Saturday, June 10, 2006

Four 15th Century Fighting Manuals

Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship: Sigmund Ringeck's Commentaries on Liechtenauer
Translated and interpreted by Christian Henry Tobler
Union City: Chivalry Bookshelf; 2002 ISBN: 1891448072

Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Art of the Longsword
By David Lindholm and Peter Svard
Boulder: Paladin Press; 2003 ISBN: 1581604106
Codex Wallerstein: A Medieval Fighting Book from the Fifteenth Century on the Longsword, Falchion, Dagger, and Wrestling by Grzegorz Zabinski with Bartlomiej Walczak
Boulder: Paladin Press; 2002 ISBN: 1581603398
Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat translated and edited by Mark Rector
London: Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal; 2000 ISBN: 1853674184 (Hardback, out of print) 2004 ISBN: 1853675822 (Paperback)
Arte Gladitoria Dimicandi: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Fillipo Vadi
translated by Luca Porzio & Gregory Mele
Union City: Chivalry Bookshelf; 2002 ISBN: 1891448161

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Reviewed by Will McLean

These are exciting times for students of medieval martial arts, as more and more translations and interpretations become available. Not only have four different 15th century manuals been published since 2000, but one is now available in two different and complimentary versions.

As valuable as the manuals are, it’s important to know what to expect from them. Many of the techniques are so dangerously effective that they are unusable in the sort of friendly but competitive recreation practiced in the Society for Creative Anachronism. To the extent that shields are discussed at all by the surviving pre-16th century manuals, they are almost always small bucklers or huge pavises rather than the medium sized shield favored in Society combat. Many, if not all, of the manuals were designed not so much to teach the techniques as to remind the student of what he had already been taught: brief mnemonic verses or snapshot illustrations that may not be readily accessible to someone that does not already know the technique. Often, much of the manual is devoted to wrestling rather than armed combat. A reader interested in medieval swordplay might be tempted to skip these sections entirely , but this would be a mistake. The fighting systems of the medieval masters formed a coherent whole. The techniques and mechanics of unarmed combat were complimentary to those of armed combat, and both followed common principals. An understanding of one enhances understanding of the other. All that said, these manuals are invaluable tools for understanding medieval combat.

Of the manuals published to date, Christian Tobler’s translation and interpretation of Sigmund Ringeck’s commentaries offers the richest and most accessible window into the complexities of medieval combat. Written sometime between 1420 and 1440, and ascribed to Sigmund Ringeck, the original manuscript glosses and explains the cryptic verses of the earlier Master Johannes Liechtenauer, who was probably born around 1320. Tobler not only translates Ringeck, but reproduces a series of photographs illustrating a plausible interpretation of Ringeck’s techniques. In each sequence Christian demonstrates the correct application of Ringeck’s techniques, his partner, the patient but doomed Ben is invariably thrown, pummeled, stabbed or otherwise defeated. The work covers wrestling and unarmored combat with longsword and sword and buckler, armored combat with spear and longsword, and mounted combat. It is difficult to find fault with this excellent work. While the book includes the original German for Liechtenauer’s verses, it would have been improved by the inclusion of the original text for Ringeck’s commentaries. Also, the equestrian combat is not as fully explained as combat on foot.

David Lindholm and Peter Svard have produced an independent translation and interpretation of Ringeck. Their work has two virtues. They illustrate their interpretation of Ringeck with lucid illustrations: arrows show the path followed by the sword and a sort of Arthur Murray footprint diagram explains the footwork. They also include the original German for the relevant portion of Ringeck’s text.

Their book suffers from two serious flaws. Only unarmored swordplay is covered, so only about half of Ringeck’s work is presented. Lindholm and Svard’s interpretation of the techniques, which differs from Tobler’s on several points, is not always the most the most plausible explanation of the meaning of Ringeck’s text. Sometimes it seems to be in serious conflict with what Ringeck writes. For example, their explanation of the “squinter“ stroke is difficult to reconcile with Ringeck‘s text. They also argue that we should ignore the distinction that Ringeck makes between armored and unarmored combat. Yet Ringeck explicitly draws such a distinction himself, and prescribes different tactics in each case.

Of course, neither interpretation should be regarded as definitive. Tobler, with admirable humility, acknowledges that our understanding of the manuals will continue to be improved and refined with further study.

The Codex Wallerstein is actually two manuals that were bound together at some point. One was probably drawn, judging from the armor and clothing, sometime in the first third of the 15th c. and illustrates wresting, dagger and sword techniques both in and out of armor. The armored combat includes spearplay and some limited use of the knightly shield. Interestingly, the shield is shown being used mostly in the early stages of the combat, and quickly discarded or thrown at the opponent. The large specialized dueling shields used without armor in some German judicial duels are also shown. In the early sections of the manuscript the techniques are illustrated without text. The other parts were probably written around 1470, and both describe and illustrate wrestling and unarmored combat with dagger, falchion and longsword . The editors provide both a transcription of the text and an English translation, and the combination of text and illustration will often to allow the techniques to be reconstructed. Some techniques are fairly straightforward, but some may require considerable study to achieve a reasonable reconstruction.

Talhoffer’s 1467 manual is most useful as a supplement to other works, as the short original captions and snapshot illustrations are better suited as reminders to someone who already knows the techniques than an unaided source of instruction. Mark Rector’s captions combine translations of the original text with his own explanation of the technique, and it would have been helpful of the text had been presented in a way that more clearly distinguished between Talhoffer and Rector. The original German text is included as an appendix. A study of Talhoffer can often confirm or clarify techniques described in other manuals, and Talhoffer includes a section on the pollaxe, which is absent from Ringeck and the Codex Wallerstein.

Filippo Vadi’s late 15th century manual is richly illustrated with delicately colored depictions of the combatants, and Porzio and Mele’s translation reproduces these in full color, giving a good sense of the sumptuous qualities of the luxurious little book. Unillustrated pages of text, written in a very clear humanistic hand, are reproduced in black and white. Vadi’s teaching closely follows the tradition of Fiori dei Liberi, who wrote at the beginning of the century, and this Italian school represented a related but different tradition of swordsmanship from the German masters. Vadi while he closely followed Fiore in many ways also shows how the Italian school evolved over time.

Techniques of wrestling, unarmored combat with dagger, sword and spear, and armored combat with sword or pollaxe are captioned with short mnemonic couplets. Vadi’s most original feature is a lengthy initial discussion of tactical principals. Fiore taught the principals of his system in the course of teaching the individual techniques. Ringeck, it is true, does include brief passages describing general principals of swordplay. Vadi, on the other hand, spends over two dozen pages describing both general combat principals and specific issues like the proper length of the sword. The translators include a useful discussion of Vadi’s system and his relationship to other masters.

1 comment:

Todd Sullivan said...


An excellent review. Thanl you.

Todd Sullivan