The Art of Swordsmanship (trans. by Jeffrey L. Forgeng)
(Boydell, 2015) 481pp. $99.99
Despite the survival of a wealth of treatises on the practice of early swordplay, often known collectively as fechtbucher, a notable minority are those which cover the use of the unaccompanied single-handed sword. Though contemporary sources demonstrate that this mode of fighting was quite widespread, the authors of these texts chose to focus more on the longsword. Those seeking to understand and practice single-handed swordplay are thus left at something of a disadvantage.However, their work has recently been made easier with the publication of Jeffrey Forgeng’s translation of Hans Lecküchner’s treatise on the use of the langes messer.
Lecküchner, regarded by Forgeng as one of the three worthies of the German martial arts along with Johannes Liechtenauer and Master Ott, was a priest from Nuremberg in the mid to late fifteenth century. His work on the messer, a single edged, single-handed weapon, survives in two manuscripts. The first, Heidelberg University Library Cod. Pal. Germ. 430, is a shorter version which includes only the text. This one is the earliest of the two, dated to 1478. The second, Munich Bayerische Staattsbibliothek Cgm 582, was produced in 1482 (only months before his death), and is a far more comprehensive version which also includes illustrations. It is this latter version that Forgeng has used for his edition.
Forgeng commences the work with an Introduction that, though short, is remarkably information rich. He begins with a brief biography of Lecküchner, in which his clerical career is outlined. It was his vocation and training as a scholar, Forgeng argues, that proved a key factor in the structure of the text, which is substantially better organized than other surviving fechtucher of the time. He examines the influences of Johannes Liechtenauer’s style in that of Lecküchner, but notes that the master had also blazed his own trail in many respects, resulting in a text that is in many ways more comprehensive than those more faithful to the Liechtenauer tradition. An appendix where the two traditions’ structures are compared and contrasted is particularly helpful in better understanding this point.
Next is a brief overview of the messer. Forgeng explains that the weapon in question is a difficult one to identify. Weapons of similar design, bearing a single edge, often with a curve of some sort, the hilt of which tended to be of construction more in common with knives than with swords (indeed, messer is often translated as “knife”), have been referred to by a diverse array of names, others including falchion, hanger, badelaire, and storta. Furthermore, A group of weapons all identified by one of these names will not necessarily have similar features. For the purposes of this edition, Forgeng has chosen to use falchion where messer appears. Despite being a very popular weapon, often associated with the lower classes but also know to have been popular with the aristocracy, a comparatively small number of specimens have survived. Although the weapon in question bears little resemblance to the double edged arming sword, also wielded in one hand, insights from messer combat, Forgeng states, can be readily applied to other single-handed weapons. This sentiment is reinforced with a quote by the sixteenth century German master Joachim Meyer, who wrote that training with the dussak (a version of the messer used in practice) is “an origin and basis for all weapons that are used with one hand”.
Following this is a detailed description of the two aforementioned manuscripts. This includes a codicological description and an overview of the known previous owners of both texts. The lineage of both manuscripts is examined, and Forgeng presents a series of sound hypotheses as to other versions of both that have not survived (or at least have not yet been discovered). He then goes on to discuss the reception of Lecküchner’s work, which he demonstrates was quite favourable. Influences from his teachings, and often whole sections lifted from the text, show up fencing treatises throughout the sixteenth century and last right up until the gradual decline of messer practice in the early eighteenth century.
The Introduction concludes with a discussion on interpreting the text, where Forgeng outlines his approach. He cites Lecküchner’s comprehensiveness as a rare and valuable advantage, as the master dissects and explains his technique in far more detail than many of his contemporaries. Although the images are a major resource in determining what these techniques actually looked like, Forgeng is quick to caution that they cannot always be taken as gospel, making note of a number of occasions where the illustrations clash with the text. He also notes several errors in the text. It is also important to distinguish between those techniques intended for earnest combat and those meant for sport or to otherwise show off one’s skill where the stakes were not nearly as high. Both types of technique appear in the text, and thankfully Lecküchner can be generally relied upon to identify them accordingly.
The remainder of the work is composed of the treatise itself. Although the majority of the translation if from the Munich manuscript, he has added portions from the Heidelberg copy, and a few bits from a derivative work known as the Speyer Fechtbuch (Salzburg, Universitätsbibliothek M. I. 29) where doing so would provide additional useful material. A Glossary is provided in the back to assist with understanding certain technical terms which proved either difficult or impossible to translate. Where the illustrations do not match the text, as previously mentioned, Forgeng has moved them from their original place to a more appropriate location.
Each page is dedicated to a single folio of the manuscript, and includes a black and white reproduction of the accompanying image in addition to the translated text. This makes the content far easier to digest, and gives a better impression of the flow of the original manuscript. The text itself comprises portions of Lecküchner’s own teaching verse, known as Zettel, and then an expanded commentary upon it where the individual techniques are described in greater detail. Forgeng’s translation is clear and accessible. His experience not only as a scholar of early swordsmanship, but as a practitioner, is readily apparent.
The translation of fencing treatises remains an ongoing process. Each new edition advances the study of Western Martial Arts that much more, as it makes these works accessible to a wider audience. Forgeng’s translation of Lecküchner is a valuable addition to this effort, making a vital text more widely available for practitioners not only looking to better understand the use of single-handed swords of all types, but also to how those techniques complement other medieval martial practices.
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Southampton