Fencing practice in medieval England

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Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 26 Aug 2010 16:20

This thread is intended to compile all the early referrences I can find to fencing training (rather than actual fights) in medieval England:

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"No one to keep a fencing school by night or day, under pain of imprisonment for forty days."
From: 'Folios x - xix', Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: C: 1291-1309 (1901), pp. 15-20.

"Concerning those who delight in mischief, proceed to learn in the city how to fence with the buckler, by night and by day, and consequently are emboldened to do wrong: it is decided that no-one within the city is to hold a school nor take lessons in fencing with the buckler, by night or by day. Anyone so doing is to be imprisoned for 40 days. He [i.e. an instructor] is not to take an apprentice by day, unless he is a man of good reputation and known [character]; if he is convicted of doing so, he is to receive the same punishment."
From: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Custumarum, f.217
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Custumarum, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.2 (1860), 282-283.
Date: late 13th or early 14th century

"Richard Tripaty and Laurence de Shirebourne were attached to answer a charge of having used insulting language to Roger de Lenne, servant of John atte Gate, before dusk in Thames Street in the parish of Allhallows the Great in the Hay, and that afterwards they entered the house of William Marisone, and asked William's wife to open the door of a room, in which they wished to indulge in bucklerplay [ad bucularium ludere], and when she refused, they drew their swords and attacked her, and when, owing to the tumult, Richard le Barber, beadle of the Ward, came with his rod to keep the peace, they assaulted and beat him also. The defendants denied that they did any harm to the woman or the beadle, and the defendant Richard said that they found the beadle and the servant Richard fighting, and that the latter struck the beadle on the breast, but that neither he nor the other defendant did anything."
From: 'Calendar: Roll C: 17 February 1299 - 14 October 1300', Calendar of early mayor's court rolls: 1298-1307 (1924), pp. 46-91.

“there hangs by the side of each a sword no less long than ours, but heavy and thick as well. The sword is always accompanied by an iron shield; it is the particular delight of this race that on holidays their youths should fight up and down the streets clashing on their shields with blunted swords or stout staves in place of swords.”
From: Dominic Mancini ‘De Occupatione Regni Anglie Per Riccardum Tercium’ December 1483.

"At least once in every year, let a general inquisition be made by authority of the Chancellor, among the Principals and Manciples specially sword for this occasion concerning peacebreakers and public taverners and such as practise the game of buckler-play. "
From: Anstey, Munimenta Academica, R. S., vol. I. p. 24 (1252?) .

"The deposition of John ffelerd, servitor to Oliver Hore, sworn and examined concerning a breach of the peace between himself and William Bishop of St John's Hall...
He saith that he and his friend were communing together concerning the game vulgarly called swerd and bockelere or pykyd staff, saying such games come from merriment of heart; and, among other things, the said William said to this aforementioned John, sofft and ffayre! whereunto John made answer sofft and ffayre ynogh! The William departed and brought back with him two scholars whose names are unknown, and the aforesaid William said unto the same John, "where is he who would fain play at this game aforesaid," adding "where are the weapons?" "Here am I," replied John; "and here are the weapons"; and the said William with his fellows laid hold of the staff at one end, and the said John would have drawn it away by the other end. Then said the same William and his fellows "Leave us the staff!" and he would not, but tore it with great force from them, and so he smote the said William even unto the shedding of blood; but before he smote him, a certain scholar coming with the said William drew out a knife called hangere, wherewith he would have smitten John ffelerd; which John aforesaid was convicted of this before me Master John Kexby, chancellor of Oxford University."
From: Ibid II. 526, A.D. 1442
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Fab » 26 Aug 2010 23:39

Thanks Matt.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Ariella Elema » 30 Aug 2010 21:40

That's a nice collection Matt. I think I have a couple of examples to add. Let me rummage around here...
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Ariella Elema » 30 Aug 2010 21:55

On festival days throughout the summer young men exercise through sports such as athletics, archery, wrestling, shot-put, throwing javelins (by use of a strap) beyond a marker, and duelling with bucklers (parmis). "Cytherea leads the dance of maidens and the earth is smitten with free foot at moonrise."


FitzStephen's description of London, ca. 1174-1183
Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Custumarum. Rolls Series, no.12, vol.2 (1860), 12.

Check against the original Latin. I used the translation on Florilegium Urbanum because I'm lazy.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Ariella Elema » 30 Aug 2010 22:07

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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Ariella Elema » 30 Aug 2010 23:11

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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Aug 2012 11:25

From ‘English University Life In The Middle Ages’, Cobban, 1999:

Notwithstanding the views held in some quarters that physical exercise was desirable for those following academic life, the English universities did little to promote student health by organising competitive games. There are only occasional references to tolerated games or other types of exercise. The Oxford aularian statutes of 1483-90 encouraged principles of halls to send their students to some outdoor location for recreational purposes. The frequency of such outings is not specified, but they were meant to be obligatory, except for reasonable cause. On the other hand, these same statutes forbade handball and bracketed this with the more dangerous arts of two-handed swordplay and another type of fencing called “sword and buckler play”, all of which were deemed likely to lead to disturbance of the peace.


Cobban takes this information from Gibson, ‘Statuta Antiqua’ (1931), p.576 and Emden, ‘An Oxford Hall’ (1927), p.204-5. Sadly neither book is viewable on Google Books.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Aug 2012 11:43

I have managed to find the original Latin statute from Oxford University:

Statutum est pro pace Universitatis Oxonie conservanda, quod amodo quolibet anno, saltem semel, siat generalis inquisitio, auctoritate Domini Cancellarii per Principales et Mancipia ad hoc specialiter juratos, de perturbatoribus pacis, et publicis tabernariis; ac utentibus arte Bokelarie; ac mulierculas in cameris suis detinentibus, unde scandalum vel infamia poterit exoriri. Inquisitio autem hoc modo siat, viz. ut subito et clam, per Cancellarium ordinetur de sex locis, ad quos omnes Scholares pariter et Scriptores, (4) tarn infra muros quam in suburbio, tarn in Aulis quam in cameris commorantes, commodius posiint confluere. Et in quolibet illorum locorum, deputentur Inquisitores, unus Theologus, Decretista vel Jurista, una cum duobus Artistis, cuilibet eorum affignatis; qui diligenter serutentur vota singulorum, et quæ in inquisitione hujusmodi invenerint, fideliter Cancellario insinuent, ut super hoc sui officii debitum exequatur.'


My Latin is minimal, but clearly this is the statute forbidding sword and buckler fencing "arte Bokelarie" (and other things) which can disturb the peace.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Aug 2012 11:46

Can anyone see anything in that Latin about two-handed swordplay? I can't, so I'm not sure where Cobban is getting that from.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Aug 2012 12:03

Okay, I’ve found the relevant statute that Cobban obviously refers to (I can’t find a date for it outside his book). Two-handed sword is mentioned here as “artemve gladii bimanualis”. Any Latinists fancy making a translation? -
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Aug 2012 12:20

Amusingly, the Linacre School of Defence already have this stuff online:
http://www.sirwilliamhope.org/Library/A ... atutes.php
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Sean M » 10 Aug 2012 01:28

The Linacre School's translation is not bad. My rough version of the first two paragraphs is:

Oxford Statute de honeste conversando et bene gerendo wrote:Eciam statutum est quod vnusquisque tam propter honorem aule in qua degit quam sui ipsius in moribus honeste se gerat ita quod nulla loca de inhonestate suspecta exerceat neque viris diffamatis communiter se associet neque alicui de malo faciendo seu dicendo consenciat quoiusmodo, sub pena iiijd.

It has been resolved that everyone, on account of the honour of the hall in which they live as much as their own, shall pass time in respectable activities, so that no place shall be disturbed by suspicion of dishonesty, nor shall they associate themselves in common with notorious men, not cooperate with anyone for the purpose of evil words or deeds, under a penalty of 4d.

Item quod nullus ludum alearum tabellarum vel ad pilam manualem, artemve gladij bimanualis seu bokelerie aut aliquem alium ludum inhonestum pacis perturbatiuum, studij subtractiuum, exerceant, sub pena tocient quociens iiijd. [infra precinctum colegij sive extra]

Note: That none shall play dice, or handball, or at the two-handed sword or bucklery, or any other disreputable game disturbing to peace and distracting from studies, under a penalty of 4d. [Within or without the bounds of the college]


Aleae tabellae are probably a specific game involving dice and a board. “Bokelerie” is clearly sword and buckler fencing, but I decided to translate literally since it looks like an English loanword. This text seems to use the convention that [square brackets] indicate text which is probably not by the original author.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Sean M » 10 Aug 2012 01:40

I also think its interesting that by the late 15th century, longsword practice was apparently as popular among students at Oxford as sword-and-buckler play.


That one is interesting because it has the list "spear, axe, sword, and dagger" outside a fencing manual.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Payson » 10 Aug 2012 09:30

Great Idea for a post Matt, thanks for compiling and posting that stuff. Would Early Modern evidence derail this thread?
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 10 Aug 2012 11:04

Sean M wrote:I also think its interesting that by the late 15th century, longsword practice was apparently as popular among students at Oxford as sword-and-buckler play.


Yes, this is very important to emphasise for English fencing history. In the 13th and 14th centuries fencing in England is only ever specified as being sword and buckler. Sword and buckler is mentioned all over the English sources. Chaucers pilgrims carry swords and bucklers. Longswords in England do not seem to become common (either in art or as State swords) until about 1400.
In the 15th century we have now identified two specific mentions of practice with the longsword in England. Then we have the three known English fencing texts, all of which date to the 15th and 16th century and all which discuss the longsword. Then we also have record of Henry VIII preparing to fight with the two-handed sword and from the late-15thC to mid-16thC we have a distinctive form of two-handed sword in England, about 10 of which survive in collections.
On the face of it this suggest to me that two-handed sword became popular in England for the gentlemanly classes from the early-15th to early-16thC, but before and after that sword and buckler predominated for unarmoured fencing of all classes.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 10 Aug 2012 11:07

Payson wrote:Great Idea for a post Matt, thanks for compiling and posting that stuff. Would Early Modern evidence derail this thread?


I'd rather keep this pre-1500. There are very very few mentions of fencing in England from the medieval period, except it's being illegal in English cities. Trying to find as many references as possible to fencing in medieval England is really useful I think - we know that there was lots happening by the 16thC and that stuff's easy to find.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby Gordon H » 12 Oct 2012 12:58

You maybe interested to know, that during the search for John Ledall, Payson Muller came across a very interesting letter from Queen Elizabeth to I think it was either the Sheriff or Mayor of York. i'll see if I can get him to post the contents here, if he hasn't already!

The letter was basically telling them to "clean up the streets" and bring there fencing masters to order.
Although we are on the border of more medieval/renaissance England, It shows fencing schools and practice within the city, it perhaps suggests that bands of youth were travelling the town picking fights, similar to what was seen in the German Duchys.

Oh and sorry this is off topic, my research into the Writer of the Ledall manuscript is almost complete, I'm only searching for his signature now, which will probably take a couple of trips into York Archives/the Minster. I could do with something new to go looking for, are there any manuscript writers we know absolutely nothing about, preferably English, and I'll see what I can dig up. You can pvt message me on this so as not to clog up this thread!
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 12 Oct 2012 13:13

I think there are three prime locations to start searching for potentially detailed pre-1500 mentions of fencing in England: Cambridge University, Oxford University and the College of Arms. We know that fencing was banned in the medieval period at both Cambridge and Oxford, but we also know that it happened regardless. There must be some more text about that. Then there is the somewhat closed archive of the Heralds at the College of Arms. If anyone should have more information about who trained the medieval English aristocracy then it should be them. They were established in 1415 and there could be all sorts of interesting manuscripts sitting in their archives un-studied. Who taught the young Henry VIII to wrestle, fence and joust? I have never been able to find any clues to this, but it must be documented somewhere.

Now back to topic please :).
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby admin » 07 Nov 2012 14:41

Made this thread sticky for ease of reference.
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Re: Fencing practice in medieval England

Postby knirirr » 01 Jul 2014 09:54

Sean M wrote:The Linacre School's translation is not bad.


Thanks. Our page on this matter is here, should anyone be interested.
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