I recently watched a video of a Hontai Yoshin-ryu kata which demonstrated a rather interesting tanto-dori or “knife taking” waza. Having once been a ju-jutsuka myself and later studying military combatives, I was impressed by the technique, but considered the initial wrist grab to be somewhat inefficient, thinking to myself that I knew a better way to do it. I instantly set that thought aside, however, realizing I had fallen into the trap of trying to “improve” historical systems of combat. If they did it that way, it would no longer be Hontai Yoshin-ryu, which defeats the entire purpose of studying koryu bujutsu today (as opposed to mere self defense) in the first place. They would be trying to improve a historical artifact rather than understanding it, and thus would be destroying the very thing they were trying to preserve.
This has, obviously, strong parallels for those of us studying the Kunst des Fechtens today. The only valid goal for the study of historical martial arts should be to recreate and then preserve them as they actually were. To “improve” them (as we ignorantly might think we are) is anathema to that goal. It literally defeats the purpose. Understanding how to do that requires searching the Fechtbücher for clues as to how the techniques were performed in period, and keeping our modern notions out of things as much as possible.
Not long after I watched that video we were discussing the Zornhau in class. I was emphasizing how important it is to make the cut with your pommel well over to your left when executing a Zornhau from the right shoulder (see the picture above) regardless of whether you were cutting or displacing, rather than cutting with the pommel in line with your sternum as most people mistakenly do it today. I asked my students whether they thought I was right in teaching it this way, and if they agreed that I was, how they could be sure (I often make my students question my interpretations).
My senior student immediately answered that it was a matter of geometry, saying that if you cut with your pommel on your center line your opponent can hit you in the bind, or if you’re displacing, you won’t close the line well enough and the cut you’re trying to displace can still hit you. He was right, of course—I consider this one of the most subtly brilliant parts of our art, and I was well pleased that he understood this.
It didn’t actually answer my question, however. My student pointed out why it’s a good way to cut—why it works, and why it’s effective. His answer, however, did not indicate how we know that to be the correct way to interpret Master Liechtenauer’s art, which was the key point I was trying to make. It’s the point we must make every time we interpret a technique, and that we must bear in mind for every part of every technique. How do you know this is how it was actually done in the Liechtenauer system in period? Not “how might it be done” or “how can I make this work really well,” but “How did Master Johannes Liechtenauer and his students do it?” The right way might not be the best way—the German masters were human, too.
To accomplish that, we have to really read what the masters had to say. Master Peter von Danzig (we’ll presume it was he) wrote this about the Zornhau:
“The Zornhau breaks all cuts from above with the point and yet is nothing other than a strike which a peasant farmer would use. Use it as follows: if you come into the Zufechten and your opponent strikes from his right side to your head, then likewise also strike from your right side from above without displacing and bind strongly against his sword. If he is soft in the bind, shoot straight in and long with the point to his face or chest.” (Codex 44 A 8 fol. 13r.)
Later, writing about displacing, the master said: “You are not to displace the way other fighters do. When they displace, they hold their point up or to the side. This means that they cannot attack the four openings in the displacement with the point. Because of this, they are often hit. If you want to displace though, then do it with a cut or a thrust and strive to reach the nearest opening Indes. This way, masters cannot come to blows against you without endangering themselves.” (Id. fol. 26v.)
What we learn from this is that we are not to make “empty displacements” that just strike into our opponent’s sword (as sword taggers all do today, and as bad swordsmen apparently did in period), but rather, we are to displace with a cut—the same kind of cut we’d use for an attack. There aren’t really any “blocks” of the sort modern martial arts students use in our art; instead, we displace with regular cuts and thrusts in such a way that at the end, we threaten the enemy with our point. That’s what Master Peter meant above by cutting from your right side “without displacing.”
But how can this be done safely? Christian Tobler coined the phrase “make your sword your shield” many years ago, and I actually thought he took the phrase from a Fechtbuch at first because it so aptly matches what we have to do. We must make our swords our shields, so that when we cut (or when we use cuts to displace) we are safe as we do so.
We know how the Zornhau is supposed to be done: It is not a wide swinging action done with the arms from guard to guard as many of the ignorantsia (to coin a phrase) practice it today when playing silly games of sword tag or ludicrously incorrect test cutting, but rather is done in a straight line using a push-pull motion of the hands, as if a cord were tied from your edge to the target (see Ms 3227a fol. 14v), and ending with your point at or near your opponent (id. fol. 24r), not down near the ground, up in the air, or out to the side.
Understanding all of that, we then have to ask ourselves how we can use such a cut to safely displace a similar one. As my students can tell you, using a Zornhau to displace a determined Zornhau will result in you getting hit unless you close your opponent’s line of attack as you displace by moving your pommel over to the left side of your chest (for a cut from the right). They frequently do get hit in class when they try to displace without moving their pommels over to the left as they displace, unless they beat into their opponent’s sword in the kind of empty displacement Master Peter told us not to use. That is where my senior student’s point about the geometry of the technique comes into play—that is how you make it work. Now we are using that idea to answer the problem of making the masters’ instructions work when we do things the way they say to do it, and not just trying to figure out a way to do a thing from whole cloth because it works or seems like a smart or effective approach.
This essay is about the process of interpretation: How do we work out the correct way of doing a given technique, going beyond the often incomplete descriptions the masters give us in the Fechtbücher? The answer lies in correlating not just different parts of the same text, but all the related texts in order to find clues about how the technique has to work and what it’s supposed to do when you use it, then using those clues to inform your interpretation. Your interpretation should reconcile as much of the instructional material as possible and look for the best way to make the technique work in view of all those bits of information, eschewing your own personal ideas about how to do a thing garnered from other study or, heaven forfend, silly, meaningless games of sword tag or test cutting. Our job is to resurrect a lost art as it was really done, not to invent a new one with no historical accuracy or relevance to our modern world.