Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who were the Freifechter?

While much today is being written and researched about the Fencing Guilds of Europe during the 15th-17th centuries, not much is presented about the vast portion of
fencers who perhaps did not all belong to these Guilds. The Freifechters existed throughout the renaissance in Europe, they were the epitome of the principle of Free Will.

Many of these fencers traveled throughout the Empire and beyond, learning and teaching the Art of Combat. The Freifechters or Free Fencers, having been influenced by these travels, are also known to have written Fencing manuals.
Masters like Andres Pauernfeindt, Joachim Meyer, Jakob Sutor, Sebastian Heussler and others have all left behind, interestingly similar works. Through their signatures, we are helped to understand the place they occupied in the Knightly Arts being practiced. For instance, in 1626, Sebastian Heussler, a Kriegsmann and Freifechter, from Nurnberg, published a treatise on the Rappier and dagger in the Italian manner. Plainly seen is his occupation, that of Warrior or Soldier. And in addition we see he was a Freifechter.
This fact is very revealing of the many occupations and levels of knowledge, these Fencers possessed. In addition, we see the name Freifechter associated with Student and Warrior alike. The many different Trades Guilds that are represented by the Freifechter, reveal a sense of the free will that was inherent with the Title.
Also of interest from the various occupations of the Freifechter, We see contained in the works of J.P. Rissler, in his 1853 Alsatia
That in the 16th century, many fencers known as Freifechters, travelled to the Free City of Strassbourg, and petitioned the City Council for the authority to hold a fechtschulen. These events were countless, according to the data from the above mentioned works. We see several names and occupations of freifechter given. It is also stated that there were always several Freifechter, who resided within the City, teaching others, and who did not travel widely. So yet, a further example of what a Freifechter was and was not.

Perhaps the most perplexing, yet revealing bit of history comes from page 184 of the works of Rissler, where he relayed archived portions of the correspondence between the Town Council, and the Fencers. he quotes: "Saturday the 4th of November, 1559, there appears before the gentlemen and leaders of the Strassbourg Town council, one Conrad Mendeler,
from Ulm, a Furrier AND a Freifechter."
This is most fascinating because the Furriers Guild WERE the Marxbrüder! All throughout the written fechtschulen history, is overwhelming evidence that this organized and Royally decreed TradeWorkers Guild of the Furriers, were synonymous with the Brotherhood of Saint Mark. Further clarification of this relationship can be had through their respective, patron saints. The patron Saint of the Furriers or Kürschner, was Saint John the Baptist, while the brotherhood clearly owed their spiritual allegiance to the Holy and virulent Apostolic, martyred, Saint Mark. this should serve to clarify the difference between the actual trade guild known as the Kürschners, and the Brotherhood of Fencers that were always associated with them, although not exclusively. The marxbruder were comprised of many different Tradesmen. But the fact that Mendeler names himself both a Kürschner and a Freifechter, is an indication that perhaps the word was used both within the Brotherhood of St Mark and without. And was undoubtedly used to denote an individual fencers' level of understanding, a rank. Further clarification of the meaning of the Title Freifechter, can be seen in an article from a 1589 edition of Sebastian Munsters Cosmographi, (C. Amberger collection), wherein it is plainly stated that the Freifechter were "certified through testing" at the fall Festival in Frankfurt am Main, and nowhere else in the empire. This testing was conducted by the Masters of the Longsword, of the Marxbrüder.
And we can only assume that the physical testing for the Title of master of the longsword, was different than the certification for the title Freifechter?

Again from Alstia we see that having traveled to Strassbourg, in the year 1559, Georg Oswald Gernreich, a student from Nurnberg, also a Freifechter, is written about as having had the audacity to hang a wooden placard with the following poem on it:
"God and all Students are Friends
And those of the Saint Marks Brotherhood and all Furriers, are enemies."

This didnt go over too well, and the Marxbrüder immediately complained to the town Council, which took swift action. the Trades workers guilds, had a hierarchy of
leadership with influences greater than any "Student".

Through select translations of the Codex I 625, which contains a portion of actual Fechtschulen Rules and Ordinances for an Event taking place in, presumably the year
1491. The division that exists between the Masters of the Sword of the Brotherhood of St Mark and their opponents; the Freifechters, becomes obvious when reading these
Rules for the bout.

From the Principles of the Free Fencers
Lately and up to now, it having been, that each one
of the Freifechter, would like to certify another Freifechter
thus they should be led by the following ordnance,
When alone, such a more recent Freifechter
wants to hold a school, or will, He should himself
with the test, be made to take, and others of these
ordinances be compliant with. Still he is expected to
remain as every free willed Freifechter, if he wants to be
an Avowed master of the Longsword, or not.

The early date of this and the content of the above would seem to indicate that the Freifechter had already existed, and that the newly formed and authorized Brotherhood of St Mark was already instituting rules to govern the Teaching of the Arts. Making it necessary to be Tested and approved by the Masters of the Longsword, of Loewenberg and St Mark.
The I 625 Codex intimates a hierarchy, that existed, wherein the Marxbrüder Masters of the Longsword were above the Freifechters in Rank. This is also revealed through
select translations of the Original Federfechter Articles. The Freifechters von der Feder, or free fencers of the feather, had unified and created their own coat of arms in the Year 1570, in Mecklenburg. Where a Prince had promised his patronage. this is documented in several sources of original history. Much to the chagrin of the Marxbrüder! But it wasnt till the year 1607, that they would be given royal privileges, by the Emperor Rudolf II, in Prague. Part of this included the authority to certify Masters of the Longsword. Which had up until that time, only been done by the Marxbrüder in Frankfurt am Main. And yet even with their recent authority to name masters of the longsword, it was on the condition that there appeared in Prague, no masters of the Longsword, of the marxbrüder. So it seems the marxbrüder retained an absolute power over the Freifechter still? In addition, we see the hierarchy that existed above the rank of freifechter:
Here from an original Article of the Federfechter dated 1610:

When a master of the long sword into a city has come, and therein a Freifechter school is being held, thus should the Lesser step back, and the master of the Longsword be allowed to hold the school

and then there this, which reveals that a Freifechter could recommend someone to become an avowed master, who promises to take the Masters test in frankfurt within two or three years:

When a Master of the Longsword or else a Freifechter, recommends someone , and with the intent to be made a Master thus should he his Pledge make, that he, within
Two years or the Longest Three, should to Prague appear and there be made a Master of the LongSword.

This tells us that the Freifechter had the ability to name someone to be a master. Which was a process which first included, becoming an avowed master. this vow was
taken seriously. And perhaps most revealing of all is this Article which actually defines the rank of Freifechter:

When a Master of the Longsword, comes to a City, or lives there, and how it has often procceeded, that several Fencers have the misunderstanding of school to teach, often myself has not gone unnoticed, thus should this Master of the Longsword have the Right, because such Elbowfencers have acquired their fencing lowly, and that they should discontinue the idea of becoming a named Master, and be made a Freifechter first, and should be known as none other than that, in that he within three years be caused to be made a master of the Longsword in Prague, thereupon should he be granted the right to teach school. Thus he who his Pledge does not keep, in this time, how he pledged, should he discontinue fencing, unitl after he comes to Prague and be stirred by the Masters of the Longsword.

Interesting that the order of becoming a master is given here. that "he be made a Freifechter first" So perhaps this intimates that there were fencers who werent even at the Freifechter level yet! And the word Winckelfechter I have roughly translated as meaning Elbowfencer. Probably a derisive term used for fencers who had not been properly taught.

Hopefully the above presented facts, should lead us to a slightly better understanding of who the Freifechter were, and what it meant to be a Freifechter: They were famous Warriors and Authors of fencing manuals, they were bodyguards of the princes and nobles. They were also common tradesmen, like shoemakers and cutlers. they were students. Their positions in history are clearly defined, the role they played in the historic European martial arts, becomes obvious when we see the wide spectrum of life that they represented. And yet they were not officially sanctioned, or acknowledged as such until a group of prominent men, came together and formed a Guild. For at least one hundred years, this Rank was used by many to denote a level of physical understanding of the Kunst des Fechtens.

The fact that they were also, potentially, members of the Marxbrüder guild, is telling. It may confirm that this was in fact a Rank, that existed. This Rank was probably not as relevant as the Angelobten or Avowed masters, or even the actual Masters of the Longsword, but that it is mentioned alongside them, is certainly comparative proof of its usage.
And that even after a Group of Freifechters came together and formed a fencing guild, there remained Freifechters who were not members of said fencing guild should also be considered. Given that many of the titles of their works included the words "Free Knightly and Noble" This indicates that the Free will, and free spirit of these fencers' art, was not to be hemmed in. Their disappearance is a mystery. They seem to just fade to black, in the pages of history. It seems the last mention of the fechtschulen events only contain references to the two known fencing guilds, the Marxbrüder and the Federfechter. So it can be surmised that the declining popularity of the Events ushered out a tradition that had achieved a great and lasting impression on the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe.

Kevin Maurer
Meyer Freifechter Guild

2 November 2010


  1. Excellent article Kevin, this speaks not only to my interest in the Longsword, but also on a personal level as I am of German descent and was born in Frankfurt am Main.


    Mark H.

  2. http://freifechter.com/index.cfm

    the Journal is out