The path to the original poem of Master Liechtenauer

If we compare the versions of the Zedel by Master Liechtenauer to each other, and to the poem originated by Magister Beringer we will recognize at first sight the different number of verses. Same happens in comparison of the Nürnberg Hausbuch with most of the other variants of Liechtenauer Zedel.

scribesTwo simple explanations come to the mind. Some writers could have forgotten parts, while others may have seen additions necessary. We are unable to ask them and musings, who may have been copied by whom are pure speculative, and tend to be wrong. If we ignore the less scientific musings of the 19th century, the first attempt to clarify the dependencies in Liechtenauers tradition in a stemma was done by Hans-Peter Hils in 1987. At this time the Zedel of Magister Beringer had not been known, and the date determination of some of the books known to Hils had been wrong. Some of the minor factors that may have led to false conclusions. The bigger problem seems to be, that stemmatics holds valid approaches to determine possible archetypes in variants, but these methods are not applicable without a good understanding of the content.

Understanding the content of fightbooks can help us to identify an archetype and even help us to reconstruct the original. Following the idea of Sir Walter W. Greg’s Rationale of Copy-Text, we may assume that the authors took great care to copy extremely close to the original passages, which had been significant, or substantive to them, while other passages had been copied loosely or simply wrong. Thus, the passages holding the essential knowledge and personal preferences should have been copied as close as possible. But sadly, we must take the Dunner-Krueger-Effect into account. Some of authors may have seen themselves as more competent and evolved than the old master’s work and modified it for “good reasons”.

Furthermore, it may be as well, that the authors copied those lines as exact as possible, which they didn’t understand fully or not at all, in the attempt to avoid any mistakes. Thus, we might find those lines copied best, which they found best in the archetype, and those they didn’t really understand. Those lines which the authors found “boring” would be copied with less accuracy.

When it comes to copying, we must take into consideration, that the process of copying may have been done not from a written but a memorized archetype. The original poem was probably meant to be memorized and not to be kept as a personal Zedel, what was later more likely the case with the Liechtenauer poem. Therefore, the textual analysis must include phonetic similarities in dialects hardly spoken anymore in Germany. Dialects already being a barrier of understanding in the respective times of the authors, creating notable misunderstandings.

Another hindrance of the textual analysis is the difference in the style of poems. Medieval poems hold a density of content in few syllables, while the authors of the Renaissance answered the freedom of available manufactured paper by a flood of words. The play of words, the fight with each vowel and consonant so present in the Codex Manesse eluded the authors of our fightbooks seemingly totally. This is quite obvious in the verses the author of the GMN3227a added. He emphasized his opinions by multiple repetitions (here not as a rhetorical device), like his recommendation to strike to the openings, thrust to the openings, aim for the openings etc. In comparison to the dense parataxic two-liners of the original poem the difference in style and quality is striking, his glosses an extraordinary example for hypotaxic chaos.

The quality of the original poem is surprisingly good for a text peppered with technical terms. There are no clean alliterations, but we can see the author trying like in “Czu koppe czu leibe / dy czecken do nicht vormeide”. We find nice assonances in his play with vowels like “wer obir dich hawed / zcorn hawe ort deme drawed (drewet is pronounced IPA: [ˈdʁɔɪ̯ːət] but he rhymes it to [ˈdʁaʊ̯ːət], the actual pronouncation “drohet” would have added another “o”). There are kind of asyndetons suddenly breaking the rhythm like “Das eben merke • hewe • stiche • leger weich ader herte” and not far away „In allen winden | Haw stich schnÿdt lere vinden“. In other lines we can beat the rhythm of the anaphora of the Schielhau “Schil kürtzt er dich an | … Schill zw dem ort | … Schill zw dem öberen“.

The play of words, the puns may have eluded not only us modern readers, but the authors of the copies as well. The more complex the pun, the harder to get. If we look at the quality of poems in medieval times we find lines like those of Ulrich von Singenberg in this beautiful polyptoton from the 13th century, “swa minneclicher minne kus so lieplîch liep anander tuot.“ The word „liep“ was probably the most played with. It could mean with nearly the same phonetic sound: love (“Liebe”), lips (“Lippen”), or body (“Leib”). Thus the verse could mean that „lovely love“, „lovely lips“, or „lovely bodies“ get connected. We find less artfully the same kind of play with multiple meanings in the poem „WIltu kunst schawen / sich link gen vnd recht mete hawen“. The sound „gen“ [ɡeːn] holds the meaning „geben“ and „gehen“ (and some more not relevant here). While there is no such thing like „sich gehen“ in German, we could state that this means „sich geben“. But Talhoffer noted „sich linck gehen“ [ˈɡeːən] in his copy. And he is not fully wrong here, because both meanings are intended. Talhoffer, and sadly some other authors, didn’t get some of the puns, and by this some data needed to understand this verse was lost in the copy process. Nevertheless, some of the glosses still cover the meaning of the puns more or less, even though the copied verse is wrong. Thus, it is safe to assume, that sometimes the scribe failed and not the author.

The obstacles in creating a critical edition of the original poem seem to be overwhelming. But it is not impossible. First of all, a textual analysis of the poem, looking out for rhetorical devices, word plays, and other poetic trickery common in late medieval times is needed as a precondition of it. It should be made by someone who knows much about medieval and renaissance fencing as well. So, she/he can judge if there is a brilliant play of words or just a failure in the process of writing the poem down.