In the early 1550s, the Nuremberg Meistersinger Georg Hager wrote:

Wer brauchen wil die löblich kunst, von einem meister sol ers leren,
Nicht von einem winckel[1] fechter; sunst hatt er die kunst nicht mit eren[2].

Which translates as:

Who wants to use the praised art shall learn it from a master,
Not from a bazaar fencer, else he has the art without honours.

Andre Paurnfeyndt in the first printed Fechtbuch of 1516 had written:

So du von ainem maiſter ſchwercz oder von ainem vermerten[3] freifechter lerñſt,
vnd nit von den winckel fechterñ
als wan ain plinter den anderñ furt vnd fallen ped in graben.

Which translates as:

May you learn from a sword master or from a sworn Freifechter,
And not from one of those bazaar fencers
as if one blind man leads another and they both fall into the ditch

The first obvious difference is that Paurnfeyndt straight out says that a Winkel­fechter will not teach you well; Hager’s approach is different – he acknowledges you may learn the art, but there is another quality that the student will lack.

Noble Honour

To translate the final phrase “sunst hatt er die kunst nicht mit eren” with the meaning of “else he has the art dishonourably” or “else he has the art but [the art is] without honour” in my view misses an essential element of “eren” (which is, after all in the plural).

The concept of “honour” in the innumerate, singulare tantum form emphasises the personal self-worth aspect, a condition which is binary (you have it or you don’t) rather than a palette of elements where “an honour” can be added or subtracted.  The nobility’s identity tended to be closely linked with this concept of honour – loss of honour entailed loss of nobility and vice-versa[4].

In the Vorrede to the Zettel – 14th C and clearly addressed to the young nobleman – “ere” (in the singular) is mentioned twice in the first six (short) lines, as is “lere”; “kunst” is mentioned once[5].  No doubt, Hager was consciously and deliberately evoking the Zettel.

Bourgeois Honour

Considering that the Fechtmeister of the 16th Century were exploiting the desire of commoners on the make to elevate themselves to the nobility, it is entirely plausible that Hager’s verse feeds into this arriviste attitude[6].  However, bourgeois honour had its own nature and roots; additionally, members of the guilds would be betraying the system that elevated, protected and supported them[7] by patronising the Winkelfechter.

Ann Tlusty demonstrates that the notion of “bourgeois honour” is closely wrapped up with a free individual’s right to bear arms, and his actually wearing them as outward mark of his free status[8].  In the very rural Swiss estate (canton) of Appenzell Innerrhoden, cantonal votes and elections are since probably 1378 held by public assembly on the last Sunday in April on the Landsgemeindeplatz in Appenzell; male voters carry a side-arm to show their eligibility to vote[9].  These facts demonstrate the close connection between arms (especially swords), honour and status, and by extension skill in using them, but don’t as such help in interpreting the Vers.

With membership and office in guilds and other civic associations came eligibility for, and elevation to, civic office[10].  Civic office was not just an honour, it required honour and brought honour[11].  The 15th C had still seen constant warfare and epidemics, naturally thinning the ruling stratum and so allowing for social advancement.  The 16th C brought stability, and a different phenomenon:  The professionalisation of the ruling stratum; while a suitable pedigree may have been important for office, it was no longer the sole or even determining factor – proven competence became relevant.  In Zurich, remuneration for councillors’ attending sessions was introduced to enable the not independently wealthy to participate in council business, and there was a conscious policy to appoint up-and-coming talent to lucrative positions so they could amass enough wealth to qualify for higher office[12].

How this worked in detail is not clear[13]; that the dynamic existed is emphasised by the preoccupation of law and literature with the opposite effect, the loss of honour.  Early medieval criminal law saw a criminal accusation against an individual as a matter of honour for the whole clan, which either cleansed itself (including the perpetrator) by paying blood money, or fell into collective dishonour[14].  The modernisation of criminal law saw the individualisation of guilt and the removal of the option to liquidate the guilt through a blood money payment, while at the same time crystallising the dishonouring of the individual through mutilation[15].  The humanisation of criminal law in the 17 and 1800s saw the gradual abolition of mutilation, but its replacement with specific Ehrenstrafen[16] – with ultimately the same, and the same intended, effect:  the individual’s bürgerlicher Tod (civic death)[17].

The obsession with social honours as a precondition for civic honours reached its apogee in the hothouse atmosphere of post-1848 Prussia and the Second Reich[18].  Into the 20th Century, certain felonies disqualified an individual from guild office.  Ehrenstrafen were successively abolished in European legal codes after World War II[19].

Honour v. Honours

In Hager’s Vers, “eren” is in the plural – “honourS”, not “honour”; this suggests an incremental, not a binary property.  In the legal terminology of the feudal order (which was the controlling legal order in all of Europe until various revolutions, constitutional movements and the Napoleonic and successive codifications began to replace it in the 19th Century[20]), Ehren are inextricably linked with the concepts of “office” (Amt) and “status” (Stand)[21] – not in the sense of one being a precondition (or a consequence) of the other, but in a hard to capture interdependency[22].

Certain offices – e.g. judgeships – were open only to certain social strata[23].  Depending on time and place, appointment to a judgeship either entailed as a consequence the elevation of that person to that stratum, or required the co-operation of the powers-that-be to concurrently perform the elevation, or precluded the individual from formally advancing to the office[24].

Understood in this manner, Ehren could be acquired incrementally[25]; one more Imperially sanctioned title, decoration or certification raised you up another rung in the feudal hierarchy, made you eligible for election or appointment to the next office, with its attendant privileges, emoluments, prospects – and honours[26].

Back to the Vers…

Cynically, one might say that when Hager (unlike Paurnfeyndt) does not promise victory in fencing, he might be taking into account that the advanced-in-age and no longer lithe guild master would likely lose a bout to an enterprising young blade, no matter that the guild master could afford an Imperially licensed Fechtmeister.  But the proposition that our fictitious guild master is content to perpetually lose with honour, and the young blade to win without it, is not persuasive, and suggests that more is at play.  It suggests that the successful student of a sworn, Imperially licensed and sanctioned Fechtmeister could accrue for himself marks of distinction that elevated his status in tangible, legally relevant respects – which a Winkelfechter, never mind his proficiency, never could.

To me, therefore, the phrase “sunst hatt er die kunst nicht mit eren” suggests that the licensed Fechtmeister, unlike the Winkelfechter, was able to endow his pupil with status – legally recognised, and therefore commercially relevant, status[27].

The situation is no different today – in England and Wales, for example, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (a quango) sets the examination on who can be a solicitor; and the law determines on what a solicitor can do and, conversely, which activities are reserved for solicitors[28].  In conveyancing – the transfer of title to real estate –, it is irrelevant how well an individual understands the law or the issues or is able to serve the client’s interests; the activity is reserved to licensed practitioners and that is the end of it.

Translated to modern times, the marketing jingle might therefore read:  “Don’t go to a Winkelfechter – he can’t provide you with a recognised degree”.

A metacritique

Writing this note was supremely unsatisfactory from a research point of view – though the Vers originated in the early Renaissance, there is no literature dealing directly with the link between office and honour(s).  The Germanistic sources[29] deal with noble v. bourgeois honour, but ignore the legal dimension.  The legal literature deals extensively with the loss of honour and the inevitable loss of office that accompanies loss of honour, particularly in connection with the dishonouring effect of corporal or mutilating punishments[30] – but not with the corollary, the acquisition of honour and office.

The problem to some extent lies in the nature of feudal law:  A nobleman is, more or less by definition, an estate, a feudal-law entity.  A burgher is not; he is relevant to feudal law only by virtue of the fact that the city is a feudal law entity, and the burgher is relevant to the power and legal structure within the city.

Of course, such a neat, categorical separation was neither inherent in feudal law, nor was it realistic.  Even if we posit that the city was, for feudal law purposes, a black box, its rights, privileges and prerogatives, as well as those of the city’s overlord, were exercised by individuals, whether as enfeoffed individuals or plenipotentiary representatives.  Put in a different way, the feudal order had historically known the category of ministeriales, individuals whose feudal position arose from and depended on their bureaucratic function in the administration of feudal estates on behalf of a senior nobleman, town, prelate or monastery.  Whereas in the Early Middle Ages, the ministerialis rose from the prince’s personal retinue, by the Renaissance, these functions were fulfilled by a rising commoner class often educated in law (i.e. public administration).

Though I believe my proposition is vindicated by references, I am conscious that they originate in such diverse times and sources that the meanings I attribute to them may not be borne out by detailed research, and I’ve had to drag in fairly modern sources and examples in order to illustrate my argument.  While it is true that the Middle Ages and Feudal Law did not properly crystallise until the 18th Century and I stand by my thesis, the lack of literature to point is still annoying.

A great research opportunity beckons…

© Dr. Jürg Gassmann 2014 / Bleichelistr. 3 • CH-9055 Bühler / [email protected]

[1] There is no doubt that the German word “Winkel” in a compound with another noun has a pejorative, derogatory meaning, as e.g. in “Winkeladvokat”, but it is not clear where the pejorative connotation comes from.  “Winkel” is a perfectly innocuous word, meaning “angle” or “[interior] corner”; it is often used in the meaning of “tucked away”, “hidden”, “secret”, which might explain the derivation.  On the other hand, in Lower German (as a geographic linguistic term) and Dutch, a “Winkel” is a shop or store, so I’ve chosen “bazaar fencer” as translation.  For a study on the Winkelfechter, see Kevin Maurer/Christopher VanSlambrouck: Who were the Winkelfechter?, Meyer Frei Fechter Guild (IL MFFG), 14th August 2013, accessible at

[2] The first line is clearly in iambic metre; for the second line, no clear metre is discernable.

[3] “Mehren” is a complex word – the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch has as meanings, in addition to the obvious ones, “to legally reinforce” and “to swear” (compare English “engross”):  The Latin verb “augere” was also translated as “mehren” (e.g. “semper augustus” as “immerdar Mehrer des Reiches”), i.e. “to elevate”, “to augment”.

[4] See e.g. Hans Wellmann: Der historische Begriff der ‘Ehre’ – sprachwissenschaftlich untersucht (p 38, referencing Hartmann von Aue), in: Ehrkonzepte der frühen Neuzeit, hrsg. Sybille Backmann / Hans-Jörg Künast / Sabine Ullmann / B. Ann Tlusty, Akademie Verlag – Berlin 1998, p 27-39.

[5] See the references in Wiktenauer, section “Longsword”; compare this also to Philippo di Vadi’s 1480s exhortation to teach fencing only to “better people”, reference in Wiktenauer, section “Preface” 3v.2; both accessed 17th May 2014.

[6] Heinrich Mitteis / Heinz Lieberich: Deutsche Rechtsgeschichte, 16. Auflage, C H Beck – München 1981, Kap 39 IV (p 287-289) and VI (p 290-291); Hans Conrad Peyer:  Verfassungsgeschichte der alten Schweiz, Schulthess Polygraphischer Verlag – Zürich 1980, p 112-113.

[7] For an overview over recent research on guilds, and the functions and functioning of a guild, see Jean Chandler: The Guild and the Swordsman, in: Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Vol. 2 / 2014, p 27-66.

[8] Ann Tlusty: The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany – Civic Duty and the Right of Arms, Palgrave Macmillan – Chippingham and Eastbourne 2011; the wearing of arms as an outward sign of non-bondage status is of course rooted in Germanic tribal law and custom:  Mitteis/Lieberich (Fn 6) Kap 6 II 3., 4. (p 27-28).  It is quite clear that under early medieval legal conceptions, before the notions of pax and treuga gained currency, an arms-bearing individual was entitled and, to some extent, obliged to defend himself; “taking the law in one’s own hands” was not the last, but the first resort.

[9] Http://  In Innerrhoden, women were not accorded suffrage on a cantonal level until 1990, when it was introduced by order of the Federal High Court against the will of the (male) voters.

[10] In the German phrase:  “Er kommt zu Amt und Ehren.”  Wellmann (Fn 4) p 36 offers as one (of the many) meanings of “êr / Ehre” the meaning of Rang (rank, position).

[11] A clue may lie in the “Vorrede an den Leser” of Joachim Meyer’s Kunst des Fechtens (p B1v –, courtesy of, where Meyer writes, after listing the deleterious conduct an honourable fencer should eschew: “… sondern vil­ge­dachte dise kunst gründlich zuuerstehen, und zu erfahren einen rechten erbarn ernst anwenden, sich des vnnützen Bawren­ge­tresch entschlagen, und also aller Männlichkeit zuchte und erbarkeit befleissigen, auff das (wann sie solche kunst sel­bes recht vnd wol erlernt, vnn ein ehrliches leben führen) volgends auch andern vnd sonderlich der jugent für zustehn, vnnd hiemit zu dienen tüchtig mögen erachtet werden”; ref. Jeffrey L. Forgeng: The Art of Combat – A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570, by Joachim Meyer, Greenhill Books – London / Palgrave Macmillan – New York 2006, p 42: “… and instead they will seek to thoroughly understand this art, and to learn to apply a true honourable earnest­ness, to purge themselves of useless peasants’ brawling, and to be diligent in all manliness, disci­pline, and breeding [or respectability], so that when they have truly and fully learnt this art, and lead an honourable life, then they may be thought able to direct others, and particularly the youth, and thereby be of service” [my emphasis].

[12] Heinzpeter Stucki: Das 16. Jahrhundert, in:  Geschichte des Kantons Zürich, Band II – Frühe Neuzeit / 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert, various editors, Werd Verlag – Zürich 1996, p 225-226); by the late 16th C, this social mobility ended and the ruling stratum ossified; Peyer (Fn 6) p 109-111.

[13] Most writers on the subject equate honour with status – which is no doubt correct, so long as “status” is understood in its full legal meaning as the complex of an individual’s privileges and obligations, and not simply as social standing.  Wellmann (Fn 4) does not differentiate between Ehre and Ehren, but he is probably on the mark when he identifies “honour” with social – one is tempted to say “caste” – identity (p 38); in the example Wellmann uses to illustrate the proposition, he offers an 18th C quote that uses “Ehren”: “in einem kleinen Städtgen ist es sehr empfindlich, wenn […] Lotterbuben […] sich in unsere Gesellschaft eindringen und aller Ehren fähig werden” (“in a small town it is quite problematical if [all sorts of social undesirables] force their way in our society and become eligible for all honours”).

[14] Mitteis/Lieberich (Fn 6) Kap 4 I 3 (p 21-22).

[15] Mitteis/Lieberich (Fn 6) Kap 38 I 2 (p 278-279).

[16] An Ehrenstrafe was a separate and additional punishment category and could include tempo­ra­ry or permanent loss of, and ineligibility for, civic office or the right to vote; temporary or permanent deprivation of the right to bear arms was an element of punishment: Tlusty (Fn 8) p 70-76; a Lands­gemeinde­be­schluss of Appen­zell Ausserrhoden of 1541 held that whoever breaches the peace by force of arms (“mit Wehr und Waffen”) shall be deprived of “his arms and armour, both pointy and broken-off” (“… er keinerlei Wehr und Waffen, spitziges noch ab­ge­brochenes, nicht tra­gen wolle…”) and of his honours (“Ehren”) for three years – (Landbuch des lands Abbenzell Außerer Rooden, ca. 1770, Cantonal Library Trogen CM Ms 18, Art 147 on p 98).  See also Peter Schuster, Ehre und Recht, p 54-62, in: Backmann/Künast/Ullmann/Tlusty (Fn 4), p 40-66; Martin Löhnig: “Menschen-Ehre” vs. “Bürger-Ehre” – Eh­ren­strafen an der Schwelle zur Moderne am Beispiel der Bayerischen Strafrechtsgeschichte, in: Achim Geisen­hans­lüke/Martin Löhnig (Hrsg.): Infamie – Ehre und Ehrverlust in litera­rischen und juristischen Diskursen, Rechts­kul­tur Wissenschaft, Band 6, H. Gietl Verlag & Publikationsservice – Regensburg 2011, online under _band_6.pdf, p 37-54.

[17] Defence of one’s honour ranked equal to defence of one’s life for criminal law purposes: N°140 of Charles V.’s Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung of 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (  The provision appears to be common, it appears in virtually the same place and wording in N°165 of the Bamberger Halsgerichtsordnung of 1507 (Hans Pfeil – Bamberg 1507) – which helpfully adds that the defender need not wait until the attacker strikes the first blow, “as many ignorant people believe” (“… als etlich vnverstendig lewt meinen.”).  Typically, mutilation or hard labour such as the galleys (in medieval and early modern times) or incarceration (post-Enlightenment) led to loss of honour, but not always.  In medieval times, the pillory administered by the executioner led to loss of honour, but not otherwise (i.e. the church pillory resulted in a temporary embarrassment, but not a legally relevant loss of honour) – Hermann Bischofberger: Rechtsarchäologie und Rechtliche Volkskunde des eidgenössischen Standes Appenzell Innerrhoden (Diss. Freiburg i. Üe.), Druckerei Bischofberger – Oberegg 1999, p 514-515.  In 19th Century Germany some crimes – e.g. duelling – were sanctioned with a special, non-dishonouring punishment, such as Festungshaft (house arrest at a military installation without forced labour: §§201-210, §17 Strafgesetzbuch für das Deutsche Reich of 1871 (RStGB); see also §20;ür_das_Deutsche_Reich_(1871)#.C2.A7._18.).  Mentioned by Kurt Tucholsky in his 1921 essay: Gib ihm Saures – er kann sich nicht wehren,

[18] A famous literary treatment is Carl Zuckmayer’s socially critical 1931 play Der Hauptmann von Köpenick: Due to a concatenation of circumstances and misguided good intentions, Guards Captain von Schlettow gets arrested for common affray.  Though innocent, he is dishonoured and, without means of regaining his honour, resigns his commission and withdraws to his country estate.  His uniform – and the honour and status attached to it – ends up in a charity shop, where it is acquired by Hans Voigt, the eponymous Hauptmann von Köpenick; text:

[19] US law still practices felony disenfranchisement.

[20] Significantly, Prussia defied the trend – instead of the individualism of the Roman Law and French Revolution (or at least Enlightenment)-inspired codifications based on the Codes Napoléon or the Austrian Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, Prussia relied on its Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußi­schen Staaten (1794, replaced by the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch BGB in 1900).  The ALR enshrined a ständische Ordnung, a feudal law-inspired differentiation of legal regime depending on a person’s status and profession – Mitteis/Lieberich (Fn 6) Kap 39 VI 1 (p 290).  Similarly, Prussian suffrage until 1918 was differentiated according to census (Dreiklassenwahlrecht – e.g. in Essen, Alfred Krupp alone appointed one third of the local city council).

[21] Ref. e.g. the Constitutiones of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII 1310:  “Da zuo sol men in haben vùr meineidig unde eloz unde erlos und von aller werltlicher eren gescheiden.  Er mag ôch mit rehte niemer werden r[ih]ter, vùrspreche noch gezùg noch erbe keines gûtes…” (“In addition he shall be held as perjured and without right or honour and stripped of all worldly honours.  He shall also by rights never again be a judge, advocate nor entitled to appear in court nor heir of an estate…”); online under  Also the Laws and Statutes of Vaud of 1616: “by Peen deß Meineyds / und entsatzung ihrer Ehren / und Emptern” ([a court officer takes bribes] by pain of perjury and loss of their honours and offices…) – facsimile accessible through the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch, 1616 WaadtStat 10.

[22] In du Cange (Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis), the term “fief” (beneficia, praedia) is given as an alter­native meaning of “honores” (, and there is a good argument that “honor” could mean “law, right, prerogative” in High Medieval legal terminology: Schuster (Fn 16) p 42-45.

[23] Judges as a rule had to be at least knights – §1 Reichskammergerichtsordnung of 1495 (  In Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der abenteuerliche Simplizissimus (set during the Thirty Years’ War), Chapter 17 of Book 1 relates an argument between a crusty veteran sergeant and a nobleman; the sergeant complains that many a commoner would make a good officer, as is practice with the Turks and Persians, but the offi­cer ranks are reserved for the nobility.  The nobleman counters that many a commoner in history has acquired high honours though his fighting prowess, but that mostly, by the time a commoner has proved himself – won sufficient honours – to warrant elevation, he is too old to do much good (on-line at

[24]  In some Swiss cantons (e.g. Lucerne), certain government offices were restricted to certain families, the regimentsfähigen Familien; a system developed (“Praktizieren”) where a competent “commoner” was selected for the post, but a scion of a regimentsfähige Familie formally elected with the understanding that the competent commoner would be the actual actor – Peyer (Fn 6) p 111-112.

[25] See the references in Schuster (Fn 16) p 47-50, especially quoting Nicholas of Oresme “mes nientmoins, aucuns telz ou leurs enfants pevent estre peu a peu disposéz a aucune vertu, et venir a estat honorable” (“but nevertheless some of them or their children can bit by bit gain “virtue”, and come to an honourable estate”) – though I believe Schuster here falls into the ‘faux amis’ trap Wellmann (Fn 4) warns about on p 30 in that Schuster assumes “virtus” means “Tugend” (i.e. “virtue” as in “virtuous”), when du Cange shows as meanings “possessio, praedium”.

[26] There is a tendency to see “Ehre” as “symbolic capital” (as coined by Pierre Bourdieu), Sybille Backmann/Hans-Jürg Künast: Einführung, p 15, in: Backmann/Künast/Ullmann/Tlusty (Fn 4), p 13-13; I’d go along with that so long as “symbolic capital” is understood in the legal sense of “intangible assets”.

[27] Refer to the entries under “Ehre” in the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch (

[28] England is a grateful subject for this type of argument since it is the only major jurisdiction remaining in Europe which is constitutionally organised under feudal law (Scotland is organised under Roman Law).  Until the creation of the SRA, the Law Society – a pure professional organisation without any government sanction – organised the exams.

[29] See George Fenwick Jones: Honor in German Literature, The University of North Carolina Press No. 25 (Chapel Hill) 1959, online under; Wellmann (Fn 4); Gei­senhanslüke/ Löhnig: Infamie – Ehre und Ehrverlust in literarischen und juristischen Diskursen (Fn 16).

[30] E.g. Martin Löhnig: “Menschen-Ehre” vs. “Bürger-Ehre” – Ehrenstrafen an der Schwelle zur Moderne am Beispiel der Bayerischen Strafrechtsgeschichte (Fn 16); Schuster (Fn 16).

Jürg Gassmann
My background is in law, with a major academic interest in Roman law. I will happily deal with Roman law and feudal law, and in terms of languages am comfortable with Latin all ages, German all ages (Southern Germany), and modern German, English, French, Italian and some others.