Matt Galas's lecture on his research into the historical fencing guilds was great at FA 2012. He went for about 2 hours and showed us translations he was working on from historical documents in both French and Dutch. I didn't write down notes, so here is what I can remember off the top of my head. Maybe some of the other guys that were there can chime in with what they remember as well.
First, the guilds were far more common and widespread than I realized. Matt commented the he lives just aside of a town of about 20,000 in Belgium. This town was even smaller in the past, but it had its own fencing guild with a whole archive of historical documents. He has found extensive records of fencing guilds from France, Belgium, and Holland and there is no reason to believe they weren't just as common in Germany and Bohemia. Longsword tournaments were being held as late as 1791! Matt attributes the spread of the French revolution throughout Europe as the end of the guilds. Damn French!!! The guilds supported the towns. The towns were generally run by patrician families. So even though they weren't directly associated with the nobility, the revolutionaries saw them as a threat and disbanded them. In Germany Napolean put an end to the Holy Roman Empire, which had given official status to the guilds. So they went into decline as well.
The guilds had lots of rules! Matt had pages upon pages of translated guild rules. They had to pay fines every time they violated a rule. Here are some that I can remember off the top of my head:
1. No farting or burping in the training hall….or you pay a fine!!!
2. You must greet the Master and your fellow students every time you enter the training hall.
3. You cannot walk between two fencers about to engage.
4. You cannot pick your weapon up off the ground while wearing gauntlets, or place it back onto the ground when you are finished without first removing your gauntlets.
5. If you willfully hurt a training partner, you pay a fine.
6. You must salute the equipment/weapons upon entering the training hall. Matt pointed out that this was a direct equivalent of the bowing and respect shown in traditional Japanese dojos.
7. You cannot step on or over weapons lying on the floor.
8. If you do not attend scheduled events, you pay a fine.
9. If you handle a weapon that you have not “sworn” for, you pay a fine.
A guild member “took the oath” for one weapon at a time. For example, you paid the required fee and then swore the oath for the Longsword. The swords were layed out crossed on the ground and you were required to kneel and touch the swords as you swore the oath. Then you had an intensive 6 week training program in the Longsword basics. At the end of that time if the Master thought you were ready, he would allow you to play for your prize. The prize was assigned a specific value and you had to either provide that in money, or purchase something of the same value. This was then placed in a prominent position on the wall in the training hall for all to see. Matt says there are illustrations of things hanging on the wall in some manuscripts that were likely a prize to be played for. This was often a tin plate or other utensil. One of the guilds in Belgium has been resurrected and has a small museum with a display case full of items that had been prizes in the past. It wasn’t clear what “successfully playing the prize” consisted of. A tournament was held, but he didn’t say whether the candidate had to win, or just give a good showing. But once you had your first prize play, you were “in.” Obviously training continued on past 6 weeks of basics, but Matt didn’t go into further ranking or prize plays.
So a guild member had to go through the same process for each weapon. Longsword was always on the list. Matt also mentioned staff, dagger, sword & buckler, Messer, and a little later in history…rapier and then smallsword.
Officers in the guild included the fencing Master and his provost or assistant. The bailiff was responsible for collecting the fines. He also got a small cut, so even though he was likely unpopular, this was a desired position to have! The King had the most status and seemed to be in charge more than the fencing Master. The Emperor was like a retired King that everyone respected. There were “olderman” or elders that where part of the governing council. These were guys that had been around forever but where maybe now too old to do much training or fighting anymore. They were often past Kings and Emperors. There was another role…I forget the title…that was essentially assigned by the city leaders. This was the guy responsible for making sure that the guild as a whole was not doing anything that the city disapproved of.
There was a big Fechtschule event every year. The prior King was responsible for putting up a portion of the funds to put it on. There was lots of food and entertainment involved and it was a public event. The tournament used what Matt refers to as the “Franco-Belgium” rules. The fighters wore black and used Feders with chalked blades. Thrusts were forbidden and they could strike only with the flat. Strikes to the hands and forearms were forbidden. The previous year’s King took the floor and each fighter had one pass. If the King won the pass, he stayed. If the champion won the pass, he took the King’s place. An after-blow was in the King’s favor, so you had to land a convincing blow to displace the King. The strike moved up each time a hit was scored. In other words, if the previous hit was scored on the arm just above the elbow, all subsequent hits had to be higher. If someone scored on the shoulder, then the only hits that scored after that were ones to the head! All the fighters in the tournament lined up and took turns at the King. Each fighter had multiple “lives” depending upon their rank in the guild. A newbie may have only one “life”, meaning he had only one pass or one chance at the King. A long-time guild member may have three “lives”, meaning he had multiple passes or chances at the King. The “last man standing” was the King for the next year. If a fighter won the Kingship three years in a row, then he was dubbed “Emperor” and held that title for life. He was given permanent status and never required to compete in the tournaments again. The winning “King” was expected to throw a big party and feast and provide gifts for all the guys that fought against him. Guild life wasn’t cheap!
The city leaders welcomed the guilds. The guilds provided a pool of trained fighters to help defend the city in times of conflict. They also provided something equivalent to a police force or riot control element that would help keep things from getting out of hand. They also helped keep fighting and conflict to a minimum within the city, since any “dueling” or other fighting was so closely regulated. Note that dueling in Europe only really became a problem with many deaths after the decline of the fencing guilds. There were guilds for crossbowmen, longbowmen, and cannoniers as well. So any decent sized city wanted multiple guilds because this essentially made up their own small army for defense.
The guilds likely started with an emphasis on the fencing Master and as a way for him to train and certify fellow fencing Masters. They would have been somewhat small. But then the emphasis shifted to the membership and it became more like a fraternity and closer to what we would consider a typical martial arts school.
Matt said that there are reams and reams of historical documents on the fencing guilds. The vast majority of it is boring stuff like records of minutes of meetings, inventories of weapons and equipment, and accounting records. But he notes that everyone once in awhile he comes across a “jewel” that talks about rules or stories of disputes that gives some insights into what they were doing. But none of them contain technique instruction like we have in Meyer and the other Fechtbucher.
Anyway…that’s what I can remember for now. Keep in mind that this is Matt Galas’s research, not mine. I’m only repeating what he told us as best I can remember. So I could certainly have screwed something up! But fascinating stuff nonetheless!
Keith P. Myers
Lifetime Member HEMA Alliance
Affiliate: Bartitsu Society & Cateran Society
Friend: Meyer Frei Fechter Guild