Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Did Medieval Commoners Practice with Fighting Masters?

Did common soldiers practice der Kunst des Fechtens (lit. “the Art of Fighting”, that is, formal martial practice under a Fechtmeister or “fight master”), or was it reserved for the upper classes? The simple answer is that it's tough to be certain; sadly, that's the answer to most questions on this frustrating subject. Having said that, I think I have a pretty good idea of the generalities of the issue as long as we bear in mind that we can only speak in broad generalities.

One of the most important issues in that question is unstated but implicit: You have to ask "trained in what?" for the question to have any meaning. If you mean trained to fight with pollaxes in full harness or with lances on horseback then the answer is categorically *no*, but, of course, there are other kinds of combat.

In Alfred Hutton's important work, _The Sword and the Centuries_, he pointed out that our modern pseudo-democratic notion that the great warriors were all common men and that upper-class men were all sissified fops is pure nonsense. The simple fact is that members of the nobility were the only ones who had *time* to really study martial arts; the common man usually worked from sunrise to sunset in often backbreaking labor for most of the middle ages. This is even true of soldiers: remember that most armies prior to the 15th century weren't *standing* armies, and were mostly composed of nobility anyway, except for commoners who were mostly laborers. (Note the "mostlies" and "usuallies" in that paragraph, of course.)

Having said that, the common men of Flanders kicked the crap out of the French nobility in the early 14th century at Flodden (and while most people have done that since then, up to that point the French didn't lose all that often). Likewise, Swiss commoners beat the hell out of Burgundian knights at Sempach in 1386. How did they do that? Partly through playing to the French weakness of relying on cavalry, but probably it was also due in part to some skill at arms. The thing to note, however, is that the Flemish and Swiss citizenry were largely middle-class townsmen, and that's a fact to hang on to; while the growing middle class of the later middle ages had more free time than your average serf farmer, they still weren't working 40-hour weeks with 3 week vacations! Still, they had some free time to devote to arms, and after all, emulating the upper class was a big deal in that period.

We also know that Swiss citizens, for example, held regular practices on weekends and feast days in the common square. It's likely they practiced drill more than anything else, since drill was the key to their kind of fighting, but they probably practiced the basics of the use of the halberd and may have practiced sword & buckler as well. There's nothing to tell us that these training sessions were held under the eye of a recognized Fechtmeister, however. My guess is that guys who had some experience passed on the basics of what they knew and that was that.

Writing at the end of the 14th century, Fiore wrote that:
"Moreover, any nobleman who studies this work of ours should take great care for it as it were a treasure, so that it will not be divulged among the peasantry, which Heaven created dull and only for the use of heavy work, like animals of burden. Therefore, one must keep this precious and secret science away from them and bring it to Kings, Dukes, Princes, Barons and other noblemen entitled to dueling." Ringeck wrote something similar in his prologue, although less explicitly, and later in his text he wrote: "Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play."

The extent to which they meant this seriously isn't clear; it might have been largely pro-forma. Certainly by the end of the 14th century the lines between commoner and nobleman were blurring more and more from a practical point of view, and this blurring of practicality led to a "firming up" of the rules and privileges of nobility; it was much harder to rise from commoner to nobility in the 15th century than it had been in the 14th century. That being the case, perhaps this kind of thing was a reaction to "uppity" commoners (like the burghers of Flanders?) who were encroaching on noble culture.

By the time we get to Talhoffer, however, things seem to have changed. In his 1459 Alte Armatur und Ringkunst, Talhoffer explains in detail how regular folk (or so it seems) are to prepare for a judicial combat. They have a complicated court proceeding to go through, then if the judges agree to the combat the principals have six weeks and four days to prepare for the combat, and Talhoffer specifically tells people they should find a reputable Fechtmeister to train them for the upcoming fight. Since Talhoffer also includes forms of combat specifically intended for lower-class participants (e.g., the 6-foot Hackenshilds shown in the picture accompanying this essay), we can take from this that he taught lower-class men how to prepare for formal judicial duels.

Moreover, this kind of dueling predates Talhoffer: In the second section of Codex Wallerstein, which dates from approximately 1415 (almost 30 years prior to his first published work), we see these same kinds of dueling shields. How, or if, they trained to use these shields that early is anyone's guess, but they may have, and their presence in such an early Fechtbuch suggests at least some had formal training, although, as with Talhoffer, I suspect their training was a last-minute thing and only for those who had need.

Moving on, by the early 16th century it's clear there were fencing guilds composed almost entirely of commoners (again, mostly middle-class townsmen; the goldsmiths were, for some reason, particularly active). The two most famous were the Marxbruders and the Federfechters. They practiced a variety of forms of combat, some of which were "noble" forms, such as the longsword, but note that the longsword was largely out of fashion by this time, and that most of their forms were for commoners, such as the staff and halberd.

There's no hint of such guilds prior to the 16th century. My guess is that a master such as Talhoffer would get himself hired by a noble patron (in his case Leutold von Königsegg) and would provide most of his time to him and his retainers in formal regular classes, but that he'd make some money on the side tutoring wealthy townsmen and those preparing for a judicial duel—not a formal guild, nor even a "school", really, outside of his duties to his lord and the retainers, but a student-teacher relationship. There's a rumor around that someone has documentation to the effect that several of Talhoffer's students were arrested or charged with getting into fights or disturbing the peace, or something, and I have yet to find the data in question, but it might give some interesting insights into this question.

So, to answer the question, my guess is that most lower-class soldiers in the mid-15th century and earlier had almost no formal training of any kind prior to their military service (other than some weekend drills composed mostly of training to drill in formation, and even that only in largely middle-class environments such as the Swiss Cantons). Those who stayed in service for a long period (and that would be a relatively small number in the days prior to standing armies), especially garrison troops, would probably get some kind of training in his specific weapons (bow/crossbow, matchlock, halberd, pike, sword and buckler) from his more experienced compatriots, but that training would never be even nearly as extensive nor as broad as that received by most men at arms in the same period. Gentlemen, on the other hand, were quite likely to have had formal, regular practice with a licensed Fechtmeister in their liege-lord's employ. By the 16th century, however, formal Fechtbuch training would be fairly common for the middle class.

Another thing to remember which may have a bearing on the question is that *none*, no, that's right, not a single one, of the 14th-15th century fighting manuals showed many techniques designed for war, not even that of Fiore, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding. There were some incidental things, of course; for example, Talhoffer shows how a lightly-armored crossbowman should shoot his crossbow on horseback when faced with lance-wielding opponents, but even those are all “stand-alone” techniques, not an expression of a system per se. But the majority of the techniques shown were very clearly and obviously single combat techniques, not those to be used in the massed formations of war.

For example, the pollaxe techniques in all the manuals show the pollaxe being held in the middle, not at the end. If you try that in a line you'll discover that you smack your buddies on either side and entangle yourself. I believe that in war (and the iconography supports this) the pollaxe was held at the Queue end, but not a single manuals deals with this. Likewise, halfswording is almost never seen in paintings of war; why? because swords are almost useless in armored combat. That they were used in judicial duels reflects tradition and specialized applications more than anything else. In war the spear, halberd and the pollaxe were kings.


The Erratic Writer said...

While I believe you are correct in saying that there were no fencing guilds composed entirely of commoners prior to the 16thC, there is evidence that there were organised groups of commoners receiving training from fencing masters in London at least. In 1285, a statute of London was passed which had the following clause:

"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."

I've pulled that from the first few pages of Aylward, "The English Master of Arms". I don't know what the situation is like on the continent, but commoners from at least the 13thC in England seemed to have no difficulty receiving weapons training.

Hugh Knight said...

You are quite correct. Terry Brown talks even more about this in his book on English martial arts. It's funny how often the only way we know medieval people did something was by reading ordinances forbidding them from doing it.

Still, the evidence seems to suggest (admittedly, by its absence) that this was an aberration limited mostly to London, or at least English cities. I haven't seen anything to suggest this kind of thing anywhere else, and it's certainly true that England was unusual in encouraging its commoners to study the arts of war (e.g., the long bow).

Moreover, it can't have happened too many other places besides major cities: As I wrote, early medieval commoners simply didn't have *time* to pursue hobbies the way they did later in the period (e.g., the Marxbruder, etc.). These had to have been, and the texts support this, ne'er-do-wells in a big city.

Finally, while we know from the ordinances passed against it that it did occur, they also suggest it was fairly small, *because* of the ordinances.