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The Tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer

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A note on common fencing

This article

Johannes Liechtenauer, the High Master

And before all things, you shall note and know that there is just one art of the sword, and it may have been discovered and conceived many hundred years ago, and it is the foundation and core of the entire art of fencing. Master Liechtenauer internalized and applied it quite completely and correctly—not that he discovered and conceived it himself, but rather, he traveled through many lands and sought the legitimate and truthful art for the sake of experiencing and knowing it. (Ms. 3227a)

The life of Johannes Liechtenauer is largely a mystery. We don't know when or where he lived, or what his family or martial lineage was. He would not even be mentioned by his first name until the creation of the Starhemberg Fechtbuch (Cod.44.A.8) in 1452; prior to that, he is named only as "Master Liechtenawer". His surname signifies that he (or his family) originated in a place called Liechtenau, but there are many towns of that name across Central and Eastern Europe. His name also offers another biographical clue: he is universally called Johannes Liechtenauer, not Johannes von Liechtenau, a decidedly middle-class name for the originator of a knightly art.[1]

The only biographical note that we have is the quotation given above, indicating that he traveled through many lands seeking knowledge of the art of fencing, and ultimately became a master swordsman. Between craftsmen putting in their years as journeymen, mercenary companies jumping from one hot spot to another, armed caravans of merchants moving goods over vast distances, and religious pilgrims seeking out far-flung holy sites, travel in this period was not uncommon and opportunities abounded for young men who wished to learn exotic fighting arts.[2]

Even establishing the period of Liechtenauer's life is problematic; in the absence of direct records, we must turn to external evidence. The two-handed sword that is the subject of much of Liechtenauer's teachings emerged in the 13th century and became ubiquitous in the 14th. Versions of the armor of large plates and mail that would be vulnerable to his techniques were used from the mid 14th century to the mid 15th. Many have sought to assign Liechtenauer's life to the early end of this period based on assumptions about the date of the Pol Hausbuch, one of the only records of his teachings that does not indicate that he was deceased at the time of writing (it was customary in this period to include a formulaic blessing, such as "may God have mercy on him", when writing the name of a deceased person, and this blessing is offered to Liechtenauer in most known records of his teachings). However, that source could potentially date to anywhere from 1389 to 1494,[3] so it is ultimately of little use in assigning Liechtenauer a time period. That is not the end of our search, fortunately.

The Fellowship of Liechtenauer

This map gives the probable birthplaces and residences of the members of the fellowship. The colors indicate modern-day nations, but in their period all of these lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Here begins the art that Liechtenauer, may God have mercy on him, has created with his fellowship, and applied with all knightly weapons. (Cgm 1507)

In 1470, a master named Paulus Kal authored a lavishly illustrated fencing manual covering a variety of dueling and fencing forms, and began it by listing sixteen masters who formed a group called the Fellowship of Liechtenauer.[4] This seems primarily intended to establish his own martial lineage, from Liechtenauer through Stettner, but it offers us the only independent record of who Liechtenauer's direct students or associates might have been. Including Liechtenauer himself, the members of this Fellowship were:

hanns liechtenawer Johannes Liechtenauer
peter wildigans von glacz Peter Wildigans von Glatz
peter von tanczk Peter von Danzig zum Ingolstadt
hanns spindler vo~ cznaÿm Hans Spindler von Znaim
lamprecht von prag Lamprecht von Prague
hanns seyden faden vo~ erfürt Hans Seydenfaden von Erfurt
andre liegniczer Andre Lignitzer
iacob liegniczer Jacob Lignitzer
sigmund amring Sigmund ain Ringeck
hartman von nurñberg Hartman von Nuremberg
martein hunczfeld Martin Huntsfeld
hanns pägnüczer Hans Pegnitzer
phÿlips perger Philipp Perger
virgilÿ von kracå Virgil von Kraków
dietherich degen vechter von brawnschweig Dieterich, the dagger-fighter of Braunschweig
ott iud Ott Jud
stettner Hans Stettner von Mörnsheim

As with Liechtenauer himself, little is know about this group. One interesting aspect is its international nature, including masters from present-day Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland, which parallels the account of Liechtenauer's own travels and training. If we look at the sources related to these men which can be definitely dated, a pattern begins to emerge:

  • 1438-1460: The reign of Albrecht III the Pious, Duke of Bavaria-Munich, to whom Sigmund ain Ringeck would dedicate his gloss.
  • ca. 1448: Hans Talhoffer creates his first fencing manuscript (Ms. Chart. A.558), and includes the earliest record attributing the Recital to Liechtenauer as well as the treatise of Ott Jud (and neither man is given the blessing on the dead).
  • 1452: The date in the Starhemberg Fechtbuch, which indicates that Martin Huntsfeld, Andre Lignitzer, and Ott Jud are now deceased, as well as Liechtenauer himself, but implies that Peter von Danzig zum Ingolstadt is still alive.
  • 1459: Talhoffer produces his fourth manuscript, Ms. Thott. 290.2º, but this time does not credit Liechtenauer.
  • ca. 1460s: The Jud Lew Fechtbuch is created, which not only confirms the decease of Martin Huntsfeld, Andre Lignitzer, and Ott Jud, but also now confuses the attribution of the treatises of Lignitzer and Huntsfeld.
  • ca. 1470: Paulus Kal records the Fellowship of Liechtenauer.

Put together, these events show a rather tight grouping, which raises the question of what happened in the preceding decades before this explosion of activity. By the time the 1440s arrive, members of the Fellowship were masters in their own right and authoring their own teachings on martial arts; by the 1450s, their generation had begun to pass. Of the sixteen masters listed by Kal, only five are known to have written treatises: Peter von Danzig, Martin Huntsfeld, Andre Lignitzer, Ott Jud, and Sigmund ain Ringeck;[5] of these, all but Ott Jud authored teachings on armored fencing, as did Liechtenauer himself of course (and Ott's treatise covers wrestling, which is as applicable to armored fighting as to unarmored). This emphasis on field combat suggests a possible answer: it was common in the 15th century for knights, mercenaries, and other fighting men to organize themselves into companies called fellowships, whose members would swear to fight together and protect each other until the campaign was over.

In the early 15th century there were many wars fought, but one drew armies from all over Europe: the Hussite Crusades, a series of religious wars fought between 1419 and 1434 between Catholic Europe and factions of the Bohemian followers of John Hus. This fits neatly into the established timeline, and a company of masters returning home from war might well have decided to seek out teaching opportunities or court appointments.

Based on this, it seems reasonable to place Liechtenauer's career in the early part of the 15th century, and perhaps the tail end of the 14th. However, there is obviously still a lot we don't know about any of these men, and this is mostly a story invented from very few facts.

The Recital of the Art of Fencing

Because the art belongs to princes and lords, knights and squires, and they should know and learn this art, he has written of this art in obscure and cryptic words, so that not everyone will grasp and understand it, and he has done this on account of frivolous fight masters who mistake the art as trivial, so that such masters will not make his art common or open with people who do not hold the art in respect as is its due. (Cod. 44.A.8)

Teaching from the the Recital

And so Master Sigmund ain Ringeck, at the time known as fencing master to the highborn prince and noble Lord Albrecht, Count Palatine of the Rhine and Duke of Bavaria, had these same obscure and cryptic words of the Recital glossed and interpreted, so that any one fencer who can already fight properly may well go through and understand. (Ms. dresd. C.487)

Though it covers the entirety of the art, Liechtenauer's Recital sounds like so much nonsense without a deep understanding of the teachings the words express—which was, after all, his intent.

Expanding into other weapon forms

Wrestle well, grappler.
 Lance, sword, and messer
Manfully handle,
 And in others’ hands ruin.
(Jud Lew)

Modifying the art for new generations

Reviving the art in the 20th century

  1. The convention of reserving "von" for nobility was widespread but not universal, of course, which is why this is merely a clue rather than a fact.
  2. Similar statements are made by a few other masters in this period, including Fiore de'i Liberi, Martin Syber, and Joachim Meyer.
  3. The date of 1389 is based on the presence of a 105-year religious calendar on folio 83v that begins in 1390, while the date 1494 is included with the signature of Nicolaus Pol, the earliest known owner.
  4. The Fellowship of Liechtenauer is recorded in three versions of Paulus Kal's treatise: MS 1825 (1460s), Cgm 1570 (ca. 1470), and MS KK5126 (1480s).
  5. Two more, Hans Seydenfaden von Erfurt and Hans Pegnitzer, have their teachings referenced in the writings of later masters, suggesting that they too authored treatises.