I was delighted to see the recent appearance of the paperback edition of The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Lecküchner. The hardbound edition of my translation of Lecküchner’s 1482 treatise came out three years ago. I had chosen to translate this work among 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” as being relatively ergonomic and rare enough that it might be plausibly repurposed. But I also toyed with simply “sword,” and I did use this word for rendering 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 must be regarded 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. To judge by the reviews I have seen, the importance of Lecküchner’s work has not been lost on its readers.
Aside from being an important document for the fast-growing community of modern practitioners of historical combat arts, I 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 is often assumed—and 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. Along these lines, I recommend the trailer by Alex Kiermayer and Hans Heim, which envisions the process by which the manuscript may have been composed.
(One of quite a few videos on Lecküchner that have been produced in the past few years)
All in all, it’s a pleasure to see the book made more accessible with the release of a paperback edition. Translating these texts has been a labor of love, and the most important moment is when I know that the effort has made it possible for others to build on my work.