There is a particular tension at play in the modern Historical European Martial Arts community regarding the the early and later period expressions of the German fighting system known as Kunst Des Fechtens or “Art of Fencing.” The former is dominated by the Gesellschaft Liechtenauer, a set of masters and teachers that have a direct relationship to the zettel, Grandmaster Liechtenauer’s mnemonic poem that forms the framework and basis for our understanding of German swordsmanship; the latter is associated most directly with the works of Joachim Meyer, a craftsman and citizen of Strassburg in the later part of the 16th century. The study of the Kunst des Fechtens has ossified into camps that primarily study either the early tradition or the later, with little interest in studying the relationship between the two. The Liechtenauer tradition has been branded as the more “lethal” martial art, with Meyer as a sport-master, teaching students tricks for the “sword game” popular at the time of his teaching.
Neither image is accurate. Some of the earliest masters in the Liechtenauer tradition openly discuss non-lethal fencing competitions, or Fechtschulen, and give advice to their readers on how to behave when participating. Meyer wrote for an audience who were expected to engage with violence with sword, dagger, and polearm, even if certain aspects of his treatise imply use at a Fechtschule. It would be tempting to stop there, regarding Meyer’s art and his Fechtschulen as categorically “sport.” However, this is a modern context projected onto a thoroughly alien culture, and leads to the question: what exactly does sport mean to the Early Modern citizen of the Holy Roman Empire? What were Fechtschulen like, and what role did they serve for fencers of the time?
Fechtschulen are emblematic of a change in fencing culture that started in the early 16th century and reached its height by the end of that century. Reflective not only of military theory but of cultural values and masculine ideals, Fechtschulen were lavish public events that were reflective of the rising social and economic power of the Burgher class. Taking up the role of “those who fight” as well as keeping aspects of “those who work,” Burghers sought to earn renown and demonstrate martial efficacy by tying their masculine identity with their skill at arms.
This essay is the first of a series intended to contextualize the teachings of Joachim Meyer and Fechtschulen for modern historical fencers, and to place Meyer firmly in a broader branch of the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer, the Freifechter tradition. A secondary purpose is to add to contextual literature in an approachable way to encourage the study of historical martial arts as expressions of the culture that birthed and maintained them. Understanding the Fechtschule is crucial to understanding both the martial and sport culture of the late 16th century Holy Roman Empire, and more specifically to understanding Joachim Meyer’s treatises, as well as those of his Freifechter progenitors. Other articles in this series will address different aspects of the Freifechter tradition.
The Fechtschule is not a quiet affair, it is a spectacle, filling the streets of Strassburg with music and voices. Musicians, pounding drums and trilling flutes, lead a parade of citizens, the music a deliberate mimicry of the martial soundscape. The musicians are dressed lavishly, silks and fine wools of every color, overtopped with huge feathers. At their sides they carry swords, polished and shining, swinging with every step.1 Behind them come the fencers. Similarly dressed in expansive pluderhosen, brightly colored and embroidered doublets, feathered hats, they look—quite deliberately—like soldiers on the march. Some carry polearms, their staffs or halberds on their shoulders, and some wear breastplates. All of them carry swords, and most carry more than one. Swinging at their sides are the complex hilts of rapiers or dussacks while in their arms they carry blunted, foiled practice swords.
For all their military appearance, these are not soldiers. They are tradesmen, guild members, citizens who are the lifeblood of commerce in the city, the heads of the households that are the economic unit of the Holy Roman Empire. Today they march side by side with actors and singers, dancers and musicians, publicans and food peddlers. Even children as young as seven, dressed in smaller versions of the fencer’s outfits, wooden dussacks in hand, march along in the parade.
Among the crowd one can see prominent local citizens. There, a member of the butcher’s guild, along with several apprentices, carries an enormous sausage, specially prepared for the day.2 Other guilds are present as well, representatives of the citizenry and the civic authorities, as the guild leadership heavily overlaps with civic leadership. The four Herenzünfte, the gentleman’s guilds, are in attendance, representing the Schlüssel or tradesmen guilds, the Hausgenossen or merchant and banker’s guilds, the Weinleute or wine sellers, and the Saffran, the textile and publisher’s guilds. Behind them march the eleven guilds of the Handwerkerzünfte, the craft and artisans guilds. These last make up the bulk of the parade and the bulk of the fencers.3
Their appearance is deliberately martial. Music and lavish dress, ordered parades and public spectacle were all major parts of warfare in the 16th century. Even the social order is described in martial terms: the civic government in the Holy Roman Empire was often described as a “Zunftregiment” or guild government, in terms expressly intended to evoke a military spirit.4 But today they are not marching toward war, conquest or salvation.
They march to the city square, for today’s Fechtschule.
In an earlier era—as well as to a modern eye—this lavish spectacle is at odds with the typical conception of Fechtschulen: that these “fencing schools” were little more than sportified imitations of the duel, or, worse, ridiculous comic romps, sideshows to far more serious public festivals.5 This Fechtschule, however, is taken very seriously. Among the marching crowd there stands a man, dressed and armed like all the others, different only perhaps in recognition of his martial skill and experience. Today, he is the Fechtmeister; the host, referee, and sponsor. He is a recognized fencing Master and has petitioned the civic government for the right to hold today’s event.
The process of throwing a major event like the one described above was long and complicated. Fechtschulen involved mixing various groups of people with known animosities—such as the Marxbruder and Freifechter—together in a public space. These conditions risked turning personal quarrels into city-wide violence, such as riots or, worse, pogroms. To throw a Fechtschule, the prospective master would have to be vetted by the town council for their experience and skill.
This vetting often included the fencing master issuing a standing challenge to all fencers in the area to come and fence them. If given permission to hold their Fechtschule, the petitioner was then responsible for publicizing the event in a “sober” manner and was warned to avoid “fiery” language in their handbills that might promote public disorder.6
Fechtschulen were not unusual events. While the huge public festivals with parades and ancillary games were far from the norm, requests to hold Fechtschulen could be as common as once a month, and were likely to be much more humble affairs with a smaller number of fencers.7 Even small, private events were siphoned through a legal process to ensure that the ostensibly friendly event would not erupt into violence. This was a precaution shared with weddings and other private affairs, as the combination of armed men and alcohol always had the potential for personal problems to become general.
The petitioner’s status was important, and the rank or title of “Master” could be controversial. By the end of the 15th century, the Brotherhood of Saint Mark, were given official status as the sole fencer’s guild in the Holy Roman Empire.8 As part of their purview, they were given the legal monopoly to confer upon others the rank of “Master of the Longsword.”9 The Marxbruder monopoly did not prevent others from claiming an equivalent skill, and records from Strassburg and other cities show that requests for holding Fechtschulen in the 1560s and 70s often came from those who described themselves as Freifechter, or Free-Fencer.10
Within the Marxbruder, the title Freifechter was the equivalent of a journeyman, indicating that fencer was skilled enough to journey throughout Europe, learning and teaching as they went. This dynamic comfortably overlaps with the oft-repeated claim of Fechtbuch authors that they spent time travelling throughout distant lands, learning the art of combat from a diverse and unnamed collection of masters.11 This may be a rhetorical device, as the Holy Roman Empire and neighboring regions had a great many cities with a large and diverse population. Basel, for instance, a Swiss city on the Rhine River and Joachim Meyer’s city of birth, had a large foreign population, a burgeoning print culture, and was known as a center of art, learning, and commerce.12 It is feasible that Meyer may have learned fencing skills from foreigners within the city without the need to travel.
Historians have accepted that Freifechter may mean both a rank within the Marxbruder and status outside the brotherhood,13 but there was a clear and persistent public animosity between Freifechter and Marxbruder, arguing that Freifechter denoted fencers who stood away from the imperial privilege. There are parallels outside fencing culture: at the start of the century, when print culture began to accelerate, printers proudly kept the practice Zunftfrei, or guild-free. Printing was not considered a trade or commodity, but an art, or artistic activity, aimed at enriching the world as a whole.14
The parallels between print culture and fencing culture are clear, at least in rhetorical conception. If the Marxbruder sought social prominence through organization as a guild or, at least, a religious order,15 then the Freifechter were clearly reacting against that notion, and stood as embodiments of the “Free Knightly Arts” and somewhat proudly rejected the necessity of working through or for a guild, or other organized brotherhood. The title Freifechter, then, meant something to an individual, an assertion of ancient rights and privileges—as well as duties—associated with that freedom.
The Reformation was a major influence in the social promotion of the Burgher classes, whose prominence rose as the earlier “knightly” classes fell. The nobility still existed, of course, and was still a major element in the cultural conception of class.
While the nobility was still respected and privileged, it was the Burgher class that saw the most social elevation in the period. There was a peculiar tension between the Burgher class and the nobility, as arms-bearing and the social burden of military action had long belonged to the nobility, and humbler classes sought approval of the nobility at Fechtschulen to legitimize their new social prominence. But Burghers, too, sought to demonstrate their own martial efficacy at the same time.16 The Burgher’s assumption of these rights characterized the 16th century, and led to what historians have specified as the high point of the association between individual freemen and military virtue and skill with weapons.17
It was in the Fechtschule where many men sought to embody their duties by displaying their skill with weapons.
- This is a fictional scene, presented as an amalgamation of details taken from a number of different Fechtschulen from the late 16th century. [↩]
- Kevin Maurer, “Insights into the Fechtschulen of the Marxbruder and Federfechter Guilds” [↩]
- Hans R. Guggisberg, Basel in the Sixteenth Century: Aspects of the City Republic before, during, and after the Reformation, 6. [↩]
- Guggisberg, 7. [↩]
- For reference, see Johannes Lecküchner’s Messer treatise of the earlier century: actions specifically stated to be useful for a Fechtschule are often explicitly described as comical or ridiculous, which implies that the Fechtschule of the earlier century was much less serious. [↩]
- B. Ann Tlusty, “Martial Identity and the Culture of the Sword in Early Modern Germany,” in Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books, 551. [↩]
- Tlusty, “Martial Identity,” 551. [↩]
- Ann Tlusty gives the date as “sometime prior to 1487” in “Martial Identity and the Culture of the Sword,” 555. Kevin Maurer gives the date at 1487 in “Insights into the Fechtschule,” and other sources place the date as 1491 [↩]
- Kevin Maurer, “Who Were the Freifechter?” [↩]
- Maurer, “Who Were the Freifechter?” [↩]
- For example, Fiore de’i Liberi, the 15th century Italian fencing master, wrote that “I learned these skills from many German and Italian masters and their senior students, in many provinces and many cities, and at great personal cost and expense.” It was written in the Nuremberg Hausbuch that Liechtenauer: “had traveled through many lands. And through that sought the legitimate and truthful art for the sake that he would experience and know it.” Both quotes taken from Wiktenauer. [↩]
- Guggisberg, 39. [↩]
- Tlusty, “Martial Identity,” 555. [↩]
- Guggisberg, 10. [↩]
- Tlusty claims that the Marxbruder were formed on the basis of a religious confraternity in “Martial Identity,” 552. [↩]
- For a similar discussion of the petty lords and their subservience to and independence from the princes, see The Feud in Early Modern Germany by Hillay Zmora [↩]
- Tlusty, “Invincible Blades and Invulnerable Bodies,” 658. [↩]