Martial arts manual

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Martial arts manuals are instructions, with or without illustrations, specifically designed to be learnt from a book. Many books detailing specific techniques of martial arts are often erroneously called manuals but were written as treatises.


Prose descriptions of martial arts techniques appear late within the history of literature, due to the inherent difficulties of describing a technique rather than just demonstrating it.

The earliest extant manuscript on armed combat (as opposed to unarmed wrestling) is Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 ("I.33"), written in Franconia around 1300.

Not within the scope of this article are books on military strategy such as Sun Tzu's The Art of War (before 100 BC) or Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus' De Re Militari (4th century), or military technology, such as De rebus bellicis (4th to 5th century).


Detail of the wrestling scenes at Beni Hasan. Beni Hassan tomb 15 wrestling detail.jpg
Detail of the wrestling scenes at Beni Hasan.

Some early testimonies of historical martial arts consist of series of images only. The earliest example is a fresco in tomb 15 at Beni Hasan, showing illustrations of wrestling techniques dating to the 20th century BCE. Similar depictions of wrestling techniques are found on Attic vases dating to Classical Greece.

The only known instance of a book from classical antiquity is Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 466 from the 2nd century CE, detailing Greek wrestling techniques. There are some examples in the Chinese classics that may predate the turn of the Common Era: the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (c. 100 BCE) documents wrestling, referring to earlier how-to manuals" of the Western Han (2nd century BCE), which have however not survived. An extant Chinese text on wrestling is "Six Chapters of Hand Fighting" included in the 1st century CE Book of Han . [1]

All other extant manuals date to the Middle Ages or later. The "combat stele" at Shaolin Monastery dates to 728 CE. The earliest text detailing Indian martial arts is the Agni Purana (c. 8th century), which contains several chapters giving descriptions and instructions on fighting techniques. [2] [3] It described how to improve a warrior's individual prowess and kill enemies using various methods in warfare whether they went to war in chariots, horses, elephants or on foot. Foot methods were subdivided into armed combat and unarmed combat. [4] The former included the bow and arrow, the sword, spear, noose, armour, iron dart, club, battle axe, chakram and trident. [5] The latter included wrestling, knee strikes, punching and kicking methods. [4]

The oldest extant European martial arts manual is Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 (c. 1300).

"Illustrations only" manuals do not become extinct with the appearance of prose instructions, but rather exist alongside these, e.g. in the form of the Late Medieval German illuminated manuscripts.

Historical European martial arts

German Fechtbücher

fol. 2r of the Cod. 44 A 8, depicting two fencers in the vom tag and alber wards. MS 44 A 8 2r.jpg
fol. 2r of the Cod. 44 A 8, depicting two fencers in the vom tag and alber wards.

Fechtbuch (plural Fechtbücher) is Early New High German for "combat manual", [6] one of the manuscripts or printed books of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance containing descriptions of a martial art. Usually, the term is taken to include 15th- and 16th-century German manuals, but the nature of the subject matter does not allow a clear separation of these from treatises from other parts of Europe on one hand (particularly from the Italian and French schools), and from manuals of later centuries on the other hand.

A list of Fechtbücher include:

Italian treatises

The Italian school is attested in an early manual of 1410, at which time it is not yet clearly separable from the German school. Indeed, the author Fiore dei Liberi states that he has learned much of his art from one "Master Johannes of Swabia". The heyday of the Italian school comes in the 16th century, with the Dardi school.

French manuals

Similar to the situation in Italy, there is one early manual (c. 1400, dealing with the pollaxe exclusively, and later treatises set in only after a gap of more than a century.

British manuals


Apart from three rather opaque texts of the later 15th century, [12] the native English tradition of fencing manuals begins with George Silver's Paradoxes of Defense (1599).


Scottish manuals detailing the use of the basket-hilted Scottish broadsword, besides other disciplines such as the smallsword and spadroon, were published throughout the 18th century, with early and late examples dating to the late 17th and early 19th centuries, respectively:

Iberian manuals

There are some manuals containing training advice for the medieval tournament and jousting such as the early Portuguese work A ensinança de bem cavalgar em toda a sela by Edward of Portugal (13911438). A riding instruction manual that also included martial information.

In 1599, the sword master, Domingo Luis Godinho wrote the Arte de Esgrima, the only fencing manual preserved that preserved the older "Common" or "Vulgar" system of Spanish fencing which has its traditions in the Middle Ages.

17th-century Spanish Destreza is very much steeped in the Spanish Baroque noblemen mindset, so doesn't contain much graphical explanations of the fencing techniques so much as hard to understand explanations based on mathematics and philosophical sciences in general. The subsequent difficulty on interpreting the theory and practice of Destreza correctly has led many times to this school of fencing being misunderstood.

Historical Asian martial arts

Unarmed fighting from the Jixiao Xinshu (1560s) Ji Xiao Xin Shu; pg 464.jpg
Unarmed fighting from the Jixiao Xinshu (1560s)

Some texts on unarmed combat survive from Han China (c. 1st century). A list of wrestling techniques is contained in the Malla Purana of 13th century Gujarat, India. The Chinese Jixiao Xinshu dates to the 1560s. The Korean Muyejebo dates to 1598, the Muyedobotongji dates to 1790. The Japanese The Book of Five Rings dates to 1645.

See also

Related Research Articles

Rapier Slender, sharply pointed sword

A Rapier or Espada ropera is type of sword with a slender and sharply-pointed two-edged blade that was popular in Western Europe, both for civilian use and as a military side arm, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

Quarterstaff Type of pole weapon

A quarterstaff, also short staff or simply staff is a traditional European pole weapon, which was especially prominent in England during the Early Modern period.

A longsword is a type of European sword characterized as having a cruciform hilt with a grip for two-handed use, a straight double-edged blade of around 85 to 110 cm, and weighing approximately 1 to 1.5 kg.

Royal Armouries Ms. I.33

Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 is the earliest known surviving European fechtbuch, and one of the oldest surviving martial arts manuals dealing with armed combat worldwide. I.33 is also known as the Walpurgis manuscript, after a figure named Walpurgis shown in the last sequence of the manuscript, and "the Tower manuscript" because it was kept in the Tower of London during 1950-1996; also referred to as British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi.

Hans Talhoffer

Hans Talhoffer was a German fencing master. His martial lineage is unknown, but his writings make it clear that he had some connection to the tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer, the grand master of a well-known Medieval German school of fencing. Talhoffer was a well-educated man who took interest in astrology, mathematics, onomastics, and the auctoritas and the ratio. He authored at least five fencing manuals during the course of his career, and appears to have made his living teaching, including training people for trial by combat.

Swordsmanship or sword fighting refers to the skills of a swordsman, a person versed in the art of the sword. The term is modern, and as such was mainly used to refer to smallsword fencing, but by extension it can also be applied to any martial art involving the use of a sword. The formation of the English word "swordsman" is parallel to the Latin word gladiator, a term for the professional fighters who fought against each other and a variety of other foes for the entertainment of spectators in the Roman Empire. The word gladiator itself comes from the Latin word gladius, which is a type of sword.

Historical European martial arts

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are martial arts of European origin, particularly using arts formerly practised, but having since died out or evolved into very different forms.

German school of fencing

The German school of fencing is a system of combat taught in the Holy Roman Empire during the Late Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods, as described in the contemporary Fechtbücher written at the time. The geographical center of this tradition was in what is now Southern Germany. During the period in which it was taught, it was known as the Kunst des Fechtens, or the "Art of Fencing". Though the German school of fencing focuses primarily on the use of the two-handed longsword, it also describes the use of many other weapons, including polearms, daggers, messers, and the staff, as well as describing mounted combat and unarmed grappling.

Classification of swords

The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise and has varied widely over time. There is no historical dictionary for the universal names, classification or terminology of swords; A sword was simply a double edged knife.

Italian school of swordsmanship

The term Italian school of swordsmanship is used to describe the Italian style of fencing and edged-weapon combat from the time of the first extant Italian swordsmanship treatise (1409) to the days of Classical Fencing.

Joachim Meyer

Joachim Meyer was a self described Freifechter living in the then Free Imperial City of Strasbourg in the 16th century and the author of a fechtbuch Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens first published in 1570.

Luis Pacheco de Narváez

Don Luis Pacheco de Narváez was a Spanish writer on the art of fencing.

Salvator Fabris Italian fencer

Salvator Fabris (1544-1618) was an Italian fencing master from Padua. During his life he taught in various European countries, most notably in Denmark where he was the fencing instructor of King Christian IV. It was during his time in Copenhagen that he published his treatise on rapier fencing, Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d’Arme, in 1606. The treatise became a fencing bestseller around Europe, and was reprinted until 1713 and translated into several languages, notably into German, and again in 2005, into English.

Le Jeu de la Hache is a French manual on combat with the poleaxe dating to c. 1400.

The oldest surviving manual on western swordsmanship dates to around 1300, although historical references date fencing schools back to the 12th century.

Gérard Thibault dAnvers

GérardThibault of Antwerp was a Belgian fencing master and author of the 1628 rapier manual Academie de l'Espée. His manual is one of the most detailed and elaborate extant sources on rapier combat, painstakingly utilizing geometry and logic to defend his unorthodox style of swordsmanship.

La Verdadera Destreza is the conventional term for the Spanish tradition of fencing of the early modern period. The word destreza literally translates to "dexterity" or "skill, ability", and thus la verdadera destreza to "the true skill" or "the true art".

There is some evidence on historical fencing as practiced in Scotland in the Early Modern Era, especially fencing with the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword during the 17th to 18th centuries.

<i>Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens</i>

Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens or, in English: A Foundational Description of the Art of Fencing: A Thorough Description of the Free, Knightly and Noble Art of Fencing, Showing Various Customary Defenses, Affected and Put Forth with Many Handsome and Useful Drawings is a German fencing manual that was published in 1570. Its author was the Freifechter Joachim Meyer. This manual was made for and was dedicated to Meyer's patron Count Palatine Johann Casimir. This fechtbuch builds on his earlier work, a manuscript written in 1560 - the MS A.4°.2, and presents a complex, multi-weapon treatise. Meyer's complete system often marks the end of and the compilation of the German fencing system in the Johannes Liechtenauer tradition. It is the only fechtbuch in the Liechtenauer tradition that was written for both laymen and beginners of the art.

Schola Gladiatoria

Schola Gladiatoria (SG) is a historical European martial arts (HEMA) group based in Ealing, west London, Great Britain, founded in 2001 and led by Matt Easton. It provides organized instruction in the serious study and practice of historical European swordplay. Schola seeks to be consistent with the methodology of the ancient European fencing schools by combining scholarship and research into the teachings of the historical masters, with the practical knowledge gained through solo and partnered drilling, and free play (sparring).


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