Preview: The Codex Amberger and its predecessors

After many a year of absolutely nothing, the dining room table is now bending with old and new books, reams of print-outs, photographs, articles, bibliographies: We’ve finally started to work on the definitive monograph to the modest 15-page anonymous manuscript fragment we acquired back in 2005.

To sucker as many experts as we can into doing our work for us, we’ll be presenting some of the preliminary work here on FencingClassics… to elicit qualified response and criticism and, yes, lavish praise.

Let’s kick off the process by presenting Sheet 8r, which may prove to be a key element in properly placing the fragment in its proper lineage…

by J. Christoph Amberger

Baltimore, MD—At first glance, the “Codex Amberger,” a 15-sheet fragment of what may have been a much larger compendium of 16th-century fencing and wrestling illustrations, appears to be easily placed. 13 out of 15 illustrations follow the Weiditz woodcuts for Der Altenn Fechter anfengliche Kunnst, published after 1531 by Christian Egenolff in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

But there are also clear parallels to the Augsburg city servant Paulus Hector Mair’s glam martial arts compendia, especially Dresden C93/94 and Vienna Cod. 18025/26, both ascribed to the Augsburg painter Jörg Breu the Younger (who died in 1547). Furthermore, almost all illustrations of the Codex Amberger also appear in the now-lost Breslau Ms. of Dürer’s Fecht- und Ringerbuch, which the late Dr. Karl Wassmannsdorff enthusiastically yet erroneously identified as Dürer’s 1512 original. (It is now thought to have originated between 1600 and 1620.) Which, to further confuse things, led to the Codex Amberger being labeled “XXX [scratched out, probably “Dürers”] Fechthandschrift, um 1512” on its 19th-century binding.

A closer look at Codex Amberger (CA) 8r serves as a good example for some of the analytical work we’re doing right now. The above graphic (as always, click on the image for a higher resolution) contrasts 8r with its parallels in the known universe of German wrestling manuals. At first glance, it seems to be not only a larger, free-hand copy of Weiditz’s woodcut, but also to correspond in all but costume detail with the Breu illustrations in Mair’s compendia.

8r is untitled, but corresponds to Egenolff’s technique of “Gefangen nemen,” which Mair expands into “Wie man ainenn geworffnen sperzt, das ere nit uffkommen mag.” Which loosely translates into “How to spread-eagle one whom you have thrown, so he may not rise.” (“Sperzt” appears to be a variant of modern High German “spreizt“, to spread out.)

A closer look, however, indicates substantial differences in technique which not only indicate that Mair’s illustrations were not directly based on Egenolff, but possibly staged by Breu’s models:

Differences in technique indicate different sources

While the only difference, apart from faces and costume, between CA 8r and Egenolff’s Gefangen nemen (which appears twice in his book) is the omission of the top wrestler’s right foot from CA, the differences between what we will be calling the Egenolff and Mair lines are substantial:

1. Hand position: The Egenolff line pins the prostrate opponent’s raised arms to the ground by the elbows, optimizing leverage, whereas in Mair, the pin is at the opponent’s left wrist and, apparently quite loosely, on his left biceps.

2. Upper body position: The Egenolff line shows the dominant wrestler with raised upper body, with space between the prostrate wrestler’s abdomen and his own. The top wrestler’s full upper body weight is focused downward on his hands and, thus, the opponent’s elbows. The Mair line shows the top wrestler flat on top of his opponent, his body weight evenly spread and unavailable for the arm pin.

3. Leg and hip position: The Egenolff line shows the dominant wrestler locking the thighs of the opponent from the outside. CA 8r, more so even than Egenolff, shows the dominant wrestler with an almost upright upper body, placing his right knee unpleasantly close on or even in the prone opponent’s genitals.  Mair’s prostrate position places the top wrestler’s hips far below the bottom wrestler’s hips, allowing him to establish a leg lock around the top wrestler’s hips.

We have yet to examine the Mair text more closely if the focus is on the preparation of the bottom wrestler’s Bruch (or counter-action) against the pin. In which case, the Egenolff and Mair lines would complement each other sequentially.

The Egenolff line

The Egenolff line is supplemented in this particular instance by a lithographic reproduction from the lost Breslau Ms., which we owe to Friedrich Dörnhöffer’s mammoth reproduction of the Dürer 1512 Ms. in the early 1900’s. Apart from the rather unimpressive, incomplete, and scaled-down Breslau copies commissioned in 1888 by Wassmannsdorff, this is one of only 4 images that allow us to get a “first-hand” glimpse at what this Ms. contained.

Wassmannsdorff operates under the assumption that Breslau is Dürer’s original, which in turn implies that the Egenolff-line illustrations included were copied from Dürer by Weiditz/Egenolff.

Dörnhoffer, however, clarified that Breslau is a later copy of the 1512 wrestling and fencing images by Dürer, to which the early 17th-century copyist appended the verbatim text and transfer delineations of one of the four Egenolff editions. The chicken thus is reduced to the egg, at least as far as the Egenolff-line in Breslau is concerned! Dörnhöffer points out that the figures in Egenolff and those in Breslau correspond not only in size, but even in detail aspects, such as the distance between noses among wrestlers. By comparison, it is obvious that the far larger images of the CA are free-hand interpretations rather than Pausen (carbon-copies).

The Egenolff Line

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