Scholars, swordsmen, and sources – a research diversion

As an act of discipline I have forced myself to make time to finish a blog entry, any blog entry. Readers can enjoy the fruits of that penitent labour in the form of this short discourse on Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535) and whether or not he was a member of one of the confraternities of swordsmen that appeared in German states in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s a short discussion because there is little evidence that he was such a member and that the suggestion holds very little water.

Cornelius Agrippa is one of those very real historical characters who is almost indistinguishable from his fictitious afterlife. That fiction accumulated pretty early and his reputation as an occult magus was secure enough in the public eye that Christopher Marlowe could have Dr. Faust proclaim, without any added context, that his conjurations would make him “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadows [shades, or spirits] made all Europe honour him.”1 The source of Agrippa’s notoriety came from his controversial writings, critical of the social and philosophical status quo. Agrippa was condemned as heretical during his lifetime by theologians and academics and he was branded a ‘sceptic’, in the most pejorative meaning of the term, well before he wrote the material that Marlowe referenced, the Three Books of Occult Philosophy.2

The association of Agrippa with the fencing guilds of late medieval Germany derives from that posthumous mythology. associated in the popular mind most closely with Marlow’s Faustus, may have been a member of the Marxbrüder or Federfechter (guilds of swordsmen who self-regulated their own schools in some German states) was floated in a recent blog entry and some online discussion lists.

It does me little credit when I repeat that monstrous generalization that few things will kill your interest in the history of European martial culture like the online community that studies it and as proof of my own hypocrisy, I am in the habit of trawling that community in the off chance they find something I had not seen previously. One little morsel of newness recently appeared in a blog entry which linked Cornelius Agrippa to one of these fraternities of swordsmen.

The reference was pulled from the occult curiosities edited by Johann Scheible (or Scheilble) and published in 12 volumes from 1845-49. Volume 2 is dedicated to the Faust legends and naturally, Agrippa gets into the action. One anecdote recounts Agrippa’s occult powers and calls him “a good student and a Freyfechter” or a member of one of the fencing fraternities.1 While it is tempting to summarily dismiss the anecdote based on its appearance in a collection of Faustian mythology, there are some historical reasons to discount the claim.

Agrippa is one of those well educated and well-bred men with unstable social and economic prospects. They made careers as lecturers, ambassadors, lawyers, writers, officers, and soldiers, as circumstance and opportunity allowed. There was a sizable population of peripatetic scholars-cum-mercenaries in the German states of the early 16th century and while that combination of education and military service was rare in other places, particularly England, it was typical in the fragmented regions of Germany and Italy with its city states and sub-industry of military contracting. Agrippa’s military service is well documented and he had a legitimate reason to pursue skill in arms alongside his extensive reading in the natural sciences, logic, astrology, and ritual magic. It’s that peculiar skill set that makes this association with the fencing guilds so appealing. At the same time, it works against it.

We forget that there was a hierarchy amongst the scholars of learned violence. Educated elites like Agrippa may have shared the same knowledge and talents in arms with the members of the Freyfechter but the did not share company. The members of the German fencing guilds were a very working class group. The few identifiable members were artisans and craftsmen, skilled and economically stable, but low on the social ladder.4 The one English guild of swordsmen whose records survive, represent an equally working class bunch, and only one of the identified members received any higher education.5 These men may have taught lawyers, secretaries, ambassadors, writers and officers but they did not admit them to their ranks. Gentlemen were more than happy to learn from these men and some of the more educated students went so far as to write their own works, as was the case of George Silver. But, contrary to some assumptions, Silver was never a member of the London guild and it’s uncertain if he ran his own school under his own name. It’s more likely that Silver ‘sponsored’ a school in that arms-length way that the gentry used to make money but keep their hands clean.6

Although, having said that, the Freyfechter, as defined by their name as ‘free fighters’, did not have formal guild association. This does not, however, fix the problem of hierarchy and class.5

Why then would the author of the 1599 collection of Faust stories claim Agrippa was chummy with a social demographic well below his station? Actually that answers itself. The story isn’t designed to praise Agrippa, it’s supposed to undermine his scholarly and moral credibility and associating this learned and well travelled scholar and soldier with the disreputable working classes and their propensity for random violence, serves the didactic purpose of the Faust legend.


1 I don’t have my copy of Marlowe’s works here so you will have to settle for an indirect quote out of Marc van der Poel, Cornelius Agrippa: The Humanist Theologian and His Declamations, (Brill: Leiden, 1997), p. 2.

2 Again, I am using van der Poel here but for more biographical detail I would recommend Charles G Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana Ill., 1965). Agrippa’s notable works are Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De nobilitate et preaecellentia foeminei sexus. Expostulatio cum Joanne Catilineti super expositione libri Joannis Capnionis de verbo mirifico. De sacramento matrimonii declamatio. De triplici ratione cognoscendi Deum liber unus, (Michael Hillenius Hoochstratanus: Antwerp, 1529), USTC 437427, De incertitudine & vanitate scientiarum & artium, atque excellentia verbi Dei, declamatio, (Joannes Grapheus: Antwerp, 1530), USTC 403838, and De occulta philosophia libri tres, (Joannes Grapheus: Antwerp, 1531), USTC 400504. The last is available in a critical edition as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, eds. Donald Tyson and James Freake, (Llewellyn: St. Paul, MN., 1993). The reviews for that one are a hoot.

3 The anecdote was spotted by Roger Norling, the author of the blog entry that all of this, but he only translates the passage and does not give a volume or page number. These texts are, fortunately, readable online through Google books so you can track down the original, as it appears in vol. II at p. 541. Scheible reproduces this, and other stories, from Georg Rudolf Widmann’s Erster Theil Der Warhafftigen Historien von den grewlichen und abschewlichen Sünden und Lastern, auch von vielen wunderbarlichen und seltzamen ebentheuren (Hamburg: Möller, 1599). You can see the 1599 book online here.

4 I wish I could point to more specific references than what I have but the most detailed studies of the German fencing guilds are sill in German and my German is very weak. I will cite one of them anyway. Karl Wassmannsdorff, Sechs Fechtschulen der Marxbrüder und Federfechter aus den Jahren 1573 bis 1614, (Karl Groos: Heidelberg, 1870).

5 You will have to do with a general reference since I don’t have the page number for that one University educated bloke. See Berry Herbert, The Noble Science: A Study and Transcription of Sloane Ms. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590, (University of Delaware Press: Newark, Del., 1991).

6 I have only seen one claim, in print, that Silver was a member of the London guild but it’s implied or suspected in other sources. See Brandon Heslop and Benjamin Bradak, Lessons on the English Longsword, (Paladin Press: Boulder, CO., 2010), and Stephen Hand, English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver, (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006).

7 I realized this after scanning William C. Jr. Adamson, ‘The Nationalism of Joachim Meyer: An Analysis of German Pride in his Fighting Manual of 1570’, (MA dissertation, East Tennessee State University: Johnson City TN, 2011). Unfortunately, Adamson’s sources on the Freyfechter don’t represent the most encouraging scholarship.

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