The history of the martial art practiced by the knight is not conveniently distinct from those which preceded it, nor from those which succeeded it. It cannot be conveniently reduced to have been developed by a single school, nor the product of a single founder. In fact, the martial art of the knight is more amply described as having been entirely the product of western civilisation and it's approach to physical culture. Specifically, to its activity of fighting and what fighting meant to contemporary society.

The modern martial art now known as 'Chivalry' is very new, originating from research within the last 10 years, compiling information about Historical Chivalry from the vast array of sources which still exist. It's substance, however, is based upon an institution which dates from roughly 2000 years before the birth of Christ, and became extinct roughly around the middle of the 16th Century. It was therefore necessary, if any practice and study of the martial arts of the Knight should be restored in the present day, that a thorough investigation be made.

The product of that investigation, using a method outlined in the HEMA Roadmap, is what is called 'Chivalry' - or when referring to it relative to it's historical counterpart - 'New Chivalry'1.

The sources used appear in the historical record at a very significant period - a crucial period of transition, between the end of the 14th century, and end of the 15th century. For around 150 years, we see warlike skills being treated in an academic manner, written about by scribes and scholars and recorded so that we might study them today. It was a time in which warlike activity was in decline, but was still part of society enough for it to be approached scholastically. So therefore whilst martial arts were declining in relevance, education and intellectualism was increasing. During this cross-over is where we see the 'sweet-spot' in terms of abundant historical sources on Knightly Martial Arts.

The context of combat

The historical sources we have emerge at a crucial stage in European history for another reason too. For centuries, the established and sanctioned method of conflict resolution was by means of physical conflict. Early societies, such as those of Greece and Rome, demonstrate evidence of attempting to mollify the resorting to physical conflict. Despite the economic reasons for war, a number of ancient and Classical historians remark how warfare was avoided by means of a allowing combat to be made amongst representatives. As the representative is a product of a given state or faction, so his abilities should be considered a typical product of that state or faction. If the gods were in favour of one side, then the combatant would be successful. This form of ‘concise war’ emerged as a means of avoiding mass-bloodshed. In Greek, this was termed the ‘Monomachia’, “Single Combat”.

Over time, this practice became integrated into a means of civil conflict-resolution too. Amongst the clans of Northern Europe, a number of subcultures emerge from the Teutonic stock who were oriented towards the value of warlike endeavours. These values were in contrast to those of Rome which was based upon legislation and bureaucracy. The Lombards, The Saxons, The Jutes and Angles, The Franks, The Westphalians and the Bavarians, all retained a high-value for warrior-hood. An insult to oneself was considered an affront to the family, the possession of that person and particularly his ‘honour’.

After the sacking of Rome over the course of a number of raids upon Roman occupied Europe, a number of tribes migrated to fill the vacuums provided by war and deracination. This is a period known as the Wandering Populations (Volkerwanderung), in which peoples sought new and enriching lives afresh. The warlike tribes spread across Europe, and with the lack of legislation, the sanctioned means for conflict resolution receded back to being purely physical. This was again the rise of the Monomachia.

As settlements formed and solidified, they were strengthened by bonds and networking between warriors. These networks implied mutual protection, in which powerful warlords were surrounded by powerful warriors. This form of Comitatus became the basis for the feudal system, and the resultant network was termed the ‘feudal system’. The most powerful warriors, such as the King had dominion over all others, but his most immediate protectors were his Lords. These lords then subsequently were supported upon their own networks, each sub-network was included within the wider network but all were subordinate to those above, and ultimately all were subordinate to the King. This social structure meant even more to the upper-classes, whose historically-based value to society was in his ability to raise support for his Masters2.

The settlement of these tribes formed what I call ‘the duelling-belt’ (akin to the so-called ‘Bible-belt’ in the US). From Saxony in the North down to Northern Italy (where the Lombard’s eventually settled), duelling was an established legal practice, and sanctioned in legal documents to establish formal rituals.

Overlap between Legal Practices

Towards the end of the 13th century, we witness the rise of the University. The rise of this institution, and it’s proliferation across Europe is the oriflamme of intellectualism. As intellectualism began to rise, so too did the counter argument to Monomachia, which had previously been nothing more than a whisper. Opposition to the Monomachia begin to rise, and the importance of Rhetoric and Logomachia (Logic Combat) also began to rise (and became what we know to be the legal court of law). Just as the Monomachia was a move to curb bloodshed, the migration to Logomachia was also a further step to avoiding bloodshed altogether. Rhetoric was on the rise amongst the Literati, who had previously been the clergy. The advantages held amongst the Literati made academia desirable, and a number of philosophers attempted to appraise ancient lore for solutions to avoiding bloodshed. Roman Law was directly accessible, and principally, the use of works by Cicero and Aristotle were taught in Universities across Europe from the 11th century onwards.

In Germany (where a significant number of historical sources were written), a number of universities were funded and established by the aristocracy. A number of Dukes and Lords (such as Duke Albrecht V, Duke Philip the Fair, Duke Louis the Rich et al) sanctioned universities, and are also known to have commissioned Fight-books, being patrons of their authors. A number of noble families (such as the von Stains, the Seckendorffs, the Fuchs, the Fuggers et al) with associations the County-court (Landgericht) at Nuremburg with its Duelling-court (Kampfgericht) at Fürth, and the County-court at Franken or Würzburg are also known to have commissioned Fight-books. Some noblemen, such as Ludwig Von Eyb the Younger, even wrote their own anthologies3. And so we can bear witness to a very close association between Scholasticism and the Knightly Martial Arts.

Johannes Liechtenauer

The greatest number of sources documenting medieval combat systems was produced by associates and emulators of a man named Johannes Liechtenauer. This master was much esteemed because he composed a fight-verse set in rhyming couplets. Though no work currently is known to be directly attributed to Liechtenauer’s hand, his verse is quite prolific within records from the age.

The body of work relating to Liechtenauer’s verse, the so-called 'Liechtenauer Corpus' (a collection of a discreet number of copies and anthologies relating to his verse), enters historical records around the beginning of the 15th Century (yet according to some, it appears around 1389). Although records do exist of much older practices (I.33 for example), the Liechtenauer Corpus represents the most intriguing body of work describing medieval combat skills as practiced by the Knight. And the fact that it was set in verse makes it all the more compelling. Liechtenauer’s achievement was quite extraordinary, being a compilation to existing material on the topic. But there is further intriguing evidence which suggests it was a much more intelligent application of academic topics to the subject of combat arts.

Although his name was legendary, we actually know very little about him. The only thing we know for certain is his name, and that he was recognised as the höher maister (higher master) who wrote three sets of verses (one on unarmoured combat with the Long Sword, one on armoured duelling, and one on horseback combat). Everything else, including the verses themselves, is subject to modern supposition. In fact, we are unable to prove beyond all doubt that he even existed, nor that he actually invented the verses to which his name was attributed.

The decline of Knightly Martial Arts

Liechtenauer’s Combat System was recorded in German speaking lands for hundreds of years after his death. However, by the 17th century, Liechtenauer’s name begins to disappear from the historical record, included most often to offer a sense of authority rather than a claim to association with him.

There were, if historiographical observations at this time are to be trusted, two core reasons for such a decline:

1) The value of such information to society

i) The decrease in hand-to-hand combat and its relevance to the technological battlefield

ii) The decrease in the perceived value of the Aristocracy

2) The rise of intellectualism

i) Shift away from Duelling amongst the Upper-classes (The sanction of Duelling, at least at Swabian Hall was brought to an end on 18th May 1523)

Information which is highly valuable is guarded by necessity. Its secrecy increases its value, as those who hold it maintain the capital it supplies them. It represents advantage and power. Yet as sociological and technological advancements take place, that information loses its value and potency. When the Floods circumstances subside, those Systems of value are left grounded and isolated. Liechtenauer’s Zedel was likely a valued product, if not even a commodity in its time, most certainly a product of its time. Yet when the social foundation upon which it was rooted changed, its environment ceased to favour it – and this change caused its decline, like that of any animal taken out of its environment – it became extinct.

Towards the early 16th century, we find more and more works explicitly outlining the once secret modes of combat. Techniques which ensured survival of the ‘high-born princes and dukes’ of Teutonic realms were now found accessible to the rising social position of the merchants. The Arts which had once secured and protected the position of nobility and their control of arable lands, were now demoted to mere exercise. Hans Sachs, a famed Meistersanger, imaginatively questioned a local master of combat “Because this is no longer used in duelling, What use then is the Art of Fighting?” (Hans Sachs, Fechtspruch, l.196-197) - a question which many Masters at the time may well have been asking themselves. 

Paulus Hector Mair, a civil servant from Augsberg also collected a number of the Liechtenauer corpus, endeavouring to present them to his contemporaries in a bid to preserve them. The works of his artist modernise the costume into one much more suitable for the merchant class. Likewise Von Gunterrodt, in his work ‘The True Principles of the Art of Combat’ (De Veris Principiis Artis Dimicatoriæ, 1579) explains the change in perceptions by contemporary society;

The entire School of Defence or Combat (Palasticam siue dimicatoriam arte omnium luctationum) is devised so that the exercise of the body is undertaken, yet despite that most excellent function it is much less frequently undertaken by the people of Germany, where it is nonetheless regarded with contempt. This is certainly not surprising, however, since the majority of the teachers around today are simply ineffective.

Almost ten years earlier, Joachim Meÿer, the “Freifechter of Strassbourg”, outlined his “exhaustive” 1570 work compiling the “Comprehensive descriptions of the Liberal, Knightly and Noble Art of Combat with all kinds of Conventional Weapons” (Gründrliche Beschreibung der freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen kunst des Fechtens in allerley gebreuchlichen Wehren). This work may well have had some influence upon preserving some (by then) outdated weapons. The Long Sword for example, once the staple of knights and warriors, a symbol for virility and masculinity, was now viewed as the ‘Veterans’ weapon’, the musty and heavy weapon wielded by the grisled warriors not quite up to the contemporary standard.

These ancient skills associated with the Duelling-court died within a few generations of their closing. In their place arose martial arts cultured by a new generation of martial artists oriented more towards sportification than to realistic self-defence. Their art was based upon the ancient skills found in Liechtenauer, and is inherited today in the form of the modern art of Fencing.

  1. Not to be confused with the 'New Chivalry Movement' which is a movement driven on modern Social Media to re-present males as courteous, debonnaire and well-manner towards women. Whilst this is an aspect of Chivalry (the martial art discussed here), it is only a single aspect which mainstream society almost exclusively associates with 'Historical Chivalry'.

  2. The implication about this web-like network was that a personal insult was extended towards associates. A slur on one’s ‘House’ implied a slur upon all those affiliated with the ‘slurred’. The sanctioned legal practice of duelling was then processed. This meant there was far more at risk than simply a sense of 'personal honour'.

  3. Principally the manuscript known as MS B26, which will be appearing in full translation on this site.

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