The Mystery of Ioannes Suuenus and Nicholai de Toblem

(c) Gregory Mele, 2014

Today’s researchers into the martial arts of Europe come upon a strange paradox: our first known source, Ms. I.33, now found in the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK, is dated to approximately 1300, yet clearly not only possess a systematic, full-developed pedagogical system, but is seemingly designed to counter an even older, “common method,” now lost to us. We then run into a gap of nine decades before our next source, Ms. 3227a (c.1389), found in Nuremburg, Germany. This is our first source in the “Liechtenauer Tradition”, and which opens with the following bold claim:

At first, you should note and know that there is only one art of the sword, and this art may have been developed some hundred years ago. And this art is the foundation and the core of any fencing art and Master Liechtenauer understood and practiced it in its completeness. It is not the case that he invented this art – as mentioned before – but he has traveled many lands, willing to learn and experience the same real and true art.1

So the anonymous author credits the art as having at least existed a century before, roughly in the era of Ms. I.33 and also roughly around the time that the two-handed longsword began coming to prominence. All of which lends a certain credence to claims by our own Master, Fiore dei Liberi, who tells us that in his life he has trained “from many German masters. And from many Italians in many provinces and in many cities with immense and great expenses. And for the Grace of God from many masters and students”, and that has owned many books on the arts of arms.2  But it is in the Latin prologue of Pisani-Dossi manuscript, that Fiore assigns himself a precise martial lineage :

And for all of these forms of play I obtained (by the grace of God) great fame through the different examples of expert masters, and through the instruction of Italian and German teachers, especially from Master John called Suveno, who was a student of Master Nicholas from Toblem from the diocese of Messina, and also from other princes, dukes, Marchesees, counts and others, in countless places and various provinces.3

Although tantalizing, this passage raises more questions than it answers That his training would have included both Italian and German instructors is not surprising, given the location of Cividale as a crossroads between Austria and the Venetto, particularly when considering the internationally-mobile nature of commerce, warfare and pilgrimage during the trecento (14th century). It is plausible to imagine a young Fiore dei Liberi attaching himself to various Masters not only locally, but also farther North into Germanic lands and farther South into Italy, learning from each as much as he could. Then there are the two specific names he provides: John called Suveno, student of Nicholas from Toblem. Who were they, and where did they come from? Were they German? Italian? One German, the other Italian? Unfortunately, their names appear in their Latinized form, so it is quite difficult to tell.

Johannes Liechtenauer (fl. 1360s - 1380s) is a murky figure, known as the grandmaster of school of swordsmanship that flourished throughout much of the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly in the southern regions of Swabia, Bavaria and Austria. Although likely of about the right age to have been a mentor or tutor to a young Fiore dei Liberi, there is little real proof to connect him to the "John of Swabia" mentioned in the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. (Cod. 44 A 8, Bibliotheca dell'Academica Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana.)
Fig 1: Johannes Liechtenauer (fl. 1360s – 1380s) is a murky figure, known as the grandmaster of school of swordsmanship that flourished throughout much of the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly in the southern regions of Swabia, Bavaria and Austria. Although likely of about the right age to have been a mentor or tutor to a young Fiore dei Liberi, there is little real proof to connect him to the “John of Swabia” mentioned in the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. (Cod. 44 A 8, Bibliotheca dell’Academica Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana.)

There is a temptation, and one often indulged in the historical European swordsmanship community, to theorize that “John called Suveno” may have been none other than Johannes Liechtenauer, the quasi-mythical fountainhead of the late-medieval German fighting tradition. This theory derives from a translation of the adjective suuenus to likely mean “Swabian,” and adduces as potential proof the fact that one of the several towns named Lichtenau (Liechtenauer means “from Lichtenau”) was in the geographic sphere of Swabia–a region in Southern Germany.

Substantiating this theory is fraught with problems, beyond even assuming that there could be but one “John of Swabia” who was a fencing master in the late 14th century. First, is the translation of suuenus as Swabia, which studiously ignores that by 1409 the long established Latin for “Swabian” was Suebus. This means that we first have to assume that Fiore, or whoever penned the otherwise impeccable Latin in the Pisani-Dossi manuscript must not have known this. Secondly, we must assume that Fiore was unaware of the fame attached to his purported Master’s surname, a name that his German counterparts would consistently emblazon in their treatises for over two centuries to lend authority to their words. Why omit it, when it would have only fortified his resume’? Thirdly, we must assume that the Lichtenau from which Liechtenauer got his name was actually the town in Swabia, which is far from certain.

Any of these assumptions could be true. The problem is that they a) are assumptions and b) all of them must be true for the theory of “Johannes Liechttenauer equals  Johannus Suuenus” to hold, and these assumptions immediately begin to fall apart when placed under scrutiny. For example, the notion that Liechtenauer was Swabian, while possible, is far from certain, as there are also places of the same name throughout Germany, including eastern Germany, near Danzig and central Bavaria. These last two locales are particularly notable far more suggestive as an origin. The first was a seat of power for the Teutonic Knights, and near the likely origin of several of the earliest and most notable masters of the so-called Liechtenauer Circle, such as Peter von Dazing, Andre and Jacob Liegnitzer, Martin Hundsfelder, Virgily of Krakow and Peter Wildigans von Glatz.4 Conversely, as many of the surviving Liechtenauer tradition manuscripts are Bavarian in origin, and Frankfurt-am-Mein is where the Marxbrüder Guild formed to test masters in Liechtenauer’s art. So there is just as much, if not more, evidence to discount a Swabian origin for Liechtenauer himself as there is to prove it.

All of which is before we begin to actually compare the nomenclature, pedagogical structure and specific techniques of the two traditions and find that while they both seem to have drawn from common sources, their hallmarks are actually quite different:

  • Fig 2: The Devil is in the Details. At their core, the guards vom Tag and Posta di Donna threaten a s trong blow from above, while those of Pflug and Posta Breve threaten a straight thrust. However, the differences in how the swordsman stands, how the sword is or is not carried on the centerline, the distribution of body-weight and so forth demonstrate clear differences in tactics and fight strategy between the two traditions.
    Fig 2: The Devil is in the Details. At their core, the guards vom Tag and Posta di Donna threaten a s trong blow from above, while those of Pflug and Posta Breve threaten a straight thrust. However, the differences in how the swordsman stands, how the sword is or, is not, carried on the centerline, the distribution of body-weight and so forth demonstrate clear differences in tactics and fight strategy between the two traditions.

    Both sources use similar stances, or guard positions for the two-handed sword, but then, so does Japanese kenjutsu, which clearly has no connection to either art, other than a human wielding a two-handed sword can only wield it effectively in so many ways. However, even here there are clear, mechanical differences, as can be seen when comparing posta di donna and vom Tag, and posta breve and Pflug. [Fig 2]

  • Fig 3: "Yeah, I've seen that before". Fiore refers to his guard Posta Frontale as "called by some, the crown", which is what the position is called when it appears in the German tradition. However, much as German texts periodically reference the "Iron Gate" as an old, or forgotten about guard, there is a sense of the "other"; as if referring to either a foreign tradition or a predecessor.
    Fig 3: “Yeah, I’ve seen that before”. Fiore refers to his guard Posta Frontale as “called by some, the crown”, which is what the position is called when it appears in the German tradition. However, much as German texts periodically reference the “Iron Gate” as an old, or forgotten about guard, there is a sense of the “other”; as if referring to either a foreign tradition or a predecessor.

    Very little terminology overlaps. Of the guards, a few of the Liechtenauer texts, including the earliest (Ms. 3227a) from c.1389, make mention of an Eisenpforte (Iron Gate) guard, but it is referenced as something “other”, a hold-over, or alternative name, whereas it is central to early Italian traditions. Likewise, Fiore refers to his guard posta frontale as ditto o corona — “called by some, the Crown” — and the same, or similar position is indeed a parrying/entering technique found in 15th-c Liechtenauer texts under the name Kron. But again, while the text suggest familiarity with alternative traditions, it suggests that they are something “other”.  [Fig 3] It is worth noting that both traditions do have a common position called the “long position” (posta longa and langenort, respectively). [Fig 4]

    Fig 4: Only So Many Ways to Hold a Sword. The Long Guard as seen in the Liechtenauer (Langenort) and dei Liberi (Posta Longa) traditions.
    Fig 4: Only So Many Ways to Hold a Sword. The Long Guard as seen in the Liechtenauer (Langenort) and dei Liberi (Posta Longa) traditions.
  • Pedagogically, the Dei Liberi tradition encodes its instruction around guards, or poste. Understanding the guard is how you know which attacks and defenses are possible. Conversely, the Liechtenauer tradition has seventeen core principles (Hauptstucke), of which the four principle guards (Vier Leger) are one element, but neither first, nor the most important. This is reserved for five special blows, later called “Master Strokes” (Meisterhau). Of these five blows, only two have clear analogs in Fiore dei Liberi’s work (Zornhau and Krumphau), neither is performed precisely the same way, nor is either given any sort of special name.
  • Conversely, the system of Guards, Remedies and Counters appears to be unique to Fiore dei Liberi, and where his work has been copied into German compendia, the system has either not been maintained or transmitted incompletely.
  • Fig 5. "You put your left foot in..." Coming to the bind, most of the fundamental actions in the Liechtenauer school involve a pass forward of the right foot (l), whereas in the corresponding action, dei Liberi advises to keep the left foot forward (r).
    Fig 5. “You put your left foot in…” Coming to the bind, most of the fundamental actions in the Liechtenauer school involve a pass forward of the right foot (l), whereas in the corresponding action, dei Liberi advises to keep the left foot forward (r).

    Finally, whereas the Liechtenauer tradition favors coming to crossed-swords by stepping out and away with a right-foot lead, the dei Liberi tradition favors entering towards the attack, with the left foot forward [Fig 5], as clearly described by Filippo Vadi:

    You will also profit
    by parrying well all of the strokes.
    When you parry the riverso, keep forward 
    the right foot and parry as said,
    when parrying the diritto
    then you will have the left foot forward5

So the test of Occam’s Razor leaves us with little to support Johannes Liechtenauer was even Swabian, and far less to suggest that the identity of Johannus Suuenus a) means John of Swabia in the first place, or b) is likely to equate to Johannes Liechtenauer.

Next, there is the mention of this Master’s own master: Nicholas from Toblem, whose provenance definitely sounds Germanic. Fiore records him as being from the mexinensis diocese, the meaning of which is vague. In 1902, Francesco Novati chose to translate this in his edition of the Flos Duellatorum as “from the diocese of Metz”, but there is neither proof that Metz ever used this Latinized form of its name in the 14th century, nor has there ever been a town called Toblem in its vicinity. Mexinesis has  been used, however, to refer to the town of Messina on the island of Sicily (a region that had had its share of German rulers since the 13th century, but was in Aragonian hands by 1409), or the German city of Meißen. This last possibility is the most intriguing. Firstly, Meißen is not far from a town named Döbeln, which is phonetically close to “Toblem.” But even more tantalizing is that we do know of a Master Nicholas from the region! Nicolay de Eywenstock is mentioned in the Codex 5278,6  for more about the Codex and its dating. now held in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, Austria. This text is notable to us because it is the earliest (c.1430) of the German manuscripts to contain large portions of the Flower of Battle, and Eybenstock is about 60 miles from Döbeln, Germany. Further, both towns were part of the diocese of Meißen in the14th century. 

However, this tells us very little that is concrete, and again, looking for a man named “Nicholas” in the Holy Roman Empire is about as challenging as finding a man named Muhammad in the Middle East. Codex 5278 tells us nothing about Nicholas of Eibenstock, what he taught, nor when he lived, nor is there anything to clearly suggest that a text composed in the 1430s is referencing a master who predated Fiore by two generations, and thus likely flourished in the second half of the 14th century. No matter how tantalizing and intriguing, we are still in the realm of speculation, but at least this time the hypothesis requires fewer assumptions.

The simple truth is that without a major discovery of an unknown fencing treatise, there is little hope of pulling the identities of these men from the shadows of history, and there is little evidence, beyond a natural need among modern people to neatly tie up loose ends, to assume they represent any connection to Johannes Liechtenauer. On the other hand, what these scraps do is reinforce the claims Fiore himself makes in the Getty and Morgan Ms, that he has studied with many masters and owned books on the art of fencing — suggesting that between the historical gulf between Ms. I.33 at the dawn of the 14th century and the Flower of Battle at the dawn of the 15th, there was indeed an established tradition of not only lineages of masters and students, but of martial arts manuscripts themselves. Thus, in the figures of Liechtenauer and dei Liberi rather than creating, we see the process of adaptation, synthesis and innovation of these lost, “primordial traditions” into those that dominate our knowledge of late medieval martial arts.

 


  1. Ms. 3227a, 13v. Translation by Thomas Stoeppler. 

  2. Getty Ms., 1r – 1v, Morgan Ms. 1r. 

  3. Pisani-Dossi Ms, 2r 

  4. From a list compiled by Paulus Kal in a mid-15th c treatise for the Duke of Bavaria-Landshut. See: Tobler, Christian Henry. In Service of the Duke: The 15th Century Fighting Treatise of Paulus Kal. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006. 

  5. Filippo Vadi, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicani, Cap. XI 

  6. Liber maigistri nicolay de eywenstock. 1r  See http://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/1428-the-earthquake-of-basel-in-the-codex-5278/