. This “theatre” might also tempt people not to go to the church, for which reason the tournament must end before the vespers.

32) If a tournament takes place in a house, the owner will get one groschen per person and must secure suitable sitting or standing places according to the social status of the viewers.

33) There should also be a fence built around the fencing ground, so that no one unauthorised enters there. Lords and knights should be watching from a balcony.

34) A column should be pitched close to the fence and a small shovel hung on it. If anyone enters the fence without authorisation or behaves badly, he will endure beating with that shovel three times. Anyone chosen by the elders or the tournament organiser to proceed with the beating must oblige.

The fulltext edition (Czech) of the ordinance may be found in Jaroslav TUČEK: Pražští šermíři a mistři šermu [Fencers and fencing masters of Prague], Praha 1927, p. 79–94.

Bernese connection to “new military history” @Forschungstag 2019, University of Bern

Our team presented the project with our posters at the annual Science Day of the Humanities Faculty of the University of Bern. We were glad to be neighbours with the team of Philippe Rogger (Prof. Dr. André Holenstein), who are also busy with military history matters and martial culture with their project focused on military entrepreneurs in Switzerland (16-17th c.).

It was a nice occasion to showcase the connection between our two projects. The University of Bern is indeed hosting two four years research projects financed by the Swiss Science Foundation with a focus on new ways to do military history. In fact, this would make us not far of being a competence centre on the matter. Maybe for the Future… Our performance at the Science Day put aside, we are also working to communicate about this connection with a forthcoming Institute podcast. Stay tuned!

We had the opportunity to present the specificities of our projects to the colleagues of the Faculty, but also to the Dean and the Director of the Science-City program. We explained how far we stand from the common ideas and representation about what is military history. We showed how our research questions intersect with urban history and cultural history matters (but also methods!). Of course, we are convinced of our plans and first achievements, the idea is to convince others! We are working to reach not only scientific communities, but also broader audience with our project of our travelling exhibition in 2021-2022. You will read about this project soon on our website and our blog

Learn more about the project Holenstein: Militärunternehmertum & Verflechtung http://www.hist.unibe.ch/forschung/forschungsprojekte/militaerunternehmertum_amp_verflechtung/index_ger.html

And note the call for paper for their upcoming 2020 international conference: https://www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-40136

and learn more about our own project by visiting our website:

Martial Culture in Medieval Towns:


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