It is often said that “the only constant is change,” and the study of historical martial arts does nothing to deny that aphorism. I recently had someone complain that a picture in my book, The Knightly Art of the Longsword (Lulu.com, 2009), shows me doing a displacement differently from how I teach it now, and he was right. But as I wrote in the introduction to that book: “While the art of the longsword is an old one, it is but newly rediscovered and our interpretations are relatively recent. The process of interpreting medieval Fechtbücher is more art than science, and even someone very familiar with the German language can be easily confused by the writings of our fifteenth-century antecedents. Moreover, we’re learning new things and discovering new sources all the time, things that can have a great impact on our understanding of our art. As a result, our interpretations can (and should) change significantly over time…” (p. 7). That process is ongoing, and, indeed, I do a number of things differently now. For many of these, see the corrigendum and additions in my book, Longsword Training Guide (Lulu.com 2018) pp. 265-274.
One of the things I do differently now is the way I understand how to displace with a Zornhau. In the picture referred to above from The Knightly Art of the Longsword, I displaced with my point up in the air, as in the picture on the right. This way of displacing came from looking at the art in the Fechtbücher, many of which depict displacements done in just this way, such as in the next picture from the Cluny Fechtbuch folio 12r.
Over time, however, that way of using the Zornhau to displace came to seem unsatisfactory in practice. This led to a careful study of the texts, which made me see it as inaccurate. When studying the Fechtbücher, the artwork can be tremendously valuable for interpreting techniques, but it must be remembered that the drawings were made by hired artists, not by the practitioners. Any skilled karateka who looks at the inaccurate and unrealistic figures on karate trophies given out today can easily appreciate the problem. Thus, it is important to place more trust in the text than in the art, even though the text can be quite problematic, too.
In the Nuremberg Hausbuch (Ms 3227a), the anonymous author frequently and adamantly insists that we should cut the man, not his sword, for example: “Do not strike to the sword, instead go for the openings” [Ms 3227a fol. 18v]. At first glance, that seems to apply to a cut rather than to a displacement, but the displacement used is a Zornhau, too. Referring to it, Peter von Danzig says we should do the cut “without displacing” (Von Danzig fol. 23r) in order to counter a Zornhau. What I take that to mean is that you don’t cut the sword to displace, you cut the man, just as the Nuremberg Hausbuch teaches us, and that you do it with a Zornhau.
Continuing in the Nuremberg Hausbuch, we are told: “No matter how you fight always aim your point at your opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you… And as soon as the opponent binds your sword then your point should not be more than half an ell [~12”] from the opponent’s breast or face” [fol. 24r]. In other words, when you bind, whether you were the attacker or were displacing, cut straight in so that your point is near to your opponent, even if it’s not aimed straight at him (if it is aimed straight at him, that would mean you had hit him, unless you cut in front of him, as, for example, you do with the Zornhau Ort) so that if he moves or yields the bind you can instantly thrust (see also ff. 21r-v: “Since you know at once that you have a shorter way to the opponent since you already have your point on his sword, as close and as short as possible”).
This is echoed by von Danzig. Writing about how to displace, he said: “You are not to displace the way other fighters do. When they displace, they hold their points up or to the side. This means that they cannot attack the four openings in the displacement with the point… If you want to displace, then do it with a cut or a thrust and strive to reach the nearest opening immediately” [fol. 26v].
So the idea is that a displacement isn’t a thing by itself, the way to displace is to cut in such a way that your sword gets in the way of his, but if he were to make a mistake, your cut would land. Consider the Zwerchhau, for example: It can be used as an attack, but it can also be used to displace a Zornhau. In both cases, whether in the Vor or in the Nach, the cut is the same. There isn’t one version for the cut and a different one used to displace, they are both just Zwerchhaue, and the Zornhau should work the same way. As von Danzig said, if you want to displace, do it with a cut or thrust, not with some hypothetical “block,” and do it so that your point ends up near to your opponent and not up or out to the side. Thus, when you look in my latest book, Longsword Training Guide (Lulu.com 2018), the Zornhau displacement looks quite different from the way it did in my earlier longsword book, as the picture to the right shows.
For a detailed explanation of how to cut and to displace, watch this video I made in order to help people understand the new interpretation discussed above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJgM3QiS4ik&t=16s
Incidentally, this principle is why a feint should never work against a skilled practitioner of Liechtenauer’s art: Since we are taught to cut the man rather than to his sword, when an opponent feints a cut, our “displacement” should simply hit him when he moves his sword around for his real attack. For more on this, see this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfJ9svJnN9U
I hope this short essay helps explain both how I got things wrong at first, how I do them now, and why. This principle, while not immediately obvious and somewhat subtle, is one of the true secrets of Liechtenauer’s art. It is an important part of what separates it from a mere beating of sword on sword, and elevates it into one of the most sophisticated and elegant martial arts of all time. And yes, I was wrong. I freely admit it, and it won’t be the last time, but I would rather admit to an error than to continue to be wrong. The only way to be certain you’re doing things incorrectly is to never change your interpretations, because that proves you have ceased to study and train.