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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

01/2017 manuscript  of the month

Return of the Gladiators

In the middle of the twentieth century, a manuscript vanished without a trace from a library in Central Germany. It only surfaced again when it happened to be found among a deceased collector’s possessions decades later in New Haven, Connecticut. In the period between its disappearance and rediscovery, the manuscript was sold, auctioned, taken apart and put back together again. It describes mediaeval armed combat between two opponents each wearing a suit of armour and contains numerous accompanying illustrations. The carefully drawn pictures still serve their original purpose, informing interested readers about styles of combat, but they are also useful as reference material for the modern re-creation of mediaeval martial arts.

Figure 1: A double-page of the New Haven Gladiatoria manuscript (fols. 2v–3r) showing
armoured combatants competing against each other in various disciplines. > Enlarge

According to librarians’ records at the Ducal Library in Gotha (Herzogliche Bibliothek zu Gotha), Codex Gothanus Membr.¬ II 109 originally consisted of three independent codicological units: a book on various types of armoured combat (literally: fight book), a fragment of a Spanish comedy written by Lope de Vega and a section containing Spanish poetry along with various texts in French and Latin. The manuscript disappeared from the library under mysterious circumstances sometime near the end of the Second World War or shortly afterwards. The third part has still not been found yet, but the second one resurfaced in 1953. The first part of the manuscript – the book on armed combat belonging to what is known among experts as the Gladiatoria group and which will be discussed in this article – was lost for several decades before being rediscovered. The document that gave this group of six manuscripts its name is now safely housed in the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Cracow, Poland. The word ‘Gladiatoria’ (= swordplay, sword fight) is written on the title page in capital letters.

While the Gotha fight book was thought to have been lost, a previously unknown Gladiatoria manuscript was auctioned off in Heidelberg in the 1950s and 60s as a series of individual pages. First of all, it went to a buyer in Stockholm, but it was re-sold later, this time to an unknown private collector in America, who kept it safely archived away from sight for the next few decades. In 1987, Hans-Peter Hils was able to show that the unknown work sold in Heidelberg was very likely to be the missing manuscript from Gotha. However, his assumption could only be confirmed at the beginning of the 21st century, when manuscripts kept by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library run by the Yale Center for British Art were digitised and made accessible to the general public. Among these works was a certain fencing book that could be identified as the long-lost Gladiatoria manuscript thanks to various contemporary descriptions of it.

Fig. 2: The dueller on the left is wearing a
type of plate armour widely used in the German
-speaking realm around the mid-15th century
and known as ‘Kastenbrustharnisch’
(literally: box-breast harness).
> Enlarge

Experts assume that this manuscript was produced in a mediaeval workshop in what is now Bavaria (South-east Germany) or Austria on the grounds of its similarity to other manuscripts from the area and certain linguistic peculiarities it contains. The style of writing used and the type of armour depicted in the illustrations both indicate it was written in the first half of the 15th century, probably around 1430 (fig. 1).

The manual of combat techniques is one of approximately 110 manuscripts of this genre that still exist around the world. The majority are compilations covering several weapon disciplines. The Gladiatoria group is one of these and primarily portrays armoured combatants duelling with different weapons. Two further works in this group, which are kept in Vienna and Cracow, are very similar to the version shown here in terms of their wording and artwork, as they contain an illustration on each page occupying around three quarters of the available space. Below a separating line drawn directly underneath the pairs of combatants, the scribe has written up to eight lines of text, each block of which is similar in each of the three manuscripts, even down to their alignment. The wording and pictures all complement one another: the text outlines a particular technique briefly but accurately, and the respective illustration shows a characteristic moment during combat.

The New Haven manuscript is noteworthy in that it describes and depicts a wide range of arms and armour in considerable detail. The pen-and-ink drawings employ watercolours over pencilled sketches and were probably all done by the same artist. All of the combatants wear closed visored helmets. While their headwear looks very similar, the armour varies considerably. None of the suits of armour is alike, and each one has been drawn with great attention to detail. They belong to a transitional period between a softer style and a pointed Gothic style during which the manuscript was created (fig. 2).

Fig. 3 and 4: A series of combat techniques got put in the wrong order when the manuscript was
rebound: fol. 28v (on the right, > Enlarge) shows the beginning of the technique, in which the
cuff of the gauntlet is targeted, while fol. 27r (on the left, > Enlarge) shows the appropriate
counter. If one of the combatants manages to push his opponent out of the marked fighting
area, he can settle the fight in his favour without any blood being spilt.

At the time the manuscript was examined closely by staff at the Gotha Library in 1838, the Gladiatoria section of it contained 43 leaves. Despite the codex being taken apart and rebound numerous times, none of the leaves have been lost since then. The current binding, which is from the 1960s, is faulty, though. Take folio 27r and 28v, for example (figs. 3 and 4): a technique involving a gauntlet is described on these two pages, but the steps are in the wrong order because the folios were reassembled incorrectly. The reason for this mix-up is that the individual techniques used in combat were not numbered in the section on sword fighting, but they were in the sections on fighting with other weapons. Furthermore, a number of pages contain different kinds of numbering, some of which contradict each other due to different scribes working on the various sections of the manuscript. For example, page numbers in ink have only been added on the first few pages of the section on fighting with swords; further on in the work, the foliation is incomplete and contains gaps and even double entries. The original order of the pages can only be reconstructed by comparing it with the two related manuscripts from Cracow and Vienna, in which everything is in the right order.

Apart from that, one can tell that the codex is not complete by the numbering of the techniques mentioned in the text. As an example, the seventeenth technique for using a dagger is directly followed by the thirtieth. The pages in between must have gone missing before 1838.

The illustrations all depict duels between two opponents, which makes it doubtful whether any of the techniques could actually be employed in an actual battle. The manuscript describes a large number of combat disciplines ranging from techniques involving a spear, sword or dagger to unarmed combat on the ground.

It is hard to tell which audience the New Haven Gladiatoria manuscript was originally intended for. Some fencing books were commissioned with the aim of producing a magnificent piece of work to be cherished, while others were intended as notebooks and books for personal study. The representative character of our Gladiatoria manuscript is due to its careful design, keeping the needs of a demanding clientele in mind. It is unclear whether it was actually meant to be used as a practical guide to fighting with weapons; it may portray the techniques taught by a particular master swordsman or it may equally have been intended to preserve existing knowledge of an art that was gradually dying out. Although trial by combat was becoming less and less common in 15th-century Europe, the originators of various manuscripts from this period – not just those of the Gladiatoria group – talked about how to prepare for such an armed confrontation. However, counter to what many people assume was the case, it was not actually necessary to kill one’s opponent in a fight of this kind – all one had to do was force him out of the ring, as we can see in fol. 28v, for example (see fig. 4).

Nevertheless, the instructions in this centuries-old fencing book are so precise that modern-day historical swordsmen base their own training on them – protected by old-style armour, but without putting their sparring partners in mortal danger.


BENARY, Walter (1912): Ein unbekanntes handschriftliches Fragment einer Lope’schen Komödie. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, vol. 36, issue 6.

FRÜHMORGEN-VOSS, Hella/OTT, Norbert H./BODEMANN, Ulrike/STÖLLINGER-LÖSER, Christine/LENG, Rainer (eds.) (2009): Katalog der deutschsprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters, vol. 4/2, Inst. 1/2: 38. Fecht- und Ringbücher. Munich: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

HAGEDORN, Dierk/WALCZAK, Bartłomiej (2015): Gladiatoria: New Haven – MS U860.F46 1450. Herne: VS Books.

HILS, Hans-Peter (1985): Meister Johann Liechtenauers Kunst des langen Schwertes. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang.

HILS, Hans-Peter (1987): ‘Gladiatoria’: Über drei Fechthandschriften aus der ersten Hälfte des 15. Jahr¬hunderts. Codices manuscripti, issue 1/2.

JACOBS, Friedrich/UKERT, Friedrich August (1838): Beiträge zur ältern Litteratur oder Merkwürdigkeiten der Herzogl. öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Gotha, Fünftes Heft oder dritten Bandes erstes Heft. Leipzig: Dyk’sche Buchhandlung.

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. New Haven, Connecticut
Shelf-mark: MS U860.F46 1450
Material: parchment, 43 leaves; 3–8 lines of text below the illustrations (the text has been cut off on three of the leaves: fols. 3, 4 and 7); punched auburn leather binding (from the 1960s)
Size: 165 x 178 mm
Provenance: c. 1430, Bavarian-speaking area, Western Europe

Text by Dierk Hagedorn
© for all pictures: Yale Center for British Art,
Paul Mellon Collection
Reference note:
Dierk Hagedorn, “Return of the Gladiators”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.01, SFB 950: Hamburg,