Saturday, August 27, 2011

Advice on Writing from a Medieval German Fencing Master

Another great post by Ann Regentin.


When we think of martial arts, we usually think of the East, karate and ninjas, secrets handed down through the centuries from master to student or perhaps from father to son, combat abilities far beyond those of ordinary people.  We think of discipline, both physical and mental, honor codes like Bushido, the rules by which the samurai were supposed to live.

What we don’t usually think of is medieval Europe.

Medieval Europe as a place of chronic conflict, and not only were decisions made with armies, they were made with duels. Developing the skill and awareness required to fight at one’s very best on a moment’s notice wasn’t just an interesting pastime. For many, it was a question of life and death, which meant a pressing need to elevate hand-to-hand combat into an art form. After all, as one Hanko Döbringer put it, “If there was no art to it, the strong would always prevail.”

European martial artists formed schools that taught different styles, just as the Asians did, and they also wrote things down. They even added pictures. These books, called fightbooks, date back as far as the 14th century and provide thorough, colorfully illustrated descriptions of the techniques and philosophies taught by the Western masters.  Best of all, they survived long after gunpowder replaced the sword and European martial arts branched off into things like freestyle wrestling and sport fencing, leaving a record of traditions that might otherwise have been lost.

The grand master of the German school was Johannes Leichtenauer. Although nothing written by him has been unearthed to date, a great deal was written about him and he was quoted extensively by other masters. One of the oldest fightbooks written in 1389 by the aforementioned Döbringer, is devoted to Leichtenauer’s work, not just his technical advice but his teachings on a warrior’s optimal state of mind.

One wouldn’t think that a detailed treatise on medieval European martial arts would provide much by way of writing advice. However, martial arts are about a lot more than combat. They are also about developing the discipline required to practice even after practicing becomes dull, and the self-control to handle conflict gracefully and honorably.

I can’t be sure if the following quote is really from Leichtenauer himself. However, it has the feel of a saying passed down from master to student, and as such, it may very well have originated with Leichtenauer, or even someone who taught him. It’s common advice, given in every book and class on writing I’ve ever encountered, but the turn of phrase in the old German Fechtbüch is the most elegant and eloquent I’ve ever seen.

"ubunge ist besser wenne kunst denne ubunge tawg wol ane kunst aber kunst tawg nicht wol ane u[e]bunge.”

Or, in English, “practice is better than art, because practice is of good use without art, but art without practice is useless.”

This single clause from a 14th century manual on combat techniques remains as true today as it was then, and true of every endeavor we can undertake. Amazing talent isn’t enough. It isn’t even necessary. The most amazing talent in the world will decay if it isn’t exercised. Practice, however, regardless of the talent or art, even if we never reach the top, can develop in us the persistence we need to endure and the grace we need to fail.

Hanko Döbringer’s Codex, translated by David Lindholm and friends, is available online  as a pdf here:


Mila Ramos said...

Ann, I just love your posts. Its like story hour meets Zen: The Art of Motorcycle maintenance. :)

Another great one!

Sultry Summers said...

I've always found forms of martial arts and duels so interesting. I've written a couple of manuscripts where the heroine and hero both end up, at one point or the other, dueling. It can prove to be a great way to heighten sexual tension especial when a code of ethics and honor prevail and are honored. Your post was very interesting and enlightening.
Thank you for posting and thanks to Mila for another great choice in an author to keep us all well informed for information for our writing.

hotcha12 said...


Mila Ramos said...

Hi girlie! Nothing new right now, I'm actually on pause until the end of November. I have my candidacy exam then and then I can go back to writing!! :) :)

Jenny Twist said...

I'm not surprised that Ann Regentin has written such an erudite and entertaining piece. Her books are so well-written. Well done, Ann.
Mila, what's a candidacy exam? Are you running for president?

Mila Ramos said...

Hey Jenny,

I'm getting my doctorate in Organic Chemistry. So here (or so it feels) the candidacy exam is where you give a presentation and a proposal on the work you have completed in the past two years. You also state the aims for future work, and present an idea of something new or possibly something you would like to try by your dissertation date.

Mine is in November and currently I am starting to write the proposal. In theory the manuscript can be 10 pages but I'm passing as of now the 20 page mark. From there I have to make the powerpoint presentation on all this wonderful chemistry *crosses eyes*.

So unfortunately no writing until the end of November.

Jenny Twist said...

Oh my God! It sounds horrendous! I think I'd rather run for president. Good luck. I'll be thinking about you.