This small review intends to share some of the outcome and to highlight some of the  interesting discussions from the round tables held during the recent event in Saint-Cergue (10-12 January 2014, “Differences and similarities between the teachings of Fiore dei Liberi and Johannes Liechtenauer”) organized by Gagschola.  Panellists were Fabrice Cognot [De Taille et d’Estoc] (Fiore dei Liberi and his followers), Keith Farrell [Academy of Historical Arts] (Johannes Liechtenauer’s glossators and followers), Roman Vucajnk [Academia Artis Dimicatoriae] (late german tradition, especially Joachim Meyer), Rob Runacres [Commilitium Historical Fencing] (late Italian tradition, especially the Bolognese school) and Daniel Jaquet [Gagschola] (moderator).

The Concept

I have witnessed endless and sometimes meaningless debates between HEMA practitioners attempting to compare the “German” and the “Italian” teachings. By organizing this roundtable, I did not intend to put an end to these debates, or offer definitive answers, instead tried to level up the discussions by bringing to the table active researchers able to give their opinions and interpretations from primary source material as well as to provide a small survey of the trends within secondary literature. In my humble opinion, it is worth the try as many practitioners do not bother with primary source studies or secondary literature readings; what they care most about is what they can use from the primary sources in the gym with a weapon simulator in hand. On a more personal note, I think that event organizers should consider this type of formal discussion more, since it can return much more than reading an article or listening to a lecture – providing it has been well organized.

It is not only meant for the participants but can reach a broader audience too. This is the purpose of this review. The 3 hours videos of these roundtables can be watched on YouTube here

… and the commented bibliography list offered to the participants (in French) can also be found on our Gagschola website.

The Comparative Approach

The comparative approach to the source material is a double edged tool. On the one side, it can offer new perspectives on issues for which the study of a single primary source cannot solve, as well as offer new insights or perspectives from the consideration of larger timeframes or spaces; on the other, it may lead to generalizations, dangerous shortcuts or meaningless comparisons if not properly done. The ‘thrusting point’ of this, especially with the roundtable format, leads the speakers, and therefore the audience, to attempt to speak the same language and would offer at least food for thought.

The objective was to confront in the first roundtable the teachings of Fiore dei Liberi and his follower with Liechtenauer’s glossators and followers; in other words 15th c. material. The second roundtable pushed the investigation throughout the 16th c., with Joachim Meyer, as a late follower of Liechtenauer’s tradition, and the rise of Bolognese school. We have tried to focus on the comparison of the systems for the longsword and its outcome into the side sword for later sources.

Here’s a brief outline:

Roundtable 1:

  • Can we talk of a “tradition” considering Johannes Liechtenauer and Fiore dei Liberi ?
  • Presentation of JL and FL (what do we know about the authors, what is the source material at disposal and is it possible to sketch a specific ‘system’ from a technical point of view?)
  • Discussion about point of comparison and dissimilarities.

Roundtable 2:

  • Can we talk of a “tradition” or a “school” when considering late German sources and Bolognese school?
  • Is there a link between Fiore dei Liberi teachings and the Bolognese school, and between Johannes Liechtenauer and late German sources?
  • Presentation of late German tradition and Bolognese school (what do we know about the authors, what is the source material at disposal and is it possible to sketch a specific ‘system’ from a technical point of view?)
  • Discussion about point of comparison and dissimilarities

Below, I propose a small survey of the interesting discussions held, outlined thematically. I did not try to summarise all the developments or answers, since many can be traced back to secondary literature (see bibliographical list) or refer to source material knowledge that most – hopefully –  or some of our readers might already have. If not, you can always watch the tape of the roundtables or read the secondary literature.

Q&A, some of the interesting discussions

  • Meanings of “school” and “tradition”. Are they synonyms, is there a difference, how should we use them to refer to a body of martial knowledge?

This discussion lasted 30 min and went through several definitions. Usually, in our communities both terms are more or less synonymous when referring to a body of martial knowledge. The speakers all agreed that a school is easier to define since it usually refers to one master or a fundamental work. A school can also mean a physical building and two components should be there: masters and students. But it can also refer to a broader ‘school of thoughts’ in the sense of martial body of knowledge over an extended period of time. A school can also deal with several traditions.

‘Tradition’ is understood as being more flexible and harder to define. It is used in academic circles to refer to the study of text throughout the existing witnesses (historical document) and its filiation (philological tradition). Usually in our communities, it is used to refer to the concept of filiation or to define a body of martial knowledge that can evolve throughout time, but which is still represented by or connected to an authority. Would ‘tradition’ be defined by practitioners/students, with a ‘school’ being defined by the authors/teachers?

The limits of applying modern concepts to historical matters has been pinpointed. The concept of ‘heritage’ has been proposed instead of using ‘tradition’ when referring to martial material and its ‘living tradition’. To refer to the martial knowledge put in writing by a specific author, the neutral term of ‘teaching’ is also preferable. In the same direction, the concept of ‘style’ has also been pinpointed in order to identify specific technical skills interpreted from specific source material.

The discussion was raised again to see if we can apply the concepts of school or tradition for J. Liechtenauer, Fiore dei Liberi, the late German tradition and the Bolognese school.

  • Defining and interpreting a body of martial knowledge out of Fightbooks and then comparing them? Limits and benefits.

There are tendencies by HEMAists and researchers to represent themselves as discoverers and to claim to revolutionize the knowledge of HEMA, once they have put forward the results of their work on primary source material and transposed it into the gym. Without attempting to lower the amazing work of the community, we reviewed several limitations that are ignored or acknowledged but consciously put aside.

We know almost next to nothing about the men behind these traditions/schools. Was Johannes Liechtenauer only a figure of authority? Can we really believe every word of the prologue in the different versions of Fiore dei Liberi’s Fightbooks? In general, the lack of scholarly prosopographical research on the matter is stunning, and the fact that it is hard or that we may lack evidence is sometimes just an excuse. The situation is different for later sources, when the writing culture and material was spread more broadly in the 16th c.

Moreover, we are not sure of the involvement of the Fightmaster (the one who possessed the martial knowledge) in the processes of writing it down. A large majority of the remaining Fightbooks were compiled by students or individuals, sometime realized with different actors within a workshop or a press.  Nobody today has undertaken studies on a large corpus of sources on the matter of the role of the Fightmaster in the processes of martial knowledge codification. In fact, most of our sources were not put in writing by the Fightmasters themselves.

Further, as noted by Jan-Dirk Müller (1992), the martial knowledge transmission is usually made through imitation (oral channel with demonstration, imitation and correction), not by writing and reading. So the status of the Fightbook, and especially its overestimated didactic value, can be -must be- put into question (J. Forgeng, 2012). Are the gestures codified even representative or actual (R. Mallinckrodt 2008)? It is a question that is not very popular into our communities.

There are several layers worth considering when it comes to studying Fightbooks. This list is by no mean exhaustive: understanding authorial intents (why, how), establishing the context of application of the techniques (is it meant for a specific purpose or to be applied into a specific situation), restoring it into the historical context (especially with martial ethics and material culture) and comparing it with contemporary Fightbooks (keeping in mind that we work with missing pieces of the puzzle).

  • Difference and similarities between German and Italian traditions

This is what everybody was waiting for, in fact most of the technical comparisons were made during the workshops, but here’s a brief outline of some of the discussions on the matter

Fiore versus Liechtenauer?

First, we cannot really compare the material, since for the Johannes Liechtenauer tradition it comprises more than 60 witnesses between 1389 and 1612, and this tradition has to be considered with several layers (glossators, followers, new trend setters); see also on the matter J.-D. Müller theory of stages (1994). For Fiore dei Liberi there remain four different versions of the Fightbook – three which might have been written during the author’s lifetime – and one lost (M. Malipiero 2006) in addition with one written by his follower Filippo Vadi. The structure, intent and means (codification, movement’s notation) of these Fightbooks build a heterogeneous corpus and we cannot easily draw a picture of each system. We did not have time to go through the cases of the cod. 5278 (ONB, Vienna) and the Ludwig von Eyb Fightbook (as well as the later copy cod. 10799) as possible connections, showing images drawn out of Fiore dei Liberi’s system with German comments.

Comparing those systems is a hard task and they were meant to “work” as a whole, not to be considered in competition. There are known differences, for example, there is apparently (at least not specified in writing) winding movements (winden) by Fiore dei Liberi, when for Johannes Liechtenauer’s tradition it is a fundamental of the system. Keith Farell proposed to work from the five words used to depict the main concept: before, after, strong, weak, instant (vor, nach, hart, weich, indes). Referring to Aristotle (quoted by the first Glossator), a movement is defined by distance and timing. For Fiore dei Liberi, distance seemed critical since he proposed to part the close and large plays (gioco stretto e largo), when timing is expressed by other ways within the plays. Basically, both shared their common interest with the use of the point (ort, punta).

Late German tradition (Joachim Meyer) versus late Italian tradition (Bolognese school)

The changes brought by the printing technology must be taken into consideration, even if manuscripts were still produced during the same era. The German tradition has to be considered case-by-case depending of different authorial intents (Pauernfeyndt, Mair and Meyer didn’t try to achieve the same thing). They are still referring to Johannes Liechtenauer’s teachings are doubtless rooted into the 15th c. teachings, but they tend to modify the style and the delivery of style. Meyer being considered (but hints already present by Pauernfeyndt), the focus appear to be more and more about a specific context of application (proto-sport, fencing schools, fighting your co-citizen without the use of thrust for example). The same focus appeared by Italian source providing rules for competition with point attribution relatively early and their attention brought to courtly fighting styles and the sprezzatura. Compared to German tradition, the Italian sources bear less connections to earlier Fightbooks, apart from the terminology in use. The fact that German sources usually focus more on revival and conservation of ancient tradition of fighting (the will to record and/or actualize fighting styles) has been put forward, when Italian sources tends to break away from their roots to be more turned onto the future.

This is why the Fightbooks must be studied next to crucial social elements, which shifted the technical discourse into something specific to be parted from medieval Fightbooks. The codified violence, the importance of weapon carrying culture, the revolution that led both aristocratic circles and lower social strata to duelling culture is as important to understand as how and why you put your finger across the ricasso of the sidesword during the different technological phases that may have influenced the transformation from single sword into rapier at the beginning of the 17th c.

The side sword section of Joachim Meyer (so-called Rapir) was considered next to Bolognese side sword within the transitional phases occurring on the technical discourse by early Bolognese sources (Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino) to later ones (Angelo Viggiani, Giovanni dall’Agocchie), considering the shift between courtly fight and deadly fight as well as the possible communality of Spanish sources with the latter.

Epilogue – more roundtables…

It is almost impossible to come to a conclusion out of these discussions. Our attempt to a broad comparative approach was maybe too large, but it definitely showed that this kind of working process, linking academic level roundtables with comparative workshops, was worth the try. Some of the participants confessed that it was an eye-opener or at least that it gave food for thought, both intellectually and martially. We have gathered during the roundtables many subjects that would have taken us out of the core discussion but which could be further topics for roundtables. I will be happy to share that list with an event organizer: please contact me.