Analysing Historical Sources

Goliath (MS Germ.Quart.2020), folio 22r

Historical sources are one of the most valuable assets available to us in our study of the past. These sources are many and varied, and every single surviving item from the past can provide us with some kind of information. However, due care must be exercised when using these sources to support an argument, as sources can be misleading! This article will seek to examine some of the ways by which historical sources can provide false or misleading information, and I will provide a simple method by which sources may be analysed for how useful they are to an argument.

When I was studying Standard Grade history at school, aged 14-16, a large part of the curriculum at the time was to be able to look at a source and to analyse it. We were expected to be able to write a brief analysis of any source with which we were provided and make a reasoned argument as to whether or not it would be useful to us. I had a fantastic teacher for this subject, and while the course contents bored me and made me disinclined to study history in a formal capacity throughout the rest of my schooling, my teacher was able to make many of the important lessons sink home to the point where I can still remember them today and apply them to my work.

My teacher came up with a simple mnemonic that we could use to analyse our sources in a structured fashion, and I have taken the liberty of adding an extra step to the process. His method is called GANGTAP, and I have modified it to be GANGTAPA. This mnemonic stands for:

G – given, what the source does tell us

A – author, who it was who wrote or otherwise created the source

NG – not given, what relevant information the source fails to provide

T – timing, when in time the source was written in relation to the event or period about which it is trying to inform us

A – accuracy, how accurate is the source taking into account our own knowledge of the subject and time period

P – purpose, why was this source created?

A – audience, for whom was this source created?

The order of letters is not particularly important, as long as all of the steps are followed. My addition of “audience” is important for the sources from the time periods that I tend to study, whereas it was not of much importance back when I was 14 and learning the basics for such boring concepts as railways and sheep farming!

I believe following a process like this to be immensely useful for those of us who study the historical European martial arts. We try to rebuild lost and forgotten systems of fighting by researching manuscripts and printed manuals, by looking at illustrations and trying to work out how the combatants might end up in such a situation, by reading as much as we can about that time in history so that we can create some context into which we can place our chosen martial art of study. The important thing to remember is that the authors of the manuscripts had their own agendas and were sometimes not even the fencing masters themselves! The illustrators were different people again, and the models used by the illustrator are again different people. A source such as for example the Goliath manuscript (MS Germ.Quart.2020) is therefore difficult to trust and can be very misleading. Let me apply the GANGTAPA method to the Goliath, specifically the longsword section of the manuscript.

The Goliath manuscript provides us with both illustrations and text, with good quality drawings and relatively neat handwriting. The text that accompanies the illustrations is a very similar treatise to that found in the earlier Codex 44.A.8 (aka the Codex Danzig) and has similarities to other codices and manuscripts within the Liechtenauer tradition of longsword fencing. It follows the Zettel (Liechtenauer’s own poem for teaching the core concepts of his fighting system) exactly [1] and is a perfect example of a concise yet comprehensive interpretation of Liechtenauer’s system. The illustrations support the text well by giving visual examples of some of the concepts and techniques discussed in the text.

This being said, the Goliath fails to provide valuable pieces of information about Liechtenauer’s system or the owner’s personal interpretation of the system. For example, the correct sort of grip one should use while holding a sword. The text does not tell us anything about this, and the illustrations show a wide variety of grips used by the artist’s models. Furthermore, an earlier text in the Liechtenauer tradition proclaims that the best way to hold a sword is to hold it by the grip and not to place a hand upon the weapon’s pommel [2]; the illustrations in the Goliath depict combatants holding the pommel, which is at odds with the earlier information, and no useful text is provided to explain this issue. This shows that the Goliath may be a useful source but also that it does not contain all of the information for us to build a complete interpretation of Liechtenauer’s system.

Furthermore, the text and the illustrations of the Goliath are sometimes at odds with each other. The text on folio 18r of the Goliath describes how to deploy the Krumphau against an opponent standing in the Ochs guard, and says that the strike should be performed with crossed wrists and using the long edge as a descending strike onto the opponent’s hands. Conversely, the associated illustration on folio 18v shows the technique as a rising strike without crossed wrists, striking into the opponent’s forearms from below. This demonstrates that the artist, the models and the scribe were not all following the same script or instructions. The scribe dealing with the text is also not the original author of the treatise; since the treatise appears around 60 years earlier in the Codex 44.A.8 with virtually no change, we have to consider the fact that the scribe of the Goliath was merely tasked with copying the earlier treatise, so the original fencing master would not have been around to oversee production of the manuscript and to check it for errors. Therefore the people involved in the development of the source were not the original creators of the information and were either trying to apply their own understanding of the information or were blindly copying other texts. This is good reason for caution, given the mistakes and omissions outlined above, so we cannot accept the Goliath as a single complete source for the Liechtenauer tradition nor can we assume that every single part of the manuscript or this particular treatise is correct.

The intended audience for the Goliath manuscript is unknown [3] but given the lavish decoration and the inherent costs of such a production, the sponsor for the manuscript would likely have been a wealthy individual. We know that other fencing masters involved in the Liechtenauer tradition sold their skills to wealthy nobles as fencing tutors (for example Paulus Kal [4], Hans Talhoffer [5] and Sigmund Ringeck [6]) so it is a reasonable assumption (but only an assumption!) that the Goliath was produced for a wealthy noble with an interest in fencing. Since the Goliath is a collection of several treatises by different fencing masters, covering many different styles of fighting with different weapons, the purpose of the manuscript is likely to have been as a memory aid or as some kind of textbook for the wealthy individual who sponsored its production. This is only conjecture however; the treatise could have been created by a fencing master who then used it as a demonstration of his status and importance due to being able to produce such a manuscript (Fiore dei Liberi made a similar sort of proclamation [7], that no one could be a true master without books), but this is not so likely as the material is not unique but in fact copied from earlier treatises, and also a master creating his own book would be unlikely to allow for mistakes and irregularities between what the text says and what the illustrations show! So while we can make assumptions about the owner and thus the intended audience and purpose of the manuscript, we do not know for sure and must therefore treat the manuscript with caution without taking everything it says as pure and complete truth.

To conclude, the manuscript is clearly a valuable addition to the library of an individual researching the martial traditions of Johannes Liechtenauer, but should be treated with due caution. It’s text and its illustrations are very helpful in the reconstruction of the fighting styles question, but are also sometimes at odds with each other. We do not know enough about the manuscript or its owner to know for certain what role the work played in contemporary society and within the Liechtenauer tradition, but it is definitely an important manuscript worth studying in depth.

[1] The Zedel in the MS Germ.Quart.2020 is the same as in the other major treatises dealing with the Liechtenauer tradition.

[2] HS.3227a, folio 15r


[4] CGM 1507, folio 2r

[5] MS Thott 2º, folio 85r mentions Lwtold von Kungsegg, one Talhoffer’s wealthy students

[6] MS Dresden C 487, folio 10v

[7] MS M.383, folio 2r

This example illustrates the GANGTAPA method when applied to one of the more widely known and trusted manuscripts in the European martial arts community. By applying this kind of method we can see what is good about the manuscript, but we can also identify the flaws and problems with the work. We can make an attempt to place the source in a wider context and can verify it against our existing knowledge of the subject area. This exercise then makes the source more valuable to us, because we can use it in an appropriate fashion.

There are many sorts of pitfalls that we face by believing sources blindly. People in the past were just like people today; they did not all tell the truth, and they were trying to further their own agendas. Take for example the statement by Fiore dei Liberi in the above analysis, that no one may call himself a true master if he does not possess books. A full translation of this phrase in its original context can be found on the Wiktenauer, courtesy of Matt Easton and Eleonora Durban:

Fiore was one of the many fencing masters (or at least, one of the many people teaching fencing) at that point in history. He was therefore a businessman as well as a warrior and teacher; he had to sell himself, he had to ensure that potential clients would buy his services and not the services of his competitors. He wrote that no one else could be a fencing master without a book, and therefore immediately portrayed himself as better than all of his competitors. We have to view this part of his book as marketing and advertising, and therefore we must treat at least this part of his work with suspicion. I am sure Fiore was an excellent swordsman and an excellent teacher, but he was clearly also an excellent businessman and shrewd enough to be able to manipulate his readers with his words. This sort of thing is very important to bear in mind when reading historical sources: we cannot always trust what is written!

Another pitfall that can cause misunderstandings for those who do not analyse sources carefully before rushing to use them in an argument: oftentimes when something was written down, an unusual detail, it was because the detail was so unusual that it was considered worth writing about. We see this in modern media as well: no newspaper devotes headlines every single day to the fact that it is warm and sunny in Spain or that Glasgow is a little cold and rainy. Newspapers ignore the ordinary occurrences and instead write about freak occurrences like a hurricane or a tsunami.

We see these sorts of unusual details in historical sources. For example there are accounts of soldiers receiving cuts to the head and continuing the fight before killing an opponent (many such examples in books such as  “Swordsmen of the Raj” and “Sword Fighters of the British Empire” by D.A. Kinsley). What is important to bear in mind is that these anecdotes were recorded because of the fact that they were unusual occurrences. If everyone could survive a cut to the head then these stories would not have been extraordinary and would therefore not have warranted being written about. Like with hurricanes and tsunami, it is important to know that these things can happen, but we should not imagine that they are regular everyday occurrences.

I hope that this article has given pause for thought about some of the historical sources that we all study, and if it inspires people to analyse their sources then so much the better. Please feel free to use the GANGTAPA method or to develop your own method to this end; but bear in mind that historical sources were not always designed to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

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