Medieval Armory: Leckuchner swordsmanship

Hans Lecküchner’s Art of Swordsmanship

Jeffrey L. Forgeng talks about the challenges of translating this classic text on historical combat.

I chose to translate Lecküchner’s 1482 treatise on the art of swordsmanshipamon g the many dozens of surviving medieval combat treatises because of its importance to the burgeoning academic and athletic domains of historical combat. Although the one-handed sword is a staple in modern reimaginings of medieval swordplay—as indeed it must have been in the Middle Ages, given the ubiquity of the weapon in contexts plebeian and aristocratic, military and civilian—written sources on its use are astonishingly rare before 1500. This is in dramatic contrast to the plethora of texts on wrestling, dagger-play, combat with the “hand-and-a-half” sword, and various forms of armored and mounted combat.

Lecküchner’s treatise might easily be overlooked as representing a marginal weapon-form: the langes Messer is chiefly found in the German-speaking areas, though weapons related to this single-edged, lightly curved utility sword were in use elsewhere. I agonized for a long time over a suitable translation. The closest modern equivalents are the machete and saber, the closest medieval English terms are wood-knife or hanger. In the end I settled on “falchion”. The term is being relatively ergonomic and rare enough that it might be plausibly repurposed. But I also toyed with simply “sword,” as a rendering of the customary title of the work (Messerfechtkunst).

While the treatise ostensibly focuses on a relatively obscure weapon, the techniques actually apply to any weapon that handles like a one-handed sword—single vs. double edge notwithstanding, since Lecküchner uses both sides of the weapon. Lecküchner is as our chief surviving source on the use of the one-handed sword in the Middle Ages. This fully illustrated manuscript of 400+ pages has no competitor.

I also find Lecküchner’s treatise a fascinating glimpse into the medieval world more broadly. The fact that the author was a parish priest suggests that the medieval clergy were more engaged in the culture of arms than people often assume. Moreover, he is not the only German master who was in Holy Orders. The charming Nuremberg-school illustrations (almost certainly produced by an artist acquainted with Albrecht Dürer) offer insights into the representation of complex physical and physiological realities in European art at a time when the artist’s craft was undergoing some very dramatic transformations. This trailer by Alex Kiermayer and Hans Heim envisions the process by which the manuscript may have been composed.

Translating these texts has been a labor of love. The most important moment is when I know that the effort has made it possible for others to build on my work.

JEFFREY L. FORGENG is curator of Arms and Armor and Medieval Art at the Worcester Art Museum. He is also Adjunct Professor of History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His translation of The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Lecküchner is out now.

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