The Sources for HEMA
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Throughout the last several hundred years, or so, several old manuscripts and treatise that outline different styles of European swordsmanship have been discovered and translated. Some of these have been recovered in a variety of copies and mostly intact, such as Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle) written by Fiore Dei Liberi of Italy in around 1409); or sadly only in parts, partly, or mostly, destroyed by war and time, as in the case of MS. I.33 (Known as the Walpurgis Manuscript, outlining a major sword and buckler style). But all of them are first-hand sources of the ancient art of fencing passed down directly from people that actually used them. There has been no unbroken lineage of sword fighters from European schools, and this has left us with only the styles known in sports fencing today. From every one of these sources, we can begin to piece together the way a sword was used when life and death were on the line; from a time when knowing how to use this weapon properly meant you got to go home that night.
Since this sort of immediate experience of which techniques work, and which do not, on a real basis of life and death has not existed for several hundred years in terms of sword usage, these treatise open a door into a time period and mindset that we have no other way of accessing than to study and translate these texts. So, with these discoveries and each new translation we are given an amazing opportunity to peer into the past in a way we have not been able to previously, and reconstruct how we fought, how we felt, and thus get closer to understanding how we truly lived.
Some of the styles detailed on the following pages come from the same source covering many topics, other styles come from a source dedicated to one singular style of combat; each and every one of them, however, was a style of combat used to defend either one's life, or one's honor and should be viewed as such. As stated previously, not every one of these texts survived unharmed over the last half-millenia or more, and some of the systems are still being pieced together through trial and error about what must be missing from within the pages.
Sources with Unknown Authors
Royal Armouries Ms. I.33
Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 is the earliest known surviving European fechtbuch (combat manual), and one of the oldest surviving martial arts manuals dealing with armed combat worldwide. I.33 is also known as the Walpurgis manuscript, after a figure named Walpurgis shown in the last sequence of the manuscript, and "the Tower manuscript" because it was kept in the Tower of London during 1950-1996; also referred to as British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi.
It was created around 1300 in Franconia and is first mentioned by Henricus a Gunterrodt in his De veriis principiis artis dimicatoriae of 1579.
The manuscript is anonymous and is so titled through an association with the Royal Armouries Museum.
Liechtenauer seems to have been active during the mid-to-late 14th Century. The only extant biographical note on Liechtenauer is found in GNM Hs. 3227a (dated c. 1400), which states that "Master Liechtenauer learnt and mastered [the art of the sword] in a thorough and rightful way, but he did not invent it or make it up himself, as it is stated before. Instead, he travelled across and visited many lands for the sake of this rightful and true art, as he wanted to study and know it." This places Liechtenauer as simply the first master we have a recorded history of compiling these fencing techniques, not the actual father of this style. The Liecthenauer tradition of Fencing has become a long line of successive fencing masters that added to the art and continued his traditions, this group of masters has come to be called the Society of Liechtenauer.
The Society of Liechtenauer
Society of Liechtenauer (Geselschaft Liechtenauers) is a list of seventeen masters found in the introduction to the three oldest copies of Paulus Kal's fencing manual. It is unclear if this was ever a formal organization or what its nature might have been; however, it is commonly speculated that the list is a memorial to deceased students and associates of the grand master. Of particular interest is the international nature of the list, including masters from present-day Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland, which parallels the statement in the MS 3227a that Liechtenauer himself traveled to many lands to learn the art. Several masters from this list are known to have written fencing treatises, but about half remain completely unknown.
Fiore Dei Liberi
Fiore Dei Liberi was born around 1350 C.E., he states in his treatise that he has been fencing- to the death- for around 40 years at the time of writing. This would place his first manuscript at around 1395-1410, depending on when we believe he began fencing in his childhood. Fiore wrote that he had a natural inclination to the martial arts and began training at a young age, ultimately studying with "countless" masters from both the Italian and German parts of the Holy Roman Empire. He is found in several historical documents detailing events that occurred during his life: his social status, official positions, and who he was reported as training all support his own autobiographical writings for how his life progressed. He left behind 5 different fencing texts in the course of his life.
Fior di Battaglia (Ms. M.383)
Ms. M.383, titled Fior di Battaglia, is in the holdings of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, NY. Novati described it as a small, thin, vellum folio, pen, and ink with gold highlights, and illustrations of sword and lance combat on foot and horseback. Unlike the other surviving manuscripts, the swords and other weapons were enameled in silver, though it has since tarnished to a glossy black. This is the briefest copy of Fiore's work currently known, with only 19 folios; it has a prologue in Italian and four illustrated figures per page in the main body. The figures are accompanied by text that is often identical to that of Ms. Ludwig XV 13 (excepting differences in spelling), but at times includes an additional explanation. The Ms. M.383 is almost certainly longer when it was first written; its text makes reference to sections on poleax, dagger, and grappling which are not present in the book's current state. It also refers to a certain play of the sword in one hand which is likewise missing from that section. This manuscript is typically referred to as the 'Pierpont Morgan version' or simply the 'Morgan'.
Fior di Battaglia (Ms. Ludwig XV 13)
Ms. Ludwig XV 13, also titled Fior di Battaglia, is currently in the holdings of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA. Its prologue, format, illustrations, and text are all very similar to the Ms. M.383, though it's largely free of silver enamel. The text takes the form of descriptive paragraphs set in poor Italian verse, which are nevertheless fairly clear and informative. Despite its shared characteristics with the Ms. M.383, there are important differences, not the least of which is the vastly different order of the information. This is the longest and most comprehensive of the four manuscripts of Fior di Battaglia. This manuscript is typically referred to as the 'Getty version'.
Flos Duellatorum (Pisani Dossi Ms.)
The Pisani Dossi Ms., titled Flos Duellatorum, was believed to have been lost in World War II and only resurfaced in a private collection in Italy in 2005. Novati described this manuscript as an unbound collection of leaves, covered with a cardboard folder with a marbled paper cover. The Pisani Dossi Ms. is the only manuscript in the series that includes a date, claiming to be completed on 10 February 1409 after six months of effort. It consists of 36 folia and possesses two different prologues, one in Renaissance Latin and one in Italian. The body of the text consists of four to six illustrations per page, each with only a brief couplet or quatrain to explain it. This manuscript is typically referred to as either the 'Novati' or 'Pisani Dossi version'.
The Pisani Dossi Ms. was published in facsimile by Francesco Novati in 1902, including the only reproductions of a copy of The Flower of Battle that is clearly in the public domain. However, it is unclear how accurate this facsimile is as evidence suggests that Novati may have hired an artist to create a tracing of the original manuscript rather than reproducing it directly. This would have provided ample opportunity for errors to creep into the images, and might also account for the significant divergences from the artistic style of the Getty and the Morgan.
Florius de Arte Luctandi (Mss. Latin 11269)
The Mss. Latin 11269, titled Florius de Arte Luctandi in a 17th-century script, is currently in the holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Any preface it once possessed is missing from the current form of the manuscript; it consists of 44 folios with two pairings per page and is the only copy of Fiore's treatise whose illustrations are fully painted. Unlike Fiore's other works, this manuscript is written entirely in Latin; its descriptions are cast in couplets and quatrains similar to the Pisani Dossi Ms. This manuscript is generally referred to as either the Florius or the Paris.
Codices LXXXIV and CX
The Codex LXXXIV (or Ms. 84) is mentioned in the 1436 and 1508 catalogs of the Biblioteca Estense in Ferrara but disappeared sometime in the 16th century. It consisted of 58 folios bound in leather with a clasp, with a white eagle and two helmets on the first page. The Codex CX (or Ms. 110) is also mentioned in the 1436 and 1508 catalogs of the Biblioteca Estense, but not in later inventories. It consisted of 15 small-format folios on unbound parchment and was written in two columns.
The contents and current whereabouts of these copies of the Flower of Battle are unknown. It is possible that these listings refer to manuscripts listed above, though none currently possess the correct number of folios or match the physical descriptions.