Modern Renaissance in Medieval Martial Arts

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Today the term 'martial arts' is usually assumed to be synonymous with 'Asian fighting art'. This is no surprise since popular media are notorious for misrepresenting medieval fighting. The medieval warrior's craft is often reduced to the myth that combatants merely crudely bludgeoned one another or hacked and slashed savagely. Yet well established, highly sophisticated European fighting systems existed. European 'masters of defence' produced hundreds of detailed, well-illustrated technical manuals on their fighting methods, and the people of the Germanic states were especially prolific. Their manuals present to us a portrait of highly developed and innovative European martial arts based on sophisticated, systematic and effective skills. Among the best known of these works is that of Hans Talhoffer. His influential treatise, first produced in 1443, was reproduced many times throughout the century.

Here now is the first English-language edition of the definitive work of this Fechtmeister (literally, 'fight master'). Talhoffer, probably a follower of the Grand Fechtmeister Hans Liechtenauer, reveals an array of great-sword and two-handed sword techniques, sword and buckler moves, dagger fighting, seizures and disarms, grappling techniques, and the Austrian wrestling of Ott, a rare medieval Jewish master of whom little is known. The illustrated plates also show methods for judicial duels - official fights to end legal disputes - and fighting with pole-weapons. Like many other medieval fighting texts, Talhoffer's manual covers fighting in full armour and without armour.

His manual reveals a range of both rudimentary and advanced techniques and provides a firm foundation on which to begin exploration of Western martial culture and the skills of medieval masters of defence. His manual covers fighting with swords, shields, spears, staffs, pole-axes and daggers, as well as grappling, throws, takedowns, holds and ground-fighting skills. Like many other teachers of his day, Talhoffer recognized that armed and unarmed fighting were only facets of personal combat and he accordingly taught an integrated art. He was greatly concerned with secrecy in both the teaching and learning of his skills, for if a fighter's style were known he could be vulnerable, and a master's teaching was his own to give out as he saw fit. Talhoffer's manual was not widely distributed until after his death, and even then it must have circulated very slowly among groups of practitioners.

Whether your interest is academic, historical, theatrical or martial, Talhoffer's work offers today's student of European martial culture a strong starting point. While not a complete guide book on fighting from the period, it will encourage the reader's own practice and understanding of the brutal effectiveness of European warriors as well as the artistry of their craft. Like many others, for years now I have been interpreting and practising Talhoffer's techniques. I have studied his instructions and followed his advice with real weapons and with safe sparring tools. It has been a long but fruitful process and while such investigation remains ongoing and new insights continually appear, there is no question of the martial value and legitimacy of his teachings.

It is exciting that we are currently seeing a 'renaissance' in the study of Western martial culture as research and study of historical European fighting arts now undergoes something of a revival. Increasingly, enthusiasts of historical fencing today are focusing on legitimate methods rather than mere competitive games and role-playing pursuits and a much greater appreciation for the sophistication and effectiveness of medieval and Renaissance fighting skills has emerged. A new generation of serious practitioners and researchers is approaching the subject not as escapist fantasy or entertainment, not just as theatrical display, but as the study of a true martial art.

Earnest practice of the methods of medieval and Renaissance weaponry is increasing in popularity today as students rediscover the many works of European masters of defence. A renewed interest in and appreciation of the formidability and complexity of both medieval and Renaissance arms and armour has evolved. Most satisfying is the tremendous increase in the availability of translations of the old fighting manuals, but even so we have only begun to scratch the surface in the serious study of medieval fighting arts. Talhoffer's Fechtbuch ('fight book') represents the tip of a very large iceberg.

John Clements Author of Medieval Swordsmanship and Director of the Historical Armed Combat Association

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