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Modern historical European martial arts reconstruction is founded on the study of so-called fencing manuals. While most regions of the world have produced a few martial arts treatises over the centuries, the European treatise tradition far exceeded any other in both its complexity and its sheer volume: well over a hundred and fifty distinct manuscripts and hundreds more printed works survive from the Medieval and Early Modern time periods. In some sense, the practice of writing fencing treatises continues to this day in the form of books on the use of firearms and other small sidearms, as well as texts on Olympic fencing and other forms of sport combat.
These texts are generally not manuals as the modern audience understands the genre; rather than offering step-by-step instructions on fighting, they are more often general treatises on a variety of martial subjects, and even those treatises that include details and illustrations of specific techniques generally fail to present a set of instructions that a reader can easily follow. Reconstructing the historical European martial arts thus involves consulting a variety of different types of literature in order to arrive at a well-rounded understanding of their content, including fencing treatises, wrestling treatises, and books of military strategy.
The history of the fencing manual is tied to some extent to the history of books themselves. Until the mid-15th century, all books were laboriously copied by hand; we call these books manuscripts, which literally means "hand-written". These were rare and expensive through most of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, requiring expensive materials like leather (tanned animal skin) and parchment (dried animal skin) and often lavishly painted and gilded. Many craftsmen were required to create a single manuscript, including parchmenters to create the pages, scribes to add the words, artists and gilders to decorate the initial letter and add illustrations, binders to put the finished pages together, and tanners and smiths to create the material used in the covers. Each manuscript is thus a unique work of art, and even copies of the same text by the same manuscript shop will be different from each other.
This started to change in the 14th century, when the paper revolution drove down the cost of manuscripts and made it possible for any prosperous worker to own a few. The print revolution followed soon after: woodblock and copperplate prints became common by the middle of the 15th century, and beginning in the 1450s, books printed using moveable type began to appear in Europe. Both of these technologies were intended as labor-saving devices in the production of manuscripts: movable type to speed up the process of copying texts and prints to speed up the process of outlining illustrations. All of the saved effort could then be devoted to painting and beautifying the books. Early printed books are called incunables (or incunabula), which means "cradle".
The 16th century is when we see the modern concept of the book emerge. Incunables are often indistinguishable from manuscripts, with type based on popular calligraphy and decorated by the same artisans who worked on manuscripts. But in 1501, Venetian printers realized that a lot of buyers didn't care about the decorations, and began printing low-budget, small-format books with little decoration and with a new "italic" font designed to fit more words per page; other books began to be produced with bare, unpainted prints.
This development in Venice may have only been symbolic of larger shifts in the new printing industry, but the year makes it a convenient cutoff point in the history of books. Only books prior to 1501 are considered incunables, though sometimes books from the early 16th century made in the fashion of incunables are called "post-incunabula".
Types of books
For ease of reference, Wiktenauer divides the corpus of Western martial arts literature into six basic genres. A few texts defy categorization under this system, such as Paulus Hector Mair's Geschlechterbuch, but these distinctions are generally quite useful.
A commonplace book (or Hausbuch) is essentially a scrapbook, usually made by a wealthy individual. In the late Middle Ages, they were created as repositories of miscellaneous items and information that the owner considered significant, including medical recipes, quotations, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, and legal formulas. Each commonplace book was a unique work reflecting its creator's hobbies and interests. Some of these books, such as the Pol Hausbuch (MS 3227a), therefore included copies of martial arts treatises that passed through their owner's hands.
Fencing book (or Fechtbuch) is a catch-all term for treatises on armed combat. Medieval fencing treatises tended to be compilation works, manuscripts that included a variety of distinct treatises by different authors. Treatises by a single author, such as Fiore delli Liberi's treatise Fiore di Battaglia, or on a single weapon, such as Le Jeu de la Hache, were less common in this period. Many manuscripts of the 1500s draw on the same small pool of common treatises, which they combine in various ways. This tradition reached its pinnacle in the mammoth 1,200-page compilations that Paulus Hector Mair commissioned in the 1540s. In the Renaissance period, and especially as printing became more common, this emphasis changed and fencing masters began preparing and personally publishing more extensive treatises on a variety of different weapons. Some, such as Salvator Fabris, devoted massive volumes to the use of a single weapon.
A number of picture books, such as sketchbooks or albums, created by talented artists survive from the Medieval and Renaissance time periods. These artists, including such masters as Albrecht Dürer and Maarten van Heemskerck, generally drew fencers and wrestlers as studies in human anatomy. Because of this, they offer unique insight into the physical positions and movements of the art, providing a useful counterpoint to the large number of text-only fencing treatises. Some of these works were created as draftbooks for later complete fencing treatises.
A tournament book (or Turnierbuch) is generally a record of a specific tournament that occurred. Aside from being interesting glimpses into the sportive side of historical European martial arts in period, tournament books are also useful for their depictions of authentic arms and armor.
War book (or Kriegsbücher) are useful texts for understanding the methods and theory behind warfare in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Many compilation fencing treatises from the 15th and 16th centuries also include excerpts from war books such as Konrad Kyeser's famous work Bellifortis or Flavius Vegetius Renatus' De Re Militari. Siege warfare was an especially popular subject in this genre.
The wrestling book (or Ringbuch) can be seen as a subset of the fencing treatise genre. Most 15th century martial arts manuscripts include at least one wrestling treatise, but wrestling was often seen as an aspect of armed combat and not a separate discipline. It isn't until later in the Renaissance that books devoted exclusively to wrestling and other unarmed techniques appeared in increasing numbers.
Note that these dates are approximate in many cases. More specific information about the dates of treatises can be found on their respective pages.
Incunabula and post-incunabula
Books and other printed matter
Other relevant books
|Bellifortis (Konrad Kyeser)
|Dialogue on a Method for Entering Battle Quickly and Easily
|Dialogo del Modo di Mettere in battaglia presto & con facilità (Camillo Agrippa)
|Honors and Praise to the Art of Fencing
|Ehrentitel und Lopspruch der Fechtkunst (Christoff Rösener)
|New Illustrated Flag-Waving Manual
|New Kůnstlich Fahnenbůchlein (Sebastian Heußler)