The fechtbuch (plural: fechtbücher), or "book of fighting," represents an important historical resource. Masters would pen fechtbücher to illustrate their techniques -mainly armed but also unarmed striking and grappling (often using holds that modern readers would consider "low" or "dirty"). These works varied greatly in quality. Some were poorly illustrated, badly written pamphlets full of common techniques. Others had excellent art - in one case, by Albrecht Dürer - and clear text. Many fechtbücher survive to this day, giving the modern student a glimpse of the incredible depth of the martial-arts training of an earlier time.

The purpose of fechtbücher wasn't self-instruction. Students were supposed to refer to them while training under the master. As a result, many fechtbücher and their instructions were intentionally unclear. A notable example was the 14th-century fechtbuch of Johannes Liechtenauer. It had excellent illustrations but deliberately cryptic instructions. Liechtenauer gave only his students the key to his mnemonic devices. Armed with this, they could profit from the book while others would be stymied. It wasn't until the 15th century that a student, Sigmund Ringeck, broke ranks and explained Liechtenauer's writings.

Books of this type weren't unique to Germany or even Europe. Virtually every culture had some form of written, inscribed, or painted combat manual. Some of these were straightforward texts on fencing, others were books of military strategy reputed to contain hidden lessons in swordplay (or vice versa), and yet others were scrolls that illustrated fighting techniques but gave only cryptic descriptions. Perhaps the earliest "fechtbuch" was Egyptian: a set of tomb paintings that depicted wrestling moves that are still in common use.

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