Thoughts on Fencing

One of the better anecdotes from past Company events involves fencing.  Mick the Pole, a dedicated master swordsman and trainer, joined Baz digging a hole for the Company fire place. Mick thought Baz could do with a different tool, a crowbar perhaps, and asked him if he should get one for him. Baz looked up and said solemnly: "I'm a fencer." It was one of Mick's first events and he thought he had found a future sparring partner. So he started to explain that also a fencer picks his blade with regards to the situation he faces. Baz is not a man of many words, so he concluded the discussion with a classical remark: "I make fences."

A slightely exhausted fencing crew. And this was only the first day (Photo by Andreas Petitjean)

A fence is an important thing in the medieval culture. Perhaps equally important as the sword. A fence defines borders. Very often it is used to mark off one's property. Namely the area of the village is defined by a fence. Outside lie the fields, the meadows and the forest, the vast wilderness.  The village is an island within the wild lands. A place where humans can spend their nights in safety, while dark creatures haunt the forest and the fields and those people who happen to live outside of the fence of the village. This is typically the case with millers and herdsmen, two professions that often do not belong to the communities and are always met with suspicion.

The fence around the village is also a legal border. Within the fence, there is village jurisdiction, outside is farmland jurisdiction. Usually, this means different laws and different judges. You better know where you stand in a legal conflict.

Like the herdsmen and the miller, there are people who live outside the community or at least on its edge. On the fence itself so to say.  In fact, the old German word for Witch, Hagazussa, means the person who sits on the fence (even if that explanation is not 100% sure).

You see, there is a lot to say about fences, but I think it is time to chose a more palpable approach: How do medieval fences look like and how do you build one?

The medieval fence is usually braided. You drive stronger sticks vertically into the ground and then you take weaker or more flexible twigs or sticks and make a braid around the sticks.

There are two basic types: The closed fence and the open one. The closed fence is actually a braided wall with the complete vertical sticks covered with the braid. The open one takes a lot less wood and less time. You plant the same sticks in the ground, but then you have only a single or perhaps two horizontal braided lines running along the fence. It is surprising, that this open fence is already very stable indeed. The close one even more stable of course and animals will have a hard time to pass through the closed fence, while the small ones will squeeze between the sticks of the open fence.

A fence braided with the open method. Note the twisting of the twigs (Lucerne Chronicle by Diebold Schilling the Younger)

Planting the sticks is just work, the braiding takes a bit more thinking and some instinct, or you risk breaking them when you braid them. You take two twigs and braid them around the sticks. A detail most people ignore is this: After every stick you pass with the twigs, your twist the two twigs: The lower one becomes the upper one and the upper one moves below. Then lay them around the next stick and twist them anew. This adds a lot of stability and in the case of the open fence, it keeps the braid from falling down.  You can see this twisting on almost every period illustration.

The Company has built a fence during our stay in Château Vallerois in August 2013. We have built a closed fence, about 60m all in all.  That takes a big amount of wood (the forest looked really savaged after we were done) and a lot of time. I would say that planting the sticks is maybe a third of the work depending on the ground.  The rest is fetching wood. The braiding is done in no time. If you work on your own, then two to three meters of closed fence per day seem possible.  With an open fence, I am confident that you can do ten or twenty meters per day all on your own on soft ground: here the planting of the sticks will be the most time consuming work.  

The width of the sticks and the twigs depend on the available material and the duration which you want to achieve. We worked sticks of 15cm width and twigs two or even three fingers wide. It is easiest to braid wood in springtime, but we did quite fine in August as well. Maybe we could have put the sticks a bit closer in spring. But during this August event, we would plant them in a distance of 60cm to 80cm from one another. At home, I experimented with an open fence. There I did only 35cm, but I worked with a lot thiner material.

And now, it is time to do your own fence. It's really simple.

By Christian Folini, Veteran Company member.