Visualizing Liechtenauer’s Art in Figure and Allegory

Cod.44.A.8 7v & 8r

Cod.44.A.8 7v & 8r

The Zettel is 186 rhyming couplets long (depending on which treatise you choose to recite from), and despite its concise nature and mnemonic intent, it can be quite difficult to hold in the mind as a single item.  Fortunately, medieval people, used to the strain of memorizing large chunks of poetic writing such as the biblical Psalms, devised a variety of methods of memorization to help with this process. One method is to create a “memory palace” wherein one actively creates a visual representation of the material to be memorized, attaching the information to a visual cue or representation of the idea to be remembered.  The palace can then be “walked through” in the mind, allowing for faster and more accurate recall due to the simplified nature of an image when compared to lines of text.

Another method frequently used by medieval scholars were diagrammatical representations of the information.  While memory palaces were unique to the person memorizing the text, these diagrams were intended to be easily understood and recalled by anyone working with the text.  While there are many different types of diagrams used by medieval scholars, for the purpose of this introduction to the idea, we will be sticking solely to the tree-form.  Codex 44 A 8, the so-called Von Danzig manuscript, from 1452 includes for our use one example of such figures on folios 7v and 8r, which connect to and expand upon the structure of the Rossfechten Verse itself, allowing for ease of memorization and more importantly, layers of additional tactical information about the techniques to which it ultimately connects.

Using these tree figures as an invitation to study the verse in a different way, I have begun to create my own figures for understanding the entirety of the verse and gaining from this effort a different way of seeing the techniques for Blossfechten and Harnischfechten as a result.  If we were to look to more complex tree structures from medieval manuscripts, such as Trees of Consanguinity or Trees of Vices and Virtures, we can find inspiration for creating trees which represent the whole art.


This is one example of a way that the verse can be diagrammed.  The connections between the various nodes are not necessarily indicated in this image, however, much like other charts, once you have learned the key to reading the information it becomes quite simple to make meaningful inferences from the structure.

The form need not be quite so obviously tree-like in shape, and a popular example of this which has existed from the middle ages until now might be the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.  If we take that as our inspiration and apply it to the Blossfechten verse, we end up with something that might look like the image below, with it’s obvious connections and interconnections.


Figures, such as these examples, are within the medieval scholastic world and are ways to internalize extensive texts and understand complicated ideas.  It goes without saying that there may be other, more effective, ways to turn Liechtenauer’s verse into a tree but these have already been quite useful to my understanding and interpretation of the art.

Yet another way to explore complex ideas would be to play with it in the realm of the allegory.  If we were to suggest that medieval knights had three main leisure pursuits, they would likely be hunting, fighting, and romancing.  While there are a variety of ways that these pursuits are interconnected, I suspect that, to-date, they haven’t all been fully explored.

Hunting as an allegory for love is a common medieval theme and was quite popular across Europe in general as well as, more relevant to our interests, in 14th and 15th century German-speaking lands.  The Minnesanger and the meaning of their poetry has been extensively explored in literature to date and is a rich source of material for German hunting traditions.  Additionally, much like our familiar fighting treatises, there still exist numerous treatises on hunting, including such diverse techniques as judging and harboring a stag, hunting with and training falcons, trapping, fowling, and zoological treatises.   Despite a wide understanding that hunting was a training ground for war, and an allegory for romantic and carnal love, the symbolic connection between the techniques of the hunt and the tactics of Liechtenauer’s Ritterkunst have been much less understood and explored.

One example from the verse is from the beginning of the Gemeine Lere, where it opens “wildu kunst schauen / sich linck gen und recht mit hawen”, “If you want to behold the art, see that you go on the left and strike with the right.” (translation by Christian Tobler).  The text of the gloss goes on to explain that this means that one should first learn how to strike correctly if you wish to be strong, and further that you should step with the right foot after you strike from your right side if you wish for your blows to be long and straight.  Should we look to information on hunting with a hawk (a ‘weapon’ that flies long and straight), the medieval text called the Avarium goes into detail about hawks and says that one should carry the hawk on the left but loose it from the right.  “Oddly, the Avarium explains this with reference to the Song of Songs 8:3: ‘Leva eius sub capite meo, Et dextera illius amplexabitur me’ [His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me].  Hugo [the author of Avarium] says that the left signifies temporal good whereas the right is true eternal good” (from the Tale of the Alerion by Minnette Gaudet and Constance B. Hieatt, page 19).  

I deliberately chose this example to introduce the idea of connection in a very theoretical way. This provides us no more information about how to strike properly or what is a “good cut” than we had without it.  What it does provide, however, is a wonderful example of how very layered the medieval mind might be — that carrying on the left and striking from the right is “proper” with both sword and hawk, and that the bible is ultimately used by the medieval scholar as the reasoning for why this might be so — a very different conclusion than what we might come to when reading the same text!

For my more practical friends out there, however, we can explore another connection between hunting texts and Liechtenauer’s Art.  Vier Leger or Vier Hütten, what some translate as the Four Guards, Four Wards, or Four Liers, are the main positions from which Liechtenauer tells us we should fight.  This is very clear and everyone has a sense of what these are in physical manifestation and use. However, when we want to make more connections between these and how a medieval person may have thought of these ideas, the hunting terminology can be exceedingly useful.  

A Leger is the lair or resting place of wild animals.  It is also the nesting-place of wild fowl. So with this image we can understand that our opponent will begin the fight in their resting place, one which is protected and within which they are covered and enclosed.  The Hütte, in contrast, is the hunter’s blind, the fowler’s hut, the place from which traps are operated.  The hunter is hidden from the quarry, protected from the elements, and ready to spring a trap upon their unwary prey when they are flushed from their lair.  So now we can visualize the fight not as a chess match or as a mathematical equation (if x then y), but instead, as both combatants being simultaneously prey and hunter, fleeing and chasing each other.

Whereas the tree diagram allows us to make practical connections between fight techniques, the hunting allegory allows us to imagine the fight in a creative way.  One provides structure, the other creativity, and where these two overlap we can gain new insights into a lost art: creating the mental realm of the medieval fighter, perhaps less of a memory palace and more of a Jagdweide.

This is the subject of my lecture at Longpoint 2019 and I look forward to discussing these topics and so much more with you all in March!

Jess Finley