Blossfechten and the Fechtschulen
German Judicial and Sport Dueling from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance

Journal of Western Martial Art
June 2003

by Michael W. Rasmusson

Background: the European fighting arts before AD 1300.

In particular, the judicial duel offered a special unleashing of the polarizing element of the fencing art; it still required a shadow of the Saxon hero in that the combatants would engage in the duel without the protection of armour.
-- Gustav Hergsell - Talhoffer's Fechtbuch, 1887 --

The German term blossfechten refers to the unarmoured fighting arts. This was rooted mainly in the ancient Germanic tradition of the single combat or duel. The duel was often used to resolve legal disputes through the trial by arms, an option many found preferable to the trial by ordeal. Some of these duels were fought to first blood, others were to the death. The majority were fought unarmoured with only a shield for protection, if anything.

The right to trial by arms was a right given to all freemen in the Germanic nations prior to the rise of the manorial system. This, the German Einwic, the Anglo-Saxon Artwig, and the Scandinavian Einvigi or Holmgang, was a deeply ingrained judicial dueling tradition with origins lost in the depths of time. The tradition held on and evolved in several European countries. It stubbornly resisted royal and ecclesiastic attempts to stamp it out and elements survived not just in Germany and Scandinavia, but in every European country which had been invaded and occupied by Germanic tribes in the waning centuries of the Roman era. In Gaul, Italy, and Iberia, the aristocracy was heavily laced with Germanic blood and influences, heavily Latinized by the existing elites, and heavily outnumbered by Celtic and/or Italic peasants. This strange and volatile mix was a large factor in creating the feudal system of the Holy Roman Empire.

The chivalric tournament showed the influence of both the Roman gladitorial combat and the "barbarian" duel. The tournaments were popular venues used by the nobility to practice and display the arts of war in play and sometimes in anger. A tourney in anger is simply a duel in the context of the chivalric combat at arms. A chivalric combat at arms to resolve a legal dispute was essentially a judicial duel, now performed as a public spectacle. All tournaments, both for sport and in anger, were regulated affairs where choice of weapons and degree of intent were agreed upon beforehand.

There were two other elements, the first being that the original Germanic judicial duel was still alive. This gave angry gentlemen another option, one away from a gawking crowd, with only a few witnesses, no armour, and no fuss. It was just two men and their weapons. Their legality varied both from place to place and time to time, they were heavily frowned upon by the Church regardless of whether they were judicial or illegal, and yet the practice survived. The duel, like the tournament, was regulated, witnessed, and fought with matched weapons and a mutually agreed level of intent. The main differences were the lack of public spectacle and a largely unarmoured nature. (Duels in armour, which tended to be lethal duels, were rare but not unknown).

The other element was the brawl, a completely unregulated, sudden, and often lethal combat. Brawls could happen anywhere and any time, on a town's street, on a country road, in a tavern, or wherever else men may come to blows. One thing to be sure of, whenever weapons were at hand these encounters were invariably bloody. In addition, a well to do gentleman and his sons were often targets for unwanted attention by the shadier elements of society. A gentleman would pay good money to make sure he and his sons had the best available training in the fighting arts, not just for jousting, not just for the duel, but for personal security. This is where the masters at arms come into the picture.

Medieval Fighting Masters

There are five Secret Strikes of which many masters of the sword know nothing to say .
-- Sigmund Ringeck, - The Noble Art of the Long Sword, c. 1455 --

What do we know about fighting masters and their teachings for most of the Middle Ages? Unfortunately, not much, at least not until the 14th century. This is not to say masterful instruction in the fighting arts was previously nonexistent, it just wasn't well documented beyond the mention of its existence right up until about 1300. Prior to 1300, our knowledge of fighting masters and their teachings is limited mostly to minor references in the sagas and epics. Medieval systems of instruction in the "noble" fighting arts were, to all intents and purposes, secret.

The 14th century gave us the first known instructional swordplay manuscript, the Tower fechtbuch ( of circa 1300 (1280-1320 range). This is an anonymous clerical work examining unarmoured fencing with sword and buckler. The 14th century also gave us the first name of a master connected to a known instructional system, Johannes Liechtenauer.

The person of Liechtenauer is a mystery. We know he was rather skilled and became a master of masters. We know he spent much of his youth training under several reputable masters in various parts of west-central Europe. We know he quickly became a famous and much sought after master in his own right. We know he devised a comprehensive system of instruction built around a series of verses. We also know he trained a generation of some of Europe's best masters at arms, one of whom may have been a young Fiore Dei Liberi, the Italian master of masters. Apart from that we only have his verses and the works his disciples and followers left us over the 200 years following his death in the late 1380's. He was quite arguably the father of the German school of fencing and a major influence in the development of the European art of fencing. Liechtenauer must have been an awesome teacher.

The Liechtenauer Tradition

With these pages one rises, if he is good and gentle, to the knightly art of fencing as taught and executed by Johans Liechtenawer, the one high master of the art.
-- Peter von Danzig, - Danzig's Fechtbuch, 1452 --

The first instructional text based on Liechtenauer's teachings was penned in 1389, shortly after the great master's death. This manuscript, known as the Döbringer Fechtbuch (, rhymes off the instructional verses (the recital or zetel) and adds clarifying commentary. The text contains the word "schulfechten" - school fencing, and distinguishes it from "crustfechten" which is described as a more serious kind of fight. Döbringer's fechtbuch was followed by a series of Liechtenauer based manuscripts, the oldest known examples are from the mid-15th century.  With these fechtbücher clearly distinguishing terminology is applied to the various forms of fencing: blossfechten, fechten yn harnüsche, schulfechten, and ernstfechten. These are: open fencing, fencing in harness, school fencing, and earnest fencing. It should be noted that the term fechten/fencing had a much broader definition than it does today, any form of hand-to-hand fighting was fencing.

Open or bare fencing is the art of fencing without the protection of armour. Fencing in harness is the art of armoured fencing. The other two terms apply to both of these fencing forms, school fencing is fencing for practice or sport, earnest fencing is the true fight - fencing to win, that is to stay alive and in one piece.

The German fencing manuscripts of the 15th century address open fencing and fencing in harness separately, either by examining only one or the other, or by separating them into distinct chapters and lessons. Liechtenauer's Art of the Long Sword was always presented as the opening section of the many manuscripts which drew from his tradition. This portion of his recital deals specifically with open fencing with the longsword. This seems to showcase the art of unarmoured dueling with these "knightly and manly weapons" as the most respected form of fencing in late medieval Germany. Here one learned the skillful execution of a most deadly art.

The most prolific of the 15th century masters was a man who humbly described himself as "I, Talhoffer, king of fight masters." Hans Talhoffer penned a series of six fechtbücher, or fight books, between 1443 and 1467. Four of these manuscripts have been located and recovered, three of which, the 1443, 1459, and 1467 codices, are available in the public domain.

Talhoffer's manuscripts illustrated several forms of dueling including longsword (both open and in harness), sword-and-shield, pollaxe, dagger, and some bizarre side shows. Like most other 15th century fechtbücher, Talhoffer's works opened with the art of unarmoured longsword dueling. This is consistent with the practice of presenting unarmoured longsword fencing first and foremost in the multi-weapon fechtbücher, regardless of the master's affiliation, from 1389 on into the 17th century. This was the grand poobah of all fencing forms.

Fencing for fun or sport is distinct from earnest fencing but applies to both the armoured and the unarmoured combat. Using longswords to fence for fun while wearing armour sounds safe enough, but unarmoured? Isn't that a little crazy? One has to wonder, if they had safe ways to train and compete in armoured fencing, would not a training system for unarmoured fencing also have "safe" systems of bouting and competing?

Practicing and Playing at School

Bring (them) to learn the forbidden moves wisely.
-- Johannes Liechtenauer --

As mentioned above, training fights and real fights were distinguished through distinct terminology as early as Döbringer's 1389 fechtbuch. Controlled bouting is an essential element of training and is also necessary simply to stay in practice. It's an assured certainty that "play fights" have been an elementary part of fight training since the first day of the first fight school at the dawn of civilization.

Competition is a built-in feature of the human species. It's as deeply ingrained as the mammalian practice of establishing a pecking order within the pack, pod, herd, or tribe. We compete for status just as much as we play for fun. It's almost certain that the use of play fights was used to ascertain the relative skill level of the students in a fight school, knowledge useful not just to the master who needed to know how well each of his students was doing, but also to the students themselves who, like frat boys in any age, would quickly establish an informal pecking order among themselves.

"School Fencing" would naturally have had some safety features. As far back as Liechtenauer's day, probably even earlier, the use of rebated swords or even specially designed practice swords is a given. To suggest they trained only in armour and with sharps is ludicrous. To train for the unarmoured fight, one would probably train with a minimum of armour and with light bladed steel blunts or rebated swords. The use of inflexible wooden weapons may have been frowned upon, a sentiment which may be re-developing today.

Certain moves must have been forbidden even in the earliest fight schools, those moves being the killing and maiming kind. A master with a reputation for leaving a trail of dead students would quickly find himself out of business, more probably he'd end up dead at the hand of an aggrieved father or brother. The masters must have quickly come up with relatively safe ways to train, notwithstanding a few bumps, cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Two identical lists of moves forbidden "in school" are given in the mid-15th century Danzig ( and Ringeck (MS.Dresd.487) fechtbücher, both within the Liechtenauer context. It is quite possible that the two lists were identical because the tally of banned moves was already well established and standardized within the brotherhoods of fighting masters by 1450, probably much earlier.

The Rise of the Guilds

Fencing soon became a popular undertaking maintained by the guilds, like all occupations with civil status.
-- Gustav Hergsell, - Talhoffer's Fechtbuch, 1887 --

The masters at arms, like most skilled professionals, had begun to organize themselves into proto-guilds or brotherhoods by 1400. The cabal of masters trained by Liechtenauer formed a nucleus for at least one of those brotherhoods. As society grew more prosperous, the gentry wealthier, the middle class more numerous and richer, the towns burgeoning, the professional guilds grew in number and power. One of the professions finding itself in greater demand was the master at arms.

Two simultaneous social forces were at work. The first, starting in the 14th century, was the rise of professional armies made up of free citizens, breaking the noble monopoly. This meant more and more burghers were likely to own weapons and some of them had at least some training and wanted to stay in practice. The second was the desire, like rich nobles before them, of well-to-do burghers for training in the art of defense in order to protect themselves and their money from the shady side of life. Men with the means sought out the best masters for themselves and their sons.

The jostling of the masters in the market initially seemed to follow class patterns. The "elite" masters wanted to restrict their services to the nobility. Peter von Danzig's fechtbuch of 1452 clearly contained a warning against divulging the secret art to commoners  "lest the art become low." The "von" in his name gives him away as an aristocrat, but even he must have seen that the rise of the middle class master was an unstoppable force. The certification of the Marxbrüder as a national guild in 1480 seemed to confirm the trend. The masters were now guildsmen, middle class professionals certified to offer their services to the highborns while giving nouveau riche burghers access to the best training available. Liechtenauer's secret art began to leak out to a larger market.

In 1521, the Marxbrüder received their arms as a national guild from the Holy Roman Emperor. By this time they enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the fencing schools, at least the most visible ones, and would continue to do so for nearly a century. Fencing teachers not associated with a guild were known as Freifechter, free fencers. They were quite literally freelancers and were often viewed as little better than rogues. Even so, some free fencers became recognised as great masters. Joachim Meyer, whose 1570 fechtbuch is a gem among fechtbücher, is the most notable of them. Many of the free fencers were members of brotherhoods who had been less successful than the Marxbrüder. In the 16th century some of these lesser brotherhoods seem to have regrouped in a quasi-official association, the Free Fencers of the Quill, or Federfechter. By this time Liechtenauer's secret system had leaked and both groups were teaching essentially the same "German style" of fencing within the natural variance of skill and interpretation for each master. The Federfechter had been active as a secondary guild since the 1570's and finally received their guild arms from the Emperor in 1607. Throughout this period, open fencing with the longsword retained its status as the "grund und kern alles fechten" - the base and core of all fencing.

Membership and status within each school and the larger guild were determined in public prize fights. These were known as fechtschulen, or fence schools. Students competing for prize money and/or status within the school fought bouts to the first red bloom (blood) or to the first good blow, wet or dry (blood or no blood). A senior student playing for certification as a guild master would have to pass three bouts with a master. These were competitions, not duels. The list of moves banned as too dangerous for "school fencing" in 1452, a list which was actually given as a clarification of one of Liechtenauer's verses, was retained almost unchanged in 1600, by which time this form of "sport fencing" had existed for at least 200 years.

Sport Longsword versus the Killer Knight

... the Art of Fencing with these Knightly and Manly Weapons, which at the current time for us Germans is of greatest necessity ...
-- Joachim Meyer, - Thorough Descriptions of the Art of Fencing, 1570

To recap, we've looked at armoured versus unarmoured fencing, tournament versus duel, earnest or real fighting versus sport or practice fighting, and have considered the fact that humans are naturally competitive.

We know that armoured knights fought for fun in the tournament, mostly by jousting but also with other weapons including swords. We know that commoners fought for fun through wrestling and staff play. What about unarmoured swordplay? Was fencing with the longsword practised as a sport?

The 1.33 manuscript clearly shows a form of fencing in an instructional context. It is safe to assume there was bouting associated with the instruction. The question to consider is if and how the element of competition or sport entered into the equation.

Liechtenauer's longsword system was oriented toward the duel and his verses tell us to learn the "forbidden" moves wisely. We can thus make the same assumption about controlled bouting in this training system. We must also ask the same question about a competitive or sport element.

By the 16th century, a form of "sport longsword" fencing was clearly documented in Germany. This was the fechtschule, a public prize fight and guild testing ground. Participants used specially designed or modified longsword "foils" to fence, unarmoured, to the first good blow. To all intents and purposes, this was a form of sport fencing.

There exists a tendency to dismiss this form of fencing as a mere relic of a greater past, a sad diminution of a great killing weapon into a mere sport foil. This opinion sees the fechtschule not as "true" longsword fencing, but as a hobby for renaissance dandies. It thus has no relation to that great king of the battlefield, the medieval longsword wielded in the hands of armoured knights. This school of opinion looks at the 16th century fechtschule with the same sadness that a fan of large dogs feels when he sees a poodle and thinks "that silly little thing carries the genes of the wolf, how sad!"

It is sad! It's sad because this whole way of thinking ignores the fact that humans compete. It ignores the fact that fighting for sport is documented in the earliest annals of human history. It also ignores the most obvious fact of them all, that before the 16th century most aspects of training with edged weapons were tightly guarded secrets! The only reason we know about the training itself is because a bunch of cryptic lessons were written down so as to make them easier to remember. It should be no surprise that the more mundane aspects of bouting and competing were left out of the recitals. With the exception of the forbidden moves, "school fencing" wasn't as critical to document and so it stayed unrecorded except in the oral tradition, and was thus effectively invisible to history. It's only after the veil of secrecy finally fell sometime after 1500 that we encounter the fechtschule of the guilds. Does it not make sense that this guild tradition, already fully formed, had precedents in the secret brotherhoods of medieval fight masters? After all these traditions did not spring up, fully formed, out of thin air.

Fencing, like any art or skill, cannot be learned and mastered without practice. To practice fencing one must fence. To practice safely the rules of engagement have to be understood by all parties involved. Once rules of practice are in place and recognised, the practice form of fencing becomes indistinguishable from sport. The fact of the matter is that every form of fighting, up to and including firearms, has a competitive or sport element. To ignore the competitive aspect is to ignore an essential element of training and the maintenance of acquired skill.

The Challenges of Modern Reconstruction

Know well that no fencing is never learned.
-- Johannes Liechtenauer --

Reconstruction of Medieval armoured combat has the expensive luxury of using armour as a safety measure. Participants can train unarmoured or with modern pads and masks for safety and then cover themselves cap à pie in steel for simulated tournaments and public displays. But what about the unarmoured duel and prize fights using the longsword? How do we simulate the longsword duel and its sport equivalent of school fencing safely and convincingly?

One possibility is to revive the fechtschule verbatim. This would mean the use of modified light steel blunts and fighting, completely unprotected, to the first red bloom. This would also mean the list of banned moves would be identical to the known list of moves forbidden in school as recited by Danzig, Ringeck, and the 16th century "fencing school rhymes" of the guilds. The obvious problem with this idea is that most historical fencers are completely unwilling to fight to a bloody conclusion (German schlager duelists notwithstanding).

A compromise is to recognise the fechtschule for what it was, a competition based on the unarmoured duel with safety rules barring the more lethal and damaging sort of moves within the limitations of available equipment and commonly agreed concepts of acceptable risk. There is some mention of padded jerkins and forearm protection in the fechtschule records so we do have some indication of safety equipment beyond the use of blunts. If we can agree on how the modern parameters of safety equipment and acceptable risk are sufficiently different from those accepted between 1400 and 1600, then perhaps we can agree on how to update those parameters to become viable in a modern context while still remaining a nominally "unarmoured" form of fencing.

The first logical place to look for these parameters is in how we fence unarmoured with longswords today. The Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) has well defined programs for both armoured tourneys and unarmoured "school fencing" today. One logical suggestion is to define the unarmoured "fechtschule" standards based on the equipment standards for "practice fencing" already in use at the academy. This is called logical because, if we consider the equipment standard for practice fighting to be within the acceptable parameters for safe training, then logically it must also be within the acceptable parameters for competition.

Suggested List of Equipment:

  • Aluminum Longsword
  • Gambeson or Fencing Vest
  • Sabre or 3 Weapon Fencing Mask
  • Padded Hood with additional leather or plastic at Back-of-Head
  • Gorget
  • Rib Protection
  • Elbow, Shoulder, and Knee Pads
  • Shin and Forearm Guards
  • Gauntlets or Padded Gloves supplemented with leather or plastic finger buckler
  • Cup

While this pretty much armours the fencer, the fact is it's not steel cap à pie. The factors of weight, balance, vision, breathing, and overall mobility are not as deeply affected as they are with full body plate armour. This is essentially modern sport equipment as distinct from historical battlefield equipment.

If we then have a definition for equipment, we can then re-examine the 15th and 16th century lists of forbidden moves and, if we feel it can be done safely, modify the list to bring the level of engagement closer to that of the duel, which is after all the original model for blossfechten.

The Forbidden Moves of the 16th century fechtschule:  Yet all men should know what is to be forbidden in this fencing school, such as the point, charging in, breaking of an arm, violent pushes, reaching for the eyes, stone-throwing and all dishonorable devices which many no doubt know how to use. (Source: Christoph Amberger, translated from Fechtbuchlein, 1894).

The Forbidden Moves of the 15th century masters: these are arm break, leg break, testes thrust, murder thrust, knee thrust, finger hold, eye gouge, and yet more. (Sigmund Ringeck, c.1455)

This is essentially a tally of moves which will cause death or grievous damage. The description of the 16th century school goes on to reveal that a pommel punch, which is a rather nasty move, was considered well outside of the accepted rules of engagement.

Once again we can look at the level of swordplay considered safe with the above equipment, we arrive at something very close to the fechtschule rules with only one element, thrusts above the belt, now considered safe. Our list of forbidden moves could now read:

No pommel strikes, excessive grappling/wrestling, throws, kicks, thrusts below the belt, or any other violent move which judgement calls rashly unsafe.

We then arrive at the problem of how to judge a winning blow without using blood as a sure sign. One possible solution is to fight to the best of three solid blows where a good blow to the head is considered a fight ender. In the absence of a good blow to the head, two solid blows to the body will end the bout.  To minimize cheap shots to hands, forearms, knees and shins, perhaps only a solid body blow between the knees and elbows should count as body blows. These blows aren't banned, they're just not counted as solid. The last problem is the double kill. How does one deal with double blows? One very logical suggestion is for them to cancel each other out, in other words double hits will not be counted as blows.

The last issue is martialling and monitoring. Once again we can use the fechtschule as a guide.

  • Fencers acknowledge hits themselves based on the honour principle. It lies on the fencer who is hit to call a Halt and acknowledge a hit.
  • A referee armed with a staff directs the bout. Stretching the staff between the two fencers stops all action immediately.
  • In case of obvious refusal to acknowledge a hit, the referee can call a Halt and override the competitors judgements.
  • Violation of the safety rules or repeated refusal to acknowledge a hit results in disqualification.
  • Referee's decisions are final.
(Thanks to Jörg Bellinghausen for providing this list and other helpful feedback).

So now we have: (a) a list of affordable modern equipment which addresses acceptable risks; (b) a list of banned moves which addresses acceptable risks; and (c) a system of regulation by which to govern the fight; where (b) and (c) are based on known historical guidelines from the fechtbücher and the fechtschulen.


Sport fencing is as old as fencing itself. Modern historical fencers may be reviving fighting forms designed for duel, brawl, skirmish, and battle, but we are doing it for fun and sport, not to kill each other. This means we are actually reviving older sport forms based on safe training methods for the deadlier forms of the art.

There is nothing wrong with this, there is no diminution of a noble and deadly art. The tendency to dismiss any form of fencing which was oriented toward sport and not killing is to dismiss time honoured methods of martial training and competition. We are not trying to revive the deadly art itself, we are merely trying to simulate it. This simulation is, by any other word, a sport. Unfortunately, some historical fencers shudder at the mere thought of sport fencing.

Part of the problem is the perception of modern sport fencing itself. Fencing with foil or epee seems so stylized and so far removed from its deadlier dueling ancestors that many dismiss sport fencing as a sort of ballet with fake little swords. This is unfortunate as modern sport fencing is the last lineal descendant of the western dueling tradition. On the other hand, modern sport fencers often dismiss influences older than the 19th century as primitive and irrelevant to the modern "science" of fencing, an opinion which annoys historical fencers immensely.

These two poles are separated by such a wide gulf it may seem to some to be unbridgable, however, bridge it we must and the onus of doing so is on the historical fencer, not the modern sport fencer. The first thing we must recognise is the fact that medieval fencing involved well designed and devised formats for competitive dueling both in training and for pure sport. The second thing we must do is sieze upon these historic formats for training and competition as a guide to our reconstructive efforts and training. The last and most important thing we must do is to use these forms in conjunction with known instructional sources to elevate our skill to the level of fine art that medieval fencing, including longsword fencing, once truly was.

Once we accomplish this it may become possible to remove the pads and masks and display blossfechten with the longsword as it once was, the noble art of unarmoured dueling. We may even be able to use the German schlager mensur as a modern precedent for dueling to a red bloom. We're not there yet, not by a long shot and until we are, the pads and masks must stay. Given modern considerations with respect to acceptable risks (including legal risks), this may be the only way.

May, 2003.

With thanks to Jörg Bellinghausen and David M. Cvet for their feedback and suggestions.


This opinionated rant was influenced by the reading of several sources. Those sources are listed here.

J. Christoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword, Unique Publications, USA, 1998
V. Cathrein, Duel/Dueling, Catholic Encyclopedia, USA, 1909
Peter von Danzig et al., Danzigs Fechtbuch, manuscript, Germany, 1452
Hanko Döbringer, Kunst des Fechtens, manuscript, Germany, 1389
Gustav Hergsell, Talhoffers Fechtbuch, VS Books, Germany, 1887/1995
Hans-Peter Hils, Johannes Liechtenauers Kunst des Langen Schwertes, University of Freiberg, Germany, 1985
Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings, Oxford University Press, UK, 1968
Joachim Meyer, Grundtlich Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, woodcut, Germany, 1570
Sigmund Ringeck, Die Ritterlich Kunst des Langen Schwerts, manuscript, Germany, c.1455
Various Authors, The Sagas of the Icelanders, Penguin/Viking, UK, 1997
Karl Wassmannsdorff, Sechs Fechtschulen der Marxbrüder und Federfechter, Germany, 1870

About the author: was involved in the very early days of the reconstruction of German longsword techniques in 1999 at the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts and has since then continued to focus extensively on the German school of fencing, specializing in the area of German longsword in the role of an AEMMA Research Associate.

Journal of Western Martial Art
June 2003

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