Johannes Liechtenauer, his life and the German swordsmanship tradition

Table of Contents

Cod.44.A.8 002v

The figure, thought to be Johannes Liechtenauer, sits on a throne surrounded with weapons and observes his teachings – Cod.44.A.8 folio 2v (Codex Danzig)

About Johannes Liechtenauer.

Historical records about His life

There are a few other names within the Historical swordsmanship traditions that have left such a significant mark with their name and works and that we know so little about, as Johannes Liechtenauer. 

There are no definitive records regarding his birth, or death; it is also unknown to us where he lived, where he traveled and with whom he worked with. Referred to as the Grand Master (“hocher maister“) by the Masters of later dates, Liechtenauer is thought to have been active around the end of the 14th century. (Tobler, Christian Henry. 2010. pp6) The various speculations and proposals regarding his life is mostly based on references and claims made by later Masters of the tradition he established.

His only known work, the Zettel would form a path for later swordsmanship Masters to follow and would stand as the foundation of German swordsmanship tradition also known as “kunst des fechtens“.

MS 3227a (Pol Hausbuch)

The first direct written mention of the name Liechtenauer is the commonplace book referred to as MS 3227a (Pol Hausbuch). In the most general meaning, “hausbuch” means commonplace book; these books can be considered more like scrapbooks or notebooks, their contents not following any particular order and mostly scribbled with diverse subjects as deemed important by the owner of the household for domestic use for themselves or their families. It is unknown to us so far who was the original scribe of the MS3227a. The first owner of the manuscript that we know about was Nikolaus Pol, since he signed the codex as follows “Nikolaus Pol, doctor, 1494“ and this is the reason why the manuscript is referred to as Pol Hausbuch. MS 3227a includes, among other things, magic spells for victory and control during battle, information on hardening steel, alchemical formula written in Latin and most importantly, penned in various chapters and interceded by the glosses of the unknown scribe, the “Zettel” on swordsmanship and martial arts attributed to the Grandmaster Johannes Liechtenauer.

The earliest accepted date for the possible writing of the codex is 1389, and the latest date is 1494, the year when Nikolaus Pol signed the book. The reason for the year 1389 is because of a calendar written on folio 83v, listing the years 1390-1495. (Kleinau, Jens P. 1418 Modus Dimicandi Magistri H. Beringois of the Ms. G.B.f.18.a) Despite having a possible dating period of almost a century, one of the reasons this text is considered as the oldest in the Liechtenauer tradition is the fact that, contrary to all other copies of the Zettel, this particular one lack the prayer to god for Master Liechtenauer’s soul. Other texts such as Cod.44.A.8 (Codex Danzig) contains this passage  “got genadig seÿ” which roughly mans may god have mercy [on his soul], praying for the departed soul of the person mentioned. However MS 3227a, folio 13v lack this indicator, which encourages some researches to suggest that Master Liechtenauer may have been alive when this text was first written. Again, despite its allure, this proposition remains a speculation.

MS Chart.A.558 (Talhoffer Fechtbuch)

This manuscript and fightbook (fechtbuch) whose authorship is attributed to Hans Talhoffer and is dared to 1448 is the oldest text that we can definitely date that is containing Zettel.