Monday, March 26, 2018

Durchwechseln: The Process of Interpretation

I have long been troubled by my interpretation of the Durchwechseln, or “changing through.”  Was it done into Langenort (“long point”), or was it done into an upper Hengen?  I first learned to do it into an Upper Hengen, however, I could find nothing in any Fechtbuch to support (or refute, but see below from Kal) that interpretation.  On the other hand, doing it that way worked very well, while trying to do it into Langenort did not, because there was often insufficient room for it from the bind.  This essay is about the process I used to develop my current interpretation.

Here is a video showing the Durchwechseln being done into an Upper Hengen: (note that I do this somewhat differently now, circling my point around more to hit the face or chest rather than just hitting the first target to which my point comes).

Many students of the Kunst des Fechtens struggle with interpreting techniques which are not explicitly described by the masters, so I thought it might be useful to describe the process I used to interpret the Durchwechseln, specifically, as a way of teaching people how to do so more generally.

My approach to interpretation has two primary tacks:  First, look to the Fechtbücher, always.  See what the Masters actually said, even when it seems vague, and never make anything up.  Second, work through the interpretation you develop in actual practice, and make sure it works mechanically (not in free play; childish games of sword tag are far too unrealistic to prove anything at all) in terms of length, measure, timing, etc.

Studying the Fechtbücher involves more than just paging through the pictures or glancing over the texts.  In his ground-breaking book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale, 2000), Professor Sydney Anglo discusses a process we might term a “dossier approach” for understanding the material:
“In general, however, our knowledge of unarmed combat in medieval and renaissance Germany depends more upon the accumulation of a massive dossier of overlapping evidence than on the clarity of any single treatise. Similar holds, throws and trips recur throughout the different manuscripts. Sometimes they are obviously copied from one another; sometimes they illustrate different stages of a similar maneuver; and sometimes they give the impression of the same idea having been arrived at independently.”  (p. 184.)

By comparing and contrasting a given technique both in the various sources and within the same source when it appears multiple times, we often find that the description or pictures will, as Professor Anglo says, give us a “view” of the technique from different angles or with different descriptions which can come together to give a far more complete understanding than any single description or picture can.  Let’s use that approach to interpret the Durchwechseln.

Here is the description of the Durchwechseln in the pseudo-Peter von Danzig Fechtbuch:
“If you come against your opponent in the Zufechten, strike strongly at him. If he in turn strikes to your sword and not to your body, slide the point from under his sword before he binds to your sword, then thrust on the other side of his blade to his face or chest.” (Cod. 44.A.8 fol. 31r.)

Note that details are frustratingly absent; he says nothing about your position as you thrust, nor does any other extant source do so any more plainly.

Few of the pictorial sources show the Durchwechseln, but the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch does (the Glasgow Fechtbuch shows it too, but less clearly):
“Learn the Durchwechseln from both sides.” (CGM 1507 fol. 66r.)

Master Paulus’ picture seems to make it clear that the technique is being done into Langenort, however, experience has shown that pictorial sources are often very poorly drawn and/or at distinct odds with the more detailed textual descriptions, often drastically so.  Still, this seemed the best and clearest indication of how to do the technique, so I moved on to the second part of the process—testing.

Unfortunately, the testing process did not support the use of Langenort.  In the Kal picture, the combatants are shown too far apart to actually hit one another; at that distance, it is easy to drop your point under your opponent’s blade and thrust, but if the attacker is close enough to his opponent to have hit him with his initial cut, there isn’t enough room to come up into Langenort.  Moreover, this problem is even worse if the initial cut is one of the shorter-ranged ones, such as a Zwerchhau, which requires you to be closer from the start.

The Durchwechseln is a very widely mentioned technique because it has a lot of different applications, so this gave me a lot of different places to look as I applied the dossier approach.  Still, almost all the sources were extremely vague, and offered very few new insights.  Turning again to the pseudo-von Danzig, however, I found help in an unlikely place: the plays of the Schielhau.
“If he skillfully evades this blow of your sword [i.e., your Schielhau] and tries to Durchwechseln below, then thrust with the point straight in front of you [“with your arms extended” Ringeck says in fol. 31v, meaning Langenort] so that he may not Durchwechseln.” (von Danzig fol. 23v.)

In other words, von Danzig and Ringeck both say that if you counter your opponent’s initial cut with a Schielhau, and he then attempts to “change through” under your counter, that you should counter his Durchwechseln with a thrust into Langenort (“with your arms extended”); in other words, Langenort “breaks” (counters) Durchwechseln.  In this we can find our answer, although it’s not explicit.

If the Durchwechseln is done into Langenort, then how can it be countered by Langenort?  The reach would be the same for both, and the person doing the Durchwechseln in that example would win since he moved first.  That being the case, Langenort would not work well to counter the Durchwechseln described above in the plays of the Schielhau.  If, however, the Durchwechseln is done into an Upper Hengen, things are different: Langenort is an excellent counter to the Durchwechseln because it has longer reach, especially if you step backward as you execute the thrust into Langenort to take advantage of the reach it provides, and this offsets the fact that your opponent moved first.

Testing this, we found that it worked admirably.  You can use a Durchwechseln into the Upper Hengen from even the most short-ranged techniques, and the reach advantage of Langenort makes countering the Durchwechseln practical and easy.  Figuring that out, however, required both applying the dossier approach to a number of different books, and to different plays within each of those books, then testing the mechanics out in practice.  On a more subtle level, I had to do more than merely read the descriptions (which never mention the final position), I had to apply an understanding of what each of several different techniques was supposed to do in order to understand the implications of the techniques in question.  I had to ask, “If this is the counter, what does that tell me about how to do the Durchwechseln itself?”  Interpretation is often like that, requiring you to work backward from something else to get at what you’re trying to understand.

I hope this helps others who are struggling to understand the techniques of our art, especially those which aren’t explicitly described or pictured.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Some Thoughts On Using Medieval Art to Document Medieval Combat

Recently, I had a discussion with a gentleman about an aspect of medieval combat, viz., using a buckler in full plate.  Rather than engaging in well-reasoned discourse, the gentleman chose to simply post a handful of manuscript pictures, believing that a picture being worth a thousand words, he could thus make his point without having to lower himself to debate me.  Perhaps he thought it an excellent way to express his lofty disdain.  In any case, we will use that “discussion,” along with several other examples, to examine the bigger picture of using medieval art to document our understanding of medieval combat.

Unfortunately for him, his pictures didn’t prove his point at all.  Consider this picture of St. Michael:
It would seem to prove that bucklers were not at odds with full plate all by itself.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  St. Michael is almost always depicted with a shield, usually a buckler, regardless of the period or the kind of armor he’s wearing:
This is because of the superstitious symbols associated with St. Michael in church myths, not because anyone ever saw him using a shield or buckler—he was not, after all, real.

This picture depicts a scene from the Battle of Battle of Otterburn from a very late edition of Froissart’s Chronicles:
Looking at the figures in the foreground, we can see several fully armored figures using bucklers; again, my friend’s point made, right?  Alas, not so.  The battle took place in 1388, but the painting clearly depicts late-fifteenth century harness of a sort from long after 1388.

Or consider the Battle of Crecy, fought in 1346.  To look at this picture from the Arsenal Library in Paris, one would assume that the men at arms on both sides fought ahorse:
Yet we know very well that most of the English men at arms fought on foot.  Looking at the picture, we would also assume that the men at arms of both sides fought in full plate harnesses of the middle fifteenth century, and yet we know the battle occurred almost 100 years before that.  This is a frequent problem in the study of armor; for example we see an effigy of a famous person, not realizing the armor depicted thereon is typical of a much later period, when the family finally got around to having the effigy made.

Sadly, not even all Fechtbücher can be trusted.  This plate from Paul Hector Mair shows two figures practicing Langenschilt combat in full plate:
Sadly, Mair seems to have been less of a practitioner than a collector; he copied older Fechtbücher, often embellishing them to make them more appealing.  When we look at the original page that was copied for the above, we see that it depicted the combatants in the leather “cat suits” which were universally shown in other manuscripts; Mair just put them in armor because he thought it looked cooler; here’s the same technique from Mair’s source, Codex Wallerstein:

Likewise, Mair showed sword and buckler fighting with the combatants wearing plate gauntlets:
None of the sources he copied showed the models wearing gauntlets; indeed, if you understand how bucklers were actually used in combat, you’ll realize that bucklers were used as gauntlets; never to block, but primarily to protect the sword hand (see:  “What’s a Buckler For” here:  <>)
Thus, wearing gauntlets while using a buckler was pointless.

In a previous discussion, that same gentleman expressed the notion that a poll weapon with an axe blade on one side and a spike on the back should be termed a pollaxe.  I do not blame him for this; indeed, in my book on pollaxe combat I called this kind of weapon a pollaxe.  When we see fully armored men at arms using a poll weapon, especially a non-utilitarian one, we assume it to be a pollaxe, since halberds were typically used by lightly armored common troops and pollaxes by men at arms.    When Peter Falkner’s Fechtbuch became available, however, everything changed.  Falkner points to this exact sort of  weapon, and calls it a halberd, and subsequent research on my part confirmed that to be typical:
Again, the art led many of us (me included at first) astray, and we were set to rights only when we got more information about the art we were seeing (indeed, I believe my acquaintance still considers this a pollaxe in spite of the detailed evidence to the contrary I presented).  In fact, the defining characteristic of a pollaxe is the hammer head, as hard as that might be to believe.  Without the hammer, it’s not an axe at all.

What led me to even question the use of bucklers by fully armored men at arms?  Studying how they were used, of course, and ignoring the art.  A buckler is never used to block in any source I have ever seen from the Middle Ages (see my article cited above).  George Silver talks about a buckler being used (out of armor) with a broadsword, and talks about blocks with it (very vaguely, only saying to use it like a dagger), but the weapon he depicts is much larger than the medieval buckler (or even most Renaissance ones—look at diGrassi for example), and is obviously different in use.  This might be because  the closed hilts on the broad- and backswords Silver favored obviated the need for a “gauntlet” for the sword hand.

And, of course, partly armored troops might have a real need for a buckler, so we see that in a lot of cases, as in this example:
Yet someone might say: “But it’s armored combat!”  Yes, but remember I stipulated “fully armored in plate.”  Indeed, one of the paintings presented to me as proof of armored buckler use was a depictions of some of Charles the Bold’s elite guards; Englishmen billmen who were issued significant plate armor, but who carried swords and bucklers as backup weapons.

The simple fact is that you don’t need to block cuts from one-handed swords when you are fully armored in plate, because arming swords are useless against plate.  Look at depictions of armored sword and shield combat during the age of plate, and you will usually see the shield dependent from a guige strap which would prevent the shield from being used to do anything but to block the face by lifting it, as in this picture from BNF Français 120 Lancelot du Lac, but nothing else:
That’s because an arming sword can’t do much to someone in plate.  And if you’re wearing gauntlets (“fully armored”), then you have nothing for which to use the buckler; there is no sense in carrying one at all.

So we can find lots of reasons a medieval painting might show armored men, even fully armored men at arms, using a buckler:  Anachronism on the part of the painter, or an attempt to depict foreigners he has never seen, a mistake by the painter (or patron in the case of Mair), artistic or religious rules for certain characters, a depiction of partly or lightly armored troops, etc.  But there’s no reason for a fully armored man at arms to use a buckler, and when we weed out the problematic sources, we almost never see it.

In conclusion, using medieval art to document aspects of medieval combat is problematic at best, and entirely misleading at worst.  If you don’t know the exact circumstances and context of the artwork you will almost certainly misunderstand it.  If you aren’t exactly sure what you’re seeing, you might believe the English men at arms fought on horseback at Crecy (or Agincourt, for that matter, since many paintings show that, too), or that a poll weapon without a hammer head is a pollaxe, or that fully armored men at arms used bucklers in combat, or that the Langenschilt was used in full plate.  You must not simply google whatever you want to prove and then demand everyone accept random medieval art as documentation for whatever odd kind of argument you believe to be true.  If you haven’t documented the art itself, in context, then the art has no value whatsoever as documentation, and even then it can still be wrong.  At best, random bits of medieval art can be used as a suggestion for a hypothesis, which must then be subjected to careful, educated, rigorous research in order to determine its validity or lack thereof.  It can never be an argument itself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On Using a Sword in Armored Combat with Both Hands on the Hilt

I see that the Popular Names are trying to reinvent the Kunst des Fechtens.  Again.  Sigh.  The new subject is about whether you should hold your sword with both hands on the hilt in Harnischfechten.

First, let’s define some terms purely for ease of discussion.  One of the lesser-known terms today for halfswording is “gewappeter hant” or “armor hand” (see Krakow Gladiatoria fol. 3v below).  It refers to what we all think of as a halfsword grip, with the right hand on the grip and the left hand holding the middle of the blade.  That appellation alone should make this entire question plain (as in, “armor hand” is what you use in armor), but what the hell, let’s play it out.

And while no one I know uses this term, let’s call it “unarmored hand” when you have both hands on the hilt.  I make no implication with this, it’s purely for the sake of clarity.

Source Material:

Next, let’s turn (as you know I always do; I’m such a rebel—not like the popular kids who just intuit all of this without regard to those boring, stuffy old masters) to the source material.  There are a tiny little handful of techniques in all the material which depict the use of the unarmored-hand grip in Harnischfechten.  I include literally all of them below:

1.)  Fiore:  The figure in the bottom-right corner is in the Middle Iron Gate:
“My name is Middle Iron Gate, and whether you are armored or unarmored I make strong thrusts. I step offline with my left foot and I put a thrust into your face. I can also place my point and blade between your arms in such a way that I will put you into the middle bind, as depicted and identified earlier.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

“This cover is made from the True Cross Guard, when I step diagonally offline. And so that you can see what can be done from this cover, my students will show the plays that follow it, and since they are experienced in mortal combat, they will show these skills without hesitation.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

There then follow a couple more plates in which Fiore shows different things you can do from (2.) above.  Note, however, that each one is just another way to follow on from the displacement of the unarmored-hand thrust.  When you consider that, you realize that Fiore shows exactly one single technique done in the unarmored-hand grip.  One.  And that the guy doing the unarmored hand is the enemy—the one who loses the engagement.  Note, too, the date of the source:  The first quarter of the Fifteenth century; extremely early.  More on this below.

3.)  Gladiatoria:
“Note the fifth technique: Now if you have thrown your spear and he wants to over rush you with his spear, then take your sword in both your hands and strike out his thrust up from below. And when you have struck out his thrust, take your sword at the armor-hand and work with him for the spear.”

In other words, the only action taken using the unarmored-hand grip is to slap the spear thrust away, after which you assume the armor-hand grip and go to work.

4.)  Talhoffer’s Ambraser Codex (c. 1450):
“This is the first instruction in which one lets the student step ahead, especially it is the upper [posture] after forming up, and it is also advantageous against a thrust. -- This is the other position in the advantage.”

In reality, this is similar to the play in Fiore above (although here the defender uses an unarmored-hand grip, unlike in Fiore).  Rudolph intends an Unterstich, and Ludwig will displace it from above (although Master Hans says nothing about what to do after the thrust).


There we have it, that is all of the plays in the Fechtbücher which depict the unarmored hand in Harnischfechten.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Those plays shown above are the source for the large amount of unarmored-hand fencing shown in videos from this recent sword-tag event.

So, what do we have?  One kind of thrust (a simple Unterstich), and two ways to displace it.  Of those two ways to displace it, only one was done with an unarmored-hand grip, and we were only given the displacement, nothing to do from it, so it’s not even a full technique.

Note, too, that in both those techniques, the person who attacks using the unarmored-hand grip is the one who will lose the engagement, so the masters aren’t suggesting you use an unarmored-hand grip to attack, they’re showing you what to do if your opponent does.  Note, too, that both of these are quite early works, so it’s possible that this might be a throwback to an earlier time when halfswording was not universal (remember, it’s unlikely that all, or even most, men at arms followed Liechtenauer’s teaching).

My personal belief is that in the Ambraser play shown above, Master Hans is saying that since someone might use an unarmored-hand thrust, and since such thrusts have such long range, you can use this upper guard as a way to close to the Zufechten without having to worry about the range disparity; note how he talks about closing (“step ahead,” he says).  That explains why there’s no follow-on actions described for after the displacement—you’re supposed to go to an armor-hand grip.

Then we are given a way to displace a spear thrust, but the follow-on after the displacement is done with an armored-hand grip; as with the Ambraser Codex technique, he’s showing you a way to mitigate the spear’s advantage of reach, not telling you to fight with the unarmored-hand grip.


There are no cuts with the sword (contrary to what I’ve seen in videos recently from a major sword-tagging event), no actions done from or in a bind, no attacks at all other than a single Unterstich (which is never shown being done by the man who wins the engagement) in any of the Fechtbücher unarmored-hand plays.  Nothing.  One thrust (done by the loser), and two ways to displace longer-ranged attacks.  This does not support the argument for the existence of unarmored-hand fighting in armor.  The cool kids need to stop trying to impress the ignorant and gullible and instead learn to focus on the source material we have been given.  In short, take your left hand off of your grip and put it on the blade where it belongs.  Also, stop misrepresenting our art, you’re embarrassing us.