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20.06.05 Talhoffer, Medieval Combat in Colour

20.06.05 Talhoffer, Medieval Combat in Colour

Hans Talhoffer has had a quite an afterlife. An itinerant fifteenth-century fencing master in service to the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire, his 1467 Fechtbuch ("fight-" or "fencing-book") produced for Graf Eberhardt von Württemberg and currently held in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek was only the last and most elaborate of the five iterations of illustrated manuscripts showing his art. These survive in the five originals, plus one contemporary copy and nine other manuscripts produced through the nineteenth century--a not-insignificant fraction of the 74 known fencing books written in German. Three of these Talhoffer manuscripts were published by Gustav Hergsell (1847-1914) in modern German and French translations in the late 1800s and reprinted in 1998. An English translation of Hergsell's rendering was published by Mark Rector (who provides a foreword to this edition) in 2000 as one of the first books in the modern European martial-arts revival. Several other editions of the manuscript have followed, but Dierk Hagedorn, in his second translation of a medieval fightbook into English (the first being his excellent 2015 translation of Yale's Gladiatoria manuscript), brings Talhoffer to the audience of modern enthusiasts for the first time in color. It's worth it: Artistically, the work is a great exemplar of late medieval illustration. The details of faces, clothes, and horses are naturalistically rendered. (Unfortunately, unlike Talhoffer's 1459 manuscript, the 1467 copy does not document the presence of Africans in Europe; the former copy has a dark-skinned combatant in turban-like headgear.)

The contents cover the full medieval arsenal, organized into sections: longsword, judicial duel in armor with spear and sword, pollaxe, judicial duel with long shield and sword, hooked dueling shield alone, dagger, wrestling, the machete-like messer, sword and buckler, a judicial duel between a man and a woman where the man is placed in a hole in the ground, and fighting on horseback. Hagedorn has sought to cleave to the meaning of the original text, which is greatly appreciated, even if this is sometimes impossible when rendering obscure and allusive ideas one language into an idiom far removed in time, space, and culture. Presumably, the intended audience would have received tuition at the master's hand, and would also be familiar with the teaching-verses of the possibly apocryphal fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer referenced therein. The overall presentation is very good, but I would have welcomed a transcription of the medieval German accompanying the English translation.

Talhoffer's manuscripts are ideographic; that is, they name techniques frozen in time. There are some movement sequences given in adjacent illustrations, but Talhoffer does not give an underlying schema, pedagogy, or nomothetic theorization of movement as do some contemporary and later works. For instance, in Germany, the movement patterns of early fourteenth-century Tower MS I.33, the earliest known fencing book, are organized like a liturgical book. This is sensible, since the work, which depicts a priest, his student, and a woman named Walpurga, was evidently produced in a scholastic milieu, and liturgy is, like fencing, a performance takes place in space in time with different variants for different occasions. Similarly, the Aristotelian physics of the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century GNM 3227a accord with the format of that work, which takes the form of a Hausbuch that also contains recipes for hardening steel and making gunpowder. By understanding the underlying principles of things, one gains power over the world. The Italian tradition has similar mental constructions, ranging from the sophisticated notation of movement of Fiore dei Liberi's 1410 Fior di Battaglia to the set teaching plays of Marozzo's Opera Nova to the attempts towards the enumeration of bodies moving in space and time in Camillo Agrippa's 1553 Trattato di Scienza d'Arme. In contrast, Talhoffer is a memory-book of the sort discussed by Mary Carruthers, an impression reinforced by various mnemonic devices such as the "vowel strikes" discussed by Hagedorn in his introduction.

This is a book well worth owning by anyone interested in historical costuming, historical fencing (especially since this is the only of Talhoffer's manuscripts to treat unarmored longsword in great depth), the history of the judicial duel, or court culture in medieval Germany. Most especially, however, it ought to be examined by intellectual historians and those interested in the history of the book and of Western ideas of the mimesis of reality. The ostensible purpose Hergsell, as well as other scholars such as Francesco Novati, had in publishing their work was to show their nations' primacy in the realm of fencing--a subject of great interest to the educated classes of the nineteenth century. Rector's purpose (as for many modern practitioners) is antiquarian, to resurrect the martial arts of a bygone era in a practical way that also fits into modern ludic contexts. It's time for academic historians, in turn, to realize that these works are not mere niche curiosities, but have great potential for unlocking premodern mentalities.