Saturday, January 5, 2019

Fight Club, 15th century style

“Medieval Fight Book” is an absolutely fascinating, but also slightly bizarre, documentary about Hans Talhoffer, a 15th century German fencing master. Or rather about his famous “fight book” and how well it reflected its time, the Late Middle Ages. The documentary features a crew of martial arts experts who try to reenact Talhoffer´s descriptions of medieval fighting.

I was surprised to learn that trial by combat still existed during the 15th century – I assumed the Christian Church had suppressed this barbaric custom centuries earlier! Talhoffer trained people who were supposed to engage in these duels, many of which were fought with shields and other unexpected types of weapons. (Yes, the shields were used for attack.) Some duels were between a man and a woman, with the man being forced to stand in a small pit in order not to give him too much of a fighting advantage!

Another surprise was the agility of medieval knights. Their strong armor was virtually impossible to penetrate (except at certain select points), while also being light enough for the knight to be able to run fast on the battlefield. The re-enactment guy in this documentary looks like the futuristic robot in “Terminator”. In his book, Talhoffer describes a duel between a knight and person without armor. It *was* possible for a normally clad fighter to defeat a knight, using a technique known as half-sword. One form of this is to use the sword “upside down” and attack the opponent with the pommel at the hilt. The demonstration of this in the documentary is wild!

The Fight Book also discusses armored vehicles, siege engines and techniques to storm a castle. The most advanced piece of technology in Talhoffer´s book is a peculiar diving suit unlike no other invented during this period. Nobody knows whether it was really used, or where the oxygen came from. Overall, Talhoffer´s book is a book of secrets only half revealed. Those willing to pay could make the fencing master reveal more in private consultation. This was a time when science and technological know-how were “esoteric”. The first rule of Fight Club...

Funny detail: “Medieval Fight Book” features Terry Jones, who apart from being a comic actor (Monty Python) also writes book on medieval history. 

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