Understanding I.33 #2: The Story of a Book

Walpurgis and Ludgerus in the I.33, first half 14th century

The probably oldest book on martial arts known to us, it is exclusively about fencing with small shields and sword. The book, which is dated by scientists to the first half of the 14th century, was created in a workshop of at least three scribes and five illustrators. The story of the book is not fully unknown. But most of it remains in the dark. This article will shed some light into the dark. It will still not name the authors or even the place, but it will narrow it more than it has done before.
It is a fascinating story to tell, with some drama, war and a happy end. Worth telling and I sincerely hope, worth reading.

Two Saints in Combat Training

The history of the book tells us that it was looted from a Frankish monastery in the 16th century, which sounds plausible and I will look into that later more detailed.

Before we begin, we must talk about the Franks. The most known Frankish king had been Carolus Magnus. At his time two (later) saints had been active in Germany in the 8th century. Both appear as names in the original text, Luidger (742 – 809) and Walpurgis (710-780).

Saint Walpurgis, Meßkirch, 1535

The Anglo-Saxon family Walpurgis and her brothers Wunibald and Willibald  were active in East- and Middle Franconia. She worked firstly in Tauberbischofsheim in the region of Tauberfranken and later with her brother Wunibald 130km south in Heidenheim. The name of Walpurgis was very present in the Frankish monasteries at the time of its production. This may give us further evidence that the authors were deeply embedded in Frankish monastic culture.

Luidger becoming a bishop, Vita secunda s. Ludgeri, Werden, ca. 1100 (Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

Luidger as a Frisian was bound to the north of what was later called Germany and had zero geographical connection to the south. His political orientation to serve the Frankish Carolus Magnus as bishop and missionary to the Saxons was famous. In the political and military expansion of Carolus Magnus and his successors to the south religion played an essential role. Monasteries were fortified as “safe places” and thus acquired military and political importance. However, systematic training in combat for monks is not known to have happened outside of a military order of knights in later centuries, and the teaching of the Scolaris in the manuscript was most likely not done at such a place as I laid out in the first article of this series.

Both saints represent the idea of knowledge that travelled from the north (Wessex, Frisia) to the south in connection with Frankish cloister tradition. This diffusion of knowledge will be discussed in another upcoming blog post. For now, it is enough to realize the strong link to Frankish religious culture by the two names chosen.

Priest, Monk, or Knight

The military training of the “Teutonic Knights” would correspond to the need to write a book on fencing. The order had been very successfully established in Franconia in the 13th and 14th centuries. But apart from the proximity of 19 km between Tauberbischhofsheim (Walpurgis) and Mergentheim (centre of the Teutonic Order), there is no evidence that the book has anything at all to do with this Christian order of knights. Moreover, the idea that this spiritual-military order had been of great influence in Franconia would not reflect the situation of the 13th and 14th centuries. Even in the town of Mergentheim there was a monastery of the Dominicans and an active group of the Knights of St John. The prosperous region of Franconia was well covered by every Christian order available.

The images in the book do not reveal to which order the priest belonged (if he was a in a religious order at all). According to the current state of research, we cannot place the book I.33 in a context with a specific monastery or even a religious order.

In fact, the ordination as a priest (sacerdos) instead of naming the teacher a monk (monachus) is rather an indication that – if the priest was member of a monastery at all, it would be such as the Augustinian canons. These regular canons were not monks, but a community of priests who lived and worked according to religious rules. Alongside the Benedictines, the Augustinian canons were one of the main cultural pillars of Bavaria and Franconia in the late Middle Ages (as many others they were dissolved during secularisation at the beginning of the 19th century).

But priests had not to be in any organisation like an order. If they worked as priest officially they had been responsible to a superior. But there are many, who did not work as a priest, but still dressed as and shaved their heads. There had been more priests than offices available, due to the habit to send younger sons to the church for higher education. Being a priest allows to gain some money for committing lower services even without an office, as everybody knew that prayers by ordinated priests are more effective than by normal people.

The amount of things we can take from the priestly feature of the figure seems not to be much. Because we cannot pinpoint the priest to any order or organisation. But we know now, that this book was probably not written by monks, who would prefer to emphasis the monastery background or at least mention it. This fits into the finding of the first article, which sees a private educational relationship, and not an organised school as the most plausible scenery described by the book.

One Century in Sleep

From its creation until the first person visiting it and realizing that the manuscript is something special one century passed by without disturbance. No mentioning of the book and no copy was done. The book lay in the library or any other place without getting any notice we heard of.

This goes for the book but not for the art. The art was vivid and exercised. There are many depictions of people fencing with sword and buckler using it in a seemingly similar way as in the book. The teaching of the book seemed to have had a living oral transmission or other written or depicted sources.

At least one other living transmission, oral and in books was existing parallel to the book teaching sword and buckler being linked from origin as it will be explained in a upcoming article on this blog named: The Habit-Wearer Martial Arts. This second tradition became very popular until the I.33 was rediscovered centuries later. But let us first welcome the first visitor of this book around 1463.

The Popes Friend pays a Visit

On leaf 1 recto there is an entry which is interpreted as a quotation from the bibliophile Pope Pius II.

E.S.P.: Non audet Stygius Pluto tentare, quod audet Effraenis Monachus, plenaque fraudis anus.

I.33: Non audet stygius pluto tentare, quod aude[t] Effrenis monachus plenaque dolis anus.

Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini

Enea Silvio Piccolomini was a scribe, author of an incredible(!) number of 15th century writings and copies. His many journeys are documented, but not nearly in enough detail to allow a location to be traced that would bring the book and the future pope together. Whether the scribe and diplomat made the entry himself, or someone scribbled it on the page as a winged word to match the text, we cannot say with certainty. The handwriting cannot be clearly attributed. The manuscripts that Enea Silvio Piccolomini supposedly wrote himself, are already too different in the corpus itself for that. This is no surprise, as the process of book production does not necessarily involve the author himself setting the letters on parchment or paper. He can dictate the scribes or write it on wax tablets, which are transferred by scribes.

Scribe using wax tablets to be copied later on parchment, Scriptorium Michelsberg, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Patr.5, 12th century

It is not fully out of the question that Piccolomini never visited the place where the manuscript I.33 was written or kept. But it is unlikely that he would have written a remark on this book, which he never personally owned or had any right on it. Piccolomini who was well known for acquiring books, even researching to find books, and build up a huge library (to which a palace was constructed after his death), would probably have introduced this rare and special book into his collection. The connection between the pope and this book is much to thin, just by this quote.

Piccolomini Library, Siena, Italy

But there is a connection between Enea Silvio Piccolomini and the fencing book, that is much more plausible. This presents itself in the person of Abbot Eberhard of Venlo. This clergyman, born in what is now the Netherlands, was secretary to the future Pope, before he had made a name for himself in Mainz through the Reformation and economic rehabilitation. Piccolomini, who had in the meantime been appointed Pope Pius II, officially entrusted Eberhard of Venlo and Johannes von Bursfeld with the reform of the Benedictine monasteries. Eberhard von Venlo, who until then had presided over the Jakobsberg monastery near Mainz. brought some monks with him from Mainz, perhaps also from St. Peter’s in Erfurt. He had monks with economic experience come from Lorsch. He was supported by Bishop Georg von Schaumberg, who’s unsuccessful attempts in implementing reforms on the important cloister Michelsberg did not met the expectations of the pope.

The Benedictine monastery Michelsberg (and partly Bamberg) had been famous for their own library. Partly owned due the well known and excellent scribes and artists. The high level of quality produced there already centuries before Eberhard went there wax extraordinary. The library was full of own productions, as well as originals the scribes copied on demand of good paying customers all over Europe. They owned many books of given up cloisters as well as the libraries of those which had been burned down by the Hussites. The library of the Michelsberg was nearly as famous as the one of Fulda.

Revolt of the Monks

When Eberhard arrived in Bamberg as abbot on the Michelsberg in 1463, the first thing he did was to collect the keys to the church, library, cellar and the utility rooms. In this way he ensured that nothing would be stolen or sold by the rebellious monks. Some monks did not take kindly to this and they broke into the sacristy and fled with valuable church treasures and documents. The conflict was settled and eventually Eberhard was able to push through his reform. This included the restoration of the battered library of Michelsberg Abbey. This was necessary because the monastery had been plundered by the Hussites in 1429 and by Bamberg citizens in June 1435. The rebellious citizens carried seven ox carts full of plundered goods out of the monastery, including several books from the library. It is not known to what extent these books were returned after the burghers were fined 60,000 florins with the bishop’s threatening army outside the city.

It might be that the I.33 was in the library of Michelsberg, when the rebellion of the Bamberg citizens happened. If so, it would have been the first robbery of two additional to follow.

It is impossible to say with certainty whether the fencing book was at Michelsberg near Bamberg. Nevertheless, it seems very likely that it came into the hands of Abbot Eberhard between 1463 and 1475, who as the abbot of the library’s monastery may have entered a common ruling of his patron Piccolomini on the page. We may want to look into further into the history of this book. With a little bit of luck, we may get more data, to help us in this regard.

The Great Book Robbery

Burning Kulmbach by Hans Glaser, 1553 

The great robbery of the book by the Landsknecht Johannes Herwart of Würzburg took place during the Second Margrave’s War. These warlike conflicts were fuelled by the conflict between Margrave Albrecht Achilles of Brandenburg-Ansbach and the imperial city of Nuremberg. The margrave marched his army through the Franconian lands and tried to finance the expensive undertaking of a war with the help of pillaging (or the threat of pillaging), and kidnapping. As far as possible, these pillages were carefully documented; after all, the looted goods were to be turned into money to pay the mercenaries. But some mercenaries were also paid by the looted goods.

Looting is mercenary wages

This is probably what happened to Johannes Herwart of Würtzburg when he possibly took part in the plundering of the high diocese of Bamberg. This high chapter had created and acquired an excellent and extensive collection of manuscripts itself. When it was plundered in 1552/53, significant losses were incurred. But the High Chapter was not the only monastic library to be plundered. The monasteries of Aura (Saale), Theres, Eltmann, Langheim, Michelsberg, and the nunneries of Pillenreuth, Schlüsselau and St. Theodor, as well as the Augustinian canons’ monastery of Neunkirchen were also looted.

Johannes Herwart von Würzburg signature in the book

Whe know of this plundering from Heinrich von Gunterrodt, who wrote in his printed book (De Veris Principiis Artis Dimicatoriae tractatus brevis) based on the manuscript Sciomachia et hoplomachia in 1579, that his comrade Johannes Herwart of Würzburg, belt maker and fencer, at that time of authoring the book was the fencing instructor to Prince Johann Wilhelm of Saxony (1530-1573), brought the book with him from a Franconian monastery when he served under Margrave Albrecht II. Alcibiades of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, i.e. during the Second Margravial War of 1552-1555.

I want to explain and analys e this book, that I have obtained from Johannes Herwart of Würtzburg, a girdle maker and famous sword fighter, with whom I have a great friendship. For the moment he is a fencing master for the very famous Prince Friedrich Wilhem, duke of Saxonia. He told me that he had found this book, in a monastery in Franconia when he was soldier under Markgraf Albert. As instructor in this art I used the help of the very loyal Balthasar Cramon of Pommern in Poland. He is studying the art of medicine, a
student of this Herwart and not less famous in this art, especially when a fight has to be started under the clashing of arms. Because of this he has indisputable principles of the art, so that he will never fear anyone.

 De Veris Principiis Artis Dimicatoriae tractatus brevis, translated by Bert Gevaert, 2014

When considering the pillaging during the Second Margravial War, it should be noted that several Franconian monasteries had been deprived of their valuable libraries by the Peasants’ Wars a few decades earlier. This, like the Hussite wars again a century earlier, created a major movement of books, which were brought to safety from the advancing peasant army. The monastery of Michelsberg was falsely seen as a safe place and received the content of other libraries.

Mentioning of the I.33 in the manuscript of Gunterrodt, 1579

If we assume that Eberhard of Venlo is responsible for the citation of his patron in the fencing book, and that the Michelsberg monastery was able to save parts of its Michelsberg monastery library (including the fencing book) despite occupation by the peasants in 1525. We can conclude from the reports of the Margrave’s War that Johannes Herwart stole the book from the monastery in 1553. This is conclusive and also probable, but it is not proven.

Mentioning of the I.33 in the printed book of Gunterrodt, 1579

From today’s state of research, we cannot say with certainty where this fencing book was looted. Some of these monasteries and also the Bamberg cathedral chapter wrote catalogues of their books, but these have not yet been fully indexed scientifically. Here, new clues to the origin of the fencing book may emerge in the future. Furthermore, we have at our disposal lists of soldiers and acts of fire from the Margravial War, which may contain an entry on Johannes Herwart or manuscripts. There is still a long way to go in researching this manuscript.

Quiet centuries in Gotha

Johannes Herwart von Würzburg, who alternated between his profession as a belt and strap maker and soldiering, as was customary in the 16th century, took the book to his new employer, the Prince of Saxe-Gotha. There he held a position as fencing master to the youthful Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. This is handed down to us by Heinrich von Gunterrodt.

Gunterrodt learned fencing by Balthasar Cramon, a member of the low noble family Cramon, notable in the northeast of Germany as well in Pommern in Poland. Balthasar himself was a student of Johannes Herwart. Which tells us, that Gunterrodt was much younger than Herwart and the great friendship must have come in place, long after the book was robbed from the monastery.

The connection between Johannes Herwart and Heinrich von Gunterrodt was probably established by Doctor Heinrich Siber.

Johann VII of Mecklenburg

According to the Album acad Viteberg, Heinrich Siberus came from Zwickau since he was immatriculated as Henricus Siberus Cygneus at Wittenberg on 10 Oct 1540. His brother Adam Siberus, the first Rector of the Fürsten Schule at Grimma, was born in 1516 at Schönau near Wicau in 1584. Heinrich Siber was, according to documents from the Schwerin archives, after completing his university studies, first teacher of the sons of Count Johann Georg I. of Mansfeld Eisleben and had lived with them for one year in Strasbourg, 18 months in Padua and two years and a half in various cities in France and had been in great distress and danger during almost the entire time of the Huguenot wars. In 1567 he was back in Mansfeld where he became the teacher of the two sons of Count Johann Wilhelm of Saxony Weimar, Princes Friedrich Wilhelm and Johann von Weimar, and in the beginning of 1572 he was recruited as the teacher of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Sigismund August and was appointed to Schwerin. Heinrich Siber was a distinguished and proven teacher of young people and did nothing else but teach young people until his old age. He was acquainted with Christoph Hofmann, who was appointed court preacher in Schwerin in 1567, as well as with Cyriacus Spangenberg and other Mansfeld scholars.

When 1567 Heinrich Siber became the prince educator of the five-year-old Friedrich Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar, son of Duke Johann Wilhelm (the young prince showed an alert mind, which led to his enrolment in the University of Jena at the age of only 12.), the prince was also to learn to fence. For this purpose, the veteran Johannes Herwart was brought in. He brought with him an old Latin manuscript on fencing.

From Gotha to Schwerin

Heinrich Siber had left Gotha in 1572 to take up the post in Schwerin as Prince Educator to the brothers Sigismund August and Johann VII of Mecklenburg. It is certain that part of the old fencing manuscript went with him. Either still in the hands of Johannes Herwart, or made as a copy by Heinrich Siber. We have no evidence whether Johannes Herwart became fencing master of the princes in Schwerin. In 1570, Joachim Meyer, a free fencer from Strasbourg who is well known to us, was appointed fencing master in Schwerin, but he fell ill and died on the journey. His books, however, arrived. But that is another story.

The entry of Gunterrodt indicates that Herwart did not come with him to Schwerin. Nevertheless, Heinrich Gunterrodt got hold of the contents of the fencing book in Schwerin and the exact information about its origin. There is much to suggest that Heinrich Siber made a copy. The latter was certainly far more proficient in Latin than the war veteran. He may even have used the book as teaching material for the Saxon Prince Johann Wilhelm. The childish scribbles in the book may have come from the prince’s hand.

Heinrich von Gunterrodt dedicated his two books published in 1579, the manuscript “Sciomachia et hoplomachia” and the printed work “De Veris Principiis Artis Dimicatoria” to the minor Prince Johann VII of Mecklenburg. The manuscript was written in 1578, before Heinrich Siber went to teach at the University of Jena. Gunterrodt’s manuscript, which served as a model for the printed work, contains clear references to the fencing book from Franconia, as well as the story of its “finding” in the monastery during the Margrave’s War. The drawings that Gunterrodt made or had made, however, are far removed from the original. Another indication that he only had a copy available.

Removed from memory

Since Johann VII of Mecklenburg collapsed under the pressure of government business and probably killed himself in sin, there was little interest in preserving his files. Only a portrait of him survived the test of time. Research into his upbringing seems futile here.

A copy in Jena?

The copy presumably made by Heinrich Siber went with the teacher to Jena. The route it took from there is currently unknown. It seems, however, that further copies were made from this copy. But these are also different stories.

The fencing book itself probably did not leave Gotha until its second theft. For it is found again in the inventory of the Gotha collection from the 18th century. There the book is listed under the entry Cod.Membr.I.no.115.

The second robbery

But the robbery of the Fechtbuch I.33 in the 16th century did not remain unique in the history of the book. The latest criminal chapter so far takes place in the small Thuringian town of Gotha. This town in the heart of Germany has much to offer for those interested in history. However, we will concentrate only on Friedenstein Castle, which was built from 1643 onwards. This is where the “Herzogliche Wunderkammer” (Duke’s Chamber of Curiosities) was located, the origin of Gotha’s world-famous art and literature collection. Duke Ernst the Pious (1601-1675) brought his book collection from Saxony, his spoils of the Thirty Years’ War, to Gotha. The book collection was continuously expanded through donations and purchases. Among others, the library of the theologian Johann Gerhard (1582-1637 and his son, Duke Friedrich (1646-1691) with parts of the Altenburg court library, Duke Ernst II (1745-1804) acquired the Gospels of Echternach, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (1767-1811) brought oriental manuscripts from his travels. The library in the Duke’s Collection was already famous in the 18th century.

Family property, or rather not?

Victoria Adelheid Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

At the end of the war in 1945, Duchess Victoria Adelheid Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (née of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg) and her English husband Charles Edward Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (grandson of Queen Victoria) decided that the most beautiful pieces in the collection must not fall into the hands of the Russians. This decision was not wrong in principle, as the loss of the art objects to the former Soviet Union affected more than 50% of the collection. 330,000 volumes from the Foundation’s library alone were transported east in 1946. But the Duchess’ motivation was probably not the well-being of the art treasures, but she saw them as having been “in her family for centuries”. This was “emotionally correct”, but factually wrong.

Family Foundation

In 1905, the collection became part of the entailed estate of the Duchy of Gotha, which had existed since 1712. As a result, the family was allowed to withdraw profits, but the collection was untouchable. The constitutional princely expropriation in 1919, which also transferred art collections into public hands, was reversed by the Imperial Court in 1925. Nevertheless, the ducal family decided that it was probably better and cheaper to transfer the collection to a public foundation. In 1934, the Friedenstein Palace Collection was absorbed into the “Herzog-von-Sachsen-Coburg-&-Gotha’sche-Stiftung für Kunst und Wissenschaft” (Duke of Saxony-Coburg & Gotha Foundation for Art and Science), founded in 1928. The costs of maintaining the collection were thus the responsibility of the public foundation.

The Russians

Shortly before the Americans withdrew from Gotha in May 1945 and made way for the Red Army as agreed, Duchess Victoria was faced with the difficult choice of what to “save” from the Bolsheviks. She received friendly help from Baron Schenk zu Schweinsberg, the director of the art collections. The choice was made easier by the fact that the collection had already been divided up at the beginning of the Second World War, so valuable pieces were taken to the Reinhardsbrunn hunting lodge, while larger paintings were protected from bombs in a safe room in Friedenstein Palace.

In “safety”

Their choice fell not only on the most expensive coins of the Numismatic Collection, the most valuable paintings of manageable size, but also on the relatively easy-to-transport ancient manuscripts of the collection, including, among others, the Echternach Gospels, the Mainz Giant Bible, the Gotha Missal, and – circumstantial evidence suggests – the Fechtbuch I.33 . With the reluctant support of the American Army (a request by the Duchess for a goods train to take them away was refused), some of the pieces were adventurously transported in backpacks to Coburg in Bavaria. Rentmeister Dötschel in Coburg diligently noted the receipt of four paintings (three Rubens, one Hals) and nine manuscripts in March 1945. Unfortunately, we do not know whether our fencing book was among them. However, it is very likely.


In the following years, several of these art treasures, thus brought to “safety”, disappeared from Coburg. They were sold under the table, mostly at Sotheby’s auctions. The fencing book of allegedly “unknown provenance” was put up for auction at Sotheby’s on 27 March 1950. The Royal Armouries Foundation acquired it.

Quiet years in England

From 1950 to 1975, the fencing book received little attention beyond the narrow specialist public. It spent 25 quiet years under the entry “Tower of London Ms. I.33” (also “British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi. I”). It was not until Krämer identified the book as the wartime loss from Gotha in 1975 that attention began to be focused on it. The historical fencing community in particular became interested in the manuscript, as it was quickly regarded as probably the oldest book on martial arts. This attention led to various publications. In 1996, the book was moved to the newly created museum premises of the Royal Armouries in Leeds. There it can be viewed by appointment. A return or repurchase to Gotha is not foreseeable.

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