Of buffaloes and peasants not knowing to feel the sword

Keith Farrell is one of my favorite author and sword companion especially if it comes to teach me the Scottish way of fencing from the later centuries than my late medieval sources. In his latest post “Reconsidering the buffalo” he reminded me of a fencing term that I explored some years ago but never brought to virtual or real paper: the Büffel.

Büffel in the dictionaries

The Büffel translated as “buffalo” is a small version of the Auerochs covered with red hairs according to Adelung and Lexer. The Auerochs was eradicated in Germany in the 16th century.

Looking up the DWB we see that the Büffel is a hairy wild ox. Martin Luther uses the term “Büffelarbeit” (work of a buffalo) to describe dull work done mechanically without using or needing the brain. In the Schweizerisches Idiotikon we find the description of a strong but not very smart young man who could be led by some smart words like the ox by the ring through the nose. But in the Swiss dialect the Büffel is seen as a male horned animal and so the metaphor of leading an ox by the ring in the nose matches not the wild version of cattle as it is described in less southern German languages.

Nevertheless the dictionaries seem to agree that the Büffel is seen as a strong (eventually wild) ox. He is not known as a symbol for cleverness but strength. Looking at the usage of the word in he stands for boring duties like turning the wheel of a mill. While water and wind had been the primary sources of energy, animals like cattle had been used as well to drive the wheels of the mills. Thus it is no surprise to see the ox as a very strong animal that does extremely boring work again and again.

The Büffel in the fight books

In Liechtenauer’s Zedel we find the rhyme

  • Schiler enpricht / waß puffler slecht oder sticht (1443 Talhoffer’s Gotha)
  • Schiler ain pricht |was püffel slecht oder sticht (1452 Peter v. Danzig, Rome)
  • Schylher ain bricht / waß püfler schlecht oder sticht (1459 Talhoffer’s Thott, Copenhagen)
  • Scheller ein bricht / was puffel slät oder sticht (1465 – 1480 Cod.Guelf.78.2 Aug.2º, Wolfenbüttel)

The rhyme is copied more or less untouched in various books but hardly explained. While the glosses have exercises on how to handle an Oberhau, they additionally explain that the said Schielhau can break the thrust from below and by the way anything that is done with a shortened sword (Kurz Fechten or Kurz Schwert), meaning not with long arms. But if there are long arms – like in the long point (Langort), through which all strikes with long arms pass or all thrusts come from –  the Schieler will work perfectly as well. In summary the glosses illustrate the Schielhau as the Swiss Army Knife of hews.

The Schielhau, which name itself is a small riddle may get translated as the diagonal hew (“Schil” in “scheel”), as the squinted hew (“Schil” in “schielen”), or as the shield hew (“Schil” in “Schild”). For all these translations we find reasonable derivations in the fight books.

While we know how to execute a Schielhau with a certain amount of clear definition from descriptions in glosses and depictions, we have no clear understanding how this hew is helpful against buffaloes and what makes a fencer a buffalo.

From 1389 to first half of the 15th century – The probably earliest mention of the buffel is in the GMN3227a [28v] “Vnd der selbe haw der bricht als das püffel / das ist eyn pawer / mag geslaen / von oben neder als sie phleken czu tuen” translated as “And the same strike breaks the buffalo, that is [how] a peasant may strike, down from above, like they use to do“. Due to the grammar or better the lack of it, we can not say if the Büffel is something a peasant does [if we add the missing “how”], or a Büffel is a nickname for the peasants, who had a certain way of fighting [if we ignore the “mag”].

1452 from the Cod. 44.A.8 we learn “Merck das fülen |vnd das wort |Inndes die gröst |vnd die pëst kunst im swert ist |vnd wer ein maister des swertz ist oder sein wil |vnd kan nicht das fülñ |vnd vernÿmpt nicht dar zw das wort |Inndes |So ist er nicht ein maister |wenn er [29r] ist ein püffel des swertz |” translated “Know that the Feeling and the word Indes is the greatest and best art of the sword fencing. And those who is a master of the sword or wants to be one, and can’t Feel, thus he is not a master but a buffalo of the sword. ” The title “Meister des Schwerts” is taken away from those want-to-be masters who do not know the “secrets” of “Fühlen/Indes” – the true high art. Those buffaloes use simple drilled techniques 1-2-3.

While the idea that those Buffel use some brutal force as a mean to win the fight seems to comply with the image of a buffalo. But we read in the glosses to the rhyme “Schilär ein pricht / was püffel schlecht oder sticht ” that the Schielhau is the one who brings in the “gewalt” the brutality not the Büffel. The Buffel is broken by the brutality of the Schielhau (“Merck der schilär pricht die hut die do haist der pflugk |vnd ist ein seltzam  gut ernhaft haw |wenn er pricht mit gewalt ein Inn haw | vnd in stichen“).

1516 in “Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey” Andre Paurñfeyndt named in

Boar Spear, 16th century<br /> German,<br /> Steel, wood, iron, leather; L. 90 1/4 in. (229.3 cm); L. of head 18 1/8 in. (46.1 cm); W. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm); Wt. 4 lbs. (1814.4 g)<br /> The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.309)<br /> http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/26727

the fencing with the Dussak a so called Büffel-Streich in two plays and a Bauern-Streich in another.
“Wan dir ainer begegendt mit ainem ſchwert / oder ſchweinſpieſʒ /… / ſchlecht er prufel ſtraich von dach / trit in triangel vñ verſecʒ den ſtraich kurcʒ / ſo veruelt er ſich mit der pleſʒ / ſo trit du bhendt nach vud ſchlag ee er ſich er / mant”

“Wan dir ainer von dach ſchlecht peufel ſtraich / ſo ſtraich von dir daſʒ er dich nit vberlauf slecht’er ſtraich in ſtraich / nim dein meſſer peim ort in dein lincke handt vnd vnterlauf ſein ſtraich ….”

“Wan dir ainer paurñ ſtraich ſchenkt”

The Büffel is a technique that seems to start with a strike from above (“dach”), which maybe a followed with another strike. This reminds us strongly on the first naming of the Büffel in the GMN3227a, which describes the strike from above too.

The technique is done with a sword or a weapon called “ſchweinſpieſʒ” which Paurñfeyndt enlists himself into the staff weapons in the respective chapter and can be seen below in the woodcut of Erhard Schön depicting a Landsknecht army doctor and his helper. You will find the weapon again on the title page of the “Zwölf Artikel der aufständischen Bauern” at the summary.

Thus we can assume that the strike is not the main idea of the Büffel-Streich technique but the thrust following after. This and the Baurn-Streich strongly reminds us of the definition of the Zornhau by the author of the Cod. 44.A.8. He tells us that the Zornhau combined with the thrust is a simple peasant-strike “Merck der zorñhaw pricht mit dem ort alle oberhaw |vnd ist doch anders nicht |wenn ein slächter paurñ slagk“.

Sadly in all plays the Büffel-Streich is broken before it is finally executed. Thus we do not know how it would be continued further than the strike from above. From the rhymes of Liechtenauer we can assume that it consists of strikes and thrusts “puffler slecht oder sticht“.

1539 in the Codex I.6.2º.5 wrote Hans Medel about people who are Buffel.

“Schilhaw ist nichtz anders dan der wechselhaw nach der Zetl schilhaw genent der ist ain solcher treffentlicher haw der den puffeln oder püben die sich maisterschafft annemen mit gewalt einpricht in hewen vnd in stichen ” translated as “… which is such an exquisite hew, that breaks by force the strikes and thrusts of buffaloes or knaves, who claim master-ship.”

To know what a “bube” in the time of Hans Medel was, we can look at the woodcuts of Erhard Schön displaying Landsknecht and their likes with their helpers. The “Bube” is the young man, serving in the army in various functions.

Thus we can assume the Büffel had been seen as someone serving in the army as well, but has a rural background. This takes us back to the first naming in the GMN3227a, which may have brought peasants and the Büffel into connection.


We cannot say for sure what the Büffel in the understanding of the fight-books was. There seem to be different definitions that all link together in the idea that some people fought in a certain way, that could be broken by the Schielhau.

The way of fencing used by those people was named Büffel-Streich. The technique starts with a strike from above. It is to assume that the technique was taught to the people to be applicated with various weapons. The technique is therefore simple but effective. The technique does not include any sophisticated work in the bind of blades, it is executed mechanically without hesitation. The technique includes some movement forward.

The best guess would be that Büffels are peasants with a certain education in sword fighting. They claimed some mastership, but their knowledge was limited to drills and building up strength. They taught others of their kind some simple but effective techniques such that they could fight even knights (as it was demonstrated in the Hussite wars). The most effective technique taught became famous and was named after the people executing it. This happens to other strikes as well like the Türkenzug named after the Turks.

It would be a far shot if we would see the Büffel as a society of fighting peasants like the Marxbrüder having the lion as their symbol.  If we would stretch this wilde hypothesis even further we could see the Lukaxbrüder with the winged ox emerge from this idea. Little do we know about this fencing guild. As we do of the Büffel. But they had been no normal peasants for sure.

Books used in this article

Adelung = Johann Christoph Adelung: Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart mit beständiger Vergleichung der übrigen Mundarten, besonders aber der oberdeutschen. Zweyte, vermehrte und verbesserte Ausgabe. Leipzig 1793-1801.

DWB = Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm. 16 Bde. in 32 Teilbänden. Leipzig 1854-1961. Quellenverzeichnis Leipzig 1971.

Lexer = Matthias Lexer: Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch. 3 Bde. Leipzig 1872-1878.

Schweizerisches Idiotikon – Band IV

2 thoughts on “Of buffaloes and peasants not knowing to feel the sword

  1. Can you give more information or resources about Türkenzug. We try to recreate Jannisarry fighting system in apart from our HEMA practice in our club. Thanks in advence!

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