This volume is no mere translation of this fifteenth-century Fechtbuch, or fighting manual, but rather a meticulous edition of the most complete original manuscript, with concordances with the other surviving original version. It is clear that Jeffrey Forgeng is not only a technical expert on the weapon illustrated in this manual, but also a scholar deeply versed in the manuscript tradition of which this volume is a part as well as in the accumulated historiography that treats it.
Our knowledge of late medieval personal combat, Forgeng argues in his helpful introduction, derives mostly from German-language treatises dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Hans (Johannes) Lecküchner's work was the last of the three major authors--together with their followers and commentators--known to us. Earliest was the work of fourteenth-century Johannes Liechtenauer who authored the most influential treatise on unarmored combat with the longsword. Lecküchner's work is devoted to a different weapon, best known as the falchion (in French, a fauchon or braquemart), a long one-edged sword (langes Messer, "long knife" in German); his work nonetheless owes much to the techniques described for the longsword a century before.
Born around 1440, Lecküchner was educated at the University of Leipzig, took minor orders at Bamberg in 1459 and eventually was ordained a priest; he died in 1482 while serving as a parish priest near Erlangen in Bavaria. His level of education is apparent in the "tour de force of Latinity (x)" in the dedicatory preface to the earlier of the two extant manuscripts, also produced by Forgeng in translation. Two original manuscripts of Lecküchner's work survive from his lifetime: one preserved in the Heidelberg University Library, the other in Munich in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. The production of both seems to have been overseen by Lecküchner himself.
Forgeng's edition reproduces the Munich manuscript, which, alone, includes illustrations of the fighting techniques the text describes. Virtually every combat move is illustrated by a drawing which captures one moment in a combined use of body and weapon. Throughout the edition, Forgeng includes the original foliation. He notes where the text of the "H" manuscript (the earlier of two), and one other late fifteenth-century text by another author closely adhering to Lecküchner nonetheless differ from the "M" version. Forgeng's introduction notes apparent errors in the text, such as when the illustrations do not seem to follow the text's instructions. He adds both a glossary of terms (noting the variety of weapons, for example, that may have actually been indicated by a single term, and vice-versa) and an appendix that compares the moves by Lecküchner's forebear Leichtenauer with this fifteenth-century work. The editor/translator's goal is to produce a usable edition that can contribute to the study of historical martial arts as a serious field of study, particularly of the Leichtenauer tradition.
Why was combat with a falchion, or long knife, an important skill? Why in short, would a treatise like this be valued by the German prince to whom it was presented? In his introduction, Forgeng notes that the long knife was more a foot-soldier's than an aristocrat's weapon, though it was a flexible instrument; it could be useful for brush-clearing and for hunting as well as true combat. It was more common in German-speaking lands than elsewhere (though this reviewer has noted the existence of falchions in many French aristocrats' personal collections.) The text itself is ambiguous about its purpose: the instructions state again and again that such and such a cut, or move, or practice is necessary "in sport as well as in earnest." So, scholars interested in the culture of combat and the changing world of martial gaming in the late Middle Ages will be glad of this scholarly edition of so rich a work.
But the text Forgeng has made accessible holds much that is of interest to a range of scholarly questions. The text itself is fascinating to scholars of the book and of orality and literacy, for example. Each combat move is carefully described--how to start the move, how to place your feet, turn your wrist, aim your blow and so on. But many entries are prefaced by a short verse that captures the move, and its variations, in a memorable aphorism. Lecküchner's preface includes a number of these short verses, interspersed with longer explanations in prose. For example: "If one merely parries, regardless of his skill, he will be harmed" (4). The preface also includes a "master list" of the principal cuts one must learn--and their colorful names, such as "Wrath Cut" and "Danger Cut--and sixteen further techniques. In other words, the volume includes longer instructions that can only be absorbed by reading organized, as Forgeng puts it, scholastically, with each move following on from the one before under each main heading. Even with the logic of the presentation, a reader would at times have to laboriously work out what the instructions mean. But the verses encapsulating the basic principles could function a mnemonics for practice.
Forgeng's edition of Lecküchner's work is part of a series (Armour and Weapons) edited by Kelly DeVries, whose goal is to "provide a forum for critical studies" (ii) of arms and armor up to the end of the early modern era. In this reviewer's experience, the conversation between scholars of technology, its history and techniques, and those working on other aspects of the history of war and society needs all the encouragement it can get. Forgeng has done everything a translator or editor can do to make a work available to a wide community of scholars who might wish to make use of it.