What are we REALLY seeing with the half-sword images of Talhoffer?

by Bill Grandy

It is easy to assume Talhoffer was being literal when showing these men half-swording without armor. But is that what he really intended?
It is easy to assume Talhoffer was being literal when showing these men half-swording without armor. But is that what he really intended?

The works of the master Hans Talhoffer are curious. He authored at least five fencing treatises in the 15th century, and while we know that he himself was a celebrated fencing master, none of his manuscripts are what we in modern times would call a “manual”. Twenty years ago, these works were some of the only treatises available to the modern practitioner (before the age of translators and martial artists working to revive as many treatises as possible), and, unfortunately, due to the incomplete knowledge at the time, many people have come up with bizarre and complicated explanations for what they see in the images. While this was understandable twenty years ago, there is no excuse today, because there are so many other known fencing treatises from the same era that explain many of the same techniques in far greater detail. Despite this, many people still rely on Talhoffer’s works as stand-alone pieces, ignoring the larger context, and this leads to some severe misunderstandings of what Talhoffer was actually illustrating. In particular, one of the many myths that have sprung from supposed students of Talhoffer in the modern world is that half-sword techniques and specialty moves such as the Mordschlag (“murder stroke”, a technique done by grasping the blade with both hands, holding the sword upside down to strike with the hilt) were normal, everyday techniques for unarmored combat, and that they were incorporated as much as possible. This is also usually accompanied by many misguided ideas as to why this must be “true”, such as “Talhoffer clearly was teaching fighting in narrow castle halls…”, “The swords of Talhoffer’s time were not sharp, so using them this way gave more control…”, “Half-sword techniques were just the norm for the time…”, but none of these arguments are based on any kind of logical evidence or critical thinking. It is far more likely that Talhoffer’s images were meant to demonstrated armored combat despite the fact that his models were not wearing armor, and that conclusion is not far fetched when we look at the broader picture of 15th century martial arts. Continue reading

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