‘Have the Highest Righteous Fencer in Your Mind’s Eye’: Medieval Martial Ethic as a Conceptual Repository for Just War Theory



In many cultures, war has been seen as something best avoided, but also as something that would nevertheless inevitably materialise. Hence, legitimate reasons for waging war have been sought and conceptualised in different cultural contexts. According to current scholarly wisdom, all such conceptualisations are socially constructed and hence inevitably draw from cultural resources available in a given time and place, such as axiological frameworks, religious and mythological imaginaries, power structures, etc. A question which has so far received little to no attention, however, is the role of violence experienced on the personal level in shaping these conceptualisations. This question is applied to the late Middle Ages and a unique German martial arts treatise, called the ‘Nuremberg Codex’ [HS 3227a]. A qualitative content analysis performed on this manuscript reveals an interplay between pragmatic observations obtained through martial practice and axiological frameworks. Through discussing the broader historical-cultural context of martial arts in late-medieval and early-modern Germany as well as the late-medieval just war theory, three conclusions are proposed: first, restraint in combat was seen as both a pragmatic and an ethical necessity; second, moral conduct was an integral part of martial technique, on a par with ‘mundane’ factors, such as proper physical preparation; and third, axiology found specific somatic manifestations, as exemplified by medieval Germans’ attitude towards thrusting with the sword.


historical European martial artsmartial ethicsinterpersonal violencejust war theorymedieval Germany
  • Volume: 12
  • Page/Article: 8-18
  • DOI: 10.18573/mas.154
  • Published on 13 Jun 2022