Shoes and gait and fencing… oh my!

There has been a lot of talk about walking gaits and medieval people. When you consider possible medieval gaits, know that we have wear patterns on shoes as evidence of how people walk(ed). I think it is important to remember that this evidence is not easily deciphered, and one paper doesn’t make science, but an accumulation of papers in agreement over time. That said, we all know (if we follow such things) that the wear patterns on shoes changed when shoes began to have stacked heels.
The argument has been put forth that medieval people had to walk on the balls of their feet and, more specifically, land first on the balls of their feet as their shoes show more wear there than on the heel, but when the heel was introduced the wear shifts to the heel primarily. This has been used as evidence to say that, therefore, people in the 15th c walked toe-heel, and people in the 16th walked heel-toe.
Here’s the thing, wear can happen from a lot of things, not just the strike, but the push-off phase, as well as the swing-through phase of the gait. I have attached a picture of some of my shoes.
First up are my oldest pair of soft leather shoes. I’ve sewn them together a few times where seams have ripped, and they are my junky “gonna get gross” shoes for painting, walking in the woods after rain, etc. You’ll notice that the balls of the feet and even the toes have worn through. Do I walk toe-heel in these shoes? Nope.  For walking (that is, not fencing or running or jumping) I always walk with a light heel-strike, then roll to the outer foot, then my big toe and the inner foot hits for the pushoff.

Man, these are really almost at their end.  I wonder if my left toe or right ball will wear clear through first?

Next up are my “dangerous power tool” boots.  These I wear for hiking in the woods if I’m going to be near any power tools like chainsaws, for mowing the lawn, for stomping suckers from my cherry trees, or if I’m volunteering at the horse rescue.  They haven’t seen as much use as the soft shoes, and the rubber lasts longer, but you can still clearly see that the heel has born the brunt of the wear.  This isn’t because I heel-strike in them (though I do walk heel-toe as outlined above) but because they are slightly loose (they slip on and don’t lace tight) and the combination of that and the heel means that the heel drags on the floor at the end of the swing as I’m placing my foot on the ground.

The wear is outlined to make it more clear.  You’ll also note I have a slight duckwalk still, as the wear is to the outside of the heel.

Finally here is a pair of “16th century” shoes.  The quotes are because they aren’t really good repros at all.  These are a mary-jane style shoe, reminiscent of the cow-mouth shoes of 16th century Germany, but again, not a great repro, so don’t worry about that.  What you need to know is that the heel stretched out a lot, and the single strap across the front of the foot leads to these being quite slippery along the heel, almost like a flip-flop.  This ends up making them drag even more than my workboots.


No heel, but a ton of wear on the heel of these shoes as compared to the ball of the foot, other than just behind the break in the sole where again, during the push-off phase of my gait, wear occurs.

So, all of this is completely anecdotal, but you can clearly see that the wear patterns are different because the shoes are different, but not because I dramatically change how I walk in them.  There likely are slight differences (for instance, on the work boot and the repros, I tend to toe-grip because they are loose shoes) but not a difference like changing what order my foot hits the ground.

Another argument for medieval people walking toe-heel is because of the “soft sole” of the shoe and being concerned about rocks or thorns or … well … whatever hurting your foot so you have to walk differently to be able to “feel out the ground” before committing your weight.  I find this to be an exceedingly weak argument.  Again, I hike in woods and mountains, walk on pavement, walk on gravel roads, and have even walked cobblestone streets in Europe in my soft leather soles (Helsinki in November was fun, wet shoes by the evening, dry by morning every day).  I haven’t sustained any injuries from doing so in the six years I’ve almost exclusively worn soft leather soles or been barefoot.  Sure, sometimes my foot gets sore, like a heel will be tender for a day or so, but to be fair, sometimes I’m sore when I wake up because I slept wrong on my soft modern bed…. so I think being sore sometimes is just the price of entry for being alive.

Even if we accept that medieval people were squeamish about walking on their soft leather soles on hard cobblestones or wet ground or whatever, it turns out that at least decently well-to-do medieval people had a solution for that.  Wooden pattens were worn to protect the shoe, and the foot in it, from these potential hazards.

It is well beyond the scope of this little article to detail all of the types of pattens that existed in the medieval period (and before and beyond) but you can see that they were wooden-soled slippers that went over the shoe.  Sometimes they had a heel-strap of some kind, but most often they seemed to only have this single strap across the ball of the foot.  What does this tell us about the gait requirements to wear such a device?

Well, if you’ve ever worn Dr. Sholl’s, you already know:  You have to toe-grip during the swing phase in order for there to be enough pressure to keep the shoe on.  If you don’t know what I mean by toe-grip, just picture wearing a slipper or a flip-flop and walking with any vigor at all.  You make a “fist” with your toes during the swing or you will “kick” the darn shoe off across the room.  In fact releasing the grip early will cause the shoe to slip forwards in annoying fashion.


I rocked these for 2 years in middle school.  It was rough being so cool.  Hahaha.

Walking toe-heel in shoes that are loose or that require a toe-grip to keep on is extremely uncomfortable and frankly unlikely, especially when the natural human gait is to land with a straight leg onto the heel, rolling through the foot and using the arch of the foot as a spring to help with the pushoff-phase of the gait.

Considering the side-view of the more extreme of these, I frankly don’t think you’re walking fast or with a marked heel or toe strike anyways.


Seriously, these would suck to walk in.  (Patten, Stockholms Medeltidsmuseum. 14-15th century)

All of this to say:  Medieval people had a solution for comfort outside on dodgy surfaces and it doesn’t seem to line up with an extreme toe-heel gait.

When we talk about “medieval people doing x” we have to be really careful.  First, people have always done things that are “unnatural” for fashion.  Piercings and tattoos go way back and certainly aren’t the way we are born.  We can look to Geisha for examples of “unnatural” walks that are learned and perfected as paragons of beauty.  Ballet dancers walk a different and no less unnatural way while on stage to suit the aesthetic tastes of that situation.  Women in stilettos walk differently than women in trainers.  Hell, in the 90s lots of men in the hip-hop scene affected a limp.

And this is the point: People will do what people need to do to suit the situation.  The considerations aren’t merely biological or kinesthetic, but also aesthetic, situation-related and class-driven.

How we walk, and more broadly, how we move affects not only our long-term health, but our status.  For those of us who study martial arts, we have similar warring desires:  To keep our body healthy and hopefully even improve on our fitness, to choose stances and mechanics that are structurally sound through opposing pressure, and frankly, to look good while we do it.

It’s likely we don’t look like a medieval aesthetic of movement because we weren’t raised in that aesthetic, and affecting a movement pattern requires deep understanding and training.  As we are practicing a recreated art, we have to accept that some things are unknowable.

Is it possible that above a certain station or class, men walked toe-heel as an affectation?  Absolutely.  (see above, the “gangta-limp”)  But I think that the current evidence is weak and more research is indicated for anyone asserting this as fact.


Gripping Jackets

For some reason, the idea that historical ringen is a “jacketed system” is controversial.  Time and time again, this discussion is brought up and debated.  Anyone who has been following my work for any amount of time knows that I think it’s jacketed, even in the early ringen (15c).  I concede that when you look to earlier sources wrestling (particularly from English sources) is depicted as being done in just men’s underwear, but in virtually all of these examples men are holding the waistband of the underwear or a scarf around the neck.  As I quote in my book, Medieval Wrestling, “While illustrated fecthbucher do not show nude or partially dressed examples, manuscript marginalia often shows men in their underwear, and as Semenza reports in Historicizing ‘Wrastlynge” in the Miller’s Tale: “when Bertrand du Guesclin’s (1320-1380) aunt learned of her nephew’s most recent wrestling victories, she is reported to have asked, ‘How can a nobleman of seventeen fight naked with those serfs in the market place?’” ”

This leads us to the “Peasant’s Wrestling” in german Ringen sources, where one arm is above and one below.  The development of this can be seen in many many sources, but here are a few:


If we go to Ringen manuscripts, there are absolutely many examples that do not rely upon a jacket grip.  That said, if they wanted to depict a backhold system or another system where they were fighting nude, they certainly knew how to do that, as you can see from some non-fightbook examples here:

When jacketless, there are lots of hair grips, scarf grips and other “naked” wrestling.  And yet, this isn’t what we see in Ringen manuscripts, and this is the salient point:  The fact that there were systems of wrestling that existed in medieval Europe that weren’t jacketed is irrelevant.

Ringen systems documented in fightbooks were jacketed.

One can do experimental work with medieval sword and “heater” shield combat, or viking sword and shield combat, or even medieval group tactics on the battlefield and end up with a valid system that seems sound.  That doesn’t make it a fight you can document from our fight books.

I want someone with a passion for non-jacketed medieval wrestling to look at these sources and try to recreate medieval scarf wrestling or braes wrestling.  That would be fascinating and a study worth doing.  In that situation, a jacket would be out of place, I absolutely agree.

However, if one wants to do 15/16th century Ringen from fight books, one must follow the sources and allow for jacket grips.



That said, 17th c scarf wrestling looks pretty sweet….


Glasgow and those silly badges

Here in the hot and humid south, I’ve been mulling over a question for some time.  Just what are those badges on the arm of the “winning” man in the Glasgow Manuscript (MS E.1939.65.341)?  If you’ve never spent much time with this particular manuscript it is possible you haven’t noticed it.

Throughout the manuscript, but most reliably in the illustrated Ringen section, the winner of the technique is designated by a mark, most often drawn on his arm or chest.  These marks come in three forms:  a circle (or two concentric circles), a Burgundian firesteel, and an elaborate capital “B” shape.  There are numerous artists which contributed to this manuscript, including some doodles that appear to have been done at a later date, which makes it hard to understand exactly what these marks indicate.   That said, they are enticing with what they might indicate about the early owners or patrons of this particular manuscript.

The Circle Badge

The circle badge form is quite interesting to me, and I first noticed it in the beginning of the anonymous ringen section.  Two of the first three figures (35v-36v) include this badge in the form of concentric circles.  After 36v, the artist drawing the ringen figures clearly changes, and 37r also includes the circle badge.  After that point the form switches to the firesteel.  It implies that the artist included the circle on 37r as a bridge, letting you know the new symbol will indicate the winner just as the earlier symbol.

After noticing the symbol, I went through the earlier Longsword section of the book (presuming it is still in it’s original order), and found that the circle indeed shows up there, though often in more crude form as the drawings are overall more crude.  Certainly, as it progresses from the front to the back of the manuscript, the art gets better from both a detail and a clarity perspective.  But what is the meaning of this circle, if any, beyond indicating a winner?

Glasgow Detail, Circular Badges

My first thought was that this might be indicating that these men were jewish, and that the circle form was trying to indicate the “rouelle” or Yellow Badge that jewish people were forced by law to wear during the middle ages in Germany (other jewish badges were common elsewhere in medieval europe, but often took different shape).  Could this badge be a reference to Master Ott?


Swiss jews being burned at the stake, yellow badges obvious on their breasts.


I was pretty chuffed with this explanation for the circular badge, and felt like it might be a solid argument, until last week when I ran across this image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 25.26.5 Date: ca. 1450-1500

That darn circle on the right stood immediately out to me.  It reminded me of Glasgow, and as I read about it’s owners my hair stood on end:  “Painted over this design are two small shields with the arms of two Nuremberg patrician families, Ketzel (on a black ground, a silver monkey holding a gold ball) and Koler (on a red ground, a silver ring). These arms refer to Lucas Ketzel and Magdalena Koler, who married in 1467.”  Could the circle form actually refer to the arms of the Nuremberg Patrician family, the Kolers?  Perhaps they commissioned or owned the manuscript?  Certainly we associate Glasgow with Nuremberg which makes this even more intriguing.

With the help of my friend and student of the sword, Edward Sleight, we tracked down some more information on this family and made yet another possible connection:  Albrecht Dürer.

In July 26, 1497 Albrecht Dürer hired two colporteurs. One of these booksellers was a young man named Jorg Koler, who belonged to that same patrician family in Nuremberg. Jorg’s father, Stefan had been a city counselor and Jorg’s uncle was a merchant. He went into business as a colporteur because he couldn’t get work at his uncle’s business (his father Stefan passed away in 1498).

Dürer, of course, did his copy of Wallerstien in 1512.

Could it be that the Koler family also had interest in Wallerstein and introduced Dürer to the manuscript?  There are really too many questions to this story which remain unanswered at this point, but the Koler family certainly participated in Tournaments, were city leaders and were involved in the book trade.  As my friend Robert Charette likes to tell me:  “More research indicated.”

The Firesteel Badge

The badge in the form of a firesteel or firestriker shows up in the Glasgow manuscript on Folio 38r.  First, great thanks are due to Christian Tobler for identifying this for me.  I had puzzled over it for a very long time and couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was.  Once he pointed it out to me, it was obvious this is what is indicated, including the three “sparks” which come from the steel.

S. MARTI - T. BORCHERT - G. KECK, Charles the Bold (1433-1477). Splendour of Burgundy, Mercatorfonds, Bruxelles, 2009, pp. 275-276

Embroidered emblem of the Duke of Burgundy , 1450-1475 c., Historisches Museum, Berne, inv. 310 a

The interesting thing is that in 1477, Maximilian I “the last knight” married Mary “the rich” of Burgundy and took her inheritance, including these arms and the title of the Duke of Burgundy.  I will need to do much much more research into the first quarter of the 16th century and any connections the Koler family may have had with Maximilian I (for instance, in 1505 he confirmed a huge acquisition of land for Nuremberg, perhaps the Kolers personally benefited).


The possible reasons for representing the arms of the Duke of Burgundy in this manuscript are tantalizing, but for now, simply flights of my fancy.

Capital “B” Badge

The Capital “B” shows up only one time, in the ringen section on folio 42r, and is unclear in it’s meaning much like the others.  Is it a reference to Burgundy?  Perhaps.

Extant badges, of which replicas can be purchased, are a reference to St. John of Beverly, the favored Saint of sailors, merchants and criminals.  If the merchant side of the Koler family had something to do with this manuscript this could make sense.

Replica Badge from Saint John of Beverley. 1440. Showing the figure of the Saint in front of a letter ‘B’.




The only conclusion I can reliably come to at this point is that these symbols likely had a specific meaning to the artists that drew them.  Am I on the right track with a Koler and therefore Dürer and Maximilian I connection?  Is this something that more solidly connects the Glasgow manuscript to the Dürer and Codex Wallerstein manuscripts in the so-called “Nuremberg Tradition”?  This is very hard to defend.

For now, let’s just say, we can see what we want in symbols, and sometimes tell a darn good story while we’re at it.


A book?

I’ve had a few reseach projects in the works for some time, particularly regarding HEMA, though some of them are more on the historical fabric armor front.  I’ve published some of those ideas here, but most of the theses, and the supporting evidence, remain in my mind, only expressed by word of mouth.  I think, often, “there isn’t enough here for a book” but I think that I’ve finally reached the turning point where, indeed, there is enough.

The basic ideas behind the research I’ve  working on can be summed up as follows:

  • Liechtenaur’s “Secret” Pedagogy and how it fits into and is unlocked by medieval scholastic pedagogy.
  • Modern class planning and how it works cooperatively with medieval pedagogy.
  • The Finley Gloss, written with the understanding gleaned from the above points.
  • Body mechanics of strikes, thrusts, slices and guards, with particular focus on how to keep doing this stuff without breaking your body.
  • Warm-ups and exercises to rehab when you get the “common” injuries.
  • The Great Ringen Concordance of Doom (or at least an abbreviated version of the Grand plan).

Really, these things live in very different places in my brain, but with a little bit of finessing, I am beginning to see how this can be one thing.

What will it be called?  I’m not sure yet, and it may still end up as multiple projects at publishing time.   However, one thing that is clear, I can no longer ignore the call to write it.

Been quiet – but working

Hello faithful readers!   Sorry to have been so quiet, I’m sure I’ve broken a number of Blogging rules by not overwhelming you with “new content”, but I simply don’t work that way.

Instead, like a farmer’s field, I can produce my best work in fits and starts.   I need time for ideas to rest in a mind gone fallow, and only after that rest can new ideas grow and ripen.

Sometimes people wonder about how relevant learning wrestling can be to swordsmanship, beyond, of course, the few techniques that work with sword in hand.  Of course, you all should know that wrestling is great for strength building, cardiovascular fitness and developing fühlen.   But often there are ties between Ringen techniques and sword techniques if you broaden your view to see it.

Case in point, Auerswald’s “weakening of the man”.  This technique is also taught by earlier Ringen masters such as Ott.  It is used against a man whose grip is strong and who keeps you at a distance with his strength.   You can’t break in through his arm to his body to throw him, so you strike your right arm over top of his wrist in a strong action, “bringing your left hand to help your right.”

As shown in Auerswald’s plate, this causes a bit of pain, lowers his arm and bends it, so that you can then chase in or away with your attack depending on whether he tries to resist (goes strong) or to get away (goes weak).

The key to making this technique work is that the “edge” of your arm connects with the “flat” of his, which puts pressure against his wrist in a way he cannot resist, unless he is of herculean strength.
Now, to swordsmanship, let’s look at the Zettel on Krumphau:

Strike crooked to the flats of the masters if you want to weaken them.  When it clashes above, then move away, that I will praise.

This text could easily be describing the “Weakening of the Man”.  In fact, if we spend time looking at the tactical situation that this Krumphau play is intended to deal with, we shall see it is the same thing.

A “master” at the sword will be strong, but smart.   Getting into him from the typical oberhau/zorn bind will be difficult at best.   So instead of trying to meet his blow with a like blow, you attack him crooked, using his strength against him, and follow from the resulting bind with the proper strike or wind.

So if you’re outclassed at sword or wrestling, see if you can’t weaken him up a little first before committing to an attack.


Train the Trainer online videos

A request that comes up time and time again goes something like this: “Hey guys, I am in the middle of nowhere, there is not a HEMA club for miles (or hours), and I want to do this. How do I start? How do I train and get people to train with me?” A project I have been tasked with, and one that I think many have expressed interest in, is a “Train the Trainer” series of videos which would answer this recurrent problem.

As some of you may know, I learned German Medieval Martial Arts as a long distance student of Christian Tobler. I was in Kansas, he in Connecticut, but I was passionate about learning western martial arts and he willing to give it a shot, despite never having taught someone long distance. I had met him at a weekend seminar in Tulsa OK, so he had taught me in person for a few hours with a large group of other students (Puck and Mary Curtis were also there, as well as other notables from the “HEMA community”). After going home determined to “learn this thing” and Christian willing to mentor me through email and AOL chat (it was a long time ago), I set out to train. But how? I didn’t have anyone to practice with.

Knowing I achieve goals better when I set aside specific time to work on them, I decided to have a “class” on Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm at my gym’s martial arts room. Of course it would just be me there, but that was fine. The point was to have a specific time to train. As it turned out, this schedule meant that I entered the room directly after the Kung Fu class that was taught by the gym’s owner. After a couple of weeks of doing solo drills, the Kung Fu teacher was wrapping up his class and called me in. He introduced his students to me and then, to my shock, told them all to stick around and train with me right then and there. With no warning, I had four students…. how the heck could I teach you? Who was I to teach anyone anything? Sure I had years of stage combat and home-grown sword fighting, but that isn’t this thing. What was I going to do?

Jon Eppler, who had hosted the Tobler seminar, gave me magnificent advice. He said, “Jess, as long as you’re one lesson ahead, you have something to share. Don’t think you need to be perfect or to teach… you’re just sharing what you know.” That advice kept me from freaking out too hard and got me rolling.

In that spirit, I plan to release one video a month, which would include both a conceptual discussion as well as a physical practice. The idea is not only to give mental support, but also physical practice ideas. This will include simple solo drills, paired drills and training ideas. I will also share how I teach certain concepts, which will help the distance learner not only train themselves, but will help them share what they know.

Though I have a pretty good outline for the year of lessons, I’d also like to hear from you guys… what kinds of lessons would you like to learn?

HROARR Article

For at least two years I have had a pet theory regarding the four guards (vier leger) of Liechtenauer’s leger, but until recently, didn’t have enough evidence to back it up beyond a gut feeling.

I’ve put together my thoughts and research – and thanks to HROARR it has now been published!

Please, read, enjoy, and comment with your thoughts:



A Solid Foundation: Wrestling from Many Sources

One thing I am frequently asked by people in the HEMA community is regarding a “general wrestling curriculum.”  These are often people with very little wrestling experience, such that they don’t feel confident to jump into sources and if they were to do so, how to understand these throws in context.

In 2014 I gave a class in Finland for students of Guy Windsor on medieval wrestling, and my goal was to create an understanding of wrestling that they could take back to their own clubs and keep practicing.  I feel it is a solid group of techniques, which are presented in a logical order that can be studied and understood.  They come from at least three manuals, though many of them are also presented elsewhere.

I don’t, at this time, have video of all of these exercises and throws, but where I do, I shall point at them.  Additionally, I can give links to Wiktenauer or to book titles and pages, which should allow the diligent student to work out these throws.


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Vor Griff

I spent some time today meditating on the ideas of Vor and Nach and how one should use these tactically in wrestling.  I’ve often considered them very simplistically, for example, a throw being performed in the Vor, a counter being performed from the Nach, and with a combination being a way to maintain the Vor with an altered attack despite an attempted counter.  This has many correlations with tactics described through techniques in the weapon-focused portions of Liechtenauer’s verse and art.

Continue reading

Animal qualities

This is about wrestling.

Whoever wants to learn wrestling, he should note at first that the principles Vor, Nach, speed, courage, deceit and wits etc also belong to wrestling. And know that all grace and skill comes from wrestling and all fencing comes basically from the wrestling. At first the fencing with the long knife and from that the fencing with the long swords comes and so on.

Translation by Christian Tobler, 2012, emphasis mine.

So thanks to a question this morning from Keith Cotter-Reilly, I looked at this section of Liechtenauer’s wrestling from the Dobringer manuscript and I was reminded of the fencing (and wrestling) qualities mentioned here.  

Now that I understand that deceit is implied by the “Feet of a Hind”, it could be argued that right here we have the qualities of Kal’s birdman again mentioned in a completely different treatise, implying that these qualities are more widely understood.  The presentation as physical animal qualities in Kal is a way to keep the art ‘secret’ from those who aren’t supposed to understand the full meaning of the masters, which we see over and over in the teachings.

Still, a cool connection this morning.