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The martial arts of Renaissance Europe /
Sydney Anglo.
New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, c2000.
xii, 384 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 27 cm.
0300083521 (alk. paper)
More Details
New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, c2000.
0300083521 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Sydney Anglo is research professor of history at the University of Wales.
First Chapter

Chapter One

Violence in the classroom:

medieval and renaissance masters of arms

In 1220 a certain Walter de Stewton was charged with complicity in an especially nasty pickaxe murder and, as a result, was incarcerated in the Tower of London to await trial by combat. Whether or not Walter had himself delivered any of the fatal strokes, little martial expertise had been involved in the crime for the victim had been in bed, blind drunk. Skill in weaponry was only acquired later when Walter was released on bail so that he could learn fencing ( et discere eskirmire ) in readiness for the combat which, in the event, he won. This arrangement, generous as it seems, was not unusual. About twelve years earlier at Winchester, Sir Jordan de Bianney had been allowed out of custody at least twice a day to receive similar instruction; and it is clear from surviving contracts that sometimes even when a professional champion was hired there might also be provision for his magister . In 1287, two bruisers -- Roger the Clerk and his trainer -- were entertained by their employer, the Abbot of St Edmunds in Suffolk, for more than six months while they prepared for the big fight. In this case the money was not well spent. Roger lost his life and the abbot lost his suit. We do not know who provided the lessons, in what kind of environment they took place, or how they were conducted; but the very fact that they were available and were considered helpful to a man preparing for judicial combat suggests the existence both of professional masters and of some sort of acknowledged expertise. It also represents remarkable double-thinking on the part of established authority in London, since the maintenance of fencing schools had been officially prohibited in the City from at least as early as 1189.


Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance masters of arms enjoyed an equivocal position in European society. Their skills were recognized and utilized, but the kind of reckless violence engendered in many pupils by their teaching earned them an unsavoury reputation. Street brawling and, later on, duelling were alike laid at their door, and the more literate masters of the Renaissance often felt obliged to defend themselves from such imputations. It must also have been galling for teachers of the martial arts to see officialdom happy enough to utilize their skills while simultaneously penalizing them. This was especially marked in the case of men who served as professional champions in trials by combat during the long period when such battles were common throughout Europe. Fighting in the lists as a proxy was a doubly dangerous activity, for the champions were exposed not only to the hazards of mortal combat but also to the rigours of the law, even when successful. The men who undertook this strange profession were not necessarily teachers of the martial arts but Elias Piggun, who gave lessons in sword play, found his expertise a distinct disadvantage. In 1220 Elias was a champion involved in a case concerning a stolen mare but, when revealed to be a professional teacher of sword fighting who had perjured himself for lucre, he was promptly found guilty of fraud and sentenced to the loss of a foot. With that lightness of touch so characteristic of legal humour, it has been written that his amputated foot bestowed immortality on poor Piggun, `for Bracton has nailed it up for ever as a practical illustration of English law'. Piggun's foot may also be seen as emblematic of a distrust founded, perhaps, on unfortunate experiences with the masters' over-enthusiastic pupils. `Bruisers' and `misdoers walking by night' were a nuisance in many medieval cities. The records of the City of London are dotted about with examples of sword and buckler bullies and with repeated prohibitions against the fencing schools which were thought to encourage them. In I285, the authorities were driven to reiterate penalties already more than a century old: `As fools who delight in their folly do learn to fence with buckler, and thereby are encouraged in their follies, it is provided that none shall keep school for, nor teach the art of fence within the City of London under pain of imprisonment for forty days.' This failed to deter Master Roger le Skirmisour who maintained a fencing school until the authorities caught up with him in 1311 and sent him to prison for `enticing thither the sons of respectable persons, so as to waste and spend the property of their fathers and mothers upon bad practices: the result being that they themselves became bad men'.

    The prohibition on schools of arms was enshrined in the customs of the City of London, yet professional masters continued to sell their skills and to take the attendant risks. In the fifteenth century experts in the martial arts made sporadic appearances as coaches to litigants preparing for trial by combat -- the best-known instance being the activities of the fencing fishmonger, Philip Treher, who was involved in at least three such cases between 1446 and 1453. Yet, in 1496, both jousting and playing with the sword and buckler were still declared illegal without royal licence; while, in 1530, a certain William Smith was held to have committed a presentable nuisance when he upset the righteous citizens of the parish of Dowgate by keeping a `sworde pleying house' whither divers apprentices congregated at `unlawful hours, namely at night time and at time of Divine service' in order to practise the art. Much later, around 1572, when Humphrey Gilbert was proposing an academy for London -- where noble youths were to be instructed, amongst much else, in the martial arts by a `master of defence' -- he still found it necessary to stipulate that the teacher should have a `dispensation against the Statute of Roages'. On the other hand it is clear that, already in the reign of Henry VIII, these martial experts were organized into something resembling a craft guild which received at least tacit recognition when, in a signed bill of 1540, the king established a commission to investigate widespread malpractice by fencing masters operating `without any sufficient lycence or lawfull auctoryte'.

    Elsewhere in Europe there were, from time to time, similar objections to the moral and social threat posed by the martial artists. In 1386, barely a year after the founding of the University of Heidelberg, its students were already being forbidden to disrupt their studies by attending the local schools of arms -- a prohibition which seemingly had little lasting effect since it was repeated by the Rector in 1415. Similarly, the eagerness with which sixteenth-century Parisian students cut classes at the university to haunt the schools of `maistres escrimeurs et joueurs d'espée' caused so much concern that, in 1554, an Ordonnance of the Parlement sought to banish these masters from the entire area and in 1575 this prohibition, too, was repeated. In general, though, compared with England, masters of arms enjoyed greater esteem and were able to ply their skills more openly and more systematically on the Continent where confraternities of fencers certainly existed in Germany and Italy from the late thirteenth century; and where official recognition, according some of these groups craft status, is documented for Germany, Spain and France (though not Italy) around the closing decades of the fifteenth century. The first known imperial privilege to a fighting fraternity was granted by the Emperor Frederick III on 10 August 1487 to the masters of Nuremberg. There is a royal licence dated 24 June 1478 at Saragossa to Gómez Dorado as `maestro mayor' to examine masters of arms; and a month later at Cordoba there is recorded a royal act fixing the number of masters to be examined, and granting the company of Esgrimidores a shield of arms.

    The public examination of aspirants to membership or to promotion in these organizations is well attested in all those countries where a licensing system was firmly in place, allowing successful candidates to teach and forbidding the unqualified. The system, which was essentially that of a craft guild with clearly defined levels of achievement and length of apprenticeship in the various grades of expertise, was much the same everywhere with the aspirants proceeding from the rank of scholar, through that of provost, and on to master -- the lanista seu magister in usu palestrinae as he is referred to in early sixteenth-century Spanish diplomas. The Spanish system, which endured longer than those anywhere else in Europe, was widespread and solemn. The examinations were public occasions and took place before the masters, provosts and scholars, together with a large lay audience. The master who had taught the candidate presented him to the other masters; the tests with various weapons followed; and then, if successful, the candidate's new grade was publicly proclaimed and he took a solemn oath to observe all the rules appertaining to his art.

    In Italy, too, where documentary evidence on this point is curiously lacking, there was evidently some kind of examining and ratifying process. In 1536 Marozzo asserts that this had indeed been so, and he contrasts the unregulated teaching of his own time with earlier practice, when only `authenticated masters' who had been duly `granted their licence by other masters' were allowed to take students. The same point is made at greater length by a later Bolognese master, Giovanni dall'Agocchie, who concentrates less upon practical achievement than upon the purely pedagogical skills of anyone trying to instruct others in the art of swordsmanship. He regrets the incompetence of current teaching which arises solely because `the old custom of the creation of masters has fallen into oblivion'. Not all that long ago, says dall'Agocchie, if anyone wished to achieve the excellent rank of a doctorate his wisdom would first be diligently examined. And the same procedure had applied to Masters of Fencing. Anyone intending to teach the art had first to demonstrate his knowledge of fencing theory before being confronted with a bad student -- whose performance he had to criticize and correct -- and then with various able students. The whole procedure was assessed by established masters who only granted a privilege when satisfied as to the candidate's competence: an excellent custom, says the author, but sadly corrupted partly by time and partly by the negligence of the masters themselves. As in Marozzo, the date of the good old custom is unspecified and it remained so when Gaiani sighed nostalgically for the same better regulated times in his Arte di maneggiar la spada (1619). Here the master is asked by a pupil to explain what he means by un Maestro approvato ; and he begins with the familiar expression of regret. Formerly, in Italy, no one could be accepted as a master of arms without first satisfying the senior masters ( i Maestri vecchi ) and then receiving his privilege. This system, he says, still operates in Spain, Brussels, and Paris, but in Italy `this good custom has been lost'. Now anyone who knows how to strike four blows is immediately made a master -- `like a cobbler' -- and besides spoiling the profession it brings dishonour upon the art.

    In France there is plentiful, if scattered, evidence about the care with which the examination and licensing process was supervised. In 1455 at Paris, for example, Jehan Taillecourt, maistre joueur de l'espée à deux mains et du boucler , acting on a report by Jehan Perchel prévost des ditz jeux , issued an authorization to a certain Jehan Baugranz to be granted the rank of prévost and be allowed to hold a school in the said arms in all places throughout the realm; and in 1489 there exists a process concerning the public examination of a prévôt d'armes at Aubenas. This candidate was put through his paces by a master, assisted by other experts, and had co demonstrate proficiency in the two-hand sword and the small sword with both shield and buckler. Then, after satisfying his examiners, he took an oath to live an honest life, to be loyal to his colleagues, and to teach pupils to the best of his ability. The Statutes of the Parisian Maistres Joueurs et Escrimeurs d'espée were confirmed -- despite the anxieties of the university -- by Charles IX in 1567 and included strangely rudimentary provision for apprenticeship and examination, which was expanded in the reign of Henri III with provisions against unlicensed masters, and then further elaborated and strengthened under Louis XIII and Louis XIV.

    Even in England, despite the long-standing legal restrictions, public examination of candidates by their superiors was well established at least by the reign of Henry VIII, and it was being taken as seriously as elsewhere in Europe. The main complaint against unlicensed fencing teachers, in the bill of 1540, was not so much that they were violating the solemn oath to their masters `at theyr fyrst entryng to lerne theyr said science', but that, having set up schools throughout the country, `frome Towne to Towne and place to place', they were doing their job so badly that it amounted to fraud. They had been taking

great sommes of money for theyr labours, and yet Nevertheles have untrowly and Insufficiently Instructed and tawght their scollers wherby the same scollers have been and are Illuded and deceyved, To the sclaunder and hynderaunce of the masters and provosts of the said Scyence of defence and to the utter subversion and dystruccion of the same, and the good and lawdable orders and Rules of the same Science.

    Obviously, it was one thing to institute a licensing system and quite another to implement it. The kind of discontent demonstrated by the Henrician Bill was still being forcibly expressed by late Elizabethan and Jacobean critics and concerned the incapacity of officially approved masters as well as the practices of illicit teachers. In Spain, the masters, not content with serving as a butt for literary ridicule, further tarnished their reputation when the imperious Narváez fought a running battle not only with the satirist Quevedo but also with the disciples of Carranza. Nor was the situation more happy in France where, in 1623, the Limousin authority François Dancie considered that things had so far deteriorated that it was very rare to find a good master anywhere in the realm; and he complains about

a rabble of pub-crawlers ( un taz de coureurs ) who, professing mastership in this trade, are nothing but ignoramuses deserving to be called smatterers of arms ( Clercs d'Armes ), if not something worse. For, besides doing wrong to men of honour who do understand it [the trade], they bring the whole profession into disrepute by their incapacity. Moreover, they lead a debauched life and fence with knives in taverns and ale-houses, showing that they perform better with a glass than with a sword. Add to this that they seem to have an understanding with Messieurs the Surgeons to give them practice: for they teach their scholars so badly that they learn how to receive more blows than they give. And they abuse them sottishly, and lead them to vicious acts by their evil examples, and to fight with neither foundation nor reason, whence they verify the common saying, like master, like pupil .

    Good, bad and indifferent -- societies and schools of instruction devoted to the martial arts were evidently a common feature of medieval and renaissance city life. Moreover, the public examination of candidates became an important popular entertainment despite the obstacles which city authorities, nervous about law and order, threw in their way. In London, for example, where there was constant difficulty over the granting of licences, `playing for prizes' still managed to attract crowds of fight enthusiasts -- partly, perhaps, because entrance was free and rewarding the contestants entirely voluntary. On the Continent, on the other hand, similar spectacles were run on a more solid commercial basis and when, in 1580, during his visit to Augsburg, Michel de Montaigne went to see a display of fighting with poniard, two-hand sword, quarter staff and braquemart, he noted that `after dinner we went to see the fencing in a public salon where there was a great crowd; and one payed on entry -- as for mountebanks -- and, on top of this, for one's seats on the benches'.

    Yet, for all this activity, the vast majority of the masters remain totally unknown or survive as mere names which only briefly emerge from darkness through some quirk of fate. Elias Piggun's foot marches on. Bertolfe Vander Eme's thumb has rescued its owner from oblivion by getting itself wounded during long-sword practice with King Henry IV of England. The Italian masters Pompée and Sylvie are known only because they allowed themselves to be defeated, in a demonstration of sycophantic swordsmanship, by their youthful pupils, the future kings of France, Charles IX and Henri III. A more effective means of entering the record -- for swordsmen, as for the general public -- was anti-social or criminal behaviour. Nicholas Chezault, fencing master of Dijon, has his memorial in the obscure pages of an old learned monograph because he offered a prize of taffeta scarves and a gilded dagger to anyone who could defeat his champion in a public match and, when his man was run through by `un simple vigneron', promptly absconded with the prizes and entrance money.

    The Portuguese mulatto master Jorge Fernandes made his mark as a public nuisance in Setúbal where his brawling career culminated in ten years of exile to Brazil for murdering an unarmed man. Another Portuguese swordfighter commemorated by criminal proceedings was Antonio Mourão of Lisbon who regularly fell foul of the authorities: for carrying a sword which was not only too long but also had a spun silk handle; for wearing silk in violation of the sumptuary laws; and for getting in some illicit practice on a passing breeches-maker whose hat he cut in two.

    Others, like the Portuguese Manuel Fernandes or the Englishman John Turner, achieved notoriety by poking out opponent's eyes during friendly bouts in the schools. Turner achieved this dubious distinction on two or three occasions, `which bred an admiration in the ignorant and vulgare sort' but aroused the wrath of one noble victim -- Robert Crichton, Baron of Sanquhar -- who nursed a grudge for seven years and eventually hired a pair of assassins to gain his revenge. The blustering Jacobean blade Joseph Swetnam was not impressed by Turner's skill for, `if a man choppe a thruste at the face' he may not hit the eye, `but with proffering many, by chance he may'. As is only to be expected, swordfighters who lived blameless lives have scarcely been remembered even when they left richer records than their peccant brethren; and it is significant that a master such as John Blinkinsop (or Blenkinsopps) is known not because his career can be traced from free scholar to provost and finally to master, but merely because Ben Jonson refers to him in passing as `Blinkinsopps the Bold'.

    There are any number of these aggressive meteorites shooting across the historic firmament. One of the earliest names recorded is a `maestro Goffredo schermitore' who appears as a witness to a notarial act in Cividale on 31 July 1259; but both he and a certain `maestro Arnaldo scharmitor', whose name is documented at the beginning of the fourteenth century, are otherwise obscure. Nor, apart from their addresses, are we better informed about the seven `escrimeurs' living in Paris in 1292 -- Guillaume, Richart, Sanse, Jacques, Thomas, Nicolas and Phelippe -- although, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the fencing historian Japoco Gelli asserted that three were Italian emigrés who, unable to find employment amidst the keen competition in their native land, set up schools in Paris.

    The German masters emerge from the shadows with the advent of Johann Liechtenauer and his disciples towards the end of the fourteenth century, and thereafter many German masters not only cease to be anonymous but have even gained a measure of immortality through the survival of their combat manuals. In France, Spain and Portugal we start to find such men recorded towards the end of the fifteenth century and from then onwards, right through to modern times, the civic archives yield the names of scores of French and Iberian masters.

    In medieval England, by contrast, apart from a number of professional champions whose skills are known from their participation (actual or anticipated) in judicial combat, we have little information until the fortuitous survival of a single manuscript (together with the commission of 1540 and another of 1605) provides a tolerably complete list of all those officially involved with the Tudor Masters of Defence of London from the third decade of the sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century. We do not lack names. Sadly, for the most part, these references remain skeletal and apart from the few who have left some written record of their art, there is little flesh on the bones. Merely heaping them together tells us nothing substantive about the masters' deeds, attitudes and purposes.

    The schools of arms are even more obscure than the men who taught in them. Not only do we lack documentary evidence about the day-to-day running of these establishments, we do not even know what they looked like. There are literally thousands of illustrations in combat treatises (German, Italian, Spanish and French) but, since all these pictures are designed to show fighting postures not to set a scene, the space surrounding the combatants is generally ignored. Sometimes, as in Talhoffer, the warriors dance about on surfaces seemingly situated nowhere. Marozzo provides a floor ruled with squares in perspective; Agrippa a simple horizon line; di Grassi a few scattered mounds of earth; Sainct Didier, tufts of grass along with triangles, quadrilaterals and numbered footprints; and, as in Ghisliero and an anonymous German Fechtbuch , landscapes and townscapes are occasionally sketched in.

    The point is this. Not one of these masters, who generally supervised the illustrations to their own work, has envisaged the combats as taking place within a school or even within any sort of pedagogical context. The problem comes sharply into focus if we look at Joachim Meyer's treatise of 1570 and consider the woodcuts executed for him by Tobias Stimmer. Here the fencers (under the eye and baton of their instructors) wage furious battle with swords, daggers, halberds and staves. They do so, moreover, within a three-dimensional architectural space. These illustrations have often been taken as representations of contemporary German fencing schools: but, in fact, they are fantasies and no more represent reality than do the surreal halls later to be seen in Girard Thibault's Académie de l'espée (figs 1,2).

    It is rare to find early representations of schools of arms which encourage confidence: but one which does seem realistic is an engraving by the `Meister mit den Bandrollen'. This is a two-part scene -- a dubious bath-house cum brothel on the right and, on the left, a school of arms with men lifting weights, practising contortions, wielding the two-hand sword, and perilously holding a target while someone takes aim with a primitive handgun (fig. 3). The implications of the scene are clear: attendance at a school of arms is, like public bathing and fornication, a form of moral depravity; and those who taught or studied there are as contemptible as the fool whose genitalia are being critically evaluated by three nude lady bathers, One has only to compare this with an engraving by Willem Swanenburgh, at the end of the sixteenth century, to see the vast alteration which had taken place in the status of continental masters in the course of the Renaissance (fig. 4). Again the view combines firearms and edged weapons (with vaulting on the horse added for good measure), but now it is all very decorous. The floor is marked out with an elaborate geometrical design to facilitate correct foot movements: rapiers are carefully buttoned; the two-hand swords are posed rather than swung; and all this activity now takes place in a room devoted to the martial arts at the University of Leiden.

    We have moved from a house of ill-repute to an academic community. What was once a naughty activity forbidden to students has become an accepted part of their normal curriculum. This change is, in some ways, even more marked in a series of illustrations celebrating life at the University of Tübingen early in the seventeenth century. We are shown the college courtyard, dining hall, a lecture theatre, library, and a view over the gardens. We also see the fencing school with students practising at rapiers, two-handed swords, staves, and Düsacks; a tennis court with a game in progress; the sphaeromachus or football match; tilting at the ring; an arquebus shooting range; a contest at the archery butts; and finally a combat at the barriers with the contestant clad in half armour. In other words, out of a total of twelve engravings, only two depict intellectual activity. Two show ball games, while five are concerned with various military skills -- including sword play.


Bowker Data Service Summary
Sydney Anglo provides an overview of Renaissance Europe's martial arts and martial art training from the late 15th century to the late 17th century. The book is copiously illustrated in colour and black and white.
Unpaid Annotation
Mounted encounters by armored knights locked in desperate hand-to-hand combat, stabbing and wrestling in tavern brawls, deceits and brutalities in street affrays, balletic homicide on the dueling field -- these were the martial arts of Renaissance Europe. In this extensively illustrated book Sydney Anglo, a leading historian of the Renaissance and its symbolism, provides the first complete study of the martial arts from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century. He explains the significance of martial arts in Renaissance education and everyday life and offers a full account of the social implications of one-to-one combat training.Like the martial arts of Eastern societies, ritualized combat in the West was linked to contemporary social and scientific concerns, Anglo shows. During the Renaissance, physical exercise was regarded as central to the education of knights and gentlemen. Soldiers wielded a variety of weapons on the battlefield, and it was normal for civilians to carry swords and know how to use them. In schools across the continent, professional masters-of-arms taught the skills necessary to survive in a society where violence was endemic and life cheap. Anglo draws on a wealth of evidence -- from detailed treatises and sketches by jobbing artists to magnificent images by Durer and Cranach and descriptions of real combat, weapons and armor -to reconstruct and illustrate the arts taught by these ancient masters-at-arms.
Table of Contents
Abbreviationsp. vii
Photographic Acknowledgementsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
Introductionp. 1
Violence in the classroom: medieval and renaissance masters of armsp. 7
The notation and illustration of movement in combat manualsp. 40
Foot combat with swords: myths and realitiesp. 91
Sword fighting: vocabulary and taxonomyp. 119
Staff weaponsp. 148
Bare hands, daggers and knivesp. 172
Arms and armourp. 202
Mounted combat (1): jousting with the heavy lancep. 227
Mounted combat (2): cut, thrust and smashp. 253
Duels, brawls and battlesp. 271
Colour platesp. 291
Notesp. 317
Bibliographyp. 359
Indexp. 376
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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