Fighting to Win: The Art of Sword Combat in The Early Modern Period

By Danièle Cybulskie

Usually, writing about the Early Modern Age isn’t my deal, but it was definitely an interesting time. This was the period in which men went around in puffy pants with rapiers at their hips, ready to duel anyone who ridiculed the puffiness of their pants. And if you’re going to wander around with a rapier, you’d better know how to use it.

Enter Joachim Meyer, a German sword expert, who literally wrote the book on sword fighting, and wisely titled it The Art of Sword Combat. Published in 1568 and dedicated to Meyer’s local count, Otto von Solms, The Art of Sword Combat instructs the reader on the use of the longsword, the dusack – a wooden or leather sword used for sport – and the rapier. Detailed instructions are set forth for each weapon in clear prose, including woodcuts and examples of how and when to use each stroke of the sword. This is a purely instructional book, which makes it great reading for historians because it breaks things down into its simplest parts, and explains everything. As Meyer himself says,


I am not writing for great fighters or artists, nor have I intended to write this as a historical monument to combat, presenting the art as worthy of serious attention, but only to write a book of instruction…[for] those who love this art.

Unlike some books, like Ramon Llull’s The Book of the Order of Chivalry, Meyer’s book doesn’t concern itself with symbolism or the place of the swordsman’s skills in the universe, but the simple brass tacks of fighting to win. And that’s what makes this book so interesting to me: the emphasis on fighting to win, not necessarily how to win with honour. In medieval treatises, there is a chivalric emphasis on fairness, and medieval romances frown upon the combatant that stoops to trickery to win, or kicks his enemy when he is down. (Doubtless, real medieval warriors would have used whichever tactics would have kept them alive.) In this most practical book, Meyer puts no stock in fairness, but rather emphasizes using the opponent’s weakness or gullibility against him. Critical to many (if not most) of Meyer’s techniques is the feint; deception is not only acceptable, but prized. Likewise, provocation is essential, to make the opponent slip up. Meyer says of rapier combat,


when your opponent will not cut at you, you should also not cut the first stroke at him to hit him, but see how you can provoke him to strike; and when he strikes, then parry that blow…and you shall quickly cut after that parrying.

He also says,

as soon as you feel that [your opponent] has been weakened, then before he recovers, cut quickly to his body, whether low or high. 

Kick your enemy when he is down, in other words, and he will stay down.

When you see the balletic feints and parries of Olympic fencing, it’s hard to remember that the people behind the masks are actually practicing a skill that was once meant to kill or seriously injure. In The Art of Sword Combat, Meyer doesn’t bother to be delicate about it. There are frequent instructions to cut or thrust at your opponent’s head, face, ears, or belly. There is also the startling sentence from the section on the longsword: “when you have sliced an opponent’s arms, then you may draw the slice through his mouth” (82). For Meyer, there is no point in being delicate because fighting hard and with skill might well save your life.

The Art of Sword Combat by Joachim Meyer
The Art of Sword Combat by Joachim Meyer

There is a section near the end, simply titled “A Good Technique”, which outlines what to do “if you must defend yourself in an emergency, when someone rushes on you with a partisan and you have only a rapier or some other one-handed weapon.” The section immediately following this one outlines how to use your cape (a piece of regular clothing for men at the time) to defend yourself against a rapier attack. For the record, you can wrap your cape around your arm to block a stroke, or throw it over your opponent’s blade and then strike him with yours. Someone writing a book on sword combat today is not likely to suggest that you’ll need to use your coat against a sudden attack in the street, but in Meyer’s day, these were certainly good techniques to know, just in case.

Check out Daniele's new book!
Check out Daniele’s book!

If you’re interested in how people actually fought in the Early Modern Age, or just want to be able to visualize the duel between Romeo and Tybalt, The Art of Sword Combat is a book that will tell you everything you need to know. You can check out Jeffrey L. Forgeng’s new translation here.

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