Pierre-Henry Bas (université Paris III)

The playful conventions in fencing competitions at the end of the Middle Ages and early Modern Era

The Germanic fight books (Fechtbücher) are medieval and Renaissance works about fencing, wrestling and jousting. It is a technical literature, specialized, a Fachliteratur, exposing the theoretical way to handle different types of swords, shields or staff weapons, in different contexts: the judicial duel, street fighting or agonistic games.

The study of this type of literature is complex, the authoritative project being very obscure. That can be a theoretical or a practical treatise, a doctrina, a catalog or a manual. Similarly, the concrete application framework of these techniques is not always very clear. The German fencing masters who shared their techniques confused several contexts, ranging from serious fightings (ernst) to recreational games, or courtly (shimpf). That is to say, dealing with street fighting, judicial duelling and confrontation for the game or in competition. It is practically necessary to wait until the dawn of the sixteenth century to speak clearly about “price fighting” and “fencing schools” or Fechtschülen. However, following the reading and the restitution of these techniques via the movement experiment, a few questions remain: how does one not wound his opponent gravely, and how to designate a winner if injury and death are forbidden?

The study of the material illustrated in the fight books, from different geographical areas (Flanders, France, Italy), bring us the beginning of an answer — especially on the inner workings of the brotherhoods of sword players, their relationship with the authority of the fencing master and their relationship with the eventual public. But it is above all the understanding and rediscovery of the different playful contracts and martial conventions of the period, seen through an anthropological approach, which allows us to explain certain mechanisms and offers a better reading of these fight books. Indeed, if it comes from the social and economic sciences, the notion of convention extends in a particular way to the sports of opposition, and in particular, to fencing. A convention is a system of regulation of individual behavior during situations marked by uncertainty, as is for example a playful confrontation between two fencers. Therefore, it is possible to do a synthesis today, respecting the technical, practical and material contexts, in order to emphasise the various practical evolutions and adaptations during the 15th and the 16th centuries.

Thus, first will be to present different fight books in order to illustrate certain issues such as the martial gesture or the material context; secondly, to present the framework of application of these playful techniques and their evolution from normative and literary sources; thirdly, to expose the playful and martial conventions possible and to propose a synthesis that could be recreated today.


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