The Problem with Citing Paulus Hector Mair

I know that you’ve answered a bunch of questions about scythes before but I’m surprised there haven’t been any mentions of Paulus Hector Mair’s (a master fencer’s) writing on the matter. He also writes about sickles.


First of all, we have mentioned him before. He last came up about four years ago in response to a question about scythe dueling.

Calling Paulus Hector Mair a master fencer is overstating his qualifications. He was was trained as a fencer, but worked as a civil servant in sixteenth century Augsburg, Germany. He was eventually executed for embezzlement of city funds in 1579. Ironically, that crime is why we’re talking about him today.

Mair would have been a forgotten footnote in Augsburg city politics. He was a minor noble who burned through his family’s fortune before turning to embezzlement to support his hobbies. One of those hobbies was the collection of various dueling treatises.

He spent an absurd amount of wealth collecting various historical fencing treatises, and then edited and compiled a swath of them into, what’s now referred to, as his work.

You can think of him as the sixteenth century equivalent to your weird friend who obsessively collects rare RPG sourcebooks, and then and them compiles a massive single version, complete with some homebrew modifications, without any regard to citations. Good luck figuring out what came from where, and what’s been modified.

Mair is relevant, and even somewhat important today, because he collected a lot of material that was not otherwise preserved. The problem is, he wasn’t particularly careful about documenting what he had, or where it came from. Some portions can be properly attributed to their original authors. Unfortunately, the section on scythes is not one of these cases.

There are ten illustrations of scythe techniques. Mair attributes these to, “the ancients,” though it’s unclear which civilization he was referring to. (In some other cases he uses “the ancients” to refer to Alexander The Great’s campaigns, so it’s possible he meant pre-Hellenic Greece.) It’s also unclear what the source was for those scythe techniques. It’s quite possible Mair was simply, “making it up as he went along,” and to the best of my knowledge, there is no known source for that text (ignoring Mair himself.)

Also worth noting, the illustrations in the surviving Dresden manuscript appear to be contemporary with Mair. So, even if he was referencing much older artwork, we don’t have that. We only have the Renaissance era diagrams and Mair’s text.

When you try to research the use of the scythe (not including the war scythe) in combat, the vast majority of sources track back to Mair, but Mair never used the scythe in duels. He explained how to use the scythe in duels, but didn’t actually say where, when, or even if that ever happened, simply attributing it to, “the ancients.”

In that sense, Mair is the only real source for scythe dueling, but he’s also not an entirely reliable source. In researching this, I’m left in the uncomfortable situation that it’s kind of like looking at a Renaissance era Know Your Meme article. Here are all these goofy pictures of people dueling with scythes, and completely straight faced text explaining what you’re looking at. Did anyone ever actually do this, or were the pictures a joke that eluded Mair?


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