In the late 16th century two interesting individuals made substantial contributions to the relatively new genre of the autobiography. In 1595 Bartholomäus Sastrow (1520–1603), a north German burgher, notary, diplomat, and eventually burgomeister of the Hanseatic City of Stralsund, penned his life story. Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), goldsmith, soldier, musician and famous Renaissance artist from Florence, wrote his memoir between 1558 and 1563. Though they were born twenty years apart, both men had similar backgrounds. Both were from the lower-middle strata of society but rose to high status, both were widely traveled and directly acquainted with the most powerful individuals of their time (as well as some of the most lowly) and both experienced firsthand some of the most dramatic and important political and military events of the mid-16th century.
Amidst a backdrop of war and severe religious conflict, Sastrow, a German and a Lutheran, traveled to Italy, and Cellini, an Italian Catholic, travelled through Germany to France. This allows us to see each region from both a native and an outsider’s perspective. Both men participated in or were witness to numerous incidents of social violence and warfare during their lifetimes, as described in detail in their memoirs. These accounts give us an opportunity to examine the depiction of incidents of social violence by people who witnessed or participated in them first-hand, allowing us to contrast these episodes with the principles of self-defense as portrayed in the fightbooks. We can also compare these personal anecdotes with documented written and unwritten rules governing dueling, fighting, and the carrying of arms. This will help grant us further insight into the reality of personal armed conflict in the era of the fightbooks, and improve our understanding of their context and meaning.
Guilds have a well-established association with the fencing systems of medieval Europe, and the phenomenon of guilds has been the subject of a great deal of new academic research in the last 20 years or so. A thorough summary of the recent scholarship on guilds and their structure and history will help provide context for what may be loosely described as armed guilds. Though armed guilds have not yet been the subject of a proper systematic analysis, it is possible to tentatively identify four types. Combining the summary of ‘civilian’ guilds with the emerging evidence of armed guilds, including the fencing guilds, may help us better understand the social relevance of martial arts in medieval and Early Modern Europe. This may in turn contribute positively to the ongoing efforts to interpret the medieval fightbooks.