Interview with Joachim Meyer

Joachim Meyer, Art of CombatQ: We know you were born in Basel, Switzerland, around 1537 then spent most of your adult life in Strasbourg, France. Why the big move?

JM: Strasbourg was different then. For one thing, it wasn’t French. It was an important city. It had it’s own Imperial Free City Charter from the Holy Roman Emperor himself and it was a major centre of trade and commerce. I guess it was time to make a break. I was 23 years old and not getting any younger. It was time to stop drinking and fighting the Spanish and Italians, build a career, find a girl and settle down. They said if you can’t make it in Strasbourg, you can’t make it anywhere. The city seems to have gone downhill since those days.

Q: So now you’re in Strasbourg. You’re married to Appolonia Ruhlman (m. 1560). You’re making a living as a cutler. You have your fencing school and you’re doing some engravings for a bit of cash on the side. What’s next?

JM: It was the sixteenth century, man, and people were on the move everywhere: some for the new job opportunities, some to escape just retribution for being dirty Lutherans. They all passed through Strasbourg and – you know how girls are – Appy (Appolonia) saw what they were wearing, the clothes, the styles, the accessories, and wanted that for herself. Whenever the purse got a bit light, I’d petition the City Council to put on a show: lots of swords flashing in the sunlight, markets, food stalls, the lot. I did a few of these (ed: 1561, 63, 66, 67, 68) and they seemed pretty successful.

Q: It was also about this time (1570) that you wrote your first manuscript. Tell me about that.

JM: Pretty simple really. You never settle for just one income stream – it’s too unstable. I had the fencing school. The shows were bringing in new students. I even dodgied up some lessons on the new foreign fad, the rapier, that all the kids were playing with at the time. I figured a lavish coffee table book with plates and illustrations was the logical next step. What a mistake that was.

Q: How so?

JM: I’d already written down most of what I taught in the school for my mate and old comrade-in-arms, Otto (ed: Otto Brauer), who was now one of my private students, when I got to Strasbourg. A guy I knew painted some really hot plates for it. Everyone loved it. I figured it was time for a commercial edition of “The Art of Combat.” Great title, eh? I found some backers willing to stump up the 1300 crowns for some proper engravings by the famous Stimmer brothers, promising to pay them back  by Christmas 1571, and went to print. That was at the start of 1570. By Christmas I still had boxes of the book lying around the house and my backers were making me uncomfortable talking about what they’d do to my kneecaps if I couldn’t pay them back on time.

Q: Yes, that’s a bit of predicament. Hence the next big move from Strasbourg to Schwerin?

JM: Yep. I had my book to use as a portfolio, so I wrote to all the counts and dukes I could find in the heraldic rolls offering my services as a fencing teacher. Getting on staff somewhere would give me some protection against my creditors and provide a regular income to keep Appy in ruffs and pearls and spanish sleeves. Johann Albrecht, Duke of Mecklenberg, gave me a post on his staff. He liked my book a lot. I left Strasbourg for Schwerin in early January 1571.

Q: Things were looking up then?

JM: Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you. I got to Schwerin in early February after travelling north through the winter. Man, it was cold. Within two weeks of arriving, before I could even get properly settled in, I was dead. I think now you’d call it pneumonia. I call it damned bad luck.

Q: Wow. What happened to the debt? It wasn’t lumped on Appolonia, was it?

JM: Nah. Legally, it became her brother Antoni’s problem. But Appy was always a great girl and she couldn’t do that to him. She married this guy, Hans Kuele, the next year (ed: 1572). He was a member of the same Messerschmidt guild (Guild of Cutlers) as me and was always nosing about her. He got all my publishing debts and my title of burgher. Most of all, he got Appy. She was such a looker in those days. Good for her.

Q: And all was well after that?

JM: For her, yes. She re-printed my book a couple of times (ed: 1600 and 1610. A later edition was published in 1660) and generally made out OK. For me, I’m not so sure. I was dead, sure, but what really galled was that every man and his dog who thought he could fence lifted bits from my book and called them their own. Then, when Strasbourg was given to Louis XIV (1681), my good German fight school was turned into the pansy French Academie d’Armes. I couldn’t believe it. I turned in my grave, let me tell you.

Next Week: Camillo Agrippa


The Art of Combat, tr. J Forgeng.