The procession arrives at the square. Publicans erects their tents and tap their barrels. Musicians collect into bands, and other performers wander the incoming crowd. Dominating the center of the square is a square fence, large enough to host several pairs of fencers at once.

Spectators gather while fencers warm up.

The host, known throughout the city as a skilled fencer and honorable gentleman, comes forward, waiting for the crowd to quiet. As the Pritchmeister attempts to control the crowd, the Fechmeister demonstrates a complex flourish with his sword. This is followed by sword-dances, mock battles by two fencers held on platforms made of interleaved swords.

Sword Dance of the Cutler’s Guild, 1600

After the opening ceremonies, the rules are read. A judge, a Schutzhalter, comes forward, addressing the crowd and relating the rules. Guards, helms shining over polished breastplates, make themselves known. They would levy fines, stop fights, and boot spectators or fencers from the festivities if necessary. When occasion demanded it, they or the Pritchmeister would administer comic beatings to people in the crowd with practice dussacks or shovels as a form of shaming.

Tents erected, the beer starts flowing. Barber-surgeons, on hand to treat injuries, place placards outside their tents. Civic luminaries are given prominent seats in a gallery, and townsfolk cram into high windows around the square and jostle for room by the barriers for a good view.

After the fencers warm up, the Platz is cleared of all but the Schutzhalter and any other judges—staffs in hand—and a single fencer. He is the Vorfechter, chosen especially by the Fechtmeister for his skill, martial bearing, and experience. He holds his weapon above his head: a longsword, blunted and foiled, its grip worn from use and sweat.

From the waiting competitors, another fencer emerges, longsword above his head. They meet, and from several body lengths away, they salute one another. The first fencer is a baker, his challenger a butcher. Their guilds and any interested onlookers cheer. The Schutzhalter talks to them both, making sure they’re clear on the rules, ensuring there’s no known animosity between the two men. Satisfied, he steps back, raises his staff, and shouts.

The fencers close, and swing.


Fechtschulen were open to citizens, and citizenship had different expectations in the 16th century. Not only did it obligate the citizen for service in the city militia—which involved performing soldierly tasks, night watch, and firefighting—it was also tightly bound to guild structure, as was civic government. The basic economic unit was the household, headed by a patrician who was the husband, father, and primary earner. He likely would have been apprenticed as a boy, was raised to skill within his master’s guild, proven himself as a journeyman, and settled somewhere as a member of the guild and made a citizen through that relationship. Status within the guild often led directly to power outside it, as city councils were predominantly made of powerful members of each of the city’s guilds.1

The interplay between freeman, guild leadership, civic leadership, and nationality was complicated. Historians have long maintained that the 16th century intensified the social dynamics that led to the birth of the modern state, but in the Holy Roman Empire, power was typically diffused through powerful principalities, free cities, guild structures, and religious hierarchies.2 Tension between old aristocracies, the rising power of the Burghers, and continual, if ultimately unsuccessful, agitation on behalf of the peasantry kept power from being collected centrally, which was a dynamic unique to the Holy Roman Empire and argued by some to be by design.3

The household as a whole received privileged status, even if all of its members were not necessarily citizens. Guilds often had a social support framework upon which widows could draw in the event of the death of their husband. The guilds would often assist the household with small pensions, and would help to arrange another marriage, usually to an unmarried man within the guild itself. Joachim Meyer was married to Appolonia Ruhlman (Rulmennin) in this way, as she was a recent widow of a fellow cutler, Jacob Wickgaw. The marriage not only helped to stabilize Appolonia’s household under a new primary earner, but also allowed Joachim Meyer to become a citizen of Strassburg.

Citizens and citizenship was a core conception of class society in the period, and projected into every facet of civic life. Citizens were simultaneously men of interest to their community—meaning that they usually had some economic stake in their community’s welfare—as well as that community’s night watchman, firefighter, paramedic, police officer, and generally what modern society would term “first responder.” Night watchmen walked the walls to  keep an eye out for enemies as well as enforced local laws and customs, watched for fires and fought them at need, walked the streets at night and called the hour, and kept public order at need. Each guild, based on its size, wealth, and power, was allotted a specific number of men it had to furnish for the protection of the city, and through the guild, men received their assignments.4

Typically, a man might have to serve a watch once a week or fortnight, but was bound by law to keep and maintain sufficient arms and armor necessary for the purpose. Such arms and armor varied by period and region, but the general trend at the beginning of the 16th century usually involved a crossbow or firearm, a sidearm, and a polearm. By the end of the century, it was nearly universally required that men own a working firearm, sidearm, and pike. Regulations prevented men from lending them or borrowing them, and also expressly prohibited selling their weapons.5

It was thus a matter of law and custom that men were armed, and their duties to their community also carried the expectation that they would respond violently to threats against their community as they would to threats against their person, property, or honor. By defending their honor, person and property, they protected their household, and by protecting their household they protected their community, guild, city, and nation. Given this complex system of reciprocal rights and responsibilities, to say nothing of the idealized philosophy behind them, meant that men were expected to bear arms for personal as well as civic reasons. Firearms, though common in the era, were seldom carried on one’s person, whereas swords, especially those easily carried on the hip, like the dussack and rapier,6 were seldom far from a Burgher’s reach.

Bearing arms implied the willingness to use them, and demanded that willingness be backed with skill. The Fechtschule presented an opportunity for men of virtue to publicly assert their skill in front of an audience, risking injury, death, dishonor, the loss of social rank, judicial punishment, or financial ruin. Though the Fechtschule was undeniably a sport, the possible consequences for misbehavior or mischance are far more dire than any modern historical martial arts tournament or sporting event.

In this way, the Fechtschule functioned as an expression of the virtues, ambitions, goals, and ideals of the Burgher class as the older knightly tournament did for the military aristocracy. Stephen Hardy, in his research on the knightly tournament, argues: “Sport has often both mirrored and conditioned many aspects of particular social classes; change in one has often affected change in the other. The tournament and the medieval upper class appear to have been related in this way.7 The joust, its objective to capture and ransom opponents through rules structured to safeguard the lives of its participants, deliberately paralleled knightly warfare and promoted martial chivalric virtues, “not only mirrored the values and life style [sic] of the class, it actually conditioned them.8

The Fechtschule was deliberately constructed to give men of the arms-bearing middling classes the opportunity to show off their skills in a manner that did not disrupt the community. Deaths were possible but unlikely, and conventions against striking at the hands or groin limited the possibility of traumatic injury and ensured that fencers would be able to return to productivity within their guild the next day. This dynamic was also nationalistic, as Meyer frequently mentions that thrusting—emblematic for him of the restrictions of the Fechtschule, as well as legal custom9 —was abolished “among us Germans” leading to speculation that thrusting against foreigners was expected and permitted. This must be viewed in terms of the community for which Meyer was writing: urban Burghers, members and economic actors within a guild and city. To demonstrate skill and “manfulness,” a fencer would have to show not only that he was a talented fencer, but also a restrained fencer, capable of controlling himself and his emotions enough to hit with just enough force to break the skin and nothing else.

The rules varied Fechtschule to Fechtschule, but there are a few prominent commonalities. Strikes were permitted to the head alone, while the use of the point and the pommel, strikes to the groin, kicks, and wrestling (or einlauffen), arm-breaking and eye gouging were all disallowed.10 Some Fechtschulen further disallowed “unmanly” or dishonest conduct; reinforcing the cultural values that fencers were supposed to embody.11

Another typical behavior was the Fechterspruch or Fechtreime, a short poem recited prior to the bout that would show the fencer as literate and clever, in addition to courageous and graceful. The class implications of fencers competing in poetic duels prior to their physical duels are obvious; it shows that, far more than mere soldiers—who were considered by 16th century standards as amoral vagrants at best—the men competing were gentlemen worthy of respect for their physical as well as intellectual capacity. An Augsburg weaver, Simprecht Kröll, wrote a brief record of a handful of Fechtschulen in Augsburg during 1551 and 1552, and recorded a Fechterspruch at the end of each entry. A typical example was: “I take joy in God, and in my art; I don’t care what’s in my opponent’s heart. Come what may, I strike away.12

Proper conduct is difficult to fully reconstruct, but there are implications in Meyer’s treatise, among other places.

“The True Craft is found here above all, in which the combatant’s reason, acuity, shrewd consideration, judiciousness, skillfulness, and manfulness can be seen and manifests itself, since here the art depends upon the person, so that a poor device will be executed by an ingenious mindful person much more usefully in the work, than the best one will be executed by a fool.”13

Mindfulness, judiciousness, and manfulness would combine when two fencers strove to defeat the other, and would create between the two “a wonderful struggle” that Meyer sought to emphasize. This idea of manfulness embodies all of the cultural virtues previously discussed: it was an idea that a man’s behavior and performance was a visible indicator of their internal virtue, which also reflected their guild, city, and family. Manfulness can also be understood as embodying physical grace and a wrathful comportment, which is explicitly encouraged by the postures in Meyer’s system.14

Vom Tag is emblematic of the large, open postures that represent an ideal masculine bearing Further restrictions were intended to forestall personal disputes. Known adversaries were prevented from fencing one another, and occasionally entire groups were barred from fencing or spectating the Fechtschulen, as the risk of earnest fights exploding into widespread violence was considered too great.15 Some Fechtschulen did not allow students or Marxbruder to enter. Students were a unique case, because the diffusion of authority in Europe in the Early Modern period often placed students under university laws instead of local city laws. Students tended to be young, unmarried, unsupervised men who traveled together in rowdy groups, which was a surefire recipe for mass violence.16The local guards—most of whom were local guildsmen—were forced to police them with no technical legal authority to do so.

Preventing the Marxbruder from competing had class connotations as well as pragmatic intentions. While the relationship between the Marxbruder and the Furrier’s guild argues for a strong Burgher presence within the brotherhood, the higher focus on fencing texts written by self-identified Marxbruder on both mounted and harness fencing suggests that these works were aimed at a much more affluent audience than those of the Freifechter.17 Possibly spurred by these apparent class differences, there was longstanding public animosity between the Marxbruder and the Freifechter.

This animosity did not always result in violence. For instance, Freifechter Georg Oswald Gernreich, a Nuremburg student, travelled to Strassburg in 1559 and hung a wooden placard inscribed with this provocative poem:

God and all Students are Friends,

And those of the Saint Marks Brotherhood and all Furriers, are enemies.

The Marxbruder complained and the placard was brought down.18

Lastly, rules were often posted to control the behavior of the crowd. Spectators, usually common folks of the town, always threatened to undermine the serious nature of the Fechtschule:

“… it has been found that many people under the commonality thus watch the fencing through heretofore established ordinances, with untempered frolicking, throwing shames, hat and coat waving, clowning around, and also other dishonorable behaviors around the fencing master.”

Spectators would be fined for such activity, as well as being revealed as dishonest to their guild.19

Similar social censure applied to the fencers, who would be judged not necessarily on their victories, but on their conduct as a whole. The same ordinances quoted above included the requirement that fencers “shall know how to meet each other well, and will be at liberty to do so, prior to proving themselves respectable and honest.” This suggests that proving themselves respectable and honest happened as they fenced, not before. Guards were permitted to levy fines among fencers and among the spectators, especially where “the fencing goes hard against each other,” or where there might be hostility between individuals.20 

Given all these restrictions, what constituted a victory, apart from manfully embodying the virtues of an entire class? There were two types of Fechtschulen: wet and dry. Dry bouting is never explicitly described, and has been hypothesized as a style of fencing that would not draw blood. Wet bouting, on the other hand, meant that victory would be awarded to the fencer who struck their opponent a bleeding wound on the head, a “bloom.” For this reason, hats were often not allowed in the Fechtschule, as it would obscure the formation of the bleeding wound, and it would force their opponent to strike harder in order to meet the victory conditions.

Both types took considerable skill against an unwilling opponent, but wet bouting also necessitated a particular application of force: break skin but do no more harm. Hitting too lightly would waste a good opportunity, while hitting too hard could kill your opponent. Accidental or not, causing the death of a fencer at a Fechtschule was dealt with in the same manner as a duel, and the killer subject to legal penalties up to and including execution for murder.

Men at Fechtschulen put themselves on public display. This was meant not only to reflect the ancient traditions of combat competitions, but also reinforces contemporary ideals about masculine identity: men could read, write, and compose as elegantly as they were expected to fence. Skill at arms, education, social grace, and honorable comportment all together rolled into the masculine ideal of manfulness, and all was subject to public and legal scrutiny at the Fechtschule.



  1. Guggisberg, 6 []
  2. The historiographic consensus regarding the inability to form a cohesive, centralized state in the HRE has long been represented as a failure, as if the HRE was unable to collect power in a manner consistent with, for instance, the Hapsburg powers in Spain and France. Recent historiography, however, has taken aim at the claim and instead suggests that the lack of coordinated central power was something that many powerful entities within the empire desired and worked toward. See Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe for the most recent and persuasive of these arguments. []
  3. The unique social position of the Burgher class is partly a product of two revolts in the 1520s, in the early stages of the Reformation: The Knight’s Revolt in 1522-23 and the Peasant’s War of 1524-25. Given the social agitation in the estates above and below them, the steady, hardworking Burgher had a reason to believe themselves the sole voices of reason in a world turned upside down. []
  4. Tlusty, Martial Ethic, 16. []
  5. Tlusty, Martial Ethic, 47. []
  6. Meyer tells us that the dussack was the most commonly used sword behind the longsword, but whether this is in reference to their use in the Fechtschule or their use in earnest matters is unclear. []
  7. Stephen H. Hardy, “The Medieval Tournament: A Functional Sport of the Upper Class,” 92. []
  8. Hardy, 101. []
  9. The restriction on thrusting, even in earnest matters, will be discussed in a future article. []
  10. VanSlambrouck, “Some references of Fechtschule restrictions,” table 7. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.21689.21601 []
  11. Maurer, “Insights in the Fechstchulen” []
  12. Tlusty, “Martial Identity,” 552 []
  13. Forgeng, 44. []
  14. According to Meyer, the postures are “graceful but also necessary positioning and comportment of the whole body with the sword.” []
  15. Maurer, “Insights in the Fechtschulen” []
  16. Tlusty, Martial Ethic, 54. []
  17. A future article will cover these two traditions in more detail. []
  18. Maurer, “Who Were the Freifechter?” []
  19. Maurer, “Insights into the Fechtschulen.” []
  20. Maurer, “Insights into the Fechtschulen.” []