German school of fencing
page of Mscr. Dresd. C 93 by Paulus Hector Mair (1540s)
|Also known as||historical German swordsmanship, Kunst des Fechtens|
|Focus||longsword, messer, dagger, polearms, grappling|
|Country of origin||Holy Roman Empire|
|Famous practitioners||Johannes Liechtenauer, Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Hector Mair, Sigmund Ringeck|
The German school of fencing (Deutsche Schule; Kunst des Fechtens) is the historical system of combat taught in the Holy Roman Empire in the Late Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern periods (14th to 17th centuries), as described in the Fechtbücher ("combat manuals") written at the time. The geographical center of this tradition was in what is now Southern Germany (Augsburg, Frankfurt, Nuremberg). During the period in which it was taught, it was known as the Kunst des Fechtens, or the "Art of Fighting". It notably comprises the techniques of the two-handed longsword, but also describes many other types of combat, notably mounted combat, unarmed grappling, fighting with polearms, with the dagger, the messer with or without buckler, and the staff.
Most of the authors are, or claim to be, in the tradition of the 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer. The earliest surviving treatise on Liechtenauer's system is contained in a manuscript dated to 1389, known as Ms. 3227a. More manuscript treatises survive from the 15th century, and during the 16th century, the system was also presented in print, notably by Joachim Meyer in 1570. The German tradition is eclipsed by the Italian school of rapier fencing by the early 17th century.
The term "German school of fencing" is quite misleading and can bring confusion, because there were and there are different German fencing schools. For example: both German academic fencing and the old German theatrical swordplay are both referred to today as "German school of fencing".
- 1 History
- 2 Spread
- 3 Disciplines
- 4 First principles
- 5 Unarmoured longsword
- 6 Armoured combat (Harnischfechten)
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Literature
- 10 External links
Late medieval tradition
The very first document of German heritage which shows fencing techniques is the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, which was written around 1300. After this isolated survival, there is a gap of about a century before records of the tradition attributed to 14th-century master Johannes Liechtenauer begin to appear.
The history of the German school of fencing in the tradition of master Johannes Liechtenauer spans roughly 250 years, or eight to ten generations of masters (depending on the dating of Liechtenauer), from 1350 to 1600. Our earliest source, Ms. 3227a of 1389 already mentions a number of masters, considered peers of Liechtenauer's; Hanko Döbringer, Andres Jud, Jost von der Nyssen, and Niklaus Preuss. Probably active in the early 15th century were Martin Hundsfeld and Ott Jud, but sources are sparse until the mid-15th century.
The mid 15th century marks the peak and decline of the "Society of Liechtenauer" with Peter von Danzig, Sigmund Ringeck and Paulus Kal. Kal's contemporary Hans Talhoffer was possibly involved with the foundation of the Brotherhood of St. Mark who enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on teaching martial arts for the best part of a century, from 1487 until 1570.
Late 15th centuries masters include Johannes Lecküchner, Hans von Speyer, Peter Falkner, and Hans Folz. With the 16th century, the tradition becomes more of a sportitive exercise and less of a martial art designed for judicial duels or the battlefield. Early 16th century masters include Hans Wurm, Jörg Wilhalm and Andre Pauernfeindt (Paurnfeindt; Paurnfeyndt; Paurenfeyndt; Pauernfeindt published a treatise Ergründung der ritterlichen kunst des fechtens durch freyfechter czu Vienn "foundation of the knightly art of combat by the Freifechter of Vienna" in 1516, one of the earliest printed fencing manuals, contemporary with comparable manuscript descriptions such as the Cologne Fechtbuch, representing a transitional stage between the late medieval school of Johannes Liechtenauer, and the German Renaissance "sportive" Federfechten as practiced in the late 16th century (recorded in the later printed manuals by Joachim Meyer and others). A later manuscript, dated 1564 and attributed to Lienhart Sollinger, cites Pauernfeindt and is largely identical in content.
In the mid 16th century, there were the first attempts at preservation and reconstruction of the teachings of the past century, notably by Paulus Hector Mair. The foundation of the Federfechter in 1570 at Vienna falls into this late period. The final phase of the tradition stretches from the late 16th to the early 17th century, with masters such as Joachim Meyer and Jakob Sutor.
Decline of the German tradition
In the 17th century, rapier fencing of the Italian school becomes fashionable, with treatises such as Salvator Fabris', and the German tradition, falling into disfavour as old-fashioned and unrefined among the baroque nobility, was slowly discontinued at the noble fencing schools (which also included most universities at the time). The rapier had the advantage, that it could be worn to the current clothing and fashion at the time, when long swords were seen as too big to be worn along. The author Jean Daniel L'Ange writes in his book "Deutliche und gründliche Erklärung der adelichen und ritterlichen freyen Fecht-Kunst" from 1664 (another edition was published in 1708), that "a big sword is very dangerous in our times because it is more hard to carrying around with the clothing than a smaller thrusting sword which could easily be worn". He also writes, that "it is possible to kill a man who is armed with a gun in a short range, when he stands close to you with the help of the rapier, because of the highly effective thrusting techniques, which will save your live rather than the slower cutting of a bigger sword or a sabre. You may even be able to kill him, before he can take his gun out of its halter, before he can make the first shot". L'Ange also writes "you can hide your rapier well under your mantle and thus avoid any provocation in public. A long sword may cause problems and excite enemies". But L'Ange also pays tribute toward the Marksbrüder and says "their art is truly a knightly science, it must be preserved for the coming, yet unborn generations!". However, some civilian fencers still practised the German school instead of the rapier-fencing of the noble elite. The last known practitioner was Theodori Verolini in 1679, when he published his book Der Kůnstliche Fechter ("The Artful Fencer"), which based upon Joachim Meyers fechtbuch.
Late survivals in the modern period
However, there are paintings from the middle of the 18th century that still show practitioners using long swords at the late fencing schools of the Marxbrüder and Federfechter. Historically, it cannot be verified if the techniques and practices of this training were anachronistic or an actual descendant of the original Liechtenauer tradition. In 1726, Gottfired Rudolf Pommer auf Bugenhagen mentions in his publication "Sammlung von Merktwurdigkeiten" (collection of oddities) the use of long swords at the time in fencing schools of the Marxbrüder and Federfechter. Most fencers of the 18th century viewed long sword fencing as a curious thing and it was probably only taught in the few remaining fencing schools of the Marxbrüder and Federfechter and some stage fencing schools. The very last practitioners of long sword fencing may be slowly extinct with the dissolution of the Marxbrüder and Federfechter around the end of the 18th century and the early 19th century. The Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung mentioned on 16. April 1862 the death of an unnamed, 76 year old (former) member the Marksbrüder (who was a practitioner of fencing in his teenage years in the early 1800s, and was born 1786), which was possibly the very last living member until then.
The geographical origin of the tradition of Liechtenauer is difficult to establish. There are several places called "Lichtenau" in Germany, and Ms. 3227a states explicitly that Johannes Liechtenauer travelled widely to learn from as many masters as possible.  Of course, it is to be assumed that there were traditions of combat training throughout the medieval world, in spite of the absence of evidence on their details, but what is now known as the "German school" comprises those traditions which were put to paper in the late medieval period, and this tradition of compiling written manuals or epitomes of fighting systems appears to have mostly confined to Southern Germany. From about the same time, in a not necessarily unrelated development, we have one of the earliest records of the Italian school of fencing, beginning with Fiore dei Liberi, who mentions a master of Swabia called Johannes "who was a student of Nicholai of Toblem."
After the end of the medieval period, the emerging traditions of fencing (i.e. the early modern rapier systems, as opposed to the generic systems of "combat" or "fighting" of the late medieval period) stood in mutual contact, leading to the separate but closely related rapier styles of Italy, Spain and later France, all of which were also received in Germany; for example: Paulus Hector Mair also shows a Spanish style of rapier fencing in his fencing book.
The 15th century Liechtenauerian tradition seems to have been geographically centered on Swabia and Franconia, with influence on the adjacient territories, including the Alsace, the Rhineland, the Lowlands, Bohemia and the Swiss Confederacy. In the 16th century, there was an established tradition of Federfechten competitions. The dominant guild were the Brotherhood of St. Mark who held their annual meeting in Frankfurt. After 1570, there was a second influential guild, the Federfechter, which apparently originated in the southeaster part of the empire (Prague, Vienna). Masters or treatises of the period that can be located geographically include:
- the oldest surviving manual, Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 of c. 1300, originates in Franconia
- the oldest record of the Liechtenauerian tradition, Nürnberger Handschrift GNM 3227a, appears to exhibit East Central German dialectal elements. By 1495, this manuscript had been acquired by Nicolaus Pol of Innsbruck
- Hans Talhoffer in the 1440s to 1460s was active throughout Southern Germany, including Königsegg, Emerkingen, Zürich,
- Johannes Lecküchner was active in Nuremberg in the 1460s; Hans Folz was also in Nuremberg, in the late 15th to early 16th century. Albrecht Dürer compiled a manual on grappling in c. 1505.
- Cgm 558, written in what is now Switzerland, most likely the Toggenburg, shortly before 1500.
- the Cologne Fechtbuch of Cologne or surroundings, c. 1510s.
- Christian Egenolph of Frankfurt was active in the 1520s
- Paulus Hector Mair of Augsburg was active in the 1540s. Jörg Wilhalm was also in Augsburg, active during the 1540s to 1560s.
- Joachim Meyer was active in the 1570s in Strasbourg.
In spite of the surging popularity of the Italian and Spanish rapier, elements of the German tradition survived well into the 17th century. Even in 1614, many fencing masters based their fighting styles on the tradition, (a example would be master Joachim Meyer, who based his early rapier fencing on Lichtenauers principles), which was considered to be the most effective and efficient school of fencing.
Master Johannes Liechtenauer based his system of fencing upon the use of the Longsword. He used this weapon to exemplify several overarching martial principles that also apply to other disciplines within the tradition. Ringen (wrestling/grappling) was taught, as well as fighting with the messer, and staff. Also part of the curriculum were fighting with the dagger Degen (mainly the roundel dagger) and with pole weapons. Two other disciplines besides Blossfechten involved the sword: fencing with (single-handed) sword and buckler (or a large shield in the case of judicial combat according to Swabian law), and armoured fighting (Harnischfechten), the latter reserved only for nobility.
Johannes Liechtenauer's teachings as recorded in 3227a are introduced by some general principles (foll. 13–17). The anonymous author explicitly states that Liechtenauer had cast his teaching in opaque verses intended to hide their meaning from the unitiated. He stresses that there is "only a single art of the sword" which had been the same for centuries, and which is the kernel and foundation of all arts of combat.
- the principle of taking the shortest and most direct line of attack (of das aller neheste vnd kors körtzste / slecht vnd gerade czu) disregarding flourishes or flashy parrying techniques ( mit dem höbschen paryrn vnd weit vmefechten).
- the difficulty of explaining techniques in words, and the importance of direct instruction and intensive training, offering the aphorism that "exercise is better than art, because exercise without art is useful, but art without exercise is useless" (15r).
- the importance of footwork and stance (15v) and of correct distance (mosse, 15v) and speed of motion (16r)
- the importance of taking the offensive (vorslag, 14v, 16r-16v), with a fixed plan of attack
- the tactical importance of hiding the intended action from the opponent (16r)
The text goes on to present the core principles of successful swordsmanship in eight rhyming couplets (17v):
|1. the help of God||Czu allem fechten / gehört dy hölfe gotes von rechte|
|2. a healthy body and a good weapon||Gerader leip vnd gesvnder / eyn gancz vertik swert pesundr|
|3. the principles of offensive and defensive and of hard and soft||Vor noch swach sterke / yndes das wort mete czu merken|
|4.-5. a list of basic techniques (discussed below)||Hewe stiche snete drücken / leger schütczen stöße fülen czücken
Winden vnd hengen / rücken striche sprönge greiffen ringen
|6. speed and courage paired with wariness, deceit and cleverness||Rascheit vnd kunheit / vorsichtikeit list vnd klugheit|
|7. correct distance, concealing one's intentions, reason, anticipation and dexterity||Masse vörborgenheit / vernunft vorbetrachtunge fertikeit|
|8. training and confidence, speed, agility and good footwork||Vbunge vnd guter mut / motus gelenkheit schrete gut|
A characteristic introductory verse of Liechtenauer's, often repeated in later manuscripts, echoes classic 14th-century chivalry, addressing the student as "young knight" (jung ritter), notwithstanding that during most of its lifetime, the German school was very much in bourgeois hands:
- (fol 18r) Jung Ritter lere / got lip haben frawen io ere / So wechst dein ere / Uebe ritterschaft und lere / kunst dy dich zyret und in krigen sere hofiret
- "Young knight, learn to love God and revere noble ladies, so that your honour grows. Practice knighthood and learn the art that dignifies you, and brings you honour in wars."
The principal discipline is unarmoured fencing with the longsword (Blossfechten).
At the basis of the system are five 'master-hews' (Meisterhäue) or 'hidden hews' from which many masterful techniques arise, twelve 'chief pieces' ("hauptstücke") that categorize the main components of the art, and five words (fünf Wörter) dealing with concepts of timing and leverage.
At the centre of the art lies emphasis on swiftness, as well as balance and good judgement:
- (fol. 20r) vor noch swach stark Indes / an den selben woertern leit alle kunst / meister lichtnawers / Und sint dy gruntfeste und der / kern alles fechtens czu fusse ader czu rosse / blos ader in harnuesche
- "'Before', 'after', 'weak', 'strong', Indes ('meanwhile'), on these five words hinges the entire art of master Lichtenauer, and they are the foundation and the core of all combat, on foot or on horseback, unarmoured or armoured."
The terms 'before' (vor) and 'after' (nach) correspond to offensive and defensive actions. While in the vor, one dictates his opponent's actions and thus is in control of the engagement, while in the nach, one responds to the decisions made by his opponent. Under Liechtenauer's system, a combatant must always strive to be in control of the engagement—that is, in the vor. 'Strong' (stark) and 'weak' (swach) relate to the amount of force that is applied in a bind of the swords. Here, neither is better than the other, but one needs to counter the opponent's action with a complementary reaction; strength is countered with weakness, and weakness with strength. Indes means "meanwhile" or "interim", referring to the time it takes for the opponent to complete an action. At the instant of contact with the opponent's blade, an experienced fencer uses 'feeling' (fühlen) to immediately sense his opponent's pressure in order to know whether he should be "weak or "strong" against him. He then either attacks using the "vor" or remains in the bind until his opponent acts, depending on what he feels is right. When his opponent starts to act, the fencer acts "indes" (meanwhile) and regains the "vor" before the opponent can finish his action.
What follows is a list of technical terms of the system (with rough translation; they should each be explained in a separate section):
Some of the later practitioners (Theodori Verolini) of the German school of fencing started to use the term "Mensur" in the 17th century to explain the different ranges of the art of fencing.
- Weite Mensur (wide mensur) the attacker has to make two footsteps to reach his opponent with his weapon.
- Mittlere Mensur (middle mensur) the attacker has to make one footstep to reach the other combatant with the blade.
- Nahe Mensur (near mensur) the attacker can cut or thrust his enemy without having to make any footsteps.
- Enge Mensur (close mensur) the attacker and his opponent are so close, that they are able to reach the other person with their hands: most of the wrestling-techniques (Ringen am Schwert) can only be used in the close mensur.
Liechtenauer and other German masters describe three basic methods of attack with the sword. They are sometimes called "drei wunder", "three wounders", with a deliberate pun on "three wonders".
- Hauen, "hews": A hewing stroke with one of the edges of the sword.
- Oberhau, "over hew": A stroke delivered from above the attacker.
- Mittelhau, "middle hew": A stroke delivered from side to side.
- Unterhau, "under hew": A stroke delivered from below the attacker.
- Stechen, "stabbing": A thrusting attack made with the point of the sword.
- Abschneiden, "slicing off": Slicing attacks made with the edge of the sword by placing the edge against the body of the opponent and then pushing or pulling the blade along it.
Called "five hews" in 3227a, later "hidden hews", and in late manuals "master hews". These likely originated as secret surprise attacks in Liechtenauer's system, but with the success of Liechtenauer's school, they may have become common knowledge. All five are attacks from the first phase of the fight (zufechten) and long range, accompanied by triangular stepping.
- Zornhau: 'wrath-hew'
- A powerful diagonal hewing stroke dealt from the vom Tag guard that ends in the Wechsel guard on the opposite side. When a Zornhau is used to displace (Versetzen) another oberhau the impact and binding of the blades will result in the hew ending in a lower hanging at the center of the body. This strike is normally thrown to the opponent's upper opening.
- Krumphau: 'crooked-hew'
- A vertical hew from above that reaches across the direct line to the opponent, traveling left from a right position and vice versa. The motion of the blade resembles a windshield wiper. Krumphau is almost always accompanied with a wide diagonal sideways step. The Krumphau breaks the guard Ochs.
- Zwerchhau: or Twerhau 'thwart-hew'
- A high horizontal hew, with the 'short' (backhand) edge when thrown from the right side and with the 'long' edge when thrown from the left side. The Zwerchau breaks the guard vom Tag.
- Schielhau: 'squinting-hew'
- A short edge (backand) hew dealt from the vom Tag guard that ends in an upper hanger on the opposite side and usually targets the head or the right shoulder. It is basically a twist from vom Tag to opposite side Ochs with one step forward, striking simultaneously downwards with short edge. The Schielhau breaks the both the Pflug and Langen Ort guards and can be used to counter-hew against a powerful Oberhau.
- Scheitelhau: 'part-hew'
- A vertical descending hew that ends in the guard Alber. This hew is dealt to the opponent's upper openings, most often to the opponent's head, where the hair parts (hence the name of the hew). Through the principle of überlauffen, “overrunning” or “overreaching”, a Scheitelhau is used to break the guard Alber.
Guards (also known as huten or leger)
- vom Tag: 'from the Day'
- a basic position with the sword held either on the right shoulder or above the head. The blade can be held vertically or at roughly 45-degrees. The word Tag is often mistranslated as "roof".
- Ochs: 'ox'
- a position with the sword held to either side of the head, with the point (as a horn) aiming at the opponent's face.
- Pflug: 'plough'
- a position with the sword held to either side of the body with the pommel near the back hip, with the point aiming at the opponent's chest or face. Some historical manuals state that when this guard is held on the right side of the body that the short edge should be facing up and when held on the left side of the body the short edge should be facing down with the thumb on the flat of the blade.
- Alber: 'fool'
- In the Fool's Guard, the point of the sword is lowered to the ground, appearing to "foolishly" expose the upper parts of the body and inviting an attack. Although the Fool's Guard exposes the upper openings it does provide excellent protection to the lower openings. From the Fool's Guard an attack or displacement can be made with the false edge of the sword or the hilt of the sword can be quickly raised into a hanging parry.
Additional Guards: Liechtenauer is emphatic that the above four guards are sufficient, and all guards taught by other masters may be derived from them. Later masters introduce richer terminology for variant guards:
- Zornhut: 'wrath guard'
- Wechsel: 'change'
- Nebenhut: 'near guard' or 'side guard'
- Eisenport: 'iron door', mentioned in 3227a as a non-Liechtenauerian ward, identical to the porta di ferro of the Italian school
- Schlüssel: 'key'
- Einhorn: 'unicorn', a variant of Ochs
- Schrankhut: 'barrier guard'
The following are transitional stances that are not properly called guards.
- Hengetort: 'hanging point'
- Kron: 'crown', the sword hilt is held out about head height with the point up. Kron is used at the bind and is usually a prelude to grappling.
- Langort: 'long point', the sword point is extended straight out at the opponent. Many of the cuts pass through this transitional guard and it is the natural ending of a thrust.
Other terms in Liechtenauers system (most of them referring to positions or actions applicable in mid-combat, when the blades are in contact) include:
- Duplieren: 'doubling', the immediate redoubling of a displaced hew.
- Mutieren: 'mutating', change of attack method, changing a displaced hew into a thrust, or a displaced thrust into a hew.
- Versetzen: 'displacement' or 'parrying' (upper/lower, left/right), to parry an attack with ones own weapon.
- Nachreisen: 'after-traveling', the act of attacking an opponent after he has pulled back to attack, or an attack after the opponent has missed, or an attack following the opponent's action.
- Überlaufen: 'over-running' or 'overrunning', the act of countering a hew or thrust made to below with an attack to above.
- Absetzen: 'off-setting', deflecting a thrust or hew at the same time as stabbing.
- Durchwechseln: 'changing-through', name for various techniques for escaping a bind by sliding the sword's point out from underneath the blade and then stabbing to another opening.
- Zucken: 'tugging' a technique used in a strong bind between blades in which a combatant goes weak in the bind so as to disengage his blade from the bind and stabs or hews to the other side of the other combatant's blade. This technique is based upon the concept of using weakness against strength.
- Durchlauffen: 'running-through', a technique by which one combatant "runs through" his opponent's attack to initiate grappling with him.
- Händedrücken: 'pressing of hands', the execution of an Unterschnitt followed by an Oberschnitt such that the wrists of the opponent are sliced all the way around.
- Hängen: 'hanging' (upper/lower, left/right)
- Winden: 'Winding' The combatant moves the strong of his blade to the weak of the opponent's blade to gain leverage while keeping his point online with the opponent's opening. There are 8 variations.
Armoured combat (Harnischfechten)
Combat in full plate armour made use of the same weapons as Blossfechten, the longsword and dagger (possibly in special make optimized for piercing the openings in armour), but the techniques were entirely different. Attacking an opponent in plate armour offers two basic possibilities: percussive force, or penetration at joints or unprotected areas. Penetration was extremely unlikely even with thrusting attacks. Percussion was realized with the Mordstreich, attacks with the hilt holding the sword at the blade, and penetration into openings of the armour with the Halbschwert, which allowed stabbing attacks with increased precision. From the evidence of the Fechtbücher, most armoured fights were concluded by wrestling moves, with one combatant falling to the ground. Lying on the ground, he could then be easily killed with a stab into his visor or another opening of the armour.
- note that the historical term Fechtschule "school of fencing/fighting" does not refer to the "German school" but to individual fencing competitions held in the early modern period, equivalent to the English Prize Playings.
- The Early Modern German fechten translates to the English etymological equivalent, to fight. In Modern German, fechten has come to mean "fencing", but translating fechten as "fencing" in a pre-16th century context is an anachronism; the English verb "to fence" in the sense of "fighting with swords" arises in the 1590s, in Shakespeare, in reference specifically to the Elizabethan Art of Defence.
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