Monday, February 4, 2008

Are We Always Supposed to Attack First?

On the subject of initiative, it has become apparent that some folks have become a bit too dogmatic as regards to the idea of the Vor, or “before”. Some people labor under the mistaken view that the Liechtenauer school of fighting requires you to attack first and continue attacking at all times.

Döbringer seems to tell us we should always attack first:
"The first strike [Vorschlag] is a great advantage in the fencing as you will hear in the text." (fol. 14v)
"The word before [Vor] means that a good fencer will always win the first strike [Vorschlag]." (fol. 20r), etc.

Some people take that to mean you never await an attack, but should always try to make the Vorschlag. And after the Vorschlag, you should always act, keeping pressure on, never waiting. Döbringer says:
"Here note that constant motion [Frequens motus] holds the beginning, middle and the end of all fencing according to this art and teaching. That is you should quickly do the beginning, the middle and the end without delay and without any hindrances from the opponent and not letting him strike at you." (fol. 17v)

So by telling us to keep in constant motion, Döbringer is saying that once in the Krieg phase of an engagement you should keep constant pressure on your opponent with attack after attack after attack until your opponent falls.

Just reading this source, then, we are driven to conclude that we are supposed to attack first from the Zufechten and then, if that attack is displaced, to stay in constant motion with attack after attack in the Krieg until our opponent is defeated. Then we go have beer and pretzels.

But here's the thing: Von Danzig and Ringeck both include techniques that require you to wait. This is from Goliath relating to the Sprechfenster:

"And this is also the Sprechfenster. Mark when you have come to him with pre-fencing, then set your left foot forward and hold your arms in Long Point toward his face or chest, like when you bind onto his sword, and stand freely against what he would fence to you. If he strikes long and high to your head, then drive out and wind the sword into the Ochs against his strike and stab to his face; or if he strikes to your sword and not your body then change through and stab him on the other side; If he strides in and his arms are high, then drive below the cut or charge through to him with wrestling; if his arms are low, then resort to grappling the arms; thus you drive all aspects of the long point." (fol. 61r)

This isn't subject to misunderstanding: We're clearly being told to adopt Long Point prior to the bind and to wait for what our opponent might do. Moreover, we also have instructions that tell us to wait an attack not only in the Zufechten, but also in the Krieg:

"How you shall put yourself in the Sprechfenster
When you go to him in pre-fencing with whichever strike, coming then onward as with a low or high strike, then let your point always shoot in long to his face or chest by which you force him to displace or bind on the sword and, when he has thus bound, then stay freely with the long edge strong on his sword and straight into the intent of what he would fence against you. If he seems to go back off of the sword, then follow with it or to an opening; or if he flies off the sword striking around to your other side, then bind strongly against his strike high to the head; or if he will not pull away from the sword after striking around then work by doubling or with other similar elements afterward as you find him weak or strong on the sword." (Goliath fol. 60v-61r)

In essence, this is saying to attack from the Zufechten with a Vorschlag, then, if your attack is displaced, to put yourself into Long Point and *wait* to see what your opponent will do. You clearly aren't supposed to wait long; if your opponent doesn't act you're instructed to Duplieren or use some other technique "am Schwert", but there must still be a noticeable pause in which you must, perforce, yield the Vor to your opponent.

There are only a couple of conclusions we can reach from these sources: Either we're taking Döbringer too literally, and he means you *usually* (rather than always) take the initiative, or else von Danzig et. al. changed the art (as we know they did to some extent; see previous discussions regarding the Nebenhut, etc., but this is rather more fundamental), or else Döbringer simply wasn't interpreting Liechtenauer correctly in the first place (as we suspect to be at least partially true from his guards, etc.).

Part of the answer may lay within Döbringer itself. In the last section of the longsword material he writes about waiting for an attack when faced with multiple opponents:
"Here rightly begins the very best fencing by the aforesaid master know, this I tell you that it is called the Iron Gate [Eyseryne pforte], which you will understand soon. If you are set upon by four or six peasants, then place either foot forward and with the gate you will create a shield by placing the point towards the ground. Hear how you should do this, place yourself so that they are right in front of you and that no one can get in behind you. Now hear what you should do, when they strike or thrust at you, set them aside [Absetzen] with strength going up from the ground and then you will shame them well." (fol. 44v)

So what he's saying is to stand in Alber and await an attack, lifting your sword for a single-time thrust with opposition (Absetzen) as each cut comes in. Now granted, this technique is from the section of the manuscript wherein Döbringer gives us instruction from non-Liechtenauer masters (Hanko Döbringer himself, Andres the Jew, etc.), so you might argue this has no relevance to a discussion about Liechtenauer's art, but the Absetzen is a central technique in the Liechtenauer tradition, too, and is mentioned in his verses.

My take on this remains what it has been: That those who argue Liechtenauer's art requires us to attack first all the time whenever we can and then to continue attacking unceasingly after the initial bind are mistaken; it is a matter of assigning too much precision to medieval writing styles. We have to read *everything* to make sense of any of it (another reason it's so hard to make any sense of the Italian style since it had only two authors).

Of course, having decided that issue, the question then becomes how to decide when to wait and when to press; that I leave for another time.


Titus said...

Cool blog, fascinating stuff! I've always thought it would be great to learn medieval martial arts - not necessarily practical, but really interesting. In any event, I haven't be successful in finding a place that teaches medieval martial arts, and so I've had to settle for tae kwon do!

jpk said...

If You win the "Vorschlag" by hitting the opponent on head or body -> You won the fight. That's all. It is part of the principle of "breaking the guards" while the opponent is changing them or starting a blow. And it is the winning principle in Liechtenauer.