When we hear how people describe the art of fencing in the Middle Ages, we often hear them say that it was all about fighting to the death, or at least to harm the opponent in a way that he couldn’t continue fighting. Preferably as quickly as possible. Kill him before he kills you, that’s the way to survive. In fact, I personally think that this notion is utter nonsense. There may have been individual duels like that, no doubt, but in my opinion that was not the prime intention of the masters. So let me invite you to dig a bit deeper and explore why people fight and what that might tell us about the arts we practice.

Most HEMA practitioners today can explain quite clearly, why they fight. It is challenging, it is demanding, it is fun. But what was it like back in the day when Liechtenauer’s teachings were written down? What was the actual purpose of a duel in the times of Peter von Danzig or Jude Lew? Why did the duellists risk their physical integrity and what was their aim? I’m convinced that many discussions we have in modern HEMA are actually linked to these questions, and the answers may be controversial.

First of all, let us make no mistake about one crucial thing: humans are social beings and most have a strong sense of empathy. Only a very small minority could kill without remorse – and those individuals, the very rare actual psychopaths, do not display what we call normal human behaviour. Throughout history, societies created their respective moral systems, which all had in common that they penalized the act of killing or inflicting serious harm. We all grew up within such a moral system ourselves and we stick to its rules. So when it comes to the subject of killing in direct hand to hand combat, we have virtually no experience of what we’re actually talking about (and let’s take it for granted that Hollywood won’t be of much help either – rather to the contrary).

So we need to approach violence from a more distant, scientific perspective and learn from those who actually have experienced violence in the real world, and extensively at that. The works of Rory Miller (author of „Meditations on Violence“ and „Facing Violence“) have proven very valuable in this regard. He distinguishes two basic types of violence: social and asocial or predatory violence.

  • Social violence takes place within a social group. It happens among people who have at least some sort of social interaction. It could be domestic violence or the typical bar fight, which according to Miller can be rated as „Monkey Dancing“: fights for dominance and hierarchy. These fights are scripted, actions and escalation follow a specified pattern. They address people personally, their individual role within society is directly connected to the act of violence.
  • Asocial or predatory violence on the other hand is not personal. Examples for this type are crimes like robbery or rape. Aggressors use force – or threaten to use it – to get what they want. Any harm done to the victim is an accepted side effect but usually no benefit in itself. But even criminals have empathy, so they prepare mentally for what they are about to do. They (maybe unconsciously) use techniques to block emotional bonds to their victims and they find excuses and explanations for their acts. If they have a long criminal record, this is part of their daily business and they’re probably good at it.

This differentiation may seem a bit artificial, but it has important implications: if you manage to escape from predatory violence, you have usually solved the problem. Avoiding social violence however, would in many cases be seen as a sign of submission – and if you were a noble ruler in late medieval Europe that would threaten your authority.

Possession of land was linked to the obligation to defend it and defending it meant to be skilled in using weapons. But displaying these skills does not require any killing. What the manuscripts on Liechtenauer’s teachings deal with, are strictly dueling situations. These fights are prepared. The fencers are equipped equally and they know who they are facing. Most probably there will be audience. It is clearly not an act of predatory violence. Building a reputation means that social rules do apply.

Fights for dominance or hierarchy have a long tradition in the evolutionary process we all result from. It’s a common thing among mammals. These fights can be intense and quite bloody, but they are never designed to be lethal or maiming: it wouldn’t make sense, it would deprive the group of its strongest individuals. The same logic works for medieval Europe. If you have to defend your land it’s pointless to encourage people to kill each other in organized duels. The surviving social groups will have agreements against killing – or put a ban on these fights altogether if fatalities exceed the social tolerance (Rory Miller even claims that killing in a dominance fight is against human nature on a genetic level!).

However, even if killing/maiming is not the aim of either participant, the duel is still a dangerous situation. The risk for physical harm is still high and if you fail to show your qualities it could have grave social consequences. Removing the aim to do serious harm does by no means make these encounters „the sporty stuff“. If disabling is against the norm, it gets even more complicated. You would not only be concerned about your own health, you’d want to make sure your opponent isn’t injured too badly either! But remember, you still have to show your dominance. This requires a far greater level of control than hitting without fearing any consequences – which is what we do today, thanks to protective gear and blunt simulators. Just a side note for consideration: blunt weapons would have reduced this dilemma even in the 15th century. We just like to imagine the swords were sharp. In fact, we actually find very little solid evidence for that in the Liechtenauer tradition’s manuscripts. But that’s another topic.

So what do the books actually say? Since we’re dealing with the intentions of the authors, let’s look at some forewords:

Hs. 3227a (Nürnberger Hausbuch, 1389) 44 A 8 (Peter von Danzig, 1452)
JVng Ritter lere / got lip haben / frawen io ere / So wechst dein ere / Vebe ritterschaft vnd lere / Kunst dy dich czyret vnd in krigen sere hofiret / Ringe~s gut fesser / glefney sper swert vnde messer / Menlich bederben / vnde in andñ henden vorterben / Haw dreyn vnd hort dar / rawsche hin trif ader la varn / Das in dy weisen hassen dy man siet preisen / Dor auf dich zoße / alle ding haben limpf lenge vnde moße | Junck ritter lere | Got lieb haben frawen | Jü ere | So wechst dein ere | vbe° ritterschafft vnd lere | kunst die dich zÿret | vnd in kriegen | zu° eren hofieret | Ringe~s gu°t fesser glefen sper swert | vnd messer | Mandleich bederbñ | vnd In anderñ henden verderben | Haw drein | vnd hürtt dar | Rausch hin trif oder la faren | Das in die weysen | hassen die man sicht preÿsen | Dar auff dich fasse | Alle ku~st haben leng | vnd masse
Cod.I.6.4o.3 (Jude Lew, ca. 1450) Mscr. Dresd. C 487 (Sigmund Ringeck, early 16th century?)
Ju°nck ritter lern got lieb hab frawen vnd junckfrawen ere So wechst dein lere Vnd lern dinck das sich zieret Vnd in kriegen ser hofieret Ringens gute fesser Gleuen swert vnd messer Manlichen bederben Vnd In andern henden verderben Hawe drein vnd triffe dar lasse hengen vnd lasse far Das man dein weis Müg maisterlichen preis Jungk ritter lere Got liebhaben fröwen ia ere so wöchse dein are ere Kunst die dich ziert In kriegen zu° ern hoffiertRinges gütt fesset Glefen sper schwert vnd messer / manlich bederben Haw drin hart dar Rausch hin triff ode~ las farñ daß in die wÿsen / hassen den man sicht brÿsen Daruff dich fasse / alle kunst haben lenge vñ masse

I’ll try to translate and summarize them all in one step. They all start with pretty much the same words: „Young knight, learn to love God and honour the women, in that way your honour will grow. [Please note: you should love God and honour the women. Don’t mix it up.] Train knighthood and learn arts that grace you and greatly flatter in wars. Wrestle well, practice glaive, spear, sword and Messer manly and firmly, which are spoiled in other hands.” Observe the verbs used in the very first instructions: learn, love, honour, train and learn again (Ringeck and Lew differ from this slightly). Then they list the required arts and weapons and encourage a strong and manly use to separate from the untrained (only Ringeck skips the last bit).

They continue: „Hit forth and keep safe, rush forward or let go, so that the wise will envy you and you will see them praise. Conclude: all arts have length and measures.“ (in this case, Lew’s version is somewhat shorter than the other three) I’m fully aware that two details here are ambiguous and that you will find different translations elsewhere:

  • The „hort/hürtt/hart dar“ can mean anything from „keep safe“ or „get hard“ to „attack“. In context with „rush forward or let go“ I clearly favour the rather defensive interpretation, because pointing out two opposing options would perfectly support the statement that all arts have their right measures and proportions.
  • „Hassen“ is usually translated as „hate“, which makes me wonder why it should be desirable to be hated by the wise. However, „hassen“ can also mean „chase after / pursue“ or even „envy“ (according to Hennig). To me, that makes a lot more sense.

Regarding this, I see a strong emphasis on learning, training, respecting social values and keeping proportionality. And this would be reasonable. The nobility, the people the fencing masters were addressing, had to be proficient leaders in war and peace. This takes more than brute force. It requires reason, risk handling abilities, diplomatic skills and a profound knowledge of social rules – after all, it was a common thing to settle territorial struggles by marriage…

What could make more sense than training all these skills and putting them all to the test by competing in the art of fencing? I’m convinced that the introductory lines tell us just that. By focusing primarily on hitting, modern HEMA falls short of the actual aims in a knightly duel. I’m not denying that most of master Liechtenauer’s fencing techniques could be used to kill or maim. I’m just pointing out that it is highly disputable if that was their main purpose. We have become very good at perfecting our moves and physiology. We should take some time, think a bit out of the box, and question if we’re marching in the right direction.

In my opinion, the duels in the late Middle Ages had the function to prove that you could perform well in what is asked of you in the introduction. Impress the masters who are watching. Show that you have been trained extensively by a skilled fencer. Be versatile and use different techniques you have exercised. Be safe, try to dominate, but don’t end the fight too quickly or you won’t be able to show all you have in store. Let them see that you can be strong and steadfast or light and agile, depending on the situation.

But above all, prove your knighthood. Don’t get carried away by emotions. Be rational and controlled even under stress. Stand your ground, don’t give in to your fears. What you display in fencing tells a lot about your character. The audience will watch carefully and draw their conclusions. If you don’t play by the rules, if you are weak, cruel or uncivilized, if you fail to show the qualities of a leader, they will not support you in the future. So let there be no doubt that all your arts have length and measure.

I’m convinced that the main reason for the success of Liechtenauer’s system was not its killing efficiency. I think the aspect that made it predominant for centuries was its acceptance as an art in the noble class, its appeal as a social mechanism, its compliance with the knightly codex, and its capability to create a duelling mode that promoted the most competent leaders. There is simply no benefit in disabling the best trained fighters in a test for leadership. Societies cannot afford to lose them. Life, extensively trained life in particular, is a highly valuable resource. Elaborate fencing techniques as we find in the sources would not evolve beyond a certain rate of fatalities.

Current interpretations largely rely on the belief that swords were sharp and killing was the aim. In fact, there is very little evidence in the texts of  Liechtenauer’s tradition to support either assumption. Let us be more open to the view that social considerations had a great influence on fencing masters and students. Let us consider that it was more about the arts than about the harming – and that knighthood was more than just a word.