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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.

Commonplace book

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

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.

Picture book

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.

Tournament book

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

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.

Wrestling book

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

1471, 1476, 1501,
1509, 1515, 1518,
1521, 1523, 1525,
1530, 1536, 1540,
1543, 1544, 1560,
Questions of Honor and ArmsParide del PozzoDe duello, vel De re militari in singulari certamine (Paride del Pozzo)
1490sThe Landshut Wrestling ManualDas Landshuter Ringerbuch (Hans Wurm)
1492On the Discernments of ManPedro MonteDe Dignoscendis Hominibus (Pedro Monte)
1509Collected Martial Arts and ExercisesPedro MonteExercitiorum Atque Artis Militaris Collectanea (Pedro Monte)
1513ViridarioGiovanni Filoteo AchilliniViridario (Giovanni Filoteo Achillini)
1516Foundation of the Chivalric Art of SwordplayJohannes Liechtenauer
Andre Lignitzer
Andre Paurenfeyndt
Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey (Andre Paurenfeyndt)
1530s, 1545, 1558The Ancient Fencer's Thorough ArtJohannes Liechtenauer
Hans Lebkommer
Andre Lignitzer
Andre Paurenfeyndt
Der Allten Fechter gründtliche Kunst (Christian Egenolff)
1531A New WorkAntonio ManciolinoOpera Nova (Antonio Manciolino)
1536, 1540s, 1550,
1567, 1568, 1615
A New WorkAchille MarozzoOpera Nova (Achille Marozzo)
1538The Noble Science of SwordplayAndre Lignitzer
Andre Paurenfeyndt
La noble science des ioueurs d'espee (Andre Paurenfeyndt)
1539, 1669The Art of Wrestling: Eighty-Five PiecesFabian von AuerswaldRinger Kunst (Fabian von Auerswald)

Books and other printed matter

1552Fencers and WrestlersFechter & Ringer (Maarten van Heemskerck)
1553The Three DaysMarc'Antonio PaganoLe tre giornate (Marc'Antonio Pagano)
1553Treatise on the Science of Arms, with a Dialogue on PhilosophyCamillo AgrippaTrattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia (Camillo Agrippa)
1570Discourse on Wielding Arms with SafetyGiacomo di GrassiRagione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme (Giacomo di Grassi)
1570, 1573, 1580,
1599, 1608
The EquestrianJohann FayserΙπποκομικη (Johann Fayser)
1570, 1600A Thorough Description of the… Art of FencingJoachim MeyerGründtliche Beschreibung der… Kunst des Fechtens (Joachim Meyer)
1572Three Books on the Art of DefenseGiovanni dall'AgocchieDell'Arte di Scrima Libri Tre (Giovanni dall'Agocchie)
1573Secrets of the Premier Book on the Single SwordHenry de Sainct DidierLes secrets du premier livre sur l'espée seule (Henry de Sainct Didier)
1575, 1588On DefenseAngelo Viggiani dal MontoneLo Schermo (Angelo Viggiani)
1577Chapter by Mr. Mercurio Spetioli of FermoMercurio SpezioliCapitolo di M. Mercvrio Spetioli da Fermo (Mercurio Spezioli)
1579The True Principles of the Art of FencingHeinrich von GunterrodtDe Veris Principiis Artis Dimicatoriae (Heinrich von Gunterrodt)
1582, 1612, 1616On the Philosophy of Arms and its Skill, and Christian Offense and DefenseJerónimo Sánchez de CarranzaDe la Filosofia de las Armas y de su Destreza y la Aggression y Defensa Cristiana (Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza)
1584New and Brief Method of FencingAlfonso FalloppiaNuovo et brieve modo di schermire (Alfonso Falloppia)
1587Rules of Many Knightly ExercisesFederico GhislieroRegole di molti cavagliereschi essercitii (Federico Ghisliero)
1589Dialogue on the Use of the SwordGirolamo LucinoDialogo del uso della spada (Girolamo Lucino)
1591Discourses of War and Single CombatBertrand de LoqueDeux Traitéz: l'un de la guerre, l'autre du duel (Bertrand de Loque)
1594His True Art of DefenseGiacomo di GrassiDiGrassi his true Arte of Defence (Giacomo di Grassi)
1595His Practice, in Two BooksVincentio SavioloHis Practise, in Two Bookes (Vincentio Saviolo)
1595, 1597, 1609,
1610, 1617, 1628
Treatise or Instruction on Fighting with WeaponsGirolamo Cavalcabo
Angelo Paternostraro
Traité ou instruction pour tirer des armes (Girolamo Cavalcabo)
1599Paradoxes of DefenseGeorge SilverParadoxes of Defence (George Silver)
1600, 1605A Book on the Greatness of the SwordLuis Pacheco de NarvaezLibro de las Grandezas de la Espada (Luis Pacheco de Narváez)
1601Treatise on Matters of DefenseMarco DoccioliniTrattato in Materia di Scherma (Marco Docciolini)
1606, 1610, 1619,
1622, 1628, 1644
School, or TheaterNicoletto GigantiScola, overo teatro (Nicoletto Giganti)
1606, 1619, 1622,
1624, 1672, 1676,
The Science of ArmsSalvator FabrisScienza d’Arme (Salvator Fabris)
1607, 1608, 1609,
1610, 1619
The Exercise of Armes For Calivres, Muskettes, and PikesWapenhandelinghe van Roers Musquetten ende Spiessen (Jacob de Gheyn II)
1608The Second Book of Niccoletto GigantiNicoletto GigantiLibro secondo (Nicoletto Giganti)
1609The Complete CavalierTorquato d'AlessandriIl Cavalier Compito (Torquato d'Alessandri)
1610Discourse on Theory, Practice, and Excellence at ArmsAndré des BordesDiscours de la théorie de la pratique et de l’excellence des armes (André des Bordes)
1610, 1629, 1632,
Great Representation of the Art and Use of FencingRidolfo Capo Ferro da CagliGran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma (Ridolfo Capo Ferro da Cagli)
1611A New Illustrated Fencing Manual on RapierMichael HundtEin new Kůnstliches Fechtbuch im Rappier (Michael Hundt)
1611, 1612New Illustrated Fencing ManualGirolamo Cavalcabo
Angelo Paternostraro
Neues Kunstliches Fechtbuch (Girolamo Cavalcabo)
1612, 1849New Illustrated Fencing ManualJakob Sutor von BadenNew Kůnstliches Fechtbuch (Jakob Sutor von Baden)
1615, 1616, 1617,
1626, 1627, 1630,
1640, 1665
New Illustrated Fencing ManualSebastian HeußlerNeu Kunstlich Fechtbuch (Sebastian Heußler)
1617The School of the Noble and Worthy Science of DefenceJoseph SwetnamThe Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (Joseph Swetnam)
1618, 1625On the Weapon-Handling of Nassau with Shield, Spear, Rapier, and TargetAdam van BreenDe Nassavsche Wapen-Handelinge (Adam van Breen)
1619, 1625, 1639,
New Discourse on the Knightly and World-
Renowned Art of Fencing
Joachim KöppeNewer Discůrs Von der Rittermeszigen und Weitberůmbten Kůnst des Fechtens (Joachim Köppe)
1619, 1650The Art-Rich Italian Fencing ArtSalvator FabrisDes Kunstreichen Italiänische Fechtkunst (Salvator Fabris)
1620Thorough and Proper Description of the Art of FencingHans Wilhelm Schöffer von DietzGrůndtliche vñ eigentlichte Beschreibung der Fechtkunst (Hans Wilhelm Schöffer von Dietz)
1630, 1668Academy of the SwordGérard Thibault d'AnversAcademie de l'Espée (Gérard Thibault d'Anvers)
1638, 1641The Banner of Francesco Fernando AlfieriFrancesco Fernando AlfieriLa Bandiera (Francesco Fernando Alfieri)
1639Pallas Armata, the Gentleman's ArmoryG. A.Pallas Armata, the Gentlemans Armorie (G.A.)
1640Objections and Admonishments on the Subject of FencingJacopo MonesiOpposizioni et Avvertimenti sopra la Scherma (Jacopo Monesi)
1640, 1646The Fencing of Francesco Fernando AlfieriFrancesco Fernando AlfieriLa Scherma (Francesco Fernando Alfieri)
1641The Practice of the Sword Governed by the Perfect Conception of FencingTerenziano CeresaL'Esercizio della spada regolato con la perfetta idea della scherma (Terenziano Ceresa)
1641The Pike of Francesco Fernando AlfieriFrancesco Fernando AlfieriLa Picca (Francesco Fernando Alfieri)
1646The Chivalric and Noble Art of FencingG. A.Den Ridderlige og Adelige Fecht-Konstis (G.A)
1653The Art of Handling the Sword WellFrancesco Fernando AlfieriL'arte di ben maneggiare la spada (Francesco Fernando Alfieri)
1657, 1658, 1659Brief Information About the Pike, the Flag, the Half-Pike, the Vaulting Horse, the Grapple, the Fence of Thrust and Blow, and Finally the Carving KnifeJohann Georg PaschaKurze Unterrichtung belangend die pique die Fahne, den Jägerstock, ... (Johann Georg Pascha)
1658, 1678Short Though Thorough Instruction in Cut-fencingErhard HenningKurtze jedoch gründliche Unterrichtung vom Hieb-fechten (Erhard Henning)
1659Brief but Thorough Information About the Pike, Pike Drills, the Flag, the Half-Pike, the Carving Knife, and Fencing with the Thrust and the BlowJohann Georg PaschaKurtze doch Gründliche Unterrichtung den Pique, den Trillens in der Pique, ... (Johann Georg Pascha)
1660Short Instructions for the Hunting Stick or Half-PikeJohann Georg PaschaKurtze Anleitung des Jägerstocks oder Halbe Pique (Johann Georg Pascha)
1660The True Handling of the SwordAlessandro SeneseIl vero maneggio di spada (Alessandro Senese)
1660A Short but Thorough Description of VaultingJohann Georg PaschaKurtze iedoch gründliche Beschreibung des Voltiger (Johann Georg Pascha)
1660, 1661Short but Clear Description of the Pike-Play, as well as the Drills of the PikeJohann Georg PaschaKurtze jedoch deutliche Beschreibung Des Pique (Johann Georg Pascha)
1661, 1664, 1666,
1667, 1678
Short but Clear Description Treating Fencing with the Thrust and BlowJohann Georg PaschaKurze jedoch deutliche Beschreibung handelnd vom Fechten auf den Stoss und Hieb (Johann Georg Pascha)
1663, 1665Complete Wrestling ManualJohann Georg PaschaVollständiges Ring-Buch (Johann Georg Pascha)
1664, 1708Clear Explanation of the Art of FencingJohann Daniel LangeDeutliche Erklårung der Fechtkunst (Johann Daniel Lange)
1666, 1667, 1673,
Complete Book of Fencing, Wrestling, and VaultingJohann Georg PaschaVollständiges Fecht- Ring- ûnd Voltigier-Bũch (Johann Georg Pascha)
1670The True Principles of the Single SwordPhilibert de la ToucheLes Vrais Principes de l'Espée Seule (Philibert de la Touche)
1671, 1676Thorough Description of the Noble and Knightly Fencing- or Weapon-ArtJohannes Georgius BruchiusGrondige Beschryvinge van de Edele ende Ridderlijcke Scherm- ofte Wapen-Konste (Johannes Georgius Bruchius)
1673Clearly Described and Differentiated Flag-Lessons, Divided into Eight Plays / In Addition the Play of the Pike, the Partisan, and the Half-Pike or JägerstockJohann Georg PaschaDeutliche Beschreibung Unterschiedener Fahnen-Lectionen (Johann Georg Pascha)
1674, 1675, 1679,
1680, 1712, 1814
Clear Education in the Magnificent Art of WrestlingNicolaes PetterKlare Onderrichtinge der Voortreffelijke Worstel-Konst (Nicolaes Petter)
1674, 1675, 1679
1814, 1887, 1969
The Artful WrestlerNicolaes PetterDer künstliche Ringer (Nicolaes Petter)
1676, 1713The Science and Practice of ArmsSalvator FabrisSienza e pratica d'arme (Salvator Fabris)
1679The Artful FencerTheodori VeroliniDer Kůnstliche Fechter (Theodori Verolini)
1680, 1712The Academy of the Admirable Art of WrestlingNicolaes PetterL’Académie de l’admirable art de la Lutte (Nicolaes Petter)
1696A Primer and light on the Verdadera DestrezaNicolás TamarizCartilla, y luz en la verdadera destreza (Nicolás Tamariz)
1711The Master ArtCarlo Giuseppe ColombaniL'Arte maestra (Carlo Giuseppe Colombani)

Other relevant books

1512Battle ForceKonrad KyeserBellifortis (Konrad Kyeser)
1585Dialogue on a Method for Entering Battle Quickly and EasilyCamillo AgrippaDialogo del Modo di Mettere in battaglia presto & con facilità (Camillo Agrippa)
1589Honors and Praise to the Art of FencingChristoff RösenerEhrentitel und Lopspruch der Fechtkunst (Christoff Rösener)
1616New Illustrated Flag-Waving ManualSebastian Heußler
Johannes Renner
New Kůnstlich Fahnenbůchlein (Sebastian Heußler)