Memorizing Martial Arts: The 14th Century Notebook of an Erudite Martial Artist in the Tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 3227a)

The oldest surviving manuscript in the tradition of the German martial arts teacher Johannes Liechtenauer, the ms. 3227a in the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, is dated approximately to 1389. It provides the first known reference to a professional fencing instructor whose system influenced martial arts treatises for about 200 years. In this paper I will discuss several questions concerning the manuscript 3227a and its genesis. After a short summary of the research history of the codex, the problem of written communication about body techniques will be addressed. These written accounts face the challenge to transmit information about the practical knowledge of experienced fighters. However, following the works of Michael Polanyi, an integral part of these skills is bound to a subjective experience of movement and cannot be expressed explicitly by the use of speech or media. The key to understanding the described body techniques therefore rests on a form of tacit knowing that cannot be verbalised or depicted. Starting from this perspective, the studies of Jan-Dirk Müller on the communication strategies of medieval fight books (which use mnemonic verses, glosses and depictions in different combinations) gain a key relevance to understanding these attempts to describe body techniques. On the basis of a codicological autopsy of manuscript 3227a I will then argue that the codex first consisted of separate notebooks which were later bound together. The anonymous scribe seems to have used these notebooks to copy the mnemonic verses used in Liechtenauer’s didactic system to preserve and memorize the concepts and techniques. He then added his own comments in different stages of writing, sometimes correcting his former statements in the light of new insights. Therefore we do have a very early documentation of the intermixture of martial arts and academic culture and of the advancement of a martial arts practitioner in the late 14th century. These observations shed light on the development of late medieval fight books as a literary genre and underline the importance of a detailed dissection of the concrete fight book to determine its genesis, intended purpose(s) and the possible situations of reception.

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